Category Archives: Meshech Chochma

God’s Time Versus Human Time (Balak)

God’s Time Versus Human Time (Balak)

It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves. -Thornton Wilder

In the Torah reading of Balak, the anti-hero, the sorcerer Bilaam, famously sets out to curse the nation of Israel. Bilaam also famously fails, but his failure created some of the most beautiful and poetic blessings to be bestowed upon Israel. Out of his flowery language, the Meshech Chochma on Numbers 23:21 teases out a profound understanding of time, both from a human as well as from a divine perspective.

In our current “scientific” linear thinking, when we think about the passing of time, we typically think in terms of Past, Present, and Future. First is what came before, then we reach our present time and finally, time leads us into the unknown future. However, there are some common patterns in the description of events which can be found in biblical and liturgical verses that differ from our modern way of thinking about time. One pattern can be described as “Present, Past, and Future.” A good example is the well-known liturgical verse from our daily prayers: “God rules, God ruled, God will rule.” First, we see the present, then we look back at the past and only at the end do we look forward to the future.

The Meshech Chochma explains that according to human nature, we first deal with what’s in front of us, the present. After that, we examine our memories of the past, a record of which we may find in our minds. Finally, we may look to the future, a hazy and unclear vision that our imagination might conjure. The progression is from firm sensing to memory to tenuous imaginings.

However, God’s perspective on time vis-à-vis humans is entirely different. God created Time. God is beyond Time. It is ultimately incomprehensible to try to describe Time from God’s point of view. Nonetheless, the prophets, when they deliver God’s messages, are attempting just that, and their description of God’s time is indeed different. One example is from Isaiah 44:6: “I am First (Past), I am Last (Future), and besides Me, there is no god (Present).” God’s time refers to the Past first, the Future second, and the Present third.

The Meshech Chochma describes that for God, Time is one tapestry. He sees in one glimpse, if you will, a timeline that for us mortals stretches into eternity in both directions. God mentions the Past first, which stretches backward into infinity. He then moves on to the future, which ventures forwards into infinity. Finally, He mentions the Present, that infinitesimal slice of reality suspended between the two poles of eternity.

May we, mere mortals, seize the present, appreciate the past, and look forward to the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Technion’s discovery of the “branched flow” of light. Illuminating.

The Blessing of Satiation (Chukat)

The Blessing of Satiation (Chukat)

Wealth after all is a relative thing since he that has little and wants less is richer than he that has much and wants more. -Charles Caleb Colton

During the fortieth year of the wandering of the Jewish people in the desert, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dies. The Midrash states that the well which miraculously followed the people of Israel throughout their desert journey disappeared after Miriam’s death. Now the people of Israel are thirsty without water. They cry out. God tells Moses to take his staff, take Aaron, and talk to a particular rock, a rock which will provide them with water. The text tells us that Moses hits the rock (as he did forty years earlier, but we don’t see him talking to the rock, as God had directed this time). God subsequently punishes both Moses and Aaron with the decree that they won’t cross the Jordan river into the Promised Land, but that rather, they would both die in the desert.

However, Moses’ hitting the rock is nonetheless effective and a stream of water gushes out of the rock, enough to quench the thirst of the people and their flocks.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 20:8-11, based on the verses of the miraculous provision of water, analyses the idea of the blessings of sustenance and perhaps challenges our conventional notions of wealth and success.

It would be reasonable to believe that the more possessions we have, the more money, property, investments, and resources we can draw on, the wealthier we are, the greater the material success we have achieved.

But the Meshech Chochma states that such plenty is not the highest form of blessing. It’s not the quantity, but the quality that counts. And the quality he’s referring to is the blessing of being satiated, of being satisfied with little. He explains that when God truly gives the most exalted and elevated material blessings that He can, he doesn’t rain down quantities of material wealth on the person. Rather, God bestows the much more refined and pleasant blessing of making sure the person is satisfied and content with little.

