This week, we will read Parshas Mattos, recounting the voyage of the Jewish people throughout the desert and the stops they made along the way to the Promised Land.
Sifrei Kabbolah and drush are replete with deeper meanings and the significance of each station along Klal Yisroel’s journey through the midbar. They teach that the 42 masa’os correspond to the 42-letter name of Hashem, the holy “Sheim Mem Bais.”
The journey, with all its forks, turns, hills and valleys, was a necessary process to prepare the nation for acquiring Hashem’s land, Eretz Yisroel. As we study the parshah and follow the journey, we hop along for the ride, with our eyes and ears attuned to the mussar and chizuk encoded here. As we recount the difficult times and the exalted moments, we find direction for the masa’os of our own lives as well.
We know that whatever transpires to us is but a sentence in an unfolding autobiography. Chapters have been completed and many more remain to be written. We must forge ahead to our destiny, neither tiring nor being satisfied with past accomplishments, nor becoming bogged down by failure.
None of us knows which of our deeds will be the one that earns us eternal life. Something we say to someone today can have an impact in later years and bring the person around to a life of Torah. We can’t expect instant success and we must not be deterred by temporary failure.
I spent this past Shabbos in Oorah’s camp, The Zone. The stay there was invigorating and inspiring, offering much hope for the future. Under the Oorah umbrella, hundreds of children who would otherwise be spending their summers in surroundings foreign to Torah values are exposed to the beauty of the Torah way of life. Coming from public school, many experience Shabbos for the first time. An all-volunteer staff of bnei and bnos Torah runs separate camps for boys and girls. They touch their neshamos and light a tiny spark within them. Sometimes the spark touches off an immediate fire, while other times it takes a dozen years for the flame to glow. The organization stays in touch with the campers throughout the year in a bid to cause the flickering embers to stay lit.
The staff told me about twin sisters who had been in the camp in 2004, eleven years ago. The girls returned home, went to public school, and did not become Shabbos observant. The message finally hit home this summer, and they will be going to a seminary in Yerushalayim to get connected to Yiddishkeit.
The person who recruited them and the people who worked with them had no way of knowing that eventually they would come around. These devoted staff members work as hard as they can, with love and patience, and await each neshamah’s transformation and redemption. They earned their Olam Haba for things they said eleven years ago and had long forgotten. The seeds they planted lay dormant all this time. They have finally produced fruit.
In our daily lives, we have many opportunities to act positively and put things in motion. We never know how they will turn out, but if we work lesheim Shomayim and give it all we have, we will have written yet another chapter in our book, made the world a better place, and brought us all one step closer to Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh.
Adam le’ameil yulad. Man was created with the purpose of working hard towards a goal. Each of us has masa’os, trips, toward a destination. Some are smooth rides, while others are bumpier. There are many that are filled with “construction sites” and detours. Whichever masoh we are on, we must do what we can to ensure that we never stop moving forward.
During a visit to the United States, Rav Elya Lopian traveled to Rav Aharon Kotler’s yeshiva, Bais Medrash Govoah, in Lakewood, NJ. Asked to deliver a shmuess, he stood up and spoke for forty-five minutes. He then paused and said, “Un doss iz geven di hakdomah. That was the introduction.”
Worried that the elderly mashgiach was over-exerting himself, Rav Aharon interrupted to ask if he wished to rest before continuing. “No, no,” he responded. “Adam le’ameil yulad.”
Rav Aharon placed his head on his shtender and began to sob. He was a person who drove himself beyond what was considered human endurance, laboring in learning, providing leadership for the Torah community, and going from place to place raising money for Torah and causes. Yet, even he was inspired by the weak, elderly Rav Elya’s implicit mussar that man must never rest.
We have to dream large, for we each have great potential that can be realized if we keep sowing. We must all keep planting, building and hoping.
Following the tragic experience of the Eigel, Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Moshe of His displeasure with Klal Yisroel and His plan to wipe them out, as they are an am keshei oref, a stiff-necked people (Shemos 32:9). Moshe begged and pleaded on behalf of the people and attained forgiveness. He asked Hashem (34:9), “Please go in our midst, as they are an am keshei oref.” The same characteristic that was cited as the reason for their punishment was used as the reason for mercy.
The explanation is given that Moshe was arguing that the very middah that led them to sin would be a catalyst for their success. Stubbornness will be necessary, he was saying, for the nation that pledged to follow the Torah and mitzvos to carry faith in their hearts through a long and bitter golus, serving as ambassadors of kavod Shomayim in a dark world.
They were forgiven and have been stubbornly seeking perfection ever since.
When Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, famed author of the classic Kabbalistic work Leshem Shevo Ve’achlama, left Lithuania to move to Eretz Yisroel, he stopped in Radin, seeking a brochah from the Chofetz Chaim. The Leshem was accompanied by his young grandson, and he asked for a brochah for the boy as well.
“May he be a talmid chochom,” the Chofetz Chaim said.
The Leshem stood there without leaving, so the Chofetz Chaim continued. “May he know Shas.”
“Bavli and Yerushalmi?” asked the Leshem.
The Chofetz Chaim blessed the boy that he would know both.
The Leshem wasn’t yet satisfied. He persisted. “Safra? Sifri? Medrash?”
“Yes,” the elderly sage responded.
We know that boy as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, whose third yahrtzeit is marked this week. Surely, his mastery of Torah was a product of his diligence and determination, but that drive had its roots in the brochah he received in Radin. His grandfather and the Chofetz Chaim planted into his young psyche seeds of greatness. His entire life, he nurtured those seeds, never tiring in his pursuit of Torah proficiency.
