All posts by bentzis

No Foul Play (Chaye Sara)

No Foul Play (Chaye Sara)

Simplicity is natures first step, and the last of art. -Philip James Bailey

Abraham sends his servant, who the Midrash names as Eliezer, to the city of Haran, to Abraham’s family, to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer is instantly successful, meeting beautiful, kind Rebecca at the well. Eliezer determined that a suitable bride would be one that offers to water his camels. Rebecca does so, demonstrating her kindness. He is greeted warmly by the rest of the family, including Rebecca’s father Betuel, and her brother Lavan. They agree to the marriage of Rebecca to Isaac. However, just a few verses later, Betuel disappears from the text, never to be mentioned again. The narrative continues with Rebecca’s brother and mother receiving gifts and then handling the negotiations the following morning.

The prime biblical commentator, Rashi, famously quotes the Midrash which gives a dramatic explanation for Betuel’s absence. He died that very night! He was apparently really opposed to this divinely orchestrated marriage, so an angel comes in the night and kills Betuel (though the Biblical text doesn’t mention anything of the sort). Another Midrash in that vein is even more interesting, which claims Betuel intended to poison Eliezer, thereby sabotaging the mission of the matchmaker. Eliezer, sensing some foul play abstains from initially eating the food (that is mentioned in the Biblical text), the food gets cold, and Betuel ends up accidentally eating the poisoned food himself – God, as seen in this Midrash, is not without a sense of irony.

However, the Bechor Shor on Genesis 24:55 breaks ranks with Rashi and the Midrash and gives a diametrically opposed explanation. He claims that Betuel was alive and well throughout the rest of the story. So why then the notable absence from the rest of the text? He explains that Betuel was Abraham’s nephew (making Isaac and Rebecca first cousins once-removed) and immediately understood that this was a fantastic, heavenly match for his daughter. After he gives his initial approval, Betuel no longer needs to either receive gifts from Eliezer to be assuaged or to be part of further deliberations or wedding planning. Rebecca’s mother and brother on the other hand still needed to be persuaded that this match and Eliezer’s insistence on immediate departure was indeed ideal for Rebecca.

Finally, they ask Rebecca herself if she agrees to the wedding and the immediate departure with Eliezer, to which she responds, “let’s go!”

May we always find simple answers when they are there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”tl.

Sacrifice (Vayera)

Sacrifice (Vayera)

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service. -John Burroughs

In the middle of the synagogue service, a man quietly walks up to his Rabbi who is sitting at the front of the synagogue and admits to having committed a horrible, highly embarrassing sin, and that he is now seeking to repent. The Rabbi looks at him, thinks, and then tells him to go to the middle of the synagogue, bang on the table, and publicly declare to the entire congregation his sin.

“Here? Now?” the man asks, his face ashen.

“Yes,” the Rabbi declares firmly. “It’s the only way to repent.”

The man looks incredulous, but he trusts his Rabbi and he deeply needs to repent. He walks to the middle of the synagogue as if it were a death sentence. He is about to bang on the table when a hand grabs his shoulder. It’s the Rabbi.

“That’s far enough,” the Rabbi tells the man. “That’s all you need to do. You needed to demonstrate that you were willing. That’s your repentance.”

For me, one of the more theologically challenging narratives in the Bible is God’s apparent command to Abraham to bring his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The Sages throughout history have praised Abraham’s complete devotion to God and willingness to sacrifice his long-sought and beloved son.

Nonetheless, there remain troubling aspects. Did God truly desire Abraham to kill Isaac? It doesn’t seem likely. Did Abraham misunderstand such a significant divine communication from God? Also, hard to imagine. Did God never intend for Abraham to carry through with the sacrifice but purposely mislead Abraham? It’s not clear from the plain text.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 22:12 suggests that there was some level of purposeful misdirection on God’s part. He explains that God knows the heart of every person and He knew very well that Abraham was so completely devoted to God, that he would even sacrifice his son, the very son God had promised him, if that was God’s command. But it seems that not only did God want Abraham, Isaac, and us, their descendants to see that he was willing to make such a sacrifice to God, but He also wanted the nations of the world to realize Abraham’s commitment to God.

The misdirection comes in the Hebrew word that God used here for “sacrifice” – Olah. In the common language of sacrifices, an Olah, translated as an Elevation Sacrifice, is an animal sacrifice which is completely consumed by the fire of the Altar. However, in its simplest meaning, Olah means to elevate. The Bechor Shor suggests that God never intended Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but He did want him to think that He wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. It was a test that Abraham passed with flying colors. God wanted Abraham to elevate Isaac, to bring him up to the altar he built on Mount Moriah without harming him, but He also wanted Abraham to demonstrate his willingness to follow God’s directive, as excruciating, as incomprehensible, and as sacrificial as it might seem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the engagement of our son, Elchanan, to Zavi Lava. Mazal Tov!

