Category Archives: 5783

The Spiritual Road to Material Riches (Toldot)

The Spiritual Road to Material Riches (Toldot)

Riches do not consist in the possession of treasures, but in the use made of them. -Napoleon Bonaparte

In one of the more dramatic scenes in the Torah, Jacob disguises himself to appear more like his hairy twin brother Esau, in order to receive the blessing that their blind father Isaac had originally intended for Esau. It seems that Jacob is successful and manages to convince an initially suspicious Isaac, that it is indeed the son who should receive this primal blessing standing in front of him, hairy arms and all.

Isaac proceeds to bestow a short but powerful blessing upon the disguised Jacob. The blessing is as follows:

“May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers and let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you.”

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 27:28 delves into the duality of blessings from the dew of heaven as well as from the fat of the earth. He connects heaven to spiritual endeavors and the earth to material efforts and provides guidance as to how we can connect to God. He suggests that we need to start with the spiritual endeavors, with our study of Torah, with prayer, with reaching out to God with our hearts and minds.

After we’ve established that connection to heaven, then we can better focus and succeed with our earthly efforts. Even then, the material activities need to remain connected to God and the Torah. By connecting our mundane, daily efforts to God’s will, we ensure that His blessings will be upon our work. By connecting heaven and earth, we ensure that our efforts will yield fruit, that we will enjoy from the fat of the earth and an abundance of blessings.

May we remember that our efforts cannot succeed without God’s blessing, and may we realize He’s given us lots of suggestions as to how to merit such blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the start of the World Cup.

The Ultimate Agent (Chaye Sara)

The Ultimate Agent (Chaye Sara)

The condition of an enlightened mind is a surrendered heart. -Alan Redpath

Sarah has died, Abraham is getting older, and their son Isaac has yet to marry. According to the Midrash, Isaac is forbidden from leaving the land of Canaan, but none of the women of Canaan were considered suitable for Isaac.

Abraham sends his loyal servant, who the Midrash names as Eliezer, to return to Abraham’s hometown, Haran, northeast of Canaan, and find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer dutifully goes to Haran and is immediately successful in finding Rebecca, who happens to be from Abraham’s family (a granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nachor – making Rebecca and Isaac first cousins once-removed). Thankfully, Eliezer convinces her resistant family to let her return with him to Canaan to marry Isaac.

The Torah is effusive in its description of Eliezer, calling him “the elder of his house and the one who rules everything that is his [Abraham’s].” The Bat Ayin on Genesis 24:2 wonders as to how Eliezer achieved such distinction as a servant. He explains that Eliezer had such respect and awe for Abraham, that he completely identified with Abraham’s mission and goals and annulled his own desires to the extent that he was the ultimate agent on Abraham’s behalf. The Bat Ayin elaborates that when a servant of the king is so closely identified with the king, then the servant, in a certain respect, is comparable to the king, in his power and majesty.

Eliezer subsumed and annulled his own desires so thoroughly and took on Abraham’s goals so devotedly that he became comparable to Abraham himself. That gave Abraham the confidence to send Eliezer on this most vital mission for the continuity of his family, to find a suitable match for Isaac. Hence, the Torah’s description of Eliezer as “the elder of his house and the one who rules everything that is his.”

By surrendering his own ego and fully accepting the role of a humble servant, Eliezer became the authoritative representative of the great Abraham and the master of Abraham’s entire domain.

May we realize that to serve often means to lead.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To NASA’s Artemis 1 launch to the moon.

Questioning Certainty (Vayera)

Questioning Certainty (Vayera)

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. -Eugene Ionesco

God commands Abraham to circumcise himself. There is a Midrash that recounts how Abraham asked his friends, Eshkol, Aner and Mamre for their opinion on the matter. Without getting into what their answers were, the Bat Ayin on Genesis 20:1 wonders as to the question itself.

Abraham had received a direct command from God. We have seen, both before this command and after it, that Abraham performed all of God’s commands without question or hesitation. Whether it was to leave his homeland and his family, or to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham is the model of enthusiastic and unquestioning divine obedience. So why does Abraham ask the opinion of his friends regarding this command?

The Bat Ayin answers that Abraham had no doubts regarding performing this command. His intention was to fully and immediately fulfill God’s command. However, there’s an added benefit of asking others, even when there is no question or doubt as to what the answer is. The Bat Ayin explains that by asking others a question, even if the answer is clear and obvious, Abraham is involving them in the process and in the answer. By inquiring of others what one should do regarding performing God’s will, one is thereby also involving them in God’s will. They need to pause and think about it. They must consider what it means to be involved in that divine connection. Though the answer may be clear, there’s value in giving it further consideration, of spending more time on thoughts of the divine.

