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PARASHAS MATOS-MASEIArm men from among yourselves for the legion that they be against Midyan that they may inflict Hashem's vengeance against Midyan. (31:3)
When the Jewish army went into battle, it was unlike any other national army. Horav Mordechai Druk, Shlita, notes the apparent differences between our army and the armies of the nations of the world. Moshe Rabbeinu did not lead the Jewish army in a war of retribution against Midyan because he had benefitted from the land of Midyan years earlier when he escaped Egypt. Clearly, such a moral compass is unlikely to be found in any other nation: a leader to choose not to lead against a sworn enemy because he owes them hakoras hatov, a sense of gratitude, is unusual, to say the least.
The Nesiim, Princes, of each tribe did not go to war because one of their own, Zimri, the Nasi of Shimon, had been killed by Pinchas. Zimri had blatantly committed an act of immorality, thus incurring the death penalty, which was executed by Pinchas. This was, of course, embarrassing to the other Princes. In order not to cause them undue humiliation, none of them went to war.
Indeed, the soldiers were men of elevated spiritual, moral and ethical standing. Chazal teach that the only soldiers who could go out to war were men who would not don the Shel Rosh, Tefillin of the Head, prior to putting on the Tefillin Shel Yad, Tefillin of the Hand. Is this such a sin that it would preclude acceptance in Hashem's army? Rav Druk explains that, during the reign of David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech, Klal Yisrael did not accept geirim, converts. Certain individuals, however, secretly converted and wore Tefillin and Tzitzis, the complete Jewish uniform. When Chazal mention that these unsavory converts wore Tefillin, they emphasize that they wore Tefillin on their head and Tefillin on their arms. For some reason, the Tefillin of the head precedes the Tefillin of the hand. Is this by design?
Rav Druk explains that Chazal are alluding to the reason that these converts were unacceptable: They wore Tefillin of the Rosh before the Tefillin of the Yad. Tefillin Shel Rosh corresponds with a person's thoughts, his mindset and focus in life. Tefillin Shel Yad coincides with the person's activities, his actions on behalf of Judaism. The Jewish People accepted the Torah with a resounding declaration, Naaseh v'Nishma, "We will do and (then) we will listen." Our actions/commitment comes even before we develop an intellectual appreciation and understanding of the mitzvos. The soldiers that represented the Jewish People in our army were individuals who acted out of commitment - not intellect.
Last, twelve thousand soldiers went into battle - one thousand representing each tribe. In addition, another twelve thousand soldiers had the task to daven, to entreat Hashem, that their brothers emerge triumphant from battle. These soldiers did not daven in shul. They went out to the front and created their own makeshift shul, davening in the shadows of the front-line fighting.
Why was this? Why could they not simply pray for the soldiers' welfare from the comfort of their own shuls; their own batei medrash? Was it that critical that they daven at the front? The answer is that Kochi v'otzem yadi asah li es ha'chayil ha'zeh, "My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth" (Devarim 8:17) is a powerful intoxicant. A person becomes so infected by the disease of arrogance that he begins to believe that the triumphs he has experienced are the result of his own doing. He thinks that he is an able warrior, that his aim is outstanding and, thus, he always hits his mark. He must realize that whatever skills he has been able to enjoy is due to Hashem's blessing - a blessing which is stimulated by sincere prayer. Those who pray, do so at the front, to serve as a steady reminder to the soldiers: If you succeed, it is only because of the power of prayer.
Perhaps we may suggest another reason that it was crucial that those who prayed did so with the specter of the battlefield in their foreground. During World War II, the talmidim, students, of the Mirrer Yeshivah were miraculously saved from the horrible fate suffered by European Jewry, as six million were murdered by the accursed Nazis. Escaping from Europe, they arrived in Shanghai, the city which would serve as their home for the duration of the war. The physical conditions in Shanghai were brutal. The suffocating humidity and burning heat in Shanghai sapped the strength of the students, exhausting them and wreaking havoc on their immune systems, leaving them open to disease and infection. The bais hamedrash which was their home for most of the war was even more stifling, with temperatures climbing over 100 degrees.
