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Rabbi Doniel Staum - PARSHIOS VAYAKHEL-PEKUDEI/PARAH 5772 "Place without Land"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Shortly after the end of World War II, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter zt’l was accompanying Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch zt’l[1] on a fundraising trip to New York. While there they stopped in a Jewish bookstore and Rabbi Bloch asked the elderly storeowner if he could purchase a volume of Ketzos Hachoshen. The elderly man climbed up a ladder and retrieved an old dusty copy of the sefer. It had obviously been there for quite some time.

Just as he was about to hand the sefer to Rabbi Bloch the storeowner pulled it back and looked at him intensely. Then he said, “I will sell you this sefer on two conditions. Firstly, I understand that you have lost your entire family and yeshiva in the European inferno, and that you are trying to rebuild here. For your own sanity, give it up. There is only so much heartache a man can take and you are setting yourself up for failure. There is no place for such a yeshiva in America.”

Rabbi Bloch listened silently as the man continued, “Second, let’s be honest. America will never have the Torah scholarship that was in Europe. What Hitler destroyed cannot be rebuilt. Treat the sefer you are holding as a relic, because it may very well be the last Ketzos Hachoshen that will ever be sold in America!”

Rabbi Bloch didn’t respond. He purchased the sefer and walked out. After a few introspective moments, he turned to Rabbi Gifter and exclaimed, “He’s right!” Rabbi Gifter was stunned, but Rabbi Bloch continued, “Logically, he is 100% correct for logically there is no chance that Torah scholarship and yeshivos can flourish in this country. And logically, this should indeed be the final Ketzos ever purchased in America.

“But Torah doesn’t adhere to the laws of logic! The greatness of Torah is that it can inconceivably perpetuate itself and rebuild despite all odds. You will see that Telshe will indeed be rebuilt here in America and there will be more volumes of Ketzos Hachoshen reprinted in this country than ever before.[2]

“Betzalel made the Ark of acacia wood…” (37:1)

The Medrash states: “At the time when G-d told Moshe to construct the Mishkan, he came and told Betzalel (about the instructions). He (Betzalel) said to him (Moshe), “What is this Mishkan?” He said to him, “In order that G-d will rest His Presence in our midst and teach Torah to the Children of Israel.” Betzalel said to him, “And where will the Torah be placed?” He (Moshe) said to him, “When we construct the Mishkan we will make an Ark.” He said to him, “Our teacher Moshe, doing so is not in accordance with the honor of Torah. Rather we should first create the Ark, and then build the Mishkan.” It was for this reason that the Ark was called by his name as it says, “Betzalel made the Ark”.”

Rabbi Mordechai Rogov zt’l[3] explained that the spiritual life of the Jewish people took root well before they were physically settled. When they received the Torah at Sinai they had absolutely no physical protection at all. In the vast desert they were surrounded by venomous snakes and scorpions, blazing heat, and an unstable environment. They had large families and no physical source for food or water. Yet they unhesitatingly accepted the Torah and passionately began to study its laws.

The prophet Malachi[4] said, “Remember the Torah of Moshe my servant that I commanded you in Chorev”. The prophet was exhorting the nation to recall that they accepted the Torah in an arid land of desolation[5]. They had no physical stability and they accepted Torah anyway.

That was the prototype for Klal Yisroel’s inextricable relationship with the Torah for all time. Our connection to Torah precedes our physical needs. Throughout the bitter exile our ancestors upheld the Torah in the most challenging and unstable times. Even when they lacked food and shelter, when they were persecuted and pursued they continued to study and upkeep the Torah.

Rabbi Shabsi Hakohen began writing his classic commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the Shach, while he was fleeing for his life during the murderous pogroms of 1648-1649.

There is a long Tosafos in Bava Kamma (77a) that fills almost the entire page. There is a legend that that Tosafos was recorded by scholars who were imprisoned and waiting to be executed the following day. With no writing utensil they wrote the text… with their own blood!

This is the depth of the conversation between Moshe and Betzalel. When Moshe said that they would build the Mishkan and then the Ark so that they would have a physical structure in which to place the Ark, Betzalel countered that that is not the way of Torah. Torah transcends physical housings and therefore the Ark which represented Torah must be constructed prior to the Mishkan.

