A TORAH OF REALITY, TRUTH AND COMPASSION
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL.
In the early 1900’s, Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements served as a bastion for Jewish immigrants. A Rabbi, who resided in a ghetto-type community, once attended an ecumenical function at which a notorious anti-Semitic Episcopalian Minister was in attendance.
“What a coincidence!” remarked the minister upon encountering the Rabbi: “It was just last night that I dreamt I was in Jewish Heaven.”
“Jewish Heaven?” mused the Rabbi. “What’s it like in Jewish Heaven?”
“Oh!” replied the minister ever so snidely, “In Jewish Heaven children with dirty faces, shirts un-tucked and clothes un-pressed play in the dirt. In Jewish heaven women haggle with fruit and fish-vendors as panhandlers persistently interrupt.
In Jewish heaven laundry hangs from a maze of clotheslines, the dripping water adding to an already muddy surface. And of course,” continued the minister with a wry grin, “There are plenty of Rabbis running to and fro, with large tomes tucked under their arms!”
“How amazing!” retorted the Rabbi pursing his lips: “I too had a dream last night, in my dream I was in Episcopalian Heaven.”
“Really?” muttered the minister. “I’ve always wondered what Episcopalian Heaven was like. Please tell me what you saw.”
“I must admit,” said the Rabbi with a wide smiled, “It is nothing short of being immaculate.” The streets glitter as if they had just been washed, homes line-up in perfect symmetry; each with manicured lawn and garden. The buildings are freshly painted and sparkle in the sunlight!”
“Not surprising,” said the pleased minister, as he nodded cheerfully. “But tell me about the people! What are the people like?”
“The people?” frowned the rabbi, as he looked the minister in the eye: “What people? There were no people!”
What a difference a week can make. Last Shabbos was Shabbos Chazon, the height of the three week period of mourning. On Shabbos Chazon we read the third of the three Haftora’s of rebuke, in which the prophet Yishayahu forewarns about the impending disaster that was about to befall the Jewish people as a result of their sins.
A few days ago was Tisha B’av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. G-d has ordained this day as a time of weeping for generations to come, because of the rebellious behavior on the part of the people of the desert in rejecting the Promised Land 3000 years ago on this very day.
Yet this Shabbos, only one week after Shabbos Chazon and just a couple of days after Tisha B’Av, the mood is drastically changed. This Shabbos is Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of comfort. On this Shabbos G-d comforts his people over all the tzaros that has befallen them. As of this Shabbos the three Haftoras of rebuke are followed by seven Haftoras of comfort.
The only explanation for this drastic change of mood is that G-d cannot bear to see his children in a state of pain and mourning. Though we have sinned, G-d understands the vulnerability of the human heart and takes great pity. G-d cannot help but love his children even when they mess up and go astray. For after all is said and done, He has created us with an evil inclination and the propensity to sin. A similar idea is reflected in this week’s Torah portion, as there is always a connection between the torah portion and the current events.
After relating the laws pertaining to the cities of refuge, our Parsha, Vaeschanan, declares: “V’zos HaTorah Asher Som Moshe. . . “And this is the Torah that Moshe presented before the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 4:44). The simple inference of this declaration is that the preceding narrative characterizes, in some way, the essence of Torah. Yet it is unclear how the laws of the city of refuge are representative of all the Torah. In fact the contrary seems to be the case.
The laws of the cities of refuge constitute a portion of Torah that we would like to believe are not very relevant, since we Jews are not killers and are certainly not proud of people who kill. The Torah portion that deals with this element and issue, one might expect, would be considered atypical and mostly hypothetical. Why then would it be depicted as “The laws of the Torah?”
Moreover, there is an ancient Jewish custom, practiced in Synagogues all across the world that after each time the Torah is read in public, it is opened wide, raised into the air and turned in all directions for everyone to see. As the Torah is lifted, the congregation rises and chants in unison the verse from this week’s Parsha: “V’zos HaTorah . . .” with love and admiration.
One would expect that the verse chosen to be recited during this momentous ritual would be of a most lofty nature and certainly not one that is associated with killers and refuges. But that’s not the case. As stated earlier, the words “V’zos HaTorah” follow a section of Torah discussing the laws of the cities of refuge – the cities designated for people convicted of negligent manslaughter, or awaiting trial for murder.
The obvious question is why choose these particular words – which are related to the gravest human blunder – to summarize the essence and embodiment of the Holy Torah?
Rashi asserts that these words don’t pertain to the prior discussion but rather to the ensuing portion, which recounts the events at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Rambam explains that these words indicate that after Moshe’s admonition of the people, he resumed discussing the sacred laws. Yet the most basic and literal reading of the text does not readily support these interpretations, especially since there is a Vav (Hamosif), the letter Vav, like the word “and,” serves as link between the present sentence and the one prior.
An interesting explanation has been offered by some of the more contemporary commentators. They propose that perhaps by connecting the verse: “And this is the Torah. . .” with laws of the cities of refuge, the Torah is sending a resonant message that the Torah is meant for humans not Angels.
The Torah is essentially designed to guide the Jew through every dimension and experience in life; from the highest to the lowest; from the most honorable to the most shameful. Whether the Torah is commanding the laws of the sacred priestly service in the holy Temple, or the rehabilitation of a man who is in a state of flight and refuge for fortuitously killed another, it is the Torah of reality, truth and compassion.
Judaism doesn’t profess that man is perfect and infallible; it does not ignore our misfortunes or hide them as if they don’t exist. The Laws concerning thievery and murder are as much a part of the Torah as are the perpetrators a part of society.
The Torah doesn’t claim to be preaching to superhuman beings, nor does it gloss-over man’s animal dimension and propensity for unfortunate acts of failure and wrongdoing. When the Torah deals with this topic, it does so boldly – stating that this too, is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel.
The Torah wants us to know that when we fail we are not freaks in the eyes of G-d but humans, and to be human is to occasionally fail. And that if we were not capable of failure of what value would our successes and triumphs be?
This may further explain why this seemingly shameful subject is placed together – in the same Torah portion – with the most remarkable event in history of mankind – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – another portion for which the congregation rises to its feet.
May we merit the ultimate comfort and mercy of Hashem, with the coming of the righteous Moshiach speedily in our day!