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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Then Moshe designated three cities on this side of the Jordan, toward the rising sun. (DEVARIM 4:41)
In the process of his conquest of large parts of Russia, Napoleon would occasionally take advice from great rabbis about his chances of success on the battlefield. The story is told of how he once met Rabbi Chaim, the Rosh yeshivah of Volozhin.
One evening, the soldiers of the French army arrived in Volozhin and prepared to set up camp. This town was an important location but it was not fortified and thus was easy to conquer. The majority of its inhabitants ran away because they feared the consequences of the war, and the rest locked themselves up in their houses. When the Napoleon's messengers and his officers entered the town, they found that all the houses were dark, and the streets were entirely deserted. The only light they could find came from the yeshivah of Volozhin. An officer approached the yeshivah, opened the main door and entered.
At the end of the Beis Midrash sat an old man in his seventies, who held a candle in his hand, and had an open book in front of him. This was Rabbi Chaim, who, in times of distress as in times of happiness, found his joy in the Beis Midrash. He was so absorbed in his learning that he did not notice the officer approaching him. When the officer opened his mouth and began to bellow, Rabbi Chaim jumped from his seat.
The officer tried to speak to the old man in French, but when he saw that he did not understand what he was saying, he changed to German, and asked if he understood that language. Rabbi Chaim answered that he was no expert in the language, but that he would try to answer as best he could.
"Good," said the officer. "Could you please tell me where your rabbi lives, the one called Chaim. We have heard much about him as one who knows hidden secrets and can perform miracles." Rabbi Chaim answered, "Chaim, the man you request, is here in the Beis Midrash. But when you say that he performs miracles, I can assure you that it is not true."
The officer understood that he was speaking to the man whom he sought, and immediately got to the point. "The king himself wants to meet you. Wait here and they will come to bring you to him." Before long, a few soldiers arrived in a dusty war carriage, and took Rabbi Chaim to the glorious tent of Napoleon, which was in the center of the camp.
Napoleon was happy to see Rabbi Chaim, whose face shone with the purity of the Torah. The military leader began relating what he had heard from other Jews in the country of the hidden powers to perform miracles that Rabbi Chaim had. Rabbi Chaim answered that he was a simple Jew striving to learn Torah, and nothing more.
Napoleon said to him, "I understand that you do not wish to acknowledge that you know how to perform miracles, but you must agree that you are a wise man. Therefore tell me, what is your opinion about the future of this battle I have begun? Will it be a victory as have been my previous battles? Or perhaps a terrible tragedy awaits me? Reveal to me your thoughts frankly, without any fear."
Rabbi Chaim told him the following parable.
A prince was once traveling on the road with four mighty horses, of the finest stock. When he arrived in the midst of a thick forest, one of the horses slipped into dangerous quicksand. This horse pulled the other horses after it and the wagon turned over. All of the efforts of the prince and his officers to get them out was futile.
A few hours passed, and then along came a farmer with a wagon drawn by three weak and sickly horses. They too began to sink into the quicksand, but the farmer began to whip his horses, whereupon they used all their strength and were able to pull their wagon out of the quicksand. The prince and his officers were amazed at their success.
The prince approached the farmer and said to him, "I have four mighty thoroughbred horses and you have three sickly ones. And yet yours were able to get out of the quicksand, while mine are still there. How do you explain this?"
The farmer replied, "There is no special secret that has helped me. Your horses are pure thoroughbreds. You have taken one from here and one from there, from the best in every country. Therefore when you whip them, each one tries to go in a different direction, and they are unable to unite for their common good. But my bony horses are all of one family, a mother and her two sons. When I whip one of them, the others want to help that one. And so they have pulled themselves out of the quicksand by working together."
"This is similar," Rabbi Chaim explained "to the matter we are dealing with here. The great Napoleon is like the prince in the story. He has at his disposal a gigantic, well-trained army, but they are not all of the same blood. The army is made up of troops from Austria, Prussia, Spain and Italy. Every faction wants to claim the victory to its own credit. Besides that, each battalion is happy when another is defeated. This is not the case regarding the Russian army. Although it is a poor army, yet since it is made up of one nation fighting to keep its own land, everyone feels the common danger, and they are completely united for the common good. Therefore," concluded Rabbi Chaim, "there is no doubt about the success of this battle. The victory will go to your enemy."
Sure enough, Napoleon suffered a great loss near Moscow, and then was finally defeated at the river crossing at Regina. Almost all of his soldiers were killed. Rabbi Chaim's prediction came true. (MORESHET AVOT IV, p. 122)
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin was a person of great wisdom and perception, which enabled him to understand what would happen in the future. We too must learn to develop our perceptiveness in order to be able to help our children wisely through their successes and failures.
