“Metaphorically Speaking” Parashat Va’etchanan 5775

Each summer during the first week of the month of Av, the Herzog College in Alon Shevut puts on what they call “Yemei ha-Tanach” — “Tanach Days”. Over five days, people can hear up to five shiurim a day. The shiurim are given by some of the greatest minds in Tanach, and the last two days even have shiurim in English. In the words of Rav Menachem Liebtag, one of the founders, the shiurim combine intellectual honesty with a healthy dollop of yir’at shomayim (“fear of heaven”). Yemei ha’Tanach have become quite popular, and more than one thousand people attend each day. This year I managed to get in one day of shiurim, while my wife Tova got in two.

One of the best shiurim I heard was given by Rav Chaim Sabato, one of the Roshei Yeshiva in Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim, my son’s yeshiva. Rav Sabato, aside from being a talmid chacham, is an accomplished author, and he has won the coveted Sapir and Newman Prizes for Literature [1]. The topic of Rav Sabato’s shiur was the alternative names for Book of Shemot (“Sefer ha-Galut veha-Geula”) and the Book of Vayikra (“Torat Kohanim”). But the best part of his shiur was a quick vort [2] he gave at the end on Tisha b’Av.

Rav Sabato brought a story from the Talmud in Tractate Makkot [24a] in which Rabbi Akiva and a group of rabbis were walking near the ruins of the Beit haMikdash. Suddenly they saw a fox walk out from under the rubble of what was once the Holy of Holies. The rabbis wept and Rabbi Akiva laughed. When the rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva why he was laughing, he asked them why they were weeping. They answered him, “A place so holy that it is said of it, ‘the stranger that approaches it shall die,’ and now foxes traverse it, and we shouldn’t weep?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “That is why I laugh! For it is written [Isaiah 8:2], ‘I shall have faithful witnesses: Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Yeverechya’… The Torah makes Zachariah’s prophecy dependent upon Uriah’s prophecy. With Uriah, it is written [Michah 3:12] ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be ploughed as a field; [Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest.]’ With Zachariah it is written [8:4], ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’ As long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled I feared that Zechariah’s prophecy might not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will also be fulfilled”. Rabbi Akiva’s explanation consoled the other rabbis.

Rav Sabato asked a difficult question on Rabbi Akiva: Had he not seen a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies, would he not have believed the prophecy of Zechariah?

Rav Sabato answered his own question by taking us — where else? — to the Rambam in the Laws of Kings [12:1]. The topic at hand is the End of Days. The Rambam brings the verse from Isaiah [11:6] “A wolf shall live with a lamb, and a leopard shall lie with a goat; and a calf and a lion cub and a ram shall lie together, and a small child shall lead them”. The Rambam teaches that while a wolf might one day lie down with a lamb, only the wolf will get up afterwards. According to the Rambam, this prophecy is only a metaphor for Am Yisrael who will live securely among its neighbours. Further, the Rambam asserts that we will not truly understand the prophecy until Moshiach comes.

Rav Sabato explained that Rabbi Akiva did not know whether the prophecies of Uriah and Zechariah were metaphor or whether they were meant to be understood as they were written. Would Zion really be ploughed like a field being prepared for planting? Would old people really take out tables and eat dinner in the streets of Jerusalem? If so, who would ensure that they were not hit by passing cars? When Rabbi Akiva saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies he understood that both prophecies were to be taken literally. He understood that while he and the other rabbis saw smoke, rubble, and death, one day real people would actually return to live in the Ground-Zero that was once Jerusalem.

Let’s try to extend Rav Sabato’s shiur to Parashat Va’etchanan. One of the most famous parts of the Parasha is called “Parashat Ha’Teshuva” — “Treatise on Repentance” — which predicts some point in the future when Am Yisrael would be exiled from Israel because of their sins, and the tribulations of exile would make them repent [3]. Two consecutive verses are particularly interesting [Devarim 4:29-30] “And from there you will seek out Hashem and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to Hashem and obey Him.”

Notice that both of the verses contain the word “all”. Are these instances to be understood literally or metaphorically?

  1. Is our redemption contingent upon seeking Hashem with all of our hearts and all of our souls, or will, say, seventy-five percent be sufficient?
  2. The verses describe horrific punishments [Devarim 4:26-27] “You will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations to where Hashem will lead you” Do all of these horrors await us, or perhaps the exile won’t be that terrible?

Answering the second question is easy: Yes, these horrors will occur — they have occurred — precisely as described. We only have to look back less than a century, when the dust of millions of burnt Jewish corpses was scattered in the European wind. Only now, seventy years later, have we finally regained the number of Jews lost during the Holocaust. But what of the first question? Should that “all” also be taken literally? If so, then how, precisely, can one know whether he is seeking Hashem with all of his heart and not just most of his heart?

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch offers a mathematically elegant answer. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does the International Criminal Court want to reopen the Mavi Marmara incident so they can prosecute Israeli soldiers? Why does the Hezbollah have more than 100,000 rockets trained on my house? Why do the Iranians want to “eradicate the Zionist cancer” and why is the current American administration moving in a direction that will enable the Iranians to do just this? We can blame President Obama’s world view, we can blame Bibi for not being more politically correct, and we can blame the Iranian Mullahs for years of demonization of the Jewish people. Rav Hirsch asserts that this approach — blaming somebody else — would be incorrect. Rav Hirsch maintains that the word “all” comes to exclude anything that is not Hashem. To search for Hashem with all of our heart is to recognize that all comes from Hashem. There is nowhere else to turn. In the words of Rav Hirsch, “Only He shall you ask what is desired, and only from Him shall you ask help”.

But what if I’m not one hundred percent certain whether Hashem can remedy the situation? Do I really believe that some policeman is going to enter Lebanon and take away all of Hassan Nasrallah’s rockets? The answer is that even if we are not sure that the situation can or will be remedied, we must have absolute certainty that if help can come from anywhere, then it will be from Hashem. We must not make the mistake of turning elsewhere. The prophet Hosea [14:4] warns Am Yisrael “Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses, nor will we no longer call the work of our hands ‘gods’”. Don’t pray for a Republican president in 2016. Don’t pray for an uprising in Iran that replaces the Mullahs with a more moderate leadership. Don’t pray for a new Israel political superstar to take the stage. Pray to Hashem. How He chooses to solve the problem is His own business.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] My son, Amichai, says that he can’t read Rav Sabato’s books, because “he writes the way he talks, and he talks really slowly”.

[2] A vort is a “short pithy thought”.

[3] One of the reasons that Parashat Ha’Teshuva is so famous is because it is read on Tisha b’Av.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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