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Parshat Matot (5768)
This week we read the second to last Torah portion in the book of Numbers.
It begins with the laws of negating vows, continues with the spoils taken after defeating the nation of Midian and concludes with what happened when the tribes of Gad and Reuven decided not to settle in Israel.
This Shabbat is also the first in the 'Three weeks' of mourning before the 9th of Av when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed some 2,500 and 2,000 years ago.
The word Torah means 'teaching' and every idea therein teaches us how to live and bring the Creator into every aspect of our lives.
To understand this here is a story. (Shimu V'Tchi Nafsh'chem, Weber-Erlich #487).
Rabbi Yisroel of Koznitz (nicknamed the Maggid of Koznitz) lived some 150 years ago in Poland and had thousands of followers. Jews came from far and wide just to be in the same room or even see him from afar.
Physically he was not an impressive figure; thin, old, the picture of simplicity and humility. But spiritually he was a powerhouse; connected to the source of all energy.
One particular story is told of him that illustrates this perhaps better than the others.
Jews have a custom of going outside at night in the beginning of each month and saying a prayer called "Sanctifying the Moon."
One Saturday night after the finishing of the Sabbath, The Maggid of Koznitz was standing outside saying this prayer with tens of his followers. They were all still dressed in their best Sabbath garments and gave the impression of affluence.
It just so happened that a group of robbers passed by and when they saw such a large group of 'rich' unsuspecting fish with no one else around, their eyes widened in joy! They looked at their leader, got a wink of the eye and a nod of approval and, with screams of war, attacked.
But the Jews had two big advantages, first they were accustomed to running away and second, being after Shabbat, they had nothing in their pockets to slow them down. So when the marauders arrived they found only one old Jew left; the Maggid of Koznitz.
Not only did he not run, he was so engrossed in pouring his heart out to the Creator of the Universe that he was totally unaware that his faithful congregation had been replaced with vicious thugs.
The leader of the gang, a huge murderous fellow, annoyed by the situation, motioned to the others to wait while he approached the lone Jew. He cocked his fist back to punch the daylights out of him… but he couldn't. The Rebbe's face filled him with fear! He had never feared anything in his life, but now he felt as though he was about to fall from a mountain.
He was angry! He screamed and cursed hoping to drive the fear away and when that didn't work he spat in the Rebbe's face! But the Rebbe didn't seem to notice. He just finished his prayers, closed his prayer book and walked away.
Before the gang knew it they were alone. They looked to their leader for orders but he just stood there with terror in his eyes like a trapped animal. His massive arms hung limply like two sausages and his body was waving like he was about to fall. He was paralyzed!
They all ran to his aid, laid him down on the ground and put something under his head. He was paralyzed all right and it was obvious that their only chance was to find that Rebbe and beg him to reverse the spell.
They all ran in the direction the old Jew took but only a few hours later did they locate his house and were granted an audience.
Then, when they finally entered his room and were standing face to face with him alone they again became struck speechless until the Rebbe motioned to one of them.
"Rabbi" the robber cleared his throat and said, knees wobbling. "Holy Rabbi. Listen, we apologize for what we did. We're sorry! And we're willing to pay whatever you want if you just forgive us and bring our leader back. Please!!"
"Apologize? Pay money? Your leader? What are you talking about? I've never seen you in my life! Who are you? What do you want?" He replied earnestly.
They realized that this was no joke. This Jew had been in such a deep conversation with G-d before that he hadn't noticed anything! So the robber had no choice but to explain what had happened; how they attacked, how the Chassidim fled, how their leader was now paralyzed and how they hoped that the Rebbe would have mercy.
"If this is so," the Maggid replied. "Then it is very serious. Very serious. Your leader has to promise to never harm any Jew again. This is the only way he can reverse the curse he has brought upon himself."
"Oh! He does! He promises!" The spokesman replied as the others, eyes glued on the Rebbe, solemnly shook their heads in anxious agreement.
"No, no! You can't promise for someone else!" The Maggid said How do I know that he agrees? I want to hear HIM promise!"
"But Holy Rabbi! Our leader is frozen like a stone! He can't say anything!"
"Sorry, that's no excuse." He replied firmly, "You'll have to bring him here and he'll have to speak for himself."
They ran back to find their boss curled up on the ground like a baby weeping silently. With the greatest difficulty they carried his massive hulk to the Rebbe and laid him on the floor of the Rebbe's room.
"Talk!" The Rebbe looked at him and declared. "Do you promise to never harm a Jew again?"
"Yes Rabbi!" The huge man's mouth was hardly moving but he was miraculously managing to mumble. "Yes! Yes!! I swear! I swear! Please forgive me!! I will never harm! I will help Jews!! Please! Mercy!"
As soon as he said these words his body began to quiver, he began to weep like a baby and his gang lifted him to his feet. They put his arms around their shoulders and, thanking the Rebbe profusely, dragged him away.
They say that for the next few years his band of robbers did not stop their evil ways… but if they discovered that their victims were Jews they always left them alone. Indeed there were several times that they robbed other robbers, often with danger to themselves, in order to return stolen Jewish property.
Eventually the group disbanded and their leader retreated into the woods to live in solitude. The experience he had with the Maggid so shook up his evil self-certainty that his soul was churning within him.
After several years he again appeared in Koznitz but this time thin and humbled. He got an audience with the Maggid, begged to be allowed to convert to Judaism and spent the rest of his life saying psalms and helping others.
This answers our questions.
Our story is one of total self-transformation; from false, destructive egotism to true, constructive Judaism. So also the topics of vows, the war with Midian, the episode of Gad and Reuven and the three weeks:
A vow gives one power to overcome obstacles, temptations and difficulties and do what is right. But the power to overrule and negate vows (the topic of our weekly portion) is even higher than the vow itself. Namely, it is power that transforms us so the world no longer prevents us from doing what is right.
So the spoils of Midian; The Torah goes into great detail not about the war but with the aftermath. In other words how the enemy rather than opposing were 'transformed' to a source of wealth.
Similarly the tribes of Gad and Reuven, Moses thought that their refusal to enter and conquer Israel would lower the morale of the other tribes. But his worries became 'transformed' when they announced that, in fact they wanted to be the first into battle and nevertheless relinquish their portions to the other tribes.
This is also the purpose of these three weeks of mourning: not to feel miserable but rather to transform them into days of joy, happiness (See Zechariah 8:19) and blessing (like the Rabbi of Koznitz did with the robber).
As G-d promised, a great king will arise in Israel, return the Jews to Judaism, teach them Torah, fight their battles, build the Third Temple and gather them to the Holy Land. (See the end of Maimonides, Laws of Kings)
It's up to each of us! By following the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe we can transform ourselves and the world around us to bring...
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