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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Bamidbar 5771 "In Perfect Formation"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A Paratrooper's Story

By Dr. Moshe Amirav

On Monday, the 5th of June 1967, I arrived in Western Jerusalem as a soldier in a paratrooper brigade. All through that night, we advanced from house to house under heavy fire. The battalion advanced to the east; I knew that it was in the direction of the Old City and the goal was clear: the Western Wall. At the end of that night, which was the longest in my life, we arrived in the area near the Rockefeller Museum. I climbed up onto the roof of the adjacent building and in dawn's first light I was able to see – Jerusalem.

A Jordanian shell exploded on the roof of the building. As a result of the blast, I flew up in the air. I felt a piece of shrapnel ripping my face and it felt as though it was blowing up my head. Immediately, my face bled and all I heard were screams of "Medic, Medic!" Ofer, the medic, stopped the bleeding by bandaging me quickly and professionally. He calmed me down by saying: "In a few minutes, a rescue jeep will get here and take you to the hospital." I understood that for me, the war was over. "But I have to get to the Kotel!" – I cried. Ofer looked at me as though I'd lost my mind: "That's what interests you now, the Western Wall?!"

A few hours later, I was already at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem. I could hear the echo of shooting from the Old City. The next morning, we listened to the broadcast of the Voice of Israel reporter, Raphael Amir: "At this moment, I am going down the stairs toward the Western Wall… I am touching the stones of the Western Wall…" Sounds of gunfire could be heard in the background mixed with the elated cries of the soldiers and the sounds of shofar blowing. I could not continue listening to the broadcast. I got out of bed and told Motti, who was lying in the bed next to mine: "I am going to the Kotel!"

I smile now when I remember how I ran to the Kotel, holding Motti's hand since I could hardly see where to go. We did not take our time – we ran quickly, past the Moghrabi Gate, pushing forward in a hurry. Suddenly we stopped, thunderstruck. Standing opposite us was the Western Wall: gray, huge, silent, and restrained. I remembered feeling this awe-struck only once before, as a child, when my father brought me close to the Holy Ark.

Slowly, I began my approach to the Kotel, feeling like a shaliach tzibbur, a cantor praying for a congregation; representing my father – Herschel-Zvi of Jerusalem and Lithuania, representing Grandfather Moses and Grandfather Yisrael who were slaughtered in Punar, representing my teacher and rabbi Mourner of Zion Menachem Mendel and his entire family that was killed in Treblinka, representing the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg whose poems I knew by heart and had sent me here.

Someone near me made the "She'hechiyanu" blessing, but I could not answer "Amen". I just put a hand on the stone and the tears that streamed from my eyes were part water and part prayers, tunes, and longing of generations of Mourners of Zion.

I came back to the hospital later that day to undergo surgery to remove the piece of shrapnel from my head.

On Shabbos afternoon, in the Mincha shemoneh esrei, we speak about the unity of Shabbos that will be realized in the future Messianic world. “Avrohom rejoices, Yitzchok exults, Yaakov and his sons rest upon it.” What is the meaning of these words? Why is it particularly together with his sons who rest on Shabbos?

When the prophet extols the virtues of one who safeguards Shabbos properly he says[1], “Then you shall delight in G-d, and I shall mount you astride the heights of the world, and endow you with the heritage of your forefather Yaakov, for the Mouth of G-d has spoken.” Based on this verse the gemara[2] comments, “Whoever delights in the Shabbos is granted a boundless heritage.” The boundless heritage promised to one who delights in the Shabbos is the portion of our patriarch Yaakov. What is the connection?

We find that Klal Yisroel always maintained a circular formation in their encampments and residence. When they entered Eretz Yisroel and the land was divided amongst the tribes the Bais Hamikdash was in the heart of the land, surrounded by the city of Yerushalayim, which was surrounded by the tribes throughout Eretz Yisroel.

Throughout their forty year sojourns in the desert they also maintained a unique encampment. At the beginning of Chumash Bamidbar, G-d instructed Moshe[3], “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of his fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of the Meeting shall they encamp.” Three tribes camped in each of the four directions surrounding the center which included the Levites camp as well as the Mishkan.

The Medrash notes that when G-d commanded Moshe about the new formation of in the desert and that each tribe would have its own flag, Moshe was concerned that it would lead to dispute, as some tribes may not want to be placed where they were directed. G-d replied that the tribes would have no such qualms because they were already familiar with their positions. Their encampment in the desert was the same as how each tribe stood around the bed of Yaakov Avinu just prior to his passing when he instructed them how to escort his bier to Eretz Yisroel from Egypt for burial.

Moshe’s fears still seem founded. Why would the nation be willing to accept a formation based on a funeral of hundreds of years prior?

The Ateres Mordechai explains that it is relatively easy for people to be cordial and affable with each other when things are serene. However, when times become more challenging and tense people often become more aggressive and impatient with each other.

