The Iron Furnace
Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
This week's parsha is always read on the Shabbat following Tisha B'Av. This Shabbat is known as "Shabbat Nachamu" (Shabbat of Consolation), based on the opening words of the Haftorah: "Nachamu, nachamu, ami - Be consoled, my nation (Isaiah 40:1). Shabbat Nachamu is intended to console us after the destruction of our Temple, since our Sages teach that if the Temple is not rebuilt in a given generation, it is as if the Temple were destroyed in that generation (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1:1).
Since Parshat Va'etchanan always coincides with Shabbat Nachamu, it seems logical that some type of "comfort" is found within the parsha itself. What comforting words does it share with us?
In this week's parsha, God tells the Jewish people (Deut. 4:20), "I have taken you out of an iron furnace" (kur ha-barzel). The expression "kur ha-barzel" refers to the Egyptian exile. We might wonder why the Torah describes Egypt with this particular phrase, when similar words could express the same idea. For example, a prophesy in the Book of Malachi (13:19) states, "Behold a day is coming, burning like an oven." It seems that the word "oven" would be an equally fitting description of Egypt. So why does this week's parsha specifically use the imagery of an iron furnace?
We can shed light on this issue by examining Rashi's commentary on our verse. Rashi defines the word "kur" (furnace) as "a vessel within which gold is purified." We could suggest that Rashi is not merely translating the word "kur," but is also explaining why we refer to the Egyptian exile as a "kur" (furnace) and not a "tanur" (oven). An oven is used for the everyday cooking and preparation of food. A furnace, on the other hand, has the specific function of refining gold. We can learn from here that God sent us into the Egyptian exile because He considers the Jewish people to be as precious as gold. No one bothers to refine ordinary rocks, because the result is worthless; however, people will expend great effort to refine gold, because we know that the outcome is valuable.
So too, God sent the Jewish people into the hottest of furnaces because He knew how valuable we would be when we emerged. God knew that the Jewish people would be molded by the process of exile and that, through that process, we could achieve extraordinary levels. Everyone knows that through adversity, greatness emerges.
This is how this week's parsha comforts us after the desolation of Tisha B'Av. As a nation, we have certainly gone through many forms of "kur ha-barzel" during the two millennia since the destruction of the Holy Temple. Yet our experience in this "kur" is the surest indication that we are as precious as gold in God's eyes. Even as we yearn for redemption, we must realize that God will do whatever it takes to refine us, so that we can become as pure and as elevated as possible.
May we each recognize our intrinsic self-worth and utilize every golden opportunity to become all that we can be. In this way, may we merit the re-building of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem.