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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Yom Haatzmaut

The Pain of Destruction, the Pangs of Birth

Our redemption comes via our own self-sacrifice. Still, all exertion on our part is repaid for generously through God's attribute of mercy, through an outpouring of divine assistance to forward our redemption.
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1. A Fact of Life
2. War that "Gives Birth"
3. Just as the Night Precedes the Day
4. The Pain of Destruction, the Pangs of Birth


A Fact of Life
In the book of Joshua, we read about the conquering of the Land of Israel. After the capture of Jericho, the Israelites move on to Ai. In the battle for Ai a number of Israelite soldiers are killed:

Of the people, about three thousand men went up, and they fled before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai killed about thirty-six men, for they chased them from before the gate as far as Shevarim and struck them at the descent. And the hearts of the people melted and became like water. And Joshua rent his clothes and fell to the earth upon his face before the Ark of God until evening, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads. And Joshua said, "Alas, O Lord God, why did you bring this people across the Jordan? To deliver us into the hand of the Amorites? To destroy us? We would have been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say when Israel has turned its back before its enemies! The Canaanites and all of the inhabitants of the land shall hear of it, and shall surround us and cut off our name from the earth, and what will you do for your great name?" (Joshua 7:4-10)

Is this any way to respond when soldiers die in battle? Joshua's behavior is excessive. He rends his clothes and no longer sees reason to continue to wage war for possession of the land. It would appear that the message conveyed from Joshua's example is that defeat in battle should lead to surrender, for defeat evidences a lack of divine assistance. The Jewish people are not like the rest of the nations. The rest of the nations battle via their own strength; the Jews come in the name of God. Therefore, if even one Jewish soldier falls in battle, this is a divine sign that God is not with them.
This question - Does war inherently involve the loss of life, or do we say that unswerving faith in God should guarantee complete victory with no loss of life whatsoever? - has come to the front in recent times in the form of a practical question of Jewish law: Does life-threatening danger nullify the obligation to conquer the Land of Israel?
Regarding this question, Rabbi Yoseph Babad, in his classic "Minchat Chinukh," writes as follows:

Though all of the Torah's commandments are suspended in cases of life-threatening danger, when it comes to this commandment [to kill the "Seven Nations"] the Torah does not rely on miracles, but commands us to do battle with them... for such is a fact of life, that in a time of war people are killed on both sides.

It has thus been shown that according to "Minchat Chinukh," possible danger does not bring about a suspension of the commandment to conquer the Land of Israel. There is a Torah commandment to go to war in order to conquer the Land, and it is only natural that soldiers fall in action. This fact is almost explicit in the Torah. On the one hand, Scripture testifies to the fact that God accompanies the Jewish people in battle; on the other hand, the Torah calls upon all those who have not yet married to refrain from joining the ranks lest they be killed in battle.
Accordingly, we find that God does not agree with the Joshua's approach:

God said to Joshua, "Get up. Why are you lying so on your face? Israel has sinned and they have transgressed my covenant which I commanded them, for they have taken of the devoted property, and have also stolen and concealed, and they have put it among their own goods. Therefore the Children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before them because they were accursed. I will not be with you any more unless you destroy the devoted things from among you." (Joshua 7:10-12)

God agrees with Joshua that Israel's military defeat resulted from the absence of divine assistance. Yet, this absence was no coincidence. The absence of God's presence is the result of transgression. Joshua had apparently been under the impression that the reason for defeat was that the time had not yet come for the war on Ai.

War that "Gives Birth"
Yet, is transgression the only explanation we have for the loss of life in war?
In order to answer this question let us consider some aspects of the biblical concept of ritual impurity. The Torah portions of "Tazria-Metzorah" (Leviticus 12-15) deal with ritual impurity that results from childbirth. In addition, they deal with leprous impurity and a number of other types of defilement.
The purification process of one affected by Tzara'at [leprosy] involves two stages. First, the leper must take two live kosher birds, and follow the procedure described in the Torah. Once this has been completed, the leper is permitted to return to the camp. Yet, it is still forbidden for him to enter the Sanctuary. Next, he must count seven clean days. With their completion, on the eighth day, he is permitted to enter the Sanctuary with his offerings.

