Category Archives: Meshech Chochma

Fighting Sorcery (Yitro)

Fighting Sorcery (Yitro)

Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting! – Wicked Witch of the West

 

In this week’s Torah reading, we are presented with the famous Ten Commandments. The fourth one reads as follows:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why there would be extra, special attention drawn to the sea. Why would it say, “heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them?” Why specifically is the phrase “all that is in them,” added to the sea, and not to heaven or earth?

He answers that there appears to have been an ancient belief that the subject of idol worship had power on the earth, but not on the sea and that those idolaters were willing to admit that God had exclusive domain over the seas. These idolaters admitted that their “gods” had no dominion over the sea or even over water. These beliefs translated into a practical effect: that the mystical sorcerous powers that these idolaters possessed through the worship of their “deities” could be nullified by water.

The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 67b) has an entire discussion about the use of sorcery and demons and concludes that it was normal practice in ancient Egypt to test any possible sorcerous spells with water. There is a story of the sage Zeiri who was sold a donkey in Alexandria. Suspecting foul play, he watered the donkey and it was revealed to be just a wooden plank. (He got a refund for his purchase).

In another case, Yannai arrived at an inn and asked for water. He was given water mixed with flour and noticed the woman innkeeper’s lips moving. Suspicious, Yannai spilled some of the water on the ground and it turned promptly into scorpions. Having evidence that they meant him harm, he cast his own spell and had the woman drink from the cup. She turned into a donkey which he proceeded to ride into the marketplace until a friend of hers released her from the sorcery.

I don’t know if L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz) was familiar with these Talmudic stories or the Jewish understanding that water could nullify magic, but it’s certainly a fascinating possibility!

The Meshech Chochma concludes that the purpose of emphasizing God as the creator of the sea and all that’s in it, is to underline the fact, that just as God has absolute dominion over the oceans and all that is in it, so too, He has complete dominion over the heavens and the earth as well.

May we stay clear of any dark arts and enjoy the natural magic of creation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the impressive OurCrowd Summit in Jerusalem.

Deserving of Miracles (Beshalach)

Deserving of Miracles (Beshalach)

Where there is great love there are always miracles. -Willa Cather

There is a well-known Midrash that has the angels standing by God’s side as He famously splits the Sea for the Children of Israel while at the same time He drowns the pursuing Egyptian army:

“God,” the angels asked, “how can you spare the Hebrews and kill the Egyptians? These are idol worshipers and these are idol worshipers!”

As we know, idol worship is among the most severe sins in the Torah, punishable by death, so the angels’ question is entirely reasonable.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 14:29 states that idolatry is indeed quite severe, especially as compared to such sins as infighting, gossip, slander or even theft, none of which carry the death penalty. Nonetheless, he indicates that the divine judgment is reversed when it comes to “group” sin, based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Peah 4b).

It is true that if an individual commits idolatry, he is deserving of the death penalty, while if he commits one of the “lesser” sins, his punishment (if any) is less severe. However, according to the Meshech Chochma and the Jerusalem Talmud, the tables are turned when we are talking about the entire people of Israel. He brings two examples: In the times of King David, the population was relatively pious, faithfully worshipping God and correctly averting idolatry. However, because the people were talebearers, God would strike the Jewish people down in their wars.

On the other hand, In the times of King Ahav, who leads one of the most idolatrous generations ever, there were no talebearers, and as a result, they emerged victorious and unscathed from their battles. The lesson being, that a community that is kind to each other, that does not bear tales about each other, even if they are idolaters like the generation of Ahav, not only are they not punished, but they merit salvation and victory in their wars. But even a generation of righteous people like those in the time of King David, if they don’t look out for each other, God’s wrath is not far behind.

Therein lies the answer to the angels’ question about the Jewish people at the splitting of the Sea. Even though they were idol worshippers, they behaved well towards one another and that merited not only salvation but outright miracles.

May we ever be deserving of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the complete and rapid recovery of all those stricken by the coronavirus epidemic.

Breaking Bad Habits (Bo)

Breaking Bad Habits (Bo)

Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are. -John Ruskin

On the eve of the exodus of the Jewish people from the bondage of Egypt, on the night that would forever be known as the beginning of Pesach (Passover), the proto-nation of Israel is commanded by God to take a lamb (what would become the Pascual Lamb), slaughter it, serve it to their families and uniquely enough, smear the blood on their doorposts as a sign. God, recognizing the sign (or more likely the act of identification with the Jewish people and God’s command) would not kill the firstborns in those homes but would go on to kill the Egyptian firstborns in the tenth and final plague that He brought upon Egypt.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 12:21 connects this account of sacrifice and obedience to God to a much deeper significance as to how to tackle and control both our physical desires as well as our erroneous notions.

