I’ve always had difficulty with the song “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, sung in the US and the UK to congratulate a person on some significant event, like a birthday. The song has essentially one line: “For he’s a jolly good fellow that nobody can deny”. My problem with the lyrics pertains to the first word: “For”. Typically, the word “for” is synonymous with “because”. It offers a reason or justification of some sort. “The food was inedible because the chef added too much Sriracha”. But in “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, the word “for” doesn’t explain anything. The song could just have stated “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. What makes things even more difficult is that the Torah is apparently guilty of the same offense.
The Torah reading for Tisha b’Av is a nightmare that has come true too many times. Taken from Parashat Va’etchanan, it speaks of a nation that has fallen off the rails [Devarim 4:25]: “When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing G-d displeasure and vexation, you shall soon perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out…” This is not just another prediction of doom. This particular warning reveals the key to our redemption from exile [Devarim 4:29]: “But if you search there for G-d you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul”. If we are being punished because we strayed from G-d, then our punishment will come to its conclusion only when we return to Him. The Torah continues [Devarim 4:30-33]: “When you are in distress because all these things have befallen you, you will, in the end, return to G-d and obey Him. For G-d is compassionate: He will not fail you nor will He let you perish; He will not forget the covenant which He made on oath with your fathers. For ask now regarding the early days that were before you, since the day that G-d created man upon the earth and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard? Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived? Or has any god ventured to take one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents …as G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” The Torah concludes with words that we recite four times every week, when we take the Torah from the ark [Devarim 4:35]: “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that G-d alone is God; there is none beside Him.” You saw it. You know it. Nobody can deny.
The Torah seems to be guilty here of the “Jolly Good Fellow Syndrome”. The Torah speaks of a nation that is extricating itself from sin and seeking its way back to G-d. We are promised that if we well and truly want to return to G-d – with all our heart and soul – then we are assured success. What, then, does the Torah mean when it subsequently tells us “For G-d is compassionate: He will not fail you nor will He let you perish”? What does the fact that G-d is compassionate come to explain? Redemption is a function of repentance. If we were being redeemed merely because ‘G-d is compassionate”, there would be no need for any positive action on our behalf. Perhaps the verse is a closed unit: “Because G-d is compassionate then for this reason He will not fail you or let you perish”. This explanation is difficult because if we interpret the verse in this fashion, its connection with the preceding verses is unclear. What, then, does the Torah mean when it says “For G-d is compassionate”? It should just have stated, “G-d is compassionate…”
Our problems have only just begun. In the next verse, we are told “For ask now regarding the early days that were before you…” What does asking about “the early days” come to explain? Lest it be suggested that the Torah is proposing a reason why we should return to G-d – because we saw Him with our own eyes – that reason is inapplicable for the target audience. Recall that the Torah reading begins with the words “When you have begotten children and children’s children”. The Torah is not worried about the people whom Moshe is addressing. It is concerned with their children and their grandchildren. But these children and grandchildren, who have not yet been born, don’t remember “the early days”. They did not personally experience the Egyptian exodus or the revelation at Sinai. Come to think of it, neither did the people to whom the Torah was addressing. The entire Book of Devarim was given to the Jewish People over the course of one week, during the last days of their forty-year sojourn in the desert. Nearly everyone who had been alive at the exodus or had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai had either perished in the desert or was too young to remember those events. What, then, does the Torah mean when it says “For ask about the early days”? It should just have stated, “Ask about the early days…”
Thirty years in the design of missiles has taught me that in order to understand the answer, one must first know the question. Until now, we have understood that the justification in “for G-d is compassionate” and “for ask now” was referring to the verse [Devarim 4:30] “When you are in distress… you will return to G-d”. I suggest that the question being answered is the one triggered by the preceding verse [Devarim 4:29]: “But if you search there for G-d you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul”. How am I meant to search “with all my heart and all my soul”? The Torah addresses this question: “For G-d is compassionate… He will not forget the covenant which He made on oath with your fathers”. G-d will redeem you not because He is convinced that your contrition is genuine and that you will never sin again. If statistics are any indication, chances are that you will slip up sooner rather than later. G-d will redeem you from your exile and bring you to a homeland that you do not necessarily deserve only because of a promise that He made thousands of years ago to your forefathers. The mere fact that you are a member of the Jewish People is sufficient for this promise to be binding upon you, as well. Your individual merit is irrelevant. You happen to come from the right family.
Why does G-d’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not become null and void even if their descendants “act wickedly”? The answer to this question is given in the next verse: “For ask now regarding the early days that were before you… Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have… Or has any god ventured to take one nation from the midst of another …as G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” The Torah is revealing critical information here: While you, as an individual, might not have personally witnessed the revelation at Sinai or the exodus from Egypt “with your very own eyes”, you, as part of the Jewish People, were standing right there. As a Jew, as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your existence is not bound by your birth, your death, or your current physical location. You are part of a much greater entity, one not limited by time or by space. Accordingly, your destiny is not limited by your actions. Your destiny was defined long before you were born. If you cannot get there on your own, G-d will lend a hand. But there is one caveat: you must seek G-d “with all your heart and soul”. You must actively and willingly bind yourself to the Jewish People. To paraphrase the words of Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, writing in ‘On Repentance”, you must “live as part of [the Jewish People] wherever it is and be willing to give your life for it, feel its pain, rejoice with it, fight in its wars, groan at its defeats and celebrate its victories.”
It is clear why this Torah reading is so pertinent to Tisha b’Av. The Talmud in Tractate Yoma [9b] teaches that while the first Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed because of murder, adultery, and idolatry, the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred (sin’at chinam). It will only be rebuilt through baseless love – a love that is not based on time, space, or merit – a love that nobody can deny.
Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.
 A similar explanation is proposed by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, known as the Malbim, who lived in the Ukraine in the nineteenth century
 Devarim [4:30] is a direct continuation of Devarim [4:29].