I have to confess that I am not a country person. My family never had the custom to uproot to the Catskills for the summer and so neither did I when my own mishpacha grew, boruch Hashem. Our married children have apparently followed this pattern, although so many others automatically leave their homes this time of year. I was therefore caught off guard this past Shabbos when many of my baalei batim bid me adieu with “see you in Elul, im yirtzeh Hashem.” It’s been a long winter and I wasn’t even thinking of summer yet, and here they were all leaving in droves. One person who went to settle his family returned this morning to report gleefully that “the country is already humming with everything in place. Camps are arriving and the exodus is almost complete.” This awakened me to the thought that perhaps this is indeed all a microcosm of geulah, a reminder that eventually we will all leave our homes for a better place.
But then I remembered many years ago hearing one of the classic anecdotes of Rav Shalom Schwadron zt”l about his early visits to America. He arrived on a fundraising and speaking tour in late May, happily presenting his brilliant expositions to large appreciative crowds of listeners. Many had never heard a maggid, certainly not one of his greatness and talent, and an amazing combination of cries and laughter filled the air, moving his audiences and helping the mosdos he was representing in Eretz Yisrael. However, as he later told the story, one day he left his achsaniah early in the morning to daven vosikin, but the streets were nearly empty. There was almost no one in shul, leaving him extremely puzzled. To add apprehension to his bafflement, there was a loud bang outside the door that Sunday morning, and the elderly rov found a pile of papers in English that he could not read.
“Oy,” he thought. “During the night there must have been a gezeiras girush, a decree of exile, and this is the kesav geirush.” When he found out that all was boruch Hashem well, but everyone had “gone to the country,” he was relieved but more than puzzled. “Farvos?” he asked his hosts and others. “Wwhy does everyone leave their beautiful homes for tiny bungalows?”
Indeed, in those days, few people even had air conditioning or many of the comforts of home, and it certainly seemed on the surface like a mass expulsion.
That was the first time I heard the theory that the minhag to leave home during the summer actually stems from golus, not geulah. Gedolei Yisroel for hundreds of years used to wander for months, sometimes years, to achieve kapparah for themselves or Klal Yisroel. Perhaps, many thought, leaving home “in style” is a more tolerable way to prepare for Elul by “going into golus” than leaving home, chas veshalom, under duress. Indeed, today, the country is full of shiurim, Torah, gedolei Torah to visit and camps conducted al taharas hakodesh. But those gedolim who apparently began this process of spiritual escape sought hisbodedus – solitude – from the crowds and noise to engage in cheshbon hanefesh and critical introspection. Some of this has certainly been lost over the centuries. Furthermore, the phenomenon of husbands alone without their families for most of the week is not the healthiest situation, although some askanim of foresight have been organizing shiurim, vaadim and communal suppers that include divrei Torah and farbrengen with appropriate singing and ruach for the men on their own. I believe there needs to be much more.
With some trepidation, I would like to suggest a framework for this approach for the summer ahead. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh at the very beginning of his commentary on Chumash suggests that the very second posuk of the Torah, “veha’aretz hoysah tohu – the earth was astonishingly empty,” refers to Klal Yisroel in golus. He notes that Hashem wanted to make sure that we would not lose hope because of all the wandering in strange lands, so immediately afterward, the Torah records the immortal words: “let there be light.”
The Ramchal (Daas Tevunos 40), Kli Yokor (Bereishis 30:1) and Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Bereishis 2:17) all resonate with the theme that since exile brings kapparah – expiation – we should be thankful for the opportunity to obtain forgiveness and grow positively from the experience. The Sefas Emes (Vaera 5646) even goes so far as to say that “it is in golus that Klal Yisroel has its greatest opportunities for spiritual growth.”
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:47) also reminds us that “the avodah of Tishah B’Av comes to teach us what is worth lamenting and crying about [and what is not] which ultimately leads to closeness to the Shechinah and brings geulah itself.” All of this is in addition, certainly, to the necessary relaxation and enjoyment of gadlus haBorei the summer provides, but we should never forget about the upcoming days of Elul and Tishrei looming ahead.
This week’s sedra, Parshas Chukas, always coming at the beginning of the summer, offers another crucial dimension to this discussion. The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:4) records an extraordinary conversation between Hashem and Moshe Rabbeinu. When Hashem taught Moshe Parshas Emor, which details the tumah of kohanim resulting from contact with a corpse, he immediately asked, “Master of the universe, how will they become purified?” There was no immediate answer, which caused Moshe Rabbeinu great concern. Later, when Hashem revealed Parshas Chukas, Hashem told Moshe, “…I did not answer you then, but now I can tell you about the parah adumah.” Many meforshim are troubled by why Hashem did not answer Moshe right away (see, for instance, Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 3:99).
One of the answers is that all tumah – spiritual defilement – stems from death of some kind or unfulfilled potential. This, in turn, comes from man’s first sin, which introduced death and imperfection into the world. The antidote to that sin is our adherence to chukim, as personified by the parah adumah, which represents total subservience to Hashem, even when we do not understand why we are performing that particular mitzvah. As is well-known, parah adumah is not only incomprehensible, but actually counterintuitive. Fulfilling Hashem’s will in this way indicates eloquently that we are prepared to accept His word, regardless of our level of understanding. We are acting totally as the instrument, vehicle and servant of the Creator. That itself brings our redemption, for it creates the closest bond possible with our Divine Master.
Parshas Chukas is therefore our best preparation for either golus or least communion with Hashem wherever we are, because we demonstrate and truly mean that wherever we are, we are avdei and ovdei Hashem. The reason Hashem did not answer Moshe Rabbeinu immediately was because the parah adumah is not meant only as a purifier for one type of defilement. It is an eternal life’s lesson, which had to wait for a parsha of its own.
We, too, can access this teaching for our own summer growth. Becoming closer to Hashem does not depend upon physical place, for Hashem is called Hamakom, The Place. Wherever we are, we can and should utilize this precious time to become the people we want to be and can be when Elul comes rushing upon us, so that we will be prepared not only for judgment, but to stand proudly before Hashem as His newly purified children, ready to come once again into His loving embrace.