09 June 2017

Parshas Beha’alosecha – Learning From The Animals

By Roy S. Neuberger

We have just completed Shavuos, which is the culmination of Pesach, so really we are still working on themes from Pesach. The question is: where do we go from here? Is this it? Is this where the work of Pesach ends? Or does it all go onward? 

Four years ago, at this time of year, I wrote an article about the egg. 

Yes, the egg. 

This is worth remembering, because it is such a beautiful thought. I heard it from Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, Shlita”hRosh ha Yeshiva ofSh’or Yoshuv, who spoke about this in the name of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. The egg is an integral part of the Pesach Seder. The egg on the Seder plate reminds us of the Korban Chagiga, the Yom Tov offering brought on the altar in the Bais Hamikdosh. In addition, we eat an egg as part of the Seder meal. 

Why an egg? 

My friends, there is nothing else like an egg. Most animals, for example, are born once. But birds are born twice! First, the egg is laid by the mother. But where is the baby? Still inside the egg. The baby grows within the egg and then has to peck its way out. This is laborious work; some birds even develop an external “egg tooth” to peck the egg from the inside. When the egg cracks, the little bird emerges. This is the second part of the birth process. 

And so it is with us, the Children of Israel! We are also born twice, physically on Pesach and spiritually on Shavuos! 

In Mitzraim we were born physically. When we left, we were still at the level of mem-tes sha’are tumah, the forty-ninth level of impurity. We were not in a condition to receive the Torah; we were still under the yoke of the slave mentality. We then marched forty-nine days to Har Sinai, under the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. By the time we arrived at Har Sinai, we had shed enough of the impurity of Mitzraim to enable us to receive the Torah. Am Yisroel was able to “crack the shell” of our enslavement to the culture of Mitzraim. As long as we were inside that shell, we were unable to embrace the Torah, but on Shavuos we broke out! 

At Har Sinai we were born spiritually. This is the two-part process of our birth. 

But now what happens? Now that Shavuos has passed and we have accepted the Torah, are we finished with the process? Not at all! Our spiritual growth now enters a new and crucial phase. Let’s return to the “egg” metaphor. 

Imagine the scene: the little bird has emerged from its shell. It blinks in the sunlight. It is furry and cute. It is hardly a bird; it is a little chick which cannot fly. 

It has to learn to fly! 

Now it starts to eat and walk around and grow. Its stubby little wings are incapable of lifting it off the ground; it is afraid to venture out of the nest. It may fall! But the mother bird teaches it to trust its wings, and soon it ventures out of the nest. One day it decides to take off!

The little bird can fly! Off it goes, tentatively at first, but then stronger and stronger, and soon it is soaring upward on the wind; it seems that it can reach the heavens!

This is Am Yisroel, the Children of Israel. On Shavuos we emerge from our shell and are born spiritually. We are still walking, but we have wings of Torah. We still don’t know how to use them, but we have discovered they exist. As we grow spiritually, we find that we can soar above the world. If we are going to survive and live as G-d intended, then we are going to have to use those wings to soar upward toward the heavens and also to fly away from the troubles that beset those who live in this world and cannot fly above it. 

“Children of man, who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, shackled in affliction and iron. He removed them from darkness and the shadow of death and broke open their shackles….” (Kapparos Erev Yom Kippur; Psalm 107:10)

This is our work in this world, to allow Hashem, through His Torah, to remove us from darkness and the shadow of death. We are all children of Israel, who are by definition above the vagaries of life on this earth. At the very beginning of our existence, G-d gave us this holy work, to lead mankind out of slavery to material existence, to make us directly subservient to Hashem and through that relationship, give us eternal life. “[Hashem] took Avraham outside and said, ‘Gaze now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them…,” (Beraishis 15:5) on which Rashi comments, “[G-d] took [Avram] out of the space of the world and raised him above the stars.”

My friends, I am writing this article from Yerushalayim in the week before President Trump is scheduled to arrive. People are extremely nervous. They are afraid of Trump, afraid that Israel will be asked or even forced to accept unbearable burdens and conditions. 

How should we view this situation? 

G-d rules the world. In fact, our fate is not in the hands of others, not even the most powerful of rulers. “Rabos machashavos … Hashem reigns forever and ever, even when the nations will have perished from His earth. Hashem annuls the counsel of nations; He thwarts the designs of people. Many thoughts are in man’s heart but the counsel of Hashem, only it will prevail!” (Psalms 10:16 & 33:10; Mishlei 19:21)

If we allow the wings of Torah to carry us, we rise far above the world. We are not bound by the cycle that enslaves the rest of mankind; no man can rule over us. “All the nations surround me, [but] in the Name of Hashem I cut them down.” (Psalm 118) 

There is a strange phenomenon which takes place at the Kotel. Starting at dusk, dozens of bats fly in continuous circles in front of the Kotel. You can hear the “pinging” of their echolocation radar. Around and around, they fly at very high speed. I was trying to understand this. It seems so strange. What are they doing at the Kotel?

Bats have a bad reputation. People are afraid of them. They are associated with night and death, and figure in many pagan myths. According to Wikipedia, “bats have long been associated with witchcraft, black magic and darkness.” Vampire bats literally feed on blood. Bats are mammals, and thus closer to humans than to birds. Why did Hashem make such an animal? And why do we find these disconcerting creatures at the holiest spot on earth? 

