Category Archives: Numbers

Elevating the Sparks (Masaei)

Elevating the Sparks (Masaei)

There are glimpses of heaven to us in every act, or thought, or word, that raises us above ourselves. -Arthur P. Stanley

 

In Jewish mysticism, Kabbala, there’s a concept of divine, spiritual sparks that are scattered and dispersed throughout the world. Many of these sparks are locked, imprisoned, bound to some mundane earthly reality, waiting to be unlocked, freed, released to return to the spiritual world, to return somehow to the divine source from whence they came.

Part of man’s task in this world is to find those sparks and free them. Many sparks are waiting, have been waiting for eons for specifically one person to come at an exact moment in time and through some positive act, some Mitzvah, free that spark and enable that spiritual ascendance, that consummation of a divine reunion that had been waiting for all of history.

The Torah portion of Masaei lists the forty-two different places where the nation of Israel camped during their forty-year sojourn through the desert. In some places they camped just for a day, in some they camped for years. The language the Torah uses to describe the stops alternates between and conjoins the term “journeys” (“Masaiehem”) and “outings” (“Motzaiehem”).

The Berdichever explains how a key purpose of each of these stops in their journey was to bring out (“Lehotzi” – the same verb as “outings”) the hidden divine sparks that were scattered throughout the desert.

In some locations, they were able to extract and elevate the spark quickly, hence they only needed a short visit. Some locations required years of effort to free the spark and therefore the long residence in those places. Different locations and different sparks also needed different types of effort. Some sparks could only be released by a divine service that focused on awe of God. Others could only be freed by demonstrating love of God. A third type of spark required a combination of both types of service, represented by the Kabbalistic attribute of “Tiferet” – glory.

By being in the right place, at the right time, for the right amount of time and performing the right actions, the nation of Israel was able to elevate the scattered and imprisoned divine sparks and reunite them with their original source.

May we use all of our sojourns to elevate the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Hillel and Yael Simon, for inspiring hosting of our family.

Directing God (Matot)

Directing God (Matot)

The best time for you to hold your tongue is the time you feel you must say something or bust. –Josh Billings

The beginning of the Torah reading of Matot introduces us to the laws of vows. In Jewish law, the words we use have importance. We must keep our word. We can’t say one thing and then do another, or not keep our word. Our word is truly our bond. The implications become even more severe when we phrase our statements as vows.

The Berdichever focuses on the language of the verse and specifically the key verb, “Yachel.” The verse can be read as follows:

“When a man vows a vow unto God or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not “Yachel” his word; he shall do according to all that came out of his mouth.” -Numbers 30:3

The classic translators interpret Yachel as “break”, meaning he shall not break his word, and that works well with the overall meaning of the verse. The Berdichever interprets according to the deeper origin of the verb, “Chulin”, meaning secular or profane. That would give us a sharper reading of “he shall not profane his word.” Don’t violate, defile, degrade, disrespect the words that come out of your mouth.

The Berdichever continues that whoever doesn’t want to profane his words is careful to adjust and correct every word that comes out of his mouth, to make sure that it is proper and that he can stand by it. He calls this “guarding of the covenant of the tongue.”

According to the Berdichever, guarding of the covenant of the tongue, namely watching what we say and keeping our word, bestows an incredible power upon its practitioner and is hinted to by the name of this Torah reading, Matot. Matot in the normal context means “tribes.” The verse is directed to the heads of the tribes of Israel. However, “Matot” also alludes to the concept of “leaning,” “turning,” or “directing” (“lehatot”).

The power alluded to in Matot, is that a guardian of the covenant of the tongue is bequeathed with the ability to somehow influence and direct God. A person of their word, a person who is careful with what they say can affect God’s decrees. They have the wherewithal to turn, to direct God’s stern decrees of justice to merciful results.

May we watch what we say, may we be people of our word and may we see strict justice converted into mercy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Sasson Kahen, on his Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

The Eternal Man (Pinchas)

The Eternal Man (Pinchas)

Higher than the question of our duration is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he would be a great soul in future must be a great soul now. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is a constant struggle. It is ultimately a struggle between our body and our soul. It is a fight between what our body desires and what our soul aspires. Eventually, for all, the struggle ends. We die. Our body and our soul part ways. Our lifeless body returns to the ground and the dust from where it originated. Our soul, laden with the experience of a lifetime, returns to the spiritual, immortal realm. In the afterlife, the soul will have to give an accounting of its poor choices in the mortal realm, as well as benefit from the reward for the better choices it made in the land of the living.

However, according to Jewish tradition, there is at least one man who has yet to experience that exact fate; one may who hasn’t died. That is Pinchas, the hero and namesake of this week’s Torah reading.

As the Israelite nation is camped in the desert, the neighboring Midianite women seduce as many Israelite men as they can get their hands on. It is a premeditated attack by Midian, for they know that God will severely punish the Israelites for their immorality.

And that is what happens. God sends a plague that devastates the Israelite nation. At the height of the mass Israelite/Midianite dalliance, a prince of Israel, Zimri of the tribe of Simeon, publicly couples with Princess Kozbi of Midian.

At this point, Pinchas reacts. Though he knows it may cost him his life to attack a prince of Israel, Pinchas kills Zimri and Kozbi during their romantic act. Pinchas’ vigilantism stops the plague, which at that point had already killed 24,000 Israelites.

The Berdichever explains that Pinchas had reached a uniquely sublime level in the struggle of his body versus his soul. When Pinchas attacked Zimri and Kozbi, he knew he was putting himself in mortal danger. He had basically decided to give up his life to defend God and the people of Israel. His self-sacrifice, his willingness to nullify himself, his body, for the greater good, made his body ethereal in a certain sense. It made him not just spiritually immortal, but also physically immortal. Apparently, this was also the level of Adam in the Garden of Eden before he sinned. Had Adam not sinned, he would have lived forever.

According to tradition, Pinchas is still alive and among us, under the guise of Elijah the Prophet. Though we ritually welcome Elijah to every Pesach Seder and every Brit Mila, there are stories throughout our history of a mysterious man, a stranger, appearing without warning at important junctures and disappearing without notice once his task his done.

May we catch glimpses of eternity in our mortal world and touch infinity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 50th anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon.

The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)

The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)

Make progress one time and it makes you happy. Make progress day after day, week after week and it makes you a champion. -Greg Werner

The Torah portion of Balak is unique in the sense that it is an account of the history of the young nation of Israel from the perspective of an enemy. It tells the tale of King Balak of Moav, who is fearful of the encroaching Israelite nation. Balak hires the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the nation of Israel during their wandering in the desert, before their entry into the Promised Land.

While Bilaam was known to be a powerful wizard capable of casting effective and destructive curses, in the Torah reading of Balak we have the almost-comic scenario of God forcing Bilaam to utter blessings over Israel instead of his intended curses.

Bilaam’s blessings are amongst the most graphic ones in the Torah and include the following:

“Behold, a people that rises like a lioness,

And as a lion lifts himself up,

Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,

And drunk the blood of the slain.” -Number 23:24

The Berdichever learns from the above blessing the importance of gradual improvement. The blessing starts off describing the rise of the lioness, but then shifts to the rising of the even more powerful lion.

Similarly, he explains, in our performance of commandments, we need to take them one step at a time. We may initially perform the commandments for selfish reasons, for expectation of some reward. Only after we’ve become accustomed to performing the commandments, after we’ve learned, understood and internalized their importance, can we hope to perform the commandments at the higher, more idealized level of doing them without any expectation of reward.

Hence the oft-repeated Talmudic maxim that one should perform the Mitzvot “not for their own sake (lo lishmah)”; for by doing them we will eventually come to perform the Mitzvot, as they should be done, “for their own sake (lishmah).”

The continuation of the blessing suggests additional levels of performance. “Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,” hints that once a person performs the Mitzvot for their own sake, they will encourage and raise other people to also perform Mitzvot, people who have previously fallen “prey” to their evil inclinations. And “drunk the blood of the slain,” alludes to fallen divine “sparks” that are like the “slain” that are raised and revitalized by the fulsome performance of the commandments.

May we continue on our paths of spiritual development, continuously learning and methodically doing what is right, and growing step by step as spiritual beings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbanit Dr. Avigail Rock z”l. May God comfort her family amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Ignorant Body (Chukat)

Ignorant Body (Chukat)

Ignorance is a voluntary misfortune. -Nicholas Ling

Judaism has a unique, specific and detailed relationship with death. It is neither afraid of death, nor does it worship that realm. Jewish law defines and circumscribes the parameters of how death interacts with our lives. One of the most fascinating aspects, which is explored in this week’s Torah reading of Chukat, is the law that exposure to a dead body conveys ritual contamination. The Torah also prescribes the process of ritual purification.

The Berdichever digs deeper to understand one of the possible reasons for why an inanimate body should make both people and objects “impure.” He analyzes the existential and constant battle between our bodies and our souls regarding the performance of God’s commandments.

Our physical, material selves are generally incapable of understanding the rationale for performing the Mitzvot. Our bodies are preoccupied with the myriad of desires and urges which drive us, with little interest in doing good, or being benevolent, or pursuing a spiritual life. Our bodies are ignorant. They are ignorant of the greater spiritual truth and reality of the universe. Our bodies are unaware and uninterested in God, in the divine, in our eternal souls. Our bodies are little more than dumb animals.

It is our soul that realizes the importance of the commandments. It is our soul that understands the reason and value of the Mitzvot and is driven to fulfill them. However, it has an often-uncooperative partner in the body. If the body would only know the reasons behind the commandments, it too would pursue their fulfillment relentlessly.

Nonetheless, while the body and the soul are joined, the soul can push the body, it can train the body, it can encourage the body to pursue a spiritual life. It has the power to direct the body away from its animalistic pursuits and lead it to a life of meaning and goodness.