He quotes the Midrash which states that the people of Israel weren’t truly comforted until they were told that they would be satiated with little, that a little bread and a little water would be all they would need to be satisfied.

When the people of Israel don’t live up to God’s expectations, then they get the secondary level of sustenance: quantity. At that level they are compared to the animals, hence the verse states that the water was “for them and their flocks.”

May we achieve true levels of wealth, where our needs and desires are reduced and we become satiated and satisfied with little.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the people who need to reinvent their careers and businesses.

The Meaning of Holiness (Korach)

The Meaning of Holiness (Korach)

God created the flirt as soon as he made the fool. -Victor Hugo

The word “Holy” (Kadosh or Kodesh in Hebrew) is used extensively in the Torah. There are many Hebrew words whose etymological root “k-d-sh” stems from the concept of holy, sacred, sanctified, consecrated. Most people are familiar with “Kadish,” the mourner’s prayer, where we sanctify God’s name in that prayer. In Hebrew, to marry is “lekadesh,” and the marriage ceremony is called “kiddushin.” The Temple is called the “Bet Hamikdash” (literally, the sanctified house). The innermost chamber of the Temple is known as the “Kodesh Kodashim” (the Holy of Holies).

In talking about the portions of the sacrifices which the Kohens would consume as part of the Tabernacle (and Temple) service, the Torah states as follows:

This shall be yours from the most holy sacrifices, the offerings by fire: every such offering that they render to Me as most holy sacrifices, namely, every meal-offering, sin-offering, and guilt-offering of theirs, shall belong to you and your sons. You shall partake of them as most sacred donations: only males may eat them; you shall treat them as consecrated. – Numbers 18:9-10

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why the Torah emphasizes that only a Kohen and his sons, only males, may eat from these sacred sacrifices.

He explains that these holy offerings were eaten exclusively in the Temple courtyard. The eating was part of their divine service. Women were not allowed to eat with them there. The men needed to be focused on consuming these offerings in a state of single-minded divine service. Were they to perform this service accompanied by women, it would turn into a social affair that would sidetrack the Kohens from focusing on the sacrificial service.

The Meshech Chochma adds that this separation of men and women during the holy service is the very essence of what “holiness” means. He states that wherever the Torah refers to “holiness” it is creating a fence against promiscuity. Marriage, “kiddushin,” for example, is the consecration of the bond of a couple, a unique and holy relationship, excluding and prohibiting all other romantic relationships.

May we gain a deeper appreciation for what holiness, “kodesh,” means.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the partial end of the school year and the partial start of the summer. We’ll take what we can get.

Equalizing the Elite (Shelach)

Equalizing the Elite (Shelach)

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -James B. Connant

By both biblical and rabbinic accounts, Moses is likely the greatest man who ever lived. He confronted Pharaoh, brought the plagues upon Egypt, and took the Jewish nation out of its slavery. He split the sea, spoke to God like no person ever has or will. He received the Torah and relayed it to the People of Israel. The Torah also declares that he was the humblest of men and the greatest of prophets. We can’t even imagine the type of person he was, his caliber, his sanctity, his righteousness, his wisdom, or his nobility.

Yet according to the Meshech Chochma on Numbers 15:37, God puts Moses on an equal footing with every Jew when he presents the commandment of Tzitzit.

Tzitzit are the ritual fringes that every Jewish male is meant to wear on an item of clothing that has four corners. From a young age, boys usually wear the Tzitzit under their shirts, some with the fringes sticking out, others with the fringes tucked in. From Bar-Mitzvah age, and at the latest, once a man is married, there is the related custom to wear a Talit, the prayer shawl, an outer garment with the fringes on the four corners, for morning prayers, or if someone is serving as the Chazan, the leader of the prayer service.

The passage regarding the commandment of Tzitzit is so important, that it was incorporated as the third section of the twice-daily reading of Shema, which we recite in our prayers.

What is interesting about the passage, the Meshech Chochma points out, is that it gives part of the rationale for the commandment of Tzitzit: “so that you shall not go after your hearts and after your eyes.” It is a warning, a reminder, even protection, against inappropriate thoughts and intentions.

