Parashat Devarim

Don’t Re-Write History

In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe tells the Jewish people of additional details of events that occurred since they left Egypt. He goes into the disastrous episode of agreeing to let spies go into the Land of Israel, and says that initially:

“The idea was good in my eyes…” (1:23)


The mission of the spies was clearly one of the most devastating events in Jewish history. It was the very act that caused the Jews to wander in the desert for 40 years and resulted in many of them never being able to enter the Land of Israel.

Even though the spies’ mission was so catastrophic, Moshe still had the courage to say “the idea was good in my eyes.”

How many times have you seen people back-track on something they said if events prove their position wrong? It seems that when people say something and then it doesn’t work out as well as they or others had hoped, they’ll quickly re-write history by changing the words they said, the ideas they vividly expressed, or views they had just passionately given. But Moshe, being the great person and leader that he was, said to everyone that “the idea was good in my eyes.”

This is rarely how leaders or people act today. All too often, heads of corporations, governments, or households back away from their previous words if the results turn out differently than they had believed. This isn’t leadership. Leadership is about being honest and having the trust of those who believe in and follow you. Do these leaders really believe that people have that short a memory? The answer is: they really don’t care.

They don’t care because the real reason why people choose to re-write history is because of their own lack of self-esteem. Like most people, they don’t want to look foolish – and they believe that admitting they made a mistake makes them look foolish. It doesn’t. Ironically, it shows you to be a man or woman of conviction who isn’t afraid to stand up when you make a mistake. Doing this isn’t a knock to your self-esteem; in fact it’s actually a huge boost to it. This is because taking responsibility will always make you feel great. Not doing so makes you a fraud.

The higher our self-esteem, they more readily we will be to admit our mistakes made because we don’t see poor decisions as a reflection of our own self-worth. We hold ourselves in high self-esteem and know that any mistake we make can never damage that. Since people always learn and grow from their mistakes, we can actually GAIN self-esteem if we err because we know it will only make us BETTER people in the end.

People with low esteem, however, fear how people view them if they admit to making a mistake. So instead of owning up to it, like politicians, they chose to re-create the events of the past to be viewed in the best possible light. But again, ironically, your self-image actually gets stronger when you admit you made a mistake.

So, the next time you do or say something that turns out to be the wrong position to have taken, make a statement about who you are. Boldly announce that while initially “the idea was good in my eyes,” based upon new information you now see things differently. You will not only gain the credibility, trust, and admiration of others, but you will also gain enormous self-esteem in the process.

By Adam Lieberman


facts of life: take this serious

Something To Cry About Rabbi Shaul Rosenblat

This week’s portion recalls how the Jewish people cried when the 12 spies returned from scouting the Land of Israel (Deut. 1:45). They cried out of self-pity: “Israel is not going to be an easy land to conquer. To build and settle it will be even harder!” Instead of embracing the challenge, they cried.

As ever, the Torah is talking about something that is part of human nature. When things are tough, it’s so much easier to stumble in our own self-pity than to embrace and overcome the challenge.

The Sages tell us that the date the spies returned was the 9th of Av. God decreed that because the Jewish people cried on this date for no reason, in future times – on this same date – He would give them good reason to cry. And so, on this date, both Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and many other tragedies befell the Jewish people.

At first glance, it may seem a bit harsh and even bitter on God’s part: “You cried for no reason, so I will give you something to cry about.”

I believe the point is this: If you are going to cry anyway, then better that you have a reason to do so. In other words, it is better to cry from pain, than from self-pity.

In Jewish thinking, crying is usually considered an important expression of emotion. If you cry to express pain, be it physical or emotional, that’s healthy. If you cry in frustration at being unable to achieve what you want, that’s also healthy. But crying in self-pity, at your hopeless situation in life, can only be destructive. It undermines your resolve to face the challenges of this world. And so, if you must cry, better that you have good reason to do so.

This is what God said to the generation of the spies: If you are going to cry anyway, I will give you a reason to do so – so that your crying can at least be productive.

The same is potentially true for us. If we cry for no reason, God may just give us reason to cry. When I returned from a trip to Poland, a place where Jews had reason to cry for hundreds of years, this point was all the more emotional for me. Having walked on the graves of over 600,000 Jews in Belzec, more in Treblinka and perhaps even more in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was a reminder for me today of just how good we have it. Surely we have nothing to cry about. Surely we should celebrate how good our lives are.