Choosing Real Estate (Lech Lecha)

Choosing Real Estate (Lech Lecha)

Of neighborhoods, benevolence is the most beautiful. How can the man be considered wise who when he had the choice does not settle in benevolence. -Confucius

Upon Abraham’s and his nephew Lot’s return to the land of Canaan from their stint in Egypt, laden with wealth, their respective shepherds start to fight. Abraham (still called Abram at this stage) suggests they put some distance between themselves. Lot sees the area of Sodom. It is a lush and beautiful land (before God destroyed it), watered by the fresh waters of the Jordan River and compared to the highly fertile land of the Nile Delta. Lot chooses to move to the area of Sodom. He takes all his wealth and invests in the area, building for himself a home, raising a family, and marrying off some of his daughters to local Sodomite men.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 13:10 finds in this account a critique of Lot. Like any savvy businessman, Lot checks out the prospect before he invests. He sees a rich, fertile, productive land. He sees wealth and opulence. From a purely superficial, material, financial perspective, it was likely the best neighborhood in the area. However, the Bechor Shor states, Lot didn’t check out the neighbors. He didn’t bother to determine the character, the kindness, the benevolence of his fellow residents of Sodom. He saw nice fields and nice houses and that was enough for him.

The fate of Sodom is well known. God found the Sodomites to be degenerate, abhorrent, evil. Lot himself was not nearly as bad. God sends angels to save Lot and to destroy Sodom with fire and brimstone. Lot is saved, but literally with just the clothing on his back. He went to Sodom because of wealth and left it a pauper.

The Bechor Shor warns that when seeking a place to live, definitely check out the land and the physical conditions, but don’t forget to check out the neighbors.

May we be good neighbors, as well as be blessed with having good neighbors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the US elections and a peaceful aftermath.

Planetary Casualty (Noach)

Planetary Casualty (Noach)

We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. -Adlai Stevenson

The Generation of the Flood was pretty bad. They were so bad that God regretted creating them. However, instead of wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch (as the Midrash states happened multiple times before), God famously saves Noah and his family, as well as a male and female of every animal on the ark, which Noah was conveniently commanded to build. God subsequently drowns the rest of humanity, the animal kingdom, and the world in what most ancient civilizations referred to as “The Flood.”

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 6:13 wonders as to why the rest of the world needed to suffer if it was primarily man who was guilty of doing evil in God’s eyes? Why did almost all of the animal life on the planet need to be destroyed? Why was the earth ravaged by the destruction of the Flood? Why not just punish man exclusively?

The Bechor Shor explains that the rest of the world, in fact, the entire planet, has only one reason for existence: Man! The world was created for man. The world was created to support and provide sustenance, shelter, and resources to man; and man was enjoined by God to eke out a living from the earth, to cultivate the earth, to develop it, to conquer it, to mine its riches and build himself and civilization (as so eloquently articulated by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik when describing “Majestic Adam” in his monumental “The Lonely Man of Faith”).

As such, when God punishes humanity, the devastation of the world is merely collateral damage. The planet along with all of its minerals, flora, and fauna, has no reason to exist without man. Therefore, when man is punished, the planet suffers as well.

As much as man needs a healthy planet, the planet needs healthy man. It needs an ethical, moral, spiritual man who will remain worthy of the planet’s munificence, but who will also not overexploit its bounty. Man who will not pollute and toxify its air and water resources, who will not mine and dig and drill and blast without a care as to the repercussions, be it to the land, the animals, as well as to the native human populations.

May we enjoy the beautiful planet God has created for man, responsibly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the speedy recovery of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu among all those in need of recovery.

The Tree of Eternal Health (Bereshit)

The Tree of Eternal Health (Bereshit)

The healthy, the strong individual, is the one who asks for help when he needs it. Whether he has an abscess on his knee or in his soul. -Rona Barrett

God creates the world. He creates Adam and Eve. He places them in the Garden of Eden. He commands Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thanks to the incitement of the serpent and the prompting of his wife, Eve, Adam eventually eats from the Tree. God confronts Adam, Eve and the serpent, pronounces their eternal punishments, including mortality, and banishes the human couple from the Garden, lest they eat from the Tree of Life and somehow achieve the immortality God had just pronounced that they had lost.

This raises the question as to why Adam and Eve didn’t eat from the Tree of Life in the first place. They had been warned that eating from the Tree of Knowledge carried a death sentence. Why not immediately eat from the Tree of Life after their crime and perhaps save their eternal existence?

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 3:22 explains the workings of the Tree of Life. It wasn’t that you partook of the fruit of the tree and it granted you eternal life from that moment forward. Rather, it was a tree of eternal healing. If one became sick, eating from the tree healed them. If one felt weak, the tree strengthened them. If one felt the onset of ageing, the tree would rejuvenate them. However, if one were healthy, strong, and young, it would have no effect.

