Category Archives: Beshalach

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.

Deserving of Miracles (Beshalach)

Deserving of Miracles (Beshalach)

Where there is great love there are always miracles. -Willa Cather

There is a well-known Midrash that has the angels standing by God’s side as He famously splits the Sea for the Children of Israel while at the same time He drowns the pursuing Egyptian army:

“God,” the angels asked, “how can you spare the Hebrews and kill the Egyptians? These are idol worshipers and these are idol worshipers!”

As we know, idol worship is among the most severe sins in the Torah, punishable by death, so the angels’ question is entirely reasonable.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 14:29 states that idolatry is indeed quite severe, especially as compared to such sins as infighting, gossip, slander or even theft, none of which carry the death penalty. Nonetheless, he indicates that the divine judgment is reversed when it comes to “group” sin, based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Peah 4b).

It is true that if an individual commits idolatry, he is deserving of the death penalty, while if he commits one of the “lesser” sins, his punishment (if any) is less severe. However, according to the Meshech Chochma and the Jerusalem Talmud, the tables are turned when we are talking about the entire people of Israel. He brings two examples: In the times of King David, the population was relatively pious, faithfully worshipping God and correctly averting idolatry. However, because the people were talebearers, God would strike the Jewish people down in their wars.

On the other hand, In the times of King Ahav, who leads one of the most idolatrous generations ever, there were no talebearers, and as a result, they emerged victorious and unscathed from their battles. The lesson being, that a community that is kind to each other, that does not bear tales about each other, even if they are idolaters like the generation of Ahav, not only are they not punished, but they merit salvation and victory in their wars. But even a generation of righteous people like those in the time of King David, if they don’t look out for each other, God’s wrath is not far behind.

Therein lies the answer to the angels’ question about the Jewish people at the splitting of the Sea. Even though they were idol worshippers, they behaved well towards one another and that merited not only salvation but outright miracles.

May we ever be deserving of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the complete and rapid recovery of all those stricken by the coronavirus epidemic.

Articulating Joy (Beshalach)

Articulating Joy (Beshalach)

Joys divided are increased. -Josiah Gilbert Holland

The Egyptian Empire has been pummeled by the devastating ten plagues. In a panic, after the Death of the Egyptian firstborns, Pharaoh and the Egyptian people beg the Israelite people to go; to go to the desert to worship as Moses had been requesting from the first time he confronted Pharaoh.

However, shortly after the Jews depart their homes and Egyptian cities, Pharaoh realizes that this is not a temporary religious excursion. The Jews have indeed headed to the desert, but they have no intention of ever returning to the slavery of Egypt – it was a sham. They have escaped the bondage of Egypt and mean to make way towards their ancestral home, the land of the Patriarchs, the land then known as Canaan. In a frenzy, Pharaoh organizes his army of six hundred chariots and pursues the fleeing slaves.

The Egyptian army traps the Israelite slaves between their mighty chariots and the sea. However, God is not finished with His miracles or pouring His wrath onto the Egyptians. The sea splits, the Jews enter, to come out unscathed on the other side. The Egyptians follow, to find the miraculous walls of water collapsing on them, drowning every single Egyptian soldier. The Jews, filled with joy over the miraculous salvation, break out in song, the famed Song of the Sea.

The very first line of the song states:

“And then they will sing, Moses and the Children of Israel, this song to God, and they said to say.”

The Berdichever wonders as to the repetition of the verb “to say,” and takes the opportunity to explore an aspect of joy. He states that the primary feeling of joy is in one’s heart. Joy is an internal emotional state. Why the need to sing? Why the need to outwardly exhibit this internal feeling?

He explains that there is an added enhanced component to joy when it is articulated. When we voice our joy, the joy itself is expanded. By speaking of our joy, by sharing the feelings of joy with others, the joy itself grows and multiplies beyond the original feeling.

Hence the repetition of the verb “to say.” They multiplied their articulations, their “sayings”; they repeated and expanded verbally expressing their feelings of joy. That formulation, that repeated articulation of joy, was so heartfelt, was so joyous, was so powerful, that it remains an eternal part of our heritage to this day, more than 3,000 years later.

May we always have causes for celebration with dear friends and family to articulate them together and multiply joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the wedding of Esti Spitz to Meir Hess. Mazal Tov!

To the memory of a dear family friend, Efraim Steinmetz. May God console the family among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

 In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. -Blaise Pascal

The nation of Israel is born when they are redeemed from the slavery of Egypt. They have witnessed the ten plagues that God brought down upon the Egyptians while sparing the Jewish nation. Pharaoh and his people beg the Israelites to leave. They leave on the night of Pesach (Passover) which would henceforth be eternally commemorated by the Jewish people.

However, Pharaoh changes his mind. He pursues the freed slaves. His powerful chariot army has them trapped, with their back against the sea. God intervenes once again. He keeps the sides separated by a pillar of cloud and fire. He directs Moses to lift his hand and split the sea. The sea splits, the Jews cross over on dry land. The Egyptians are allowed to follow, only to be completely drowned. The entire armed forces of the Egyptian empire are obliterated in one fell swoop. Moses lowers his hand and he and the people of Israel break into song, the Song of the Sea.

The Torah declares that at that point the nation “believed in God and in Moses His servant.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 14:31 (Beshalach) quotes Rabbeinu Chananel who explains that proper Jewish faith can actually be split into four distinct elements:

  1. Belief in God;
  2. Belief in the truth and validity of our Prophets;
  3. Belief in an afterlife that will include rewards for the righteous;
  4. Belief in the coming of the Redeemer.

The reward for sustaining these beliefs is that one will enjoy them when the time comes. The punishment for lack of belief is somewhat self-fulfilling. The unbelievers will not live to experience the afterlife that they don’t believe in. Seems appropriate.

Somehow, the conscious beliefs that we sustain and develop actually create our spiritual reality and fate. By denying God, prophetic truth, reward and punishment, an afterlife or the coming of the Messiah, we cut our very souls off from the future, eternity and destiny of the Jewish people. When we affirm our beliefs in the above, we link ourselves, our destiny, to the unbroken chain of tradition of the eternal people. Our beliefs shape our souls and our souls are intertwined, that is, until we reverse our default ancestral settings and take ourselves out of the communal belief system and the spiritual community itself.

Maimonides famously elaborated and articulated the above basic belief system into the popular 13 Principles of Faith. In some synagogues and communities they are read on a daily basis and can be found in the back of many prayer books. They are worth reviewing regularly.

May our faith be strong and our souls ever linked to our nation and community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Hilda and Jeremy Cohen, on their inspiring hospitality. And to the speedy recovery of Libi Yehudis bas Yochevet.

Growing God

Growing God

Why indeed must God be a noun? Why not a verb — the most active and dynamic of all. -Mary Daly

fibonacci-rose

The Children of Israel have finally escaped the bondage of Egypt. However, shortly after their escape, their Egyptian taskmasters pursue them with the entire might of the Egyptian military. The nascent Jewish nation is trapped with their back to the sea and the Egyptian army, 600 chariots strong, advancing upon them.

Then, miraculously, the sea behind them parts. They walk across the seabed, with a wall of water to their right and to their left, and exit successfully on the other side. Undeterred, the Egyptians follow their freed Hebrew slaves only to discover the sea closing over their heads. The entire armed force of the Egyptian empire is destroyed in one fell swoop.

Incredulous and exultant, Moses and the Jewish people break out in song. Exodus Chapter 15 is famously known as the Song of the Sea. It is so important to the Jewish narrative that the sages instituted the Song as part of the daily morning prayer. Its unusual poetic style is sometimes hard to decipher.

Rabbi Hirsch on verse 2 explains the phrase: “This is my God, to Him would I be a habitation, He was already my father’s God; I would raise Him higher still.”

“He has already proven Himself as the God of my father; even my fathers recognized Him as such and passed this knowledge to me. But I shall endeavor to add still more to the recognition of His greatness and His sovereignty. These words outline the mission of every subsequent generation in Israel: to continue to disseminate the knowledge of God, and allegiance to Him, in ever-growing intensity.”

We cannot rest on the educational, theological and religious laurels of our fathers. We must forge ahead, in every generation, to not only maintain, to not only continue, but to grow, to expand, and to make greater, wider, and stronger the knowledge of and the faithfulness to God.

It’s work that must be done on a daily basis.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the New England Patriots on their inspiring Super Bowl victory.

Duality in Faith

 Faith is a higher faculty than reason. -Henry Christopher Bailey

transcending-duality

Jewish philosophy is filled with duality. The Sfat Emet in 5633 (1873) highlights a whole string of related dualities in this week’s Torah reading. There is the classic differentiation between this physical, material world and the next metaphysical, spiritual world. There is the ongoing duality of man’s evil inclination which is constantly warring against man’s good inclination. There is the biblical duality of the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt versus the subsequent miraculous Splitting of the Sea which is considered an even greater level of divine involvement. The Sfat Emet sees all these dualities not necessarily as opposites, but rather more as complimentary stages, with a lower level and a higher level of the spectrum in question.

