Category Archives: 5780

Reasonable Danger (Shmot)

Reasonable Danger (Shmot)

The most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps. -David Lloyd George

The Torah is filled with stories of valiant personalities, who took risks, who conquered insurmountable odds, who had faith, who persevered, and with God’s help, succeeded in their journey, in their mission, in their calling.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, God reveals Himself to Moses at the famous scene of the burning bush. While initially resistant, Moses eventually accepts the task of liberating the people of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. After the encounter, Moses asks permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to go to Egypt. Jethro gives him permission with the elegant blessing: “Go in peace.”

However, immediately after Jethro’s blessing, in Exodus 4:19, God again speaks to Moses and says: “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”

The Meshech Chochma draws a perhaps counter-intuitive lesson from God’s command. He understands from the verse, that if the men who sought to kill Moses were still alive, Moses would have no obligation to risk his life by going to Egypt to free the Jewish people, even though the entire nation depended on him.

He learns a similar lesson, though one that might not have been apparent from a simple reading of the Talmud. The Talmud states that an inadvertent killer is exiled to a city of refuge and is prohibited from leaving the city for as long as the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, is still alive. It then gives an example, that even if one of the greatest generals of our history, Yoav son of Tzeruya was sentenced to exile to a city of refuge and all of Israel needed him, he would not be permitted to leave. At first glance, we would reasonably assume that he can’t leave because that is part of his sentence and no pardon is available, even for extenuating circumstances. But the Meshech Chochma understands that the deeper meaning would be because by leaving the city of refuge, he would be putting himself into a high level of danger, as the “blood redeemer,” the relative of the inadvertent killer’s victim, has the right to kill him outside the city.

So too, Moses, when confronted with a very real and present danger to his life, was absolved from having to save Israel. The Meshech Chochma learns that one is not obligated to put themselves in likely mortal danger in order to save others. However, when the risks are not so clear cut and the danger is not so imminent, it’s a different story.

May we avoid dangers, both imminent and distant, and may we be safe and secure wherever we are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

To my son Elchanan, and his friends, who have completed their army service. Thank you for your service!

Radius of Influence (Vayechi)

Radius of Influence (Vayechi)

Only by the good influence of our conduct may we bring salvation in human affairs; or like a fatal comet we may bring destruction in our train. – Desiderius Erasmus

In the last Torah reading from the Book of Genesis, the Torah starts off the portion (Genesis 47:28) by telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt as opposed to naming the more specific area of Goshen, where Jacob and his clan were based.

The Meshech Chochma explains that there are some people who live exclusively for themselves, looking out for themselves and their limited personal interests (which he states is fine). There are some people whose concern extends to their immediate family, who live their life supporting and taking care of their family. There are those whose concern extends even further and will be looking out for the wellbeing of everyone in their community or city, who will dedicate their lives to helping out all the residents of where they live. Finally, there are those who are concerned for the entire world, who live their lives in a way that contributes and impacts the whole world. This is referenced by King Solomon’s phrase (Proverb 10:25) that “the Tzadik (righteous) are the foundation of the world.”

The Meshech Chochma states that Jacob “lived” for, was concerned for, not just the city where he dwelt, not just for the larger area of Goshen, but that he lived for, he was concerned for all of Egypt. For that reason, the Midrash states that the massive famine which had indirectly brought Joseph to power in Egypt also came to a halt in all of Egypt when Jacob arrived. Conversely, the famine apparently returns to all of Egypt when Jacob dies.

The Meshech Chochma adds that the power of the Tzadik extends even in death and burial; that in some fashion the grave of a righteous person has some power to facilitate divine forgiveness and protection. For that reason, during the funeral procession when Jacob is brought to the land of Israel to be buried, the Torah states that it was a “heavy mourning” for Egypt. Egypt suffered by the fact that Jacob wasn’t buried in their land, but rather in the land of Israel. Egypt lost the divine protection that the power of Jacob’s presence had afforded them, in life and in death.

May we have ever expanding circles of positive influence and may we likewise be positively influenced by those who look out for our families, our communities, our countries and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the newcomers to the Daf Yomi initiative.

Join Tamara’s Talmudic revolution!

