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PARSHAT KI TAVODevarim (Deuteronomy) 26:1-29:8
Haftorah - Isaiah 60:1-22
A large portion of this week's Parsha (Torah Portion) deals with the Tochachah (the admonition of the priests to the Nation of Israel). Joshua is instructed that upon entering the promised land, he is to bring the 12 tribes to Shechem and there split them into two groups of six tribes; Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef and Binyamin should stand on Mt. Gerizim, and the tribes of Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan and Naphtali should stand on the adjacent mountain, Mt. Eyvel (see Devarim 11:29-30).
Between them, in the valley, the Kohanim (the priests) and the elders of the Levites would proclaim a series of blessings and curses, to each of which the assembled tribes on both mountains would respond with "Amen."
In our long history, we have lived during times of blessings and times of curses, we have flourished in spectacular golden ages and have been decimated by incomprehensible holocausts. To know that as bright or as dark as reality can get, Hashem is always present, has been the life line of Jews throughout our history.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (former Sefardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel), states in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah that the verse in Isaiah 27:13 "...then will come the LOST from the land of Ashur (Assyria) and the BROKEN from the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt); they [all] shall prostrate themselves to Hashem on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem" refers to how Jews fare during times of peace and prosperity, and during turmoil and strife. The root words of the two countries described in the above quotation are symbolic of our Jewish reality.
Ashur (Assyria) has the same root as Ashir which means wealth. A reoccuring phenomenon in Jewish history is that when we live in peace and in prosperous times we tend to lose our Jewish identities to the hazards of freedom and open education. Mitzrayim (Egypt) on the other hand represents Tzar which means suffering. When we live in countries that try to break us, again we become decimated, this time because of a lack of freedom and opportunity.
Actually both the Ashurs and the Mitzrayims are two sides of the same coin. It is not only the oppression of the former Soviet Union that almost wiped out an entire generation of Jews, but also our willfull escape from Jewish life and culture that almost anihilated an entire generation. Nor, have the freedoms afforded the Jews living in the western world assured our existence. On the contrary, the Jewish communities of the western world have come close to a total abrogation of their culture while experiencing the unlimited freedom to openly explore their Jewishness. And so the prophet tells us that both groups - the affluent and the oppressed - await the messianic moment when they will prostrate themselves to Hashem on His holy mountain.
So what is the formula for success? How do we withstand the blessing and endure the curse? I recently heard a story from Rabbi Yechiel Spero, a cousin of my late wife, that may help shed light on this wonder.
A certain man survived the holocaust, came to America and started his life over again. He married, raised a family of five young men and lived to see them all marry and establish fitting Jewish homes. Prior to the wedding of his fifth son, one of his other son's came to him and said, "father I know that you suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi's and that you lost your entire family, but everyday you go about your business groaning ‘Ayy Ayy.' Not only that, but when all of us got married and you were asked to say a few words at the weddings, again you started with the words ‘Ayy Ayy.' Father, count your blessings, be grateful that you are prosperous and have a family. Get over your sorrow and don't agonize at the marriage of your youngest son about what once was."
The father took in the words of his son and replied. "It is true that I suffered greatly during the holocaust. When the Nazi's took over our village, we were forced to dig a huge pit. Then we were stripped and forced to stand in this mass-grave and the Nazi's with great merriment began shooting their sub-machine guns at us. My father and mother, all my sisters and brothers were killed, but I was not even grazed. After dark when the Germans finally left, I snuck out of the mass grave and hid in the forest.
"Eventually I was captured and brought to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. There I met a few friends from Yeshiva (religious school) and we decided that we would not allow these murderers to break us. A small group of us pledged to each other that come what may, whenever we would meet, we would say over a ‘Vort' (a word of Torah). One day an SS officer overheard us speaking and had us beaten to the edge of death and we were forbidden to speak Torah again.
"We then began just relaying to each other just the sources to the Torah commentaries to remind each other of Torah that we had priviously been taught. Again we were caught and beaten severely. So we devised another plan. This time we would relayed to each other the six most important concepts of Judaism in an abbreviated form. The six concepts are:
1. A - ahavat Hashem - the love of G-d.
"These six ideas are what kept us alive during those terrible years. Every time we saw each other we said, ‘Ayy Ayy' and calmly declared our faith to G-d in the terror of Bergen Belsen. And the truth is, that these six ideas are what have always kept the Jewish people alive in war and in peace. So even though I was liberated and began my life anew, I never forgot ‘Ayy Ayy.' I say it everyday, not as a groan of sorrow but as a focus for living."
Some of us only focus on "the LOST...and the BROKEN," but those who truly survive both the blessings and the curses of wealth and oppression must focus on He who oversees our destiny.
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
Shema Yisrael Torah Network