The purification process of a woman who has given birth also involves two stages. Initially, she is prohibited from entering her home. These are her days of impurity. During the second stage, after the days of her impurity, the Sanctuary remains off-limits to her until the completion of her purification period. With the completion of this period, she is able to again enter the Sanctuary with her offerings.
Despite their great similarity, it is possible to point to one difference between these two types of impurity: When it comes to the leper, we find that so long as he is restricted from entering the Sanctuary he is also forbidden to enter his house. Yet, regarding the mother, she is immediately permitted to enter her house, despite the fact that the Sanctuary remains off-limits to her. What, though, is the reason for this peculiar distinction?
One would expect that as long as a person is not permitted to enter the Sanctuary, he or she should also be restricted from setting foot in his or her home. But, the impurity of a woman after birth is different. Most cases of ritual impurity result from an absence of life. This is clearly the case regarding defilement through contact with a corpse. Leprous impurity can also be understood in this light. Our sages teach that Tzara'at results from slander and gossip. The gossiper, through his injurious behavior, sabotages the possibility of healthy community life. He destroys society and is therefore inflicted with Tzara'at. This leprous impurity, in turn, forces him to distance himself from the community. The impurity which results from childbirth, though, is of a different nature. The ritually impure mother has been occupied with bringing new life into the world. From what, then, does her impurity stem?

Her impurity stems from the limitations inherent in our worldly existence. We find ourselves in a world in which matter cannot evolve from one stage to the next without pain and resistance. Ours is a material world, and the most distinctive aspect of matter is its reluctance to change. Wherever there is an attempt to change something in the world, the world demonstrates natural resistance. It is this reluctance which results in the inability to bring life into the world without loss of blood on the part of the mother. Most of this blood is pure and serves the purpose of introducing new life. Only a small portion of the blood spilt in childbirth is impure. Its impurity results from the fact of this world's opposition to change.

Pure blood represents the fact that the woman is still in the process of giving birth. It is possible to approach the Sanctuary only in a state of resolution, only with the completion of the process. Still, it is possible to enter one's house. The house is part of the process. It must accompany the woman in her birth-giving experience.
On the national level, we can discern a similar phenomenon with the building of the Holy Temple. King David, when he finished doing battle with the surrounding enemies, desired to build the Temple. The Almighty, though, prevented him from doing so:

Then King David stood up on his feet, and said, "Hear me my brothers, and my people, as for me I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord and for a footstool of our God, and I had made preparations for building. But God said to me, 'You shall not build a house for my name, because you have been a man of battles, and have shed blood.'"

David thinks that he can be a king who both establishes the Kingdom of Israel and builds the Holy Temple. God informs him that the Temple is a house of rest and peace. David is dynamic. He represents the process and the means, not the restful end. Involvement in war is tantamount to involvement in a process that aims at bringing the world to a state of rest. The Temple can only be built when there exists a sense of wholeness and completion.

Let us now return to where we began. The loss of life in the course of war can sometimes represent the disappearance of God's Divine Presence - a sort of leprous impurity. Yet, it can also represent the impurity of childbirth. It can result from the desire to change the world. The desire to charge the world has a price. Those dear souls lost to us on the battlefield are similar to the blood that accompanies every childbirth. Joshua, as he embarks upon conquest of the Land of Israel, does not identify the inheritance of the land with the birth of the nation. The birth of the Jewish people, for Joshua, took place with the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. Entering the Land of Israel constitutes a mere materialization of that which already exists in potential in the Jewish people, that which need only be practically applied in an actual land. Joshua expects the conquest to take place at the appointed time. The Jericho victory served to strengthen his opinion. Jericho fell without a struggle. Not even a single Israelite soldier was injured. And Jericho represents the land's gate. Yet, when Israel moves on to Ai with the intention of continuing the conquest, they were met with unexpected defeat. God informs them that the reason is their transgression, the taking of devoted property. "Tzara'at."
But there are wars which in fact "give birth" to the Jewish people. There are wars that represent birth. In such wars the loss of life does not stem from sin but from the need to purify. And this is the character of the wars that accompany the beginning of the Redemption - they are like birthpangs.

Just as the Night Precedes the Day
Rabbi Yehudah Liva, better known as "the Maharal of Prague," in his book "Netzach Yisrael," writes at length concerning the sorts of events that will precede the coming of the Messiah. The Maharal warns of a period of crisis - a crisis on many levels. Yet, salvation will arise precisely amidst this crisis. In the words of the Maharal, "From amidst nothingness, life will be born:"

Every existence is preceded by nonexistence, as we have already explained a number of times. Just as the night proceeds the day, and the present world precedes the World to Come, so too, it is only fitting that [the Redemption] be preceded by void and deficiency - i.e., the Exile.

The Maharal sees the existence of the Jewish people in the Exile as one that lacks true being. There, the national aspect of the Jewish people finds no expression. True, even the Exile has its ups and downs. The period that most embodies stark nothingness, utmost absence, will be that which precedes the advent of the Messiah.
The Maharal brings a number of indications to this effect from the Talmud:

Every new existence spells the end of preceding existence. This is the reason for the void before the appearance of the Messiah, to the point where all previous existence dissolves. Only then does existence begin anew. This is the reason that they [the Sages] teach in the talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (96b, 97a)... "Rabbi Yochanan said that in the generation in which the son of David (i.e., the Messiah) comes, the number of Torah scholars will decrease, and the eyes of those who remain will become weak from grief and groaning, and great hardships and severe decrees will be renewed; no sooner does one pass than a new one arises." It is further written there, "Rabbi Yehuda says that in the generation in which the son of David comes, the meeting place [of Torah scholars] will be [used] for prostitution, the Galilee will be destroyed, the Gavlan will be deserted, and the people of the Galilee will wander from city to city and will not be comforted, the wisdom of the Sages will decrease, the sin-fearing will be despised, the face of the generation will resemble the face of a dog, and truth will be hard to come by..."

