Tell your problems how great G-d is!

Friday, 14 April, 2023 - 5:38 pm

Moshe meets Arnold at their social club and asks how Abe's funeral went the other day.

"It went OK, Moshe," replied Arnold, "but at the end of the Rabbi's eulogy, we all burst out into laughter. It was embarrassing.”

"Why was that?" asks Moshe.

"Well," says Arnold, "throughout his marriage to Miriam, she was always telling us, his friends, what a mean guy he was. He was obnoxious and selfish. Plus, he never had a steady job and the money he brought home to her wasn't enough for food and clothing, let alone holidays. Yet he drank heavily and often stayed out all night gambling. Altogether, he was a bum.

But at the funeral, the Rabbi spoke of how wonderful the deceased was, so considerate, so beloved. He was so thoughtful toward others, so disciplined, so kind, and generous. And the way he respected his wife was something unique. Then, when the Rabbi had finished, I heard Miriam the widow say to one of her children:

"Do me a favor, David, go see whether it's your father in the coffin...."

The laws of ritual impurity and purity, at the conclusion of the Torah portion of Shmini, were a major part of Jewish life during yesteryears. We view these laws as archaic, but we must appreciate that for our ancestors, living in Temple days, 1900 years ago, this was part of the fabric of daily living, like today losing your iPhone or filling up your car with gas. We can’t appreciate Jewish history and scholarship if we do not understand the laws of purity and impurity in the Torah and the Talmud.

One such law we will explore today, both on a practical and psychological level. It will also demonstrate to us how each law in Torah, even one that seems impractical in today’s age, contains timeless lessons for our own journeys today.

The Torah states that most utensils become spiritually impure by contact with an impure source, even if they are under the same roof as a human corpse, they need spiritual cleansing in a mikvah—a pool of natural rain or spring water.

How about an earthen utensil, known in the Torah language as a vessel made of clay? It becomes impure only if the source of impurity enters its inside.

Why this distinction between an earthenware vessel and all other vessels?

The answer is fascinating.  For a vessel to become impure it needs to be functional, valuable, and usable to a human being. Whatever has no value to a human being, is immune to impurity.

Every law in Judaism must be understood not only on a physical, concrete level but also from a psychological and spiritual perspective.

The human being is, essentially, an earthen vessel. As Genesis states: “And G-d formed Man of the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils a spirit of life.  What we explained regarding an earthen vessel, is also true of the human body—a clay vessel.

There are two visions for human life, reflected in two types of earthen vessels. One is an earthen vessel that has an inside cavity, in which it holds onto things, like a cup or a jar. The other one is a clay vessel without an inside; things can be placed on top of it but not inside of it, like a scissor or a table.

Spiritually, these two vessels represent two visions of human lives. One is Life is about me. It is about what I can get out of it. The purpose of my life is to acquire more and more items, to fill my empty insides.

But there is another vision for life: I am a channel for G-d. In the words of the Mishnah: “I was created to serve My Creator.” Life is not about filling my voids; it is about fulfilling my mission for which G-d sent me to this world. I ask not what G-d can do for me, but what I can do for G-d. I ask not what life can do for me, but what I can do for life. I ask not what others can do for me, but what I can do for others.

At first glance, you might consider the first version of life far more satisfying. But in truth, it is the converse. In the first version of life, you are vulnerable to far more distress, despair, and impurity. When all is about me acquiring more and more, I am vulnerable to all forms of frustration, sadness, and corruption.

However, in the second vision for life, your life can’t be contaminated, soiled, stained, and muddied. Because in every situation you realize that you are an ambassador of G-d, a channel for His light, a conduit for His energy, and a mirror for His truth.

How do you know when your body is healthy? When you don't feel it. When you begin to feel any part of your body — even if you don't feel pain but only a sense of heaviness — it is a sign that something in the body is dysfunctional. The healthier the body is, the less you sense it. After a good workout, your body feels “light,” not heavy; you almost do not feel it, because it is full of “light.” On the contrary, when you just finished eating a pie of pizza, or a rib steak, you “feel” your body. It becomes a heavy burden because it is not fully in sync with its own energy. The same is true with your soul. The less you feel your “self,” the more you experience yourself as a channel for G-d, and the happier you are.

Instead of searching your whole life for what you need, search for what you are needed for. Find a mission and a purpose that transcends you and devote yourself to it. Live your life based on meaning, rather than define meaning based on your life. Instead of telling G-d how great your problems are, tell your problems how great G-d is.

