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Va’etchanan 5774-2014

“The Prediction of Return”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, is always read after the Fast of the 9th of Av and after the conclusion of the period of mourning known as the “Three Weeks.”

Although parashat Va’etchanan contains many significant themes, including the Ten Commandments and the Shemah prayer, it also contains the powerful prediction of a massive return and repentance of the Jewish people. This theme of repentance clearly dovetails with the essential message of what needs to be done following the “Three Weeks”–-with the destruction behind us, we must move on and rebuild.

The Torah predicts that the Jewish people will be exiled from the Holy Land, and only few will be left among the nations where G-d will lead His people.  Many will be seduced to worship idols of wood and stone. Nevertheless, the Torah foretells, that in exile, there will eventually be a remarkable return of the people to G-d.

In Deuteronomy 4:29-30, the Torah predicts: וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת השם   אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ, כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.  בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלוֹ   From there [in exile] you will seek the L-rd, your G-d, and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things befall you, at the end of days, you will return unto the L-rd, your G-d, and hearken to His voice.

The Torah, thus, confirms that the L-rd, our G-d, is a merciful G-d, who will not abandon His people or destroy them, and will not forget the covenant that He made with the forefathers of Israel.

This remarkable prediction of return, especially the return of Jews who reside in the Diaspora, in foreign and hostile lands, has, to a great extent, come true in our own time.

After the physical losses of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and the spiritual losses of millions of Jews due to indifference, assimilation and ignorance, the past sixty years of American Jewish life must be noted for the remarkable number of Jews who have returned to observance, and are today living committed Jewish lives. The recent Pew report, with all its ominous analysis and conclusions, also notes that more than one quarter of American Jews today who identify today as Orthodox, report that they come from non-observant homes.

When compared to the millions of assimilated Jews and those who simply walked away from their Judaism, the fact that approximately 125,000 Jews have returned to observance does not seem to be of great significance. Yet, when considered in the context of the massive assimilation and the irresistible blandishments of contemporary society, these numbers are indeed impressive.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus reports that his uncle, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, and one of the most prominent and successful rabbis in the contemporary movement of Jewish return, was once asked an interesting question: In previous generations, they would say that if one succeeded in helping a single Jew return to observance, it was considered a most significant accomplishment. The greatest rabbis and the most righteous leaders in previous generations hardly ever succeeded in returning more than two or three Jews. How did you succeed in helping hundreds of Jews to return?

Rabbi Weinberg responded with a parable: Consider, if you will, a construction site. Walls of steel and concrete are waiting to be properly positioned by a crane that lifts them, to move them to the desired location. While the walls are still suspended by the crane, the workers are able to push and pull them, and position them into their proper locations. How is it possible for the workers to move such heavy loads? Only because the load is being held up by the crane. While they are still suspended, the walls can easily be moved into their proper place.

Citing Maimonides, Rabbi Weinberg explained that the phenomenon of Jewish return in his generation was predicted in the Torah. Maimonides wrote in the Laws of Teshuva, 7:5, that the Torah predicted that the Jewish people will eventually return and repent at the end of their exile, and will be immediately redeemed. This, said Rabbi Weinberg, confirms the Al-mighty’s promise that before the arrival of the Messiah, the people of Israel will return and repent.

In previous generations, explained Rabbi Weinberg, the Jews were weighed down by their oppressors and by their own sinfulness. They could not be lifted from their entrenched positions. In our day, there is a flourishing movement of spirituality, and many Jews and non-Jews are in the process of a significant spiritual quest. It is as if the Al-mighty has lifted the people up with a crane, positioning them for their return. Thus, it is much easier in these days to bring Jews back.

Rabbi Pincus also cites a fascinating Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Kings 247), about King Manasseh, the ancient king of Judah, who was known to be one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel.

Manasseh, the only son of the righteous King Hezekiah, became king at age twelve, and reigned for 55 years. He reinstated pagan worship, and undid the positive religious reforms instituted by his righteous father.

According to the Book of II Chronicles 33:11-13, Manasseh was brought in chains to the Assyrian king, presumably for suspected disloyalty. The Midrash says that he was placed into a large vat with holes, and fires were lit under the vat to cook him alive. When he recognized his desperate situation, Manasseh cried out to every single idolatrous religion in the world, begging to be rescued. But, help never arrived.

At that moment Manasseh recalled that his father had once taught him the Biblical verse found in Deuteronomy 4:30,  בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, stating that when in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto the L-rd, your G-d. Said Manasseh, “If you, G-d of Israel, answer me, good. If not, I will regard you like the other pagan gods.”

The Heavenly angels, who had no sympathy for Manasseh, quickly moved to close all the portals of heaven, so that the evil King’s prayers would not reach the Al-mighty. They called out before G-d, “Master of the Universe, a man who stationed an idol in the midst of the Holy Temple, does he deserve to repent?” Said G-d, “If I do not accept his repentance, then the portals of repentance will be closed to all those who wish to return.” What did G-d do? He dug a channel under His holy throne, so that He could hear the cries of the wicked King, Manasseh.

Rabbi Pincus points out that, in truth, the argument of King Manasseh does not hold up. After all, Manasseh, who worshiped pagan gods his whole life, has a right to expect that the pagan gods would answer him. However, Manasseh, who spent his entire life denying the G-d of Israel, killing G-d’s righteous prophets, and defiling the city of Jerusalem with the blood of innocent victims, has no right to expect to be saved by the G-d of Israel. Besides, his call to G-d came only after he had exhausted his appeals to the pagan gods. His manner of pleading with G-d was truly offensive. Why then should G-d respond to him?

Rabbi Pincus explains that if G-d would not accept Manasseh’s repentance, it would indicate that Manasseh had crossed a line of no return with his sinfulness, implying that there are limits to G-d’s mercy. The difference between the Al-mighty and all other so-called “powers,” is that G-d’s mercy is truly limitless. Therefore, even Manasseh may plead for forgiveness for his sinfulness, and G-d will indeed forgive him.

According to the account in Chronicles, as a result of his contrition, Manasseh was restored to the throne and abandoned idolatry. He subsequently removed the foreign idols and called upon the people to worship in the traditional Jewish manner.

Although there is a Talmudic dispute about whether King Manasseh merited a portion in the World to Come (Talmud Sandhedrin 90a and 104), there is no question that the mercy of G-d is endless.

Let us sincerely hope and pray that the special period of repentance that begins in just a few short weeks with the arrival of the month of Elul, will be a period of profound Divine mercy, leading to the Ultimate Redemption.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, August 4th and continues through Tuesday night, August 5th, 2014. Have a meaningful fast.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.