It was back when the iron-horse railroad was coming to Russia and the transportation ministry planned to lay thousands of miles of track upon which trains would crisscross the giant country. When the plans were publicized, chassidim discovered that they called for a track directly over the kever of the Baal Hatanya. Alarmed, they sent a delegation to the minister of transportation and appealed to him.
They arrived for the meeting and pleaded their case. “Maybe you don’t appreciate what a rebbe means to us, so allow us to explain. He is more than a teacher and a guide. He represents life itself.”
The minister cut them off. “You don’t have to explain it to me. My brother and my father are religious. In fact, I was also religious until I was seventeen years old. I know what a rebbe is and what he means to you.”
The delegation was shocked and thought that they were about to catch a lucky break, but then the man continued talking.
“I was in yeshiva, when I decided that I wanted to join the Russian army. I became fixated with it. I didn’t want to give up religion; I just wanted to become a soldier. My father was worried that I would lose my connection to Yiddishkeit and begged me not to go, but nothing he said impressed me.
“My father was a Stoliner chossid. In a last-ditch effort, he asked me to go with him to the rebbe [Rav Shlomo Karliner, whose yahrtzeit was on Sunday]. I obliged. We entered the rebbe’s room. The rebbe appeared to be on fire, his face radiant and his eyes alight, totally connected to Hashem. The force of holiness was so strong that my father could not open his mouth to speak for the first few minutes. Finally, he gathered his courage and told the rebbe of my intentions to join the military, how I refused to listen, and his fears that I would become a goy.
“The rebbe’s face grew red, his countenance aflame, hot tears streaming down his face as he turned to me and begged, ‘Efsher doch, efsher doch. Maybe, maybe [you’ll change your mind].’
“I turned him down and went to the army, and as you see, I am so far gone, you didn’t dream that I knew what a rebbe is. I know the power of a rebbe, and every time I do an aveirah, those pleading words of the rebbe ring in my ears. ‘Efsher doch, efsher doch.’”
It’s the Three Weeks, the time we mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. We mourn that we are in golus. Our enemies gang up on us and we hear those words, “Efsher doch, efsher doch,” ringing in our ears. Maybe this will be the year we fix ourselves and make our way back.
Efsher doch, efsher doch. Maybe this will be the year we will be set free and get to go home. The sick will be healed, the abused comforted, and the homeless will be back at home in the land that is ours.
The posuk states, “Umikneh rav hayah livnei Gad velivnei Reuven” (Bamidbar 32:1). The children of shivtei Gad and Reuven did not want to join the rest of Klal Yisroel to continue on to Eretz Yisroel, the land they and their forefathers had been yearning to reach for hundreds of years. Why were they so connected to the land of Eiver HaYardein?
The rebbe of Peshischa interprets the words “mikneh rav” homiletically as a reference to the “kinyan” bond of these shevotim with their “rav,” their mentor and rebbi who had led them over the past few decades. They worried that in Eretz Yisroel, despite the opportunities for growth, they would be lacking the identity that comes with having a rebbi and would forget who they are and where they came from. They felt that since Moshe was buried in Eiver HaYardein, staying there would maintain their connection to who they are meant to be. Rightly or wrongly, they preferred being rooted outside the Promised Land to feeling rootless within the sacred embrace of Eretz Yisroel.
While some may not agree with the premise of the thought, it goes to the heart of the challenges we have faced throughout the long golus. People have found it difficult to remember who we are and where we come from, where we are headed and what our mission is. Sometimes, the stresses and distractions of everyday living threaten to overtake and engulf us and we forget.
Megillas Esther (2:5-6) introduces us to Mordechai by stating, “Ish yehudi haya b’Shushan habirah ushemo Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini. Asher hugla m’Yerushalayim. There was a Jewish man by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, from the tribe of Binyomin (see Megillah 12b and Rashi), who had gone into exile from Yerushalayim.”
Who was he? A Jew, who followed in the ways of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, with the traditions of shevet Binyomin. He never forgot who he was. And he never forgot where he came from. He was an exile, a survivor of the churban, who longed to return home, no matter how comfortable his golus experience was.
Rav Michel Twerski told of a distinguished chassidic rebbetzin, a child of great tzaddikim, who was confused towards the end of her life. Once, when a hospital aide asked her for her name, the rebbetzin was experiencing a difficult moment. She replied, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” Then, she sat up straight and, with all her dignity, she continued, “But I do know whose I am.”
We go to Eretz Yisroel and traverse the Holy Land, tear kriah at the sites of the churban, stand at the Kosel and imagine what was and what will be, and daven at the kever of the avos, imahos and Rochel Imeinu. We feel their presence and beseech Hashem to help us in their merit. We walk on the derech ha’avos, where our forefathers trekked to Yerushalayim to be oleh regel and go to Shilo, the site of the Mishkon before the construction of the Bais Hamikdosh. And wherever we go, a chill runs down our spine. We feel connected to who we are and where we come from.
At great expense, people travel to the alter heim in the countries of Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia, Germany and elsewhere. They visit the old botei medrash, shuls, yeshivos and cemeteries to remember where they come from and what their mission is.
The struggle in golus is remembering who we are and hearing the call of “efsher doch,” reminding us that maybe we can find the way back to where we belong.
In the early nineteenth century, the government eased restrictions on Pressburg’s Jews, allowing them rights of residence. Many rejoiced, but the Chasam Sofer became worried. “Why is our Father making us more comfortable in an alien land? Why isn’t He making us welcome at home, in His house?” he asked.
