Parshas Netzavim - Vayeilech
Battle Hymn of the Republic
Volume 5 Issue 51
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
The final portions of the Torah don't let us escape from the harsh realties
of real-world trials and tribulations. In this week's combined portions of
Nitzavim & Vayelech, and in the following portion of Ha'azinu, the Torah
discusses the harsh realities of sin and consequences.
Hashem describes the scenario that will arise after the death of
Moshe. "And this nation will arise and turn to foreign gods, and they will
leave the treaty that I cut with them. And my wrath shall burn upon them
and I will leave them. They will be for prey and many evils, and pain will
find them, and they will say on that day, 'is it not because G-d is not
with us that all this evil befalls us!' And I will hide My face on that day
for all the evil that they did; for turning to other gods." (Deuteronomy
The next verse seems totally out of place. "And now write this song for
them and place it in their mouths and teach it to the children of Israel,
so that this song will be for Me as a testimony in the Children of
Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:20).
The juxtaposition of the verses provokes many questions. Why does Hashem
tell Moshe to write the song now? Why is the impending doom called "a
song"? Why does the Torah say "it will be a testimony for Me"? Who is
testifying and to whom? What does it mean "put it in their mouths"?
Shouldn't the Torah be put in their ears? Why would we want to sing this
distressing song anyway? Of course, Rashi and many of the great medieval
commentators explain these verses with great clarity. I, however, would
like to take a homiletic approach.
This past Sunday I had the pleasure of meeting with William Goldberg, a
true friend and supporter of Jewish education. He left me with a moving
story that he heard this past Shabbos from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat,
who was the Scholar-In-Residence at the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.
After World War II, the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yukisiel Halberstam, of
blessed memory, a survivor of the concentration camps held a minyan in the
Beth Moses Hospital in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Parshas
Ki Savo arrived and with it, the section known as the tochacha
(admonishment), which is filled with foreboding warnings of doom and
destruction, lest the Jewish nation stray from the will of G-d.
The verses warn of unimaginable horrors: exile, starvation, rape, robbery,
and torture -- to name just a few.
The custom of Jews world-over is to read the verses of tochacha quietly, so
as not to rile up enemies, celestial and otherwise, who may think those
calamities a good idea to cast upon the Jewish Nation.
So it was the portion of Ki Savo, and the Klausenberger Rebbe and his
minyan of ravaged survivors were about to read the tochacha and re-live
horrors of their recent history through the words of the ancient prophecies.
The Torah-reader started the verses of doom in a hushed tone. He began
reading them quietly and quickly. Suddenly the Rebbe banged on his
lectern. "Hecher!" he shouted. (Yiddish for louder.)
The reader looked up from the Torah with a puzzled look on his
face. Perhaps he was reading the Torah a bit too low. He raised his voice
a notch, and continued in a louder undertone. But the Rebbe was not
satisfied. "Louder!" he exclaimed.
By now the reader was reading as loudly as his normal recitation, and yet
the Rebbe continued to bang on the lectern and exclaim, "HECHER!" The
reader could not contain his puzzlement and instead of shouting the portion
he stopped and looked to the Rebbe for an explanation.
"We no longer have to read these miserable curses quietly," the Rebbe
exclaimed. "There is no curse we have not experienced. There is no
affliction we have not suffered! We saw it all. We lived it all. Let us
shout with pride to our Father in Heaven that we have already received all
the curses! We have survived these curses, and now it is His turn to bring
us the blessings and the redemption!"
And with that the reader continued reading the tochacha loud and clear as
if singing an anthem to his nation's tenacity.
Hashem tells Moshe to write this song and teach it to every Jew that will
face difficulties. It shall be "a song that should be in our mouths. And
it will be a testimony before the Almighty." Our experiences should be
sung with honor as a badge of courage and fortitude. Like the Purple
Hearts of wounded soldiers, they shall be a witness to Him. So that when
calamities befall us we shall surmount our misfortunes. They will not be
agonies that we shall cower behind. Rather, they will be a testimony to
our faith, our commitment, and most importantly our eternity.
Dedicate in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of our son Joshua by Suzanne and Barry
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
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