My wife, Rabbanit Dr. Tamara Spitz, is simply amazing. I won’t elaborate, except to say, that one of her passions in life is the daily study of the Talmud. This week, together with hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world, she will be completing a cycle (the second one for her) of the Babylonian Talmud. By learning one page (folio really) a day, the Talmud is completed over the course of 7.5 years.
For those who are less familiar, the Talmud is the written foundation of Judaism’s Oral Law, the traditions, laws, customs, beliefs, practices and much that encompasses the heart of Judaism. This Sunday, January 5th, hundreds of thousands of Jews all across the planet, will be starting the next cycle of learning the Talmud together. This effort is known as Daf Yomi (literally, “daily page”) and it is uniting the Jewish people in joint study like few things have. As a frequent traveler, it amazes me that whether I’m in Jerusalem, London, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Atlanta, or anywhere in the world, the Jewish community is always keeping pace with the worldwide schedule and studying the same page of Talmud. We are literally on the same page. Beyond that, there are dozens of online resources, translations (the Steinsaltz English translation, available for free at Sefaria bears notable mention), podcasts, videos, study guides and more. There is no excuse anymore to remain ignorant of the Talmud and its contents.
In that spirit, the prestigious WebYeshiva of Rabbi Brovender asked Tamara if she would be willing to teach a once-a-week live, online interactive review class. Tamara agreed. She will be giving a review of some of the themes that were covered the previous week, some of the Talmudic highlights and will delve into a sample Talmudic discussion from the previous week. This will be an excellent, low impact introduction for people who have not had any exposure to the Talmud before and will likewise be a fantastic review for those who do study a page of the Talmud on a daily basis, but who like me, quickly forget whatever it is we learned.
The class is free. If you miss the live interactive webcast, you can always catch the recording later. So without further ado, please follow the below link and register. You won’t regret it.
Thanks and welcome to the world of Daf Yomi.
Ben-Tzion

God in Exile (Vayigash)

God in Exile (Vayigash)

Night brings our troubles to the light, rather than banishes them. -Seneca the Elder

As Jacob is about to leave the land of Canaan, the land that had been promised to him, to his father, to his grandfather, and to his progeny, God appears to Jacob that night. Jacob is driven to leave because of the famine in Canaan and he is pulled to Egypt by the promise of seeing his long-lost son, Joseph, as well as by assurances of sustenance for the entire family in Egypt.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 46:2 wonders why we see such an unusual divine revelation during the nighttime to our patriarch Jacob when we don’t see such a revelation to either of the other two patriarchs, his grandfather Abraham or his father Isaac.

The Meshech Chochma explains that what is different about Jacob from the other patriarchs, is that Jacob was ready and willing to live in exile. Abraham only leaves Canaan for a short period of time and Isaac never leaves.

God, therefore, pays Jacob a special visitation at night. Night is parallel to exile. The physical darkness of night parallels the spiritual darkness of exile. Nonetheless, God comes to tell Jacob that even in the spiritual darkness of exile, God is still with him and will remain with him in his exile.

The Meshech Chochma elaborates further, that just as God remained with Jacob in exile, so too He remains with Jacob’s progeny, with the people of Israel in their long exile.

But the Meshech Chochma qualifies his statement. When the people of Israel follow the ways of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; when we hold firm to the traditions of our ancestors, then Israel is a strong nation, an ancient yet vibrant people to whom God revealed Himself when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. God remains with the people also in the long night of exile.

But when the people of Israel forget the covenant our ancestors forged with God, when we no longer walk in their paths, then the divine presence no longer resides with the people of Israel. We cease to lay claim to our ancestral heritage and the divine accompaniment that comes along with it. We become “fair game” to the vicissitudes and ill winds of the world.

May we remain firm in our connection to our ancient covenant and may God’s presence ever be near.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those completing the 7.5 year cycle of learning the entire Babylonian Talmud (Daf Yomi). And to those starting the next cycle this Sunday, especially my wife Tamara, who will be teaching a weekly online review course of Daf Yomi at WebYeshiva: https://www.webyeshiva.org/course/daf-yomi-one-week-at-a-time/

Reputation Management (Miketz)

Reputation Management (Miketz)

His reputation is what men say he is. That can be damaged; but reputation is for time, character is for eternity. -John B. Gough

Joseph has traversed an existential roller-coaster. To review, Joseph goes from being his father’s favorite son, to his brothers jealously hating him and throwing him into a pit, which led to his being sold as a slave and taken south from the land of Canaan to Egypt. He was purchased by the powerful Egyptian minister Potiphar. In Potiphar’s home, Joseph proves his utility and trustworthiness to the point where he becomes the Head Slave, in charge of the entire household. That is until Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce the handsome young man; but when Joseph rejects her advances, Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of accosting her, getting him sentenced to the royal prison. When Pharaoh requires an effective dream-interpreter, the royal wine steward, for whom Joseph had successfully interpreted his dream, recommends Joseph.

Joseph is brought from the royal dungeons to Pharaoh and successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dream to the delight of Pharaoh and the entire royal court. Pharaoh is so incredibly impressed with the young prisoner and slave that on the spot he designates him as Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh in all of the mighty Egyptian empire.

