Parshios Matos & Masei
Events of the Past
The narrative of the experiences of the people of Israel in the desert of
Sinai concludes with the parshiyot of this week. All of the occurrences,
successes and failures that marked this forty year trek in a wasteland
wilderness are alluded to in the count of Israel in last week’s parsha - and
in the listing of all of the way stations of that excursion.
The Torah seems to be determined to remind all later generations of Jews of
the experiences in the desert. Moshe, in his final oration in the book of
Dvarim, will once again review the events of the desert for a new generation
of Jews distanced in time and circumstance from Egyptian bondage. The Torah
is aware of human forgetfulness.
It will take only one generation to forget Egypt and even Mount Sinai.
History is boring and quite irrelevant to new generations. Yet forgetting
the Jewish past is the ultimate betrayal of Judaism and Jewish hopes. All of
us, as we become older, begin to feel a psychological and spiritual need
growing within us to be remembered.
The Baal Shem Tov is reputed to have said: “Forgetting is the true exile.”
Of course it is obvious that ignorance is the true partner of forgetfulness.
In fact, if one never knew anything then one cannot be accused of having
forgotten it. The Torah emphasizes the repetition of all the facts and
experiences of Jewish life in the desert of Sinai so that this knowledge
will enable and strengthen the powers of national remembrance.
Much of the Jewish world today suffers from a severe case of, hopefully
temporary but nevertheless intense, amnesia. In spite of all of the efforts
of the survivors, the museums, the academic courses and books relating to
the Holocaust, this event is rapidly disappearing from world and even Jewish
Religious Jewry has found no way, as of yet, to ritually remember the
Holocaust. Without ritual and holiness, it tragically will continue to fade
from the memory of the coming generation. In distributing films and audio
lectures about the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel to
Jewish schools worldwide I am already encountering apathy if not sometimes
even outright opposition to the insertion of the subject into the curriculum
One principal asked me: “Will it help my students to be admitted to Harvard
or Yale?” And on the other end of the spectrum of Jewish education another
principal told me: “Will it increase their ability to study Talmud
properly?” I responded that the Torah listed all of the desert way stations
even though knowing them would also not guarantee Talmudic proficiency or
admission to Harvard or Yale.
It is not only the amnesia regarding even our very recent past that afflicts
us. It is our inability to grasp that the knowledge of this immediate past
is vitally essential to our present and to our future. Without knowledge of
the events of the past, dating back all of the way to the events of the
desert of Sinai, we are creating for our descendants a new desert, a
wasteland of ignorance, falsehoods and disillusion. It is not too late to
correct this. If our schools won’t do so, let our homes and families, our
grandparents attempt to do so.
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.
Rabbi Berel Wein