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parashat masei – english






We Jews get quite a few daily reminders that our Templeis gone and that we are in exile. Three times a day in our prayers, and in Birkat HaMazone (the Grace after Meals), we recall the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and express our longing for salvation and redemption. Even on Shabbat – when we don’t usually make requests of G-d – we add a prayer to Birkat HaMazone asking G-d to restore our national loss. Despite all these reminders, there are twenty-one days on the Jewish calendar when we are expected to go even further, and stir up our emotions over the loss of the Temple. Our Sages tell us: כל המתאבל על ירושלים זוכה ורואה בשמחתה   – Anyone who mourns over Jerusalem will be privileged to see in its rejoicing. And, of course, the converse is true: If we do not mourn over the Temple, we will not merit to see it rebuilt. During these three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, we are expected to add emotion.


Who Cares?

But is it really possible to care about a loss which occurred 1943 years ago, even if the loss was tremendous? The challenge is even more difficult in this age known asעקבתא דמשיחא  – the era before the coming of Mashiach. Indeed, many of the signs identifying this period, foreseen in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a), are visible today before our very eyes! The name of this period,עקבתא דמשיחא , literally meaning “heel of the Messiah,” hints at the difficulty we face mourning over theTemple. Metaphorically, Jewish history can be compared to the human body – from the head down to the heel. The head is represented by Moshe Rabeinu and the דור דעה , the “generation of knowledge” who received the Torah at Sinai. The story of our nation winds down to its culmination in our time, a period comparable to the heel of a foot (עקב). The heel has a uniquely large amount of skin to cushion and support the whole body. It is also the place where there is a lot of dead skin. These features are reflected in our time when emotions and feelings for others are greatly diminished. People were once much more self-sacrificing and caring. Today, if you want someone to really care and hear you out, you may have to pay big bucks to a psychologist or have someone do you a big favor. Nowadays, you can be talking to someone on their cell phone, and hear them texting on the very phone you thought was glued to their ear.


If the “caring days” are long gone, how can we be expected so many years after the destruction of theTempleto care and to cry over it? What if we just don’t feel anything? Is there any technique we can learn in order to generate a little genuine sadness and real tears?


Emotion and It’s Purpose

Perhaps you are asking: Why do we have to get all emotional about this? Would it not suffice to learn from our past mistakes, and focus on fixing our national problems with dry cheeks?


The answer is that while we need to use our minds to mourn for the Templeand Jerusalem, that is not enough. Indeed, there are two words for tears in Hebrew:דמע   and בכי . דמע has the same letters asמדע  (intellect) because it is rooted in an intellectual understanding of a tragedy. In contrast, the other type of tear reflects an emotion triggered by the heart. It is called  ,בכי and it has the numerical value of the word לב (heart). Thus, the Hebrew language itself teaches us that there are two paths to tears, and we are expected to use both of them, as it says in Eichah:  עיני עיני ירדו מים – both my eyes shed tears. On the conceptual level, this means that tears flow from both sources.


Defining a Tear

The tears of the heart express feelings and emotions that words simply cannot. If we have any doubts about whether our heart is really capable of being moved to tears, the following true story from the Holocaust will prove to us that it still is.


A woman whose husband had been shot and killed by the Nazis, saw her two boys, her whole future, being taken away from her by a Nazi soldier. She ran after the Nazi who was loading her boys onto the back of a truck. Desperately, she begged him with bitter tears to have mercy and release them. But the Nazi answered her coldly: “Pick whichever one you want.” This sadistic ultimatum was too much for her. The desperate mother just stood there, frozen in place, unable to say anything. Not willing to wait any longer, the Nazi drove off with both boys. Observers approached the woman, and soon realized that she had gone mad. Not only did she lose her future, she lost her mind as well.


