All posts by bentzis

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).

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains. -Henri Frederic Amiel

A couple of weeks ago, we read in the Torah how the sorcerer Bilaam was hired by the king of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. The Moabites allied themselves with the Midianites to fight Israel. Their hope and expectation were that the curse of the powerful sorcerer Bilaam would allow them to rout the Israelites who were getting uncomfortably close to their borders on their desert journey to the land of Canaan. Though Israel had no intention of bothering either of those nations and had explicit instructions from God not to harm the Moabites, these allies either weren’t aware or didn’t believe in the peaceful intentions of the nomadic tribes of Israel who had spent almost forty years in the desert and had recently started making their way towards Canaan.

As we read then, the efforts of Bilaam were a massive failure. Despite his eagerness and enthusiasm to curse Israel, God forces Bilaam to utter beautiful poetic blessings to Israel in front of the Moabite and Midianite leadership. After three botched efforts, Balak, King of Moab, sends the failed sorcerer home. The question arises as to why we see Bilaam unexpectedly mentioned in this week’s reading, seven chapters after Balak sent Bilaam home in ignominy? In this week’s reading, the Israelite army does ultimately attack the Midianites in retaliation for the mass-seduction of Israelite men by the Moabite and Midianite daughters, which followed the episode with Bilaam. The public licentiousness and accompanying idolatry lead to God’s fury and punishment of Israel by plague. What is Bilaam doing in the middle of this later battle with Midian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 31:8 explains that Bilaam had indeed failed in his bid to curse Israel and was sent home in shame. However, the Midianites had understood from Bilaam that the way to harm Israel is to get them to sin and that God is particularly hateful of sexual licentiousness. The Moabites and Midianites follow Bilaam’s hint, sending their daughters to seduce the Israelite men, which leads directly to God killing 24,000 Israelite men by a sudden plague. Finally, seeing the vulnerability of Israel due to their fresh and flagrant sin, the Midianites call Bilaam back to finish the job and curse Israel.

Bilaam does indeed return to try to curse Israel again, which explains his unexpected presence at this later place and time. However, this apparently powerful sorcerer didn’t learn from his first failure against Israel and he succumbs to an ignoble fate, to be caught and killed during Israel’s retaliation against Midian.

May God always protect us from our enemies, on all fronts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Joseph Wiesel z”l. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

When to fear the powerful (Pinchas)

When to fear the powerful (Pinchas)

We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly. -Jean De La Bruyere

It is a scene of chaos. Multiple Israelite men are being openly promiscuous with Moabite and Midianite women in the Israelite desert encampment in contravention of God’s laws. God, enraged, orders Moses to kill the offenders. The prince of one of the tribes of Israel, Zimri prince of the tribe of Shimon, goes so far as to publicly couple with a Midianite princess. Moses and the rest of the leadership are shocked into inaction by this display of open rebellion by one of the nation’s leaders. At the same time, a virulent God-sent plague is killing thousands of men in a matter of moments. Bodies are dropping dead left and right.

This is when Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, steps in.  Pinchas takes a spear, and without preamble proceeds to skewer Zimri, prince of Shimon and the Midianite princess, Kozbi daughter of Tzur. The Torah tells us that Pinchas’ act stops the plague in its tracks, which reached an astonishing death toll of 24,000 during the course of the event.

God is effusive with his praise of Pinchas for his lone act of vigilantism. God promises Pinchas “a pact of peace.” A number of commentaries wonder as to the unusual if not ironic reward God promises Pinchas: peace as a reward for his violence.

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 25:12 explains that Pinchas might have thought he would have much to fear in terms of repercussions from the families of the prince and princess. These were powerful people and powerful families that he had pitted himself against. They had the means, resources and motivation to take revenge upon Pinchas. God is telling Pinchas that he will have peace; that these families won’t touch him or trouble him. God guarantees it. He is telling Pinchas that he was right to confront the evil head on and not worry at the time about the importance, position or power of the wrongdoers. Pinchas was in the right and God will protect him with an everlasting covenant of peace from tribulations of any vengeful relatives.

While it is wise to be wary of the powerful, may we always be on the side of right, no matter the power of those involved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Surfside building tragedy. May the mourners be consoled.

The Destiny of Nations (Balak)

The Destiny of Nations (Balak)

A country grows in history not only because of the heroism of its troops on the field of battle, it grows also when it turns to justice and to right for the conservation of its interests. -Aristide Briand

The Torah reading of Balak contains an almost comical story about the sorcerer Bilaam, attributed as possessing the power to curse people and nations, who is hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. God warns Bilaam that he won’t succeed in cursing Israel. Bilaam nonetheless proceeds. To his great chagrin and embarrassment, Bilaam tries three different times, from three different places to curse Israel, but instead, some of the most beautiful and poetic blessings that have ever been declared about Israel come out of his mouth.

