Category Archives: 5778

The Judge behind the Judge (Dvarim)

The Judge behind the Judge (Dvarim)

Men in general judge more from appearances than from reality. All men have eyes, but few have the gift of discernment. -Niccolo Machiavelli

The fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy, is in essence a long, detailed, yet powerful and prophetic speech by Moses, given during his final days on earth. It is filled with history, laws, articles of faith, as well as a vision for the future. Moses describes, among a plethora of items, the creation and comportment of a judiciary. In a profound statement, he exhorts judges to “fear no man, for judgment is God’s.”

However, for a human judge, that is easier said than done. Communal Rabbis, for example, are often called upon to adjudicate between members of their community. These are people with whom he generally has an ongoing relationship. Some may be important and influential leaders of the community. The Rabbi’s livelihood and position may well be in jeopardy if he rules against such a person. Who knows what vengeance a disgruntled plaintiff may take against the Rabbi who ruled against him? Even more dramatic and well publicized are the cases involving members of organized crime networks. Judges of such high-profile cases must be of a particularly strong constitution. When such powerful men threaten a judge, they know their lives are in danger.

To complicate matters further, no judge can ever know the full extent of circumstances behind a case. Are there ameliorating factors? Who is telling the truth? Is there fabricated evidence or testimony? How does one interpret the law in this particular case? No two cases are ever exactly the same and precedent, while helpful, can’t always make the ruling and capture the nuances of a case in front of you.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 1:17 (Dvarim) elaborates further on Moses’ command to “fear no man, for judgment is God’s.” He explains that judges should fear no person, even if they are violent or dangerous. We should try, within the realm of our human capacity and faculties, to see that justice is done. However, even if we should err, ultimately God is the one who ensures that justice is served. If a judge wrongfully fined a plaintiff, the judge has sinned, and God will make sure the plaintiff receives what is owed to him through other means.

We must always do our very best, without fear. God will take care of the rest and make sure that ultimately, justice is served.

Shabbat Shalom and may we have a meaningful fast of Tisha B’Av,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the next US Supreme Court Justice. May he serve the people well, with honor, dignity and justice.

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

If money is all that a man makes, then he will be poor. Poor in happiness and poor in all that makes life worth living. -Herbert N. Casson

The nation of Israel had just vanquished two major kingdoms on the eastern side of the Jordan River, across from the land promised to them. After the battles, and with all the pasture around them, two tribes approached Moses. The tribes of Ruben and Gad came up to Moses and declared that they were laden with vast amounts of animals and the current land they were in was perfect for them. They wanted to stay, to settle outside the Promised Land, with their flocks.

Moses gets angry, there ensues a discussion, and the tribes of Ruben and Gad declare that they will leave their flocks and their families in the east and go battle with the rest of Israel in the west, until the land is fully conquered. After the expected conquest, they will return to the land, to their flocks and family.

What is most telling is the order which these two tribes phrase their request. They place the flock before their family. Many of the commentators highlight the priorities these two tribes are exhibiting as well as Moses’ response to them. Moses flips the order, basically saying, take care of your family before you take care of your flock.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 32:2 (Matot-Masai) takes the criticism even further. He claims that because the tribes of Ruben and Gad put their financial gains and greed before their families’ wellbeing, all their financial gains were cursed.

By being more concerned with their material wealth, their livestock, with animals, rather than with human beings and their own flesh and blood, they doomed themselves, and eventually were left with neither. Indeed, the tribes to the east of the Jordan would be the first to be exiled and seemingly lost to Jewish history.

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his criticism with the famous dictum from Pirkei Avot (Chapters of our Fathers) which asks rhetorically, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”

May we be thankful for all the blessings in our life and especially for the one of family.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the summer, and more opportunities for the family to spend time together.

