This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Matot-Massei (5762)
This week's double section describes, in great detail, first the spoils taken after the war with Midian and then the (forty two) journeys the Jews made before they entered Israel.
At first glance this seems very strange. The word "Torah" means "teaching". What is the Torah teaching us here by telling us these seemingly meaningless facts?
To explain, here is a story.
Late one Wednesday night the Baal Shem Tov told one of his younger pupils that the next morning they would travel to the city of Leipzig where they would be spending the Sabbath.
The pupil was overjoyed not only to be chosen by the master and not only because he certainly would learn many things on the journey but also because it would be an opportunity to visit his parents who lived there.
They set off early Thursday morning. It was a ten hour ride so they had plenty of time to arrive before evening, but as they boarded the wagon the Besh't turned to him and mysteriously said "Don't count on seeing your parents, you won't have time."
Then he turned to his wagon driver, Alexi, and told him that after they left the city he could let the reigns drop and go to sleep.
The entire duration of the trip the Baal Shem did not stop saying words of Torah to himself. The wagon moved swiftly and it seemed they were making good time but strangely after some fifteen hours of travel, as night was falling, they still had not reached their destination.
They hitched the wagon to a tree by the side of the empty road and our Chassid fell asleep almost immediately. He awoke next morning when the wagon again began moving but he was sure that the Besh't had not slept all night.
After several hours it seemed clear they were going nowhere and they probably would have to spend Shabbos in the wagon as well when suddenly a house appeared in the distance. As they got closer, the Chassid was overjoyed to see a Mezuzah on the door!! At least they would have a place to stay!
The wagon stopped before the house, the door opened and an old woman, beaming with joy, appeared, called to her husband and greeted the Besh't with blessings.
From behind her appeared her husband, an old man with a radiant face who ran toward the Besh't and warmly embraced him before escorting him into the house.
"Just wait in the wagon, I'll return shortly", the Besh't said to his pupil just before he closed the door behind him.
Fifteen minutes later he returned and they were on their way.
"I thought we would stay here for Shabbos?" said the Chassid. But the Besh't just told the driver to let the reigns fall as soon as the hut was out of sight. In no time the horses strayed into a field, then into a forest and stopped. The Besh't got out, took a silver cup from his bag, motioned to his bewildered pupil to follow and after several minutes suddenly stopped and said, "Listen! Water!"
Sure enough from within a thicket he heard a bubbling brook. They cleared away the vegetation; the Besh't dipped his cup into the water, stood to his full height and made a blessing… but what a blessing! It seemed as though the entire forest reverberated with each word he uttered, the Chassid had never really heard or seen anything like it in his life.
The Besh't finished drinking, made an after-blessing with the same deliberate intensity and then motioned for his pupil to return to the wagon.
It was beginning to hint of sunset. A cool wind blew across the grasses and the Chassid wondered where they where and where they would spend the Sabbath day.
He was lost in his thoughts when suddenly he heard the Besh't say to the wagon driver "Here, turn down this street!"
He looked up to see that….. they were in Leipzig! In fact if they just continued straight they would be in the Jewish section. They could stay by his parents! What a miracle!
But to his amazement the Besh't did not go straight, "Here, Alixi, turn right!"
"No, NO! Not here!" The pupil protested. "This is "Shillergass", the street where all the university taverns are. If we turn here it will be the end of us!"
But the Besh't paid no attention. They turned and after a few moments he told the driver to stop. "Here is where we are staying! But hurry! It's almost Shabbos."
They took their bags, got out before a door that had a big sign hanging over it saying "Shoemaker"and the Besht knocked loudly at the door. A small peep hole opened, they heard locks unlocking and in no time the door opened revealing an elderly Jew dressed for Shabbos with several young men standing in the brightly lit room behind him.
"Come in! He whispered with a tone of fear. "Who are you? Are you mad?! Come in quickly!"
They entered, the old man closed the door and said as he was closing the locks, "You are really lucky no one was in the street. These people are animals…real animals. They learn in their universities and they are nothing but bloodthirsty animals. If they didn't need a shoemaker here they would kill me too. Who are you? What are you doing here?"
