Category Archives: Ibn Ezra

“Don’t do me any favors”

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shoftim-dont-do-me-any-favors/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Shoftim

“Don’t do me any favors”

“No matter how small and unimportant what we are doing may seem, if we do it well, it may soon become the step that will lead us to better things.” -Channing Pollock

Probably one of the worst displays of helpfulness is the half-hearted assistance. Someone offers to do the dishes. You are relieved by the sudden, unexpected and generous help. Your vital time is freed up to tend to other pressing matters. But the person who did the dishes, didn’t really want to do them. It was a mock kindness, a weary, lazy effort pretending to be helpful, perhaps even just seeking the claim of helpfulness, but really merely fulfilling a self-serving desire to proclaim to the world the righteousness of the impromptu dishwasher.

You return to the dishes and notice that there is a ring of hardened dirt on one, a splotch of dried grease on another, a discoloration that just won’t come off on the third. You now attack the dishes yourself with more energy, force and frustration than you would have without the Good Samaritan’s help. It is probably from such a fear of the unenthused offers of help that the phrase “Don’t do me any favors” was born, (I traced it to the Yiddish: “Ti mir nit kayn toyves”).

God has a similar attitude when it comes to certain aspects of our worship of Him, especially in the more voluntary commandments. Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 17:1 highlights this on the prohibition of bringing a blemished animal as a sacrifice. He explains that it is better not to bring anything than to bring a blemished animal. It’s as if God is saying “Don’t do me any favors – if you can’t be bothered to bring me a pristine animal, if you can’t be bothered to do the commandment properly – don’t do it at all.”

It must be noted that this is a rare view in the performance of commandments. A more general philosophy is that even if someone performs a commandment imperfectly, he should continue, in the hopes and expectations that he will eventually learn to do it properly. However, on some matters, especially where we can clearly do better – God may take umbrage at a lackadaisical attitude.

May we work harder on the simple things within our reach – they count as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish community of Punta del Este. It’s a summer destination with year-round warmth.

 

Divine Entrapment

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/reeh-divine-entrapment/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Re’eh

Divine Entrapment

“One must be aware that one is continually being tested in what one wishes most in order to make clear whether one’s heart is on earth or in heaven.” -Pir Vilayat Khan

The Bible presents a thorny theological issue with the case of a false prophet. The false prophet is someone, usually charismatic, eloquent and powerful who may have the ability to read divine signs and even foretell the future. He would seem to be someone with the authority of God, but there is something off about him, something that just doesn’t add up.

The false prophet changes something. It may be a little thing, it may seem inconsequential. What the false prophet changes is the law. He reinterprets the Law of Moses against the structure and tradition of the sages. We don’t know his reasons, but the bottom line is that he is wrong.

How can God allow a being such as a false prophet to exist? How can God bless an individual with prophetic ability that will mislead the people of Israel from their faith, beliefs, traditions and rules?

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 13:4 explains very simply, based on the verses, that God sends the false prophet to test us. He wishes to test us and demonstrate that we overcome. We should not be swayed by the charismatic leader. We should not be fooled by holy charlatans. We should not be tricked by apparently divine signs. We need to think for ourselves. We need to understand the laws and traditions and not rely on magical incantations or otherworldly promises. We must remain strong in our faith, in the unbroken traditions and the chain of law that has kept us as a people to this very day.

May we see tests of faith for what they are and pass them with flying colors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of the people who guided us in our voyage to Buenos Aires. They were each true prophets that led us to a wonderful trip and fantastic food.

 

The Illusion of Reality

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ekev-the-illusion-of-reality/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Ekev

The Illusion of Reality

“Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.” -Lily Tomlin

One of the more insightful films of recent years was the popular “The Matrix” produced by the Wachowski Brothers. The writers imagined a reality that was a sophisticated illusion. Humanity it turned out was dormant, dreaming a collective dream as the machines fed upon human energy. However, the dream felt real. All of the senses were engaged. The brains of the trapped humans saw, felt, heard, smelled and tasted what they perceived as reality.

Only a select minority was free of The Matrix and saw reality for what it was. Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 8:3 alludes that our world may also be merely a façade for a deeper reality. He explains that the Children of Israel did not live on bread, but rather by the more divinely obvious Ma’an that descended from the heavens daily. He correlates the bread to the courser, more material, physical reality, while the Ma’an is much more representative of the deeper reality of God’s underlying power and will, which is what truly sustains our existence.

May we see through the illusions of our life to the profound truths of our universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the people on different sides of the planet who assisted us in many timely and stress-relieving ways in the reality of moving from one existence to an apparently different one. Though the strain may be a temporal illusion, the relief and friendship are real.