Yet, Horav Yechezkel Levenstein, zl, the legendary Mashgiach, encouraged the students to dress as expected of a ben Torah, student of Torah - with suit jacket and tie. During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, the weather had become impossible. The humid air was thick and almost unbreathable. In addition, the city was disease-ridden, with infection and death manifesting everywhere. That Yom Kippur, the talmidim simply could not dress as expected. It was oppressive - simply too much for a human being to endure - and to fast all day and daven with kavanah, proper devotion, no less. The Mashgiach, however, seemed to be in a different world, standing on his feet, deeply ensconced in prayer, while wrapped in his heavy wool kapata, long jacket. He allowed nothing - the fast, the heat, the absolute physical torture - to deter him from serving the Almighty in his usual manner.
It was nothing unusual for Rav Chatzkel. Serving Hashem represented extreme devotion. Anything less would not suffice. What, however, about the students? It takes years of unimpeded service on a level of extreme spirituality to achieve such a level of devotion, such a transcendent relationship with the Almighty, that one senses nothing else but G-d. To them, he shared another reasoning - one that is practical - even compelling. The greater the mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice and dedication, of those in Shanghai, the greater the merit created for their brethren suffering untold misery, persecution and death in Europe. It was hot in Shanghai. It was much hotter in Auschwitz!
The Mashgiach spoke to the students, emphasizing the need to identify with the plight of others: "We need to visualize clearly the horrifying suffering that now consumes the world and, in particular, the suffering of our brothers and sisters. We must visualize their suffering as if we are personally witnessing their suffering: we are hearing their cries; witnessing their bitterness; feeling their agonizing hunger, the freezing cold, their torture, and the savage acts done to them. We need to hear the death cries that pour out from the hearts of our people in Poland, Russia and Lithuania - the thousands and thousands of weak and suffering that we have left behind."
The idea expressed above sums up why the twelve thousand soldiers whose function it was to pray for the success of their brothers in battle should do so at the front, in the heat of the battle. If one does not visualize, he cannot properly empathize; thus, he will not pray with the same fervor. It is hard to feel the heat of battle in an air conditioned bais medrash.
Moshe said to them: Did you let every female live? Behold It was they who caused Bnei Yisrael by the word of Bilaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Pe'or. (31:15,16)
It is said how the most well-meaning - albeit quite insecure - leaders of factions of the religious Jewish community who call themselves Orthodox, but have yet to prove it, fall prey to the double-edged sword of Jew/non-Jew relationships. One cannot sufficiently emphasize how the blandishments of the non-Jewish society in which we live have had a disastrous influence on the religious vitality and continuity of our People. One need only to take a stroll outside of the shelter of the observant Jewish community to observe the downward spiral of Jewish literacy and commitment. The staggering rate of intermarriage is in and of itself the greatest proof of the need to strengthen ourselves from within - and to remain there - at all costs.
Alas, this is not a new problem. Two centuries ago in Germany, "it" had become an almost accepted norm, a way of life that was actually advocated by the latter-day followers of the Peor idol. The destruction wrought by the founding fathers of secular Judaism has germinated into a movement which would do Bilaam proud. Generations later, we have lost Jews who do not even know what they have lost - nor do they care. Yet, despite the apparent infamy of acculturation leading to total assimilation, we still have among us those who choose to embark upon the slippery slope of inter-religious dialogue, thereby shaming themselves and their supporters and causing a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name, of epic proportion.
The Torah reveals to us the identity of the source of the scourge of assimilation which leads to intermarriage: the Peor idol; its worship; and what it symbolized-- self-gratification. The cycle began when Klal Yisrael started to share with their pagan neighbors. First, it was their sacrifices, which led to intermingling with their women. The end result was total abdication to Peor, the god of the Midyanite people. The very nature of the worship of this idol, which involved expunging bodily wastes in its presence, only served as a vehicle for mocking the worthlessness of materialistic worship. Nonetheless, once he fell into its net, the worshipper was trapped. He had just become a pagan.
