Category Archives: Moses

Managing Righteous Anger (Behaalotcha)

Managing Righteous Anger (Behaalotcha)

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; this is not easy. -Aristotle

Miriam, Moses’ older sister, gossips a bit with their brother Aaron about Moses. Right there in the text, the Torah tells us that Moses was the humblest of men. The minor gossip probably didn’t bother him. However, it bothered God. It bothered God a lot. It bothered God so much that he immediately struck Miriam with Tzaraat, an unusual discoloration of the skin, an instant and clearly visible punishment.

Moses steps in and begs God for mercy, praying to Him “Please heal her!” God responds as follows: “If her father had spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days and then let her be readmitted.” And that is what happens. Miriam is banished from the Israelite camp for seven days. At the end of the seven days she’s readmitted into the camp, presumably healed, and then the entire nation of Israel continues their desert journey.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 12:14 (Behaalotcha) explains the circumstances. He states that there are different levels of reprimand, of lacking favor in someone’s eyes, and therefore different levels of commensurate exile from their sight.

For example, if one insults or otherwise distresses a Torah scholar, the offending person should take upon themselves a self-imposed exile from the scholar of one full day. However, if the person offended was a prophet or one of the “wise men” (apparently different than a Torah scholar), the self-imposed exile needs to be of seven days (like Miriam with Moses). However, if one offended the King or Prince then the exile needs to be of thirty days.

Though anger is considered one of the most dangerous and destructive of emotions, Rabbeinu Bechaye is explaining that God was correct to be “angry” and that it was appropriate for Miriam to be “out of His sight” for a specific and measured timeframe. In a fashion, it allows the offended party time to “cool down” and the offending party time to recover from the shame their actions caused. The Torah is demonstrating that there are times when one is justified in being angry. However, the anger needs to be limited, measured and constructive. The immediate result may be a “time out” for both parties which then allows them to be reunited in friendship and love.

May we beware of the dangers of anger, and if we need to harness it, may we do so carefully and wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the residents of southern Israel who are currently under attack. May God protect you and bring swift reprisal to the attackers.

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

 In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. -Blaise Pascal

The nation of Israel is born when they are redeemed from the slavery of Egypt. They have witnessed the ten plagues that God brought down upon the Egyptians while sparing the Jewish nation. Pharaoh and his people beg the Israelites to leave. They leave on the night of Pesach (Passover) which would henceforth be eternally commemorated by the Jewish people.

However, Pharaoh changes his mind. He pursues the freed slaves. His powerful chariot army has them trapped, with their back against the sea. God intervenes once again. He keeps the sides separated by a pillar of cloud and fire. He directs Moses to lift his hand and split the sea. The sea splits, the Jews cross over on dry land. The Egyptians are allowed to follow, only to be completely drowned. The entire armed forces of the Egyptian empire are obliterated in one fell swoop. Moses lowers his hand and he and the people of Israel break into song, the Song of the Sea.

The Torah declares that at that point the nation “believed in God and in Moses His servant.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 14:31 (Beshalach) quotes Rabbeinu Chananel who explains that proper Jewish faith can actually be split into four distinct elements:

  1. Belief in God;
  2. Belief in the truth and validity of our Prophets;
  3. Belief in an afterlife that will include rewards for the righteous;
  4. Belief in the coming of the Redeemer.

The reward for sustaining these beliefs is that one will enjoy them when the time comes. The punishment for lack of belief is somewhat self-fulfilling. The unbelievers will not live to experience the afterlife that they don’t believe in. Seems appropriate.

Somehow, the conscious beliefs that we sustain and develop actually create our spiritual reality and fate. By denying God, prophetic truth, reward and punishment, an afterlife or the coming of the Messiah, we cut our very souls off from the future, eternity and destiny of the Jewish people. When we affirm our beliefs in the above, we link ourselves, our destiny, to the unbroken chain of tradition of the eternal people. Our beliefs shape our souls and our souls are intertwined, that is, until we reverse our default ancestral settings and take ourselves out of the communal belief system and the spiritual community itself.

