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When the Broken Path Still Leads Home (Parshas Va’eschanan)

parsha sefer devarim Jul 20, 2021



An old man sat on the train as it rumbled peacefully along the countryside. He was enjoying the view and the quiet atmosphere of the train car, until at one stop, a young man got on the train and sat across from him. The man was sweating visibly, gripping his knees, and occasionally stealing nervous glances out the window. Concerned, the old man asked if there was anything he could help with. The young man looked at him, sizing him up, before deciding to trust him. 


“I’m not sure that you can help me, but I guess I may as well share. I grew up just a few miles from here…. In fact, my parents still live there. My parents blessed me with an incredible childhood- love, support, and every opportunity I could ask for. Unfortunately, I gave them the exact opposite in return. I was selfish, ungrateful, rude, and oppositional, causing trouble wherever and whenever I could. I eventually left them, deciding to strike it out on my own, free of them. They were heartbroken and tried for years to reconcile with me. I ignored their every effort, working to build a new life for myself. I began making connections and cutting deals, slowly building a life for myself that looked nothing like the honest, value-based life that my parents lived. I cut any corner I needed to if it would get me ahead, using people in ways that I should have been ashamed of. 


“However, things did not go as planned. Eventually, things fell apart. Those who I considered ‘friends’ were quick to abandon me as soon as our friendship stopped benefiting them. My financial plans turned sour, with my shady deals being exposed for what they were. I borrowed, I begged, but things just kept taking turns for the worst. I soon found myself friendless, penniless, and alone, completely abandoned. With nowhere to turn, I contemplated ending my life. 


“Then, I thought of my parents. How they had spent years writing to me, pleading with me, saying how much they love me, before eventually giving up. ‘No,’ I thought to myself. ‘There’s no way they would take me back. How could they, after everything that I’ve put them through?’ I went back and forth for weeks before finally mustering up the courage to pen them a letter. In it, I apologized for what I’ve done, explaining how low I’ve sunk, and begged them to take me back. I then made a deal with them. On Tuesday, I would take the train that passes right by their home. If they were willing to accept me once again, they should hang a white flag on the tree in front of their house. And if not, I would keep riding the train. I would understand that I had simply gone too far, that they no longer had a place for me, and that I was completely on my own.”


The young man, now crying, looked up at his older seatmate. “We’re two minutes from their house. I can’t bear to look,” he said, as he broke down completely.  


The old man nodded with compassion and kindly assured him that he would look out the window to see if there was a white flag. The young man whispered his thanks, as he sat with his head in his arms, softly crying. 


Two minutes later, the old man gasped. The young man, unable to look, frantically asked what was going on. “Is there a flag hanging?” he asked, with panic in his voice. The old man just slowly shook his head, gazing out the window in awe. The young man finally gathered up the nerve to look, and his entire body was flooded with warmth. There wasn’t a flag hanging in the tree, the entire tree was covered in white flags.


This beautiful and heartwarming story relates to a deep theme that is central to both Parshas Va'eschanan and the transition from Tisha B'Av to Elul.


In Parshas Va'eschanan, we read about the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge for those who unintentionally murder. This parsha almost always falls out immediately following Tisha B'av, and, consequently, shortly before Elul. At face value, the Arei Miklat, Tisha B’Av, and Elul do not seem to share a thematic connection. The Ir Miklat is a city of refuge, a safe haven, for one who unwittingly murders. Tisha B'av is a day of sadness and destruction, as Klal Yisrael mourns the loss of the Beis Ha’Mikdash and the tragedies that have occurred throughout Jewish History. And Elul is the month of teshuva (repentance). What links these three topics together? In order to understand their deep underlying connection, we must first delve into each of these three seemingly unrelated ideas.


Tisha B'Av: The Death of the World


On Tisha Ba'av, we go through a process of aveilus (mourning), similar to the process of mourning a loved one. This seems to be an excessive response to the loss of a building - the Beis Ha’Mikdash (Holy Temple). However, the destruction of the actual Temple was merely the physical expression of a much deeper tragedy. As we have discussed in the past, the Beis Ha’Mikdash was the makom (locus) of connection between Hashem and this physical world. The Beis Ha’Mikdash was destroyed as a result of the disconnect that we, Klal Yisrael, created between us and Hashem, between us and our fellow man, and between us and ourselves. We lost sight of the spiritual root of this world, shattering the connection between us and Hashem. As the Nefesh Ha’Chaim explains, once this was broken, the physical vessel that represented this connection - the Beis Ha’Mikdash - was reduced to an empty shell and could easily be destroyed. 

The death of a person is the process of one's soul separating from their body. The concept of death is the disconnect between a spiritual life-force and its physical vessel. When the Beis Ha’Mikdash was destroyed, the world died. The soul of the world - Hashem, left its body, its vessel - the physical world, resulting in a cosmic spiritual chasm and a shattered reality.[1] We mourn on Tisha Ba'av not just for the destruction of a building, but for the death of the world itself. And we yearn for the day when Hashem will once again be fully and clearly manifest in this world, revealing the spiritual essence of this physical reality. 

Based on this idea, it is now clear why Klal Yisrael was sent into galus (exile) as a result of the churban Beis Ha’Mikdash (destruction of the Temple). A person who murders another intentionally is executed as punishment. An accidental murderer, on the other hand, is not executed, but exiled. When the Jewish people "killed" the world, we were sent into exile. We lost our home, our makom - Eretz Yisrael. According to some opinions, this was in fact an act of mercy on the part of Hashem, as the Jewish people should have been executed for murdering the world, for severing its soul from its body. Instead though, we were merely exiled, retaining the ability to correct our mistake and return home. 

