Category Archives: Nitzavim

Handling Blessings (Nitzavim)

Handling Blessings (Nitzavim)

You must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. -Andrew Jackson

Moses continues describing the blessings that God will bestow on the people of Israel. He declares:

And the Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers. – Deuteronomy 30:9

The Berdichever ties his explanation of how blessings work to the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana God judges the world, the Jewish nation, and each of us individuals. He decides and decrees our fate for the coming year. Who will live and who will die; who will be healthy and who will be sick; who will be rich and who will be poor; and everything that will occur to us in the coming year.

We, of course, pray for blessings. We pray for life, for health, for income, for joy, for safety, and for success in all our efforts. And God wants to shower us with blessings. He really does. The Berdichever quotes the popular Talmudic dictum: “More than the calf wants to drink, the cow wants to nurse.” God wants to give us blessings even more than we want to receive them.

However, the Berdichever explains, we don’t always receive the blessings we request. We need to be capable and ready to actually accept and handle the blessing. We aren’t always ready for the blessings.

When we pray and make a request of God and God deems us prepared to receive the requested blessing, it gives God tremendous joy. He bestows the blessings happily.

However, if we’re not ready, it saddens God. It saddens Him that He is in some fashion prevented from acquiescing to our requests – for our own good. Just as a plant that receives too much water can be drowned, so too, if we haven’t made ourselves into an appropriate receptacle to receive the blessings we seek, God’s showering our requests upon us could damage us (just look at the tragic history of many lottery winners).

God’s prevention of sending blessings our way is in fact an indictment of Him. When the Heavenly Court is reviewing each individual’s case, and hears everyone’s pleas and requests, God’s inability to grant our requests because of our unsuitability is embarrassing to Him. He wishes He could, but knows that were He to follow through with our hearts desire, it would be damaging and destructive to us. He can’t bestow the particular blessings until we’re ready.

May we be indeed become worthy and ready to receive all the blessings we hope for.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatimah Tovah,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the OU’s fantastic Torah New York event.

Are Bad Thoughts worse than Bad Actions? (Nitzavim)

Are Bad Thoughts worse than Bad Actions? (Nitzavim)

You cannot escape the results of your thoughts. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain or rise with your thoughts, your vision, your ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration. -James Allen

There is a Talmudic dictum that has bothered me since I heard it. It states that “thoughts are worse than actions.” That somehow, merely thinking about a sin, contemplating it, wallowing in thoughts of desire, are worse than the act of sin itself. That while sinning is of course wrong, carrying the thought of sin in one’s head is worse.

I always felt this a dangerous dictum. It may give some a license to sin. It may justify to someone who was just considering a sin, to go ahead and do the actual deed if he believes it’s not as bad as the thoughts scurrying around in his head.

However, in Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 29:18 (Nitzavim) I found an answer that I’m comfortable with. He explains that sinful thoughts are worse than the actual sin, after the sin. It seems that harping on the sin, after the fact, is worse and carries a greater punishment for the soul than the damage the sin itself did.

This answer resolves the other Talmudic dictum, which I find much more comforting, that there is no punishment whatsoever for sinful thoughts (except for idolatrous thoughts). So, to recap Rabbeinu Bechaye’s view:

  1. Sinful thoughts without sinning carry no punishment (except for thinking of idol worship).
  2. Doing an actual sin carries its prescribed punishment.
  3. Having sinful thoughts after the sin is worse than the actual sin and damages and punishes the soul even further.

Of course, there’s a trump card that absolves all of our bad thoughts and actions: repentance. Our repentance can retroactively cleanse the spiritual ledger. It can wipe the slate clean and allows us to start our spiritual accounting anew, refreshed, rejuvenated.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s a good time to clean up our minds and our actions.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yitzi & Dalia Stern for a wonderful Shabbat.

Ingredients of Jewish Leadership

Ingredients of Jewish Leadership

A good leader needs to have a compass in his head and a bar of steel in his heart. -Robert Townsend

Leadership and the struggles around it are an ongoing theme in the Torah. Whether it’s the leadership of a family or of the nation, the Torah reveals to us, the good, the bad and the ugly of those who seek power and those who ultimately wield power.

One of my favorite phrases in the entire Torah is from the parting words of Moses to his disciple Joshua (and subsequently repeated by God to Joshua). Moses is about to die and Joshua has been appointed to lead the stiff-necked people of Israel into the Promised Land and to conquer the entrenched Canaanite nations. Moses tells him “Chazak Veematz” which can be translated as “be strong and courageous,” or as Rabbi Hirsch translates it “be steadfast and strong.”

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 31:7 explains that the ideal Jewish leadership is predicated on a steadfast commitment to the Torah and a resolute determination to enact the principles of the Torah in our lives. In his own words:

“‘Be steadfast and strong;’ this is interpreted in Berakhoth 32b (Babylonian Talmud) as follows: “Be steadfast in keeping the Torah and strong in good deeds”; remain steadfast in looking to the Torah for an understanding of your tasks, and be strong in overcoming any obstacles to the fulfillment of these tasks. Be steadfast in adhering to your principles and be strong in carrying them out: these are the most important qualities required of a leader.”

