Category Archives: Bamidbar

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.

Patrilineal Descent (Bamidbar)

Patrilineal Descent (Bamidbar)

One of life’s greatest mysteries is how the boy who wasn’t good enough to marry your daughter can be the father of the smartest grandchild in the world. -Yiddish Proverb

In antiquity, it seems that the nations of the world would determine a person’s lineage through their mother. Perhaps because promiscuity was so pervasive, one could never be sure of the father’s identity. Likewise, there are echoes of the female connection to one’s ancestry in the term “motherland” (though one can make a converse argument based on the word “fatherland”).

The Berdichever explores this theme, when in the beginning of the Book of Numbers, in the Torah reading of Bamidbar, God instructs Moses to count the army-age men of Israel. A phrase that keeps getting used in the request for the count, is to do so “according to their families, to their father’s house.”

The Berdichever explains that the word “nation” in Hebrew (Umah) has the same root as the word for “mother” (Imah) and that it was well known at the time that all the nations gave their lineage through their mother’s side.

However, the nation of Israel, after God’s revelation to them, after receiving the Torah, merited a new level of lineage determination. They were asked and commanded to henceforth present their ancestry based on who their fathers were.

In requesting the count, the literal translation of the command is “raise the head of all the children of Israel, according to their families, to their father’s house.”

The term “raise the head” comes to highlight how this new way (three millennia ago), this different criteria of showing and determining one’s ancestry through their father was a new higher level. Perhaps because it showed the strength and commitment of the bonds of marriage, where the children of Israel could feel with confidence that the child was indeed the father’s child and not of any other man. The Egyptian and Canaanite cultures at the time were highly promiscuous and the Torah strongly condemned such behavior and legislated for the Jewish people matrimonial fidelity.

It is curious how millennia later, presenting one’s lineage, or at least the last name, based usually on the father’s last name, has become so predominant throughout the world.

It is interesting that in Judaism, while one’s tribal status, and nowadays whether one is considered a Kohen or a Levi, is still determined by the father, the underlying Jewishness is determined by the mother.

May we be worthy of our lineage from all sides, and may our ancestors be proud of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the dozens of families who lost their homes and all their belongings in the recent blazes in Israel. May God restore your homes and possessions quickly.

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Am I willing to give up what I have in order to be what I am not yet? Am I able to follow the spirit of love into the desert? It is a frightening and sacred moment. There is no return. One’s life is charged forever. It is the fire that gives us our shape.  -Mary Caroline Richards

The fourth book of the Five Books of Moses, the book of Numbers, is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. It means “in the desert.” In the first sentence of the book, God orients us as to where and when we are in the story of our ancestors. We are in the Sinai Desert on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt.

The most important event after the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah in an historic divine revelation on Mount Sinai.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on that first sentence, Numbers 1:1 (Bamidbar) quotes the Midrash which states that the Torah was given via three things: fire, water and desert. Both blazing fire and a downpour of water accompanied the giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel in the desolation of the Sinai desert. There are pure, elemental forces at work here.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that just as all three of those elements: fire, water and the desert, are free to all that want it, so too the Torah is free and available to all those who wish to acquire it.

Additionally, the symbolism of the Torah being given in the desert is that just as the desert is “Hefker,” ownerless, so too a person who wishes to truly acquire the Torah must also make themselves “Hefker,” ownerless, without any other master but God, and the desire to acquire His Torah, His rulebook.

When one taps into the forces and elements around us, to free ourselves of extraneous masters, we are able to acquire the wisdom, the insight, the light, the wellbeing and the strength that the Torah can impart.

May we become free of the extraneous and focus on the basic, the essential and the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the community of Aish Kodesh (literally “Holy Fire”) of Woodmere, NY.

Nation of Individuals

Nation of Individuals

Never be afraid to tread the path alone. Know which is your path and follow it wherever it may lead you; do not feel you have to follow in someone else’s footsteps. -Gita Bellin

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers, God commands Moses to count the army-age men of Israel. They number around 600,000 men above the age of twenty. However, the Torah goes into much more detail than just the final tally of the census. It breaks down the count according to each tribe. It provides the name of each tribe prince. It goes as far as naming the different family clans within each tribe.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 1:1-2 explains that the fact that the Torah describes that level of organizational detail demonstrates that it wasn’t merely an unorganized assembly. Each tribe, each family and each individual counted. Each individual had a unique contribution to the nation that only he could contribute as part of his sub-unit and as part of the whole. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“The community cannot exist as an abstract idea but can have true being only in terms of the totality of it components. At the same time, each member of the community is made aware that he personally “counts” as an important constituent of this totality, and that the task to be performed by the nation as a whole requires every one of its members to remain true to his duty and purposefully devoted to the vocation he shares with all the others.”

