Chastisements of Love 

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Torah reading initiates the final Book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim.  It is comprised of the talks Moshe addressed to the Jews in his last days.  He knew that death was imminent yet chose to devote all his energy to the needs of the people.  They were poised to begin the conquest and settlement of the land.  Success in this endeavor depended on adhering to Torah and behaving as a “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”  He expounded the Torah to elucidate its laws, ideals and philosophy of life.  However, he did not restrict himself to abstract theological topics.  To fulfill their national mission the people would have to recognize their flaws and repent.  He, therefore, reviewed some of the unsavory moments of their recent history starting with the episode of the spies.  Moshe was a fearless leader who did not refrain from speaking the harsh truth.  He understood that a capacity for introspection is vital to the success of individuals and nations and that there is no better time to express criticism then when one is about to depart the earthly scene.  At such moments people are more apt to comprehend that these are “chastisements of love.”

We can understand why Moshe called attention to the sin of the spies as it caused the death of that generation in the wilderness.  However, some commentators question his failure to mention the Golden Calf at this point. This was arguably their most egregious trespass yet it is not mentioned until chapter nine. Why would Moshe defer discussion of this sin, given its gravity and consequences?

We must understand the motive behind Moshe’s rebuke.  His intent was not to insult the people or cause them to feel guilty.  His goals were entirely positive.  The concept of rebuke is unpopular in contemporary culture.  We are a pleasure seeking society which rejects the notion of an objective moral truth.  We believe that ethics are purely subjective and that each person can determine what is right and wrong.  When people seek to impose their values on others our instinctive reaction is, “why don’t you mind your own business?”  Judaism maintains that withholding valid criticism from one who needs it displays indifference to the welfare of one’s fellow.  The Torah proclaims, “Whom G-d loves does He rebuke.”  Moshe emulated this Divine attribute.  He wanted the Jews to prosper and endure on the land.  He sought to point out their flaws without overwhelming them with excessive criticism.  He cited the incident of the spies because it was most relevant to the task at hand.  The report of the spies engendered fear.  It also caused them to disparage the land and say, “let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”  Had they properly appreciated the opportunity to become G-d’s chosen nation in His specially designated land, they would have been able to overcome all fear.  This event took place on the ninth of Av which ever since has been the designated time for our national catastrophes.  

This Sunday Jews worldwide will observe the fast of Tisha B’av.  On this day we mourn all the tragedies of Jewish history, beginning with the destruction of the Temple and including the Crusades, pogroms, Inquisitions and the Holocaust.  It is a time for us to reflect on our sins, personal and collective.  It is manifestly not a time to point fingers and assess “blame.”  Let us rather be humble and genuinely seek to become better Jews and finer people.  Let us strive to renew our love of Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.  May our heartfelt Teshuva and prayers find favor with Hashem and bring us closer to redemption.

Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Tisha B’av.