Category Archives: 5782

Three Divine Gifts (Matot)

Three Divine Gifts (Matot)

Take all that is given whether wealth, love or language, nothing comes by mistake and with good digestion all can be turned to health. -George Herbert

In the Torah reading of Matot, we’re informed how the tribes of Gad and Reuben were blessed with a significant wealth of flocks. The leadership of those tribes demanded of Moses to let them stay on the plentiful, lush, grazing lands of the recently conquered eastern side of the Jordan River, and not to force them to get the planned and likely smaller portions in the Promised Land of Canaan.

Moses agrees to their demand on the condition that they contribute soldiers to the conquest of Canaan who will serve in the Israelite army until all of the tribes have gotten their portions of land. Gad and Reuben agree.

Relatedly, the Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 32:1 gives an exposition on divine blessings. He states that there are three types of individuals with three distinct blessings: the wise, the mighty and the wealthy, who respectively possess wisdom, might and wealth. He also makes the distinction between those who “grab” the blessing, which in such cases is not likely to endure, versus those for whom it is truly a divine gift.

He explains that all our attributes and circumstances are designated to us by God. However, the person who “grabs” the blessing is the one who imagines that God had nothing to do with it, but that their wisdom, might, or wealth are the exclusive results of their own efforts. In such cases, those very blessings may not endure. On the other hand, a person who realizes that what they have comes from God, if they are thankful and humble about it, that is indeed a divine gift that will last.

He adds, that of the three gifts, wisdom is the key. Acquiring and retaining wisdom more easily enables a person to develop strength and achieve wealth. Ironically, the tribes of Gad and Reuven, who were so eager to “grab” the land to house their wealth of flocks were also the first of the tribes of Israel to lose their land and all their possessions, suffer exile and so far, remain lost to history.

May we appreciate and understand the source of our divine gifts and put them to good use.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Kurt Rothschild z”l.

Deserved Rewards (Pinchas)

Deserved Rewards (Pinchas)

Obedience of the law is demanded; not asked as a favor. -Theodore Roosevelt

When a person is contracted to do a job, when the work is defined, when the compensation is agreed upon and the worker does the job, then they receive the agreed-upon compensation. If the employer is gracious, they will also thank the worker. If the employer is generous and wants to show appreciation for a job well done, they may also include some type of tip or bonus, depending on the type of work and circumstances. However, as a rule, the employer pays the worker what was agreed.

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 25:11 explains that the Jewish people have, among the many types of relationships with God, a contractual one. God gives us life and in turn, we serve Him. If we serve Him, we are deserving of our divinely prescribed life in this world. However, it is apparently also in God’s nature to go over and above the mere terms of the contract. God is generous. He is so generous that he gives us continued life and rewards, even when we aren’t necessarily deserving. Nonetheless, according to the Chidushei HaRim, the basis of what we receive from God is earned by our actions, actions that are expected of us. It’s our job, it’s our duty and so our “salary” is based on those required actions.

Enter Pinchas. Pinchas, together with the leadership of Israel, is confronted with a scene of rebellion and promiscuousness that gives Moses pause. Pinchas realizes that to quell the rebellion he needs to immediately take matters into his own hands. He must act. He undertakes a dangerous and unsanctioned act of vigilantism and kills the rebellious ringleader and his immodest partner. Nobody commanded Pinchas to take such an act and risk himself. It turns out that Pinchas’ lethal act stopped the advance of the plague that had erupted as a result of God’s anger, and which killed 24,000 people in the space of a few moments. Thereafter, God goes on to describe Pinchas’ reward for his actions.

The Chidushei HaRim elaborates that in this case, the rewards that Pinchas receives are truly earned. There was no bonus here. Pinchas did not need to do what he did. It was not part of any contract or prior obligation. Pinchas over-extended himself to do what he understood to be right, to do something that he felt God would want, though neither he nor anybody else had been commanded or expected to do so. That deserved its own reward beyond any contractual understanding with God.

