VA'ETCHANAN, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Throughout the ages, prophets, philosophers and mystics have wondered, "Where might God be found?"
A fascinating answer was offered by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. The Torah describes the revelation of the Ten Commandments: The people stood afar, but Moses entered the darkness in which God was found. Rebbe Nachman indicates that ordinary people feel abandoned by God when facing the darkness of tragedy, loss or doubt. However, those who strive for the spiritual clarity of a Moses realize that God's invitation to renewed levels of realization and life can be found within the darkness itself.
Reb Nachman's insight reflects the spiritual dynamic of this Shabbat. Not only does Va'etchanan contain the watchword of our faith — the Shema Yisrael — it also reiterates the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Interestingly enough, this portion is always read right after the Great Black Fast of Tisha B'Av, commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem.
What is the connection between destruction and revelation?
Echoing Rebbe Nachman, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg of Slonim teaches that our people's history repeatedly reveals that darkness can summon us to renewed strength with God. The first Tablets of the Covenant were given following the enslavement in Egypt; the second were inscribed after the sin of the Golden Calf. Thus, following the darkness of Tisha B'Av, we are invited to stand at Sinai again and receive revelation that will impel us to renew ourselves in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, seven weeks hence.
The reality of finding God amidst the darkness can be illustrated by a story in Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal's Small Miracles of the Holocaust. Tania Hammer's father spent his childhood in the Hungarian village of Hodu Nanash. Its rabbi, Tzvi Hersh Rabinowitz, was descended from Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, the ascribed creator of the legendary Golem. Hammer's father described the regal, yet kindly figure of Rabbi Rabinowitz, and his awe as a young boy waiting with his father to receive a blessing and some honey cake from the rebbe during Yom Tov.
When the Nazis deported the Jews of Hodu Nanash, the Hammer family was sent to a work camp. Food was so scarce that Tania's father and uncle would scavenge garbage. One day, the boys spotted a bedraggled figure whom their father identified as Rabbi Rabinowitz. Having witnessed the murder of his family, the rabbi was driven mad and only survived through the Hammers' care.
One night, Tania's grandfather was summoned away, returning later bearing a smile and a potato. "It's Erev Pesach," he declared, recounting how the rabbi had just lucidly recited the entire Haggadah and offered a stirring Passover message. Distributing potato pieces, the grandfather repeated the rebbe's words. Amidst the desolation without and the rabbi's trauma within, God's light shone in the darkness, sustaining the Hammers until their liberation.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu. The Haftarah's first words state, "Nachamu — Comforted, be comforted, My people, declares your God." Perhaps Isaiah is telling us that when we need comfort, we should identify with the redemptive history of our people. Then we, like our forebears, may hear whispers when engulfed by dark silence, "I'm here — I'm your God."
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: rabbia@ juno.com.