Category Archives: Hizkuni

God’s Loving Wrath

Deuteronomy Hizkuni: Vaetchanan

God’s Loving Wrath

The last several weeks have been filled with an unusual amount of death, pain and anguish in our community. We have lost loved ones. Some at the twilight of their lives. Some at the prime of their lives. And some when they were just getting started. Some slowly. Some violently. All painfully.

It is difficult to understand God’s calculations as to the when or why of His afflictions or His rationale for taking loved ones away. A Chasid once told me that tribulations are a punishment, or a reward, or a challenge, or all three. The pain of bereavement is not only for those that have departed. It is for all of us that they have left behind. We are diminished by their absence.

Moses tells over a long list of bad things that will happen to the Children of Israel if we don’t behave. Really bad things. Things that seem disproportionate to the actual crimes.

Rabbi Hizkiyah ben Manoach (Hizkuni) wonders as to the extreme attention the Children of Israel receive in the punishment department. The list(s) are long and bloodcurdling. So what if we worshiped some graven images? Why should that trouble an omnipotent God? Does it diminish Him? Does it threaten Him? Does it truly deserve God’s wrath?

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, wrote that Moses asks the same questions. He asks them to highlight an apparently ridiculous reality. Does the Creator of the Universe need to vent His anger against creatures of dust and earth for worshipping inanimate objects of bone and clay?

Hizkuni answers that God afflicts us so much, because He loves us so much. He has given loving, unique and particular attention to the Jewish people for millennia. He loves the Jewish people so much that whenever we betray Him, even in the slightest way, He lashes out. He uses the rod of punishment most on His beloved people.

This may be true, but it is unsatisfying, especially in the pain of loss or even uncertainty. There is no answer to grief. Perhaps only time.

May we be consoled on this Sabbath of Consolation (Nachamu) and may tears of sorrow be turned to joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Ilan’s complete and rapid recovery.

Enemy of Good: Perfect

Deuteronomy Hizkuni: Devarim

Enemy of Good: Perfect

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Voltaire

Early in my engineering career I learned the truth of the above refrain and quickly disassociated from perfectionists. With deadlines, with budget constraints, with overworked staff there wasn’t the time or the resources to reach idealized goals. We needed to get the job done, we needed to do it well and if we pushed hard we could do it on time and within budget.

Perfectionists, usually those with an accounting or pure science background, were dangerous for our projects. They would insist on completing some inconsequential element to the highest standards. Those people often ended up in a different line of work.

Moses had an engineering approach to management. He was a realist (when he wasn’t working miracles). He worked with the resources at hand to reach achievable results.

When Jethro gives Moses advice about choosing judges, the Rabbis enumerate seven different qualities that he asks for (wise, knowledgeable, insightful, brave, God-fearing, honest, bribe-hater).

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) notes that when Moses lists the qualities of the judges he eventually picked, they do not have all the attributes (Deuteronomy 1:15).

Hizkuni explains that Moses was a pragmatist. He could not find the ideal candidates. He could not reach perfection in his judicial system. He took the best people he could find and put them on the job. It was good enough. If he would have reached for perfection he would have failed.

May we aim for perfection but understand when to settle for good enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

In Memory of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. His institution, vision, personality and determination are responsible for much that is good in my life. He was a great pragmatist, yet kept his ideals. While including all the qualities of the ideal judge, he reached incredible achievements to the benefit of all of Israel.

Link to some of his important essays: http://vbm-torah.org/rya-articles.htm.

Link to his biography and books: http://www.vbm-torah.org/rya.htm.

Moral Shields

Numbers Hizkuni: Matot

Moral Shields

Bilaam attempting to curse Israel

Bilaam the evil prophet endeavors to curse the children of Israel. In an almost comical rendition, every time Bilaam tries to curse, a blessing escapes his lips. No matter what strategy or tactic he employs, Bilaam could not penetrate the divine shield of protection around Israel. After three attempts Balak, the King of Moab, sends Bilaam away in shame.

