ESSAY: The Hard Life
and the difference between a wanderer and a journeyer
A TELLING STORY: Informed Debate
Changing sides in an argument might not lessen the disagreement,
but it certainly raises the level of the debate
"One should live with the times," said Chassidic
master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi to his disciples, and
explained his meaning: a person should derive guidance and
inspiration from the weekly Torah reading.
Every week, another parashah ("chapter"
or "section") of the Torah is publicly read in the
in an annual cycle which is completed on the festival of "Simchat
Torah." The weekly parashah, Rabbi Schneur Zalman
was saying, is the soul of the week in which it is read, the
spiritual warp and woof of its time-weave. By following the
parashah's dictates and directives, we attune our lives
to the inner essence of the particular stretch of time in
which we find ourselves.
"Living with the times" assumes an added dimension
when two parashiyot are joined to form a single reading.
Because the number of Shabbat readings varies from year to
are eight such potential "pairs" among the Torah's
54 parashiyot. This creates a situation in which the different
- and at times, even conflicting-lessons of two parashiyot
combine into a unified "directive of the week" for
their joint week.
In addition, the weekly parashah bears an integral
relationship with the other time-landmarks with which it intersects.
The fact that a parashah is read in a certain month,
or in proximity to a certain festival, imparts a distinct
context and an additional facet to the lessons with which
it instructs our "living with the times."
By way of example, we might look at two contiguous parshiot
- Mattot (Numbers 30-32) and Massei (Numbers 33-36). Let us
examine their individual lessons, but also note that, in certain
years, they combine to form a single reading and jointly instruct
a single week. Let us also note that these two parashiyot
are always read during the "Three Weeks" - the 21-day
period from Tammuz 17 to Av 9 when we mourn the destruction
of the Holy Temple and the onset of the centuries-long galut
(exile and spiritual displacement) from which we have
yet to emerge.
Two States of the Jew
Hardness is one of those qualities which we are forever seeking
to acquire and rid ourselves of at the same time. There is
more than a hint of condemnation when we describe a particular
individual as a "tough" person, but no small measure
of admiration as well. We denounce, in ourselves and others,
behavior that is "obstinate" and "unyielding,"
but also agree on how important it is to have the "backbone"
to stand one's ground and not be swayed from one's principles.
Indeed, our journey through life requires firmness as well
as flexibility, hardiness as well as pliancy. There are times
and situations which necessitate, as our sages put it, to
"be yielding as a reed, not hard as a cedar"; yet there are also times and situations when
we are called upon to employ every iota of obstinacy and "stiff-neckedness"
we can muster to resist all that threatens our integrity and
seeks to deter us from our mission in life. In the words of
Chassidic master Rabbi Bunim of Pshis'cha: "A person
should have two pockets in his coat. In one pocket he should
keep the verse, 'I am but dust and ashes.' His second pocket should contain the Talmudic saying, 'A person
is commanded to say: For my sake was the world created.'"
This dual approach to life is implied in the Torah's two
names for the tribes of Israel. While the people of Israel
constitute one entity as G-d's "singular nation," they are comprised of twelve distinct
tribes, each of which contributes its unique character and
capabilities to our national mission.
Thus, the Torah refers to Israel's tribes as shevatim,
"branches," or mattot, "rods,"
expressing the concept that they are offshoots from a common
stem, distinct from each other yet parts of a greater whole.
While shevet and matteh are both synonyms for
"branch," the shevet is a pliant, flexible
bough, while matteh connotes a stiff stick or rod.
Therein lies the deeper significance of these two names for
the tribes of Israel: on certain occasions the Torah refers
to us as "branches," stressing the need for flexibility
and tractability in life. In other contexts we are called
"rods," underscoring the need for firmness and determination
in carrying out our mission as "a holy people" and "a light unto the nations."
The latter point is the lesson of the parashah of
Mattot, which opens with the verse, "And Moses spoke
to the heads of the tribes...." Here, the tribes are
called by the name "mattot"-a designation
which becomes the name of the parashah and the crux
of its message: that there are times in the history of a people
when they must employ the fortitude and fixity of the rod,
when they must find the inner resolve to "stick it out"
in a hostile and capricious world.
The Staff of Exile
"Hardness" is an acquired, rather than an intrinsic,
state. While the potential for hardness always exists, it
is actualized when a substance is subjected to galvanizing
conditions and influences.
This can be seen in the shevet/matteh model. As a
branch, the shevet is supple and yielding, bending
to the wind and to every pressing hand. But when it is disconnected
from the tree to face the elements as a lone, rootless rod,
it stiffens into a matteh.
