All posts by bentzis

Treacherous Prominence (Korach)

Treacherous Prominence (Korach)

Rust consumes iron and envy consumes itself. -Danish proverb

Korach, Moses’ first cousin, also from the tribe of Levi, was a great man in his own right. He was an elder, a knowledgeable sage, a gifted orator, wealthy beyond measure, touched by prophecy and a natural leader of men.

So, the question is, why did honored and prominent Korach unite with veteran troublemakers Datan and Aviram, raise a conspiracy of 250 other leaders of Israel and incite a doomed rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 16:1 deepens the question by referencing a Midrash that states that God intended for Korach to be the titular leader of the Levites, in parallel to Aaron’s leadership of the Kohens. Indeed, there was nobody else at Korach’s level from amongst the other Levites for such a prominent position. Korach himself was cognizant of his exalted level, which may have been the beginning of his downfall.

According to the Chidushei HaRim, Korach’s ruin came about from two related emotions: envy and arrogance. He became envious of another prominent cousin, Elizafan son of Uziel who had been given an important honor. That little seed of jealousy grew and corrupted the previously righteous sage until he was blinded by it. He was so blinded that it inflated his arrogance to a level that he started to throw baseless accusations against Moses. His envy, his arrogance and the resulting blindness were so complete, that he couldn’t appreciate that he was attacking the man who was directly and expressly chosen by God to lead the nation, the man whom God declared was the humblest of all men.

God’s reaction is severe and immediate, and Korach’s ruin is complete and permanent.

The 250 leaders who supported Korach are consumed by a heavenly fire when they recreate part of the Tabernacle service. Korach’s allies, Datan and Aviram, all their household and possessions are swallowed up by a miraculously opened earth. It’s not clear from the verses, which of the two dooms falls upon Korach personally. Some commentaries explain that both immolation by divine fire and getting swallowed by the earth occurred to Korach simultaneously for a particularly dramatic death for a formally great man.

While the cliché “the greater they are, the harder they fall,” could very well be associated with Korach, his story is also a warning to all, no matter how low or high, of the dangers of the twin emotions of self-destruction: envy and arrogance. May we steer clear of both.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbanit Tova Rhein z”l.

Why Leaders Become Corrupt (Shlach)

Why Leaders Become Corrupt (Shlach)

Power will intoxicate the best hearts, as wine the strongest heads. -Charles Caleb Colton

Moses selects twelve men, twelve princes of Israel to scout the land of Canaan, the land God promised to the nation of Israel. The princes are named. Each one was a great leader. Not only were they great leaders, the rabbinic tradition holds that they were also righteous men.

However, between their appointment and their report on what they saw in the land of Canaan, something happened. Something that led them to sin so gravely that they sowed panic and dissension within the nation of Israel. They repudiated Moses’ leadership and God’s omnipotence and brought upon the entire nation the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert.

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 13:2 wonders how this transformation occured. How did ten of the most important men of Israel’s leadership, ten righteous men fall so low, so fast?

He explains that it had to do with the people. It was not only their appointment and the power it represented that corrupted these previously righteous men. It was the people they represented. Somehow, by having some level of representation of the people, the princes picked up on the people’s intentions. The problem was that a certain percentage of the population didn’t want to enter the Promised Land. They had tired of the desert, of Moses’ leadership and of God’s presence in their lives. They wanted to be free of those, and ironically, return to the slavery and the familiarity of Egypt. Those rebellious intentions somehow infected the previously righteous leaders once they were appointed. That tainted the princes’ scouting mission from the start. Their scouting of the land of Canaan commenced with an intention to sabotage the planned entry into the land.

However, two princes were spared from the conspiracy and demonstrated greater strength of character and loyalty. Those were Joshua and Caleb. Before Joshua had departed on the mission, Moses renamed Joshua (in Hebrew, he changed it from Hoshea to Yehoshua) by including a part of God’s name in Joshua’s name. Caleb went to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to pray at their graves. It seems that by binding oneself so firmly to God that it becomes a part of one’s name and identity, as well as intense prayer calling on the merits of our forefathers somehow deflected the negative influences of the crowd on those two leaders.

May we always seek ways to deflect the corruption and negative influences we may find.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the induction of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon as the Rabbi of Gush Etzion.

Calm and Seasoned (Behaalotcha)

Calm and Seasoned (Behaalotcha)

Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom. When the passions have relaxed their hold and have escaped, not from one master, but from many. -Plato

By modern standards, the Levites who served in the Tabernacle, and later, in the Temple in Jerusalem, had an early retirement.

The verses declare:

“This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 8:25 gets into more detail as to what this post-retirement life looked like for the over-fifty Levite. He says that these older Levites were assigned the duty of “closing the gates.” However, there is a much deeper significance to the term “closing the gates” than merely the physical shutting of some aperture.