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful, and we prefer the pleasures of illusion. -Aldous Huxley

During my years in Uruguay, I met multiple people who had discovered, some quite recently, that they had Jewish ancestors. Many of them were descendants of the crypto-Jews of Spain, that significant portion of the Jewish community that chose to convert to Christianity centuries ago, rather than be exiled from the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabel. They kept their Jewish identity and practice secret, especially from agents of the Inquisition. I’ve heard estimates that as much as twenty percent of those of Spanish descent are of Jewish origin. We’re talking about tens of millions of souls.

However, that was not the only source of newfound Jews. There were a number whose grandparents had hidden any trace of their Jewishness during the Holocaust, that on their deathbeds, or even after, were revealed to be Jewish. My friend, Rabbi Avi Baumol, active in the Krakow Jewish community, confirms that there is a growing phenomenon of young Poles discovering their Jewish pedigree and returning to their roots.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 26:51 (Pinchas) analyzes the census that Moses conducts at the end of the Jewish forty-year journey through the desert. He then calls upon the prophecy from Isaiah (Chapters 54 and 49) which claims something surprising for a nation that was always the smallest, the weakest, the most insignificant in terms of population. The claim is that at the end of days, Jews will be the largest nation on the planet and they will return in mass to Israel.

Have we seen the initial trickle of what may turn out to be a flood? Are the Ethiopian Jews a sign of more to come from the African continent? Are the Bnei Menashe of India a portend of a more significant influx from the subcontinent? Are the resurfacing Jews from throughout the Americas and Europe a hint of much more below the surface?

What of more ancient rumors and theories of the lost ten tribes? Are the Celts and their progeny somehow our long-lost cousins? Do the Jews of Kaifeng, China, really predate the Tang dynasty (618-907) and are they perhaps just the tip of the iceberg as to what part of the Chinese population is actually Jewish?

The possibilities are both intriguing and exciting. What would it mean to the world to suddenly have hundreds of millions of people, perhaps over a billion souls, identify themselves as Jewish, and show solidarity with Israel? That is one of the possible scenarios of the Messianic age.

May we be welcoming to all who seek us out and demonstrate kindness and graciousness to make us a tribe worth rejoining.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Ethiopian Jews. You are our brothers, no matter what any bureaucrat says.

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings. -Frederick the Great

The nation of Israel was nearing the end of their punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert. They were ready to enter the land that God had promised them. Just a couple of kingdoms stood in their way. Moses sends messengers to the first king in their path, Sichon, king of the Emorites. Moses asks for safe passage and offers to pay for anything the people of Israel would consume on the way. Sichon answers by marching his massive, overwhelming army towards the Israelite camp. However, a one-sided battle ensues with Israel completely annihilating the Emorite army and conquering the entirety of Sichon’s kingdom. The same exact scenario plays itself out with Og the giant, King of Bashan.

Rabbeinu Bechaya on Numbers Chapter 22 (Balak) explains that both Sichon and Og relied on their strength of arms and the size of their armies. They assumed that the smaller, less experienced Israelite army would be easy to destroy. What they didn’t take into account is that while the might of a mortal king is defined by the strength and size of his army, such military force is meaningless to God. God is not defined by any physical attribute. God is the cause of every physical attribute.

The massive armies of Sichon and Og basically evaporated in front of God’s wishes for Israel to win the battle. The Torah reports that Israel killed every single combatant without losing one person on their side. This unnatural victory had Balak, King of Moab, scared witless. He was depending on his bigger, more powerful neighbors to defend him from what he saw as the Israelite threat. He abruptly discovered that the monarchs he felt were so strong, turned out to be of no consequence when facing God’s plans. All those men, all those armies that defined the strength of those kings, proved to be ephemeral.

Balak understood that physical force would have no effect against the nation of Israel. He then went on to try non-military strategies with mixed results. He had learned that in a world where God intervenes, strength of arms does not a king make.

May we realize where our true strengths lie.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the World Cup players, with the exciting wins, upsets and perhaps some divine involvement as well.

Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder (Chukat)

Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder (Chukat)

It’s sin and not poverty that makes men miserable. -Scottish Proverb

The Jewish people demonstrate yet again why God calls them a stiff-necked people. Near the end of their forty years of wandering in the desert, they complain needlessly. They prove to be an ungrateful lot, crying that they have nothing to eat as they are tired of the miraculous sky-delivered Manna that nourished them daily. God’s wrath is immediate. He allows the desert snakes, that were previously kept away from the Israelites thanks to the divine cloud cover, to now enter and attack the Jewish camp.

The poisonous snakes attack and start biting people. People start dying. Belatedly, they realize the error of their ways and apologize to Moses. God commands Moses to construct a giant metallic snake. Whoever looks up at the metal snake is saved, whoever doesn’t, dies.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 21:9 (Chukat) says that God’s solution of the giant snake would seem to fly in the face of convention. He explains that after a person is attacked by some animal, he will be in deathly fear of that animal thereafter. His fear would be so great, that just seeing such an animal again can be enough to fatally threaten the health of the traumatized person. He gives an example of someone bitten by a dog who thereafter will have a mortal fear of dogs, and actually being confronted by a dog or even an image of a dog can threaten their mental, if not their physical health.

So too, the nation of Israel. They had just been bitten by venomous snakes. They are lying there on the desert floor, dying with the poison flowing through their veins. The last thing in the world the snake-victims would want to see is a giant metallic snake over their heads.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that God was trying to make a point. It’s not the snake that kills. It’s the sin that kills. The snake is just God’s agent. Just as the snake was God’s messenger for the punishment, it can just as easily be His agent to heal.

By getting the snake-victims to look up at the metallic likeness of the snake, it forced the Jewish people to acknowledge their faith and belief in God. They needed to realize that what placed them in their precarious life-or-death situation was not the snakes, but rather their obstinacy in refusing to listen to God and following His desires. Their stubborn refusal to see His hand in their lives and to be grateful for his daily sustenance put the people of Israeli in mortal jeopardy. Only confronting the very agent of their misery rekindled their faith in God and saved them.

May we realize that there is often a deeper, spiritual cause for many of our challenges and tribulations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and his new initiative for Jewish education, Emek Hamelech.

The Posture of Prayer (Korach)

The Posture of Prayer (Korach)

In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart. -John Bunyan

Jewish prayer is filled with a variety of different body positions and movements that to the uninitiated may seem confusing. We sit, we stand, we bow, we take steps forward, backwards, we lean on our arm, we stand with our legs together, and thanks to Chassidic influence many also “shuckle” (a back-and-forth shaking movement).

In the confrontation at the start of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses, Moses and Aaron are described as “falling on their faces.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Number 16:22 (Korach) claims that this is the source of our own leaning on our arms during a particularly contrite portion of the daily prayer.

He explains that when Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, it demonstrates three things:

  1. It demonstrates fear and awe of the Almighty;
  2. It demonstrates anguish and submission;
  3. It demonstrates the “imprisonment” of one’s faculties and annulment of one’s senses.

He further delves into how each of these aspects is demonstrated:

By covering our face with our arm, we show humility and shame in front of God. It also shows anguish and submission, prerequisites for repentance. God, seeing our anguish is more likely to accept our prayers. And by covering our eyes and closing our mouth, we show our blindness and our inability to accomplish anything for ourselves without God’s approval.

He observes that the nations of the world have the custom of putting their hands together in prayer from this very same concept of demonstrating that their hands are bound and that they are submitting themselves to the one to whom they are praying, though they themselves no longer realize the biblical origin of their custom.

The Jewish custom of keeping our legs together and unmoving during the silent prayer is a stronger demonstration of this principle, as the movements of the legs are greater than those of the hands to reach ones’ goals and to distance oneself from harm.

However, while many of the positions and movements during prayer are filled with symbolism and significance, without meaningful intent, it is little more than light calisthenics.

