Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

My mother’s obsession with the good scissors always scared me a bit. It implied that somewhere in the house there lurked: the evil scissors. -Tony Martin

In the penultimate reading of the Torah, Moses breaks into song, the Song of Haazinu. The Song of Haazinu is visually and linguistically distinct from the rest of the Torah. Its two symmetrical columns of text highlight the poetic difference from the rest of the Torah prose. Its ancient language hints at future prophecies. Its compactness makes it even more memorable, as it was meant to be.

In one of the darker passages Moses quotes God:

“I will hide My countenance from them,

And see how they fare in the end.

For they are a treacherous breed,

Children with no loyalty in them.” -Deuteronomy 32:20

The Meshech Chochma tries to understand what treachery the Children of Israel will be guilty of. The word in Hebrew that he focuses on is “Tahpuchot” which though translated here as “treacherous” more accurately means “reversals.”

So what “reversals” is the verse talking about? The Meshech Chochma states that there will be reversals of nature. The first is a reversal of human nature. Man has a range of attributes, but by being stuck in the negative traits such as jealousy and covetousness, and minimizing one’s natural generosity, they will cause their own nature to become predominantly evil. That in turn will cause God to reverse nature in the animal kingdom, where previously docile animals will become dangerous. He references such as a case, quoting a Midrash that describes sheep that unexpectedly turn violent and actually attack and kill people.

However, man also has the opportunity to reverse his evil nature. Among the primary tools to do so are the host of charitable commandments. After a person has worked hard (especially in an agricultural setting), to plow, sow, tend and harvest his crop, through great effort, to then consistently and generously give of that hard-earned produce in a variety of ways to the poor, will invariably convert man’s nature to a predominantly good one.

When man becomes good, generous, God will also change the nature of the animal kingdom, where all the previously dangerous animals of the world, will become not only safe, but protectors. As proof, he cites the case of the wolves that protected the vacant, unattended homes of those people who travelled for the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

May we always work on improving our natures.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Prof. Yaakov Katz z”l.

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

The egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief. -George Eliot

Moses is near the end of his monumental discourse, conveying the word of God to the nation of Israel about to enter the Promised Land. He touches on multiple themes and a plethora of commandments, but also repeats certain points, each time with a different nuance.

An oft-repeated theme is the need to obey God with one’s entire heart and soul, as well as the ability to return to God when we fail to do so, as per the following verse:  

“Since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Torah—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” -Deuteronomy 30:10

The Meshech Chochma wonders why in this verse, is a person heeding God and the laws written in the Torah only after they return to God. Presumably, just reading the Torah and being familiar with its precepts should be enough to encourage, convince, and instruct a person as to what their divinely ordained responsibilities and obligations are.

The Meshech Chochma explains, that reading the Torah, or even being familiar with it is often not enough. It is human nature to read into things. To read things and understand it according to our notions. It’s possible to read the Torah and come to conclusions that support our personal ideals and philosophy, but have nothing to do with Judaism. In short, our powerful egos are often the ones interpreting the Torah in a way that satisfies our vision and thinking, but is far removed from the truth.

That is why, the Meshech Chochma states, we first must return to God. We first have to accept, embrace, and be open to true divine instruction. We need to cease the worship of our egos and in turn worship God. Once we have placed our egos in their proper place, then we may have a chance to understand the truth that has been staring us in the face. Then we can be open to what the Torah is truly saying. Once we check our egos at the door, once we return to God, to our spiritual source, then we can start to understand what he’s been saying to us for millennia.

May we remove the blinders of our egos.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

For the Bar-Mitzvah of Eden Yechiel Spitz. Mazal Tov!

Expanding Land (Ki Tavo)

Expanding Land (Ki Tavo)

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. -J. R. R. Tolkien

The Torah reading of Ki Tavo presents us with both blessings and curses. There are horrific, frightening curses that God says will be the result of abandoning Him. Conversely, there are wondrous blessings if we are steadfast in our loyalty to God.

The Meshech Chochma expands on one sliver of the blessings in Deuteronomy 28:8, which reads as follows:

“The Lord will ordain blessings for you upon your barns and upon all your undertakings: He will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

The Meshech Chochma explains that just as God can and does provide a blessing for the miraculous expansion of the produce being stored in the barns, so too, God allows for the miraculous expansion of the Land of Israel.

In a number of places in the Torah, we see hints to the phenomena of the unusual and unexpected contraction or expansion of dimensions, of space and time. We have the examples of the incredibly shortened journeys of both Jacob and Abraham’s servant. We have examples of the unusual dimensional effects within the Tabernacle and the Temple. It’s as if there is some Einsteinian time and space dilation occurring. I’ve theorized elsewhere that there is a connection between extreme holiness and relativistic effects (think of approaching God as approaching the speed of light and then miraculous time and space dilation seems much less surprising).

