All posts by bentzis

Biblical Military Organization (Bamidbar)

Biblical Military Organization (Bamidbar)

Order is the sanity of the mind, the health of the body, the peace of the city, the security of the state. Like beams in a house or bones to a body, so is order to all things. -Robert Southey

God knows how to count. Moses knows how to count. We have numerous examples in the Torah. The Torah gives specific numbers as to the children of Jacob that each of his wives gave birth to. It gives us specific years that the descendants of Adam lived. It tells us at what age they gave birth to their children. Moses himself gives a precise count of the number of firstborns. The Torah seems to understand numbers in the same way that we do.

Nonetheless, some numbers might appear unusual to our modern minds based on our understanding of statistics, probability, and randomness. For example, the Torah has a love affair with the number seven, which plays a central role in a multiplicity of narratives. Ten is also a fairly important number. Others have investigated the primacy of these numbers and it makes for fascinating insights.

The numerological issue that I’ve had for a long time is in this week’s Torah reading and it has to do with the count of the troops of the newborn nation of Israel. Men over the age of 20 (and probably until the age of 60) were divided and counted according to each of the 12 tribes (the tribe of Levi was excluded, being tasked with the service of the Tabernacle, were exempt from direct military duty – they were the chaplains if you will).

The issue with the count of the troops is that the total of every single tribe results in a beautiful round number. Below are the census numbers:

Reuven: 46,500 Judah: 74,600 Ephraim: 40,500 Dan: 62,700
Shimon: 59,300 Issachar: 54,400 Menashe: 32,200 Asher: 41,500
Gad: 45,650 Zebulun: 57,400 Benjamin: 35,400 Naphtali: 53,400
Total 603,550

What are the odds that in the count of over 600,000 individuals, that the results of each tribe would come out exactly to a multiple of 50 and in almost all cases 100? The odds are extremely unlikely. There must be some other explanation.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 3:16 explains that it’s not that Moses or the Torah don’t know how to count. The issue is what was the methodology and purpose of the count.

The purpose of the count was to know relative strength and numbers — they didn’t require an exact count. The methodology was that each tribal leader polled their officers. The lowest degree officer was a “captain of ten.” The level above them were the “captains of fifty.” Any grouping of less than ten did not have an officer. So in essence, they counted the officers, calculated the number of soldiers based on that, and hence we get the rounded numbers.

May we indeed remember the strength we have in numbers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children going back to school.

Ordinary Miracles (Behar-Bechukotai)

Ordinary Miracles (Behar-Bechukotai)

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle. -Walt Whitman

It is human nature to take the commonplace for granted. We are not typically amazed that the sun rises every morning. We are not astounded that objects fall when dropped, obeying the laws of gravity. We are not surprised when we speak and sound comes out of our mouths. It’s the way the world works and we don’t expect it to do otherwise.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 26:4 highlights that, every single aspect of our reality, from the most minuscule microbe to the largest galaxies is miraculous and the direct result of divine intervention. What we call nature is nothing other than a continuous stream of miracles that we have become accustomed to.

He adds that part of the “natural” order is that when a person follows God’s commands, he will also receive blessings through “nature.”

So if nature is none other than a continuous series of miracles, then what is the purpose of the more extraordinary miracles which capture our attention? The Meshech Chochma answers that the purpose of the more exciting miracles is exactly to get us to notice that God’s hand is still involved in the world and that in fact, it’s all under His control and direction. God is the composer as well as the ongoing conductor of nature.

That is one of the reasons for the directive to read Psalm 145 (the prayer known as Ashrei) three times every day. Ashrei is composed according to the Alef-Bet. The first verse starts with the letter Alef; the second with Bet; the third with Gimmel, and so on. Each subsequent verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a “natural” progression. Both the content and the structure of the Psalm attests to God’s dictating and managing “nature.”

Therefore, the Talmud states (Tractate Berachot 4b) that whoever recites Psalm 145 three times a day is assured a place in the World-to-Come. By giving continuous testimony and declaring our consistent belief in God’s constant presence in nature, our spirits become suitably prepared for a continuous attachment to God after our time in the physical world.

May we appreciate all the miracles in our lives, the mundane, the commonplace, the subtle and the extraordinary, and always give thanks.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the (finally) new Israeli government.

