Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Marking Renewal (Nitzavim)

Marking Renewal (Nitzavim)

So long as a person is capable of self-renewal they are a living being. -Henri Frederic Amiel

The Torah reading of Nitzavim is generally read around Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew word Nitzavim can be translated as “standing” or “assembled.” The beginning of the reading can be translated as follows:

“You are standing this day, all of you, before your God —your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer— to enter into the covenant of your God, which your God is concluding with you this day.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuternomy 29:9 quotes the great Rabbinic commentator Rashi, who states that as the nation of Israel was transitioning from one leader (Moses) to a new leader (Joshua) they were made a “Matzevah.” While it’s not exactly clear in this instance what the meaning of Matzevah refers to, it’s interesting to note the etymological similarity between the word Nitzavim and the word Matzevah.

A Matzeva is often a monument, some type of marker to designate the importance of a place or event (Matzeva also means tombstone). The Chidushei HaRim explains that there is a purposeful confluence between Nitzavim, Rosh Hashana and the need for an allegorical marker.

At the end of our year, just as at the end of a reign, it’s important to make an accounting of what was achieved during that time period. What did we do with the time given to us? What did we contribute to the world? What new, positive thought, word or act did we think, speak, or do during the course of the year?

It is important and valuable to go through the exercise of review and introspection and then to somehow mark in our minds and spirits these positive accomplishments. We need to create an internal monument of sorts for all the good we did in the Hebrew calendar year of 5782.

Once we’ve marked the good we’ve done in 5782, we can then more powerfully embark on our new goals, our spiritual renewal for 5783.

May we note and feel all the good we’ve been a part of this year and launch forward into a blessed and successful 5783.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the five Red Heifers who arrived in Israel. See details here: https://www.jpost.com/judaism/article-717650

First Powerful Fruits (Ki Tavo)

First Powerful Fruits (Ki Tavo)

In every phenomenon the beginning remains always the most notable moment. -Thomas Carlyle

A farmer works hard tilling, planting, and tending to his crops, be it grain or fruit. He prays hard for rain. He looks up to the sky expectantly. When the blessed rain does come, he looks to the ground lovingly, hoping it will be enough. Then he waits. And waits some more. He will go out to his crops daily, searching anxiously for those first stalks, those first buds, that initial flowering of fruit that will demonstrate that all his hard work, all his prayers and worries weren’t for naught.

And then he finds it. His heart is filled with joy. He’s ecstatic. His efforts have borne fruit – literally. That initial sign of growth promises that all the rest will follow, but that first fruit carries a very special place in his heart.

Enters the Torah and tells the farmer, that that first fruit, that joyous sign of success and plenty, that promise of a full crop to come, that very first fruit, needs to be marked and then brought to God once it ripens.

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 26:2 wonders why that’s so. Why is it that at the first signs of fruit, at the emotional apex of agrarian life, God is demanding specifically those fruits? He answers that there’s an incredible power to the beginning and first of anything. A person will attach themselves to that first occurrence with all their strength. God is asking that we redirect that powerful attachment to Him.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that the phenomenon of strong attachment to first things is not limited to agriculture, but that it pervades all aspects of life, and we should keep in mind the same divine request in our own lives. By dedicating the first minutes of our day, the first days of the year to God, we give a divine blessing and power to the rest of the day, the rest of the year and to all our efforts.

May we encounter fresh beginnings regularly and may they signify blessings for all that follows.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Queen Elizabeth II. May her memory be a blessing. And to the success of King Charles III.

Worthy Enough (Ki Tetze)

Worthy Enough (Ki Tetze)

You have no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself; and how little I deserve it. -W. S. Gilbert

The Israelite tribe of Dan had a checkered history. At some point during the desert journey, they were outside of the protective cloud that the rest of the tribes of Israel were in. The Midrash names the tribe of Dan as particularly connected with idolatry. However, the tribe of Dan also carried the prestigious flag of the “Measef” – the Gatherer. They were the tribe that marched last whenever the Israelites travelled. It was a credit to their strength and courage that they held the rearguard.

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 25:18 wonders as to the negative portrayal of the Danites, and in actuality, flips the narrative around. He explains that the Danites were a people who were particularly concerned with justice and looked at things from the perspective of fairness and impartiality (as per Tractate Pesachim 4a). They did some soul-searching and came to the conclusion that they weren’t worthy. They weren’t worthy to be included with the rest of the tribes of Israel within God’s protective cover.

