Category Archives: Numbers

Sin, Disease and Healing

Sin, Disease and Healing

Out of the many symbols modernity has inherited from the ancient world, one of the creepiest must be that of the medical profession. The serpent entwined around a rod always seemed to be an odd choice for healers.

Star of Life (w/Rod of Asclepius)
Star of Life (w/Rod of Asclepius)

The Rod of Asclepius, as it is formally known, gets its name and attribution from Greek mythology (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_of_Asclepius), however while reading this week’s Torah portion, one can’t help but conclude that as in many other things, the Jews were involved in the creation of this symbol first.

In Numbers Chapter 21, the Children of Israel complain against God and Moses (yet again!), and as punishment God sends “fiery serpents” that start biting and killing the complainers. The people admit that they sinned and Moses prays to God. Verse 8 and 9 are the response:

“God said to Moses: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a serpent of copper and placed it on the pole; so it was that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live.”

The physician, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, combines both a physical and metaphysical explanation of how the healing occurred. A few hundred years before fellow Europeans discovered the concept of vaccination (though there is undocumented evidence that Chinese and Indian healers knew this centuries before), Sforno discusses how substances taken from or related to a particular disease (in our case ‘fiery serpents’) could heal an ailing patient.

Sforno’s other point is that a medical ailment can actually be a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. Therefore the cure can only be attained by a spiritual correction.

In our case, Sforno explains that the Children of Israel sinned by evil speech towards God and Moses. Hence they were punished by the mouth of the snake. Combining the concept of inoculation with repentance, it becomes immanently logical that the cure would likewise involve a snake.

By Moses placing a snake high up on a pole, he both reminded the Jews of their sin and compelled them to look heavenward. If they repented, placed their trust once again in God, and accepted the bitter medicine of the truth, then they would be healed.

May we always be healed of whatever ails us, whether spiritual or physical, and may we find quick healing in our gaze Heavenward.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Dr. Moshe Wiesel. A man that has successfully recreated what I thought was an outdated profession – the village doctor. May he continue being an effective agent of healing for all of us and we wish him and us much luck and success in his founding of Alon Shvut’s Youth Minyan.

Polonius vs. Nachmanides

Polonius vs. Nachmanides

As my 14-year old son goes out for the first time to the broader world for the summer without parental supervision, I sought some worthwhile advice to impart to him.

One tidbit comes from Rabbi Ovadia Sforno.

In the rebellion of Korach, Datan and Aviram (Number Chapter 16), Moses warns the bystanders to stand aside and move away from the rebels. Sforno explains that even though the bystanders were innocent of any rebellion, this innocence would not protect them if they remained in close proximity to evildoing.

There are two more famous words of fatherly advice that literature has produced. One is the parting words of Shakespeare’s Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3:

“The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!”

The second stream of advice that I think is more comprehensive and interesting to compare is that of the non-fictional Ramban (Nachmanides) to his son Nachman. It is believed that the letter was written in Israel around 1267 in Acre (Akko), Israel and sent to Nachman in Catalina, Spain. The full letter is found in the back of many older siddurim. There are a number of books that give a more detailed analysis of this treasure that generations of Jewish father’s have passed on to their children. In contrast, Judaism has issues with some of Polonius’ philosophy, most notably on lending to the needy.

For those with limited patience for the Ramban’s medium-length but beautiful letter, I’ve summarized it below:

Listen my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the guidance of your mother:

–          Speak gently

–          Don’t get angry

–          Be humble

–          Fear God

–          Contemplate the above

–          Be in Awe of God

–          Guard against sin

–          Be happy with your lot

–          Let God’s spirit rest on you

–          Don’t be prideful

–          Remember, all are equal before God

–          Imagine you are always standing in front of God

–          Speak with reverence

–          Act with restraint

–          Respond gently to all

–          Study Torah diligently

–          Put learning into practice

–          Review your actions morning and evening

–          Purify your thoughts before prayer

–          Think before you speak

Review weekly

If you do so, heaven will answer your heart’s desires.

May our children be familiar with good advice, if not listen to it (and be able to tell the difference), and may we follow it ourselves for their sake, if not our own.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our son Eitan. A young man going to explore the world. God is with us. We just need to remember to be with Him.

For the full version of the Ramban’s letter, click here.

Unforgivable

Unforgivable

What do the following sins have in common?

–          Adultery

–          Incest

–          Bestiality

–          Homosexuality

–          Intercourse during menstruation cycle

–          Cursing God

–          Idol Worship

–          Desecrating the Sabbath

–          Eating forbidden fat

–          Eating leavened food on Passover

–          Eating or working on Yom Kippur

According to the Mishna (Tractate Kritut 1:1) a person who willingly commits any of the above is liable to “Karet”. “Karet” has a number of translations and interpretations. The most colorful is perhaps: “Your soul will be cut off for eternity”.

