Category Archives: Exodus

God is shadowing us (Pekudei)

God is shadowing us (Pekudei)

Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences. -Robert Louis Stevenson

The main architect, the main builder of the Tabernacle was a young man by the name of Betzalel. The name Betzalel literally means “in the shadow of God.” The Midrash tells the tale of Betzalel’s extreme insightfulness as to the meaning behind God’s instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle. He was so insightful that Moses asks of him in wonder “were you in the shadow of God, that you know all of this?”

The Berdichever flips the wordplay around and explains that it is God that is in our shadow. Just as whatever act we do, our shadow mimics, so too with God. Any act that we do, God will mimic upon us. If we are kind to others, God will be kind to us. If we are cruel or indifferent to others, God will likewise be cruel or indifferent to us.

The Berdichever advises us further of the need to think well before we speak or act, for God does take note. We should never think that what we say or do has no meaning. The words we use, the actions we take are significant, they are impactful, they can heal or hurt, build or destroy. And whichever path we choose, God will make sure that we will reap the consequences of our actions.

It will be a natural reaction that we will be rewarded in kind for the good that we do, and that likewise, we will be punished measure for measure for the evil that we commit. God is shadowing us. He is watching and replicating our every word and act upon us. It may not be obvious to us, but it is as unmistakable and as undeniable as our very shadow copying our every move.

May we be cognizant of the words we use and the things that we do. May they be worthy of God’s “shadowing” and may we be the beneficiaries of only goodness and kindness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my travel buddy, Marc L. Always great to shadow you whenever possible.

Generational Baton (Vayakhel)

Generational Baton (Vayakhel)

My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. -John Bunyan

For the construction of the Tabernacle, the Torah states that God bestowed wisdom on a variety of individuals. Suddenly, they had the knowledge, the expertise required for the woodwork, the metalwork, the tapestry-work, for the creation of the representation of God’s abode on Earth.

The Berdichever highlights that the creation of the Tabernacle parallels the creation of the world. The divinely-inspired artisans who constructed the Tabernacle found themselves with infinite understanding and capabilities, yet they circumscribed their efforts. They left something for successive generations to do.

The Berdichever explains that in every generation, the righteous of that generation create heaven and earth anew. By their delving in the Torah, by continually finding new understandings in the Torah, they are continuing the labor of the divinely-inspired artisans who constructed the Tabernacle. They are creating an abode for God on Earth. They are carrying the eternal baton that our ancestors left for us. They are continuing the race, relaying from one generation to the next the never-ending divine work.

There is something about the Torah in general, and the Tabernacle and its utensils in particular, which hides secrets of creation, secrets of the connection between heaven and earth, secrets as to the conduit between the upper worlds and the lower worlds, secrets of our very existence, purpose and future.

May we uncover some of those secrets and get a glimpse of what a heavenly earth looks like.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Anglo community of Tzfat, for a very warm welcome.

We Haven’t Even Started (Ki Tisa)

We Haven’t Even Started (Ki Tisa)

The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning. -Ivy Baker

At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, God commands Moses to take a census of the Jewish nation. Both the process for taking the census, as well as the language that is used, is unusual. There is a prohibition to count Jews directly. God commands Moses to gather a half shekel from each man above the age of twenty years old (basically, those eligible for army service). The rich can’t give more and the poor can’t give less. Based on the funds that were collected they would indirectly know the number of people who could serve.

At the heart of the verse which gives the command is the Hebrew verb “phkod,” which can be translated as “to count” or “to enroll.” A literal translation of the verse would look as follows:

“And God spoke to Moses, saying: When you raise the head of the children of Israel according to their count (li’phkudeihem), and they shall give each man an atonement for their soul to God when they are counted (bi’phkod), and there shall not be a plague upon them when they are counted (bi’phkod).” – Exodus 30:11-12

The Berdichever explains that the word “li’phkudeihem” (“to their count”), is a language which demonstrates that something is lacking. With that understanding, he explains how we should view our own service of God, namely that we should always view ourselves as if we hadn’t even started serving God. Paradoxically, when one keeps in mind that he hasn’t started, then he has reached someplace in his divine service. Conversely, if one were to think that they’ve reached a certain level in serving God, then in fact, they haven’t reached anything yet.

