Parashat Va'et'hanan: Mourning and rejoicing

Even at weddings Jewish couples smash a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.

wedding 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
wedding 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
This past Sunday we all fasted to the bittersweet melody of the Scroll of Lamentations (Eicha) - music whose haunting cadences seem to have been dredged from the depths of Jewish despair. And yet, as soon as midday arrived, we got up from our mourning, lifted our spirits, put on tefillin and recited the blessing of "comfort" (nahem) within the amida, confirming the prophetic words of Zechariah: "Thus says the Lord God of hosts: the fast of the...fifth month [Tisha Be'Av]...shall be for the house of Judah rejoicing, gladness and festival." The Ninth of Av a happy occasion? Both Temples were destroyed on that day! What can we possibly rejoice about? I believe the answer is to be found in this week's reading, wherein Moses provides a précis of Jewish history: settlement of Israel, corruption and idolatry, destruction and exile, assimilation into Christianity and Islam (the Vilna Gaon interprets the service of wood to refer to the crucifix, and the service of stone to the Dome of the Rock) - but then eventual return to God and His land, because "the Lord your God is a compassionate God who will not forget the covenant with your forbears which He has sworn to them." (Deuteronomy 4:25-31, 38) Indeed, we read these very verses on Tisha Be'av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temples and the loss of our national sovereignty. But we remember at the same time that although our sacred shrines and even our sacred cities were destroyed, our nation was not. And unlike other nations whose loss of homeland signaled a loss of national identity, Israel remained the people of the Covenant, alive only to return to its mission and its land. No other people, separated from its homeland for 2,000 years, ever remained intact as a separate ethnic and cultural entity. And so the seed for our rejoicing on the Ninth of Av is firmly planted in the ringing declaration: "when it shall be difficult for you, these things (words) will find you...and you shall return…" (4:30). I choose to translate the phrase "these words" - the words of the Torah. I first learned to translate it that way in 1965, when Lincoln Square Synagogue was in a small apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. I began to notice a middle-aged gentleman who would enter the synagogue toward the end of the Torah reading, remain standing near the door, and leave after the sermon. On the Shabbat of Va'et'hanan he came toward the beginning of the reading - and as the aforementioned words were read, he fled from the synagogue in tears. I ran out and caught up with him. His name was Wolf Reichard, he came from a family of pious Satmar hassidim, he had survived Auschwitz - and had given up on religion. When our apartment synagogue opened, however, he became strangely attracted to the services, almost despite his present self but in recognition of his truest self. When he heard the Torah reader cry out, almost specifically to him: "When it shall be difficult for you, all these words will find you… and you shall return…," he knew he could no longer escape his past or his future: from then on he came to synagogue not only every Shabbat but also every morning, and provided our kiddush each Shabbat in celebration of his return. I confirmed this translation five years later, in 1970, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory asked me to open underground yeshivas in the then-Soviet Union. My first day in Moscow I met a young man, Leonid Lunya Rigerman, who asked if I was a religious Jew (I was wearing my skullcap). When I responded that I try to be, he invited me to his 30th birthday party - where I learned of the Leningrad trials (Communist show trials against a group of refuseniks who attempted to skyjack a plane to Israel) and the extent of the virulent anti-Semitism in Russia. Lunya himself was to play a pivotal role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. At that time he was only a Jew born to Communist parents who had lived in the Bronx before making their "aliya" to the Soviet Union in 1930. When I first met him, Lunya was already a committed Jew - a refusenik, keeping whatever mitzvot he could at great personal sacrifice. When I asked how such a transformation had come about, he told me the following story. He was a physicist working in a special lab whose employees had the privilege of library study two hours each day. He suddenly developed headaches, and sensing that he needed a break from physics, wandered over to the English shelf, which contained a Bible. He began to read it, and became fascinated by the story of Joseph. When he came to the portion describing how Joseph went out in search of his brothers (Genesis 37:16), he realized that the Bible was speaking to him; that he too was searching for his brothers, and that they were not to be found in a physics lab or a library. He ran out into Archipova Street, where he knew the synagogue was located (needless to say, his Communist parents had never allowed him a bar mitzva). He joined a line in front of the synagogue, a line for the acquisition of matza (that night was the eve of Passover, and the man in front of him explained that matza was "freedom bread"). He put the matza in his pocket, said nothing to his family, ate his "freedom bread" before going to sleep, and reported the next morning to the physics lab. He was informed that he had no job - there had been a camera outside the synagogue. Thus ended the life of Lunya the Communist and began the history of Lunya the Jew. The words of the Torah had found him, too. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.