This serves as a beautiful explanation of the Midrash [2], which states that instead of destroying the Jewish People, Hashem took his wrath out on the sticks and stones of the Beis Ha’Mikdash. Hashem destroyed the Beis Ha’Mikdash, but He did not destroy us, giving us the chance to rebuild anew. Our exile is, in a sense, a gift, as it allows us to rebuild the connection between us and Hashem and return home once more.


Elul: Returning Home


This is why Elul directly follows Tisha B'Av. Tisha B'Av is the time of breakdown, exile, and death; Elul is the time of rejuvenation, redirection, and rebirth. As we transition from Tisha B'Av towards Elul, we pause, stop the negative momentum, and begin building anew. The low of Tisha B'Av becomes the impetus for growth throughout the month of Elul, and in this way, it becomes a yeridah l'tzorech aliyah- a breakdown for the sake of ascension. Elul, in the deepest sense, represents our journey back home to our proper makom, back to our unbreakable bond with Hashem. The goal of Rosh Hashanah is to fully and wholeheartedly anoint and embrace Hashem as our King; this can only happen after a month spent bridging the gap that we created between us. Elul is our voyage back home, as we reconnect Hashem to this world, the Soul of the world to its proper place. The definition of teshuva is return, and that is our goal at this time. We yearn to return the world to its proper, higher state, to return the Jewish People back to our elevated status, and for each and every one of us to return to our higher, true selves.


Our Struggle 


The process of return is a joyous one, but it is also a challenging one. We often feel as though we are fighting an uphill battle, and we struggle to maintain momentum and continue gaining ground. Every year as we approach Elul, there is an underlying sense of dread as we prepare ourselves for another year of "New Year's commitments", writing down the same list of goals, only to be forgotten two weeks later. For many, this is the unspoken dread of Elul - the feeling of despair and loneliness as we grapple to rebuild ourselves and what feels like a broken connection with Hashem. This is why Hashem created the Ir Miklat.


Ir Miklat: A Place for Those Without a Place


An Ir Miklat, a city of refuge, is a place for those without a place. When one loses his physical makom, he feels lost, abandoned, hopeless. At exactly this moment, he is given a sense of hope. He may have lost his place, but there is still a place for him to go in the interim until he can return home. This is what the Ir Miklat represents; hope for the hopeless, a home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.


Hashem as the Makom of the World


There is an additional spiritual idea here, which reveals the ultimate depth of this concept. Many people think that before Hashem created the world, there was nothing. On the contrary, until Hashem created the world, there was everything, there was only Hashem Himself. As the Arizal, the Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem created the world by making a makom, a space, within Himself. Just as everything in the physical world requires space to exist, existence itself required a space to exist. If you have a cup completely filled with metal, you cannot pour any water into it. Only if there is a space in the cup, if there is room for the water, can you pour water into the cup. Before Hashem created the world, there was no space for us to exist, as all of existence was occupied by Hashem- ein od milvado. To create the physical world, Hashem made space within Himself for us to exist. This is why Hashem is referred to as the Makom of the world, the place of the world.[3] We exist within Hashem, so to speak; He is our makom.


However, there are times in our lives when we feel distant from Hashem, when we question whether or not Hashem truly cares for us, loves us, or believes in us. It is specifically at these times that we refer to Hashem as "Makom". For example, in a house of mourning it is customary to tell the mourner "Ha'Makom yinacheim-" The Place will comfort you. It is because at this specific time, the mourner feels most distant from both their loved one and from Hashem Himself. We therefore remind the avel that not only is Hashem still your Makom, but He is also still the Makom of your loved one. This helps the mourner feel close to Hashem and reminds him that the meis (dead relative) is still here, in existence, within Hashem, simply in a more spiritual dimension.


This is the idea of an Ir Miklat. When one loses their physical makom, and feels abandoned, we not only provide him with a different physical makom, but we also ensure that he realizes that he will always have an existential Makom- Hashem!


Elul as Our Makom


This is the purpose of Elul. Tisha B'Av reminds us of how broken life can become, of the genuine difficulty and challenge of life. But there will always be an Elul, an Ir Miklat, a Makom. We will always have a place to stay until the chaos subsides. But even while in the midst of that chaos, we must remember that this is only a waystation, and that we must arise and journey back to our true makom, to our true destination. Elul is our shelter amidst the storm, a lighthouse in the dark. It helps protect us during the madness, but it also helps guide us back to our true destination.


When we pass by the month of Elul, Hashem covers every tree with white flags. Elul is Hashem's way of saying, "There will alwaysbe a place for you." In response, we must embrace that place, and begin rebuilding from there towards our true destination.


This is the first step of teshuva, recognizing that we are not where we need to be, but that through constant effort and the help of Hashem, we can get there; we can return to our true makom, we can ascend to a true Rosh Hashanah. The foundation for this is our interim makom, our Ir Miklat, Elul- the place for those without a place. This allows us to gain our footing, create clarity and purpose, and begin our journey back home. May we all be inspired to pause, find our footing, and use this Elul to purposefully journey back to our true makom, Hashem Himself.


[1] True, Hashem is still manifest in this world, but only infinitesimally compared to the connection that once was.

[2] Eichah Rabbah 4:14.

[3] Medrash Tehillim 90, Rashi on Pirkei Avos- Perek 2.


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