Category Archives: Parsha

Planetary Casualty (Noach)

Planetary Casualty (Noach)

We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. -Adlai Stevenson

The Generation of the Flood was pretty bad. They were so bad that God regretted creating them. However, instead of wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch (as the Midrash states happened multiple times before), God famously saves Noah and his family, as well as a male and female of every animal on the ark, which Noah was conveniently commanded to build. God subsequently drowns the rest of humanity, the animal kingdom, and the world in what most ancient civilizations referred to as “The Flood.”

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 6:13 wonders as to why the rest of the world needed to suffer if it was primarily man who was guilty of doing evil in God’s eyes? Why did almost all of the animal life on the planet need to be destroyed? Why was the earth ravaged by the destruction of the Flood? Why not just punish man exclusively?

The Bechor Shor explains that the rest of the world, in fact, the entire planet, has only one reason for existence: Man! The world was created for man. The world was created to support and provide sustenance, shelter, and resources to man; and man was enjoined by God to eke out a living from the earth, to cultivate the earth, to develop it, to conquer it, to mine its riches and build himself and civilization (as so eloquently articulated by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik when describing “Majestic Adam” in his monumental “The Lonely Man of Faith”).

As such, when God punishes humanity, the devastation of the world is merely collateral damage. The planet along with all of its minerals, flora, and fauna, has no reason to exist without man. Therefore, when man is punished, the planet suffers as well.

As much as man needs a healthy planet, the planet needs healthy man. It needs an ethical, moral, spiritual man who will remain worthy of the planet’s munificence, but who will also not overexploit its bounty. Man who will not pollute and toxify its air and water resources, who will not mine and dig and drill and blast without a care as to the repercussions, be it to the land, the animals, as well as to the native human populations.

May we enjoy the beautiful planet God has created for man, responsibly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the speedy recovery of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu among all those in need of recovery.

The Tree of Eternal Health (Bereshit)

The Tree of Eternal Health (Bereshit)

The healthy, the strong individual, is the one who asks for help when he needs it. Whether he has an abscess on his knee or in his soul. -Rona Barrett

God creates the world. He creates Adam and Eve. He places them in the Garden of Eden. He commands Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thanks to the incitement of the serpent and the prompting of his wife, Eve, Adam eventually eats from the Tree. God confronts Adam, Eve and the serpent, pronounces their eternal punishments, including mortality, and banishes the human couple from the Garden, lest they eat from the Tree of Life and somehow achieve the immortality God had just pronounced that they had lost.

This raises the question as to why Adam and Eve didn’t eat from the Tree of Life in the first place. They had been warned that eating from the Tree of Knowledge carried a death sentence. Why not immediately eat from the Tree of Life after their crime and perhaps save their eternal existence?

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 3:22 explains the workings of the Tree of Life. It wasn’t that you partook of the fruit of the tree and it granted you eternal life from that moment forward. Rather, it was a tree of eternal healing. If one became sick, eating from the tree healed them. If one felt weak, the tree strengthened them. If one felt the onset of ageing, the tree would rejuvenate them. However, if one were healthy, strong, and young, it would have no effect.

Therefore, Adam and Eve must have known that in their young, strong and healthy state, eating from the Tree of Life would have no effect. That too is the reason God had to banish them from the Garden. If they would continue to live in the Garden, when they eventually did age or get sick, they would have a quick remedy within easy reach, thereby prolonging their lives forever.

Another interesting point is that the Sages state that the Tree of Life is none other than the Torah. The verse in Proverbs states that the Torah is “A Tree of Life to those who grasp it.” The Talmud expands on the healing properties of the Torah and gives a whole list of ailments that it can heal.

May we partake of our easily accessible Tree of Eternal Health, the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Mrs. Lucy Stelzer z”l.

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Time is not what you think. Dying? Not the end of everything. We think it is. But what happens on earth is only the beginning. -Mitch Albom

After 120 years of life, after confronting Pharaoh, after taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt, after leading them to Mount Sinai, after speaking to God as no mortal ever has or will, after receiving the Torah and relaying it to the Nation of Israel, after bringing them to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses dies. He dies somewhere on Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, and is buried there by God.

The Torah tells us that no man knew the place of his burial.

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 34:5 tries to understand the significance of the verse.

He explains that when a mortal being dies, the person’s soul remains attached to its corpse in some fashion for three days and that for the subsequent twelve months the soul “goes up and down.” Somehow, the connection between the burial place and the soul isn’t completely or immediately severed at death.

