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Thursday, 8 July, 2021 - 8:14 pm

An American Jew visits Russia and is asked about life in America. Thank G-d, he replies, life is good, and how is life in the Soviet Union?

Here, replies the Russian, it is also good, but here we don’t say thank G-d. Here we say, Thank Putin.

“What will you say when Putin dies?” the American inquires.

“Then we will say thank G-d,” replies the Russian.

This week’s Torah Portion Matot - Masaei speaks on the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt...

The Midrash compares G-d’s instruction to Moses to record all the forty-two stations in the nation’s journey from Egypt through the desert till the borders of the Promised Land to the story of a king traveling with his child to seek a cure for the child’s illness. On their return journey, as they passed through the stations at which they had originally stopped, the king reminded his child: Here we slept, here we were cooled, here your head hurt.

What is the symbolism behind these examples cited by the king to his son: “Here we slept, here we were cooled, here your head hurt”?

The Exodus marked our birth as a nation; our entry into the Land of Israel, the attainment of our national and spiritual maturity. In between, we had to undergo a 40-year journey through “the great and fearsome desert.

This journey had forty-two stations. Some, like the year-long stay at Mount Sinai, included moments of sublime revelation. Most, however, were accompanied by doubt, strife, betrayal, and the perpetual contest between man and G-d.

In this sense, the journey of the Israelites through the desert mirrors the story of every human life. When we are born, we leave the narrow pathway of our mother’s womb and we begin a journey through a desert. The human story is the story of a journey through a great and fearsome desert, however, in spite of all the strife and tribulation, we will achieve our objective of a “promised land.”

The Chatam Sofer explains the Almighty's answer to Moshe's request "Show me, please, your glory," to that G-d says, “you will see My back, but My face may not be seen.” What does this mean?

The Talmud explains that Moshe was thereby asking the profound question: "Why are there righteous people who suffer and wicked people who prosper?" The Almighty responded: “You will see My back, but My face may not be seen." In life, you will not be able to see me in front of you, only in the back of you. Life cannot be appreciated in foresight, only in hindsight. As you are living your life, and curveballs come your way, you will be clueless as to why this must be part of your journey. Only after you go through your pathways, will you sometimes be able to turn around and say, Ah! Now I see how that particular encampment was an important stepping stone in my narrative.

Warren Buffet once remarked: “In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” Ditto with life.

When I go to a trainer to reshape my body or to a psychologist to reshape my psyche, every success requires sweat, blood, and tears. Through in the midst of arduous labor, I may know the end result, yet what I am feeling is only the perspiration and the agony. But when I am done with the journey, when I turn around five years later, I can now look back in the rearview mirror of my life, and mentally revisit every place I was in, yet this time I can place it in a different context—as an indispensable part of my destination. That is when I can look at the very experience which has caused me headache and agony and see it as a stepping stone and portal to awareness and liberation.

Steve Jobs said: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

In life, we can’t always see the path, but we must know that there is a path. One day you and I will be able to turn around and say, ah! What a creative path!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks O.B.M. related this: “The world's greatest Talmudist is Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, O.B.M. who lived in Jerusalem. Some years ago, when we were already at the beginning of this process, I asked, "Adin, are you an optimist or a pessimist?" Only a rabbi could have given the answer he gave. You may need post-graduate qualifications to understand it. He said: "I am not an optimist in the Leibnitz sense that this is the best of all possible worlds, nor am I a pessimist in the Gnostic sense that this is the worst of all possible worlds. What do I believe? That this is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope."

Let me explain what he meant. It is this paradox that makes up our world, according to the Kabbalah. In the 18th century, there was a famous dispute between Leibnitz and Voltaire. Leibnitz said we lived in the best of all possible worlds, and Voltaire, who wrote Candide, made fun of Leibnitz and came to the conclusion that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. If we were to look at this question from a Jewish point of view, I would answer in the following way: "We are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope." There are, indeed, worlds below us in which there is no hope at all, and this is what we call "Hell." But to speak of the entire structure of our own world: it really is a world on the very brink. If it were to be slightly, just slightly, worse than it actually is, then its basic structure would become entirely hopeless; the balance would be irreversible, and evil would be irrevocable.

As it is now, evil can be conquered, but we are not living in a Leibnitzian paradise, but in a world in which we have to accept a vast amount of evil. This is what we call "Jewish optimism." If a person sees the world as all pink and glowing, he is not an optimist, he's just a plain fool. An optimist, on the other hand, is one who in spite of seeing the terrible facts as they are, believes that there can be an improvement. If everything were all right, then you wouldn't have to be an optimist. We, as Jews, are optimists because we are a people with hope and we have a theology of hope. We say G-d concealed His presence, but he left a ray of light that allows us to at least wonder, “Maybe there is something beyond me?”

The following was found written on a cellar wall in Cologne (Köln) after World War II:

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;

I believe in love even when I feel it not;

I believe in G-d even when He is silent.

All of the realities serve a single purpose: to advance us along the journey of life to our promised land and to imbue the journey with meaning and worth. Today we can only reiterate to ourselves our knowledge of this truth; on the return journey, we shall revisit these stations and see and experience their true import, how each of them added so much luster and depth to our lives.

Bon Voyage!


Shabbat Shalom and a Chodesh Tov,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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