The Real $24,000 Question
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Parashas Devarim always must be read before Tisha B'Av (Ninth of
Av), which is the Jewish day of infamy, so-to-speak. Tisha B'Av is the day
the spies came back with their evil report about the Land of Israel
(Parashas Shlach Lecha), which led to thirty-eight extra years of wandering
in the desert. Then, 889 years later, the first Temple was destroyed on the
ninth day of Av by the Babylonians, and another 490 years later, the second
Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the same day. Even the Inquisition
that ended the Golden Era of Spanish Jewry was said to have begun on the
ninth day of Av. For this reason, from the first day of Av (Rosh Chodesh)
until the tenth of Av, the Jewish people lay low and avoid any unnecessary
risks, such as air travel and law suits, especially those involving
On Tisha B'Av itself we read Eichah (Lamentations), which was
written by the prophet Jeremiah about the Jewish people who were led into
bitter exile to Babylonia. It bemoans the Jewish fall from grace,
poignantly speaking of how the nation gave up the serenity of serving G-d
on their own land for servitude at the hands of the non-Jewish nations in
exile. Eichah means "how," as if to say:
"HOW could this have happened to you? HOW could you have let this happen to
yourselves? You had it so good? HOW could you have been so blind that you
wantonly transgressed and pushed G-d to abandon you, when all He wanted was
closeness with you? HOW could you have been such fools?"
Read properly and with the proper intonation, one can't help but cry over
what once was and is no longer.
This is the connection to this week's parsha, which contains the
word "eichah," when Moshe asked:
"How can I myself bear your trouble, and your burden, and your strife?"
The historical setting of this verse is that Moshe Rabbeinu was
about to die and leave the Jewish people. The nation reached the border of
Eretz Canaan, and was ready to enter under Yehoshua's leadership, as
commanded by G-d. However, just as Ya'akov before him criticized and
blessed his sons on his deathbed, so too did Moshe try to offer direction
one last time before being taken from this world.
The truth is, throughout the forty years in the desert, the Jewish
people rarely transgressed. However, the few mistakes they did commit were
serious ones, such as the making of the golden calf and the incident with
the spies. This is why Moshe was forced to review those mistakes, and to
rebuke the future generations to avoid making the same errors in their own
way. However, by using the word "eichah," Moshe was really alluding to the
root of all errors, for the word eichah appears elsewhere in the Chumash,
at what must have been the most catastrophic and tragic error in the
history of mankind: the eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
After Adam ate from the tree, and hid behind the brush, G-d called
out to Adam, "Aiyeka!" (spelled eichah), which means, "Where are you?"
Never have three words said so much, for, the rabbis teach, G-d's question
wasn't merely a way of locating Adam in the garden; it was a question
intended to locate Adam within the scheme of 6,000 years of history!
According to Kabballah, before the fateful transgression, Adam had
been no ordinary man. His level of consciousness was so spiritual that it
literally reached up toward the heavens, and his perception enabled him to
have a Divine understanding of all of creation. There is no way to describe
the bliss the first man and woman must have known during their short
sojourn in the garden.
Yet, in spite of all this, they ate, and plummeted from the
greatest heights to the lowest depths almost instantaneously. Whereas once
Adam spoke openly with G-d, he NOW had to conceal himself from G-d, and was
forced from Paradise into what has amounted to, so far, 5,757 years of
anything BUT paradise!
And for WHAT, in the end? For a forbidden fruit? To know good and
evil, when we once we knew truth and falsehood? To live with intellectual
doubt when we once lived with perfect clarity?
One of the reasons we eat matzah on Pesach is to remind us that
bread is one part dough, and many parts air. Bread is inflated matzah. It
may look bigger, and better, but in truth it is just an illusion, and one
created by the yetzer hara, TO TEST US, to see if we will follow after our
eyes, or after our minds. In the "end" though, we will find out what REALLY
was important and what wasn't. However, by that point, what was done will
have been done, and there will be no reversing our mistakes then.
This had been Moshe's warning to the Jewish people: ask WHAT and
WHY now, and you won't have to ask HOW later. Go into your hearts, and see
what is really driving you, whether your motivations and selfish, or
selfless, whether you are truth-seeker, or just a seeker of whatever makes
you feel good. Even if the non-Jewish world there is a belief that "you
have to pay the piper," that is that life and truth have a strange way of
catching up with us, of making us realize what really matters in life.
I heard a story about a woman who was terminally ill, and was about
to die from the sickness. A rabbi had come to visit her, and she told him,
"Rabbi, this year has meant everything to me. Because of my sickness, I
have learned what life is about, something I don't believe I would have
every taken seriously had I not become so ill."
Then the rabbi asked the woman something that most of us probably
would have asked ourselves, but not the women,
"If you had the choice to have had this illness or remain healthy, what
would you choose?"
The woman answered without batting an eyelid,
"Rabbi, I would rather have the sickness, because now I know what life is
Aiyeka, eichah-it's the same thing. WHERE are you now? HOW did you
stray so far? HOW did you so miss the point of life, and your purpose
within creation? It is during these nine days and on Tisha B'Av itself that
we confront the issue head on, that we must take stock of who we are, how
we got here, and whether we're on track.
It is our own corrective measures that exhibit a lack of need for G-d's.
In the desert, on the first day of Av, in the year 2488/1273 BCE,
Aharon HaKohen died (BaMidbar 20:22). Just like Moshe, he had participated
in the hitting of the rock, and was told by G-d that he would not enter
Eretz Yisroel and would instead die in the desert. His death resulted in
the removal of the "Clouds of Glory" that had enveloped and protected the
Jewish people throughout the forty years in the desert. As a result of
this, the Talmud says, Amalek felt it safe to attack the Jewish people.
