Parshas VaEschanan - Getting Our (National) Act Together
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Parashas VaEschanan begins with a recounting of Moshe's impassioned
plea to G-d to change the decree against him so that he could finally enter
the Land of Israel. However, as he pointed out to the listening nation, the
shortcomings of the nation prevented this from happening.
However, if you recall, it was Moshe's own action that brought
judgment against him. In Parashas Chukas, Moshe hit the rock to bring out
the water, when G-d told him to do so by talking to the rock only. It
sounds as if Moshe was blaming the people for his own mistake, which, of
course, is not the case.
The midrash tells us what Moshe meant. Moshe took full
responsibility for hitting the rock (though he could have blamed that on
them too for acting so insolently and inciting his anger). However, through
Moshe's incredible power of prayer, he was able to compensate for what was
lost by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. In short, through his
prayers, Moshe was able to create a reality that would have permitted his
crossing the river into the Land, as if he had rectified the transgression
by the rock.
Then why didn't Moshe cross the river in the end? Because the
Jewish people were not ready for him to do so.
This has to be understood within its historical context. Moshe was
not simply a leader par excellence. He was THE leader of the Jewish people,
and if anyone possessed the potential to be the Moshiach, it was Moshe
Rabbeinu himself; if anyone could herald the final redemption for the
Jewish people, it was Ben Amram-Moshe, the son of Amram.
If so, then Moshe's crossing of the Jordan River would have
represented far more than the fulfillment of his own personal dream-it
would have represented the final redemption. Furthermore, the midrash says,
had Moshe entered the land, the first thing he would have done would have
been to locate the place of the Temple, and then see to its construction,
and any Temple built by the Moshiach, by definition, can never be
As wonderful as that sounded, it did not forebode well for the
Jewish people. For, the Jewish people had yet to reach their full spiritual
potential, and were bound to transgress in the future, as history has
shown. In fact, there is even an allusion in this week's parsha to the fact
that it would lead to an exile 850 years after being on the land (?). As
per the cause-and-effect relation spelled out in Parashas BeChukosai and
Parashas Ki Savo, such transgressions require a Divine response to rectify
the spiritual damage that results from straying from Torah.
Any destruction should really be inflicted upon the perpetrator,
but that could amount to the destruction of the entire nation, which G-d,
in His infinite mercy could not accept. So, says the midrash, G-d finds
other ways to cause a similar effect, without taking more lives than
necessary, such as destroying the Temples.
But what if the Temple can't be destroyed? What if the Temple was
built by Moshiach, prematurely before the people were ready for it, and it
can't be taken as an atonement for the transgressions of the Jewish nation?
This is what Moshe was referring to.
"Had you been spiritually developed enough to usher in the era of Moshiach,
I would have been able to cross the Jordan River and been your Moshiach.
But, alas, you were not, and as a result, I could not build the Temple, for
such a Temple would have resulted in your destruction, which I could never
allow. For this reason, I must die on this side of the Jordan River, so
that your transgressions should not lead to your destruction."
It is a powerful lesson. Our leaders exist in their own merit, but
also in our merit. What happens to them is based very much on where we, as
a nation, are holding spiritually. Prophecy was taken away from the
prophets not because they didn't deserve prophecy, but because we no longer
deserved to have prophets. In fact, the Talmud teaches, in every generation
there are potential prophets, but if the nation doesn't deserve prophecy,
they will not receive the Divine word.
There are a lot of details and rituals to Torah-Judaism. Some are
well-known and even practiced by unaffiliated Jews, such as the Pesach
Seder; others are less well-known, and are often scorned by those unaware
of their importance and meaning. The truth is, so-called "Orthodox-Judaism"
is not nearly as respected as it once was, and, in the words of one great
rabbi, respect for Torah itself is at an all-time historical low. This
week's parsha hints at why and how this happens.
Only be careful and protect yourself well, so that you should not forget
the things which your eyes have seen, and cause them to leave your heart
all the days of your life ... (Devarim 4:9)
When you don't forget them but do them in a correct manner, then you will
appear wise and understanding; if you do them incorrectly because of
forgetfulness, then you will appear foolish. (Rashi)
If you had to place your finger on one factor that denies
Torah-Judaism the credibility it ought to have, it would probably be
inconsistency. Even among those who accept the Divinity of Torah, there is
often disagreement as to the best way to fulfill a mitzvah. There are
Ashkanazim and Sephardim, Misnagdim and Chassidim, and hundreds of
different groups among them all. What kind of message does this send?
Often, the message that radiates out to the unaffiliated Jew is
that, we really don't know what we're doing, and that everyone is simply
doing what he feels best acting out. The appearance of confusion on the
"Inner Circles" leaves the "Outer Circles" even more confused, and perhaps,
even frustrated. Eventually, the lack of consistency can even lead to
scorn, just as the Torah warned.
For many who have found their niche within Judaism, they may not
care. Who says all Jews have to be doing the same thing? Who says that
every Jewish has to be a carbon copy of his brother or sister? Even during
the first commonwealth, when we still possessed the land and the Temple,
the twelve tribes varied somewhat from each other in their approach to the
Torah; why should we be any different?
