May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Covid pandemic presented a myriad of growth experiences for people around the world. Overall, it was a challenging and for some tragic period, yet within the darkness, some found opportunities for personal growth. Some discovered hidden treasures within the chaos—embracing new hobbies, delving into books, prioritizing their health and forging deeper bonds within their families. The realm of prayer also underwent a transformation: While communal prayer remains the ideal, many seized the unique opportunity to explore the profound depths of personal, individualistic prayer.

In Parshat Maasei the Torah delves into the intricacies of Bnei Yisrael’s journey through the wilderness on their way to Israel:

And the Jews traveled from Ramseis and they camped in Sukkot. And they traveled from Sukkot and camped in Eitan… and they traveled from Eitan and settled in Pihachirot and they went from Pihachirot … and they went to Migdal… (Shemot 33:5-8).

Why does the Torah go into such painstaking detail about their travels? It is incredibly repetitive and when we examine the names of the places listed, the problem compounds. Rashi notes that “Rismah,” one of the places through which Bnei Yisrael passed, is a reference to the sin of the spies and the negative report they delivered. The Torah is reminding us of the sins the Jews committed along their journey through the desert. But why remind us of our mistakes when they were already clearly described?

Living on the upper West Side, the mecca of Jewish singlehood, many conversations with my students revolve around navigating their dating lives. Recently, I had a conversation with a student, a remarkable young woman who just ended a relationship she believed was with the wrong person. She expressed frustration with herself for allowing the relationship to linger longer than it should have. While empathizing with her feelings, I reassured her that the relationship was not in vain, but an important part of her personal journey. We learn and grow from every situation, I said, a lesson I believe the Torah is trying to impart by painstakingly listing each location the Jews traveled. Each stop in the wilderness was another part of the Jewish people’s spiritual journey. Each stop, the good ones and even the bad ones, were necessary, representing another stage in their development as a nation.

Many of the world’s greatest achievers experienced remarkable obstacles and hardships in their lives. Often it is precisely because of those struggles and challenges that they ultimately became the people they did. Abraham Lincoln’s life serves as a powerful example. History remembers Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents, but few are aware of the failures and setbacks he encountered along the way. At the age of 9, Lincoln’s mother died. He lost his modest job in 1831, and in 1833 he tried another business which failed. Lincoln was then defeated for the State Legislature. In 1835, his fiance died and in 1836, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Yet, it was precisely Lincoln’s ability to learn and grow from these experiences that shaped him into such an exceptional leader. Each failure and setback contributed to his wisdom, resilience and strength.

Life is filled with roadblocks and disappointments, be it a failed project at work, a flat tire on the way to an important meeting or a relationship that goes nowhere. They are, however, all opportunities for growth. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, in his Derech Hashem, wrote that every person’s life predicament is their challenge. Every life situation we are presented with is a means for our spiritual perfection. The poor, he wrote, are challenged to see if they can learn to become satisfied with the little they have, and the rich—whether they will become indifferent to the plight of the poor. Each person is created differently and therefore requires a different set of life circumstances to develop their unique spiritual potential.

The same applies on the national level. As we begin the Nine Day period leading up to Tisha B’Av, we take this time on the Jewish calendar to reflect on the painful parts of our history. We do this, not to simply feel bad or guilty, but to learn and ultimately grow from those experiences. To learn what happens when we, as a nation, lose our way with God (ie- destruction of the First Temple), or when we allow baseless hatred to fester in the community (destruction of the Second Temple). Churchill famously remarked: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Just as we as individuals learn from our past mistakes and challenges, the Jewish people as a nation must learn from our collective past to ensure a better future. Perhaps that is what our Sages meant when they famously said: “Anyone who mourns over Jerusalem will merit seeing its joy” (Ta’anit 30b). If we can learn to grow from our past experiences, we will transform the challenges of the past into our redemption for the future.

May we find the strength to extract meaning from every part of our personal and national lives, and in doing so merit to bring the geulah shleimah, the ultimate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom.

Special thanks to my son Ezra Wildes for his contribution to this article.


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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