"Then Moshe designated three cities.(1)"Rabbi Tanchum the son of Rabbi Chanilai said, "Why did the tribe of Reuven merit to be the first to participate in saving lives? [The three cities of refuge saved the lives of people who had killed accidentally and had to run from the "go'el hadam," the relative of the deceased who was allowed to avenge his death. Why was the first of these cities established in an area that belonged to the tribe of Reuven,(2) and not to a different tribe?]How did our Sages know that Reuven had special merit, beyond that of all the other tribes? How did Reuven's actions towards Yoseph affect the locations of the cities of refuge? Why are the cities of refuge referred to as "sunshine?" Why was it important for the word "refuge" to be posted at all the crossroads? What was the special lesson that Rav Chamma learned from the cities of refuge? How does the verse, "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money,"(10) apply to Moshe, since we know that he was a person who never ran after money, as the verse tells us that he never took even a mule from the people?(11) What sense did it make for Moshe to designate cities of refuge when he knew that they could not serve their purpose until all the other cities of refuge within Israel had been designated? From the words of the midrash it sounds as if G-d decided to establish cities of refuge only after the Jewish people complained. How could that be possible? Surely G-d knew Himself what He wanted to write in His Torah, and He did not need the advice of the Jewish people before doing so?
"And Reuven heard and he saved him [Yoseph] from their hands..." Let the sun shine for those who have killed.
We find that the first city of refuge was designated in the land apportioned to Reuven. Beginning a mitzvah is always very important, as it shows a special love for the mitzvah. Since the Torah mentions the city of Reuven before it mentions the other two cities, this shows the special merit that Reuven had relative to this mitzvah.
Reuven's actions towards Yoseph influenced the decision as to the locations of the cities of refuge. All of our actions have great impact, not only on ourselves but on our children and grandchildren, and for generations afterwards. This can be seen in Reuven's deed of helping Yoseph, which led to his being the first tribe to receive a city of refuge in his portion. The merit lasted for generations and was not forgotten by G-d.
The cities of refuge are related to "sunshine," because when a person is in danger the whole world seems dark to him. He does not feel any happiness, since he does not know what will happen to him tomorrow. Helping such a person in danger is like bringing him sunshine, for when he is suddenly given hope, he feels as if the sun is shining in the world for him once more. We have a similar expression in English, when we speak of "a ray of hope."
"Good and just is G-d, and therefore He guides sinners on the road."
It was important for the word "refuge" to be posted at the crossroads, for the Torah tries to help the person who killed accidentally. Such a person will naturally be in a state of agitation, since he knows that the relative who can avenge the death is after him. Therefore, he might easily make a wrong turn at a crossroads and lose precious time when he tries to run away. In addition, he might not be familiar with the area and lose his way, and that would give his pursuer time to catch up with him. Therefore the Torah went to great lengths to ensure his safety by clearly marking directions at all crossroads so that a person who needed it could easily find the city of refuge.
Rav Chamma noted the great care and attention that the killer received. At every crossroads there were signs to guide him to the city of refuge. Why all the bother, when the fact remains that if he was in need of a city of refuge, that meant that he was, in some measure, guilty? Our Sages say that if someone had killed entirely by accident and through no fault of his own, he would not have had to go to a city of refuge at all.(12) But this is G-d's mercy; He desires that no Jew should be hurt, and therefore any assistance that can be provided to someone in distress should be given, even if he is in some way guilty.
From here Rabbi Chamma learned an important principle. Even in a case where someone was somewhat negligent with another person's life, which is a horrible crime, G-d still wants to help him as much as possible. This being the case, we may derive how much more is G-d's help with those who are righteous and have not committed any crime at all. With every step they take, they are constantly guided by Him and saved from all peril. This was Rabbi Chamma's great insight; he realized how much we are guarded from danger constantly when we do His will.
Even though he [Moshe] knew that the three cities on the other side of the Jordan would not accept a killer for refuge until after the three cities in the land of Canaan had been established, he nevertheless said to himself, "If a mitzva comes my way, I will perform it."
The verse, "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money,"(13) seems to have no relation to Moshe. However, the idea of Moshe running after money is a parable to help us to understand the great desire Moshe had to do G-d's mitzvos. Just as people who love money will never be satisfied with what they have, so too Moshe could never be satisfied with the mitzvos he had already performed. He wanted to perform more and more of them. This can be understood from his desire to designate the three cities of refuge, even though he knew they could not serve their purpose until later.
