Category Archives: Moses

Guarding the Guardian (Ekev)

Guarding the Guardian (Ekev)

Who will guard the guards themselves? -Juvenal

In the course of Moses’ righteous and justified anger at the people of Israel for their idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf, he breaks the newly received Tablets of the Law. The Midrash has God Himself praising Moses for this dramatic initiative. Commentaries explain that Moses had no other choice. The Jewish people had violated their recently minted covenant. If Moses hadn’t broken the Tablets, the physical manifestation of the covenant, God would have been more than correct to wipe out the newborn nation of Israel. By breaking the “contract” Moses in a sense was declaring that Israel isn’t bound by it anymore and therefore shouldn’t be liable for having violated it. Some view the breaking of the Tablets as an inevitable outcome of the Jews breaking faith with God.

However, no action, no matter how righteous or justified, is without its consequences. After Moses’ intercession and God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people, God commands Moses to prepare the second set of Tablets.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 10:1 explains that God is telling Moses: “You broke them, you need to restore them. I don’t want anyone complaining about you that you caused the nation of Israel to lose such a precious gift.” That’s why the order to Moses states “carve for yourself.” It’s for Moses’ personal benefit as well. It’s to protect Moses from reproach from the current generation or even from future generations who would realize the magnitude of the loss if it were not restored.

God also commands Moses to place the new set of Tablets in an Ark. The Bechor Shor adds that God doesn’t want Moses to bear them in his arms. God doesn’t want a repetition of the scenario where an angered Moses would break the Tablets again. God wants the Tablets guarded in an Ark, ironically, guarded from the great liberator, leader, teacher and guardian of the Jewish people. In essence, God wants to guard the guardian. God ultimately has Moses’ back.

May we always sense that God has our back and guards us, usually unbeknownst to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Jackie Mason z”l.

When to fear the powerful (Pinchas)

When to fear the powerful (Pinchas)

We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly. -Jean De La Bruyere

It is a scene of chaos. Multiple Israelite men are being openly promiscuous with Moabite and Midianite women in the Israelite desert encampment in contravention of God’s laws. God, enraged, orders Moses to kill the offenders. The prince of one of the tribes of Israel, Zimri prince of the tribe of Shimon, goes so far as to publicly couple with a Midianite princess. Moses and the rest of the leadership are shocked into inaction by this display of open rebellion by one of the nation’s leaders. At the same time, a virulent God-sent plague is killing thousands of men in a matter of moments. Bodies are dropping dead left and right.

This is when Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, steps in.  Pinchas takes a spear, and without preamble proceeds to skewer Zimri, prince of Shimon and the Midianite princess, Kozbi daughter of Tzur. The Torah tells us that Pinchas’ act stops the plague in its tracks, which reached an astonishing death toll of 24,000 during the course of the event.

God is effusive with his praise of Pinchas for his lone act of vigilantism. God promises Pinchas “a pact of peace.” A number of commentaries wonder as to the unusual if not ironic reward God promises Pinchas: peace as a reward for his violence.

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 25:12 explains that Pinchas might have thought he would have much to fear in terms of repercussions from the families of the prince and princess. These were powerful people and powerful families that he had pitted himself against. They had the means, resources and motivation to take revenge upon Pinchas. God is telling Pinchas that he will have peace; that these families won’t touch him or trouble him. God guarantees it. He is telling Pinchas that he was right to confront the evil head on and not worry at the time about the importance, position or power of the wrongdoers. Pinchas was in the right and God will protect him with an everlasting covenant of peace from tribulations of any vengeful relatives.

While it is wise to be wary of the powerful, may we always be on the side of right, no matter the power of those involved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Surfside building tragedy. May the mourners be consoled.

