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This is a virtual tour – The best way to appreciate Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) is by going on a tiyul – walking through the land and reliving the miracles on location. Unfortunately, the current situation prevents even those who live here from doing that this year. So we’re going virtual – enabling people around the world to participate! In this virtual tour with Rabbi Alan Haber we will “visit” a number of battle sites in the Jerusalem area from the crucial weeks prior to the end of the British Mandate in May, 1948. Through maps, photos and videos shot this week on location, we’ll relive the dramatic battles, mourn the young lives lost and appreciate the miraculous victories as we prepare to celebrate 72 years of Israel’s Independence.
One of my favorite musicians is Jerry Garcia. Jerry Garcia acquired his fame as the leader of the Grateful Dead, but he worked and recorded with many other musicians as well. One of his non-Grateful Dead projects was the formation of a band called “Old and in the Way” and the production of an album with the same name.
Are the Old People in the Way?
“Old and in the Way” is an interesting title. I think that it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the old-style bluegrass music that the band played. Perhaps it was also a reference to their age, since rock music had an ethos of “Hope I die before I get old.”
But “old and in the way” does reflect society’s attitude towards the elderly. Old people are not as physically capable as young people. Old people are often retired from the workforce. They are in the way.
The Torah’s Teaching on the Old
The Torah of course does not tolerate the marginalization of the elderly. This is obvious from the the following pasuk (ויקרא י״ט:ל״ב):
מפּני שיבה תּקום והדרתּ פּני זקן ויראת מּאלקיך אני הי׃
You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD
But the significance and dignity of every human being is found in this week’s parsha as well, in relation to Moshe Rabbeinu recalling his smashing the tablets.
The Second Luchot
The story is well known that Moshe Rabbeinu received two tablets of stone crafted by and engraved upon by Hashem. But when Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Golden Calf he cast the two tablets down and shattered them. After praying to Hashem to forgive the Jews for their sin Moshe Rabbeinu was told to carve two new tablets of stone and to bring them up the mountain. There, Hashem would engrave upon them the words of the Ten Commandments.
A remarkable drasha in masechet Menachot (מנחות צ״ט א:יב) on his retelling the story states:
אשר שברת ושמתם בארון (דברים י, ב) תני רב יוסף מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון מכאן לתלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו שאין נוהגין בו מנהג בזיון
“…[The tablets] which you broke, and you shall put them in the Ark” (Deuteronomy 10:1–2). Rav Yosef teaches that both sets of tablets including the pieces of the broken tablets are placed in the Ark. We learn from here that with regard to a Torah scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control, one may not behave toward him in a degrading manner.”
Old People are Never Ever in the Way
The new set of tablets were placed in the Ark- the ארון הברית. But what was done with the shattered remnants of the first tablets? Rav Yosef teaches that the shattered tablets were kept alongside the intact second pair of tablets. This in itself is surprising. Why would the shattered stones be kept alongside the intact tablets? Rav Yosef then teaches us that this is meant to teach us a lesson: Scholars who forget their learning due to illness or age must not be disgraced.
The tablets of stone were important because of their content. We might have thought that once the tablets were shattered, they would have just been ignored. But no, the shattered tablets were shown the exact same respect shown to the intact tablets and they were stored alongside them in the Holy of Holies.
Scholars are respected because of their scholarship. They are Torah personified. That is why we stand up when we see them. But what about the scholar who forgot his learning? Is he to be ignored? Rav Yosef teaches us that to ignore him would be to deny his inherent dignity. Just as the shattered tablets were treated with their original respect so too must we treat the scholar who lost his scholarship.
He may be old but he must never be treated in such a way.
This Shabbat is the Shabbat after the fast of Tisha b’Av. It is traditionally referred to as “Shabbat Nachamu”- the “Shabbat of Being Consoled.” This name comes from the opening phrase of the week’s Haftarah which opens with the words “Nachamu nachamu…” I would like to share with you something I heard many years ago from Rav Shimon Schwalb zt”l who was a very distinguished rabbi in New York.
The Haftarah (ישעיהו פרק מ פסוק א – ב) opens with these verses:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And declare to her
That her term of service is over,
That her iniquity is expiated;
For she has received at the hand of the LORD
Double for all her sins.
In these two verses we see two different verbs for speech. Hashem’s communication is “ נחמו- comfort.” The communication of the prophet is “ דברו על לב-speak tenderly.” What is the difference between the two verbs?
The Challenge of Human Consolation
The prophecy cited in the verses above refers to the Redemption. After the horrors of our Exile, Hashem will redeem us and at that time we will have many questions for Hashem: Why did we need to suffer, as the prophet says, “Double for all her sins”? Why was there a Holocaust? And so on…
No human has the answer to these questions. No human can explain the Holocaust. But our questions will be answered by Hashem. And that is what Hashem promises us when He says that He will comfort us. He will provide us with the explanation for our history.
