This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Re'eh (5761)
In this week's section we find perhaps the most potent and strange paragraph in the entire Torah:
"You are SONS of G-d - don't wound yourselves or slash between your eyes for the dead. Because you are a HOLY nation to G-d and G-d CHOSE you to be a SPECIAL nation from all the nations on the face of the earth". (4:1,2)
The idea that G-d has SONS is truly earthshaking! And no less so is the idea that He CHOSE a SPECIAL nation to be HOLY...and that it is the Jews!
But what is the prohibition "Don't wound or slash yourself for the dead" doing there? What does this specific law have to do with such awesome ideas?
I would like to answer with a story.
Last night was another sleepless one for Yankel. He could hardly keep his eyes open this morning as he walked through the cold snow-covered streets of Vitebsk to work. Was there any solution? When would it end? Five months of constant fear was unbearable.
For almost a half a year now, it was as though the angel of death was flapping it's wings over poor Yankel's roof. His wife was going mad. "Let them pray somewhere else!" she pleaded, "Why our house? Let them pray alone in their houses! Why do you keep inviting them?"
The year was 1926 in Russia; Stalin was in power, and death was everywhere. No one dared to even THINK against "Father" Stalin, "the Luminary of Mankind". Any gathering of three or more was interrogated by secret police. One day half a million people simply disappeared from the streets! Chassidim used to carry their Tefillin with them at all times, for fear that they would suddenly be arrested. Some estimate that Stalin (of cursed memory) killed as many as 50 million of hisown people! The list of frightening atrocities goes on and on.
And in this hell-on-earth, Yankel the simple factory worker, was engaged in he most subversive of activities; holding a "minyan" (a prayer group of ten Jews) in his house, just because he was a Chabad Chassid and the Rebbe said not to pay attention to the Yevsektzia, (the all Jewish, anti-Semitic arm of Stalin’s secret police).
Not only that, but he didn't send his child to the State school either (the Rebbe said that it would be better to throw oneself in a burning furnace than to let the communists educate Jewish children) and if they caught him he would be off to Siberia. And to top it off, once a week the secret "underground" Torah classes for children were held in his basement.
It was too much, too much. "Why can't we just keep to ourselves like the other religious Jews?!" Cried his wife.
For a while Yankel thought that it's just tension, and that she'll get over it. But after a few weeks he started to agree, and after a few more weeks he decided to do something about it.
The Rebbe was in Leningrad. Yankel would simply travel there and ask The Rebbe to find someone else.
On the ten hour train ride, he had a lot of time to think, and the further he got from Vitebsk and the pressure of home, the more he began to realize how right he was.
"How did I ever begin this crazy thing in the first place?" he though to himself. "True, the Rebbe wants it, but I should have stopped after a few weeks...Five months was insane. Suicide!! Even one day was suicide! It's really a miracle that I’m still alive.”
After a few hours his thoughts became even clearer. "After all, where does it say in the Torah that you have to risk your life to teach children, or to make a minyan?! And if they would have caught me withholding my son from school I'd be in Siberia today, and he would be in an orphanage. What good would that do?! Better he should go to their school and I'll teach him Torah in the evening."
By the time he reached his destination, he'd never been so sure of anything in his life. He was going to the Rebbe's house to request early retirement. He arranged with the Rebbe's secretary, and luckily that very evening he was given permission to enter for a private audience.
But when he actually entered the Rebbe's study late that night, everything suddenly changed.
The Rebbe was looking at some papers on his desk, the room was deafeningly quiet, and the Rebbe looked....infinite. It was almost frightening. Yankel's first thought was "I've stumbled into the Holy of Holies". He wanted to turn and leave, but at the same time he knew that he was where he belonged. He couldn't explain it, but as the Rebbe looked up at him and he saw the Rebbe's eyes it was obvious that this man felt the pain of every Jew in the world.
Yankel wanted to open his mouth to say something about his impossible situation at home but he couldn't. He gazed into the Rebbe's eyes, and suddenly felt happy and indescribably sad at once. The Rebbe spoke.
"In your area where you live, there is no mikva (purification pool) for women. It will be difficult. You will have to gather money, buy the materials, find workers, and build the mikva all without anyone noticing. Then of course, will be the problem of convincing the women to come and escorting them. But I'm depending on you."
Yankel was speechless, he wanted to complain, to protest, but all he could manage was to squeak out the words "But Rebbe!" and then he fell silent.
The Rebbe continued; "One of the high points of the Yom HaKipurim (Day of Atonement) service in the Holy Temple, was the casting of a goat off a high mountain (Azazel) in order to remove the sins of the Jewish people. There is a legend that says that the one who did this service (Eish Eiti) each year, died within a year's time. But nevertheless there was great competition for the job because whoever did it would purify the Jewish people."
When Yankel saw that the Rebbe's eyes were filled with tears, he wept also. After a few minutes he dried his eyes, and returned home to begin building the Mikva.
This answers our question.
Death is a very shocking and frightening thing, and rightly so. Because according to the Torah it is the ultimate evil and lowest level of defilement (tuma, the opposite of HOLINESS).
This is because death is the ultimate lie; G-d is life and there is nothing "outside" of G-d. If so, how can death possibly exist?
The answer is that it exists as a lie. It appeared when Adam disobeyed G-d's will, left at the Giving of the Torah and returned when the Jewish people worshiped the Golden calf.
The only antidote to death, therefore, is Truth…. and the ONLY truth is Torah. (That's why death departed at Matan Torah).
This is the SPECIAL job G-d CHOSE the Jewish people for; to remove death through revealing the HOLINESS of the Torah in the world.
But it's not so simple. Death is a very powerful and almost invincible foe.
We see this in the first Jew; Avraham constantly battled death; he was thrown into a furnace and later almost sacrificed his son in order to fix the world with truth.
That is why he was considered to be the father of Judaism and not the Tzadikim (holy people) before him (like Noach, Chanuch, and Mesushelah); because he was the first to constantly risk his life in order to fix the world.
That is why the Jews are called SONS of G-d. Because at the essence of their identity is an inner drive to bring truth and life into the world. They are attached to G-d as a son is to his father – above all understanding.
Now we can understand why the prohibition against making a permanent mark in one's body for the dead, is surrounded by such powerful sentences; because the essence of Judaism is to rid the world of death, and certainly never to identify with it.
The Moshiach, and ONLY Moshiach, will bring this all into a reality.
That is why Mimonidies in his list of "13 Basic Beliefs" links the belief in Moshiach to the belief in the raising of the dead (numbers 12, and 13). Because Moshaich is the one we are waiting impatiently for to reveal the true nature of Judaism and transform this world of ‘lies’ and death - to a world of Truth, Life Blessing and Joy.
And it all depends on us to bring him even one second earlier.
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