May we always aim to do the right thing, whether it’s demanded of us or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the Brit Milah and naming of our grandson, Oded Chaim Spitz. Mazal Tov!

Enthusiastic Evil versus Lethargic Good (Balak)

Enthusiastic Evil versus Lethargic Good (Balak)

Procrastination is opportunity’s natural assassin. -Victor Kiam

The nation of Israel, nearing the end of their desert journey, are encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River, near the lands of Moab, with the intention of crossing to the land of Canaan. King Balak of Moab hires the evil sorcerer Bilaam to cast a fatal curse upon the Israelites and drive them from the land. Bilaam was so eager to embark on his malevolent mission that the Torah points out how Bilaam arose first thing in the morning and rushed to saddle his donkey personally as opposed to letting his servants handle such a menial task.

The Midrash states that centuries before Bilaam’s enthusiastic awakening to curse Israel, someone else awoke with great alacrity to saddle his own donkey: our forefather Abraham. He too awakens first thing in the morning to saddle his donkey to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah as per God’s command. The Midrash explains that Abraham’s awakening was a protection and counteraction to Bilaam’s awakening.

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 22:21 asks why such a protection is needed in the first place? Why does the zeal of an evil man need the remedy of Abraham’s enthusiasm? The Chidushei HaRim explains that without the counteraction, Bilaam’s fervor was particularly dangerous, given the nation of Israel’s lethargy, resistance, and procrastination in following God’s directives.

The Chidushei HaRim expands that unfortunately such a phenomenon is ingrained in human nature. In general, we are much faster to pursue efforts of self-gratification and even sin than we are to perform more altruistic and selfless deeds. If we would solely compare Bilaam’s evil enthusiasm to Israel’s lethargic and grudging pursuit of God’s will, it would represent disaster for the Jewish people. Hence the need for Abraham’s passion to give us a fighting chance. Abraham models for us that it is both possible and ideal to be enthusiastic in our service of God; that we should rise with energy every morning, thankful that we have another day to understand and pursue God’s will; that we can do good with excitement as opposed to just out of a sense of duty or obligation; that we can overcome our very strong human tendency to seek self-gratification, sometimes in the wrong ways; that we can be happy and joyful in doing good and being selfless.

May we turn the human tendency around and be quick to do good and very slow to do wrong.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the birth of our first grandchild, son to Elchanan and Zahava Spitz. Name to be determined. Mazal Tov!

Massive Contemporary Torah Revelations (Chukat)

Massive Contemporary Torah Revelations (Chukat)

Eternal truths will be neither true nor eternal unless they have fresh meaning for every new social situation. -Franklin D. Roosevelt

There is a great deal of Rabbinic discussion about Moses’ sin. The Torah states in black in white that Moses and Aaron committed a grave error during the episode when the nation of Israel cried out for water. God instructed Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock. Moses hits the rock and water comes gushing out. After this, God castigates Moses and Aaron for their misstep, though the exact sin is not clearly spelled out.

Rabbinic commentators supply a plethora of explanations for what the actual sin may have been. The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 20:12 gives a preamble as to how we can have an ongoing evolution of such commentaries. He asks, how could later generations shed light on a subject which earlier and greater sages already weighed in on? What gives later and even modern commentators the right to have such gall, such chutzpah, as to give their opinions on biblical texts that great and venerable commentators have already reviewed and addressed?

The Chidushei HaRim describes how in every generation new Torah explanations are discovered and revealed as per the needs of that generation, yet that remain true to both the written text and the oral tradition. He tells how in the generation of Rabbi Akiva there were elucidations of the Torah that were revealed that weren’t even revealed in the time of Moses. He further elaborates that in the time of Rabbi Akiva the need was very great as opposed to in the time of Moses. And that since the time of Rabbi Akiva the need has increased even further, hence the ongoing and expanding plethora of Torah elucidations that has evolved into a massive and ever-growing corpus of knowledge, insight, and guidance.