Maimonides famously elaborated and articulated the above basic belief system into the popular 13 Principles of Faith. In some synagogues and communities they are read on a daily basis and can be found in the back of many prayer books. They are worth reviewing regularly.

May our faith be strong and our souls ever linked to our nation and community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Hilda and Jeremy Cohen, on their inspiring hospitality. And to the speedy recovery of Libi Yehudis bas Yochevet.

Enlightenment comes in stages (Shmot)

Enlightenment comes in stages (Shmot)

Enlightenment must come little by little-otherwise it would overwhelm. -Idries Shah

Moses, while tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert, sees a strange and wondrous sight. He notices a tree on fire, but for some reason, the tree is not consumed by the fire. Out of curiosity, he approaches, and then he sees what appears to be a celestial being within the flames in the tree. Finally, he perceives, in some way that we can’t describe or comprehend, the presence of God.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 3:1 explains that the staggered revelation of the supernatural was purposeful and for Moses’ benefit. Had God revealed Himself to Moses in one shot, Moses would have fled, completely overwhelmed by the Divine Revelation. Therefore, God started with a mysterious fire that didn’t burn the tree. Moses’ interest was piqued, his mind prepared for the unusual. Next, the sighting of an angelic being alerted Moses to the fact that it was a spiritual, otherworldly event. Finally, God could approach Moses; even speak to him in a way that allowed Moses to keep his composure, his mental stability.

Rabbeinu Bechaye compares the gradual revelation to a man who has been sitting in darkness for some time. His eyes have become used to the dark. Should he go from pitch black to bright light too quickly, he would be blinded, perhaps even damage his eyesight. The way to transition is to look at a small sliver of light and get used to that before being exposed to stronger, brighter light.

It is the same with mental light. The mind needs to start with concepts that it’s familiar with, before it can comprehend greater truths, more powerful revelations. God takes the same approach when introducing His commandments to Israel. He starts with some basics, such as the Sabbath and civil laws. Then He proceeds to the Ten Commandments, and thereafter He presents the bulk of the Torah’s commandments.

God also gave us a parallel phenomenon in nature. Dawn commences slowly; just a sliver of light. The light seems to grow slowly, giving our eyes a chance to get used to it. In a gradual process light fills the sky until we can handle the light of a bright, sunny day.

May we see ever increasing light in our lives, and not be blinded by it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Iranian protesters. May you overcome the darkness and turn your country to light.

Secrets of Creation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinhas-secrets-of-creation/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Pinhas

Secrets of Creation

This most beautiful system The Universe could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. -Sir Isaac Newton

creation-of-the-universe

The Talmud warns us not to delve too deeply into the origins of the Universe. It further states that those who are privy to the secrets of creation should only transmit them to worthy students, and even then only in private discussions.

As Moses prepares to pass the reigns of leadership to his disciple Joshua, the Baal Haturim on Numbers 27:20 reveals that Moses also transmitted to Joshua the secrets of the “Merkava” and of creation.

The “Merkava” (literaly, Chariot) refers to the prophetic visions documented by Ezekiel as to the divine presence. It is a very deep, esoteric study which preoccupies many kabbalists. Creation is likewise veiled by the mists of time. Even with various scientific theories and advances, we cannot easily answer some of the most basic questions as to how or why we have the particular physical universe we’re familiar with.

However, it was important for at least the spiritual leaders of the generation to have some familiarity with these fundamental concepts, to know, from tradition, what the elemental forces and functioning of both our spiritual and physical existence are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paco Diez, composer, singer and leading disseminator of traditional Sepharadic music. His concert in Montevideo was a spiritual experience.

with Paco Diez

Delayed Repercussions

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yitro-delayed-repercussions/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Yitro

Delayed Repercussions

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences. – Robert Louis Stevenson

Moses arrives in a strange land. He has escaped his birthplace of Egypt. He has left his birth-nation of Israel. He finds himself amongst the idolaters of Midian and hosted by their High Priest, Jethro. Jethro appears to be a kindly, wise man. He gives Moses his daughter in marriage. However, the two men come from very different cultures and traditions, and that is where the trouble begins.

