For nearly two decades after WWII, Harav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel Twersky, zt”l, the Machnovka Rebbe, lived in Russia, exhibiting a profound level of mesirus nefesh as he defied the Communists. He suffered many tribulations, including years in Siberia and exile in Tashkent, before finally emigrating to Eretz Yisrael and settling in Bnei Brak.
One day after davening, an elderly Chassid approached the Rebbe. With great respect he inquired about the Rebbe’s custom of sitting during davening while facing the other mispallelim.
“I know that this is the minhag of German Rabbanim and litvishe Roshei Yeshivah,” the Chassid said. “But Rebbes generally sit facing the wall. May I turn the Rebbe’s chair around?”
The Machnovka Rebbe looked at the Chassid and replied, “May you be gezunt! For many years I was there [in Russia] and they didn’t let me look at Yidden; now I can look at Yidden and you want to take this away from me?”
This parashah begins with Moshe Rabbeinu gathering Bnei Yisrael to teach them various halachos. No other parashah begins with such a gathering; why does this one? What was the need for this assembly?
The Divrei Yisrael explains by way of a parable.
A father had a beloved son with whom he was exceptionally close; he wouldn’t allow even one day to pass without seeing him. Once he was forced to travel abroad for several months. When at long last he returned home, the very first thing he did the moment he stepped foot into his house was go to see how his child was doing and spend time with him.
The soul of Moshe Rabbeinu was bound up with that of Bnei Yisrael. He was repeatedly moser nefesh on their behalf, and the ahavah he had for each of them was boundless.
He had just spent three consecutive forty-day periods in Shamayim, a total of 120 days in which he had seen Bnei Yisrael only twice, for a few hours each time. Now that he had once again returned from Shamayim, the first thing he did was gather Bnei Yisrael so he could see and spend time with them.
While we cannot fathom the level of ahavas Yisrael reached by Moshe Rabbeinu, the lesson in this Torah thought is relevant to all of us.
When we travel to an area without a thriving Jewish population and then are fortunate to meet another Yid, we feel great joy, comfort and relief. But when we get to see hundreds of our brethren each day it is far more difficult to truly value and appreciate how wonderful it is simply to see another Yid…
When Harav Chaim Twersky, the Chernobyler Rav, would retell the anecdote above of the Machnovka Rebbe, he would add that simply looking at another Yid is not enough.
“One has to know how to look,” the Rav said. “It isn’t enough just to look at another Yid — simply to see his face, two eyes and a mouth. One must look at another Yid and see what he needs, and how you can help him!”
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Harav Eliyahu Hakohen of Izmir, best known for his classic work Shevet Mussar, authored some 40 other sefarim as well, including Megaleh Tzfunos, one of several commentaries he compiled on Chumash. In it he states:
Chazal tell us that after the beis din carried out an execution, the relatives of the executed would approach the Dayanim to assure them they fully accepted the righteousness of the verdict and had no resentment against them for performing their duty.
Last week we learned about one of the tragedies of the sin of the egel. In order to salvage the future of Bnei Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu was forced to take the painful step of instructing Bnei Levi (the only ones who had replied to his call of mi la’Shem eilai) to execute all those who, despite warning and in the presence of witnesses, had served avodah zarah. The Leviim performed this duty with mesirus nefesh, taking up the sword against their maternal relatives, among others. By the time it was over, some 3,000 of Bnei Yisrael were dead.
The Leviim earned an eternal reward: they supplanted the firstborn as those chosen for the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash. And their action paved the way for Moshe Rabbeinu to plead for forgiveness on behalf of the rest of Yisrael.
The fact that one shevet had just executed thousands of members of other shevatim had the potential to be devastatingly polarizing to the nation.
Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu now gathered Bnei Yisrael in an exhibition of achdus and ahavah. With the gathering, the members of the other shevatim were sending a message to Bnei Levi that they had no grievance in their hearts against them, but once again stood united in avodas Hashem.
May we be inspired to do likewise.