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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Ki Sisa 5773 "National Resilience"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In the 1980’s the San Francisco 49ers dominated the National Football League. In fact, they established themselves as one of the greatest football dynasties in N.F.L. history. There is no question that much of their success lay in the immense talent of their players[1], but that alone would not suffice to create a dynasty. The 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, was once asked to what he attributes his success. He responded pithily, “It’s not that our guys know how to win, but that they know how to lose.”

The Gemara[2] relates that inside the holy Aron, underneath the second set of Luchos[3] lay the broken shards of the first Luchos that Moshe had shattered.

Why would the fragments of the first Aron, which symbolized the nation’s calamitous sin of the golden calf, be placed alongside the second Luchos in the holiest place within the Mishkan?

Chazal relate that our world is not the first that G-d created. “Hakadosh Boruch Hu borah olamos umachrivam- G-d created prior worlds and destroyed them.” What is the meaning behind this enigmatic statement? It is indeed a normal human trait to have numerous rough drafts before the final copy is written, but G-d is infallible. Why did He create worlds that He knew wouldn’t last?

G-d created the entire cosmos with a single utterance of the letter ‘heh’[4], and He surely could have created the world perfectly the first time. However G-d wanted to demonstrate that in the physical world one cannot attain completion and perfection in one fell swoop. Just as one cannot wake up on the morning of the marathon and decide to run twenty-one miles without any prior preparation, so too one cannot instantly transform himself into a pure and righteous Jew.

For mortals there is only one way to attain any level of perfection, and that is through struggling, and invariably falling. It is only from one’s pitfalls that one learns his vulnerabilities, and can properly prepare himself for his next bout within himself.

Some time ago, an older Yeshiva student wrote a letter to Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt’l expressing feelings of despondency and spiritual defeat. The young man described that as a youngster he aspired for greatness and wanted to become a Torah scholar. But now that his teenage years were behind him, he felt like a failure. Though he was learning and accomplishing, he felt that his personal character faults were too numerous as would befit a future leader. He was very down on himself and turned to Rav Hutner for advice.

Rav Hutner’s response is legendary[5]. He began by stating that the root of the writer’s pain lies in a common misconception of what constitutes greatness. People think of greatness in terms of sitting comfortably and studying Torah and doing mitzvos while basking in the glow of spiritual euphoria. The biographies of our leaders sometimes depict men of angelic greatness and perfection.

The problem is that our impressions of these spiritual giants stem from our familiarity with their stature and greatness generally in their old age, after decades of personal struggle and effort. But those struggles aren’t publicized. Rav Hutner noted that while we are all familiar with the towering greatness of the Chofetz Chaim and his vigilant tongue that never uttered an improper word, we do not know of the many internal battles he waged in order to accomplish that great level.

The wisest of men noted that, “Shevah yipol tzaddik v’kom- A righteous person falls seven times and gets up.[6]The fool thinks the righteous person gets up despite his falls; the wise person understands that he can only ‘get up’ and grow because he falls.

At the conclusion of creation just prior to Shabbos, the verse states, “And G-d viewed all that He created and behold it was very good.” Rashi explains, “‘Good’ refers to the good inclination; ‘very good’ refers to the evil inclination.” It is only through vanquishing one’s evil inclination that he can reach his potential. In that sense the evil inclination is deemed ‘very good’.

Rav Hutner continues, “You have fallen numerous times, and you will fall again numerous times. That is not, G-d forbid, a negative prediction, but a fact of life. But there is a concept of ‘losing a battle yet winning the war’. You can fall to your evil inclination time and time again. But as long as you are resilient and dust yourself off and continue to fight, you have not been defeated, and you’ll ultimately prevail and win the war.”

This concept is true, not only regarding individuals but even to Klal Yisroel as a whole. In Kabbalah this concept is compared to a seed which only grows after it begins to rot. It is at the point when it looks like the seed has ceased to grow that the growth process actually begins.

In our long and painful history we have seen the fruition of this idea many times. After many of the lowest points of our history we have emerged to rebuild from the ashes.

The shards of the first Luchos were kept within the Aron to remind us that although the sin of the golden calf was a very dark page in our national book, it was also a catastrophe that we overcame. In that sense, the tragedy of the first Luchos contributed to Klal Yisroel’s ultimate growth.

The Purim story began to unravel for Haman when he begrudgingly was forced to humiliate himself parading his archenemy, Mordechai, through the streets bellowing repeatedly, “Such shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor.” When the ordeal was finally over, Haman returned home and reassured his wicked wife Zeresh that despite that day’s occurrences he would still prevail. Zeresh however, was not convinced.

The Megillah (Esther 6:13) records her response to Haman, “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is from the seed of the Jews, you will not prevail against him, but will undoubtedly fall before him.” What made Zeresh so sure that Haman was a sure goner just because he had suffered a slight defeat to someone of Jewish descent?

The Ben Ish Chai notes that Zeresh did not say Haman was doomed if Mordechai was from the ‘children’ of the Jews, but rather from the ‘seed’ of the Jews. Zeresh understood that Klal Yisroel possesses this seed-like quality. As soon as they have been persecuted to a certain point and ‘cracks begin to appear in the wall’, there is no way to stop them. Once their resilient “growth process” has begun G-d sends their salvation in the blink of an eye.

If Mordechai belongs to the ‘seed of Klal Yisroel’ and Haman has begun to fall before him, the rotting process is over and a period of immense growth will inevitably follow. Just as wicked Zeresh warned, the completion of Haman’s downfall was soon too follow.

The Gemarah in the second perek of Bava Metzia cites a lengthy halachic discussion whether or not we hold ‘Yiush shelo mida’as - One can relinquish ownership of an object subconsciously.” In a rare event the Gemarah agrees with the position of Abaye over Rava that one can indeed relinquish ownership of an object subconsciously and thus, ‘finder’s keepers’.

The Kotzker Rebbe sees a lesson in the title of this topic by reading it homiletically, “Yiush- one who gives up”, i.e. on himself, “Shelo mida’as- (it’s because) he is lacking knowledge,” i.e. he has not contemplated his situation deeply enough.

Parshas Parah details the process of purification for one who became ritually impure via contact with a dead body. Death means the end, the absolute conclusion of life. The process of purification symbolizes renewal and resilience. The concept of purity reminds us that a person can always achieve a spiritual revival, even when he feels a sense of spiritual death.

The prophet expresses this concept in beautiful eloquence, “And I shall sprinkle pure water upon you… and I shall give you a new heart, and a new spirit shall I put within you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh…[7]

A Jew can never give up on himself. So often it’s at those moments when he feels lost, that the rotting seed begin their rapid growth.

After three months of virtually complete inactivity upon the barren winter-laden trees, buds have begun to form on the trees outside our New York homes. The bitter cold winter is paving the way for the advent of the rebirth of spring.

“If Mordechai is from the seed of the Jews”

“A righteous person falls seven times and gets up”

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[1] Including Joe Montana and Jerry Rice

[2] Bava Basra 14b

[3] Tablets of the Law

[4] see Rashi, Bereishis 2:4

[5] Pachad Yitzchok, Igros Umichtavim, 128

[6] Mishlei 24:16

[7] Haftorah for Parshas Parah; Yechezkel 36:25-27

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