This coming week is Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av. "Rosh Chodesh" means the "head of the month". Just as the head controls the body, the head of the month controls the month. Use the day wisely! This Rosh Chodesh is also the first of the Nine Days, the most stringent mourning period of the Jewish year. If you are not familiar with the laws and customs of the Nine Days but wish to be, contact your local rabbi for details.

This week we read two Torah portions; their names express their broad content. The word "Mattot" actually means "staff", but in this case refers to the tribes, connoting stability and constancy. This is similar to a staff, that after being cut from a tree becomes hard and strong. The name of the second portion, "Massai", means "journeys", symbolizing a person who leaves his home and goes on the road. By combining the two, we learn that even when on a journey, we still have to remain strong like a staff and be strict in all Torah observances, just as when we are in the comfort of our own homes. This is particularly relevant now, in the summer, when we do much of our pleasure-traveling. We can also understand that it is specifically the strength (Mattot) we show by not being embarrassed to openly express our Judaism that makes our journeys (Massai) successful. The journeys are a hint to the descent of the soul from the higher spiritual worlds…

The first of the two portions, Mattot, begins with Moses speaking to the heads of the tribes about making "nedarim", oaths to refrain from certain activities. This concept is hard to understand. "Aren't the prohibitions contained in the Torah enough?" asks the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 289). There, it states of a person who although involved with the physical world manages not to be overcome by it, that he doesn't need any extra protection of the oath to keep from sinking into materiality.

On the other hand, it says in Pirkei Avot (3:13), "Oaths assist 'separation', denoting some degree of restraint and aloofness from the physical aspects of the world. The Mishna, unlike the Jerusalem Talmud, is speaking about a person who suspects that his involvement with the world will lead to his losing self-control. Such a person needs some added restraint. Even though, after the destruction of the Holy Temple, we are discouraged to make oaths, still this reminds us that sometimes in each of our lives the technique of restraint is tantamount. Regarding the above, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say: the world says, "What is permissible is permissible, what is forbidden we have to look for a leniency" - Chasidim say, "what is forbidden is forbidden. What is permissible (but not required), who needs it!"

The second portion, Massai, begins with a list of places the Jewish people stopped on their journey from Egypt to the Holy Land of Israel. Chasidut explains that the journeys are a hint to the descent of the soul from the higher spiritual worlds to this last and lowest world. Rashi reminds us that this descent is for a purpose. G‑d our King did send us on a long journey, but the purpose of this journey is the elevation that will follow, including the end of the exile and the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Each Jewish person makes 42 subtle changes or transformations in his lifetime…

The Baal Shem Tov taught that just as there are 42 different journeys from Egypt to the Holy Land described in parashat Massai, and from exile to redemption, so too each Jewish person makes 42 subtle changes or transformations in his lifetime, from birth to his final resting place. One could argue that some of the journeys were occasions where the Jewish people sinned, like Kevarot Hataavah, and why impute such negativity on each Jew as he travels his life's journey?

The answer is very simple. Each journey of the Jews in the desert had great positive potential. Through bad judgment and negative actions the Jewish people in the desert turned certain of those events to bad. Do not think that we are justified in doing wrong by what happened to our ancestors in the desert. Whether in previous generations or in our own lives, the journeys that already occurred are a part of the past. Each of us knows which were utilized for good and which were not. Our goal lies in the journeys that we still have to experience, and it is in our power to use them advantageously for good.

This week concludes the reading of the book of Numbers. Each time we finish one of the books of the Torah we say "Chazak, Chazak, V'Nitzchazek" - "Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong". This demonstrates the growing strength of the Jewish people that live in the Torah's way. This week is different from the three previous times we completed books of the Torah, because there is a distinction between the last and next book, Deuteronomy, and the previous four books. It is also called the "Mishna Torah" - "repeated Torah" - because it mostly reviews and concludes all that came before. Therefore, when we complete Numbers, from a certain perspective we have virtually completed the Torah.

It is important to mention that the 5th of Av (Thursday night and Friday of next week), is the anniversary of the death of the renowned kabbalist of Safed, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria - the "Arizal". One of his greatest innovations is the concept that every physical thing has a spark of G‑dliness in it. When we use an object properly, we redeem the spark and allow it to return to its source. Misuse of something conceals the spark even deeper into physicality. This is to teach us that every event, how even seemingly insignificant, has a redeeming value.

Shabbat Shalom!

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