Sky, Earth and the Four Winds (Haazinu)

Sky, Earth and the Four Winds (Haazinu)

A handful of pine-seed will cover mountains with the green majesty of forests. I too will set my face to the wind and throw my handful of seed on high. -Fiona Macleod

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The penultimate Torah reading is a song. The Song of Haazinu. It is prophetic, poetic, and often challenging to decipher. It hints at what the future will bring, what will happen to the people of Israel at the end of days and throughout their long journey, including rewards and punishments. The format, structure, and content of the Song of Haazinu are meant to stand out and to be taken to heart. The following is how it starts:

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;

Let the earth hear the words I utter!

May my discourse come down as the rain,

My speech distill as the dew,

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass.”

The first two phrases are relatively straightforward, calling on the heavens and the earth to bear witness to the following song. However, the next four lines seem to repeat in different variations the theme of rain or water falling on the ground.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 32:2 explains that it’s a continuation of the first two phrases and that Moses is calling on additional witnesses to this song besides the heavens and the earth. He is calling upon the four winds to also bear witness. He explains the connection to each wind as follows:

“May my discourse come down as the rain,” refers to the West Wind which comes from the nape of the world and normally brings rain.

“My speech distill as the dew,” refers to the North Wind which is as pleasant as dew (in Israel).

“Like showers on young growth,” is the South Wind which is as stormy as thundershowers.

“Like droplets on the grass,” is the East Wind that disperses seed and grows the vegetation.

Together, the sky, the earth and the four winds are witnesses for this song, part of the covenant between God and Israel. They are more than just witnesses; they are the ones that will be the instruments of God’s punishments or rewards to us. They will withhold rain, sustenance and the basics of life if we aren’t deserving. They will bless us with bounty, health and sustenance if we’re deserving.

May we always be on the side of blessings.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Encompass Health Rehab and their dedicated staff for taking such great care of my dad, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.

 

 

Lonely Leadership (Vayelech)

Lonely Leadership (Vayelech)

The leader can never close the gap between himself and the group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk a tightrope between the consent he must win and the control he must exert. -Vince Lombardi

Joshua, Moses’ disciple, is about to take over the reins of leadership. Moses knows that the Jewish people can be unruly. Moses, the most humble of men, gives Joshua some parting words of encouragement:

“Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall bring this people into the land that God swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them.”

The Bechor Shor explains that there is another layer of meaning in Moses’ directive. He says that Moses is advising Joshua not to lead the people of Israel alone, but rather to solicit and involve the nation’s elders in his decisions as well. Moses, who was characterized by his humility is telling Joshua to lead with humility and to share his leadership role with the elders.

Interestingly, at the end of the same chapter, God addresses Joshua with almost the same language with one minor difference that the Bechor Shor picks up on. Moses had used the word “Tavo,” God says “Tavi.” Both mean that Joshua will bring the people into the land. However, the word “Tavo” is passive, and would be more accurately be translated as “you will be brought,” while the word “Tavi” is active, meaning “you will bring.”

The Bechor Shor explains that God is giving Joshua a different directive than Moses. God is telling Joshua that there can only be one leader. You can’t share leadership responsibilities. You can’t have two leaders. He compares it to a stew of two partners which is neither hot nor cold. Neither takes responsibility, letting the burden slide onto his partner, with failure the natural result.

God is telling Joshua that he is now the final decision-maker regarding the nation. It doesn’t hurt to consult, it doesn’t hurt to seek advice and build consensus, but at the end of the day, he and only he must make the decisions. He can’t share or abdicate that to anyone else. It is lonely. It is isolating. But that’s what leadership calls for.

May we be granted worthy leaders and may their loneliness be lessened.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Chabad of Southern Nevada for their indescribable hospitality, generosity and caring. Please continue praying for the continued rehabilitation of my father, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.

 

Covenant of Opportunity (Nitzavim)

Covenant of Opportunity (Nitzavim)

Opportunity dances with those who are ready on the dance floor. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

After forty years of wandering in the desert, after all the travails and disappointments, the nation of Israel is ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land. Moses, the redeemer, the man who led them out of the bondage of Egypt, the man who brought the people of Israel God’s law will not cross with the rest of the nation. God has told him he will die on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

However, before he sheds his mortal coil, Moses convenes the entire population of Israel. He gathers them together, the children of the former slaves of Egypt, and binds them in an eternal covenant with God. It is a covenant which reestablishes the Jewish nation as chosen by God to be a beacon to the peoples of the world. It is a covenant where the people of Israel accept upon themselves God’s commands. They accept to be His servants and to follow His will as detailed in the written Torah which Moses wrote and the oral Torah that he transmitted.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 29:10 explains that this was the ideal time and place for Moses to establish the covenant. He wanted everyone present. He didn’t want anyone to be able to say “I wasn’t there” or “I didn’t hear.” This would be the last time the entirety of the Jewish people would all be in one concentrated location. Once they would enter the Land of Canaan, they would disperse. Each family would settle in their inheritance. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to then gather every single Israelite together. A person could be sick or incapacitated, unable to travel or for whatever reason, unable to leave their home. While they are all camped together within an area of a few square miles, there were no excuses. Every single person, every woman, every man, every child, every elder, whether they are sick, or blind, or lame, was present. Every single soul from the nation of Israel was present for the establishment of the covenant with God. There was not one person that was left out.

