Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayishlach
Whatever a man seeks, honors, or exalts more than God, this is the god of his idolatry. -William B. Ullathorne
I grew up with a variety of allergies. There were foods, substances and smells that would make me sick and specifically trigger respiratory difficulties. In my youth, during visits to a specific person’s home, I would unexpectedly start to sneeze uncontrollably. I was informed afterwards that every time I would have a sneezing attack it coincided with someone smoking marijuana in a nearby room.
But perhaps the most surprising allergy of all was not to any particular molecule that made its way into my respiratory system. In the course of my teenage travels, I had opportunity to be exposed to real live examples of idol worship: people praying, chanting, bowing down and performing religious service in front of statues. Just the sight, the approach, just to be in the same physical space or structure as the good old-fashioned idolaters made me physically uncomfortable. At the time I was not yet aware of the prohibition by Jewish law of entering a Temple of idols. Nonetheless, my body, apparently of its own volition, reacted negatively to any encounter with these structures and activities, typically with feelings of nausea.
In the Torah we see a similar but broader national effect. Jacob’s wayward brother Esau, together with his growing clan, leaves their ancestral land of Canaan. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 36:7 explains that because of the divine presence in Canaan, Esau could not stay there with his brother Jacob. He says that a similar effect occurred in the separation between the children of Israel and the Egyptians who needed to live in different areas. We cannot be in the same place as idolaters, and vice versa.
May we identify the idolatry in our lives and separate ourselves from it and from within us.
To my Tikvah Fund friends. It was thrilling to explore the Bible and discover excellence.
The soul gives unity to what it looks at with love. -Thomas Carlyle
At what was perhaps the most transcendent moment in human history, God reveals Himself to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments are uttered and God gives the remainder of the Written and Oral Torah to Moses. Every single one of the Children of Israel who was alive at that time, shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, hears and senses God at prophetic levels.
There follows a question as to how this bond, this covenant that was formed at Sinai can continue through the long generations and millennia since that singular event. What connects, what unites the descendants of those who stood at Sinai with the ancestors who witnessed the barely filtered presence of God?
Amongst many answers, a popular one is that the soul of every Jew was at Sinai, even if he hadn’t been born yet. Somehow, at this defining event for the Jewish people, every Jewish soul, alive as well as unborn, through all the generations, was present for the receipt of the Torah, for the establishment of the everlasting covenant with God.
The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 33:3 adds another facet to this well known explanation. He elaborates that not only was the soul of every future Jew in history present at Sinai, but that even the souls of future converts were present at the encounter. That the truth is that their souls were there as well, and heard and received the Torah. When they convert, they are merely reconnecting and reclaiming that spiritual heritage that was rightfully theirs from so long ago, where we all accepted the divine mission as one united people.
May our souls re-accept the Torah on a regular basis.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
To the unifying Sukah of the Lefler family.
A man cannot leave a better legacy to the world than a well-educated family. -Thomas Scott
It is my sober duty to bury the dead and console the living. It gives one ample opportunities to ponder the legacy people leave behind. The family matriarch who lived to see great-grandchildren following in her footsteps of kindness. The grandfather who was a well-known joke-teller with grandchildren who continue with the same entertaining sense of humor. Or those who died before they lived to see successive generations but left behind memories of strength and joy. Or those who left behind money and property to then be squabbled over by the children.
From a multi-generation, decades long perspective, it is sobering to consider what a parent should inculcate in their children, what they should hope to see in their grandchildren, what are the greatest gifts one can bestow on their progeny that will have a positive and lasting impact on ones descendants and on the world.
The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 32:7 sets the goal of Torah scholarship as the pinnacle of what a parent can hope for. He explains that if a family merits to see three successive generations of Torah scholars, that gift, that accomplishment becomes an eternal inheritance, for the family and for the wider nation of Israel.
One of the great scholars of the past was once asked, how many years did it take him to accumulate the vast knowledge of Torah that was at his fingertips. He answered: “Five minutes.” The questioner looked at the scholar in confusion. The scholar explained: “Whenever I was at a bus stop, whenever I was standing on line, whenever I had five minutes free, I would learn. Those five minutes added up.”
If our fathers were not great scholars, it does not exempt us from striving, nor from setting an example for our children and grandchildren. It just takes five minutes.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukot Sameach,
To the Chok Le’Israel. A book the provides really bite-size daily servings of the spectrum of Torah. Very highly recommended.