Surely the Jews in the desert should have celebrated, too. But they chose to cry instead – just as we often choose to cry. And that is truly something to cry about.


something to think about

What do we get from Tisha B’Av?

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt”l


We Jews have a long memory.

Something that happened almost two thousand years ago comes back to haunt our collective consciousness as if it happened yesterday.

This is what so impressed the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte when he looked in on a synagogue in Paris on Tisha BAv and saw Jews sitting on the floor chanting lamentations and shedding tears. After inquiring about the cause for their mourning and hearing that it was the destruction of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem he expressed astonishment that he had heard nothing about this tragedy from his reliable intelligence sources. When it was explained that this event took place close to 1800 years earlier he reportedly declared that a people who can still mourn for their Temple and their homeland after so many years have a real hope for regaining them.

Napoleon distinguished something unique about the long memory of the Jewish people but could not truly understand its meaning.

A Jew mourns the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash and the two thousand year exile which followed not out of a sense of nostalgia for the glory and prosperity of bygone days. For a Jew loyal to his conviction that he is the proud member of “a nation of priests and a holy people” who were chosen to receive the Torah at Sinai and to serve as “a light unto the nations” there is much more involved in remembering the past.

Rambam points out (Laws of Fasting 5:1) that the purpose of the fast days which were ordained by our Prophets is to reflect on the mistakes made by our ancestors which were the catalysts for the tragedies which took place on those days mistakes which we perpetuate in our own days. By learning the lesson of history we can hope to avoid repeating it as we take to heart the need to correct those mistakes and fully return to the lofty spiritual level with which we once served our Creator.

Such a full return requires the return of all of our people to our Holy Land and the return of a Bait Hamikdash in which we can encounter the Divine Presence and beam its rays of holiness to an entire world. As long as we lack these indispensable ingredients for our spiritual perfection we feel the pain of being unfulfilled in regard to our historic destiny and we weep!

But weeping and fasting are only the beginning of what Rambam calls “an opening of the heart” to a correcting of the mistakes of past and present. On Tisha BAv both the first Bait Hamikdash and the second one were destroyed. Reflecting on those tragedies leads to an analysis of the sins which were responsible for both of those tragedies.

The first Bait Hamikdash, say our Talmudic Sages, was lost because of the grave sins of idol worship, sexual immorality and murder. These are sins which repeat themselves in every generation in gross or subtle forms. We may not be living in a time when Jews bow down to actual idols, but how many of our people have abandoned their ancient faith for other religions, cults or political ideologies? And do we share in their guilt by failing to properly reach out and educate them? Immorality parades before us in the permissiveness of dress and unrestrained interaction of the sexes, and reaches new depths with the efforts to legitimize gay activity. Have we done enough to condemn this mode of behavior which is wreaking havoc on so many families and society in general? Murder is the extremist form of violence but its subtler forms of physical and verbal abuse are so prominent that even in the secular schools in our Jewish state there is so much violence by pupils towards teachers and fellow pupils, and the number of battered wives and abused children keeps growing.

Are our government and our educational system doing enough to control this modern form of murder?

During the second Bait Hamikdash period these mistakes were corrected because the trauma of a 70-year exile shocked our ancestors into repentance. But something else went wrong. The rebuilt Bait Hamikdash was once again destroyed and we were once again exiled because of the sin of “unjustified hatred” of one Jew for another. Two millennia of fasting for this mistake has still not completely cured us. Lack of tolerance, aggressive competitiveness and destructive dissension continue to plague our families and our communities. The lesson we must learn from our fasting on this Tisha BAv if we wish to build a glorious future rather than relive the consequences of ignoring history is that we must individually and collectively eliminate from our lives all of the aforementioned sins. Faith, morality and concern for human life and dignity must eradicate the sins that caused the first destruction. Unlimited love for our fellow Jew must replace the intolerance and hatred which caused our present exile.

If we do our part in committing ourselves to this goal we can be sure that Hashem will do His part and send Moshiach to return all of us to our land, build the Bait Hamikdash and turn the sad day of Tisha BAv into a day of celebration.


