Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosilr@juno.com

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SHABBAT CHAZON Bamidbar (Numbers) 30:2-36:13
Haftorah Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2

This week's double Parshiot Matot/Ma'asey (and the last in Bamidbar), give us a detailed list of the 42 journeys that the B'nai Yisrael (the Children of Israel) made during their forty year migration from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). There is a general misconception that the B'nai Yisrael wandered in the desert, always on the move, constantly packing and unpacking, never staying in any one place.

Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France 1040-1105) points out the reason for the Torah detailing the individual journeys. He writes:

"...to make known Hashem's acts of kindness, even though He decreed against them (the B'nai Yisrael) that they should move about and wander in the desert. You should not think that they wandered from place to place all forty years and had no rest. There are only forty two journeys mentioned. We can deduct the fourteen that took place in the first year before Hashem's decree that this generation had to die in the desert (reviewed in Parshat Shelach). Deduct another eight in the fortieth year, after the death of Aharon, and we can then understand that in the thirty eight middle years, they only made twenty stops."
(Bamidbar 33:1)

What a profound revelation! Our entire perception of the life of the B'nai Yisrael in the desert must be reconsidered. Chazal (an abbreviation for ‘the Rabbis of Blessed Memory) teach us that the B'nai Yisrael remained stationary for years at a time, then, when the pillar of cloud would suddenly move, they would pack up and follow it until it stopped. What did they do all those years that they remained stationary?

The obvious answer is that they were occupied with learning how to live as Jews. Prior to the revelation on Mt. Sinai, the former Hebrew slaves had certain rituals that they followed. We know that their men were circumcised, that they prayed, and that they followed the seven Noachide commandments:

  1. establishing courts of justice;
  2. the prohibition of blasphemy;
  3. the prohibition of idolatry;
  4. the prohibition of robbery;
  5. the prohibition of murder;
  6. the prohibition of adultery; and
  7. the commandment to kill an animal prior to preparing it for food.
Still others were performed as customs, without the authority of being commandments i.e., Shabbat, Levirite marriages and Kashrut.

It is no wonder that Moshe was not called Moshe Hanavi - Moshe the Prophet, but Moshe Rabbaynu - Moshe our teacher. Suddenly, with the revelation on Mt. Sinai and the obligation of the 613 Mitzvot (commandments), vast amounts of time had to be spent on acquiring the knowledge to perform each and every Mitzvah properly.

One might therefore percieve the stops made during the 40 years in the desert as interruptions - breaks in the months and years of intense Jewish scholarship. Yet, each move had a purpose and each location was a lesson in accumulating spiritual stamina and fortitude.

The Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma, cites a parable of a king who takes his young son to a distant country to find a cure for his ills. On the journey, a series of events take place, but the prince who is delirious with fever is unaware of their ordeals.

After the prince is cured and upon their return home, the king informs the prince - here our carriage broke down, there we were attacked by highwaymen, here we rested and had refreshment, there your head ached so very badly. Not only was the cure important, but it was also important for the prince to know the cost of the cure.

Similarly, our Parsha recounts all the stops that the B'nai Yisrael made over the 40 years... Here we crossed the Sea of Reeds; there Moshe caused fresh water to come out of a boulder; here we were attacked by the Amalakites; there we worshiped the Golden Calf; and here we listened to the spies. Each location was a story and each story carried a lesson.

We are now in a period in the Jewish calendar called "the three weeks" between Shiva Asar B'Tammuz (the seventeenth of Tammuz) and Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av). These 21 days cause us to remember a dark time in our history by actively mourning the destruction of our Temple. Shiva Asar B'Tammuz officially commemorates the siege of the outer walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Romans, Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of both Temples. Throughout our history, terrible tragedies occurred to the B'nai Yisrael on these two days, like the fall of Betar, the Expulsion from Spain and the Holocaust. This period begins and ends with fast days, to emphasize our loss.

Since our dispersion after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E., we have wandered the face of the earth, spending a few years in this place and a few centuries in that place, but never with full security and a sense of wholeness. Regardless of how good our hosts may have been, we have never allowed ourselves to forget Israel, Jerusalem or our Temple.

Every day in our prayers we say, V'lirushalayim Ircha B'rachamim Tashuv - And to Your city of Jerusalem, return us in Your mercy. After every meal in the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals), we recite, U'viney Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh Bimhayra B'yomaynu - Rebuild Jerusalem the holy city, speedily and in our days. At every Jewish wedding, the groom breaks a glass to signify that while we may be rejoicing, we are broken, living only a partial existence, cut off from our spiritual center.

These three weeks remind us of where we have been, what we have endured, the price of our dispersion and the weight of our uncertain future. But like the wanderings of the B'nai Yisrael in the desert, we look ahead and see that our destiny is tied to Eretz Yisrael. Each period in our history, each stop that we made along the way, each event, uplifting or devastating, has added to our collective experience.

So we mourn our loss and our dislocation. In fact, it is a Mitzvah - a very difficult Mitzvah - to cry on Tisha B'Av. Like the groom under the Chuppah, our lives may be filled with joy and contentment, but we are actually living a partial existence. The loss of our Temple and all the rituals, events and influences that surrounded it, leaves a great void.

For instance, a major issue in the world today is the problem of the Agunah - a woman who has been deserted by her husband without a divorce. This is not only a feminist issue, it is an issue that affects all of Am Yisrael. The situation that an Agunah faces must be absolutely unacceptable to every Jewish person, regardless of gender. Yet our hands are tied.

Jewish legislation cannot be brought forth without a Sanhedrin and a Sanhedrin cannot be convened without a Temple. All of us who are sensitive to the plight of the Agunah, should carefully and with the deepest of intentions recite daily the Amidah prayer Hashivaynu Shoftaynu K'varishonah - return our Judges as before.

There are suppressed feelings deep inside us that must be amplified and brought to the forefront of our consciousness... feelings of loss, abandonment and inadequacy can contribute to our awareness that our lives are incomplete without our Temple in Jerusalem. Mourning is the vehicle that Chazal have given us to deal with these feelings.

We are very lucky to live carefree lives. Most of us do not experience the threat of physical danger. Most of us can afford to live by a very high standard, and even when faced with financial troubles, abject poverty is not usually a real possibility. By relating to an imposed sense of grief we can heighten our connection to Eretz Yisrael. By not buying new clothes, by not taking a hot shower, or by not attending a live concert, we won't change the world but we can change our consciousness.

On one hand, the three weeks represent all the evil done to Am Yisrael as a result of our dispersion among the nations. But the three weeks also forces us to focus on the Shivat Tzion (the return to Zion), a return to an intensified intimacy with our G-d, our land and our Torah.

Like the B'nai Yisrael in the desert, we must embrace the study of Torah, so that we will be familiar with our obligations. We must value the cycles of the Jewish year, so that we can train ourselves to be open and sensitive to our spiritual needs. And we must never forget the journeys that we have taken: here we experienced a golden age; there a holocaust; here we attempted to abandon our heritage and there we were reborn.

Sometimes, journey we must, but each excursion is both a diversion and a lesson in awareness. Only by comprehending our past will we ever connect to our future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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