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 city 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 souls 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 have been 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.
(Reprinted from 5778)
“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)
Accidents happen, or so the famous adage goes. While this is true, the Torah teaches us that we are responsible for our actions, both intentional and unintentional. And so, if one accidentally killed another, he must run to the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge, to escape the vengeful wrath of the Goel HaDam (literally, redeemer of blood, relative of the victim). These cities were strategically scattered throughout the land to provide refuge in times of need.
It is clear that the Torah assigns some degree of fault to the perpetrator, otherwise he would have been totally exempt and the Goel HaDam wouldn’t have right to revenge. The accidental killer did something wrong and exile is his punishment. In Judaism, punishment is rehabilitative and not punitive. So, what is he supposed to learn during and from his time in the Ir Miklat?
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l (1910-2012) provides a beautiful insight. The Gemara questions why the accidental killer should be subject to any punishment. After all, as we said before, 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 being attentive to the task at hand. But it is not only tragic accidents which occur when not paying attention. Sometimes, we fail to progress and move our lives forward because we are too busy multi-tasking. There are times when we fail to place our full strength and abilities into a particular endeavor and therefore, we remain stagnant. The accidental killer is the extreme example of one who lives life without focus. This is a dynamic 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. How many projects have we started only to lose focus and move on to something else? How many dreams have never materialized simply because we stopped paying attention?
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 demonstrated absolute dedication to this mission and mandate and would allow nothing to derail them. Hence, they were not given additional lands in Israel lest they get distracted with farming and agriculture, and were instead supported through various tithes. They embodied the power of singular focus. When the Jewish people in a moment of panic lost focus and built the Golden Calf, the tribe of Levi maintained their steadfast allegiance to God. Even the possibility of Moshe’s death did not distract them from the greater mission. 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.”
We must try to carve out a personal Ir Miklat, a place we can go to steady and regain our life focus. We must take the time to think about what is important. Where do I want to put my energies? What do I want to accomplish? What are the pitfalls I must avoid? Some use Teffilah as an Ir Miklat. Davening provides us with the opportunity to clear our mind and think. Some use learning, others take walks in the forest and some meditate. We must each create an Ir Miklat that works best for our personal circumstances.
“Accidents happen,” does not hold up under the scrutiny of Divine judgement. May we find the strength to live and lead more attentive lives.
“These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Bamidbar 33:1)
In the beginning of Maasei (the second of the two parshios we read this week) the Torah lists the 42 places we camped during our 40 year sojourn in the desert. There are 49 verses dedicated to this geography lesson; a staggering amount of biblical real-estate devoted to listing names of places which have disappeared into the sands of time. Why spend so much time focusing on these places many of which have ceased to exist? Furthermore, the Torah opens this section with the words “Eyleh maasei (these are the journeys)”; a journey reflects movement, yet the Torah then goes on to list the places where we camped (stopped moving). If we are listing the encampments, let the verse state, “These are the encampments of the Children of Israel.” How are we to understand this strange verbiage?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) explains that in fact the Torah is teaching us a two-part lesson. Eyleh maasei (these are the journeys); life is about perpetual movement. A person must choose between being a holeych (one who walks) or an omeyd (one who stands still). God communicates His preference; life must be a journey, a masa. A person is commanded to live in a state ofhalicha (constant movement) and to never remain in the stagnant state of amida. Eyleh maasei (these are the journeys), is not a historical statement, it is the life mantra of the Jew. I will journey forward, I will constantly move and grow, I will never give in to the temptation of standing in place.
And yet, after stressing the importance of movement, the Torah lists the places our ancestors camped and stopped moving. And herein lies the second lesson. There are times in life when we lose our momentum. There are situations which can sideline and derail our journeys. There are circumstances which leave us standing in place. These 42 stops along the journey represent the set-backs and defeats we each experience throughout the journey in life. The Baal Shem Tov said, “the 42 journeys of our ancestors are the same journeys we each experience from the time we are born into this world until we transition to the World to Come.” There are times ofhalicha and times of amida. However, it becomes our sacred obligation to use the set-backs and defeats as opportunities for growth and development. We learn much about ourselves from the difficult chapters of life. We learn to confront our weaknesses and discover strengths we never realized we possessed. If we find the courage to grow from the moments of amida and failure then even these moments and episodes become part of the halicha, the forward movement of life.
It is in these simple verses that the Torah conveys to us, perhaps, the most important life message. Eyleh maasei(these are the journeys); life must be filled with constant growth and movement. We cannot remain rooted in the present, we must constantly look for opportunities to advance. But know that along the way there will be stops. During the long journey there will be moments of amida which prevent us from moving forward. There will be challenges and failures. But know that if we learn something and grow from these difficulties then these moments of adversity become part of the forward moving journey.
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.