Category Archives: Yitro

Fighting Sorcery (Yitro)

Fighting Sorcery (Yitro)

Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting! – Wicked Witch of the West

 

In this week’s Torah reading, we are presented with the famous Ten Commandments. The fourth one reads as follows:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why there would be extra, special attention drawn to the sea. Why would it say, “heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them?” Why specifically is the phrase “all that is in them,” added to the sea, and not to heaven or earth?

He answers that there appears to have been an ancient belief that the subject of idol worship had power on the earth, but not on the sea and that those idolaters were willing to admit that God had exclusive domain over the seas. These idolaters admitted that their “gods” had no dominion over the sea or even over water. These beliefs translated into a practical effect: that the mystical sorcerous powers that these idolaters possessed through the worship of their “deities” could be nullified by water.

The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 67b) has an entire discussion about the use of sorcery and demons and concludes that it was normal practice in ancient Egypt to test any possible sorcerous spells with water. There is a story of the sage Zeiri who was sold a donkey in Alexandria. Suspecting foul play, he watered the donkey and it was revealed to be just a wooden plank. (He got a refund for his purchase).

In another case, Yannai arrived at an inn and asked for water. He was given water mixed with flour and noticed the woman innkeeper’s lips moving. Suspicious, Yannai spilled some of the water on the ground and it turned promptly into scorpions. Having evidence that they meant him harm, he cast his own spell and had the woman drink from the cup. She turned into a donkey which he proceeded to ride into the marketplace until a friend of hers released her from the sorcery.

I don’t know if L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz) was familiar with these Talmudic stories or the Jewish understanding that water could nullify magic, but it’s certainly a fascinating possibility!

The Meshech Chochma concludes that the purpose of emphasizing God as the creator of the sea and all that’s in it, is to underline the fact, that just as God has absolute dominion over the oceans and all that is in it, so too, He has complete dominion over the heavens and the earth as well.

May we stay clear of any dark arts and enjoy the natural magic of creation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the impressive OurCrowd Summit in Jerusalem.

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.

Women’s Candle Power (Yitro)

Women’s Candle Power (Yitro)

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining- they just shine. -Dwight L. Moody

Among the Ten Commandments, the fourth is to remember the Sabbath. Every week of the year, from sunset on Friday afternoon until nightfall Saturday night, Jews are prohibited from performing a host of labors and activities, including direct use of any electronic device, traveling and more. The disconnection from the daily grind, the electronic maelstrom, the bombardment of media and messages and madness allows for a rare and life-rejuvenating ability to rediscover tranquility, family and community. It affirms sanity, re-energizes life-force and gives us the power to successfully conquer another week of our lives. The Sabbath is always welcomed first and foremost by the woman of the house lighting Shabbat candles.

When God presents the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, He introduces the subject with an unusual phraseology. He addresses Moses and commands: “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 19:3 (Yitro) explains that “the house of Jacob” (Beit Yaakov) refers to the women, while “the children of Israel” (Bnei Yisrael) refers to the men.  God addresses the women before the men. He elaborates that it was important, even vital for the women to be spoken to first at this momentous, historic revelation of God.

He focuses on the mother’s role in nurturing her children. He states that a mother is the initial cause and motivation for her child to study Torah and therefore, when she lights the Shabbat candles on Friday eve, a command that is reserved for the woman, she has a special power to pray at that moment, to request and to receive children who will brighten the world with their Torah; for the moment of performing a commandment is propitious for having such requests fulfilled.

Rabbeinu Bechaye elaborates that for the merit of lighting the Shabbat candles and creating light, the woman will merit to have children, masters of Torah, which is also called light, as King Solomon stated in Proverbs: “For the candle is a commandment (Mitzvah) and the Torah, light. The sages echoed this sentiment with the statement that whoever is careful with lighting Shabbat candles will merit having children who will become Torah scholars.

May we each brighten the world in our own way and may we merit having and seeing children whose light will both burn brightly as well as kindle the light of others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

Happy New Year to the trees of the world, with whom we celebrate their new year today, Wednesday January 31, on the Hebrew date of 15 of Shvat (Tu B’Shvat).

Extra-terrestrial Law

Extra-terrestrial Law 

Written laws are like spider’s webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and the poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful. –Anacharsis 

mt-sinai

Man-made law has an inherent danger. It is fallible. They are created by men with a limited view and perception of reality, with no way to see all the repercussions and unintended consequences of their legislative efforts. Even judges who interpret the law and officers who enforce the law are likewise liable to make egregious mistakes. All of this is in addition to the tendency for laws to mirror and be an outgrowth of whatever values and moral standards tend to be popular in the host civilization of that era.

Not so the Torah. It is a fundamental belief of Judaism, that the laws of the Torah as written and as transmitted thereafter through the chain of tradition originated from God Himself.

Rabbi Hirsch in Exodus Chapter 19 elaborates:

“Jewish law is the only system of laws that did not emanate from the people whose constitution it was intended to be. Judaism is the only “religion” that did not emanate from the human beings who find in it the spiritual basis for their lives. It is precisely this “objective” quality of Jewish Law and of the Jewish “religion” that makes them both unique, setting them apart clearly and explicitly from all else on earth that goes by the name of law or religion.”

“All other “religions” and codes of law have originated only in the human minds of a given era; they merely express the conceptions of God, of human destiny, and of their relationship to God and to one another held by a given society at a specified period in history. Hence all these man-made religions and codes, like all other aspects of human civilization – science, art and folkways – are subject to change with the passing of time. For by their very nature and origin they are nothing but expressions of levels reached by civilization at various stages in human development.”

“Not so the Jewish “religion” and Jewish Law. They do not stem from beliefs held by human beings at one period or another. They do not represent time-bound human concepts of God, of things human and Divine. They are God-given; they contain ideas that, by the will of God, should mold the concepts of men for all time with regard to God and to things Divine, but above all with regard to man and human affairs. From the very outset the Law of God stood in opposition to the people in whose midst it was to make its first appearance on earth. It was to prove its power first of all upon this people, who opposed it because they were “a stiff-necked people.” But precisely the resistance which this Law encountered among the people in whose midst it obtained its first dwelling place on earth is the most convincing proof of the Divine origin of this Law, a law which did not arise from within the people but came to the people from the outside and required centuries of struggle to win this people for itself so that they would become bearers of the Laws of God through the ages.”

“All this (unique preparations at the foot of Mount Sinai) is done in order to make clear that this law originates from a source outside the earth and outside mankind.”

The Torah is God’s rulebook for life on Earth. May we remember to take His laws seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

Congratulations to Shlomo Neeman on his election as the new Mayor of Gush Etzion.

Tough Starts

 Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so as though we were making the first step toward disaster. -William Bridges

bike uphillThere is an ancient Hebrew saying that “all beginnings are difficult.” The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1877) analyzes this concept from a Kabbalistic vantage. He explains that in every endeavor there are two parts – the beginning, and the remainder of the effort. He states that the beginning is always under the jurisdiction of the “Attribute of Justice,” while the remainder of the effort is under the influence of the “Attribute of Mercy.”

What that means is that in the beginning we need to work hard. Nothing comes easy. The beginning is the point of the greatest resistance, the greatest fear and the greatest risk. If we don’t put in serious effort, if we don’t give it our all – the chances of making it past the initial stage are limited. “Justice” reviews our efforts closely. “Justice” does not accept slipshod work. “Justice” has no patience for half-hearted efforts. We have to earn our accomplishments – most especially as we start on the path.

However, something happens as we pass the threshold of action. Once we have taken those initial difficult steps, once we have firmly planted ourselves on the road to accomplishment, the “Attribute of Mercy” takes over. Things get easier. Matters work out. That initial resistance has been broken and the sailing gets smoother. God’s “Attribute of Mercy” gifts success to the person who has committed himself, who has embarked on his mission.

May we undertake positive goals and see them accomplished despite rough beginnings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Benjamin Tocker on his Bar-Mitzvah. You’re off to a good start!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delayed Repercussions

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yitro-delayed-repercussions/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Yitro

Delayed Repercussions

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences. – Robert Louis Stevenson

Moses arrives in a strange land. He has escaped his birthplace of Egypt. He has left his birth-nation of Israel. He finds himself amongst the idolaters of Midian and hosted by their High Priest, Jethro. Jethro appears to be a kindly, wise man. He gives Moses his daughter in marriage. However, the two men come from very different cultures and traditions, and that is where the trouble begins.

Moses comes from a monotheistic religion that believes in the one, unseen, allpowerful God. Jethro serves man-made idols. They both realize the importance of educating children. The midrash states that Moses made a deal with Jethro. Moses promised that his first son would be raised in the ways of idol worship (keep in mind this happens before the initial encounter of Moses and God at the burning bush). However, the Baal Haturim on Exodus 18:3 explains that Moses expected the wise Jethro to finally understand the error of his idolatrous ways and allow the son of Moses to be raised according to the Jewish faith.

That is indeed what happens, but the Baal Haturim says that the damage was already done, though we are not to see the results until the following generation. At the end of the book of Judges there is a not-so-subtle hint that the grandson of Moses becomes a High Priest to idol worship. The deal, even though apparently annulled was fulfilled anyway, not with a son, but with a grandson.

May we be cautious of the deals we get into or hope to get out of. They have a way of biting you when you least expect it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, on his induction as Rabbi of Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue. May it be a deal they and the community enjoy for a long time

 

 

Preparing for God

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yitro-preparing-for-god/

Netziv Exodus: Yitro

Preparing for God

“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by spectacular preparation.” -Robert H. Schuller

Athletes are obvious examples of people who need to prepare excessively to succeed. But serious preparation is a prerequisite for success in almost every aspect of life. For any profession, for any business, for any task, for any relationship, there needs to be time and effort invested to reap the fruits of triumph.

Spiritual life is no different. To have and enjoy a rich spiritual life requires preparation. It requires work, commitment and perseverance. It doesn’t just happen.

At the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people are about to stand in the presence of God in the most powerful and direct revelation in the history of the world. One might think that just the essence of such a concentrated display of God would be enough. Nonetheless, the Jewish nation is instructed to prepare themselves already three days before the singular event. The Netziv on Exodus 19:2 explains that the more one prepares himself for the encounter with the divine, the more it will take hold in their being.

However, on Exodus 19:11 the Netziv gives a warning regarding the same theme. He claims that if one does not prepare enough, one can leave such holy encounters damaged, even deranged. This is not meant to scare people away from spiritual encounters – it is meant to show the importance and value of preparing for them.

Feel free to contact me for more customized preparation directions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Olympic athletes. There is something inspiring about their dedication to their goals.