July 12, Saturday evening starting at sunset, begins Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av. It is the saddest day in the Jewish year. On this same day throughout history many tragedies befell the Jewish people, including:

The incident of the spies slandering the land of Israel with the subsequent decree to wander the desert for 40 years.

The destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylon.

The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 62 years later, 132 CE.

The Jews of England were expelled in 1290.

The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492.

Tisha B’Av is a fast day (like Yom Kippur, from one evening until the next evening) which culminates a three week mourning period by the Jewish people. One is forbidden to eat or drink, bathe, use moisturizing creams or oils, wear leather shoes or have marital relations. The idea is to minimize pleasure and to let the body feel the distress the soul should feel over these tragedies. Like all fast days, the object is introspection, making a spiritual accounting and correcting our ways — what in Hebrew is called, Teshuva, returning, to the path of good and righteousness.

Teshuva is a four part process:

We must recognize what we have done wrong and regret it

We must stop doing the transgression and correct whatever damage that we can

We must accept upon ourselves not to do it again

We must verbally ask the Almighty to forgive us.

On the night of Tisha B’Av we read in the synagogue Eicha, the book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah). We also say Kinot, special poems recounting the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people

Learning Torah is the heart, soul and lifeblood of the Jewish people. It is the secret of our survival. Learning leads to understanding and understanding leads to doing. One cannot love what he does not know. Learning Torah gives a great joy of understanding life. On Tisha B’Av we are forbidden to learn Torah except those parts dealing with the calamities which the Jewish people have suffered. We must stop, reflect, change ourselves and only then will we be able to make a better world.


Parsha Summary

First Aliyah: The Israelites are situated on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, on the verge of entering the land of Canaan, and Moshe’s death is imminent. This is the setting for Moshe final statements to the nation he lovingly tended for four decades. After delivering a veiled rebuke to the nation for their many past misdeeds, Moshe revisits the period, some 39 years earlier, before the Israelites left Mount Sinai at G‑d’s behest, with the intention of immediately invading and entering Canaan. At that time, Moshe expressed to the Jews his inability to single-handedly bear the burden of leadership, because “G‑d, has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance.”

Second Aliyah: After the Israelites consented to the idea, Moshe appointed a chain of command of judges to preside over the nation. Moshe recalls instructing them the basics of judicial integrity. Moshe then recounts how the Jews traveled through the desert and quickly reached Kadesh Barnea, on the southern border of the Holy Land.

Third Aliyah: But at that time the Israelites approached Moshe and demanded the right to send out scouts to reconnoiter the land. Moshe recounts the tragic episode in detail, how the scouts delivered a frightening report, claiming that the land was unconquerable. Despite Moshe’s protests, the Israelites adopted the scouts’ attitude and decided not to enter Canaan. This caused G‑d to bar that entire generation from entering the Promised Land.

Fourth Aliyah: Moshe continues: At that time G‑d instructed the Israelites to reverse course and head back to the desert. Realizing their dreadful error, a group of Israelites proceeded to advance toward Israel — in the face of Moshe’s objections. Lacking divine protection, they were immediately attacked and massacred by the Emorites. At this point, the Israelites heeded G‑d’s command, and headed back to the Sinai Desert.

Fifth Aliyah: Moshe fast-forwards 38 years. The generation which left Egypt had perished. Now their children were ready to enter Canaan. But first G‑d instructs the Israelites regarding three nations whose land was off-limits for them: Seir (Edom), Moab and Amon. These lands were the rightful inheritance of the descendants of Esau and Lot. Instead, the Israelites circled these lands and approached the land of Sichon, king of the Emorites, and requested passageway through his land. Sichon refused the Israelites’ request.

Sixth Aliyah: Moshe recalls how Sichon led his nation in battle against the Israelites. The Israelites were victorious and took possession of his land. When the Bashanites then attacked, they meet a similar fate. The lands of the Emorites and the Bashanites were given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh.

Seventh Aliyah: Moshe delineates the borders of the lands allotted to the aforementioned tribes. He then repeats the instructions he gave to these tribes to cross the Jordan together with their brethren and participate in the battle against the Canaanites before returning to their land on the eastern bank of the Jordan. Joshua, who will lead the nation into Israel, is enjoined not to be fearful of the battles which he will face, because “it is the L-rd, your G‑d, who is fighting for you.”