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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Matos-Masei 5773 "Finding Our Way"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman zt’l hy’d, the Baranovitcher Rosh Yeshiva, had a friend who had learned with him in Yeshiva and then went into business. The friend was very successful and became very wealthy.

One day, the friend came back to the Yeshiva to visit Reb Elchanan. After conversing for a few minutes the friend turned to Reb Elchanan and said, “Look how successful I have become and how comfortably I live. We both know that you have far greater capabilities than I do and are much smarter than I am. If you would enter the business world, you would surely become far more successful than I am. You would have the ability to support your family without worry and you wouldn’t be badgered by incessant financial strains. Isn’t that better than living in poverty as you do now?” Reb Elchanan shrugged and skirted the issue, as the conversation turned to other topics.

After a few hours, it was time for the friend to leave and Reb Elchanan escorted his guest to the train station. At the station there were two platforms where two trains were scheduled to arrive at the same time. One of the approaching trains was relatively new, with comfortable plush seats and added leg-room. The second train pulling in to the opposite platform was also heading in the opposite direction. It was a far older train and the seats were not as comfortable. Graffiti tainted the walls and the seats were closer together. The older train was the one heading to the friend’s town so he stood on the platform waiting for that train.

As Reb Elchanan stood next to his friend waiting for the train he said, “I don’t understand. The train you are waiting for is decrepit and dilapidated. The one pulling in to the other track is nicer and more comfortable. It is not befitting for a wealthy person like you to ride on such an outdated train. You really should walk to the other track and wait for the nicer train.”

The friend laughed and replied, “Surely you realize that the nicer train is going in the opposite direction of my home.” Reb Elchanan was persistent, “So what? I still feel that it is unbecoming for a person of your stature to ride such a train.” The friend looked at Reb Elchonon incredulously, “Why are you talking such nonsense? What sense would it make for me to have a comfortable ride if it would be taking me in the wrong direction? Should I be comfortable for a few minutes if afterwards I am going to be extremely far from where I need to be?”

Reb Elchanan poignantly replied, “Listen to what you are saying! The main focus is not on the ride but on the direction in which you are heading. One must be wary of where he needs to end up. You asked me before why I don’t leave the Yeshiva to enter the business world. Let me explain it to you this way: Riches and wealth may allow me to enjoy the ride so that I will be able to provide for my family comfortably. But I am worried where I will end up. When the ride is over, will I have reached my destination or will I find that I have traveled in the wrong direction completely?”

Forty years passed and Klal Yisroel were camped just a few days march from Eretz Yisroel. The Torah reviews the forty-two places where the young burgeoning nation had traveled over the course of the previous forty years.

Parshas Masei commences (33:1-2) “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions…Moshe wrote (motza’ayhem l’ma’asayhem) their findings according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were (masa’ayhem l’motza’ayhem) their journeys according to their findings.”

The commentators are puzzled by the reversal of the words within the same verse. The verse begins by announcing that the following are, ‘their findings according to their journeys’ but concludes by saying, ‘these were their journeys according to their findings’. Also, why does the Torah refer to their travels as ‘findings’?

The Dubner Maggid explained with the following parable[1]:

There was once a young widower who married a new wife, hoping she would care for him and his orphaned son. It wasn’t long before the young orphan realized that his father’s new wife was not too fond of him. She treated him disdainfully, shouting and beating him on a regular basis. All of the young boy’s complaints to his father fell on deaf ears. The father insisted that he was overreacting and needed to get used to having a new woman in the house.

Years passed, and the young boy got used to being the subject of his stepmother’s wild and unjust punishments. One day, the father announced that he had met a wonderful girl from a distant city who came from a reputable and respected family. The girl would be the perfect match for the son. On the day of the wedding, father and son traveled together in a horse-drawn coach to attend the chasunah. Along the way, both of them kept badgering the driver how much longer the trip would take. However, they each had different motives for asking. The father was ecstatic that he was about to marry off his only son to a wonderful girl so that they could build their own family together. The son on the other hand, was not really as excited about the marriage as he was about getting away from the home of his sinister mother-in-law. The father was most excited about the destination, while the son was most excited about the departure.