However, that was their mistake. Once God had directed them to join the rest of the tribes and come within the cloud, it didn’t matter that they weren’t worthy. God had deemed them worthy enough. And by declining God’s invitation to join the rest of the tribes, even though their rationale had some elements of noble self-sacrifice, it was considered akin to idol worship. Hence, the statement of their being associated with idolatry.

The Chidushei HaRim extrapolates this lesson to all of God’s commands. Though we may not be worthy, though we may think we don’t have the merit or the right to be considered part of God’s camp, nonetheless, we should join the camp whenever possible and keep as many of God’s commands as we’re able, even if we don’t feel worthy enough.

And may we always bear in mind that we are truly worthy enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Dr. Dodi Tobin z”l. A tremendous inspiration and a heartbreaking loss. May God comfort her family among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Judging Others (Shoftim)

Judging Others (Shoftim)

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now. -Marcus Aurelius

The opening of the Torah reading of Shoftim starts with the prescriptive command of:

Judges and officers you shall place at all your gates, that God your Lord gives you to your tribes, and you shall judge the people a judgement of righteousness.

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 16:18 explains the verse homiletically. He explains that “gates” is referring to the gates of our heart and “tribes” is referring to various attributes in our service of God, such as “the gates of awe,” “the gates of love,” “the gates of Torah,” “the gates of lovingkindness,” and so forth.

He elaborates, that if we were to take a deep look at ourselves, that if we were to judge ourselves honestly, we would realize that everything we have is from God. In essence, there is no attribute, skill, trait, or strength that we possess that isn’t from God. We need to realize that it’s all from God and not pat ourselves on the back for something that is basically a gift from God.

The Chidushei HaRim suggests that we need to keep that awareness and gratitude in mind when confronted by the failings of others. Whether as a judge or as a layman we come across people who don’t act appropriately. We compare ourselves to them and say to ourselves how terrible or lacking or inappropriate the behavior of the other is. We need to remember that our own comparatively better behavior is not something we can take full credit for, nor can we fully blame the other. This is reminiscent of Nachmanides’ famous advice to his son (Igeret HaRamban), to think of others as inadvertent sinners and oneself as a purposeful sinner, if one decides to start comparing oneself to others. Each of us has our own unique advantages and disadvantages.

The Chidushei HaRim proposes that instead of judging the disturbing person, one needs to show compassion. It may be that their behavior, sin, ill-manners, or affront is wrong, offensive and upsetting. However, the solution is not to think that one is in anyway better or superior to the other. Whatever apparent ethical advantage one has is not something that is entirely of our own making, but rather a gift from God. The answer is to remember that we are no better than the other and to think and demonstrate compassion rather than judgement, affection rather than disdain.

May we judge others favorably as much as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the incredible hospitality of the Nofei Aviv community. Thank you!

Spiritual Navel-Gazing (Reeh)

Spiritual Navel-Gazing (Reeh)

The soul’s emphasis is always right. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first words of the Torah reading of Reeh (Deuteronomy 11:26) starts off by declaring: “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” The first two words are “See” (Reeh) and “I” (Anochi). However, there is another way to read those two words, namely as “See me.”

There’s a story that was told about one of the followers of the Chidushei HaRim who came to his door and just stood there gazing at him. When the Chidushei HaRim noticed and asked the follower why he was staring, the follower answered that he had learned an interpretation by the Ohr Hachaim of the above verse that “See me” can also be understood as “look at a Tzadik, a righteous person” to receive blessings, and that drinking in the vision of a righteous person is beneficial to one’s soul.

The Chidushei HaRim countered to his follower with the well-known verse “and Your people are all righteous.” The Chidushei HaRim instructed his follower to look within himself to find that divine blessing. One doesn’t need to go further than their own spirit to find a spark of God within which can be the kernel for the blessings a person might need and desire. While there are clearly advantages and even a requirement to seek wisdom, inspiration, assistance and guidance from others who are wiser, inspiring, helpful and experienced, when it comes to seeking God’s blessing, we just need to look within ourselves. God is right there.

May we figure out how to tap that infinite source of blessing within ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Netanel and Adina Spielman on their marriage! Mazal Tov!

