Drosho for Parshas Bahaloscha 5763

Jan 1, 2004
Parshas Bahaloscha 5763

How are you all this morning? ברוך השם. That is the typical Jewish response. We punctuate the past with ברוך השם, and the future with אם ירצה השם, and the present with בעזרת השם.

Likewise many of us write on the top right hand corner of every document - בעזרת השם, or בסיעתא דשמיא, which means the same thing.

I am told that one of the Israeli ministers, from the Shinui party, when given a document that was issued under his Shas predecessor, is careful to first cross out the words בעזרת השם at the top of the document. But that only shows how enstranged he and his party are from our heritage.

Where did all this come from? Whence this compulsion to infuse הקב"ה into every utterance? When did it begin?

We can trace it back at least as far as the sixteenth century. Already the של"ה, almost 500 years ago, observed that the practice of Jews is to constantly say ברוך השם, and אם ירצה השם. And the של"ה seeks a source for this practice, and he finds it in this weeks פרשה.

The Torah says in today's פרשה that as the Jews travelled from encampment to encampment, from מחנה to מחנה, on their journey to the promised land, every station on their journey was ordained by the רבש"ע. When the ענן moved, they pulled up camp and followed it; when it came to rest, they stopped and pitched their tents. על פי השם יחנו ועל פי השם יסעו; they encamped by the word of השם, and they travelled by the word of השם.

We, too, says the של"ה, go through our march through with this sense that על פי השם יחנו ועל פי השם יסעו. Every step that we take is informed by the conviction that it is על פי השם. And therefore at every step we acknowledge His presence and guidance. If we are well, it is because of His grace - ברוך השם If we undertake something, we count on His support - בעזרת השם. If we plan for the future, our plans are contingent on His sanction - אם ירצה השם.

There is a fascinating Gemara which I think it worthwhile to share with you in this context. The הלכה is that a Jew is forbidden on Shabbos to walk 2,000 אמות - about 3,000 feet - beyond the place where he resided at the beginning of Shabbos. If he lives in a city, then this 2,000 אמות is measured from the outskirts of the city. If, however, he begins Shabbos alone, outside any city or town, then he measures the 2,000 אמות from where he stands.

The Gemara in עירובין says, in this regard, as follows:

אמר רב הונא: יושבי צריפין אין מודדין להן אלא מפתח בתיהן. מתיב רב חסדא (מדבר ל"ג) ויחנו על הירדן מבית הישמת ואמר רבה בר בר חנה לדידי חזי לי ההוא אתרא, והוי תלתא פרסי על תלתא פרסי. ותניא: כשהן נפנין - אין נפנין לא לפניהם ולא לצדיהן אלא לאחריהן. אמר ליה רבא: דגלי מדבר קאמרת? כיון דכתיב בהו (במדבר ט') על פי ה' יחנו ועל פי ה' יסעו - כמאן דקביע להו דמי.

Beyond its halachic context, the Gemara is telling us something of great importance. The Jews in the מדבר travelled from place to place, living a seemingly nomadic existence. Each morning they woke up, not knowing where they would sleep that night, ready to move at a moment's notice across the trakless desert. They were, it would seem, the first DPs, displaced persons with nowhere to call home.

And that kind of existence, we know from the experience of refugees around the world, is profoundly unsettling. A displaced person is disoriented, he feels himself cast off and adrift without an anchor. He feels alienated, with nowhere to call home. And that, presumably, was the experience of the Jews in the מדבר.

Not so, the Gemara tells us. כיון דכתיב בהו על פי ה' יחנו ועל פי ה' יסעו, כמאן דקביע להו דמי. In a deep sense, the Jews were not adrift at all, they were not even in motion. To be in motion means to mean from one place to another on the map; but the Jews mapped their existence not against the backdrop of the shifting sands of the desert, but against the focal point of the ארון and the דגלים. And from that perspective, כמאן דקביע להו דמי - they were not in motion at all. Each Jew was always at the same דגל, at the same distance and the same direction from the ארון. The ארון was at the center of their existence, and so long as the ארון moved with them, they were always at rest, and always at home.

And this has been the secret of our existence throughout history. To an outside observer it would have seemed that we were the most rootless people in the world, moving from province to province, from land to land, from continent to continent, without a land that we could call our own, seldom even staying more than a few generations in one place. "Rootless cosmpolitans", Stalin called us.

But in a deeper sense, we were the most rooted people in the world, because we carried with us the secret of על פי השם יחנו ועל פי השם יסעו. The shifting landscape of Babylonia, and Rome, and North Africa, and Germany and France and Poland and Russia, was a passing blur. We mapped our existence not against it, but against the דבר השם that was the center of our lives.

Wherever we encamped we erected the משכן, the בתי כנסיות and בתי מדרשות that are the portable homeland of the Jew, and set up our דגלים around them. And before our mind's eye we saw the ענן and the אש before us, guiding us on our way.

Leaf through the pages of history, and you will see pictures of people Jews throughout the centuries, at home in many different lands, speaking many different langauges and wearing many different costumes, a kaleidoscope of humanity. Yet if we could speak to those Jews, if somehow we could reach across space and time and talk to them, we would have no difficulty at all - we could tell them a דבר תורה, a vort on the parsha, a question on the גמרא that we are learning - and they could converse with us as freely as our neighbor next to us in shul.

I'm reminded of a story my grandfather used to tell. My grandfather זצ"ל his wife, along with my mother, ran from Poland in 1939, through Russia and Persia and Iraq to Palestine and from there to South Africa. En route they passed through Teheran. You can imagine how displaced they felt, three ליטוישע אידן alone in the middle of Persia. My grandfather asked for the Jewish quarter, and there he found an Oriental looking building with Hebrew letters on the outside, which he understood to be the shul, although it didn't look anything like the shul's he was used to. And he walked inside, and there he saw a group of Persian Jews, seated around a table, and learning - the חפץ חיים's משנה ברורה. And suddenly he felt at home.

I cannot think of a more striking illustration of the Gemara's principle:

כיון דכתיב על פי ה' יחנו ועל פי ה' יסעו - כמאן דקביע דמי.

Often, in our history, we had to take flight; but we were never refugees. Seldom did we strike root; but we were never rootless. Rarely did we stay in one place; but we never moved.

We have not yet come to the end of the journey. America has been good to us, but we know that this is not the last encampment. Sometimes I wonder if we haven't already been shown the handwriting on the wall. But whatever comes, whatever will be, we too know that על פי השם יחנו ועל פי השם יסעו. And we affirm that knowledge by saying always - ברוך השם, Who has sustianed us through stations past; בעזרת השם, Who is with us in our present station; and כשירצה השם He will bring us soon to that final station, בביאת גוא"צ בב"א.


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