This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Shoftim (5770)
This week’s Torah portion contains 38 commandments. Some will only be applicable when Moshiach builds the Third Temple (as soon as possible) like those that deal with the Holy Temple, the High Priest (Cohen Godel) or choosing the King. Some apply today like rejecting false prophets. But one stands out as very vital for everyday living: It is forbidden to be afraid of the enemy in battle.
This is a wonderful commandment but, at first glance it makes no sense. How we be commanded to control an EMOTION? It’s not as though G-d is commanding us to eliminate paranoia by seeing a psychiatrist. Here we are speaking of facing a real, blood-thirsty enemy! Perhaps we can be commanded not to retreat despite our fears. But how can we be commanded not to be afraid?
To understand this here is a personal story that occurred to me a few months ago when I was returning from Minnesota with my wife from a successful operation she had.
The minibus trip from our hotel to the airport took a bit over an hour due to the many stops to pick up passengers from other hotels.
The people in Minnesota are so typically friendly there’s even a saying to describe the phenomenon “Minnesota Nice”. But they are also very religious and in the month I was there I was confronted tens of times by genuinely friendly and well-meaning evangelists of different degrees.
Anyway, the mini-bus driver and I got to talking and as we approached the last hotel stop he said. “Hey, you’re Jewish, right rabbi?” I affirmed and he continued, “Well, this guy I’m pickin’ up now is a Jew too. Oh yeh! He’s a really cookie! Why, he’s over ninety years old! That’s right! Ninety! And he’s a veteran of World War Two. Hey, there he is now! Hey there mister ‘Stevens’ (I forgot his real name)! Howya doin there my friend!? Hey, we got a rabbi here for you, Mr. Stevens!”
Stevens was a lively, stocky fellow with Bermuda pants to his knees, an open short sleeve shirt under a thin unzipped jacket despite the February cold, with a large silver Jewish Star on a thin chain around his neck. He stuck out his hand to me and said in Yiddish, “Ahh, vos macht a Yid?” (How are you doing, fellow Jew?).
I shook his hand, said hello, he went to the back of the mini-bus saying something about needing room and put his small bag next to him. Because I am a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and like to see Jews do the commandments (especially easy-to-forget but important ones like putting on ‘Tefillin’ (‘Phylacteries’)) I took my Tefillin, went to the back of the bus, sat next to him, overcame the tens of reservations and doubts that came to my mind (it’s a waste of time, he’ll get mad, he’ll disgrace you, he might sue etc.) and asked him if he wanted to put them on.
“What, me?” he asked in amazement. “No way! Not me! I mean, thanks a lot but no, thanks! I mean, the last time I did that was at my bar mitzvah. That is… well… I think I did. I don’t really remember. I don’t think so. I was a pretty wild kid. Anyway, forget it! I’m not doing it!”
I asked rhetorically, “Mister Stevens, you’re Jewish, right?”
“Of course!” He replied.
“So if you’re Jewish you can’t really be normal, correct? I mean, if we Jews were normal we would have quit long ago. Right?”
He hesitated for a second and nodded his head yes.
“So,” I concluded “Do what Jews have been doing for over 3,000 years an put on Tefillin! Be young again like your Bar Mitzva! Today you are a man! What do you care about what anyone says?!”
He did it! He rolled up his sleeve, he repeated the blessings after me I put the Tefillin on his arm and head, he said Shma Yisroel and after a minute removed them. The whole thing took less than five minutes but it was enough to get everyone in the bus staring, looking at one another and shrugging their shoulders. They had never seen such a thing.
Mr. Stevens and I shook hands and just moments after I returned to my seat at the front, the man behind me got friendly asked me what the boxes (tefillin) were and after I explained asked me if I knew about the truth of gospels etc. and what I had to say about it. (like all the other Minnesota nice people I met.)
I answered that despite his religion being popular and inspiring it was totally unacceptable for the Jews. I pointed out that if the Jews accepted the Gospels not only would they cease doing what Mr. Stevens had just done, which he had to admit was pretty impressive, but there would be nothing wrong with Jewish men marrying non Jewish women which according to the Torah would produce non-Jewish children and destroy Judaism!
So how could anyone expect the Jews to accept such a thing that would destroy the commandments and the entire Jewish people?!
He smiled, shook his head and said rather sheepishly, “Yeh! I guess we did sort of make everything spiritual didn’t we?”
