Category Archives: Bechukotai

Ordinary Miracles (Behar-Bechukotai)

Ordinary Miracles (Behar-Bechukotai)

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle. -Walt Whitman

It is human nature to take the commonplace for granted. We are not typically amazed that the sun rises every morning. We are not astounded that objects fall when dropped, obeying the laws of gravity. We are not surprised when we speak and sound comes out of our mouths. It’s the way the world works and we don’t expect it to do otherwise.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 26:4 highlights that, every single aspect of our reality, from the most minuscule microbe to the largest galaxies is miraculous and the direct result of divine intervention. What we call nature is nothing other than a continuous stream of miracles that we have become accustomed to.

He adds that part of the “natural” order is that when a person follows God’s commands, he will also receive blessings through “nature.”

So if nature is none other than a continuous series of miracles, then what is the purpose of the more extraordinary miracles which capture our attention? The Meshech Chochma answers that the purpose of the more exciting miracles is exactly to get us to notice that God’s hand is still involved in the world and that in fact, it’s all under His control and direction. God is the composer as well as the ongoing conductor of nature.

That is one of the reasons for the directive to read Psalm 145 (the prayer known as Ashrei) three times every day. Ashrei is composed according to the Alef-Bet. The first verse starts with the letter Alef; the second with Bet; the third with Gimmel, and so on. Each subsequent verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a “natural” progression. Both the content and the structure of the Psalm attests to God’s dictating and managing “nature.”

Therefore, the Talmud states (Tractate Berachot 4b) that whoever recites Psalm 145 three times a day is assured a place in the World-to-Come. By giving continuous testimony and declaring our consistent belief in God’s constant presence in nature, our spirits become suitably prepared for a continuous attachment to God after our time in the physical world.

May we appreciate all the miracles in our lives, the mundane, the commonplace, the subtle and the extraordinary, and always give thanks.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the (finally) new Israeli government.

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.

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent. -Bob Dylan

There are two somewhat arcane commandments (among many) that always nagged me. I was always uncomfortable with them. I couldn’t make sense of them. The first one is called Tmura (not to be confused with Truma). It basically means that if I’ve consecrated an animal to be brought as an offering and then I have a change of heart and decide to consecrate a different animal instead, both animals become consecrated. How does that make sense? This is a voluntary gift; shouldn’t I have the right to change my mind?

In a related vein, the second commandment has to do with Temple gifts and donations. If I decide to gift my property to the Temple and then decide I want it back, I need to pay a 25% fee on top of the original value of my property to get it back. If the Temple were to sell it to anyone else, they would charge the original/market value. Again, I seem to be getting penalized for my generosity!

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 27:10 (Bechukotai) provides an answer to both quandaries. The Torah is concerned that we may come to regret our generous gesture. In a fit of inspiration, on a high of closeness to God, we may decide to consecrate the best animal from our flock to God. However, the feeling may pass. We may say to ourselves: “What was I thinking!? That’s a really expensive animal! I could have shown my love or appreciation to God just as well with a cheaper animal.”

However, the Torah states that not only does our original consecration hold, but that it will cost us more if we try to get out of it somehow. Jewish law is so strict on this account that it doesn’t even allow one to change an inferior animal for a better one. The rationale is that if we allow changing of any animals, eventually we will find a way to change a better animal for a worse one.

The same logic of forcing us to hold fast to our generous impulse applies in the consecration of property. If you want it back it’s going to cost you an added 25%. The Temple is going to be selling it in any case, but the Torah doesn’t want us and won’t let us in these cases go back on our word.

We should never, ever regret the generosity we show or the good that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s firefighters, who kept us safe from the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and who currently battle the fires out of Gaza.

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.

A Secret to Knowing God

A Secret to Knowing God

Only divine love bestows the keys of knowledge.  -Arthur Rimbaud

HumbleThe Jewish people were given 613 commandments. Many of these commandments appear obvious to us today: don’t kill, don’t steal, respect your parents. However, there are many that don’t appear to make sense, including sacrifices and many other ritual laws. The Hebrew term for such commandments is “chok” – by definition a law that we don’t necessarily understand.

Sfat Emet in 5632 (1872) explains that God commands us to follow in His laws, by first of all, studying His Torah. However, counter-intuitively he states that the goal of Torah study should not be to reach knowledge and understanding. Rather the goal of Torah study is to thereby annul ourselves in front of God. By such annulment (“bitul” is the Kabalistic term) we will then reach that divine understanding. Then, the more one “knows”, the more one annuls themselves, the more divine understanding is provided.

This virtuous cycle can also be achieved, not only by annulling oneself to God, but also to the needs of the people of Israel. For the people of Israel are considered God’s agents in the world. When one wholeheartedly puts the interests of the Jewish people before one’s own personal interests, it is a potential gateway to knowledge and understanding of God.

May we gain greater wisdom and understanding of God and our roles in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the 100th birthday of Bernard Lewis, a modern-day sage with prophetic instincts.

 

Self-punishment

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behukotai-self-punishment/

Netziv Leviticus: Behukotai

Self-punishment

“A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences.” -Norman Cousins

The Torah is as harsh with its punishments as it is generous with its rewards. Some people, while happy to receive rewards for good acts, believe it unjust for us to be punished for going against the directives of God.

The Netziv on Leviticus 26:3 explains that God’s list of punishments shouldn’t be seen as capricious intervention on His part against those who ignore Him. Rather it is a list of warnings, much like a doctor’s health warning, that if a person chooses to follow an unhealthy path, then the inevitable consequence is the pain and suffering that will ensue.

The “punishments” then are not necessarily some special response on God’s part, but rather it is the natural result of the actions we take. God is merely warning us to avoid such paths in order to be spared from the resultant outcome.

So for our own selfish interest and self-preservation, there may be some wisdom in following God’s directives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To the good Rabbis of Buenos Aires for such a warm welcome.

 

Messianic Predictions

Kli Yakar Leviticus:Bechukotai

Messianic Predictions

Every generation since the destruction of the Second Temple has anticipated the arrival of the Messiah, who would usher in a new age and build the Third Temple. It is an article of Jewish faith as popularized by Maimonides and sung to various tunes (Ani Maamin). 

The Kli Yakar provides some hints as to the magnitude of the Messianic era, based on a verse in Leviticus 26:10. He writes that there are secrets hidden within the verse and then takes us to verses in Jeremiah 23:7-8. English translations don’t to justice to the Hebrew (the curious can look them up), but the point is that the miracles of the Egyptian Exodus will seem paltry compared to the miracles we will witness in the Messianic age.

I was told the very same thing by a living sage just a few weeks ago. The Rebbe of the Shomrei Emunim Hasidim, echoed the same verse from Jeremiah and then based on the Biblical commentary of the great Don Isaac Abarbanel (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508) proceeded to translate the following predictions to our times: 

          A military aircraft will be crashed into the Vatican sparking a religious war.

          There will be a nuclear war that will change the world.

          Israel will be the only safe place in the world, which will witness amazing miracles of salvation. 

I asked the Rebbe the all-consuming question on all prophetic efforts – “when?” He answered that not even Elijah the Prophet knows when he will arrive to announce the coming of the Messiah. However, he added that he can come in an instant – any instant.

I asked him: “How do we prepare? What can we do?” 

He answered: “Only through Torah and good deeds.”

May we merit welcoming the Messiah speedily in our day with all the accompanying good it entails. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi 

Dedication 

To Elijah and the Messiah. I imagine you’re anxious too. I expect your timing will be just right.