Baal Haturim Deuteromony: Vayelech
We talk about heaven being so far away. It is within speaking distance to those who belong there. Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people. -Dwight L. Moody
For good reason, there is great uncertainty about the afterlife. I have yet to meet someone who has been there and back, who could give a personal account of what it was like. Some doubt its existence as there is no scientific proof. Others may believe in various Hollywood versions, inspired in part from classical poets like Dante and Milton.
The Jewish tradition has much to say about the next world. What’s its purpose, who gets there and who doesn’t, what do we do there, how long we’re there for, and much more.
The Baal Haturim points out an interesting capability we will retain in the afterlife. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 31:1, he cites a conversation between Moses and the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), whereby Moses informs them that God has fulfilled his centuries-old promise to them, that their descendents, the Children of Israel, have finally inherited the Land of Israel. The Baal Haturim explains that the above account is the source that the dead talk to each other in the next world.
May our patriarchs and ancestors have good things to say about us, especially as we approach the Day of Judgement.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,
To the Chazan, Shaul Hochberger, on his divine conversations leading our prayers.
Instant Global Cure
To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself. -Thomas Carlyle
We are drowning in a sea of strife and pain. Wherever we look, whatever we read, we cannot avoid the disrespect, the insensitivity, the cruelty, and the mayhem of one human being to another.
One common reaction is to sigh a breath of resignation. I am too far away. I am too small. I am too insignificant to affect this fight. Another reaction is to complain. To curse the powers that be and all those who stand aside, as evils are committed uncontested.
There is a third, slower path, one that doesn’t necessarily fix the suffering staring us in the face, not completely nor immediately. But it is a step. That path is called repentance.
The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 30:8 talks about repentance. We must first find what is wrong in us and fix it. If there is disrespect, insensitivity or cruelty in us, we must address it before we can presume to lecture others. However, the Baal Haturim states something surprising. He explains that if we can achieve complete repentance we shall see and experience immediate redemption.
May we strive for full repentance on a personal, familiar, communal and global basis.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,
To Rabbi Asher Weiss, a wise man.
Men are respectable only as they respect. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve noticed that the volume in a room is often in direct proportion to the comfort the people in the room feel. Parties can be unbearably loud. Cemeteries are appropriately quiet. However, there are multiple occasions where quiet is both expected and given. Official assemblies of all sorts will have their moments of quiet.
Synagogue prayer is a conundrum. On one hand, we want participants to be happy and comfortable. For many it is a great opportunity to catch up with friends, to relax and chat. However, we are also supposed to be there to pray to God.
Jewish law is unequivocal about talking during prayer – it is forbidden, besides being rude, insensitive, ego-centric and disturbing. Our sages went so far as to institute a special prayer bestowing great blessings upon those who are careful not to speak in the synagogue.
The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 26:19 takes things a step further. He explains that when one is focused on his prayer, it is as if he is constructing a crown made out of prayers which is then placed, as it were, upon God’s head. However, subsequently, in some spiritual, mystical sense, that crown then returns to the prayerful person. However, those who instead of respecting the prayerful quiet choose instead to talk during the services, instead of receiving a divine crown, they will be punished. The punishment, states the Baal Haturim, is that they will receive thorns all over their body.
May chatter in the synagogue be diminished and may we be spared from any punishments.
To all the participants in the Maimonides Shabbaton. Thank you for a great Shabbaton and for quiet and meaningful prayers.
The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it. -George Washington
One of the most defining characteristics of human beings are their ability to speak. And in a sense, the words we use define us, but not only the words that come out of our mouths, but also the words that we hear, the words that infuse our being. And in that area, like in so many others, we have free choice. We can choose both what to speak and what to hear. There are few situations where we are forced either to say something or to listen to something.
The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 23:14 warns about this matter and specifically about “nivul pe”, literally “the disgustingness of the mouth”. He states clearly and simply that if we suddenly find ourselves exposed to foul language, to things that are not appropriate to be spoken, we should simply stick our fingers in our ears or get up and leave.
We would not subject ourselves (or our children) to harmful fumes, substances or dangerous situations. The same is true regarding foul language. It is toxic, corrupting and disgusting. The fact that it is widely used and accepted by the masses does not make it any better. Do not accept it. Do not stand for it. Let it be known that you disapprove. You will be surprised by the positive reactions people will have to this small stand of principle. And if they don’t get it, spend your time with more refined people.