The Meshech Chochma states that there is indeed a supernatural effect at work in this blessing. That somehow, space expands. It’s similar to what the Talmud tells us about the pilgrims to Jerusalem, that none of them ever said “the space is too small for me.”

In the times of the Temple, there was a miraculous expansion of the city of Jerusalem, which enabled as many pilgrims as came to find adequate accommodations. So too, there is a blessing upon the entire land of Israel, that it will expand; that somehow the existing land will grow and be able to accommodate as many people as needed.

May all those who want to come to Israel, find the right space.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Saudi Arabian airspace. Thanks for letting us through.

Respect the Champion (Ki Tetze)

Respect the Champion (Ki Tetze)

All right Mister, let me tell you what winning means… you’re willing to go longer, work harder, give more than anyone else. -Vince Lombardi

The Middle East is and has always been a tough neighborhood. Even before the birth of the Nation of Israel, the land of Canaan, the land-bridge of Eurasia and Africa, the route between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires, was home to incessant battles, wars, alliances, and rivalries.

After the Hebrew nation miraculously escapes the bondage of Egypt, they develop enemies almost immediately. Included amongst those enemies are their long-lost cousins, (descendants of Lot, who was the nephew of our patriarch Abraham), the nations of Ammon, and Moab.

The enmity between the Jewish people and the Ammonites and Moabites is such, that the Torah states that they are forever forbidden to join the Jewish people (the Rabbis have explained that the prohibition was just against their menfolk).

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 23:5 wonders as to the reasons given by the Torah which states:

“Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Bilaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.”

While one might understand the Moabite motivation to have the Jewish people cursed, but why is the Torah so incensed by the Ammonite and Moabite lack of hospitality? It’s one thing to attack, but another thing entirely not to be hospitable.

The Meshech Chochma states that these nations should have known better. They should have realized that the people who left Egypt, the mightiest empire in history up to that time, who left a land devastated by God and whose armed forces had been completely wiped out, was not a people to be trifled with. Not only were the Hebrews who left Egypt worthy of awe and respect, but that respect should have translated into an obsequiousness that should have included peace offerings of food and water.

Had these nations truly internalized that God was with the Jewish people, as the events of the time had unequivocally demonstrated, they would have sought peace and not war. It would have led to ongoing peace as opposed to generations of conflict.

May our current neighbors figure it out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Arab countries that are seeking peace with Israel.

God’s Loyalty (Shoftim)

God’s Loyalty (Shoftim)

The game is my life. It demands loyalty and responsibility, and it gives me back fulfillment and peace. -Michael Jordan

God gave Moses the Torah. Until a couple of centuries ago, it was widely believed. It was believed that the written part of the Torah, what is also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch, was dictated by God to Moses, and the Torah scroll we have until this day is an unbroken, exact transmission of that very same dictation. That is still a fundamental Jewish belief as articulated by Maimonides among his thirteen principles of faith.

In parallel to the Written Torah, there was also an Oral Torah that was given to Moses and which has likewise been faithfully transmitted throughout all the generations. The Sages and Rabbis conveyed the Oral Torah, but they also expanded it, adding strictures, laws, and a variety of preventative innovations.

A popular question which comes up, is what right do these Sages and Rabbis have to apparently “add” to God’s law and why do we have any obligation to follow any of their added laws and strictures?

The Meshech Chochma tackles this question in his commentary on Deuteronomy 17:11. His answer is straightforward. We follow the Sages and Rabbis because God said that we should. It is one of His commandments. The verse states:

“You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from what they have told you either to the right or to the left.”

According to the Meshech Chochma (and many others), this is the verse, the command, the directive from God which empowers the Sages and Rabbis as His emissaries, as the transmitters and givers of the law. The Meshech Chochma explains that God’s concern is primarily that one should obey the Sages. In a certain respect, God is less concerned with the specific strictures or additions the Sages have instituted. God is much more preoccupied with whether a Jew is loyal to the Sages and their instruction. God interprets disobedience and disloyalty to the Sages as an infraction of His commandment and a treason of his rule.

In a sense, it is God who is loyal to His Sages and upholds and even establishes their decrees as His law. To violate a Rabbinic decree is essentially to violate a divine commandment. To keep and uphold Rabbinic strictures is to demonstrate loyalty to God, His laws and the entire framework He established.

May we be loyal, divine-law upholding citizens.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Prof. Ruth Gavison z”l, a brave, brilliant and honest fighter for civil liberties, among her many distinguished attributes.

