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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Devarim 5772 "It's all in the Approach"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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On one occasion, the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hakohain Kagan zt’l, was traveling on a train together with Rabbi Meir Don Plotzky zt’l, the Keli Chemdah. At one of the train-stations in Poland a tremendous crowd amassed hoping to catch a glimpse of the saintly Chofetz Chaim. When they reached that station a message was sent to the Chofetz Chaim asking if he could disembark from the train for just a few moments so the crowd could greet him. The Chofetz Chaim adamantly refused. When Rabbi Plotzky asked him why, the Chofetz Chaim poignantly replied, “How could they beseech of an old man to accept such honor? When one is accorded honor it is a spiritually dangerous test for the person!” The Chofetz Chaim then quoted Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid who stated that the pleasure one enjoys in this world does not necessarily detract from the eternal reward that one receives in the World to Come. The reason is that the physical pleasures of this world are diametrically different from the spiritual pleasures of the next world. However, when one is accorded honor, which is more of a spiritual benefit, it indeed does detract from one’s eternal reward.

Rabbi Plotzky replied, “Although I understand the Rebbe’s hesitation, I would like to offer two refutations of the Rebbe’s argument. Firstly, I would venture to say that despite the peril of honor, it is worth it for the Rebbe to lose some of his eternal portion in order to accede to the request of a group of Jews. Secondly…” Before Rabbi Plotzky could continue, the Chofetz Chaim interjected, “Stop! You need not continue! Your first reason was sufficient! Your opinion is ‘da’as Torah’[1] and I am prepared to accept it despite my own opinions and premonitions.” With that, the Chofetz Chaim stood up and made his way toward the waiting crowds.

The entire book of Devorim is Moshe Rabbeinu’s last will and testament to his beloved Klal Yisroel, and was recited during the final five weeks of his life.

Moshe commenced his discourse by recounting the many sins that the nation had committed during the previous forty years. However, in order not to embarrass or offend his listeners, Moshe did not mention the sins explicitly, but rather alluded to them discreetly. There were however, two sins that Moshe recounted candidly, explicitly mentioning both sin and consequence. First, Moshe lamented his inability to deal with the burdens of the nation on his own. “I said to you at this time saying: I cannot carry you alone…How can I alone bear your contentiousness, your burdens, and your quarrels? Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding, and well-known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them as our heads.[2] Moshe was pained that the nation requested and required judges and officers who could transmit the Word of G-d to them. Now the people would be taught by ‘students’ instead of the ‘teacher’.

Moshe also addressed the pernicious sin of the spies. “All of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the Land, and bring word back to us’…the idea was good in my eyes, so I took from you twelve men, one man from each tribe…But you did not wish to ascend and you rebelled…You slandered in your tents and said, ‘Because of Hashem’s hatred for us did He take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us in the hands of the Amorite to destroy us’…[3]

The night when the spies returned and delivered their slanderous report, causing the nation to weep and lose faith, was the ninth of Av. Rashi relates that G-d responded, “You cried tears for nothing, I will cause you to cry for generations.[4]” The ninth of Av became a harbinger of the numerous tragedies we would suffer throughout the exile. The endless rivers of tears that our nation has shed in exile are compensation for the unwarranted tears that our ancestors shed on that night.

Rashi notes that the tragic outcome of the debacle was rooted in their approach. The nation approached Moshe in a disorderly and disrespectful manner, with the youth pushing ahead of the elders, and the elderly pushing ahead of the leaders. S’forno adds that while their request was not completely outlandish, it should have been broached by the sages and leaders, not demanded by a raucous and rambunctious mass.

Rabbi Yitzchok Sorotzkin zt’l notes that Rashi’s insight is the key to understanding why both of these particular events were explicitly stated. Both sins are interconnected, in that they both essentially resulted from the same initial mistake, i.e. their approach! In both instances, they were convinced of the veracity of their arguments and they demanded compliance. Both times they undermined the leadership of the nation and sought to enervate the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu. When Klal Yisroel loses respect for its leaders it is a tragedy of utmost proportions. Therefore in referring to these two particular sins Moshe chose to be clear and unequivocal.

