By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
There is a new word, used mostly by young Leftists and often chanted at their anti-Trump rallies. “Stay woke!” they shout. They mean: “Stay focused on the goal of ousting Donald Trump and don’t be sidetracked by things the president says or does to cause you to shift focus. Wake up and ‘stay woke’ in the fight for social justice,” the revolutionaries proclaim.
Though at first the mantra may sound silly, it grows on you and slowly takes hold.
As we go through the Three Weeks and are about to begin the Nine Days, “stay woke” is an appropriate message for us golus creatures. It is not sufficient to merely go through the motions of refraining from music and haircuts. We must develop a focus during this period and keep to it.
Why are we in golus in the first place? Why are we in exile from our homeland? Why have we been sent from place to place? Why do the nations of the world despise us? Why is there a double standard? Why is there so much sadness and loneliness?
These days are meant to help us understand why, and right the wrongs that caused us to end up here. If we remain focused on the goal of achieving redemption, wholeness and happiness, then we can achieve it. If we aren’t “woke” and we become sidetracked by silliness and speed bumps along the way, we will be unable to escape the misery of homelessness.
We have to remain focused on going home. Before engaging in an action, we should ponder whether it will get us closer to home or push us further away. If the action will help bring about the geulah, then we should expend the effort. If it won’t, then why bother? Why do something that will have no positive outcome?
When people get us upset or do silly things, the urge is to smack them down and tell them off. But will that achieve anything? Will it bring us closer to Hashem? If it will cause peirud instead of achdus, we should drop it. If acting in kind will create animosity, we should realize that ignoring the perceived slight or infraction would be a better course of action.
If there is a machlokes, why become involved and cause further friction? Save your energy for causes that bring people together and cause Hashem to view us in a positive light. Negative energy and petty grievances weigh a person down. Focusing on acts that contribute to bringing about geulah frees a person to rise.
This week’s parshiyos of Mattos and Masei are always read during the period in which we especially mourn the churban. They speak of the travels of the Bnei Yisroel in the desert. The nation crossed the Yam Suf and began traveling to the Promised Land. Then they stopped and set up camp. They decamped and traveled to another location. They stayed there for a while and were then uprooted and on the move again.
So has it been since churban Bayis Sheini, when we were sent into exile. Millions were massacred. A people was beaten, sold into slavery, and set afloat, refugees in search of a place to regroup. The scene was repeated every few decades. We were exiled from one country, found residence in another, flourished, and were then sent packing again.
Despite what transpired, wherever they were, and how bad their condition was, the faithful never lost sight of their goal. Auto-da-fes, pogroms, the Inquisition, holocausts, public executions, murder and pillage were experienced by the Jewish people. Their suffering was enough to exterminate them many times over, but the Jews hobbled on to a better place, resuscitated themselves and thrived. This was possible because they were “woke,” focused on their goal of meriting the geulah.
It was a Sisyphusthian existence, but they never floundered and never gave up.
Speaking of moving from place to place, these weeks, wherever you happen to find yourself in the Jewish world, you see vehicles loaded with families heading off to the country. You peer inside and see duffel bags labeled for camp and the children who will accompany them. You see parents looking forward to clean air and a slower pace of life.
But while the intensity of life hopefully dials down, allowing people to relax and release some of their stress, our mandate remains the same. We can’t lose focus. Summer heat, mountain air, dusty bungalows, hot grills, tantalizing barbecues, and poolside shmoozing should not distract us from our goal.
In bungalow colonies, toddlers play as their mothers sit close by, chatting and taking in the serene surroundings. The men take it easy as well, learning, davening, playing ball, and enjoying the leisurely pace of country life. Children run off to day camp, leaving in the morning and sometimes not returning until dusk, tired, messy, and out of breath, but sporting smiles that convey the joys of summer for a youngster.
It’s a special time for all, and even those of us not privileged to relocate or alter our schedules should allow the slower pace of the season to positively impact us.
One of the most productive and exhilarating seasons in the pre-war olam hayeshivos were these summer months, when bnei yeshiva – separated from each other most of the year by very long distances, at a time when there were no telephones, cars or buses – gathered in dacha locations.
The black and white pictures of the era show leafy trees and sun-dotted paths, smiling bochurim gathered around leading roshei yeshiva, their plainly evident simchas haTorah adding to the pictures a color all their own. The photographs capture their sheer joy at being together, united in a setting conducive to pilpul chaveirim and chilutz atzamos.
So many of the stories retold in the olam haTorah took place in the dachas in places such as Kremenchuk, a town none of us can find on a map but anyone who has been through the yeshiva system has heard of repeatedly.
