This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Ki Tisa (5764)
In this week's Torah reading we find the sad story of how the Jews committed idolatry at Mount Sinai with the Golden Calf 31:18 – 34:10).
It is preceded by the commandment to keep the Sabbath (31:12-17) and followed by G-d adjuring the Jews not to make a covenant with the Gentiles of Canaan (34:11-16).
Superficially the connection between these three; Sabbath, idolatry and covenants with Gentiles is clear, The Shabbat is for Jews only. One who transgresses it is considered an idolater and it is covenant between G-d and the Jews.
But at second glance all these three have something else in common; there is nothing logically wrong or different about them!
Shabbat, after all, is exactly like any other day of the week. By the placement of the sun or moon it is possible to know which day of the year or month it is, but not when is Shabbat! So why is observing the Shabbat so important?
So too idolatry: as long as Jews believe in SOMETHING what difference does it make what it is?
Similarly, why was it forbidden back then to make peace pacts with gentiles? There is no scientific difference between Jew and gentile.
To understand this here is a story.
Some 350 years ago in the Ukraine Saturday night was approaching and the Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated Besh't, The originator of Chassidic Judaism) sat at the head of the table eating the 'Third Shabbat Meal' with tens of his Chassidim (followers). He was immersed in deep thought seemingly in another dimension while they filled the room with a beautiful Chassidic melody.
And in fact he was in another dimension. He was scanning the entire world, to see what could be done to bring Moshiach (i.e. who will alleviate all pain and suffering) one moment sooner. Suddenly his face darkened.
It was a catastrophe. One of his most talented followers; a great Rabbi (we will call him Rav Avraham) versed in all the holy texts and leader of an entire Jewish community, was about to fall to the depths of idolatry!! What could possibly have brought such a Holy man (Tzadik) to such a heinous sin? What went wrong?!
The Besh't concentrated deeply and his soul soared to the upper realms. it was worse than he thought. This Rabbi had, somewhat like in the story of Job, been given into the hands of the Satan. But unlike Job he had done something to deserve it.
In Rav Avraham's town lived a poor Talmudic scholar that subsisted from community support. Once a week someone would go from house to house to collect money for him.
But when Rav Avraham discovered that people were using this as an excuse not to give to other causes he expressed his dissatisfaction which his congregants understood as an order to stop giving him donations. In time the income for this poor scholar dwindled so that he didn't have money to prepare for preparing the Shabbat meal. And when that happened he and his wife burst out in tears.
Shortly thereafter, in an unrelated incident, one member of the community began using his power and influence to force another congregant who happened to be simple fellow, out of business. The latter complained to Rav Avraham who reprimanded the rich man but not as strongly as he should have. As a result the injustice continued until one day the simple man had to close his store and on that day he too wept.
The tears of both the scholar, his wife and the simple man burst through to the highest heavens and began to accuse; the Rabbi shirked his responsibility and thereby disgraced both the Torah and Judaism.
It was decided by the heavenly court that Rab Avraham would be given into the hands of the Devil!
The Rabbi's custom each Sabbath was to pray the first half of the daytime prayer alone in his home and then go to the Synagogue when the cantor began his repetition of the prayers. But this Shabbat suddenly, in the middle of his prayers, he felt strange lust enter his heart. Instead of being enraptured with the awesomeness and nearness of G-d as usual, he only wanted a drink of brandy.
He stopped his prayers thinking that the idea would leave him but it didn't. It became a burning desire! Suddenly he felt that without brandy he would die! Before he knew it he had downed three full cups, removed his prayer shawl and was running down the street in the direction of the ... church!
"I want to see the Bishop!!" he yelled insanely as he pounded on the massive church door. "Let me in!!" the fire of apostasy was burning in his and heart and when the Bishop heard the yelling he immediately understood what was happening.
He ordered his servants to take the Rabbi to his home and provide him with cakes and more brandy until he was free to deal with him. They did as they were told and as soon as he saw the refreshments he grabbed the bottle in one hand, the food in the other and began eating and guzzling like an animal... until he fell unconscious on the floor.
The Baal Shem saw all this from afar and was desperately occupied in the upper spiritual worlds trying to find a way to save this unfortunate pupil. He discovered that the only thing that would help him was to do a 'pure' commandment; only because G-d commanded it.
But it was hard to find.
It seems that almost every good deed that Rav Avraham did, or had ever done, contained some selfish motive of earning heaven. Nothing was done with only love of the Creator.
AHA!! The Besh't had found it! ... Eating the Melave-Malke meal after the Sabbath! As strange as it may seem, this was the only commandment that the Rabbi did, and was able to do purely for G-d.
The Besh't knew that he had to work fast; his only chance was to somehow get him to eat this meal before the Bishop got to him!