Pilgrimage of Friends (Reeh)

Pilgrimage of Friends (Reeh)

The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself. -George Bernard Shaw

A fun and curious commandment is the requirement which is known as the Second Tithe. The Second Tithe was only practiced in the days of the Temple. It involved the entire family journeying to Jerusalem together with a tithe of their produce and livestock. Once the family reached Jerusalem the requirement was for them to eat from their bounty. That was it, have a fun meal in town, certainly one of the easier and more physically pleasurable commandments on our list.

What is curious about the commandment is that at the end of the pronouncement, its stated purpose is given as “so that you will learn to revere God.”

The Meshech Chochma on the verse in Deuteronomy 14:23 wonders as to the correlation between a festive meal in Jerusalem and reverence of God.

He explains that it’s referring specifically to the Sabbath and Holidays in Jerusalem. When a pilgrim would come to Jerusalem in the times of the Temple, he would see his brothers, the Kohens, busy with divine service and involvement in Torah laws. It would inspire him likewise to dedicate himself more to divine service and study of the Torah.

During the weekdays this was less effective as everyone is busy making a livelihood, but on the Sabbath and Holidays, when we are prohibited from working, then a person has the time, the attention, and the freedom to take note of the divine service. The pilgrim is encouraged to emulate his friend and give more importance to the Torah and its precepts.

All that just from a festive meal.

May we have many occasions to partake of inspiring, celebratory feasts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”tl, a true Torah giant.

The Point of the Land of Israel (Ekev)

The Point of the Land of Israel (Ekev)

Every great person has first learned how to obey, whom to obey, and when to obey. -William Arthur Ward

The Torah repeatedly declares the primacy of the Land of Israel. The whole purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to bring the Jewish nation to that land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Land of Israel is an inheritance to the Children of Israel, from the days of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole focus, the whole goal of Israel’s journey through the desert is to eventually get to the Promised Land. The entire book of Deuteronomy revolves around preparing the people for their entry into the land.

Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive and even shocking, that with such definitive historical, legal, and textual centrality that the Land of Israel has for the people of Israel, that the connection between land and people is conditional.

Deuteronomy 8:1 states:

“You shall faithfully observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your fathers.”

The Meshech Chochma on that verse reads the statement as conditional. If you observe the commandments, then you will possess the land. If you don’t observe the commandments, you won’t possess the land. This is not an original statement, as the Torah in various places states this unequivocally. Not only will we not possess the land, but we will be kicked out of the land for lack of obeying God’s laws.

What is noteworthy about the Meshech Chochma’s analysis is his statement that not only will we not possess the land if we don’t follow God’s directives, but that the entire purpose, the entire reason why the Children of Israel were given the Land of Israel, was exclusively to follow God’s commands. Once we stop following God’s commands our very reason for having the land disappears. That deal is nullified, broken, revoked.

The Meshech Chochma takes this understanding a step further. One might have thought that if the deal of possession of the land is void, then all of the “strings,” all of the responsibilities and commandments which were placed on Israel would likewise be voided, that we would be absolved of further wrongdoing. However, that conclusion would be wrong, especially in the area of idol worship. We are still liable. The covenant is not broken, despite our “treason.” God holds us accountable regarding His commandments, even if we don’t think we are.

The Meshech Chochma brings as proof the fact that the prior inhabitants of Israel were expelled, in part, because of their idolatrous practices, and all of humanity, since the time of Noah, had already been warned and commanded to refrain from idolatry.

May we become worthy of possessing the land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 15th of Av, one of the happiest days of the year in ancient times.

True, Ultimate Good (Vaetchanan)

True, Ultimate Good (Vaetchanan)

Sin is whatever obscures the soul. -Andre Gide

The Book of Deuteronomy comprises the parting words of Moses to the nation of Israel as they are camped on the eastern border of the Promised Land. God had told Moses that he would not enter the land but rather would die on the eastern border. The nation of Israel would cross the Jordan and conquer the land under the leadership of Moses’ disciple Joshua.

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 6:3 notes an odd incongruence in the language Moses uses. Moses talks about performing the commandments so it “will be good” for you. But in another instance, he states that it “is good” for you. Why the difference between the present tense and the future tense?

The Meshech Chochma explains that the performance of a commandment is its actual ultimate reward. The action of following God’s orders is somehow, deeply and intrinsically the greatest, truest, ultimate good we could ever experience or imagine. There is something about fulfilling God’s directives in this world that is so powerful, yet so sublime that the soul experiences indescribable ecstasy. At one point in our collective history, we were able to experience it – during that short period between the initial receipt of the Ten Commandments and God’s revelation on Mount Sinai, until our national betrayal of God via the sin of the Golden Calf.

During that short period of forty days, whenever a Jew performed a commandment, his soul would immediately feel the spiritual “reward” for having accomplished something of what the divine mandate expected.