There was another small hamlet called Druskenik, where many would go for dacha during the summer. Even though the local householders waited all year for the summer months, when they could generate some much-needed income by renting out space, the rov of the town would make it his mission to ensure that poor bochurim who had no money for room and board were also welcomed. He arranged for a few homes to be set aside for this purpose, with free space for bnei yeshiva.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, virtual king of Lithuanian Jewry and champion of the bnei Torah, would go there. He carried the burdens of a nation and its individuals, and had no respite from the endless lines and requests that came to his door. He was always available for everyone who needed him, writing classic teshuvos in response to the most intricate halachic questions from around the world, helping the poor and forlorn, and providing guidance to rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and yeshiva bochurim.
His much anticipated short summer break allowed him to sit in the forest with talmidei chachomim and yeshiva students discussing the havayos Abaye v’Rava in the pleasant air, with fewer of the pressing issues occupying his time. Many pictures exist of rabbonim and roshei yeshiva with the great giant, seated comfortably in a forest clearing.
In our day, as well, roshei yeshiva and rabbonim escape the city rigors and benefit from the break. Their talmidim fan out across the small towns and campsites that dot the Catskills and other country locales.
Summer is a gift. Vacation and a relaxed pace are gifts. As with any gift, without proper awareness of how to utilize it, the gift is worthless. We must be ever vigilant for ourselves and our children, especially during this care-free period.
In this week’s parsha, in the middle of relating the names of the various places where Klal Yisroel camped, reassembling the Mishkon and then dismantling it again, the posuk tells us, “Az yoshir Bnei Yisroel es hashirah hazos.” They sang a song.
They understood that each leg of the journey was part of a larger plan. They knew that each stop along the way was part of a process of preparing them for their arrival in Eretz Hakodesh. Midroshim and meforshim interpret the names of various places as referring to different experiences and lessons throughout the travels and travails of the Jewish people.
During the season of travels and summer homes, we must remain focused on the goals these three weeks remind us of. We must be safe spiritually and physically. Having a good time should not be at the expense of others. We should be cognizant not to cause a chillul Hashem, but to be mekadeish Hashem wherever we go.
As we venture out of our daled amos, we must ascertain that we remain within the daled amos shel halacha.
The Rambam famously writes in Hilchos Taanis that the purpose of fast days is to focus on teshuvah, examining our actions and improving our ways. Perhaps we can say as well that the purpose of the Three Weeks and the Nine Days is not only to conduct ourselves as mourners, as we lament the many tragedies that took place during this time period, but to also ponder our actions and examine what we can do to repent for the sins that caused the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh and have stalled its return. We seek ways to increase achdus, brotherhood and togetherness among our people. We improve the way we deal with others, the way we treat them and speak to them, so that we may merit the return of the Bais Hamikdosh speedily in our days.
The pesukim in Tehillim (137) speak of the period following the churban: “We sat at the waters of Bavel and cried as we remembered Tzion. Al naharos Bovel shom yoshavnu gam bochinu bezochreinu es Tzion. How can we sing the holy tunes in a strange land. Eich noshir es shir Hashem al admas neichor.
“Just as it is impossible to forget my right hand, I can never forget Yerushalayim. My tongue should stick to my palate if I don’t remember Yerushalayim, if I don’t place Yerushalayim at my celebrations. Im eshkocheich Yerushalayim tishkach yemini. Tidbak leshoni lechiki im lo ezkereichi im lo a’aleh es Yerushalayim al rosh simchosi.”
We know those words. We sing them and we live them. We never forget Yerushalayim. We never forget where we came from and where we are headed. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we must stay focused on ensuring that our actions are bringing us closer to Yerushalayim.
At a wedding, we place ash on a chosson’s head and smash a glass to remind us of the loss of Yerushalayim. At the same time, we are rebuilding another of the many churvos of the holy city and bringing the geulah that much closer.
When we were evicted from one land, picking up our belongings and heading to the next, as painful as it was, we never gave up, for we were focused and knew that as sad as it was, we were one stop closer to our final trip to Yerushalayim.
When we were so tragically thrown out of Europe in the past century, some refugees went to Israel and many others to America, the last stop on the way to the geulah.
We really are on our way to Eretz Yisroel, making many stops along the way, as our forefathers did in the desert. They experienced much pain, many losses, copious tears, colossal sins, and extraordinary teshuvah. Ultimately, they made it to Eretz Yisroel. May we, as well, merit going there speedily, in our days.