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Parashat 07/07/2010

Parashat Matot-Mas’ei

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Our double Parashah, the last of the book BaMidbar, and the longest Parashah in the Torah (when both are read together), deals in many different ways with the Land of Israel.  The nation is at the end of its 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  It has been purified of many of the negative traits that they picked up while mired in the impurity of Egypt, and at the same time the Land is now ready to receive them, for “the iniquity of the Amorites” is now full.  The story of the Exodus has been completed except for Moshe Rabbeinu’s final charge to his people before his death.

As one can imagine, the Land of Israel has some very unique qualities, and is especially suitable for the nation of Israel to be able to carry out its unique mission on earth.  There are two ways that the Jewish people can relate to the world.  We can take our place in the natural world, the world “red in tooth and claw,” in which case we become subject to the blind forces of nature.  For a small and materially weak people, this is not a wise choice.  The other possibility is to live a life under Gd’s direct supervision (hashgachah pratit).  Since Gd is invisible and often hides Himself as it were behind a cloak of seemingly natural occurances this possibility is quite terrifying.  In addition, continuing to merit Gd’s protection requires that the nation as a whole maintain an extremely high standard of behavior, one that history has shown is difficult to maintain, and even appears to be getting more and more difficult as the generations come and go.  Yet Israel’s continued existence depends on this second mode of existence.

At the beginning of our national existence, Avraham Avinu is told to go out from his comfortable surroundings and go to “a place that I will show you,” where he will be made into a great nation.  Rashi comments that Avraham could become a great nation, indeed could have offspring at all, only in the holy surroundings of Eretz Yisrael.  Once in the Land, Gd promises that Avraham’s descendents – us! – will inherit the Land, but only after a period of purification through suffering and trial, and only after the people living there at that time will have become degraded to the extent that the Land can no longer support their evil (“The iniquity of the Amorites…”).  Furthermore, we are warned in two frightening passages that if our level of holiness drops, we will suffer the same kind of fate as the Canaanite nations we displaced – exile from the Land.  This we know from our history is exactly what has happened.

What is so special about Israel’s mission that we can only fulfill it in Eretz Yisrael?  And what is so special about Eretz Yisrael that lends itself to this mission?  We have discussed on several occasions that the purpose of Gd’s creating human beings with free will is that we use that free will to acknowledge and demonstrate Gd’s existence in and complete sovereignty over the universe.  We are, as it were, the mechanism by which Gd comes into a fuller, richer relationship with Himself.  If humankind’s purpose is to come to know and acknowledge Gd, Israel is tasked with being the leader in this endeavor.  Whereas other people can live lives in holiness or not (they are only required to obey the 7 Noachide laws), we are given no such choice.  We must live lives of great holiness, lives which reflect Gd’s holiness and radiate it out into the outer, material world.  If we don’t, we won’t survive.

Torah describes the Land of Israel in the same terms.

The Land which you are about to occupy is not like Egypt, the place you left, where you could plant your seed and irrigate it by yourself like a vegetable garden.  But the Land which you are crossing [the Jordan] to occupy is a land of mountains and valleys, which can be irrigated only by the rain.  It is therefore a Land constantly under Gd your Lord’s scrutiny;  the eyes of Gd your Lord are on it at all times, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year. (Devarim 11:10-12, tr. by Aryeh Kaplan)

In other words, it is a Land of miraculous existence, and miracles depend, to some extent, on their recipients’ worthiness, or openness to receive them.  And lest one think that it’d be neat to live a miraculous existence, I would submit that in fact there is nothing more terrifying in the world to have to have a constant reminder of one’s absolute helplessness before nature and other people.  One need only pick up the paper and feel the waves of hysterical hatred raging against us by all the forces of evil in the world, and consider how small the Jewish people is, and what a thin sliver of land we live on, to understand this point.  We all hope and pray and try to believe that Gd will save Israel, but in the meantime it is extremely nerve-wracking and humbling.  I speculate that Mr. Obama’s disgraceful treatment of Israel is Gd’s way of reminding us that we are to look to Him, and only to Him for our salvation, not to any other nation, no matter how well-intentioned.  On the other side, it may also be Gd’s way of waking us up to do t’shuvah for our various shortcomings – our lack of mitzvah observance, our lack of faith in Gd and lack of understanding that He is in control of the world, our infighting, our lack of holiness both individually and as a community.

The three-week period in which we now find ourselves, culminating in Tisha B’Av, is an opportune time to reflect on the losses we can expect if we don’t straighten ourselves out.  It is also a golden opportunity to reorient and recommit ourselves to living increasing levels of holiness each and every day.  It is up to us to seize the moment and make the changes we need to make to fulfill our Divine calling.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 6

Hillel used to say … In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

Reading the news on any particular day one is struck by the degradation to which we are all subjected.  There is very little that escapes perversion, perhaps religion first and foremost.  Everything in the environment is tightly bound to the material; as if nothing else exists, and everything therefore exerts a downward pull on our souls.  Hillel is telling us, among other things, that even in such an environment, it is up to us to maintain our upwards focus.  We are, essentially, all soul – our bodies are the garments the soul wears in order to function in the material world.  We need to “be a man,” a soul, and not a hollow shell of a body.  We need to let the soul sanctify both our body and our environment, not let our body and environment sully our soul.  Hillel says specifically “strive to be a man.”  In our Tachanun prayers we say “…it is known that we are dust.”  Gd created us and knows our strengths and weaknesses.  He purposely did not create us perfect, so that we can grow and develop by our own efforts, and earn the corresponding reward.  As long as we keep striving and moving forward and upward, I believe Gd is happy with our efforts, and will reward them with success.