Therefore, Adam and Eve must have known that in their young, strong and healthy state, eating from the Tree of Life would have no effect. That too is the reason God had to banish them from the Garden. If they would continue to live in the Garden, when they eventually did age or get sick, they would have a quick remedy within easy reach, thereby prolonging their lives forever.

Another interesting point is that the Sages state that the Tree of Life is none other than the Torah. The verse in Proverbs states that the Torah is “A Tree of Life to those who grasp it.” The Talmud expands on the healing properties of the Torah and gives a whole list of ailments that it can heal.

May we partake of our easily accessible Tree of Eternal Health, the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Mrs. Lucy Stelzer z”l.

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Time is not what you think. Dying? Not the end of everything. We think it is. But what happens on earth is only the beginning. -Mitch Albom

After 120 years of life, after confronting Pharaoh, after taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt, after leading them to Mount Sinai, after speaking to God as no mortal ever has or will, after receiving the Torah and relaying it to the Nation of Israel, after bringing them to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses dies. He dies somewhere on Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, and is buried there by God.

The Torah tells us that no man knew the place of his burial.

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 34:5 tries to understand the significance of the verse.

He explains that when a mortal being dies, the person’s soul remains attached to its corpse in some fashion for three days and that for the subsequent twelve months the soul “goes up and down.” Somehow, the connection between the burial place and the soul isn’t completely or immediately severed at death.

However, Moses was different. Moses had elevated his soul to incredible heights while still alive. He was able to survive an intimate encounter with God. He was able to survive 40 days and 40 nights without food or water. He was as far removed from materialism and the physical world as humanly possible. Therefore, when he died, he barely felt it. He simply walked away from his body. He had none of the normal attachments us mortals have to our bodies. He was so far removed from the physicality of his own body, that he himself didn’t know where his body was laid to rest.

According to the Meshech Chochma, when the verse states that no “man” knew where Moses was buried, the “man” is referring to even Moses himself. He didn’t know, nor presumably really care, where his discarded physical shell had been buried. He was already so spiritually elevated that to die was as easy and painless as shedding old skin. The Talmud refers to this as a divine “kiss,” as trouble-free as removing a single hair out of a cup of milk. Such is the divine “kiss” that is granted to many of the righteous upon their death.

May we at the very least reduce the physicality and elevate the spirituality in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Meshech Chochma.

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

My mother’s obsession with the good scissors always scared me a bit. It implied that somewhere in the house there lurked: the evil scissors. -Tony Martin

In the penultimate reading of the Torah, Moses breaks into song, the Song of Haazinu. The Song of Haazinu is visually and linguistically distinct from the rest of the Torah. Its two symmetrical columns of text highlight the poetic difference from the rest of the Torah prose. Its ancient language hints at future prophecies. Its compactness makes it even more memorable, as it was meant to be.

In one of the darker passages Moses quotes God:

“I will hide My countenance from them,

And see how they fare in the end.

For they are a treacherous breed,

Children with no loyalty in them.” -Deuteronomy 32:20

The Meshech Chochma tries to understand what treachery the Children of Israel will be guilty of. The word in Hebrew that he focuses on is “Tahpuchot” which though translated here as “treacherous” more accurately means “reversals.”

So what “reversals” is the verse talking about? The Meshech Chochma states that there will be reversals of nature. The first is a reversal of human nature. Man has a range of attributes, but by being stuck in the negative traits such as jealousy and covetousness, and minimizing one’s natural generosity, they will cause their own nature to become predominantly evil. That in turn will cause God to reverse nature in the animal kingdom, where previously docile animals will become dangerous. He references such a case, quoting a Midrash that describes sheep that unexpectedly turn violent and actually attack and kill people.

However, man also has the opportunity to reverse his evil nature. Among the primary tools to do so are the host of charitable commandments. After a person has worked hard (especially in an agricultural setting), to plow, sow, tend and harvest his crop, through great effort, to then consistently and generously give of that hard-earned produce in a variety of ways to the poor, will invariably convert man’s nature to a predominantly good one.

When man becomes good, generous, God will also change the nature of the animal kingdom, where all the previously dangerous animals of the world, will become not only safe, but protectors. As proof, he cites the case of the wolves that protected the vacant, unattended homes of those people who travelled for the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

May we always work on improving our natures.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Prof. Yaakov Katz z”l.

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

The egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief. -George Eliot

Moses is near the end of his monumental discourse, conveying the word of God to the nation of Israel about to enter the Promised Land. He touches on multiple themes and a plethora of commandments, but also repeats certain points, each time with a different nuance.