Indeed, one of the prime directives of these Torah elucidations is to guide us. By delving more and more into the Torah we’re able to tease out new insights and greater guidance during turbulent and confusing times. As the world evolves, as our existential panorama shifts in unexpected and perhaps historic ways, we need to find fresh perspectives from veritable, eternal, and steadfast sources.

May we drink deeply from the refreshing and always-relevant waters of the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Johannesburg Jewish community for their incredible hospitality and in particular to the Chipkin and Glassman families.

Treacherous Prominence (Korach)

Treacherous Prominence (Korach)

Rust consumes iron and envy consumes itself. -Danish proverb

Korach, Moses’ first cousin, also from the tribe of Levi, was a great man in his own right. He was an elder, a knowledgeable sage, a gifted orator, wealthy beyond measure, touched by prophecy and a natural leader of men.

So, the question is, why did honored and prominent Korach unite with veteran troublemakers Datan and Aviram, raise a conspiracy of 250 other leaders of Israel and incite a doomed rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 16:1 deepens the question by referencing a Midrash that states that God intended for Korach to be the titular leader of the Levites, in parallel to Aaron’s leadership of the Kohens. Indeed, there was nobody else at Korach’s level from amongst the other Levites for such a prominent position. Korach himself was cognizant of his exalted level, which may have been the beginning of his downfall.

According to the Chidushei HaRim, Korach’s ruin came about from two related emotions: envy and arrogance. He became envious of another prominent cousin, Elizafan son of Uziel who had been given an important honor. That little seed of jealousy grew and corrupted the previously righteous sage until he was blinded by it. He was so blinded that it inflated his arrogance to a level that he started to throw baseless accusations against Moses. His envy, his arrogance and the resulting blindness were so complete, that he couldn’t appreciate that he was attacking the man who was directly and expressly chosen by God to lead the nation, the man whom God declared was the humblest of all men.

God’s reaction is severe and immediate, and Korach’s ruin is complete and permanent.

The 250 leaders who supported Korach are consumed by a heavenly fire when they recreate part of the Tabernacle service. Korach’s allies, Datan and Aviram, all their household and possessions are swallowed up by a miraculously opened earth. It’s not clear from the verses, which of the two dooms falls upon Korach personally. Some commentaries explain that both immolation by divine fire and getting swallowed by the earth occurred to Korach simultaneously for a particularly dramatic death for a formally great man.

While the cliché “the greater they are, the harder they fall,” could very well be associated with Korach, his story is also a warning to all, no matter how low or high, of the dangers of the twin emotions of self-destruction: envy and arrogance. May we steer clear of both.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbanit Tova Rhein z”l.

Why Leaders Become Corrupt (Shlach)

Why Leaders Become Corrupt (Shlach)

Power will intoxicate the best hearts, as wine the strongest heads. -Charles Caleb Colton

Moses selects twelve men, twelve princes of Israel to scout the land of Canaan, the land God promised to the nation of Israel. The princes are named. Each one was a great leader. Not only were they great leaders, the rabbinic tradition holds that they were also righteous men.

However, between their appointment and their report on what they saw in the land of Canaan, something happened. Something that led them to sin so gravely that they sowed panic and dissension within the nation of Israel. They repudiated Moses’ leadership and God’s omnipotence and brought upon the entire nation the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert.

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 13:2 wonders how this transformation occured. How did ten of the most important men of Israel’s leadership, ten righteous men fall so low, so fast?

He explains that it had to do with the people. It was not only their appointment and the power it represented that corrupted these previously righteous men. It was the people they represented. Somehow, by having some level of representation of the people, the princes picked up on the people’s intentions. The problem was that a certain percentage of the population didn’t want to enter the Promised Land. They had tired of the desert, of Moses’ leadership and of God’s presence in their lives. They wanted to be free of those, and ironically, return to the slavery and the familiarity of Egypt. Those rebellious intentions somehow infected the previously righteous leaders once they were appointed. That tainted the princes’ scouting mission from the start. Their scouting of the land of Canaan commenced with an intention to sabotage the planned entry into the land.

