VaEtchanan: Seeking Comfort

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Our Sages ordained that we should read parshat VaEtchanan on the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. As they phrased it, “zumu v’tzlu, fast and pray”. On Tisha B’Av we fast, but we cannot pray. We can say words, but not words of prayer. “Though I cry to Him, He has blocked my prayer” (Eicha 3:8). Only after Tisha B’Av can we read of Moshe beseeching G-d to enter the Land of Israel. Only after fasting can we pray, can we hope to move from tragedy to joy so that the “fasts of the fourth [17 Tammuz], fifth [9 Av], seventh [Tzom Gedaliah] and tenth [10 Tevet] will be for the house of Judah days of joy and rejoicing” (Zechariah 4:19).

It is with prayer that the process of comfort can begin. While the Rambam (almost uniquely amongst our Sages) sees prayer as a biblical obligation, the Ramban sees prayer as a great act of kindness granted to us by G-d. We are extremely fortunate that G-d allows us to pray and is willing to listen to our pleas. Prayer is not an obligation but an opportunity[1], and what a magnificent opportunity it is (see Sefer Hamitzvot, positive command #5); G-d may not answer our prayers in the manner that we would like, but the fact that we can pray is a wonderful blessing.

Amazingly, it is the prayers of Moshe to enter the Land of Israel that our rabbis choose to have us read after Tisha B’Av. These prayers went unanswered; or, shall we say, were answered with a resounding no. Why did our Sages not ordain[2] that we read the prayers of Moshe after the sin of the golden calf, after the tza’arat of Miriam, or even after the sin of the meraglim, where the prayers of Moshe were answered positively?

By having us read of Moshe’s unanswered prayers, our Sages want to emphasize that it is the process of prayer, not the result, that matters most.

Undoubtedly, such comfort seems to us moderns a bit, well, discomforting. We inhabit a society that values the bottom line above all. We demand results and are less interested in cerebral activities, the impact of which cannot be scientifically measured. “Luckily,” there is much more that offers comfort, even to us moderns, in our parsha.

Exile enabled the nations of the world to mock the Jewish people. We were, they claimed, so lowly and despised a nation that even our G-d had abandoned us. “Her enemies saw her and gloated over her downfall” (Eicha 1:7). Not only were the Jewish people despised but G-d was desecrated. “And they came unto the nations, and they profaned My holy name, in that men said of them: These are the people of the Lord, who are gone forth out of His land” (Yechezkel 36:20).

If exile means disgrace and desecration, then return means respect and sanctification. “And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord G-d, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes... For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land” (Yechezkel 36:23-24).

With G-d and the Jewish people reflecting opposite sides of same coin, it is in parshat VaEtchanan that we read: “Observe and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that when they hear all these statutes, they shall say: ‘Surely, this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Devarim 4:6).

When we properly follow the Torah, exhibiting holiness and morality, the nations of the world will look up to us and marvel at our wisdom. Fascinatingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 75a) derives from this verse an obligation to study mathematics and astronomy, which in Talmudic times was considered the pinnacle of knowledge. Torah is an all-encompassing way of life and, when observed properly, gives great honour to man and G-d.

Yet there is even greater comfort in the parsha. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One”. There is no greater comfort than feeling close to G-d, to love Him with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might. We say this (at least) twice a day—but speaking these words is not enough. We must strive to accept the kingdom of G-d. To know and internalize that G-d is Master of the World, while most difficult, is the greatest comfort there is.

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[1] Based on the verse, “When you are at war in your land against an enemy who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your G-d and be delivered from your enemies” (Bamidbar 10:9), the Rambam notes that there is a Biblical obligation to pray—and with a minyan, no less—in times of great need.

[2] While at this time of year, we are reading the parshiot of sefer Devarim, such would not have been the case in the Land of Israel, where the Torah was read on a triennial cycle. Furthermore, when the Sages ordained certain readings, they were generally read instead of and irrespective of the parsha of the week.