Category Archives: Hirsch

Size is Deceptive

Size is Deceptive

What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution. -Henri Frederic Amiel

In Judaism’s vast array of commandments, there are many that we may consider “minor” relative to others that we may think of as more “important.”

It is curious that those definitions are often highly personal ones and invariably accurately reflect the commandments that people either feel more attached to or those they are more dismissive of.

The Torah itself does categorize some prohibitions as more severe than others in terms of the punishment for violating them. However, when it comes to the performance of commandments, Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 7:12 explains the problem with underestimating the value of any commandment we consider minor:

 “We are not to weigh each commandment separately in our minds, to consider which one might yield a greater reward than the others and should therefore be given particular priority and attention. The paths of the Law form ever-widening spheres that merge into one another. We cannot, at one glance, predict the results of the observance of any one commandment. The results mesh with one another, as it were, and the very commandment that would seem to us most insignificant and least important may have the most far-reaching effects.”

There are multiple stories as to how the observance of just one “minor” commandment led to life-altering benefits. Likewise, the converse is true. People who have been dismissive of even the “lightest” commandments have had cause to regret it. The commandments are part of an entire tapestry that weaves our lives into a whole spiritual reality. Each thread is important; each commandment that we can observe is part of the entire picture.

May we strengthen our commitment to even one “small” commandment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the small, undisclosed acts of kindness that often go unnoticed and unmentioned.

 

The Foundation of Jewish Faith

The Foundation of Jewish Faith

If you don’t have solid beliefs you cannot build a stable life. Beliefs are like the foundation of a building, and they are the foundation to build your life upon. -Alfred A. Montapert

Perhaps the most well known verse to a Jew is the “Shma Yisrael.” A translation of it is as follows:

“Hear Israel, God is our God, God is One.” Deuteronomy 6:4

It is taught to children as soon as they can comprehend words. There is a biblical command to recite the paragraph of the “Shma” every morning and every night. It is the verse that is on the lips of martyrs and those who know they are about to die. It is the very foundation-stone of our faith and belief. Rabbi Hirsch elaborates further:

“It is the last truth that a son of Israel, mired in estrangement from his people, will discard. It is the declaration of the Jewish awareness of God’s unity, and it is logically followed by sentences intended to make the Jew aware of his life’s mission, of the objectives of his education, and of the true purpose of his endeavors, personal and public.”

“These statements encompass the basic principles that should guide his conduct, the axioms that should form the basis for all his thinking and the consecration of his domestic and communal life. They are intended to perform these functions no matter where the Jew may live and breathe, raise his children, carry on his domestic and public life; no matter where he lies down and rises up, readies his hands for action and his mind for thought; no matter where he builds his home and where he sets up his gates. That is why he must repeat all these statements to himself early and later, every day of his life.”

As opposed to a physical foundation which is built once, a spiritual foundation is something that we must review, rebuild and reinforce constantly. It is a critical aspect of our lives that we must strengthen on a daily basis, morning and night. For if our faith weakens, if the foundation of our spiritual lives is unstable, the edifice of our lives begin to crumble.

May we find the capacity and strength to build noble lives. Sometimes it’s as simple as reciting a meaningful “Shma.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the more than one thousand souls that ascended the Temple Mount as we commemorated its destruction. You console us.

Israel the Non-Imperialist

Israel the Non-Imperialist

Sovereignty over any foreign land is insecure. -Seneca the Elder

Historically, Israel was blessed with fearsome warriors. The ancient near east quaked in their sandals as the Children of Israel approached the borders of successive nations. There was the miraculous Exodus from Egypt and the Splitting of the Sea, which basically destroyed the mighty Egyptian empire.  Forty years later, there was the lightning-fast conquest of the lands of Sihon King of Emor and Og King of Bashan. The other nations learned that God was with Israel and that the new generation of Israelites was fearless.

However, what the non-Canaanite nations did not know was that God had given an express command for Israel not to attack the neighboring nations, not even to threaten them. This included not attacking Israel’s distant cousins, the Edomites, the Moabites and the Amonites.  Had Sihon and Og left Israel alone, if they would have let Israel pass through to Canaan peacefully, they too would have remained unscathed and unconquered.

Rabbi Hirsch (in the 1800s) on Deuteronomy 2:5 details:

“Israel is to take its place among the nations with a God-fearing respect for their possessions. Israel must not see itself as a nation of conquerors from whom no nation on earth will henceforth be safe. Rather, Israel must limit its military actions and prowess to the task of occupying that one sole land which God has intended for it and promised to it from the very outset of history.”

