Light from the Sidra

Devarim ['Words'] 24th July 2015. 9th Av 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22. Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Cause and effect

It’s an established law of physics that every effect has a cause. Shabbat this week falls on the ninth day of the month of Av, the annual day of mourning for the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, many of which occurred on that date. The Mishnah, in Ta’anit 4:6, explains that ‘five misfortunes befell our fathers… on that date. The Sages enumerate the five misfortunes as follows: ‘On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the Promised Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city of Jerusalem was ploughed up.’

What was the cause of those tragedies? Could they have been prevented? Did Israel deserve to suffer those catastrophes? Did they indicate God had abandoned the Jewish people?

In 2012, Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai found himself in hot water for suggesting that the Israel Defence Forces failed to achieve an outright victory in the Second Lebanon War because they didn’t ‘raise their eyes to God.’ Relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict were outraged by the remarks and the religiously Orthodox politician was forced to recant, claiming that his comment had been ‘taken out of context.’

Yishai was quoted as saying that the IDF victory in the 1967 Six Day War was due to Israeli troops putting their faith in God whereas in the Lebanon conflict the soldiers trusted in their own abilities. In the Six Day War, said MK Yishai, every Jew that went to battle ‘raised their eyes to the Creator’ whereas in the Second Lebanon War the IDF relied on its own strength.

In 1967, said the Interior Minister, Israel was the weakest army in the Middle East; they had no chance of defeating their better armed foes but they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. At the time of the Second Lebanon War, Israel was the strongest army in the Middle East but they left Lebanon in defeat.

I have no special insights into the religious lives of individual IDF soldiers but in the light of the today’s Parasha, the Interior Minister might not have been far short of the mark. In Deuteronomy 3, Moses recounts Israel’s defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Moab. Moses reminds Israel of their victories over the Amorites and Moabites to encourage them to trust in their God and wage war against the inhabitants of Canaan. Israel defeated Sihon because ‘HASHEM, our God gave him before us’ (Deut 2:33). The giant Og fell before Israel because... ‘HASHEM, our God, gave into our hand also Og king of the Bashan and his entire people, we smote him until there was no survivor left of him’ (Deut 3:2-3). The Parasha concludes with the rousing command: ‘You shall not fear them, for HASHEM, your God — He shall wage war for you’ (Deut 3:22).

Nothing happens to Israel by chance. Every effect has its cause. According to the Torah, obedience to HASHEM would result in national blessing but in the Haftarah Israel is left desolate: ‘The daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodging hut in a field of gourds…’ (Isaiah 1:7-9). Israel’s lamentable state in the first chapter of Isaiah was due not to a simple twist of fate but to disobedience. The nation was outwardly devout. The priests offered the prescribed daily sacrifices and the festivals, and the New Moons and Sabbaths were observed punctiliously. But justice was absent. In Deuteronomy 1:16-17 Moses charges Israel’s judges to ‘Listen among your brethren and decide justly between a man and his brother or a litigant. You shall not show favouritism in judgement: small and great alike shall you hear.’

In Isaiah 1, however, Jerusalem and Judah became desolate because the city had not devoted herself to justice by upholding the rights of the orphan or defending the cause of the widow (v17). Israel’s condition was caused by an absence of justice.

The fact that so many disasters have befallen the Jewish people on Tish b’Av is a clear indication that an unseen hand has been at work behind the scenes of Israel’s history. The Talmud, as well as the Bible, recognises the scientific and biblical principle of cause and effect. ‘Why was the first Holy Temple destroyed?’ asks The Talmud in tractate Yoma. ‘Because of three wicked things: idol worship, adultery, and murder.’

‘But,’ asks the Talmud, ‘in the second Temple in which time the Jewish people were occupied studying the Torah and doing good deeds and acts of charity why was it then destroyed?’ The answer it gives is, ‘Because of hatred without a cause to teach you that hate without a cause is equal to these sins and that it is as serious a crime as the three great transgressions of idol worship, adultery, and murder.’

The first exile lasted only 70 years but the exile that resulted from the causeless hatred of the Second Temple period has lasted almost 2,000 years. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fellow Jew on 4th November 1995, a sombre editorial in The Jerusalem Post lamented that it was for such hatred – hatred without a cause – that the second Temple fell and Jerusalem went into exile. Who did the Jewish people causelessly hate so badly that Israel is still technically in exile?

As Jesus and his disciples were concluding his final Passover Seder with them, knowing he was about to be betrayed to his enemies, Jesus told his followers ominously, ‘If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have had sin. But now they [the religious authorities] have seen and also hated both me and my Father. But this has happened so that the word may be fulfilled which was written in their Torah: “They hated me without a cause.”’

The temple authorities, through their hatred and rejection of the Messiah brought a disaster of epic proportions on Israel. But, thankfully, Isaiah presents a message of future hope. HASHEM assures his people in Isaiah 1:18 that even if their sins are as scarlet, if they listen to reason they will become as white as snow. By a wonderful irony, the causeless hatred of Israel’s leaders became the means of Israel’s salvation for the blood of the Messiah is the cleansing agent by which sins are made white as snow.

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