The Hard Way (Ekev)

The Hard Way (Ekev)

Human beings hardly ever learn from the experience of others. They learn; when they do, which isn’t often, on their own, the hard way. Robert A. Heinlein

 

It was a threat that parents and movie characters alike used. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The threat implied that the outcome was inevitable. We were going to be bathed, whether we liked it or not. We were going to do that chore whether we liked it or not. The hero was going to either retrieve or disclose that vital information the villain had or needed. The implication, of course, was that resistance was useless and that the subject of the undue attention, be it the child, hero or villain might as well cooperate with the aggressor (or benefactor – depends on one’s perspective).

If the end result was indeed inescapable, it wouldn’t make sense for the victim (or the beneficiary) to fight it, to bring unneeded harm, pain or trauma on themselves. The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 7:12 comes to the same conclusion when it comes to viewing the prophesized end of days. The verse at the beginning of the Torah reading of Ekev has Moses telling the nation of Israel:

“And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, God your Lord will maintain faithfully for you the covenant made on oath with your fathers.”

The verse is phrased conditionally. Indeed, we see in several places in the Torah the condition that if we listen to God we will be blessed, but if we don’t, things won’t go so well.

The Chidushei HaRim, however, reads the verse as saying that there is both a conditional as well as an unconditional aspect to the covenant with God. The unconditional aspect of the covenant is that by the end of days, the Jewish people will all follow God faithfully. We will all obey the rules, and we will all benefit from the various promises and blessings of whatever the end of days entails, without negating free will.

What is conditional is what happens on the way to that destination. Those who have behaved themselves on that road will be greater beneficiaries, while those who have behaved poorly will pay the price for those missteps.

The Chidushei HaRim argues that if we are all destined to follow the Torah program, it’s foolish to go against it and needlessly suffer the accompanying downside of disobedience. If ultimately, we will obey God, we might as well get with the program at the earliest convenience and reap the commensurate benefits as soon as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Nathan Fitoussi z”l.

The Brain is Not Enough (Vaetchanan)

The Brain is Not Enough (Vaetchanan)

Knowledge is power, but enthusiasm pulls the switch. -Ivern Ball

The Book of Deuteronomy is replete with phrases and entire soliloquies as to the intrinsic belief we must have in God and how that obligates us to follow His commandments. One of these phrases is part of a prayer that we recite three times a day, the Aleinu prayer, which is said at the end of the three daily services, the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers:

“Know therefore this day and recall to your heart that God He is The Lord in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” – Deuteronomy 4:39

The Chidushei HaRim on this verse teases out an interesting understanding of how we must approach faith, based on the juxtaposition of the term “know” and “heart.” He explains that it’s possible for a person to know with complete clarity the reality and existence of God. However, if that insight doesn’t enter his heart, it is not enough. He elaborates that a person can know something one thousand times over, but if it hasn’t penetrated his heart, he will not act on it.

What may often prevent divine knowledge from entering our hearts is a coating of evil. All it needs is a thin coating of selfishness, indifference, or callousness. That is enough to thwart the brightest minds from the requisite faith in God which inspires benevolent action.

Only after the removal of the coating of insensitivity from the heart can the divine knowledge of the brain enter the soul. Once our hardheartedness is dissolved, we can not only know God, we can connect with God, we can see God, we can follow God and we can be His partners in this world, sharing not only knowledge, but kindheartedness.

May we melt whatever barriers lie between our hearts and the good things our mind knows.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the rapid and impactful success of Operation Breaking Dawn.

Holy Translations (Devarim)

Holy Translations (Devarim)

Translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing. It is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift. -Harry Mathews

There is a popular Midrash which explains that besides writing the Torah in its original Hebrew, Moses went on to explain the Torah in translation into the 70 prime languages of the world, corresponding to the 70 formative nations of the world. The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 1:1 provides an exposition as to why such a monumental effort was needed.

He explains that by translating the Torah for everyone, every person from every nation through their language and the very root of their identity could connect to the Torah. Furthermore, engaging in the Torah is considered to have a measure of healing, and this too is accessible to the entire world, in whatever language they speak.

There is also a protective element to the multiplicity of languages. Each of the 70 primordial nations and their root languages possesses some negative characteristics, some national trait which needs to be redeemed. By providing the nations of the world the ability to connect to the Torah, it allows them to call upon forces that will enable them to correct those hereditary faults. In parallel, the Torah likewise protects Israel from those selfsame shortcomings.