To Challenge our Nature (Emor)

To Challenge our Nature (Emor)

All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God. -Sir Thomas Browne

The Torah prescribes multiple holidays and celebrations throughout the calendar year. While most of them have some uncommon aspect, perhaps the one that outwardly seems the most unusual is the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), celebrated a few days after Yom Kippur, starting on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

The holiday of Sukkot has two major unusual features. The first is the construction of a Suka (Sukkot is the plural form and hence the name of the holiday). The Suka is a hut which is meant to be a temporary domicile for 7 days with some stringent requirements regarding its construction, most notably that its roof must be porous and made of some plant material. We are meant to eat, sleep, and otherwise spend the week of Sukkot in this temporary home.

The second unusual feature is the taking of the “four species,” a citron fruit (Etrog), a frond of a date palm (Lulav), myrtle boughs (Hadas), and willow branches (Arava), and to shake them during the prayers.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 23:42 analyzes the commandment of the Suka in the context of all the commandments, which for his analysis he divides into two categories. There are commandments that go against our nature and then there are commandments that are in line with our nature, but which help to strengthen or further refine our nature.

He explains that the commandment to dwell in a Suka goes very much against our nature. It is natural that after the summer harvest is over, after you’ve gathered all your produce, that you just want to rest at home in the comfort of a normal, sturdy house, which will protect you against the elements. The holiday of Sukkot literally wants to take us out of our comfort zone.

The Meshech Chochma however, learns from this a principle that applies to all commandments which go against our human inclination. He states that God Himself is the one who programmed us with our personal and collective natures. And He is also the one who gave us these “anti-nature” commandments. He knows that they will be challenging for us; for some more than others. Nonetheless, God wants us to change those natures that He gave us and to take on the challenges of His commandments which ultimately are designed to improve, refine and perfect not just our nature, but also our souls.

May we understand, accept, and succeed in the multiple tests God has designed to challenge the natures He has given us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich z”tl, who passed away this week.

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

It is an old habit with theologians to beat the living with the bones of the dead. -Robert G. Ingersoll

Joseph Thrown into a Pit – David Colyn

When a child of mine apologizes for something they did, I will sometimes counter that the apology is not very meaningful if they go on to repeat their wrongdoing. That principle, in essence, lies at the heart of an old theological conundrum that the Torah presents us with. One on hand, there is a verse in Deuteronomy that clearly states that sons will not be punished for their father’s sins, nor the fathers for their son’s sins. However, we have other places where the Torah states that God “will visit the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children.”

First of all, that doesn’t seem very fair. Second of all, how do we resolve the contradiction? Are children punished for their parents’ sins or not?

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 16:30 brings the relatively famous answer from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 27b) that children are only punished for their parents’ sins if they continue the sins of their parents. However, the Meshech Chochma deepens this equation, making us liable for ancient sins as well as dividing the sins into two broad categories.

He states that whenever we violate a ritual command, a command that is predominantly between us and God, we somehow also become guilty of our ancestors’ sin of the Golden Calf. When we violate an interpersonal command, an infraction between us and our fellow Jew, that sin is connected back through millennia to the sin of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery.

He learns this from a fascinating detail of the High Priest’s breastplate. The names of all of Jacob’s sons are etched onto the stones of the breastplate, except for one, Joseph. Having Joseph’s name there would be too stark a reminder of that ancient sin and it wouldn’t do for the High Priest, who is an agent of forgiveness and pardon, to have such an obvious reminder of that sin between brothers. It is also a reason why the breastplate, which was imbued with prophetic powers, ceased to work after the division of the monarchy into ten northern tribes (Kingdom of Israel) and two southern tribes (Kingdom of Judah) after the death of King Solomon. If there was no brotherly unity, the breastplate could not fulfill its ultimate function of being a conduit for divine communications.

If we don’t learn from our parents’ and our ancestors’ mistakes, if we repeat them, we are held accountable for those very mistakes. The point is we should have learned from them. If we do learn from them, if we repent, then those original sins are somehow also pardoned.

In our Yom Kippur liturgy, we quote God’s response to Moses of “and I will pardon you as per your words,” which occurs immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf. That is our pardon for the ritual sins for which we’ve repented. However, we also have the language of “and a pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun.” That is the pardon for the sins we’ve committed against our brothers from which we’ve repented.

