There are many times where we look back at history and say to ourselves, “We really could have used technology X back then, what a difference it would have made.” The application of this line of thinking is almost limitless. If only we had antibiotics during the Black Plague, if only we had cranes when they were building the pyramids, if only we had submarines during the Great Flood, if only we had pickup trucks during the 1849 Gold Rush, if only we had sunglasses during the Forty Years Wandering in the desert, the list goes on ad infinitum. Here’s another one I just learned about; if only we had Photoshop during the Great Purge. 

The Great Purge, also known as The Great Terror, took place in 1936-1938 in the USSR. It was a period in which an increasingly paranoid Joseph Stalin killed or exiled millions of “enemies of the people” suspected of “counter-revolutionary” activity; basically anyone Stalin feared would try to topple his brutal regime. It was a movement that fed on fear, with people denouncing and “exposing” close friends or even family members in attempt to buy safety from the rampaging communist government. Besides targeting ethnic minorities like Jews, gypsies, or Poles, it also purges hundreds of thousands of Community Party members, government officials, Red Army leadership, and the wealthy. 

Ironically a movement like that doesn’t stop until it starts feeding on its own flesh, and most of the leaders of the Great Purge were purged in 1940. Even the infamous Nikolai Yehzov, head of the NKVD and architect of the purge, was eventually arrested, tortured into admitting to a range of “anti-Communist” activities and shot in a dark basement of an NKVD outpost by Ivan Serov, the man who would eventually head the KGB, the organization that took over the NKVD. The room where he was shot had a floor angled downward toward a drain, so that they could hose it down in between executions, a design instituted by Nikolai himself. 

Exposing almost everybody of prominence in the government, military, and Party as “traitors,” forcing confessions out of them, and then executing them created a problem for Joseph Stalin, as that meant that he was seen in pictures with all the worst traitors of the State. It would not be appropriate to see pictures of the Supreme Leader conferring with generals that all turned out to be enemies of the state.  Nor would it be advisable for pictures to exist of Stalin walking down a canal with Nikolai Yehzov, when it turned out that Nikolai himself, the butcher of the purge, was really working on anti-Communist activities the whole time, per his own printed confession. 

If Photoshop had been around, this could have all been cleared up with a few clicks of the mouse. But alas, in those difficult days before Photoshop, the Soviets had to employ an army of artists who could constantly doctor photos from the past to take out all the traitors. In one famous picture, Joseph Stalin was pictured at a planning table with three prominent Communist Party leaders, but one at a time they were executed and had to be erased from all photo records, and eventually the final picture is just Comrade Stalin himself standing at the table! 

For the people living across the USSR it was often a chicken and egg situation, either you heard that the man was killed and then suddenly a few months later he would be missing from all photographs, or sometimes you would see someone disappear from photographs, and a months later you would hear that he confessed to a number of high crimes and was executed. But the one constant was that Stalin would never allow himself to be seen, even in pictures, with anyone who turned out to not be so Kosher. Ironically, after Stalin’s death, Nikita Krushchev came to power, and he eventually denounced Stalin for his failed leadership and Russia was scrubbed of Stalin’s memory, to the point that it’s almost impossible to find a statue of portrait of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR for 40% of its existence, anywhere in Moscow. Photoshopping history eventually feeds on its own. 

Marxist doctrine, in its unending quest to be the best solution for the world, has always waged war against history, because history is the best teacher that Marxism is the most failed ideology in the world. Anyone with a history book can learn about:

  • the mass murder, gulags, bread lines and starvation of Soviet Russia 
  • the ongoing starvation of the people in Venezuela where people lost an average of 24 pounds in 2017 because their Marxist government crashed their economy, which prior to its rise had been the wealthiest in Latin America
  • Pol Pot and the Communist Khmer Rouge Party killing one third of Cambodia’s population, especially people with education and city dwellers
  • The Cultural Revolution, in which over ten million Chinese citizens were killed by young “revolutionaries” who were overthrowing local governments and established systems of power
  • The Great Chinese Famine, in which 30,000,000 people died due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the Communist plan to revolutionize the country and make it more prosperous for all
  • How North Koreans are on average 2 inches shorter than South Koreans due to the frequent famines brought on by their failed Marxist system of “prosperity for all”

Learning history is crucial for those who want to learn from the mistakes of others, as the saying goes, “Those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it.” If every time we don’t like someone or something someone did we just cut them out of the picture, we are left with no one to learn from, because there are no perfect people. Photoshopping humans out of history because of their failings means that we will experience similar failings ourselves, because we weren’t able to learn about it in a textbook. 

