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Parshat Shoftim (5766)

This week's Torah portion contains thirty-eight mitzvot or commandments, the most far-reaching of which concerns the Cities of Refuge (Deuteronomy 19:1-13).

This commandment enjoins us to designate nine cities in the Land of Israel as refuge places for any Jew who accidentally kills through negligence or recklessness.

If he makes it to one of these cities before he is caught by the relatives of the victim, he will be safe. But if not, or if he happens to step outside of its boundaries, they have the right to kill him.

Three of these cities were created by Moses east of the Jordan River.

Three more were made by Joshua in Israel after conquering it.

And the last three will be made by the King Moshiach in the lands promised by G-d to Abraham (Genesis 15:18-20), which will be conquered from our Arab enemies (Deut. 19:8,9; see Rashi there) as soon as possible!

This last point about Moshiach making Cities of Refuge, says the Rambam (Laws of Kings 11:1,2), is a proof that:

1) Moshiach will not just do spiritual things in the World-to-Come (as the idolaters say) but he will make real changes in this world, and

2) that he MUST come; this is law of the Torah and G-d would does write a law in the Torah for nothing.

This is very encouraging but, at first glance, it doesn't make much sense.

According to Rambam, and no one disagrees with him (Laws of Kings 12:5), Moshiach will build the Temple, gather the Jews, fill the world with the knowledge of G-d, and bring world peace, prosperity, health, joy, meaning, and blessing to all mankind.

Couldn't the Torah pick a bit happier commandment to assure us of his arrival than the one about Cities of Refuge?

Even more, what will we need such cities for in the days of Moshiach?! Surely there won't be any accidental homicide!

To understand this, here is a story:

Rabbi Dov Ber or the Maggid of Mezritz, as he was called by the chassidim, was the ultimate Jew.

He knew every book in Judaism, including the books of Kaballah, by heart, had the power of prophesy, and was never wrong.

He was the prize pupil and successor of the Baal Shem Tov, whose pupils -- although they were as versed in the Torah as he and were great tzadikim [perfectly righteous men] -- nevertheless could not match his holiness.

Once, one of his pupils suffered a tragedy -- his son refused to be a chassid.

This might be a bit hard for us to understand but it would be something like George Washington's son declaring loyalty to the King of England and rejecting American independence. Unheard of!

Similarly, the Chassidic movement came to enliven Judaism and unite all the Jews by awakening each and every Jewish soul. To see any Jew, especially the son of a chassid, reject this was unbearable.

So the chassidim talked it over and decided the only way to bring him back was by scaring him into it.

The only thing that would do the job would be to threaten him with a cherem.


is loosely translated as excommunication but what it really means is a lot of spiritual and physical trouble. It requires ten Jews of impeccable character and complete knowledge of the Torah to perform certain rituals and say certain statements basically cursing some poor transgressor. Although those making this cherem also put themselves into danger, nevertheless, the victim would likely suffer in this world and, even worse, in the next as well.

But the question was if, in fact, they should resort to such an extreme measure. True, they didn't really intend to actually make the cherem, only to scare him with it, but nevertheless to even suggest such a thing was playing with fire.

They decided to ask their leader, the Maggid.

With fear and trepidation they wrote their question on a paper and handed it to him at the first opportunity.

The Maggid looked at the request and wrinkled his brow. He said he would give an answer as soon as possible but the fact was he couldn't come to a conclusion as to what to do . . . for some reason his usual crystal clear spiritual vision was clouded.

He decided that he had no choice but to make a Shaalat Chalom . . . a dream request.

There are several ways this can be done: one of them is to write a question on a piece of paper, put the paper under one's pillow before sleep, and in the morning the answer is found miraculously written there. In any case, it is something that requires great purity of mind, body, and soul.

The Maggid did what was necessary and in the morning his answer was there:

"Ask Zalmani."

Zalmani was a nickname for Sheur Zalman of Liadi, the youngest and, in many ways, the most gifted of the Maggid's pupils (who, in the course of time would become the author of the Tanya, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, and the founder of the Chabad movement).

The Maggid called him, told him the entire story including the answer he received to his Shaalat Chalom, and asked for his opinion.

Shneur Zalman thought for a moment and replied.

"The word cherem can be written with the letter ches in the beginning, in which case it means a curse. But the same word can be written with a chof, which case it means a vineyard (see Deut. 23:25).

"So my opinion is," he continued, "that the chassidim should go to this young man, put on very stern faces, and threaten him saying that they will put him in cherem if he doesn't change his ways. They will intend putting him in a vineyard but he will think they mean excommunication, which will scare him into reconsidering his path in life and to return home.

The Maggid called the chassidim, told them what Zalmani said, and they practiced it a few times speaking in their most intimidating voices until they felt they were ready.

They dressed in black, located the boy, put on a frighteningly convincing performance and . . . it worked! The boy began to weep, admitted he only did it because he wanted an easy life, and returned with them.

But when the Maggid heard what happened -- although he was happy for the lad's change of heart -- he was also concerned.

If his chassid Zalmani had more insight than he did himself, then perhaps Zalmani would make a better leader! Perhaps he should hand over the mantle of leadership to him.

He couldn't decide what to do so he took the same course of action. That evening he made another Shaalat Chalom, a dream question: Should he abdicate in favor of Zalmani or not? And the next morning there was a reply:

"Ask Zalmani."

Again the Maggid went to Shneur Zalman and unfolded the entire story including the second reply. But this time much more was at stake. It could be that the chassidim would have a new leader.

But his young chassid just smiled and shook his head "no."

"You are the leader," Shneur Zalman said with certainty. "And precisely for that reason you could not have given the advice I gave." He waited a moment and continued.

"True, what I said about changing the letter of the word cherem was the best solution. It worked and it was for everyone's benefit, and it didn't entail any lying or force.

"But nevertheless it did contain a small kernel of falsehood. After all, we did trick that boy.

"In other words . . . it wasn't PURE truth (emet l'emito).

"And because you are a Rebbe and a Rebbe has no connection to anything other than pure truth, in fact you are the only pure truth in the world, that is why you couldn't have given that solution."

This answers our question.

The main accomplishment of Moshiach is that he will reveal pure truth . . . and it will be in a way that ALL mankind will be able to internalize it.

This will be even greater than the miracles done by Moses . . . because Moses did not succeed in changing the insides of the Jews. Try as he did, the Jews were still concerned more with serving themselves than serving the Creator.

They had the truth, the Torah, but not PURE truth.

(This, incidentally, is why the first book of the Torah, Genesis, contains no commandments, rituals, or prayers because it is teaching us the true attitude and foundation of Judaism revealed by the forefathers: complete sacrifice for pure truth.)

Therefore, in the days of Moshiach, ALL the other religions will cease to exist and for the same reason there will be no war, disease, and misfortune; the world and all mankind will become refined, striving for pure truth and concerned with worshiping only the Creator.

So this is why there will be three more Cities of Refuge and why they, more than anything else, indicate the coming of Moshiach.

Because then, any diversion from pure truth will be tantamount to spiritual murder, albeit unintentional because no one will willfully do such a thing, but spiritual murder nonetheless.

And the Cities of Refuge will have the purpose of teaching and educating mankind to walk in the path of the Torah and thirst for pure truth.

And the preparation for all this is the teachings of Chassidut, especially as it is taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (see your local Chabad House for instructions) to make us yearn and long for PURE truth.

It's up to us to make it happen even one moment sooner by declaring "We want....

Moshiach NOW!

Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

(5760- )



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