He starts off by noting that the older Levites were charged with closing the gates as opposed to the converse task of opening the gates. He then compares the term “gates” to the same term that’s used in Solomon’s Song of Songs. However, the deeper meaning in that context is not “gates” but rather “excitement.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that while excitement is an important, if not vital emotion, there are times that it needs to be reigned in. It is much more the domain of the young to exhibit indiscriminate passion and exuberance. However, it can often be misguided, misplaced, disproportionate or otherwise tainted.

The older Levite, who has more life’s experience and perspective will be able to better discern when, and how much, exuberance has its place. The Chidushei HaRim continues that it is easy for negative, impure aspects to attach themselves to otherwise good and proper excitement. While after the age of fifty, the Levite may not have had to be involved in the physical or otherwise arduous role the Levites had in the Tabernacle and Temple, they still had an important part to play. They had a supervisory, mentoring, guiding role. Part of it is to “close the gates,” meaning, to rein in and properly direct the energies and enthusiasm of the younger, less experienced Levites.

May we always be able to combine the energy of youth with the insights of age.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of famed Israeli actor, Rabbi Uri Zohar z”l.

Free Protection (Naso)

Free Protection (Naso)

You must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. -Andrew Jackson

The Torah reading of Naso is a diverse and content-rich portion. It includes a description of the work the Levites performed transporting the Tabernacle components during their desert journey. It has instructions regarding the treatment of anyone who is ritually impure, their need to exit the camp and purify themselves. We then have the unusual description of the Sotah ceremony, the ritual for a wife suspected and accused of adultery by her husband, followed by the narrative of the laws of the Nazirites who abstain from wine, from cutting their hair and from the defilement of the dead.

The second half of the portion of Naso gives a detailed and extensive description of the sacrifices and gifts the princes of the tribes of Israel bring for the dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. It is notable for the twelve detailed repetitions of what is ostensibly the same offering over and over and over again.

However, nestled in between these two sections of Naso, we have the famed priestly blessing, just a few verses long. It states as follows:

“God will bless you and protect you. God will light His countenance upon you and grace you. God will turn His countenance towards you and give you peace.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 6:24 wonders as to the need to mention protection together with blessing in the first verse. By way of explanation, he contrasts the blessing of God to the blessing of a king of flesh and blood. When a human king bestows upon a person some blessing or some gift, once that person has departed from the king’s presence there is little to then stop robbers from harming him, stealing the gifts and nullifying whatever blessing the king gave.

However, with God’s blessings, the protection of that blessing is part and parcel of what God is bestowing. The protection of the blessing is included in the blessing itself.

The Chidushei HaRim continues that even if a mortal king were to assign guards to escort and protect the recipient of his gift, that is not how mortal blessings are given and even such protection would be limited. On the other hand, God’s protection is intrinsic to the blessing and inseparable from God’s will.

May we always be recipients of gifts of the divine variety that will remain unharmed and untouched by any negative intentions.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bat-Mitzvah of our niece, Illyana Spitz. Mazal Tov!

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The multitude which is not brought to act as a unity, is confusion. That unity which has not its origin in the multitude is tyranny. -Blaise Pascal

The name of the fourth of Moses’ five books of the Torah is called Bamidbar in Hebrew, meaning “in the desert.” As with the four other books, it is also the name of the first Torah portion of its eponymous book. While one can’t argue with the fact or the appropriateness of calling the book which deals primarily with Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the Book of In the Desert, it is interesting that the translators chose to call it the Book of Numbers.

It is not entirely inappropriate, for there is a significant preoccupation with counting the numbers of the Children of Israel, both at the beginning of their desert journey as well as at the end of it, as well as some other counting and numbering going on.

One of the peculiarities that become clear in the counting of Israel is the hierarchy of different groups vis-à-vis access to and service in the Tabernacle. The Kohens have the preeminent role, followed by the Levites in a supporting role, and finally the rest of the tribes of Israel. The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 1:1 discusses the importance and value of the different designations and separations. There are differences between individuals, families, groups and nations and it would be a mistake to look at or think of every individual as part of some universal, monolithic, amorphous whole. The identity, distinctions and roles serve a purpose.

However, when these disparate groups come together and unite while still retaining their distinctions and identities, that is when something truly special happens, that is when the elusive peace we are always seeking is possible. The Chidushei HaRim quotes a well-known Talmudic dictum that there is no vessel that can contain blessings for Israel except for peace. He adds that there is a hint in this dictum in the word “vessel” itself, which in Hebrew is “Kli.” He states that “KLI” is the acronym for Kohen, Levi, Israel. When Kohens, Levites and the rest of Israel are united, while still retaining their identities and their roles, that is when we create peace and that is when we can truly become vessels for bountiful blessing.