Indeed, it is easy to let the burden of the community’s needs be carried by others. There are many who have organizational strengths, passion, time and resources to invest. However, don’t doubt that there is a special and unique purpose that is the domain and prerogative of every single individual. There is a strength, a capacity, a contribution that if we do not make, will be lacking and no one else can ever make it up. The whole will be incomplete. That voice, that hand, that smile will be missing.

May we understand what our individual mission and purpose are and bring our gifts, our talents and our unique capabilities to bear within the totality of the community of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst and their outstanding Rabbinic and communal leadership.

Temporal Independence

 

Temporal Independence

 Infinite-timeTo see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.  -William Blake

As finite time-dependent beings, we find ourselves chained to the inexorable march of time. There is no moving ahead, backward, to the sides or even pausing. The seconds tick by whether we like it or not. The Torah on the other hand has a much more complex and sophisticated relationship to time. In many accounts it is purposely ambiguous, providing little or no information as to when events take place.

However, in many places, the Torah makes sure to mark the year, month, day and location of specific occurrences, as it does at the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar).

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) argues that the Torah itself is above time and nature. However, by signaling specific times, by in a sense lowering itself to the human preoccupation with time, it is providing us with a signpost of where our own time-dependent efforts should be involved.

Namely, our job is to bring the infinite, divine, non-temporal Torah into our finite, mundane, temporal time stream. Though not of our world, nor of our dimensional frames of reference, the Torah was designed for our very physical world. That is why it presumably goes out of its way to make reference to dimensions we are familiar with, time and space. It is inviting us, asking us, demanding of us, to bring it, the Torah, into our world, our domain and our lives.

May we make that connection between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. It just takes time.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bat Mitzvah girls of the Integral School on their outstanding performance. Your time has come.

 

 

Deathless Future

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bamidbar-deathless-future/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Bamidbar

Deathless Future

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying. -Woody Allen

immortal

 

Western man is allergic to death. We try to avoid it, escape it, ignore it. We don’t want it mentioned. If we close our eyes, perhaps it won’t notice us. The counterpoint to death-avoidance is the desire to want to live forever. To be forever young.

Interestingly, the Torah also has a death-avoidance culture, but one that translates into ritual “impurity” if one is in contact with death, and which subsequently can be “purified”. Within the Jewish people, there is a subgroup that is commanded as a whole to avoid death. They are the Kohanim, the priestly descendents of Aharon, the original High Priest (Kohen Gadol).

While death is a fact of life, there are some hints that it is not necessarily a permanent arrangement.

In describing the work that the sons of Aharon, the Kohanim, must do in the Tabernacle, the Torah ends the description with the warning, that if they follow the rules, “they will live and they will not die.”

Why the redundancy? It would seem obvious that if someone is going to live they will not die.

The Baal Haturim explains that this is a prophetic hint. On the verse in Numbers 4:19 he details that at some future date, in some eschatological reality, the very Angel of Death will be annulled. Death will have no more sway over humanity.

Humans, or whatever we will be in that future (disembodied souls?) will indeed somehow live forever.

May we be beings worthy of eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuoth Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our departed loved ones, who we believe we will be reunited with in some future reality.

Overqualified

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bamidbar-overqualified/

Netziv Numbers: Bamidbar

Overqualified

“Few men during their lifetime come anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them. There are deep wells of strength that are never used.” -Richard E. Byrd

The beginning of the Book of Numbers reintroduces us to Aaron the High Priest and to his sons. His two eldest, Nadav and Avihu, we are reminded, died while bringing the unauthorized “strange” fire during the consecration of the Tabernacle, where they were immediately struck by divine fire.

Aaron’s two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are introduced with an unusual phraseology, “and they served as priests, Elazar and Itamar, over the face of Aaron their father.”

The Netziv on the verse (Numbers 3:4) explains that by mentioning Elazar and Itamar in this fashion, the Torah is telling us that in fact, these two sons were already at a high enough level of sanctity and devotion that they were each worthy of serving as High Priest. However, Elazar needs to wait almost forty years to take over his father’s role and we have no account of Itamar, the youngest son, ever filling that prestigious position, even though he was qualified. Instead, we see Itamar having secondary managerial roles in the Tabernacle, always in the shadow of his illustrious father and his more honored older brother – though Itamar is not any less qualified for the important tasks.

