If G-d is the source of goodness and is omnipotent, why does He make life so difficult? Why does he obligate the soul to leave its world of peace and spiritual clarity in order to descend to a cruel and spiritually dark reality a.k.a. this physical world? Wouldn’t it have been easier to allow the soul to remain up there, absorbing Divine light in a spiritual world? Would it not be nicer for all of humanity to be living in the Garden of Eden? Would it not be better that the whole Jewish people would be living in Israel in peace? Why the exile? What’s the point of so much conflict and suffering?
One answer can be found in the first half of the name of this week’s Torah reading, Matot–Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13). Matot (pl. of Mateh) means “tribes” as well as “staves”. There is another Hebrew term for “tribe”: Sheivet, which also means “branch”.
What are the implications of both terminologies, Mateh and Sheivet? Sheivet refers to a branch that is still connected to its tree or has been recently cut and still retains its sap and flexibility. Mateh represents the same branch that has been separated from its tree and is already dry and hard.
Which of the two situations is preferable? If you were given the choice, which of the two would you choose to be?
There are those that prefer the personal security and protection represented by Sheivet and there are those that prefer the adventure and challenges provided by independence, represented by Mateh.
We are not always given the choice, however. Circumstances often lead us to situations that are out of our control and not in accordance with our preferences. What we can always decide and control, however, is our perspective and attitude regarding the experiences we are forced to live through. People don’t usually like to leave the comfort of “Home, Sweet Home”, but it is precisely such a separation that allows us to acquire our own identity and strength, which might be impossible to achieve being “connected to the tree” or near it. Appreciating this idea transforms the threat into an opportunity for growth.
Matot represents the benefit of “strength” that comes as a result of the painful separation.
The descents we experience in life have the potential to serve as springboards: the lower you fall, the higher you can rise later. The purpose of the descent of the soul into this physical world is the eventual ascent to a level far greater than that from which it originated its journey downward.
The same is true regarding the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the destruction of the two Temples of Jerusalem and the expulsion and dispersion of the Jewish People that followed: they are temporary descents, necessary to reach levels that are superior in every way and unachievable otherwise.
The priceless prison
12 and 13 of Tamuz is celebrated as the anniversary that commemorates the liberation in 1927 of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, of blessed memory, from imprisonment by the Bolsheviks. He had been imprisoned and sentenced to death because of his “counterrevolutionary” activities dedicated to strengthening Jewish life across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union.
As can well be imagined, the Rebbe suffered greatly while in prison. He subsequently published his experiences in jail, material that serves as a source of inspiration for anyone experiencing adversity. He once expressed himself, thus: Even were I to be offered all the wealth in the world, I would not agree to relive my experience in jail. By the same token, however, I would not give those experiences away for any price.
While one is experiencing suffering, separation and vulnerability it is difficult to imagine any benefit or positive purpose that can come of it. The confidence and conviction that one has in Divine Providence, and that therefore nothing happens by chance, and everything that happens is for the benefit of the one that it is happening to, helps one to not give up, respond to the challenge and come out strengthened by the experience. Matot.
The two objectives
According to Chassidic teachings, the reason our souls descended to this physical world is in order to accomplish two objectives: “refinement” and “challenges”, represented by Sheivet and Mateh. Following is a brief description of both.
Refinement. Every moment one must analyze the different options that present themselves, differentiate between them and choose. In Jewish mystical terminology this exercise is referred to as avodat habirurim, or the “work of selecting” (between holy and profane, pure and impure, good and evil). One must constantly choose between doing that which will only satisfy one’s selfish interests and that which will fulfill the greater purpose for which one was created. This is a constant, relatively easy task; Sheivet.
Challenges. Every so often we are presented with situations that test our potential and abilities. These challenges are called nisionot. The word Nisaión is etymologically connected to the word nes, standard or flag. The conceptual connection between the two is this: it is through tests and challenges, nisaión, that one is elevated to a higher level, like the standard, nes. This is a much more difficult task; Mateh.
When the soul is still in the spiritual realms from whence it comes, of course it is on a very high level. It is only once it has descended to this physical world and been put to the test that it achieves an even higher level. Its potentials have become manifest. Its separation from its source has made it stronger. Matot.
The same is true regarding the expulsion of the Jewish people from our homeland. The adversity and persecution we had to face in foreign countries throughout the generations served to strengthen us and bring out qualities that would not be expressed were we to be living all this time comfortably at home, “connected to the tree”.
The Rabbi and his Klutz
Many years ago there was a Rabbi in Cracow that wanted to have a Talit Katan made from wool that came from Israel. In those days it was easier said than done. After waiting for months, the desired material arrived.
The Rabbi asked one of his students to take the material and make a Talit Katán out of it. All he needed to do was to cut out a hole for his head and attach the Tzitzit to the four corners.
The student was very nervous and folded the cloth clumsily, so that instead of one hole, he cut out two. The material was totally ruined. What had he done? The student was beside himself with shame. What a klutz!
“Don’t worry, my son,” the Rabbi responded with a smile when his student told him what had happened. “Each one of the holes has its purpose. One is for me to slip my head through: the other is in order to test me to see if I will lose my temper or not. No, I will not lose my temper!”
Here we have an example of “refinement” and “challenge”. Using one’s money in order to buy special material in order to better fulfill one of the Biblical precepts is an example of avodat habirurim, using one’s resources to serve G-d in a more optimal way. The two holes were a Nisaión, a challenge that tested the patience and self-control of the Rabbi. By reacting the way that he did, he graduated from the level of a potential Tzadik to that of a tried-and-tested one.