Then after a short pause he continued, “Tell me… and what happens if a non-Jewish man marries a Jewish woman? Because that is what I did.”
I told him what it seems he already knew; that the children would be Jewish.
Then I asked him if he wanted to know what the Jews believe. After all they received the Torah 1,500 years before his religion started. When he answered yes I told him,
“We Jews believe that G-d is infinite, He creates every creation in the universe constantly and He does it from pure love. He is infinitely close to us and listens to all our prayers. So it isn’t necessary to pray to spirits, ghosts, or even to the Jews which the Bible calls his only son (Exodus 4:22).
He thanked me, we shook hands and two minutes later a young man in his late teens who was sitting next to me cleared his throat and said he overheard my conversation and wanted to ask a question. “You said that G-d is infinite, right? So that means that He’s infinitely strict, right. So if He’s infinitely strict then when Adam sinned with the tree of knowledge it made an infinite blemish! So how can we possibly be forgiven for an infinite sin when we are just finite creations??”
I was a bit surprised by the question. It was very good and I told him so. He began to quietly answer ‘Therefore G-d gave His only son etc.’ but I interrupted and replied,
"Therefore G-d sent Abraham to show us how to fix up the sin of Adam.’
This totally threw him, he had never heard such an answer and, to tell the truth, neither did I! It just seemed like the right thing to say but suddenly I got an inspiration and continued. “And what you say about G-d being infinitely strict is certainly true. But you have to admit that G-d is also infinitely kind. Do you agree?”
“Err, I guess so.” was his reply. “So” I continued, “what do you think is stronger …..His kindness or His strictness?”
When he shrugged his shoulders I told him that I can prove that G-d’s kindness is greater. “Just take a look how G-d makes trillions upon trillions of animals, fish, birds, bugs, protozoa etc. each with its own circulatory, respiratory, digestive, nervous etc systems that, if there is the slightest malfunction or hole in even one of these systems it will die. This shows G-d’s infinite severity!
“But on the other hand” I continued, “G-d keeps CREATING all these beings! So this shows that G-d’s kindness is stronger than His severity.
“This,” I concluded “Was the message of Abraham and it’s what the Jews were ‘chosen’ for: namely to teach the world how good, and kind and close G-d is to us!”
I want to stress that this entire conversation was in very friendly and non-combatant tones, so when I saw that he was battling internally with the ideas so I added.
“You know why you are having trouble with all this? I’ll tell you why, my friend; because you think too much about yourself and about death. That’s why you aren’t happy! Think about life! Think about the Creator! Then you’ll turn life around! That will erase the sin of Adam!”
He shook my hand and said he had to leave. We had arrived at the airport at his terminal. Almost everyone except for me and my wife left the mini-bus and he was one of them.
As everyone went behind the bus and began taking their luggage from the back trunk I heard him say to the man who had been sitting behind me, “Here, dad, is this your suitcase?”
Only two hours later when my wife and I were on the plane flying to our connecting flight in New York to Israel did it occur to me! The boy sitting next to me was the son of the man that had been sitting behind me who had married a Jewess. The boy was in fact…. Jewish.
It all began with that 92 year old veteran.
This answers our questions. The Baal Shem Tov taught in his ‘Chassidic’ Judaism that man was put into the world to improve it and that and that G-d creates the world in such a way that within every life situation is a positive message calling to us to do our job and make an improvement.
That is why the Torah was given to the Jews: to teach us what needs to be improved (bad) and how to improve it (good).
But it takes a lot of work on our part because usually what must be improved is …. our attitude toward life. Like the young man on the mini-bus; to stop seeing only ourselves and start thinking about G-d and life.
That is what the commandment of not fearing the enemy means: If we treat the enemy as a challenge from G-d to be improved then we will sense the positive message in the situation and will have no fear (like the old veteran did before he put on Tefillin or me asking to put them on).
But if we think about OURSELVES then we fall into the hands of fear and doubts.
This will be the job of Moshiach (the Jewish King that we read in this week’s portion that it is a commandment to elect) to dispel all doubts (Amalek = ‘Suffik ‘doubt’) and put meaning into every detail of the entire world.
It all depends on us to bring Moshiach even one moment sooner and thus stop the pain and suffering of billions of people one moment sooner.
One good deed, word or even thought can bring…
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