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness. You can’t own your happiness; happiness must own you. You can’t define your happiness; it must define you. This is a great paradox: If you are pursuing happiness as an end, happiness is unattainable. Artificial gratification—yes; a good feeling about your achievements – yes. But authentic inner, genuine happiness at the core of your existence—no. There will still be a void yearning to be filled. When you forget about your own pursuits, what you yearn for, what you want, and rather you devote yourself fully to a greater cause, a real cause, you can reach genuine un-self-conscious bliss, as it is then that your life becomes a reflection of your innermost essence, your Divine core.

But this is the story of human nature. We are earthenware vessels. We are Adam, from the word “admah,” which means earth. But Adam also means “adameh,” we are like the Divine, we reflect heaven. Now, we must choose which Adam we will become. We can be brute and selfish, or we can reflect the Divine.

Rabbi Yosef Wallis living today in Israel related the following story he heard from his father:

While his father, Judah, was in the Dachau concentration camp, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at Judah Wallis. He caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he discovered a pair of tefillin. Judah was very frightened because he knew that were he to be caught carrying tefillin, he would be put to death instantly. So, he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.

In the morning, just before the roll call, while still in his barrack, he would put on the tefillin. One morning, unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered him to remove the tefillin, noted the number on Judah’s arm, and ordered him to go straight to the roll call.

At the roll call, in front of thousands of silent Jews, the officer called out Judah’s number and he had no choice but to step forward. The German officer waved the tefillin in the air and screamed, “Dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these!”

Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was placed around his neck. Before he was hanged, the officer said in a mocking tone, “Dog, what is your last wish?” “To wear my tefillin one last time,” Judah replied.

The SS officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the tefillin. As Judah put them on, he recited the incredibly moving verse from the prophet Hosea that many Jews say while winding the tefillin around their arm and fingers: “Ve’eirastich li le’olam,… I will betroth you to Me forever and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, and with justice, and with kindness, and with mercy, and I will betroth you to Me with loyalty, and you shall know G-d.

In silence, the entire camp looked on at the Jew with a noose around his neck, and tefillin on his head and arm, awaiting his death for the ‘crime’ of observing this mitzvah. Even women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, compelled to watch this ominous sight.

As Judah turned to the silent crowd, he saw tears in many people’s eyes. Even at that moment, as he was about to be hanged, he was shocked: Jews were crying! How was it possible that they still had tears left to shed? And for a stranger? Where were those tears coming from? Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, “Yidden, don’t cry. With tefillin on, I am the victor! Don’t you understand? Victory is mine!”

The German officer understood Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah, “You dog, you think you are the victor? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get another kind of death.”

Judah was taken from the stool, and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and two large rocks were placed under his armpits. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head–the head on which he had dared to place tefillin. The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks from his armpits, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”

“No,” Judah responded, “I won’t give you the pleasure.”

At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses, and then burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag, so people wouldn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out. Two months, on April 29, 1945, the U.S. Seventh Army's 45th Infantry Division liberated Dachau. Judah was free.

During the hanging and beating episode of Judah in the tefillin, a 17-year-old girl had been watching from the women’s side of the fence. After the liberation, she made her way to the men’s camp and found Judah. She walked over to him and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?”

Judah said yes. The young couple walked over to the Klausenberger Rebbe, who lost his wife and 11 children in Auschwitz, and requested that he perform the marriage ceremony. The Rebbe wrote out a ketubah by hand from memory and married them. The young couple ultimately made Aliya and rebuilt their lives in the Holy Land.

“I, Rabbi Yosef Wallis, their son, keep and cherish that ketubah to this day,” Rabbi Wallis concluded his story. “After all, I was born from this marriage.”

But the story is not over: Sometime after this story was first published in Israel in the weekly Sichat Hashvuah, a 95-year-old man, Mr. Lasky, a subscriber to the publication, could not believe his eyes when he read the story of Judah Wallis.

Mr. Lasky called the Sichat Hashvuah office and asked for the phone number of Judah Wallis's son, Rabbi Yosef Wallis. When asked why he wanted the number, Lasky stated, "I was in Dachau, together with this Mr. Wallis. I saw the beating. However, I never knew that Judah survived the beating. I always wanted to thank Judah for letting me put on his tefillin in Dachau. Now, at least, I can thank his son."

After receiving the phone call, Rabbi Yosef Wallis came down to visit Mr. Lasky. Lasky then thanked him for the tefillin his father had lent him. "However," he said with jest, "I always had one complaint against your father; that is, he always rushed me to finish and take off the tefillin. And for good reason. He had to hide the tefillin from the sight of the Nazis. Other people at camp would also wear his tefillin."

Rabbi Wallis concluded the story: "Until now, I never found anyone to validate my father's story. Now I have an eyewitness. The circle of history has now come full circle."

This is the story of the Jewish “earthen vessel” who remains beyond any form of impurity. It is the story of Adam who during the abyss remained connected to the highest of heavens. It tells us what a human being is capable of; what a Jew represents in his truest core and essence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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