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Parshat Devarim (5771)

This week we begin Devarim; the last of the Five Books of Moses. This book is also called 'Mishna Torah' (Literally 'The Repetition of the Torah), because it basically is a last-minute summary to the Jews of the previous four books just before they entered the land of Israel.

But this book is unlike the previous four books in that here Moses does not say that he is just repeating G-d's orders. Rather here "The Shechina spoke from the 'throat' of Moses". In other words Moses said everything 'on his own' and everyone knew it was 'really' G-d speaking.

The reason for this strange way of conveying G-d's message is that the Jews were about to enter Israel where things would be different. In the desert they had time to think. All their physical needs; food, water, clothes, protection, security etc. were provided by G-d. There were no urgent problems or emergencies to make them doubt G-d.

But in Israel they would have to do it all themselves; there were constant challenges that could weaken their faith and that demanded split second decisions. So their connection to G-d had to be a more 'internalized', down to earth, day to day, personal one.

That is why G-d actually spoke through Moses' mouth! To show that such a unity with G-d is actually possible.

This Shabbat is also the Shabbat before the fast day of Tisha B'Av when both the first and second Temples were destroyed. But Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Briditchev said that on this Shabbat everyone is shown a vision of the Third Temple!

To understand this, here is a story. (HaYidion HaKfar July 28, '11)

The setting is Poland 1831. As usual the world was in a state of confusion. Poland was suffering under Russian rule and saw its chance to break away when Russia became engaged in a bloody war with Turkey. Poland saw its chance to take advantage of the confusion and fight for freedom.

The problem was that rebellious Poland had absolutely no leadership and no clear idea what they were fighting for -only who they were fighting against.

The result was large bands of armed, murderous 'revolutionaries' roamed the country and fought against anyone they thought stood in their way; the ruling class, other groups, rich people and of course…. The Jews.

Occasionally the Czar sent a few battalions of Cossacks to quiet things down which only added to the bloodshed and helped the warring groups to unite. But the Jews, because they weren't connected to any of these groups and because anti-Semitism is a Polish pastime, were the targets of everyone and many thousands of them were killed for any reason the Poles could think of.

Our particular episode occurred in the town of Vilkomir near Russian city of Kovna, shortly after it was conquered by the Polish forces led by a large group of Polish nobility.

After securing the town and in order to throw fear into the hearts of the population, the Poles proceeded to round up all suspected traitors and sentence them to death by hanging. But to the horror of the Jewish community, many Jews were also arrested and convicted. Among them was the Rabbi of the community and ten of their most respected members.

The Jews were heartbroken and immediately set to doing everything in their power to avert the decree. They fasted prayed, gave charity, increased doing good deeds as well as using their 'connections' and trying to bribe the nobles....but it seemed that nothing could help.

But suddenly there was a beam of hope. One of the sentenced Jews was Rabbi Yitzhcak Abbes. He was a truly G-d fearing man with a heart of gold and a good head for business. Most of his fortune he made from his five star hotel, which he built and furnished himself and had often hosted many of the nobles that were now sentencing him to death.

These nobles had no idea who had been imprisoned and they were caught by surprise when they went to visit the prisoners for the first time and Rabbi Yitzchak stood from his cot and called them by name through the bars of his cell door. "Count Stanislasus, Duke Polanski etc. What have you done?! Are you not ashamed of yourselves?! I am Rabbi Yitzchak, the owner of the inn! You know me well. You ate and slept in my hotel. Many of you confided your most private secrets to me. Did I ever betray anyone? Did I ever lie to you? Do you really think I would betray you now? Are you not afraid to spill innocent blood?"

When the nobles heard this they began to tremble. Rabbi Yitzchak was right! They all knew and trusted him. Immediately they made a circle, talked it over and ordered that he be released.

But when his cell door was opened he refused to step out to freedom. Rather he announced, "No! I'm not leaving! Just as I am innocen,t so are my Jewish brothers. If you want to kill them, then kill me as well. But I swear to you that you are killing innocent men."

So again the nobles formed a circle, talked it over and decided to release all the Jews. Except one.

This one poor fellow they picked was a totally assimilated Jew that had had denied his Judaism almost all his life. Besides being dressed in the style of the day, he was known as one who had scoffed at and belittled anything Jewish.

It was bitterly ironic that the one Jew who tried to cling to the gentiles was the ONLY one those gentiles wanted to kill. But on the other hand you could say that he had it coming.

But Rabbi Yitzchak did not think so. "Kill me instead of him!" He yelled out. "You know that he is as innocent as I am. Either release all of us, him included, or if you want to kill one person…. kill me."

These were very dangerous words. There was no telling what the nobles might do if he pushed them too far. But they just shook their heads no, released all the Jews except for the 'apostate' and took him out for hanging.

The town square was filled with bloodthirsty spectators expecting gruesome action. The Jew was led up to the scaffold, hands tied behind his back. A rope was fastened around his neck. He was placed over the trap door, the hangman signaled to someone below and with a loud unceremonious 'bang', the door opened, the Jew fell down and, to the utter disappointment of the crowd……the rope broke!!

At first everyone yelled out in surprise, afterwards some people laughed, others cursed in frustration and everyone had something to say. They were clearly not happy the Jew was still alive.

Now, usually in such cases it is taken as a 'sign from above' that the doomed man should be set free but here it would be impossible. The crowd was mad. If he was freed from hanging then for sure they would kill him. 'Traitor! Traitor!" they all screamed and chanted.

Suddenly a priest in the crowd had an idea how to save the poor fellow. He ran up on the gallows where they had brought him again and just as they were putting a new rope around his neck the priest announced. If this Jew changes his religion he will LIVE!" the crowd mumbled in dissatisfaction but the priest continued. "If he agrees to be one of us then all of his sins are forgiven and we must not, we can not kill him!"

The crowd mumbled. Everyone knew that this fellow had acted like a gentile all his life; it wouldn't really be much for him to 'change' his religion because he didn't have much to change. But finally shook their heads solemnly and fell silent; they couldn't disagree with the priest. All eyes were on the Jew to give the word or just nod his head in agreement for them to remove the noose around his neck and let him go.

The Jew cleared his throat and spoke just loud enough for everyone to hear, "I was born a Jew and I'll die a Jew. I'm not going to deny being a Jew any more." Then he yelled out at the top of his lungs "Shma Yisrael, HaShem Elokenu, HaShem Echaud!" and the hangman pulled the trapdoor open.

The sight was enough to stun the entire crowd. For months afterward no one spoke against the Jews and for years thereafter the Jewish community made a special prayer on that day to commemorate the self-sacrifice of that assimilated Jew.

This answers our questions.

Judaism is a very deep and complex religion. But on the other hand it is very simple; to believe in G-d and do whatever He says (See Tanya chapts. 33 and 42).

But this requires a total change in our priorities of life, as we saw in our story; the apostate that lived only for himself suddenly got it 'together' and realized that his 'True' self is his connecting to the Creator and doing what He wants.

But there is a higher unity that dying for G-d; living for G-d.

That is why on this Shabbat we can see a vision of the Third Temple… often called Bait Chayenu 'The house of our life'. Because just as near death brought out the Judaism of the condemned man in our story to be willing to die, so also the terrible exile we have been suffering for almost 2,000 years will bring out our will to LIVE and unify G-d with the world, as it was with Moses in our Torah portion.

This is what the Moshiach will accomplish, as the Rambam writes and explains. That then the world will be filled with the awareness of G-d and everyone will be unified with the Creator as Moses was in this last book of the Torah.

But it all depends on us one more good deed, word or even thought can actually tip the scales save the entire world and bring….

Moshiach NOW!

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