Moshe feared that when the Jews were instructed to maintain a rigid formation in the desert they would counter that it was an impossibility. A desert is by definition vast and lawless and there cannot be normal and structured living in a desert. So how could they be expected to maintain such disciplined order in their encampments?

G-d replied that Moshe’s fears were baseless. Yaakov Avinu had ingrained in his children the ability to maintain their faith and composure even under the most trying circumstances. When each tribe was instructed where to stand, he was informed what his role was, and what he had to accomplish. The funeral of Yaakov was unquestionably a period of intense mourning and instability for the tribes. Yet they traveled together and accomplished their mission in unison.

The ability of a Jew to maintain his equanimity even in the most challenging situations dates back to Yaakov Avinu’s funeral procession when each tribe maintained their dignity despite the circumstances.

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that G-d’s throne is surrounded by four gatherings of angels on each side, as it were, to resemble Israel’s four formations surrounding the Mishkan.

When Yaakov’s sons surrounded him in proper formation it was representative of the ‘secret of "אחד" (one)’. The word echad is composed of aleph (numerical value of one) and ches and daled (8 and 4) which combine to equal 12. Yaakov (the ‘one’ in the middle) surrounded by his twelve sons, represent the idea of "אחד"[4].

The Chofetz Chaim noted that the Mishkan always had to remain in the middle of the camp, much like the Tree of Life was in the middle of the Garden of Eden[5]. This is reflective of the Torah which must always remain our central focus. Every other component in our lives must surround the Torah and subjugate itself towards the dictates and laws of the Torah. The Torah must always remain the epicenter of our lives.

The Chofetz Chaim adds that since our continued life in this world depends on the beating of our hearts which ensures the circulation of the blood the heart is in the center of our bodies. The source of life – physical and spiritual – always remains in the center.

When the tribes surrounded Yaakov it represented "אחד", the ultimate unity, for they all subjugated themselves toward their father, the righteous leader, in the center. When the Jewish People maintain their focus towards their national heart, they are truly a people who merit the accolade "אחד", a united, destiny-driven people.

Torah life entails a perpetual focus towards the center. That center is the heartbeat of our national existence, represented geographically by Yerushalayim, and spiritually by the Torah.

As long as the center point remains in focus, we can branch out and extend far beyond our borders. The person who proclaims Shabbos a delight is the one who is able to use all of the delicacies and pleasures of Shabbos to sanctify the holy day. Such a person has G-d in his heart and is thus able to ‘branch out’ into the pleasures of this world and not forfeit his inner sanctity. His heart and soul are ‘one’ just as the tribes were one surrounding the bed of their father Yaakov.

Therefore, one who proclaims Shabbos a delight merits the inheritance of Yaakov. G-d promised Yaakov[6], “You shall spread out powerfully westward, eastward, northward, and southward.” Because Yaakov personified unity of purpose and mission in his unyielding service to G-d he was blessed to spread out beyond his confines and borders.

On Shabbos afternoon during our prayers we speak of the ultimate level of Shabbos observance, i.e. the Shabbos of the future when all will recognize the ultimate truth: “You are One and Your Name is One and who is like Your Nation Yisroel, one nation in the land.” Klal Yisroel is one, united in heart and mission, because of their omnipresent awareness that the One G-d remains the central focus of their lives.

It is specifically “Yaakov and his sons” who rest on Shabbos[7] because the depiction of Yaakov surrounded by his sons is the symbolism of perfect unity.

Throughout their forty year sojourns in the desert Klal Yisroel camped in that same formation, reminiscent of the harmonious spirit which their forefathers possessed and instilled in them. When we entered the Promised Land we continued to live with that same pattern, surrounding the center of our national heart of Yerushalayim and the Bais Hamikdash.

Throughout the exile when we no longer have the physical structure of the Bais Hamikdash our hearts remained there. At the center and core of our nationhood is, above-all, our adherence to the Torah, and also our pining and yearning to return to Jerusalem and the physical centrality of our people.

The legendary words[8] “הר הבית בידינו – The Temple Mount is in our hands” must be revised to, “הר הבית בלבינו – The Temple Mount is in our hearts

“Surrounding the Tent of the Meeting shall they encamp.”

“Who is like Your Nation Yisroel, one nation in the land.”

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[1] Yeshaya 58:14

[2] Shabbos 118a

[3] Bamidbar 2:2

[4] Idea from Rabbi Aharon Shechter shlita, Kuntrue Ma’amarei Chof Kislev, Ma’amar 11

[5] See Bereishis 2:9; Onkelos states clearly that it was ‘in the middle of the garden’.

[6] Bereishis 28:14

[7] The rest we refer to is not physical rest but spiritual relaxation. It is a day when we recharge our spiritual batteries, as it were, by reminding ourselves of our true purpose and focus of life.

[8] Announced by Colonel Motta Gur over the military radio in June 1967, during the six-day war when G-d allowed us to miraculously re-conquer Jerusalem from the Jordanians

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