In a cattle car in Poland, in the summer of 1942, Reb Azriel Dovid Fastag, a composer for the Modzitzer Rebbe, was headed to his death in Treblinka. Over a hundred Jews, forced to stand for days on end with only a bucket in the middle of the car for waste, no room to sit or lie down, no food or water, in the stifling heat, all crammed together heading to whereabouts unknown, for reasons they could not even imagine.
Listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels of the train, a tune sprang into his mind, and he composed the now-famous Ani Ma’amin tune: “I believe, with complete faith, in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, I await him nonetheless…”
He began to hum and then to sing the haunting melody, in the crowded cattle car full of despair hurtling into the darkness. One by one, the Jews in the car picked up the tune and begin to hum, and then to sing with him. And when the Jews in the car next to them heard the singing, after a time, they picked up the tune as well, and began to sing along.
Overwhelmed by the power of this tune, he wrote down the notes and shared them, determined to ensure the tune would survive.
One of the young students in that car, who eventually escaped and survived the war, made his way back to the court of Modzitz, now in Brooklyn, and shared the tune with the Modzitzer Rebbe. It became the unofficial anthem of the Holocaust in the Jewish religious world. Imagine singing about the coming of the messiah in a cattle car on the way to Treblinka!
his week, we will conclude the second of the five books of the Torah, Sefer Shemot. And the way in which the Torah concludes this book, which shares the story of the Exodus from Egypt, is interesting. With the building of the Mishkan complete, the Torah tells us:
“When the cloud arose above the Mishkan, the Children of Israel would travel on all their journeys, but if the cloud would not rise, then they would not travel until it rose. For the cloud of G-d was on the Mishkan by day, and a pillar of fire at night before the eyes of Israel, on all of their journeys” (Shemot 40:36-38).
After all of the events of the book of Shemot — the ten plagues, the Exodus, the splitting of the sea and the revelation of Sinai, not to mention the building of the Mishkan — why do we conclude this book with the cloud above the Mishkan and the system that signaled the Jews to travel? This is the big finale of the book of Exodus: traffic control?
And there is an interesting detail which begs a question: When it was time for the Jews to journey again, the cloud would rise and go before them to lead the way, so why does the last verse suggest the cloud was on the Mishkan on their journeys? If it was on the Mishkan, that meant they were encamped. Rashi explains that their encampments were part of the journey. What does this mean? And why is this the conclusion to the book of Shemot?
Fast forward to the beginning of the book of Yehoshua. After forty years in the desert, Yehoshua is getting ready, with the Jewish people and an army of 600,000 men, to enter and conquer the land of Israel. He decides to send two spies to the land.
It is difficult to understand why, especially after the debacle of the spies nearly forty years earlier, but even stranger is the mission itself. The two spies cross the border and head straight for … a brothel! (Though some suggest it was an inn.) They are discovered almost immediately. (One can only imagine two individuals, who spent forty years learning Torah from Moshe under clouds of glory, eating manna every day, walking into a Canaanite bar in yarmulkes and tefillin debating what blessing to make on beer. However were they caught so fast?)
But Rachav the righteous innkeeper hides them on the roof under bales of flax. She then advises them to escape westward into the mountains, as the king’s men will look for them to east. Heeding her advice, they indeed hide for three days in the hills before subsequently making their way back east over the border.
And then comes the most incredible part of the story: rather than apologize for their failed mission, they clearly feel they have succeeded! “Hashem has given the land into our hands,” they say (Yehoshua 2:24). This, despite getting no further than the underside of a pile of flax!
There is a unique phrase the two spies employ when they report on the events of their mission: “kol hamotzot otam” (ibid v. 23), which literally means “all that found them.” We find this word again at the end of the book of Bamidbar, in the portion of Masei, which literally means “journeys.” The Jewish people traveled 42 journeys in their forty years in the desert, and the Torah describes them as motza’eihem: “that which found them” (Bamidbar 33:2).
Because the places described in these 42 journeys are not really places. A rock or a sand dune in the wilderness is not a place we normally encounter. There were no towns or Bedouin encampments; no hospitals or lakes. Refidim was where rafu yadam, their hands became weak and they needed water. Di-Zahav means gold; it was here that the Golden Calf occurred. These are not places, they are events. We don’t travel to events; events find us.
There is a blessing we say every morning as part of the morning blessings: “Hameichin metzadei gaver,” He prepares the steps of man. And the Talmud (Brachot 60b) shares that originally, this blessing was said when we put on our shoes. Really? A blessing for putting on shoes?
But in truth, this blessing hides a deep idea: We wake up in the morning full of plans for the day — but we must remember, with all our best-laid plans, Who really prepares our steps. We may think we are headed off for a job interview, and we do all we can to ensure our success. But as we put our shoes on, it behooves us to remember that what ends up happening is in much bigger hands than our own.
Everything that will come into our lives, today and every day, are events that find us. We cannot change those events, but we can change how we react to them, and what we choose to do.
Perhaps that is what the spies are telling Yehoshua: “We had a very different idea of how this mission would go, but these are the events that found us.” Hashem wanted the Jewish people to see just how terrified the Canaanites were of them, and He planned the mission as it transpired.
And maybe that explains the end of Shemot. Even when we encamp, we are always on a journey, and everything that happens finds us for a reason.
So how do Jews in a cattle car headed for Treblinka find the strength to sing?
Perhaps in the same way the Jewish people survived 2,000 years of bitter exile: we somehow understood that every event or encampment is just part of a much larger journey. It was never about controlling the events, it was always about deciding what we are meant to do with them, and Who is really planning them.
All of which will lead us to the third book, which we begin next week: Vayikra, “and He called” — the recognition that hidden in all of the events of our lives is always a calling.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.