May we understand, mean and feel our prayers, no matter how much or little we move.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the residents of Netiv Ha’avot who were forcefully evicted from their homes. May they be resettled quickly, with greater strength and numbers.

A Father’s Responsibilities (Shlach)

A Father’s Responsibilities (Shlach)

One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters. -George Herbert

The people of Israel had just been punished with a decree of forty years of wandering in the desert. After the people’s lack of faith following the spies evil report about the Promised Land, God had had enough. The people whom He had taken out of Egyptian slavery, the people whom He revealed Himself to at Mount Sinai, the people whom He had cared for miraculously through their sojourn through the harsh desert had rebelled, had complained and had tried God’s patience one time too many. That generation would die in the desert. Only their sons, the next generation, would merit to enter the Promised Land.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the people of Israel were crushed and despondent due to God’s punishment. Immediately after the narrative regarding the harsh forty-year decree, God transmits a seemingly unconnected set of laws. He starts talking about when they will come to the land and types of sacrifices they will bring.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 15:2 (Shlach) explains that God is comforting the people of Israel after His harsh decree. He is promising them that the next generation will enter the Promised land, that the sons will inherit the land that their fathers were supposed to conquer.

Rabbeinu Bechaye goes on to explain that God was consoling the sons and looking after them as a father. He gives examples as to the different ways that God took care of the children of Israel as a father takes care of his son. Rabbeinu Bechaye takes the opportunity to discuss a father’s responsibilities to his son and goes on to enumerate what those five responsibilities are:

  1. To perform the Brit Mila (circumcision).
  2. To teach him Torah.
  3. To redeem him from the Kohen (only applicable to non-caesarian firstborn sons of non-Levite descent).
  4. To teach him a trade.
  5. To marry him off.

To perform the Brit Mila and to redeem his son from the Kohen are straightforward one-time events. To marry off a child is also generally a one-time event though it takes much more time and effort. To teach a trade is for (hopefully) a limited period, the purpose of which is to lead the son to financial independence. However, there is one obligation that can endure for the life of the father-son relationship: that of teaching the son Torah. The Torah is endless, and hence the obligation to teach one’s child Torah is one that can last a lifetime.

It is not dependent on the age or the circumstances of the son. The son can be an adult with his own children and grandchildren, yet there would still exist that obligation, that divinely ordained responsibility to stay connected to our children through the teaching of Torah.

May we have divine assistance and success in fulfilling all of our parental responsibilities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memories of Milly Buller, as well as Prof. Baruch Brody. Each was a parent of exceptional children. May their families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

To the engagement of our son, Akiva, to Orelle Feuer of Netanya. Mazal Tov!

Managing Righteous Anger (Behaalotcha)

Managing Righteous Anger (Behaalotcha)

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; this is not easy. -Aristotle

Miriam, Moses’ older sister, gossips a bit with their brother Aaron about Moses. Right there in the text, the Torah tells us that Moses was the humblest of men. The minor gossip probably didn’t bother him. However, it bothered God. It bothered God a lot. It bothered God so much that he immediately struck Miriam with Tzaraat, an unusual discoloration of the skin, an instant and clearly visible punishment.

Moses steps in and begs God for mercy, praying to Him “Please heal her!” God responds as follows: “If her father had spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days and then let her be readmitted.” And that is what happens. Miriam is banished from the Israelite camp for seven days. At the end of the seven days she’s readmitted into the camp, presumably healed, and then the entire nation of Israel continues their desert journey.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 12:14 (Behaalotcha) explains the circumstances. He states that there are different levels of reprimand, of lacking favor in someone’s eyes, and therefore different levels of commensurate exile from their sight.

For example, if one insults or otherwise distresses a Torah scholar, the offending person should take upon themselves a self-imposed exile from the scholar of one full day. However, if the person offended was a prophet or one of the “wise men” (apparently different than a Torah scholar), the self-imposed exile needs to be of seven days (like Miriam with Moses). However, if one offended the King or Prince then the exile needs to be of thirty days.

