Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayelech
To dedicate this lesson

Who's Pulling the Strings

This week's Torah portion reveals that the entirety of Jewish history, with all its uplifting joys and terrible hardships, was determined in advance.

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Rabbi Netanel Yossifun

Tishrei 5 5783
Translated by Hillel Fendel

One of the great sages in recent centuries was Rav Yehonatan Abeshitz (1690-1764, Prague and elsewhere), about whose sharp intelligence many stories have been told. Many foreign rulers enjoyed arguing with him on matters of wisdom, even though they always lost.

One time, one king said to himself, "This can't go on. I have to find a way to outsmart this rabbi, even if only once." He thought and thought, until he came up with a brilliant idea. He summoned R. Yehonatan and said, "I have to leave town for a few days. Tell me, please: Through which of the city's two gates will I enter when I return?"

R. Yehonatan smiled and said, "I will write my answer on a note, which we will give to a trustworthy third party, who will open it up in the presence of both of us after you return." The king agreed, and departed the city. When he returned, he realized it was time to decide, asking himself: "Which of the two gates did Rabbi Yehonatan choose?" Finally he thought of another great idea: He ordered his men to break open a breach in the wall surrounding the city, and he and his chariot traveled ceremoniously through it to the palace.

The king confidently called Rav Yehonatan and his trusty assistant holding the note, and asked him to open it up. How great was the king's surprise when he saw there written a law from the Mishna: "A king may break down fences to make himself a road."

There are times when a man is certain that he has many options, but in the end, he finds that the way he chose leads to a destination that had been pre-set. In Parashat Ki Tavo, which we read two weeks ago, two choices are presented: to be blessed, or to be cursed – depending on our deeds. That is, we will receive great blessing if we walk in G-d's path, and the opposite, Heaven forbid, if we sin. Many of us let out a sigh of relief when the list of punishments of Ki Tavo was completed in the public Torah reading, because hearing them was most unpleasant. During the days of the First Temple, there certainly must have been people who hoped, as they heard these curses, that they would never materialize. But we, most sadly, have seen them actually happen, in the form of the tortures of the Exile and especially the Holocaust, and we know that the curses were quite real. 

However, a read of this week's portion of Vayelekh will show us that there were never two options, but really only one. G-d promises us here that throughout our long history, both options will be fulfilled – the curses and the blessings. It's not either this or that; it's both, by Divine promise. True, this is written out in Parashat Nitzavim somewhat enigmatically:

"And if/when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse… you will take unto your hearts… and G-d will return your exiles and have compassion upon you…" (Deut. 30,1-3)

But in Vayelekh, it is absolute and unequivocal: 

"G-d said to Moshe: … [After your death,] this nation shall rise up and stray after the alien gods of the land… They will abandon Me… I will then be angered at them and I will leave them, and I will hide My countenance from them, and they will be prey [for their enemies], and many evils and troubles will befall them… And now, write for yourselves this song [of Parashat Haazinu (Deut. 32), laying out future Jewish history of curses and blessings] and teach it to the Children of Israel… And when these evils and troubles befall them, this song will be testimony for them… for I know their inner inclinations based on what they are doing now even before I bring them to the Land…" (31,16-21).

G-d planned all of history in advance; there is just one way in which it will play out, and He emphasizes in the Torah that it is important that we know this. This is a critical lesson. For one thing, it provides a decisive answer to the question, "Where did G-d disappear to in the Holocaust?" The Torah tells us here in advance that the Shoah will happen, and that He will hide His countenance from us at that time, but that He will be quite present, for He even told us that it would happen. (This does not answer the question of how such evil could happen, but that's for a different time.)

Secondly, it forces us to explain the role of our Free Will given that everything is determined in advance. The Ramchal, author of Mesilat Yesharim, The Path of the Just, explains that while individuals most certainly have Free Will, nations do not, for history is written in advance; the Final Redemption is promised and guaranteed, and the end is known before it happens.

During these Ten Days of Teshuvah (Penitence), these lessons are fundamental for our service of G-d. G-d tells us: "Know that you may stumble and sin occasionally, but the general direction will certainly end with rectification. In the end, all will fully return to G-d and there will be Geulah (Redemption). And furthermore, it is important that you know that even during times of slip-ups and iniquity, when you suffer and it appears that I am no longer with you, take a look at these Torah portions and you will see that I am still there behind everything pulling the strings; I'm right there amid all the hiding."

"And you shall say on that day, 'I will thank You, G-d, for You were angered with me." (Isaiah 12,1)

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