There is always a flipside. We just celebrated the festival of Shavuos, which underscores the merit of sincere conversion, as in the case of Rus, progenetress of the Davidic dynasty. We note the dignity and spiritual majesty of those who have been able to transcend their gentile heritage and choose to become members of the Am Hashem, the Nation of G-d. Indeed, Chazal observe that the entire Moavite and Amonite nations were spared for the specific purpose of producing the "two young doves," a reference to Rus and Naamah, who were destined to descend from them. Sincere religious commitment has its place in Judaism. We respect and admire it, and we welcome into the fold those who manifest this trait.
One wonders why, after thousands of years during which we have clearly seen the tragic effects of assimilation, a group of Jewish "religious" leaders, among them representatives of a new brand of Orthodoxy, would, for the sake of ecumenical discourse, join in a Roman Catholic sponsored conference. (They refer to themselves as Orthodox. This author tends not to agree with the attribution.) This was part of a program sponsored by the Catholic center for study and prayer in the Galilee. Imagine a bonfire on the eve of Lag Ba'Omer under the imposing shadow of a gold statue of the pope. How heartwarming it must have been for the Catholics to witness Jewish and Catholic clergy dancing together, singing Jewish songs.
This is clearly a modern-day reenactment of the Peor idol. How tragic it is when people discard their intelligence and act in a manner unbecoming any intelligent Jew who is aware of our history. How sad it is when one reflects upon haunting memories of terror and persecution which are evoked by the Catholic church. Is there anything more deranged than selling one's heritage for a bit of ecumenism? Is this any different than literally letting go of one's bodily waste, making a total fool of oneself in the presence of an idol? "Good morning," "Good evening" - diplomatic relations are nice and appropriate. Prostrating oneself before them and denigrating the meaning of the millions who died by their volition is another. It is totally unacceptable and bespeaks an unpardonable insult to the Jewish people and to Hashem.
And the Land shall be conquered before Hashem, and then you shall return - then you shall be vindicated before Hashem and from Yisrael. (32:22)
"So what if people do not understand my lofty goals?" "Since when must I explain myself to people?" "As long as I satisfy Hashem, is that not what is important?" It is statements such as these, with the attitude of arrogance that accompanies them, that get people into trouble. The end does not justify the means. One must act in a manner that does not incur public suspicion of impropriety. Everything we do must be above board, maintaining sufficient transparency to withstand the greatest scrutiny.
There is a well-known Teshuvos Chasam Sofer (6: Likutim 59) in which the revered Rav of Hungarian Jewry writes: "My whole life, I was always anxious concerning the pasuk, 'You shall be vindicated before Hashem and for Yisrael.' These two obligations - Hashem and Yisrael - ride heavily on our backs. It is much easier to fulfill (be vindicated) the first: Hashem. It is so much more difficult to have one's actions pass human scrutiny. The sin of chillul Hashem, desecrating Hashem's Name in the eyes of people, is an egregious sin. This applies even if the suspicion people have is far-fetched. We must put it to rest and not give people a reason to talk.
"I have often wondered if it is truly feasible for one to fulfill this pasuk (which demands human vindication). Indeed, Shlomo HaMelech writes, Ein adam tzaddik b'aretz asher yaase tov v'lo yecheta, 'There is no righteous person in the land who does good and does not sin.' [Simply, this means that no one is perfect.] I think we are being taught that it is impossible to elude, to satisfy the suspicions of people. The most perfect action, the holiest, saintly person, is never above the suspicion and dissatisfaction of people."
