After Napoleon conquered the city of Acre in Northern Israel, he walked through the streets of the ancient seaport. Suddenly, his attention was caught by a group of people wailing bitterly.
Incensed at the thought that perhaps they were mourning because of his conquest, Napoleon sent agents to investigate. His agents returned and told him that it was a group of Jews who were mourning. And indeed, their mourning was prompted by a conquest, but it was not Napoleon's victory that they were lamenting. It was the night of Tishah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. They were mourning the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Holy Temple that had taken place more than 1750 years previously.
Napoleon was moved. He exclaimed that any nation whose sense of history is so strong as to remember - and remember to the point of actual tears - what took place those many years previously will live to see that history become present again.
Parshas Devarim is always read before the fast of Tishah BeAv, the day on which we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the Romans. More importantly, it is a day when we focus on building from those ruins, seeing that exile is not in itself an end, but rather a phase in the progress of mankind to its ultimate goal - the Future Redemption.
This week the Shabbos is given a special name, Shabbos Chazon, which means "the Shabbos of vision." It refers to the Haftorah read on this Shabbos which begins: "The vision of Isaiah."
Isaiah's vision speaks of the retribution G-d will visit upon the Jewish people for their sins. Conversely, however, the name of this Shabbos has a positive connotation. As R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would say: On the Shabbos of vision, every Jew receives a vision of the Third Temple.
Both of these interpretations relate to the fact that this Haftorah was instituted to be read on the Shabbos preceding Tishah BeAv, the fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. The traditional meaning focuses on the negative, the severe descent of our people into sin. For as the prophet warns, Israel will be harshly punished for her grave transgressions. The chassidic interpretation, by contrast, points to the redemption from that exile, alluding to a foretaste of the most exalted spiritual levels, a peek at the ultimate and most inclusive revelation of G-dliness that there will ever be.
How can the two interpretations coexist? They are seemingly opposite.
Such a paradox, however, reflects the unique nature of the Jewish people. Our nation is prone to extremes - whether we are at the highest peaks or the lowest depths, we simply are not ordinary.
Why? Because our people, as a whole and as individuals, share a connection with the essence of G-d.
The essence of G-d is not computable; it doesn't fit on a graph. Instead, it defies all definitions and foreseeable determinations, making rules, rather than conforming to them. That essence was implanted in every one of us. Therefore we will be exceptional; at times sinking to the depths about which Isaiah spoke, and at times rising to the peaks that enable us to anticipate the revelations of the era of the Redemption.
What is most unique is that the two extremes are interrelated. The descent leads to the ascent. G-d structured the challenges of exile to compel us to express our deepest spiritual potential. And just as He presented us with these challenges, He gave us the ability to overcome them.
Our Sages describe exile with the analogy of sowing seeds. Before a seed can grow into a flowering plant, its exterior husk must utterly decompose. Similarly, for the G-dly core of the Jewish people to flourish, all the external dimensions of their personality must be stripped away.
In the analogue, the drastic descent that characterizes the exile wears away at our intellectual and emotional connection with G-d. Without gentleness or mercy, exile tears apart the husky shells of our personalities. Layer after layer of who we think we are, and what we've been trained to be, what we would like to be is peeled away.
Ultimately, what is left? The very essence of the soul, the point within our being that is an actual part of G-d. And when that essence is tapped, true growth begins. When this pattern spreads from person to person, the Jewish people blossom. In doing so, they spread the awareness of G-dliness throughout the world, precipitating the dawning of the era of the Redemption.