Moshe loved mitzvos not because he wanted to receive a reward, but only because G-d had commanded them. What was important to Moshe was to do G-d's will and to cause Him pleasure. Given Moshe's outlook, we can understand that he did not care that he would not see the results of his having designated the three cities in his lifetime. He did the mitzvah simply out of love, and not for any other motive.
From the midrash it seems as though G-d decided to establish cities of refuge only after the Jewish people complained. The truth, of course, is that G-d did not need the advice of the Jewish people. He was simply testing them to see if they would feel pity for the people who would be killed without having any protection. Therefore He did not at first reveal to them that there would be cities of refuge, and He waited to see if they would feel the need and demand them themselves. Once the Jewish people came to the proper conclusion on their own, He was able to write it in the Torah.
Some people do not realize that just as G-d tried the Jewish people in the desert, so too are our children constantly faced with great trials. We hasten to reprimand them without understanding how very difficult it is for children to withstand temptation.
A good way to come to understand and identify with the difficulties encountered by your children is to think about yourself and the degree of your own strength in withstanding temptation. It is most probable that you are not an angel yourself, although you are an adult who is held responsible for his own actions. Our children have a much harder time controlling themselves in the face of temptation, since they possess only a child's mentality. When we consider our children's misbehavior in this way, we will realize that our anger towards many of their actions is simply not justified.
Our Sages say, "Do not judge a man until you have stood in his place."(14) This is true regarding children as well. We often judge them from the vantagepoint of our own mentality, whereas we should really be judging them at their levels. A child is, after all, only a child, and cannot be expected to behave as an adult.
Some parents say to their children, "When I was your age, I never did a thing like that." It is hard to believe such a statement, since many years have gone by, and a parent may not remember, or may not want to remember what he did at his child's age. But even if it would be true, it makes no sense for a parent to compare himself to his child. Your child has a different personality from yours, and certain trials of his may be much harder for him than they were for you. It is never fair to compare two different people.
Another danger in a parent making such a statement is that it might lead a child to despair. Since the child may feel that it is not possible for him to reach your level, he may give up hope altogether. It is much healthier not to say such things to a child.
Comparing children with one another should also be avoided. When you say, "Why are you not successful like your older brother," you are making an unfair comparison. How can he do the same thing as his brother when he is a different person? Only G-d has the right to compare, since He knows and understands our every thought and action. We, who possess no such knowledge, do not have that right.
You may also be creating jealousy among your children by comparing them. When your child hears that his brother is much "better" than he is and is the cause of his being berated, he may try to take revenge on his brother. It is only the parent who has caused this unnecessary trouble at home, by comparing his children.
Instead of comparing your child to yourself or to another sibling, try to encourage him by telling him of tzaddikim who have succeeded in conquering their yetzer. There are many books and stories of tzaddikim which can have a good influence on your child. You must also praise rabbis and teachers whom the child knows. In this way the child will learn that he knows someone personally from whom he can take an example. He will also learn that you value Torah learning, since you are always praising someone who is devoted to Torah.
Do not praise or show admiration for someone who is rich or handsome. This would teach your child that you value material and not spiritual qualities. You should also praise someone when he or she performs a good deed, such as chesed, giving charity, etc. Praising spiritual ideals will give your child the direction he needs, to help him know what is most important in life and what is of secondary importance.
Unfortunately, many parents make this mistake: They talk between themselves about their neighbor's new car or new dress, or where they will get the money for a new purchase for the house. The child reasons, "Money and being in style are important in life. Dad and Mom always talk about it." Although parents must plan together, they must be careful about what they allow their children to hear.
When a child makes a mistake, he must be shown that his parents understand him and are not furious over his actions, but are rather trying to help him overcome the problem so that it will not occur again. You can tell your child that you would like to discuss with him how to figure out a way to prevent such an incident from happening again in the future. This will make him feel that you are really trying to help him, and that you are not just waiting for him to do something wrong so that you can punish him.
You can say to your child, "I understand that you had a very hard trial, and I am sure that you tried to overcome your yetzer, but were just not successful this time. Let us plan some strategy together, so that the next time the yetzer tries, we will have something prepared for him." When your child hears this, he knows that he has someone on his side, and he feels that he is not alone in his struggle. He knows that you understand him and appreciate his predicament. This helps him by giving him the encouragement he needs.
Our Sages say that a person does not succeed in Torah unless he stumbles first.(15) This means that everyone has his ups and downs, and a person may have to struggle before he gets things right. Tell this to your child, so he will know that it is perfectly normal to err. Tell him too that you have complete faith in him, and that you know that he is going to reach the top, and the only way to get there is to stumble at first.
When we stand by our children during the times of their trials, we will be able to give them the help and guidance they need to overcome them.
1. Devarim 4:41
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network