National Déjà vu

5779 – Matos Masei

In an interview on November 20, 2003, Eli Weisel was challenged as to his feelings on Yerushalayim, the Land of Israel and Palestinian suffering. From the perspective of a humanitarian and universalist, Eli Weisel’s position appeared peculiar, an Ms. Krista Tippett inquired:

Ms. Tippett: I feel that it’s almost impossible for Americans to really have a sense — maybe not for American Jews, but for other Americans to have a sense of the spiritual connection to that land. And you write a lot about how you experienced Israel growing as a state, coming out of your experience of the Holocaust. I mean, would you describe what your bond is to that place, what it has to do with your soul as a Jew? Can you put that into words?

Mr. Wiesel: I wrote about it a lot because I prayed a lot. My first prayer was about Jerusalem. The first lullaby my mother used to sing me was about Jerusalem. I knew Jerusalem, the word Jerusalem, before I knew the name of my hometown. I know the streets of Jerusalem, the houses of Jerusalem, before I was there. Because somehow Jerusalem was the center of our dream, the center of our aspirations, the center of our hope. It’s Jerusalem, the city of peace. The first melech was David, King David of Jerusalem. And when I came to Jerusalem for the first time, I had the feeling it wasn’t the first time, I’d been there before. And nevertheless, each time I go to Jerusalem, I have the feeling it’s the first time. It’s the only city in the world that I feel that way.

There is something strange about visiting Yerushalayim. Many of us have felt it. The cobblestone alleyways, the golden sheen of the buildings, they seem familiar in a way that Boca, or New York, LA, Toronto, Johannesburg or London do not. It’s the strange feeling of being at home, and being away from home simultaneously.

This week, the first week of the month of Av, is when we, as a nation, feel the most distant from Yerushalayim. It’s this week that we acknowledge how far we are from home, and how far Yerushalayim is from what it should be. There’s an increasing loneliness, a greater distance, the knowing that things are not as they are supposed to be.

We feel the echos of this in ways both great and small. From wars in Gaza and endless elections cycles in Israel, to the constant political bickering in the US. From friendships torn apart to siblings that don’t get along. From kids struggling at school, to children that aren’t finding their shidduch. We feel the lack of Yerushalayim in our inability to focus in davening, to open a Sefer, to sing a niggun.

Finding the Way Home

In our personal lives, we often feel like this is systemic. We’re stuck in these loops on repeat. Breaking out seems impossible. So the month of Av leaves us questioning: How can we get back home – both on a national level, and on a personal level as well. What’s the Derech? Is there a Derech?

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh explains that the Torah lists the journeys of the Jewish people in the Midbar to explain to us that Hashem, Moshe and the Jewish people entered into a wilderness; a place of death, thirst and loneliness, and conquered them all. He explains how it took time – 40 years – with many stops in between. But by the time we entered into Eretz Yisrael, the desert and all its power had been vanquished.

There is an immense depth here. It’s the knowledge that whatever desert we’re going through now, on a social, economic, political, religious plane; in some way, we’ve been here before. Klal Yisrael, at our inception, entered the void and emerged victorious.

Rebbe Nosson (ליקוטי הלכות חושן משפט הלכות גביית חוב מהיתומים טו) explains this practically:

כִּי עַל יְדֵי שֶׁיִּשְֹרָאֵל מְטֻלְטָלִים וְנָעִים וְנָדִים בְּגָלוּת, עַל יְדֵי זֶה הֵם מְבַקְּשִׁין וּמְחַפְּשִֹין בְּכָל עֵת אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ עַד שֶׁזּוֹכִין בְּכָל עֵת לִקְדֻשָּׁה עֶלְיוֹנָה הַזֹּאת, וְעַל יְדֵי זֶה נִתְקַדְּשִׁין כָּל הַטִּלְטוּלִים שֶׁלָּהֶם. וְעַל כֵּן עַכְשָׁו שֶׁיִּשְֹרָאֵל סָבְלוּ גָּלֻיּוֹת כָּל כָּךְ כְּבָר נִתְקַדְּשׁוּ כָּל בְּחִינוֹת הַנִּיצוֹצוֹת הַמְטֻלְטָלִים עַד שֶׁעַכְשָׁו גַּם בָּהֶם הַקְּדֻשָּׁה קְבוּעָה וְקַיָּמָא, כִּי כְּבָר הִמְשִׁיכוּ הַקְּדֻשָּׁה בִּקְבִיעוּת עַל יְדֵי הַבַּקָּשָׁה וְהַחִפּוּשֹ שֶׁל רִבּוּי הַגָּלֻיּוֹת שֶׁעַל יְדֵי זֶה מְגַלִּין קְדֻשָּׁתוֹ בְּכָל מָקוֹם כַּנַּ”ל.

Throughout the many exiles, and the Jews in every situation that screamed out “Where is Hashem here?” until Hashem revealed Himself there, those places were sanctified. Thus, now that we have suffered and wandered in every place, in every situation, we have found the Kedusha of those places. Hashem can be revealed to us anywhere.

Essentially, when we realize that we’ve been here before, we know that we can, somehow escape.

Signs on the Road

Sefer Bamidbar ends this week, with introducing the mitzvah of Ir Miklat. A city for a person to run to if they killed another person accidentally. And Chazal (במדבר רבה כג יב) explain that there was a unique obligation for the roadways in the land of Israel:

ובכל איסטליות רושם עליה רוצח לערי מקלט, שנאמר תכין לך הדרך

There should be signs on every road leading to the Ir Miklat.

Why should the Torah require such signage? Because when a person has just done something that they are sure they will never recover from, it helps to know that Hashem has a plan even here, even now.
Like a note in our kids camp delivery, saying: “I know you’re missing home right now, but I’m thinking of you.”

It’s a sign that says you’re not alone. We’ve been here before, you’ll be ok.

The secret of Parshas Mas’ei, is that Eli Weisel’s feeling of being at home, of being familiar, of knowing that this is my place, can be felt even in Galus – because we’ve been here too. We’ve gotten out of here as well.

We know that we can repair our relationships, because Jews have done it before. We know we can overcome our challenges, because we’ve done that too. We know we can return to Yerushalayim, because there was a first Beis HaMikdash and a Second. So there can be a third. We know that one day, the month of Av will be a month of joy, because once upon a time it was. Hashem should help us to see it so, במהרה בימנו.

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