Volume 33, No.43
9 Av 5779
August 10, 2019
Nathan and Rikki Lewin
in memory of his mother
Pessel bat Naftali a”h
(Mrs. Peppy Lewin)
This week, we begin the Book of Devarim. R’ Moshe ben Nachman z”l (Ramban; 1194-1270; Spain and Eretz Yisrael) introduces his commentary to Devarim with the words: “This book, as is known, is ‘Mishneh Torah’ / ‘A Review of the Torah.’ In it, Moshe Rabbeinu explains to the generation that will enter Eretz Yisrael most of the Mitzvot that it will be necessary for them to know.”
R’ Moshe Shapiro z”l (1935-2017; Rosh Yeshiva in several Israeli yeshivot; best known for his lectures on Jewish Thought) asks: Why was entering Eretz Yisrael preceded by a special review of the Torah? The answer cannot be that this was a different generation than the one that received the Torah; therefore, it, too, needed to receive the Torah. The Gemara (Nedarim 22b) teaches that if Bnei Yisrael had never sinned, then the books of the various prophets would never have been written, “only the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Yehoshua.” This indicates that even if the Sin of the Spies had never taken place and the original generation of Bnei Yisrael had entered Eretz Yisrael, there still would have been a need for five books, including Sefer Devarim.
Rather, R’ Shapiro explains, the necessity for and purpose of this book may be explained as follows: Ramban writes elsewhere in his Torah commentary that the primary performance of Mitzvot is in Eretz Yisrael. Performing Mitzvot in the diaspora, while mandatory and important, is much less significant than performing them in Eretz Yisrael. This means, says R’ Shapiro, that those who live in the diaspora are bound to observe the Torah for only one reason–because it was given at Sinai. In contrast, those who live in Eretz Yisrael are bound to observe it for two reasons–because it was given at Sinai and because the Torah has a special connection to Eretz Yisrael. And, for the latter reason, a second “Giving of the Torah” was held for those who would enter the Land. (Shiurim Al Peirush Ha’Ramban 1:1)
“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Yisrael . . . eleven days from Chorev . . .” (Devarim 1:1-2)
Literally, “Chorev” is another name for Har Sinai. However, R’ Shlomo Ephraim z”l of Lenshitz (died 1619) notes the similarity of the Hebrew words “Chorev” and “Churban” and suggests that the phrase, “eleven days from Chorev,” alludes to the eleven days on which we mourn the Churban/ / destruction of the Temple. They are: the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz, and the first nine days of Av. He adds: Because this interpretation is far from the Pshat, I have kept it brief. (Kli Yakar)
“Eichah / How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens, and your quarrels? Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding, and well known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them as your heads.” (1:12-13)
Midrash Eichah Rabbah notes that three prophets used the word “Eichah”: Moshe (in our verse), Yeshayah (in today’s Haftarah–Yeshayah 1:21, “How has she become a harlot, faithful city that was full of justice?”); and Yirmiyah (in Eichah 1:1, “How does she sit in solitude, the city that was great with people . . .”). The Midrash continues: This may be likened to a noblewoman who had three servants. One saw her in her days of living peacefully, as Moshe saw Bnei Yisrael; one saw her in her wild days, as Yeshayah saw the Jewish People; and one saw in her in her disgrace, as Yirmiyah saw the nation. [Until here from the Midrash]
R’ Yitzchak Shmelkes z”l (1828-1906; rabbi of Lvov, Galicia) asks: If these three prophets saw the Jewish People in three different states, as the analogy in the Midrash implies, then why did they prophesy using the same expression–“Eichah”? He explains with another analogy:
There are three types of doctors: Some doctors cannot correctly identify an ailment until its symptoms are quite pronounced. Better doctors can identify the ailment as soon as the patient shows the earliest symptoms. The best doctors can identify an ailment, or a proclivity to a certain ailment, even in a seemingly healthy patient.
R’ Shmelkes continues: The three prophets mentioned in the Midrash were not prophesying about three different states of the Jewish People. Rather, they were all prophesying about the eventual destruction of the Bet Hamikdash and the exile, and therefore they used the same word–“Eichah.” Moshe Rabbeinu was like the third, most expert doctor; even when Bnei Yisrael were living peacefully in the desert, he saw the first hints of the ailment that would ultimately bring disaster. That is why, in our verse, he appointed judges to help guide the nation. Yeshayah’s prophetic vision was less acute; he saw the impending doom only after the first signs were evident. As for Yirmiyah, he saw the forthcoming destruction and exile only when they were all but inevitable. (Bet Yitzchak)
R’ Zalman Rotberg z”l (1913-2002; Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Bet Meir in Bnei Brak) writes: The Book of Eichah, in which the prophet Yirmiyah poured out his heart over the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash and the exile, teaches us not only about the past, but about the future. Our Sages teach that prophecy can be attained only when one is in a state of joy. This means that Yirmiyah wrote Eichah, which is prophetic, in a state of joy! How is this possible? Because the mere fact that Hashem spoke to Yirmiyah even in the midst of the destruction was a hopeful sign. It indicated that Hashem had not abandoned His people, that His relationship with us has a future.