It would be reasonable to assume, that those of a high moral character, the spiritual leaders of the generation, those with little to no presumption of sin or even inappropriate thoughts, would be exempt from the need for Tzitzit. Why would a great sage whose thoughts are constantly dwelling on the holy and sacred need a coarse physical reminder of the Tzitzit to “not go after your hearts and after your eyes?”

The Meshech Chochma explains that God is saying that not only do “the great” need to wear Tzitzit but even the singular Moses, the greatest prophet, the one whose mind was as close to regular communion with God as possible, even Moses needed to wear Tzitzit.

May we appreciate the depth of the many commandments God has bequeathed to us, whether we are among the elite or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of Yakira and AJ Baumol. Mazal Tov!

Post-Sin Reality (Behaalotcha)

Post-Sin Reality (Behaalotcha)

What ever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man. -Edmund Burke

The Torah narrative, suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly, introduces a “new” holiday, really a “conditional” holiday which was not mentioned in the previous lists of holidays. It is the holiday of Pesach Sheni. The holiday seems to be reactionary and not part of the originally planned cycle of holidays. A group of people approaches Moses. They were ritually impure and were unhappy that their ritual impurity would prevent them from participating in the Pesach celebrations.

Moses tells the petitioners to wait so that he can get instructions regarding their interesting complaint. God doesn’t disappoint and immediately relays to Moses that while the petitioners can’t celebrate Pesach with the rest of the nation that is ritually pure, they will have a second chance exactly a month later, to bring the Pesach sacrifice and to have Matza, assuming they are ritually pure by then.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 9:10 goes into a fascinating discussion as to why the Torah didn’t preempt the petitioners’ request and present the Pesach Sheni option a priori. He explains that after the revelation of God to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai, the people were at such a high spiritual level, that they could connect to God with a much greater facility than anything we could imagine today.

However, after the sin of the golden calf, all of Israel lost that ability. They would require a physical Tabernacle to reproduce that ability, that divine focal point to allow them to commune with God. Not only that, but pre-sin, any individual Jew was at such an elevated level, that they would likewise be immune to the punishment of Karet (“cutting off,” whichever way that’s interpreted). The entirety of the Jewish people is never subject to that punishment. An individual Jew, pre-sin, had a similar status, ability, and spiritual protection as the entire nation. Pre-sin, we could more easily connect with God, without needing some communal, physical, focal construct.

Similarly, pre-sin, it would have been permissible for a Jew to participate in the Pesach sacrifice, even if they were ritually impure. However, post-sin, that would no longer be possible. In a post-sin reality, a ritually impure Jew would not be able to partake of the Pesach sacrifice. Only post-sin is there a need for God to add legislation that provides a second chance, a new holiday, for those who because of either their physical distance or their ritually impure condition, can’t join the rest of the nation in bringing the Pesach sacrifice.

May we one day reach our previous spiritual levels as well as protection on an individual and communal level.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Norman Lamm z”tl, former President and Chancellor of Yeshiva University. He inspired me and many others.

Holy Men in Holy Land (Naso)

Holy Men in Holy Land (Naso)

We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go. -Golda Meir

Rabbi David Cohen, The Nazir of Jerusalem

This week’s Torah reading introduces us to the laws of the Nazir (Nazirite). The Nazir is prohibited from drinking wine or consuming grape products, from cutting his hair and from become ritually impure from any contact with the dead. The underlying motivation of a Nazir is to achieve a greater level of holiness, of sanctity, of closeness to God.

There are several biblical personalities that were Nazirs or whom the Sages believe were Nazirs from hints in the text. One of the most famous ones was Samson. Two others were the prophet Samuel as well as King David’s rebellious son, Absalom.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 6:21 digs deeper into some aspects of the significance of being a Nazir, based on what we know of the biblical ones, specifically as it relates to the land of Israel.