At the Pesach Seder, we refer to G-d as the Omnipresent, “ברוך המקום ברוך הוא – Blessed is ‘the Place’, blessed is He.” The Medrash[6] explains that G-d is referred to as ‘the Place’ for “He is the Place of the world but the world is not His place.”

Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l[7] related that Rabbi Shmuel Feivelson[8] once recounted to him a conversation he had with a recent Russian immigrant from the former USSR while traveling on a bus in B’nei B’rak. The Russian fellow told him the following: “Lenin taught all of Russia that the Jews are not a people. He defined a people as a group who possess a language, culture, and homeland. Since the Jews have no homeland that is proof that they are not a people. However, he was wrong, for in truth every Jew throughout the world has a designated place. No matter where in the Diaspora a Jew is, the omnipresent G-d is his place! A home is a place where one feels secure and comfortable. A Jew can feel that sense of comfort and security if he has proper faith, for wherever he goes he is still in the Hands of G-d!”

Rabbi Feivelson noted that this is an added meaning of the verse where G-d says to Klal Yisroel[9], “Now if you will hearken to My Voice, and safeguard My covenant, and you will be for Me for a treasure from all the other nations, for all the land is Mine.” G-d was saying ‘The whole world belongs to Me and therefore if you will keep the Torah, then no matter where you will be you will remain a treasured people, for I will be your place’.

Parshas Parah contains the laws of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), the process of its offering and the sprinkling of its ashes upon one who was ritually impure via a dead body.

Enigmatically however, the Torah introduces these laws with a declaration concerning the entire Torah. “Zos Chukas HaTorah – this is the law of the Torah”. Why does it not state more specifically “Zos chukas ha'Parah - This is the decree of the Parah”? There seems to be an inextricable connection between this mitzvah and the rest of the Torah. What is that connection?

We do not serve G-d because it makes sense to us or because it ‘speaks to us’. The premise is that we keep the Torah and mitzvos because G-d has instructed us to do so and therefore it contains the ultimate truth!

The laws of the Red Heifer whose reason remains a complete mystery to us is therefore the paradigmatic chok[10]. Our approach toward the entire Torah must parallel that of the Parah Adumah - a chok we adhere to simply because the Torah instructs us to do so.

The word chok also refers to something that is permanent. In Tehillim[11], King David declares about the creation of heaven and earth, “ויעמידם לעד לעולם חק נתן ולא יעבר - He established them forever and ever, He issued a decree that will not be broken.”

This too is the meaning of chok with regards to the entire Torah. Every mitzvah and every law is ‘chok v'lo yaavor – a decree that will not be broken’.

Torah is not merely the law of the land, for it is a law that transcends all lands, all times, all generations, and all situations.

After stating the laws of the Parah Adumah, the Torah states, “This is the (Torah) teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent.” (19:14)

The Gemara[12] derives from this verse that one can only truly internalize the words of Torah if he ‘kills himself’ over them. This entails giving up one’s physical comfort for Torah study. It must be paramount in one’s life and one must be prepared to sacrifice for its attainment.

Throughout the travails and trauma of exile we have always held the banner of Torah aloft and have never shirked that responsibility. From the day we became a nation as we embarked from Egypt, no matter where we have been forced to wander and what we have been forced to endure we have never forgotten who we are!

“והיא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו - It is what has stood for us and for our forefathers”.

“Betzalel made the Ark”

“Blessed is ‘the Place’, blessed is He”

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[1] Rav Elya Meir Bloch was the uncle of Rav Gifter’s wife and the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe, Cleveland. Rav Gifter himself later became Rosh Yeshiva

[2] From “Rav Gifter” by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, Mesorah Publications

[3] Ateres Mordechai

[4] 3:22

[5] Chorev is an expression of churban – destruction and desolation

[6] Bereishis Rabbah 1:9

[7] Haggadas Marei Kohain

[8] Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Nachalas Naftali in Tzefas

[9] Shemos 19:5

[10] a chok is a law which we are not privy to its reason

[11] 148:6

[12] Berachos 63b

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