Parshat Mattot/Massei: Numbers 30:2-36:13; Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, (1730-1788), was one of the earliest Chasidic masters. He, together with other leading figures, left their homes in White Russia and emigrated to the Holy Land in 1777. They settled in Safed but later were forced to move to Tiberias (where Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s burial site is today).
It is fascinating to read his description of an epidemic that took place in Tiberias and neighboring cities in 1786. According to his writings, the epidemic caused the entire community to remain in complete lockdown from Purim until Shavuot.
A story is told that several of the rabbi’s followers came to him to complain that their spiritual standing had weakened ever since they had not been able to attend the synagogue and other Jewish community events. Rabbi Mendel responded with the following:
“The verse in this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 35:34) states in relation to not wavering on the punishment deserving to a murderer, ‘And you shall not defile the land where you reside, in which I dwell, for I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel.’ The commentaries understand the meaning to be that God dwells among the Jewish people regardless of their status (‘even within their impurities’ — Rashi), and we should, therefore, act in accordance with His will so that we can create a welcoming atmosphere for His presence.’”
Rabbi Mendel concluded by saying it is unfortunate that these disciples did not appreciate this perspective and could not imagine any other way for God’s presence to dwell within their midst. They simply could not understand that God is to be found wherever we are found; our task is to make this a reality.
I’d like to share one thought resonating with me for some time during this COVID-19 experience. Perhaps we are currently tasked with making God feel comfortable in our private and personal spaces. During normal living, it is easy to divide between our community life (in shul, school or office) and our personal life in terms of meaning and spiritual purpose. Quarantine gives us the opportunity to inject an extra dose of holiness and meaning into our personal spaces (our homes, relationships and ourselves).
“For I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel” is telling us that God is everywhere, regardless if we consider that space to be holy or mundane. Now it is our task to make that a reality.
Rabbi Mendel Polter is a rabbi at the Woodward Avenue Shul.