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Tisha B’av is the most somber day in the Jewish calendar. It’s sobering to think that thousands of years ago, we were on top of the world: in the Promised Land, with our Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), fully connected to the Divine. And then how quickly– in just three weeks– that connection was destroyed. When you really consider a loss like that, no matter how ephemeral it may be in the bigger picture, its weight can feel unbearable. 

The Biur Halacha1 explains that Devarim is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’av so that Moshe’s tochacha (admonition or reproof) to the Jews will coincide with the Tisha B’Av period. It’s important to understand the cyclical nature of time in Jewish history and how the events surrounding Tisha B’av echo throughout time. To give some perspective, we are now in the year 5782, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. In this parashah of Devarim, Moshe recalls the sin of the meraglim (spies), which happened in 2448. The spies came back from 40 days in Israel with evil reports of the Land, and the Jewish people cried in despair, giving up hope of entering Israel. The result was that most of the generation Moshe was talking about, who saw the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt and experienced God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai, died out. Only the Levi’im and women survived, as they didn’t take part in the sin of the Golden Calf. In Devarim, Moshe speaks to the new generation, toward the end of their time in the midbar (desert). This generation heard Hashem but never saw Him. If it wasn’t for the Sin of the Spies, the Jewswould have already been in Israel for 38 years, but, as we know, not even Moshe entered the land of Israel. It was a new generation that was going to enter Israel. 

When you hear, but don’t see, your faith is tested more as time passes. Safek (doubt) enters into your mind and heart more easily. As we have seen throughout history, as our collective faith falls, so do we as individuals. But, as Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks point out, Devarim teaches us that, paradoxically, descent allows for true uplift. The highest achievements of the spirit are won in earthly and not heavenly realms. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the meraglim (spies) spoke ill of the land because they incorrectly considered it a spiritual descent to give up the manna (bread from heaven) that they had in the desert in exchange for fulfilling the mitzvot (commandments). This exchange would only happen when the people entered the Land, so the spies conspired to keep the people in the desert, where they would have to rely on Hashem for their sustenance. The spies were wrong in thinking that we must engage in only heavenly matters, missing the lesson that the Torah is a combination of the ethereal and the concrete, of heaven and earth, of the finite and the infinite. It was a grave lack of emunah (faith) and da’at (understanding), not seeing that Moshe was leading them to the Promised Land and showing them the true way to ascend and spiritualize reality. The mistake and lack of faith on the part of the meraglim has had its hand in history since that day in the desert in 2448. 

The destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash happened at the hands of the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, on Tisha B’Av, in the year 3340. The Babylonians killed approximately 100,000 Jews during the invasion and exiled the remaining Jewish tribes to Babylon and Persia. Four hundred and ninety years after that, on Tisha B’Av 3830, the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, at the hands of the Romans, under Titus.  During and after the destruction, over two and a half million Jews died as a result of the war, famine and disease, while over a million Jews were exiled to different parts of the Roman Empire. To this day, we are still trying to recover from the tragedy.

To understand the gravity of the loss of the second Beit HaMikdash brought to both the physical and spiritual reality for Jews, one must realize that it marked the time that prophecy ceased and the Divine splendor became concealed. This is why our daily prayers revolve around praying for the restoration of the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem.

And we mourn during the weeks leading up to Tisha B’av, knowing that, until the third and final Beit HaMikdash, atrocities against our people will continue, as they have on this very same day in cyclical time. To name a few: the Bar Kochba Revolt was crushed by the Romans (3892); the first Crusade, declared by Pope Urban in 4855, in which 10,000 Jews were killed in the first month alone, ultimately bringing death and destruction to many thousands of Jews, totally obliterating communities in Rhineland and France; the expulsion of Jews from England, accompanied by pogroms and confiscation of books and property (5050); the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, culminating in the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula– property was confiscated, families were separated, many died by drowning (5252); Britain and Russia declare war on Germany, starting the first World War which led to over 400 pogroms in Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Russia (5674); deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp begin (5702); and more. 

Normally in mourning, the rituals of abstention and sadness take place after the event or after a person passes away. With Tisha B’av, we mourn the three weeks prior and the eve and day of Tisha B’av, taking time to learn the history, honoring the struggle of our people, creating intentions for change and connection. But once the day passes, once Tisha B’av is over, it’s important to not mourn; it’s important to return to hope and celebration of what is and all that we still have.

