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Matot-Massei: Lonely Man

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If you could choose to meet one person in history, who would it be?

There’s a part of me that is very curious to meet a man who was derogatively called ‘Acher’ (‘someone else’ [sic]) after he turned apostate upon leaving the famous ‘garden.’

The story goes like this: His original name was Elisha ben Avuya, one of the greatest sages of his time. Elisha together with three of his colleagues, Rabbi Akiva, Ben Azai and Ben Zuma once went into the ‘garden,’ i.e. they had a mystical experience. Ben Azai died in the process, Bem Zuma went insane, Alisha became an apostate. Only Rabbi Akiva came out intact.

After he became a heretic, his crime was considered so terrible that his colleagues no longer referred to him by name. Instead, they called him ‘Acher,’ the unmentionable ‘other.’ Alisha was considered the epitome of “one who knows his Master and intentionally mutineers against him.”

A related story that contributed to Acher’s rebellion is when he saw a father tell his child to perform the mitzvah of ‘shiluach hakan’ (sending away a mother bird before taking her eggs). The child in effect preformed two mitzvot (shiluach hakan and honoring your parents) both of which carry G-d’s promise for a reward of long life. Instead, what happened? The child climbed a ladder to fulfill his father’s wish, and he fell to his death. When Elisha saw this he ripped his clothes and cried out: “There is no Judge and there is no justice…”

Acher’s story is both fascinating and mysterious. I am strongly tempted to meet and ask him what he saw there in the ‘garden’ that so disturbed him. It would be amazing to hear his experience. To hear what he felt like when they changed his name. And when his great student Rabbi Meir would study with him and would justify it to his colleagues by saying: I eat the fruit and discard the peel, I suck out the juice of the fruit and discard the pits. What did Acher think about that? Did he agree? And what did he feel when he was finally allowed into ‘hell’ (yes, even hell didn’t want him) and then into heaven? And what does he think today – thousands of years later – about the issues of justice and corruption?

Indeed, who among us has not been plagued by the question of justice in this world? When we see tragedy strike good people – and recently there has been a spate of these around my corner of the world – when we see good people suffer – we all wonder where is the Judge and where is the justice?

We all wonder where is the Judge and where is the justice?

So, Acher would be an intriguing person to get to know.

But that’s in my more rascalish mode. In a more sober moment, I think that today I would like to meet Moses. A far more complicated individual. One who spoke to G-d ‘face to face as one speaks with a friend,’ and he not only maintained his faith, but he is the ultimate symbol of faith and dedication, the quintessential man of G-d.

Moses was no less a sage than Acher. And he too was in the ‘garden’ – like no other person in history, and he too witnessed the suffering of the innocent, and confronted G-d on the topic (“Why do You do evil to this nation!?”), yet he maintained his deep faith. What did he know and what did he see?

I am absolutely infatuated by the journey Moses took on Mt. Sinai. First he spends 40 days receiving the Torah (from Sivan 6-Tammuz 17). Then he returns for another 40 days to pray that G-d pardon the people for building the Golden Calf (Tammuz 18-Av 29). Unsuccessful, he returns for yet another 40 days (Rosh Chodesh Elul-Yom Kippur) and he finally secures complete forgiveness on the holiest day of the year.

[My infatuation is taking the shape of a new book that will be published in the next month – a spiritual guide to personalizing the High Holiday season].

We are actually now in the second week of Moses’ second climb on the mountain. These days are not considered such great ones – “days of wrath” – which include the Three Weeks when we mourn the destruction of both Temples and a series of other tragic events in history.

What was Moses doing up there all this time? What did he see and what did he learn? What did he say and what was said to him?

From the account in the Torah (primarily at the end of Exodus, and a bit in Deuteronomy and in other places) we know that his hands were full. We know that he did not waste any time and immediately confronted G-d. We also know – from a series of cryptic verses in Exodus (33:12 and on) — that Moses got straight to the heart of matters by asking G-d to show him His (G-d’s) ways and His personality. And G-d complies. Moses learns about the Essence of G-d and G-d’s mysterious ways in running the universe.

In a most intimate exchange, Moses asks G-d to see His face. Instead G-d shows him His ‘back.’ G-d places Moses in a ‘crevice in the mountain, placing My hand over you until I pass by. I will then remove My hand and you will see my back, but My face you will not see.”

What did Moses see?

Perhaps we may never fully know. Perhaps you have to be a Moses to know. Yet the Torah does document it. I am sure that many other things took place on that mountain that the Torah does not share with us. The fact that this is shared with us means that it must be relevant to us, and that we can in some way understand it.

Whatever the explanation – and we have plenty of time to analyze it – the entire journey of Moses is just so compelling.

One thing we do know: Moses did not give up. 40 days, another 40 days, another 40 days, and he prevailed!

He must have heard every possible reason from G-d why the Jews deserved what was coming to them. He must have learned all the complexities of Divine justice and the balance of things above and below. Yet, single-mindedly, with no support system, he hammered away again, again and again…

No matter what actually happened up there, what we do know is that Moses – as opposed to Acher – was not only undisturbed by what he learned, but he came back with the biggest gift of all: There is always hope. Even when things break – and how they did break! – the human spirit is endowed with the power of persistence, and sheer and absolute persistence can break down any door.

Acher may help legitimize and lend credence to our doubts and questions, but then what are we left with? The same questions and confusions that have disturbed countless generations before us. Great! As if we didn’t have enough doubts and fears…

What does Moses leave us with? He leaves us with confidence in ourselves, belief in the future, hope in our children and grandchildren.

What does Moses leave us with? He leaves us with confidence in ourselves, belief in the future, hope in our children and grandchildren. Yes, to believe – what a concept, what a force! And to believe even when there seems no reason to – that takes guts, that takes courage, that takes real power.

So, though we don’t really know what Moses was doing up there, day after day after day for 120 days, what we do know is that he left us an eternal legacy – the ability to face our deepest questions about justice and injustice, about the innocent and their suffering, about G-d and His mysterious ways – and come away stronger, more confident than ever.

Perhaps what he ultimately learned is that our questions, doubts and fears don’t weaken reality, just as our answers and courage don’t strengthen it. So why spend the rest of your life agonizing, justifying, excusing, cowering (of course, with a courageous masquerade) – spend it better on growing, building, perpetuating. Even when the going gets tough, hold on to the future, rather than be victimized by the past.

What else can be said when I see friends and colleagues suffering senseless loss.

Yes, while the people were suffering below Moses was experiencing a parallel reality above. He did not succumb to the resignation and the quiet — or loud – desperation from below. He wasn’t interested in the millions of arguments making a case for despair and hopelessness. He had no time for that; he knew that anyone can come up with such arguments. With half a brain (or less) in your head, every conceivable argument can be made – and a strong one at that — that we are going nowhere, and the more things change the more they stay the same. A strong case can be made for a life of complacency and mediocrity.

Moses wasn’t interested in repeating all the arguments for negativity that came before him and that would inevitably come after him. He wanted something unique, something legendary, something unprecedented – something that would instill hope in humanity, hope in our future, hope in our destiny.

Ahh, Moses. What a character! He would be a great person to meet for a drink…


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