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Historical Perspective

July 28, 2015

As we begin Sefer Devarim which contains a series of speeches that Moshe delivered to the Jewish people at the end of his life, I was reminded of another great speech in history.

I am referring to John Belushi’s “Was it Over” speech in the movie Animal House. Belushi, playing the role of Bluto, and his fellow Delta Tau Chi fraternity brothers have just been expelled from Faber College.  (Some of the language may have been altered to make this appropriate to share in shul.)

Bluto: Hey! What’s all this laying around stuff? Why are you all still laying around here for?

Stork: What the [heck] are we supposed to do, ya moron? We’re all expelled. There’s nothing to fight for anymore.

D-Day: [to Bluto] Let it go. War’s over, man. Wormer dropped the big one

. Bluto: What? Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? [Heck] no!

Otter: [to Boon] Germans?

Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.

Reading our Parsha, one wonders if Moshe might have taken the same history class as Bluto at Faber College.

Moshe opens by giving a brief account of the history that led B’nei Yisrael to this point.  Keep in mind, he is now addressing the second generation, born in the desert after the generation that left Egypt and experienced the miracles of the splitting of the Sea, revelation at Sinai had died.  The details of Moshe’s accounts of events seem to be a bit off.

Take for example Moshe’s retelling of the story of the spies.  In the original story, read a few weeks ago in Parshat Shelach, Hashem gives Moshe the option of sending spies – שלח לך אנשים send for yourself spies (Bamidbar 13:2).  Yet in Devarim, the sending of the spies is initiated by the people:

וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כֻּלְּכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ

And ye came near unto me every one of you, and said: ‘Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come.’ (1:22)

In Bamidbar the culprits in the story are most definitely the spies.  They declare, that the good qualities of the land are all for naught and that B’nei Yisrael will never succeed in conquering the land.  The Torah describes the death of the spies and makes it clear that their punishment is more severe than the nation who simply listened to their report.

Yet in Devarim the nation is culpable.  There is almost no mention of the spies’ role or of their punishment.

Nechama Leibowitz, based on the commentary of R. David Tzvi Hoffman explains that it would be wrong to call Moshe’s version of the story in Sefer Devarim a distortion.  Rather, Moshe wished to teach a lesson to the new generation – they will always face tests and have to make difficult decision.  With this in mind Leibowitz asks:

“Is the listener who is misled by the seducer freed from all moral responsibility?  The Torah does not take such a view but charges each man with responsibility for all his actions.  The listener has the choice of turning a deaf ear to evil words to or allowing himself to be misled by them.  It is his duty to resist…. (Studies in Devarim 21-23)

In other words, Moshe interpreted the story of the spies and retold it so that it carried a moral message relevant to his audience.

There are similar “mis-tellings” of events in the first chapter of Devarim.  We do not have time to spell them all out today.  (See, for R. Amnon Bazak Nekudat Peticha). 

The tension of the need for historical accuracy and the desire for the message to resonate with a contemporary audience is felt very strongly on Tisha B’Av.  In the introduction to the Koren Kinot Rabbi Haskel Lookstein tells a very powerful story of his visit to Israel in the summer of 1967 in the afterglow of the miracles of the Six Day War.  Rabbi Lookstein and his wife Audrey arrived Erev Tisha B’Av, “Just in time to eat a meal before the fast and go to Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s synagogue for the Tisha B’Av night service.  The mood in Israel was anything but Tisha B’Av-like.  There was simply no feeling of mourning or sadness.  On the contrary, there was a feeling of exhilaration, confidence, excitement and redemption.  It was clear that Israelis were in no mood to observe or even to feel the sadness and mourning of Tisha B’Av.”  As Rabbi Lookstein tells it, they read Eicha and had begun the kinot that follow, when everyone got up and left shul.  “The mood in the country was one of liberation and redemption…How could one feel depressed and mournful on that Tisha B’Av?”  Yet Rabbi Lookstein was disturbed:  “Something inside of me said that this reaction, although understandable, was not appropriate.” (xxviii).

(In less dramatic fashion, there is a contemporary debate as to whether it is appropriate to say the paragraph of Nachem in the Amidah at Mincha of Tisha B’Av.  The paragraph describes Jerusalem as a city that is “mournful, ruined, scorned and desolate: mournful without her children, ruined without her abodes, scorned without her glory, and desolate without inhabitant.”  For a brief overview of this debate and alternative versions of the prayer see “The Nachem Controversy: A Brief Summary by Rabbi Shlomo Brody”

The Looksteins’ discomfort was validated by Rabbi Soloveitchik who gave three reason why mourning and fasting on Tisha B’Av is still valid.

  1. Our observance of Tisha B’Av, much like our celebration of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot is not a remembrance of ancient history; “It is a contemporary experience.”  Just as we declare on Pesach בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים – in every generation a person must see him/herself as if they personally left Egypt, so too on Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor, refrain from eating and bathing in order that we experience the חרבן (loss and destruction of the Temple) as if it is occurring right now.
  2. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b, etc.) goes into much discussion as to whether Tisha B’Av was observed during the time when the Second Temple stood.  Rabbi Soloveitchik understands that it was observed with intense prayer “that what happened once should not happen again.” In other words, the Jews had already experienced the destruction of one Temple and the ensuing גלות, exile.  Just because a new Temple was now standing was no guarantee that it would stand forever.  We know, of course, that the Second Temple was destroyed.  The implications are obvious:  Jews today need to observe Tisha B’Av not only in mourning for what happened twice in our history but in prayer that, God forbid, it shouldn’t happen a third time.”
  3. Finally, the Rav explained that Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for all the tragedies and suffering that have befallen the Jewish people.  On Tisha B’Av when we read “Eicha – how can this be?” it is not only the words of the prophet Jeremiah but it of Jews throughout the world and throughout history.  “Why us?  Why have we suffered so?”

As we reflect on Parshat Devarim and prepare for Tisha B’Av it is worth reminding ourselves that we are not here as historians concerned with accurately reporting every detail and accounting for all perspectives.  Rather, we use the historical data to create and perpetuate meaningful and lasting Jewish memories.  The details are important but the emotional impact of the day are far more important.  (For a fascinating discussion on this see Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory).


From → Chagim, Parsha

One Comment
  1. Great message! I am so sorry I couldnt be there. The story of the freedom of the Jews and the struggles Moshe faced on the journey to Eretz Yisroel helped me so much through my early years of 12 step recovery. The parallels are endless.

    People trying to get clean and sober or recover from other addictions always want to go back to their familiar addiction. We cant believe that life can be good with a new life, Its too hard and we have to learn an entire new way to survive. We stop trusting people who tell us that a new clean life will actually be better. Even after years going back seems easier, So we have to find a Moshe to trust and observe. MAny dont make it and like many of Kol Yisroel think the old way was easier.

    I was blessed to have found one Moshe after another. The BIG difference is that we have to believe that as long as we are alive the journey is worthwhile. We cant give up on friends and loved ones and just not lead them to the promised land, We have to love them every minute until they find their way, No one can be deemed too old or too weak. The alternative can be fatal, I have lost friends after 10, 15 and 20 years of recovery.

    If not for courageous Rabbis like Rabbi Twersky and locally Rabbi Newman I would not have understood this ultimate message of faith and trust, Belushi was right wasnt he? Just like my struggles today – its never over until its over.

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