Bilaam gives Balak some parting advice. Get Israel to sin and their defenses will crumble. The Moabites together with the Midianites take Bilaam’s advice to heart. Their women engage in a campaign of seduction of Israelite men. The hapless men take the bait and with Israel’s enemies not having to lift a finger (though perhaps a skirt), 24,000 men of Israel drop dead. God, infuriated by Israelite infidelity, struck them down with an immediate plague.

A few chapters later Bilaam is found with Midianite troops. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni, 13th Century) together with other commentators question Bilaam’s presence with the Midianites. Hizkuni explains that Bilaam was coming to finish the job. Once he found out Israel had sinned, they would be easy targets to curse. Their divine protection evaporated. They were sitting ducks just waiting for the final blow of Bilaam’s curse.

Luckily for us Bilaam was intercepted and killed (see story for fictionalized details). The Torah appears to give great weight to Bilaam’s intentions, powers and plans. They imply that Israel’s enemies can hurt us, they can reach us, but only if we drop our moral defenses. The moment we veer from the proper path, we have created the opening our enemies need to curse us. And if we are not careful, their curses can hit their targets.

May we keep our moral defenses up and thereby not only deflect curses but also absorb blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my in-laws, Yossi and Gita Tocker on their momentous Aliyah to Israel. They have turned the afflictions of living elsewhere and transformed them to the blessings of returning home.

In memory of Marc Weinberg. Though he was challenged with a short existence, in his 35 years he lived a life filled with tremendous accomplishment, leadership, generosity and love.

To my newest niece, Eleana Gila, brand-new daughter of Nechama and Boaz Spitz. Her birth hinted at danger, but she has overcome that with flying colors and is a blessing for her parents and all of Israel.

Cooling Passions

Numbers Hizkuni: Pinchas

Cooling Passions

Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel
Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel

The Midianites have been responsible for the sudden, unprovoked and unconventional death of 24,000 Israelites. The Israelites are mad with a blood hunger and a need for revenge. They have the army, they have the weapons, and they have the motivation and the moral high ground.

What does God tell them to do? He says ‘you will attack’. He says ‘you will avenge your fallen brothers’. He later tells them how many to recruit and how to go about the battle. One item that often goes unnoticed in the text is that they do not attack right away. They are told about the upcoming revenge in Numbers 25:17, right after the demise of the 24,000 Israelites, but are only dispatched later in Numbers 31:2.

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni, 13th Century) asks why God would command revenge right away but only orders the actual battle later on. Hizkuni explains that the timing was not right. Passions were running high amongst Israelites, but in the grander scheme of things an attack would be premature. God needed to calm down the headstrong and vengeful people.

Therefore God tells them, even promises them, ‘you will attack, you will avenge your fallen brothers’, but not just yet. Wait until the time is right, until your thinking is clearer, until you are analyzing matters with a cool head and victory will be yours.

May we remember not to act out of anger, but to harness it to rational considerations.

Shabbat Shalom

Bentzi

Dedication

To our dear friend and neighbor Anat Karsch on her engagement to Yaron Shachar. They’ve happily directed their passion for each other to the rational institution of marriage. Mazal Tov!

Divine Irony

Numbers Hizkuni: Balak

Divine Irony

Laban searching Jacob's possesions

God has a long memory and a sense of irony. Our patriarch Jacob flees from his father-in-law Lavan’s home in Aram with wives and children in tow. Lavan chases him heading southwest towards Canaan. He catches him somewhere to the east of the Jordan River. After some harsh words against each other they sign a peace treaty and build a cairn of stones to commemorate the pact.

Lavan swears an oath that he will not pass the stones to harm Jacob (Genesis 31:52), and each go their merry way.

A few hundred years later the sorcerer Bilaam ventures southwest from Aram. He goes to curse the children of Jacob. He finds them camping east of the Jordan River and preparing to enter the land of Canaan.

According to midrashic sources Bilaam is either an extremely long-lived Lavan or a descendent of his with equally hostile feelings towards the family of Jacob.