However, two princes were spared from the conspiracy and demonstrated greater strength of character and loyalty. Those were Joshua and Caleb. Before Joshua had departed on the mission, Moses renamed Joshua (in Hebrew, he changed it from Hoshea to Yehoshua) by including a part of God’s name in Joshua’s name. Caleb went to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to pray at their graves. It seems that by binding oneself so firmly to God that it becomes a part of one’s name and identity, as well as intense prayer calling on the merits of our forefathers somehow deflected the negative influences of the crowd on those two leaders.

May we always seek ways to deflect the corruption and negative influences we may find.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the induction of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon as the Rabbi of Gush Etzion.

Calm and Seasoned (Behaalotcha)

Calm and Seasoned (Behaalotcha)

Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom. When the passions have relaxed their hold and have escaped, not from one master, but from many. -Plato

By modern standards, the Levites who served in the Tabernacle, and later, in the Temple in Jerusalem, had an early retirement.

The verses declare:

“This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 8:25 gets into more detail as to what this post-retirement life looked like for the over-fifty Levite. He says that these older Levites were assigned the duty of “closing the gates.” However, there is a much deeper significance to the term “closing the gates” than merely the physical shutting of some aperture.

He starts off by noting that the older Levites were charged with closing the gates as opposed to the converse task of opening the gates. He then compares the term “gates” to the same term that’s used in Solomon’s Song of Songs. However, the deeper meaning in that context is not “gates” but rather “excitement.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that while excitement is an important, if not vital emotion, there are times that it needs to be reigned in. It is much more the domain of the young to exhibit indiscriminate passion and exuberance. However, it can often be misguided, misplaced, disproportionate or otherwise tainted.

The older Levite, who has more life’s experience and perspective will be able to better discern when, and how much, exuberance has its place. The Chidushei HaRim continues that it is easy for negative, impure aspects to attach themselves to otherwise good and proper excitement. While after the age of fifty, the Levite may not have had to be involved in the physical or otherwise arduous role the Levites had in the Tabernacle and Temple, they still had an important part to play. They had a supervisory, mentoring, guiding role. Part of it is to “close the gates,” meaning, to rein in and properly direct the energies and enthusiasm of the younger, less experienced Levites.

May we always be able to combine the energy of youth with the insights of age.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of famed Israeli actor, Rabbi Uri Zohar z”l.

Free Protection (Naso)

Free Protection (Naso)

You must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. -Andrew Jackson

The Torah reading of Naso is a diverse and content-rich portion. It includes a description of the work the Levites performed transporting the Tabernacle components during their desert journey. It has instructions regarding the treatment of anyone who is ritually impure, their need to exit the camp and purify themselves. We then have the unusual description of the Sotah ceremony, the ritual for a wife suspected and accused of adultery by her husband, followed by the narrative of the laws of the Nazirites who abstain from wine, from cutting their hair and from the defilement of the dead.

The second half of the portion of Naso gives a detailed and extensive description of the sacrifices and gifts the princes of the tribes of Israel bring for the dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. It is notable for the twelve detailed repetitions of what is ostensibly the same offering over and over and over again.

However, nestled in between these two sections of Naso, we have the famed priestly blessing, just a few verses long. It states as follows:

“God will bless you and protect you. God will light His countenance upon you and grace you. God will turn His countenance towards you and give you peace.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 6:24 wonders as to the need to mention protection together with blessing in the first verse. By way of explanation, he contrasts the blessing of God to the blessing of a king of flesh and blood. When a human king bestows upon a person some blessing or some gift, once that person has departed from the king’s presence there is little to then stop robbers from harming him, stealing the gifts and nullifying whatever blessing the king gave.

However, with God’s blessings, the protection of that blessing is part and parcel of what God is bestowing. The protection of the blessing is included in the blessing itself.