There is also another reason why Hashem wanted Yirmiyah to view the destruction through the prism of prophecy. The truth is that man cannot fully grasp the significance of either the Bet Hamikdash or its destruction. The Bet Hamikdash was the “residence” of the Shechinah, but just as we cannot fathom the essence of the Shechinah, so we cannot fully comprehend what it means for the Shechinah to have a “residence.” It follows from this, too, that we cannot grasp the great loss when the Shechinah’s “home” was destroyed. Through prophecy, however, Yirmiyah could put some of the loss in perspective for us.
We can learn from this, too, adds R’ Rotberg, that it takes a great person to appreciate the depth of the losses that the Jewish people have suffered. Indeed, the authors of the Kinot / lamentations which we recite were all great scholars and righteous men.
R’ Rotberg relates: All of us sigh or moan when we hear of a person who is ill or who died tragically. But, we do not feel another’s pain the way great people do. The Chazon Ish’s sister (R’ Rotberg’s aunt) used to beg visitors not to enter the Chazon Ish’s study before he had eaten breakfast, because, as soon as a visitor asked him to pray for a seriously-ill relative, the Chazon Ish immediately lost his appetite and became very pained. This is an emulation of Hashem’s own behavior; Chazal say that He appeared to Moshe from a thorn-bush as if to say, “I am suffering with Bnei Yisrael.” (Tuv Da’at III, p. 329)
Siddur Avodat Yisrael cites a custom to recite Psalms 137 on the Shabbat on which Parashat Devarim is read. Accordingly, we present here verses from, and commentaries on, that Psalm.
“By the rivers of Bavel / Babylon, there we sat; we also wept, as we thought of Zion.” (Verse 1)
This verse describes an event connected with the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash and the related exile to Bavel. Midrash Eichah Rabbah teaches that the well-justified crying referred to in our verse was decreed by Hashem because, almost 900 years earlier, the Jewish People had cried over foolishness–i.e., the lack of variation in their diet of Mahn. The Torah says about this (Bemidbar 11:10), “Moshe heard the people weeping in their family groups . . .”
R’ Aharon Lewin z”l Hy”d (the Reisher Rav; killed in the Holocaust) writes: Soon after describing Bnei Yisrael’s crying over the Mahn, the Torah relates that two Elders, Eldad and Meidad, began prophesying. In response, Moshe Rabbeinu’s close student, Yehoshua, asked Moshe to punish Eldad and Meidad. While the Torah does not record what those two prophets said, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a) relates that they said, “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will lead us into Eretz Yisrael.” [At this time, Moshe had not yet hit the rock, so he ostensibly was going to enter the Land.] Moshe replied to Yehoshua (Bemidbar 11:29), “Are you being zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of Hashem could be prophets, if Hashem would but place His spirit upon them!”
R’ Lewin asks: Why did Eldad and Meidad prophesy this message (“Moshe will die”) at this time (when Bnei Yisrael cried for nothing)? The answer, he writes, is in the above Midrash. When Bnei Yisrael cried for no good reason, Hashem decreed that their descendants would one day have a very good reason to cry, i.e., because the Bet Hamikdash would be destroyed and the Jewish People would be exiled. However, say our Sages, the Bet Hamikdash would never have been destroyed if Moshe Rabbeinu had entered Eretz Yisrael and built it. Therefore, Eldad and Meidad understood, Moshe would necessarily die in the desert.
R’ Lewin adds: Yehoshua was upset at Eldad and Meidad because he did not understand their message. In Yehoshua’s eyes, the two prophets were merely insulting Moshe Rabbeinu by suggesting that he was not capable of conquering Eretz Yisrael. In fact, the prophets’ words were a compliment to Moshe, acknowledging his special status as someone whose Bet Hamikdash–if it would only be built–could never be destroyed. Moshe did understood that, and he therefore declined to punish them. (Ha’drash V’ha’iyun: Bemidbar Vol. 2, No. 29)