What is perhaps less noticed is that after the three different blessings that Bilaam pronounces, after his embarrassing failure to perform the job he was hired to do, he does continue to tap into that divine power clearly operating through him and utters prophecies about some of the other nations in the ancient Near East.

Two of the nations which he discusses in quick succession are Amalek and the Kenites. He sees that Amalek “the leading nation” will eventually face complete oblivion, but about the Kenites, he proclaims “your abode will be secure and your nest set among the cliffs.”

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 24:20-21 explains that the contrast of the two nations is purposeful and ironic. Amalek and the Kenites lived together, but beyond their physical proximity, they were on opposite poles in their relationship with Israel. Amalek was the first to confront, ambush and attack the nation of Israel, shortly after Israel’s miraculous exodus from Egypt. In response to their savage and cowardly attack, we are commanded to obliterate them, to which God also promises that “I will wipe the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.”

However, the Kenites, under the leadership of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, reached out to Israel in peace, friendship and love, and were even the conceivers of the justice system which Moses and the nation of Israel would adopt and implement. They merited a secure and prosperous existence, eventually joining the Jewish nation. Where Amalek was the first nation to fight us, the Kenites were the first nation to reach out to us in friendship.

May our friends and allies always be blessed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yehoshua and Yehuda Spitz on graduating high school and to all graduates this year. Congratulations!

The Dearness of Impurity (Chukat)

The Dearness of Impurity (Chukat)

We are not naive enough to ask for pure men; we ask merely for men whose impurity does not conflict with the obligations of their job. -Jean Rostand

The concept of ritual impurity plays a significant role in the Torah and Jewish law. The Torah deals extensively with a variety of scenarios where one contracts ritual impurity. There are several places and activities that are prohibited to a ritually impure person, and likewise, there are several processes enacted to purify such individuals and allow their return to either the places and/or the activities they were previously barred from because of their impure designation. The consequences of all of these laws had their greatest impact during Temple times, though some aspects remain in our current reality.

In its essence, the concept of ritual impurity in Jewish law can be most closely associated with death. Death, in a sense, is the ultimate source of impurity. The level of impurity is often a measure of the proximity of contact with death. A dead body is the highest level of impurity. People or items that touched or were housed together with the dead body can both contract and transmit lesser levels of impurity.

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 19:2 explains that some seemingly unusual comparisons can be made. For example, even a person as exalted and holy as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol), if he has died, he becomes a source of impurity, while the bones of a lowly donkey are considered pure.

Such a contrast became a source of contention and even ridicule on the part of the ancient Sadducees against the Rabbis of old. The Bechor Shor quotes their debate and brings the answer of the Rabbis (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, Tractate Yadayim 4:6) who states that “according to the affection for them, so is their impurity.”

A parent is incomparably more beloved than a donkey, and their remains should be treated with significantly more honor and respect. Hence, the fact that their remains contaminate, means we cannot utilize their remains for any other purpose. It reinforces the need for us to treat those remains with the utmost respect and give them an honorable burial. There are no such restrictions on using the remains of an animal.

According to this, there is not necessarily something wrong with a state of impurity. In fact, it can be considered a type of defense mechanism or even a status that demonstrates how dear something is to us.

May we understand and respect the few laws of impurity relevant in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new Israeli government. Hoping good will come from it.

Premeditated Ritual Entrapment? (Korach)

Premeditated Ritual Entrapment? (Korach)

It is a revenge the devil sometimes takes upon the virtuous, that he entraps them by the force of the very passion they have suppressed and think themselves superior to. -George Santayana

Korach, together with accomplices Datan and Aviram, instigate a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the sons of Amram. They encourage 250 distinguished leaders of Israel to protest against the seeming nepotism of Moses, the de facto leader, and his brother Aaron, the High Priest.

Moses offers an unusual solution to their protest. He suggests that the 250 rebels come in front of the Tabernacle, each with his own fire pan with burning incense on it. Aaron will also come with his, and God will decide directly who is worthy of the designation of High Priest.

The 250 leaders come the next morning with their fire pans filled with burning incense. Aaron also arrives. Besides holes miraculously opening up in the ground and swallowing up Datan, Aviram, and their entourage, God sends a fire that kills each of the 250 rebellious leaders holding their incense burning fire pans. Aaron, Moses, and all other non-participants are unharmed.

However, the people of Israel are furious with Moses and Aaron and accuse them of murder. The Bechor Shor on Numbers 17:6 takes the accusation seriously and tries to understand what’s behind the murder accusation.