Abraham could have just gone ahead and performed the circumcision without discussing or consulting with anyone. By asking his friends, he involved them in the divine service. He brought them closer to God and to God’s way of thinking; all of that with a simple, obvious question.

May we learn to use questions in our divine service, whether we know the answers or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Beit Yosef community of Las Vegas.

Attracted to Holiness (Lech Lecha)

Attracted to Holiness (Lech Lecha)

A soul without a high aim is like a ship without a rudder. -Eileen Caddy

Abraham is famously directed by God to leave his homeland and venture to the land of Canaan, a land that God would bequeath to Abraham and his descendants. However, what is perhaps less noticed, is that a few verses before God’s directive to Abraham, the Torah tells us how Terach, Abraham’s father, takes his family from their homeland, from Ur of the Chaldeans and heads to Canaan. However, Terach’s journey ends when they arrive in the town of Haran, before entering the land of Canaan. It is only Abraham, later, who successfully enters Canaan.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 12:1 wonders as to what the cause of the apparent false start was. Why does Abraham’s family, when accompanied by his father Terach head towards Canaan, before God commands it; why are they initially unsuccessful in entering and why later, does Abraham, without Terach, succeed?

He explains that while still in Ur of the Chaldeans Abraham started to perceive the holiness of the land of Canaan. He ventures west, attracted by the holiness of Canaan, independently of God’s command. His father Terach, seeing Abraham’s efforts, is taken up by the spiritual journey and he too seeks the holiness of Canaan. However, upon reaching the town of Haran, in close proximity to Canaan, they realize something that gives them pause. They come to the conclusion that though they’re attracted to the holiness, they don’t feel themselves worthy of entering the land. They are not yet at a level where they could fully connect with the inherit holiness of the land.

It is then, after God’s command, that Abraham redoubles his spiritual efforts and realizes that he needs to divest himself of his material, worldly attachments. Only with a pure spiritual focus can one fully connect to the inherent holiness of the land. Abraham succeeds in reaching that spiritual level, that focus on the transcendent and that connection with God. He is then worthy of entering the land and claiming its spiritual and material bounty for himself and his descendants.

May we take advantage of the road to holiness our forefathers already paved for us and bequeathed to us and connect to the holiness of the land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To democracy.

Learning from the Sinners (Noach)

Learning from the Sinners (Noach)

Passions are vices or virtues to their highest powers. -Johann von Goethe

Ten generations after Adam arrived on the scene, humanity has descended into moral depravity. God is so disappointed with the work of His hands that he is ready to wipe out all of creation. Every person is sentenced to death due to their evil actions, everyone that is, except for Noah and his family. In a world that has become completely corrupt and immoral, one man stood out for his righteousness, in stark contradistinction to every other person around him.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 6:9 wonders how Noah was able to remain untainted. How could Noah, immersed in a complete global civilization dedicated to wickedness, stay uncorrupted. He answers that Noah indeed did learn something from all the sinners around him. He learned from their passion.

Noah saw the passion with which his civilization pursued their vices. He saw the passion with which they chased worldly, mundane, and material pleasures. He saw the passion with which they sought physical gratification. He saw the passion with which they sought to help themselves at the expense of others. He saw the passion with which they sought to dismiss, put down, and insult others. He saw the passion with which humanity devolved into a selfish, callous, hateful world of self-serving, arrogant, greedy individuals. All these unbridled passions led to a licentious, thieving, murderous civilization that infected the very planet itself.

Noah saw and learned from this passion. However, instead of focusing on self-gratification, Noah learned to channel that fiery passion into serving God. He passionately sought to do good. He passionately sought to be kind and ethical. He passionately sought to help and care for others. He passionately focused on the spiritual and the sacred. He passionately avoided all the vices, greed and materiality that surrounded him. He passionately clung to God’s directions and will.

Because of his positive passion, Noah and his family merited to be saved from the cataclysmic flood. He merited to be the progenitor of our post-flood civilization and gave humanity a new start.

May we learn from the passion of others and channel those passions for good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the fascinating research effort of studying the Earth’s magnetic field and using it to further prove the accounts of the Bible. https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-researchers-say-magnetic-fields-provide-way-to-securely-date-biblical-events/

Angels Can’t Repent (Bereshit)

 We are never like angels till our passion dies. -Sir John Denham

In the beginning, God created the universe. However, according to Kabbalah, our physical universe is the last of a succession of dimensions that God created. The other dimensions are of a spiritual, ethereal nature. The process by which God created all of the dimensions was to somehow undergo a “contraction” of some aspect of Himself to make room for apparently independent, sentient, conscious entities other than Himself.