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand. -Bertrand Russell

There were multiple crises, challenges, and mistakes that occurred during the journey of the nation of Israel through the desert. Perhaps none were as dramatic and impactful as the Sin of the Spies. Moses chose twelve men, one from each tribe, each one a prince, a man of high character and position. He sent them on what should have been an easy and straightforward mission: Check out the land. Check out the land that was promised to us by our all-powerful God, the God who liberated us from the most powerful empire and army on the planet, the God who revealed Himself to us at Mount Sinai when the entire world shook from His presence.

However, ten of the twelve spies returned with a negative, disheartening report, which struck fear into the nation of Israel, causing them to cry, to rebel against God’s plans. God, in His fury, struck down the ten rebellious spies and decreed the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert to the rest of the nation.

The mission of the spies should have been just a formality. Why the need to check something God had promised would be a land “flowing with milk and honey”? If God could destroy the largest, most powerful military at the time in Egypt, why would there be any concern over the smaller, weaker vassal Canaanite city-states?

A related question is that with such promises and such Omnipotent strength on their side, why would Moses send spies at all? and once he did authorize such a mission, how could it have led to such calamitous results?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 13:33 explains that Moses had a significant divergence in his thinking from the ten spies. Moses indeed did not need to send spies, as he had no reason to doubt God’s promise. However, he thought it a good idea to send the spies as a preparatory scouting team. He had every intention of going into the land and the spies were an appropriate step to advance God’s promise, to check out the routes and the practical tactical steps they would take to conquer the land.

However, the ten spies had entirely different motives. Their motivation was to determine if Israel should venture into the land or not. They were less moved by God’s promise, but rather gave in to their fears and let their fears overtake the faith they should have had as direct witnesses and beneficiaries of God’s might.

Moses’ tragic error was that he attributed to the spies the same intentions he had. He incorrectly assumed that the spies were looking for practical means to implement God’s will. His assumption of their good intentions proved disastrous.

It’s nice to assume the best of people, but not when there’s reason to believe otherwise.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those fighting antisemitism.

What Was Aaron Thinking!? (Ki Tisa)

What Was Aaron Thinking!? (Ki Tisa)

I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere to go. My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day. -Abraham Lincoln

Aaron, Moses’ brother, is presented with a nigh-impossible dilemma. Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law from God, but he is apparently delayed in returning. The people are highly agitated by Moses’ delay and start clamoring for a new god. According to the Midrash, Hur, Aaron’s brother-in-law and co-leader during Moses’ absence refuses to give in to the demands of the crowd. He is subsequently killed by the enraged mob. Aaron fears he may be the next victim of the unruly crowd.

Aaron then commands that the crowd gather all the gold in their families’ possession and bring it to him. The crowd obliges. Aaron throws the gold into the fire and out comes the infamous Golden Calf, which members of the crowd rapidly announce to be Israel’s new god, just a number of weeks after they had heard the voice of God commanding them not to worship anybody or anything else.

Aaron, not missing a beat, builds an altar and declares that the next day will be a festival. God is furious with the development, threatens to destroy the entire nation and rebuild a new one from Moses and his descendants. Moses defends the nation of Israel, God relents and disaster is averted.

One of the fundamental questions is what was Aaron thinking? How could he facilitate the creation and worship of an idol? He must have known this was wrong.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 30:2 explains that the people of Israel weren’t asking for a new “god” but rather for a new leader to replace Moses. (The word Elohim in Hebrew can carry both meanings). Aaron wanted to stall the process in the hope that Moses’ return would make the request mute. Aaron was hesitant to name some other distinguished personage as the new leader, for when Moses would return, the new leader may not want to relinquish his new appointment, which in turn would lead to fighting and bloodshed. Likewise, if Aaron did nothing, the people themselves would appoint a leader, leading to the same situation. If Aaron were to appoint himself, Moses might think he was illegitimately usurping power.

Whatever path he might have chosen would have ended in disaster. Therefore, Aaron came up with the idea of asking for the peoples’ gold as a delaying tactic. He was hoping they wouldn’t be so eager to part with their riches. When they did, he used it to construct an empty symbol, and even then he continued to delay things announcing that the celebration will be held the next day. His hope was that if he stalled, occupying the mob with empty and worthless pursuits instead of creating a leadership battle when Moses would return, the situation would then be defused more easily. He may have been right and that might have been the best path he could have taken from a variety of unsavory choices.

