Category Archives: Parsha

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.

True, Ultimate Good (Vaetchanan)

True, Ultimate Good (Vaetchanan)

Sin is whatever obscures the soul. -Andre Gide

The Book of Deuteronomy comprises the parting words of Moses to the nation of Israel as they are camped on the eastern border of the Promised Land. God had told Moses that he would not enter the land but rather would die on the eastern border. The nation of Israel would cross the Jordan and conquer the land under the leadership of Moses’ disciple Joshua.

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 6:3 notes an odd incongruence in the language Moses uses. Moses talks about performing the commandments so it “will be good” for you. But in another instance, he states that it “is good” for you. Why the difference between the present tense and the future tense?

The Meshech Chochma explains that the performance of a commandment is its actual ultimate reward. The action of following God’s orders is somehow, deeply and intrinsically the greatest, truest, ultimate good we could ever experience or imagine. There is something about fulfilling God’s directives in this world that is so powerful, yet so sublime that the soul experiences indescribable ecstasy. At one point in our collective history, we were able to experience it – during that short period between the initial receipt of the Ten Commandments and God’s revelation on Mount Sinai, until our national betrayal of God via the sin of the Golden Calf.

During that short period of forty days, whenever a Jew performed a commandment, his soul would immediately feel the spiritual “reward” for having accomplished something of what the divine mandate expected.

However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, we lost that sensitivity. The coarseness of our material selves, our drives and desires buried our souls under layers of physicality that have made it almost impossible for our spirits to experience the instantaneous divine reward for performing a commandment. Therefore, Moses reverts to the language of it “will be good” for you. We don’t feel. We don’t automatically sense the spiritual payback of listening to God. Only in the future, only when our spiritual self is disencumbered from our physical shells will we truly feel and experience the true, ultimate good of the reward of our efforts.

May we not have to wait until then, and may we develop the sensitivity to “feel” the spiritual energy, the joy of following a divine path.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our days.

Biblical Demigod (Dvarim)

Biblical Demigod (Dvarim)

The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them. -Jean Genet

As the nation of Israel finishes their decree of wandering in the desert for forty years and approach the Promised Land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River, they are successively met and attacked by the armies of two kingdoms. They are first attacked by the forces of Sichon, king of the Emori. Thereafter, they are attacked by Og, king of the Bashan. Moses and the Israelites quickly vanquish both forces and conquer vast tracks of land across the eastern bank of the Jordan.

In retelling the tale in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah goes out of its way to describe how Og was a giant, a descendant of the Refaim. It uncharacteristically gets into such minutia as to the size of Og’s crib and that it was still preserved at the time in the city of Rabat Ammon (the modern-day Amman of Jordan).

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 2:11 gives the reason and history for the mention of Og’s crib. According to the Midrash, Og, besides being a giant of physically enormous dimensions, was also unusually long-lived. According to some accounts, he was around during the days of Abraham (400 years earlier) and may have even been around from the days of Noah (800 years earlier).

Understandably, due to his prodigious size, strength, and long-life, the local population thought Og was a god, revered him and worshipped him, and even placed his crib in their temple as part of the cult of Og.

Moses, in telling the story, highlights that Og is a descendant of the Refaim. The Meshech Chochma explains that by contextualizing Og’s origin from the Refaim nation and detailing his large yet still human crib, he is bringing Og back to the mortal sphere. It seems that the nation of Refaim was a people of quite large dimensions and naturally long-lived. Og was merely a survivor of that people. There was nothing independently divine to his otherwise naturally endowed attributes. Yes, they were unusual for that time and place, but it didn’t make him a “god.” Though understandable, it was still a serious idolatrous mistake for people to believe that Og was a God. Moses needed to clarify that and remove any erroneous beliefs.

May we be careful who and what we idolize and realize that God is the only entity appropriate to worship and the source of – everything.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Dov Brender z”l of Alon Shvut.

