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by Rabbi Yaakov Menken

"Guard yourself, that you not forget HaShem your G-d, to not guard His Commandments, His judgments and His decrees, which I command you today... And you say in your heart, 'my strength and the power of my hand have made me all this wealth'... Do not say in your heart, when G-d pushes them away from you, to say, 'because of my righteousness G-d brought me to inherit this land, and because of the evil of these nations G-d pushed them away from before you.'

"Not because of your righteousness and your straight hearts are you coming to inherit the land, but because of the evil of these nations G-d pushes them away from before you, and in order to fulfill the word which G-d swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. And you should know that not because of your righteousness does HaShem your G-d give you this good land to inherit, for you are a stiff-necked people." [8:11, 17; 9:4-6]

The Ramban, Nachmanides, tells us that the Torah is, step by step, disabusing the Jewish people of any mistaken notions we might have concerning our inheritance of the Land of Israel. First of all, never imagine that "my strength and the power of my hand" was responsible. Realize that victory is entirely in the hands of HaShem. You, the Jewish people, could not have done this alone.

But furthermore, says the Ramban, do not think that HaShem did this for you, because you deserved it. Do not imagine that this came about because you are righteous and Holy, or because you have, at least, a straight heart. On the contrary, you were only able to drive out these other nations because of their evil deeds, and you came to inherit the land only because of the promise which HaShem made to your forefathers. You are a stiff-necked people, and would not have merited this for yourselves.

In general, the Torah is extremely critical of the Jews. This comes in marked contrast to the writings of various ancient cultures, which glorified the host nation (this is, in fact, considered one possible proof that the Jews did not write the Torah themselves). When something good happens to the Jewish people, it is because of the merit of our forefathers. It is only misfortune for which we are held responsible.

Why is this? The Torah does not mean to say that we are evil. On the contrary, "you are a Holy Nation to HaShem your G-d; HaShem your G-d chose you to be His treasured nation from all the peoples on the face of the earth." [7:6] But complacency is evil. If one is not making an effort to rise, one will inevitably sink. The Torah and the Prophets criticize our every flaw in order that we learn, and attempt to rise above our misdeeds.

It is crucial that we hear their words. One cannot hear the warnings and say, "Peace will be upon me, while I follow the dictates of my heart." [29:18] If we fail to heed the warnings, says the Torah, G-d will send tragedy as a messenger. Whenever bad things happen to us, G-d is sending a message. It is our responsibility to listen, and to look for ways to return.

Why was the First Temple destroyed? The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that the Nation of Israel was steeped in idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. Why was the Second burned? Because of needless hatred between Jews. Every evil that befell the Jewish people was examined for lessons to be derived.

This, however, only explains how we should respond to tragedy on a communal level. If, as a community, we are guilty -- that is one matter. But why does evil happen to individuals? Would anyone say that it was specifically those Jews guilty of needless hatred who died when the Second Temple was destroyed? Once again, this is a ridiculous idea. The Talmud tells us that the greatest of our people were killed (although the Sages of Yavneh were protected).

Evil comes upon individuals for a variety of reasons. A mother once came to a Rabbi in tears. Her two-year-old son had suddenly passed away. She asked: "Why?! Why did he deserve to die?"

And the Rabbi responded, "one generation ago, there was a great and righteous man. His soul approached perfection -- but there was only one blemish. We know that it is the mother who transmits Judaism to the child -- a child of a Jewish mother, is Jewish. This man, however, was nursed as a child by a non-Jewish woman, fed, nurtured and soothed by the sounds of non-Jewish religious tunes for his first years of life. In order to achieve the highest level of perfection, his soul needed to be nurtured for two years by a Holy woman such as yourself."

The Medrash tells us that ten of our greatest and most righteous Sages were tortured and killed in order to rectify the sin of the ten brothers who sold Joseph, thousands of years earlier. No one can say that these Sages "deserved it," or that this was appropriate in any normative sense. In Kabbalistic terms there was a Tikkun, a healing.

Imagine a group of people approaching a Rabbi, and asking him, "why did these people die? Were they themselves guilty of evil?" And the Rabbi answers, "no, of course not. On the contrary, we know that they were completely righteous, pure and holy. Through their deaths, they achieved a Kabbalistic Tikkun. They were given the souls of individuals who had done evil in their earlier lives. By living Holy and righteous lives, and then dying al Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying G-d's Name, they took those souls and purified them, thereby raising them to the highest levels of holiness."

Is the Rabbi saying that the victims "deserved" what happened to them? Or that the people who killed them were simply "G-d's agents" who were "right?" No. Such remarks reveal a grave lack of understanding of Jewish thought.

As many of you know, a Rabbi in Israel recently offered this explanation from Kabbalistic thought, and some have made exactly these sort of remarks in response. I am not privy to the reason for the Rabbi's speculation, and I continue to wonder why his followers take his words, intended for students who do understand what he is actually saying, and broadcast them via radio to many who do not. But I do know that the Rabbi's friend and colleague, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, is among the many who have validated this approach as a theological attempt to understand so many tragic deaths from a Jewish perspective. [But as Rabbi Lau also said, perhaps the pain of the tragedy of the Holocaust is still too acute for comments such as the Rabbi's.]

According to the Talmud, were Nebuchadnezzar and Titus (who destroyed the two Temples) simply "G-d's agents," not to blame for the rivers of blood which they spilled? Of course not. No intelligent person would say that. The fact that the Rabbis enjoined the Jews to look inwards in no way absolves these demons of their guilt for their inhuman behavior. But that is not our lesson.

The attacks upon the Rabbi were as ignorant as they were rude. To look at what the Rabbi said and to have such feelings is merely a symptom of lack of understanding. To publish such comments, however, demonstrates an appalling willingness to attack without even an attempt to understand what he actually said. To publicly accuse the Rabbi of "blaming the victims," or to claim that he was "justifying" the Nazis, merely reveals both the writers' lack of education and their animosity.

To those, especially in the media, who forgot this during the week of the Ninth of Av: Ignorance is no excuse for hate speech.

To repeat the comment of Rabbi Lau, perhaps the pain of the tragedy of the Holocaust is still too acute for comments such as the Rabbi's. But that is no excuse for attacking and distorting his remarks.

Everything that happens, literally everything, is for a reason. And G-d is the ultimate Good. Many of His acts defy our understanding. But we must learn, and we must grow, even from that which we do not understand.

In just the past several weeks, there have been too many losses, too close to many in the Project Genesis family. A father and husband who withdrew from his investment career to study Torah, changing course at age 50, who passed away ten years later. A father, a businessman who became observant, moved to the Lower East Side, and quickly became known as a leader both in dedication to Torah classes and acts of lovingkindness in that community. And, just this week, a father and husband, much loved here in Baltimore, who finally succumbed to injuries sustained in an automobile accident -- the same accident which, just a few months ago, claimed his son just three weeks after his Bar Mitzvah.

As a community, we are challenged. We are forced to peer into the black holes left behind, looking for G-d's messages to us, and to grow from them. And at the same time, we must accept and understand that G-d would not bring this upon such good and wonderful people without His reasons, whether or not we in our minuteness are able to perceive them.

For a personal outlook on tragedy, I can do no better than refer readers to the words of Rabbi Pinchas Winston, written for this parsha in 5757. Reading his essay, one cannot but react with awe and disbelief that he wrote this just days after the event. The URL is , and I do hope you find inspiration -- and, if (Heaven forbid) necessary, comfort, in his words.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken



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