One often feels bad as a result of the way one defines oneself and one’s life goals. For a child playing in a sandbox, for example, if another child comes up to him and takes away his bucket and shovel, it is a real catastrophe. And who can even imagine the tragedy if the sandcastle that has just been painstakingly built collapses.
How would you reassure the child, so that he does not suffer so much from such an injustice?
There are many ways, I’m sure. Perhaps the best and most enduring one is to show the boy how insignificant the shovel and bucket are and how insignificant the castle is, after all. It’s just a pastime; none of it has any real value. If the boy is able to understand what is being said to him, he will be reassured. A shovel, a bucket, and a sand castle are valuable only in the context of the sandbox, but life does not begin and end there. In the context of the sandbox, it is certainly a catastrophe, but in the broader context of real life it is totally insignificant.
The same is true for us adults and our frustrations. Often the way to free ourselves from the suffering caused by this or that disappointment or loss is to know how to put things in context, to get out of the “sandbox” and see things from a broader and clearer perspective.
We find such an idea implicit in this week’s reading, Ki Tisa .
The reading begins with G-d’s instruction to Moses regarding how to conduct the census of the Jewish people. The verb used to refer to the act of counting the Jewish people is tisa, which also implies “to raise”. In other words, the verse can be understood as also saying “when you lift up the heads of the Israelites…” But why not use a verb that clearly means “to count”, such as tifkod, tispor or timne?
The Chassidic masters answer the question by means of another one (“and why not?”): why was it necessary for Moses, Aaron and the princes of the tribes to take the census? Wouldn’t it have been more practical to delegate that task to people who were not so important and whose time was not so valuable?
The answer — formulated through yet another question — is fascinating: how can people be counted altogether, if each human being is unique and radically different from all others?
There are two possible answers: 1) while the content of each person is very different, the container, that is, the body, is quite similar. When we count people, we are only counting their bodies, which are the visible and superficial common denominator. No one has more than one body and therefore it can be considered a countable unit; 2) although the life and work of each person is very different, these differences are only circumstantial. As far as the essence — the soul — is concerned we are all equal. We can therefore count people because as far as their essence, the soul, is concerned, no one has less than anyone else.
From that perspective, the soul becomes the common denominator and the countable unit.
While taking the census from the first perspective does not require any special skills —any person can see and count a body—, taking the census from the perspective of the soul does require a special vision. It requires Moses himself to do it, not only because he, Aaron, and the tribal leaders who accompanied him could perceive it, but also and primarily because Moses had the ability to make each one of those counted perceive it as well, at least at the moment he was in Moses’s presence. “Lift up the heads of the Israelites,” G-d commanded Moses. “By defining and counting them from your perspective, you will make them perceive themselves from a higher perspective. You will help them understand that life does not begin and end in the ‘sandbox’ they see, and you will motivate them to live in tune with that higher perspective”.
A good example of how a higher perspective can impact daily life and mood is the renowned Chassid Reb Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel had been sentenced to years of forced labor in Siberia in Stalinist Russia as a “reward” for his selfless dedication to helping people in extreme situations both materially and spiritually. Needless to say, life in Siberia was no picnic. Soon after being deported there, the spirit of the individuals was literally crushed.
The prisoners were constantly surprised to see that Reb Mendel always maintained a positive attitude in spite of everything. “What was his secret?” they wondered. “It’s very simple,” explained Reb Mendel. “You’re all depressed because you see your life projects ruined. You are separated from your families, you will no longer be able to be teachers, industrialists, merchants, politicians, etc. My life plan is not frustrated here in Siberia. My life plan is to serve G-d, and I can do that anywhere G-d puts me, even here in Siberia.”
Those of us who had the privilege of being in the presence of the Rebbe, may his merit shield us, at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) or in a personal encounter, remember well those moments when one felt that the soul, its vision and “agenda” were dominant, and the body and the material world were nothing more than instruments through which to express that vision and mission. The challenge was, and still is, to keep that clarity alive and to make our decisions in accordance with that perspective.
It was Elie Wiesel who described his encounter with the Rebbe as only he knew how to do: “When one meets a Nobel Prize winner in physics one does not come away from the meeting with greater intellectual capacity. When one meets a violin virtuoso one does come away from the meeting with greater musical ability. When you meet a man of faith, you come away with your own faith strengthened.”
That is the dynamic of the bond between Moses — both the one who brought us out of Egypt 3332 years ago as well as those of every generation who help us out of our personal “Egypts” — and each member of our people: to raise them to a spiritual level they cannot reach alone, and to motivate them to continue on with their own strength.
So, this week’s life-tool is the following:
You have to learn to “raise your head, raise your eyes” in order to see that there is a bigger and more important context than what you see from where you are at at the moment. From that perspective you will see that the things that bother you are not worth it, and that the things you may have ignored until now are worth the effort. The way to attain a higher perspective is through tuning in to the vision of Moses, Aaron, and the princes of the tribes, in other words the true spiritual leaders of each generation, their teachings and their personal examples.
First published in English on my blog at Times of Israel, March 13, 2020