Wasted Influence (Matot-Masai)

Wasted Influence (Matot-Masai)

The minute a person whose word means a great deal to others dare to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. -Marian Anderson

Historically, it was extremely common for armies and soldiers to ravage and pillage their enemies. It was seen as their right to claim the spoils of war, whether human, animal, or inanimate valuables.

God, at the end of the Book of Numbers, commands Israel to battle the Midianite army. The Midianites had allied with the Moabites when they tried to curse the nation of Israel through the sorcerer Bilaam. When the cursing scheme proved unsuccessful, the Midianite and Moabite women conspired to seduce the men of Israel into illegal romantic activity, and succeeded. This was followed by heinous idol worship, which raised God’s ire and led to a sudden plague and the death of 24,000 men of Israel.

God commands the army of Israel to avenge the Midianite involvement and to take the fight to them.

The army of Israel is victorious and completely vanquishes the Midianite army. As a bonus, the Torah reports that the Israelites didn’t have even one casualty from their battle. On their return from battle, the army commanders offer sacrifices to God and donate from the gold and jewelry they captured in battle.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 31:49 deciphers the language the army commanders use before they offered their sacrifices. The army commanders were given charge of their soldiers. They reported that they didn’t lose one soldier. The deeper significance that the Meshech Chochma uncovers is that no soldier even touched an enemy woman, though it might have been quite natural in those days for them to do so in the heat of battle and victory.

Upon witnessing the upstanding behavior of their charges, the army commanders realized a previous mistake they had made. Seeing how the soldiers followed their commanders’ orders not to touch any of the enemy women, the commanders belatedly understood that they could have, likewise, influenced the men who had previously given in to the temptations of the Midianite and Moabite women. Had the commanders made clear their expectations of the behavior of an Israelite man, they surmised that the illegal romantic dalliances may have been averted. The commanders were guilty of not using their influence where and when it was required in that case, and as such, they felt it necessary to bring a sacrifice to atone for their lack of judgment and involvement.

May we realize the influence we have on those around us and always use it positively.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of our Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital z”tl, on his tenth yahrtzeit. His influence was significant and undeniable.

Kohen Forever (Pinchas)

Kohen Forever (Pinchas)

No love, no friendship can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever. -Francois Muriac

God has made a lot of promises to us. And when you read some of those promises, they sound quite nice. However, many of those promises are conditional. If we are good, then God will bless us with bounty, success, victory over our enemies, and more. When we don’t fulfill our side of the deal, then God doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to fulfill His side.

For example, we are told by the Talmud (Tractate Berahot 4a) that our patriarch Jacob was worried that perhaps some sin of his may have reduced not just his reward, but even the divine protection God had promised him. Jacob, it seems, understood that God’s promise to him had been conditional.

However, there are a handful of promises that are unconditional. This week’s reading of Pinchas has one such promise.

At the end of last week’s reading, we are told of the mass promiscuity that men of Israel embarked on with the seductive women of Moab and Midian. At the height of the illegal dalliance, a prince of one of the tribes of Israel is publicly intimate with a princess from Midian. Moses and the elders are horrified and seemingly paralyzed into inaction, but Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and skewers the couple during their romantic act. Pinhas’ violent, vigilante execution is credited with stopping the plague which had killed 24,000 men of Israel because of God’s wrath over the widespread immorality.

As a reward for his daring, decisive act, which demonstrated Pinhas’ love, obedience, and allegiance to God, God promises him an everlasting covenant of peace. The covenant installs Pinhas and all his descendants as Kohens, as the priests consecrated and dedicated to the service of God in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 25:11 explains that this is an eternal, unconditional promise. It doesn’t matter if a future Kohen misbehaves, he will always retain the status of a Kohen, with all of the ensuing rights and responsibilities of a Kohen.

He underlines that whenever God makes an absolute promise through His prophet, the promise cannot be revoked by any sin. He brings as further proof that there were descendants of Pinhas, who though they were the opposite of shining examples of morality, merited to serve as High Priests during the era of the second Temple.

May we merit to see both conditional and unconditional blessings, speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Kohens who are studying the laws of their Temple service.

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.