I have a theory that these bats represent the nations of the world. “Forces of impurity try to cling to [the Jewish People] … The Ohr HaChaim provides an analogy: [There are] two barrels, one containing honey and one filled with decaying matter. Both are spilled onto the ground. The honey attracts hordes of flies, insects and vermin. The decaying matter does so to a much lesser extent than the honey.” (Talelei Oros, Parshas Chukas)

These bats fly around and around in front of the Kotel with incredible energy. The nations of the world desire Eretz Yisroel, especially Yerushalayim and even more especially, they want Har Habayis! They want what belongs to us, because they are lacking kedusha and we have kedusha! We have eternal life! We are close to Hashem!

I remember how we lived before we accepted the Torah. Time was our ruler then. There was no beginning and no end. There was no Shabbos, so time never came to an end. We were living in an endless and meaningless cycle, the way the bats fly in endless circles. Now, with Shabbos, time comes to an end every Friday night. Time stops and eternity begins. We are no longer running; we are no longer rushing; we are no longer slaves to time. We are at peace with Hashem and at peace with our family. On Shabbos, “Avraham would rejoice, Yitzchak would exult, Yaakov and his children would rest on it, a rest of love and magnanimity, a rest of truth and faith, a rest of peace and serenity and tranquility and security, a perfect rest in which You find favor.” (Shabbos Mincha Shemoneh Esreh)

If you don’t have Shabbos, time never stops. Your life is an endless circle, until the day comes when you drop with exhaustion. The nations of the world are trying to take Yerushalayim, the Kotel, our entire heritage away from us, trying to eliminate kedusha from the world. But we are like the little bird. We are not flying in circles, but upward toward Hashem.

While we are on the subject of animals, I want to tell you about another one. I am warning you: this is not for the faint-hearted, but it is true and it is also informative. Have you ever met a tarantula in your home? We played host, very recently, to two certified tarantulas at our home in Yerushalayim. Please don’t get alarmed. Read on! The story is interesting.

I took a picture of one of these creatures and sent it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I received a very informative response from a scientist named Lou Sorkin, who confirmed that these were tarantulas. But this creature is not quite so bad as you might think. Though rather large, this particular species is apparently not so harmful to humans, although one would still prefer not to get bitten! It is actually beneficial in that it also “takes care of” other unpleasant pests. 

I found out that this spider can teach us something very amazing. Mr. Sorkin informed me that the male tarantula spends its time looking for a mate. Do you know why he has to look for her? Because she is at “home” and she doesn’t go out, so he has to find her!

King David says, “The heavens declare the glory of G-d and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork.” (Psalm 19) What can we learn from the spider? 

Tznius, the laws of modesty! The lady spider does not go after the opposite sex in public. She stays home. The male comes looking for her. Similarly – lehavdil – our mother Sarah is praised for remaining in her tent. (Rashi on Beraishis 9) The laws of tznius are the foundation of our protection; they separate us from the other nations. We first learned this from Avraham and Sarah. 

Recently, I attended a leviah in Israel for the first time. In the United States, funerals are conducted in a hushed and carpeted funeral home where the attendants are dressed in dark suits and the niftar, inside a coffin, is driven to the cemetery in a shiny Cadillac hearse. 

In Yerushalayim, by contrast, there is a stone slab in the middle of a large room. Near the slab is a plain podium. There are no seats, except for a few benches around the wall. There is a curtain between the men and the women. The niftar is wrapped in white shrouds, men with tallis over the shrouds. No coffin! They put the body on the slab, the mourners who say hespedim climb the podium and their tears practically fall down on the body in front of them. This is even luxurious! A friend told me that, when he was young, the funerals in Yerushalayim were conducted on the street! 

It is good to understand these things, because life and death are very real here in Israel. Right now, as I write, our world is facing a life and death scenario. President Trump is arriving today in the Holy Land, and it is clear that Jerusalem is the center of the world. All the nations desire it. The bats are circling in front of the Kotel, and we, the little birds who have just emerged from our shell, need to strengthen our wings. 

We have to fly high in order to save ourselves. If we don’t fly above the earth on wings of Torah, then we will be crushed by the mighty forces that are arraying themselves against us. We will never be able to defeat the mighty armies that are marching toward Yerushalayim, the ships sailing toward our shores nor the missiles in their launching pads. We are no match for them, but Hashem is our protection. As King David says, when “all the nations surround me; in the Name of Hashem I cut them down.” (Psalm 118)

Dovid Hamelech was born and died on Shavuos. He was mighty, but all his strength was from his Melech, the Ruler of Heaven and Earth. King Dovid taught us to fly on wings of Torah. His songs sustain us. His descendant, Moshiach ben Dovid, will soon come to complete his work. 

“Shir lamalos … I raise my eyes to the mountains. Whence will come my help? My help is from Hashem, Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to falter. Your Guardian will not slumber. Behold, He neither slumbers nor sleeps, the Guardian of Israel. Hashem is your Guardian; Hashem is … at your right hand…. Hashem will protect you from every evil. He will guard your soul… from this time and forever.” (Psalm 121)

As we strengthen our wings, let us remember that our very survival is at stake. This is a life and death struggle. Kedusha, sanctity is about to assert itself in this sick world and bring the healing and purity which will replace tuma and impurity. The world is about to undergo a transition unlike anything that has ever happened before, like Yetzias Mitzraim, but on a vastly greater scale. 

This time there will be no more tragedies. 

This time the Holy Temple will stand forever

May we all merit to see that perfect world soon in our days!

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