May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He promised you. (Devarim 1:13)
There is a well known joke about the Rabbi who complained to his congregation about their lack of attendance because only 9 people showed up to the daily minyon (back when there weren’t any government regulations limiting the size). Those nine people listened patiently and after the Rabbi finished, they asked him, “Why are you screaming at us? We are the ones who came!”
Once when the Sfas Emes was a young boy, he stayed up the entire night learning. He davened at sunrise and then went to bed. His grandfather, the Chidushei Harim, saw his grandson slumbering at a time when he should have been awake. He woke him up and scolded him for being lazy and not getting up at the proper time, and his lack of adherence to tefilla at the proper time and learning at the proper time. The Sfas Emes listened to each word with deep concentration. The chavrusa was also woken up by this incident, and later asked, “Why didn’t you tell your grandfather that you are not guilty at all? You davened and you learned as you were supposed to!” To this the Sfas Emes answered, “and I should lose out on the pearls of mussar that my grandfather would have said to me??”
This is a far cry from the average person who, when he is chastised, either defends himself or looks for a scapegoat to blame. Moshe Rabbeinu gives mussar to Klal Yisrael in the beginning of this week’s parsha for the sins that they did not commit! For those who served the Golden Calf, by and large, had already died by this time. The medrash tells us that this is considered an exemplary action of Klal Yisrael to listen to the mussar when they were not guilty. This is similar to the story of the Sfas Emes, that they understood that the words of Moshe Rabbeinu were worth hearing, regardless of whether they were guilty or not. True that this answers the question about Klal Yisrael’s behavior, but why was Moshe giving them mussar for something which they weren’t guilty of?
I would like to answer this based on a story with the Chasam Sofer and a Talmid of his. It came to the Chasam Sofer’s attention that this Talmid did some things which were unbecoming of a student of Torah. Immediately the Chasam Sofer called him in and chastised him based on the accusations of the public. The student looked at the Chasam Sofer and said, “Rebbe, it is not true! I never did those things!” The Chasam Sofer turned pale and responded, “Chas V’Sholom – I never thought you did these things! But if people are saying these things about you, obviously you have some trace of this characteristic or action which is related to this that must be rectified.”
Though this new generation of Klal Yisrael never sinned in the desert, Moshe Rabbeinu understood that there could be an aspect of their parents’ sin which they inherited, and therefore the mussar was still in place.
Every year during the periods of the Three Weeks, Nine Days and Tisha b’Av, we are reminded that although we did not commit the sin which caused the Beis Hamikdash to be destroyed, if we had only corrected the wrongs that our ancestors had done, the Beis Hamikdash would have been rebuilt. As we observe the Nine Days or sit on the floor on Tisha b’Av, we are not only bemoaning the plight that we find ourselves in because of the sins of others, but we must realize that it is our own personal churban which we continue to perpetuate. This year in particular, as we find ourselves estranged from our shul, we certainly cannot blame our ancestors. “Social Distancing” is about not being close to others. It seems to me that this may be a punishment for our past “social distancing” from tragedies that befell those whom we know. If we would only become closer to our brethren in both mind and spirit by having more compassion for them, to the point that their pain is our pain, we could merit to return to the Beis Hamikdash, standing with “Social Nearness”, speedily and in our time.