The Besh't tore off a piece from the loaf of bread before him, added a whole loaf from the 12 always before him at the Shabbat meals, wrapped them in a cloth and handed it to one of his holy pupils saying,
"Take this and go. HaShem (G-d) will guide and help you!"
The pupil had already seen such things from the Besh't: Sometimes the only way to get things done is by implicit trust in G-d.
He took the bundle, put on his coat and walked into out of the room into the cold Ukrainian night not knowing why or even where he was going.
He said words of Torah by heart as his feet led him out of Mezibuz (the Besht's town) to a lone, moon-lit, forest road. Suddenly the wind began blowing and the road became strewn with rocks and pebbles making it almost impossible to proceed.
"This is obviously from the forces of evil" he thought to himself as he forged ahead, praying as he went.
Then the road turned into deep sand but he only prayed more intensely and pushed on trying not to become discouraged.
Then darkness and snow blinded him for an hour or so but when he regained his sight he found himself in a different place altogether. It was as though he had jumped hundreds of miles away.
The snow was gone, in the moonlit distance he saw a Church and in just moments he was standing outside of a house that he sensed was his destination. He entered and saw an unconscious Jew lying on the floor in soiled Shabbat garments filthy with vomit and mud surrounded by idols and icons. Gevalt! He knew this man! It was Rav Avraham!! He recognized him! This must be what the Besh't sent him for!
He took some water from a nearby faucet and splashed it on the unconscious Rabbi's face but when he woke he began mumbling anti-Semitic remarks and demanding more brandy. The Chassid, however, paid no attention rather he helped Rav Avraham to his feet, led him to the faucet, filled a vessel he found on the floor and insisted that he wash his hands for bread.
Miraculously he consented.
"Come, now lets eat some of this bread" coaxed the Chassid. It took some maneuvering to get the Rabbi's attention away from the bottle but as soon as he took the first bite of the Besht's bread a startling change came over him.
He let out a deep, frightening moan, looked down at his dirty garments then at the crosses and statues that hung on the walls and stood up in amazement. "What happened to me?" he screamed. "What have I done?!! NO.. NO!!!!! What have I done!!! We must leave here quickly!"
He grabbed the Chassid's hand and staggered out of the room, away from the house, back to the forest path from whence he came and then began running madly in the darkness. Suddenly they were back in Mezibuz.
The Besh't was still sitting at the table surrounded by singing Chassidim when Rav Avraham stumbled in, filthy and heart-broken and collapsed on the floor. Another soul had been saved.
This answers our questions.
True, this story sounds fantastic; But there are many stories about Jews that I personally know who have returned to Judaism in no less miraculous ways.
But the point of the story is to answer our questions: what is bad about idolatry and making pacts with Canaan and what is special about Shabbat?
While other religions are concerned primarily with the afterworld and spiritual gain, Judaism is centered with revealing G-d and benefiting the entire world here and now. (Like the criteria for Rav Avraham's good deed in our story)
According to Judaism, G-d is creating the world constantly in its every detail according to a plan revealed only in the mysteries of the Torah.
The goal of Judaism is to bring Moshiach (Messiah) who will reveal this plan to the entire world (See the last two chapters of Rambam). But until then there must always be a true Jewish leader; a potential Moshiach who teaches the Jews how to prepare the world and hasten his arrival.
This is the message of the Baal Shem Tov called Chassidut: every event has Divine meaning that teaches and encourages to improve the world around us according to the Torah.
This is also the message of Shabbat: The world was created for a purpose! It is called 'Avodat HaShem' literally "Serving G-d" and every Shabbat we get an 'injection' of it for the rest of the week.
Shabbat means return (Shav) to reveal the ONEness of the Creator.
Idolatry, on the other hand, is called "Avoda Zara" literally "Serving Strangely" and it has the opposite effect; it makes division and confusion in the world.
That is what happened with the Jews at the Golden Calf, and to Rav Avraham in our story, they lost their identity, ignored the lesson of SHABBAT and brought destruction by doing what THEY wanted ….. and not what G-d wanted.
[So is the shocking situation today in Israel; The Jews have lost their identity and in desperate confusion, are trying 'Strange Service'; to make COVENANTS with nations that are sworn to destroy us and the entire world.]
The solution (as the Lubavitcher Rebbe repeated hundreds of times) is Jewish education; to re-connect the Jews to what G-d CHOSE them to do: bring unity, meaning, peace, blessing and joy to the entire world.
Then will be the day that is called 'Total Shabbat". Then all idolatry will cease and all the gentiles will call the name of the Creator and serve him with a common shoulder (see Rambam, Laws of Kings chapt 12).
But it all depends on us: It's hard to believe but it's true: Just one more good deed, word or even thought can tip the scales and bring…….
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