Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Guarding the Guardian (Ekev)

Guarding the Guardian (Ekev)

Who will guard the guards themselves? -Juvenal

In the course of Moses’ righteous and justified anger at the people of Israel for their idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf, he breaks the newly received Tablets of the Law. The Midrash has God Himself praising Moses for this dramatic initiative. Commentaries explain that Moses had no other choice. The Jewish people had violated their recently minted covenant. If Moses hadn’t broken the Tablets, the physical manifestation of the covenant, God would have been more than correct to wipe out the newborn nation of Israel. By breaking the “contract” Moses in a sense was declaring that Israel isn’t bound by it anymore and therefore shouldn’t be liable for having violated it. Some view the breaking of the Tablets as an inevitable outcome of the Jews breaking faith with God.

However, no action, no matter how righteous or justified, is without its consequences. After Moses’ intercession and God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people, God commands Moses to prepare the second set of Tablets.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 10:1 explains that God is telling Moses: “You broke them, you need to restore them. I don’t want anyone complaining about you that you caused the nation of Israel to lose such a precious gift.” That’s why the order to Moses states “carve for yourself.” It’s for Moses’ personal benefit as well. It’s to protect Moses from reproach from the current generation or even from future generations who would realize the magnitude of the loss if it were not restored.

God also commands Moses to place the new set of Tablets in an Ark. The Bechor Shor adds that God doesn’t want Moses to bear them in his arms. God doesn’t want a repetition of the scenario where an angered Moses would break the Tablets again. God wants the Tablets guarded in an Ark, ironically, guarded from the great liberator, leader, teacher and guardian of the Jewish people. In essence, God wants to guard the guardian. God ultimately has Moses’ back.

May we always sense that God has our back and guards us, usually unbeknownst to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Jackie Mason z”l.

Written in Stone (Vaetchanan)

Written in Stone (Vaetchanan)

Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things. -Alexander Hamilton

In the Torah reading of Vaetchanan, Moses recalls the revelation of God to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. He takes the opportunity to repeat the Ten Commandments (with some minor differences to the one stated in the Book of Exodus).

In retelling the story, Moses highlights that the Ten Commandments were written on two tablets of stones. The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 4:13 wonders as to the significance of repeating this detail.

He explains that there is particular importance to the Ten Commandments and that’s why it was etched in stone, as opposed to on papyrus or parchment. The Ten Commandments needed to be written on a material that would never decompose. These verses needed to be written permanently, so that we would never forget them.

The Ten Commandments constitute the foundation of our faith:

  1. The belief in God;
  2. not worshipping any other gods;
  3. not taking His name in vain;
  4. keeping the Sabbath;
  5. honoring our parents;
  6. no murder;
  7. no adultery;
  8. no stealing;
  9. no false witness;
  10. no coveting.

These are the building blocks of Jewish faith.

Remembering these principles is so foundational that based on this the Sages learn that whoever actively forgets them or any related teaching is worthy of the death punishment. “Actively forgets” is different than merely forgetting or even not having learned it in the first place; it means someone who by deliberate thought decides to disassociate these commandments from his consciousness.

That’s why they’re written in stone. The commandments are immutable. They are eternal. They are a permanent guiding force for the Jewish people for millennia. If we don’t currently have the carved tablets within reach, we should at least etch these commandments in our hearts.

May we merit to rediscover the Tablets of the Law in their housing in the Ark of the Covenant, together with the rebuilt Temple, speedily, in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ben & Jerry’s Israel.

Iron Wall, Glass Chin (Devarim)

Iron Wall, Glass Chin (Devarim)

All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins. -Ovid

Moses recounts recent history to the generation about to enter the land of Canaan. He retells the very recent battle with King Sichon of the Emori and King Og of the Bashan and the lands they conquered. Moses adds a bit more detail about King Og, which is usually translated as follows:

“Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!”

The Rephaim were apparently a race of giants, and Og was the last surviving member of that group. To impress upon the listener how big Og was, Moses provides the dimensions of Og’s bed, implying Og’s massive size.

The key word is what we’ve translated as “bedstead” which in the original Hebrew is pronounced “Eres” and which does appear in other places in the Bible with the same meaning.

However, the Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 3:11 has a completely different translation of the word “Eres.” He explains that “Eres” is not referring to a bed, but rather to a walled city. And that the dimensions provided are not the dimensions of Og’s bed, but rather of the height and thickness of the wall that protected Og’s city, which was as strong as iron. A loose translation of the verse according to the Bechor Shor would read as follows:

“Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His fortified walls were like walls of iron, in Rabbah of the Ammonites; its walls are nine cubits high and four cubits thick, by the standard cubit!”

In this maverick interpretation of the word “Eres,” Moses’ description of Og becomes even more meaningful. Not only was Og the last of his race of giants, a formidable warrior and opponent, but he was also protected by perhaps one of the more fortified cities in antiquity, with walls of unusual height and width, making the walls as impenetrable as iron. Nonetheless, Moses and the nation of Israel are successful in repelling Og’s attack, vanquishing Og and his army and conquering his land.

For all of Og’s natural and engineered might and strength, he fell very quickly when God delivered him into the hands of Moses and Israel.

May giant opponents and iron obstacles never scare us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Herzog College for their fantastic Bible Study Days program (Yemei Iyun b’Tanakh).

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Time is not what you think. Dying? Not the end of everything. We think it is. But what happens on earth is only the beginning. -Mitch Albom

After 120 years of life, after confronting Pharaoh, after taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt, after leading them to Mount Sinai, after speaking to God as no mortal ever has or will, after receiving the Torah and relaying it to the Nation of Israel, after bringing them to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses dies. He dies somewhere on Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, and is buried there by God.

The Torah tells us that no man knew the place of his burial.

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 34:5 tries to understand the significance of the verse.

He explains that when a mortal being dies, the person’s soul remains attached to its corpse in some fashion for three days and that for the subsequent twelve months the soul “goes up and down.” Somehow, the connection between the burial place and the soul isn’t completely or immediately severed at death.

However, Moses was different. Moses had elevated his soul to incredible heights while still alive. He was able to survive an intimate encounter with God. He was able to survive 40 days and 40 nights without food or water. He was as far removed from materialism and the physical world as humanly possible. Therefore, when he died, he barely felt it. He simply walked away from his body. He had none of the normal attachments us mortals have to our bodies. He was so far removed from the physicality of his own body, that he himself didn’t know where his body was laid to rest.

According to the Meshech Chochma, when the verse states that no “man” knew where Moses was buried, the “man” is referring to even Moses himself. He didn’t know, nor presumably really care, where his discarded physical shell had been buried. He was already so spiritually elevated that to die was as easy and painless as shedding old skin. The Talmud refers to this as a divine “kiss,” as trouble-free as removing a single hair out of a cup of milk. Such is the divine “kiss” that is granted to many of the righteous upon their death.

May we at the very least reduce the physicality and elevate the spirituality in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Meshech Chochma.

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 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.