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Parashat Matot-Masei: The Potential Within the Darkness

The three-week period from Shiba Assar Be’Tammuz through Tisha B’Ab, which we are currently observing, is commonly known as the period of "Ben Ha’mesarim" (literally, "in between the barriers"). The word "Mesar" ("barrier") can mean "distress," and thus this period is called "Ben Ha’mesarim," as it is bookended by the two mournful days of Shiba Assar Be’Tammuz and Tisha B’Ab.

The source of the expression "Ben Ha’mesarim" is the third verse of the Book of Echa, which we read on Tisha B’Ab. This verse laments, "Kol Rodefeha Hisiguha Ben Ha’mesarim" – "all her pursuers caught up to her in between the barriers." This alludes to the fact that the enemies of Jerusalem succeeded in breaching the wall and destroying the city, together with the Bet Ha’mikdash, during this inauspicious period of "Ben Ha’mesarim."

However, one of the Hassidic Rabbis offered an additional insight into this verse. The word "Rodefeha" ("her pursuers") can be read as "Rodefeh Y-ah" – "those who pursue G-d." Accordingly, this verse can be understood to mean that all those who "pursue" a relationship with the Almighty, who sincerely seek to draw close to Him, to elevate themselves, and to attain Kedusha (sanctity), are granted this opportunity specifically during this period of "Ben Ha’mesarim."

Another Rabbi noted that the 21 days during this three-week period correspond to the first 21 days of the month of Tishri – the exciting, inspirational period from Rosh Hashanah through the end of Sukkot. The days of "Ben He’mesarim" are a time of special opportunity for growth, no less than the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

How can this be? How can such a dark period, a period of mourning, a period characterized by calamity, upheaval and destruction, be days of opportunity?

The answer is that the brightest light is often concealed by the thickest layers of darkness. Or, to use a more precise analogy, the most precious treasures are always the least visible and least accessible assets. When somebody has something very valuable, he hides it to the best of his ability. Similarly, opportunities for achieving the greatest levels of Kedusha are hidden and concealed by the thickest covering of impurity, of spiritual darkness. Just like a thief must work very hard to access a well-hidden and well-protected treasure, so must we work very hard to access the spiritual treasures concealed beneath the thick layers of impurity which cover it.

These days of "Ben Ha’mesarim" have great potential for greatness. They outwardly appear as a dark, hopeless time of sorrow and angst, but in truth, they are days of extraordinary potential. If we work hard enough, we can penetrate through the thick layer of darkness and reveal the great spiritual light beneath it, elevating ourselves to spiritual heights which we would otherwise be unable to reach.

This is true not only of the period of "Ben He’mesarim," but of all dark periods in our lives. Many people have attested that it was during the most difficult and trying times that they felt closest to Hashem. The Talmud teaches, "Habibin Yisurin" – "afflictions are precious." Of course, afflictions themselves are anything but precious. But they are opportunities to achieve something precious, to rise to the greatest heights and to draw especially close to Hashem.

As we said, this takes a great deal of hard work. May we all have the strength and the wisdom to put in the effort needed during this trying time to uncover the priceless treasures of the dark but special days of "Ben Ha’mesarim," to find the potential within the darkness, and to utilize the unique opportunity we have during this time to make ourselves better and holier people.

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Parashat Ekeb: Understanding the First Two Paragraphs of Shema
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