March 16, 2006
Good and Late
Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11- 34:35)
Some things never change. We all know the storyline. Moses was expected back after 40 days in heaven where he was receiving the
Torah. But he was late coming back on the 40th day: "And the people saw that Moses tarried [boshesh], in coming down from the mountain" (Exodus 32:1).
The 19th century German biblical commentator, the HaKetav V'Hakablah, notes that the word the Torah used to describe Moshe's tardiness is most telling. There are two words in Hebrew for being late. One is ichur, while the second is boshesh. The difference between these two is fundamental -- ichur always represents a voluntary delay, while boshesh refers to a delay beyond one's control.
The Jewish people thought that Moses was boshesh and wasn't coming back. In truth, however, they did not view the situation correctly. Some outside force did not delay Moses; rather, he was late because he wanted to be late. He was so enthralled with the spiritual experience that he wanted to stay longer in heaven. He could not get enough time with God.
So many people think that the spiritual experience cannot be an enjoyable one. They see with a vision that is blurred and foggy. But it doesn't have to be like this.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel's immediate past chief rabbi, once recounted the mass immigration of Soviet Jewry that was occurring when he was chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
While a miracle and a dream come true, the arrival of Soviet Jewry also entailed great problems because there were non-Jews among the new immigrants. Therefore it became crucial to investigate each case in order to ascertain the true identity of each oleh (immigrant).
The rabbinate in Tel Aviv was overwhelmed with this problem, and spent numerous hours meeting with olim. In each case they would ask the oleh to bring an Israeli Jew, who could testify about their Jewish status. On one occasion, as Rabbi Lau sat on the beit din in Tel Aviv, a young Russian man appeared. He had just arrived a few days before from Odessa and he knew only one person in Israel, a Russian who had made aliyah years before, whom he brought with him as a witness.
The beit din listened to the case and cross-examined the witness to ensure he was providing factual information about the oleh. The rabbis asked the witness to prove how he knew that this young man's mother was Jewish.
The witness related the following story: "I know without a doubt that she is Jewish. In Russia, the most precious of possessions are cigarettes. If you have cigarettes they are worth more than money. You can barter with cigarettes more than with any currency. Every night, before going to sleep, this man's mother, who is a chain smoker, would take one of her precious cigarettes and put it in a box next to her bed. She would do this every night without fail. A week before Pesach, this lady would take the box, now filled with 365 cigarettes, to the wheat farmer and barter her precious cigarettes for a sack of wheat, which she would then use to bake matzot. Rabbis, tell me, do you need better proof that this man's mother is Jewish?"
The rabbis sat stunned. They asked the Russian young man whether his mother was still alive and whether or not she had made aliyah with him. The Russian responded that she was alive but stayed in Odessa, too old to move. The rabbis asked if they could call and speak to her. The Russian gave them a phone number where she could be reached.
Speaking in Yiddish, the only language with which they could possibly understand each other, Rabbi Lau spoke with the mother. He wished her "mazal tov" on her son's acceptance as a new Jewish citizen in Israel. He then told her that she was more pious than the rabbis in Tel Aviv. She couldn't believe her ears and asked why he made such an outrageous comment. Rabbi Lau answered, "We only keep Pesach for seven days, but you keep it for 365 days every year."
How do we see our spiritual life? Is it boshesh, beyond our control, or is it like the Russian woman, who daily prepared for her freedom?
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City.