Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Prophetic Clarity (Vayelech)

Prophetic Clarity (Vayelech)

As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. -William Blake

Moses was facing his last moments in the mortal realm. He had transferred his authority to his disciple, Joshua. Before he ascended Mount Nevo, where he would see the Promised Land and shed his physical form, Moses gives his final swan song, a prophetic poem, a song both mystical and barely decipherable, filled with imagery, analogies and deep messages; the Song of Haazinu, which he introduces in this week’s Torah reading.

The Berdichever wonders as to why out of all of the Books of Moses, this last portion, the Song of Haazinu, is so unclear. In all the rest of the Torah, Moses generally writes the word of God clearly, plainly, in a way that is easy to understand the simple meaning of the message. Why is the Song of Haazinu so hard to understand?

The Berdichever answers with the well-known understanding that Moses was unique among all those who prophesized. Moses had the exclusive gift of having completely “clear” prophecies, of somehow “seeing” and “hearing” God clearly and being able to transmit that prophecy completely and perfectly.

However, in his final hours, Moses had passed on a measure of his power to Joshua. At that point, Moses was more like our other prophets who weren’t able to perceive God “clearly.” Like the other prophets, Moses needed to rely on imagery and analogies to paint a prophetic picture as opposed to being able to plainly articulate the Voice of God. It doesn’t make the Song of Haazinu any less true or valid. If anything, it makes it deeper, filled with obviously more layers of meaning and mystery.

May we learn to decipher some of the meaning of the Song of Haazinu and uncover some of its important and prophetic messages.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tovah,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Torah Ve’Avodah family for a wonderful Rosh Hashana.

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.

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.

Elevating Joy (Ki Tetze)

Elevating Joy (Ki Tetze)

To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven. -Johannes A. Gaertner

 

 

The Torah reading of Ki Tetze has a seemingly eclectic grouping of commandments. One of them, a biblical precursor to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations, states as follows:

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. – Deuteronomy 22:10

As he typically does, the Berdichever reads deeply into the verse and comes up with some interesting revelations about joy and the ideal form of enjoying joy.

Just as one may experience joy when building a new house, so too, any new joy that one experiences, can be built up, and elevated. It starts with the realization that it all comes from God and we need to demonstrate gratitude to Him.

And just as one might build a parapet on the highest point of the structure, the roof of a house, so too, there is a way to circumscribe and direct our highest emotions of joy to gratitude. The Berdichever explains that the way to connect our joy to its divine provenance is by articulating gratitude; it is by using words of Torah, of prayer, of songs and praises to God.

The Berdichever adds that the power, the force behind the words of praise we use is also God (or God’s name to be more specific) and that in Hebrew, the numerical value of God’s name (26) is identical with the numerical value of “your roof” (26) showing the deep linkage between these concepts. We extend, enhance and elevate our joy by articulating and exhibiting gratitude, using holy words directed to God.

May we always have the state of mind to experience joy and elevate it by being grateful to its ultimate source.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the incoming students of Midreshet Torah V’Avodah and their newly appointed Rosh Bet Midrash, Rabbanit Dr. Tamara Spitz!

Thoughts bounce back as consequences (Shoftim)

Thoughts bounce back as consequences (Shoftim)

A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences. -Norman Cousins

Moses, at the beginning of the Torah reading of Shoftim, commands the nation of Israel to appoint judges and officers, and to place them at every “gate” (meaning, every town) to judge the nation with righteousness.

However, the Berdichever explains that this injunction also reveals some of the basic elements of divine justice.

God is the ultimate judge. However, the judgments we mortals receive from above are heavily influenced by our own very human judgments below. Strict justice can be mollified by mercy and compassion. But that compassion must be present on earth. God needs to see that we are merciful if He is to temper His justice with mercy.

If God sees that we are merciful in our lives, then he will likewise be merciful with us, even if by the pure logic of justice, we might have been deserving of stricter and harsher punishments.

It is clearly understandable how if we act compassionately with others, God will act compassionately with us. However, the Berdichever takes this concept a quantum leap forward, by explaining that it’s not only our acts that are mirrored and paid back upon us, but that even our thoughts are held against us or stand to our benefit.

He states that when we judge people favorably, meaning when we think well of others, even if it is a completely internal dialogue in our minds, God will actively judge us and reward us in very real and concrete ways. Giving others the benefit of the doubt forces God to likewise give us the benefit of the doubt. It makes God find some favor, lean towards being more merciful, spare us from deserved punishments and treat us with a compassion that mirrors our own compassionate thoughts.

May our own positive thoughts of others be rewarded with positive outcomes for ourselves and for those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Binyamin Tabory zt”l. A great teacher in Israel. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Daily Clarity (Reeh)

Daily Clarity (Reeh)

In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration. -Ansel Adams

Moses, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River is addressing the nation of Israel in his epic swan song. Before they enter the land of Canaan, to conquer it under the leadership of his disciple, Joshua, Moses continues his final lecture that we know as the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses.