The Sfat Emet also explains that there is a duality in matters of faith. There is the faith of the person who doesn’t know anything about God’s divinity. Nonetheless, he believes in God, or perhaps even because of his ignorance, it allows him to have simple faith. That simple faith then enables the believer to learn more about God, to understand God more, to reach for God and connect with Him. This was the faith of the people of Israel as they leave Egypt.

The other faith, the more refined, sophisticated, developed faith, is one based on knowledge of God. That is the faith which Moses reached. Moses’ understanding of God gave him a much more serious, comprehensive and clearer connection to God. The classic analogy is that Moses was able to “see” God through a clear window, while the rest of us, including other prophets, can only perceive God through an opaque window.

May our faith, perception and connection to God carry us through difficult times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Gila Weinberg on the publication of her excellent book, Not So Grim, Jewish Fairy Tales.

 

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-choose-your-weapon-carefully/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Beshalach

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

The People of Israel have finally been redeemed from the enslavement of Egypt. They have marched through the desert. They reach the edge of the sea and suddenly find themselves pursued by the entire armed might of the Egyptian empire.

They panic. They cry. They scream. They complain. Moses calls out to God. God, in one of His most famous and indicative statements replies: “Why do you call out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and Go!”

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 14:15 teases out an important lesson from God’s response. There are times for long prayer, like the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai praying for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are times for short prayers, like the five words Moses uttered when praying for the health of his sister, Miriam. And then, there are times when no words are appropriate, but rather action is called for.

May we choose our strategies correctly, the right prayer or action for the right circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the entire Jewish community of Uruguay. Your hosting of our family has been exemplary. May all our prayers be answered.

 

 

 

Liar’s Reward

First posted on the Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-liars-reward/

Netziv Exodus: Beshalach

Liar’s Reward

“Falsehood is invariably the child of fear in one form or another.” -Aleister Crowley

The adage of the boy who cried wolf is important and well-known, however, the Netziv has a slightly different take on it.

The nation of Israel has escaped from the centuries of Egyptian slavery. God parted the sea for them, allowing them to miraculously walk on dry land and see the Egyptian military annihilated. The Israelites walk through the desert, find a stream of bitter waters and then Moses is directed to put nearby trees in the water, thereby sweetening the stream and providing water to the entire nation.

However, a chapter later, the Israelites find themselves again without water, but this time the interplay is different. They complain that they have no water. Moses is not impressed by their complaint. Only after they complain does the text say that the people were thirsty. The Netziv on the verse (Exodus 17:3) explains that though they lacked water they complained before they became thirsty. And so, the false complaint of thirst came true. He then expands that whoever fakes a complaint, eventually it will become true.

A person who claims to not have money, will eventually see that fulfilled. A person who lies about his inability to do something, eventually will lose that ability. A boy who cries wolf, not only will he not be believed, but eventually will have his false statement made true and bring a wolf upon himself.

May we be very careful about our claims and statements, lest they become true.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To truth-speakers. May only blessings be your reward.

Why Seven Days?

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-why-seven-days/]

Ibn Ezra Exodus: Beshalach

Why Seven Days?

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you don’t let other people spend it for you.” -John Dryden

A seven-day week does not reflect any natural phenomena. As opposed to a day, a lunar month or a solar year, a week is an artificial creation.

Some interesting exceptions to the seven-day week include the Igbo people of Nigeria (4 days), the Javanese of Indonesia (5 days) and the Akans of West Africa (6 days that have been mixed with a 7-day week giving a 42-day cycle).

Historically, the Romans had an 8-day week for a time, until they met the 7-day week which became more popular. Both ancient China and Egypt had a 10-day week. In more modern times, during the excitement of revolution, the French adopted a 10-day week. It lasted for nine and a half years (1793-1802). The Soviets experimented with a 5-day week from 1929-31 and then tried a 6-day week until 1940. None of these counting systems have survived.

Why does almost all of humanity follow a 7-day week? Ibn Ezra claims (Exodus 16:1) that it comes from the Torah. God mandated a 7-day week to remember Creation as well as to remember the Exodus. Curious how the entire world has adopted this Jewish tradition – in most cases without even knowing it.

I wonder what other traditions have permeated the world and which others may still do so?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jared Diamond and his glorious book Guns, Germs and Steel, where among other things he highlights potential causes as to the fate of societies and civilization.