In other words, a matteh is a shevet hardened
by the experience of galut. Deprived of tenderizing
moisture from its nurturing roots, the latent hardness of
the wood asserts itself, transforming the pliant branch into
a rigid staff.
Therein lies the connection between the parashah of
Mattot and the time of year in which it is read. During the
Three Weeks, we mourn our exile from our homeland and the
removal of G-d's open presence in our lives as it was revealed
in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We remember how the shevatim
of Israel - a people anchored to their roots, vitalized by
an undisrupted flow of spiritual nurture through their limbs
- were torn from their tree to become a nation of homeless
But even as the Torah commands us to mourn the events of
the Three Weeks, it insists that our mourning be a constructive
endeavor, an opportunity to focus on how our state of exile
might be exploited to a positive end. Even as we agonize over
the rootlessness of galut, we must take advantage of
the manner in which our disconnection from our natural environment
strengthens us and galvanizes us. Even as we weep over the
destruction of G-d's home and the absence of His revealed
presence in our lives, we must tap the tremendous reserves
of faith and fortitude evoked by the challenges of an alien
society and environment - reserves which would not been actualized
were we to have remained a nation of shevatim undisturbed
from their stem.
But there is more to galut than the toughening of
the Jewish soul. Galut is also a journey. A journey is not
just a departure from home - it is an advance toward a destination.
Therein lies the difference between a wanderer and a journeyer.
The wanderer is escaping or being driven away from some place,
while the journeyer is going to someplace. The wanderer is
defined by where he is not, by the state and experience of
homelessness and what this does to his inner self; the journeyer
is defined by the place or places to which he goes and what
he achieves there. When the wanderer and the journeyer return
home, the wanderer brings back his "hardened" and
matured self, while the journeyer brings the treasures procured
at the various points of his itinerary.
What are we seeking in our places of exile? What do we bring
home with us when we return from our journey to the ends of
earth? The Talmud defines the purpose of galut as the
acquisition of "converts." "The people of Israel
were exiled amongst the nations," it declares, "only
so that converts might be added to them."
These "converts" assume many forms. There are the
literal converts - non-Jews who were included in the community
of Israel as the result of our contact with the peoples of
the world. More significantly (since the Torah neither instructs
nor encourages us to seek converts to Judaism), there is the
more subtle conversion of a pagan world to the monotheistic
ethos and ideals of Torah, achieved by our 2000-year sojourn
amongst the nations of the world. The Kabbalists explain that the "converts" gained
in the course of our galut are not only of the human sort,
but also include the souls of all creatures and creations
with which we have come in contact in the course of our dispersion
to all corners of the globe. For every created entity has
at its core a "spark of holiness," a pinpoint of
divinity that constitutes its "soul" - its function
within G-d's overall purpose for creation. Every time we utilize
something - a physical object or force, an idea, a cultural
phenomenon - to serve the Creator, we penetrate its shell
of mundanity and realize its divine essence. This, the Talmud
is saying, is the purpose of our galut: to redeem the
sparks of holiness which lie buried in the most far-flung
places and circumstances.
This concept of galut is expressed by the second parashah
of our pair, the section of Massei ("journeys"),
which chronicles the travels and encampments of the people
of Israel in the Sinai desert. The parashah's name
derives from its opening verses: "These are the journeys
of the children of Israel, who went out from the land of Egypt....
And they journeyed from Raamses ... and they camped at Sukkot.
They journeyed from Sukkot, and camped at Eitam...."
Massei goes on to list the 42 journeys which comprised Israel's
travels from Egypt to Mount Sinai to the Holy Land.
The commentaries explain that these "journeys"
are the forerunners and prototypes for the historical saga
of Israel, as we advance through "the desert of the nations" (as the prophet Ezekiel refers
to the galut) to our ultimate "entry into the
Land" in the age of Moshiach.
It is significant that the Torah refers to our ancestors'
travels as "journeys" in the plural - a plurality
that is preserved in the name of the parashah. If the
purpose of galut were to lie solely in its rootlessness
and what this brings out in the Jewish soul, then it should
be defined as a "wandering" rather than a "journey";
and if its purpose were to lie exclusively in its ultimate
"entry into the Holy Land" at galut's end,
then our sojourn in the "desert of the nations"
should be regarded as a single journey, not a series of journeys.
