Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim Thursday, July 19, 2007

Since we’re approaching Tisha B’av, this week’s Torah thought is centered on the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash.  In order to merit its rebuilding, we must examine the causes that led to its fall and try to rectify them.

The following story is brought down in the Talmud (tractate Gitin, p.56A) about Martha, the daughter of Bytos, one of the wealthiest women of Jerusalem during the time of the destruction:  Martha sends one of her servants to the market to buy fine flour. When he gets there he finds that all the fine flour has been sold out. He comes back and tells her that the fine flour has been sold out, but that there’s regular white bread. She sends him for the regular white bread. When he gets to the market, however, the regular white bread is also sold out. He returns and tells her that all the white bread has been sold out, but there’s black bread. She sends him for the black bread, but that’s sold out too. He returns and tells her that there’s no more black bread, but there is barley flour. She tells him to go bring her some. However, by the time he reaches the market that too is sold out. She then takes off her shoes and goes outside to see if she can find anything to eat. In the street she steps on animal dung and subsequently dies.  Some say that she died after eating a cast-off fig of Rabbi Tzadok, who fasted 40 years in order to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem. (He would suck the juice from a dried fig to sustain himself and cast the fig away.)

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zachkai brings down a verse from the book of Devarim (which describes the calamities that will, G-d forbid, befall the Jewish people if they defy the word of Hashem) and relates Martha to the “tender and delicate women …who [in better times] would not attempt to set the sole of her foot on the ground because of her fastidiousness and fragility.” (Chapter 28 verse 56)  Sadly, before Martha’s death, she tosses all her gold and silver into the street, declaring that her riches are useless to her.

A spoiled and self-centered Jewish princess, Martha has been accustomed to getting everything she wants, with no care for anyone around her.  The Talmud ironically calls her “Martha, among the wealthy women of Jerusalem,” when she is really so cut off from Jerusalem spiritually. We can assume that her servant suggested the idea of buying whatever bread remained in the market, but was clearly expected to report to her each time.  It must have been terribly difficult for Martha–used to a high standard of living, and having all her wishes answered on demand–having to accept a new reality every time the servant returns with the latest news. When Martha learns that, with all her riches, she cannot even buy barley flour, her entire belief system–that money can buy anything–collapses.  For years insulated from reality, Martha must now leave her incubator or die of starvation. Before she leaves her home she removes her shoes because she’s afraid of soiling them while walking the streets of Jerusalem.

The removal of her shoes has the effect of grounding her for the first time in her life; she finally steps down and makes contact with the real world. Yet walking barefoot, she steps on animal dung.  Could anyone get any lower, she must have felt.  For all her riches she was no better than a soiled and starving beggar!  Perhaps in her last moments she realized how far she had removed herself from Jerusalem and failed to prevent its destruction.  Perhaps she realized that her life had been wasted in self-indulgence and fleeting pleasures.

Clearly the Talmud wants us to learn–from the negative example of a class of Jews that were well-off, yet isolated themselves from the masses, a class of Jews who chose a comfortable life for themselves, yet didn’t want to know about the misfortune of others–how NOT to be.

Rabbi Tzadok, on the other hand, is entirely devoted to Jerusalem and Am Yisrael. For 40 years he starves himself in order to try and prevent the destruction of Jerusalem. Only one thing interests him–to save the nation of Israel from exile. Martha’s meeting with Rabbi Tzadok’s dry fig is too overwhelming for her. The holiness of the fig makes her realize that she has been living a life of dung. The realization that true sustenance comes from the sacrifices of great men like Rabbi Tzadok–not from the empty “riches” she has selfishly hoarded and trusted in all her life–is what kills her.

This is a powerful lesson for everyone. It’s too easy to get our priorities all mixed up. Rabbi Tzaddok’s struggle is against the Marthian philosophy of self centeredness, which he sees as a major reason for the destruction of the Temple–a reason that can only be rectified by reaching out to our fellows in dire straits and trying to put the goals of the Jewish people before some of our personal needs.

Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith Itamar

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