Category Archives: 5778

Afterlife Reunions (Vezot Habracha)

Afterlife Reunions (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

Of all the great unknowns of our world, death, life after death and what we call the afterlife remain a mystery clouded by uncertainty, different beliefs, lack of belief and limited scientific evidence. Jewish tradition on the other hand has a number of firmly held beliefs as well as extensive lore about what the afterlife is about, what rules apply and some insights about what the experience entails. Not surprisingly, we glean some of that inside information from tidbits Moses left for us in the Bible.

On his last day on Earth, Moses addresses the assembled nation of Israel as they sit on the Plains of Moab, staring across the Jordan River at the Land of Canaan, The Promised Land. Moses quotes God and declares:

“This is the land that I promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to say, to your progeny I will bequeath it.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 34:4 (Vezot Habrachah) reads from this verse references and hints as to how things are in the afterlife. When Moses quotes God above and adds the seemingly superfluous words of “to say,” Rabbeinu Bechaye, quoting the Talmud, states that God was instructing Moses that when he’s dead at the end of that day, he should directly tell the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that God fulfilled His promises. This implies that in the afterlife, Moses would be meeting the Patriarchs and be able to talk with them.

However, the Talmud continues to explain that the dead are aware of not only what’s going on and have interactions in the afterlife, but that they’re also aware and even involved in some measure in the occurrences back on Earth in the material dimension. If that’s the case, then why does God instruct Moses to inform the Patriarchs about what they already know?

The Talmud answers that the Patriarchs do indeed know what’s going on and that Moses wasn’t informing them of anything they didn’t know when he conveyed God’s message. However, God wanted Moses to be in the Patriarch’s good grace as the agent and as a messenger of the good tidings of the final fulfillment of God’s promise of centuries before.

It is comforting to know that included in the many aspects of Jewish belief about the afterlife, we’ll be able to hangout with our spiritual kin as well as stay up-to-date about what’s going on with our people and our loved ones in the mortal world.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ari Fuld’s (hy”d) family. Their strength and resilience have inspired an entire nation, in addition to Ari’s own character and heroism. May God comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Three Types of Idolatry (Haazinu)

Three Types of Idolatry (Haazinu)

Idolatry is in a man’s own thought, not in the opinion of another. -John Selden

In the penultimate Torah reading, Moses bids farewell to the people of Israel in poetic form, in the Song of Haazinu. It is a dense, compact, prophecy-laden account of the history of the world, from the beginning of time until the end of days. One of its sections deals with Israel’s descent into idolatry and reads as follows:

“You grew fat and gross and coarse— he forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of his support. They incensed Him with alien things, vexed Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they had never known, New ones, who came but lately, who stirred not your fathers’ fears.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 32:17 (Haazinu) based on the verse above, explains that there are three types of idolatry.

The first type of idolatry is purely in the mind. It is the belief, the acceptance, that there may be divinity besides or separate from the One God.

The second type of idolatry, the one classically associated with physical idols, was the worship of statues. Apparently, ancient man was more sophisticated than we may have given him credit for. They didn’t necessarily worship lifeless inanimate objects. Rabbeinu Bechaye claims that they were somehow able to draw on the celestial spirits from the stars and constellations and infuse the hand-made objects with some semblance of life. It was those quasi-alive statues that they originally worshipped.

The third type of idolatry was the worship of demons who originated from the netherworld and in the “waters below the earth.” This, Rabbeinu Bechaye highlights was the lowest, the most despicable and the most disgusting type of idolatry, that even our original idolatrous ancestor, Terah father of Abraham, didn’t mess with. Terah and his family it seems had the power and knew the process to create the second type of idolatry, of infusing statues with a celestial spirit. However, members of the young Israelite nation were drawn to the third, the lowliest type of idolatry.

Moses is warning us, in what was meant to be a song to be remembered throughout our history, to stay far away from all forms of idolatry. We should stay away from the brainy, cerebral, intellectual questioning and disassociation from our One God. We should steer clear from the “classic” worship of statues (whether they are lifelike or not). And we should have nothing to do with the stranger beliefs and practices of demonologists and their ilk.

Let’s stick with the simple, faithful belief in God.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Ari Fuld z”l. May God avenge his blood, may his memory be a blessing and may his family and the entire community be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Screaming to God (Vayelech)

Screaming to God (Vayelech)

O that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth! Then with passion would I shake the world…  -William Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John (Constance at III, iv)

In a few days, Jews of all backgrounds, all around the globe, will congregate in synagogues and temples to fast and pray to God on what is undoubtedly the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. It is a day exclusively devoted to prayer and introspection. There are no festive meals. There are no other ritual obligations beyond fasting and praying.

However, all the praying can lead one to an old question of why pray in the first place. God, who is all-powerful and all-knowing, knows what we want and what we need. He has the ability to provide for our every need. We shouldn’t have to ask. And if for some reason we’re not deserving of having our wants or needs fulfilled, then how will prayer help?