Dubner Maggid explained that Klal Yisroel had suffered years of persecution in Egypt. Although the nation was excited about entering the Promised Land, first and foremost they were glad just to be out of the clutches of their nefarious oppressors. To them their forty-year sojourns were primarily travels, as they distanced themselves further and further from Egypt.

Moshe however, had a different perspective. To him, the nation’s spiritual growth and imminent entry into Eretz Yisroel was paramount.

The verse expresses both viewpoints. ‘Moshe recorded their findings according to their travels’. To Moshe their “findings” - their spiritual discoveries and growth - were most important. “Their travels” - their increasing distance from their previous exile - was also important, albeit secondary. But, the verse concludes, ‘And these’ - to Klal Yisroel - they viewed it as, ‘their travels according to their findings’; to them their travels were most important.

My father added that at a b’ris there are conflicting emotions. The soul of the young baby pines to return to the womb where it was taught the entire Torah by an angel. It yearns to remain in its state of pristine purity and not become tainted by the challenges of this world. The parents and family however, look to the future and to the potential for accomplishment and growth. At the b’ris we bless the child that just as he entered the covenant of Avrohom Avinu, so may he enter into other spiritual endeavors, of Torah, marriage, and performing good deeds. The purity of the past is now a thing of the past, but the potential for the future is there for the taking.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains the verse in a similar vein: The first phrase expresses how G-d viewed their travels. Whenever G-d instructed the nation to ‘go forth’ and travel, He wanted them to progress to the next level of growth. Each time the nation traversed one challenge and learned the lessons they were destined to garner from that location, G-d commanded them to move on. They were to continue to ‘journey’ toward the destiny He planned for them - L’motza’ayhem l’ma’asayhem; G-d wanted them to go forth on their journey.

The people however, viewed it differently. It is human nature to be impatient with status quo and to constantly seek new adventures. Whenever they camped in one place for too long, they became impatient and dissatisfied. When the time came for them to ‘journey’ they rejoiced simply because they had the opportunity to ‘go forth’. Ma’asayhem l’motza’ayhem, their purpose was not their destination, but the journey.

Nesivos Shalom quotes the Ba’al Shem Tov who related that just as the Torah records the nation’s forty-two encampments from when they left Egypt until they entered Eretz Yisroel, so too every individual must endure forty-two ‘travels’ in his lifetime. Not all of those travels are physical, but every Jew encounters forty-two challenges that confront him.

One who understands that life is a process of growth, views every challenging situation as a potential conduit of achieving greater heights.

26 Tammuz is the yahrtzeit of my wife’s mother’s father, Mr. Jacob Kawer a’h. ‘Zaydei’ was a gentle soul who was admired and respected by the Lakewood community on the ‘other side of the lake’. I never had the zechus to meet him but whenever I meet someone who knew him they smile sadly and tell me what a special person he was.

He was not abashed to learn new things from people far younger than him. They would teach him things he didn’t know and he would teach them about life and how to serve Hashem with a smile. Zaydei Kawer was a survivor, who could have counted far more than forty two travels in his lifetime. He endured the horrors of the camps and he arrived in America penniless and without a soul. Yet he knew how to smile. My wife relates that he had a smile that could light up a room.

How can a person who endured so much pain, sadness, and loss live with such pleasantness and love? It must have been part of his incredible resiliency. He was able to recognize that he had triumphed over his tormentors, witnessing and participating in the rebuilding of a destroyed world, seeing that his family was staunchly proud Torah Jews. As his neshama rises to greater heights we pray that he be an advocate for us and that he guide us to learn from his example how to smile always.

“Moshe wrote their findings according to their journeys”

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel”

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[1] I heard this parable from my father at the b’ris of my nephew, Aharon Staum, nine years ago.

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