Every year, as we bentch Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av, the cheerful blessing generates bittersweet emotion. A new month usually brings smiles and hopes for a fresh start. But this Shabbos, as we recognize that a new month is about to dawn, the fact that it is Av, with its undertones of melancholy, causes our hearts to sink.
The period of national sadness begins on the 17th day of Tammuz, increases with the start of Chodesh Av, and peaks on Tisha B’Av.
Throughout our history, the first week of Av has seen wrenching, catastrophic events for the Jewish people. That legacy of sorrow and disaster continues. It’s a sadness shrouded in this rootlessness, a sense that things are not as they should be and we are not where we should be.
As we enter Chodesh Av, we wonder what we can do to reverse that cycle and when it will end.
Our search for a ray of hope begins with the awareness that the root of all our sadness and misery is the churban Bais Hamikdosh. We reflect on the Gemara in Maseches Yoma (9b) that teaches that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because we did not properly observe the halachos of avodah zora, gilui arayos and shefichas domim.
The Gemara says that at the time of the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh, the Jews were proficient in Torah and gemillus chassodim. What brought about that churban was sinas chinom.
We’ve heard it so many times, but apparently we need to continue hearing that since sinas chinom caused the churban, the final redemption cannot occur until we have all repented for that sin, cleansing ourselves of the senseless hatred that seems to accompany the Jewish people wherever we are.
The parshiyos that we lain this Shabbos, Mattos and Masei, are always read during the period of the Three Weeks. They deal with the connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel. We are connected to that land not only as a nation, but also as individuals.
Chodesh Av is about connection. It is about a relationship that was severed, to ultimately be renewed. We are working towards returning to our cheilek in Eretz Yisroel.
The parshiyos contain the seeds of our geulah; lessons for us to improve our behavior in golus in order to merit our share in Eretz Yisroel.
Parshas Mattos begins with the laws of nedorim and shavuos, different types of vows and promises a person makes, and the obligation “not to defile your words and to do whatever you said you would” (30:3).
In our society, words are cheap. They are thrown around aimlessly and carelessly, sometimes in a bid to impress and sometimes just to pass time. In the Twitter generation, everything is superficial, most of all words. They are conduits used to express thoughts and feelings that contain facile meaning and no depth. Little thought goes into what is said, or written, and therefore words carry no weight.
But we know that words are so much more than that. Words are life itself.
There was a time when people valued written and spoken words, when they perceived the inherent value of every utterance.
They were people of depth who appreciated the meaning of words. Their words carried weight, and were honored.
We are quickly losing that. In our society, words should have meaning. Meaning also has to have meaning. We should not be focusing on external values, such as financial worth, supposed status and impressions. We must not be superficial. The world is too dangerous a place for us to act without information and without thought. Too often, we express opinions and act based on feelings and not facts, emotions and not intellect. To do so is folly and can have drastic consequences.
Words affect us and other people. To end the golus and help rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh, we should think before we speak and ensure that our speech is neither hurtful nor insulting.
Once, in midst of a telephone conversation with Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, the line was suddenly disconnected, another reality for those unfortunate souls in our federal correctional system. They wait on line for a chance to place a phone call, and then their connection to the outside world goes dead.
I felt bad for him and went back to what I was doing. For him, it was a bigger deal. The next day, we reconnected. He said that when the line went dead, he was very sad. “I was waiting to talk to you, and when I finally got through, you were gone and I was alone again.”
I asked how he gets over those feelings and remains in good spirits. He matter-of-factly responded, “When we got disconnected, I was sad, so I ran to my Gemara and began learning. Torah lifts me up. Learning Torah makes me happy.”
The power of words.
A man isolated from family and friends, deprived of a connection to his loved ones, Reb Sholom Mordechai is sad because of a conversation cut short. When cut off from those treasured words of love, he finds comfort in the holy words of the Torah and comes alive once again.
Words have the power to break and the power to repair. Words heal and words sicken. Words bring people together and words separate people. The words we use have lasting repercussions.
The Stoliner Rebbe’s efsher doch and the potency of his holy words live on.
And sometimes, when a tzaddik speaks, the inherent sincerity can melt a soul too. A young man, a child of Gerrer chassidim, survived the horrors of World War II with his body intact but his faith shattered. He was done with religion.
He became friendly with a girl he met and became engaged to her. He bumped into the man who had been his mashgiach when he was in yeshiva, the prominent Gerrer chossid, Rav God’l Eisner.
The former chossid informed the mashgiach that he was engaged and that the young woman wasn’t Jewish.
Rav God’l smiled and said to the survivor, “Mazel Tov. Wonderful.” He shook hands with the former student and then quietly, quickly added, “Ubber fort, ess past nist fahr ah Gerrer chossid. What you are planning to do is unbecoming for a Gerrer chossid.”
The words struck the young man’s heart with the force of a hammer’s blow. The words triggered introspection and with time he remembered who he was and where he came from.
As we complete the laining of the parshiyos this week, we exclaim together, “Chazak chazak venischazeik.” We cry out a resounding message to each other and to ourselves. We repeat a word that is laden with power: Chazak. Be strong.
With that, we complete another sefer in our march towards the Torah’s conclusion. We internalize the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s passage through the midbar and try to learn the lessons that this seder has presented, so that we may be strong and strengthened. We say chazak.
Study the words of the Torah and you will be strong. Share the words of the Torah and you will be strengthened. Say it together again and again. Appreciate the power of words and use them properly.
Make the ikkar the ikkar and the tofel the tofel. Remember what our priorities are. In every decision, as you contemplate your various considerations, remind yourself of your identity.
Efsher doch, efsher doch. May this be the year.