Category Archives: Ki Tisah

Understanding a Son’s Sin (Ki Tisa)

Understanding a Son’s Sin (Ki Tisa)

Every man is an omnibus in which his ancestors ride. -Oliver Wendell Holmes

This week’s Torah reading contains the famous episode of the Golden Calf. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. After forty days and nights, the people of Israel became anxious, and feeling leaderless, demanded of Aaron, Moses’ brother, that he make an idol for them. Aaron grudgingly does so.

The next morning the people of Israel worship the Golden Calf. They do this at the foot of Mount Sinai, forty days after having heard the voice of God, three months after having been miraculously liberated from Egypt. God is understandably furious (whatever that means theologically). God is ready to destroy the nation of Israel. He informs Moses of his plan to wipe out all of Israel and start over again with Moses as the Patriarch of a new nation that would ostensibly remain loyal and steadfast in their devotion to God.

This is where Moses steps in. He prays to God. His prayer is so strong, so sharp, so convincing, that he somehow gets God to stay His wrath. (Parts of his prayer are used in our liturgies to this day).

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 32:8 digs a little deeper and wonders as to what gave Moses the insight, the clarity and the wisdom to articulate such an effective prayer and thereby save the entire nation of Israel.

He answers based on the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 32a) which says that Moses prayed until he felt “fire in his bones.” The Meshech Chochma details that the reference to “fire in his bones” is that Moses prayed to God for forgiveness for Israel about the Golden Calf until he felt in his bones that he also had the same fault. Only when Moses reached that point of understanding and identification with the sin of Israel, was he able to achieve forgiveness for Israel.

What aspect of the sin was in Moses’ “bones?” The Talmud (Tractate Niddah 31a) states that a characteristic that a father bequeaths to his son is his bones. The Midrash based on the Book of Judges tells us that Moses’ grandson Yehonatan was guilty of worshipping idols. That gave Moses the opening to say to God: “God, you want to make a new nation from me? In my family, I will also have this fault of idol worship.”

So Moses’ understanding and identification with his future grandson’s idolatry somehow saved the nation of Israel from being punished for that same crime.

May we identify with our progeny, and they with us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those in quarantine.

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.

Safety of the Crowd (Ki Tisa)

Safety of the Crowd (Ki Tisa)

Comrades! We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all. -Nikita Khrushchev

God instructs Moses to count the nation of Israel. However, the methodology of the counting is unusual. God instructs Moses to count by collecting a half shekel coin from each adult male of the twelve tribes of Israel (excluding the Levites) as opposed to simply counting how many men are in each tribe. There is actually a prohibition to directly count the individuals.

To this day when counting people, we don’t point at them and count 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. For example, when trying to ascertain if there are ten men for a prayer quorum (a minyan), we traditionally count by saying the words of a verse known to have ten words.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 30:12 (Ki Tisa) wonders as to this apprehensive approach to counting. He explains that there is an inherent safety in being part of the crowd. When we stand out, when we are counted as individuals, we actually invite divine scrutiny and justice as to our actions, and invariably would be found to be failing. He gives the example from the beginning of the story of Ruth, when the man we know to be Elimelech travels and is mentioned merely as a man of Bethlehem, nothing occurs to him. When he is finally mentioned by name, in the next phrase we find that he dies.

Similarly, when the prophet Elisha offers to intercede on behalf of his hostess the woman of Shunam, her response is no thanks, “I dwell among my people.” She doesn’t want attention brought to her personally; she prefers the anonymity of the crowd.

This is not only for protection from harm. Rabbeinu Bechaye expounds that blessings and even miracles can occur to a person thanks to the merit of the crowd. This thinking even goes to the level of objects. He quotes the Talmudic dictum that there is no blessing upon what is counted. When the amount of grain in the granary is unknown, there is still the possibility of a supernatural intervention to increase the amount. Once the grain has been counted or measured, no further blessing is likely. Furthermore, the evil eye tends to fall upon what is measured, weighed or counted.

So while Judaism gives a prominent place, role and value to the individual, it also recognizes the attraction, advantage and strength of strongly identifying with the crowd (a good crowd!), keeping a low profile and not drawing undue attention to oneself.

May we attach ourselves and stick to the best crowds we can find.

Shabbat Shalom & Purim Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the United Synagogue of Great Britain and particularly to the members of their Chevra Kadisha for the incredible work that they perform day after day, year after year.

Best Efforts

Best Efforts

Life doesn’t require that we be the best, only that we try our best. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Before the construction of the Tabernacle at the foot of Mount Sinai, there is a command to collect a half-shekel contribution from each man over the age of twenty. The rich could not contribute more than half a shekel and the poor could not contribute less. The contribution was the method that the national census was conducted, and so, the amount given needed to be exact.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 30:13, in his flowery language, draws out a few lessons from the half-shekel contribution:

“This they shall give. Not with the sum of his concrete accomplishments but with the symbolic expression of what he knows to be his duty shall each one come near to God at the moment when his is to “pass” from the ranks of the uncounted into the ranks of those that have been counted. There is no greater distinction and no greater bliss than to be among those who have been counted for and by God, to take one’s place on God’s roster even though one be in the most humble circumstances, and even in the most transient moment of life on earth, to be counted as a member of the hosts of God. Only after having become aware of the full extent of his duty and after having resolved to perform it fully can one pass from the nondescript crowd of the selfish multitudes into the ennobled circle of those who have been counted by God, and attain the blissful awareness that he is now among those whom God has numbered among His own.”

“However, the contribution required of each individual is symbolized by Mahazit Hashekel, not one whole shekel but only one half-shekel. Viewed objectively, not even the most complete and perfect contribution of any one individual can accomplish the whole the work that must be done. The effort of any individual can only be a fragment of the whole. An equally selfless sacrifice of his brother is required in order to produce the whole. In fact, it is not expected of any one individual to accomplish the entire task (as per Pirkei Avot 2:21). But the individual is indeed expected to make his personal contribution to the whole, weighed by the standard of the Sanctuary. One shekel was equivalent to 20 gerahs, of which the individual was expected to contribute ten; thus, viewed subjectively, one rounded whole. Let it be his whole contribution as far as he is concerned. Let him weigh it out with scrupulous accuracy, no matter how small a fraction his own contribution represents in relation to the whole of the task to be accomplished. Let him leave nothing undone, let him not withhold any effort, any talent, any ability that could help promote the welfare of the whole. Although you are not expected to complete the entire task, “you are not free to desist from it” (the end of the refrain from Pirkei Avot 2:21). Let his half-shekel comprise a complete unit by the standard of the Sanctuary.”

Though we may be limited in what we can accomplish individually, if we try our best, if we give it our all, it will be a complete contribution in the eyes of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend Egbert Pijfers on his visit to Israel and his participation in the Jerusalem Marathon with all the other runners, especially those doing so for the multiplicity of charitable causes.

Earthly Tourists

 I have wandered all my life, and I have traveled; the difference between the two is this — we wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment. -Hilaire Belloc

tourist

According to the Kaballah, the ancient Jewish mystical tradition, humans are a fusion between the physical and the spiritual. Our souls are merely tourists in this earthly realm, visiting for the time allotted, but eventually destined to return to our spiritual abode. What our body manages to do in this world together with its soul will determine the satisfaction and pleasure our spirits will enjoy in that ethereal world that is our ultimate home.

However, there is a time, when the wall that separates these two dimensions, the physical and the spiritual, is thinnest. A time, where with proper preparation and sufficient sensitivity we can touch the world of souls, we can feel the tendrils of the spiritual. For the Jewish people, that is the Sabbath.

The Sfat Emet in 5633 (1873) explains that the Sabbath is the day the soul has “visitation rights” – where it can connect with its home dimension. Where perhaps, tired of touring the earthly plane, it has a chance to return to its origin – in a limited way and for a limited time. A person who is attuned to his spirit will look forward to the weekly chance to return home. While busy working six days a week, he will become excited about the approaching Sabbath where our souls have the opportunity to taste and absorb something from its true source.

May we understand the reality of our spirits and the Sabbath and how the two go together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the Uruguayans returning from their touring.

The Labor of Thinking

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tisa-the-labor-of-thinking/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Ki Tisa

The Labor of Thinking

It is the power of thought that gives man power over nature. -Hans Christian Andersen

There is a common misconception of Jewish Law that on the Sabbath one needs to refrain from manual labor. The legal biblical term is “melacha” which would be more appropriately translated as any “creative action.” Hence, such mundane and non-taxing actions such as tying a knot, dividing materials, writing and much more are prohibited on the Sabbath, though there is little or no exertion.

The Baal Haturim highlights another aspect of “melacha” that should be refrained from. He claims on Exodus 31:4 that even “thinking” is a form of “melacha.” Now he does not mean the natural brain processes that occur whenever we are conscious and perform any action or have any thought. He is referring to the thinking that is behind any constructive, creative, work-related thought that we are usually busy with throughout the work week.

On the Sabbath, he is telling us to refrain from even “thinking” about our work. There is something against the laws and especially the spirit of the Sabbath, to be preoccupied, to consider, to review, to plan or to have anything to do, even in the solitude of our own minds with “melacha.” Our brains, our emotions and our spirits will thank you for the weekly, enriching, invigorating, rejuvenating and healing respite.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

p.s. For anyone interested in more details on what is and isn’t “melacha” don’t hesitate to contact me.

Dedication

To the new President of Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez. May he give much thought to his leadership of the country.

 

 

Complete Dedication

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tisah-complete-dedication/

Netziv Exodus: Ki Tisa

Complete Dedication

“Your powers are dead or dedicated. If they are dedicated, they are alive with God and tingle with surprising power. If they are saved up, taken care of for their own ends, they are dead.” -Eli Stanley Jones

In this Olympic season, it is inspiring to see the commitment, the dedication of athletes for their chosen goals. It is entertaining to see the seriousness with which they pursue their sports and the honor the winners receive.

However, when the Children of Israel rebel against God, by worshipping the Golden Calf, there is a much more serious game afoot. Moses basically calls for a civil war, adjuring his followers that “brother shall kill brother.” At the end, only the members of Moses’ own tribe, the Levites, join him. It would seem a battle fraught with danger. The members of one small tribe against wild, idolatrous masses from the rest of Israel.

The Torah recounts the casualty list at the end of the battle. Three thousand of the idol worshippers were slain. None of the Levites are reported as fallen. The Netziv on Exodus 32:26 wonders as to the extreme imbalance in the casualties of war. How did a much smaller force not lose a man while the larger rabble suffered what amounted to a massacre? (see the dramatization in my fictional account)

The Netziv explains that the answer can be found in the nature of Moses’ call for troops: “Whoever is for God, to me!” To the Netziv, it is more than a powerful rallying call. It is a selection criteria. Moses is recruiting those who are “for God” – but only “for God.” In this battle there was no room for those of mixed allegiance. There was no place for those who had doubts about God or were not wholly dedicated to Him. Only the purely devoted could fight, should fight and furthermore, because of their loyalty need not fear any hurt in the violent confrontation.

May we find and increase our dedication and thereby vanquish our fears.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Jacky Amzallag. I never met a man more dedicated to a synagogue than he was. His example was an inspiration. May his family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Win Friends and Influence People

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tisah-win-friends-and-influence-people/]

Ibn Ezra Exodus: Ki Tisah

Win Friends and Influence People

“Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” -Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Dale Carnegie, in his bestselling book quoted above, posits the importance of calling a person by their name. Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 31:2), many hundreds of years earlier, makes the same point and takes it a step further.

When choosing the Master Architect for the Tabernacle, God says: “See, I have called by name, Bezalel…” Ibn Ezra explains that God’s “calling by name” is a supreme honor, one that elevates and gives distinction to the one being named. Bezalel, due to his talents, was uniquely qualified for the role of Master Architect and was therefore worthy of “being called by name.”

May we be worthy, and may we likewise find all those around us worthy of being called by name.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my cousins, Ronnen and Iris Rosenthal, on the birth of the first grandchild! The girl has been named Naomi by her parents, Batya and Aharon Castle. Mazal Tov to the entire family!

Fall of the Island

Kli Yakar Exodus: Ki Tisah

Fall of the Island

United we stand, divided we fall.

Aesop (620 BC – 560 BC)

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

John Donne (1572 – 1631), Meditation XVII

The Children of Israel commit one of their worst national sins. They worship the Golden Calf. An idol, shortly after God Himself commands them not to worship idols. God threatens to annihilate the nascent Jewish nation. Moses argues and pleads and God relents.

The Kli Yakar explains (on Exodus 30:12) that one of the ameliorating factors was that they sinned as a nation, but they were also judged as a nation. If they would have been judged as individuals, they wouldn’t have had a chance.

As individuals, God will scrutinize each persons unique ‘balance sheet’ of good and bad, and when God takes the microscope to review our actions, we may not like the results. However, when we attach ourselves to a group, the merits of the group as a whole (assuming it’s a good group) can shield us from Divine wrath or even justice and keep us in the purview of Divine mercy.

May we attach ourselves to the right groups.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To an Anonymous person in an Anonymous 12-step program. It is a world I knew nothing about, and apparently their unity is not only their strength, but their redemption.