This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Bamidbar (5763)
This week we begin the fourth book of the Pentateuch, Bamidbar, which means ‘in the desert’ relating the adventures of Moses and the Jewish people after they left Egypt and before they entered Israel.
Being that it is the Shabbat directly before the holiday of Shavuot it must have a message that will help us experience the full meaning of this wonderful date that we received the Torah at Sinai over 3,300 years ago.
But it is hard to see what it is. Unlike most of the Torah this week’s reading contains no commandments and not even interesting stories to learn from, only the dry results of Moses’ counting of all the Jews person by person, tribe by tribe thousands of years ago.
What possible connection could there be here to the greatest most significant and powerful event of all time when the souls of millions of Jews jumped from their bodies when they personally heard and saw the Creator of the Universe!!?
In order to understand this here is a story.
The late Seventeen hundreds were difficult times for Orthodox Judaism in Europe and Russia. Myriads of Jews were being lured away from the Torah and it’s commandments by atheistic ‘enlightened’ Jews who presented an alternative: art, philosophy, assimilation and unrestrained fun in France and Germany.
Then one of the outstanding Torah figures of all time; Rabbi Eliahu ‘the Genius (Gaon) of Vilna’ decided to take action.
He chose ten (in another version 'tens') of his most brilliant and talented pupils to visit the universities and salons of Berlin, absorb the new ideas there and then use them to defeat this insidious force once and for all.
But they all seriously underestimated the enemy and the results were disastrous; all of them, save two, became so enamored of the free spirit they found there that they joined the ‘maskilim’ and abandoned Judaism completely.
The two exceptions that did not leave Judaism were one Rabbi Pinchas (who wrote a book called Sefer HaBrit) and Rabbi Moshe Mizlish who fled Germany and became a devoted Chassid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Chabad (the enlightenment movement had little success among the Chassidim).
Nothing is known of the fates of the others, except for one. His name was Rabbi Shlomo Faigen and our story is about him.
The experience in Berlin awakened in him a desire to leave Judaism as well, but something told him not to give in. After all, he was an accomplished Talmudic scholar and had a bright future before him in the Orthodox world and …. Maybe G-d does exist and the Torah is true!
So he lived in a limbo world of doubt and indecision.
He settled in Germany and made a living as a businessman; buying large quantities of goods in Leipzig and selling elsewhere. And eventually in his travels he passed through the city of Liozne home of the Chabad Chassidim and their leader Rabbi Shneur Zalman (where his friend Moshe Mizlish was).
Here, unlike the cold academic atmosphere of Vilna where he originated, the spirit was warm and alive. The Rebbe gave deep, intimate discourses to his followers who, besides being awesome scholars and G-d fearing Jews had an interesting ‘custom’; Occasionally they would make informal meetings called 'farbringens' where they would sit together, drink vodka, sing Chassidic songs ('nigunim') and speak about love of G-d, the Torah and every being.
He felt his soul opening to a new world of joy and meaning, maybe here he could ignore his urges and doubts? One day the Rebbe called him to his office and gave him a mission.
"Shlomo, you used to be a businessman, right? Well, if you ever decide to do business again and return to Leipzig please stop in the city of Karlin on the way and say hello to the great Rabbi Shlomo there for me."
Sure enough a week later our hero suddenly had an urge to make a business trip to replenish his funds. He packed his bags, got the Rebbe's blessing and on the way he stopped at Karlin to see the Karlin Rebbe.
He arrived at the Synagogue, told one of the Chassidim there he had a greeting to deliver from the Rebbe of Chabad and was given a chair in the hall near the Rebbe of Karlin’s door to sit and wait until the Rebbe invited him in.
He sat there alone for five or ten minutes in silence when suddenly the strangest thing happened.
From within the Rebbe's room he heard pacing. Someone in there was racing back and forth in frenzy. Chairs were being pushed aside and things fell to the ground. Suddenly the door opened, it was the holy Rebbe Shlomo, eyes almost bolting out of their sockets. He stared wildly at the young man shook his head slowly up and down and said,
"Maybe after all G-d does exist?"