He goes on to quote an unusual line from the Talmud that reads as follows:

Rav said: The cry that one says to lead an ox is “hen hen.” The cry to lead a lion is “zeh zeh.” The cry to lead a camel is “da da.” The cry to laborers using ropes to pull a ship along a river is “heleni, hayya, hela, vehilook, hulya.” -Tractate Pesachim 112b

The Meshech Chochma explains that when one wants to lead an animal, or in our case wants to break an animalistic desire, what is needed is one line, one dictum to be repeated over and over. He suggests for example repeatedly saying the dictum from Chapter of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:21): “Envy, lust and the desire for honor take a man out of the world.” Regular repetition is the best way to break our physical, animalistic habits and desires.

However, to change ones thoughts, notions and philosophies requires a more subtle approach. It cannot be altered by brute force of repetition. It requires a variety of arguments (as in the variety of words used for the laborers). It needs to be tackled by different angles until the combination of inputs succeeds in turning a person away from failed or mistaken ideas and paths and back to the ways of reason, of wisdom and good sense.

May we find both the direct strategies to break our negative desires and the more nuanced arguments to keep us on a straight intellectual path.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the important Holocaust memorials.

The Select Few (Vaera)

The Select Few (Vaera)

 Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory. -William Barclay

In this week’s Torah reading of Vaera, God promises that he will take the Jewish people out of the slavery of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land of Canaan. The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 6:7 points out that while 600,000 men and their families were released from the enslavement of Egypt, only two men out of the original 600,000 actually made it to the Promised Land forty years later. All of the others died in the desert during the years of wandering, caused by the Sin of the Spies. Only Joshua and Caleb were spared from the punishment and merited leading the nation of Israel into Canaan and to the successful conquest of the land, together with the children and grandchildren of the Jewish slaves who had been freed from Egypt.

On the surface, it might seem unfair or even disingenuous that God promises the people they will be brought to the Promised Land when in the end He only fulfills that promise to two individuals while the rest of the nation dies off in the desert. However, the Meshech Chochma points out that it is indeed correct and even worthwhile if only two out of 600,000 achieve their divine purpose. That all the miracles which God performed in Egypt, the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, all of it was worth it even if only two people managed to reach the final goal.

He states that the vast majority of people do not and will not fulfill their divine missions. Only a select few will endure. Only a handful of the myriads of people will persevere, will excel, will remain steadfast in their belief in God and His divine providence.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile. The Meshech Chochma adds that those select individuals who are worthy of completing their divine missions have a positive effect on all those around them. When one person from a family completes his or her mission it provides merit to the entire family. And that somehow the two, Joshua and Caleb, who fulfilled their missions were a source of merit for the other 600,000. The select few who fulfill their divine missions serve as a beacon of justice and righteousness for the nation. They light up the world, with a burning divine fire, a Godly flame.

May we find those divine-mission-completers, draw from their light and nurture it within ourselves and our families.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the first flurries of snow on the Judean Hills.

Reasonable Danger (Shmot)

Reasonable Danger (Shmot)

The most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps. -David Lloyd George

The Torah is filled with stories of valiant personalities, who took risks, who conquered insurmountable odds, who had faith, who persevered, and with God’s help, succeeded in their journey, in their mission, in their calling.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, God reveals Himself to Moses at the famous scene of the burning bush. While initially resistant, Moses eventually accepts the task of liberating the people of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. After the encounter, Moses asks permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to go to Egypt. Jethro gives him permission with the elegant blessing: “Go in peace.”

However, immediately after Jethro’s blessing, in Exodus 4:19, God again speaks to Moses and says: “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”

The Meshech Chochma draws a perhaps counter-intuitive lesson from God’s command. He understands from the verse, that if the men who sought to kill Moses were still alive, Moses would have no obligation to risk his life by going to Egypt to free the Jewish people, even though the entire nation depended on him.

He learns a similar lesson, though one that might not have been apparent from a simple reading of the Talmud. The Talmud states that an inadvertent killer is exiled to a city of refuge and is prohibited from leaving the city for as long as the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, is still alive. It then gives an example, that even if one of the greatest generals of our history, Yoav son of Tzeruya was sentenced to exile to a city of refuge and all of Israel needed him, he would not be permitted to leave. At first glance, we would reasonably assume that he can’t leave because that is part of his sentence and no pardon is available, even for extenuating circumstances. But the Meshech Chochma understands that the deeper meaning would be because by leaving the city of refuge, he would be putting himself into a high level of danger, as the “blood redeemer,” the relative of the inadvertent killer’s victim, has the right to kill him outside the city.

