Parshas Vaeschanan 5770: A
Tale of Three Cities
By Rabbi Joshua (urbanely known as The Hoffer) Hoffman
The Rama writes that the rabbis arranged the schedule of Torah readings, in the one-year cycle, in a way that parshas Vaeschanan is read on the Shabbos after Tisha B'Av. Rav Soloveitchik explained that this was for the same reason that we read from that parshas on Tisha B’Av itself. The Torah tells us in this parsha that the Jewish nation, while in exile, will ultimately return to God, and this constitutes a message of comfort for the nation. Our mourning on Tisha B'Av, said Rav Soloveitchik, must be guided by the principle of ultimate nechama, or comforting, an assurance that the Jewish people will continue to exist as the nation carrying God's name in the world. Without this element of nechama, we would not be allowed to engage in the extreme form of mourning that we follow on that day. The Shabbos after Tisha B'Av is called Shabbos Nachamu because of the haftarah that we read on that day, which begins with the word 'nachamu' - comfort - but also, in general, because we need to be comforted over the destruction of the Temples and all of the other tragedies that have befallen us over the centuries. I believe that there are other sections in our parsha that point to nechama, as well, and that Moshe was actually guiding us in how to achieve the ultimate nechama.
The parsha begins with a description of Moshe's incessant prayers to be permitted to enter the land of Israel. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha Kohein Kook remarked at his Shabbos table about the forefathers of the Jewish people. For example, Avraham implanted the trait of chesed, or doing acts of kindness towards others, and Yitzchak implanted the trait of gevurah, or perseverance. Moshe, said Rav Kook, implanted the trait of having a desire for Eretz Yisroel through the 515 prayers - the numerical equivalent of the word 'vaeschanan, or " I implored' - which, according to Midrash Tanchuma, he prayed asking to be allowed into the land. Although Rav Neriah does not mention this, the lack of desire to enter the land was what led the spies to present an evil report on the land to the people on the night of Tisha B'Av in the wilderness, and which, according to the Talmud (Ta'anis 29) generated all of the tragedies that would befall the nation on that date.
My teacher, Rav Aharon Soloveichik, taught that the mistake of the spies was that they emphasized the logic of the mind rather than the logic of the heart in their assessment of the land. They looked at it from a purely intellectual point of view, and, from that perspective, it seemed to them that the nation would not be able to conquer the land. However, Eretz Yisroel is referred to by King David as 'Eretz chemda,' a desirable land, and, therefore, it is the logic of the heart that must predominate in approaching it. Rabbi Eliezer Azkiri, in his Sefer HaCharedim, writes that part of the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisroel is to have a desire to be there, and that is why, according to the Tannaic work Seder Olam, God had Avraham make two trips to the land, once when he was seventy, and again when he was seventy- five, in order for him to first see the land and develop a desire for it before moving there on a permanent basis. By reading Vaeschanan on Shabbos Nachamu, then, we recommit ourselves to developing a love and desire for the land by reading of Moshe's great desire to enter it, and his role as a guide to us in having that kind of desire for the land, as well, in contrast to our ancestors in the wilderness who rejected the land.
Another element in recognizing the significance of Eretz Yisroel in the mission of the Jewish people emerges later on in the parsha, with a description of Moshe's designation of three cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Yardein. Although an additional three cities of refuge would have to be designated there on its western side, Moshe desired to do as much as he could in this process. Immediately after the Torah's description of Moshe's designation of these three cities, we are told, “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the bnei Yisroel" (Devarim 4:44). Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, H' YD (may God avenge his blood) wrote, in his work Ahavas HaAretz, that this verse is appropriately placed after the designation of the cities of refuge, because Eretz Yisroel and the Torah are inextricably bound to each other. This comment of Rabbi Lieberman is in line with the teaching of the Ramban, based on a Sifri, that the main place for observance of the Torah is Eretz Yisroel. As we have mentioned in the past, this is also the meaning behind Rashi's explanation of why the Torah begins with Bereishis rather than with the first mitzvah that was given to the Jewish people, that of sanctifying the new moon. Rashi says that the Torah started this way in order to establish the claim of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel. How does this answer the question of why the Torah, which is primarily a book of mitzvos governing the lives of the Jewish nation, does not begin with the first mitzvah given to them? I believe that the idea here is that all of the mitzvos are meant to be kept, ideally, in Eretz Yisroel, and, therefore, it is necessary to establish our claim to the land, which serves as the ideal place for the observance of the mitzvos. Before presenting the mitzvos in his farewell address to the people, he recounted their acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, he taught them, through his actions, the importance of the land for the observance of the mitzvos, as a further way of awakening their desire for the land as the place where they would be able to fulfill their task of serving as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.