May we only be challenged with a variety of good choices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Pesach cleaning. Now it begins.

The Sin of Waiting (Yitro)

The Sin of Waiting (Yitro)

How much of human life is lost in waiting. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The nation of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, after their mind-boggling Exodus from Egypt, after their miraculous crossing of the Sea, after their successful defeat of the Amalekite attack, finally enter a more tranquil existence at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Jethro, High Priest of the nation of Midyan and the father-in-law of Moses is reunited with Moses during this period of tranquility. The next day, Jethro sees Moses at work. Moses sits from morning until night, singlehandedly judging the entire Jewish population. People are waiting in line the entire day to see Moses, to seek his council, or have him adjudicate their case. Jethro is incensed and reprimands Moses:

“What you’re doing isn’t good. You will wear yourself away as well as this nation that is with you.”

Jethro, perhaps the first management consultant in history, goes on to recommend to Moses how to set up a judicial system. He includes a description of the character of the judges to appoint, the number of judges, and the entire structure of the system, which Moses goes on to implement.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 18:14 wonders as to why Jethro was so disturbed by Moses’ initial attempt to singlehandedly judge the entire nation himself. He answers that the main problem was that Moses was forcing all the people who were seeking help to wait. He mentions that some people would end up waiting in line the entire day and were still not be able to see Moses. There were probably uncounted thousands of man-hours that were lost by hordes of Jews just waiting in line, unable to do anything else at that time, with time and energy completely wasted.

That is what upset Jethro so much: the needless waiting, the wasted time, especially when it was possible to set up a significantly more efficient system whereby every plaintiff could have their case heard rapidly and effectively. This system also freed up Moses from his self-imposed burden, allowing him to do higher-value functions and at the same time empowering an entire community of judges to practice Torah law, leadership, and justice.

May we respect other people’s time, and they ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of our son Elchanan to Zavi Lava. Mazal Tov!

Preventative Spiritual Medicine (Beshalach)

Preventative Spiritual Medicine (Beshalach)

By two wings a man is lifted up from things earthly: by simplicity and purity. -Thomas Kempis

After the Ten Plagues, after the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds and crossing on dry land within the sea, after the drowning and destruction of the Egyptian forces, Moses leads the freed Jewish nation into the desert. They walk for three days without finding water. On the third day, they find a stream, but its waters are bitter. Then, the Jewish people start what is to become an ongoing occurrence throughout their desert journey: they complain. Under God’s direction, Moses places a nearby piece of wood into the water, thereby sweetening the water and making it drinkable for the Jewish nation.

Immediately after this incident, God makes the following statement:

“If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 15:26 tries to dig deeper into what God is referring to regarding the contrast between the diseases brought upon Egypt and preventing those same diseases from afflicting the Jewish nation, as well as the relationship between health and observance of the commandments.

He explains that it has to do with what we often call ritual purity. There are certain foods, creatures, situations, and people that we are commanded to avoid. The Egyptians paid no heed to such things and the Jewish nation got to witness firsthand the plethora of plagues and diseases that struck Egypt.

It seems that the many ritual commands, among other things, can also provide some measure of protection against those diseases. The Bechor Shor explains that the foods we are prohibited from eating are intrinsically foul and have the potential to corrupt not only our spiritual being but also to harm our physical bodies. All the laws of ritual purity, of the need to physically distance ourselves from those who are even temporarily ritually impure, are meant to prevent the transmission of some disease, that we currently can’t perceive nor understand.

May we take appropriate precautions to safeguard our health and that of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Tu B’Shvat, our annual tree holiday.