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 31:14 explains that the answer depends on what it is we’re asking for. He claims that for most things, just thinking about our needs will lead God to fulfill them, as the verse states, “He performs the will of those who fear Him.” (Psalms 145). Just formulating the thought in our mind as something we need (assuming it’s a real need and not just a desire), encourages God to telepathically draw that thought from our minds and convert it, in His own way and time, into reality.

However, Rabbeinu Bechaye claims that there are three particular areas where merely thinking doesn’t do the job. He says that we need to scream to God. We need to pray to God with such passion and fervor that in a sense God won’t have a choice but to at least listen to us, if not actually answer our prayers. The three areas that require loud, passionate, vocal prayers are for children, for life and for sustenance. The ability to have children, the length of one’s life and the availability of one’s sustenance require more significant divine intervention. It seems that in these three departments there is some predetermined fate. That fate can be changed, but it requires massive spiritual effort.

We need to storm God’s castle with our prayers to effect any change in these three categories. There is a license to scream to God, to plead for mercy, to fulfill our deep need for children, life and sustenance.

May we have the courage, wisdom and strength to voice our prayers, loudly, clearly, meaningfully – and may they be answered with health, with bounty, with joy, happiness and blessings for the entire House of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To a Rosh Hashana with the whole family together.

Are Bad Thoughts worse than Bad Actions? (Nitzavim)

Are Bad Thoughts worse than Bad Actions? (Nitzavim)

You cannot escape the results of your thoughts. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain or rise with your thoughts, your vision, your ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration. -James Allen

There is a Talmudic dictum that has bothered me since I heard it. It states that “thoughts are worse than actions.” That somehow, merely thinking about a sin, contemplating it, wallowing in thoughts of desire, are worse than the act of sin itself. That while sinning is of course wrong, carrying the thought of sin in one’s head is worse.

I always felt this a dangerous dictum. It may give some a license to sin. It may justify to someone who was just considering a sin, to go ahead and do the actual deed if he believes it’s not as bad as the thoughts scurrying around in his head.

However, in Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 29:18 (Nitzavim) I found an answer that I’m comfortable with. He explains that sinful thoughts are worse than the actual sin, after the sin. It seems that harping on the sin, after the fact, is worse and carries a greater punishment for the soul than the damage the sin itself did.

This answer resolves the other Talmudic dictum, which I find much more comforting, that there is no punishment whatsoever for sinful thoughts (except for idolatrous thoughts). So, to recap Rabbeinu Bechaye’s view:

  1. Sinful thoughts without sinning carry no punishment (except for thinking of idol worship).
  2. Doing an actual sin carries its prescribed punishment.
  3. Having sinful thoughts after the sin is worse than the actual sin and damages and punishes the soul even further.

Of course, there’s a trump card that absolves all of our bad thoughts and actions: repentance. Our repentance can retroactively cleanse the spiritual ledger. It can wipe the slate clean and allows us to start our spiritual accounting anew, refreshed, rejuvenated.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s a good time to clean up our minds and our actions.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yitzi & Dalia Stern for a wonderful Shabbat.

Give, Serve, Joyously (Ki Tavo)

Give, Serve, Joyously (Ki Tavo)

Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from the praise of men, but from doing something worthwhile. -Pierre Coneille

At the beginning of his commentary on this week’s Torah reading, Rabbeinu Bechaye enjoins us to adhere to charitable commandments with an unshakeable belief that God will pay us back, manifold, in this world. We have an obligation to be charitable with our money, but also with our time and our personal talents. God has given each of us some unique trait, strength, talent, something we’re good at or that we enjoy doing. We must make charitable use of those divinely granted gifts for the benefit and well-being of others.

However, this belief that God will “pay us back” in this world may seem counterintuitive to other areas of Jewish faith. God doesn’t typically bargain or make deals. There are commands. You follow them, you get rewarded; you don’t, you get punished. However, reward or punishment is or may be delayed until the afterlife, which may prove either unsatisfactory or a relief to those of us still very much in this world.

But there seems to be a major exception to the above. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 26:15 (Ki Tavo) brings our attention to the Temple’s first fruit ceremony. In the prescribed liturgy of that rite we call upon God to gaze down upon us, see that we’ve fulfilled our part of the bargain of bringing the first fruits to the Temple, and now it’s God’s turn to bless us, in this world.

In all other cases where the Torah uses the term of God “gazing down,” it’s not good. It’s usually because God, in His attribute of Justice, is “examining” the deeds in question (think Sodom) and getting ready to severely punish the wrongdoers.

But there is a particular power to performing the commandments with joy, and specifically the charitable ones, which gives us the ability to convert God’s attribute of Justice to the attribute of Mercy. We can have the temerity to call on God to gaze down, examine this particularly good deed, performed with joy, and reward us accordingly or even disproportionately.

He adds (on Deuteronomy 28:47) that the command to perform God’s commands joyously is its own separate unique command. Therefore, whoever performs a commandment, but doesn’t do so joyously, while he may have performed a command and gets credit for it, violates the separate all-encompassing commandment to do so joyously and in fact has also sinned.

