Naturally Beyond Nature (Vayera)

Naturally Beyond Nature (Vayera)

 The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding. -Francis Bacon

When Abraham reached the age of 99, God commands him to circumcise himself. Abraham obeys God’s will. According to the Midrash, before the actual circumcision, he consults with his friends, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre. Mamre is the only one who enthusiastically advises Abraham that he should, of course, follow God’s instructions.

According to the Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 18:1, Abraham faced a dilemma regarding the circumcision. He was concerned that by circumcising himself he would be separating himself from the rest of mankind, which might make it harder for him to connect with other people, for other people to connect with him and for him to be effective in his life’s work of bringing people to greater kindness, awareness and greater proximity to God. It was already a tremendous effort for Abraham to descend from his exalted spiritual level to connect with the idolaters of his day. But at least they were on the same physical plane. If he would be circumcised, he would no longer be of the same nature as the rest of men, in a sense, he would be beyond nature.

Part of Abraham’s motivation in asking his friends for their opinion is that by involving them in his decision, they would remain attached to him, even after his circumcision.

The Chidushei HaRim expands on Mamre’s recommendation to circumcise. Mamre tells Abraham that it is man’s obligation to attempt (where appropriate) to perform feats that are beyond nature. Because God bends the rules of nature when dealing with Abraham, it is Abraham’s duty to reciprocate and reach beyond nature in serving God.

Furthermore, reaching beyond nature draws life and sanctity directly from God and spreads it to all of nature and the entire world. Going beyond nature is the catalyst for the operation of nature. It is the hidden engine of the natural order.

Because of Mamre’s insight, support and enthusiasm, he merited that the events of Abraham’s circumcision should occur and be attributed to his location, “Elonei Mamre,” and be perpetually remembered. He also drew from the sanctity of the event and was blessed. He was one of the first beneficiaries of God’s promise to Abraham that “those who bless you shall be blessed.”

May we see and reach beyond nature and always be a catalyst of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the incalculable hospitality of the Vider family.

Blinded by Reality (Lech Lecha)

Blinded by Reality (Lech Lecha)

You too must not count too much on your reality as you feel it today, since like yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow. -Luigi Pirandello

Abraham’s first documented encounter with God is when God addresses him and commands him to leave his land (literally, “go for you from your land”), his birthplace and his father’s home to the ambiguous “land which I will show you.”  Abraham, full of faith, obediently complies, and does leave his life in the advanced and cosmopolitan Mesopotamian Empire. He leaves his homeland, leaves his father and treks to the relative wilderness of the land of Canaan; the rural, rough and uncultivated land bridge that connected the two ancient major political, economic and cultural powers of the Ancient Near East – the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian Empires.

That command starts Abraham’s journey. We see the development of his relationship with God. We see Abraham’s kindness and generosity. We see his bravery and faith. We see his devotion and sacrifice. It all started with Abraham leaving his land.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 12:1 reads more deeply into the command of “go for you from your land.” The word “from your land,” in Hebrew, “Me’artzechah,” can also be read as from your landedness, from your materiality, from your obsession with the material world and material things.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that in order to serve God, the first step is to leave the trappings of the physical world which blind us to the evil, to the materiality that we’re submerged in. We have to leave that mindset of preoccupation exclusively with the corporeal, even if we don’t know where we’re going.

Once we’ve become free of our fixation on material things and approach God without pretense and in truthfulness, then God will lead us to “the land which I will show you,” – to a more elevated existence, to a deeper relationship with God and the truth of our existence, to the development of our soul and our own personal, divine missions on Earth.

May we loosen our shackles from the “realities” that both bind us and blind us, and may we follow in the footsteps of our patriarch, Abraham.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To William Shatner’s real star trek!

Letters of Protection (Noach)

Letters of Protection (Noach)

Action, looks, words, steps, form the alphabet by which you may spell character. -Johann Kaspar Lavater

God is enraged with humanity. They prove to not only be corrupt but they also corrupt their environment. Their evil and vileness scream to the heavens and God answers with a deluge to wipe out all of humanity, with the aim to start anew with Noah and his family.

God instructs Noah to build an ark, where his family and representatives from the animal kingdom will be spared to repopulate Earth. Noah dutifully builds the Ark. The animals arrive two-by-two, leaving a planet about to be destroyed, to then sail upon its destruction, and almost a year later land on a world wiped clean of any other living beings.

