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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshios Matos-Masei 5772 "Face the Music"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Shalom Schwadron zt’l, the great Maggid of Yerushalayim, related the following parable: There was an ignorant farmer who decided to visit the big city for the first time. When he arrived at the city he was amazed by the hustle and bustle, the gigantic buildings, and the endless congestion of traffic. He spent his day staring at the crowds who hastily brushed by him without giving him much of a second glance.

When he arrived at the outskirts of the city he began to walk through the fields that ran adjacent to the city limits. While doing so, he noticed a long metal pole at his feet that continued as long as his eyes could see. About two feet away he noticed a parallel pole that was embedded in the ground evenly distanced with the first one. In between the two poles were slabs of wood attached to the poles with shiny looking buttons. The farmer decided that one of those shiny buttons would make a perfect memento for his trip to the big city. So he set down to work trying to pull out the stubborn button.

As the farmer busied himself with the “button”, a locomotive was barreling down the tracks at full speed. When the conductor noticed a man on the tracks in the distance, he urgently tugged on the train’s whistle with all his might. Two powerful blasts resonated and caught the attention of the naive farmer. In the farmer’s town they only played music at a wedding or a festive occasion. The farmer decided that a celebration must be approaching so he folded his arms across his chest and began dancing the ‘k’zatzka’ on the tracks. The conductor could hardly believe his eyes; some lunatic was dancing on the tracks! He frantically tugged on the whistle with all his might. But the more the whistle blew the faster the farmer danced.

The conductor was forced to pull the emergency brake. The locomotive stopped inches from the dancing farmer. Two security guards immediately jumped off the train and began hauling the farmer off the tracks. As they did so, one commented to the other that the crazy dancer must be deaf. The other one disagreed, “He is not deaf at all. In fact, he is dancing because he heard the whistle. It’s not that he didn’t hear; it’s that he doesn’t understand what it is that he is hearing!”

Before the conclusion of Sefer Bamidbar, the Torah records Klal Yisroel’s forty-two encampments from when they lefty Egypt until they stood poised to enter the Promised Land. “These are the journeys of the B’nei Yisroel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions, under the hand of Moshe and Aharon.[1]Rashi, quoting the Medrash Tanchuma, offers an analogy to a king who traveled with his ill son to seek a remedy for his dreaded disease. When the prince was cured and they were returning home to the palace, the king began to recount all of their travels along the way, “Here we slept, here we were cold, and here your head was hurting, etc.”

If one analyzes the names of the places listed, it seems that some of the most important events that transpired are not mentioned, including the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Manna that descended from the heavens each morning. Also, there seems to be some trivial events that are haphazardly interspersed between the listing of their travels. “And the Egyptians were burying those among them whom Hashem had struck, every firstborn, and on their gods Hashem inflicted punishments.[2] Why was it important to re-enumerate that Hashem destroyed the gods of Egypt?

“They journeyed from Etham and it turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is before Baal-Zephon, and they encamped before Migdol.[3]Why was it necessary for the Torah to give such precise detail about where Pi-hahiroth was located? “They went on a three-day trip in the wilderness of Etham, and they encamped in Marah.[4] This is the only time in the parsha that the Torah mentions how long they camped at a distinct location. What was the significance of those three days in Etham? “They journeyed from Marah and arrived in Elim; in Elim were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they encamped there.[5] What do the springs and date palms have to do with the travels of the Jews? The following verses detail the occasions when the nation lacked water as well as the death of Aharon. What is the underlying message of the detailing of the travels of the nation throughout the forty years?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l[6] explains that the Torah never intended to detail a “crash review course” of the previous forty years. Rather, it was to recognize the Hand of G-d or the message/lesson that they should have realized. Now, as the nation was on the threshold of Eretz Yisroel, the Torah recounts the times that they remained stoic in the face of potential inspiration.

This is what the Medrash[7] means, “He counted for them all of the places where they angered Me (G-d)” and this is the meaning of the Medrash’s analogy: “Here we slept” refers to the places where the Jews “slept away” an inspiring event, failing to contemplate and recognize the miracles G-d had wrought on their behalf. “Here we were cold” refers to the times when the nation allowed their inspiration to fade and wither. “Here your head was hurting” is a metaphor to the times when one of the nation’s leaders died and they were bereft of a leader, one of the “heads” of the nation.