The Bechor Shor elaborates that Moses didn’t want a situation where someone in the future would say, “we didn’t accept this covenant.” It was an opportune time to forge the covenant and Moses seized it. The covenant between the people of Israel and God wasn’t only accepted by the Jewish people as a whole. It was also accepted by every single individual Jew as well.

May we realize the preciousness of the covenant and always attempt to live up to it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the staff of University Medical Center of Las Vegas for their outstanding care, and to the continued healing of my father, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.

Prioritization of Honor (Ki Tavo)

Prioritization of Honor (Ki Tavo)

Honor is the reward of virtue. -Marcus Tullius Cicero

The beginning of the Torah reading of Ki Tavo describes the ceremony of Bikurim, the first fruits that all Jewish farmers were commanded to bring to the Temple. The command entailed every farmer in the land of Israel to mark the first buds of their fruit (of the seven species of fruit that Israel is was renowned for) by tying reeds around them. After the fruit was harvested, the farmer would bring those first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Perhaps one of the more moving aspects of the Bikurim ceremony was that all of the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would get up from their work, line up at the entrance to the city and greet each group of farmer-pilgrims from each town with the following declaration: “Our brothers from the town of so-and-so, welcome! (literally, “come in peace!”).

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 26:2 learns from this how precious the performance of a Mitzva, of a commandment of God, is when done in its time. Skilled artisans are not obligated to stand for Torah scholars, who most people are otherwise directed to stand for. But for the farmer-pilgrims on their arrival in Jerusalem for the Bikurim ceremony, the artisans of Jerusalem are required to take time off from their work to enthusiastically greet the pilgrims.

The Bechor Shor highlights that the reason the artisans don’t have to stand up for Torah scholars is so they should not lose income from taking time off to honor the scholars. However, if the artisan would not lose any productivity or income by showing the scholar such honor, they certainly should rise. But for the pilgrims fulfilling the annual Mitzva of Bikurim, the artisans need to greet them, even if it’s a distraction from their work and can entail a loss of income. That’s how important it is to show them honor.

Judaism holds a central place for the respect and honor due to Torah scholars. They are considered a living embodiment of the Torah; a walking Torah, if you will. Respect, deference and honor must be shown to them. The Bechor Shor states that a simple Jew performing a Mitzva is on an even higher level, meriting an even greater level of honor than a Torah scholar.

May we respect the humble and the noble alike.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the complete and speedy recovery of my father, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.

Beware the Drawn-out Sale (Ki Tetze)

Beware the Drawn-out Sale (Ki Tetze)

For the merchant, even honesty is a financial speculation. -Charles Baudelaire

In retelling the history of the young Jewish nation, Moses recounts the battle against the nation of Amalek. The original account in Exodus states that the Amalekites fought with Israel in Refidim. Then it provides more details of the battle itself, Joshua’s leadership of the armed forces, Moses’ visual leadership (standing atop the mountain) and the positive effect of his raised hands, the Israelite victory, and finally, God’s directive to remember his promise to wipe out the memory of Amalek.

Here in Deuteronomy, we get an additional perspective. Moses recalls how the Amalekites ambushed Israel shortly after the exodus from Egypt. They attacked the stragglers in the rear of the Israelite march, at a point where Israel is described as tired and hungry and not fearful of God.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 25:18 tries to understand the added nuances in this recap and what it’s trying to convey.

He focuses on the word we translated as “the stragglers” which in Hebrew is “hanecheshalim.” In his interpretation, the Bechor Shor flips two of the letters, pronouncing “hanechelashim,” which can be translated as “the weakened.”

It seems that the Amalekites focused on the stragglers and found a roundabout way to weaken them. He explains that the Amalekites approached the stragglers peaceably, pretending to be merchants. They offered these straggling Israelites different wares and merchandise. The Amalekites took their time and prolonged the negotiations. They gave a long, drawn-out sales pitch.

Eventually, these straggling Israelites realized that the rest of Israelite camp had gotten way ahead of them. The ensuing struggle to catch up weakened them. That’s when the Amalekites pounced. They had isolated and weakened their prey.

