Rabbi David Walk
Last week in this column we discussed (or at least I wrote about it, maybe you guys discussed it) the many stops the Jews made during the forty year trek through the wilderness. This week some of those way stations are mentioned again, and, so, we ask why the repetition? I think the best answer to that question was given by Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) to another vexing question concerning this week's Torah reading. Rabbi Hoffmann was concerned about the differences between the version of the story of the spies sent into Israel by Moshe and the Jews as recorded in the book of Numbers (13:1-14:39) and the shorter account given here (Deuteronomy 1:22-40). He explained that there are different styles employed when one is giving a relatively straightforward historical account like in Numbers and when the speaker's agenda is to chastise the listeners like here in Deuteronomy. This reasonable approach puts this week's entire reading into proper perspective. What we have here is a good old fashioned mussar schmooze or (for the Yiddish impaired out there) a rebuke, a dressing down. In the last month of his life Moshe addresses the people with a speech which combines many elements. There is a review of major mitzvoth, introduction of mitzvoth necessary for life in the Promised Land, and moral chastisement for the shortcomings and backslidings of the two generations of the wilderness, the one which left Egypt and the one which will enter Eretz Yisrael.
This idea was emphasized by Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) in his introduction to our parsha. Every week Rabbeinu Bechaye chooses a verse from the book of Proverbs which he believes best captures the nature of that week's reading. This week's choice: The one who reproves another will in the end find more favor than the one who flatters with the tongue (Proverbs 28:23). This follows the understanding of the first verse in our book by both the authoritative translation of Onkelos (c. 100 CE), who includes the word 'chastise' in his translation even though it doesn't appear in the Hebrew, and the great commentary Rashi. Rashi begins his comments on this week's reading with the words: Since these are words of rebuke and he enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents in which they transgressed, but rather merely alludes to them, by mentioning the names of the places out of respect for Israel (commentary to verse 1). Here's the problem: In the first verse of our book, eight places are named but three of them we've never heard of before. If we're reviewing the material with a new perspective the facts themselves shouldn't change.
Here's how Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains the three new place names. Rabbi Yochanan said: We have reviewed the entire Bible, but we have found no place named Tofel or Lavan! However, the explanation is that he rebuked them because of the foolish things they had said about the manna, which was white (lavan), saying "And our soul loathes this light bread" (Num. 21:5), and because of what they had done in the desert of Paran through the spies (Rashi based on Devarim Raba). And then, Rashi explains: Di-Zahav: (lit., enough gold). He rebuked them for the calf they had made as a result of their abundance of gold, as it is said: "and I gave her much silver and gold, but they made it for Baal" (Hosea 2:10, based on Midrash and the Talmud, Berachot 32a). Moshe is chastising in a most gentle approach. Tochacha is a Torah mitzvah (Leviticus 19:17: You shall surely rebuke your colleague.), but it must be administered with delicacy and tact. Most of us are not up to the task and therefore are probably exempt from the obligation.
This brings us back to another point I introduced last week. How do we present history in a Torah way? Last week I mentioned the gedolim biographies which ignore realities to make all of our Torah giants into Mary Poppins: Practically perfect in every way. Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) leader of the German Jewish community of Washington Heights, who BTW believed in secular education, famously wrote: What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity. We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people, their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their life of truth, their impeccable honesty, their boundless charity and their great reverence for Torah and Torah sages... Rather than write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful (Selected Writings, Lakewood, 1988).
Only a prophet, speaking in God's name, says Rabbi Schwab, has the right to record the embarrassing truths of history. Otherwise, this would violate the prohibition against lashon ha-ra.
I beg to differ. This coming week we commemorate Tisha B'av. There is no other day of the year on which we dwell so much on history. The Kinot or elegiac poems which we recite are a catalogue of Jewish suffering from antiquity until today. And we are supposed to learn from these events, and we must study the past to gain insights which help us deal with our present. The rabbis of the past didn't claim prophetic permission to tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred on the part of the Jewish community. This wasn't lashon ha-ra. This was honest reporting, and not for the sake of idle curiosity, but for the pedagogic purpose of warning us. As we navigate our lives, we will be safer if our guides and mentors caution us about potential pitfalls, rather than blithely ignore the mistakes of the past.
How do I know that we must frankly face the shortcomings of the past? Because Moshe teaches us that in this week's Torah reading. Like Moshe we must reprove gently, but the dangers of ignoring the past are far too great to go forward blindly. Remember, our Sages said that Mashiach will be born on Tisha B'av. I think that's a metaphoric way of saying that studying the past paves the way for a glorious future.