The sadness and tears which this tragic story evoke flow from a number of sources: the agony of a loving mother in being given the opportunity to save one child at the expense of the other; the hell the Jewish people went through not so long ago while other nations stood by coldly; the unfortunate fate of the mother herself. However, describing the emotions evoked by this episode does not do it justice. Any Holocaust survivor will tell you that all the Holocaust books and movies barely give you a glimpse of what it was really like. This is because some emotions cannot be contained by words. Many of us know this first hand when tragedy struck close to home. Our immediate response was not “How did it happen?” or “What could have been done to prevent it from happening?” Such questions are not asked by close relatives after suffering a tragic loss. They respond with the heart, not with the mind.


The Emotional Nation

The two relationships where emotions run strongest are those of bride and groom, and mother and child. “Identity involvement” is very strong in these relationships. And the stronger the sense of identity, the stronger the sense of emotion. For this reason, the Prophets use these two metaphors frequently to describe the emotional pain that G-d “experienced” – as it were – due to the Destruction of theTempleand His people going into exile. For example, the Prophets speak ofZionas a mother waiting and longing for her long-lost children to finally come back home. If we do not feel this emotion, it is a sign that we do not properly identify ourselves as being one with our Nation.


Power of Emotion

Our Rabbis tell us that the Temple was destroyed over unjustified, “causeless” hatred, and that it will be rebuilt only through the counterbalancing effect of “causeless” love. These three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av are an ideal time to improve and excel in this area. And the more we care about other people and identify with their challenges, the more we defrost our own heart and unleash its emotional potential. Emotion is possible only there when there is a feeling of attachment to others. Similarly, we will only be able to get emotional over Tisha b’Av  if we are able to see beyond ourselves and identify with our people’s tragic loss of the Temple and national grandeur.


The importance of arousing emotion during this period is crucial for another reason: Emotion is a storehouse of power and strength. When one is attached to something emotionally, one works for it that much harder. By connecting with “causeless” love to the Jewish people past and present, we re-unite our nation and instill in ourselves power for change. And we have a much better chance of seeing Jerusalem consoled and re-built.



I was on a bus recently, minding my own business, when two heavyset weight-watchers started talking loudly behind me: “Last night I unintentionally intentionally ate an entire bowl of popcorn!” one said to the other. “Not a cereal bowl – a giant salad bowl! I then felt sick for…”


At that point, I tuned out of the conversation, but later that day I realized that G-d had put me in the right place at the right time. I was reminded of a major truth which underlies this period of mourning for the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) that we have just begun: There is an element of the intentional behind all unintentional acts. I’d like to approach this subject by looking first at the Mitzvah of bringing offerings in the Beit HaMikdash to atone for sin.


Responsible for Unintentional

Why are we commanded to bring a sin-offering –  קרבן חטאת – for (certain types of) sins committed unintentionally, but not for sins committed intentionally?  Why can’t intentional sins also be atoned for by sacrificing an animal?

The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 95) explains why the sin-offering is only appropriate for the unintentional sinner. He notes that the body of a person is similar to the body of an animal in many ways. The main difference between humans and animals is that humans have intellect and a superior level of consciousness and emotions. When a person sins against G-d unintentionally, he is essentially abandoning his intellect, and acting like an animal. When he brings an animal sacrifice for atonement, he realizes that he deserves to be put on the altar – if not for G-d’s mercy – for failing to use his intellect, and essentially acting like an animal. In this way, he internalizes the importance of rectifying his unintentional behavior. He resolves to act in a more self-aware and self-critical way in the future. This is part of the teshuvah process which cleans one from sin. The intentional sinnerמזיד) ), in contrast, cannot receive atonement in this way, for he sinned with his intellect. The conceptual framework we have been discussing does not apply to him because he consciously decided to sin.


