They tell a story of a soldier who was drafted into the army against his will, with his whole life and career ahead of him. Angry and frustrated, he did everything he could to avoid the draft, but his conscription was inevitable. After hugs and tears, the day arrived. He packed he bags, and reported for duty.
Training was brutal. Officers would wake him before dawn, to run and fight, and clean and lift and polish and wait. He hated every minute. Generals would lecture him on the importance of national security, of teamwork and camaraderie.
“Give me a break” he would mutter under his breath. “Our country has not seen a battle in generations. Why should I give up these years, in the prime of my life to defend a place that doesn’t need defending?!”
But the army has it way of getting results. Slowly, over many long days and weeks and months, this pampered young man became a solider. He learned discipline, agility and marksmanship. He learned how to fight, how to spy and how to disappear into the night.
But despite his training, he could never shake the feeling that time was being stolen from him.
And so it was, in the blackness of night, camping out on a training mission, this soldier packed his meager belongings, and fled from the army camp.
In a few days time, many of our children will file into their new classroom. They'll meet their new teachers, Rabbeim and Morot. Syllabi will be distributed, schedules will be negotiated. Learning will recommence, and along with it, all of our academic anxieties will return in full force.
But for those of us engaged in Chinuch, there is a concern far deeper than grades, skills or classroom participation. We want our talmidim to emerge from this year with greater connection to Hashem and His Torah, to Mitzvos and Yiddishkeit, Eretz Yisrael and The Jewish People.
This goal is daunting and cannot be taking for granted. But it cannot be dismissed as too overwhelming to tackle. I often think about my own classmates – the guys that finished high school along side me. I invite you to do the same. Ask yourself: which of my friends are still committed, connected and passionate about their Yiddiskeit? Are there any upsets? Any surprises?
Undoubtably, things didn't work out for some of the kids in your grade. Just like they didn't all work out so well for the kids in my grade. I have friends that haven't put on Tefillin in years. Friends that are unquestionably “off the Derech”.
This is not a point we should be willing to concede. There is much work to be done. But when things don't go well, naturally, parents will blame schools and schools will blame parents. Eventually, a few years later, everyone will blame the children themselves. But those children most often tell a different and far more specific story.
For every kid that “goes off the Derech” there were pivotal moments that drove them to that point: A dismissive comment from a Rebbe, emotional neglect from a parent, or a teacher that didn't value them. (This is without mentioning the truly devastating effects of abuse, trauma and substance abuse.)
They tell of story of the Chiddushei HaRim who was approached by an irreligious Jew. The man challenged the Rebbe:“Rebbe, I don't believe that Torah the is true. The Torah tells us in the second paragraph of Shma (in our Parsha) that:
If you listen carefully to my Mitzvos... I will give you rain and wealth... You will eat and be satisfied.
But Rebbe I don't keep any of the mitzvos! I don't keep shabbos, I don't keep kosher, no Yom tov, no Tefillah, no Tzedaka, no Massim Tovim. And look at me – I have a beautiful and successful life!”
The Chidushei HaRim looked at him with astonishment. “How do you know that this is what the Torah says in the second paragraph of the Shema?”
“Come on, Rebbe. I'm not a fool. When I was younger, they taught me the Shema in cheder. I said it for many years before learning the truth.”
“Wow,” said the Chidushei HaRim “Consider for a moment that it is the value of your Kriyas Shema that is the reason for all of your brachos. Imagine if you would choose to do more today...”
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: