Category Archives: Ki Tavo

Head, not Tail (Ki Tavo)

Head, not Tail (Ki Tavo)

Think like a man of action, and act like a man of thought. -Henri Bergson

Moses blesses the Nation of Israel with detailed, flowing, prophetic blessings that includes the following verse:

“And you shall be for a head and not for a tail, and you shall be up and not be down.” – Deuteronomy 28:13

The Berdichever calls our attention to the extraneousness of the phrases “not for a tail” and “not be down.” If you’ll be a “head,” it would seem obvious that you won’t be a “tail.” Likewise, if you’re “up,” you won’t be “down.” So why the redundancy?

The Berdichever explains that there is a deeper meaning to the repetitiousness of “head” versus “not tail” and “up” versus “not down.” It has to do with the three different worlds that we inhabit: the world of thought, the world of speech and the world of action.

The world of action is the most physical, the one we perceive with our senses, the one we interact with most. We are present in the world of action. We act on people and things and they likewise act upon us.

The world of speech is a bit more sublime. There may not be strict physical interaction, but speech is the medium whereby we convey our needs, desires and ideas to one another.

The world of thought is the most sublime of all. It is dominated by our internal thoughts, ideas, musings. It is our internal dialogue, our mental landscape, and it is only limited by our imagination.

According to Kabbalah, the “lowest” of all worlds is the world of action. The world of action is the furthest away from our true essence, from our spiritual reality. “Above” the world of action is the world of speech. Speech does start to capture the uniqueness of being an articulate human spirit, but it is often a clumsy tool, not always able to encapsulate or convey our true thoughts and feelings. The highest world is the world of thought. Our unadulterated thoughts have the closest contact with our spiritual selves.

The Berdichever details that the “head” of the world of action is equivalent to the “tail” of the world of speech. Similarly, the “head” of the world of speech is the same as the “tail” of the world of thought. However, there is nothing “above” the “head” of the world of thought.

Hence, the blessing is that we should be a “head”, the very “head” of the world of thought, with nothing “above” us. That is when we are closest to infinity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli democracy.

Give, Serve, Joyously (Ki Tavo)

Give, Serve, Joyously (Ki Tavo)

Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from the praise of men, but from doing something worthwhile. -Pierre Coneille

At the beginning of his commentary on this week’s Torah reading, Rabbeinu Bechaye enjoins us to adhere to charitable commandments with an unshakeable belief that God will pay us back, manifold, in this world. We have an obligation to be charitable with our money, but also with our time and our personal talents. God has given each of us some unique trait, strength, talent, something we’re good at or that we enjoy doing. We must make charitable use of those divinely granted gifts for the benefit and well-being of others.

However, this belief that God will “pay us back” in this world may seem counterintuitive to other areas of Jewish faith. God doesn’t typically bargain or make deals. There are commands. You follow them, you get rewarded; you don’t, you get punished. However, reward or punishment is or may be delayed until the afterlife, which may prove either unsatisfactory or a relief to those of us still very much in this world.

But there seems to be a major exception to the above. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 26:15 (Ki Tavo) brings our attention to the Temple’s first fruit ceremony. In the prescribed liturgy of that rite we call upon God to gaze down upon us, see that we’ve fulfilled our part of the bargain of bringing the first fruits to the Temple, and now it’s God’s turn to bless us, in this world.

In all other cases where the Torah uses the term of God “gazing down,” it’s not good. It’s usually because God, in His attribute of Justice, is “examining” the deeds in question (think Sodom) and getting ready to severely punish the wrongdoers.

But there is a particular power to performing the commandments with joy, and specifically the charitable ones, which gives us the ability to convert God’s attribute of Justice to the attribute of Mercy. We can have the temerity to call on God to gaze down, examine this particularly good deed, performed with joy, and reward us accordingly or even disproportionately.

He adds (on Deuteronomy 28:47) that the command to perform God’s commands joyously is its own separate unique command. Therefore, whoever performs a commandment, but doesn’t do so joyously, while he may have performed a command and gets credit for it, violates the separate all-encompassing commandment to do so joyously and in fact has also sinned.

The bottom line is, be charitable, give of yourself, your time and your resources joyously and feel free to then call upon God to pay up. At least in that department, He’s ready to make a deal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Cheyn Shmuel Shmidman on his Bar-Mitzvah celebration and his unbelievably impressive reading of the entire scroll of Isaiah.

 

The Art of Charity

The Art of Charity

Charity should begin at home, but should not stay there. -Phillips Brooks

The Torah introduced to the world the charitable concept of tithe (Maaser), of giving one tenth of our income to the needy. However, the Torah is particularly sophisticated and nuanced as to how, when, what, to who, and how much charity we are to give.

In analyzing the Torah’s charity directions we need to take into account that it was presented to an agricultural society (which has defined humanity for the last several millennia). Every tenth animal from the flock was given as charity. Besides ten percent of the produce that was collected, any produce that was dropped, forgotten or left behind became the property of the poor (within well-defined parameters). A corner of one’s field was left for the poor to harvest. Much of the agricultural gifts weren’t so much handouts as much as an opportunity for the poor to gather and earn food for their families, while doing work and keeping some semblance of honor.

Within the concept of tithe itself, there are actually three different types: Maaser Rishon (first tithe) given to the Levites, Maaser Sheni (second tithe) taken by the farmer himself (or traded for money for food) together with his family and consumed festively in Jerusalem, and Maaser Ani (the poor’s tithe) given to the poor.

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 26:15 explains the significance of these three types of tithes. Maaser Rishon, the first tithe, was given to the Levites, for they were the ones charged with the education of the people of Israel. They were responsible for transmitting the Torah, its moral and spiritual precepts to the people. That is the foundation of our nation. Maaser Sheni, the second tithe, was eaten and enjoyed by the farmer’s family in a state of purity within the walls of Jerusalem. One of the underlying concepts is the care we need to take of our own physical selves, our families and the moral purity of our actions in this physical world. The third tithe, that of Maaser Ani, for the poor, is the basic and simple responsibility we have to those less fortunate than us. We cannot see our brethren go hungry. We have the obligation to ease their distress as we are able to. No success is complete without looking out for the weaker ones of our communities.

Then and only then, after we have fulfilled these three different dimensions of charity, that of looking out for our nation’s educational needs, that of looking out for the physical and moral welfare of our own families and that of looking out for the weaker members of our people, then can we call out to God as the passage concludes and declare: “God, I’ve done what You’ve asked. Look down from Your Holy abode, from the Heavens, and bless Your people, Israel, and the land You have given us.”

May our ability and capacity to help our families, our communities and our needy never falter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the myriads of people affected by Hurricane Harvey. May we be able to help them, each according to our own capacity and may they recover quickly and return to the safety and comfort of their own homes and institutions.

The Labor of Prayer

The Labor of Prayer

Whatever is your best time in the day, give that to communion with God. -Hudson Taylor

man-concentratingThere is a biblical command to give our first fruits to God. We till the earth. We plant seeds. We water. We clear the weeds. We watch them grow. We protect them. We pray for rain and the right weather. We invest all our time and effort to see the grain and fruit grow. And then, after significant investment, the first fruits grow and blossom. They are ripe. They are ready to be sold and eaten.

But then God says: “Hold on – not so fast. You need to give that very first fruit to Me. Bring the fruit to My Temple in Jerusalem and give it to the priests, my representatives on Earth.”

This commandment, amongst so many others, reminds us that everything is from God and thanks to God. When we pay Him homage (literally), we confirm and reaffirm that fundamental truth.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) states that our first hour of the day is like our first fruits. We must dedicate that time and give that time to God in prayer. We acknowledge that all our efforts, all our resources would amount to nothing without God’s active support. By consecrating our first hour of the day to the spiritual work of prayer, we ensure a greater likelihood that God will remain with us the rest of the day.