Moses has delved into our history, our sins, as well as God’s deliverance. Moses discusses the laws we need to keep, the ethics that underlie God’s commands and now, in the Torah reading of Reeh, he touches on a recurring theme, that of free-will, where he implores us to choose wisely.

In the first verse of the reading of Reeh, Moses declares: “See, I place before you, today, blessing and curse.”

The Berdichever wonders as to the emphasis in this verse on the word “today.” He explains that God renews all of creation on a daily basis. The world we are living in on Tuesday is a completely different world than the one we inhabited on Monday. Likewise, the world we experience on Tuesday is different from the world we will encounter on Wednesday. God, in His infinite power, somehow recreates, rebuilds, reanimates the entire cosmos every single day. Every star, every planet, every molecule and every subatomic particle is brought into existence again and again by God’s will every day.

And just as the universe is renewed on a daily basis, we humans are also granted a daily renewal. That daily renewal includes the capacity of greater clarity. We are given the ability to see the world with a new set of eyes every single day. We have the capacity to see better, deeper, clearer than we did yesterday.

That in and of itself is a recurring blessing. We can perceive, apprehend and understand what we couldn’t understand the day before. By realizing the newness, the freshness of the new day, we also concretize the new blessings that accompany that day. “Today” and every day is a blessing. Each and every day is a new blessing. Each and every day we receive new blessings. Each and every day God is personally bestowing on each and every one of us new blessings.

The more we realize the extent of the blessings, the more we receive, the more we appreciate, the more we enjoy.

May our days be filled with ever-growing clarity and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the weddings of my nephews: Saadya (Stephen) to Addi, and Avrumi to Liba Ahuva. Mazal Tov!!

Appropriate Pride (Ekev)

Appropriate Pride (Ekev)

If one takes pride in one’s craft, you won’t let a good thing die. Risking it through not pushing hard enough is not a humility. -Paul Keating

In the Torah reading of Ekev, Moses asks rhetorically, “What does God want from you?” He answers, “Only this: to revere God your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve God your God with all your heart and soul, keeping God’s commandments and laws, which I command you today, for your good.” – Deuteronomy 10:12-13.

That’s it. That’s all God asks. The commentators spend a lot of time analyzing this verse, understanding the phrase “Only this,” and is it really as easy as that, or is it only easy from the perspective of Moses, who had a unique closeness and relationship with God?

Moses’ question is reminiscent of a different rhetorical question by the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what does God require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

The Berdichever takes his commentary on Moses’ question in the direction of the principle of humility and being humble in all our ways and actions. He reiterates the prime importance of a humble bearing, of being humble in our lives. But he adds a caveat. There is one exception. There is one area of life where we cannot be humble. Indeed, we are meant to pursue that aspect of our lives with an appropriate measure of pride: In our service of God. In our service of God we cannot remain humble. We are allowed and even enjoined to be proud of our divine service.

The Berdichever brings two reasons for the importance of having pride in our fulfillment of the commandments: it’s what God wants, and it gives God pleasure.

Were we to demonstrate humility regarding our performance of the commandments, it would in essence be declaring that they’re not important – and there is nothing further from the truth.

Our performance of the commandments is of prime, vital importance and when we do so, we give tremendous pleasure to God. We need to know when and in what circumstance we should demonstrate pride and pursue things with pride. The Mitzvot, the commandments, are the place.

May our pride be reserved for the truly good things that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Major Moshe, Rivka, Tamar, Batsheva and Yudi. Thanks for the wonderful hosting!

A Theory of Reincarnation (Vaetchanan)

A Theory of Reincarnation (Vaetchanan)

To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. -TS Eliot

In the Torah reading of Vaetchanan, Moses advises the nation of Israel to follow the laws which God commanded them “today.” The Berdichever explains the meaning of “today” based on the basic Kabbalistic concept of reincarnation; the belief that our souls are reborn into “new” bodies over the course of history.

According to the Berdichever, when the Torah here says “today,” it means in “this incarnation.” Meaning, get it right this time, so you don’t have to come back again in another incarnation. He raises a related question as to a soul which has lived through successive incarnations. At the End of Days, when we merit the Resurrection of the Dead, (the thirteenth and last of Maimonides’ fundamental Jewish beliefs), in what body will we be resurrected? Will it be our first body? Our last body?

The opinion of the Kabbalists is that we’ll be resurrected in our original bodies. However, the opinion of the “mechakrim” (the investigators – I’m not sure exactly who he’s referring to) is that we’ll be resurrected in our final bodies.

The Berdichever explains that they’re both right, and that in fact the resurrection will occur from some amalgamation of the limbs of all our bodies throughout time, the limbs which are really the same in each incarnation.

