Matos-Masei - Menachem-Av Sermon
Sermon for Matos-Masei
— From the Rebbe’s Torah —
Humor to begin with:
I met someone at the gas station, and he suddenly opens up to me and says:
All my friends tell me that I have zero empathy.
I don’t understand why they feel that way.
We’ll get back to the subject of empathy.
But first: Today, we bless the new month of Menachem Av.
This is the month during which the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash — our holy temple in Jerusalem — occurred.
The literal translation of the name of this month — Menachem Av, is: “Comforts the father” — meaning that G-d, our father, needs comforting.
Now, I understand why the need for comfort during this month; sad things happened. But why “Comforts the father?” Isn’t G-d ok, regardless? Is G-d really affected by happenings down here in this technical world?
Sure, he lost his “home” in this world — but didn’t he let it happen? And after all, G-d’s house in this world — the place where he showed his glory through great miracles that occurred there — The Beis Hamikdash — wasn’t that for us? Aren’t we the ones who lost out from the lack of G-d’s revelation?
Aren’t we the ones who were sent into exile after the Beis Hamikdashs' destruction?
So, Shouldn’t the month be called “Av Menachem — the father comforts” — as in G-d, our father, comforting us?!
This week we read two parshas from the Torah — Matos and Masei.
It’s not by chance that we read them on the same Shabbos that we bless the month of Menachem Av — for ideas in these parshas will help us solve our question regarding this month.
(1.) In Parshas Matos, we read about the Midyanites, who lured the Jewish people to sin. Moshe gave over G-d’s word that there be retribution. His phrasing was: there should be “The retribution of G-d upon the Midyanites.”
It was the Jewish people whom the Midyanites had made to sin — it was they who had been lured. And yet, Moshe says that it would be “The retribution of G-d.”
This shows us how much G-d takes our situation “to heart” — what happens with us is so important to him, and affects him, to the extent that he feels it to be his retribution.
(2.) In Parashas Masei, when speaking of the punishments for murderers, the verse says, You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land…”
It then continues: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I, G-d, abide among the Jewish people.”
G-d is saying that he is always with us. He says that he abides among the Jewish people — wherever they are; even in exile.
The Medrash gives a parable for this:
“It is like a king who tells his servants: If you are looking for me, I can be found with my son. Whenever you look for me, I am with my son.”
The king can be in his own private chambers, with all its grand splendor; and yet, he says, “I am with my son” — wherever he may be.
Hashem cares about the situation of the Jewish people so much, that — so to speak — he is with the Jewish people in their exile — to the extent that he also needs comforting!
That’s real empathy on G-d’s part.
He is waiting for us to fulfil our goal and transform these days, when so much evil befell the Jewish people, into days of joy, with the coming of Moshiach. When instead of mourning the Temple’s destruction, we will celebrate in the rebuilt, and everlasting, third temple.
And so, the month is called “Menachem Av — comfort the father.” G-d needs comforting, for he feels our pain, and is with us in the exile.
But you may be thinking — ok, G-d needs comforting too. But is it fair to ask of us that this be our focus?
Is it a problem if we care more about ourselves than G-d’s pain… ? After all, G-d, at his essence is above and beyond all these things. And besides: It’s only natural for us to primarily feel our pain…
Holy people, who are completely submitted to G-d can feel his pain more than their own. But what about regular people like us? Who are the majority… Why is the month called “Menachem Av — comforts the father” — for us… ?
The answer is that in truth, our prayers and actions to haten the redemption are actually to grant G-d comforting, whether we like it or know it, or not. We may think it’s about our own comfort — but really, it’s about G-d.
(Humor not knowing:
I was talking to to a millennial, and he had the following thought:
I make fun of my parents for not knowing how to use new technology
But then again, I googled how to boil an egg…)
The true reason we want things to be good for us, that we will be redeemed from this exile — is for us to be able to serve G-d properly. G-d wants things to be good for us and the soul inside of us feels what G-d wants, for it is connected to G-d at its essence, (whether we feel it or not.) And the soul’s desire affects us to want these things. We want things to be good for us physically and spiritually; we want to be redeemed from this exile.
The soul is in sync with G-d.
Here’s an interesting story which illustrates this point:
About a hundred years ago in a village in Russia lived a student named Yaakov who was exceptionally bright, and who dedicated himself to Torah-study with considerable success.
In the same village lived a number of Lubavitcher chassidim, who often tried to persuade Yaakov to accompany them to their Rebbe. Yaakov, who was not from a chassidic home, always refused. "What do I need a Rebbe for?" he would say. "Even when I have a difficulty understanding some complexity in Gemara, I just work on it a little harder and I am able to get the answer by myself.”
Nevertheless, one time Yaakov yielded to the urging of the chassidim, and agreed to accompany them to Lubavitch, to the Rebbe Rashab. Arriving there on Friday, they passed the Shabbat in an exalted atmosphere that was unfamiliar but attractive to Yaakov.
Saturday night, the travelling chassidim lined up to part from the Rebbe. Yaakov, according to the custom explained to him, also wrote a kvittel, a personal note, to present to the Rebbe during his private audience. As his turn approached, he surprised himself by how excited with anticipation he was.
