Rav Yitzchak Zilber, zt”l, legendary champion of Russian Jewry, was a humble talmid chacham and teacher, whose incredible self-sacrifice and dedication inspired and strengthened generations of Jews. Having been imprisoned in gulags of the former Soviet Union, he escaped to Tashkent and later arrived in Eretz Yisrael, where he continued his efforts in teaching Torah around the clock. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, referred to him as “one of the lamed vav tzaddikim,” one of the hidden righteous people, whose presence supports the entire world. Thousands of Russian olim to the holy land sought his counsel and Torah instruction.
One of Rav Zilber’s early students shared an anecdote and memory of the first time he went to the Kotel Hamaaravi to daven. He felt incredibly privileged to walk among a group of new immigrants accompanied by their rav, after years of yearning to make aliyah and live in Eretz Yisrael; he had finally made it!
When they first saw the holy wall, they shed a tear of awe, and then, kissing the holy stones, they felt the sweetness of homecoming. When a Mincha minyan commenced, they happily joined. But within a few seconds—instead of feeling inspired and connected—the student began to feel unsettled and frustrated, and tense in his stomach. “This is my first time here,” he whispered to his rav during the chazan’s repetition. “And everyone around me is davening beautifully, with all their hearts, but I have no idea how to join them! Everything is moving so fast and I can barely even read Hebrew!”
Rav Yitzchok placed his arm around his student’s shoulder, and spoke into his ear: “I hear, I hear! There isn’t much I can do for you other than this … ” The rav turned his body around to face the Kotel, and continued: “Whatever is in your heart—joy, pain, confusion, heart-brokenness, feelings of distance—tell Him about it! Speak to Hashem! Tell the Ribono Shel Olam your story, in your own words, at your own pace.”
Our sedra contains the pesukim recited when bringing bikkurim, first fruits, to the Beis Hamikdash. One is to stand before Hashem, in gratitude, and tell Him the story of our journey that brought one to this moment. One describes the beginning of our people, our exile and redemption from Mitzrayim; one recounts the long and difficult road to “the land flowing with milk and honey,” and to Yerushalayim. This recital is a vidui of sorts, a confession and acknowledgement of the past—and symbolically presenting to Hashem everything in one’s mind and heart. Through reflecting on the story, one is to appreciate the process, including the challenges, complaints and hardships along the way. This moving section of our parsha is included as part of the Haggadah liturgy, forming an essential element of Seder night: “My father was a fugitive Aramean … ”
Finally, one acknowledges the “fruits” of his labor, effort and faith, and recognizes that everything really comes from Hashem:
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל־הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָֽתַן־לְךָ ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ
“You shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem has given you and your household,” (26:11).
Honoring the travails of exile, struggle and process as part of our redemption story enhances the sweetness of our deliverance and the abundance we have been given. And presenting to Hashem our personal spiritual narrative in such a beautiful way cultivates a deeper sense of connection and closeness to the Ribono shel Olam. Even our exiles and challenges were for the good; we finally made it!
Later on, our sedra lists the numerous blessings promised as a reward for following Hashem’s will and living a life of Torah. Among them:
בָּרוּךְ טַנְאֲךָ וּמִשְׁאַרְתֶּךָ
“Blessed will be your tana, ‘basket,’ and your kneading bowl,” (28:5).
While visiting the holy tzion of Reb Shayele, zt”l, in Kerestir, Hungary, my wife and I had a wonderful conversation over coffee and kokosh cake with Rav Buxbaum, the generous inn-keeper and mashgiach. During this shmuess, he shared the following teaching in the name of the tzaddik, Rebbe Mordechai of Nadvorna.
Every day, we bring all sorts of taanot, complaints, before Hashem. Some of them we bring out into the open and present them to Him in a tana, “basket.” Other complaints we hold inside, leaving them unspoken, kneading them over and over, tying knots inside the “kneading bowl” of our stomach. Thus, the Torah blesses us: בָּרוּךְ טַנְאֲךָ—“May your taanot be blessed and resolved through presenting them to Me so beautifully and openly. And may וּמִשְׁאַרְתֶּךָ, even the lumps of dough, the challenges that you are still laboring on in your inner kneading bowl be blessed and smoothed out, by turning to me and speaking to Me about them!”
Let us take the opportunities we have to turn to Hashem and confess our gratitude and our gripes—and share with Him everything that is on our mind, in our heart and, even, deep down in our stomach. And may be blessed to arrive in Yerushalayim with the fruits of our labor to rejoice in all the good Hashem has granted us!
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.