May we have and retain the capacity to pray earnestly and witness the resulting blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Emergency Response Team of the Jewish Community of Uruguay. It’s great doing drills together and I pray we never have to use what we practice.

Respect the Silence

 

 Men are respectable only as they respect. -Ralph Waldo Emerson 

silenceI’ve noticed that the volume in a room is often in direct proportion to the comfort the people in the room feel. Parties can be unbearably loud. Cemeteries are appropriately quiet. However, there are multiple occasions where quiet is both expected and given. Official assemblies of all sorts will have their moments of quiet.

Synagogue prayer is a conundrum. On one hand, we want participants to be happy and comfortable. For many it is a great opportunity to catch up with friends, to relax and chat. However, we are also supposed to be there to pray to God.

Jewish law is unequivocal about talking during prayer – it is forbidden, besides being rude, insensitive, ego-centric and disturbing. Our sages went so far as to institute a special prayer bestowing great blessings upon those who are careful not to speak in the synagogue.

The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 26:19 takes things a step further. He explains that when one is focused on his prayer, it is as if he is constructing a crown made out of prayers which is then placed, as it were, upon God’s head. However, subsequently, in some spiritual, mystical sense, that crown then returns to the prayerful person. However, those who instead of respecting the prayerful quiet choose instead to talk during the services, instead of receiving a divine crown, they will be punished. The punishment, states the Baal Haturim, is that they will receive thorns all over their body.

May chatter in the synagogue be diminished and may we be spared from any punishments.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the participants in the Maimonides Shabbaton. Thank you for a great Shabbaton and for quiet and meaningful prayers.

Cosmetic Beauty

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tavo-cosmetic-beauty/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

Cosmetic Beauty

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” -Kahlil Gibran

In the Western, Greek-inspired world youth has become synonymous with beauty. To look younger is to be beautiful. To that end, it has become growingly popular to alter ones appearance, even via surgery, to achieve the elusive façade of eternal youth.

Judaism has an opposite view regarding youth and beauty. Old age and hard-earned wrinkles are to be venerated. Outward beauty is often false, deceptive. The beauty of the soul is paramount.

In this week’s Torah reading instructions are provided as to the construction of the altar: only whole stones can be used. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 27:6 explains that the stones for the altar cannot be cut into more convenient or pleasing shapes. The natural stone must be used as is, without alterations or cosmetic surgery. The right stones need to be found and need to be used together with whatever blemishes or imperfections they have, without smoothing them, without cutting them. They are perfect and pleasing and wanted as they were created, in order to build the altar to God.

May we be comfortable with our own superficial blemishes and work instead on our inner beauty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the five beautiful couples that married this week in one unforgettable night. May the beauty you find in each other only grow over time.

 

Secret Sins

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tavo-secret-sins/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

Secret Sins

“The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, profane, clean, obscene, grave, and light, without shame or blame.” -Thomas Hobbes

There is a special place in Jewish theology for the secret sinner. He is cursed like few others are cursed. Moses commands the people of Israel to perform an unusual ceremony once they cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Half the tribes of Israel are to stand on one mountain and half on the opposite mountain as they scream at each other curses into the air. The selection and content of the curses is unusual. For example: Cursed is the one who makes a secret idol. Cursed is the one who hits his parents. Cursed is the one who is intimate with a relative. Cursed is the one who confuses the blind on the road. (See the full list in Deuteronomy 27:15-26).

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 27:14 explains that the common denominator between all the curses is that they are cursing those who perform sins in secret. One may be a respected, righteous figure on the outside and none know of the secret sin, (not that it’s better to start sinning publicly!) – but this saintly figure starts living a dual existence. A monstrous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the secret sin eroding and poisoning the persona from the inside.

Only by breaking free of the secret sin can a person hope to be whole again.

Good luck to all of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of us contemplating repentance of our sins, whether secret or less so. We are all invited to synagogue for the High Holidays.