He abruptly pulled his head back, slammed the door shut and resumed his furious pacing back and forth like a madman until again the door burst open and the Rebbe again stared out and said:
"Perhaps it's true?" Perhaps there really is G-d?"
As if it wasn't enough, the scene repeated itself yet a third time,
"Maybe after all G-d exists?"
The young man didn't really understand what was going on but he realized that he couldn't take much more of this. He stood up, brushed himself off and left, completely forgetting the incident.
One evening a few weeks later, after he returned to Liozne, the Rebbe of Chabad was explaining some mystical aspects of washing one's hands before eating when he noticed a strange scoffing smile on young Shlomo's lips and he commented
"He has a worm eating at his soul".
A few days later Shlomo abruptly left.
Years passed. Rebbe Shneur Zalman passed away while fleeing the advancing armies of Napoleon and was buried in a small town called Haditch while Shlomo succumbed to his doubts, changed his religion and name and disappeared.
Years passed. As fate would have it, the Czar decided to build a new cross-country highway that the Chassidim discovered was to run through the very resting place of the Rebbe in Haditch. What could they do? To move the Rebbe was out the question. Their only chance was to appeal to the Minister of Transportation.
But after a thorough investigation they discovered that the Minister of Transportation was none other than …. Shlomo (now Stephan) the apostate! He had risen in the political spectrum until he was chosen to be a high Minister in the Czar's government with massive headquarters in St. Petersburg It was one in a million that he would help them …… but he was the only straw to clutch at.
Rabbi Moshe Valinker, who had befriended Shlomo in the old days, was chosen and several days later he was sitting in the ornate waiting room outside the Minister's office.
His name was called. He was escorted into the Minister's office. The minister was sitting at his desk elegantly dressed, clean shaven with a well groomed mustache. "What do you want?" He said coldly and officially.
Rav Moshe leaned forward and told the story of the Rebbe's passing and the problem of the proposed highway.
"Aha!" Said the Minister. "Yes, I understand. You want me to divert the road, do you? Well, there is something I want from you as well."
He rang a small bell on his desk, a secretary entered with a serving tray covered with a silver cover. Rab Moshe was afraid that the Minister would ask him to eat not-kosher food.
But the Minister waited for the secretary to leave, opened the cover and revealed a bottle of vodka, two cups and two small plates of herring and pickles.
He looked at Rab Moshe warmly and said. "The words I heard at the home of the Karliner Rebbe 'Maybe there is a G-d after all' echo in my head constantly and they make me long for the days I spent by your Rebbe. Please, do me a favor. Let us make a Farbringen like in the old days."
He then took out a large map, obviously that of the new road, erased the line that went through Haditch where the Rebbe’s grave was, and moved it so it went around the town. Then poured two cups and said, "Nu, Rab Moshe, make a le'chiam."
This answers our question; what is the connection of the Jews being mechanically counted in the desert to the earthshaking and miraculous Receiving of the Torah.
This week's section is relating the essential importance and uniqueness of not only the Jewish people as a whole (G-d took them from Egypt, personally gave them His Torah and sustained them in the desert etc.) but of each and every Jew individually.
The counting and giving a number to each and every Jew shows not only that each Jew ‘counts’ in the ‘eyes’ of G-d, but also that each has the power and obligation to add something; improve the world and make it a meaningful, G-dly place.
And just as the Torah is eternally alive and new so too this is true for all time, even today.
Therefore there are no commandments here, because this intrinsic G-d given value and responsibility is so essential that it does not depend on even the observance of the commandments; as the Minister in our story felt deep in his heart and what was echoing in his head constantly.
But on the other hand the purpose of the Jews is to do as many commandments as possible. To fix the world and reveal G-d's presence even the desert i.e. a spiritual wasteland, through the Torah.
That is the message of our portion and the message of Shavuot; each Jew counts……. And at Sinai we were chosen by G-d to inform all mankind that they count too…… each and every human is indispensible and responsible to improve the world.
This ultimately will be accomplished by Moshiach but, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe said time and time again Moshiach is VERY close, we need only to open our eyes…..
It all depends on us. Just one more good deed, word or even thought can actually change the entire world and tip the scale to bring...
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