Light from the Sidra

Devarim (‘Words’) 13th August. 2016. 9th Av 5776

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

Cause and effect

Eli Yishai is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, when he was Israel’s Interior Minister, he got himself into a heap of trouble for daring to suggest that in the Second Lebanon War the Israel Defence Forces failed because they didn’t ‘raise their eyes to God’ and pray. Relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict were outraged by his remarks and the Orthodox politician was forced to apologise, saying that his comment had been ‘taken out of context’.

The interior minister was quoted as saying that the IDF victory in the 1967 Six Day War was due to the soldiers putting their faith in God, whereas in the Second Lebanon War the soldiers had trusted in their own abilities. ‘In the Six Day War,’ said MK Yishai, ‘every Jew, and every Jew that went to battle, raised their eyes to the Creator.’ But in the Second Lebanon War, Mr Yishai was quoted as saying, 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, according to MK Yishai, Israel was the strongest army in the Middle East but they left Lebanon in defeat. ‘What will save the Jewish people,’ the Interior Minister concluded, ‘is study of the Torah.’

I have no insights into the religious lives of individual IDF soldiers but in the light of the today’s parasha, Mr Yishai might not have been too far short of the mark.

Chapter 3 of Deuteronomy 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 to go into the land and wage war against the inhabitants of Canaan. Israel defeated Sihon because ‘HASHEM our God gave him before us, and we smote him and his sons and his entire people’ (Deut 2:33). The giant king of Moab fell before Israel because ‘HASHEM said to me: Do not fear him, for in your hand I have given him and his entire people… HASHEM, our God, gave into our hand also Og king of Bashan and his entire people, and we smote him until no survivor was 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 that happens to Israel happens by chance. Every effect has a cause. Obedience to HASHEM results in blessing and victory in warfare. In the haftarah, Israel is ‘desolate… the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodging hut in a field of gourds… Had not HASHEM, Master of Legions, left us a trace of a remnant, we would have been like Sodom; we would have resembled Gomorrah! (Is 1:7-9).

Israel’s lamentable state in Isaiah 1 was no accident. Even though the nation was outwardly devout, even though the priests presented HASHEM with his prescribed daily offerings, and even though the festivals, New Moons and Sabbaths were observed, justice was absent. In Deuteronomy 1:16-17 Moses charges Israel’s judges to ‘Listen among your brethren and judge righteously 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, Israel was desolate because she had failed to devote herself to justice by upholding the rights of the orphan and defending the cause of the widow (v17). Israel’s condition had 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, many of which occurred on the 9th Av. Ta’anit 4:6 in The Mishnah explains: ‘Five misfortunes befell our fathers… 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, Bettar was captured and the city of Jerusalem was ploughed up.’

How, we should ask, do the tragedies of Tisha B’Av fit into the Torah’s teaching of cause and effect? What did Israel do to deserve such disasters? Do those judgements indicate God abandoned his people? Is there hope for Israel?

We should note that most of the haftarot linked to Deuteronomy are from the second section of the book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah are prophecies addressed to a generation in exile, a generation experiencing the effects of Israel’s rebellion. In those final 27 chapters, the prophet sets forth in graphic detail Israel’s future hope and redemption. Astonishingly, according to Isaiah, Israel’s redemption will not be the result of Israel’s study of Torah. Israel’s redemption will not be self-generated. The Jewish people will be redeemed because they have a God who has the power to turn their sins – even if those sins are red as crimson – snow white!

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