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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Masei 5774 "Down the Road"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A number of years ago, I was a member of the staff of an organization which suffered from a very heartbreaking tragedy. It was a shocking and painful experience that sent the entire organization into turmoil. Although it was a very sad experience the resilience of the members, as well as the support and encouragement that everyone offered each other was unbelievably inspiring.

The next year I wrote a detailed diary-like emotional recounting of the events that had occurred. I wanted to disseminate it among those who had been there in order to preserve the closeness we had felt and to remember the tragedy.

Before doing so, I showed it to Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman[1], and asked him his opinion. After reading it Rabbi Finkelman replied that although he felt it was worthwhile and penetrating he did not think it was prudent to circulate it at that time. He explained that after a tragedy occurs, G-d forbid, one’s focus must be on recovery and moving on. The goal is to be resilient and not stunted by the potentially debilitating events. Although the tragedy and its lessons must not be forgotten, the immediate response must be to put it on the back-burner, as it were, so that the main focus can be on the organization’s continued growth.

Sometime later I was reading an article that corroborated Rabbi Finkleman’s advice. The author of the article was discussing why there has been a sudden push in recent years for a Torah perspective of the Holocaust to be taught and studied in yeshivos, whereas for the past six decades the topic seemed almost taboo. The author quoted the Novominsker Rebbe shlit”a who explained that the Torah leaders of the previous generation felt that if we were to dedicate the proper attention that those events warranted and speak about it constantly it would stifle the vital growth that was necessary in the post-war era.

The extent of the resilience of the Torah world is mind-boggling. The incredible amount of students learning Torah today as well as the numerous burgeoning Torah institutions and Torah-awareness being fostered throughout the world is nothing short of miraculous. But that was only able to occur because the survivors who had endured such unspeakable horror and brutality were insistent that they rebuild from the ashes. Had they allowed themselves to wallow in their pain and misery, and justifiably so, our world would look far different. The fact is that many nations who have suffered terrible atrocities were never able to recover.

Klal Yisroel has suffered so much pain and disgrace and has been the subject of so much mockery and disdain, and yet we continue to endure. One of our most potent strengths is our ability to transform our pain into the source of our national pride.[2] We are a nation that will not be destroyed! We avenge our spilled blood by virtue of our eternity and infallibility. That has only been possible because our forbearers have made the incredible sacrifice to squelch their inner pain so that the nation could resiliently recover and rebuild, even after the greatest tragedies.[3]

It is for that reason that the previous generations would not allow itself to overly focus on the unspeakable atrocities that occurred. The utter ghastliness of it all would have been simply too overwhelming and we would never have been able to rebuild. However, at this point over sixty years later, when we have rebuilt to unimaginable proportions, and as the generation who witnessed those unspeakable events is rapidly fading away, we must seize the opportunity to study and preserve what occurred.

We learn it not merely because it is a riveting story of humanity at its best and worst but because of the tremendous lessons that we must personally glean from the heroics of our brethren who suffered. And, because in one way or another, history always repeats itself!

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions, under the hand of Moshe and Aharon.”[4]

The Jewish nation had been wandering in the desert for forty years. They were finally camped just a few days march from the Promised Land. Prior to Moshe delivering his last will and testament[5], the Torah summarizes the entire route that the nation had followed throughout the forty years. The encampments mentioned are not merely a detailed list containing names of places. Rather, each name mentioned alludes to a challenge or test that the nation had faced. Each destination was another opportunity for potential growth, although it often ended up in tragedy or disaster.

