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Parashat Chukat 5774 — 06/25/2014

Parashat Chukat 5774 — 06/25/2014

This is the law [regarding] a person who dies in a tent… (Bamidbar 19:14)
Expounding on this verse, our Sages teach, Words of Torah do not stay with a person unless he “kills himself” over them (Brachos 63b).
[This may be understood through a] parable about an important merchant with a thriving business. People would come from miles around to buy his wares. Even though his wife helped in the store, he was so busy there day and night that he had no time even to go to shul to pray with a minyan.
   The years passed, his beard began to turn white, and his strength began to wane. The merchant began to feel that he was approaching his end, and would soon need to stand before his Maker and give an accounting of his deeds. Therefore, he decided to prepare “provisions” for this well-traveled path, come what may. He resolved that from then on, every morning, he would pray in shul with a minyan, and then sit down and study Torah for two hours straight. He would pay no attention to dealers or customers, for they could be of no help to him.
   The next morning, when he came to the store from shul after having spent three hours there, his wife asked him with astonishment why he had arrived so late. “The store is full of dealers, and they are anxious to get on their way!” He answered that he had been busy and therefore had been delayed.
   The next morning, she saw that he was delayed once again coming to the store, so she went to the shul to investigate. To her shock and amazement, she found him sitting and learning! She began shouting at him, “What’s the matter with you? Have you gone crazy? The store is full of customers, and he sits there learning?! The financial loss that you have caused us does not bother me, but how can I chase the customers from our store when on all sides there are other stores competing with us?!”
   He answered, “My dear wife, please listen to me. What would you do if right now the Angel of Death were to come up to me and say, ‘Your time on earth has expired. Arise and come with me immediately.’ You would not be able to say to him, ‘I am sorry, but our store is full of customers so my husband cannot go with you!  If so, just pretend that I am already dead. Will it be so bad if in two hours from now I arise from the dead and come to the store to help you?!”  (Chafetz Chaim)

As many of you may know, I am the primary caregiver to an extraordinary lady who is bedridden with chronic-progressive MS; she has been the love and light of my life for the past 25 years.  Just a week ago (in the middle of March) she took quite ill and I spent the night by her bedside, watching her breathe and wondering if each breath would be her last.  In the morning we took her to the emergency room, where they were able to determine what the problem was and take the appropriate steps to fix it.

Once she was able to speak again, I described to her what had happened, and commented that she seemed quite close to the edge.  She was able to confirm that this had in fact been her experience.  I also noticed that her face had become especially radiant and her smile, always happy, was positively beatific.  She was looking out the world with a new depth of love and compassion.  Clearly, something in her experience had been transformative.  When I then read the Chafetz Chaim’s parable it struck me particularly hard, that we sometimes need to “die and be reborn” to finally get our priorities in life straight.

The issue here is the fundamental issue that faces every single human being.  We are, in our essence, a soul, a completely spiritual being.  Yet we inhabit a physical body, and have been tasked by Gd with using that body to interact with the physical world in such a way as to increase the level of Gdliness in creation.  The difficulty is that the body needs physical inputs (food, water, air) and is programmed to seek physical pleasure, none of which the soul is capable of providing.  Therefore, the body has a tendency to go off on its own seeking its needs and desires, and dragging the soul along with it.  The soul gets deflected from its purpose, and gets caught up in dealing with the physical.  Instead of the rider’s controlling the horse and directing it to its destination, the horse winds up controlling the rider and setting their mutual agenda.

We are all familiar with the aphorism that nobody goes to the grave regretting he didn’t spend more time at the office.  Yet we act as if our first priority is our work, and our family and our own spiritual development come in a distant second.  Why is it so difficult to do what we understand intellectually to be correct and life-supporting?  Why do we have to come close to death to achieve a correct perspective of life?

In his translation and elucidation of Ramban’s famous ethical letter to his son, R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer quotes Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary to the Talmud: When you want to concentrate on your prayers, first you must strip your soul of your body (p 80).  The word used for “strip” has the connotation of removing clothes (as in Joseph’s brothers stripped off his multi-colored coat) or of flaying (as in taking the hide off an animal once it has been slaughtered).  The image is that the body is an outer garment or a skin that covers up our inner, spiritual essence.  The mystics of medieval Europe (Chassidei Ashkenaz, c 12th-13th centuries) were said to take an hour to prepare themselves before prayer; perhaps they practiced specific techniques to “strip the body off the soul.”  I think that the experience of coming close to having one’s soul leave the body (for good, or at least until the Resurrection) may have the same effect, and perhaps a more lasting effect.

Note that the quote indicates that the body should be stripped off the soul specifically during times of prayer, when we want to communicate with Hashem with as few barriers as possible.  As mentioned above, we inhabit a body for a reason, and it is neither possible nor desirable for us to continue to exist as a disembodied soul.  Our actions in the world depend on our having a body, and we are actually commanded by Torah to maintain our bodies in a healthy state, until such time as Gd releases us from our mission on earth.  The formula seems to be to allow the soul simply to be, by itself, without the body’s incessant demands, for some period of time, and then to return to the body-soul partnership, only with the internal, primary essence strengthened so it can resume its proper control over the secondary, outer shell.  Obviously, getting this gradual, step-by-step approach to work is much better than walking at the edge of the abyss, and it’s a whole lot easier on your loved ones!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 10: Unity (October 1999)

“Two Jews, three opinions.”  We all know from first-hand experience the kind of controversies that can arise in the Jewish community, some of which are “for the sake of heaven,” and the benefit of which endures.  Others only pretend to be “for the sake of heaven,” and can drive a community apart.  (No controversies openly advertise themselves as being for their actual, usually selfish, motives!)  Some of the worst fights are between family members, as we see all the time in our personal lives, Gd forbid, or by picking up a newspaper.

R. Steinsaltz points out that if a controversy is between siblings, then for all that they may even come to blows, there is still a relationship and therefore a chance of reconciliation.  Such has always been the case with the Jewish people.  We may be fierce rivals, but we are always a “team of rivals.”  It is when the parties cease to acknowledge any relationship that the whole thing begins to break down.  When Chareidiim write of secular Jews as goyim and secular Jews call Orthodox Jews Jewish Taliban, the situation becomes very dangerous.  He compares it to a body afflicted with an autoimmune disease, attacking itself until the body’s integrity is so compromised that it can no longer exist.

The application to our no-longer-so-civil society is obvious.  In the movie Top Gun the instructor tells the new students to remember that when the training is over, they’re all on the same side.  This is something we seem to have forgotten in our surety that we’re always 100% right and that anyone who doesn’t see things our way is nothing but a benighted fool.

What can cure this problem?  Since we are all, at our basis, simply expressions of the same unified, infinite value that underlies all the forms and phenomena of creation, we have to discover first who we are, and second that we are existentially united with every other person on the planet.  We will understand that differences are a function of the level of expression, and unity is to be found on the level of being.  This will keep our connections with one another lively and loving.