“A Hopeful Message for Jewish Future”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we find the well-known citation from Deuteronomy 4:25-40, “Kee to’leed banim,” which serves as the Torah reading for Tisha b’Av morning.

Moses addresses the people of Israel and informs them what life will be like for the future generations. As recorded in Deuteronomy 4:25, Moses says: “Kee to’leed banim uv’ney vanim, v’no’shantem ba’aretz v’hish’chatem, va’ah’see’tem peh’sel t’munat kol, va’ah’see’tem ha’rah b’ey’ney Ha’shem Eh’lo’keh’cha l’hach’ee’so,” When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the land [of Israel], you will grow corrupt and make a graven image of anything, and you will do evil in the eyes of the L-rd your G-d to anger him.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) points out in his commentary that the generation that enters the land of Israel will not sin because, having seen the miracles that accompanied the people in the wilderness, they will be on a superior spiritual level. However, the second and third generations, who will have been born in the land, will become “old in the land” (v’no’shantem ba’aretz) meaning they will become apathetic–-the land will no longer be fresh and exciting for them.

With exceptional insight, Rabbi Hirsch further explains that, because they will consider themselves “natives” of the land, the new generation will no longer remember that they once had no home and will forget that it was G-d who gave them the land. They will become corrupt and will throw themselves into the arms of the heathen depravity, seeking out graven images of anything in order to pursue their lusts and their desire for immediate gratification. They will no longer see G-d as the “Dispenser,” but as the “Obstructionist” of the joys of life with His demanding laws that require them to refrain from responding to their sensual cravings and from practicing their wanton behavior. They will begin to explore the lifestyle of their neighbors.

It is in this portion that Moses predicts that the Jewish people will be exiled from their land. G-d will scatter the people of Israel to other lands, where they will live among other people and will be left few in number among the nations where G-d will send them. There, in their lands of exile, the people will worship gods, the handiwork of man of wood and stone, which do not see, do not hear, do not eat, and do not smell.

Unfortunately, the exile of the Jewish people that Moses predicted has been a long and bitter exile. It was in the Hebrew year 2488 (1273 BCE) that the Children of Israel first crossed the Jordan to enter the land of Canaan. There they dwelt for close to 1500 years. In the Hebrew year 3893 (133 CE), Beitar fell and Bar Kochba’s revolt ended in tragedy. Less than 100 years later, the great sage Rav, the elderly disciple of Rabbi Judah the Prince, left the land of Israel to settle in Babylonia (Hebrew year 3979, 219 CE). The center of Jewish life by default shifted to the Jewish community that had earlier migrated and settled in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. It is in this exhausting and arduous exile that the majority of contemporary Jews live today.

Despite the unsettling words of Moses, the Torah predicts that from that long and bitter exile, the Jewish people will yearn for G-d (Deuteronomy 4:29): “U’vee’kash’tem mee’sham et Ha’shem Eh’lo’keh’cha, oo’ma’tza’ta, kee teed’r’sheh’noo b’chol l’vav’cha oov’chol naf’sheh’cha,” From there you will seek the L-rd your G-d, and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and with all your soul. Notwithstanding the unspeakable sufferings and hardships that will have befallen the exiled people, the Torah predicts that at the end of days the Jews will return to G-d and harken to his voice, for G-d is a merciful G-d who will not abandon His people, nor destroy them. He will not forget the covenant that He swore to our forefathers.

It is this hopeful message of return and acceptance that is read on Tisha b’Av. It is meant to convey the message to the Jewish people to always be hopeful, that the coming of the redemption is in our hands, and that we may hasten its arrival through repentance.

Although the destruction of the Temple and exile are still with us, redemption is as much part of our history as is exile. The difference is that exile, although it may be long, is only temporary, while the coming of the Messiah is to be permanent.

It is almost inconceivable that, despite the perfidies of His people, G-d would declare that no matter how far the Jewish people stray, they will always be welcomed back, and He predicts that return. It is as if G-d beseeches His people when Moses says (Deuteronomy 4:40): “V’sha’mar’ta et choo’kav v’et mitz’vo’tav ah’sher A’no’chee m’tzav’cha ha’yom,” Keep G-d’s statutes and G-d’s commandments that I command you this day, that it should go well with you and your children after you, that you may remain for a long time on the land that G-d thy L-rd gives you for all time.

There can be no more propitious time than now, during these weeks of consolation, for us to respond positively to G-d’s plea and strive to bring redemption, not only to our own people but to all humanity.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Tu b’Av (the 15th day of Av), an ancient day of joy and matchmaking, is observed this year on Friday evening and Shabbat, August 15 and 16, 2008. Happy Tu b’Av.