This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Matot-Massei (5770)
This week we read two Torah portions. The first, called Mattot, contains two commandments, both dealing with vows. The second called Masai begins on a strange note: a detailed list of the forty two journeys and stop offs (encampments) that the Jews made in the course of the 40 years that they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt.
This is strange because the Torah is supposed to teach us lessons in life (Torah means ‘Teaching’) but here there seems to be no lesson. Nothing of significance happened at most of these journeys and stops and today no one knows, or even cares exactly where they were!
So what is the Torah teaching here us by listing them?
Not only that but the Torah introduces them saying, “These are the JOURNEYS (Masai) of the Jews as they left Egypt.” Why does it use the word Journeys (and even call the entire Torah portion ‘Journeys’) when, in fact, it lists only the encampments where they STOPPED!? The chapter should be called “Encampments”! Why ‘Journeys’?
To understand this, here are two stories I just heard.
The first occurred some 50 years ago in Brooklyn and is about a religious Jew who learned Torah, kept all the commandments and appeared to be the picture of self-control and maturity. But he had a problem; perhaps you could call it a character flaw; a bad temper.
First he got mad at work and people began shunning him… so he just justified himself and kept away from others. Then once he got mad at the boss and got fired. So he just found another job, made more excuses and vowed to pick his ‘battles’ more carefully. But then he ‘flew off the handle’ a few times at his next door neighbors, then at his clients, at his brothers and sisters, his parents and his wife (of course each time he was right and had ‘good’ reasons) until eventually he understood what everyone told him… he needed professional care.
So he went to doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, took alternative medicines, did meditation, underwent hypnosis and group therapy but nothing helped. It just jumped on him from nowhere; someone would cut him off on the road or bump into him at a restaurant etc.
Finally someone suggested that there was a Rabbi called The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn who might be able to help. He also didn’t charge money and often did miracles to help people. So although our hero didn’t know anything about Rebbes he decided to give it a try. He had nothing to lose. He was desperate and it certainly couldn’t be less successful than what he had tried up to now.
He made an appointment and a few days later was in a large Victorian shaped building in the Crown Hights area of Brooklyn standing in a short line of people before the Rebbe’s door. The line was quiet; some people were reading Psalms and they got more and more serious and nervous as they got closer to the door and their turn approached.
Finally he was next. The door opened, the man before him backed out eyes red perhaps from crying and he entered. He closed the thick highly polished door behind him and approached the Rebbe’s desk. The room was very quiet and brightly lit. The Rebbe told him to be seated, which he instinctively did not do, rather he handed the Rebbe the piece of paper upon which he had been told to write his request and waited for a reply.
The Rebbe took it, read it carefully and looked up at him. “You have a bad temper and get angry? Is it really so bad that you must see me for this? Have you seen doctors?”
“Yes” he replied “But they didn’t help.” The Rebbe didn’t reply.
“But it is bad. Err, that is, sometimes get mad at my family, especially my son and, well, I hit him. I know it’s wrong but I hit him, he makes me angry.” He was crying a bit now but he continued. “So I want a blessing to stop and that’s why I came to you.”
“Tell me,” The Rebbe answered, “Would you ever beat your next door neighbor’s child if he made you angry?”
“My next door neighbor’s child!? No, Rebbe, I wouldn’t do that. I mean, I’m not that out of control. My next door neighbor’s child is not mine. He is someone else’s son.”
“Your child belongs to G-d.” the Rebbe replied. “He doesn’t belong to you.”
He was stunned. It took him a few seconds to recover mumble some words of thanks and back out of the room. He never struck his child or lost his temper again. After all, the entire world and everyone in it, including himself, belongs to G-d.
The second story is about a religious Jewish family whose seventeen year old son wanted nothing to do with Judaism; a heartbreaking tragedy. To religious Jews the Torah is more than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… how could their own flesh-and-blood reject everything they lived for?! It’s like how George Washington would feel if his son didn’t believe in the Declaration of Independence!
They tried everything: They got blessings from Tzadikim, prayed, gave charity, and fasted. They consulted experts, Rabbis, his friends, his past teachers, doctors and got all these people to talk to their son. But it all failed miserably.
Then someone suggested that they see a great public speaker in Bne’ Brak by the name of Rabbi Segal.