Moses comes from a monotheistic religion that believes in the one, unseen, allpowerful God. Jethro serves man-made idols. They both realize the importance of educating children. The midrash states that Moses made a deal with Jethro. Moses promised that his first son would be raised in the ways of idol worship (keep in mind this happens before the initial encounter of Moses and God at the burning bush). However, the Baal Haturim on Exodus 18:3 explains that Moses expected the wise Jethro to finally understand the error of his idolatrous ways and allow the son of Moses to be raised according to the Jewish faith.

That is indeed what happens, but the Baal Haturim says that the damage was already done, though we are not to see the results until the following generation. At the end of the book of Judges there is a not-so-subtle hint that the grandson of Moses becomes a High Priest to idol worship. The deal, even though apparently annulled was fulfilled anyway, not with a son, but with a grandson.

May we be cautious of the deals we get into or hope to get out of. They have a way of biting you when you least expect it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, on his induction as Rabbi of Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue. May it be a deal they and the community enjoy for a long time

 

 

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-choose-your-weapon-carefully/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Beshalach

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

The People of Israel have finally been redeemed from the enslavement of Egypt. They have marched through the desert. They reach the edge of the sea and suddenly find themselves pursued by the entire armed might of the Egyptian empire.

They panic. They cry. They scream. They complain. Moses calls out to God. God, in one of His most famous and indicative statements replies: “Why do you call out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and Go!”

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 14:15 teases out an important lesson from God’s response. There are times for long prayer, like the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai praying for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are times for short prayers, like the five words Moses uttered when praying for the health of his sister, Miriam. And then, there are times when no words are appropriate, but rather action is called for.

May we choose our strategies correctly, the right prayer or action for the right circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the entire Jewish community of Uruguay. Your hosting of our family has been exemplary. May all our prayers be answered.

 

 

 

Circular Assistance

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bo-circular-assistance/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Bo

Circular Assistance

In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us. -Flora Edwards

According to the Midrash (old post-biblical accounts and stories of biblical events and personalities), Jethro, future father-in-law of Moses, was one of Pharaoh’s counselors. The Midrash states that Jethro argued for the benevolent treatment of the Jews at the time when Pharaoh ordered the drowning of all male babies. When Jethro saw his advice ignored and noticed the growing anti-Jewish climate, he escapes from Egypt and resettles in neighboring Midian.

Years later, Moses flees Egypt, after Pharaoh seeks to kill him for the murder of an Egyptian. Moses ends up in Midian, meets Jethro’s daughters and is invited to eat in the home of Jethro. The Baal Haturim on Exodus 10:12 states that in the merit of having fed Moses, Jethro’s crops were spared from the effects of the plague of locust (I guess he still owned some land in Egypt). He furthermore explains that even an evil person will merit protection because of feeding the righteous. What goes around comes around.

May we always be the vehicle for blessings and protection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who assisted our family during our stay in Montevideo. May you be blessed many times over.

 

 

 

 

Faith is the Cure

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vaera-faith-is-the-cure/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Vaera

Faith is the Cure

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. -Vaclav Havel

The greatest, most powerful, most important orator in Jewish history, Moses, started off with some type of speech impediment. Commentators have a variety of opinions as to exactly what the problem was, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that Moses had no desire to speak publicly. He was so perturbed by his condition that he was willing to argue with God Himself to be spared from being the divine spokesman.

God berates Moses and asks him who he thinks gives man the capacity to speak in the first place? God seems particularly harsh with Moses on this count. The question is why does God give Moses such a hard time on an issue that anyone who has ever felt discomfort or even sheer terror in front of an audience can appreciate? Why was God so demanding, even insistent that this poor, speech-challenged man should have to speak in front of the mortal ruler of the most powerful empire on Earth? Couldn’t God have chosen a natural orator, a seasoned politician, even a classroom teacher? Why did he have to focus on a lonely desert shepherd for whom the extent of discourse up until then was probably limited to giving directions to sheep?