However, Moses was different. Moses had elevated his soul to incredible heights while still alive. He was able to survive an intimate encounter with God. He was able to survive 40 days and 40 nights without food or water. He was as far removed from materialism and the physical world as humanly possible. Therefore, when he died, he barely felt it. He simply walked away from his body. He had none of the normal attachments us mortals have to our bodies. He was so far removed from the physicality of his own body, that he himself didn’t know where his body was laid to rest.

According to the Meshech Chochma, when the verse states that no “man” knew where Moses was buried, the “man” is referring to even Moses himself. He didn’t know, nor presumably really care, where his discarded physical shell had been buried. He was already so spiritually elevated that to die was as easy and painless as shedding old skin. The Talmud refers to this as a divine “kiss,” as trouble-free as removing a single hair out of a cup of milk. Such is the divine “kiss” that is granted to many of the righteous upon their death.

May we at the very least reduce the physicality and elevate the spirituality in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Meshech Chochma.

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

My mother’s obsession with the good scissors always scared me a bit. It implied that somewhere in the house there lurked: the evil scissors. -Tony Martin

In the penultimate reading of the Torah, Moses breaks into song, the Song of Haazinu. The Song of Haazinu is visually and linguistically distinct from the rest of the Torah. Its two symmetrical columns of text highlight the poetic difference from the rest of the Torah prose. Its ancient language hints at future prophecies. Its compactness makes it even more memorable, as it was meant to be.

In one of the darker passages Moses quotes God:

“I will hide My countenance from them,

And see how they fare in the end.

For they are a treacherous breed,

Children with no loyalty in them.” -Deuteronomy 32:20

The Meshech Chochma tries to understand what treachery the Children of Israel will be guilty of. The word in Hebrew that he focuses on is “Tahpuchot” which though translated here as “treacherous” more accurately means “reversals.”

So what “reversals” is the verse talking about? The Meshech Chochma states that there will be reversals of nature. The first is a reversal of human nature. Man has a range of attributes, but by being stuck in the negative traits such as jealousy and covetousness, and minimizing one’s natural generosity, they will cause their own nature to become predominantly evil. That in turn will cause God to reverse nature in the animal kingdom, where previously docile animals will become dangerous. He references such a case, quoting a Midrash that describes sheep that unexpectedly turn violent and actually attack and kill people.

However, man also has the opportunity to reverse his evil nature. Among the primary tools to do so are the host of charitable commandments. After a person has worked hard (especially in an agricultural setting), to plow, sow, tend and harvest his crop, through great effort, to then consistently and generously give of that hard-earned produce in a variety of ways to the poor, will invariably convert man’s nature to a predominantly good one.

When man becomes good, generous, God will also change the nature of the animal kingdom, where all the previously dangerous animals of the world, will become not only safe, but protectors. As proof, he cites the case of the wolves that protected the vacant, unattended homes of those people who travelled for the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

May we always work on improving our natures.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Prof. Yaakov Katz z”l.

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

Egocentric Theology (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

The egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief. -George Eliot

Moses is near the end of his monumental discourse, conveying the word of God to the nation of Israel about to enter the Promised Land. He touches on multiple themes and a plethora of commandments, but also repeats certain points, each time with a different nuance.

An oft-repeated theme is the need to obey God with one’s entire heart and soul, as well as the ability to return to God when we fail to do so, as per the following verse:  

“Since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Torah—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” -Deuteronomy 30:10

The Meshech Chochma wonders why in this verse, is a person heeding God and the laws written in the Torah only after they return to God. Presumably, just reading the Torah and being familiar with its precepts should be enough to encourage, convince, and instruct a person as to what their divinely ordained responsibilities and obligations are.

The Meshech Chochma explains, that reading the Torah, or even being familiar with it is often not enough. It is human nature to read into things. To read things and understand it according to our notions. It’s possible to read the Torah and come to conclusions that support our personal ideals and philosophy, but have nothing to do with Judaism. In short, our powerful egos are often the ones interpreting the Torah in a way that satisfies our vision and thinking, but is far removed from the truth.

That is why, the Meshech Chochma states, we first must return to God. We first have to accept, embrace, and be open to true divine instruction. We need to cease the worship of our egos and in turn worship God. Once we have placed our egos in their proper place, then we may have a chance to understand the truth that has been staring us in the face. Then we can be open to what the Torah is truly saying. Once we check our egos at the door, once we return to God, to our spiritual source, then we can start to understand what he’s been saying to us for millennia.

May we remove the blinders of our egos.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

For the Bar-Mitzvah of Eden Yechiel Spitz. Mazal Tov!