The bottom line is, be charitable, give of yourself, your time and your resources joyously and feel free to then call upon God to pay up. At least in that department, He’s ready to make a deal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Cheyn Shmuel Shmidman on his Bar-Mitzvah celebration and his unbelievably impressive reading of the entire scroll of Isaiah.

 

We already chose our destiny (Ki Tetze)

 We already chose our destiny (Ki Tetze)

If a man is destined to drown, he will drown even in a spoonful of water. -Yiddish Proverb

In the staccato list of commandments that are given in this week’s Torah reading, there is the extremely sensible commandment to build a fence around your roof. However, the end of the verse is strange, counterintuitive and a bit depressing. It ends with the phrase “for the faller will fall from it.”

Classic interpreters explain that the verse really means “lest someone fall,” meaning it should read: “Build a fence around your roof, lest someone fall from it.” However, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 22:8 takes the opportunity to discuss some deeper theological issues of free will by reading the verse with its plain meaning of “build a fence around your roof for the faller will fall from it.”

He states that the faller was predestined to fall since “the six days of creation,” but we should not be the agent of his death. In fact, not only was the faller’s unfortunate death predestined, but the faller’s soul knew about it beforehand. Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes the Midrash which explains that before a soul is born into a human body, God shows the soul all of its future life. God shows the soul its birth, parents, family, childhood, all of the ups and downs of life, career, income, accomplishments, disappointments, heartbreaks and challenges as well as the eventual circumstances of its mortal death. And the soul, of its own free will chooses that life. Not only is this true for human beings, but every component of creation chose its material, physical existence when it was still in some spiritual dimension.

Rabbeinu Bechaye continues to explain that despite this pre-destination, besides the fact that the faller (or the victim of any other misfortune) was destined to undergo that event, God still holds us liable for our actions. Meaning, just because (in hindsight) we knew that someone was going to die, does not in any way give us permission to be part of a wrong or unethical act. Yes, he was going to die, but the agent of his death is nonetheless liable.

Apparently, part of the deal in choosing our destiny when we are in the spiritual dimension is that we will have no recollection, no idea whatsoever as to what it is we agreed to. In a sense, our spiritual amnesia is what gives us free will. We are responsible for every decision we make. We are responsible for every act we do. We will pay the price for our mistakes and reap the benefits of what we do correctly. We have to struggle with indecision, with questioning what’s right and what to do. It is a constant ongoing challenge to know what to do, to force ourselves on a daily basis to do the right thing, to be the best version of ourselves.

However, at some fundamental level, not only does God know what we’re going to do and how things will play out, but our own soul knows as well and was a partner in charting that course before we came into this world.

It can take a lifetime to discover one’s destiny and even then, as mortals we may only appreciate it in retrospect, though it was somehow all foretold.

May we always choose correctly and pray that our souls knew what they were doing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the Rebbe of the Shomer Emunim, whose yarhzheit was this past week.

Flushing out a murderer (Shoftim)

Flushing out a murderer (Shoftim)

Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden

The Torah prescribes a bizarre-seeming ritual in the case on an unsolved murder. The elders of the town nearest to where the body is found go to a nearby river and upon untilled land on the riverbank they kill a heifer, wash their hands over the body of the heifer, and state that they didn’t kill the man nor saw it done, and beg God for forgiveness.

The ritual, while symbolic, doesn’t appear to do much in terms of finding the murderer nor achieving any sense of justice.

Rabbeinu Bechaye, however, on Deuteronomy 21:1 (Shoftim) explains that in fact, the ritual, in a backhanded way, does flush out and identify the hidden murderer.

In an agrarian, pre-industrial age, before detectives, forensic evidence or social media, it was no mean feat to apprehend a murderer who wished to keep a low profile.

Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes Maimonides who describes that the highest probability is that the murderer is from the closest town. When the elders get involved and start measuring the distance from the victim’s corpse to the nearby towns to determine which town is closest, this causes everyone in the area to talk about the murder.

When the elders of the closest town then take the heifer to be killed at the riverbank, it gets even more people to talk about the murder, which will eventually cause the murderer’s identity to be discovered.

If the murderer is still not revealed and the elders in front of all the townspeople vow that they don’t know who the murderer is, it will cause an even greater embarrassment and eventually someone who knows something, who has some hint as to who the murderer may be, will come forward.

Part of the ritual is that the untilled riverbank land where the heifer is killed can never be worked again. Such a major economic blow to the community will create an even bigger commotion, will be greatly distressful and lead to more discussion and remembrance of the murder case which will never be forgotten.

In the natural course of social dynamics, with the unworkable land as a significant, public and constant reminder as to the open murder case, the murderer will be found, and the court, the king or the blood redeemer will see that justice is done.

It is interesting that what at first glance seems like a non-sensical ritual is in reality a sophisticated social and communal prescription for flushing out a murderer.

I wonder how many other rituals we have that are as deep, as sophisticated and as powerful, which we don’t realize or appreciate?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Umberto Eco, whose excellent The Name of the Rose novel, captured some of the challenges of pre-industrial sleuthing.