by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – August 2, 2011

In the beginning of the Torah section of Devarim (Devarim 1:13), we find the unusual term eikhah (how) used as Moses rebukes the people of Israel: “How can I bear your cumbrance, your burden and your strife!”

In commenting on the aforementioned verse, R. Moshe Sternbuch, a contemporary leading Torah scholar, notes (Daniel Yaakov Travis, A Voice in the Darkness pp. 269-270) that both Moses and the prophet Yirmiyahu lamented the tainted status of the people of Israel with the term eikhah.  In the first verse of Eikhah, Yirmiyahu laments the sad state of the Jewish people after the destruction of the first Temple: “How the city which was once so populous remains lonely like a widow!”

What, R. Sternbuch asks, is the common denominator between the status of the people of Israel in the desert and that of the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash (Holy Temple)?

In answer to this question, R. Sternbuch notes that for 40 years, the people of Israel had all their needs taken care of: mann to eat, water from Miriam’s well, light and guidance from the pillar of cloud etc.  Nevertheless, strife and lack of respect abounded during this period.

R. Sternbuch goes on to suggest that this indicates that when the people of Israel lack the foundations of derekh eretz or social harmony, they can be likened to their state at the destruction of the Temple.  Despite all the miracles surrounding the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah and despite living during a period wherein G-d openly revealed His presence regularly and although being led by one as great as Moses, the people of Israel fell into strife.  As long as sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and lashon hara (evil talk) prevail, R. Sternbuch explains, we will continue to live in a state of destruction.

R. Sternbuch notes that, in our days, we have seen many miracles; yet, these miracles have not transformed us.  If we have tarnished ourselves with baseless hatred for others and other interpersonal transgressions, the miracles will have no effect on us.  We need to appreciate what we have and what we experience.  Only when we are worthy, R. Sternbuch concludes, will G-d’s revealed Presence touch us personally.