A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month brings with it promise, potential and joy. There is nothing more beautiful than a new beginning, an opportunity to start again, to rejuvenate and regenerate. But today, the beginning of this new month, the month of Av is different. As the Talmud states:
“Mi’shenichnas Av, Mi’maatin B’Simcha, (When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy).” (Mishna, Tractate Taanis 26a)
This Rosh Chodesh ushers in 9 days of mourning and sadness. We refrain from various activities including the consumption of meat and wine (except on Shabbos). Our hearts are filled with the pain of thousands of years of collective sorrow. The Mishna recounts the various events that make this month one of sadness and pain. The mergalim (spies) returned from the Land of Israel on the 9th of Av and delivered their disastrous report; the city of Beitar, the seat of the Bar Kochba rebellion was crushed by the Romans and its inhabitants slaughtered; and many other unfortunate and tragic events unfolded during this auspicious month. However, the central event on which we focus is the destruction of the Temple (Bais HaMikdash). Each and every year we face the same challenge. How do we mourn for something we have never known? We have existed without a Bais HaMikdash for over 2,000 years and although deep in our soul we know that something is missing, it is difficult for us to feel a true and real void. It is difficult to shed a tear for something for which we have no frame of reference. It is challenging for us to relate to that which we do not know. So how can we connect? How do we appreciate the loss of the Temple and make it relevant?
I want to share with you an idea which I have discussed many times in the past but has timely relevance during these important days. In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 5 Mishnah 5), we are told about ten miracles that occurred in the Temple. The 8th miracle listed is, “Omdim tzefufim, u’mishtachavim revachim, (the people stood crowded together, yet prostrated themselves in ample space).” When our ancestors came to the Temple on the Regalim (Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos) and Yom Kippur, the Bais HaMikdash was packed from corner to corner. In fact, Jerusalem was teeming with people from the cities of Israel and beyond. The courtyard of the Temple was so crowded that people literally stood shoulder to shoulder. However, when they bowed in prayer there was room for everyone to have personal space. An amazing miracle, clearly in defiance of natural law. But why the need for such a miracle? What was the message?
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) explains that when the people would bow in prayer each person would ask for his/her personal needs. If individuals were in earshot of one another, the supplicant would feel self-conscious about articulating his needs. Furthermore, on Yom Kippur when people would bow in order to confess their sins, if the penitent felt he could be overheard by his neighbor, he may be hesitant to confess. Therefore, to allow each person to have a personal dialogue with the Divine, God performed this miracle.
Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) offers an additional insight. The Rebbe explains that this Mishna is not simply relaying a miraculous event, but is also conveying an important life lesson. Omdim (standing) – if a person always stands his ground and is never willing to yield to another, the result is, Tzefufim (crowded) – the world is very crowded and constricted, there is no room for the other. However, if a person is Mishtachavim (prostrating) and willing to yield to another, then Revachim (ample space), there is room for everyone. The secret to successful life relationships is knowing when to stand your ground and when to yield. There are things in life that we must fight for and there are many more things for which conflict is not the answer. There are times when we must be an Omed on certain issues and accept the negative repercussions, and there are times when we must be a Mishtachaveh and learn the art of yielding to the other for the sake of peace and harmony. We must learn the delicate balance of knowing when to use each of these powerful traits.
The Bais HaMikdash was the address for the entire Jewish community. There were not different temples for different hashkafos (religious philosophies), there were not different temples for different levels of observance. There was one Bais HaMikdash for the Jewish nation. There was one address where we had to learn how to come together in brotherly harmony and serve our God with one heart and one soul. There was one place where we were required to come and learn the art of bowing to one another, yielding to one another, respecting one another.
In the Bais HaMikdash, Jews of all stripes and colors would gather to worship together. We mourn the absence of this unifying place. We don’t mourn the loss of a building, as buildings can always be rebuilt. We mourn the loss of an ideal. When the Bais HaMikdash stood, it was clear that the will of God was for us to unite. The Bais HaMikdash, through its mere existence reminded us that to remain a nation we can’t argue over every single issue. There are issues that are so delicate and important that we must vociferously disagree and yes, draw our line in the sand. But I would venture to say that for many other issues, we must find the strength to yield. We mourn the unifying absence of our beloved Bais HaMikdash.
It is difficult to cry and mourn for that which we do not know. But if we can’t cry – we must at least yearn. We must yearn for a time in which we can embrace our differences and coexist as a cohesive nation.
Truth be told, we must do more than yearn – we must do. We must learn to bow, learn to yield, learn to make the hard sacrifices in order to achieve true shalom with one another. Before getting into an argument with another, before saying something that may be hurtful, before doing something that may be “correct” but may not be “right” we should ask ourselves: is it really worth it? There are times in life when we may be truly in the right, but this doesn’t mean a battle should be waged. It is difficult to strike the balance between being a principled and peaceful person. The Bais HaMikdash helped us to achieve this equilibrium, now we must do it on our own.