May we reach that unity, peace and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Daniel and Rebbitzen Ilana Epstein on their induction as the Rabbinic couple at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue of London.

Wandering Aimfully (Bechukotai)

Wandering Aimfully (Bechukotai)

It is the first of all problems for a man to find out what kind of work he is to do in this universe. -Thomas Carlyle

The beginning of the Torah reading of Bechukotai has God declaring that if we walk in His ways, in His laws, He will bless us with plenty. The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 26:3 focuses on the verb of walking and draws our attention to a Midrash about King David and walking.

King David is quoted as saying “God, every day I would say to myself I’m going to walk to such and such place, but my legs would take me to synagogues and study halls.”

The Chidushei HaRim provides two different homiletical explanations for the message of the Midrash. The first explanation is that every day, every person has a different mission to accomplish. Our missions are not static. It’s not the same mission every day, rather every day presents a new challenge, a new task, a new twist, even a new nuance we are meant to undertake. Related to the point of our missions, is that every mission is unique to each person and no person can accomplish or do someone else’s mission for them. Our legs are what take us to our missions. While we might have thought we were going to one place, in fact, we’re being led to confront, deal, help, intervene, say a kind word, or do whatever it is that our personal unique mission for the day is.

The second explanation is geared towards introverts, or those who don’t like crowds or public gatherings. The Chidushei HaRim explains that King David is talking about how his original intent was to perform some commandment or to study Torah on his own, but his feet would take him to the synagogue or the study hall to perform the commandments in a group, with the community, to pray and study Torah with people as opposed to on his own. While of course there is a value and often a need to perform things on one’s own, there is a much higher value when we perform these things in a group.

May we let our feet take us to good things and places as well as to wander with purpose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT, for their warm hosting, and to Howard and Eileen Spielman of Sharon, MA, for knowing how to wonderfully surprise.

Tangible Breath (Behar)

Tangible Breath (Behar)

A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything. -Napoleon Bonaparte

Hebrew is a language with many amorphous words. The same word can have multiple meanings which will vary based on the context or even the interpretation. One of my favorite is the word “Havel.” It is most commonly translated as vanity or futility, as in the opening verse of King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) “Havel havalim, amar kohelet, havel havalim, hakol havel. – popularly translated as “Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vain.”

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 25:8 gives a vastly deeper and more significant explanation to what “Havel” may be referring to.

He starts off with a seemingly dichotomous use of the word “Havel” by the sages who state that the world is in existence solely thanks to the “Havel” of the mouths of young students. That begs the question that if “Havel” is vanity or futility, how does such “Havel” maintain the universe? The classic translation of “Havel” in this context is the “speech” of the young students. Somehow something as nebulous as the sounds of Torah which emanate from young children’s mouths are so precious and vital that they give the universe the capacity to exist, that the breath they use to repeat the Torah they learned is so powerful that the breath in a sense creates reality.

The Chidushei HaRim compares it to God’s own “breath” which brought life to Adam and all of existence. He then takes this concept to the mortal plane. Man has the capacity to create and destroy with the breath of his mouth. The words we use have very tangible, real-world consequences. We can build up or tear down people, their identity, their reputation, their livelihood, their opportunities and everything that makes them who they are and gives them life.

In the context of the Torah reading of Behar, a person can decide whether to give instructions regarding keeping the agricultural laws, specifically the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Proper observance of these laws is what gives the land and those who dwell on it continued existence and blessing. One opinion as to the reason the Jewish people were exiled from the land of Israel millennia ago was exactly because of their failure to keep these laws. That failure revoked their right to exist on the land and led directly to their forceful and violent expulsion.

So, another understanding of the word “Havel” might be “divine breath.” Therefore, instead of translating King Solomon’s famous phrase as “Vanity of vanities, all is vain,” we might read it as “Divine breaths of divine breaths, all is divine breath.” It is a fundamental understanding that God is behind everything and responsible for everything, and that we ourselves have the gift of “divine breath” to make a positive impact in His world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yair Maimon of Tekoa, for his bravery, alertness and presence of mind to shoot the terrorist attacking him right outside his home.

Sabbath Radiance (Emor)

Sabbath Radiance (Emor)

Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Among the many commandments included in the Torah reading of Emor is a listing of the various holidays of the year. Launching that festive list is the Sabbath. While the Sabbath is not strictly a holiday, and it does occur in a consistent seven-day schedule it, perhaps unexpectedly gets to top the list of the holidays of Israel.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 23:3 digs deeper into the significance of the Sabbath being considered a holiday. He explains that the nation of Israel is responsible for establishing the dates of the holidays. Holidays in Hebrew are also referred to as “Zmanim” – literally it means Times. Somehow, the establishment of Time is the domain of Israel and in some mystical sense, Israel creates Time. Continuing with this esoteric line of thought, the Sabbath is the “life” of Time, the kernel that allows Time to proceed. The existence and the observance of the Sabbath are the foundation for the continued stream of time as we know it. Hence, it starts off the list of all other holidays.