Decisions of A Woodchopper

With this in mind, we can better understand why the unintentional killer (addressed by the Torah in this week’s Parashah) must flee to the city of refuge for fear that a close relative of his victim will avenge his spilled blood. It seems that exile to the city of refuge serves the purpose of atonement for the sin committed unintentionally. But, we might ask, why does the unintentional killer need atonement in the first place?  What was his crime?  He may simply have failed to notice a bystander who was killed accidentally because he was not 100% careful about securing the blade of his axe?


The answer is that the Torah requires us to take full responsibility in our daily lives. What we do and where we are – even unintentionally – stem from innumerable unconscious decisions we make throughout the day. Have you ever asked yourself how many decisions you make consciously and unconsciously in just one hour? Just to drive home the point, I’d like to enumerate some of the decisions that you are making right now: Whether to stay awake, whether to finish this essay now, whether to push it off till later, whether to skim, whether to read it at the table or in bed. Indeed, it is your decision to find this article interesting or not. You, alone, decide if you agree with the ideas presented here, and whether you want to remember and apply them.


Decisions and the Indecisive

Every conscious decision we make can affect our future decisions – especially subconscious ones. Our numerous decisions in the present “program” us, in a sense, to make similar decisions automatically in the future. The less conscious we are of our decisions now, the greater the likelihood that our “automatic pilot” will keep us on the same old course, without giving us the opportunity to consider if there isn’t a better, safer, more effective, or more efficient way of doing things.


To cite just one example, many people feel that they commonly procrastinate in decision-making, and thus think of themselves as indecisive. They forget that remaining indecisive is, to a large extent, their own decision.  If they would learn how to research faster and plan better, they would be able both to make decisions cautiously – which is their style – but also make them before it is too late.


In the light of what we have said, we can better appreciate that the woodchopper whose axe blade is not properly attached is really making a decision not to be cautious. (Incidentally, this person also made a decision to seek his living as a woodchopper, a job where accidents are more likely than in, say, sales or writing.)  But since he did not kill with conscious intent, the Torah does not punish him with death, a punishment of the conscious mind as well as the body. Rather, this man is confined to the city of refuge, a city where it is illegal to own any utensils which could be lethal. This guarantees that he will not commit another such mistake during his stay. His freedom to decide to be appropriately careful has, for this period, been taken away.


To cite an example from another area, let us consider the sin-offering that is required for unintentionally transgressing certain prohibitions of the Torah, such as desecrating the Shabbat. A person who transgresses Shabbat because he forgot that it is Shabbat or that this action is forbidden on Shabbat, must bring a sin-offering. The Torah does not consider him to be totally guiltless because his mistake ultimately resulted from a decision. The fact is that we do remember what is important to us. By not internalizing the Laws of Shabbat, as well as where and when they are applicable, one subconsciously decided that it has low value and importance to him.


While prophesying the upcoming destruction of the Temple, the prophet Yirmeyahu chastised the Jewish nation with the complaint, …אין איש נחם על רעתו לאמר וגו’ כלה שב במרוצתם כסוס שוטף –You gallop through life without thinking about the decisions you make. (Mesillat Yesharim, Ch. 2 )


Who Decided?

The Holy Temple is gone, and G-d’s Glory is in disgrace. Our generation desperately needs Mashiach to redeem us from Exile, and rebuild the Temple. Some people think that G-d is waiting for Jews who know little or nothing about Torah and Mitzvot to change. But that is not necessarily so – it is certainly not the whole story! G-d is waiting for those who already recognize the need for the ultimate redemption, but decided not to care. He is waiting for a change of mindset in those who decided that we are living comfortably enough among the gentiles in Exile. He is waiting for us to realize that it is essentially our decision to remain stuck in this benighted Exile. And He waits for us to decide that we cannot get out from under this avalanche without Him. It is up to us to decide that we really need G-d to help us. Hot tears would be a good indication of our sincerity.


Our Sages tell us that any generation that doesn’t witness the re-building of theTempleis essentially witnessing its destruction. It is high time we admit that our decisions are keeping it from being re-built.





About the author, Yosef

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