Category Archives: Leviticus

Powerful Thoughts (Bechukotai)

Powerful Thoughts (Bechukotai)

Our life is what our thoughts make it. A man will find that as he alters his thoughts toward things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him. -James Allen

The beginning of the Torah reading of Bechukotai starts with the seemingly repetitive phrase:

“If you will walk in My statutes, and My commandments you will guard, and you shall do them; and I will give your rains in their season…”

The Berdichever theorizes that it would have been simpler to state “If you will guard My commandments, I will give your rains…”

He continues that the expanded and intricate verse comes to teach a couple of lessons.

The first lesson is that just the thought of performing a commandment is counted by God as if a commandment had been performed. There is some strength, some vitality of merely thinking about following God’s commandment which God considers as if it were already done and whose reward is then immediately set aside.

The next lesson is that if one does indeed merit to actually perform the commandment as intended, then the reward is the ability to perform another commandment. Performance of a commandment leads to performance of additional commandments. This successive sequence of commandments can lead a person to ever higher spiritual levels.

The person who is constantly performing commandments, who reaches a level of the Tzadik, the righteous, is considered to be “walking” (as in “walk in My statutes” from the verse above), because he is always on the move, reaching higher and higher levels of divine service and attachment to God.

The Berdichever highlights the potency of reinforcing positive habits and behaviors by the growing and ascending performance of commandments as well as the power of positive thinking. In God’s eyes, a positive thought, a thought to follow His directive, is as good as having done the deed, and invariably leads to performance of God’s commands and to greater accomplishments when sustained.

May we think properly and act properly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Yitzchak Yechiel Neta Hadid. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Predicting the Sabbath (Behar)

Predicting the Sabbath (Behar)

Envisioning the end is enough to put the means in motion. -Dorothea Brande

In the Torah portion of Behar, God instructs Moses to relay the commands of the Sabbatical year, among a slew of other related and unrelated commandments. The Sabbatical year was the divine decree that in Israel, in the Promised Land, the fields needed to lay fallow every seventh year. Every seventh year the farmers were given a divinely mandated break from plowing, sowing and working their fields. The farmers who followed God’s directive were blessed with abundant crops.

The Berdichever mentions a related verse:

“And you (Moses), speak to the Children of Israel: My Sabbaths they should guard.”

The verse is unusual in two regards. It singles out Moses with the pronoun “you” – usually God just says to Moses “speak.” The second curiosity is God referring to the Sabbath as His – “My Sabbaths.”

The Berdichever resolves these peculiarities by citing a Midrash. The Midrash tells how while the Jews were still enslaved in Egypt, besides pleading to be freed, Moses also requested that the Jewish slaves be granted a day of rest every seven days. Moses intuited that the Jewish people and man in general needed a weekly period of rest. Hence, when God speaks with Moses about this particular commandment, about the Jews taking a day of rest, God addresses him as “you” – acknowledging this idea of Moses which anticipated the command God would eventually give the Jewish people.

However, God also wanted to underline that the Sabbath is not merely a day of rest for the weary, that it is not just a good idea which Moses thought of, recognizing our need. God is saying that we need to observe a weekly Sabbath even if we are not “weary” from our labors. We need to observe the Sabbath first and foremost because God commanded it. Hence, God refers to the divinely ordained day of rest as “My Sabbaths.” It’s not a human invention. It’s not just because it’s a good idea. There is something deeper and divine in abstaining from labor on God’s Sabbath.

Moses had the uncanny ability to predict God’s establishment of the Sabbath. He understood the fundamental aspect of this particular commandment.

May we embrace the Sabbath, take a break from our labors, imbibe the rejuvenating powers of this special day and get physically, spiritually and emotionally recharged on a weekly basis.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jerry Posner’s father on his 100th birthday! Mazal Tov!

Humility and Pedigree (Emor)

Humility and Pedigree (Emor)

It is indeed a desirable thing to be well-descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors. -Plutarch

The Torah portion of Emor introduces a list of commandments directed specifically to the Kohanim, the priestly caste of Israel, descendants of Aaron the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol and founder of the priestly dynasty. They are addressed as follows:

“Tell the Kohanim (the priests), sons of Aaron.”

The Berdichever explains that it would have been very easy for the Kohanim to feel a certain amount of arrogance for being singled out by God for divine service. The fact that Kohanim were set aside by God, had exclusive access to the Sanctuary, to the sacrifices, were the only ones able to facilitate and eat most of the sacrifices, were the beneficiaries of great honor and esteem, all of this honor is enough to make anyone think highly of themselves.