All of this is hinted at in the verse. When it refers to “raise the head,” it means that the way to become elevated is to feel a sense of lack, to understand that we really haven’t started to serve God properly. When someone gives “an atonement for their soul,” they start to connect to and serve God from a sense of humility, with a constant sense of purpose and dedication, with daily renewing vigor.

May we have the humility to realize where we’re at and the strength to always strive further.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Padowitz family of Ramat Bet Shemesh for hosting a great Zehut event.

The Upside of Evil (Tetzave)

The Upside of Evil (Tetzave)

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table. -W. H. Auden

In describing the construction plans of the Holy Tabernacle, the Torah adds a short line about the fuel needed to light the Menorah, the golden candelabrum, which was one of the special fixtures of the Tabernacle. It states as follows:

“And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.” – Exodus 27:22

The Berdichever focuses on the choice of words of “beating” the olive to get light. He compares the olive in this case to one’s evil inclination. The evil inclination is constantly enticing us to follow our base desires, to indulge in what is forbidden and to separate us from spiritual and divine service.

The solution is to “beat” that desire and then elevate that very same desire, to channel it into divine service. To use that passion, that interest, that energy, in holy ventures. We need to consider that if we have some physical yearning, how much stronger should our yearning be for the infinite, for God? If we have some physical fear, how much stronger should our fear and awe of the divine be?

When we’ve managed to convert that evil inclination, those base desires into spiritual energy, into holy actions, then that evil has become a base, a powerful springboard for good.

This is one of the reasons God has created some distance, some obfuscation between us and Him. For if we constantly, diligently served him without fail, with pure clarity and devotion, then God would not have the same level of satisfaction from our efforts, from our struggle to overcome our evil inclination, by our conquest of our animalistic instincts and converting ourselves into more spiritual beings. A state of constant bliss is not really bliss. Us mortals need the ups and downs. We need the encounter with our evil inclination to appreciate good, to fight for good, to conquer evil on a regular basis, predominantly in ourselves.

When circumstances have us at a spiritual distance from God and we then “beat” the evil inclination, break the masks that hide us from God and cleave to divine service, God is overjoyed, and it causes a divine light to spread forth.

May we always overcome our negative natural impulses and turn our inner demons into radiant light.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Asher Brander and the Link Kollel of LA for a wonderful welcome.

Holy Comedians (Truma)

Holy Comedians (Truma)

Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith. -Christopher Fry

God gives Moses extremely detailed instructions as to the construction of the Holy Tabernacle, the portable Sanctuary in the desert, the physical manifestation of God’s abode on Earth. The Tabernacle would become the center of the Israelite camp during their wanderings. Only when King Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem do the Ark of the Covenant and the other holy articles and rites receive a permanent home.

The description of the Tabernacle which Moses receives is so detailed that it even includes the composition of the hides that would be used on the outer walls. In Hebrew, this particular type of hide is called a “Tachash,” for which there is a debate as to exactly what type of animal it was.

The Berdichever sides with the opinion that the Tachash was not a particularly nice or attractive hide. However, he draws an unusual corollary to the fact that the Tachash hide was a bit rough.

He states that while the Sanctuary walls were not so nice on the outside, the inside of the Sanctuary was beautiful. The parallel he makes is to jokes. A joke can be at times rough, even a bit surprising (the element of surprise is often what we find comedic). However, making some (appropriate) fun and having a laugh, loosens up the audience and makes them much more receptive to deeper, more meaningful and more inspiring content and messages. The rough exterior leads to a beautiful and important interior. Just as the rough Tachash exterior of the Tabernacle led to a beautiful inner reality, a funny joke can lead to beautiful inner discussions.

There is a famous Talmudic story of a great sage who was informed that his future neighbors in the afterlife were in the area. Curious, he went to seek them out and was surprised to discover that they were a couple of comedians. He finally understood that even though they weren’t great sages or learned men, they had tremendous merit because of the great joy and happiness they brought to people.

May we always be among those who make others smile, laugh and be filled with joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Randy B. who always makes me laugh.

The Far/Near God (Mishpatim)

The Far/Near God (Mishpatim)

God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. -Empedocles

After the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the instruction and communication between God, Moses and the People of Israel continues at the foot of the desert mountain. At one point the Jews are instructed that they will “bow down from afar.”

The Berdichever takes the opportunity to explore the meanings of a “far” God versus a God that is “near.”

The aspect of God being “far” is the belief that God’s infinite light precedes all existence and that there is nothing in all of creation that is capable of understanding God, not even the ministering angels. That is the concept of a “far” God – that He’s incomprehensible. Understanding Him is infinitely far from our capabilities.

The aspect of God being “near” is the belief that there is no place in all of creation that doesn’t have God. God is everywhere. He fills, and surrounds, and sustains reality. He is right here, next to me, with me, in me. It doesn’t get closer than that.

It is the obligation of a Jew to believe in both aspects of God. He’s “far” – infinitely incomprehensible to our minds, and He’s “near” – right here with us, around us, sustaining our beings and existence.

That is an explanation of the verse: “Peace upon the far and the near, said God.”

Another dimension to God being “far” and “near” are the feelings of awe on one side and love on the other, which we need to have of God. “Far” correlates to both the awe of God and the related distance we feel from the mind of God. “Near” correlates to the love and the nearness we feel, to the love and constant attention and care from God.

Hence, when the Jews are instructed to “bow down from afar,” it specifically relates to awe. You bow down to a being that you are in awe of, that you have some distance from.

But where there is love and nearness, we can embrace.

May we feel both close and distant from God, as the situation dictates.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the participants in this week’s Zehut Open Primaries.

Contemporary Ancient Transmission (Yitro)

Contemporary Ancient Transmission (Yitro)

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see. -Sir Winston Churchill

The people of Israel had been freed from the slavery of Egypt. They crossed the sea and the desert to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they heard the voice of God Himself. At that Revelation, we received the commandments. We received the Tablets of the Law containing the famed Ten Commandments. That was the historic meeting, what Kabbalists considered the wedding ceremony of sorts, between God and the Jewish people.

This is all documented in our Torah, in the Written Torah, that the Jewish people believe was dictated by God to Moses. There is an equally unshakeable, foundational belief that at that same divine encounter God also shared the Oral Torah with Moses. The Oral Torah is vaster, deeper and more complex than we can ever hope to grasp within a mortal lifespan. The Oral Torah, as the name implies, has been transmitted orally, from father to son, from teacher to student, since Moses until our very day.

The Berdichever adds another dimension to explaining the transmission of the Oral Torah, that would seem to be counterintuitive and defy logic. His statement turns our conventional notions of timelines and cause-and-effect on its head. He explains that the Oral Torah that was given to us back then is based on the explanations and interpretations of our sages and righteous men of our own generations.

In a way that only God, who is independent of time, can accomplish, He is able to avoid any time-travel paradoxes or what we might consider physical impossibilities. God saw how the Jewish Halachic leadership of each generation would interpret and judge the Oral Law, and he took those formulations, principles and laws and transmitted it in some prototypical form, some kernel of basic truths to Moses, who then transmitted it through an unbroken chain through all of the generations since. It is then neither surprising nor contradictory when the sages develop and expand the Oral Torah in a way that adheres to the fundamental principles transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai.

The Berdichever goes on to demonstrate the power of the sages of each generation, that not only are they somehow the intrinsic source of the Oral Law that God gives us, but that their power in the divine realm is so great that in many cases, a truly righteous sage has the ability to actually veto God’s decrees. If God issues a harsh decree, a righteous sage has the power to annul God’s decree. That’s the power God has granted them.

The Oral Torah is real, divine, unbrokenly transmitted, yet with an important and vital human component that interacts with and affects it on a daily and evolving basis. May we take it seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Koren Publishing, on their new Spanish-language Torah transmission efforts.