This Parsha begins the last of the Five Books of The Torah, Sefer Devarim. This Book is also called Mishneh Torah, "Repetition of the Torah" (hence the Greek/English title Deuteronomy). Sefer Devarim relates what Moshe told Bnei Yisrael during the last five weeks of his life, as they prepared to cross the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael. Moshe reviews the mitzvot, stressing the change of lifestyle they are about to undergo: from the supernatural existence of the desert under Moshes guidance to the apparently natural life they will experience under Yehoshuas leadership in the Land.
The central theme this week is the sin of the spies, the meraglim. The Parsha opens with Moshe alluding to the sins of the previous generation who died in the desert. He describes what would have happened if they hadnt sinned by sending spies into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem would have given them without a fight all the land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, including the lands of Ammon, Moav and Edom. He details the subtle sins that culminate in the sin of the spies, and reviews at length this incident and its results. The entire generation would die in the desert; Moshe would not enter Eretz Yisrael. He reminds them that their immediate reaction to Hashems decree was to want to "go up and fight" to redress the sin. He recounts how they wouldnt listen when he told them not to go, that they no longer merited vanquishing their enemies miraculously. They ignored him and suffered a massive defeat. They were not allowed to fight with the kingdoms of Esav, Moav or Ammon these lands were not to be part of the map of Eretz Yisrael in the meantime. When the conquest of Canaan will begin with Sichon and Og, it will be via natural warfare.
The Rise of Semitism
“How can I alone carry your contentiousness…?” (1:12)
A few years ago, I happened to be on a late-afternoon flight out of Guatemala City, bound for JFK. The sun was dropping rapidly toward the sea and I hadn’t yet prayed Mincha (the afternoon prayer service).
I pushed the panic button — I mean the call button — in my armrest. The stewardess came over, all smiles, and asked me what I needed. “Can you help me?” I asked, “I have to pray. Is there somewhere that I could stand for about ten minutes without getting in your way?”
Another stewardess joined her, and together they escorted me to the rear galley of the plane. “You’ll be fine here, sir. Please don’t rush! Take your time!” They almost bowed as they backed up a few paces. From their expressions I could see they were thinking, “This guy is praying to keep the plane in the sky. We better give him plenty of space!” They exited, pulling the curtain across the galley with quiet and reverent precision.
It always strikes me that in spite of the perceptible rise in anti-Semitism in the past few years, I often find people who, far from being antagonistic to my Jewishness, are actively helpful and very respectful.
Of course, one explanation is that there are just some people in the world who are nicer than others, but maybe there’s a deeper reason.
This week’s parsha, Devarim, always occurs the week before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish Year. The Rambam lists five tragedies that occurred on Tisha B’Av: The spies returned with a negative report about the Land of Israel; the destruction of both Holy Temples; the destruction of Betar with the massacre of thousands of Jews, and lastly, on the ninth of Av, Jerusalem was plowed over like a field by the Roman emperor, Turnus Rufus.
However, there’s another Tisha B’Av that is closer to home: In the early hours of July 23rd, the first Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were loaded onto a train of sixty closed cars. The car doors were locked from the outside, and the air apertures barred with barbed wire. That was the 9th of Av 1942. The day the first killings started at Treblinka.
Historically, anti-Semites have accused the Jewish People of being filthy rich, filthy poor, grabbing capitalists, grabbing communists, the lackeys and the paymasters of the establishment and, at the same time, rootless cosmopolitans. In fact, the only thing on which all anti-Semites agree is that the world would be an infinitely better place without Jews. What exactly the Jew’s crime is, however, remains endlessly elastic.
The granddaddy of all anti-Semites was Haman in the Purim story. As with all anti-Semitism, ostensibly, Haman’s hatred of the Jewish People defies a logical explanation. Haman was one of the most powerful people in the greatest empire the world had yet seen. He had vast wealth, a large family and celebrity status – all the king’s court bowed before him. Haman had it all. How could he then say, “All this is worth nothing to me whenever I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate”? (Megilla 8:13) What bothered Haman so much about Mordechai? The question becomes even stronger when we remember that Haman made this remark after the death sentence against the Jewish People had already become an incontrovertible law. At that point, Mordechai was no more than a walking dead man; what possibly could have bothered Haman so much about Mordechai that Haman’s entire world of fabulous riches and fame was as nothing to him?
Sixty-five years ago, a young yeshiva student who had escaped from Nazi Europe with the Mir Yeshiva was walking through the streets of Shanghai. He was stopped in his tracks by hysterical ranting coming from a radio in an upstairs apartment. The voice sounded like a wild animal. And then he realized he could understand what was being said: The voice was shrieking in German, “Come, let us obliterate from the world that nation that will not let us live in peace!”A sea of voices swelled behind him chanting, “Seig Heil! Seig Heil!”
The young man was shaken to the depths of his soul; he had never heard such a statement. He ran immediately to the mashgiach (spiritual mentor) of the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, zatzal, and repeated what he had heard.
“For once,” responded the mashgiach, “for once, he’s telling the truth.”
The Jewish People will not let the world live in peace. The Jewish People proclaim to the world, by our very existence, that many things the world holds extremely dear are, in fact, worthless. When Haman looks at Mordechai he sees someone to whom all his power and money and status is a joke — Mordechai negates his entire existence.
For this, the Jewish People have been hated down throughout the generations.
When G-d gave the Jewish People the Torah on Mount Sinai, the kings of the East and the West were aware that something had happened that could destabilize their power. They felt the shaking of the earth beneath their feet. They feared another global flood and so they enquired of the Gentile prophet Bilaam what was the cause of this disturbance of the natural order. Bilaam said that there would be no flood, nor would a deluge of fire envelop the world. Rather, the world was responding to the momentous event of the giving of the Torah on Sinai. To which they responded, “May Hashem bless His people with peace.”
The default reaction of the nations of the world is “May Hashem bless His people with peace.” With the sin of the golden calf, however, the Jewish People rejected the Torah. Then the luchot (the two tablets of the Law) were broken with catastrophic results. Until this day, there is not a tragedy, not a disaster, which is not an installment payment for the sin of the golden calf.
When we lose our connection to Torah, the response of the nations is that of Haman. They see us no more than a choker around their necks, stifling their enjoyment of this world. They see in us no spirituality, no “chosen people.” They see us as a gang of killjoys, for we have lost the ability to be the light to the nations, which is G-d’s role for His, people.
However, when we try and exemplify our true heritage, there will be those amongst the nations who will still say,
“May Hashem bless His people with peace!”