God advises Moses to make it clear to them by highlighting that they are the sons of Aaron, that all this honor is not for anything they did, but rather purely as a consequence of them being Aaron’s descendants. Aaron had indeed reached a supremely high level of holiness that in his merit he was able to have all his descendants included in the special designation of Kohen – priest.

By underlining the fact that their station is because of their pedigree, God is advising them that it is unseemly to take pride in anything other than something you expended great effort in, that you strived for and pushed and accomplished. To take pride in the fact that you were simply born to a family of note is uncouth.

The newly indoctrinated Kohanim needed to be reminded of this. They needed to understand that their place in the Israelite social structure was not due to anything they did or any innate traits or accomplishments. They were simply born to the right family, and while being a Kohen carries many privileges, it is also a role and a lineage that carries many responsibilities.

May we take pride in what’s appropriate, humbly enjoy whatever privileges we’ve been blessed with, and dutifully carry out our responsibilities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my son and his fellow defenders on the border of Gaza. May God protect them and keep all of us safe.

Tame the body, unleash the soul (Kedoshim)

Tame the body, unleash the soul (Kedoshim)

You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience. -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah reading, God commands us “to be holy, for I, your God, am holy.” The Berdichever tries to dig deeper into what is meant by “holiness” and what are the practical steps for approaching holiness.

He explains that the road to holiness starts with awe of God. Awe of God is the key that leads to the observance and performance of the commandments. One of the more sublime purposes of the commandments is to wean us from our physical and materialistic attachments. As human beings, we are wired with intense physical desires and needs. When we focus too much on satisfying those needs, unconstrained, we diminish the spiritual and divine in ourselves.

The Sages have long stated that the 248 Positive commandments correspond to the 248 limbs of the body, and that the 365 prohibitions correspond to the 365 tendons in the body (caveat: this is not according to modern medical taxonomy). The commandments are meant on one hand to weaken the physicality of our material selves, to diminish our mortal, human element, and on the other hand, to strengthen our spiritual selves, to enhance our immortal, divine soul.

It is a constant and ongoing battle between the physical and the spiritual, between the body and the soul. Without any direction, without commandments, without God in our lives, without awe of God, the body, the physical has the advantage. The end of a life of materiality and pursuing physical gratification, is indeed as the Mishna in Pirkei Avot states, the “dirt and worms” of the grave. However, people who can control themselves, who can restrain themselves, who can follow divine directives, who abide by Godly guidelines, their end will not be underground. They are assured of a permanent, eternal link to the infinite. They are giving up the temporal for the timeless, the ephemeral for the eternal.

Holiness is a constraint of the physical, of realizing we are spiritual, of believing in God and being in awe of Him, of learning and following the guidelines He has given us and of strengthening our natural connection to Him.

May our strengthening spirituality lead to higher levels of holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Lori Gilbert-Kaye hy”d, who was killed at the Poway synagogue shooting.

 

The Power of Not Understanding (Acharei Mot)

The Power of Not Understanding (Acharei Mot)

The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason. -Benjamin Franklin

The ancient Rabbis often split up the commandments, the Mitzvot we’ve been given, into two different categories. There are Mishpatim (Mishpat is the singular form), laws that we understand the reasoning behind them and Chukim (Chok is the singular), laws whose underlying reason may escape us.

A Mishpat may be a law as straightforward as don’t steal or don’t murder, which is understandable to most of society. A Chok, is often a more ritual law, which may include the restrictions on what we can or can’t eat, the laws of purification and impurity and anything else that doesn’t follow the logic or purpose of being of clear and direct benefit to either the person performing the commandment or to society as a whole.

A verse in this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot references both types of commandments and states that “you will do my Mishpatim and you will guard my Chukim.” The Berdichever explains that there is a direct correlation between the performance of one type of commandment and the other.

If we perform the Chukim, the commandments that we don’t understand, even if we have no rational understanding of the underlying principles and reasons, yet we dutifully perform and uphold God’s law, then we will merit a greater understanding of the Mishpatim, of the more rational commandments.

However, if we don’t follow the Chukim, then we will lose our ability to understand the simpler and more straightforward Mishpatim, the basic laws which most of humanity would agree on.

Modern man has become dismissive of anything that he can’t understand or that contravenes his own personal set of beliefs and values. Faith in God, in tradition, in a divine set of morals has been supplanted by worship of the self, of the ego and the latest passing narcissistic fads of the day. The exercise and the ability to believe in something beyond oneself, beyond the narrow contours of our experience, beyond even our understanding and reason is laughed at.