Israel has its Promised Land. Every other land is off-limits to Israel. Just as God assigned a particular land to the Jewish nation, so, too, He assigned other lands to other peoples. The Torah goes out of its way to detail the conquests of other lands that God facilitated for other nations.

There are people in the world who imagine that Israel has imperialistic designs or “Zionist plots.” Often these people and their theories are anti-semitically motivated and are disengaged both from reality, as well as from our very nature and founding as a people. In the end, they are either distorting reality for their own purposes or just clueless.

What we will fight for is to defend the land that God has finally returned us to, but we have no designs or interest in anyone else’s land.

May we remain steadfast in protecting our people and our land and may our enemies learn again to fear us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of the recent victims of terror. God will avenge their blood.

 

On Capital Punishment

On Capital Punishment

 Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden

God is very clear on where He stands on the topic of capital punishment. Even though God commands Do Not Murder (as opposed to Do Not Kill) in the Ten Commandments, there is a long list of sins (murder among them) that God prescribes the death penalty for. Already to Noah and his sons God warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.”(Genesis 9:6)

The Rabbis however explained that in most of those cases, it is actually quite rare for the death penalty to be carried out. The guilty party needs to have been given an explicit and detailed warning before committing the sin; there needs to have been two valid witnesses to the sin and a variety of other judicial requirements. No video or circumstantial evidence suffice.

The more bloodthirsty among us may feel that this practical suspension of justice is unfair. How is it that all these sinners and murderers can roam around free and unpunished? The Talmud tells us not to worry. God has his way of inflicting the right punishment on each deserving individual, at the right time and in the right form, if the human court is unable to carry out its duty.

The more merciful among us may feel that punishment for crimes, even one as odious as murder, is unwarranted, and that the death penalty especially has no place in modern civilization.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 35:33 explains part of the rationale for the death penalty:

“A human society that does not regard the blood of each of its members as sacred, one that does not take up the cudgel for innocent human blood that has been spilled negates the very purpose for which the forces of earth operate.”

“The hypocrisy can be purged from the land only if the innocent blood that has been spilled, and the human being who has lost his life as a result, finds an advocate in the society that survives him and the murderer is made to atone for his deed by dying at the hands of that advocate, thus losing his own life, which he has forfeited by his crime. For since he has spilled the blood of his fellow man, his own blood no longer has a right to life; he has forfeited his own right to existence. And to tolerate the continued existence of one who knowingly and deliberately murdered a fellow man would be a travesty on the dignity of man, who was made in the image of God.”

May all murderers be brought to justice, whether earthly or divine, and may we see justice reign in the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the confluence of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin that we have started this week in the Daf Yomi cycle, with Maimonides’ Laws of Sanhedrin that we are in the midst of in the Rambam Yomi cycle – both of which deal with the subject of capital punishment.

Children redeem

Children redeem

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. -James Baldwin

The structure of inheritance of the Land of Israel as stated in the Torah is unusual. It was based on the identity of the men of the generation preceding the exodus out of Egypt, but also dependent on the number of their male descendants that actually entered the land forty years later. That territory was bequeathed to the men that entered the land based on their connection to their grandfathers. However, if we think about it, this retroactively made their dead grandfathers the owners of that land that they never saw nor stepped on, by the mere fact that their grandchildren entered the land.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 26:55 highlights this phenomenon and teaches two lessons from this inheritance mechanism.

One, that God’s promises — in this case, of the land of Israel – are so certain to come to pass, that they actually convey a legal right and it transformed the last generation of Jewish slaves in Egypt into the rightful landowners of the yet-to-be-conquered land, able to bequeath it to their grandchildren when they actually enter and take possession of the land.

Two, in Rabbi Hirsch’s own words: “The greatest and most precious acquisitions of parents and grandparents are children and grandchildren that prove themselves loyal and true to their heritage. Such progeny bear witness to the merits of its forebears and atones for their shortcomings.”

The generation of the desert was a particularly difficult generation. They had experienced the Exodus, seen the Ten Plagues upon Egypt, traversed the Parting of the Sea, and had been part of God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai where He declared the Ten Commandments and presented Moses with the entirety of the Torah. Nonetheless, they proved to be a stiff-necked people, creating and worshipping the Golden Calf, complaining and demonstrating consistent lack of faith in God and His precepts. That generation was doomed to die in the desert. They were not worthy of entering the Promised Land.

