Don’t Fret The Past. . . Transform It
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL.
Not far from the twin towers, in a makeshift Synagogue, Jewish professionals meet each morning for daily prayer services. Hardly is there a problem obtaining a Minyan. However, on the morning of September 11th things were different.
Perhaps they had decided to remain at their local Shuls for the important Selichos services that precede the High Holidays. Whatever the reason, on that fateful morning, two hundred men were late for work at the World Trade Center. This explains why the nearby Minyan fell short.
Time was not on the side of the nine men present. They all had to be at their desks well before 9:00 a.m., but now they needed a tenth for the Minyan. “What do we do?” they asked, impatiently tapping their wristbands. “Where is everyone?”
“I’m sure a tenth will soon arrive,” asserted one of them. “We have to be patient.” So they waited restlessly, but some were beginning to run late. Just as they were ready to give up, an unfamiliar old man shuffled through the door. “Did you Daven yet?” he asked, scanning the group.
“No sir! We’ve been waiting for you, came the jubilant reply.”
“Wonderful, said the stranger. “I have to say Kaddish for my father. I’m so glad that you haven’t started. Is it ok for me to lead the service?
They hastily handed him a Siddur, hoping he would be a fast Davener, but he proved to be anything but. He rifled the pages agonizingly slow. Indeed, his every movement seemed unhurried and protracted. The worshipers were respectful but clearly on shpilkes.
“Gevald!” someone blurted, while smacking his forehead, “Are we going to be late today!” That’s when they heard the first explosion; the horrible blast that would forever shake their souls. Outside there was smoke, chaos and apocalypse.
After the initial shock and horror, it dawned on them that they had just been rescued from the jaws of death. Each one of them worked in the World Trade Center. They were all supposed to be there before nine. If not for the delay none of them would now be alive.
They turned to thank the guest for completing the Minyan and the leisurely pace in which he prayed that morning. They wanted to hug him in effusive gratitude – to learn his name and whence he had come. But his identity remains a mystery. For, when they turned to embrace him, he was nowhere to be found.
“Why let a disaster go to waste?” The latter has emerged in recent years, as a popular attitude in the world of politics. Politicians appear to be falling head over heels to achieve maximum political mileage from every occurrence, be it good or bad. Even colossal mishaps and disasters are interpreted in ways that aim to benefit a given political ideology and agenda.
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how much credence to place in a given politician’s claims. But the notion that every occurrence, even failures and mishaps, are crucial steppingstones in the perpetual climb to success and self realization is not as crazy as it may seem. It is, in fact, a fundamental tenet of Judaism.
It would be nice if the path to salvation and success was straight as an arrow, but it is simply not the case. The road to paradise is rugged and winding; fraught with hills and valleys; mountains and craters as well as a plethora of junctions and forks. This is true with regards to our individual endeavors as it is with those of community and nation.
We all find ourselves at given times in places we don’t want to be. Not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Most mortal creatures will, at some point or other, take a wrong turn in life and find themselves on a dead end road, or worse, heading in the opposite direction.
How are we to perceive these frustrating setbacks? Are there any redeeming qualities to the tangles and twists into which our life sometimes lapses? Are they to be viewed as entirely useless, wasteful time and energy?
In our Parsha, Massei, the second of the two which are read this week, the Torah weighs in on the issue. Parsha’s Massei opens with the words: “Eileh Massei Bnei Yisrael – these are the journeys of the Children of Israel.” The Torah proceeds to list every single place that the Israelites encamped during their forty year sojourn in the desert – forty two encampments in all.
But why would the Torah introduce the discussion as the recounting of the “journeys” and then turn the majority of its focus on the “encampments”?
Moreover, few of these places are actually recognizable. For the most part we have little or no idea as to what these names refer, or whether they still exist. What little we do know of these encampments, as noted by Rashi, is that many of them were not the proudest moments of our history.
So, we may well wonder, what is the purpose of this long catalogue of names, and why all the detail in the Torah’s account? Do we really need to know exactly where the Jews slept every night while they were wandering in the desert?
Indeed, it is well known that the Torah never wastes a single word. If there is ever a word that seems redundant, there are usually pages of commentary to explain its purpose. Yet here we have what amounts to an entire chapter that is seemingly superfluous. Why is this needed? How is this information relevant to our lives? Obviously, there is more to these travels than meets the eye.
Indeed, according to Maimonides everything that happened to our people throughout the long and arduous exile is represented somehow in our ancestors’ forty years of wandering in the desert. Hence, by depicting our travels in the desert, the Torah imparts crucial information and insight regarding the protracted journey and exile of the Jewish people throughout all of history.
Moreover, according to the Ba’al Shem Tov, whatever transpired with the people of the desert is destined to reoccur to each individual. In other words, each individual’s personal journey through life replicates our ancestors’ journey in the wilderness.
The idea of the 42 journeys discussed in our Parsha is, hence, an outline and prototype of the life of each individual, from the time of birth to his final breath. The insights, shared by the Torah, regarding their journey are essentially insights into our very own.
The primary lesson that we can take from the Israelites’ journey is that there was nothing random about it. By taking the pains to recount each and every one of the 42 travels as well as encampments, the Torah seeks to convey that they were all part of a carefully orchestrated script conceived, directed and produced by the Almighty Himself.
This is true of their travels – their tangible and positive forward movement – as well as their encampments – their seeming stagnation and even regression, as symbolized by the many quarrels and rebellions that occurred.
No part of the journey was insignificant or something which could not be utilized in future growth and the service of G-d, otherwise the Torah would not list it as part their “Journey.”
As stated above, our ancestors’ 42 journeys serve as a prototype of each of our life travels. Much as every one of their journeys – encampments included – had meaning and purpose in the eyes of G-d, the same is true with us. Nothing of our past is without purpose, since nothing is outside the realm of G-d’s will. This includes our moments of progress, enlightenment and growth, as well as our seeming setbacks and failures.
There is purpose to our wanderings – our trials and tribulations – even if we don’t understand them, as there is to our moments of growth and achievement.
Does this mean that our failures and sins are part of G-d’s Divine scheme and desire? Well, no and yes. The difference is whether it is before it occurred – while we still have free choice – or after the fact. This is obviously not a simple issue and cannot be dealt with comprehensively in this limited forum. However, as a general rule “everything” that happens is by Divine will and therefore can and must be utilized towards our future growth and Divine service. The Torah herein teaches that we are not meant to fret the past, whatever it might be, but rather to transform it!
Massei – the Parsha whose title means journey – emphasizes that when it comes to growth, the journey is as crucial a component as the destination itself, and that the stationary and static encampments are as positive and fateful as the actual forward movement. For the ultimate achievement of man’s journey upon this earth is not where or what he gets, but rather what he becomes.
In fact, when we finish reading the Torah, when we chant the last chapter of Devarim, where do we find the Israelites? They are still in the desert, never having gotten over the journey. The Torah would thus seem to be a book without an ending. In truth however, the Torah is indeed a book with an ending – the ultimate ending: The ending that lies within the journey itself.
The Parsha of Massei, which always coincides with the season of sorrow – the period of mourning over the destruction or the holy Temple – contains a fundamental message of hope and consolation. It teaches that each event, no matter how negative, wasteful or stagnant it may seem, plays a role in achieving individual, as well as universal, elevation and redemption, albeit sometimes via a detour. Each journey, static, or agonizing as it may appear, is a step closer to the fruition of G-d’s ultimate and grand scheme.
May we merit that day with the coming of the righteous Moshiach!