Category Archives: Vaetchanan

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.

Powerful Mezuza Protection (Vaetchanan)

Powerful Mezuza Protection (Vaetchanan)

Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. -John Quincy Adams

One of the more recognizable and widely used Jewish artifacts, even in Jewish homes that are not otherwise observant, is the Mezuza. The Mezuza is a small piece of parchment, with two paragraphs from the book of Deuteronomy written on it, in the ancient fashion. Not coincidentally, these are the first two paragraphs of the biblically-mandated Shma prayer, where the commandment of Mezuza is articulated. The Mezuza is typically housed in a simple container (which over the years has evolved into more intricate and beautiful designs) and placed on the upper third of a doorpost, on the right side of the entry to whatever house or room lies beyond the door.

The Mezuza has taken on the status of a talisman, a metaphysical object that conveys some otherworldly protection to those that have it. It is not an uncommon belief that when some tragedy befalls a home that one should check their Mezuzas. Finding an error in the text of the Mezuza is attributed as the cause of the misfortune. However, this misses the point and purpose of the Mezuza.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 6:9 (Vaetchanan) explains that in ancient days, the nations of the world believed that the fate and well-being of their homes were determined by the constellations. Astrology and horoscopes were the arbiters of success or failure. For that reason, on the outside of the Mezuza scroll, we write one of the names of God, the one in particular that apparently vanquishes any astrological effects and highlights that good and bounty come from God and not from any particular astronomical phenomena.

Rabbeinu Bechaye details what it is about the Mezuza and its two paragraphs that truly make it so important, so powerful. It is not the physical object (though it must be scrupulously written), but rather, the ideas contained within. The Mezuza text talks about God’s Unity, the study of His Torah, reward and punishment and hints at the Exodus from Egypt with all the accompanying miracles. This text establishes three fundamentals of Jewish belief: faith in God; God’s constant renewal and presence in our world; and the truth of prophecy, God’s ability to communicate with man, and for man to be able to hear His call.

It is remembering these principles that gives us power and protection. It is by constantly remembering and affirming these fundamental ideas and beliefs of Judaism which brings us under God’s wing. That is why we have it at the entrance to our homes and rooms. That is the reason many Jews touch the Mezuza on entering and exiting their domicile. There is no commandment to touch the Mezuza. The commandment is to remember and be always cognizant of some of the founding principles of Judaism, part of what makes us merit God’s greater intervention and concern for our lives and wellbeing.

May the ideas and principles we establish in our homes make us worthy of divine protection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Mendy Shemtov of Montevideo, for his efforts to provide every Jewish home with a Mezuza.

The Foundation of Jewish Faith

The Foundation of Jewish Faith

If you don’t have solid beliefs you cannot build a stable life. Beliefs are like the foundation of a building, and they are the foundation to build your life upon. -Alfred A. Montapert

Perhaps the most well known verse to a Jew is the “Shma Yisrael.” A translation of it is as follows:

“Hear Israel, God is our God, God is One.” Deuteronomy 6:4

It is taught to children as soon as they can comprehend words. There is a biblical command to recite the paragraph of the “Shma” every morning and every night. It is the verse that is on the lips of martyrs and those who know they are about to die. It is the very foundation-stone of our faith and belief. Rabbi Hirsch elaborates further:

“It is the last truth that a son of Israel, mired in estrangement from his people, will discard. It is the declaration of the Jewish awareness of God’s unity, and it is logically followed by sentences intended to make the Jew aware of his life’s mission, of the objectives of his education, and of the true purpose of his endeavors, personal and public.”

“These statements encompass the basic principles that should guide his conduct, the axioms that should form the basis for all his thinking and the consecration of his domestic and communal life. They are intended to perform these functions no matter where the Jew may live and breathe, raise his children, carry on his domestic and public life; no matter where he lies down and rises up, readies his hands for action and his mind for thought; no matter where he builds his home and where he sets up his gates. That is why he must repeat all these statements to himself early and later, every day of his life.”

As opposed to a physical foundation which is built once, a spiritual foundation is something that we must review, rebuild and reinforce constantly. It is a critical aspect of our lives that we must strengthen on a daily basis, morning and night. For if our faith weakens, if the foundation of our spiritual lives is unstable, the edifice of our lives begin to crumble.

May we find the capacity and strength to build noble lives. Sometimes it’s as simple as reciting a meaningful “Shma.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the more than one thousand souls that ascended the Temple Mount as we commemorated its destruction. You console us.

Getting without asking

 

Getting without asking 

All through nature, you will find the same law. First the need, then the means. -Robert Collier 

gift-boxGod knows what we want. Luckily for us, He also knows what we need. Nonetheless, we are commanded to pray to Him on a daily basis. Our sages of the past even formulated specific prayers that we repeat every morning, afternoon and night. After a while, these prayers can appear monotonous.

However, at the end of the silent prayer (known as the “Amida” or “Shemona Esre”) there is space that is set aside for personalized individual prayers. This is the place where we can break free of the formal, highly structured liturgy composed by our Rabbis of old. This is the place to pray specifically for success in our upcoming deal, test or challenge. It is the place to pour our hearts, our innermost private thoughts to God, our wishes, hopes and desires.

The Sfat Emet for parashat Vaetchanan in 5633 (1873) turns this paradigm on its head. He suggests that if we feel that we truly need something, we should focus on the established generalized liturgy as opposed to our specific personal requests. God knows what we want, knows what we need and knows why we are coming to pray. But by concentrating on the prescribed formulas; which include praise of God, general communal and national requests, and thanking God; we will merit fulfillment of our personal needs.

What the Sfat Emet recommends is counterintuitive. Don’t ask God directly for what you need in your prayer. Stick to the standard millennia-old text. He knows what to do. Somehow, acknowledging Him, honoring Him, thanking Him and thinking of the wider community and the world, opens up a channel for God to then demonstrate that He can in fact do anything. He then bestows some of that capacity and blessing on the petitioner who follows the correct sequence of words and thoughts.

May we appreciate the power of our ancient prayers and use them to our benefit.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Akiva on his birthday. May he continue to have his prayers and needs gracefully fulfilled.

 

Anti-Demon Laser

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/anti-demon-laser/

Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Vaetchanan

Anti-Demon Laser

Only when your consciousness is totally focused on the moment you are in, can you receive whatever gift, lesson, or delight that moment has to offer. -Barbara De Angelis

monsters inc 3

We are all chased by demons at some point in our lives. Either real ones, or metaphorical ones. They may gnaw at your consciousness. They may invade your dreams. They may dominate your nightmares. However, when they intrude upon your daily life, it becomes a dangerous threat.

The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 6:4 provides a prescription for the banishment of demons. It is the age-old prayer of “Shma Israel”. It is the prayer that our Patriarch Jacob is said to have recited upon his emotional reunion with his long-lost son, Joseph. It is the prayer that countless Jewish martyrs throughout the ages stated with their dying breath as they were hung, flayed, burned, shot and gassed to death. It is the rallying call of the Jewish faithful to our one God.

The Baal Haturim explains that when a person recites the prayer of “Shma Israel” with earnest concentration, not only does it ward off and protect a person from demons, it actually causes demons to flee from that person.

May we choose to focus and concentrate on the important and meaningful moments in our day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Zlatkin family on their return to Israel. Godspeed.

Seeing is Doing

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vaetchanan-seeing-is-doing/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Vaetchanan

Seeing is Doing

“To perceive means to immobilize… we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself.” -Henri Bergson

The Observer Effect is a physical phenomenon that posits that the act of observation affects in some fashion whatever is being observed. This has been confused with the related Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which makes different but related claims.

At the end of his life, Moses begs God to allow him to enter the Promised Land and retract the punishment prohibiting him from entering Canaan. God remains adamant, but as some type of consolation grants Moses the privilege of seeing the land of Israel.

The Netziv on 3:27 claims that God granted Moses the ability to “sense” the land with more than just his eyes. That somehow his vision enhanced his other senses and that Moses perceived the land in some fashion as if he were walking on it. Furthermore, Moses’ viewing of the land was so powerful and had such an effect, that it actually ensured that Joshua’s conquest of the land would be successful.

May all those who come to view the land of Israel and walk on it, may all those who come to support its soldiers, merit to see the success, security and safety of all our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the bereaved families of the fallen soldiers. To the mothers, fathers, wives, fiancées, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. We are with you in your mourning.

Give me Addiction or Give me Death

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vaetchanan-give-me-addiction-or-give-me-death/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Vaetchanan

Give me Addiction or Give me Death

“Within yourself deliverance must be searched for, because each man makes his own prison.” -Sir Edwin Arnold

It is easy to fall into a pattern. It is easy to find something enjoyable or convenient in your life and stick to it. At first we like it. Later we seek it. At more advanced stages we may rely on it and at the end we can’t live without it. That most advanced stage has many names. A modern term is addiction. An ancient term is enslavement.

The book of Deuteronomy goes to the trouble of repeating the Ten Commandments that were given at Mount Sinai forty years earlier and recorded in the book of Exodus. There are some interesting differences between the two versions, but one of them is the recounting of the fourth commandment to Keep Holy the Sabbath.

The first mention of the commandment in Exodus is more universalistic, connecting the observance of the Sabbath to the Creation story. The second mention in Deuteronomy is more particular to the Jewish experience of the Egyptian enslavement and eventual exodus.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 5:14 explains that we must remember the Sabbath because we were slaves. We must take at least one day a week to release ourselves from the bonds of servitude. The real question to ask is what are we slaves to today and how do we break free?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son, Netanel, on the occasion of his putting on his tefillin for the first time.