Nonetheless, even with such a historic disappointment, they must have done something right, for their children did enter and inherit the land. The children were worthy and they had received instruction from their parents.

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates: “… that the sons were given the land only as heirs of their fathers and as bearers of their names, proves that, notwithstanding the error that had cost their fathers the right to enter the land, these same fathers, during thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness, had implanted the right spirit in the new generation.”

Whether we like it or not, our children will often emulate and learn from us, for better or worse. However, they can also be a source of redemption, correcting the errors we didn’t have the opportunity, wisdom or strength to correct, but wished to nonetheless.

May we appreciate the positive lessons and model of our parents and may we aim to be worthy of emulation by the next generation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To new colleagues and friends on the West Coast, and their children.

Well-rounded Blessings

Well-rounded Blessings

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. -Albert Einstein

Balak, King of Moab, fearful of the Israeli nation’s proximity to his border, hires the famed sorcerer Bilaam to curse the people of Israel. Bilaam had a reputation for successfully cursing whomever he wished to curse. However, in what turns out to be a highly comic series of events, every time Bilaam opens his mouth to try to curse, and contrary to his own will, God has some of the most beautiful blessings in the entire Torah come forth from his lips.

Balak takes Bilaam to three different locations, with the hope that perhaps the differing vantage points will provide Bilaam a better chance of overcoming the divine insistence on blessing Israel as opposed to letting Bilaam curse them.

Rabbi Hirsch in Numbers Chapters 23 and 24 explains the deeper significance of each of the locations from the point of view of Balak and the three characteristics he sought to attack within Israel:

The first location, the high places of Baal represents the supreme “force of nature” and material prosperity.

The second place, the Field of Seers represents insight, prudence and foresight; intellectual and spiritual powers.

However, after neither of those attacks succeeded, after Balak and Bilaam understood that there was no chink in the armor of Israel in those attributes, they sought one last angle. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“A nation may be blessed with every conceivable material and spiritual gift and still hasten headlong into ruin. Providence may shower upon it all the treasures, all the physical and spiritual wealth that heaven affords, and yet that nation may bear within itself a worm devouring it from within so that all its prosperity will be turned into adversity, and it will ultimately become not only unworthy but also incapable of receiving and retaining God’s blessings. This worm is called immorality; it is the shameless surrender to dissolute sensualism.”

That is what is represented by the third and final location, the Peak of Peor. At that point in time, Bilaam was not able to find anything amiss in the morality of Israel and hence the source of one of the most beautiful phrases that he utters, referring to Israel’s moral purity, and which have been made a part of our daily liturgy: “How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel.”

Rabbi Hirsch adds that those people and nations that respect and promote the principles for which Israel stands, will themselves reap all the blessings of material abundance and a rich intellectual and spiritual life, based on a clear moral existence.

May we strive for and achieve those goals.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Budapest, a beautiful city, gifted with many blessings.

Old Eternal Law

Old Eternal Law

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. -Henry Miller

The Torah is filled with arcane laws, many of which no longer apply in our day and age. One of the most esoteric and least understood laws is the one about the Red Heifer. The Torah prescribes an unusual ritual that was performed in the times of the Temple.

A completely red cow was taken and slaughtered. The cow was then burned together with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. The resulting ashes were then mixed with water from a fresh spring source. All of this process was done in a state of extreme ritual purity, yet those involved in the preparation became impure. This water mixture had the unique and exclusive ability to purify anyone who had become ritually contaminated by any contact with the dead.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 19:10 highlights that the Torah’s conclusion to this section is unusual. It states that “…it shall remain for them an everlasting statute.” By concluding this law in such a forceful fashion, the Torah is coming to teach a much deeper lesson than merely redacting a ritual that would not apply for a majority of Jewish history. It is coming to affirm that there is an eternal aspect to the law. The eternal aspect is not necessarily that the formula for purification is reenacted, but rather that the law itself, along with all of the Torah is of divine origin. And hence, that fundamental to our lives is the unflinching belief that the Torah and its laws are of eternal value. There are continuous lessons to be learned, by all people, in all ages, from the Torah. But the first step is an actual belief in the divine and the eternal nature of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch states that in this case: “the dictum of the Red Heifer proclaims the principle of atonement and the fundamental tenet that all authority is based on the Law and that all hopes for Israel’s salvation are dependent on Israel’s recognition of the Law as an everlasting norm for Israel.”

May we learn and successfully apply the ancient lessons of the Torah in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the eventual separation of Religion and State which certain political actions are hastening.