Parashat Masei: The journey of life

These sermons delivered in the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto act as a unique yahrzeit candle to a lofty and sacred world.

August 2, 2019 11:29
3 minute read.
Parashat Masei: The journey of life

These sermons delivered in the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto act as a unique yahrzeit candle to a lofty and sacred world. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion is Masei. It is the last one in the book of Numbers, the fourth of the five books of the Torah, and it summarizes the Jewish nation’s journey through the desert, from Egypt up to the border of the Land of Israel, listing the places where the nation camped throughout its 40 years of wandering in the desert. This expansive and exact breakdown is explained in hassidic teaching as an allegory of man’s journey through life, from the day of his birth to the day of his death. It is reported that the founder of the hassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, said that just as the Israelites wandered from place to place until they reached the Promised Land, so every person “goes from place to place until he reaches the sublime Land of Life” (Baal Shem Tov on Masei).

Many commentators followed this concept, and we will focus on the ideas of one of the important leaders of Polish Jewry in the 1930s, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland.

Shapira was an outstanding educator and wrote many guidebooks for youth and adults. During his tenure as the leader of his hassidic community, he put his all into creating an inner spiritual world among Jewish-Polish youth. During the Second World War, he was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, and there he ran a hassidic “court” whose purpose was to encourage and strengthen the humiliated and tortured Jews. Every Shabbat, Shapira would open a “table,” as was customary among hassidic leaders, where he would teach words of Torah and hassidism that provided the Jews the power to survive the horrors of the ghetto. He did so until the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, after which he was sent to the Trawniki work camp where he was murdered in November 1943.

Every week, after Shabbat ended, Shapira would write the words of the sermon he had delivered at the Shabbat “table.” He hid the texts in a milk container in the ground in the ghetto, with a letter/will to whoever finds it begging to have the texts sent to his relative in the Land of Israel. These sermons delivered in the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto and found years after the rabbi’s death act as a unique yahrzeit candle to a lofty and sacred world, a world of strong Jewish faith that functioned within inconceivable horror.

One of these sermons deals with Parashat Masei. Shapira spoke about the following verse: “Moses recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the word of the Lord” (Numbers 33, 2).

“All the hardships are sorts of ropes to reveal the light of God,” he wrote, but “during the journeys, they felt only the hardships.” According to him, the list of journeys symbolizes the list of hardships that the Israelites experienced in the desert, but all these difficulties helped them grow and became a revelation of God’s light. With these words, he tried to help the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto cope with life under impossible conditions and add a spiritual component to the hardships, dangers and tragedies that enveloped them constantly.

He ended these moving words with a desperate hope that the day would come when “there would be no more preliminary hardships and journeys, but that they would immediately be revealed as the word of God, Whose name would be sanctified with the redemption of Israel.” Just like a person reciting the “Mourner’s Kaddish” for his deceased father, the rabbi recited “Kaddish” for himself and his fellow Jews, and promised that “Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.”

This Shabbat falls during the Three Weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and that of Tisha Be’av. During this time, we remember the destruction of the Temple and the long exile of the Jewish nation. The tragic abyss of this exile was during the Second World War when the abominable Nazis and their collaborators worked to systematically destroy the Jewish nation. In the midst of the darkness of those horrific days, there were people, Jews and non-Jews, who shone like stars, working to give life to others, some by offering a hiding place from the murderous Nazi regime, and others by offering spiritual help and encouragement.

The legacy of these amazing men and women is an inseparable part of the Jewish nation’s legacy. They taught us to make the journey of life worthwhile, to make each stop on the journey truly significant and turn hardship into the revelation of God’s light. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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