The Chidushei HaRim continues that even if a mortal king were to assign guards to escort and protect the recipient of his gift, that is not how mortal blessings are given and even such protection would be limited. On the other hand, God’s protection is intrinsic to the blessing and inseparable from God’s will.

May we always be recipients of gifts of the divine variety that will remain unharmed and untouched by any negative intentions.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bat-Mitzvah of our niece, Illyana Spitz. Mazal Tov!

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The multitude which is not brought to act as a unity, is confusion. That unity which has not its origin in the multitude is tyranny. -Blaise Pascal

The name of the fourth of Moses’ five books of the Torah is called Bamidbar in Hebrew, meaning “in the desert.” As with the four other books, it is also the name of the first Torah portion of its eponymous book. While one can’t argue with the fact or the appropriateness of calling the book which deals primarily with Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the Book of In the Desert, it is interesting that the translators chose to call it the Book of Numbers.

It is not entirely inappropriate, for there is a significant preoccupation with counting the numbers of the Children of Israel, both at the beginning of their desert journey as well as at the end of it, as well as some other counting and numbering going on.

One of the peculiarities that become clear in the counting of Israel is the hierarchy of different groups vis-à-vis access to and service in the Tabernacle. The Kohens have the preeminent role, followed by the Levites in a supporting role, and finally the rest of the tribes of Israel. The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 1:1 discusses the importance and value of the different designations and separations. There are differences between individuals, families, groups and nations and it would be a mistake to look at or think of every individual as part of some universal, monolithic, amorphous whole. The identity, distinctions and roles serve a purpose.

However, when these disparate groups come together and unite while still retaining their distinctions and identities, that is when something truly special happens, that is when the elusive peace we are always seeking is possible. The Chidushei HaRim quotes a well-known Talmudic dictum that there is no vessel that can contain blessings for Israel except for peace. He adds that there is a hint in this dictum in the word “vessel” itself, which in Hebrew is “Kli.” He states that “KLI” is the acronym for Kohen, Levi, Israel. When Kohens, Levites and the rest of Israel are united, while still retaining their identities and their roles, that is when we create peace and that is when we can truly become vessels for bountiful blessing.

May we reach that unity, peace and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Daniel and Rebbitzen Ilana Epstein on their induction as the Rabbinic couple at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue of London.

Wandering Aimfully (Bechukotai)

Wandering Aimfully (Bechukotai)

It is the first of all problems for a man to find out what kind of work he is to do in this universe. -Thomas Carlyle

The beginning of the Torah reading of Bechukotai has God declaring that if we walk in His ways, in His laws, He will bless us with plenty. The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 26:3 focuses on the verb of walking and draws our attention to a Midrash about King David and walking.

King David is quoted as saying “God, every day I would say to myself I’m going to walk to such and such place, but my legs would take me to synagogues and study halls.”

The Chidushei HaRim provides two different homiletical explanations for the message of the Midrash. The first explanation is that every day, every person has a different mission to accomplish. Our missions are not static. It’s not the same mission every day, rather every day presents a new challenge, a new task, a new twist, even a new nuance we are meant to undertake. Related to the point of our missions, is that every mission is unique to each person and no person can accomplish or do someone else’s mission for them. Our legs are what take us to our missions. While we might have thought we were going to one place, in fact, we’re being led to confront, deal, help, intervene, say a kind word, or do whatever it is that our personal unique mission for the day is.

The second explanation is geared towards introverts, or those who don’t like crowds or public gatherings. The Chidushei HaRim explains that King David is talking about how his original intent was to perform some commandment or to study Torah on his own, but his feet would take him to the synagogue or the study hall to perform the commandments in a group, with the community, to pray and study Torah with people as opposed to on his own. While of course there is a value and often a need to perform things on one’s own, there is a much higher value when we perform these things in a group.

May we let our feet take us to good things and places as well as to wander with purpose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT, for their warm hosting, and to Howard and Eileen Spielman of Sharon, MA, for knowing how to wonderfully surprise.