This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Matot (5771)
This week's Torah portion begins with the laws of vows and the importance of "Keeping your promises" (30:3).
This Shabbat is also the first in the 'Three weeks" of mourning the destruction of the First and (490 years later) Second Temples about 2,000 years ago.
Vows are very potent. They give the power to rise above the distractions and temptations of external and internal nature. For instance if a short tempered person vows never again to get angry then, as long as the vow is before his eyes nothing in the world will make him mad.
But, if a vow is not kept, that same power can backfire with serious repercussions. Therefore today we are advised not only to refrain from making vows but even to declare "Bli Neder" (I'm not vowing) after simple promises. So vows are basically obsolete.
But the Torah is eternal and the word Torah means 'Teaching'. In other words, every idea in the Torah is a vital and eternal lesson for every moment and every situation in our lives.
According to this vows are even more relevant today then they seem to have been in past; they not only apply to the unique occasions when we take vows but every moment of our life.
To understand this here is a story I heard recently about a pupil of the Baal Shem Tov.
Some 250 years ago in the Ukraine a Pupil of Besh't (Baal Shem Tov) was asked to accept the job of Rabbi in a small town that he had never heard of. He was told that some 5,000 Jews lived there and he had been highly recommended.
He asked the Besh't if he should accept the job and when the answer was positive he gathered his family together with his few belongings, loaded up their wagon and moved there without even seeing the place. If the Besh't said to take the job there was no room for doubts.
After he arrived and got settled, that very day he took a tour of the town, and discovered to his dismay that the first thing he asked to see: the women's Mikva (immersion pool built to Torah specifications for Jewish women) was not fit for use and was beyond repair. A new Mikva had to be built.
The Rabbi gathered the elders of the community demanded an explanation (A Mikva is more essential to a Jewish community that even a Synagogue) and discovered that the reason nothing had been done was lack of funds. Everyone Jew in the town was on the verge of poverty (as were 99% of Russian Jewry) except for one wealthy man who was separated from his wife, had no need for the Mikva and was totally unwilling to co-operate.
But he was the only hope the Rabbi had. So he said a prayer, knocked on his door and hoped for the best. The rich man warmly invited in and treated to what seemed like genuine hospitality.
"I understand that you probably have come regarding the Mikva, correct Rabbi? Well, first of all allow me to congratulate you on your new appointment in our community. Secondly, you probably heard unfavorable things about me from the congregation. Well the fact is that I have been ignoring their requests for help because I need help myself and I'm sure that none of them cares.
"But I'm sure you, Rabbi, are different. And if I'm right ….. you have yourself a new Mikva for the entire congregation.
"Let me get to the point, Rabbi. I understand you are a pupil of the Baal Shem Tov. Correct? Well, being a pupil of the holy Baal Shem Tov I'm certain that you possess supernatural powers, correct? Well, I need a supernatural favor and if you help me, I'm willing to not only pay for an entire new Mikva, I'll give you as much money as you want.
"You see, my wife and I don't get along. In fact we hate each other. I would like to divorce her but she is demanding that I give her all my money and possessions first. So we now live apart and both of us are suffering."
The Rabbi said, "What would you like me to do? To talk to her? I'll be glad to try to make peace and …."
But the miser cut the rabbi short, shook his head no and said. "I've tried that. In fact I've tried everything. There is only one solution….that she should, well, leave. If you know what I mean…. Up there." And the miser pointed up to heaven.
"What?!" Gasped the Rabbi. "Are you implying that I should end someone's life? Why that is insane! And it's totally forbidden. How can you even request such a thing?! It is against everything the Besh't stands for."
But the miser wasn't moved. "Listen Rabbi, do you want the Mikva?" The Rabbi shook his head yes. "I mean, the entire congregation is suffering, hundreds of people, even thousands! And, well…. about my wife…. after all, everyone dies eventually, don't they? And as things are she is miserable. I am miserable, the entire town is miserable. So really what am I asking you? Only to make peace in Israel! Nu? Do we have a deal? Do I have your word? I'll trust you! I'll build the Mikva and you take care of her….. okay? Everyone benefits! Is it a deal?" The miser stuck out his hand, the Rabbi thought for a minute, took it and the agreement was made.