Twice a year during the liturgy of our prayers we recount in detail the tragic debacle of the Asarah Harugei Malchus – the Ten Martyrs. On Yom Kippur, after reciting the procedure for the Service in the Bais Hamikdash, we recite a piyut (liturgical poem) beginning with the words “אלה אזכרה – These I shall recall.” On Tisha B’av too, we recite a kinah (lament) detailing their tragic deaths, that begins with the words “ארזי לבנון אדירי התורה – Cedars of Lebanon, Mighty ones of Torah.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l[5] explained that although the basic story is the same, there is a difference in our reason for mentioning it during the prayers of these two days.

On Yom Kippur however, our focus is on repentance and forgiveness. The gemara[6] states that the death of the righteous effects atonement for the sins of Klal Yisroel tantamount to the sacrificial service. After reviewing the procedure of the Service that was performed in the Bais Hamikdash on Yom Kippur, we recount the story of the Ten Martyrs in order to further bolster our prayers and hopes that G-d will grant us atonement. Therefore, throughout the piyut of Yom Kippur there is constant beseeching that G-d forgive us[7].

The gemara[8] also states that the death of a righteous person is a tragedy tantamount to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. On Tisha B’av when we mourn the epic loss of the Bais Hamikdash we also mourn the untimely and tragic deaths of these ten great men, each of whose passing was a loss equivalent to the loss of the Bais Hamikdash. On Tisha B’av we mourn our lost glory, which includes the loss of our Torah leaders. This is why the kinnah opens by depicting the great sagacity and scholarship of the Ten Martyrs, and refers to them with glowing adjectives, e.g. “The most desirable in Israel; the holy vessels”.

The Medrash[9] states, “Rabbi Akiva said: Klal Yisroel is analogous to a bird. Just like a bird cannot fly without its wings, so too Klal Yisroel can accomplish nothing without its elders.”

The ninth of Av symbolizes and encapsulates all of our national and personal pain and tears. It is a day of lamentations, national remembrance, and mourning. At the root of it all was our unwitting failure to appreciate our leadership. That was the sin that set the trajectory of the tragedy of Tisha B’av into motion.

When Moshe lamented his inability to bear the burdens of our nations it portended Yirmiyahu’s anguished cry centuries later, “Alas! She sits in solitude; the metropolis that was bustling with people has become like a widow.[10]” The destruction of the Bais Hamikdash could have been averted had Klal Yisroel hearkened to Yirmiyahu’s message. There too the tragedy began because of the nation’s unwillingness to heed the cry of its leader.

The Chofetz Chaim noted that the final redemption is imminent. Just a few more decades, years, perhaps even days or hours before the Messianic era will be ushered in. Our descent into exile was rooted in failure to rally to the call of our leaders; the key to redemption lies in our strengthening our respect and appreciation for their leadership.

This week Klal Yisroel suffered the loss of Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv zt’l, the 102 year old venerated Torah leader and halachic authority. Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur simultaneously arrived early this year. Another piece of the glory and splendor of our people has been lost from our world, leaving us bereft. But if we seek to internalize some of the greatness he epitomized we can achieve atonement from our epic loss and in so doing we can restore some of the greatness for which we still mourn.

“How can I alone bear your contentiousness…?”

“Like a bird cannot fly without its wings”

Please have in mind Chaim Yisroel Pinchos ben Shaindel and Nosson ben Miriam for a refuah shaleimah.

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[1] i.e. the opinion of a great a venerated Talmudic Scholar to whom one is obligated to subjugate his own opinions to

[2] 1:9-13

[3] 1:22-27

[4] Tehillim 106:27

[5] Harerei Kedem Vol 2, p. 309

[6] Mo’ed Katan 28a

[7] In addition, in the Yom Kippur piyut there is a long introduction which details how Rabbi Yishamel Kohain Gadol ascended to heaven to ascertain whether their death was a decree from Heaven. Once he was informed that it was indeed a heavenly decree, he the other martyrs willingly accepted their bitter fate. We invoke their subjugation to the Will of G-d in our pleas for forgiveness.

[8] Rosh Hashana 18b

[9] Vayikra Rabbah 11:8

[10] Eichah 1:1

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