The Ark was their transport and protection for the duration of the Flood. The word “Ark” in Hebrew is “Tevah” which is also the same word in Hebrew for “letter”. The Chidushei HaRim explains that these homonyms, these words with the same spelling and the same pronunciation, but different meanings, are not coincidental.

There is a deep, divine and powerful attribute to each of the Hebrew letters, specifically the Hebrew letters of the Torah and of prayer. Just as Noah’s Ark can be a vessel of protection, somehow, each of us can escape a deluge of troubles by seeking refuge within the Hebrew “Tevah”, the Hebrew letters that we learn and recite. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in some mystical way, and most powerfully, the letters of the Torah and of prayer, can provide a certain measure of protection from the elements of the world that seek to drown us.

When trouble comes our way, as it inevitably does, we don’t need to spend years building an ark, we don’t need to gather supplies to survive Armageddon, we can open the Torah, open a Siddur (the Prayer book) and read.

May we find shelter and sanctuary in something as simple as holy letters and words.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the post-holiday season.

Mortally Mocked (Bereshit)

Mortally Mocked (Bereshit)

Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble. -Sir Walter Scott

God created the Garden of Eden, a divinely organized habitat where Man wanted for nothing. Adam and Eve enjoyed a blissful existence. There was only one law to maintain their pristine lives: don’t eat from the forbidden fruit. Simple. Straightforward. The punishment was also fairly easy to understand: death. Any sane, rational being would do everything in their power to stay far away from the forbidden fruit. Yet the serpent managed to convince Eve to partake of the fruit. He convinced Eve to doom herself, her husband, and all of future humanity for that matter, to millennia of pain, hardship, suffering, and mortality itself.

How did the serpent manage to overcome the natural sense and self-preservation of a human being? The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 3:1 explains the serpent’s methodology. The serpent mocked. It is as simple and as powerful as that. He merely mocked God. By talking about God in a mocking tone, in a mocking language, he succeeded in completely disarming Eve of any defenses and inhibitions that would have kicked in for her self-preservation.

The power of mockery and ridicule is such that it can cause a person to completely ignore logic, good sense and even suppress their own survival instinct. The Chidushei HaRim highlights that mocking easily turns someone from serving God, from pursuing what is right and what is noble, and instead turns one away from God, towards what is wrong and ignoble.

Joking has its place, but when it mocks what is good, what is healthy, what is noble, and what is sacred, the ridicule can easily destroy those precious commodities and supplant them with the exact opposite.

May we guardedly reserve the dangerous weapons of mockery and ridicule for those few things that truly deserve it. One banishment from the Garden of Eden was enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler z”l.

Prophetic Geographic History (Vezot Habracha)

Prophetic Geographic History (Vezot Habracha)

I have seen gleams in the face and eyes of the man that have let you look into a higher country. -Thomas Carlyle

Moments before Moses is about to leave the mortal realm, God has him climb Mount Nevo and gaze upon the Promised Land. God shows Moses the length and breadth of the land in intricate detail:

“And God showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Menashe; the whole land of Judah as far as the Last (Western) Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain—the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.”

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 34:3 explains that there’s prophetic significance to each of the geographic markers God points out to Moses. In fact, each marker represents a future leader of the nation of Israel that God shows to Moses.

The most obvious site is that of Jericho. It is the first city that Moses’ disciple Joshua will conquer and it is the key battle that opens up the conquest of the rest of Canaan.

Naphtali refers to Deborah and Barak who decades later led the successful rebellion against the tyrannical Yavin and his general Sisera.

Menashe refers to the Judges, Gideon and Yiftah, who defeated their respective enemies.

Dan refers to Samson, the miraculously strong warrior who proved a major antagonist to the enemy Philistines.

Judah refers to Kings David and Solomon and their descendants.

Ephraim refers to the Kings of Israel, descendants of Ephraim, starting with Yeravam, who broke off from the Davidic dynasty and the Kingdom of Judah after Solomon’s death.

“The Last Sea” refers to the Messianic days until the end of time.

God doesn’t just show Moses the physical land that He promised to the Children of Israel. He shows Moses the future history of Israel as well. He shows him their leaders, their battles, their victories and defeats, their kings and prophets, all of our history, including our present-day and beyond, until the very end of history.

Moses may not have merited to enter the land, but he got to see more than most mortals ever have.

May we continue to merit visions of prophecies unfolding before our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the beginning of the Shmita (Sabbatical) agricultural year.

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.

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