These past few weeks, we read of the Prophets’ rebuke of the Jews. Their words are divinely inspired, containing absolute truths, not worthy to turn from and imbibe once their recital commences on Shabbos, as many do. A drink on Shabbos is not wrong, in fact we are to partake of Oneg – physical pleasures. But we are not allowed to turn our ear from Torah. The Rabbis say that if one turns his ear from Torah – even to pray – his prayer is “torn up” before him. Torah study surpasses all. It is nothing less than tragic that one does not wish to hear the Prophets’ words. So what did Jeremiah (chap. II) say two weeks ago?
“So says God, ‘What wrong have your forefathers found in Me that they distanced themselves from Me and pursued futility, and became futile? And they did not say, ‘Where is God who took us out of Egypt, who led us through the dessert, in a dry land and pits, in a land of waste and a shadow of death, in a land through which no man passed and where no person settled?’ “
A number of valuable lessons are revealed here. First, God teaches man what his reasoning ought to be. He must not ignore historical truth, and their lessons: God proved He could save man from slavery. He could sustain man where nothing could possible live. Yet man chases after demons; useless fantasies that never prove real, and therefore cannot provide. They left God, without cause. God did no wrong.
When you think about this, these succinct and penetratingly undeniable truths…you wonder how man can reject a Torah life. Yet, many do. These words should be our response to those who do not live religiously. Put the question to them: “What is your reason for rejecting Torah? Do you deny God’s Egyptian exodus? Do you also deny Caesar was Rome’s emperor? Of course not, so accept ALL proven history…including those that even place a burden of mitzvah upon you. Do you deny God’s miracles in the dessert for forty years? Did God do anything but to help man? If so, why are you leaving a life where YOU can be helped? And what will you follow? All else is lies and futile.
Sometimes, to help someone, we must sacrifice our relationship with him or her, if it means a possibility to make them see the truth. We must not be selfish, and seek to retain a relationship by avoiding such a conversation. We see that God delivered these words to the Jews through the prophet. These words are the undeniable argument to bring an unaffiliated Jew back. Jeremiah continues:
“The Kohanim did not say ‘Where is God?’; those charged with teaching Torah did not know Me; the leaders rebelled against Me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and after that which does not help, they followed.”
The nation’s leaders were the sinners. And those who followed them sinned two sins: 1) they sinned as did the leaders, and 2) they did not determine for themselves whether their leaders were acting properly. Today this phenomenon continues. A leader teaches, and the congregants or students follow blindly. The words of our great Rabbis who urge us to think for ourselves go unheeded. But God punished those leaders, and followers. He will do so again, as God’s ways are just, and He does not change, “I am God I do not change”. (Malachi, 3:6) If those called prophets and Kohanim can err back then, it can, and does happen today.
It is because people parrot others, and what they parrot is nonsensical, that many Jewish youths find no reason to remain observant. The lack of true philosophy taught in school, coupled with parents who do not exemplify a Torah lifestyle by studying at home, drives Jewish youths away from any interest in the great wisdom and fulfillment that only Torah study can offer. Many youths then pursue lifestyles of wealth and pleasure, to find that only its reputation was real, while the anticipated enjoyments were never found. Our prophets continue…
This week we read Isaiah I. God says He will reject sacrifice and prayer. He considers our Temple approach a “trampling of His courtyard”, “vain offerings”, “and abominable incense”, our holidays are called “hateful and loathsome”. What is our remedy? Isaiah answers: “Remove evil deeds, learn what is good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow”. Evidently, the Jews mitzvos were worthless. Why?
These Jews performed the commands as a panacea. They felt the acts of mitzvah alone are all God desires, while they distorted justice and the welfare of the lowly of our people for unjust gain. What did they think…God sees mitzvah but He can’t see into human motivations?! Yes, this was their unchecked view. But God says He doesn’t want the “trampling of His courtyard” as Jews rush to sacrifice and pray. That is all too selfish. God desires that we enact His will of equality for all mankind. The widow. The orphan. The convert. The Noachide. The Jew. Mitzvos in themselves without understanding their perfection are not what God wants. The Shima says so: “And you shall love Hashem your God with ALL your heart, with ALL your soul, and with ALL your might”. That doesn’t sound like rote action, but a deep dedication, where one as a Rabbi Akiva gave his soul for Torah values.
As the prophets taught, Maimonides also teaches, that man’s evils are of three types: 1) naturally generated, like floods; 2) aggressiveness towards each other; 3) self-inflicted. He says the last class comprises most of our troubles. Yet, man blames God. But Torah does not accept such falsely displaced blame:
“Is destruction His? No. You [who call yourselves] wrongly His sons, you who are a perverse and crooked generation” (Deut. xxxii. 5). This is explained by Solomon, who says, “The foolishness of man perverteth his way, and his heart fretteth against the Lord” (Prov. xix. 3).
What about Torah punishments? These too are our own doing.
The tragedies for Torah abandonment are gruesome. Mothers will eat their children due to enemies who starve us. Why so severe? Why will God place us in such a state? It is clear, as God says, “If despite these [punishments] you will consider My punishments simply nature, then I will walk with you with a fury of this natural [explanation] and I will chastise you sevenfold on your sins. And you will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.” (Lev. 26:27-29 and Deut. 28:57)
The severity is to make it impossible for the Jews and others to accept that anything but God delivered this tragedy. This will insure the truth of Torah, as the tragedies meted out are of such proportions, never experienced by any other nation. All will know that God keeps His word: that Torah is truth. Our punishments will prove God’s word, just as do our rewards. “Just as God delights upon you, to do you good and to increase you…so too God will delight to wipe you out and to destroy you and take you off the land that you came to inherit”. (Deut. 28:63) Of course this requires interpretation. God does not truly desire to punish. Lamentations 3:33, “For He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” Actually, God desires our benefit. But this idea that God show equal “delight” to wipe is out, means that it fulfills His will for mankind, equally as reward fulfills His will. Whether God rewards or punishes, His justice and truth is equally served.
We are entering Tisha B’Av. A time of reflection, and a time where we can make change. We can improve. But this requires an honest assessment of our shortcomings. We read the Prophets so as to awaken ourselves to those very flaws they addressed. The blamed the Jew for “acting” religiously, while he was not kind, just and charitable. The Prophet blamed the Jewish leaders for their unjust acts. The message is clear: we must use our own reasoning to determine if what we follow is a correct justice. And our reasoning must be based on the absolute truths contained in the words of the Prophets. Therefore, study is the only path that will lead us to living properly.
The Prophet concludes this week’s Haftoras Devarim by saying “Jerusalem will be redeemed through justice, and it inhabitants, through tzedaka.” Therefore, to earn redemption, we must first “know” what justice and tzedaka are, and then act upon that knowledge. Following others led astray many generations of Jews…even leaders. That’s why God gave us the Prophets, and safeguarded their written words for millennia. Study them to know God’s will. To know what’s true. To gain the best for yourself in this one earthly existence.