Category Archives: Exodus

The Meaning of Work (Vayakhel-Pekudai)

The Meaning of Work (Vayakhel-Pekudai)

My share of the work may be limited, but the fact that it is work makes it precious. -Helen Keller

Perhaps one of the commandments that are most repeated throughout the Torah is regarding observing the Sabbath. It has proven to be a central pillar of Jewish practice and tradition. The poet, Ahad Ha’am, famously stated that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The Sabbath has undoubtedly been a major factor in keeping the Jewish people as an unbroken, cohesive entity throughout generations and millennia.

The Torah, in each mention of the Sabbath, adds another detail, another nuance, to flesh out what the Sabbath experience is meant to entail. The Bechor Shor on Exodus 35:2-3 teases out additional clues as to what the Torah is prescribing regarding Sabbath observance.

The verse states: “Six days shall you work and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you.”

The Bechor Shor explains that during the six days of the week we are commanded to do the work that God has ordered (in this context the work of building the Tabernacle). However, on the seventh day, on the Sabbath, you shall perform no labor, even sacred, divinely commanded labor that God Himself ordered is forbidden to be performed on this day of rest, much less any labor that was not directly ordained by God.

The next verse provides additional detail: “You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath.”

The Bechor Shor explains that the act of transferring fire may not seem arduous. To move a flame from an existing fire and let it take hold someplace else cannot be considered strenuous and involves almost no exertion. Nevertheless, the Torah considers it a form of labor. The many prohibited labors of the Sabbath may not seem to be “work” nor would we classify them as toil by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, it is not only “work” in the modern sense of the word that is prohibited on the Sabbath but any type of creative action which changes or transforms the world around us. The Sabbath is not only a day to hold back from affecting the world, but a day to recharge our physical, emotional, and spiritual beings by retreating from creative activities for a day. If we’re constantly busy, constantly active, constantly absorbing and transmitting bits and bytes, our souls will never know inner peace or quiet. Especially in our era, the sounds of modernity threaten to drown out what is left of our humanity.

May we each achieve the next level of peace that a Sabbath respite offers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Pesach Haggadah. It boggles the mind how every year there seems to be an exponential number of commentaries on it being published.

What Was Aaron Thinking!? (Ki Tisa)

What Was Aaron Thinking!? (Ki Tisa)

I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere to go. My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day. -Abraham Lincoln

Aaron, Moses’ brother, is presented with a nigh-impossible dilemma. Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law from God, but he is apparently delayed in returning. The people are highly agitated by Moses’ delay and start clamoring for a new god. According to the Midrash, Hur, Aaron’s brother-in-law and co-leader during Moses’ absence refuses to give in to the demands of the crowd. He is subsequently killed by the enraged mob. Aaron fears he may be the next victim of the unruly crowd.

Aaron then commands that the crowd gather all the gold in their families’ possession and bring it to him. The crowd obliges. Aaron throws the gold into the fire and out comes the infamous Golden Calf, which members of the crowd rapidly announce to be Israel’s new god, just a number of weeks after they had heard the voice of God commanding them not to worship anybody or anything else.

Aaron, not missing a beat, builds an altar and declares that the next day will be a festival. God is furious with the development, threatens to destroy the entire nation and rebuild a new one from Moses and his descendants. Moses defends the nation of Israel, God relents and disaster is averted.

One of the fundamental questions is what was Aaron thinking? How could he facilitate the creation and worship of an idol? He must have known this was wrong.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 30:2 explains that the people of Israel weren’t asking for a new “god” but rather for a new leader to replace Moses. (The word Elohim in Hebrew can carry both meanings). Aaron wanted to stall the process in the hope that Moses’ return would make the request mute. Aaron was hesitant to name some other distinguished personage as the new leader, for when Moses would return, the new leader may not want to relinquish his new appointment, which in turn would lead to fighting and bloodshed. Likewise, if Aaron did nothing, the people themselves would appoint a leader, leading to the same situation. If Aaron were to appoint himself, Moses might think he was illegitimately usurping power.