It is specifically when the nation was poised to enter the Land, that the Torah mentions this detailed list with all of its vague messages and references. Throughout the forty years there was much growth that the nation had to achieve and they could not focus on their mishaps and sins. But now they could and needed to learn and internalize the lessons of the previous forty years.[6]

After the Torah concludes its narrative of the history of the nation’s travels, it states the laws of one who murders inadvertently. The ‘murderer’ must escape to one of the ‘cities of refuge’ (ir miklat) and remain there until the Kohain Gadol dies. If the murderer leaves the confines of the city a relative of the deceased has permission[7] to avenge the blood of his deceased relative.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, explains that, in essence, Parshas Masei represents the culmination of the nation’s sojourn in the desert. The fact that the Jewish Nation was poised to enter the Holy Land also meant that they would have to adjust to a more natural existence. Manna would cease to fall, and the miraculous wells of water would no longer accompany them. The nation would be compelled to work the land and toil for sustenance and survival.

The laws of the inadvertent murderer seem pretty mundane in comparison with the experiences of the previous forty years, including miracles, plagues, battles, the construction of the Mishkan, the Temple Service, and severe and immediate retribution. But prior to entering the land the people had to be reminded that life is more about the mundane than it is about the supernatural. The challenge of life is to find meaning and excitement in the daily grind and not wait for those rare moments of inspiration. The message to the nation was that the rarified spiritual existence in the desert was ending and that they would be challenged to create a just, moral, upstanding, and even holy society in a natural world.[8]

To help this transition occur, memory of the past is vital. The new experiences in the land would have to be viewed from the perspective that sees Jewish life as a continuum following the footsteps of its ancestors. In Rabbi Wein’s words:
“Faith and confidence will dominate Jewish life when the Jews recall the history of their existence and their survival and triumph over daunting odds.

“Part of the difficulty that Israel faces today in attempting to build a “normal” state and nation is that the early founders of secular Zionism not only denigrated the experiences of the Jewish exile but attempted to erase them from the memory of the “new” Jew they wished to create. Thus, the problems that challenge and disturb us today here in Israel – boundaries and demographics, value systems, and the creation of a kinder, gentler Israel - are compounded by the lack of memory that could help us make reference to previous generations’ wisdoms and strengths…Amnesia is the greatest malady of our day. All the problems and difficulties that we face are in reality byproducts of that amnesia. Maasei teaches us that we should remember where we have been so that we have a sense of faith and confidence in where we want to now go.”

Parshas Maasei is always read during the Three Weeks, shortly before Tisha B’av. If there is one ‘holiday’ during the year which jolts the collective Jewish memory it is the tragic and sad day of Tisha B’av. On the day when we mourn the destruction of both Temples as well as every tragedy that has befallen us since time immemorial, we are infused with an appreciation of our identity. Our collective pain raises an inner awareness of who we are and the special mission we bear. We refuse to forget and to allow bygones to be bygones because we emphatically believe that the tragedies of the past are not bygones!

We understand that every event is part of a Master puzzle whose pieces are incomprehensible until the puzzle is completed. Every piece is a vital component of the final picture and therefore no piece can afford to be lost. The morbid and sobering mourning period that culminates with Tisha B’av reminds us that the puzzle is nearing completion and it’s only the final pieces remain to be put in place.

“Amnesia is the greatest malady of our day”

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel”

Among every other soldier in the IDF, we daven for the safety of

Yisroel Chaim ben Tamar Batyamin

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[1] Mashgiach In Ohr Hachaim in Queens, and a personal rebbe and mentor

[2] As an example, the Nazis forced the Jews to wear yellow stars so that we could be singled out for debasement and contempt. But many Jews wore them proudly as badges of honor.

[3] This is not to say that they were able to completely bury their pain. There is no one who emerged from the Nazi inferno who did not suffer permanent emotional and/or physical scars. However, their focus was on the betterment of the world of their children. Those who dedicated their lives to rebuilding what was lost - not only physically but also spiritually - did so with superhuman self-sacrifice.

[4] 33:1

[5] i.e. Chumash Devorim, Deuteronomy

[6] In the words of humorist Sam Levenson, “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself!”

[7] according to one opinion he has an obligation

[8] It would take four centuries, until the time of the prophet Shmuel, and the era of King Dovid, and King Shlomo, before that challenge was successfully achieved.

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