Devarim – Where to Go Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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We are living in times where we are stuck, we have no place to go, there are no solutions. Everything is unknown and seemingly helpless. These feelings are exacerbated at this time of the year when we mourn over our exile, the pitiful feeling of being homeless with the Beis HaMikdash in ruins, without any sense of knowing when this exile will end.  When will we be brought home? When will everything be ideal, peaceful, and clear? How can we handle all these doubts in life? What can we do to pull through and live unwaveringly? 

Every year we read this week’s Torah portion of Devarim right before Tisha B’Av. There are a couple of pesukim in the portion that connect to this day. One of them states, concerning the travels in the desert upon spending a nice amount of time by the land of Seir, Esav’s descendant’s land, that Hashem told the Jews: “You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north” (Devarim 2:3).                                          רַב־לָכֶ֕ם סֹ֖ב אֶת־הָהָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה פְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם צָפֹֽנָה׃ 

The Medrish Rabba on this portion expounds on this pasuk by first quoting a pasuk in Tehillim “Be patient and wait for the LORD, do not be vexed by the prospering man who carries out his schemes” (Tehillim 37:7). Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said that at the time the enemy (Rome) came to destroy Jerusalem there were 600,000 destructive angels standing at the entrance to the Beis HaMikdash to defend it. When they saw Hashem’s Holy Presence watching and keeping silent, as it says, “He has withdrawn His right hand [that shielded Israel] from the enemy” (Eichah 2:3), so too they gave way for [the Roman] to come in. Rebbe Yehuda bar Simon said, If [Hashem] saw them come to destroy His house and was quiet, how can you want to stand up against them, they just are requesting their reward that came for them from their forefather [Esav] for honoring our forefathers. When the pasuk says, “רַב־לָכֶ֕ם סֹ֖ב” what does “סֹ֖ב אֶת־הָהָ֣ר” mean? Rebbe Chanina said that Esav encircled his parent (הורו), referring to his father who relied on him for food, as it says, “Yitzchak loved Esav because game was in his mouth” (Breishis 25:28). Rebbe Shmuel bar Rebbe Gedalia said, Hashem said ‘I am going to payoff reward,’ when Yaakov gave Esav gifts, what did Esav say? “I have plenty (רַב), don’t be pained.” Hashem said, in this manner he honored Yaakov and so to in this language I will say turn away from them ( רַב־לָכֶ֕ם סֹ֖ב) “for you have been surrounding this hill for a long while (Devarim Rabba 1:17). 

The Rada”l explaining the Medrish when it says that Hashem was silent when the enemy was ready to destroy His house, if so how can they try to defend it, and this is what’s referred to when the Torah says “you have been… for a long while,” shouldn’t the student be like his teacher? It’s possible that “skirting this hill” is homiletically referring to the Beis HaMikdash which is called “the good mountain…”meaning the Jews should surround and stare at this mountain that will be destroyed and then they will understand that it is not worth it to try to attack the enemy. 

The Medrish Rabba (paragraph 19) concludes explaining the rest of the pasuk, (פְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם צָפֹֽנָה), “now turn north,” what do these words refer to? Rebbe Chiya said that Hashem said to them “If you see that [the enemy, Rome] wants to provoke you do not stand up against them, rather hide yourselves from them until they pass from this world, that is what it means  “now turn north,” צָפֹֽנָה the root of this Hebrew word could also mean hidden. Rebbe Yehuda bar Shalom said that the Jews said to Hashem, “Master Of The World, his father blessed him (Esav) with the blessing of ‘and you shall live by your sword,’ and you agreed with him, and told us to hide ourselves from them, but where should we run away to?” Hashem said back, “If you see them about to attack you run away to Torah,” and what’s hidden (צָפֹֽנָה) refers to the Torah as it says, ‘He lays up sound wisdom for the upright,’ (וִצְפֹּ֣ן יִצְפֹּ֣ן לַ֖יְשָׁרִים תּוּשִׁיָּ֑ה). 

The Rada”l on this particular medrish has a very important messages to convey based on the words “run away to Torah.” Similarly, the Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (chapter 6) exclaims that when one sees suffering coming to him he should run to the rooms of Torah and immediately the suffering will run away from him. The Likutten in the Tanna D’vei Eliyahu explains that when one is learning Torah and he is also suffering; his heart will feel content about it… What will he then do, judge the situation righteously…? This is what it means that the suffering will just run away, meaning you won’t feel your suffering emotionally, and also automatically through accepting you suffering with love then there will not be any wasting time from Torah learning and the suffering will separate from you.  (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Putting these two midrashim together which explains this pasuk in our Torah portion in its entirety, what can be concluded is that when the Romans came to conquer Yerushalayim and destroy the Second Beis HaMikdash Hashem told the Jews that they were not worth defending themselves, it was over, their sins makes it fitting for the Beis HaMikdash to be destroyed and for them to be put into exile, while it is time for the Romans to reap the reward of their forefather Esav who deserves to be rewarded for his deeds of showing respect for his father Yitzchak and the one time he showed respect to his brother Yaakov. The Jewish people were stuck, the Heavenly decree was declared and there was no way out. So what were they supposed to do, there was no point in putting up a defense and where could they go?  

Hashem answered that they should runaway to the Torah. But what does that help? Does everything just magically disappear? They are in the middle of a war zone, being trampled and torn apart, one would think it is hardly the time to sit down and learn! 

However what the Rada”l is in fact telling us is that the medrish is trying to teach us a very important lesson in sanity. When all else fails and there is no hope, in order to avoid anxiety and depression the remedy is Torah learning. It has an effect to calm one’s nerves, to be able to judge the situation and Hashem favorably as well as to accept with love the state one is currently in. This is not magic; it makes perfect sense. How can one delve into Hashem’s gift to mankind as a handbook for life and think Hashem is evil, chas viShalom, for putting him in this deadly, painful situation. This would be a contradictory attitude while learning the Book of Life, therefore Hashem said, when one is suffering and there is nothing else to seemingly do, no place to turn, all else fails physically or naturally then still don’t give up, don’t be depressed, accept Hashem’s judgement with love. But how can you just do that so easily? 

The solution is Torah learning! By submerging oneself into the Book of Life then one will perforce realize how to judge the situation righteously and it is medication for the mind and soul in order to accept the plight that one is in with open hands and love so that one can live a fulfilling life again, without wasting any time from Torah learning, no matter what the situation is. It can be war time, a serious illness, a pandemic, or a natural disaster, but all the feelings of suffering and unknown and hopelessness will disappear when starting to learn Torah, it’s a psychological and spiritual healer even when all else fails. 

Good Shabbos Chazon, may we see the true redemption sooner than later, G-D willing, 

Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder