This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Matot-Massei (5763)
This week's double portion contains two tediously long lists of details:
In Matot is a long list of the spoils taken after the war against Midian and in Masai is enumerated all of the (forty two) journeys and encampments the Jews made in the desert on their way to Israel.
What is the purpose of all these three thousand-plus year old facts? What possible importance could they have to us today? What do we care how many donkeys and how much gold was taken, or where they stopped on their fifteenth journey way back then?
To help us understand here is a story.
It was miserable luck, two weeks before the banquet and here she was in the hospital with a swollen foot. Mrs. Chana Lilian Cohen had been hired by the Chabad Yeshiva in Boston to organize their annual fundraising dinner, these last weeks were crucial and here she was lying flat on her back. She had no choice, she couldn't give up. Her only alternative was to make the hospital room into as much of an office as possible and try to get the job done. 'Maybe it was all for the best' she tried in vain to convince herself.
Late the next night when she was busily typing away by the light of her bed lamp a voice boomed out from behind her. "What are you doing at this hour of the night Mrs. Cohen? You should be resting up. What are you typing there?' It was none other that the head of the department.
She began explaining but just as she got started and said she was working for Lubavitch, the Doctor's face lit up. "Lubavitch!? Why, I know the Lubavitcher Rebbe personally! I was there! In fact I have an amazing story about him. I mean, it didn't make me a religious Jew or anything, but it
changed my mind about a lot of things. I used to think that Judaism was a
bunch of superstition and stale stories. Am I disturbing? I see you are awake anyway. would you like to hear it? "
Mrs. Cohen happily turned off her laptop and listened.
"Some thirty years ago when I graduated University I enlisted in the Army medical corps and served for four years. A few years after my discharge, I had a private practice then, I got a phone call from the Army asking for help. It seems that on the army base on the island of Guam in the Philippines, hundreds of soldiers had been hospitalized in the course of the last few months with severe intestinal inflammations and cramps and no one could figure out why.
"I asked my mother for advice and she agreed that I should accept the offer but with an addition of her own. She made me promise that I would travel through Brooklyn on the way to Guam and see the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
"I had to travel through New York for no more than a stopover, which would mean I had to make a special trip from the airport. And combined with the fact that I had absolutely no patience for Judaism I tried to refuse.. but it was to no avail.
"It seems that my mother, who owned a successful clothing store, had been sending monthly donations to this Rebbe and now she figured that it was paying off; her son would finally get some religion.
"Well, despite my protestations she made all sorts of phone calls and several hours later announced that the next night I had an appointment with this Rebbe. And just to make sure I wouldn't back out she gave me an envelope with some money in it and told me to be sure to hand it to him IN PERSON.
"The next night at four thirty A.M. I entered the Rebbe's office. It was a fairly small room, walls lined with books and simply furnished. The Rebbe smiled and looked at me in a way I'll never forget, as though he recognized something deep inside of me and paid no attention to my mother's envelope when I put it on his desk. He only asked me what I am doing.
"When I explained my special medical mission in the Philippines he suddenly became very serious, thought deeply for a few seconds, lifted his phone and asked the party on the other side (it was one of his secretaries) to bring him a detailed map of the Philippines. About fifteen minutes later the map was spread on his table and he was making all sorts of lines on it with the help of a ruler and a small pamphlet from the American Naval Academy that he produced from somewhere. I was familiar with that booklet it contained tide charts and other nautical information throughout the entire world but he seemed to be more familiar than I.
"When he finished he turned the map around to me and said, 'This is what you can do to help. And it's not necessary to tell anyone where you got this information.
"'Here', the Rebbe pointed to a certain intersection of his lines that came out near the coast of Guam and continued, 'Find this place in the sea near the shore and go there when the tide is out. According to my calculations it should be a bit before sunrise. Just as one of the waves recedes to the sea take a sample of the sand where the water was. Make an analysis of that sand and I think you will find the cause of the illness.'
"A few hours later I was in the plane, completely fatigued, on my way to Guam with the Rebbe's map in my pocket but when I arrived the next day and got to my quarters on the army base I took a shower, went to sleep and forgot the entire thing. Then, in the morning when I woke I put on a new pair of pants got to work and it was as though I never had been in Brooklyn.
"A frustrating week went by. The hospital was already full, soldiers kept getting sick by the tens and with no solution in sight the army considered sending everyone home. Meanwhile we were working day and night with no results. We checked everything possible; the kitchen, the drinking water, the dishwashers, the air, the sand, the toothpaste even the soap until we were literally at our wit's end.
"Then, a week later I woke up one morning and suddenly remembered the Rebbe! But where was the map?! I jumped out of bed like a madman and started searching. Against all odds, in a pile of dirty clothes there were the pants! I was so happy that I actually held them up and kissed them. And there was the map neatly folded in the pocket!
"That day I went searching for the location the Rebbe indicated and when I
found it I was so excited that I didn't sleep the whole night. I waited
till four in the morning, returned there and sure enough, the tide was low! I did exactly as the Rebbe said. I walked to the edge of the water with a small empty container and when the waves pulled out I filled it with the sand where the water had been and returned to the laboratory.
"The interesting thing was that I still had so many doubts about the Rebbe that I was ashamed to tell the other doctors what I was doing and decided to examine the sand myself. But as soon as I took a good look I knew that that man had super-human powers. The sand was filled with small red shell fish! In an hour the entire staff was in the laboratory busy making an analysis of those fish and the results were astounding!
At this point the doctor stopped his story and, as though transported back to that moment twenty five years ago, began pacing the hospital room deep in thought. Only after a few minutes was he able to continue.
"It seems those shell-fish emitted some sort of poison! They were poisonous fish but it was impossible to know it because when the tide was in the water washed the poison away. Only at low tide, like the Rebbe said, when some of these crustaceans got caught in the dry sand could the juice be detected.
"As soon as it this became clear it didn't take long to discover that the local restaurants occasionally served these shell fish in salads to the soldiers ..and the mystery was solved.
"I can't understand why the Rebbe didn't want me to advertise what he had done and I don't know where he get's his powers but one thing for sure; the Rebbe saved that entire base of thousands of soldiers, and I know that Judaism is much deeper than I ever imagined."
This answers the above questions. The Jews are not a normal folk; they are G-d's holy people and a nation of priests.
Unlike the other nations religions and peoples they have no physical or even spiritual plans of self-aggrandizement or profit. Rather their sole purpose is to reveal the truth; that G-d creates all being constantly and the Torah is G-d's only instruction book for putting meaning into it all. (As the Rambam says in the end of his magnum opus regarding the Moshiach).
This is a highly mystical and detailed job, but it can be reduced to two simple principles; Turning from Bad and doing Good.
And that is the point of the lists found in our two sections. In Matot is stressed the first type of service; turning from bad. Namely making war and destroying the negative force of Midian. While parshat Masai describes doing good; traveling ever closer to Israel and automatically 'purifying'
the empty desert with 42 journeys. But this also implies a lot of detailed
work every moment of the day and in every aspect of life.
Just as in our story; first there was the need to turn from bad and find a cure for the soldiers, and then to do good through Mrs. Cohen's journey to the hospital and the doctor's trip to the Rebbe and onward to the Philippines.
And in both of these contained many vital and complicated details.
This is the job of Moshiach, the Jewish leader who will reveal the true Oneness of G-d to the entire world. As we say in the Alenu prayer thrice daily; all mankind will joyously turn from bad and do good in every single detail of their lives. And only then will every single detail of two thousand years of Jewish suffering and wanderings be translated into joy and celebration. We can make it all happen by doing all we can to bring...
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