Whatever path he might have chosen would have ended in disaster. Therefore, Aaron came up with the idea of asking for the peoples’ gold as a delaying tactic. He was hoping they wouldn’t be so eager to part with their riches. When they did, he used it to construct an empty symbol, and even then he continued to delay things announcing that the celebration will be held the next day. His hope was that if he stalled, occupying the mob with empty and worthless pursuits instead of creating a leadership battle when Moses would return, the situation would then be defused more easily. He may have been right and that might have been the best path he could have taken from a variety of unsavory choices.

May we only be challenged with a variety of good choices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Pesach cleaning. Now it begins.

Freshly Laundered Souls (Tetzave)

Freshly Laundered Souls (Tetzave)

 Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world. -George Bernard Shaw

The Torah reading of Tetzava continues to elaborate the details of the construction and operation of the Tabernacle, what in a sense is meant to host a concentrated presence of God within our material world. The Bechor Shor on Exodus 30:1 explains that God doesn’t need such a domicile, nor the sacrifices, nor any of the Tabernacle activities at all. All of the rituals are meant exclusively for our benefit.

While it is difficult for us in our modern era to understand the power and effect of the sacrifices, the Bechor Shor implies that not only was the appropriate offering of a sacrifice somehow redeeming and effected forgiveness, but the penitent was able to also feel and know that he was forgiven. The feeling of forgiveness had a powerful cathartic effect on the penitent.

The Bechor Shor explains the impact of understanding that one was forgiven and how achieving some type of spiritual purity, as a result, gave tremendous encouragement to continue to align oneself with God’s commands. He compares such spiritual cleanliness to wearing white garments, quoting King Solomon who stated (Ecclesiastes 9:8) “Your clothing should always be white.”

When one’s garments are soiled, then the filthy person will rarely have objections to getting dirtier. Similarly, a sinner, believing himself to still be mired in sin, will be less hesitant to continue to sin, as the Talmud states “if a person sins and then does so again, it will then seem in his eyes as permissible” (Tractate Yoma 86b). However, a person wearing fine, freshly laundered clothing will be averse to getting them dirty. So too, a person who has sought forgiveness, a person who knows that they have gone through a spiritual cleansing process will hesitate before sullying himself again.

That was part of the purpose of the sacrifices; to cleanse our souls; to burn away the dross and filth of our actions and our spiritual beings and bring us closer to God. To give us freshly laundered souls that we will keep clean for as long as possible.

In place of sacrifices, today we have prayer. May we use the gift of prayer effectively.

Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my sister Zahava (JJ) Kahen for her inspired newsletter/blog/website venture for Jewish elementary school girls:  https://www.homescool.info/ Especially suited for Grades 3-6, but can be enjoyed by all.

Lighting God’s House (Trumah)

Lighting God’s House (Trumah)

Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Torah portion of Trumah deals primarily with the building components of the Tabernacle. It first lists all of the raw materials: gold, silver, copper, various colored yarns, linens, skins, and wood. It mentions precious stones, of which we receive a detailed listing later on. The portion also specifies all of the construction details, every article of the Tabernacle including the Ark, the Table of the Showbread, the Candelabrum, as well as the exact construction of the walls of the Tabernacle. Afterward, we get details of the ritual vestments of the Kohens, especially those of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who among other items wore the Breastplate embedded with twelve different precious stones.

Nestled in between these very concrete, architectural, and sartorial elements and descriptions are two notable and unusual exceptions.

The Torah also lists:

“Oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 25:6 wonders why these specific non-building or vestment components are itemized in the middle in what was otherwise a shopping list for the constructors and tailors. He further wonders, that if indeed the Torah felt the need to digress into some of the operations of the Tabernacle such as oil for lighting and anointing and spices for the incense, why then doesn’t it also list the other operations such as baking bread or offering sacrifices?