May we learn from our own and our ancestors’ mistakes, and not repeat them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the State of Israel, on the 72nd anniversary of its reestablishment.

Spiritual First Responders (Tazria-Metzora)

Spiritual First Responders (Tazria-Metzora)

A man of courage is also full of faith. -Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

It’s fascinating and even a little eerie, that the Torah, written more than 3,300 years ago, already prescribes ideas of quarantine, isolation, contagion and social distancing millennia before the modern world figured it out for itself.

This week’s Torah reading of Tazria-Metzora deals with the spiritual-physical malady known as Tzaraat. It was an unusual skin condition that was the result of a spiritual-ethical failing, most commonly attributed to gossiping, but could also be caused by a host of other shortcomings. Tzaraat should not be confused with leprosy, an incorrect translation that is often used.

The Torah further details the treatment protocol of someone infected with Tzaraat. The afflicted person needed to be seen by a Kohen who would determine if it was indeed Tzaraat. If the Kohen confirmed that it was Tzaraat, the patient needed to leave their house, leave the entire encampment of Israel and remain in isolation until the Tzaraat was gone. The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 13:2 delves deeper into the disease and specifically those tasked with intervention, the Kohens.

According to the Meshech Chochma, quoting Talmudic sources, Tzaraat was highly contagious. It may be that it was not necessarily from the physical transmission, but rather because the infected person suffered from a defect of the spirit, an ethical virus, that could easily be transmitted to someone with a weak spiritual immune system or other underlying spiritual maladies. That is one of the reasons the infected person would have to call out “impure, impure,” so people would know to avoid him and practice social distancing from him.

Because of the danger of the disease, and its possibility to easily infect others, one group from within Israel, the Kohens, who had already been separated and sanctified from within the rest of the people of Israel, were tasked with treating Tzaraat. The Kohens were designated to be the first responders, the doctors, and nurses who would check, diagnose, treat and tend to these spiritually afflicted people, even though the job took them out of their normal working environment of the Tabernacle. The Meshech Chochma states that the special designation of the Kohens gave them unique protection against the corrosive danger of the spiritual virus at the heart of Tzaraat.

The Kohen’s ancient role in Israel was to facilitate a Jew’s connection with God in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple in Jerusalem. They braved an encounter with the dangerous virus of Tzaraat out of faith. The Kohen’s mission of being the spiritual physician of the people in turn provided him with protection against the spiritual virus.

May we all achieve and maintain spiritual and physical health and avoid viral infections of any sort.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the Holocaust survivors, including my grandparents, Jakob and Ita Spitz z”l.

We’re all in the Same Boat (Shmini)

We’re all in the Same Boat (Shmini)

When a man has done all he can do, still there is a mighty, mysterious agency over which he needs influence to secure success. The one way he can reach it is by prayer. -Russel H. Conwell

 

When Moses was apparently delayed in returning from the top of Mount Sinai, the people panicked and forced his brother Aaron to construct the infamous Golden Calf. God, in His fury, was ready to wipe out the people of Israel, but thanks to Moses’ intervention God relented and the nation was spared.

Fast forward many months later and Aaron, the newly inducted High Priest, during the consecration of the freshly built Tabernacle, is commanded by God to bring a sacrifice of a calf to atone for himself as well as for the entire nation. The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 9:7 explains that this calf comes to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.

He further elaborates that Aaron had not been completely spared from punishment. The older two of his four sons, Nadav and Avihu, were killed by God in a dramatic divine fire which emanated in the Tabernacle. Moses’ prayer led to God sparing only the two younger sons. Moses’ prayer did half the job.

The Meshech Chochma explains that the people still required atonement. While it was Aaron who physically constructed the Golden Calf, the people of Israel are the ones who had forced him to do it, and therefore they had a measure of responsibility that had not been forgiven. Therefore, Aaron’s sacrifice of the calf as an atonement for his sin of the Golden Calf would also serve as an atonement for the nation’s role in demanding of him to construct the idol.

They were in the same boat. They were essentially partners in the sin and the sacrifice would serve to atone for both Aaron and the nation. Aaron, the High Priest, needed to pray both for himself as well as for the rest of the nation. Thankfully, his sacrifice and his prayers were subsequently accepted.

May our prayers be rapidly accepted and may we see health restored to the entire world, quickly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To those smart enough to be careful with social distancing.