To the incoming class of Midreshet and Yeshivat Torah V’Avodah. I expect you will hear many beautiful words from your teachers and administration.
Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Shoftim
Lions of Judah
There is something behind the throne greater than the King himself. –William Pitt, The Elder Chatham
The Bible itself as well as subsequent Rabbinic commentators have mixed feelings regarding a monarchy. On one hand it seems to be a command that the nation of Israel should have a king. On the other hand, it seems that a monarchy may only be established if the nation desires one. If the nation wants a king, then there are certain guidelines as to the qualifications of a king as well as what he can and cannot do.
Not much after the nation of Israel conquers the land of Israel, we have the death of Joshua and the loss of centralized leadership. That time period is known biblically as the era of the Judges when over the course of a few hundred years the nation of Israel descends into civil war, chaos and anarchy. However, with the subsequent establishment of the monarchy of Israel, we relatively quickly get to corruption, idolatry and oppression, and a few hundred years after that, destruction and exile. In the long term, the difference between not having a monarchy and having one seems to be the difference between social madness and organized social madness.
Nonetheless, the Bible gives a tremendous amount of respect and importance to the historical monarchy. The desire for a king and the need to follow one to the people’s liking is the source of much drama in the biblical books of Samuel and Kings and leads to the schism between the southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) that remained loyal to the House of David and the ten northern tribes that went through various non-Davidic rulers. The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 17:15 points out to us that the kings of Israel are meant to be descendants of the tribe of “Lions”, the tribe of Judah (as David, Salomon and their descendants were – and would indicate the northern tribes were ostensibly in the wrong in following non-Judean rulers, despite God’s command and repeated intervention in the election (and assassination) of the kings of the ten tribes).
The error of non-Judean kings was repeated again during the second Temple era after the Hasmonean Revolt, where the successful Maccabees took the helm of political leadership despite being a Cohanic non-Judean family. The initial victory turned to ashes generations later as the Hasmonean line became corrupt and ends with Herod, who while an impressive builder, was a greater enemy of the Jewish people.
May we merit leadership of noble traits and correct pedigree, be they kings or otherwise.
To the two lions who included Montevideo in their courageous Halachic Adventures: Dr. Ari Greenspan and Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky.
Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Reeh
The Metaphysics of Charity
There never was a person who did anything worth doing, who did not receive more than he gave. -Henry Ward Beecher
Being charitable is a Jewish value that is recorded already from the stories of our Patriarch Abraham. In the time of Moses it is codified as law, including the requirement to tithe. The Rabbis give further clarification as to the percentage and measurements of different agricultural donations that each farmer was expected to contribute.
The Baal Haturim on this week’s Torah portion provides a number of pointers as to the metaphysical reality of charity. He states in Deuteronomy 12:19 that the act of giving charity leads directly to increased wealth. In Deuteronomy 15:8 he explains that if a person listens to and provides for the poor, God in turn will listen to and provide for the charitable person. The inverse is also true. If a person ignores the plea of the poor, God is likely to ignore the potentially charitable person.
Finally, the Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 15:10 details that we should be careful to provide the solicitant what they need. He brings as an example the story of King David who when he was seeking refuge from the ire of King Saul escaped to the Cohanic city of Nov where they provided him with bread and a sword, two things he was in dire need of.
May we have the capacity and opportunity to be generous to those in need and may we see our generosity divinely and abundantly rewarded.
To Rachel and Shalom Berger on their abundant celebrations.
Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Ekev
If that vital spark that we find in a grain of wheat can pass unchanged through countless deaths and resurrections, will the spirit of man be unable to pass from this body to another? -William Jennings Bryan
It is a principle of Jewish faith that at some point in the future, the dead will come back to life. We have it listed as 13th of Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith: “I believe with complete faith that there will be a revival of the dead when it will rise up the will from the Creator, blessed be His Name.”
This precept raises multiple questions:
- In what body will we return?
- Will we return old or young?
- If we suffered the loss of a limb, will we return whole?
- If you believe in reincarnation, which person will return?
- And finally, will we return dressed or naked?
While I have faith that all of these questions will be taken care of satisfactorily, the Baal Haturim does provide in Deuteronomy 8:3 the answer to at least one of the questions. He states that the resurrected will return fully clothed. He gives the analogy to wheat. If a seed of wheat can be buried in the ground “naked”, decompose, and return fully grown and “clothed” then so too, those destined to return from death will return fully clothed.
One less thing to worry about.
To all innocent victims of violence.