However, the translations are not merely a benefit vis-à-vis the nations of the world, but also for all Jews in exile. The widespread diaspora has given rise to countless Jews who don’t speak or understand Hebrew, but rather the language of where they live. By having the Torah available in translation, it provides access to all Jews, no matter how far they are, how foreign Hebrew may seem to them or what languages they understand.

May we take advantage of the multiplicity of Torah translations that are so freely and easily accessible to all of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Herzog College’s annual Bible study days.

Prophetic Geographic History (Vezot Habracha)

Prophetic Geographic History (Vezot Habracha)

I have seen gleams in the face and eyes of the man that have let you look into a higher country. -Thomas Carlyle

Moments before Moses is about to leave the mortal realm, God has him climb Mount Nevo and gaze upon the Promised Land. God shows Moses the length and breadth of the land in intricate detail:

“And God showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Menashe; the whole land of Judah as far as the Last (Western) Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain—the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.”

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 34:3 explains that there’s prophetic significance to each of the geographic markers God points out to Moses. In fact, each marker represents a future leader of the nation of Israel that God shows to Moses.

The most obvious site is that of Jericho. It is the first city that Moses’ disciple Joshua will conquer and it is the key battle that opens up the conquest of the rest of Canaan.

Naphtali refers to Deborah and Barak who decades later led the successful rebellion against the tyrannical Yavin and his general Sisera.

Menashe refers to the Judges, Gideon and Yiftah, who defeated their respective enemies.

Dan refers to Samson, the miraculously strong warrior who proved a major antagonist to the enemy Philistines.

Judah refers to Kings David and Solomon and their descendants.

Ephraim refers to the Kings of Israel, descendants of Ephraim, starting with Yeravam, who broke off from the Davidic dynasty and the Kingdom of Judah after Solomon’s death.

“The Last Sea” refers to the Messianic days until the end of time.

God doesn’t just show Moses the physical land that He promised to the Children of Israel. He shows Moses the future history of Israel as well. He shows him their leaders, their battles, their victories and defeats, their kings and prophets, all of our history, including our present-day and beyond, until the very end of history.

Moses may not have merited to enter the land, but he got to see more than most mortals ever have.

May we continue to merit visions of prophecies unfolding before our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the beginning of the Shmita (Sabbatical) agricultural year.

Sky, Earth and the Four Winds (Haazinu)

Sky, Earth and the Four Winds (Haazinu)

A handful of pine-seed will cover mountains with the green majesty of forests. I too will set my face to the wind and throw my handful of seed on high. -Fiona Macleod

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The penultimate Torah reading is a song. The Song of Haazinu. It is prophetic, poetic, and often challenging to decipher. It hints at what the future will bring, what will happen to the people of Israel at the end of days and throughout their long journey, including rewards and punishments. The format, structure, and content of the Song of Haazinu are meant to stand out and to be taken to heart. The following is how it starts:

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;

Let the earth hear the words I utter!

May my discourse come down as the rain,

My speech distill as the dew,

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass.”

The first two phrases are relatively straightforward, calling on the heavens and the earth to bear witness to the following song. However, the next four lines seem to repeat in different variations the theme of rain or water falling on the ground.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 32:2 explains that it’s a continuation of the first two phrases and that Moses is calling on additional witnesses to this song besides the heavens and the earth. He is calling upon the four winds to also bear witness. He explains the connection to each wind as follows:

“May my discourse come down as the rain,” refers to the West Wind which comes from the nape of the world and normally brings rain.

“My speech distill as the dew,” refers to the North Wind which is as pleasant as dew (in Israel).

“Like showers on young growth,” is the South Wind which is as stormy as thundershowers.

“Like droplets on the grass,” is the East Wind that disperses seed and grows the vegetation.

Together, the sky, the earth and the four winds are witnesses for this song, part of the covenant between God and Israel. They are more than just witnesses; they are the ones that will be the instruments of God’s punishments or rewards to us. They will withhold rain, sustenance and the basics of life if we aren’t deserving. They will bless us with bounty, health and sustenance if we’re deserving.

May we always be on the side of blessings.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Encompass Health Rehab and their dedicated staff for taking such great care of my dad, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.