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