Many people derived practical lessons from the recent jail-break and search, a story that captured the public’s attention for weeks. The two prisoners expended much effort to escape, working nightly on their scheme. Nothing deterred them. For every problem, they found a solution. They realized that their lives were on the line, so there was no room for pessimism. Doubtlessly, there were more than enough reasons for them to lose hope in breaking out, but they kept going.
Most writers and historians play up the image of the Jew in the ghettos and concentration camps as feeble and pathetic, submitting to their Nazi oppressors like sheep. Books by religious writers depicting the Holocaust era leave the reader astonished by the indomitable spirit of these Yidden. You are amazed, knowing that the Jews were stronger than any Nazi beast. Part of that strength was an acceptance of Hashem’s will, plan and design.
A jarring personal diary of a frum man on the run from the Nazis was recently published. Reb Chaim Yitzchok Wolgerlenter wrote for posterity so that the generations to come would know what befell him, his family and millions more. As I read his book I felt his pain, appreciated his faith and gained a fresh perspective on why we refer to victims of the Nazi Holocaust as kedoshim. The book is so heartrendingly sad that you want to stop reading it, but is so gripping that you can’t put it down.
The book overwhelms with dual feelings of sadness and of the majesty of the Jewish people. Reading the diary — and others like it – provides a perception of the tragedy of the entire Jewish exile since the churban, particularly during the Holocaust period. But the greatness of the eternal people is evident as well.
The words of the people fighting for their lives are infused with spirit, blood and tears in an elegy of death and of life. They died with the name of the L-rd on their lips as they paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the Creator.
Jews who died alone and together; lined up at forest pits and in ghettos; saying Shema Yisroel and singing Hallel.
The chevlei moshiach swallowed them up; in their merit we live and prosper in freedom.
Just weeks after the liberation of the concentration camps, the Klausenberger Rebbe led a large community of survivors in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp. The rebbe had lost a wife and eleven children in the horrors. If ever anyone had a reason for despair, it was he. Yet, he was filled with chiyus and words of hope. He spent his time restoring the will to live and faith in the One who gives life, never allowing despondency to show.
On the first Shavuos after the liberation, the rebbe wept.
“Ribbono Shel Olam,” he cried, “we endured the suffering and oppression with the hope of being redeemed, but not by soldiers. We dreamt of liberation, not by military personnel or armored trucks. We expected to see Your malochim. We thought that You would take us by the hand and lead us to our home in Yerushalayim. We were holding out for everything. We wanted to go all the way…”
On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the tragedy of the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh. We also mourn the loss of Beitar. While we commonly understand that the tragedy of Beitar was that tens of thousands of Jews were killed in that city by the Romans after the churban, the Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 5) describes it a little differently:
“A great city by the name of Beitar was captured. Inside it were many tens of thousands of Jewish people. They had a great king whom all of Yisroel and the rabbis believed was the king Moshiach. He fell into the hands of the gentiles and they were all killed. It was a great tragedy, as great as the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh.”
Rav Moshe Schapiro explains that the tragedy was that their king, Bar Kochva, who could have indeed been Moshiach, was killed. What could have been a period of redemption instead became one of destruction. Through their sins, an era that could have returned the Jews to the state they have awaited for since the chet hameraglim turned into tragedy. That is what we mourn on Tisha B’Av.
We have come so close to the redemption that we can hear the footsteps of Moshiach, and suffer from the chevlei Moshiach. Before Moshiach’s arrival, the tumah of the world increases, as the Soton fights to prevent his arrival. When the world will assume the state that Hashem intended, the koach hatumah will wilt. Amaleik will cease to exist after the geulah. So, in the period leading up to Moshiach, tumah rises and becomes strengthened, as the forces of evil endeavor to prevent the Jewish nation from reaching the levels that Hashem intended.
We must work hard. We must strengthen ourselves and seek to raise the levels of kedushah in this world so that it can overcome the kochos hatumah and permit Moshiach to reveal himself. It is plainly evident to anyone that tumah is spreading rapidly. It has a foothold everywhere. Many are entrapped in its clutches. The only way to fight back is through ameilus in Torah and maasim tovim. As the posuk states, “Tzion bemishpot tipodeh veshoveha betzedakah.” If we engage in righteousness and charity, we strengthen kedushah in the world and weaken the koach hatumah. When tumah is in its death throes, Moshiach can reveal himself and bring about the geulah.
Nisyonos abound. The test of greatness is how you handle a moment you didn’t expect. If you have fortified and energized yourself, you will be able to withstand difficult situations. The yeitzer hora won’t be able to destroy you. Even if you temporarily fail, you will be able to rebound.
The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, would say that following the awful tragedies of the Holocaust Hashem was about to bring Moshiach. As a taste of the redemption to come, He gave the Jewish people possession of the Land of Israel. It wasn’t complete ownership; it was in the hands of scoffers. The Bais Hamikdosh wasn’t returned; halachah did not rule. It was a taste of things to come. But the Jewish people were happy with the bone that had been thrown to them, so Hashem said, “If so, you aren’t deserving of the redemption,” and we were left with this small semblance of what could be.
Like two thousand years ago in Beitar, we were so close to redemption, but we transgressed. The blood that could have been the fuel of geulah was spilled in yet another churban.
When we abstain from swimming, music, and wearing new clothing, we should be cognizant of what is going wrong. In order to rectify our ways, we have to know where we erred. We must increase kedushah, battle tumah, and know that it is in our hands to bring about the geulah.
Let’s not settle for anything less.