The Berdichever reinforces an ancient premise that belief in God, belief in the spiritual world, acceptance of the Torah and its precepts can enhance reason. It can open our hearts and our minds to a reality beyond ourselves, to a true, spiritual, supernatural world that cannot be measured by science or social media.

Only once we believe, once we accept, once we perform the Mitzvot, even if we don’t understand them, then and only then, will we start to understand.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To family gatherings and reconciliations.

 

 

The Eye of Abundance (Metzora)

 The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar, and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition. -W. H. Auden

The Torah reading of Metzora deals in part, with ritual contamination and the required process of purification. The Berdichever connects the process with our anthropomorphizing of God’s attributes as well as the concept of subservience of some human capabilities to the will of God.

When the Torah or the Prophets attribute human characteristics to God, it creates a theological conundrum. When we speak of God hearing or God seeing, how does that work? Does God have ears? Does God have eyes? What would be the form and shape of those human-like organs? How do those divine senses work? Where in space are they situated?

The answer is that when the Torah or the Prophets talk about God’s hand or eyes or feet, it is only a metaphor. When it speaks of God’s eye it is a metaphor for the fact that God perceives. God “sees” without needing eyes or having any physical attributes. God is not limited in space or time. It is impossible for a human to understand, hence we rely on the simple and crude anthropomorphization.

On the other hand, the Berdichever discusses our very human faculties, specifically sight, hearing and speech and then focuses on the sense of sight and relates it to God’s “sight.” There is a deep and intrinsic connection between human sight and divine sight.

God has blessed us with a number of faculties and abilities. We can use these for good or we can use them for evil. The eye is not an impartial sense. The eye can be used to gaze upon good and wholesome views, and it can likewise be used to look upon bad, improper and outright detestable sights.

The Berdichever explains that if we God-forbid gaze upon inappropriate things, then the divine “eye,” the eye that is responsible for determining the blessings and the abundance that we receive will be “closed” to us. However, if we use our vision for good things, for beneficial things, then the divine vision will see to it that we are appropriately blessed.

Hence, one of the prayers to God where we ask Him to “open” His eyes. We are admitting to our guilt and to the realization that the divine eye has been closed to us. Now that we’ve admitted our guilt and hopefully are mending our ways, we are now asking God to open His eyes. To bless us. To realize that we are human, that we have erred, but that we are redoubling our efforts to mend our ways and use our divine gifts in His service.

May we use all of our attributes for good and God, and benefit from growing blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all Israeli voters, and to the Zehut candidates, volunteers and voters in particular. Thank you. Our efforts were not in vain.

Two Dates of Redemption (Tazria)

Two Dates of Redemption (Tazria)

Time is Too slow for those who wait, Too swift for those who fear, Too long for those who grieve, Too short for those who rejoice. But for those who love, time is not. -Henry Van Dyke

The beginning of the Torah reading of Tazria describes the ritual laws about a woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy or a baby girl. There are different periods of ritual impurity depending on the gender, as well as accompanying sacrifices that the woman must bring as part of the ritual purification process.

There is a popular Midrash on those verses that explains that the timing of the act of procreation can determine the gender of the child. The Midrash states that if the woman “gives seed” first, a boy will be born, while if the man “gives seed” first, the resulting child will be a girl.

The Berdichever explains that the above Midrash is a hint as to the form and timing of the future prophesized redemption. In the Talmud there is a debate as to when the promised redemption will occur. One opinion states that it will happen in the Hebrew month of Tishrei (September-October) when we have the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yomi Kippur and Sukkot. The other opinion is that the future redemption will happen during the Hebrew month of Nissan (April-May), when the festival of Pesach occurs, the same season of our original redemption from the slavery of Egypt.

The Berdichiver connects the timing of the redemption to the actions of the Jewish nation. The case of the woman “giving seed” first is parallel to our own successful human efforts for which no fault is found. However, the case of the man “giving seed” first is parallel to God’s direct intervention in providing for the Jewish nation, when we couldn’t provide for ourselves or didn’t make the necessary effort. In that case, fault can be found.

Similarly, when the nation of Israel makes its own efforts in getting closer to God, in performing good deeds, in bringing the redemption closer, then the redemption will occur in the month of Tishrei, even though it is a month intertwined with the concept of divine justice. However, when we fall short, when God needs to pick up our slack, then the redemption will occur in the month of Nissan, a month when the attribute of justice doesn’t hold sway, but rather the attribute of mercy.

May we merit redemption, speedily in our days, as quickly and as powerfully as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Osher Weiss. An inspirational figure.