Bitter – Sweet

By: Larry Tobin

 What a wonderful parasha this week. Vaetchanan is loaded with magnificent things. The Ten Commandments, the V’ahavta and the Shema are all found in this parasha. Such a sweet week to give a d’var. Sixty-three years ago, this was my bar mitzvah parasha. My bar mitzvah brought so much joy to so many people who were special to me. I miss these beloved people.

Shabbat Nachamu. The Shabbos of comfort. We read in our haftorah, Isaiah, chapter 40, verse one: “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.” This chapter of Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the Temple, imagines a time when God will forgive the Jews for the sins that resulted in the 1st Temple’s destruction. The prophet’s words paint a picture of God’s triumphant return to a Jerusalem cleansed of sin, whose conquerors have been banished. He extols God’s power as mightier than all the nations of the world and explains in great detail why fashioning idols to worship is a useless endeavor. The haftarah calls to mind the horror of the first Temple’s destruction on Tisha B’Av even as it imagines a future time when things will be better.

Such a sad time surrounding Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av). So many tragedies to recall. So many tragedies. So much suffering.

The juxtaposition between the parasha and the haftarah blows my mind. How paradoxical that they should both be read on the same Shabbos. But isn’t this indicative of life which is both bitter and sweet? As I think about Parshat Va’Etchanan, I feel joy. I think back to my bar mitzvah. I enjoy the marvelous things that appear in the parasha. But I also feel sadness as I think about the tragedies that have surrounded Tisha B’Av throughout our history.

Let me recall for you some of the tragedies that our people suffered “bayamim hahem bazman hazeh” – in those days at this time of the year:

  1. 1317 B.C.E. – Ten spies sent to Canaan return with a bad report.
  2. 586 B.C.E. – The Babylonian army destroys the 1st Temple on Tisha B’Av.
  3.  70 C.E. – The Roman army destroys the 2nd Temple on Tisha B’av.
  4. 135 C.E – The Bar Kochba Rebellion ends after their loss at Beitar
  5. 1095 – Pope Urban II declares the First Crusade. Nobles and peasants are encouraged to join in a holy military expedition, led by the knights of the realm, with the goal of ending the Muslim possession of Jerusalem. “The People’s Crusade,” made up of both peasants and commoners, is formed. Their goal: To join the expedition and to help prepare the world for the Jesus’ return by ridding the world of infidels who won’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. In the process, they kill thousands of Jews on their way to Jerusalem. The Christian knights finally wrest control of Jerusalem from the Muslims four years later on the 27th of Tamuz, during the “3 weeks” period prior to Tisha B’Av.
  6. 1290 – Edward the 1st issues his Edict of Expulsion against the Jews on the 2nd of Av.
  7. 1492 – Ferdinand and Isabella sign the Alhambra Decree, expelling the Jews from Spain. Jews are forced to abandon their homeland or convert to Christianity by the 8th (or some say the 9th) of Av.
  8. 1914 – WWI begins on the 5th of Av.
  9. 1942 – Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin on the 8th of Av.
  10. 1942 – Treblinka begins operations on Tisha B’av;

Shabbat Vaetchanan. Shabbat Nachamu. Indeed. How bittersweet.

Good Shabbos.

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