The Bechor Shor answers that the anointing oil was required for anointing the Tabernacle implements and therefore could be considered part of the building process. The spices also required specialized artisans to prepare them and the ingredients needed to be specially itemized and assembled beforehand. However, that doesn’t answer the need for “oil for lighting.”

The Bechor Shor further elaborates that it is not the way of a king to enter his home before the place has been illuminated for him. It is not proper for a king to enter a darkened abode. Similarly, the spices are required so that the home should have a pleasant fragrance. It would be inappropriate for the king to enter a home that is dark and malodorous. Therefore, the oil and the spice, the light and incense are indeed building requirements. They are vital components for building the Tabernacle, to light it, and to perfume it.

May we ever be in bright and sweet-smelling abodes, and if not, make them so.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To beautiful and gentle snowfall.

Party God (Mishpatim)

Party God (Mishpatim)

Celebrate what you want to see more of. -Thomas J. Peters

In one of the more legislative portions of the Torah, God declares:

“Three times a year you shall celebrate for Me.”

Then we get the details of what these celebrations are:

  1. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag Hamatzot), what we commonly refer to as Pesach (Passover), commemorating our Exodus from the bondage of Egypt.
  2. The Feast of the Harvest, what we know as Shavuot, falls in the summer when the first fruits and crops are harvested.
  3. The Feast of the Ingathering, what we know as Sukkot, occurs in the autumn, the end of the agricultural year when all of the produce is gathered from the fields.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 23:14 examines why God wants us to celebrate at these times and specifically why those celebrations should be for Him. He explains that these three periods of the year are times of particular joy and that God wants to be part of our joy and for us to include Him in our festivities.

During Pesach, we are forever enjoined to commemorate how God liberated us from the slavery of Egypt, and therefore it is extremely appropriate to remember, involve, and incorporate God in the festivities.

Shavuot, in the summer, is the period when we begin to harvest. It is when we start to reap the efforts of all the previous months. A good harvest is a time of great joy and the first fruits of the promise of spring. We need to remember that the harvest comes from God and it is befitting for us to acknowledge God’s role and give Him thanks for what we’ve received so far, as well as to continue to pray for the good we hope He will continue to provide. He wants to be part of that too.

Finally, Sukkot, in the autumn, is when the agricultural potential of the entire year is completely fulfilled. The entire bounty is gathered. It is a period of extreme joy when our material wealth for the year is at its height right in front of us. We cannot help but be joyous. Especially then, when we may not have anything else on our mind than to be happy, is when we need to remember God. We need to be happy WITH Him. We need to perceive that He is happy WITH us. It is a partnership. Our divine partner wants to celebrate with us. He wants to be a tangible, important, meaningful part of our lives and our celebrations. That means including Him, not only during trying times but also in our happiest moments.

May we always have things to celebrate and include God in those moments.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski z”tl.

The Sin of Waiting (Yitro)

The Sin of Waiting (Yitro)

How much of human life is lost in waiting. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The nation of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, after their mind-boggling Exodus from Egypt, after their miraculous crossing of the Sea, after their successful defeat of the Amalekite attack, finally enter a more tranquil existence at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Jethro, High Priest of the nation of Midyan and the father-in-law of Moses is reunited with Moses during this period of tranquility. The next day, Jethro sees Moses at work. Moses sits from morning until night, singlehandedly judging the entire Jewish population. People are waiting in line the entire day to see Moses, to seek his council, or have him adjudicate their case. Jethro is incensed and reprimands Moses:

“What you’re doing isn’t good. You will wear yourself away as well as this nation that is with you.”

Jethro, perhaps the first management consultant in history, goes on to recommend to Moses how to set up a judicial system. He includes a description of the character of the judges to appoint, the number of judges, and the entire structure of the system, which Moses goes on to implement.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 18:14 wonders as to why Jethro was so disturbed by Moses’ initial attempt to singlehandedly judge the entire nation himself. He answers that the main problem was that Moses was forcing all the people who were seeking help to wait. He mentions that some people would end up waiting in line the entire day and were still not be able to see Moses. There were probably uncounted thousands of man-hours that were lost by hordes of Jews just waiting in line, unable to do anything else at that time, with time and energy completely wasted.

That is what upset Jethro so much: the needless waiting, the wasted time, especially when it was possible to set up a significantly more efficient system whereby every plaintiff could have their case heard rapidly and effectively. This system also freed up Moses from his self-imposed burden, allowing him to do higher-value functions and at the same time empowering an entire community of judges to practice Torah law, leadership, and justice.

May we respect other people’s time, and they ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of our son Elchanan to Zavi Lava. Mazal Tov!

Subconscious Thoughts by Netanel Spitz

Subconscious Thoughts by Netanel Spitz

A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it. -Marcus Aurelius

In this week’s parsha, parashat Beshalach, once Pharaoh hears that the Jews had turned around it says “וחזקתי את לב פרעה” that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to chase after them.

In the next sentence it says “ויהפך לבב פרעה” that Pharaoh’s heart was flipped.

This distinction is very interesting, because as the main understanding of “וחזקתי” is that Pharaoh was coming to a decision but wasn’t sure with himself, and God helped him feel secure about his decision. On the other hand “ויהפך” seems to imply that Pharaoh wanted to do one thing and God made him do something completely different.

So what is going on here? 

To answer this question we need to first look at how the brain works. Science has figured out that we don’t come to a decision when we think we do, rather it’s preceded by subconscious activity that we are not aware of, and that turns into a conscious decision. 

In my opinion, the distinction between the two words are two different perspectives on the situation, one from the perspective of Pharaoh and one from the perspective of God.

Simply God took a subconscious thought of Pharaoh to chase after the Jews and pushed it into his conscious thought.

So, from the perspective of Pharaoh it felt like his “heart was flipped”, a completely different idea that he never thought about entering his mind.

But, from God’s perspective, it was a thought that Pharaoh always had but wasn’t aware of.

In Life we come to thoughts or ideas, that feel like they simply appear out of thin air, as if blown in by the wind because someone left the window open.

But I think that we can understand from this, that thoughts come from a subconscious part of us that we don’t know so well, our deeper selves.

May we all find time to listen and learn are true selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Netanel.

Preventative Spiritual Medicine (Beshalach)

Preventative Spiritual Medicine (Beshalach)

By two wings a man is lifted up from things earthly: by simplicity and purity. -Thomas Kempis

After the Ten Plagues, after the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds and crossing on dry land within the sea, after the drowning and destruction of the Egyptian forces, Moses leads the freed Jewish nation into the desert. They walk for three days without finding water. On the third day, they find a stream, but its waters are bitter. Then, the Jewish people start what is to become an ongoing occurrence throughout their desert journey: they complain. Under God’s direction, Moses places a nearby piece of wood into the water, thereby sweetening the water and making it drinkable for the Jewish nation.

Immediately after this incident, God makes the following statement:

“If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 15:26 tries to dig deeper into what God is referring to regarding the contrast between the diseases brought upon Egypt and preventing those same diseases from afflicting the Jewish nation, as well as the relationship between health and observance of the commandments.

He explains that it has to do with what we often call ritual purity. There are certain foods, creatures, situations, and people that we are commanded to avoid. The Egyptians paid no heed to such things and the Jewish nation got to witness firsthand the plethora of plagues and diseases that struck Egypt.

It seems that the many ritual commands, among other things, can also provide some measure of protection against those diseases. The Bechor Shor explains that the foods we are prohibited from eating are intrinsically foul and have the potential to corrupt not only our spiritual being but also to harm our physical bodies. All the laws of ritual purity, of the need to physically distance ourselves from those who are even temporarily ritually impure, are meant to prevent the transmission of some disease, that we currently can’t perceive nor understand.

May we take appropriate precautions to safeguard our health and that of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Tu B’Shvat, our annual tree holiday.

Calling God’s Bluff (Bo)

Calling God’s Bluff (Bo)

It is sometimes necessary to lie damnably in the interests of the nation. -Hilaire Belloc

There is a common misconception about what Moses requested from Pharaoh. We’ve heard the popular “Let my people go” refrain, implying that Moses was asking for complete freedom from slavery and permanent departure from Egypt. That is not accurate. Though freedom was the final intention, what Moses repeatedly asks from Pharaoh is much more limited and specific. He asks that Pharaoh let the people go on a three-day journey into the desert where they will worship God and celebrate.

At some point in the discussions, Pharaoh gives in and says, “ok, you can go to the desert to worship your God,” but he asks, “who is going?” Moses answers: “Everyone, men, women, elderly, and children.” Pharaoh’s response is “no way. Just the men can go.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 10:10 wonders as to what’s going on. Why does Pharaoh care who goes to worship? He answers that Pharaoh saw through Moses’ façade. He understood that they didn’t intend to just “worship”, but rather that they planned to completely escape. That’s why Pharaoh stubbornly refuses. In one sense he’s calling Moses’ bluff. “You want to go worship? Fine. You’re free to go, but you need to leave your women and children behind until you return.” Moses couldn’t accept the offer which is why he doubles down and insists that everybody needs to go.

Having God on his side didn’t hurt Moses either, so when subsequent plagues strike Egypt culminating in the devastating Death of the Firstborns, not only does Pharaoh finally agree to Moses’ terms, but he and the Egyptian people can’t get them out fast enough. The entire Jewish people are freed to go on the three-day journey to the desert to worship God. Only after that does Moses activate the next step of the plan, to take the Jewish people out of the Egyptian empire entirely.

May we see clearly through the facades in front of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Eitan Orbach and Tzivya Graff on their marriage. Mazal Tov!

Magic versus Miracles (Vaera)

Magic versus Miracles (Vaera)

For the truly faithful, no miracle is necessary. For those who doubt, no miracle is sufficient. -Nancy Gibbs

God sends Moses to free the Jewish people from bondage. Moses demands from Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves time off to go to the desert to serve God. Pharaoh condescendingly declines. Then ensues a macabre back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, interspersed by the famous Ten Plagues. Moses keeps asking for the people to be freed. Pharaoh declines. A plague hits. However, we also see Pharaoh’s reactions evolve, from outright denial to conditional and grudging agreement on which he immediately reneges once the particular plague has passed.

The first and perhaps most famous plague is the plague of blood. Aaron, Moses’ brother and co-conspirator, uses Moses’ staff and strikes the water of the Nile River. All the water turns to blood. The life source of Egypt has now turned to a source of death. All the fish in the Nile die, polluting the river and making the water undrinkable.

Curiously, we are told by the Torah that Pharaoh’s sorcerers are somehow able to replicate this feat, turning water into blood as well. This capacity leads Pharaoh to believe that Moses and Aaron’s plague of blood was not of divine nature, but rather some magical ability. He refuses to free the Jewish people.

A common question that is asked about the event is that if Aaron turned all the water to blood, what water did Pharaoh’s sorcerers convert to blood? especially, given the tradition that all of the water in Egypt turned to blood, not just that of the Nile.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 8:20 explains that the plague of blood lasted for just a short while. However, that short while was enough to kill all of the fish in the Nile and contaminate the water for an extended period, making it undrinkable. Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to use their sorcery on the contaminated but no-longer-blood water of the Nile, transforming it again into blood. Pharaoh sees his sorcerers replicate Moses’ and Aaron’s miracle before the full extent of the plague is felt. That, combined with his sorcerers’ ability to mimic the miracle, underwhelms Pharaoh and he duly declines the request to free the Jewish slaves.

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh continues to “harden his heart” in the face of the progressive plagues and miracles, rejecting God as well as denying the Jewish people their freedom. Eventually, he and the Egyptian nation pay severely for their lack of faith and compassion.

May we appreciate the daily blessings and miracles that fill our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the peaceful transfer of government power. Not to be taken for granted.