A Seder of War, Famine, Wild Beasts and Plague

A Seder of War, Famine, Wild Beasts and Plague

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Much has been written, spoken, videoed and shared about the coronavirus pandemic we are all living through. I beg those who for whatever reason are still not taking it seriously, to please take all the requested precautions seriously. There is a natural tendency to think “it won’t happen to me.” I pray that it won’t, but the growing circle of our friends and acquaintances who have been struck by this disease is proving the foolishness of thinking anyone is more impervious than others to the disease that has run rampant around the globe. And if you have less concern for your own safety, at least please be mindful of others.

However, to the other end of the spectrum, to those who are living in dread and fear, I beg you to continue to take the requested precautions seriously, but to also be cognizant of your mental health. It is counterproductive to be so fearful that it affects your health, your wellbeing and that of those around you. Reach out. Talk to someone whom you trust or someone you think can give you the needed emotional support we all need, especially now. There is no shame in doing so.

It is indeed a time of global havoc. Not just health-wise, but also economic. Most of us have not seen such widespread dislocation in our lives. Many are on the front-line, saving lives from this invisible enemy. Many are supporting that effort. Many are wondering how they will survive the economic turmoil. Many are suffering in isolation; many because they are alone; many because they aren’t. The turmoil, pain, and despair are real.

Many platitudes can be given about being strong, about having faith, about this being an opportunity for growth. I believe in them. However, I also know that they will fall on deaf ears for those in the grip of fear. For those who don’t know where their next meal will come from. For those millions of people globally who are now unemployed and have no idea how they will generate income. I don’t know the answers. And that brings me to Pesach.

Our ancestors, more than 3,300 years ago, faced tremendous uncertainty. Others have already written about the parallels to the deadly plague of the firstborns which forced the Jews to remain locked in their homes on Pesach night. I want to focus on the uncertainties they faced. There was a massive shift in the world order occurring in those days. The mightiest empire on Earth, the powerful, centuries-strong Egyptian empire was ravaged by plagues. The Jewish people, a slave caste, was on the brink of not just freedom, but of being cut off from the only source of sustenance and employment they had known for generations. They were about to leave the only homes and possessions they knew. They were to follow Moses into the unknown, into the harsh, lifeless desert, with only the command of an unknowable God to back up the claims of His first prophet.

Did they not have reason to fear? Did they not have reason to distrust Moses and His invisible God? Did they not have a reason for cynicism? They did. However, we are the descendants of those who believed. We are the descendants of those who took a leap of faith. We are the descendants of those who had the courage, the strength, the spiritual drive to step into the unknown; to believe in an all-powerful God and His prophet; to believe in the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to believe in the ancient promises, the divine covenant between God and our patriarchs. We believed. It is that unshakeable belief that has sustained our people through the most pernicious and devastating horrors humanity could inflict on us for over three millennia. We persevere. We stand, even with a sense of triumph. The triumph of being on the side of eternity.

We are an ancient people. We have seen empires rise and fall. We have seen civilizations built, destroyed and rebuilt. We have experienced and survived war, famine, wild beasts and plague. We can handle this. We shall overcome.

May this Seder, whether we are doing it alone, on our own, in smaller or different circumstances than we’re used to, be a meaningful Seder. May it be a reaffirmation of our unbreakable connection to our past Exodus; may it be a signal of our upcoming Exodus. May it signify our freedom. Our freedom from fear, our freedom from not just the microscopic plague that ails humanity but also the spiritual plagues that have infected our society. When we eat the Matza, that long-lasting poor man’s bread, may it be more heartfelt. When we drink the four cups of wine, symbolizing salvation, may we do so with greater significance. When we invite Elijah the Prophet to our home, may it be with greater emotion. And when we pray and sing to celebrate all together in a rebuilt Jerusalem next year, may we really mean it.

Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, joyous and inspiring Pesach.

Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Correction on last week’s post: my dear friend, Rabbi Gad Dishi, pointed out that my interpretation of last week’s Meshech Chochma was not as accurate as possible. I translated the term “minim” as ancient atheists and understood the Meshech Chochma to be referring to people at the time of the Temple. Rabbi Dishi correctly pointed out that the Meshech Chochma appears to be referring to post-Temple Christians and their Eucharist service. However, the more accurate translation doesn’t change the gist or message of what I wrote.