The Clouds of Glory, which are symbolized by the thatched roofs we
put on top of our Sukkos for seven days, didn't just protect us from the
dangerous elements of the desert, they constantly elevated the Jewish
people's spiritual awareness. Just as the mezuzah on the doorpost is
supposed to remind us on the way into and out of our private environments
that G-d runs the world, and that everything is a function of Divine
Providence, how much more so was that the case with the Clouds of Glory.
The truth is, Aharon HaKohen functioned the same way, not just
because he was a kohen, but because he was Aharon. What was unique about
Aharon? The mishnah says in Pirke Avos:
Be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace (Avos 1:12)
The midrash tells us that Aharon HaKohen (in his "spare" time!)
used to go out and make peace between his fellow Jews. If two men quarreled
with each other, Aharon found a way to make peace. If a husband and wife
were at odds with each other, Aharon found a way to return the "shalom
bayis." He became famous for this.
He became famous for THIS?
What about his Talmudic erudition? What about the way he
masterfully and precisely performed the Temple service? What about his
incredible humility and self-sacrifice for the Jewish people?
The answer is not so much WHAT he did, but HOW he did it. It wasn't
just that Aharon made everyone happy and confident enough to swallow his or
her pride and make peace. It was more that to see Aharon was to get a cold
slap across the face-not from Aharon himself, of course, but from reality.
To be in the presence of greatness is to realize how great one is
not and ought to be. To be in the presence of the humble is to realize how
humble one has yet to become. To be in the presence of one who has his act
together and his priorities straight, is to realize how one's own
priorities need correcting. Just to look at Aharon was to wake up to
reality and see life as it really was, not as the yetzer hara made it
appear. In this light, petty squabbles seemed just that, petty. Peace was
Aharon's pursuit of peace was none other than a pursuit of G-d, of
the profound truth of Torah, for peace is born out of such striving. His
understanding of Torah was mind-boggling, and his capability as a Kohen
Gadol was awesome. But the true measure of his greatness was how it made
him see life as it really was, how he rose above jealousy and pride, and
how peace was the main result of all he did.
"Come and see how great the strength of embarrassment is, that The Holy
One, Blessed is He, helped Bar Kamtza, and destroyed His house and burned
His courtyard." (Gittin 57a).
The story of Bar Kamtza is a bizarre one. Just before the
destruction of the Second Temple, a certain man in Jerusalem made a feast
and invited all of his friends, which included Kamtza. However, he happened
to have an enemy whose name was Bar Kamtza, whom he did not want to invite
at all. However, as Divine Providence would have it, the messenger in
charge of inviting people erred, and invited Bar Kamtza instead.
To Bar Kamtza it appeared that the invitation was a peace-offering,
a way to end the quarrel. However, at the feast itself, the host, upon
noticing his enemy, came to promptly eject him from his simcha. Bar Kamtza,
realizing that an error had been made and that peace was not at the top of
the man's priorities, offered to pay for his meal to avoid being thrown
out. However, the host would hear nothing of it. Fearing humiliation, Bar
Kamtza offered to pay for half the meal. "NO!" came the reply. "How about
the WHOLE feast!" offered Bar Kamtza, to which the host responded by
throwing him out in humiliation.
Angry and humiliated, Bar Kamtza ran to the Roman authorities and
claimed the Jews were rebelling. The Romans investigated the situation, and
became convinced that indeed, the Jews had not subordinated themselves to
the Roman will. This marked the beginning of the end of Jerusalem, the
Temple, and the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
And all because Bar Kamtza was humiliated?
How is it possible that G-d could punish the whole nation because
of one person, and a person who could instigate the Romans at that!
The Talmud hints at the answer. On the way out, while Bar Kamtza
was suffering terrible embarrassment, no one at the feast got up to defend
him. Even the wise men who had been present at the feast didn't reprimand
the host for doing what the Talmud teaches one ought to jump into a fire
for rather than commit. How could they have become so insensitive to the
plight of a fellow Jew?
However it happened, the Talmud warns, such insensitivity leads to
tremendous destruction. The incident of Bar Kamtza may have been an
isolated one, and a small one (Kamtza means "small," Bar Kamtza means the
"son of small thing," which is even smaller) but it revealed an
insensitivity that was bound to grow and show up in other area of spiritual
importance. When spiritual insensitivity festers it poisons the entire
mind, until one's belief in G-d becomes terribly distorted. It is THIS that
leads to Temples being destroyed and the destruction of the Jewish people.
Tisha B'Av is a day that comes to wake us up to reality, and to
re-sensitize us. All of the mourning and "activities" of the day are meant
to refocus us so that we can reverse the trend of insensitivity. And to do
this is to begin, and to complete the process of building the third and
final Temple, hopefully in our lifetimes.
This Shabbos is called "Shabbos Chazone," because the first words
of the Haftarah are "Chazone Yishiyahu ..." the vision of Yishiyahu. The
Pri Tzaddik points out that the last two week's haftaros started of with
the words, "The words ..." and, "Listen ..." respectively. In other words,
these three haftaros are a progression from speech through hearing to
To make a long story short, the haftaros were arranged in this
order to help us build to a higher level of intellectual awareness. Sight
represents not just physical vision, but, as we have been saying all along,
mental vision. Sight is indicative of one's mental vision of reality, which
can lead him either toward self-destruction, G-d forbid, or spiritual
As we turn the corner and face Tisha B'Av head on, our work is cut
out for us. We have to lift our sights, and employ ALL of our senses to set
our priorities in order. Then, when G-d asks US, "Where are you?" we'll
know exactly what to answer, and we'll able to feel proud about what we