Linking these ideas together, that Israel is responsible for Time and the Sabbath is the foundation of Time, is the corollary that the Jewish people and the Sabbath are one. The Chidushei Harim expounds this parallelism from two biblical verses in which each one refers to “dwelling places.” The verse in the reading here of Emor states “it is God’s Sabbath in all your dwelling places.” The other verse in the Book of Exodus describes the plague of darkness, with which God struck the Egyptians, and the verse continues “and for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwelling places.” Just as light dispels darkness, the Sabbath dispels darkness.

The Sabbath has the power to dispel the darkness of the soul, to shine a light of spiritual radiance into the dark recesses of our existence. The Sabbath has the capacity to banish what ails us, to polish our inner selves to the point where we can more truly and clearly appreciate and connect to God.

May we merit to bask in the full radiance of a divine Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Netanel on his engagement to Adina Spielman of Bet Shemesh. Mazal Tov!

Seeing the Instructions (Kedoshim)

Seeing the Instructions (Kedoshim)

What we learn only through the ears makes less impression upon our minds than what is presented to the trustworthy eye. -Horace

The Torah reading of Kedoshim deals with the concept of sanctity, of being holy, transcendent. It covers a wide range of topics: respecting our parents, keeping the Sabbath, avoiding idol worship, offering the sacrifices to God in the correct form, leaving of your crops to the poor. The list goes on and on.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 19:11, noting the parallels and repetitions of the Ten Commandments here, recalls how at Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were presented, it says that the Jewish nation “saw the sounds.” Besides the normal impossibility for humans to see sound waves unaided, the Chidushei HaRim wonders as to what the purpose for us would be to have been able to visualize the words that God was uttering to the nation of Israel.

He explains that there was a very straightforward reason that has to do with some of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew language. He gives the example of the command not to steal, which phonetically is pronounced “Lo tignovu.” “Lo” in Hebrew is spelled with a Lamed and an Alef. However, there is a phonetically similar word, likewise pronounced “Lo” but spelled with a Lamed and a Vav, which translated in this context would mean “for him, steal” which is diametrically opposed to the command not to steal.

As such, it became imperative for the Jewish people to see the words, to see the written spelling of God’s commands to remove any doubt or hesitation as to what God’s intentions were. Therefore, God needed to miraculously provide visual captions for all the commandments, besides the powerful audio feed.

May we realize that just hearing something isn’t always enough. Sometimes things literally need to be visually spelled out to be properly understood and absorbed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Nachshon Lustig on his Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

Actively Passive (Acharei Mot)

Actively Passive (Acharei Mot)

To make oneself an object, to make oneself passive, is a very different thing from being a passive object. -Simone de Beauvoir

According to both biblical and Midrashic sources, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, were great men. In some respect, they were even considered greater than Moses and Aaron, which makes it even more perplexing how such prestigious and religiously accomplished individuals could deserve such a dramatic divine punishment. How was it that a divine fire killed these two great men on the very day of the consecration of the Tabernacle?

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 16:3 states that while Nadav and Avihu were clearly great men and purely motivated, they made a critical mistake. They showed initiative at the wrong time. Furthermore, the demonstration of initiative in the wrong instance indicates a dangerous understanding of man’s role in God’s world.

It demonstrated a belief that they controlled the world to an extent, that they were the masters of the outcome of events, that the strength of their hand would shape reality. The Chidushei HaRim explains at length that such belief is a fallacy and misunderstands God’s active role in the world.

He highlights the underlying premise that God is in complete control of everything. A grain of sand does not move unless God allows it. God gives us free will and the ability to exercise it. He will rarely intervene in our actions in a direct or obvious way, but He is the ultimate enabler of everything that occurs in the world. We have an obligation to follow His commands and to use our free will to do what God asks. However, when we use our abilities and initiative to do something God hasn’t commanded, it presumes a certain arrogance and belief that we can determine what should and will happen in the world.

When those instincts of wanting to act when we aren’t supposed to come to the fore, we need to consciously refrain from pursuing those actions. We need to actively be passive. That is what Moses tells the Jews when they stood at the Sea with the Egyptian army poised to attack them: “God will fight for you, and you stay still.”

There are times for action, there are times for initiative, but perhaps no less important, there are times not to take the initiative, not to react, not to presume that we are the masters of what occurs, but rather to remember that God is the ultimate conductor. Ironically, once we internalize that we’re not the ones in control, it enables greater autonomy in God’s world. Once we realize that God is ultimately in control, it gives us a greater ability and license to correctly exercise our free will.

May we realize what things we can and should get involved in, and in which things we shouldn’t.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe. Wishing him and the rest of the Dragon Endeavour crew a safe return.