According to the Baal Haturim on Exodus 6:30, Moses needed to have faith that God has the power to rectify the situation. God chose Moses on purpose, knowing his limitations and perhaps even because of his limitations. God knows that Moses can and will overcome them. He just needed to be placed in the position to have the necessity to overcome his challenges. Otherwise, he may have forever remained incapacitated. What angered God about Moses’ fear and denial was his lack of faith. All that he needed to overcome was faith.

It was clearly not a simple or direct path for Moses, but eventually he acquires that faith and becomes the fundamental leader of the Jewish people.

May we each overcome our particular challenges and thereby merit to contribute in our own way to our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ed Stelzer. It’s incredible where challenges and faith can lead us and how roads diverge and then intertwine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gentle Strength

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-gentle-strength/

Netziv Numbers: Chukat

Gentle Strength

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  -Eric Hoffer

“Rotund” was the simplest way to describe the smiling, mild mannered professor who lectured us regarding ancient Near East archeology. However, what belied that gentle exterior was a martial arts master who could pulverize bricks with a single blow. During one particularly disruptive class the professor warned in a deceptively mild tone, which I remember decades later: “Don’t confuse niceness with weakness.” The class immediately quieted down.

Ancient enemies of Israel did confuse politeness with feebleness. Moses and the Israelites asked permission of the nations in their path in the desert to pass peacefully through their territory on their way to the Promised Land. According to the Netziv on Numbers 21:1, these nations assumed that Israel was nicely asking for permission because they didn’t have the strength to pass by force of arms. The nations saw such politeness as a sign of weakness and marched to war upon the presumably feeble Israel. What ensued was a massacre. Israel completely destroyed the entire armies and leadership of the two attacking kings of Sichon and Og and conquered their entire territory in a swift decisive victory that caused the entire region to tremble in fear of the approaching Israelites.

May our enemies learn to fear us and may we show strength to people who don’t understand gentleness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s army and security forces. May God protect them during their search for our sons: Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.

Complete Dedication

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tisah-complete-dedication/

Netziv Exodus: Ki Tisa

Complete Dedication

“Your powers are dead or dedicated. If they are dedicated, they are alive with God and tingle with surprising power. If they are saved up, taken care of for their own ends, they are dead.” -Eli Stanley Jones

In this Olympic season, it is inspiring to see the commitment, the dedication of athletes for their chosen goals. It is entertaining to see the seriousness with which they pursue their sports and the honor the winners receive.

However, when the Children of Israel rebel against God, by worshipping the Golden Calf, there is a much more serious game afoot. Moses basically calls for a civil war, adjuring his followers that “brother shall kill brother.” At the end, only the members of Moses’ own tribe, the Levites, join him. It would seem a battle fraught with danger. The members of one small tribe against wild, idolatrous masses from the rest of Israel.

The Torah recounts the casualty list at the end of the battle. Three thousand of the idol worshippers were slain. None of the Levites are reported as fallen. The Netziv on Exodus 32:26 wonders as to the extreme imbalance in the casualties of war. How did a much smaller force not lose a man while the larger rabble suffered what amounted to a massacre? (see the dramatization in my fictional account)

The Netziv explains that the answer can be found in the nature of Moses’ call for troops: “Whoever is for God, to me!” To the Netziv, it is more than a powerful rallying call. It is a selection criteria. Moses is recruiting those who are “for God” – but only “for God.” In this battle there was no room for those of mixed allegiance. There was no place for those who had doubts about God or were not wholly dedicated to Him. Only the purely devoted could fight, should fight and furthermore, because of their loyalty need not fear any hurt in the violent confrontation.

May we find and increase our dedication and thereby vanquish our fears.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Jacky Amzallag. I never met a man more dedicated to a synagogue than he was. His example was an inspiration. May his family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.