This Rabbi Segal had a lot of experience convincing non-observant Jews to get interested in Judaism but after the boy’s parents explained the situation, Rabbi Segal had to admit that he had no solution. He personally knew that many of the experts who been involved were the best in the field, what could he add?!
In desperation Rabbi Segal asked the family if there was any religious Jew in the world that their son respected.
“Yes.” Was their immediate reply; “His grandfather in America. In fact he talks to his grandfather on a regular basis, maybe even a few times a week. But the grandfather refuses to talk to him about Judaism. So what good would he do?”
Rabbi Segal said he wanted to talk to the grandfather and in moments they were on the phone (The one who told the story said he heard that Rabbi Segal flew to personally meet the grandfather but wasn’t sure).
Rabbi Segal told the grandfather he just wanted to help and asked why is it that he doesn’t try to bring the boy back to Judaism being that he is the only one the boy is willing to speak to.
The boy’s grandfather answered. “You want to know why he calls me? Because he knows I’ll listen to him, that’s why. He knows I’ll listen with no strings attached, that I totally accept him as he is and that’s why he calls me.
“And you want to know why I accept him as he is? Well I’ll tell you.
“When I was about his age, maybe a bit younger it was in the early thirties. We lived in Poland. I also didn’t like sitting in the Yeshiva (Torah academy) learning Talmud all day. I did a few of the commandments and kept the Shabbat and all that, but to my parents I was a catastrophe; they wanted a ‘Talmid Chacham’ that sat and learned all day. They were ashamed and angry at me but what could I do. I didn’t like to be cooped up.
“So I used to wander the streets, go into stores, talk to people. I liked people, all kinds of people I loved to talk with them and listen. Anyway, this was in the early thirties just before the war so I hear people, the gentiles in the street, saying that someone called Hitler took over Germany and was making laws against the Jews. So I ran home and told my parents.
But you know what they said? They said ‘Who are you? Do you learn Torah? No! You just wander around all day listening to ignoramuses like yourself, and now you want us to listen too?’ So they didn’t listen. But I didn’t give up.
“A few days later I heard that this Hitler was preparing for war and talking about conquering and killing people. So I went home again and told my parents but they just didn’t want to listen to me. Everyday for a few weeks I tried to warn them, but they kept calling me names and finally ignored me totally. Even when I told them I scraped up money on my own and bought a ticket to sail to America and begged them to please buy tickets too they didn’t listen. So I left Poland alone and went to America.
“You know what happened? I was the only one in my family that survived. My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters; the Nazis killed them all.
“From then on I vowed that I would never ignore anyone in my life…. especially not my own flesh and blood. That is why I’m the only one that listens to my grandson. He’ll come back to Judaism for the same reason I did… because it’s the truth, not because his parents or anyone else wants.”
This answers our questions.
Life never stands still. Indeed, the absence of life is marked by the cessation of growth and change.
According to the teachings Torah, G-d creates each of us and the entire creation around us constantly … with a purpose; to be His partners; namely to change, grow and use our free will to improve the world as He wants. That is the truth.
The Baal Shem Tov (originator of the Chassidic movement in Judaism) stressed that this is reflected in these 42 journeys. Each journey represents a crossroad, a decision in life that each of us must experience and try to utilize for the best.
Each Jew must make them.
That is why the Torah calls them ‘Journeys’ and not encampments; to stress that the main thing is to keep moving, to keep alive, the seek the truth and change ourselves and the world for the better…. constantly.
Just like in our first story when the Rebbe told the angry father ‘Your son belongs to G-d, not to you’. Don’t camp out, and think you are the boss. Rather let G-d be the King of the Universe and keep progressing.
If you choose to be His partner according to the Torah you will make the journeys of life without ever getting mad.
So too in the second story; the boy’s parents refused to make the journey. They could not accept (as the grandfather did) that G-d created their son differently in order to serve Him uniquely.
This, ultimately, will be the job of Moshiach; to bring the journeys to their culmination in “Yardain Yerecho” (33:48). Namely to bring Moshiach who will build the third Holy Temple and gather all the Jews to Israel (Rambam, Laws of Kings 11:1) in a totally meaningful and blessed world.
It all depends on us to change ourselves and the world for the better; to learn and internalize the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (see your local Chabad House for details) and bring Moshiach even one moment sooner.
Just one more good deed, word or even thought can bring the end to the journeys, tilt the
scales and bring …
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