Category Archives: Genesis

Horoscope-Proof (Lech Lecha)

Horoscope-Proof (Lech Lecha)

 This is the excellent foppery of the world: that when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeits of our own behavior — we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!  -William Shakespeare (King Lear: Act 1, Scene 2)

 

Jewish tradition looks negatively at astrology and those who follow horoscopes. Judaism typically views adherents of modern astrology as somewhere on the spectrum between idolatry, superstition and simple foolishness. We are meant to have a simple faith in God, to believe in our free will, to choose wisely, to make our best efforts in all we do and ultimately attribute the circumstances of our lives to God and not to His intermediaries.

However, both the Midrash and the Talmud carry a slightly more nuanced story of the power of astrology (though it’s believed that the insights of true astrology have been long lost). The Midrash recounts how Abraham was a master astrologer and read in the stars that he would remain childless. God chides him, tells him to look beyond the stars, renames him (from Abram to Abraham) and tells him that not only will he have a child but that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.

Based on this episode, the Talmud explains that the people of Israel are impervious to horoscopes, that we are beyond the laws and effects of astrology. Our free will is such that we are unbound by mundane, predictable predestination. Our destiny is so open and free that even the mighty stars and constellations have no effect on our future.

The Meshech Chochma however, fine-tunes such thinking. He explains that the Talmudic dictum is true, that the people of Israel have direct divine providence that is independent of astrological influences. However, that is only true for the entirety of the people of Israel and not necessarily for an individual Jew. A Jew, in theory, could be subject to astrological forces.

But there is an exception to that exception. Any Jew who serves the Jewish people or is needed by the Jewish people has the same inoculation, the same immunity to any arbitrary astrological influence as does the entirety of the Jewish people. A Jew who is so identified with the Jewish community, who is a resource to his brethren, has a much more direct divine influence, without any intermediary stellar intervention.

May we keep our direct divine connections.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Link Kollel and Shul, for a truly wonderful learning and davening experience.

The Flood Curriculum (Noah)

The Flood Curriculum (Noah)

Education is not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It is an initiation into life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. -Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

The biblical account of Noah’s Flood is mirrored in the literature of a number of ancient civilizations. While there is much that is unique about the Torah’s telling of the flood, one of the aspects which stands out in particular, is that the Torah relates the flood as a punishment for man’s misdeeds. The earth, its human and animal denizens had become so corrupt that God had no other option but to literally wipe them all off the map and restart almost from scratch, using Noah, his family and all the animals that he saved on his ark as the starting material for rebuilding the world.

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why Noah and the ark passengers needed to be on the ark for a year. The job of wiping the slate clean was accomplished after the first days of the deluge. In theory, the flood survivors could have gotten off the ark the next day and started the arduous and vital work of repopulating the earth without waiting a year.

The Meshech Chochma answers that the year-long confinement to the ark wasn’t because of what needed to happen to the planet outside the ark, but rather was needed by all those inside the ark. They needed a year-long curriculum to rectify themselves.

All of creation, not just humans, but even animals, had become so vile, so distorted and corrupt that God had no choice but to start over. Now even though those who made it onto the ark were the best of the best, they were still heavily influenced by their environment. They too had a measure of corruption and vileness. They needed their own cleansing, their own deprogramming, their own re-education.

That was the purpose of the twelve months on the ark. It was to educate the flood’s survivors as to how to behave. It was to curb their sexual appetite; calm their gluttony and cravings. The animals needed to be fed by the hands of humans and learn to respect humans again and not attack wildly. After twelve months of such instruction and practice, after both humans and animals had learned to control themselves, then they were allowed out to the clean air of a new world, ready to lead more correct, virtuous lives, with a second chance to start over again.

May our educational efforts lead us and those we impact to more moral and honorable lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children on the beginning of their new educational paths.

Sacrificing to God (Bereshit)

Sacrificing to God (Bereshit)

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service. -John Burroughs

Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve is the first person recorded as bringing a sacrifice to God. He brings from the fruit of the land. Abel, his younger brother, follows in his brother’s footsteps but brings an animal from his flock as a sacrifice.

God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but rejects Cain’s. The question is why. What difference was there between Cain’s fruit to Abel’s animal that God should reject one and accept the other?

The Meshech Chochmah states that it had to do with each sibling’s respective efforts. To merely pluck fruit off a tree and sacrifice that to God is not truly a sacrifice. It is not a sacrifice of time, effort or resources. To sacrifice an animal that you fed and cared for is a significant sacrifice of time, effort and value.

Cain’s sacrifice was insignificant and God, therefore, rejects it. Abel’s sacrifice was significant and God accepts it. This connects to the same rationale as to why in times when sacrifices were offered there was a prohibition to offer grains or honey (date honey). Both grains and honey are unprocessed; very little human effort has gone into them. This is as opposed to bread, wine, olive oil or animals all of which require significant human work and investment and are accepted as sacrifices.

It seems that when we offer something to God, even if it’s voluntary, God wants us to make a serious effort. He doesn’t want a shallow display. It shouldn’t be just marking off a box to say “we did it,” just to get some onus off our backs. He wants us to mean it. He wants our sacrifices to be meaningful. He wants us to pour our heart and soul as well as our hands and our wallets into anything we offer to Heaven. It shouldn’t be cheap or superficial. It should be deep, valuable and meaningful. It should be an investment of thought, time and effort.

God accepts real sacrifice. He values and cherishes it. And He reciprocates in multiples of whatever we ourselves invest.

May we make correct and worthy sacrifices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Ronald Joseph Sassoon z”l, who passed away on Tuesday; and in honor of his great-grandson, Eitan Aryeh Eliezer Gilat, whose Brit Mila was on Wednesday. Condolences and Mazal Tov to the entire family.

Soul Song (Vayechi)

Soul Song (Vayechi)

If a song’s about something I’ve experienced or that could’ve happened to me it’s good. But if it’s alien to me, I couldn’t lend anything to it. Because that’s what soul is all about. -Aretha Franklin

On his deathbed, our Patriarch Jacob bestows prophetic last words upon his sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. His final oration is given in poetic and often hard-to-decipher language.

To his first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, he gives what appears to be harsh criticism. To Reuven, he castigates him for his impetuousness. Shimon and Levi are cursed for their violence.

Judah and Joseph receive long and expansive blessings. The other sons get short, cryptic, prophetic blessings. This includes the blessing to his son Naftali, which can be loosely translated as follows:

“Naftali is a doe let loose; he giveth goodly words.”

The Berdichever explains that Naftali is compared to a doe, for a doe has very strong legs and can move quickly and lightly. This hints at the fact that he had extremely strong faith in God, for there is some connection here between the concept of “legs” and God.

Because of Naftali’s great faith he then gives “goodly words,” namely, song. Naftali would sing to and praise God from the very depths of his being, based on his steadfast faith in God.

He goes on to quote the ancient translator Yonatan ben Uziel, who states that the tribe of Naftali went on to produce beautiful singers, because the tribe possessed great faith in God. This great faith compelled them to always sing beautifully to God. The faith, the soul, caused the beautiful singing.

The Berdichever highlights that when a person achieves faith in God, they too will break out into song and praise of God.

May our songs be full of soul, faith, praise and joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Shira and Amichai IshRan who survived the terrorist attack last week. Their strength, their courage and their song are inspiring. And to the memory of their son who was killed, Amiad Israel hy”d.

Spiritual Food Chain (Vayigash)

Spiritual Food Chain (Vayigash)

The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth. -Frances Moore Lappe

The end of this week’s Torah reading describes Joseph’s economic efforts, how he singlehandedly saved the Egyptian people from starvation, redistributed the land and imposed a tax rate of 20% on the Egyptian farmers.

The Berdichever explores the unusual phraseology “You will give a fifth to Pharaoh and four hands will go to you to eat and for your household.” (which means Pharaoh gets twenty percent of your produce, you get to keep the remaining 80%). Expounding on the verse and the “four hands,” the Berdichver explains that God established four different levels of creation in our world:

  1. “Inanimate”: earth, water, stones, minerals (“Domem” in Hebrew);
  2. “Grows”: vegetables, plants, trees (“Tzomeach” in Hebrew);
  3. “Alive”: animals (“Chai” in Hebrew);
  4. “Speaks”: man (“Medaber” in Hebrew).

He quotes from Kabalistic sources that detail God’s plan and desire for each element to be elevated and raised to the next level:

  1. When earth, water, minerals and other nutrients are converted from their base state into some type of vegetation, they are somehow elevated to a higher spiritual level. They have moved from the lowly “Domem/Inanimate” state to the slightly more elevated “Tzomeach/Grows” state.
  2. When plants, in turn, are consumed by animals, they are now elevated from the “Tzomeach/Grows” state to the even higher “Chai/Alive” state.
  3. Finally, when man consumes the flesh of an animal, be it fish, poultry or beef, that person is elevating those molecules from the “Chai/Alive” state to the highest terrestrial level of “Medaber/Speaks.”

Man’s God-given ability to somehow convert the matter around him, be it mineral, vegetable or animal into a part of his very self, is nothing less than a form of creation. It relates to a Talmudic discussion as to the phraseology of the blessings we recite when we eat. We bless God, who “creates” these products. We say “creates” in the present tense, as opposed to “created” in the past tense, because it is a current, ongoing, creative act by God.

The quarks, atoms and molecules that make up our reality are constantly given life and existence by God. It is that divine aspect that also allows us to absorb these elements into our being and in some fashion that we have trouble comprehending, elevate the spiritual sparks of these items by consuming them.

May all our consumptions be for divine purposes and may we succeed in elevating them and ourselves higher.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the speedy recovery of the victims of the terror shooting in Ofra. Especially to the young pregnant mother who was shot and had the baby delivered by emergency C-section. As of this writing, the mother is currently stable, but the baby is in critical condition.

Magnanimous Winner (Miketz)

Magnanimous Winner (Miketz)

You can stand tall without standing on someone. You can be a victor without having victims. -Harriet Woods

As a young lad, Joseph dreamed of eleven sheaves bowing down to his sheaf; of eleven stars, the sun and the moon bowing down to him. His family interpreted the dreams as Joseph’s projection that he would rule over them. His brothers hated him for it. They first conspired to kill him but settled on selling him as a slave to Egypt. Joseph disappeared from their lives, the annoying, presumptuous teenager abandoned to a lifetime of slavery.

Fast forward a couple of decades later and through a most unusual set of circumstances, Joseph is elevated from slavery, from a prison cell, to become the Viceroy of the Egyptian empire, the second most powerful man on the planet, after Pharaoh.

Joseph’s brothers, during the regional famine, come down to Egypt and find themselves bowing down in front of this Viceroy. Joseph recognizes his brothers. They don’t recognize him. Now would be the perfect time for Joseph to announce himself to his brothers and say: “Ha! It’s me! It’s Joseph! See! I won! My dream came true! You laughed at my dream, but look who is bowing down to who!”

But Joseph does none of that. He works hard to remain unrecognized. He runs the brothers through an elaborate machination to bring the youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s only full-brother (he was half-brothers with the rest) to Egypt. Only after a harrowing plot where Joseph threatens to imprison Benjamin, does Joseph finally reveal himself in one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the Torah.

The Berdichever (among a multitude of other commentators) asks why Joseph didn’t reveal himself earlier. Why go through the whole charade and subterfuge only to disclose his true identity much later in the story?

He answers that he wanted to spare their feelings. If Joseph had revealed himself at that moment when they were bowing down, then he would indeed have rubbed his victory in their faces. It would have been the fulfillment of his dream if they knew it was Joseph they were bowing down to. By keeping his identity secret from them, they were just bowing down to the Egyptian Viceroy, which was completely appropriate. They weren’t bowing down to Joseph.

After the circumstances were right and enough time had passed since they bowed down to the “Viceroy,” did Joseph feel that it would not be as powerful a sting if he would reveal himself.

He was magnanimous in victory, going to extreme lengths to spare the losers from needless pain and anguish over their abnegation.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Maccabees, who beat the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire and their Hellenistic accomplices and banished them from the land of Israel (165 BCE), which we celebrate to this day, 2183 years later.

Why you should wash your hands (Vayeshev)

Why you should wash your hands (Vayeshev)

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

Jews have an ancient ritual of washing hands after using the bathroom, and before eating bread. While the command pre-dates any concept of hygiene and was likely one of the reasons why Jews survived the Black Plague in such large numbers, the Berdichever gives a much deeper, mystical reason for the practice.

He explains that one of our missions in this material world, is through our thoughts and actions to release and elevate “sparks” that permeate our physical existence and move them to the spiritual plane. Only humans, who are the bridge between the physical and the spiritual have that capability and purpose.

Therefore, every act we do, even the most mundane ones, should ideally have the intent and purpose of elevating those hidden sparks from the material and superficial to the spiritual and sublime. We have the power to take the finite and temporal and somehow, just by having the right intention and effort, make it infinite, timeless.

That, the Berdichever states, is the secret of washing hands (Netilat Yadaim in Hebrew). By washing hands in the ritual fashion, we are elevating those particular sparks in time and space. Washing hands is somehow related to three instances where God’s “hand” is referenced to in the Torah: “the great hand,” “the high hand,” and “the strong hand,” and the washing of our hands on each occasion as prescribed, elevates those trapped sparks and returns them to their divine root.

This is also connected to the blessing on eating bread, “Blessed are You, God, our God, King of the World, Who takes out bread from the earth.” The word “earth” relates to the physicality of this world. “Who takes out” refers to retrieving those divine sparks from the material and converting them, returning them back to their spiritual origin.

As a physical, material, earthly being, I often feel like I have no idea what the Berdichever is talking about. However, some part of me, some spiritual stirring perhaps, feels like I’m touching on something familiar, something forgotten, something beyond my physical senses, beyond even rational comprehension. If we believe that we are indeed souls clothed in physical bodies, that our corporeal self is merely a shell, a host for our eternal spirits, then the Berdichever is giving us hints and guides for the spiritual beings that we ultimately are.

May we reach growing levels of understanding and the comprehension that really, it’s all for God, and we each need to find our own way, our own purpose in this divine scheme.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To cousins, nieces and nephews. It’s always good to connect and reconnect.