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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vaeschanan/Nachamu 5773 "Knowing the Way"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman zt’l hy’d traveled from Baranovich, Lithuania to America to raise funds for his yeshiva. His attendant arranged for him to meet with a wealthy and influential secular Jew who was the owner of a large textile garment factory.

As soon as Reb Elchanan walked into the meeting, he and the owner recognized each other; they had learned together in Cheder in Europe. They shook hands warmly, and then the owner asked Reb Elchanan why he had come to America. Reb Elchanan replied that the button on his kapoteh[1] had become loose, and he came to America to have it tightened. The owner looked at him incredulously. “Are you telling me you traveled half way across the world, lived on a boat for two weeks, just because your button was loose? I own this whole factory. I can have a beautiful new kapoteh made for you in an hour” Reb Elchonon shook his head. “No, I just need the button fixed. That’s all.” The owner immediately summoned one of his tailors, who fixed the button in a moment. Reb Elchanon thanked his old friend, shook his hand, and politely walked out, leaving the wealthy owner flabbergasted by the awkward exchange.

Reb Elchanan’s attendant was equally shocked. “Rebbe, it was very hard to procure that appointment. Shouldn’t we have at least asked him for a small donation?” Reb Elchanan replied that he was confident that he would see the wealthy man again imminently.

Sure enough, a day or two later the wealthy owner came to visit Reb Elchanan at the home of his host. “Chuna, tell me the truth. Why did you travel so far to come to America? It wasn’t for a button!” Reb Elchanan looked pointedly into the eyes of his old friend. “Do you know that one’s soul travels a long distance to arrive in this world? You agreed that it was absurd for me to travel so far just to tighten a button. Yet, look at how you are living your life! Do you think your soul traveled so far so that you can cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos which you learned about in your youth, to run a factory and have a lot of coins clinking in your pocket? As you yourself said, it is absurd that one would travel so far just for a button.”

The generation that traveled through the desert and endured the travails of the forty year sojourns, is titled the ‘Dor De’ah- the Generation of knowledge.” Moshe declared to that generation, “You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is our G-d! There is none beside Him! From heaven He caused you to hear His voice in order to teach you and on earth He showed you His great fire and you heard his voice from the midst the fire!”[2]

Rashi explains, “When G-d gave the Ten Commandments, He opened the heavens above and the nether below, so that it would be clear to every Jew that there is only one G-d.” Never again would there be another generation who could literally point with their finger and proclaim, “This is my G-d and I will adorn Him”[3].

Yet in Tehillim[4], Dovid Hamelech paraphrases G-d who proclaimed, “For forty years I was angry with the generation; then I said, ‘They are a people that err in their hearts and they do not know my ways. Therefore I have sworn in my anger that they shall not enter into my [land of] contentment.” If this generation were those who saw G-d more clearly than anyone else, how could they not understand G-d’s ways?

Furthermore, this chapter of Tehillim serves as the melodious introduction for Kabbolas Shabbos - the prayer which marks our greeting Shabbos each Friday night. Although the psalm begins with the enchanting words, “לכו נרננה לה' - Come let us exult to our G-d and sing out to the rock of our salvation,” the conclusion seems counterintuitive of the mood we wish to engender at the onset of the holy Shabbos?

The Torah relates that as long as the nation remained in the desert, they lived a miraculous existence.[5] The manna fell from heaven each day, they had a limitless supply of water flowing from the rock which accompanied them, and their clothing remained clean and fitted on their body. They had no need to invest any effort in their sustenance. This allowed them to spend their days listening to the teachings of Moshe and Aharon, and deepening their understanding of G-d.

They understood that upon entering the Promised Land everything would change, for they would be forced to work the land to provide for their families. At that point it would entail a great struggle to devote time to spiritual pursuits, such as study and prayer.