This is seen in this and next week’s Haftorah. The one we read prior to Tisha B’av includes a prophetic rebuke of the spiritual sins that cause our seemingly perpetual destruction. The Haftorah we read after Tisha B’av, however, holds an air of solace and hope. Even with the Haftorah portion for this week prior to Tisha B’av, (Shabbat Chazon, ‘Shabbat of Vision’), we can read Isaiah’s prophecy as an indictment of a rebellious group of Jews in the desert, or, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw it, as a vision of the Third Temple, the redemption of our failings and the elevation of the fallen.2

            The Grounding Elements of Harmony 

Now that we have some background for this week’s parashah, we can jump into Moshe’s words in Devarim and connect them to this larger theme of judgment and loss. Moshe asks the people:

אֵיכָ֥ה אֶשָּׂ֖א לְבַדִּ֑י טׇרְחֲכֶ֥ם וּמַֽשַּׂאֲכֶ֖ם וְרִֽיבְכֶֽם
“How can I alone carry your trouble and your burden and your quarrel?”3

It’s not a coincidence that the first word of this verse, eicha, ‘how?’, is the same word that sets off the Book of Lamentations that we read on Tisha B’av. Jeremiah lamented, “Eicha/How can the city that was so full of people sit alone?”4 And in the Torah reading for this week, the same word is used: “Eicha/How can I carry your troubles myself?” But this time it’s not Jeremiah asking about the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, it’s Moshe asking, knowing that despite his establishing a system of judges and courts, that justice is a difficult thing to uphold absolutely and indefinitely, and it will eventually falter. 

Rashi points out that the verse reads, “I cannot carry you” and not what might be more fitting, “I cannot judge you,” which is to imply the weight and burden involved in judging another person fairly. The Sin of the Spies stemmed from their harsh judgment of the Land. They sowed seeds of doubt and disunity by using judgment (gevurah), without balancing it with the proper amount of mercy (chesed), which is required to create harmony (tiferet).

Throughout the Torah, we see the various permutations of Hashem’s name and the power that each contains within it. The one name that we do not speak out loud, also known as the HaVaYaH (Tetragrammaton), is kulo chesed, full kindness. Others include Elokim, Adni, and Ehyeh. Elokim signifies Hashem’s attribute of judgment and severity, while the name Adni signifies His attribute of authority and dominion (‘adon’ means ‘master’ or ‘ruler’/’adonai’ means ‘my master’). 

These two Names signify two types of courts: Elokim is that of strict judgment and is associated with the sefirah of gevurah, and Adni correlates with lenient judgment associated with the sefirah of malchut. When these two Divine attributes are combined, it can produce anger, and so the rectification of anger involves tracing these two attributes in the soul, ridding them of the shell of anger in order to reveal the goodness of the soul. In other words, being judgmental (i.e. acting like a court) is the source of anger, and the lesson of Azamra that is at the core of Breslov teaching is to rectify harsh judgment by finding the “good point” in yourself and others and judging it favorably, bringing merit to yourself and others.

The name Ehyeh (אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) is the mediator between HaVaYaH, on the one hand, and Elokim and Adni, on the other. This is why Hashem commands Moshe to tell the children of Israel that he’s been sent by Ehyeh, the God that balances strength and kindness, judgment and mercy.

Rebbe Nachman explains that the secret of personal redemption is to combine chesed and gevurah in order to attain da’at (ultimate Knowledge/wisdom). Loving kindness or judgment by itself is incomplete; balance– knowing when to use each trait– is key. Tempering one over the other and the ability to know when to use each characteristic is the essence of da’at.

In the Talmud it says, “A person should always draw people closer by means of his right hand and push them aside with his left hand.” As King David says in Tehillim, “The world was built with chesed.”5 Chazal, our Sages, teach that “The light that was created on the first day shone from one end of Creation to the other,”6 and in Kabbalah we learn that the light of chesed is contained throughout all of Creation, as it says, “In the beginning, an infinite, uncompounded light filled all of Creation.”7

The sefira of gevurah represents restrictive power, limiting and concealing the Infinite Light, so that all creation receives in accordance with its capacity. Therefore, a balance of chesed and gevurah must exist for bearable good to exist in this world. This is manifested in the sefira of tiferet, which represents the harmonizing of giving and restraint, so that a bearable amount of beauty and revelation can be seen in an Olam (world) that is Ne’elam (Hidden). To illustrate this a bit, we pray for rain because water is essential to life, but rain must be given with restraint because too much would drown creation. All good must be given with restraint. The word tiferet is derived from the Hebrew word pe’er, meaning ‘beauty’. The more good and unification with the Divine source one can attain, the more hidden beauty from this world of concealment becomes revealed.

As we see in this parashah, Moshe is speaking to the new generation. He tempers judgment of their fathers and the fear that he wishes to instill in them, so as to not sin, but to always connect to the Divine. Instead of speaking harshly or about the sin itself, he merely hints at it by mentioning the place where the sins had been committed. Hinting of a mistake is all that is needed if the person already regrets having made the mistake, as it acts as a reminder to the person, as chizuk, inspiration to stay strong and aligned with good. This is why Moshe waited until right before his death, after he had already given them the land, so that they could see that his intentions were pure and solely for their own well being, thereby accepting it with love. Knowing how much gevurah to bring into any situation is always a matter of how pure one’s intentions are and how open the people are to hearing reproof. That is why in the case of the previous generation who took part in the Sin of the Spies and the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe did not simply hint at what they had done wrong, since he knew that it wouldn’t have sufficed. In those instances where they lacked emunah in Hashem— sending in the spies, creating molten images as an intermediary to be closer to Hashem— Moshe knew he had to speak harshly and at length in order to awaken them to true alignment and strengthen their faith to push away their fear.8