Yosef Consoles His brothers
Rav Schwalb based his explanation of the verb “נחם” on its use in the story of Yosef and his brothers. After the death of Yakov Avinu, Yosef’s brothers feared that now Yosef would take revenge on them. So, they offered themselves to Yosef as his slaves. Then Yosef spoke to them as follows (בראשית נ:כ-כא):
Here again are the two verbs “וינחם” and “וידבר על לבם”. What do they mean in this context?
The brothers were afraid that Yosef would take revenge on them. But Yosef explained that he cannot do this. Yosef understood that all that his brothers’ treachery led to saving the nascent Jewish people. Yosef understood the Divine truth. That enabled “נחם” – consolation. Consolation is achieved through comprehension and explanation. Coming to terms with or understanding the past.
The brothers were afraid that Yosef would abandon their children. So, Yosef promised that he would support them. That was “וידבר על לבם”- he spoke to their hearts. “Speech to the hearts” means allaying fear of the future.
Yosef saw the Divine plan in his life’s story and he could explain it to the brothers. He could speak to their hearts and make them stronger for the future.
But for us today awaiting the redemption, what about the life story of our people? Prophets can allay our fears of the future but they cannot explain the past.
Returning to our the verses above from our Haftarah, we see it is the prophet who will “speak to our hearts” preparing us for the future but first, it will be Hashem Himself in the first verse who will console (מנחם) us making our understanding of the past as clear as the Divine truth was to Yosef.
The weekly Torah portion can and ought to be studied on many levels. The Torah portion of the week (the “parshat hashavuah” or simply “parshah”) contains information which we need to know and understand in a straightforward manner. This information is called in Hebrew, by some, “p’shat”- the readily apparent meaning of the text.
But there is another level of meaning in the Torah which needs to be explored. This level of meaning is, one could say, the spiritual meaning. The Torah is God-given and the serious student of the Torah is correct in asking how does the week’s passage from the Torah bring her or him closer to God.
So what makes Chasidut special?
The teachers of Torah who took this search for spiritual meaning very seriously were the Chasidic teachers. As the Chasidic movement took shape one of the significant innovations in the movement was the lesson on the parsha. This lesson was given by the Chasidic rebbe during the third Shabbat meal.
The Chassidic rebbe understood that what his followers needed was something that they could take home. They needed something that could help elevate the mundane and bring them closer to God. The questions that the Chasidic Rebbes raised in their parsha talks were not the ones raised by the great medieval commentators.
Foe example, when someone wishes to understand what a sentence means in its context one looks to Rashi or ibn Ezra for an answer. But if someone wishes to know how does knowing this or that verse bring me closer to God, then the answer is found in the Chasidic works.
Today I wish to share with you a teaching from the renowned Chasidic work, Sfat Emet, on the parsha.
Mosheh Rabbeinu and Stuttering
Our parsha begins, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…”
For the perceptive reader who has followed the Torah reading throughout the year this verse marks a remarkable change in Moses. For when God approached Moses for the first time and instructed him to speak to Pharaoh, Moses refused to go. Moses replied to God, “…please God, I am not a man of words…”
And eventually it was Moses’s brother Aaron who spoke. So how did this transformation occur? How did Moses become a man of words?
The Sfat Emet (based on the early Rabbinic text Midrash Rabbah) explains that what changed Moses was the Torah itself.
Elevated by words of Torah
The Torah is what gives life. The Torah was God’s blueprint for all of creation. When God first met Moses, Moses was truly “not a man of words.” But what did Moses mean when he said that? When Moses said that he was “not a man of words” he did not mean that he could not speak clearly. What he meant to say was that his words could not reach the hearts of the Jews.
But the Torah that Moses taught for forty years elevated his speech. His speech acquired the sanctity of the Torah. Now his words could enter the hearts of the people.
So what is the lesson for us? Speech, the Sfat Emet says, is an immensely powerful tool. It is can cause great harm. But it can also bring about great good. The Torah certainly changed the speech of Moses, and if we open ourselves up to the Torah it can change us as well.
In this week’s Torah reading of Masei, Moshe is commanded to tell Yehoshua to set aside cities of refuge. Someone who kills another person unintentionally must flee to one of the cities of refuge before the deceased’s next of kin catch him or her.
A Beit Din sits at the entrance of the city to judge whether the death was unintentional or whether it was caused by negligence (in which case the city does not provide protection from the relatives).
Until the Cohen Gadol Dies
Once the murderer had been admitted, he must remain there until the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) dies.
“For in the city of refuge he must remain until the death of the Cohen Gadol; after the death of the Cohen Gadol the murderer returns to the land of his inheritance,” (Bamidbar 35:28).
I can imagine that someone stuck in the city of refuge, waiting to return home, would perhaps hope and pray that the Cohen Gadol would die soon and release them from exile.
I guess this is part of the repentance for the accidental murderer. Having killed once unintentionally, perhaps it would seem like not such a big deal to pray for the death of someone else. Even someone as important as the Cohen Gadol.
A Mother’s Care
The Mishna (Makkot 2:6) relates that for this reason, the mother of the High Priest would bring gifts to those living in the cities of refuge.
“Therefore, the mothers of the Cohanim would provide them food and clothing, so that they should not pray for their children to die.”