The Besh't promised he would explain but because it was very late he wanted begin to lead the afternoon prayers. The shoemaker had seven sons and together with the Besh't and his pupil they made a 'minyon' (ten Jews) and the Besh't began to pray aloud at the top of his voice.
The old shoemaker was astounded; at first he was filled with fear but then he suddenly felt as though he felt his heart was exploding with love for G-d. He had never heard such prayer before.
But when the prayers finished the sound of bottles crashing against his door from outside abruptly brought him back to reality. The Besh't simply walked to the door opened it and stepped outside to the bloodthirsty crowd.
"Kill him!! Kill the Jew!" Someone yelled and threw a rock but it missed.
One fellow ran toward the Besh't with an iron bar screaming "You dirty…. AAAAHHH!' Suddenly he froze, hand paralyzed in midair, screaming with pain. Then another student drew a large knife, with the same alarming results. The two of them just stood there screaming and crying until the crowd dropped their rocks and bottles and began begging the Besh't to take away the spell.
The Besh't said something, the paralyzed students fell unconscious to the ground, were carried away by their friends and everyone ran away in fear leaving only their rocks and bottles strewn in the street.
The Besh't returned inside leaving the door wide open behind him and, after washing his hands, began the evening prayer greeting the Holy Shabbos.
Again the room was magically transformed to a holy Temple. But after a few minutes a tall thin man, wrapped in a black cloak, suddenly appeared at the open door. He looked silently around the room, walked to a corner and just stood there, staring at the Besh't.
After the prayers they sat down to eat the Shabbos meal amidst song and wondrous words of Torah. The entire time the stranger stood and stared and the Besh't paid him no attention at all.
Only when they finished the meal did the man approach the shoemaker, ask him if when they would be praying in the morning and left as soon as he got the answer.
"That man" Said the shoemaker to the Besht's pupil, "is none other than Professor Shlanger one of the most anti-Semitic intellects in Germany, I have no idea what he was up to here.
The next morning, the professor returned and repeated the same performance and then left after the meal not to return again.
Shabbos ended and the next morning the Besh't and his pupil bade their host farewell, boarded their wagon and in less than five hours were back at home.
"See, I told you that you wouldn't have time to visit your parents." The Besh't said with a smile. The young man however was burning with curiosity;
"Who was the old man whose house we stopped at on the way? Why did you wander into the forest to drink a cup of water and what did we accomplish by spending Shabbos at the shoemaker's house?" he asked.
The Besh't hesitated for a few seconds and answered.
"The man I spoke to is one of the hidden Tzadikim upon whom the world depends, he will be the first to know when Moshiach is supposed to arrive and that is what we spoke about.
The reason we wandered into the forest is because I saw that since the beginning of creation no one had ever made a blessing on the water in that stream and in another few moments it would have been too late.
And what we accomplished in the shoemaker's house you will know one day."
Twenty year's later, long after the Besh't had left this world, our Chassid happened to be in the city of Minsk when a distinguished looking Jew stopped him in the street and asked him if he had been a pupil of the Baal Shem Tov and if he had ever visited Leipzig.
When our Chassid answered in the affirmative the Jew hugged him and gave him a kiss.
"I was the professor that visited you that Shabbos. It just so happened that at that time I was at a turning point in life and when I heard of how your teacher paralyzed those students I knew I had to see him for myself.
"Well, it made such a profound effect on me that after a few months I disappeared from the University moved to another country and actually converted to Judaism. I don't know how your master could possibly have known that a Jew-hater like me had the potential to become a Rabbi…. but he did.
This explains our two sections.
According to Chassidic philosophy G-d created the world in such a way that nature opposes and conceals G-dliness, (explaining why some of the biggest atheists are scientists) and it is man's job to change this.
But the only way to do it is by searching for the "enemy", conquering him and taking the "spoils of war"; namely to transform nature to "above-nature" just as the Besh't did in our story.
This is why the Torah tells us all the details of the spoil taken after the war with Midian and of the 42 journeys in the desert.
(In fact, since Abraham, the first Jew, our people have been wandering the world, making journeys and fighting "battles" in order to take the "spoils of war".)
It is telling us to view EVERY detail of our lives as a holy journey and every difficulty as a challenge to be won in order to 'take spoils' and emphasize the good in the world.
Until finally, through our actions the entire world will be transformed to good by....
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