The generation that left Egypt and wandered through the desert are referred to as dor hamidbar. They were a generation of dor dei’ah – “a generation of knowledge,”9 which paralleled Moshe who perceived Godliness. The generation that entered into Eretz Yisrael, however, were not on the same level of perceiving Godliness, because they were involved in mundane realities. Dor hamidbar “saw” at Mt Sinai, whereas the new generation only “heard,” as it’s written, “Now, Israel, listen..”10 As they say, “seeing is believing,” because when one sees something with their own eyes, their doubts dissipate, whereas when one hears, they may believe in that moment, but when the moment has passed and anyone questions the moment or experience, often times belief dissipates, sometimes even altogether. The Rebbe explains that when Devarim, the repetition of the Torah, also called Mishneh Torah, was given to this generation, it was important to emphasize concepts such as mesirat nefesh (willingness to self-sacrifice), whereas that wasn’t required for the previous generation. Though it may seem that the generation to enter the land was on a lower level and that the descent would breed hopelessness. The previous generation were told, “For you have not yet come to the resting place and heritage…,”11 referring to Shiloh and Jerusalem. It would only be the generation that entered the Promised Land that would inherit this “resting palace and heritage.” It was the descent to the worldly that ushers in the revelation of the celestial. And so much like in our own lives, the temporal descent effects the ultimate ascent. This is hinted at in our reading Devarim every year during the nine days, the Shabbat preceding Tisha Ba’av, the date of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. But, as R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw it, from the descent from the first and second Beit Hamikdash, we have Shabbat Chazon, the vision of the third and final Beit HaMikdash, which transcends the previous two and brings the full revelation, ushering in the final redemption.12

Rebbe Nachman teaches that in order to experience a taste of the Or HaGanuz (the Hidden Light), one must elevate the aspect of fear to its source. Fear is elevated with the aspect of judgment, as it’s written in Proverbs, “Through judgment, the King will establish the land.”13 And land corresponds to fear, as it says in Tehillim, “The earth feared,”14 and later, “He conducts his affairs with judgment.”15 One must judge and evaluate all of their actions so that they can be elevated on high. In this world, we see that when judgment is enacted, others respect the righteousness of the law and fear it, awoken by their own desire to not fall victim to similar judgements. 

Jumping earlier into Tehillim and further into the lesson of Azamra, it says, “And yet, in a little bit, the sinner is gone; you will contemplate his place, but he will not be there.”16 This correlates to the famous lesson in Pirkei Avot: “Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”17 This practice of rectifying judgment is done by finding the good points in yourself. When you do that, you take away the “bad” from yourself and others, and when that becomes second nature, you can reach a level where you don’t see bad. This is what it means when it says in Tehillim that “the sinner is gone”, as you have brought yourself and the other to a place of kulo tov (all good). 

Judgment isn’t intrinsically negative, as it is needed in order to discern between good and “bad” decisions. But we have to find the sweet harmony, the tiferet, so that judgment and fear don’t create bad, but only reveal good. Only when judgment takes over a person does it become a negative force, eventually resulting in anger and violence. That’s why we meditate on God’s Names and use our speech to moderate and mitigate judgment with mercy. 

Suspending judgment in as many situations as possible is key. Often opposing views will bring about harsh judgements. But, as Reb Natan teaches in Likutei Halachot, all viewpoints derive from the “Will of wills.” Although it is impossible to understand this rationally, if everyone tried to look at others from this perspective, then strife would cease. Conflict manifests when we fail to bind our will to the “Will of wills,” because it is within that Will where harmony and peace prevail, since all is incorporated into the Oneness of the Light of Infinite.18

It’s written, “It is the nature of He who is good to do good.”19 Balancing judgment with mercy, finding the sweet spot of harmony in ourselves and others is the way we can tap into the ultimate good, the Hidden Light, and bring that light, bit by bit, into this world of concealment, being a force of revelation, ushering in the final redemption. Amen.


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Notes & Sources

  1. Biur Halacha 528:4
  2. Torah Studies, The Rebbe, p.286
  3. Deuteronomy 1:12
  4. Lamentations 1:1
  5. Psalms 89:3
  6. Talmud Chagigah 12a
  7. Genesis 1:1
  8. Darash Moshe, p. 276, 277
  9. Pesikta Rabaty, Parah XIV:9, cited by Rashi on I Kings 5:11
  10. Deuteronomy 4:1
  11. Ibid 12:9
  12. An Anthology of Talks, Likkutei Sichos, Volume V: Devorim p. 2-4
  13. Proverbs 29:4
  14. Psalms 76:9
  15. Ibid 112:5
  16. Ibid 37:10
  17. Pirkei Avot 1:6
  18. Likutei Halachot, Shomer Sakhir 2:10
  19. Etz Chaim