Calling God’s Bluff (Bo)

Calling God’s Bluff (Bo)

It is sometimes necessary to lie damnably in the interests of the nation. -Hilaire Belloc

There is a common misconception about what Moses requested from Pharaoh. We’ve heard the popular “Let my people go” refrain, implying that Moses was asking for complete freedom from slavery and permanent departure from Egypt. That is not accurate. Though freedom was the final intention, what Moses repeatedly asks from Pharaoh is much more limited and specific. He asks that Pharaoh let the people go on a three-day journey into the desert where they will worship God and celebrate.

At some point in the discussions, Pharaoh gives in and says, “ok, you can go to the desert to worship your God,” but he asks, “who is going?” Moses answers: “Everyone, men, women, elderly, and children.” Pharaoh’s response is “no way. Just the men can go.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 10:10 wonders as to what’s going on. Why does Pharaoh care who goes to worship? He answers that Pharaoh saw through Moses’ façade. He understood that they didn’t intend to just “worship”, but rather that they planned to completely escape. That’s why Pharaoh stubbornly refuses. In one sense he’s calling Moses’ bluff. “You want to go worship? Fine. You’re free to go, but you need to leave your women and children behind until you return.” Moses couldn’t accept the offer which is why he doubles down and insists that everybody needs to go.

Having God on his side didn’t hurt Moses either, so when subsequent plagues strike Egypt culminating in the devastating Death of the Firstborns, not only does Pharaoh finally agree to Moses’ terms, but he and the Egyptian people can’t get them out fast enough. The entire Jewish people are freed to go on the three-day journey to the desert to worship God. Only after that does Moses activate the next step of the plan, to take the Jewish people out of the Egyptian empire entirely.

May we see clearly through the facades in front of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Eitan Orbach and Tzivya Graff on their marriage. Mazal Tov!

Magic versus Miracles (Vaera)

Magic versus Miracles (Vaera)

For the truly faithful, no miracle is necessary. For those who doubt, no miracle is sufficient. -Nancy Gibbs

God sends Moses to free the Jewish people from bondage. Moses demands from Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves time off to go to the desert to serve God. Pharaoh condescendingly declines. Then ensues a macabre back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, interspersed by the famous Ten Plagues. Moses keeps asking for the people to be freed. Pharaoh declines. A plague hits. However, we also see Pharaoh’s reactions evolve, from outright denial to conditional and grudging agreement on which he immediately reneges once the particular plague has passed.

The first and perhaps most famous plague is the plague of blood. Aaron, Moses’ brother and co-conspirator, uses Moses’ staff and strikes the water of the Nile River. All the water turns to blood. The life source of Egypt has now turned to a source of death. All the fish in the Nile die, polluting the river and making the water undrinkable.

Curiously, we are told by the Torah that Pharaoh’s sorcerers are somehow able to replicate this feat, turning water into blood as well. This capacity leads Pharaoh to believe that Moses and Aaron’s plague of blood was not of divine nature, but rather some magical ability. He refuses to free the Jewish people.

A common question that is asked about the event is that if Aaron turned all the water to blood, what water did Pharaoh’s sorcerers convert to blood? especially, given the tradition that all of the water in Egypt turned to blood, not just that of the Nile.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 8:20 explains that the plague of blood lasted for just a short while. However, that short while was enough to kill all of the fish in the Nile and contaminate the water for an extended period, making it undrinkable. Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to use their sorcery on the contaminated but no-longer-blood water of the Nile, transforming it again into blood. Pharaoh sees his sorcerers replicate Moses’ and Aaron’s miracle before the full extent of the plague is felt. That, combined with his sorcerers’ ability to mimic the miracle, underwhelms Pharaoh and he duly declines the request to free the Jewish slaves.

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh continues to “harden his heart” in the face of the progressive plagues and miracles, rejecting God as well as denying the Jewish people their freedom. Eventually, he and the Egyptian nation pay severely for their lack of faith and compassion.

May we appreciate the daily blessings and miracles that fill our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the peaceful transfer of government power. Not to be taken for granted.

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.