Part of the reason for the unique abhorrence God has for the Amalekites is their duplicitous, underhanded attack, preying on the weak, gullible and feeble-minded.

May we beware of slick and prolonged sales pitches and may we realize the value of not straying too far from the rest of our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the firefighters combating the Jerusalem fire.

Inadmissible Character Witness (Shoftim)

Inadmissible Character Witness (Shoftim)

We falsely attribute to men a determined character — putting together all their yesterdays — and averaging them — we presume we know them. -Henry David Thoreau

There is a concept in law (in American law at least) that a person’s character counts. Character witnesses will be brought in for a criminal trial to attest as to the good or bad character of a person, for the jury to take under consideration when determining the guilt or innocence of the accused.

In the Torah reading of Shoftim (Judges), Moses outlines a number of the traits and behaviors that a judge must have when conducting a trial. He states among other themes:

“You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes.”

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 16:19 digs deeper into what the verse is trying to say. He analyzes what we’ve translated above as “you shall show no partiality.” A more accurate translation would be “you shall not recognize faces.”

The Bechor Shor explains that judges need to take such directives literally. When a defendant is in front of you, you need to erase what you know about them from your memory or consideration. If you knew him as a righteous person, you can’t think to yourself that he’s probably innocent. Likewise, if you know the defendant has a criminal past, you can’t assume he’s guilty. A judge needs to weigh the case exclusively on the evidence and testimony in front of him.

The Torah considers character witness testimony inadmissible and irrelevant to whatever case is being judged. A person’s historical actions are not a legal indication of what they will do or how they should be judged (in a Jewish court). Furthermore, if a judge knows that a person was guilty of a different crime and never successfully prosecuted, he can’t use the current trial to mete out justice if there is insufficient evidence in this case as well.

Ultimately, true justice is in God’s hands. We should never worry that someone will “escape” justice. God’s reach is infinite. We humans are very limited in our ability to perceive who is guilty or who is innocent, and we are even more limited in our ability to see justice done. It doesn’t absolve us from trying our best with our limited perspective and tools. We are indeed commanded adamantly in the very next verse to seek justice: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” But within very specific limits. God will handle the rest.

May we merit to see justice done, whether through human or divine agencies.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Sapir & Shaltiel Shmidman on their marriage. Mazal Tov!

Partially Orphaned (Re’eh)

Partially Orphaned (Re’eh)

Grief is the agony of an instant, the indulgence of grief the blunder of a life. –Benjamin Disraeli

In Moses’ ongoing discourse that comprises the Book of Deuteronomy, at the beginning of Chapter 14, Moses gives a brief statement, before launching into the longer discussion of dietary laws. He states as follows:

“You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God.”

It seems it was common practice in the idolatrous ancient Near East for mourners to cut or tear out their hair, gauge and bloody themselves, and otherwise do themselves bodily harm as a form of grief. God commands the Jewish people not to emulate such pagan practices.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 14:1 provides additional rationale and comfort for the mourner and explains why such excessive displays of grief are prohibited. It relates to the introductory phrase: “You are children of the Lord your God.”

The Bechor Shor explains that it is not merely a nice opening idiom, but rather a statement of fact which directly informs the next sentence. We are children of God. Because we are children of God, even when one’s parents pass away, God remains there for us; God, who in essence is even more protective, nourishing and caring than the most loving parent can ever be. Therefore, we are never completely orphaned. As such, extreme displays of grief for a parent would be unwarranted and even disrespectful of God. Furthermore, our consecration as a holy people makes such repulsive behavior even more inappropriate.

The Bechor Shor continues, that on the flip side, for idolatrous people who truly believe that their gods are inanimate objects, it is entirely reasonable for them to be completely devastated by the death of a loved one and demonstrate such violent and extreme mourning. He quotes the prophet Jeremiah who paraphrases the idolatrous mentality of “they say to the tree – you are my father, and to the stone – you birthed me.” Their reality is one of being completely orphaned. They have lost their parents and they don’t have a connection to an eternal, living, caring deity.

May we be spared from further grief in our lives and may we be consoled of past griefs.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Emmanuel Moreno z”l. He was a warrior and a scholar who died in the 2nd Lebanon War, 15 years ago, this week.

Guarding the Guardian (Ekev)

Guarding the Guardian (Ekev)

Who will guard the guards themselves? -Juvenal

In the course of Moses’ righteous and justified anger at the people of Israel for their idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf, he breaks the newly received Tablets of the Law. The Midrash has God Himself praising Moses for this dramatic initiative. Commentaries explain that Moses had no other choice. The Jewish people had violated their recently minted covenant. If Moses hadn’t broken the Tablets, the physical manifestation of the covenant, God would have been more than correct to wipe out the newborn nation of Israel. By breaking the “contract” Moses in a sense was declaring that Israel isn’t bound by it anymore and therefore shouldn’t be liable for having violated it. Some view the breaking of the Tablets as an inevitable outcome of the Jews breaking faith with God.