The Torah adds another factoid as part of the narrative. Pharaoh acts as a royal matchmaker and sets up his new young Viceroy with a bride. He matches Joseph with Osnat, the daughter of his powerful Egyptian minister, Potiphar, the very man who had sent Joseph to prison in the first place.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 41:45 suggests, that Pharaoh was cognizant of Joseph’s colorful and unusual past. He clearly knew that his new Viceroy had a criminal record as well as had been a lowly slave. Pharaoh was concerned that the Egyptian population would be critical of the young Viceroy with a disreputable past. In order to ameliorate such criticism, in order to bolster his reputation, who better for Joseph to marry than into the family that had originally sent him to jail; who would have the most reason to be jealous of their former slave’s success; who knew Joseph better than anyone else and could theoretically cause the most trouble?

Therefore, Pharaoh matches Joseph with Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, in a successful effort to forestall any criticism from that angle. It does keep them quiet and they come to love Joseph.

May our reputations remain untarnished, and barring that, may we have successful comebacks.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Jacob Epstein, on his Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

A Person of Trust (Vayeshev)

A Person of Trust (Vayeshev)

I have seldom known a person, who deserted the truth in trifles and then could be trusted in matters of importance. -Babe Paley

Joseph finds himself unjustly imprisoned in the royal Egyptian jail. Among his jail mates are the royal baker and the royal wine steward who had each been party to some affront to Pharaoh. Joseph famously interprets their dreams, correctly predicting that the wine steward would return to the good grace of Pharaoh while the baker would be executed.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 40:13 brings our attention to the fact that the wine steward had a particularly sensitive role which required Pharaoh to have the utmost confidence in the man. If Pharaoh did not trust the steward, he would not accept a cup of wine poured exclusively for him. He would have the steward pour two cups, Pharaoh would pick one at random, have the steward drink it, and then, satisfied that there was no foul play, Pharaoh would drink from the second cup. The fact that Pharaoh was willing to drink from a cup that the steward poured only for Pharaoh signified that Pharaoh had the highest level of trust in the steward, putting his very life in the steward’s hands.

Joseph, in interpreting the wine stewards dream, assures the steward he will return to the same level of trust, that he will pour a cup exclusively for Pharaoh and that Pharaoh will accept it. God also arranged that the baker should also be present so that Joseph could give the equally predictive but fatal interpretation of the baker’s dream. This way the steward would see that Joseph wasn’t merely giving good interpretations to curry favor with his listeners, but rather, he had the gift of divine prophetic interpretive powers.

Furthermore, God wanted Joseph to be incarcerated with these royal servants in order to learn the methods and practices of the royal palace, in preparation of his forthcoming sudden elevation from slave and prisoner to Viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, who would unexpectedly need to know how to conduct himself and maneuver within the royal court.

Joseph, upon his release and elevation, proves himself to be both trusted by Pharaoh and able to astutely navigate the royal court.

May we prove ourselves worthy of trust and may we successfully navigate our various social milieus.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Chassidic celebrations of 19 Kislev.

Blessings of the blessed (Vayishlach)

Blessings of the blessed (Vayishlach)

Not in rewards, but in the strength to strive, the blessing lies. -J. T. Towbridge

It is one of the more surreal scenes from the Torah; one that has fired the imagination of centuries of artists. Jacob has safely escaped from his duplicitous father-in-law Laban and prepares to confront his potentially murderous brother Esau (talk about a dysfunctional family). Jacob is attacked by an angel. Jacob and the angel wrestle the entire night until the break of dawn. At that point the angel smashes Jacob on the hip and begs Jacob to let him go “for the dawn is breaking.”

Jacob answers: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

Angel: “What’s your name?”

Jacob: “Jacob.”

Angel: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” [Note: the root of the Hebrew word “strive” is the same as the word “Israel.” – so the naming works in Hebrew.]

Jacob responds: “Tell me your name.”

Angel: “Why do you ask for my name?”

And then the angel disappears.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 32:30 tries to answer at least the mystery of the need or lack of need for names regarding blessings.

He explains that typically, in order to bless someone, you need to know who they are, and preferably you need to know their name. Hence, the angel’s perfectly logical request to confirm the name of the person he’s about to bless.

However, the angel also must have known that there was a special power to Jacob (and his progeny) that was conveyed by his father Isaac, that was transmitted from his grandfather Abraham. Isaac bestowed upon Jacob the characteristic that “whoever blesses you shall be blessed.”

The angel knew that by blessing Jacob, he had become blessed and therefore there was no further need for Jacob to bless him or even to know his name.

May we be receivers and suppliers of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Jersey City shooting.