Could it be?
One can learn the lessons in the Chumash, all the details that stress character improvement as stated in the breadth of our literature, but yet on some level believe “that doesn’t apply to me.” This is not a new phenomenon. Shlomo Hamlech already said in a number of places in Mishlei, “All the ways of man are clean in his own eyes, but Hashem probes motives” (16:2), “all the ways of man are just in his own eyes, but Hashem probes the mind” (21:2).
Sefer Devarim begins with Moshe Rabbeinu giving mussar, rebuking Bnei Yisrael, pointing out their failings, indicating the areas in which they can improve. Among those listed, some were more of the famous ones such as the golden calf, Korach’s rebellion, the meraglim (spies), and complaints about the mann. The obvious wonderment is that the audience of Moshe’s rebuke weren’t those people who faltered in the above-mentioned incidents; it was their children. The ones who actually faltered—known as the Dor Hamidbar (generation who lived in the desert)—had already died during the 40 years in the desert! If so, why was Moshe rebuking the children who seemingly did nothing wrong in that sense?
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman in his sefer “Torah Tavlin” brings an eye-opening Chiddushei Harim who explains that, indeed, the children didn’t necessarily commit those transgressions mentioned. However, every person in every generation—if honest with himself—can find that in some way he too has fallen victim to the mistakes of the Dor Hamidbar. Therefore, it’s not just the children of the Dor Hamidbar who were an appropriate audience for Moshe, but rather that Moshe Rabbeinu’s rebuke applies to every Jew in every generation, and we too are part of his audience.
Indeed, the same way Hashem probes the mind and hearts, we too can probe, self-evaluate and introspect our own motivations and nuanced behaviors. Learning the shortcoming, limitations, and failings of our ancestors and those encrypted in human behavior are not for the “other”; they are for us.
The Gemara (Yoma 9) teaches us that the second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred for other Jews). The Chafetz Chaim explains that the Gemara means it was also because of lashon hara, since lashon hara is the result of sinat chinam. One may say, what does this have to do with me? It was them who faltered in these areas and caused the destruction! However, the glaring truth is that this is far from the truth. In fact, the Gemara Yerushalmi says that any generation in which the Beit Hamikdash is not rebuilt, it is considered as if it was destroyed in that generation. We learn based on this that if the transgressions of sinat chinam and lashon hara that were the cause of the original destruction are still prevalent, that means it hinders the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash. Essentially, it’s as if we too have contributed to the destruction in our own times since we on some level continue with sinat chinam and lashon hara. We can easily pass the blame to our ancestors, but we see from here that sinat chinam and lashon hara are not just for them in those “olden times”; it’s for us right now to improve in so we can bring the third Beit Hamikdash.
“Eicha”: the infamous word that Yirmiyahu mourns with, and we repeat year after year. The word eicha has the same exact letters as “ayeka”—the word Hashem called out to Adam after he faltered in the eating from the Tree of Knowledge. “Where are you,” said Hashem. Adam tried to blame Chava, but the word ayeka calls out to the individual—it’s about you, where are you holding in this area of life, what can you do to enhance what needs to be repaired. Jerusalem remains bare of Hashem’s ultimate residence, and we can easily absolve ourselves from the need to improve to bring it back. Yet, we once again remind ourselves “eicha”—“ayeka,” it’s about you; it’s on us.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected]