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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vaeschanan/Shabbos Nachamu 5774 "The Little Things"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“Here is one of the most interesting stories that Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick ever told – a story about the battles won and lost by a giant forest:

“On the slope of Long’s Peak in Colorado lies the ruin of a gigantic tree. Naturalists tell us that it stood for some four hundred years. It was a seedling when Columbus landed at El Salvador, and half grown when the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth. During the course of its long life it was truck by lightning fourteen times, and the innumerable avalanches and storms of four centuries thundered past it. It survived them all. In the end, however, an army of beetles attacked the tree and leveled it to the ground. The insects ate their way through the bark and gradually destroyed the inner strength of the tree by their tiny but incessant attacks. A forest giant which age had not withered, nor lightning blasted, nor storms subdued, fell at last before beetles so small that a man could crush them between his forefinger and his thumb.

“Aren’t we all like the battling giant of the forest? Don’t we manage somehow to survive the rare storms and avalanches and lightning blasts of life, only to let our hearts be eaten out by little beetles of worry – little beetles that could be crushed between a finger and a thumb?”[1]

Ramban explains that after Moshe spoke passionately and poignantly about the privilege and obligation to observe the commandments, he demonstrated that dedication and passion by commencing a mitzvah despite the fact that he would be unable to complete it during his lifetime.[2]

“Then Moshe set aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan, toward the rising sun”[3]. Rashi[4] writes that the law was that none of the six cities would become effective as Cities of Refuge until all six were set aside for that purpose. Therefore, at this point before the nation conquered the Land, the three cities in the land itself could obviously not become Cities of Refuge. Still Moshe wanted to engage himself in the performance of the mitzvah to the best of his ability.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that Moshe personified the words of the Sages: “Do not distance yourself from a characteristic which has no end, or from work which has no completion.”[5] The Evil Inclination constantly lures people away from self improvement by rationalizing that it will be an exercise in futility. It convinces us that we will never master our shortcomings or sins anyway. So why set yourself up for failure and disappointment in the first place?

The Chofetz Chaim notes that this is one of the core reasons why people do not accept upon themselves to work on not speaking loshon hora, despite the numerous transgressions involved in slander. This statement of Chazal comes to counter that inner voice. That negative attitude is analogous to an individual who is walking on the beach and notices that every time a wave sweeps across the shore it leaves behind dozens of pearls and diamonds. Would any rational person not gather whatever he could because he will only be able to be there for a limited amount of time?

After the Torah’s brief interlude about the cities of refuge, the verse continues, “This is the Torah (lit. teaching) that Moshe placed before B’nei Yisroel.”[6] The Chofetz Chaim explains that by juxtaposing this verse with Moshe’s enacting the three Cities of Refuge, the Torah is emphasizing Moshe’s conduct as an example for proper Torah observance generally. People generally only like to busy themselves with extravagant and ostentatious endeavors which accord them honor and praise. Moshe demonstrated that even the little things - even those things which one cannot complete - are invaluable, and worth engaging in.

The gemara[7] records some of the tragic events that transpired during and after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. The gemara introduces the topic by stating, “As a result of (the incident involving) Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed. As a result of (the incident involving) a rooster and a hen Har haMelech (a heavily populated province in Judea) was destroyed. As a result of (the incident involving) the side of a carriage, Bethar (a large city with an immense Jewish population) was destroyed.” The common denominator connecting all three tragic epochs is that they were caused by seemingly relatively insignificant commodities/events.

In a sense it was the “beetle-like sins” that destroyed the Bais Hamikdash. The holy Bais Hamikdash which was impervious to the natural order and transcended this world with constant miracles in the end was destroyed by the relentless sins of the nation which had lost respect for each other in baseless hatred for each other.

In Tehillim[8], Dovid Hamelech wrote: “The stone which the builders despised became the cornerstone.” The commentators explain that Dovid recited this verse about himself. When the prophet Shmuel announced that one of Yishai’s sons was to be appointed king, no one even thought of summoning Dovid, who was tending the sheep.

Klal Yisroel too is referred to as a stone[9], for Klal Yisroel is the cornerstone for G-d’s design for the world. The world endures based on the virtue of Klal Yisroel’s observance of the Torah and adherence to the mitzvos. But the builders, i.e. the nations of the world, despise the cornerstone, claiming that the Jews are parasites who contribute nothing to the common good. When the dawn of redemption arrives however, the world will recognize that the Jews are indeed the cornerstone of creation.

The Belzer Dayan zt’l offers a novel interpretation of the aforementioned verse: The twelfth of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith states: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay still-in-all I wait for him each day that he may come.” After almost two millennia of exile it is only natural for one to be somewhat skeptical about the advent of Moshiach. There have been tremendous scholars who lived and died without meriting to witness the coveted era of Moshiach, including such Torah giants as Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rema, Vilna Gaon, Ba’al Shem Tov, Chasam Sofer, Chofetz Chaim, etc. (to name a mere few). If their righteousness was insufficient to herald the redemption, how can we have the audacity to even entertain the notion that our good deeds and service will be sufficiently meritorious to bring about the Messianic era?

The difference is that in days of yore when buildings were constructed out of stone, when an architect began construction on a building he searched for the biggest stones that he could find. At that beginning smaller stones were cast aside and “despised”. However, as the building neared completion the architect no longer needed big stones. At that point he needed small stones and pebbles to seal up the gaps and complete the top of the structure. Thus, those same stones which before were cast aside and chagrined, are later enthusiastically retrieved, as the vital material necessary to complete the project.

It is true that throughout the long and bitter exile Klal Yisroel required tremendous merits and extreme acts of piety and sanctity. However, when we are at the threshold of the Messianic era all of the boulders of spiritual energy, as it were, are in place.[10] Now all that is still needed are our relatively small good deeds and service. Those pebbles which in generations gone by were insignificant and repulsed now are the cornerstones, i.e. the only remaining components necessary to herald the utopian Messianic era.

It may be true that our actions and good deeds are incomparable to those of our forbearers. Still however, when those actions are done wholeheartedly and to the best of our ability they compose the pebbles which will complete the third eternal Bais Hamikdash.

It was the constant ‘beetle-like sins’ that destroyed the Bais Hamikdash over so many decades and it will be the collective ‘beetle-like mitzvos and good deeds’ that bring it back. That is the greatest consolation for us.

During the Shabbos after Tisha B’av, after recounting all of the terrible tragedies that have befallen our people since the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash so many years ago, we recount the prophets encouraging words, “Be consoled! Be consoled, my people!” The greatest solace we can have is the knowledge that we ourselves have the ability to bring Moshiach… one pebble at a time!

“Then Moshe set aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan”

“The stone which the builders despised became the cornerstone”

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[1] How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie

[2] If one murdered inadvertently he was obligated to flee to one of the ‘Cities of Refuge’. In total there were six such cities, three in the Land proper and three in TransJordan.

[3] Devorim 4:41

[4] Makkos 9

[5] Avos d’reb Nosson 27

[6] Devorim 4:44

[7] Gittin 55b-58b

[8] 118

[9] see Bereishis 49:24

[10] The Chofetz Chaim said over seventy years ago that we are at the “heel of Moshiach”

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