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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Devorim 5774 "Blinded by Darkness"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The king walked into his private chamber one morning to find his son cutting a colorful paper into small pieces. As the king continued approaching and took a closer look at the shredded paper he was mortified. “What are you doing?” he shrieked. The bewildered prince sheepishly replied, “I found this paper with a mess of colors, dots, and words and figured it was an old document. Was it something important?” The king angrily replied, “That paper was a gift from a close friend who is an artist. He presented me with a map of my entire country, completely labeled and color coded. Whenever I feel sad or overwhelmed I love to gaze at the map and admire the borders of my kingdom. But now you have destroyed it. You should have asked me before you cut it.”

The prince felt terrible. “Father, I will reconstruct the map and I will tape it back together.” The king smiled meekly, “That is very kind of you my son; but I’m afraid that will be impossible. There are simply too many fine details and small pieces. You will never be able to properly reconnect all the pieces.” With that the king morbidly left the room.

The king was shocked when the prince approached him a scant twenty minutes later with the entire reconstructed map. “How could you have possibly put it all back together in such a short amount of time?” The prince grinned, “Father, you didn’t realize the true uniqueness of your map.” The prince carefully turned the map over to reveal a portrait of the artist. “When your friend presented you with the map he drew a picture of himself on the reverse side. You were right that I would never be able to reconstruct the map itself. However, when I flipped over the pieces I was easily able to see what parts of the face belonged where. When I finally finished putting the portrait back together I merely had to flip over the paper to see that the map was perfectly in order.”

In his introduction to Chumash Devorim, Ramban writes:

“The subject of this book (Devorim) is known that it is a review of the Torah… But before Moshe began the elucidation of the Torah he began to rebuke them and remind them of their sins – how often they defied him in the wilderness, and yet how much Hakadosh Boruch Hu dealt with them with the attribute of mercy. This (concept was presented to them in order to) call attention to G-d’s kindness towards them, and, in addition, so they would not be chastened by his words, so that they not return to their previous state of corruption… Our teacher Moshe, peace be upon him, therefore informed them that Hakadosh Boruch Hu is compassionate and full of mercy, for forgiveness and pardon are bestowed by Him, may He be blessed...”

Moshe Rabbeinu was now beginning his soliloquy to the nation. His elongated last will and testament was meant to invigorate the nation and prepare them for the challenges that lay ahead when they began their conquest of Canaan without him. He commenced his discourse with a recounting of the events that occurred throughout their sojourns during the previous forty years. That recounting was a subtle reminder to the nation of all of their mishaps and iniquities.

Mesillas Yesharim[1] explains that the first step along the path to greatness is the characteristic of zehirus[2]. In order for one to adequately distance himself from sin he must be wary of the tactics of his evil inclination, as well as his own vulnerabilities. One who does not pay heed to his own actions in order to contemplate his undertakings is inferior to an animal which is wary of what is detrimental to it and distances itself from those things.

“One who walks this world without considering whether his way of life is good or bad is like a blind man walking along the seashore, who is in very great danger, and whose chances of being lost are far greater than those of being saved. For there is no difference between natural blindness and self-inflicted blindness, i.e. the shutting of one’s eyes because of his wills and desires- both present the same peril.”

“The prophet Jeremiah lamented about the evil of the men of his generation, about their being plagued with this affliction that their eyes were blind to their actions, their failure to analyze them in order to determine whether they should be engaged in or abandoned. He said about these men ‘No one regrets his wrongdoing…They all turn away in their course like a horse rushing headlong into battle’[3].”

The gemara[4] relates that during the final forty years before the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash there were numerous ominous omens that served as harbingers of imminent devastation and destruction. The historian Josephus wrote that prior to the destruction of Jerusalem red lights flashed across the sky, symbolizing the bloodshed that lay ahead. Visions of chariots galloping across the sky were also noticeable. The kohanim had to struggle mightily to close the doors of the Sanctuary each night. It was as if the doors were swinging open, inviting the enemy to invade and ravage the city.

During the final years of the first Bais Hamikdash too, the prophet Yermiyah exhorted the nation to repent and alter their ways so they would not have to be exiled and the Bais Hamikdash could be spared. But the nation did not hearken to his pleas. They rather believed in their false sense of security and self-righteousness.