Yaakov entered and saw the Rebbe sitting at his desk, concentrating in a book. The Rebbe didn’t even glance at him. Yaakov, unsure of what to do, tiptoed up to the desk and placed his note on it. The Rebbe's eyes never left his book, as if he didn’t notice a thing.
Suddenly the Rebbe stood up and started pacing back and forth. To Yaakov’s surprise he heard the Rebbe muttering, as if he were talking to himself, but in Russian. "Ohn!" ("It is him"). "Nyeh ohn!" ("It’s not him"). "It is him." It’s not him." "It..." The Rebbe was silent for a moment, and then pronounced in a firm, decisive voice, "Nyeh ohn–it’s not him." Then the Rebbe sat back down and resumed his book, still not acknowledging Yaakov’s presence.
Yaakov backed out of the room, totally confused. Not only had the Rebbe completely ignored him, but what was the significance of the Russian litany the Rebbe had muttered? It was a strange riddle, and he had no clue as to its meaning.
Time passed. One day Yaakov noticed in a newspaper an intricate mathematical problem, presented by the university in Petersburg. They were offering a three hundred ruble prize for whoever could solve it. The young talmudic scholar took it as a personal challenge and devoted a serious effort to solving it. Finally he got it! He mailed in his answer to the university.
Shortly thereafter he received a notification that his solution was correct and that he would be awarded the stipulated prize. The envelope also contained an invitation to meet with the chairman of the Mathematics Department in Petersberg, together with a train ticket for the journey.
Yaakov went. The department chairman and the other representatives of the university were astonished to see that the mathematical wizard of their correspondence was a young religious Jew, wearing traditional garb. However, they were quickly captivated by his incisive intelligence. After they presented him with the three hundred ruble prize, they invited him to remain at the university and complete a degree in mathematics, under a full scholarship.
Impressed by the generosity of the proposal, Yaakov accepted. He enrolled as a student at the university in Petersberg, and launched into the studies.
At first Yaakov was steadfast in maintaining his Jewish appearance and ways. He even managed to maintain a daily session of Torah. As he progressed in his secular studies, however, and as his academic and social status grew, he gradually fell away from his Torah lifestyle. He spent his free time with his colleagues, who taught him new pastimes.
The first to go were the external signs: his distinctive clothing, his beard and so forth. Next he gave up learning Torah. Eventually, he ceased observing mitzvos too.
After several more years, Yaakov was offered a full professorship in the mathematics department. There was only one hitch; in order to gain the position he would have to convert. Well, he wasn’t going to let that one little detail hold him back from such a prestigious appointment....
As time went by, Yaakov’s conscience began to plague him. How could he have done such a deed? He heartily regretted it. Nevertheless, he found himself unable to commit himself to rectify the situation. Not only were there the obvious social and economic penalties, but in that era in Russia if a Jew who converted to Christianity were to convert back (or if a gentile converted to Judaism) it was considered a capital crime, liable to immediate execution.
Lately Yaakov found himself going hunting more and more often. He enjoyed this ‘sport’ he had learned from his gentile friends in Petersberg. Now it served to relax him, and provide brief respite from the anguish of his soul. One day, while he was in the saddle, his horse suddenly started to gallop wildly. Yaakov lost all control as the horse galloped even faster and more recklessly. He felt that unless a miracle happened this would be his end. At that moment, he made a firm promise to himself that if he were to be saved, he would return to being Jewish and do complete teshuvah.
Amazingly, as soon as he made this resolution, the horse calmed down and slowed to a canter.
That very night Yaakov gathered some money and a bundle of his possessions, walked out on his non-Jewish wife, and departed for parts unknown. He wandered incognito from town to town and from village to village, nervously reacting to every falling leaf. He knew that with his return to Judaism he had endangered his life, but he had made his decision and he had no intention of going back.
One day, when he was taking a meal in an out-of-the-way inn, several policemen suddenly burst in and began checking everyone’s personal documents. Since Yaakov had no identity papers, he was arrested and taken to interrogation.
Opposite him in the small room a cruel-faced investigator sat at his table. He stared at Yaakov, looked down at the picture in his hand, and then at Yaakov’s face again. Out of the corner of his eye, Yaakov recognized that it was a photograph of him as he looked when he was a professor at the university: clean-shaven, modern hairdo and nattily dressed. He looked quite different now, but still....
The investigator hesitated. Yaakov felt his fate closing upon him.
Suddenly, the investigator began a dialogue with himself. "Ohn!" "Nyeh ohn!" "It is him." It’s not him." "It is him." It’s not him." "It is him." Yaakov remembered well where he had first heard those words, when, and from whom. They rang in his head like a bell. He held his breath. Back and forth the investigator repeated: "It is him." "It’s not him." "It is him." Finally he decided: "Nyeh ohn!"– "It’s not him" and ordered the Jew’s release.
Yaakov could barely believe it. He was saved! Within a short time he set off for Lubavitch, and once there, he never departed.
Yaakov’s soul always cleaved to G-d, even when that wasn’t his “regular self,” and so does ours.
Let’s try to find new ways to express this in action, so that very soon, G-d (wink) and ourselves will be freed from this exile; so that instead of fasting, we will celebrate the coming of Moshiach on this coming Tish’a B’av.
May it be so,
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הוו"ח ר' שמואל בן אסתר רחל
לרפואה שלימה וקרובה
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Written by: Eli Baron, Crown Heights