The fact that the Torah considers galut to be Massei, "journeys,"
means that the purpose of galut is to be found also,
and primarily, in the places to which it brings us, so that
each of its travels is a journey and each of its "encampments"
is a destination.
Both Mattot and Massei are parashiyot read during the Three
Weeks - both are lessons on galut. On the face of it,
however, they seem to be different, even conflicting, insights
into the nature and purpose of our exile. Mattot instructs
us on how the purpose of galut is to evoke in us the
steadfastness and immobility of the branch-turned-rod. Massei,
on the other hand, regards galut as a journey - as
movement, change and transformation.
Indeed, we know that virtually everything in our existence
is multifaceted, and that "life" is the endeavor
to navigate, rather than to eliminate, its paradoxes. If "sticking
to your principles" and "changing the world"
seem conflicting goals, so be it; we nevertheless pursue them
both, exercising our judgment and sensitivity as to which
of these objectives should be emphasized in a given circumstance.
So one week we dwell on the Mattot aspect of galut,
regarding the challenges of its alien environment as something
to resist and repel - thereby strengthening our resistance
and hardening our inner resolve; and the next week we focus
on the Massei approach to exile, exploring the ways in which
our interaction with our galut environment serves to
elevate it and transform it into a holier and more G-dly place.
But what happens when Mattot and Massei unite into a single
Torah-reading? Then the "directive of the week"
is to integrate them both into a single approach to galut.
"Living with the times" in such a week means discovering
how your interaction with a hostile environment is not a challenge
to your values and convictions, but their strengthening and
their affirmation. It means discovering how your "toughness"
and intractability in your faith is not a hindrance to achievement
and creativity, but actually an aid in your endeavor to transform
the corner of the world to which you have been dispatched
on the mission to build a home for G-d.
Based on the Rebbe's talks on Shabbat Matot-Massei in
the years 5729 (1969), 5733 (1973), 5735 (1975) and 5746 (1986),
and on other occasions
Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz once overheard two people engaged
in a bitter argument, which soon disintegrated into an exchange
of shouted insults.
"May I suggest," said the Chassidic rebbe to the
combatants, "that the two of you exchange roles. Instead
of broadcasting the other's defects and shortcomings, each
of you should announce his own.
"The net result would be the same - now, too, both
of you are being revile - but with two significant gains.
First of all, the insults will be more accurate, since a person
has far better knowledge of his own faults than of those of
his fellow. Secondly, it is a grave sin to insult a fellow
man, and a significantly less serious offense to embarrass
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
 The weekly parashah is read in full on Shabbat morning,
and in part on Mondays, Thursdays and (the previous) Shabbat
afternoon. An old Chassidic custom, publicized and propagated
by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak
Shneerson (1880-1950), is to study a part of the weekly
parashah, together with Rashi's commentary, each
day, so that one completes the entire parashah in the course
of the week.
 The Jewish calendar year varies in length from as few as 353
to as many as 385 days (see Jewish Time, WIR, vol.
X, no. 25). Furthermore, when Shabbat coincides with a festival,
the festival reading, rather than the weekly parashah,
is read. So depending on the length of the year and the
arrangement of its festival days vis-a-vis the days of the
week, a year may contain anywhere from 46 to 54 readings
in its annual Torah-reading cycle.
 Each parshah is divided into seven readings
(aliyot), for the seven individuals who are called
up to read from the Torah. On those weeks when a joint parshah
is read, the fourth aliyah begins in the first parshah
and ends in the second; emphasizing the fact that the two
parshiot now constitute a single parshah.
 See Shaloh, introduction to Parashat Vayeishev.
 Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
 See A Home for Twelve, WIR, vol. X, no. 26.
 The name of a thing being the sum of its essence
- see The Gap (WIR, vol. X, no. 39) and sources cited
 Talmud, Pesachim 87b.
 "Moses bequeathed the Torah and the mitzvot
only to the people of Israel ... and to whoever desires
to convert from the other nations ... but one who does not
desire to do so is not compelled to accept the Torah and
mitzvot. In addition, Moses commanded, in the name of G-d,
to compel all inhabitants of the world to accept the mitzvot
commanded to the children of Noah" (Mishneh Torah,
Laws of Kings 8:10). The universal Noachide mitzvot are:
belief in G-d; prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery
and incest, blasphemy, and cruelty to animals; and the establishment
of a legal and social justice system.
 Rabbeinu Bechayei and Ohr HaChaim on Numbers 33:1.
 Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, pp. 378ff; ibid.,
vol. XXVIII, pp. 279ff.; et al.