An Approach-Avoidance Conflict
The character traits of strength and firmness evoke mixed responses. On one hand, everyone admires personal fortitude, and respects an individual who has the courage to persevere in his convictions despite challenges. And yet a strong person can also be thought of as rigid and insensitive, clinging stubbornly to his own views without bending in consideration of others. Counseling against this tendency, our Sages commented,1 “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not hard like a cedar.”
Although the image of personal strength projected by popular society sometimes muddles the distinctions between these two types of firmness, a discerning person should not become confused. The hardness of insensitivity reflects an inability to respond to the cues of life. Positive inner strength, by contrast, allows for an active response to those cues, but this response is determined, not by the pressures of one’s environment, but by the depth of one’s convictions.
Flexibility vs. Unfailing Firmness
These concepts are reflected in the name of this week’s Torah reading: Matos. The singular form, mateh, literally means “staff.” This term is also used to refer to the tribes of the Jewish people, because the leader of each tribe was distinguished by his staff of leadership.2 For similar reasons, the word shevet, literally, meaning “rod,” is also used as a synonym for “tribe.”
What is the difference between these two terms? A rod is supple, able to be bent, while a staff is firm and unyielding. For a rod is freshly cut or still connected to the tree from which it grew and is therefore pliant. A staff, by contrast, has been detached from its tree long ago, and over time has become dry, hard, and firm.
Both terms serve as analogies for different levels in the expression of our souls’ potential.3 The term “rod” refers to the soul as it exists in the spiritual realms, where its connection to G-dliness is palpably appreciated. It shares an active bond with the lifegiving, spiritual nurture it receives. “Staff,” by contrast, refers to the soul as it exists in our material world, enclothed in a physical body. On the conscious level, it has been severed from its spiritual source, and its connection to G-dliness is no longer felt.
In this setting, there is the possibility for both the positive and the negative types of strength and hardness. There is a tendency towards spiritual insensitivity, a brittle lack of responsiveness to the G-dliness invested within creation. On the other hand, it is also within our material world that the strength of a person’s resolve is revealed. For to observe the Torah and its mitzvos despite the challenges of our environment requires the steadfast resolution that stems from an inner awareness of the truth of one’s mission.
Moreover, when a person makes such a commitment, he is granted more strength than he personally possesses; the essence of the soul’s power will express itself through his efforts. This reflects a deeper spiritual source than the level of soul revealed in the spiritual worlds. For in the spiritual realms, the soul’s powers of perception are of primary importance. The essence, the very core of the soul, however, transcends all perception, for it is an actual part of G-d,4 a spiritual potential that cannot be contained even within the more subtle restraints of spiritual existence. It is this essential potential which provides powerful resources of strength to the soul as it is enclothed in the body, enabling it to persevere in its Divine service.5
This reflects the uniqueness of our world “the garden”6 which grows the “trees” from which these “staffs” are cut. Although the material setting causes the soul to feel separate from its source, this challenge evokes the expression of our deepest spiritual potentials. This in turn endows a person with the strength of a king the ability to master his environment and shape it according to the Torah’s desires.
The concept of strength is also reflected in the content of this Torah reading, which begins with laws regarding vows. Here we see the power possessed by every Jew. Each member of our people even a youth who has not yet reached the age of Bar Mitzvah has the ability to invest the entities of our material world with holiness, endowing them with the sanctity of the sacrifices offered in the Beis HaMikdash.
And these laws apply not only in the era of the Beis HaMikdash, but even during our present exile.
The Torah reading continues, describing the war against Midian, which as explained in Chassidic thought, serves as an analogy for our efforts to nullify the forces of strife and discord. By spreading unbounded love, we have the power to wipe out these traits,7 as the war against Midian caused the utter annihilation of that nation.
A Twofold Message
Parshas Matos is often read together with Parshas Masei. Masei means “journeys.” This Torah reading describes the journeys of the Jewish people through the des ert an analogy for the journey of souls from the spiritual realm to our material world.
More particularly, the two dimensions of the descent that the hardness of a mateh reflects are also emphasized in Parshas Masei. The negative dimension the lack of a revealed connection to one’s G-dly core is implied by the name “journeys,” for the descent of the soul to this material world is indeed drastic.
The positive dimension the powerful manifestation of the soul’s essence is also alluded to by the name Masei. For it is through its descent into this material realm that the soul acquires the potential for an unparalleled upward movement. For the connection between the essence of the soul and the essence of G-d achieved in this world lifts the soul to a far higher rung than that on which it existed previously.
Moreover, when Parshas Matos is read together with Parshas Masei, the Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazak “the Shabbos of reinforcement,” because of the custom8 of declaring, Chazak, Chazak, Venischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”) at the conclusion of the Torah reading, in acknowledgment of the completion of the Book of Numbers. This couples the strength of Parshas Matos with the strength achieved by the Jewish people through their completion of one of the books of the Chumash.
Strength in Exile, the UltimateStrength in Redemption
Parshas Matos is always read during Bein HaMetzarim the three weeks between the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the fast of Tishah BeAv (the Ninth of Av), which are associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdash. This recalls the negative qualities of a staff’s firmness, the severed connection to the source of vitality.9
On the other hand, this period is also connected with our people’s hopes of Redemption.10 Indeed, Tishah BeAv, the anniversary of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is described as “the birthday of Mashiach”11 a day which generates a new impetus for the coming of the Redemption. Herein lies a connection to a staff’s positive quality of firmness, because: a) in the Era of the Redemption, our people will reap the fruit of their determined resolution to carry out G-d’s will despite the challenges of Exile; and b) it is in the Era of the Redemption that G-d’s essence, the ultimate source of strength, will become manifest in our world, His dwelling.
|2.||See Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar 83b.|
|3.||See Sefer Maamarei Admur HaZakein 5562, Vol. I, p. 237ff.|
|4.||Tanya, ch. 2.|
|5.||See the maamar VeAtah Tetzaveh, 5741, (Sefer HaMaamarim Melukat, Vol. VI, English translation, Anticipating the Redemption, S.I.E., N.Y., 1994), which explains that the power endowed by the essence of the soul far surpasses the power endowed by the soul’s perception in the spiritual realms.|
|6.||For explanation of the simile, see Basi LeGani, 5750 (English translation, Kehot, N.Y., 1990).|
|7.||Herein, we see a connection to the period of Bein HaMetzarim, the Three Weeks between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tishah BeAv, for our Sages (Yoma 9b, Gittin 55b) teach that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of causeless hatred.Moreover, we have been granted the potential to anticipate the Redemption and experience a foretaste of the love and peace that will characterize that age. See the essay entitled, “Living with the Redemption” (Sound the Great Shofar, Kehot, N.Y., 1992, p. 65ff).|
|8.||See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, the conclusion of Chapter 139. See also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 25, p. 474.|
|9.||Note also Yirmeyahu’s vision of an almond staff (1:11-12) which G-d will use as a medium of retribution. Our Rabbis (Tur, Orach Chayim, ch. 580) associate this vision with the Three Weeks.|
|10.||Hence, during this period, it is customary to study the design and structure of the Beis HaMikdash (Seek Out the Welfare of Jerusalem, S.I.E., p. 1ff).|
|11.||Jerusalem Talmud, Berachos 2:4; Eichah Rabbah 1:51; Pri Eitz Chayim, Shaar Chag HaShavuos, ch. 1. See the essay of this title in Sound the Great Shofar, p. 73ff.|