 Interestingly, the Torah is replete with stories of the failures of our greatest leaders. We read about how Abraham was punished for doubting G-d, how Jacob was criticized for responding to his wife in a slightly insensitive way, we read about Moshe being punished for getting angry, we read about King David’s mistakes and his readiness to take ownership for them and repent. Even Joseph, who is called a Tzaddik for his ability to ward off desire and temptation is punished for a lack of honor showed to his father. It’s not that there are no truly great people in the Torah, it’s that truly great people are people and as such they are not perfect. We admire them and try to emulate them for all the good they did, but we also can learn from each and every one of them something not to do. And knowing that our greats made mistakes too, enables us to feel capable of getting over our mistakes. 

Photoshopping history is not only an endless task of revision, but it stops us from learning so many important lessons. We are now in the middle of the Three Weeks, a period of mourning in which we mourn not only the destruction of the Temple, but also the baseless hatred among our people in that generation that led to it. It’s a time when we look back at history and attempt to learn from it how destructive divisiveness is, and a time when we resolve to do what we can to create more unity and love in our community. A time we resolve to love people who have different views than us, a time where we listen to others and not only hear talking points, but hear the human beings behind those points, no matter where they come from. We can continue to tear ourselves apart from the inside, or we can look at our history and see where that got us, and resolve to be the generation that bridges gaps instead of creating them, the generation that rebuilds instead of destroying, the generation that not only learns from history, but actively brings it to its place of peace, prosperity and perfection!


Parsha Dvar Torah

 In Parshat Ma’asei, the final parsha in the Book of Numbers, we read about the setting up of the cities of refuge. If anyone would kill unintentionally, they would be forced to exile to one of these cities, and remain there until a designated time. This was a punishment one would undergo only if there was some minor negligence on his part, something he could have done that would have prevented the death of another human.

There were a total of six cities of refuge. Three were in Israel, and three in the land east of the Jordan, that was given to some of the tribes, who requested their inheritance there. The Torah here teaches us that none of the cities of refuge were able to provide refuge until all six were set up. If that is the case, we then have to wonder, why did Moshe even bother to set up the first three (the ones not in Israel)? G-d had already told him that he would not enter the land of Israel, hence in his lifetime, the three cities that were in Israel would not be set up./ If they were not set up, all cities of refuge would be invalid. So why did Moshe make an effort to set up cities that would have no purpose throughout his life?

The answer is based on a fundamental difference between the way most people view mitzvos, and the way Moshe viewed them. Most people see mitzvos as things to accomplish. By the time we die, we want to have accomplished X amount of mitzvos. Today if I have done 6 mitzvos, I have fulfilled my quota. I can’t wait for the prayer service, so that I will know at least I did one mitzvah today!

But Moshe understood that mitzvos are not things to accomplish, but things to do. Through doing them, one gets closer to G-d. The word of the word mitzvah, is the word tzavta, which means to bridge, to narrow the gap. Naturally, there is a huge gap between physical creatures, and their spiritual creator. Mitzvot help us bridge that gap, by taking the physical and using it for the spiritual. Taking a ram’s horn and using it as a shofar, eating flour and water as matza, etc.

Therefore, Moshe did not care whether he would finish setting up the other 3 cities of refuge or not. As long as he had the opportunity to be involved in a mitzva, involved in narrowing the gap between His Creator and he, Moshe jumped at the opportunity, even if it wouldn’t accomplish anything in his lifetime. Let use Moshe’s powerful message to remind ourselves to focus on doing, not accomplishing!

Parsha Summary

This week we read two Parshios, Mattos and Masei. Mattos starts off with the laws of nedarim, strong spiritual vows. While many people may feel that vows are simply words, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in Judaism we believe the opposite to be true. We see the human being’s greatest asset to be that which is shared with no other species, his faculty of speech. The verse in Genesis describing Adam’s creation says “and He blew into his nostrils a soul of life” (Genesis 2:7) Onkelos translates it as “and He blew into his nostrils a talking spirit,” thus indicating that speech is the very essence of the human.

Everything a person utters with this gift of speech should be taken seriously, especially when it is said as a vow. However, there are situation in which one can nullify a vow. These include a person who goes to one expert or a court of 3 people, who can nullify the vow under certain circumstances, a wife who makes a vow which will affect her husband in which case he can waive it, or a young girl who makes a vow and her father annuls it.