Something to bear in mind is, that after the biblical period, the Sages, among numerous decrees they instituted, established that the land outside of Israel has the status of ritually impure land. That means that a Jew who was otherwise ritually pure, just by stepping foot outside the land of Israel became ritually contaminated. Any Jew coming to Israel from outside it had to go through a ritual purification process.

What is interesting is that even before this enactment, we see that the prophet Samuel never left the land of Israel. He was a mighty savior of the people, vanquishing the Philistines who encroached on Israel’s borders. The Meshech Chochma intimates that when the people asked Samuel to provide them with a king, they wanted a king who would venture and fight beyond their borders.

The Meshech Chochma goes on to say that a Nazir can only be in Israel, that the institution of being a Nazir doesn’t function outside of Israel and that if a person did take on a vow of a Nazir outside of Israel, even nowadays in our post-Temple era where the level of required ritual purity can’t be achieved, they are nonetheless forced to go to Israel.

There is a certain level of proximity to God, that can only be undertaken, achieved, and sustained in Israel.

May we all have the merit of being in Israel soon.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the SpaceX Falcon 9, Crew Dragon launch.

Biblical Military Organization (Bamidbar)

Biblical Military Organization (Bamidbar)

Order is the sanity of the mind, the health of the body, the peace of the city, the security of the state. Like beams in a house or bones to a body, so is order to all things. -Robert Southey

God knows how to count. Moses knows how to count. We have numerous examples in the Torah. The Torah gives specific numbers as to the children of Jacob that each of his wives gave birth to. It gives us specific years that the descendants of Adam lived. It tells us at what age they gave birth to their children. Moses himself gives a precise count of the number of firstborns. The Torah seems to understand numbers in the same way that we do.

Nonetheless, some numbers might appear unusual to our modern minds based on our understanding of statistics, probability, and randomness. For example, the Torah has a love affair with the number seven, which plays a central role in a multiplicity of narratives. Ten is also a fairly important number. Others have investigated the primacy of these numbers and it makes for fascinating insights.

The numerological issue that I’ve had for a long time is in this week’s Torah reading and it has to do with the count of the troops of the newborn nation of Israel. Men over the age of 20 (and probably until the age of 60) were divided and counted according to each of the 12 tribes (the tribe of Levi was excluded, being tasked with the service of the Tabernacle, were exempt from direct military duty – they were the chaplains if you will).

The issue with the count of the troops is that the total of every single tribe results in a beautiful round number. Below are the census numbers:

Reuven: 46,500 Judah: 74,600 Ephraim: 40,500 Dan: 62,700
Shimon: 59,300 Issachar: 54,400 Menashe: 32,200 Asher: 41,500
Gad: 45,650 Zebulun: 57,400 Benjamin: 35,400 Naphtali: 53,400
Total 603,550

What are the odds that in the count of over 600,000 individuals, that the results of each tribe would come out exactly to a multiple of 50 and in almost all cases 100? The odds are extremely unlikely. There must be some other explanation.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 3:16 explains that it’s not that Moses or the Torah don’t know how to count. The issue is what was the methodology and purpose of the count.

The purpose of the count was to know relative strength and numbers — they didn’t require an exact count. The methodology was that each tribal leader polled their officers. The lowest degree officer was a “captain of ten.” The level above them were the “captains of fifty.” Any grouping of less than ten did not have an officer. So in essence, they counted the officers, calculated the number of soldiers based on that, and hence we get the rounded numbers.

May we indeed remember the strength we have in numbers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children going back to school.

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.

To Challenge our Nature (Emor)

To Challenge our Nature (Emor)

All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God. -Sir Thomas Browne

The Torah prescribes multiple holidays and celebrations throughout the calendar year. While most of them have some uncommon aspect, perhaps the one that outwardly seems the most unusual is the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), celebrated a few days after Yom Kippur, starting on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

The holiday of Sukkot has two major unusual features. The first is the construction of a Suka (Sukkot is the plural form and hence the name of the holiday). The Suka is a hut which is meant to be a temporary domicile for 7 days with some stringent requirements regarding its construction, most notably that its roof must be porous and made of some plant material. We are meant to eat, sleep, and otherwise spend the week of Sukkot in this temporary home.