Maimonides however, in the Laws of Repentance 1:4 states that all of these sinners can reach complete forgiveness by having full contrition, repenting on Yom Kippur, and reception of tribulations.

Maimonides though adds one caveat: this is all true, unless in the process of sinning one ‘desecrated’ God’s name.

For those sinners who have also desecrated God’s name by their actions, they need contrition, Yom Kippur and tribulations, but also require Death to finally be forgiven of those sins.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno comes to a similar lesson from this week’s reading.

The notorious spies return from scouting the Land of Canaan (Numbers Chapters 13-14). They give a negative report about the land, inciting the people of Israel to despair. God, fed up with the complaining, unappreciative and faithless children of Israel, issues the famous punishment of wandering 40 years in the desert, slowly killing off that generation of sinners and never allowing them to enter the Promised Land.

The next day, a group of firebrands suddenly found faith in God and decided that they really could vanquish the resident Canaanites. Against Moses’ direct orders they go to battle and are duly routed.

Sforno explains that those firebrands were completely penitent.

God however did not forgive them.

Even though from an internal perspective these individuals had fully repented for their sin, the dimension of having desecrated God’s name in the process made their sin unforgivable until obviated by their death. Therefore, according to Sforno, even though these individuals had the best of intentions, God was no longer with them and they had little chance of success as their desecration of His name now colored their lives and actions.

It is said that every act of supporting Israel, loving it, and those that have the merit to ascend to the land are corrections for the enormous sin of the spies. It demonstrates the opposite of the desecration of God’s name – it is a consecration of His name.

May we always have the opportunity to consecrate God’s name each in our own way – and may we take advantage of those opportunities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Rabbi Ori and Toby Einhorn, who are going on Shlichut to Kfar Shmaryahu. Their lives are a consecration of God’s name. We wish them tremendous success in their efforts. I’m still holding out for a better deal than 40(!) camels for the shidduch of your daughter and my son.

Aliyah Faux Pas

Aliyah Faux Pas

I have erred. I have been guilty of harassing a sweet, kind and defenseless old lady. My only defense is that I hadn’t read this week’s Sforno until now, and that I considered the topic a central pillar of Jewish faith.

For many years now, I have been an unrepentant promoter of emigration of Jews to the State of Israel (Aliyah) to whoever broached the subject. However, with some particular individuals, I would raise the subject myself. One of my special victims, as it were, has been my wife’s grandmother. For years I have been trying to convince her of the advantages of leaving the often dreary restrictions of her apartment on Bennett Ave., in Washington Heights, NY to the more airy, scenic, pastoral setting of the Judean Hills.

Mrs. Tila Tocker, in her soft, sage and Yiddish-accented voice would kindly explain to me that it simply wasn’t happening. Next week, I’ll be celebrating 17 years of talking with her about the subject of Israel. Ever the optimist, I was never one to give up easily. However a story from 3,500 years ago and an explanation from 500 years ago have finally given me some further insight into the issue.

Numbers 10:29-33 tells us how Moses pleads with his father-in-law Yitro (Jethro, but called Chovav in the verse) to accompany them to Israel. Yitro answers:

“I will not accompany you, rather I shall return to my land and birthplace.”

Rabbi Ovadio Sforno gives an explanation of Yitro’s rationale that has put my discussion with the Tocker matriarch to rest:

“That in my old age I cannot withstand the air of a different land and its food.”

Sforno, the physician, implies that Yitro really did want to make Aliyah, however he knew that in his more advanced years it would be debilitating, if not fatal, for his body to adjust to a new environment.

Sforno goes on to explain though that Yitro’s sons did continue with the Jewish nation into the land of Israel, demonstrating the family’s desire for Aliyah.

While in modern times we have witnessed many elderly folk make successful and perhaps even rejuvenating Aliyah, I have a newfound understanding of those who choose not to — for medical as well as for a whole variety of legitimate and important reasons.

May we all make the most of where we are, and move from bad “air” to good “air” before we get too used to the bad.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the organization, Nefesh B’Nefesh (www.nbn.org.il). They have significantly increased the attractiveness, awareness, ease and actual Aliyah to Israel. God bless them.

Etymology

From Wikipedia

A faux pas (pronounced /ˌfoʊˈpɑː/, plural: faux pas /ˌfoʊˈpɑː(z)/) is a violation of accepted social rules (for example, standard customs or etiquette rules). Faux pas vary widely from culture to culture, and what is considered good manners in one culture can be considered a faux pas in another. The term comes originally from French, and literally means “false step”.