However, no action, no matter how righteous or justified, is without its consequences. After Moses’ intercession and God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people, God commands Moses to prepare the second set of Tablets.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 10:1 explains that God is telling Moses: “You broke them, you need to restore them. I don’t want anyone complaining about you that you caused the nation of Israel to lose such a precious gift.” That’s why the order to Moses states “carve for yourself.” It’s for Moses’ personal benefit as well. It’s to protect Moses from reproach from the current generation or even from future generations who would realize the magnitude of the loss if it were not restored.

God also commands Moses to place the new set of Tablets in an Ark. The Bechor Shor adds that God doesn’t want Moses to bear them in his arms. God doesn’t want a repetition of the scenario where an angered Moses would break the Tablets again. God wants the Tablets guarded in an Ark, ironically, guarded from the great liberator, leader, teacher and guardian of the Jewish people. In essence, God wants to guard the guardian. God ultimately has Moses’ back.

May we always sense that God has our back and guards us, usually unbeknownst to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Jackie Mason z”l.

Written in Stone (Vaetchanan)

Written in Stone (Vaetchanan)

Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things. -Alexander Hamilton

In the Torah reading of Vaetchanan, Moses recalls the revelation of God to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. He takes the opportunity to repeat the Ten Commandments (with some minor differences to the one stated in the Book of Exodus).

In retelling the story, Moses highlights that the Ten Commandments were written on two tablets of stones. The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 4:13 wonders as to the significance of repeating this detail.

He explains that there is particular importance to the Ten Commandments and that’s why it was etched in stone, as opposed to on papyrus or parchment. The Ten Commandments needed to be written on a material that would never decompose. These verses needed to be written permanently, so that we would never forget them.

The Ten Commandments constitute the foundation of our faith:

  1. The belief in God;
  2. not worshipping any other gods;
  3. not taking His name in vain;
  4. keeping the Sabbath;
  5. honoring our parents;
  6. no murder;
  7. no adultery;
  8. no stealing;
  9. no false witness;
  10. no coveting.

These are the building blocks of Jewish faith.

Remembering these principles is so foundational that based on this the Sages learn that whoever actively forgets them or any related teaching is worthy of the death punishment. “Actively forgets” is different than merely forgetting or even not having learned it in the first place; it means someone who by deliberate thought decides to disassociate these commandments from his consciousness.

That’s why they’re written in stone. The commandments are immutable. They are eternal. They are a permanent guiding force for the Jewish people for millennia. If we don’t currently have the carved tablets within reach, we should at least etch these commandments in our hearts.

May we merit to rediscover the Tablets of the Law in their housing in the Ark of the Covenant, together with the rebuilt Temple, speedily, in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ben & Jerry’s Israel.

Iron Wall, Glass Chin (Devarim)

Iron Wall, Glass Chin (Devarim)

All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins. -Ovid

Moses recounts recent history to the generation about to enter the land of Canaan. He retells the very recent battle with King Sichon of the Emori and King Og of the Bashan and the lands they conquered. Moses adds a bit more detail about King Og, which is usually translated as follows:

“Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!”

The Rephaim were apparently a race of giants, and Og was the last surviving member of that group. To impress upon the listener how big Og was, Moses provides the dimensions of Og’s bed, implying Og’s massive size.

The key word is what we’ve translated as “bedstead” which in the original Hebrew is pronounced “Eres” and which does appear in other places in the Bible with the same meaning.

However, the Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 3:11 has a completely different translation of the word “Eres.” He explains that “Eres” is not referring to a bed, but rather to a walled city. And that the dimensions provided are not the dimensions of Og’s bed, but rather of the height and thickness of the wall that protected Og’s city, which was as strong as iron. A loose translation of the verse according to the Bechor Shor would read as follows:

“Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His fortified walls were like walls of iron, in Rabbah of the Ammonites; its walls are nine cubits high and four cubits thick, by the standard cubit!”

In this maverick interpretation of the word “Eres,” Moses’ description of Og becomes even more meaningful. Not only was Og the last of his race of giants, a formidable warrior and opponent, but he was also protected by perhaps one of the more fortified cities in antiquity, with walls of unusual height and width, making the walls as impenetrable as iron. Nonetheless, Moses and the nation of Israel are successful in repelling Og’s attack, vanquishing Og and his army and conquering his land.

For all of Og’s natural and engineered might and strength, he fell very quickly when God delivered him into the hands of Moses and Israel.

May giant opponents and iron obstacles never scare us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Herzog College for their fantastic Bible Study Days program (Yemei Iyun b’Tanakh).

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