So too, Moses, when confronted with a very real and present danger to his life, was absolved from having to save Israel. The Meshech Chochma learns that one is not obligated to put themselves in likely mortal danger in order to save others. However, when the risks are not so clear cut and the danger is not so imminent, it’s a different story.

May we avoid dangers, both imminent and distant, and may we be safe and secure wherever we are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

To my son Elchanan, and his friends, who have completed their army service. Thank you for your service!

Radius of Influence (Vayechi)

Radius of Influence (Vayechi)

Only by the good influence of our conduct may we bring salvation in human affairs; or like a fatal comet we may bring destruction in our train. – Desiderius Erasmus

In the last Torah reading from the Book of Genesis, the Torah starts off the portion (Genesis 47:28) by telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt as opposed to naming the more specific area of Goshen, where Jacob and his clan were based.

The Meshech Chochma explains that there are some people who live exclusively for themselves, looking out for themselves and their limited personal interests (which he states is fine). There are some people whose concern extends to their immediate family, who live their life supporting and taking care of their family. There are those whose concern extends even further and will be looking out for the wellbeing of everyone in their community or city, who will dedicate their lives to helping out all the residents of where they live. Finally, there are those who are concerned for the entire world, who live their lives in a way that contributes and impacts the whole world. This is referenced by King Solomon’s phrase (Proverb 10:25) that “the Tzadik (righteous) are the foundation of the world.”

The Meshech Chochma states that Jacob “lived” for, was concerned for, not just the city where he dwelt, not just for the larger area of Goshen, but that he lived for, he was concerned for all of Egypt. For that reason, the Midrash states that the massive famine which had indirectly brought Joseph to power in Egypt also came to a halt in all of Egypt when Jacob arrived. Conversely, the famine apparently returns to all of Egypt when Jacob dies.

The Meshech Chochma adds that the power of the Tzadik extends even in death and burial; that in some fashion the grave of a righteous person has some power to facilitate divine forgiveness and protection. For that reason, during the funeral procession when Jacob is brought to the land of Israel to be buried, the Torah states that it was a “heavy mourning” for Egypt. Egypt suffered by the fact that Jacob wasn’t buried in their land, but rather in the land of Israel. Egypt lost the divine protection that the power of Jacob’s presence had afforded them, in life and in death.

May we have ever expanding circles of positive influence and may we likewise be positively influenced by those who look out for our families, our communities, our countries and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the newcomers to the Daf Yomi initiative.

God in Exile (Vayigash)

God in Exile (Vayigash)

Night brings our troubles to the light, rather than banishes them. -Seneca the Elder

As Jacob is about to leave the land of Canaan, the land that had been promised to him, to his father, to his grandfather, and to his progeny, God appears to Jacob that night. Jacob is driven to leave because of the famine in Canaan and he is pulled to Egypt by the promise of seeing his long-lost son, Joseph, as well as by assurances of sustenance for the entire family in Egypt.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 46:2 wonders why we see such an unusual divine revelation during the nighttime to our patriarch Jacob when we don’t see such a revelation to either of the other two patriarchs, his grandfather Abraham or his father Isaac.

The Meshech Chochma explains that what is different about Jacob from the other patriarchs, is that Jacob was ready and willing to live in exile. Abraham only leaves Canaan for a short period of time and Isaac never leaves.

God, therefore, pays Jacob a special visitation at night. Night is parallel to exile. The physical darkness of night parallels the spiritual darkness of exile. Nonetheless, God comes to tell Jacob that even in the spiritual darkness of exile, God is still with him and will remain with him in his exile.

The Meshech Chochma elaborates further, that just as God remained with Jacob in exile, so too He remains with Jacob’s progeny, with the people of Israel in their long exile.

But the Meshech Chochma qualifies his statement. When the people of Israel follow the ways of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; when we hold firm to the traditions of our ancestors, then Israel is a strong nation, an ancient yet vibrant people to whom God revealed Himself when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. God remains with the people also in the long night of exile.

But when the people of Israel forget the covenant our ancestors forged with God, when we no longer walk in their paths, then the divine presence no longer resides with the people of Israel. We cease to lay claim to our ancestral heritage and the divine accompaniment that comes along with it. We become “fair game” to the vicissitudes and ill winds of the world.

May we remain firm in our connection to our ancient covenant and may God’s presence ever be near.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those completing the 7.5 year cycle of learning the entire Babylonian Talmud (Daf Yomi). And to those starting the next cycle this Sunday, especially my wife Tamara, who will be teaching a weekly online review course of Daf Yomi at WebYeshiva: https://www.webyeshiva.org/course/daf-yomi-one-week-at-a-time/