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Parshios Matos & Masei

In Touch with Reality

Why would you discourage the Jewish nation from crossing into the land which God has given to them? That's exactly what your ancestors did when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to scout the land. (Bamidbar 32:7-8)

Av is upon us. We are half-way through the three weeks, with Tisha B'Av breathing down our necks. We have been minimizing our pleasures since the 17th of Tammuz, to remind ourselves of what is missing from our lives.

Funny how we have to be reminded of such things. Actually, it is not funny at all, but rather, tragic. Indeed, it is the real measure of the impact of exile upon us. Life is a question of priorities, and priorities are a function of values, and values are the result of one's understanding of what counts most in life, what is most valuable. How we feel about the loss of the Temple reveals where we hold with all of this.

The Talmud teaches that after the Temple was first destroyed, the Jewish people wanted to make everyday Tisha B'Av (Bava Basra 60b). In fact, the rabbis had to hold them back, telling them that, in spite of the great loss and tremendous sorrow, life still had to go on. Their approach had been the exact opposite of ours today, the effect of thousands of years of exile on the Jewish mentality, which is the effect of Bilaam's infusion into Jewish consciousness of a desire for materialism, vis-a-vis the daughters of Midian (Pri Tzaddik).

I am, at the time of writing this, still in North America, staying in a prominent Torah community. As always, I am overwhelmed by the gashmius, in the form of beautiful houses and nice cars, amongst the other physical trappings of the material world. Thank God, so many Jews have succeeded financially and are able to build for themselves a physically comfortable environment in which they can serve Hashem.

But, as I walk through the streets and see new house after new house go up, most of them still within the range of what might be considered modest (the mansions are a few streets over), one thought keeps creeping up on me: People are so invested in golus. The scene exudes a sense that the Diaspora is home, and will be for a long time to come, even though anti-Semitism rises sharply each day.

The amazing thing is that many of these people are quite aware of the increasing danger in the world. But they act like people talking about a terrible storm taking place outside, while they remain protected by the walls of their homes and their climate control air conditioning systems. They just don't make any connection between the situation in the world today, and themselves, as if, no matter what happens to Jews anywhere else in the world, they will always be safe where they are.

On the other hand, when they talk about life in Israel, they are quite concerned. They are worried about their Israeli brethren who live in the lion's den itself. Some even worry that war is coming, and that it may be possible for the Jewish people to be exiled from their land, God forbid, once again. And they are quite certain that, if such a reality ever comes to be, God forbid, they will be able to watch it unfold from the safety of their Diaspora communities.

When I tell them that I share their concern, but in reverse, they get confused. "You mean you are more worried about me living in North America than about yourself living in Israel? Really?" And then I see it, the look in their eyes that seems to say, "This guy is really off."

The only thing is that their perspective is based upon what they know from the media, and usually a superficial approach to Jewish history. They act as if there are no lessons to be learned from the past, and therefore, they do not feel that they are throwing caution to the wind by settling into the Diaspora so firmly at this stage of history. They are believers, but anything to do with the End-of-Days, for them, is completely cerebral. They do not yet relate on a emotional level what I have come to feel by living in Eretz Yisroel.

The Talmud speaks about how, in the Second Temple period, the Rabbis decided to ask God to remove the drive for idol worship (Yoma 69b). As it turns out, they were in fact successful, and man's drive to worship false gods in whatever form they came, ceased. Hence, today, we do not feel the same lustful way towards idol worship as they once did.

Seeing their success, the same rabbis decided to take away man's lust for sexual relationships, because that too was being abused to an extreme, and once again, they were successful. However, in this case, success was a double- edged sword, for without the drive to procreate, man was destined for self-destruction. So, the rabbis prayed to restore at least part of that drive to mankind once again.

The lesson? There are not two sexual drives within man, one for good and one for evil. Rather, there is a single drive, because there is a single yetzer hara within man, and the trick is to channel its energy in meaningful ways. As the Talmud states, God made the yetzer hara and He made the Torah as its spice (Kiddushin 30b), that is, as a bridle to channel its incredible energy in a kosher way.

The other lesson? Just as the sexual drive is a singular one that can be used or abused, likewise is the drive for idol worship the same drive within man to be close to God, except that it is incorrectly channeled. The idol worshipper wants religion, but on his own terms, without having to enhance himself spiritually, as is necessary to be close to God, and which requires a level of self-sacrifice the body is often to lazy to make.