That Shabbat in Synagogue before the reading of the Torah an announcement was made that, after much work from the Rabbi the rich man wanted to make an announcement. He stood, cleared his throat and dramatically announced that had a change of heart and decided to …………. build the entire Mikva!
Everyone stood and applauded while the rich man feigned embarrassment, stood there smiling and blushing all over and assured everyone it was 'nothing'.
That next day the builders arrived, work began and just a few weeks later the Mikva was almost finished. As was expected the workers and their manager went to the Rabbi for payment and the Rabbi told them he would get the money from the donor and they should return in two weeks.
But when the Rabbi went to the house of the miser and asked for money he was flatly refused. "Money? You want money? But I want something too! Have you forgotten? Listen, Rabbi, you keep your side of the deal and I'll keep mine. I pay AFTER you take care of my wife. I saw her walking in the street a few minutes ago. I know I said I would pay in advance but I changed my mind.
"What?" Said the Rabbi "She's not dead? I sent the Angel of Death there this morning. One moment, I'll be right back."
The Rabbi left the miser and returned a half-hour later with the explanation.
"It's your fault! You made it impossible for the Angel. He looked for your wife but he couldn't find her! It's because, well, you don't treat her like a wife and in fact you are like strangers. You live in separate houses, never talk, and never even see each other. No wonder he couldn’t recognize her!
"I know how these Angels work." The Rabbi continued, "You can't fool them. If you want the job to get done you have to cooperate! Be man and wife. Understand?
The miser shook his head yes and knew what he had to do. The next day he sent his wife a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates. The day after he sent another bunch of flowers and some new expensive dresses. The third day he wrote her a poem attached to a bottle of perfume, and on the fourth day she wrote him a thank you note.
"Aha! It's working!!" he said to himself rubbing his hands in glee as he sent her an invitation to eat at his home. "Soon I'll be rid of her!"
But as they were sitting there eating together by candlelight strangely something else was happening… he got so involved in pretending that he even told a joke; the first joke of his life … and she laughed! They began talking and he totally forgot about his agreement with the Rabbi. She even agreed to move back home for a few days.
But then, just after she moved back in she began having serious trouble breathing.
The miser realized what was happening. It was the curse! It was taking effect! He ran to the Rabbi.
Rabbi, take it away!!! Take away the curse!! I retract my request!! Can you do something??
The Rabbi smiled and explained. "My dear friend, I never cursed or even promised to curse your wife. G-d forbid!
The reason your wife is now sick is because of your vow. You took a vow in public, in the synagogue, remember? You promised to pay for the Mikva and you didn't keep your vow. That is the reason she is so ill. So if you want her to get better, pay for the completion of the Mikva. Keep your vow and she will get better!
Of course the miser gladly complied, paid for the entire Mikva and due to the wisdom of the Besht's pupil; both a Mikva and a marriage were built anew.
This answers our questions. True, today we are careful not to make vows but, on the other hand the power that vows contain to overcome nature is the very essence of our soul.
According to Chassidic teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbes the reason that the soul leaves 'heaven' and is put in a body is to improve and transform the world. And the basic book of Chassic teachings' called The "Tanya" explains that we have the power to do it: just before we are born our soul is give a 'vow' to "Be a 'Tzadik' i.e. a totally holy person.
In other words, each of us already has the power of this oath latent in our souls. The ideas of Chassidut (see your local Chabad House for details) can awaken it. Then we can withstand all difficulties and even change them to blessings.
That is why the teachings of Chabad Chassidut are called Torat HaMoshiach; the teachings of the Messiah.
This is because Moshiach (as explained in Maimonides; Laws of Kings 11:1) will activate the good in every human being and transform all the selfishness that caused the destruction of the first two Temples…. (As we say thrice daily in the Alenu prayer: all mankind, no matter how evil, will become good).
As the Prophet says "All the fasts will be transformed to feasts of joy and happiness." (Zachariah 8:18)
That is why two of the main goals of Moshiach will be to build the Third Temple, and gather all the Jews to Israel in joy.
But it all depends on us. We have this power of good within us. Learn the ideas of Chassidut. Then even one more good deed, good word or even one more good thought can tip the scales and bring global rejoicing with ....
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