Expanding Land (Ki Tavo)

Expanding Land (Ki Tavo)

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. -J. R. R. Tolkien

The Torah reading of Ki Tavo presents us with both blessings and curses. There are horrific, frightening curses that God says will be the result of abandoning Him. Conversely, there are wondrous blessings if we are steadfast in our loyalty to God.

The Meshech Chochma expands on one sliver of the blessings in Deuteronomy 28:8, which reads as follows:

“The Lord will ordain blessings for you upon your barns and upon all your undertakings: He will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

The Meshech Chochma explains that just as God can and does provide a blessing for the miraculous expansion of the produce being stored in the barns, so too, God allows for the miraculous expansion of the Land of Israel.

In a number of places in the Torah, we see hints to the phenomena of the unusual and unexpected contraction or expansion of dimensions, of space and time. We have the examples of the incredibly shortened journeys of both Jacob and Abraham’s servant. We have examples of the unusual dimensional effects within the Tabernacle and the Temple. It’s as if there is some Einsteinian time and space dilation occurring. I’ve theorized elsewhere that there is a connection between extreme holiness and relativistic effects (think of approaching God as approaching the speed of light and then miraculous time and space dilation seems much less surprising).

The Meshech Chochma states that there is indeed a supernatural effect at work in this blessing. That somehow, space expands. It’s similar to what the Talmud tells us about the pilgrims to Jerusalem, that none of them ever said “the space is too small for me.”

In the times of the Temple, there was a miraculous expansion of the city of Jerusalem, which enabled as many pilgrims as came to find adequate accommodations. So too, there is a blessing upon the entire land of Israel, that it will expand; that somehow the existing land will grow and be able to accommodate as many people as needed.

May all those who want to come to Israel, find the right space.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Saudi Arabian airspace. Thanks for letting us through.

Respect the Champion (Ki Tetze)

Respect the Champion (Ki Tetze)

All right Mister, let me tell you what winning means… you’re willing to go longer, work harder, give more than anyone else. -Vince Lombardi

The Middle East is and has always been a tough neighborhood. Even before the birth of the Nation of Israel, the land of Canaan, the land-bridge of Eurasia and Africa, the route between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires, was home to incessant battles, wars, alliances, and rivalries.

After the Hebrew nation miraculously escapes the bondage of Egypt, they develop enemies almost immediately. Included amongst those enemies are their long-lost cousins, (descendants of Lot, who was the nephew of our patriarch Abraham), the nations of Ammon, and Moab.

The enmity between the Jewish people and the Ammonites and Moabites is such, that the Torah states that they are forever forbidden to join the Jewish people (the Rabbis have explained that the prohibition was just against their menfolk).

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 23:5 wonders as to the reasons given by the Torah which states:

“Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Bilaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.”

While one might understand the Moabite motivation to have the Jewish people cursed, but why is the Torah so incensed by the Ammonite and Moabite lack of hospitality? It’s one thing to attack, but another thing entirely not to be hospitable.

The Meshech Chochma states that these nations should have known better. They should have realized that the people who left Egypt, the mightiest empire in history up to that time, who left a land devastated by God and whose armed forces had been completely wiped out, was not a people to be trifled with. Not only were the Hebrews who left Egypt worthy of awe and respect, but that respect should have translated into an obsequiousness that should have included peace offerings of food and water.

Had these nations truly internalized that God was with the Jewish people, as the events of the time had unequivocally demonstrated, they would have sought peace and not war. It would have led to ongoing peace as opposed to generations of conflict.

May our current neighbors figure it out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Arab countries that are seeking peace with Israel.

God’s Loyalty (Shoftim)

God’s Loyalty (Shoftim)

The game is my life. It demands loyalty and responsibility, and it gives me back fulfillment and peace. -Michael Jordan

God gave Moses the Torah. Until a couple of centuries ago, it was widely believed. It was believed that the written part of the Torah, what is also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch, was dictated by God to Moses, and the Torah scroll we have until this day is an unbroken, exact transmission of that very same dictation. That is still a fundamental Jewish belief as articulated by Maimonides among his thirteen principles of faith.

In parallel to the Written Torah, there was also an Oral Torah that was given to Moses and which has likewise been faithfully transmitted throughout all the generations. The Sages and Rabbis conveyed the Oral Torah, but they also expanded it, adding strictures, laws, and a variety of preventative innovations.

A popular question which comes up, is what right do these Sages and Rabbis have to apparently “add” to God’s law and why do we have any obligation to follow any of their added laws and strictures?

The Meshech Chochma tackles this question in his commentary on Deuteronomy 17:11. His answer is straightforward. We follow the Sages and Rabbis because God said that we should. It is one of His commandments. The verse states:

“You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from what they have told you either to the right or to the left.”