These are the journeys of Bnei Yisrael. (33:1)
On a recent trip to Eretz Yisrael, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler. He told me that, since it was his first overseas trip, he was planning to savor every moment. He looked forward to the eleven-hour flight as another leg on what was supposed to be a momentous trip. He was so excited that he was keeping track of every moment - from the taxi that picked him up at home until his eventual return in ten days. I felt this was an interesting perspective on travel, which, for most people, is something they must endure until they safely arrive at their destination. Horav Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, Shlita, posits that this mindset plays a critical role in understanding the forty-two masaos, journeys/encampments, which Klal Yisrael experienced from when they left Egypt until their arrival in the Holy Land.
Rav Pinto begins with an incident related by Chazal, whereby Rabbi Yosi, who was traveling, went into a ruin in Yerushalayim with the intention of finding a quiet spot to pray. Eliyahu HaNavi came by and noticed him praying, so he waited by the entrance until Rabbi Yosi had completed his service before turning to leave. At this point, Eliyahu asked him, "Why did you enter the churvah, ruin, to daven? Why did you not daven alongside the road?" Rabbi Yosi replied, "I was afraid of being disturbed by the ovrei derachim, passersby on the road." Rav Pinto wonders why the fellow travellers are referred to as ovrei derachim, passersby, rather than holchei derachim, travelers.
Rav Pinto explains this with a well-known story concerning a Jew from Kharkov whose name was Aizik. One night, Aizik had a dream during which he dreamt that a large treasure was set aside for him beneath the main bridge in the city of Prague. Such a trip was not a hop, skip and jump. It would take time and preparation, but Aizik felt the dream was valid. How could he turn down a large, lump sum of money?
Aizik packed his bag, took along provisions, and set forth on the journey that would garner untold wealth for him. It took a few days for him to reach the spot he saw in his dreams. He began to dig beneath the bridge. Suddenly, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps. He looked up and was confronted by the town's watchman. He was a giant of a man - someone to whom you would not consider lying. Aizik related the entire story that brought him there. The watchman began to chuckle, then broke out in laughterous glee. "You came because of a foolish dream?" the watchman asked Aizik. "I, too, had a dream that a buried treasure was waiting for me beneath the oven in a small house in Kharkov, which belonged to a Jew by the name of Aizik. Do you think that I would be so foolish as to travel to Kharkov in search of an elusive treasure?"
Aizik saw the conversation turn from foolish to derisive, with ugly on the horizon. He immediately grabbed his bag and left Prague to return home. The watchman, thinking that perhaps there was some veracity to Aizik's dream, began to dig in the ground until he discovered an empty, rusty box. Aizik, however, returned home, and searched beneath the oven in his house. How fortunate he was to discover a treasure chest filled with an abundance of gold coins.
Aizik's journey to Prague was in vain, when, in reality, the treasure he sought was right beneath his eyes. He did not have to leave Kharkov. The treasure was right there. Had he only looked! Now, was Aizik's trip in vain? No! Had he not traveled to Prague, he would never have met the watchman, who shared his dream with him. In other words, Aizik needed to travel to Prague to discover that all of this time, he was sitting on a fortune in buried treasure.
There are two ways of viewing Aizik's "wasted" trip to Prague. The ovrei derachim, passersby, view the journey toward its destination as a mere means, a medium by which we reach a goal. Arriving in Prague and not finding the treasure would have left them devastated. Their trip was a waste of time. The holchei derachim, however, look at every journey as G-d's will, something which we must do, a road we must travel. Indeed, sometimes we must travel to a distant land, only to learn that what we seek is right beneath our nose. Hashem has His reasons, and, had Aizik ignored his dream and not traveled to Prague, he would never have met the watchman, who also had a dream. Aizik understood that the journey is part of the goal. It, in and of itself, has great significance.
The difference between the passerby and the one who takes his journey seriously is his attitude when a challenge arises, when an obstacle stands in his way, when the journey encounters troubles. The passerby becomes angry, because he feels that his time is being wasted. The holeich, traveler, understands that this, too, is part of the trip's intended goal.
Rabbi Yosi did not fear the serious travelers who might encounter a Jew praying in the middle of the road. They would smile, move over, or wait patiently to continue their trip. It was the passersby, the overei derachim, who look only at their destination, and thus view anything that impedes their timely arrival and successful attainment of their goal as a reason for concern and anger.
