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SPELLING OUT OUR REDEMPTION

by Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

As we are now in the middle of the three-week period during which we mourn for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, it is worthwhile to consider a popular Hebrew play on words which highlights our major concern during this time of year: The only difference between the Hebrew words golah (exile spelled gimel, vav, lamed, hei) and geulah (redemption spelled gimel, alef, vav, lamed, hei) is the letter alef.

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As we are now in the middle of the three-week period during which we mourn for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, it is worthwhile to consider a popular Hebrew play on words which highlights our major concern during this time of year: The only difference between the Hebrew words golah (exile spelled gimel, vav, lamed, hei) and geulah (redemption spelled gimel, alef, vav, lamed, hei) is the letter alef. It stands for the word achdut, unity, which also begins with the letter alef. Our sages teach that our present exile is, in large part, due to a lack of unity and a proliferation of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, amongst the Jewish people.

It is no coincidence that Parshat Mattot and Masei coincide every year with this period of mourning, for these are the Torah portions of exile. The first verse of Parshat Masei states: "Eleh masei bnei Yisrael These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt. . .under the hand of Moses and Aaron" (Numbers 33:1). The rabbis point out that any redemption facilitated by a human being is by definition temporary and finite, just like Man is also temporary and finite. Only if done solely by Hashem can a redemption have an eternal effect. It was for this reason that Moses debated with G-d for seven days at the burning bush for Hashem to "personally" redeem the Jewish people from Egypt. We were not worthy of this ultimate level of Divine intervention. As a result, human messengers played an active role in the redemption process, leaving the door open for the four future exiles to which the Jewish people have been subject throughout our history.

Remarkably, these four exiles are hinted to in the above verse. The first four words of the verse begin with the Hebrew letters alef, mem, bet, and yud, representing the first letters of the four exiles: Edom (Rome beginning with alef), Madai (Media/Persia mem), Bavel (Babylon bet), and Yavan (Greece yud). We had to undergo these future exiles, the "journeys of the Children of Israel," because the redemption from Egypt was brought about in part by "the hand of Moses and Aaron," not directly by Hashem Himself.

We have found a hint to exile in this week’s second portion, Parshat Masei, but what about in Parshat Mattot? The Torah describes an interesting request set forth by the tribes of Reuben and Gad (see chapter 32). They asked Moses if they could settle outside the land of Israel proper on the other side of the Jordan River, primarily because it provided plenty of land for their abundant livestock. When they imply that they will not join the other tribes in conquering the rest of the Holy Land, Moses chastises them at great length. Finally, after about ten verses, they respond to Moses that of course they always had in mind to first join their brethren in conquering the entire land of Israel and only then return to their inheritance on the other side of the Jordan River. The question is obvious: Why didn’t they stop Moses at the beginning and tell him that they always intended to assist the Jewish people? Why did they allow themselves to be rebuked for something that they had not even requested?

The commentaries explain that they remained silent specifically so that they could hear the words of rebuke from Moses. They viewed it as an opportunity for spiritual growth that they simply could not pass up. Most of us are uninterested in hearing words of rebuke, but truly great tzadikim (righteous individuals) realize how valuable hearing constructive criticism is. Those who want to grow in their awe of Hashem will anxiously await any words of their rabbi, even if they do not directly apply to them, and so the children of Reuben and Gad remained silent.

If they were such great tzadikim, we are left with another question. How could people of such caliber decide to live outside the land of Israel proper over a simple physical consideration? Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a saintly Chassidic leader at the turn of the 19th century, answers that there was a spiritual advantage to living on the other side of the Jordan as well. They (mistakenly) figured that by inheriting that portion, it would thereby become a full-fledged part of the land of Israel. That would mean that Moses had already arrived in the land of Israel, thereby undoing the decree that he would have to die and not lead the Jewish people into Israel. He was already there, they figured, and could therefore remain alive to continue leading them. Because of this consideration, these great tzadikim were willing to remain on the other side of the Jordan River.

Although they had lofty intentions, these two tribes were the first to be exiled when the exile came years later. Why? The sages say it was because they were separated from the rest of the Jewish people, showing a lack of unity. From here we see a tremendous lesson: You can have the greatest intentions, but if in the end you are separated from the rest of the Jewish people, you will be the first to go into exile. That is how important unity is in the eyes of Hashem. That is the lesson for us during this three-week period. By focusing on this subject now, it should be a catalyst to build unity throughout the rest of the year as well, putting the alef back into the golah (exile) and bringing the final geulah (redemption), speedily in our days.

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Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Mattot & Masei articles.

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