Each person has hidden strengths, talents and potential that their current circumstances don’t give them the freedom to develop or use. That does not diminish the individual, nor are they free to ignore such attributes. One must seek where they can best use their strengths for the tasks at hand.

May we have opportunities to use as much of our potential as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the upcoming Hebrew Studies teachers of Integral whom I’ve had the great privilege of teaching. May they fulfill their teaching potential and pass on our heritage to many students.

 

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi, May 10, 2013

Friday May 10, 2013

Rules of the Game

Rabbis are privy to a whole gamut of personal issues, domestic anguish, political intrigue and other sins and scandals that are just below the sensors of the general public. These are often dramatic stories, historical novellas and enough juicy material to make a tabloid blush.

Being the formal Rabbi of a country may brings these themes to a whole new level.

Inquiring minds however, will be disappointed. I will not be sharing much of the filth, dirt, backstabbing, idiocy, lunacy, pig-headedness and outright insanity that are the purview of successful newscasters. I will not divulge any story where there is the slightest possibility of either the innocent or the guilty being identified, or where a member of the community will find offense. It gives me very limited use of my material…

However, I am a writer. The need to write is in my blood. I look at the world with the eyes of a writer, noting setting, context, texture, story, details to populate the page. And there are wonderful stories here.

I want to write a story of the people of the Rambla, the miles-long boardwalk that to me represents the ease and tranquility of the city. Couples jogging, lovers walking, families strolling, fisherman casting their lines to the sea with faith and hope that their measly bait will entrap a scrumptious dinner. I noticed a number of people with their backs resting against the red-stone pillars that are spaced every few meters along the edge of the seawall. They were writing, drawing, sketching, listening to music. And some just sat there looking out to the sea. I don’t know what they sought there, or what they had lost. Perhaps just the soothing rhythm of the waves lapping the edge of the city gave them solace after a long day.

There must be an architectural school nearby, for there were a few people looking exactingly at seafront buildings over the top of their pencils.

But back to the Rabbi business. I had my first real halachic (Jewish law) question this week for which I did not have a ready answer. The mashgiach (Kosher overseer) of one of the Jewish schools which is under our supervision was asked if oil that was used to cook fish can thereafter be used to cook meat. We’re talking about industrial-sized cooking and a lot of oil. He had instructed the school not to, but was not sure. I suspected that he was right, but did not recall the source myself. Thanks to the support and responsiveness of other Rabbis that have agreed to be “on call” for me, I received a rapid answer. It turns out we were right. One cannot use oil that was used to cook fish for meat afterwards. For those halachically oriented some sources include Yoreh Deah 116:2, based on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 77B. Also, שות דברי שלום ב, קיב; קנין תורה ה, צא. (Special thanks to Rabbi Don Channen of Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim and Rabbi Michael Rubinstein, Rabbi of Yavne, Montevideo).

Part of my job, is the religious leadership of what some have termed a “non-observant Orthodox Jewish community”. For those that have grown up in a strictly Orthodox environment and even for those who choose to move from a secular life to one that is more in tune with an Orthodox lifestyle, the concept of a non-observant Orthodox community may seem perplexing. And indeed, there is a built-in dichotomy that can be maddeningly incomprehensible, illogical and even contradictory. However, it is the reality and it works to a certain extent. I believe that it requires a mental and existential balance that will only function via practice. It is probably a good thing that I have been a part of Yeshivat Har Etzion and been an avid consumer of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings where dichotomy, apparent contradiction, differing philosophies and viewpoints can find peaceful coexistence. Hopefully, I’ll write much more on this in a politically sensitive way in the future.

This just in. Have been invited to Yitzhak Perlman concert this Sunday night. Rank Hath Its Privileges!

Lions of Israel

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bamidbar-lions-of-israel/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Bamidbar

Lions of Israel

“True courage is a result of reasoning. A brave mind is always impregnable.” -Jeremy Collier

There are multiple accounts of the miracles of the Six Day War, when in the summer of 1967, against all odds, Israel not only survived, but prevailed over the Arab countries that had vowed to eradicate our homeland.

My father, then an American student, was one of a handful of volunteers that boarded a plane and contributed to the war effort. This was just two months before his scheduled wedding day, and despite protests and concerns of his family and bride he entered the war zone.

Though he was stationed in a rearguard position, he was spared from any fighting due to the surprising turns of the war.

