A Future of Crises
This week’s parsha contains God’s warning about the future of the Jewish people:
God said to Moses:
You are soon to lie with your ancestors.This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.
This warning is very worrisome.
God says that we will acknowledge that “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us” but nevertheless God will not yet forgive us. Isn’t the recognition that we have lost God’s protection the beginning of our return to Him? Shouldn’t He return to us as we return to Him?
One interpretation is by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin zt”l, known as the Netziv. He was head of the renowned yeshiva in Volozhin and unusual for an East European Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv gave a daily class on the parsha and these classes formed his commentary to the Chumash titled העמק דבר.
The Netziv understands this pasuk in a totally different way:
“Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us” -Because the Holy One Blessed is He has hidden Himself from us and has shown that He no longer desires us, against our will we are compelled to worship other gods.
The Netziv says that in the face of terrible disaster we will not repent. On the contrary, we will say to God that should You abandon us we will have no choice but to abandon You.
Is God With Us?
This interpretation of the Netziv is remarkably prescient. It recalls the passage in Sanhedrin 105a about the exchange between the exiles and the Prophet Ezekiel. I think that it anticipates Chaim Grade’s essay, My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner.
It is a fact that throughout our history there were people who abandoned Judaism with the complaint that the Netziv sees in this pasuk.
The Sfat Emet gives a very different but equally powerful interpretation to this pasuk. His commentary is based on a teaching of Rabbi Bunam of Peshischa. The sfat Emet says:
I have heard in the name of the holy Rabbi of Peshischa that this (saying God is not with us) is considered a sin because we need to believe that He is with us in times of crisis….
Crises Are Tests
The Torah is our guide in this process. The statement, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us” only seems to be true. Things may be bad. But this does not mean that God has lost interest in us.
Rabbi Bunam says that we need to look at the next pasuk:
Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.
The light of the Torah will lead us back to God.