Rav Mordechai Greenberg
The words of the sages with respect to the above verse were a source of great worry for Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, and he wrote about this matter to his father-in-law, the “Aderet.” “I will openly state to my honorable sir, that I am bothered by the Midrash Sifri in the portion of Ha’azinu which quotes the verse, ‘And their land will be filled with silver and gold,’ in commenting on the verse, ‘You are fat, you are thick,’ writing about three generations before the coming of the Mashiach. And you will understand my thoughts. However, in any case the Holy One, Blessed be He, will do what is necessary for the good of His name, and He will bring His redemption closer, and G-d will act alone, let it be quickly in our time.” [Orach Mishpat, Orach Chaim 48].
Here are some more details from the Sifri which caused Rav Kook to be so afraid. “‘And Yeshurun became fat and kicked’ [Devarim 32:15] – The people rebel when they are satiated. You can see this with the people of the Deluge, who only rebelled before the Holy One, Blessed be He, out of an excess of food and drink, and out of calm... And when you enter the land, you will only rebel in response to food and drink and calm... And another point: It is written, ‘You are fat, you are thick...’ [Ibid] – These represent three generations before the days of the Mashiach, as is written, ‘And their land is full of silver and gold...’” [Sifri Ha’azinu 318].
The last verse quoted above in the Sifri is the following: “And their land is full of silver and gold, with no end to their treasures. Their land is full of horses, with no end to their chariots. And their land is full of idols, they bow down to their own handiwork.” [Yeshayahu 2:7-8]. The prophet is describing moral decay. First the land fills up with treasures of silver. In the next stage the excessive wealth is used to buy luxuries – horses, chariots (and cars?). The way is then clear for the third stage – silver and gold become idols, and the people become enslaved to them. All of this happens three generations before the coming of the Mashiach.
This subjugation to silver and gold can even be attributed to intellectuals and Torah scholars. The Netziv wrote that the main ones who influenced the others to sin were Torah scholars, “and that was the trait of the love of wealth in the Second Temple, and it still dances around among us to this very day” [Harchev Davar, Devarim]. This also appears in Sforno in this week’s Torah portion: “‘And Yeshurun became fat’ – People who are skilled in analysis are called Yeshurun... you have turned the community of Torah masters and analysis to physical pleasures, and you have thus become too fat to understand the details of the truth... ‘And he abandoned the G-d who made him’ – therefore the multitudes have abandoned G-d, and they have ‘shown contempt for the Rock of their salvation.’ [Devarim 32:15].”
Evidently these words of the Sifri were in Rav Kook’s mind when he wrote the following: “We accept that there will be a spiritual revolt in Eretz Yisrael and within Yisrael at the time when the beginning of the revitalization of the nation will begin. The physical calm that will be achieved by part of the nation... will diminish the soul... the yearning for exalted and holy ideals will cease, and as a consequence the spirit will decline.” [Orot Hatechiya, 44].
It is interesting to note that the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik also blamed the love of wealth for the sickness of the new settlement Tel Aviv. When he moved away from the inhabitants of “sick Tel Aviv,” he said that the signs of the illness, among other things, included recent events when people took advantage of the poverty of new Olim in order to increase their own wealth, stealing their last prutot by increasing the rent. “The result is internal disintegration of the nation, a rise in the number of political parties, unfounded hate, and more. The entire settlement movement is sick, and our Tel Aviv is sick.”