According to the Meshech Chochma (and many others), this is the verse, the command, the directive from God which empowers the Sages and Rabbis as His emissaries, as the transmitters and givers of the law. The Meshech Chochma explains that God’s concern is primarily that one should obey the Sages. In a certain respect, God is less concerned with the specific strictures or additions the Sages have instituted. God is much more preoccupied with whether a Jew is loyal to the Sages and their instruction. God interprets disobedience and disloyalty to the Sages as an infraction of His commandment and a treason of his rule.

In a sense, it is God who is loyal to His Sages and upholds and even establishes their decrees as His law. To violate a Rabbinic decree is essentially to violate a divine commandment. To keep and uphold Rabbinic strictures is to demonstrate loyalty to God, His laws and the entire framework He established.

May we be loyal, divine-law upholding citizens.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Prof. Ruth Gavison z”l, a brave, brilliant and honest fighter for civil liberties, among her many distinguished attributes.

Pilgrimage of Friends (Reeh)

Pilgrimage of Friends (Reeh)

The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself. -George Bernard Shaw

A fun and curious commandment is the requirement which is known as the Second Tithe. The Second Tithe was only practiced in the days of the Temple. It involved the entire family journeying to Jerusalem together with a tithe of their produce and livestock. Once the family reached Jerusalem the requirement was for them to eat from their bounty. That was it, have a fun meal in town, certainly one of the easier and more physically pleasurable commandments on our list.

What is curious about the commandment is that at the end of the pronouncement, its stated purpose is given as “so that you will learn to revere God.”

The Meshech Chochma on the verse in Deuteronomy 14:23 wonders as to the correlation between a festive meal in Jerusalem and reverence of God.

He explains that it’s referring specifically to the Sabbath and Holidays in Jerusalem. When a pilgrim would come to Jerusalem in the times of the Temple, he would see his brothers, the Kohens, busy with divine service and involvement in Torah laws. It would inspire him likewise to dedicate himself more to divine service and study of the Torah.

During the weekdays this was less effective as everyone is busy making a livelihood, but on the Sabbath and Holidays, when we are prohibited from working, then a person has the time, the attention, and the freedom to take note of the divine service. The pilgrim is encouraged to emulate his friend and give more importance to the Torah and its precepts.

All that just from a festive meal.

May we have many occasions to partake of inspiring, celebratory feasts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”tl, a true Torah giant.

The Point of the Land of Israel (Ekev)

The Point of the Land of Israel (Ekev)

Every great person has first learned how to obey, whom to obey, and when to obey. -William Arthur Ward

The Torah repeatedly declares the primacy of the Land of Israel. The whole purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to bring the Jewish nation to that land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Land of Israel is an inheritance to the Children of Israel, from the days of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole focus, the whole goal of Israel’s journey through the desert is to eventually get to the Promised Land. The entire book of Deuteronomy revolves around preparing the people for their entry into the land.

Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive and even shocking, that with such definitive historical, legal, and textual centrality that the Land of Israel has for the people of Israel, that the connection between land and people is conditional.

Deuteronomy 8:1 states:

“You shall faithfully observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your fathers.”

The Meshech Chochma on that verse reads the statement as conditional. If you observe the commandments, then you will possess the land. If you don’t observe the commandments, you won’t possess the land. This is not an original statement, as the Torah in various places states this unequivocally. Not only will we not possess the land, but we will be kicked out of the land for lack of obeying God’s laws.

What is noteworthy about the Meshech Chochma’s analysis is his statement that not only will we not possess the land if we don’t follow God’s directives, but that the entire purpose, the entire reason why the Children of Israel were given the Land of Israel, was exclusively to follow God’s commands. Once we stop following God’s commands our very reason for having the land disappears. That deal is nullified, broken, revoked.

The Meshech Chochma takes this understanding a step further. One might have thought that if the deal of possession of the land is void, then all of the “strings,” all of the responsibilities and commandments which were placed on Israel would likewise be voided, that we would be absolved of further wrongdoing. However, that conclusion would be wrong, especially in the area of idol worship. We are still liable. The covenant is not broken, despite our “treason.” God holds us accountable regarding His commandments, even if we don’t think we are.

The Meshech Chochma brings as proof the fact that the prior inhabitants of Israel were expelled, in part, because of their idolatrous practices, and all of humanity, since the time of Noah, had already been warned and commanded to refrain from idolatry.

May we become worthy of possessing the land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 15th of Av, one of the happiest days of the year in ancient times.