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Bamidbar 5769

By: Rav David Milston

Dear Students and Friends,

As you know, Shprintzee Rappaport's father, R. Mordechai ben R. Chaim Dovid Herskovitz, z"l, passed away recently. Shprintzee, a member of our staff at Midreshet Harova for many years, has relayed a wonderful story about her late father, and we wanted to share it with you:
"At one point in our Poland trip, a student asked my father why he didn't try to come to Israel after the war, instead of settling in America.  My father's response was "Well, actually, I did."  And here is the story.

After my father was liberated from his fourth and final concentration camp, he went back to his home to see if anyone else would come home alive (he knew his parents and brother had perished, but he had a sister that he hoped had survived or maybe some distant relatives).  When he saw that no one else came back he joined a DP ("Displaced Persons") camp--like most survivors did, until they had where to go.  My father said that he didn't want to spend his time playing soccer or chess all day, he wanted to do something worthwhile.  Since his hometown (Grossverdein, Romania) had switched hands between Romania and Hungary many times over the years, my father knew the border really well.  And since Romania was killing the Jews who came home after having survived the camps, my father began smuggling Jews out of Romania into Hungary (which was a bit more lenient with Jews).  After some time doing this, the director of the camp called my father in one day and said, "In view of all the great work you have been doing, tell me where would you like to go, and we'll try to get you a ticket."  My father's response was "Palestine" (obviously the name before 1948).  The director said he'd see what he could do.

Time went on and my father heard through the grapevine that the Romanian Army was looking for him.  At 18 years old, instead of doing his compulsory service in the Romanian Army, my father had been busy in four different concentration camps.  Now, the army viewed my father as a "deserter" and were after him.  My father continued his work under this new pressure.  One day, the director of the camp called my father into his office and said, "Here Mickey.  Just as promised, here is your ticket to Palestine."  My father took the ticket and as he got up to leave, the director said, "Mickey, did you hear the wonderful news?  Last week in this camp, a father and son were reunited--the only survivors of their family, neither knew the other was still alive all this time.  But we find ourselves with a dilemma.  This father and son want to begin their new life together in Palestine.  But we are one ticket short."

My father sensed what was coming as the director continued, "You know Mickey, if you would give your ticket to this father and son so that they would not have to be separated again, the very next ticket that comes in for Palestine would be yours."

"The very next ticket?" my father asked.

"Yes, absolutely," said the director.

My father gave his ticket back to the director and left the office.

Time went by and one night, my father was taking over a particularly large group of Jews from Romania, with a baby among them.  Just as they crossed over the border, the baby began to cry.  The Hungarian Border Police were alerted and took the entire group to jail.  But my father knew the system.  Unlike Romania, Hungary wasn't killing its Jews, they just wanted all Jews out of the country.  So when my father's group came before the judge, my father acted as spokesperson and said, "Your Honor, we are not planning to stay in Hungary, we are making our way out of the country."  Names were taken down and the judge gave everyone 30 days to get out of Hungary "or else face the consequences."

My father continued his smuggling.  Time passed and my father was called into the director's office and again he was presented with a ticket to Palestine.  As my father was about to leave the office the director said "You know three weeks ago, there was a marriage performed in this camp.  A man and woman--both the only survivors of their respective families, got married and they want to begin their new life in Palestine.  Unfortunately, once again we are short one ticket."

My father did not even wait to hear the rest.  "The next ticket that comes in for Palestine will be mine?" asked my father.

"You have my word," said the director.

My father gave back the ticket and left.

Some time passed by and my father heard that now, in addition to the Romanian Army who was still looking for him, the Hungarian Police were after him as well, because the month that my father was given to leave, was up.

To leave out the rest of the detail, my father found a way to be smuggled out of Hungary, into Austria.  And there, when the embassy asked him where he planned to go, my father said (with his unique sense of humor), "At this point, I figured that Palestine didn't love me, so I chose America" (the only place where my father had a relative who could sponsor his immigration to America).

By the way, my father was 19 years old when this happened.  At an age that most people would have been focused on their own survival, especially having been left alone in the world, my father gave away his "ticket to freedom" so that others could have that chance. 

My z'chut to live in Eretz Yisrael is no doubt a result of my father's Mesirat Nefesh.  May the Torah-learning being done in his name be a zchut for his neshama, to continue its work of being a Maylitz Yosher for all of Am Yisrael--which I am sure began the moment my father made it up to Shamayim.
That's where I thought the story ended when I heard it seven years ago.  But on the first night of Shiva, a man named Moshe Wineman (a survivor from Germany) came to be M'nachem Availim.  After Mincha-Maariv he sat down and told us the following:

"The first time I met Mickey was in June of 1946 in Munich, Germany.  The Jewish Agency had divided Germany into 4 zones--the American, French, Italian and (I forget if he said the 4th was Russian or something else), in an effort to get Aliyah going.  They sent a man, Noam Rubin, to be the President of this Aliyah movement.  I was a Madrich of Kibbutz Mizrachi in the American zone.  R. Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog brought out Jewish kids from the convents in Poland to my kibbutz, and we would transport them out of Germany through the American occupied zone, via Insbrook, to Italy, Turkey and then to Israel.  Mickey, on the other hand, was working for the 'Braicha'--whose primary purpose was the illegal transport of Jews out of Germany to Israel, through whatever zone they could.  Mickey knew French, so he became the expert on the French zone (he was so high up, that he was only referred to by a code name) and he sent most of his transports out via Belgium.  In fact, Noam Rubin was grooming Mickey to become the Chief of Operations for all transports going out of Germany.  Why?  Because the transports from our zone were successful depending on the night--if the moon was shining or not, if the American military police were in a generous mood to let the kids through (because we had them hidden under different things so as not to be detected, but sometimes they were discovered and sent back).  But the special thing about Mickey was that he had a 100% success rate.  None of his transports ever came back.  In fact, Noam Rubin once told me about Mickey 'That's the guy!  If you want to know how to do it, ask Mickey and just duplicate him.'"

My father, who would never talk about the good he did, made it seem as if he made it out of Hungary, to Austria and then straight to America.  But the truth is that he spent at least 2 years transporting Jews out of Germany to Israel.  Who knows how many Jews living in Israel today, owe it to the fact that my father illegally got their grandparents out of Germany more than 60 years ago.
By the way, if you want to know where my father learned French (well enough to be the head of the French zone) I can tell you that he did not speak it at home, nor did he learn it in his Yeshiva in Romania.  My father once casually mentioned that in the concentration camps, he found himself around a lot of French Jews.  And since my father could not bear not to speak to his fellow Jew, he took it upon himself to learn French just so he could communicate with his fellow inmates.