The Talmud (Makkot 11a) asks why the mothers were worried about those prayers. There is no punishment without sin. If the Cohen had done nothing wrong, the prayers would have no effect. A verse states, “A baseless cause shall not come true,” (Mishlei 26:2).
The answer in the Talmud is that “They should have prayed for their generation but did not.”
The Responsibility of Leadership
The Cohen Gadol was more than just a figurehead. He was the person who effected repentance for the entire nation every Yom Kippur. He would bring the sacrifices, send the scapegoat to Azazel, enter the Holy of Holies, and by the end of the day, the nation would be absolved of its sins.
And as a leader of the nation, he was responsible for everything that happened. It was up to him to set an example for everyone else, to act in a way that would build up the character of the nation. He could not shirk his responsibility.
He was held so responsible that even a single unintentional death anywhere in the country would have earned him Divine punishment.
Not Only the Cohen Gadol
After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis extended this responsibility of leadership to anyone in a position of authority (Makkot 11a).
“A person was eaten by a lion three parsangs from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and Eliyahu the Prophet did not speak with him for three days.”
We Are All Responsible for One Another
I would even go further and say that each of us, even if not in an official position of leadership, has a responsibility to protect others from harm.
In 1995, a severe heatwave hit Chicago, leading to 739 deaths. Eric Klinenberg showed in his book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago” that people living in neighborhoods and communities with strong social infrastructure had a much better chance of surviving the heat. That is just one example where being connected with one another literally saved lives.
The Cohen Gadol was held responsible for not preventing deaths. Conversely, by caring for those around us, in person, through phone calls or online, each of us has the potential to prevent unnecessary deaths and save lives.
At the end of Parshat Matot, the tribes of Gad and Reuven approach Moshe with a request. They point out that their tribes have large flocks of animals, and the land on the other side of the Jordan River is good grazing land.
“This land… is land for flocks, and your servants have flocks,” (Bamidbar 32:4).
Did they not learn?
Moshe, understandably, becomes upset with the two tribes, reminding them of the sin of the spies –the last time the Israelites didn’t want to enter the promised land.
The tribes of Gad and Reuven clarified that they were not shirking their duties and didn’t want to disobey God. They said they would build pens for their sheep and cities for their children, and then join the rest of the nation in conquering the land. Only after the conquest was complete would they return home to their families.
Moshe realizes that the two tribes are genuine in their request. It is not that they don’t want to enter the land of Israel, but instead want to expand the borders of the holy land to include the side of the Jordan where Moshe will die and be buried.
He agrees to their request, but he makes it conditional. They may only inherit the grazing lands on the other side of the Jordan if they fight alongside the rest of the nation to help them to inherit the land of Israel.
Moshe also clarifies their priorities. Changing the order, he said to first, “Build cities for your children and pens for your sheep,” (Bamidbar 32:24).
Half of Menashe
After making the deal with the tribes of Gad and Reuven, Moshe does something surprising:
“Moshe gave the children of Gad and the children of Reuven and half of the tribe of Menashe ben Yosef the kingdom of Sichon, King of the Emorites, and the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan,” (Bamidbar 32:33).
Reuven and Gad made the request to stay on that side of the Jordan River, because they had flocks. Seemingly for no reason, Moshe suddenly adds that half the tribe of Menashe will also inherit alongside them, outside the borders of Canaan.
Did Menashe want to live there?
The Netziv (Devarim 3:16) says that it was Moshe who decided to add half of Menashe to live next to the tribes of Gad and Reuven. Moshe was concerned that being so far from the tabernacle and the holiness of Israel, the two tribes would forget about Torah and turn to idolatry. Moshe’s concern was well founded. As soon as the soldiers of Gad and Reuven returned home, they set up an altar, leading the rest of the nation to suspect them of idolatry (Joshua 22:10).
So, he decided to have half of Menashe live with them, to remind them of their duties and obligations.
Moshe chose Menashe for a reason. Shoftim (5:14) describes the descendants of Machir (the leader of Menashe) as “legislators,” a term also applied to Moshe Rabbeinu.
Not only did they know Torah, but they also knew how to live far from the spiritual center of Judaism. The founder of their tribe, Yosef’s son, was born in Egypt and served as Yosef’s advisor. He grew up in a palace and spent his days dealing with the Egyptian princes and governors, while remaining committed to the values of his father and grandfather.
Moshe added another layer of protection. He placed half the tribe on one side of the river and half the tribe on the other. This meant that Menashe would always remain connected to what was going on in the holy land. When the families got together, they would discuss the latest Torah teachings and from there Torah would spread to Reuven and Gad, their neighbors.
The Original WebYeshiva
In a sense, the tribe of Menashe was the original WebYeshiva. They were able to take the Torah from Israel and spread it far and wide. They would share the latest Torah teachings with those around them who did not have direct access to the rabbis and teachers of Israel.
In a sense, each of us is like the tribe of Menashe. We each have a responsibility to share what we learn with those around us, who may be too far away to hear the teachings directly themselves. We are a conduit for Torah. We must do our best to share our knowledge with the tribes around us.