However, once a person dies, once the soul has been separated from the body, the body reverts to the ignorant being it was before it housed the soul. That ignorance, that lack of a driving soul is what makes the dead body a source of impurity, of spiritual contamination.

The Berdichever adds a known caveat, that the graves of the righteous don’t convey impurity. Their souls refined their bodies to a point where their bodies were no longer ignorant. Their bodies, of their own volition, also desired to fulfill God’s commands. Their bodies were “educated” and pure, even in death.

May our soul’s desires override our bodies baser urges, and may we strive to be conveyers of purity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To 243 years of American independence.

Master’s Words, Disciple’s Actions (Korach)

Master’s Words, Disciple’s Actions (Korach)

It is not whether your words or actions are tough or gentle; it is the spirit behind your actions and words that announces your inner state. -Ching Ning Chu

The events in the Torah portion of Korach, the rebellion that Korach led against Moses, occurs after the Sin of the Spies and the decree of forty years of wandering in the desert. That generation of Israelites, known as the Generation of the Desert, would never cross the Jordan River, would never enter the Promised Land. Their children are the ones who would fight the battles, conquer the land, see the promise fulfilled.

The Berdichever explores some interesting differences between the Generation of the Desert, under the leadership of Moses, and the generation that entered Israel, under the leadership of Moses’ disciple, Joshua.

He takes his cue from the Hebrew word for desert (Midbar) which has the same root as the word “speaks” (Medaber) and demonstrates a deep connection in our story. Moses, the leader of the Generation of the Desert, accomplished things primarily via speech. In this week’s reading, Moses speaks, and God causes the earth to swallow the rebels. Moses is the great orator. He speaks with God. He speaks the word of God to the nation of Israel. Ironically, even though when we first meet Moses, he states his suffering of a speech impediment, he subsequently speaks more than any other person in the Torah. Moses undoubtedly has a divinely-powered faculty of speech.

Joshua on the other hand, the leader of the generation that entered Israel, is a man of action. When Israel fights Amalek shortly after their departure from Egypt, it is Joshua who leads the actual fighting. He continues to lead active battles when they enter Israel.

However, there is one curious exception. When Joshua conquers Jericho, the first city they encounter after crossing the Jordan, they conquer it exclusively by the sound of their voices and Shofar blasts. After a siege of seven days and an enforced silence upon the Israelite troops, Shofar blasts and the cries of the Israelite soldiers cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, decisively ending the siege without one armed strike.

The Berdichever explains that the miraculous conquest of Jericho was in merit of the Sabbath. The “audio” attack of Jericho occurred on the Sabbath. He quotes the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ARI), who elaborates as follows: The elevated, superior “mind” of the master (in this case, Moses), is not generally within reach of the disciple (Joshua). Moses’ mind was so powerful, so refined, that he was able to affect the world just by the power of speech. Joshua was not at the same level as Moses (the classic comparison is that if Moses was the sun, then Joshua was the moon). Joshua affected this world as most mortals do – through action. However, the Sabbath has a special quality which allows the disciple to grasp the mind of the master. It allows the disciple to possess, even if for a limited time, some of the powers, some of the capabilities of the master.

Joshua uses his master’s powers of speech to supernatural effect by causing, just with sonic waves, the walls of Jericho to fall.

May we realize the underlying powers of both speech and action and always use them for good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our daughter, Tiferet, on her graduation and moving on to high school! Mazal Tov!

When Heaven and Hell meet (Shlach)

When Heaven and Hell meet (Shlach)

How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man. -Johnny Cash

After the sin of the spies and the devastating punishment of forced wandering in the desert for forty years, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses. Korach seeks the priesthood, for himself and his followers, though that honor, of being a Kohen, had already been assigned by God to Aaron and his descendants.

The rebellion suffers a catastrophic and fatal failure when at Moses’ behest, God causes the ground to open and swallow Korach’s followers “alive into Sheol (hell).”

The Berdichever addresses the question as to why the members of Korach’s rebellion should have received such a particular and unusual punishment of going “alive into hell.” Why not just kill them as God had done and would do for multiple other infractions and rebellions? Why have them descend while they are alive to the realm of death?

He explains that it had to do with the complex nature of their sin. On one hand, Korach’s crew sought the priesthood. They wanted the privilege of serving God, of being the intermediaries in dealing with the ritual and spiritual needs of the nation of Israel. It is an honorable role and the fact that they wanted it indicated their desire to become more connected to God, to the source of life. On the other hand, that role had already been given to Aaron and his sons by God’s direct decree. To covet and seek that role was to go against God’s express desire, to detach themselves from God, to seek death.

Hence the reason why Korach and company went “alive to hell.” They sought to do a Mitzva via a sin. They sought to get closer to God, but in the same act, to separate themselves from God. They sought the source of life and the source of death. Therefore, their confused desires led to the unusual but reflective punishment of being both dead and alive, of being alive in the realm of death.

May we always have the clarity and the ability to distinguish between the sources of life and the sources of death; and choose life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Aaron Tirschwell, z”l. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.