He explains that the accusers felt that Moses knew incense burning was a dangerous act. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, had died by the hand of God for offering unauthorized incense. The rebel leaders had trusted Moses when he told them to bring their incense, but the accusers surmised that Moses must have known it would lead to their death, that handling incense was a death sentence to those who came in contact with it, except for Aaron who must have had some immunity.

God is not amused by the constant challenging of the leadership He chose. Having lost patience, He strikes the nation of Israel with an insanely fast-hitting plague. Moses, realizing God had struck, sends Aaron with incense in his ladle right into the middle of where the plague had started. Aaron rushes in and stops the plague, standing right in between the dead and the living; giving a very palpable demonstration that incense, correctly used, is not only not dangerous, but can save lives. In a matter of moments, 14,700 had died from the plague. Aaron and his incense were the only things that stood between the dead and the survivors.

May we realize the value of rituals as well as the value of good deeds.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of our niece Leora Spitz to Sammy Landesman. Mazal Tov!

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand. -Bertrand Russell

There were multiple crises, challenges, and mistakes that occurred during the journey of the nation of Israel through the desert. Perhaps none were as dramatic and impactful as the Sin of the Spies. Moses chose twelve men, one from each tribe, each one a prince, a man of high character and position. He sent them on what should have been an easy and straightforward mission: Check out the land. Check out the land that was promised to us by our all-powerful God, the God who liberated us from the most powerful empire and army on the planet, the God who revealed Himself to us at Mount Sinai when the entire world shook from His presence.

However, ten of the twelve spies returned with a negative, disheartening report, which struck fear into the nation of Israel, causing them to cry, to rebel against God’s plans. God, in His fury, struck down the ten rebellious spies and decreed the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert to the rest of the nation.

The mission of the spies should have been just a formality. Why the need to check something God had promised would be a land “flowing with milk and honey”? If God could destroy the largest, most powerful military at the time in Egypt, why would there be any concern over the smaller, weaker vassal Canaanite city-states?

A related question is that with such promises and such Omnipotent strength on their side, why would Moses send spies at all? and once he did authorize such a mission, how could it have led to such calamitous results?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 13:33 explains that Moses had a significant divergence in his thinking from the ten spies. Moses indeed did not need to send spies, as he had no reason to doubt God’s promise. However, he thought it a good idea to send the spies as a preparatory scouting team. He had every intention of going into the land and the spies were an appropriate step to advance God’s promise, to check out the routes and the practical tactical steps they would take to conquer the land.

However, the ten spies had entirely different motives. Their motivation was to determine if Israel should venture into the land or not. They were less moved by God’s promise, but rather gave in to their fears and let their fears overtake the faith they should have had as direct witnesses and beneficiaries of God’s might.

Moses’ tragic error was that he attributed to the spies the same intentions he had. He incorrectly assumed that the spies were looking for practical means to implement God’s will. His assumption of their good intentions proved disastrous.

It’s nice to assume the best of people, but not when there’s reason to believe otherwise.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those fighting antisemitism.

African Royalty (Behaalotcha)

African Royalty (Behaalotcha)

He that can work is born to be king of something. -Thomas Carlyle

There is a large gaping mystery in the biography of Moses. The Torah describes the birth of Moses in Egypt. It recounts the dramatic story of his mother having to put him on the river to save him from the Egyptian decree to murder all of the newborn Jewish boys. We see him taken and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. We have snippets of him as presumably a young man, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was harming a Jewish slave. We see him break up a fight between two Jews. We see him flee to Midyan after Pharaoh puts out a death warrant for him. In Midyan he helps the daughters of Jethro, High Priest of Midyan, in their struggle for water with the local shepherds and he then marries one of those daughters, Tzipora.

However, the next part of his biography that we can put on a timeline is when the Torah tells us that he’s eighty years old when he returns to Egypt to confront (the new) Pharaoh and take the Jewish people out of bondage.

What happened to all the intervening decades? Where was he and what did he do between the time he fled from Egypt as a young man until he returned as an octogenarian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 12:3 provides an answer based on the story of siblings Miriam and Aaron discussing Moses’ “Kushite woman.” The classical interpretation is that the Kushite woman is referring to Tzipora, Moses’ wife. However, the Bechor Shor explains that there was another woman in Moses’ life. This woman was the queen of the kingdom of Kush (what is today Upper Egypt and Sudan) and that Moses served as the king of Kush for forty years, where according to the Midrash he was a revered warrior and served with great distinction.

It is interesting to note that Moses’ background as a long-serving monarch of one of the major kingdoms of the era didn’t even merit a footnote in the Torah. His later role of freeing Israel from Egypt, receiving the Torah and leading Israel, would completely overshadow even as grandiose a title as King or Emperor.

May our greatest accomplishments always lie ahead of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To crowdsourcing in general and Fiverr in particular.