Parshat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “Comfort you comfort you my nation, says the Lord your God.” (Isaiah 40: 1)
This Shabbat takes its name from our prophetic reading (Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort.) Indeed, the entire month is known as Menachem Av, the comforting month of Av. And in the prophetic reading of Isaiah, the prophet adjures us to speak to the heart of Jerusalem, to do penance for our sins, to make a pathway for our Lord, to straighten out our crooked roads. In his magnificent lyric style, he is telling us to repent, for in repentance, we will find our comfort and our redemption.
The list of curses and punishments which came in the wake of the destruction of our Second Temple is catalogued in chapter 28 of the Book of Deuteronomy, and followed by the call to repentance in chapter 30. But repentance and return to what? First of all, to the Land of Israel. The nation has done that of its own volition since the rise of the modern Zionist movement in the 19th century, when we stopped waiting for the Messiah and beat our own path to our historic homeland.
But this certainly also includes return to God’s Torah. Which commandments should we concentrate on? Should it be the ritual, should it be the ethical, and if both, then with which must we begin our repentance? Furthermore, since we are hopeful that this time our redemption will be not only national, but universal, what is to be our message to the world?
If we could only isolate the reason why we lost our Temples, we would then understand how to become worthy of the third and final Temple (remember that the Bible only speaks of two destructions and of two exiles, the first in Leviticus 26 and the second in Deuteronomy 28). And if we could discover why God elected Abraham in the first place, it would certainly be salutary to check our actions against God’s design; then at least we could ascertain where we stand in God’s eyes.
At the dawn of our history, the Almighty explains that “Abraham will become a great and mighty nation, that through him shall be blessed all the families of the earth, and that God has chosen, loved, and elected him because he has commanded his children and his household after him to guard the way of the Lord, to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice (tzedakah u’mishpat) (Gen. 18:18-19) What does tzedakah mean? The Bible itself explains this when it commands us not to oppress the stranger, not to afflict the widow or the orphan, because God hears their cries and will punish us by making our wives widows and our children orphans. (Ex. 22:21-26) God in fact describes Himself as One who is gracious, who gives and loves even without cause and never expecting anything in return. (Ex. 34: 6-7)
Moreover, God repeats that when we make a loan to the poor and receive a pledge in return, we must return the pledge to the borrower if he needs it – even though the creditor actually owns the pledge until the borrower pays up his debt. The return of the pledge beyond the requirement of the law is called by the Bible an act of tzedakah: righteousness together with compassion. (Ex 22: 26)
In the first chapter of the Prophet Isaiah (the prophetic reading for the portion of Devarim, which always falls out towards the beginning of the Three Weeks of mourning), the prophet cries out that God is sated with our sacrificial animals, that He hates our monthly celebrations and festivals; it is God’s will for us to rather judge the orphan and plead the cause of the widow. “Zion shall be redeemed through justice and we will return to her by means of our tzedakah, our acts of compassionate righteousness.” (Isa. 1:27) Hence you see the straight line from Abraham’s election to Isaiah’s warning regarding the Temple: our worthiness depends not on our ritual piety, but rather upon our compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
After the destruction, the Prophet Jeremiah makes a ringing declaration which we read on Tisha B’Av itself: “So says God, let the wise not be praised for their wisdom, let the strong not be praised for their strength, let the wealthy not be praised for their wealth. Only for this is one to be praised: understand and know Me because I am the Lord who does loving kindness, moral justice and compassionate righteousness on earth. It is these things that I wish”. (Jer. 9:23-24)
How do we match up to these ideals? Let me tell you a true incident which for me is a metaphor of our times. A young man attended a yeshiva in Tzfat. The first morning he arrived a bit late for breakfast and there was no milk left for his coffee. He went to the grocery, purchased a container of milk and placed the container in the Yeshiva refrigerator with a sign “private property”. The next morning, the container was gone. He bought another container, on which he added to the previous sign “do not steal”. The next morning, that container too was missing. He purchased a new container, adding to the sign “questionable gentile milk” (halav akum). This time no one took his container; he left the Yeshiva.