It is possible to view all of the terrible hardships which we experienced in Europe during the Second World War as a part of the fulfillment of the this very grave forecast. The Holocaust represented an aspect of the "void" prior to the "rebirth" of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, it may very well be that the spiritual Holocaust which has gripped the Jews of the Diaspora in our own generation - the "Assimilation Holocaust" - is part of the void which precedes a renaissance and a large ingathering of exiles.

The Pain of Destruction, the Pangs of Birth
Yet, how are we to understand the hardships that the Jewish people are experiencing here in Israel while settling the land? It would appear that there is a difference between our sufferings here in the Land of Israel, and those that accompanied the end of the Exile. The affliction of the Exile appeared against the background of destruction - the destruction of Diaspora communities. The affliction that we bear today in Israel, though, is part of a larger process of rebirth. The Maharal affirms this point in explaining the hardships that are destined to accompany the coming of the Messiah:

...All previous existence will dissolve, leading to change in a number of areas. And as sure as the disappearance of that which had previously existed embodies a change [in the natural order of things], so too there will be a change in the natural order of things when it comes to the appearance of a new existence in the world. For, just as every disappearance embodies change, so every new appearance constitutes a change in the order of the world. And this accounts for the expression, "Pangs of the Messiah." "Pangs," for a woman experiences pangs due to the change which takes place as a result of a new child being born into the world - for every new appearance constitutes change ...the same is true when a new factor becomes active, like the Messianic Era, the actualization of a new existence. This is no doubt a change. There will be Pangs of the Messiah like with a woman who experiences pangs when the newborn comes out into the air of the world.

The Maharal, then, explains that there are two reasons for the suffering that precedes the appearance of the Messiah. The first is that in order to allow for the appearance of a new existence, previous existence must be destroyed. Only destruction can allow for rebirth. The destruction of the Exile heralds the coming of the Redemption. Yet, even after this stage, there is another reason for suffering. The process of realization of this new existence is likened to giving birth. And, as we have said, this world resists change. Overcoming this resistance rustles in the birthpangs of the Messiah. These are the very sufferings that usher in the period of redemption. These are the sufferings about which Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo, better known as "the Gaon of Vilna," said:

Be aware from the outset that the beginning of the Redemption comes through both suffering and pleasure. [On the one hand] it comes through the principle of divine justice - i.e., through an earthly awakening; the footsteps of the Messiah come via painful struggling, and sometimes even in a most roundabout way. On the other hand, though, there exists the attribute of loving mercy [through which God administers things]... [One must] know from the outset that in the period of the footsteps of the Messiah every hardship leads to salvation. Salvation evolves from hardship, in accordance with the verse, "A time of hardship for Jacob, and from it he will be saved," for this is said concerning the Messiah from the line of Joseph. [One must know] that the Land of Israel is acquired through suffering, yet in this manner it is absolutely acquired.

The Gaon provides insight into the process of our redemption. He presents the Redemption as a reciprocal process in which we do our part, and, in response, God does His. This scenario is mentioned already in the Torah, in book of Deuteronomy (30:1-10):

There shall come a time when you shall experience all of these words...you will reflect on the situation, there, among the nations where God will have banished you. Then you will return to God your Lord and you will obey Him…God will then bring back your remnants and have mercy upon you. God your Lord will once again gather you from among all the nations where He scattered you. You will repent and obey God... God will once again rejoice in you for good, just as He rejoiced over your fathers. All this will happen when you obey God your Lord... and when you return to God your Lord with all your heart and soul.

Our redemption comes through an "earthly awakening," via our own self-sacrifice on behalf of the redemption of the Jewish people. Our efforts sometimes involve demonstrations of literal self-sacrifice, those righteous souls that are lost to us on the road to redemption. Still, all exertion on our part is repaid for generously through God's attribute of mercy, through an outpouring of divine assistance to forward our redemption. Even the smallest act on our part draws a multitude of acts on the part of the Almighty. Our acts are in keeping with "principle of divine justice" because they represent a "just payment," Some even pay with their life. Yet, for every payment we make, we receive much more in return. Salvation can come only through hardship, through a willingness to enter into hardship. Yet, this willingness gives birth to great salvation.
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Some of the biblical verses here were taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Living Torah," others from the Jerusalem Bible (Koren).



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