Divrei Torah

PARSHAS DEVARIM 5777

In this week’s haftara the Prophet Yeshayahu castigates the Jewish people. He said to them in the name of G-d, “I have raised children and exalted them, yet they have rebelled against Me . . . they don’t follow My commandments . . . You have neglected My Torah, yet you offer sacrifices. What good are those sacrifices? . . . . You gather on the Shabbos and holidays, yet you have in mind idolatry . . . The Kohanim duchan, yet their hands are filled with blood . . . your money is counterfeit . . . your business practices are dishonest . . . your leaders deviate from the straight path - they don’t do justice for the orphan – they don’t care about him . . . . they don’t listen to the complaints of the widow – those who are not strong enough or wealthy to defend themselves.

Since every prophecy recorded in the Tanach is applicable to all time, the Prophet Yeshayahu is also speaking to us. So we should listen carefully to his words and learn lessons from those words. 

Unfortunately, many of the maladies that afflicted the Jewish people in his time are still with us today. Business practices aren’t always what they should be . . . our davening is not always up to par . . . we have so much for which to be thankful to G-d . . .we have a roof over our heads . . . clothing . . . health . . . we can walk and talk. When we say the brachos for these matters in the morning, do we really mean them and understand them? Our behavior and speech towards others leaves much to be desired . . . the little man is often overlooked or ignored.

Thank G-d, one point that we don’t seem to carry with us is the claim that “your hands are filled with blood.” Somebody once complained to Rav Avrham Yitzchak Hakohein Kook – the Chief Rabbi of then Palestine - about the state and practices of the Jewish people in what was then Palestine. Rav Kook directed the man’s attention to the Valley of Ben Hinom. That valley is mentioned frequently in the Tanach, especially in the Book of Jeremiah. It had a poor reputation. Rav Kook said to this man, “You see that valley?” Our forefathers used to worship idols there and performed child sacrifices. They would sacrifice their children to the idols. We don’t do that anymore.” In other words, Rav Kook told the man, “It is true. We are not in the best condition and we do things wrong. But, we have made improvements over time and things will get better.” 

But all in all, the prophecy of Yeshayahu is one of gloom and doom, and many of the human failings that he lists are still very much the problems of our times. So how do we uplift ourselves from this very depressing picture?

The Talmud at the end of Tractate Makkos relates a story of five Rabbis walking in the vicinity of the Temple Mount. Among the rabbis was Rabbi Akiva. When they saw a fox running from the site of the Holy of Holies, all of the rabbis began to cry, except for Rabbi Akiva. He laughed. They asked him why he laughed. He asked them why they cried. They explained, “foxes are roaming through our holiest place. Of course we should cry!” Rabbi Akiva explained, “That is why I am laughing.”

 “The Prophet Zecharia prophesied, “So said G-d, old men and old women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his staff in his hand because of advanced age, and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets.” Rabbi Akiva continued, “Since all of the prophecies of doom have come true 100%, we can be assured that the prophecies of comfort will also come true 100%. The other rabbis responded, “Rabbi Akiva, you have comforted us.” 

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter is noted to have said, “At first I tried to change the world. But then when I realized that I couldn’t change the world, I decided that I would change the city where I live. Then, when I realized I couldn’t do even that, I decided I would change my family. But, then, finally I realized I couldn’t change my family and that the only person I could change is myself.

It is upon each and every one of us to better society by improving ourselves. “Zion will be redeemed with justice,” Yeshayahu concludes in today’s Haftara. It is true that we are responsible for the behavior of society, and that by failing in this responsibility, we are at fault for our own destruction. But, the words of the prophets over thousands of years of Jewish history are also proof that we possess the power to raise ourselves to the heights of redemption and precipitate the fulfillment of all the good that G-d has promised us.