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“And Moshe spoke to the leaders of the tribes of the Jewish people and told them, ‘This is the thing Hashem commanded.’”
The commentators ask why Moshe spoke to the leaders of the tribes, when the issue he spoke about – making a neder, a vow – applies to the entire nation. What is it that Moshe spoke about specifically to the leaders?
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“These are the travels of the Jewish people who left Egypt...”
The Torah is our guide for eternity and applies to every Jew, in every generation, and in every circumstance. What is the purpose of listing these travels? What can we learn from these verses?
In Parshas Shemos, Hashem asked Moshe, “What is in your hand?” and Moshe answered, “Mateh – a staff.” The tzaddik Reb Yosef of Zemigrad, cited in Sefer Heichal Habrachah, takes a valuable lesson from this verse. He explains: We cannot do anything without Hashem’s permission. We are not in charge of our destinies or our lives. However, there is one thing that is up to us. The word mateh – staff can also mean to “bend.” Hashem asks us, “What is in your hand?” Over what do you have control? The only answer is “mateh – our free will to bend in either direction, towards good or evil.” Hashem gives us the power to exercise our free will. Our actions and our responses to the situations we encounter are totally up to us.
Of course, we all want to bend in the right direction. We all want to choose good over evil. However, the challenges we encounter and the traps set by the yetzer hara often overpower us and pull us in the wrong direction. In order to counterbalance this influence, Hashem has granted every generation with tzaddikim and Torah leaders who pull the people in the right direction.
“And Moshe spoke to the leaders of the tribes.” He addressed the leaders, those who have the power to bend the masses and inspire them to serve Hashem properly. He told them “this is the thing Hashem commanded.” He instructed them to help the Jewish people turn to Hashem.
The word mateh has another meaning: to slip. Every person is periodically inspired to improve and to become closer to Hashem. Unfortunately, this inspiration does not always last, and the person slips back to his old self. Why does this happen? What causes a person to lose his footing when he climbs towards greater spiritual heights?
The holy Maggid of Koznitz gives us a precious insight on the verse “These are the travels of the Jewish people who left Egypt.” He writes: We see people who strive to become closer to Hashem, yet they are unable to reach their goals. Why does this happen? Because they neglected to do tshuva on their past sins. They are still stained from their previous transgressions and assume they can attain a higher spiritual level without scrubbing off the old grime. This is a mistake. In order to become holy and retain the higher level of holiness, the person must first examine his deeds and cleanse himself. We must always remember that in order to travel closer to Hashem, as the many travels of the Jewish people in the desert symbolize, we must first “leave Egypt,” meaning, we must leave the impurities symbolized by Egypt.
We are presently in the Three Weeks, which is a time of mourning over what we’ve lost. During this time, the forces of evil have tremendous power. We therefore must be even more vigilant and careful not to slip back. By the same token, those who strengthen themselves during this time have a greater opportunity to become closer to Hashem.
The Maggid of Koznitz says in his sefer Avodas Yisroel that during these days a person has a greater chance of acquiring closeness with Hashem. He compares it to a person who wishes to have an audience with the king, but he must wait many months for an audience. He then has to go through many screenings before he is allowed to see the king, and there is always a chance that he won’t pass these screenings and he will be denied the long-awaited audience. On the other hand, if the king is traveling in a distant country, he is much more accessible. Even a simple person can find a way to meet the king, without waiting for an audience and going through any lengthy preparations, simply because the king is not in his capital.
The same is true about a person who desires closeness with Hashem, the Maggid of Koznitz explains. Thro