In exile G-d does not reveal His messages to us through clear revelation. Rather, His face is “painted on the reverse side of the puzzle”, as it were. If one wishes to seek it he can discern the hidden Hand of G-d emblazoned all over creation.

Moshe began his final message with words of rebuke. However, his integral rebuke was not stated emphatically but was alluded to. One of the ideas Moshe was conveying to the nation is that one must seek out the message. It is not always presented clearly.

That idea transcends all times. We often think that if we were privy to open miracles we would be greater believers. But human nature is not that way. Belief is contingent upon inner heartfelt connection. One can witness the most miraculous events and yet deny the hand of G-d.

The tragedies of Tisha B’av are rooted not only in our original sins, but more profoundly, our rigidity and failure to recognize our need to change and improve. In order to rectify that wrong we must contemplate, analyze, and recognize the Divine Hand and its message as it applies to us in our daily lives.

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Yisroel, on the other side of the Jordan.” Moshe’s seemingly benign recounting was in actuality a strong rebuke, but only to one who internalized its message.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, related that when his Rebbe, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt’l, walked into his Chicago classroom for the first time he hardly spoke a word of English. Rabbi Wein relates how he and his classmates thought the European Rabbi who couldn’t communicate with them didn’t stand a chance. But the next day Rabbi Mendel walked into the classroom with a Chicago Tribune tucked under his arm. In his broken English he told them, “You boys will teach me English and I’m going to teach you how to read the newspaper like a mussar sefer[5]”.

Rabbi Wein would constantly impress upon his students the need to seek out G-d’s Hand in the events that transpire daily, beyond the explanations of political pundits. Although we may be far from worthy from interpreting the Divine reason behind all events, we must still be able to recognize that there is a Divine plan that shapes and directs all events.

The Shabbos prior to Tisha B’av is titled ‘Shabbos Chazon’ because the haftorah of that Shabbos commences with the words, “Chazon Yeshayahu- the vision of Isaiah”. The haftorah contains the poignant and bitter message that Yeshayah had to convey to Klal Yisroel. In it the prophet related to the nation that His indignation and contempt for their mitzvah observance which had become mere external exercises, ‘going through the motions’, without any passion or ardor.

Nesivos Sholom notes that the word “chazon” connotes an open vision, and revelation. What did G-d reveal to Yeshaya in His harsh diatribe and chastisement against Klal Yisroel?

Nesivos Sholom explains that the prophecy of Yeshaya - along with all of the oppression we have endured throughout our long and bitter exile – demonstrates G-d’s extreme love for His Nation. If G-d did not love us so dearly he would have allowed us to fade into the oblivion of faded glory long ago, like so many other nations. The fact that our punishments and suffering are so severe demonstrates that we are the bearers of a higher purpose and mission. No one enjoys pain and suffering and no one can comprehend the reasons why good people suffer and why there is so much pain in our world. However, it is undeniable that our pain is indicative of the fact that we are unique.

A father maintains a unique relationship with his child in two ways: In the way he demonstrates his love for his child and in the way he punishes his child. Both are done out of love and both are vastly different than the manner in which one rewards or punishes someone else’s child.

It is for this reason that Tisha B’av is also deemed a “mo’ed” and enigmatically has some status as a holiday. During the holidays of the year we recognize G-d through the miracles and blessings that He bestowed and bestows upon us. On Tisha B’av we recognize G-d through the harsh punishment and pain that He has wrought upon us.

This is the vision that Yeshaya was privy to and sought to convey to Klal Yisroel. It is a vision that is only visible to one who searches beyond the surface and seeks to see “the face on the other side of the map.”

Tisha B’av is a painful and sad day. However, it is an integral day on the calendar. In a sense Tisha B’av has preserved us as a people more than any other time of the year, for it jolts us out of our nonchalance and reminds us who we are.

The collective tears that we shed on Tisha B’av are themselves our greatest consolation. Rabbi Akiva expressed that it is because we have witnessed the fulfillment of all the dire and harsh prophecies, we can be confident that we will witness the prophecies which promise the bliss of the eternal redemption when Zion will be consoled along with all the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem![6]

“Like a blind man walking along the seashore”

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Yisroel”

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[1] the timeless and classic ethical work of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato zt’l

[2] loosely defined as watchfulness/vigilance

[3] Yermiyah 8:6

[4] Yoma 39b

[5] a source of Torah-based ethics

[6] Makkos 23a

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