However, in spite of the dangers of living without such a drive, the rabbis didn't restore that yetzer hara to mankind, since the dangers of maintaining it outweighed the dangers of removing it. Creation can still go on without it, except that, and this is very important to know, our drive for God and spirituality, no matter how frum we can make ourselves on the outside, for the most part, has become quite cerebral.

This has resulted in what the prophet refers to as heart of stone:

    I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Yechezkel 36:26)

This is the ability to look right at a spiritual situation that ought to move us emotionally one way or another, and yet remain unaffected. Like people who have lost feeling in a limb of their body, and therefore cannot feel the pain of the damage being inflicted upon it, the Jewish people can see the world crumble around them, and yet react to it as if it has nothing to do with them or their way of life!

Until, that is, God restores the heart of the Jewish people, making it flesh once again. And, once that happens, a Jew becomes re-sensitized to the true spiritual nature of the world around him, along with all of its apparent dangers, and respond more appropriately, perhaps even saving his or her life along the way.

The only question is: Will it happen in time, or too late, like in the case of the previous generation of European Jewry? The answer to that question depends upon the individual Jew, and how much he comes to realize that he is spiritually numb, and in need of a tikun. He has to be able to say:

    "Technically-speaking, I may be having a great religious life, but there is a whole other emotional aspect to what I am doing, and I may not be able to live without it as much as I think, no matter how content I may think I am at the moment."

Or, you can be more direct and say: "Dear God, show me the truth and let me feel it too." Even more direct is moving to Eretz Yisroel, where the truth, basically, is in your face, and avoiding it means either confronting it head on or living an insanely secular and politically-capitulating life. There is very little neutral ground when you live in the lion's den and it is feeding time.

I think that this is one of the reasons that the story of Yonah took place in the Diaspora, an unusual circumstance for a prophet of God. And, not only did it take place in the Diaspora, but Yonah slept soundly while a life-taking tempest raged all about him, and his gentile shipmates worked frantically to appease God and ward off destruction. Sounds frighteningly familiar, does it not?

I believe that there is an important message here that is either completely overlooked or just taken for granted. And, I believe that it has to do specifically with the effect of living in the Diaspora, a kind of spiritual drug that has the power to put the Jewish people to sleep, and make us numb to what we are spiritually missing, and the dangers that lurk just around the corner. After all, how to you live securely with Eisav if he is prone to hate Ya'akov?

For, there is a difference between the level of Hashgochah Pratis- Divine Providence-while living in Eretz Yisroel versus living in the Diaspora. In Eretz Yisroel, the hand of God is more readily seen and felt, as the Torah states, and this tends to keep us real with the world around us. In the Diaspora, God works more indirectly, giving the impression that history is more casual than it actually is, which can lull a Jew into a kind of spiritual stupor, to such an extent that he can sleep soundly through even the greatest tempest that is, in the end, really because of him.

To try and wake us up and realize what we are losing because of such an approach to Jewish life, Chazal added the three weeks to the yearly calendar, and specifically Tisha B'Av, to the yearly Jewish cycle. And, they did this not, as many people seem to believe, simply to make our lives temporarily miserable in order to remember the loss of the Temple and Temple life. That may be partially true, but it is not the deeper level of truth.

Rather, they did it as a kind of spiritual litmus test, as a way of allowing a Jew to measure himself, to see where he stands with the most valuable aspects of Torah Judaism. Like a doctor who tests a wounded leg, asking, "How does this feel?" in order to diagnose the problem, Tisha B'Av says, "How does this feel?" in order to diagnose where a person is holding spiritually with the ultimate goals and values of the Jewish people.

Those who asked to live on the east side of the Jordan in this week's parshah didn't measure up, and the Midrash says that by making their request they precipitated the first exile that did not begin until 850 years later! Their exposure to the Midianite women and their idol worship desensitized them until they stopped appreciating what Eretz Yisroel should have meant to them. We have been paying for their error ever since.

Now come the Three Weeks once again, and the question becomes: How do we measure up? Do we hate the day, or at least just put up with it, revealing our disconnection from the ultimate values of the Jewish people and the importance of Temple life? Or, do we look forward to the day, as a way to isolate ourselves from the distractions of daily life in exile, and exist on a higher level of spiritual consciousness?

If the latter, then God will help us to regain a heart of flesh once again, meaning that we will be able to feel and relate to reality more accurately, and be more consistent. In today's world, it means more than just maximizing our portion in the World-to-Come. It can end up meaning survival in the face of a clear and present danger.

Chazak!


Text Copyright 2010 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.


 


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