I begged Hashem at that time... Please let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan.
On this pasuk, the Medrash Rabba (ב:א) famously comments:
שהתפלל משה באותו הפרק חמש מאות וחמשה עשר פעמים
Moshe prayed five-hundred and fifteen prayers at that time (The numerical value of ואתחנן.)
We are used to the idea that Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisrael. We are all aware of his desperate and repeated plea to be granted entry. But even a moment of consideration leaves us with the pain of Moshe's raw emotions. Surely Hashem loved him? Surely Moshe did Teshuva? Surely it was not beyond Hashem's capacity to forgive His most loyal and dedicated servant? This Parsha is theologically and emotionally challenging.
But the Medrash finds it challenging for a different and far more disturbing reason. On two occasions in Sefer Devarim, the Torah tells us that Moshe was hinting something much worse; something that his people did not understand:
“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Moshiach; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait each day for his coming.”
It is one of the thirteen principles of our faith. The bedrock of our belief system. We say, we sing it, we pay homage to it, and we teach it to our children. But if I'm being real with myself for a moment, I have a hard time actually believing that Moshiach might very well come at any moment.
He certainly isn't coming to the generation of My Unorthodox Life, and good Jewish boys playing Major League Baseball on Shabbos.
I suspect that you might feel the same. Most of us don't actually anticipate abandoning our homes and jobs and lives and marching off to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. We might anticipate it in theory, but practically, we're not actually expecting Moshiach to arrive at any moment.
One of the deepest desires of parents is to keep our children shielded from the tragedies of life. We don't want to expose our kids to the horrors of pain, illness and death. We don't want them to think about Surfside or Meron or the worst effects of COVID.
Aliza and I certainly didn't want to tell our children that their Zeida, Aliza's dad, passed away last week.
Most of that discomfort was our own. Our children were saddened by the news. But they knew that Zeida was sick. They knew that mommy had gone to visit him two weeks ago, and they knew that he didn't recognize or remember any of us. We had not denied our children the knowledge that, despite our tefillos, his terminal illness most often ends in death.
Our kids asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know about when or why Hashem chooses to take a Neshoma back to Shamayim. They wanted to know why people die at all.
It's a disturbing question: What, if anything, should we learn from Pinchas? How are we supposed to understand the sheer violence of this Parsha?
By all standards, Pinchas' zealotry stands as the total and complete antithesis of what we would call Jewish Values.
Of course, some might protest that my question arises from a misunderstanding of the Torah and Jewish Values. There are those who have suggested that the peace-loving pacifism that colors our perspective today is inauthentic – a veritable distortion of the Torah. Perhaps, they argue, the political orientation of Yiddishkeit is, at its core, more zealous, violent and aggressive than our modern sensitivities can stomach? Perhaps we only recoil from such acts as a result of many long years of exile?
A few days ago I was driving with my kids when the car next to me began shifting quickly into my lane, clearly failing to check their blind spot. So I honked at them to avoid the collision, only to meet up a few moments later at the red light ahead.
The gentleman in the car next to me was clearly upset that I had honked him, and proceeded to roll down his window and offer some choice commentary on the Yichus of my family.
Despite his expletives and the scene he was making, I told my kids to keep the windows closed and only look forwards – we have no need to look in his direction.
As the light turned green, he drove off in hurry, but my kids were curious and confused. “Why was that man yelling at us Abba? We didn't do anything wrong! And why didn't you tell him that it was his fault? Why did you just ignore him?!”
People often ask me what the turning point was. What was it that propelled me to lose almost 100 lbs, overturn my eating habits and run marathons?
Truthfully, I didn't know at the time. It wasn't was any particular event or occasion. Certainly nothing that I could point to and say “that's why”. But it was between Parshas Korach and Parshas Chukas three summers ago that I decided to reengage in trying to change.
I say “reengage” because, like most people, I tried a little on and off for years. Mostly to convince myself that it wasn't going to work, or that it wasn't worth the effort.
So what made this time different?
Strangely, it was the absence of any reason or purpose that really got me started. Allow me to explain:
There are few sentences in the English language that convey as complex a set of emotions as the words “I told you so.”
On the surface of those four simple words is absolutely vindication. They taste so sweet as they role off our tongues. But beneath them is the pain of someone else's failure, and the harsh truth that we were powerless to help before the failure occurred.
The South African Jewish community where was I privileged to grow up was overwhelmingly non-observant. Most people drove to shul on Shabbos. It was a large, Orthodox shul with barely a minyan of observant families. In the US, we would have been called Conservative or Reform, but everyone identified as Orthodox.
I have often joked that if a South African Jew would drive to shul on shabbos morning and see that there was no mechitza, they would get back into the car and drive to another shul. And they would have bristled noticeably if told that they were Conservative or Reform.
This orientation might seem ludicrous to a modern American mindset. The hypocrisy is obvious. If you're orthodox, don't drive! And if you drive, why care about a mechitza?
The State of Israel is not nice to the Palestinians. There is no way around this incredibly obvious reality.
If the State of Israel was nice to the Palestinians, there would be no bombs dropped on Gaza. No children dead children. No reason for Hamas to fire rockets at Israeli schools, shuls and towns.
If Israel was nice to the Palestinians there would be no unrest. No war. No violence. No looting in the street. No Sifrei Torah desecrated. If Israel was nice to the Palestinians there would be no BDS movement. And certainly no international condemnation.
Of course, if Israel was nice to the Palestinians, it is quite likely that there would also be no State of Israel. This too, is an incredibly obvious reality. At least to us, the Jewish people, who have had a front row seat to the centuries of destruction of our people, and the deafening silence of the world.
Fights about masks, vaccines, inside versus outside? It all seems so trivial when Hamas is firing rockets at our parents, children, brothers and sisters. When rioters are looting Shul in Israel. It feels silly. We feel silly.
And of course it's silly in comparison. When faced with the ancient question of Jewish survival or even existence, everything else is trivial.
In the eery calm before the storm, or perhaps it's the quiet in the center of the hurricane, Hashem gave us the the great blessing and curse of living with cognitive dissonance.