When the verse recounts that the Egyptians busied themselves burying their firstborn it is an acerbic rebuke of the nation for failing to realize the greatness of the event. Although the perennial Egyptian custom was to embalm the dead and not bury them, after the death of the firstborn, they buried them because it became clear - even to the idolatrous Egyptians – that their gods were futile and that Hashem was Omnipotent.

In a similar vein, when the Jews needed water in the parched desert, twelve springs, one for each tribe, miraculously appeared along with seventy date-palms, corresponding to the seventy elders of Klal Yisroel. There too, they did not fully appreciate the significance of those numbers either.

When the nation arrived in Ba’al-Zephon shortly after the exodus, it was merely three days after the splitting of the sea, and yet, “here we were cold”, i.e. they allowed the inspiration they felt from the incredible events at the Sea of the Reeds to fade when they complained about the dearth of water. Also, in Rephidim when the nation questioned “Is Hashem in our midst?” it was immediately after the Manna began to fall. Despite the fact that such incredible events had just occurred, the nation’s belief in G-d was somewhat dubious.

Aharon’s death was a tremendous blow to the nation because he was a beloved leader, “Here your head was hurting.” They saw Aharon’s death as an ominous harbinger of negative events that were to follow.

My family has been fortunate to spend many summers in Camp Dora Golding in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, where I am a Division Head. This past Sunday was Visiting Day in camp. Hundreds of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and even a couple of dogs swarmed the camp, making the spacious campus feel small. The camp buzzed with excitement, hugs and kisses were exchanged, and endless boxes of nosh, water, and soda were piled up on beds.

Until a few years ago, my Bubby, Rebbitzin Frances Kohn, came to camp with my parents on Visiting Day for many years. Five years ago was the last time she came up. Although she spent a lot of the day in her classic position, i.e. sitting and knitting, at one point, I invited her to accompany me for a ride on my ‘gator’[8] around camp to see the campus. After driving around for a few minutes, Bubby began to marvel about the multitudes of children and families. At one point she wiped away a tear and said, “It was worth coming just to see all these Jewish boys. It makes me want to cry.” She repeated her feelings to all of the staff members and administrators that I introduced her to.

Bubby is a survivor of Siberia and a refugee from the nefarious horrors of the Second World War. She often tells us the oft repeated sentiment of survivors that the resilience of Klal Yisroel in our generation is nothing short of miraculous. Bubby and I both sat on the Gator and saw the same thing that Visiting Day. But, we conceptualized it very differently. I saw a lot of people, some of whom made my day more difficult. But Bubby saw our posterity and the revenge of the tormentors and a sight of emotional beauty.

Life is full of messages. We must realize that G-d is constantly speaking to us, albeit not always in our dialect. When the whistles of life blow some people choose to begin dancing instead of realizing its message.

The elucidation of the travels of Klal Yisroel is a lesson about the tragedy of missed opportunities. As great as our forbearers in the desert were, they could have been even greater.

“Here we slept, here we were cold, and here your head was hurting.”

“These are the journeys of B’nei Yisroel.”

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This past Monday, 26 Tammuz, was the yahrtzeit of my mother-in-law’s father, Mr. Jacob Kawer, R’ Yaakov Meir Shalom ben Berachya z’l. Like my Bubby, he was a survivor of those horrible years and events. He arrived in America literally with nothing other than the shirt on his back!

A widower who survived Auschwitz, Dachau, and other infamous Concentration Camps, he possessed the inner fortitude and courage to rebuild. I never merited to meet him but his legend is apparent from all who knew him and admired him. They tell me that a smile never left his face and he had a genial and amicable personality. Our generation must learn the lessons that such people personified; the eternity of our people and the guarantee of our posterity despite all odds!

T’hay nafsho tzerurah b’tzror hachaim.

[1] 33:1

[2] 33:3

[3] 33:7

[4] 33:8

[5] 33:9

[6] Ma’ayan Bais Hashoaivah

[7] Bamidbar Rabbah 23:3

[8] the blissful vehicles that the ‘high and mighty’ camp administrators drive in camp

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