Chag Sameach,
Parshat Bamidbar 5769
Live Thy Neighbor as Thyself – Rav David Milston
In this week’s parasha we become familiar with the camp of Israel and its infrastructure. The people are divided into four groups of three tribes positioned around the central Mishkan.
The camp of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun was on the eastern side of the Mishkan. Reuven, Shimon and Gad were on the southern side, Ephraim was on the western side with Menashe and Binyamin, whilst Dan, Asher and Naftali resided to the north.
The tribes formed the outer perimeter, whilst Moshe and Aharon and the three Levite families formed a parallel inner perimeter.
Moshe and Aharon were situated adjacent to Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun; the family of Kehat was next to Reuven, Shimon and Gad; the Gershoni family was placed with Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin, and the Merari family was on the northern side of the camp together with Dan, Asher and Naftali.
When reviewing the positioning of each tribe and their respective juxtaposition to a Levite family, Rashi makes two important comments:
Firstly, he notes Reuven’s adjacency to Kehat, and the social and political ramifications of their association. We can assume that Korach, who originated from the Kehat family, was closely allied with Datan and Aviram as well as their 250 followers from the tribe of Reuven. Indeed, it was probably their geographical proximity that drew them together in the infamous attempted coup against Moshe and Aharon. Korach was seemingly the instigator but it was the long-time affiliation with the tribe of Reuven that appears to have ultimately led to their downfall. Hence we understand the proverb, “Woe to the wicked one and woe to his neighbor.”[1]
In contrast, Rashi notes that since Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun were close to Moshe and Aharon, they all became worthy Torah scholars and capable scribes. Hence the rather more positive proverb, “It is good for the righteous and good for his neighbor.”[2]
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the last Lubavitcher Rebbe) relates to Rashi’s comments in a wonderful essay.[3] He notes three different sources that refer to the proximity of Reuven to Korach and the negative outcome of their association:
The first source is a Midrash Tanchuma (Parasha 12.) where Korach and his neighboring tribes are only mentioned together when relating to the terrible fate they shared. The implication is that the tribe of Reuven was not actively involved in the rebellion but just got caught up in the fray.
Rashi goes a stage further by suggesting that not only did the adjacent tribes share the same fate as Korach, they were actually drawn into the argument and consequently became actively involved in the dispute.[4]
The third source, a midrash,[5] implies that the tribe of Reuven may even have jointly instigated the revolt with Korach from the very beginning.
Even though Judaism believes in free choice, and each individual’s sole responsibility for his or her own actions, no one would argue there are important factors that invariably sway the choices we make. One of those factors is the type of community we choose to live in and the people with whom we choose to associate.
In the above sources we can identify three very distinct issues that need to be addressed when discussing the environment and its influence upon the individual.
The Midrash Tanchuma warns us of being innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this instance, the phrase “woe to the wicked one and woe to his neighbor” is not so much an educational ethos but rather sound practical advice. We know you are not categorized with these people, but if you are seen with them you may very well get yourself into trouble.
If you are an honest trader, but choose to live among thieves, people will inevitably judge you as a thief too. Once people judge you or relate to you in a certain way it often has a domino effect on how you look at yourself, either consciously or subconsciously. We often idealistically proclaim we don’t care what other people think, and even though there is much truth in that, life is slightly more complex.[6] By ignoring a social reality we could end up paying a high price.
When deciding where to live and with whom to socialize – even if you are strongly committed to your way of life – you must still take into account the ramifications of living in a negative environment.
Rashi warns us of an even more serious danger. If you mix with the wrong people they will inevitably influence you and you will end up joining them. It is impossible to enter a room of smokers without stinking of smoke when you leave. When we choose our friends we must be very much aware of the attendant environmental norms. More often than not, we will find ourselves compromising who we are and what we believe in for the sake of momentary popularity or due to weakness of character, however strong we may be in our beliefs.
Yes, it is important to go out into the world and be confident in our beliefs. However, we must never forget we are human beings, and we will inevitably slip. At first we may not even be aware of external influences and their gradual effect upon us, but one day we wake up and find ourselves in a place we never intended to be. And once we’re there it is considerably more difficult to revert to where we originally wanted to be.
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah is perhaps the most telling of all. Here we are shocked by the revelation of our inner selves. Chazal point out that when we choose to mix with certain people it is often a reflection of our own subconscious. We actually identify with them. At first we will emphasize the differences between us; we may even overtly object to certain behavior, but our determination to remain within the negative environment may well be indicative of an implicit urge to be a part of that very setting. This is very scary but true. When we are truly repulsed by a certain type of behavior, we know we will do anything we can to avoid it. If we do not sense the need to avoid such an atmosphere it could be indicating something about ourselves that we are trying to avoid. We may sometimes rationalize our tolerance towards others but we should remain aware that it may reflect a deeper desire to be part of a social reality at odds with our beliefs and values.
No man is an island, and we have a role to fulfill in society, all the more as proud members of Am Yisrael. Nevertheless, the issue of ‘chevra’ is crucial. It is not a matter of elitism. We are not for one moment suggesting we view other individuals or communities with disdain. Rather we should carefully assess the environment in which we are more likely to flourish and fulfill our truest potential. The emphasis should be on our strengths and weaknesses as opposed to the perceived faults of others.
In truth, we could in fact suggest that these three interpretations are not mutually exclusive. They could quite possibly be indicating a process of regression.
At first, we just happen to be in the same place at the same time. After a while, the bad influence rubs off on us and begins to influence our behavior. And if we stay there, not only will we be badly influenced, we will ultimately end up being the source of negativity.
The Ramchal relates to the need to adhere to one’s beliefs despite growing social pressure:[7]
“The third deterrent to watchfulness is evil companionship that is the camaraderie of fools and sinners… We often see that even after the truth of a man’s responsibility for Divine watchfulness has impressed itself upon him, he weakens or commits certain sins in order not to be mocked by his friends or to be able to mix freely with them… If he has certain companions who subject him to ridicule, he should not take it to heart. Quite the contrary… If he had the opportunity of acquiring a great deal of money, let him consider whether he would refrain from undertaking what such acquisition entailed so as to avoid the ridicule of his companions. How much more averse should he be to losing his soul for the sake of sparing himself ridicule! In this connection, our Sages of blessed memory exhorted us (Avot 5:23): ‘Be fierce as a leopard to do the will of your Father in heaven.’ And King David said in Tehillim 119:46: ‘And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and I will not be ashamed.’ Even though most of the kings of his time occupied themselves with and were wont to converse upon grandiose schemes and pleasures, we would expect that David, himself a king, would be ashamed while in their presence to speak of ethical questions and Torah instead of discussing great feats and the pleasures of such men as they. However, in spite of all this, David was not in the least bit perturbed. His heart was not seduced by these vanities, because he had already attained the truth. He thus states explicitly in Tehillim, 119:46 that he will remain stubbornly unashamed of his beliefs.”
Our addendum to the crucial guidelines set out for us by Ramchal is that we cannot simply rely on the ability to stand up to those influences strongly opposing our ethos if we want to withstand long-term spiritual erosion. We do not necessarily have the inner conviction of David HaMelech, and we therefore have to take the right precautions from the outset. We must carefully ascertain what the most positive social environment is for us to flourish spiritually, and we must similarly distance ourselves from any setting that could hinder that progress.
The negative outcome of negligence in this area is the story of the tribe of Reuven who camped next to Korach. The positive reward for those who see the dangers and act accordingly is in the realms of the spiritual wealth accrued by the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun from living across the block to Moshe and Aharon.
We are not simply aiming at avoiding bad influences; we are also looking to enhance our spiritual progression by affiliating ourselves to those who can help us strive forward towards the ultimate truth. Strength comes in numbers – we must ultimately fight our own battles, but if we fight as soldiers in a unit of commandos the chances of success will only be greater!
Shabbat Shalom,
Rav Milston

[1] Sukkah 56b and Rashi’s comments there. See Rashi, Bamidbar, 3:29.
[2] Sukkah 56b. See Rashi, Bamidbar, 3:38.
[3] Likutei Sichot, Parashat Bamidbar, 2nd sicha – Bamidbar, Volume 33, pp.10-17.
[4] Bamidbar, 3:29.
[5] Bamidbar Rabbah, 3:12.
[6] See ‘The Three Pillars’ to Sefer Vayikra, pp. 219-225.
[7] In Chapter 5 of Messilat Yesharim.


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