An oft-repeated theme is the need to obey God with one’s entire heart and soul, as well as the ability to return to God when we fail to do so, as per the following verse:  

“Since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Torah—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” -Deuteronomy 30:10

The Meshech Chochma wonders why in this verse, is a person heeding God and the laws written in the Torah only after they return to God. Presumably, just reading the Torah and being familiar with its precepts should be enough to encourage, convince, and instruct a person as to what their divinely ordained responsibilities and obligations are.

The Meshech Chochma explains, that reading the Torah, or even being familiar with it is often not enough. It is human nature to read into things. To read things and understand it according to our notions. It’s possible to read the Torah and come to conclusions that support our personal ideals and philosophy, but have nothing to do with Judaism. In short, our powerful egos are often the ones interpreting the Torah in a way that satisfies our vision and thinking, but is far removed from the truth.

That is why, the Meshech Chochma states, we first must return to God. We first have to accept, embrace, and be open to true divine instruction. We need to cease the worship of our egos and in turn worship God. Once we have placed our egos in their proper place, then we may have a chance to understand the truth that has been staring us in the face. Then we can be open to what the Torah is truly saying. Once we check our egos at the door, once we return to God, to our spiritual source, then we can start to understand what he’s been saying to us for millennia.

May we remove the blinders of our egos.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

For the Bar-Mitzvah of Eden Yechiel Spitz. Mazal Tov!

Expanding Land (Ki Tavo)

Expanding Land (Ki Tavo)

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. -J. R. R. Tolkien

The Torah reading of Ki Tavo presents us with both blessings and curses. There are horrific, frightening curses that God says will be the result of abandoning Him. Conversely, there are wondrous blessings if we are steadfast in our loyalty to God.

The Meshech Chochma expands on one sliver of the blessings in Deuteronomy 28:8, which reads as follows:

“The Lord will ordain blessings for you upon your barns and upon all your undertakings: He will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

The Meshech Chochma explains that just as God can and does provide a blessing for the miraculous expansion of the produce being stored in the barns, so too, God allows for the miraculous expansion of the Land of Israel.

In a number of places in the Torah, we see hints to the phenomena of the unusual and unexpected contraction or expansion of dimensions, of space and time. We have the examples of the incredibly shortened journeys of both Jacob and Abraham’s servant. We have examples of the unusual dimensional effects within the Tabernacle and the Temple. It’s as if there is some Einsteinian time and space dilation occurring. I’ve theorized elsewhere that there is a connection between extreme holiness and relativistic effects (think of approaching God as approaching the speed of light and then miraculous time and space dilation seems much less surprising).

The Meshech Chochma states that there is indeed a supernatural effect at work in this blessing. That somehow, space expands. It’s similar to what the Talmud tells us about the pilgrims to Jerusalem, that none of them ever said “the space is too small for me.”

In the times of the Temple, there was a miraculous expansion of the city of Jerusalem, which enabled as many pilgrims as came to find adequate accommodations. So too, there is a blessing upon the entire land of Israel, that it will expand; that somehow the existing land will grow and be able to accommodate as many people as needed.

May all those who want to come to Israel, find the right space.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Saudi Arabian airspace. Thanks for letting us through.

Respect the Champion (Ki Tetze)

Respect the Champion (Ki Tetze)

All right Mister, let me tell you what winning means… you’re willing to go longer, work harder, give more than anyone else. -Vince Lombardi

The Middle East is and has always been a tough neighborhood. Even before the birth of the Nation of Israel, the land of Canaan, the land-bridge of Eurasia and Africa, the route between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires, was home to incessant battles, wars, alliances, and rivalries.

After the Hebrew nation miraculously escapes the bondage of Egypt, they develop enemies almost immediately. Included amongst those enemies are their long-lost cousins, (descendants of Lot, who was the nephew of our patriarch Abraham), the nations of Ammon, and Moab.

The enmity between the Jewish people and the Ammonites and Moabites is such, that the Torah states that they are forever forbidden to join the Jewish people (the Rabbis have explained that the prohibition was just against their menfolk).

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 23:5 wonders as to the reasons given by the Torah which states:

“Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Bilaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.”

While one might understand the Moabite motivation to have the Jewish people cursed, but why is the Torah so incensed by the Ammonite and Moabite lack of hospitality? It’s one thing to attack, but another thing entirely not to be hospitable.

The Meshech Chochma states that these nations should have known better. They should have realized that the people who left Egypt, the mightiest empire in history up to that time, who left a land devastated by God and whose armed forces had been completely wiped out, was not a people to be trifled with. Not only were the Hebrews who left Egypt worthy of awe and respect, but that respect should have translated into an obsequiousness that should have included peace offerings of food and water.

Had these nations truly internalized that God was with the Jewish people, as the events of the time had unequivocally demonstrated, they would have sought peace and not war. It would have led to ongoing peace as opposed to generations of conflict.

May our current neighbors figure it out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Arab countries that are seeking peace with Israel.