Give me Addiction or Give me Death

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vaetchanan-give-me-addiction-or-give-me-death/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Vaetchanan

Give me Addiction or Give me Death

“Within yourself deliverance must be searched for, because each man makes his own prison.” -Sir Edwin Arnold

It is easy to fall into a pattern. It is easy to find something enjoyable or convenient in your life and stick to it. At first we like it. Later we seek it. At more advanced stages we may rely on it and at the end we can’t live without it. That most advanced stage has many names. A modern term is addiction. An ancient term is enslavement.

The book of Deuteronomy goes to the trouble of repeating the Ten Commandments that were given at Mount Sinai forty years earlier and recorded in the book of Exodus. There are some interesting differences between the two versions, but one of them is the recounting of the fourth commandment to Keep Holy the Sabbath.

The first mention of the commandment in Exodus is more universalistic, connecting the observance of the Sabbath to the Creation story. The second mention in Deuteronomy is more particular to the Jewish experience of the Egyptian enslavement and eventual exodus.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 5:14 explains that we must remember the Sabbath because we were slaves. We must take at least one day a week to release ourselves from the bonds of servitude. The real question to ask is what are we slaves to today and how do we break free?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son, Netanel, on the occasion of his putting on his tefillin for the first time.

 

Home Protection

[First posted at The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/dvarim-home-protection/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Dvarim

Home Protection

“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”  -Charles Dickens

Most people have a visceral connection, not necessarily to the physical construct, but rather to the emotional reality that they call home. It may be good, it may be bad, (it is rarely indifferent), but it is clearly emotional.

And whenever that home is threatened, in whatever form, the reaction is often instinctive, unthinking, responding from our guts and hearts.

The Bible recounts how after the sin of the spies and the punishment of wandering, a feisty group of men arose that defied the edict and ventured to conquer Canaan. Moses uses unusually flowery language in describing the result of the ill-planned attack: “And they chased you like bees.”Deuteronomy 1:44

Ibn Ezra explains that the moment someone attempts to harm a bee’s home they will immediately attack and sting the aggressor. They have a natural, healthy, correct response to a threat to their family’s dwelling.

May our homes ever remain safe from all harm and threats.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To those expelled from Gush Katif on the eighth anniversary of that crime. May they continue to rebuild their homes and lives.

 

Jealous and Vengeful God

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/matot-jealous-and-vengeful-god/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Matot

Jealous and Vengeful God

“I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapor of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for others uses.”-William Shakespeare

There is a dark and dangerous side to our God and beware all who may unleash it. We believe in His mercy, but also in His justice. There is a divine fairness in His eternal plans that no human will ever fathom. However, we also witness His wrath, His anger, the death and destruction he lets loose upon the earth.

In the Bible we see two general victims of His wrath. Perhaps ironically, He is most angry at the people of Israel. Every infraction, every betrayal of the ancient covenant brings hardship, poverty, famine, conquerors, exile, persecution and even death. But there is also the element of mercy. He punishes Israel but does not obliterate Israel. The second types of victim of God’s castigation are those who hurt Israel. There God has shown less restraint.

During our desert wanderings, the Midianite nation had participated in the enticement of the men of Israel. Israel turned to the worship of other gods, and God was swift with his response, the death by plague of 24,000 of Israel. But for the Midianites, God almost wipes them off the map. Every single male Midianite was killed and almost all of the females as well. Ibn Ezra on Numbers 31:3 explains that God commanded vengeance upon both His honor as well as Israel’s. God saw it as one and the same. Like a jealous husband, God takes deep affront at both the seduction and injury of his people. If we think of all the empires, regimes and peoples that sought to harm the nation of Israel and wonder how many are still around, history will provide a very short list.

May the list get shorter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To hateful regimes of the world. You will be just a memory.

 

 

 

The Power of Honoring

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinhas-the-power-of-honoring/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Pinhas

The Power of Honoring

“Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other” -Edmund Burke

God has informed Moses of his impending forced retirement. Moses will not cross the Jordan River with the people of Israel to enter the promised land. Rather, God tells him that he will ascend the mountain, see the land, and die there outside of Canaan. Moses makes a final request of God: don’t leave the people leaderless – appoint someone to follow me.

God acquiesces to the request and informs Moses that his disciple Joshua will take over the reins of leadership. Joshua is the one that will lead the people into Canaan and conquer the land.

In the first act of “semicha” or ordination, Moses places his hands upon Joshua and transmits to him some of his spirit, his glory, his authority. Ibn Ezra on Numbers 27:20 is so impressed by this act that he claims it had the immediate effect of raising Joshua’s status in the eyes of the entire nation. By Moses honoring Joshua so, by raising Joshua to his own level, he showed the highest form of respect. The people of Israel immediately understood the action of Moses, the honor that he was showing Joshua, and they learned to honor Joshua as well, following Moses’ example.

May we always have opportunity to see deserving people honored.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the chain of tradition, that has continued from Moses until this day. See here for an interesting presentation showing the unbroken chain of ordination that includes some of my Rabbis.