The dimensions that are “closer” to God’s less-diluted presence, the spiritual realms, feel His presence so strongly that obeying God is much less of an issue, as it would be counterintuitive to do anything against the more obvious presence of God. However, our physical realm is so far removed from God’s clear presence that it becomes quite easy to forget about God, to deny His existence and to outright do the exact opposite of what understanding His existence would prompt us to do.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 1:1 explains that there is a correlation between spiritual proximity to God and the term we call Holiness (Kedusha). The closer one is or gets to God, the holier they become. However, there is a tradeoff of sorts. The holier one is, the more exacting God is. Thus, the angels who are ostensibly holier and closer to God have no margin of error. There is no repentance for the angels in their spiritual existence. Humans, on the other hand, are very different.

Humans, because of our spiritual distance from God, are able to sin. We are able to ignore the subtle and not so subtle indications of God’s existence. That allows us and gives us the free will to deviate from the path that God would have initially preferred we follow. However, that distance, that propensity to sin, the ability to do wrong is the very reason we can also repent.

In fact, the ability to repent is not just a benefit of being in the mortal, physical realm, but rather a feature. The built-in ability to repent signifies the underlying kindness that God avails us mortals. The spiritual realm is a more justice-oriented dimension. Lacking our physical bodies, we no longer have the opportunity to act, to do, to mend our ways. The spiritual world is the place where we receive, realize, and access the fruit of our actions in the physical world, both the good and the bad.

May we take advantage of all the opportunities in our physical world to do good, to repent for the bad and to partake in the lovingkindness that is the foundation of our material existence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of Yoel and Alaina Epstein. Mazal Tov!

Yom Kippur thoughts: The Shard (with a nod to Reb Brandon Sanderson)

The Shard (with a nod to Reb Brandon Sanderson)

There is something within us that is older than the creation of the cosmos. It is ancient and elusive, but it is there. It is more durable than the sun and the stars, yet no microscope will ever find it. In fact, it is indestructible. No force on Earth or beyond it can destroy, conquer, or subdue it. It doesn’t age, grow old or wither. It doesn’t fade or disintegrate.

It is indestructible yet alive. It is so alive, that it makes all other life seem paltry by comparison. It is a source of such enduring life, that even the death of its host body won’t extinguish it.

It is indestructible, alive, and powerful. It is so powerful that thunderstorms, hurricanes and even supernovas can’t capture its power.

It is indestructible, alive, powerful, yet subtle. It is so subtle, that most people don’t even realize they carry it. And even when they do know of its existence, it is easily forgotten, ignored.

This indestructible, alive, powerful, subtle thing I will call a Shard. It is a divine Shard. It is an infinitesimal portion of Infinity itself. It contains within it something of the nature, the properties, some compression or condensation or some indescribable aspect of the very force that created and maintains our entire universe.

Yet each part of infinity that is within each of us is somehow unique. At the deepest level, it IS us. This powerful, radiant (again Reb S.), living, elusive, unbreakable, immortal thing is us.

But our breathing, organic, material selves don’t always know, or understand or remember who or what our true selves entail.

Enter Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is among the more unusual and perhaps most powerful of Jewish events.

We try to limit all worldly distractions. We don’t eat or drink. We don’t work. We spend almost the entirety of the day together in prayer and reflection. One of the purposes of this exercise (besides being Biblically mandated) is to reconnect with that forgotten Shard. The noise of life drowns out the voice of our Shard. The constant preoccupation with life, with work, with the demands, pressures, anxieties, expectations, stresses, disappointments, and everything else that life throws our way often makes it impossible to hear ourselves, to listen to our Shard. Yom Kippur is the start of the solution.

Again, the Shard is an inseparable part of us. It is us. And it is right there waiting for us to reconnect. To listen to it. To talk to it. To think about it. To ponder it. Perhaps even to visualize it. To draw strength and energy from it. To draw insight and guidance and perspective and direction from it. To draw life and inspiration from it. To draw power and conviction and courage from it.

Jewish tradition provides some of the scaffolding for such an exercise, for such a journey. It provides an ancient, proven, and successful tradition. It provides the map for us to explore that inner world in a healthy, moral, mature, responsible, and honest way.

Showing up is the first step. Buying in is the next. Going through the motions is extremely helpful. Yet we still need to do the highly individualized and personal work within the prescribed communal framework. And while the general experience may be common to us all, it is an extremely unique and private journey.

May we all find our Shard, hear it, connect with it, listen to it, tap into it, and let us really feel the infinity that is within us.

Gmar Chatima Tova – May we all be inscribed for a good year,

Ben-Tzion