The Torah is the rulebook of the Jewish people. In order to provide leadership to the Jewish people one must be not only familiar with the rulebook, but embrace it, internalize it and live it, despite the constant struggle and challenges of performing what it asks of us “with all our hearts and all souls.”

May we each be leaders in our own homes and communities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the candidates of Zehut for their leadership and dedication.

 

Distance versus Effort

Distance versus Effort

We forget that every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort. We postpone and postpone, until those smiling possibilities are dead. -William James

distant-mountainsThere are goals that appear as mirages in the distance. We say to ourselves that we can never reach them. It’s not even worth the effort. Were we to make a mathematical calculation as to how far we think our efforts can take us, of how much ground we can cover in a limited amount of time, we are likely to give up before we even began.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) makes a statement that doesn’t conform to the standard laws of physics. He speaks about the study of Torah, that most fundamental and vital of our daily obligations. He explains that if one sees a study goal that is far, perhaps unreachably so, but commences nonetheless, he affects a change on the space-time continuum. Suddenly, the goal is much closer than you ever imagined. The metaphysical intention changes the physical reality. Your goal will be within reach.

However, if we don’t even take the trouble to start, that noble goal will remain infinitely distant, forever beyond our reach, merely for lack of real effort.

May we plan, commence and pursue noble goals, as ambitious as they may be, and may we see them fulfilled rapidly and fully, with great benefit.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Shimon Peres.

Instant Global Cure

Instant Global Cure

To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself. -Thomas Carlyle

We are drowning in a sea of strife and pain. Wherever we look, whatever we read, we cannot avoid the disrespect, the insensitivity, the cruelty, and the mayhem of one human being to another.

One common reaction is to sigh a breath of resignation. I am too far away. I am too small. I am too insignificant to affect this fight. Another reaction is to complain. To curse the powers that be and all those who stand aside, as evils are committed uncontested.

There is a third, slower path, one that doesn’t necessarily fix the suffering staring us in the face, not completely nor immediately. But it is a step. That path is called repentance.

The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 30:8 talks about repentance. We must first find what is wrong in us and fix it. If there is disrespect, insensitivity or cruelty in us, we must address it before we can presume to lecture others. However, the Baal Haturim states something surprising. He explains that if we can achieve complete repentance we shall see and experience immediate redemption.

May we strive for full repentance on a personal, familiar, communal and global basis.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Asher Weiss, a wise man.

Personal and Group Judgment

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/nitzavim-personal-and-group-judgment/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

Personal and Group Judgment

There is a destiny that makes us brothers, No one goes his way alone; All that we send into the lives of others, Comes back into our own. -Edwin Markham

Jewish prayer consists of both personal pleas and communal orations. The liturgy itself also reflects this duality of seeking the welfare of the individual as well as of the group. The question however, for the High Holidays, is whether this dichotomy continues. Are we judged for our personal faults or are there also some accounting of group sins, and if so, how does that work?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 29:9 digs into the issue and comes to the following conclusions. We are primarily judged as individuals, and not in comparison to others. We are judged based on our own personal potential, on what we could have achieved and didn’t, on what we could have avoided but instead gave in to temptation. Each person has their own unique scale of accomplishments and that is what God looks at.

However, just as a person has their own particular attributes and potential, groups likewise have attributes and potential and God judges the aggregate of the people that make up particular groups, whether it is a family unit, a company, a school, a synagogue, a community, a city, a country or a people. If groups live up to their potential they are duly rewarded – and if they don’t, then their raison d’être comes into question. Each group has its own unique mission that only they can achieve.

May we take the opportunity of the New Year, not only to evaluate ourselves, but also all the different groups we are a part of, and plan on a year where we live our unique potentials and missions both for ourselves and together with all those who we are connected to.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the groups that I am a part of. I beg forgiveness of you for my errors, shortcomings and faults.

“That could never happen to me”

[First posted on The Times of Israel at:  http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/nitzavim-that-could-never-happen-to-me/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

“That could never happen to me”

“A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” –Demosthenes

There is a macabre curiosity in the suffering of others. The most vivid example is the traffic jams that occur on the opposite lane of a car accident. People slow down, not necessarily to see if they could help, but out of a deep desire to witness the misfortune of the other guy.

We feel a brief pang of empathy for the victims of the tragedy, remind ourselves to perhaps fasten our seatbelt or drive slower or more carefully, and then cruise on at the same speed, saying to ourselves that we would never be so careless or so unfortunate as the person being wheeled into the ambulance.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 29:18 says that man does the same mental calculation upon hearing the curses and punishments that God will bring upon those that don’t follow His commandments. The foolhardy man will bless himself saying “that curse, that punishment, won’t fall upon me.” And he will believe his self-blessing to be true and effective though he may be obliviously careening into the approaching misfortune with his name written all over it.

May we wake up to reality from our self-delusions and get back onto safer and more honest roads.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ana Duschitz on her incredible hosting of the Women’s Weekly shiur of Montevideo. May it continue strongly in the coming year and grow.