Zohar notes that this was the fallacious rationale behind the Spies’ negative report about the Land. They wanted the Nation to remain in the desert so they could continue to learn and grow spiritually, without worry or other responsibilities. Therefore they spoke negatively about the Promised Land, hoping that doing so would cause the nation to remain living miraculously in the desert, where they could continue living completely dedicated to spiritual pursuits.

Their mistake was that they didn’t realize that this was not the Will of G-d. Despite the fact that staying in the desert would afford them greater opportunities to serve G-d without worries, that was not their destined mission.

This is what Dovid Hamelech meant when he declared, “They did not understand my ways,” If G-d wanted us to have the ability to learn and pray all day unencumbered, He could have arranged it. But that is not our task in this world. Rather G-d expects us to live a physical life, toiling to provide for our families and yet living spiritually-oriented lives. G-d wants us to live within the confines of nature, and yet to live elevated lives.

The elite generation that witnessed the revelation of Sinai ‘saw’ G-d as no one else ever did or will. However, they failed to recognize the true ‘way of G-d,’ of entering the Land and yet bearing the yoke of Torah.

This idea is a fundamental component of Shabbos observance. The prophet Isaiah[6] stated, ”You shall proclaim the Shabbos a delight.” The purpose of Shabbos is not to divorce ourselves from the physical world, and to completely engage in spiritual pursuits. Such an attitude is reserved exclusively for Yom Kippur. Rather on Shabbos we enjoy delectable foods, upon a regally set table, in the glow of the Shabbos candles, surrounded by family and friends. The liturgists describe added rest on Shabbos as being ‘praiseworthy’ and the clothing of Shabbos reflect a majestic aura of greatness[7].

Maharal explains that the number seven represents the highest number within nature[8], while eight symbolizes a realm beyond the physical world. Circumcision is performed on the eighth day after a male is born, because circumcision symbolizes one’s ability to triumph over his nature, and not be subjugated by his every whim and temptation. Shabbos however, is on the seventh day, not the eighth day, because the purpose of Shabbos is to elevate the physical world, not to disregard it.

The generation who lived in the desert couldn’t enter the Promised Land because they failed to realize that in this world our mission is to transform and elevate the physical world via Torah and mitzvos, by overcoming the obstacles that hinder us from doing so.

This idea is hidden in the opening psalm of Kabbolas Shabbos each week. There is no more appropriate introduction to Shabbos than to remind ourselves that the purpose of Shabbos – the lesson which that elite generation failed to appreciate – is that we transform the physical world into a conduit for holiness and spiritual growth.

Our greatest leaders did not live in oblivion to the world around them. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l offered halachic rulings on all aspects of technology and contemporary issues. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach zt’l ruled about countless laws regarding electricity on Shabbos. The Chazon Ish and the Steipler gave precise advice, not only about all aspects of Torah, but even about health and life generally.

The same holds true for every one of our Torah leaders. They understood that everything is hidden in Torah for one who knows how to decipher its eternal messages.

Being a Torah Jew is not always easy. It’s a struggle that requires a sense of mission and commitment. But it is an endeavor which uplifts us and gives us a sense of purpose and mission, every day of our lives.

“Come let us exult to our G-d”

“You have been shown to know:

There is none beside Him!”

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Please have in mind Elimelech ben Basya in your tefillos

[1] Rabbinic jacket

[2] 4:35-36

[3] Shemos 15:2

[4] 95:9

[5] The following explanation was related to me by my eleventh grade Rebbe, Rabbi Aryeh Feuer, when I posed the aforementioned questions to him. Prior to offering me the novel thought below, he prefaced that we must realize is that it is a great honor for that generation that we learn from their mistakes how to improve our service to G-d, by not repeating their mistakes.

[6] 58:13

[7]An amazing transformation occurs on Shabbos when those who dress in work clothes all week, e.g. a plumber, electrician, builder, don their Shabbos clothes and look regal.

[8] When one stands at any given point there are six directions surrounding him – north, south, east, west, up, down (as represented by a person shaking the Four Species on Sukkos). The person in the center represents the seventh, central point.

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