The parsha continues with the Jews going to war with Midian to avenge the people who died as a result of the abhorrent trap the Midianites had set for them involving base immorality and idol worship. G-d tells Moshe that after this war he will die, yet Moshe immediately works on gathering the troops. The Jews on the other hand, have to be coerced to raise the troops, as they don’t want to see Moshe depart from the living. The Jews are victorious in battle and the Torah goes into detail on the splitting of the spoils.

In summary, of the living spoils (sheep, donkeys etc.) half went to the soldiers with1/500 being given to the Kohanim. The other half went to the whole nation, and 1/50 was given to the Levites. You might be wondering, why did the rest of the nation got spoils if they hadn’t gone to war? Well, it is important to note that in Judaism we view ourselves as one unified nation. Not only are the people in the front lines fighting, but those back at home praying and learning in their merit are also considered to be fighting the battle. Therefore, it was only fair that they should get a share of the spoils.

This is an extremely important lesson right now, as it reminds us that the forces defending Israel are fighting on two fronts, some in green uniforms sitting in military installations, and some in black pants and white shirts sitting in study halls. And the good news is that we can also pitch in and be part of the force protecting Israel from our homes here in the USA! If we take an additional ten minutes a day to say psalms for our soldiers or learn in their merit, we are taking an active and crucial role in Israel’s defense, and in saving our brethren.

The last part of the parsha is the story of Reuven and Gad’s request to remain east of the Holy Land where the land was good for grazing. Moshe was quite angry with them for desiring the rich pasturelands outside of Israel instead of the Holy Land that would have the Divine Providence manifest more strongly than anywhere else. He asked G-d, who allowed those tribes to live in Trans-Jordan as long as they were ready to play to fight for the capture of Israel along the other tribes. Moshe than apportions the Trans-Jordan lands to Reuvain and Gad and half the tribe of Menashe.

Parshat Massei, being the last parsha in Numbers, is the wrap up of the Jews’ time in the desert, as the story part of Deuteronomy focuses almost exclusively on the last day of Moshe’s life. Therefore, Massei starts with recounting every station the Jews camped at throughout their 40 years in the desert, and some of the events that happened at these spots. Then, the Parsha focuses on the future – on the conquest of Israel. G-d commands the Jews to destroy all forms of idols when they conquer the land, and to distance themselves from the inhabitants them so they don’t get enticed to sin.

The Torah then delineates the borders of Israel, and names the leaders who would lead each tribe when they entered the land. After that, the Torah commands the people to set aside cities in which the Levites would dwell. The Levites weren’t given any specific portion of Israel because their job was to spiritually motivate and to teach  the people. Therefore, they were scattered amongst the people so that everyone could have some good neighbors. The Torah also commands the people to set aside cities of refuge to which people can flee if they commit unintentional murder. Although they can’t be held fully responsible, they are somewhat at fault because they could’ve avoided it by being more careful (in American law this is called negligent homicide). Therefore, they must run to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol.

This is clearly not a good thing for the Kohen Gadol, as it meant that many people were eagerly anticipating his death so that they could return to their families. The Talmud teaches us that the Kohen Gadol is given this weighty burden because he should have prayed harder that there be no accidental killers on “his watch,” and he didn’t. This shows us how much the Torah expects Jews to feel responsibility for one another.

The Parsha (and the book of Numbers) concludes with the people of the tribe of Tzelophchad coming to Moshe with a concern. In last week’s parsha, Tzelophchad’s daughters came to Moshe to ask for a portion of the land, since their father had died and left no sons to inherit him, and Moshe agreed that they would get it. Now, the people of that tribe were concerned that if the daughters would marry men of a different tribe, the land would end up being lost from their tribe, since it would go to the husband’s tribe. Moshe then told the women that they should choose mates from their own tribe to alleviate this problem. This law only affected women receiving inheritances who were among the first generation which was apportioned  the land of Israel, so that there should at least be one moment where each tribe had exactly the portion they received. Later, people could choose a spouse from any tribe, as long as they loved each other and cared about one another through sickness and health, poverty and wealth etc. etc. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: One that is overcautious will accomplish little. J.F.C. von Schiller 

Random Fact of the Week: The population of the American colonies in 1610 was 350.

Funny Line of the Week: National Atheist’s Day is April 1st.


Have a Stimulating Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham


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