Parshas Masei records forty-two journeys traveled by the Jewish nation on the way to the Holy Land. Each journey had specific significance and lofty goals. The journey itself was as purposeful as the destination was worthwhile.
These are the journeys of Bnei Yisrael. (33:1)
The adage, "Life is a trip," has greater meaning than one might think. Each of us travels on the journey called life, and, as occurs in many instances, not all travelers have the same experience. One can travel to a wonderful, beautiful vacation spot and still have a miserable experience. The other can go to a stark, cold, uninviting place and still have a great time. Different people have varied experiences as they go through life. For some, the trip is long and quite enjoyable; for others, it might be too short, and not much to write home about.
Once, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, Horav Yehudah Tzedakah, zl, was asked to console the bereaved parents of a young yeshivah student who had lived too short of a life. He was warned that the family was beyond grief, having taken this tragedy especially hard. The Rosh Yeshivah came to the modest home where the family was sitting shivah, observing the traditional seven-day mourning period. He entered the room, and everyone looked up. It was not a usual occurrence that the venerable Rosh Yeshivah went anywhere. Obviously, this was an unusual situation.
"Let me share a story with you," Rav Tzedakah began. "One day, a man who had lived his entire life in the wilderness visited the big city. This person had never been exposed to modern technology, having lived primitively with whatever he could scrounge together in the wilderness. Upon visiting the city he chanced upon a large 'moving box,' on wheels, or, at least, this is what he thought the bus was. He asked the people who were waiting in line to take their place on the bus, 'What is this?' 'It's a bus. One alights the bus, pays the fare, and takes a seat. The fare allows him to ride the bus to the end of the line, which is twenty stops.'
"It seemed like an incredible idea. Imagine buying a ticket that would allow him to travel for miles, throughout the city. It was absolutely incredible. Since he had no money, one of the kindhearted passengers gave him the necessary change. He paid for his ticket and proceeded to the nearest available seat.After only two stops, one of the passengers got off the bus. The man was surprised, 'Why would a person pay for twenty stops and get off after two?' he wondered to himself.
"Three stops later, four people left the bus. This increased the man's incredulity. Finally, he no longer could keep it to himself. He began to scream at the passengers who were leaving the bus, 'Where are you going? You paid for twenty stops. Why are you leaving prematurely?' The people were very patient with their responses, since they were well aware that he had never before seen a bus. 'These people live near the stop. If they were to ride the bus to the end of the line, they would have to go back and do the trip over again.'
"The nimshal, lesson, to be derived from here is very simple. Every person is sent down to this world for a purpose. Once he fulfills that purpose, he has reached his 'stop,' and it is now time to return to his original source in Heaven. Each and every one of us has his unique tafkid, goal and purpose, in life. The duration of our stay in this world is dependent upon our individual purpose. Your son had fulfilled his tafkid. He was then called 'home.'"
U'mibaladecha ein lanu melech, goeil u'moshia
Interestingly, we do not mention that we have no G-d, other than Hashem. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, quotes Yeshayahu HaNavi (44:6) who states: "So, said Hashem, King of Yisrael and its Redeemer, Hashem of Hosts: I am the first and I am the last, and besides Me there is no G-d." The intention of the pasuk is to teach that, with regard to the world, there is no other G-d. There is only one G-d for everyone: Hashem. It is unimportant what "others" might think. We know the truth: there is only Hashem, Who is G-d over the world - everyone included. With regard to His being King and Redeemer - that is a different story. Hashem is our King, our Redeemer. We do not have the monopoly on "G-d;" He is G-d to the entire universe. There is no G-d other than Hashem, but we have no King but Hashem; we have no Redeemer, but Hashem; we have no Savior, but Hashem. To us alone, He fulfills these functions of King, Redeemer, Savior.
Yaakov and Karen Nisenbaum and Family
In memory of our mother and grandmother
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