Today is Rosh Chodesh, but it is unlike all other monthly new beginnings. We feel a sadness, we feel a heaviness as we continue to mourn over what has been lost. But as we observe our mourning practices and reflect on our national and personal tragedies and set-backs, let us resolve to do our part in bringing shalom into our personal, communal and national lives. There are times to be rigid, but there are many more opportunities for understanding, compassion and flexibility. In the merit of bowing before one another, may we be privileged to bow together before God in a rebuilt Jerusalem – bimheyra b’yameynu, amen.
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you. You shall provide the three cities in trans-Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel and for the proselyte and resident among them, so that anyone who unintentionally kills a person can flee there (Bamidbar 35:9-15).
The Torah provides protection for the accidental killer through the creation of the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge. These cities were scattered throughout the land and provided refuge to the individual who had inadvertently killed another. From the Torah’s perspective there is a strong level of personal liability even for an accidental act. Therefore, the accidental killer must remain within the city of refuge in order to avoid the vengeance of the victim’s surviving relatives.
But what is the message? What is the accidental killer supposed to learn during his exile? And by extension what we are to learn from the city of refuge?
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l (1910-2012) provides a beautiful insight. The Gemara questions why the accidental killer should be subject to any repercussions. After all, accidents happen. To which the Gemara responds, “D’ibayey L’Iyunei,” he should have been more cognizant and aware. Accidents are often the result of not paying enough attention to the task at hand. Accidents occur because of a lack of focus and dedicated attentiveness. But it is not only tragic accidents which occur because I am not paying attention. Sometimes, I fail to progress and move my life forward because I am too busy multi-tasking. There are times when I fail to place my full strength and abilities into a particular life endeavor and therefore, I don’t move forward. The accidental killer in the extreme example of one who lives life without dedicated focus and attentiveness. But this is something many of us struggle with. We begin something meaningful and beautiful and then lose focus on the intended aspiration. We create lofty goals and then get busy with other things. The accidental killer must remain in the city of refuge in order to regain his life focus. The cities of refuge were also home to the Tribe of Levi. The Leviim were individuals with a singular focus. Their tribal mandate was to serve in the Temple and provide religious instruction and leadership for the nation. They were so dedicated to this mandate that nothing would distract them. Hence, they were not given additional lands in Israel lest they get distracted with farming. They were supported through various tithes lest they get caught up in a career. They embodied the power of singular focus. And so, the accidental killer who is stricken with “life distraction” must remain in the ir miklat, where he can observe the Leviim and learn about “life focus.”
The Apter Rav, known affectionately as the Oheiv Yisroel (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, Poland, 1748- 1825) advances a different explanation. The Rebbe explains that the original six Cities of Refuge correspond to the six words we recite daily in the Shema, Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elohey-nu Ado-nai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” After crossing the Jordan and settling in Israel there were another forty two cities designated as cities of refuge – for a total of forty-eight cities of refuge. The number of words from the beginning of Shema through the end of the first paragraph (V’Ahavta) totals forty-eight. The Oheiv Yisroel explained the deeper meaning behind this connection. The declaration of Shema Yisroel is a “City of Refuge” in which any Jew, no matter what his sin or history, can find shelter and protection.
We live in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. We look to find an anchor, something to hold on to, something to ground us, a stabilizing force in the sometimes turbulent waters of life. A meaningful and passionate relationship with God provides that sought after stability. This is the connection between the cities of refuge and the words of Shema. Just as the city of refuge provided safety and security for one in a dangerous and precarious situation – the words of Shema, the Torah, Mitzvos and all forms of connection with God endow us with a sense of protection, safety and security. And in the same way a city of refuge welcomed the individual despite the fact that he had made a terrible mistake – God’s embrace is open to all – even those who may be spiritually tarnished or compromised.
These are the profound lessons and messages of the ir miklat. The City of Refuge reminds us to be attentive in life. Keep your eye on the ball. If there are things you need to accomplish don’t lose your focus. Because the moment you stop paying attention is the moment your life can go in all kinds of unintended directions. The City of Refuge reminds us that God loves us and is willing to welcome us back home no matter how severe our mistakes and missteps may be. Even if we have wandered or strayed, even if we have lost our direction, God provides us with multiple avenues of connection in an effort to provide us with life-lines and refuge in the most difficult of times.
This coming week we will usher in the Hebrew month of Av. This is a month in which we commemorate two thousand years of tragedy, sadness and persecution. It is during Av that we remember the destruction of our two Temples, the crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust. It is during this month that we remember the millions lost throughout centuries of hardship and sadness. It is during this month that we focus on our present day challenges as individuals and as a nation. Despite the adversity we must recommit ourselves to actualizing our dreams and goals. We can’t get distracted or lose direction. We must lead attentive lives. Despite the adversity we must remember how truly privileged we are to have the opportunity to create, cultivate and nurture a relationship with God. It is this relationship that is our anchor, it is this relationship that fills us with courage, it is this relationship that provides us the safety and security we so desperately need. The words of our Torah, beautiful Mitzvos, moving prayers, and acts of kindness are the cities of refuge to which we must journey.