“These are the commandments and the ordinances that Hashem commanded through Moses to the Children of Israel in the plains of Moav at the Jordan River by Jericho.” (Numbers 36:13)
“Chazak! Chazak! Venischazeik! … Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!”
Thus ends the Book of Numbers, which I believe we can call the most tumultuous Sefer in the Five Books of Moses. It describes a journey filled with rebellion, terrible danger and the constant mercy of Hashem. Aharon the High Priest, brother of Moses is gone. Miriam the Prophetess is gone, and Moses himself is in his last days. How we survived up to now and how we will survive the days and years to come is a story of constant miracles and Heavenly Protection. Through it all, the Children of Israel have finally arrived at the Jordan River and are about to enter the Holy Land.
I have mentioned in the past my favorite road in the world, the “Tishim,” Route 90, which traverses all of Israel from north to south. Looking eastward as you drive through the Jordan Valley, you can clearly see the Plains of Moab. I always imagine the legions of Israel encamped there, ready to cross over into the Holy Land. Today, some 3300 years later, we are once again poised, after millennia of tumult in the Wilderness of history, to re-enter the Land as a complete nation, this time with Moshiach ben Dovid as our leader.
As I write these words, we are observing the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. I have just returned from Afternoon Prayers, where we read these words: “Seek Hashem when He can be found. Call Him when He is near. Let the wicked one forsake his way and the iniquitous man his thoughts and let him return to Hashem … ‘for My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways,’ the words of Hashem….” (Isaiah 55:6-8)
How penetrating are the Prophet’s words. Have we any concept to what extent the values of the surrounding culture are eating into our souls? In order to return in teshuva (repentance) we have to identify this poison and try to purify ourselves, so the healing balm of Torah may enter our soul.
Do you want to hear something frightening? I mentioned that I was in the hospital recently. In the prior week, I thought my symptoms were something normal. Only when they became too powerful to ignore did I consult my doctor, who sent me straight to the hospital. In other words: you can be very sick and not realize it!
I heard from both Rabbi Naftali Jaeger Shlita”h and Rabbi Yehuda Schiff Shlita”h the same discussion of the Torah Portion of Balak. “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: all of [Bilam’s blessings] were eventually transformed into the curse [he had intended,] except for [the curse regarding] synagogues and houses of study, as it is stated: ‘And Hashem your G-d transformed [Bilam’s] curse into a blessing for you, because Hashem your G-d loves you.’ [The verse says,] ‘curse,’ not curses!” (Sanhedrin 105b)
I had always thought that all of Bilam’s curses were nullified, but the Gemara teaches otherwise! This is a lightning flash of insight into the importance of our Houses of Prayer and Torah Study.
Batei Knaisios and Batei Midrashos are the only sanctuaries left in this world which have been protected from Bilam’s curse! Rabbi Jaeger even questioned whether one would be permitted to recharge a cell phone from an electrical outlet in a yeshiva. Did those who gave tzedakah intend that their funds should be used to charge a cell phone?
This gives some idea, my friends, of how fragile our connection is to the World of Truth, how precious are our Houses of Prayer and Torah Study and how poisonous is the world that surrounds us. We cannot trust that world or our thoughts, which have been so influenced by it. We have to refine our souls constantly through the lens of Torah.
How, at any moment, can we determine which thought comes from the Evil Inclination and which thought comes from the Good Inclination? This is a practical question which comes into play constantly. For this reason, the Torah stresses the need to concentrate on Torah without interruption, “while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise …” (Shema) Constant immersion in Torah may seem to be an almost-impossible goal, but in the end it is nothing more than the way to save our lives.
Is it possible to contemplate every thought and action? All I can say is that great rabbis have attained this goal. They had to struggle, but they attained it.
A practical test of the correctness of a given path is to think about how you will feel after you traverse it. When you look back upon this action later, will it pass the test of having been approved by the Torah? If you say that word, will it have accomplished a goal approved by the Torah? If you eat this food or spend your day in this manner, will you later find that your action is approved according to the standards of the Torah?
If we can try – a great ambition, but certainly worth it! – to assess our words and actions beforehand, we will find that some of the things we want to do should probably not be done or should be done differently.
“Whoever, guards the Shabbos against desecration and grasps My covenant tightly, I shall bring them to My holy mountain, and I shall gladden them in My house of prayer. Their elevation offerings and their feast offerings will find favor on My Altar, for My House shall be a house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 56:6-7, Haftaras Taanis Tzibbur)
May we see it soon in our days!
The Plains of Moav, as seen from the West Bank
of the Jordan River just south of Jericho