Bilaam is injured badly in the course of the dance between his donkey and the angel trying to kill him. The Torah describes how the donkey veers into the wall and Bilaam’s leg is damaged as a result.

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) claims that the wall was actually a pillar of stone and it was none other than the stones that had been erected as a reminder of the pact of non-belligerence. Hizkuni feels that Bilaam received his comeuppance with the precise reminder of his breach of trust. It was no coincidence that the tool of Bilaam’s (initial) punishment should be the very object that he betrayed.

Hizkuni adds that Bilaam’s passionate hatred of Israel blinded the otherwise brilliant man from the obvious fact of God’s displeasure with anyone attempting to curse Israel.

Unfortunately for him, he did not heed the multiple warnings and divine hints he was given but relentlessly pursued his anti-Semitic agenda. His end, as we see later on was catastrophic.

May we appreciate God’s irony and always have faith that He will resolve things the way they should be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To God. Amongst other things for His sense of irony and timing, and for sometimes letting us in on it. To France’s national soccer team. One of the leading teams in the world cheated against Ireland in the qualifying round. They have now been utterly humiliated in the first round of the World Cup and eliminated in ignoble defeat. I suspect God is also following the games and administering appropriate comeuppance.

Paradoxical Reality

Numbers Hizkuni: Chukat

Paradoxical Reality

“par-a-dox. One exhibiting inexplicable or contradictory aspects.” The American Heritage Dictionary

We are used to human deception. It is natural for us to hide our faults, blemishes and existential angst. Most people pretend to be someone slightly different than who they truly are – and we are usually better off for it. However, none of us should be surprised on those occasions when the true, unvarnished and contradictory other self peeks through. That is the paradox of personality.

The ceremony of the Red Heifer is meant to purify those who have come in contact with death. There is a notable side effect that is often commented upon. The person doing the purification becomes contaminated, while the contaminated person is purified. That is the paradox of purification.

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) claims that we should not be surprised by paradox. Paradox is not only hard-wired into personality and Torah, it is a part of nature itself.

Hizkuni gives two curious examples from the natural world: heat and medicine.

Heat can melt metal, turning a solid into a liquid. The same heat can turn the liquid form of an egg into a solid.

Medicine can cure the sick, but if given to the healthy it can sicken the cured. That is the paradox of nature.

The natural paradoxes are commonplace to us because we are used to them. We understand that according to the laws of nature, different reactions will result from different circumstances.

The same is true in the realm of Torah (and personality). While we may not be used to or understand all of the spiritual and psychological laws, Hizkuni reassures us that what seems like paradox is correct and real.

May we see the paradoxes in the world for what they are and make the most of them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To those struggling with the paradoxes of the World Cup. How Switzerland (underdog) beat Spain (top team) while surprising is merely a soccer/football paradox (perhaps related to respective economies). (my bets are on Brazil…)

Losing Gracefully

Numbers Hizkuni: Korach

Losing Gracefully

A child loses while playing a board game. In a fit of fury he flips over the board, sending the pieces flying in different directions. If such reactions repeat themselves, other children learn not to play with the petulant child. The child grows to be lonely, avoided, socially inadequate and ruled by his passions and anger.

In the power play between Korach’s followers and Moses a similar struggle unfolds. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that Korach’s group were nothing more than sore losers.

Hizkuni wonders as to the identity of the rest of Korach’s esteemed assembly. He answers that they were none other than Firstborns who had lost the honor and responsibility of serving in the Tabernacle. These Firstborns wanted to flip the board, scatter the pieces and reclaiming the role they had lost. Their inability to lose gracefully led them to an unnecessary and damning confrontation.

Winning rarely comes easy, but a clear prerequisite to winning at all is to know how to lose first.

May we be on the winning side of things, but when not, may we take it well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To pitcher Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers. As reported, he threw a ‘perfect game’ but his amazing achievement was ruined by an erroneous call by the umpire. He nevertheless kept his cool. That’s the making of a real winner.