However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, we lost that sensitivity. The coarseness of our material selves, our drives and desires buried our souls under layers of physicality that have made it almost impossible for our spirits to experience the instantaneous divine reward for performing a commandment. Therefore, Moses reverts to the language of it “will be good” for you. We don’t feel. We don’t automatically sense the spiritual payback of listening to God. Only in the future, only when our spiritual self is disencumbered from our physical shells will we truly feel and experience the true, ultimate good of the reward of our efforts.

May we not have to wait until then, and may we develop the sensitivity to “feel” the spiritual energy, the joy of following a divine path.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our days.

Biblical Demigod (Dvarim)

Biblical Demigod (Dvarim)

The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them. -Jean Genet

As the nation of Israel finishes their decree of wandering in the desert for forty years and approach the Promised Land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River, they are successively met and attacked by the armies of two kingdoms. They are first attacked by the forces of Sichon, king of the Emori. Thereafter, they are attacked by Og, king of the Bashan. Moses and the Israelites quickly vanquish both forces and conquer vast tracks of land across the eastern bank of the Jordan.

In retelling the tale in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah goes out of its way to describe how Og was a giant, a descendant of the Refaim. It uncharacteristically gets into such minutia as to the size of Og’s crib and that it was still preserved at the time in the city of Rabat Ammon (the modern-day Amman of Jordan).

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 2:11 gives the reason and history for the mention of Og’s crib. According to the Midrash, Og, besides being a giant of physically enormous dimensions, was also unusually long-lived. According to some accounts, he was around during the days of Abraham (400 years earlier) and may have even been around from the days of Noah (800 years earlier).

Understandably, due to his prodigious size, strength, and long-life, the local population thought Og was a god, revered him and worshipped him, and even placed his crib in their temple as part of the cult of Og.

Moses, in telling the story, highlights that Og is a descendant of the Refaim. The Meshech Chochma explains that by contextualizing Og’s origin from the Refaim nation and detailing his large yet still human crib, he is bringing Og back to the mortal sphere. It seems that the nation of Refaim was a people of quite large dimensions and naturally long-lived. Og was merely a survivor of that people. There was nothing independently divine to his otherwise naturally endowed attributes. Yes, they were unusual for that time and place, but it didn’t make him a “god.” Though understandable, it was still a serious idolatrous mistake for people to believe that Og was a God. Moses needed to clarify that and remove any erroneous beliefs.

May we be careful who and what we idolize and realize that God is the only entity appropriate to worship and the source of – everything.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Dov Brender z”l of Alon Shvut.

The Beginning of Anti-Semitism (Vezot Habracha)

The Beginning of Anti-Semitism (Vezot Habracha)

The jealous are possessed by a mad devil and a dull spirit at the same time. -Johann Kaspar Lavater

During his last moments on Earth, Moses blesses the nation of Israel. He blesses them collectively as well as each tribe in particular. In his poetic blessing, he recounts how God revealed Himself at Mount Sinai and gave the nation of Israel the Torah at that momentous gathering.

The Berdichever quotes the well-known Midrash that before giving the Torah to the Jewish nation He offered the Torah to the other nations of the world. Each nation inquired of God as to what was written in this Torah He was offering them. God mentions it says “don’t steal,” or “don’t murder,” or whatever commandment He knew that particular nation would find too much for them to want to adhere to. In turn, each nation turns down God’s offer of the Torah.

The Jewish people famously go on to accept the Torah before even hearing any details as to what’s written in it. According to the Berdichever, this blind faith in God and acceptance of the Torah caused two different reactions. It endeared the Jewish people to God even more, but it also gave birth to what we call anti-Semitism, the pervasive and often irrational hatred of the Jewish people.

The Berdichever says the hatred is hinted at in the very name Sinai (it has the same Hebrew root as the word “sina” which means hatred). The favored attention of God for the Jewish people and their receipt of the Torah from God generated massive jealousy from the nations of the world. There was no such hatred of the Jewish people before the giving of the Torah. After the giving of the Torah starts the global phenomena of non-Jews hating Jews for no other reason than their being Jewish. The Jew-hatred extends to people who have never even met a Jew.

The Berdichever indicates that the Jew-hatred doesn’t stem from any wrongdoing a Jew may have done, nor from any offense a non-Jew may have suffered from the hand of an individual Jew. Rather it comes from deep jealousy of the Jewish people, starting from our collective ancestors at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people elected to accept God’s detailed and often demanding laws, which created both a great responsibility as well as a closer connection to the divine, while the nations of the world opted out of such a possibility (on a national basis). They hate us for that; even if they don’t realize it. It has expressed itself in multiple incarnations and with a plethora of excuses throughout the generations, but underlying it all is simple jealousy of our relationship with God.

May we see the prophesized end of anti-Semitism speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my beloved in-laws, Yossi & Gita Tocker, on their 50th wedding anniversary! Mazal Tov!!!!!