Though anger is considered one of the most dangerous and destructive of emotions, Rabbeinu Bechaye is explaining that God was correct to be “angry” and that it was appropriate for Miriam to be “out of His sight” for a specific and measured timeframe. In a fashion, it allows the offended party time to “cool down” and the offending party time to recover from the shame their actions caused. The Torah is demonstrating that there are times when one is justified in being angry. However, the anger needs to be limited, measured and constructive. The immediate result may be a “time out” for both parties which then allows them to be reunited in friendship and love.

May we beware of the dangers of anger, and if we need to harness it, may we do so carefully and wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the residents of southern Israel who are currently under attack. May God protect you and bring swift reprisal to the attackers.

Immortal Bulls (Naso)

Immortal Bulls (Naso)

Higher than the question of our duration is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he would be a great soul in future must be a great soul now. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

As part of the consecration ceremonies and rituals that surrounded the establishment of the Tabernacle in the desert, the princes of the tribes of Israel donated to the Levites twelve bulls along with six wagons to be pulled by them. These wagons, pulled by a pair of oxen each, enabled the transport and delivery of the materials required for the service to be done in the Tabernacle.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 7:3 (Naso) quotes a Midrash showing Moses, the ultimate negotiator vis-à-vis God, exhibiting some concern about these animals. Moses is quoted as basically saying, “God, what if one of these bulls die? One of the wheels of the wagons would break, then the sacrifice of the princes would be nullified, and the service of the Tabernacle would become void!”

God responds to Moses: “Moses, you’re right! Therefore, these bulls will live forever.”

The Midrash doesn’t leave well enough alone with that. In typical Talmudic fashion, the Rabbis have a debate as to how long the bulls of the Tabernacle lived. The Sages state that the bulls lived until the construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (over 480 years later), when King Solomon offered them as sacrifices in that consecration ritual. Rabbi Meir, however, disagrees, and states that the Tabernacle bulls continue to live to this day, that they never aged, never got any blemish and never got ill.

Rabbeinu Bechaye draws out an additional lesson from the above Midrash. He states that if these bulls, these simple creatures, gained eternal life by merely being beasts of burden around the holy work of the Tabernacle, then how much more so are we assured of eternal life by attaching ourselves to God, the Eternal, the Creator of the universe.

May we always be attached to God and to holy work, as simple or as menial as it might be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paraguay, on moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Am I willing to give up what I have in order to be what I am not yet? Am I able to follow the spirit of love into the desert? It is a frightening and sacred moment. There is no return. One’s life is charged forever. It is the fire that gives us our shape.  -Mary Caroline Richards

The fourth book of the Five Books of Moses, the book of Numbers, is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. It means “in the desert.” In the first sentence of the book, God orients us as to where and when we are in the story of our ancestors. We are in the Sinai Desert on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt.

The most important event after the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah in an historic divine revelation on Mount Sinai.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on that first sentence, Numbers 1:1 (Bamidbar) quotes the Midrash which states that the Torah was given via three things: fire, water and desert. Both blazing fire and a downpour of water accompanied the giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel in the desolation of the Sinai desert. There are pure, elemental forces at work here.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that just as all three of those elements: fire, water and the desert, are free to all that want it, so too the Torah is free and available to all those who wish to acquire it.

Additionally, the symbolism of the Torah being given in the desert is that just as the desert is “Hefker,” ownerless, so too a person who wishes to truly acquire the Torah must also make themselves “Hefker,” ownerless, without any other master but God, and the desire to acquire His Torah, His rulebook.

When one taps into the forces and elements around us, to free ourselves of extraneous masters, we are able to acquire the wisdom, the insight, the light, the wellbeing and the strength that the Torah can impart.

May we become free of the extraneous and focus on the basic, the essential and the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the community of Aish Kodesh (literally “Holy Fire”) of Woodmere, NY.