This expression is usually used in social and diplomatic contexts. The term has been in use in English for some time and is no longer italicized when written. In French, it is employed literally to describe a physical loss of balance as well as figuratively, in which case the meaning is roughly the same as in English. Other familiar synonyms include gaffe and bourde (bourde, unlike faux pas, can designate any type of mistake).

Women: “Don’t touch the merchandise”

Women: “Don’t touch the merchandise”

Saudi Arabia and many Moslem countries are notorious for their communal treatment of the fairer sex. Women have been burned alive for what they deem immodest dress; and what westerners would consider as criminal, brutal and barbaric acts are commonly perpetrated against women in the name of Sharia Law, modesty and family honor.

Jewish law, in contrast, is a world apart in its treatment of the issues of modesty and family purity. While the biblical punishment for adultery and incest are a harsh and final death penalty, it rests on the rigorous requirements of bringing qualified witnesses, proper warning to the parties involved, and serious judicial deliberation. According to Mishnaic accounts, the death penalty was rarely enforced (once in 70 years was considered a lot).

Probably because of the difficulty of proving or assessing any marital infidelity, God instituted another approach to the problem that was in effect during the time of the Temple: Sotah.

Numbers Chapter 5 states:

“Any man whose wife shall go astray and commit treachery against him; and a man could have lain with her carnally, but it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she became secluded and could have been defiled – but there was no witness against her – and she had not been forced; and a spirit of jealousy had passed over him and he had warned his wife…”

The Torah goes on to elaborate the conditions that trigger the Sotah ceremony, how it’s performed, the deadly results if she is guilty and the positive results if she is innocent.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno identifies a progression of three steps from the above verses as to the degeneration of the Sotah candidate:

  1. shall go astray” – she dresses immodestly
  2. commit treachery” – she kisses and hugs men besides her immediate family
  3. have lain” – outright adultery

For those that grew up in more permissive cultures and homes, one would assume that steps 1 and 2 have no correlation with adultery. In the modern western world, modesty is a relative term and we are witnessing less and less of it every day. Hugging and kissing members of the opposite sex are normal social conventions in many groups, almost the equivalent of a formal handshake.

Sforno, having grown up in Italy, the land that is credited with the development and popularization of the cheek kissing greeting, does not pull his punches though. Not only does he consider kisses and hugs an affront to the wife’s husband, he also states that it is a “desecration” against God himself.

May we always know who to kiss (and who not to), and may modesty always guide our lives in and out of the home.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my grandmother, Zahava Rosenthal on the occasion of her 87th birthday this Shavuot. A woman of great modesty and love. Happy Birthday! Feel good! Hugs and kisses! J

Starfleet Protocol and the Limits of Assertiveness

Starfleet Protocol and the Limits of Assertiveness

In the new “Star Trek” movie, the brash young Kirk tricks the stoic Spock into ceding authority via a rule of protocol (I don’t want to give away more than that). Though Kirk is regularly at the edge of acceptable military behavior and often tests the limits, he ultimately respects the code of conduct.

In the Starfleet universe, as in most military operations, what leads to a functioning organization is a clear chain of command, governed by written, understood, underlying and agreed upon rules and regulations.

The organization and operation of the Tribes of Israel in their desert wanderings are likewise guided by military protocol and precision. The feature that reaches perhaps the greatest level of detail is that which dictates the Temple/Sanctuary activities.

In Numbers, Chapter 4, there is significant focus on the logistics of transporting the various components of the Sanctuary. It warns that if the Levites responsible are not careful, the infraction would be so severe, that they would be deserving of the death penalty.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno gives an interesting interpretation on the matter. He advises that the Holy components cannot be left unattended or unassigned, lest it engender a struggle as to who would have the honor of carrying the item. The ensuing fracas to reach the item first could lead to pushing and shoving which would be completely inappropriate and disrespectful, especially in the Holy Sanctuary. Such lack of protocol is liable not merely to a ‘court martial’ but to an actual divine death sentence.

Sforno quotes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Yoma 23-24) where such a case occurred in the Temple. The lesson being imparted is that enthusiasm to do good, noble or holy deeds are correct and praiseworthy, but not when it involves running over other people or just basic impropriety. From Sforno it would seem that undue aggressiveness or even rudeness in the pursuit of ‘God’s will’ is not only unacceptable; it is actually considered by God to be a mortal sin.

God seems to be significantly more concerned with how we treat our fellow human (or Vulcan), than how we fulfill the more ritualistic commands.

May we always remember to give precedence to those around us over what may in reality be less important matters, and may we always know when to assert ourselves and when to step back in our life’s pursuits.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To JJ Abrams, Leonard Nimoy and everyone else that made the new “Star Trek” movie amazing. It is a pleasure to watch something that was so exquisitely produced. It even meets a Trekkie’s demanding criteria.