It is not a question of being carbon copies of each other. It is
about being a unified nation. It is about bringing Moshiach and having one
king for the entire people. It is about being a "Light Unto the Nations,"
and elevating mankind to a holier status. It is about sharing a common
national agenda so that we can create synergy of all Jewish potential.
The Temple was destroyed for a variety of reasons, but the main
reason was "sinas chinum"-unwarranted hatred. However, hatred, as we learn
from Ya'akov's wife Leah, can mean "less-loved" (the Torah says Ya'akov
hated Leah, but the commentators explained that compared the love he had
for Rachel, Leah "appeared" hated). Hence, the unwarranted hatred Jews felt
for one another that led to the destruction of the Temple may simply be
less love for each other than then they had for themselves.
If so, then the Talmudic statement that, "Any generation within
which the Temple is not rebuilt is looked upon as if it destroyed the
Temple," makes sense. If personal agendas mattered more than the national
agenda, which is the foundation of the Temple, and that destroyed the
Temple, then, any generation that continues on with this approach continues
to crack the foundation upon which the Temple is supposed to be rebuilt.
How do we realign our personal agendas with the national agenda,
and rebuild the Temple in our day. By going back into the depths of
Judaism, by going back into the basis of all Jewish traditions, back to the
Talmud and the commentaries of those who were closer to the Mt. Sinai
event. By jogging the national memory of the Jewish people, a collective
agenda will emerge, and the scorn of the disbelievers will also be
transformed into respect for the time-tested wisdom of the Torah Nation.
Everyone knows that we have an obligation to take care of our
physical health, but many are not familiar with the Torah source for this.
Is there a directive, or is taking care of the gift of life simply a
logical extension of all of Torah?
The truth is, the mitzvah to take care of one's health is in this
Take good care of yourselves ... (Devarim 4:15)
In the context of the parsha itself, these words mean to be careful
not to suffer spiritual illness, by falling to the ways of idol worship.
However, it is the source of the mitzvah to guard our physical health as
well, and not to do that which endangers our lives unnecessarily.
When people hear this, they often ask the question, "So how come so
many religious Jews smoke?"
In reality, Torah Jews are not accustomed to living dangerously
(with the exception of Shabbos morning cholents!), and we certainly don't
like living on the "edge." Left alone, the Torah-Jew is content to repeat
the same pattern each day, finding more than enough excitement in the world
of Torah, and more than enough challenge in raising a good, G-d-fearing
With respect to the issue of smoking, there is a lot of responsa
from great rabbis discussing the issue, and whether or not it is
permissible to smoke nowadays. Practically every rabbi today has stated
that, according to Torah law, a Jew should not begin smoking. As for Jews
who began smoking at a time that the world had yet to realize the danger of
smoking, there is controversy. As one would suspect, the issue is a very
difficult one to decide, since for many who are addicted to smoking, being
made to quit "cold-turkey" could result in other more serious Torah
violations. The bottom line, as far as this parsha sheet is concerned, if
it is an issue for you, consult your local orthodox rabbi.
However, one thing is for certain: good health is a Torah mitzvah.
But I will add that in the "good ole days," when we used to have prophets
among the Jewish people, a "sick" person did not go to a doctor, he went to
a prophet, because physical sickness was viewed as the result of spiritual
sickness, a message from Heaven to mend one's ways. Doctors existed only to
advise us as to how to pursue a healthy lifestyle.
Today, though we may not be able to pursue prophets (though we do
pursue "profits"), still, one must not look at sickness as being random and
meaningless. The fact that we lost prophecy doesn't mean that we lost total
contact with G-d. We may not be able to fully interpret the events of lives
with certainty, in terms of any kind of Divine message, but one thing is
clear: physical debilitation is a way to sensitize us to higher values, to
the value of life and of being a part of it. Physical suffering is a push
from Above to seek out the most meaningful life possible.
The Talmud says that Moshiach will be born on Tisha B'Av.
Physically this is true, and intellectually this is true. For, on Tisha
B'Av, as we sit there on the floor (or short stools) like mourners, and
recite the special liturgy composed for that day, and even avoid learning
Torah (other than the sections dealing with the destruction of the Temple),
we can't help but come to realize how UNIMPORTANT the Temple has become to
We have been in exile for so long now, and have lived without a
Temple for almost two millennia, that we are used to it, so-to-speak. We
have become like blind people who have adjusted so well to being blind,
that we forgot how wonderfully fulfilling life is with sight, as if seeing
the wonders of creation is not that important at all.
On Tisha B'Av, we come to our senses. Sometimes it takes a tragedy,
G-d forbid, to wake us up to what we had, and what we lost. Tisha B'Av is
that kind of a crisis. And realizing how much the Temple means to us is
like "breaking ground" for the next one, the third and final Temple. This
is why we can go into Tu B'Av, the fifteenth day of Av with an almost
complete heart. Just like the joy we feel after Yom Kippur indicates Divine
forgiveness, so too does the joy after properly mourning the loss of the
Temple indicate that we have placed some important cornerstones in the
foundation of the next Temple.
This is what the Talmud means when it says, "Anyone who properly
mourns Jerusalem will merit to see her rebuilt." We should be so fortunate,
and, who knows, maybe Moshiach is walking the face of the earth right now,
and maybe ...
Have a great Shabbos, and a wonderful and joyous Tu B'Av,