Ibn Ezra on Numbers 1:19 equates an army’s frontline with the rearguard, from our ancestors in the desert:

“Know that there were no tribes as brave as the tribe of Judah who was compared to a lion, and the tribe of Dan, who was likewise compared (to a lion) by Moses, and therefore they were positioned in the front and in the back (of the army of Israel).”

May we ever have lions to inspire us and give us courage to undertake risky adventures for the sake of our brothers.

Shabbat Shalom and belated Yom Yerushalayim Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my father, Elliot Spitz, and to all the soldiers of Israel and for the miracle of regaining our ancient capital after millennia which we celebrated yesterday, Jerusalem Day.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi, May 7, 2103

 

Rambla

The “Rambla” boardwalk of Montevideo

Monday May 7, 2013

Loving Montevideo!

So I have to admit that I was becoming resigned to a less than pretty neighborhood. The street I had become used to walking from the hotel to the synagogue was dark from tall somber trees and I needed to keep my eyes on the ground because of the highly uneven sidewalks littered with dog residue. I figured that’s just another price of shlichut (the Hebrew term for going abroad on a conceptually noble mission to do something for fellow Jews).

But then two things happened. I was invited to leave the not-inexpensive hotel and temporarily move in with an extremely hospitable family until I could find more reasonable accommodations.

The second thing was that I was tiring of taking taxis to the not-that-far office. So I bought a bike. I haven’t really biked since my biking accident when I broke my ankle over a year and a half ago. Only after I schlepped the new bike up to my office did I realize I only have my suit on and not my usual biking gear and I needed to transport my briefcase and trenchcoat as well. To make a medium-length and unusual-looking story short, I took to the streets of Montevideo with my briefcase over my shoulder, my trenchcoat tucked precariously between the straps and my tie flapping in the wind. The streets were mine!

There is no better way to discover a city than to get lost, and there is no better way to get lost than on a bicycle. I made it from the semi-commercial area of my office through older semi-abandoned areas of the city to the boardwalk. The boardwalk is wonderful. It doesn’t have the classic busyness of Copacabana or the energy of Tel-Aviv. It’s more of a rustic laid-back boardwalk, with brick-red tiles making an unusual contrast with the grey sea flecked lightly with white breakers and the occasional jogging couple. Nonetheless, at that moment it was majestic. There is nothing like a cool salty breeze blowing through your hair as you speed down the beachfront with the Atlantic by your side.

I eventually made it to my hosts’ house, dropped off my briefcase and trenchcoat and proceeded to get lost again on my way to the synagogue. But what a beautiful detour! I discovered parks and fountains and elegant streets. Beautiful apartment buildings, fancy stores and pretty houses. It turns out those few measly blocks I was walking from the hotel to the synagogue are probably the ugliest I’ve seen in Montevideo – and I thought that was what the rest of it looked like!

I think I caused of little bit of a stir as I rode into the synagogue complex on my bike. After people got over the surprise, they smiled and one said it was entirely appropriate for Uruguay.

In sadder news, yesterday a mother of four in her mid-forties passed away. In Montevideo, they’ve developed an unusual custom of sitting shiva (the 7-day Jewish mourning period) in the synagogue between the afternoon and evening prayer, as opposed to the almost universal custom of sitting shiva at home (more on the reasons in a future post, perhaps). There was quite a large turnout for the shiva. There were people in the crowd who had probably not been to synagogue or participated in prayer services in many years.

In contrast to the hominess I’m used to in a shiva house, I think there may be some advantages to the greater structure and formality of this synagogue shiva, especially for people who are more distant from religious services. Rabbi Michael, the Rabbi of the synagogue was masterful in conducting the services and in his sermon, giving true comfort to the family.

This past Sunday was also the “Classico” which I learned meant a match between the two popular local soccer teams. As a dutiful guest I participated in watching the match on TV together with the male relatives of my hosts. It is quite enjoyable to comment on the skill or lack thereof of players, coaches and referees and to moan and groan at the action. It turns out this was a highly valuable exercise as this was all most males have spoken about today and I have already chosen which player to pick on in my comments on the game (Novick of Peñarol).

For those who might be thinking I am shirking my rabbinical duties, rest assured that I am being kept busy with all matters rabbinic. Today was the inauguration of the community’s revamped clothing gemach (charitable organization) at which I was the keynote speaker and I also had a meeting with the community board to report on my assessment and plans for the rabbinate. And it’s only Monday!