He clarifies further by detailing that the Mitzvot, the commandments, are each connected to a different limb or part of the body. Each commandment which we perform sustains a specific part of the body, while each commandment which we neglect or violate harms a specific part of the body. So, for example, if we failed in a commandment which is related to the eyes, the eyes will become spiritually damaged (and perhaps physically as well).

Because our eyes (and any other body parts) were damaged, the soul needs to be reincarnated. The next body which our soul inhabits will have the same eyes as our previous body, because we will still need to rectify that part of the body. So, it is not only our souls which keep coming back to this earth, but also a replica of the same body parts which will keep coming back into new incarnations.

As long as we haven’t rectified all of our body parts over the course of our multiple incarnations, our souls need to keep coming back until we get it right and have a complete and fully rectified set of limbs. Our souls, apparently, really don’t like coming back again and again, and would much rather we get it all done in one shot – but alas, it doesn’t always seem to be the case.

So it’s possible that the bodies we successively inhabit are physically identical to each other and therefore there would be no physical difference between the body of our first incarnation and the body of our last incarnation and we would be instantly recognizable by all of our likewise recognizable family and friends across our many incarnations when we are all resurrected at the End of Days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our earlier and future selves.

Multilingual Torah (Dvarim)

Multilingual Torah (Dvarim)

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow. -Oliver Wendell Holmes

With the people of Israel camped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, Moses gives what is likely the longest and most important sermon in history. The sermon lasts weeks. Moses, knowing his preordained death is near, delves into the recent history of the Jewish people, the future, and the divinely mandated laws, the heart and soul of the Torah, in exquisite detail that we still have, word for word, in the Fifth Book of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy.

Rashi, the premier rabbinic commentator, tells us that when Moses explained the Torah, he did so in seventy languages. The Berdichever asks why. The entire nation of Israel spoke Hebrew. What reason could Moses have for taking the painstaking effort of translating the Torah, not just to one other language, but to seventy other languages?

The Berdichever answers his own question and explains that specifically in that place, outside of Israel, there was a vital importance in Moses translating the Torah into all the languages of the Earth. The very survival of the nation of Israel depended on it.

Moses knew, through divine prophecy, that the Jewish people would eventually be exiled from the land they were about to conquer, and would wander throughout the world, reaching all corners of the planet. They would be adrift in a sea of languages. God needed to provide some “hooks,” some linguistic connection to keep the bond between the Torah and the Jewish people going. The Torah itself has a handful of foreign words, including some of Aramaic, Egyptian and African origin. However, a full (oral) translation was required to really serve the Diaspora that has spanned millennia and continents.

Somehow, this early translation of the Torah, outside of Israel, is what has sustained the nation of Israel in its long exile.

May our exile end and may we witness the rebuilding of our Temple in Jerusalem, speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the amazing Yemei Iyun – Bible Study program of Herzog College.

Afterlife Reunions (Vezot Habracha)

Afterlife Reunions (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

Of all the great unknowns of our world, death, life after death and what we call the afterlife remain a mystery clouded by uncertainty, different beliefs, lack of belief and limited scientific evidence. Jewish tradition on the other hand has a number of firmly held beliefs as well as extensive lore about what the afterlife is about, what rules apply and some insights about what the experience entails. Not surprisingly, we glean some of that inside information from tidbits Moses left for us in the Bible.

On his last day on Earth, Moses addresses the assembled nation of Israel as they sit on the Plains of Moab, staring across the Jordan River at the Land of Canaan, The Promised Land. Moses quotes God and declares:

“This is the land that I promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to say, to your progeny I will bequeath it.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 34:4 (Vezot Habrachah) reads from this verse references and hints as to how things are in the afterlife. When Moses quotes God above and adds the seemingly superfluous words of “to say,” Rabbeinu Bechaye, quoting the Talmud, states that God was instructing Moses that when he’s dead at the end of that day, he should directly tell the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that God fulfilled His promises. This implies that in the afterlife, Moses would be meeting the Patriarchs and be able to talk with them.

However, the Talmud continues to explain that the dead are aware of not only what’s going on and have interactions in the afterlife, but that they’re also aware and even involved in some measure in the occurrences back on Earth in the material dimension. If that’s the case, then why does God instruct Moses to inform the Patriarchs about what they already know?

The Talmud answers that the Patriarchs do indeed know what’s going on and that Moses wasn’t informing them of anything they didn’t know when he conveyed God’s message. However, God wanted Moses to be in the Patriarch’s good grace as the agent and as a messenger of the good tidings of the final fulfillment of God’s promise of centuries before.

It is comforting to know that included in the many aspects of Jewish belief about the afterlife, we’ll be able to hangout with our spiritual kin as well as stay up-to-date about what’s going on with our people and our loved ones in the mortal world.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ari Fuld’s (hy”d) family. Their strength and resilience have inspired an entire nation, in addition to Ari’s own character and heroism. May God comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.