Category Archives: Numbers

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.

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.