The second unusual feature is the taking of the “four species,” a citron fruit (Etrog), a frond of a date palm (Lulav), myrtle boughs (Hadas), and willow branches (Arava), and to shake them during the prayers.

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 23:42 analyzes the commandment of the Suka in the context of all the commandments, which for his analysis he divides into two categories. There are commandments that go against our nature and then there are commandments that are in line with our nature, but which help to strengthen or further refine our nature.

He explains that the commandment to dwell in a Suka goes very much against our nature. It is natural that after the summer harvest is over, after you’ve gathered all your produce, that you just want to rest at home in the comfort of a normal, sturdy house, which will protect you against the elements. The holiday of Sukkot literally wants to take us out of our comfort zone.

The Meshech Chochma however, learns from this a principle that applies to all commandments which go against our human inclination. He states that God Himself is the one who programmed us with our personal and collective natures. And He is also the one who gave us these “anti-nature” commandments. He knows that they will be challenging for us; for some more than others. Nonetheless, God wants us to change those natures that He gave us and to take on the challenges of His commandments which ultimately are designed to improve, refine and perfect not just our nature, but also our souls.

May we understand, accept, and succeed in the multiple tests God has designed to challenge the natures He has given us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich z”tl, who passed away this week.

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

It is an old habit with theologians to beat the living with the bones of the dead. -Robert G. Ingersoll

Joseph Thrown into a Pit – David Colyn

When a child of mine apologizes for something they did, I will sometimes counter that the apology is not very meaningful if they go on to repeat their wrongdoing. That principle, in essence, lies at the heart of an old theological conundrum that the Torah presents us with. One on hand, there is a verse in Deuteronomy that clearly states that sons will not be punished for their father’s sins, nor the fathers for their son’s sins. However, we have other places where the Torah states that God “will visit the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children.”

First of all, that doesn’t seem very fair. Second of all, how do we resolve the contradiction? Are children punished for their parents’ sins or not?

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 16:30 brings the relatively famous answer from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 27b) that children are only punished for their parents’ sins if they continue the sins of their parents. However, the Meshech Chochma deepens this equation, making us liable for ancient sins as well as dividing the sins into two broad categories.

He states that whenever we violate a ritual command, a command that is predominantly between us and God, we somehow also become guilty of our ancestors’ sin of the Golden Calf. When we violate an interpersonal command, an infraction between us and our fellow Jew, that sin is connected back through millennia to the sin of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery.

He learns this from a fascinating detail of the High Priest’s breastplate. The names of all of Jacob’s sons are etched onto the stones of the breastplate, except for one, Joseph. Having Joseph’s name there would be too stark a reminder of that ancient sin and it wouldn’t do for the High Priest, who is an agent of forgiveness and pardon, to have such an obvious reminder of that sin between brothers. It is also a reason why the breastplate, which was imbued with prophetic powers, ceased to work after the division of the monarchy into ten northern tribes (Kingdom of Israel) and two southern tribes (Kingdom of Judah) after the death of King Solomon. If there was no brotherly unity, the breastplate could not fulfill its ultimate function of being a conduit for divine communications.

If we don’t learn from our parents’ and our ancestors’ mistakes, if we repeat them, we are held accountable for those very mistakes. The point is we should have learned from them. If we do learn from them, if we repent, then those original sins are somehow also pardoned.

In our Yom Kippur liturgy, we quote God’s response to Moses of “and I will pardon you as per your words,” which occurs immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf. That is our pardon for the ritual sins for which we’ve repented. However, we also have the language of “and a pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun.” That is the pardon for the sins we’ve committed against our brothers from which we’ve repented.

May we learn from our own and our ancestors’ mistakes, and not repeat them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the State of Israel, on the 72nd anniversary of its reestablishment.