Category Archives: Parsha

The Destiny of Nations (Balak)

The Destiny of Nations (Balak)

A country grows in history not only because of the heroism of its troops on the field of battle, it grows also when it turns to justice and to right for the conservation of its interests. -Aristide Briand

The Torah reading of Balak contains an almost comical story about the sorcerer Bilaam, attributed as possessing the power to curse people and nations, who is hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. God warns Bilaam that he won’t succeed in cursing Israel. Bilaam nonetheless proceeds. To his great chagrin and embarrassment, Bilaam tries three different times, from three different places to curse Israel, but instead, some of the most beautiful and poetic blessings that have ever been declared about Israel come out of his mouth.

What is perhaps less noticed is that after the three different blessings that Bilaam pronounces, after his embarrassing failure to perform the job he was hired to do, he does continue to tap into that divine power clearly operating through him and utters prophecies about some of the other nations in the ancient Near East.

Two of the nations which he discusses in quick succession are Amalek and the Kenites. He sees that Amalek “the leading nation” will eventually face complete oblivion, but about the Kenites, he proclaims “your abode will be secure and your nest set among the cliffs.”

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 24:20-21 explains that the contrast of the two nations is purposeful and ironic. Amalek and the Kenites lived together, but beyond their physical proximity, they were on opposite poles in their relationship with Israel. Amalek was the first to confront, ambush and attack the nation of Israel, shortly after Israel’s miraculous exodus from Egypt. In response to their savage and cowardly attack, we are commanded to obliterate them, to which God also promises that “I will wipe the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.”

However, the Kenites, under the leadership of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, reached out to Israel in peace, friendship and love, and were even the conceivers of the justice system which Moses and the nation of Israel would adopt and implement. They merited a secure and prosperous existence, eventually joining the Jewish nation. Where Amalek was the first nation to fight us, the Kenites were the first nation to reach out to us in friendship.

May our friends and allies always be blessed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yehoshua and Yehuda Spitz on graduating high school and to all graduates this year. Congratulations!

The Dearness of Impurity (Chukat)

The Dearness of Impurity (Chukat)

We are not naive enough to ask for pure men; we ask merely for men whose impurity does not conflict with the obligations of their job. -Jean Rostand

The concept of ritual impurity plays a significant role in the Torah and Jewish law. The Torah deals extensively with a variety of scenarios where one contracts ritual impurity. There are several places and activities that are prohibited to a ritually impure person, and likewise, there are several processes enacted to purify such individuals and allow their return to either the places and/or the activities they were previously barred from because of their impure designation. The consequences of all of these laws had their greatest impact during Temple times, though some aspects remain in our current reality.

In its essence, the concept of ritual impurity in Jewish law can be most closely associated with death. Death, in a sense, is the ultimate source of impurity. The level of impurity is often a measure of the proximity of contact with death. A dead body is the highest level of impurity. People or items that touched or were housed together with the dead body can both contract and transmit lesser levels of impurity.

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 19:2 explains that some seemingly unusual comparisons can be made. For example, even a person as exalted and holy as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol), if he has died, he becomes a source of impurity, while the bones of a lowly donkey are considered pure.

Such a contrast became a source of contention and even ridicule on the part of the ancient Sadducees against the Rabbis of old. The Bechor Shor quotes their debate and brings the answer of the Rabbis (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, Tractate Yadayim 4:6) who states that “according to the affection for them, so is their impurity.”

A parent is incomparably more beloved than a donkey, and their remains should be treated with significantly more honor and respect. Hence, the fact that their remains contaminate, means we cannot utilize their remains for any other purpose. It reinforces the need for us to treat those remains with the utmost respect and give them an honorable burial. There are no such restrictions on using the remains of an animal.

According to this, there is not necessarily something wrong with a state of impurity. In fact, it can be considered a type of defense mechanism or even a status that demonstrates how dear something is to us.

May we understand and respect the few laws of impurity relevant in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new Israeli government. Hoping good will come from it.

Premeditated Ritual Entrapment? (Korach)

Premeditated Ritual Entrapment? (Korach)

It is a revenge the devil sometimes takes upon the virtuous, that he entraps them by the force of the very passion they have suppressed and think themselves superior to. -George Santayana

Korach, together with accomplices Datan and Aviram, instigate a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the sons of Amram. They encourage 250 distinguished leaders of Israel to protest against the seeming nepotism of Moses, the de facto leader, and his brother Aaron, the High Priest.

Moses offers an unusual solution to their protest. He suggests that the 250 rebels come in front of the Tabernacle, each with his own fire pan with burning incense on it. Aaron will also come with his, and God will decide directly who is worthy of the designation of High Priest.

The 250 leaders come the next morning with their fire pans filled with burning incense. Aaron also arrives. Besides holes miraculously opening up in the ground and swallowing up Datan, Aviram, and their entourage, God sends a fire that kills each of the 250 rebellious leaders holding their incense burning fire pans. Aaron, Moses, and all other non-participants are unharmed.

However, the people of Israel are furious with Moses and Aaron and accuse them of murder. The Bechor Shor on Numbers 17:6 takes the accusation seriously and tries to understand what’s behind the murder accusation.

He explains that the accusers felt that Moses knew incense burning was a dangerous act. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, had died by the hand of God for offering unauthorized incense. The rebel leaders had trusted Moses when he told them to bring their incense, but the accusers surmised that Moses must have known it would lead to their death, that handling incense was a death sentence to those who came in contact with it, except for Aaron who must have had some immunity.

God is not amused by the constant challenging of the leadership He chose. Having lost patience, He strikes the nation of Israel with an insanely fast-hitting plague. Moses, realizing God had struck, sends Aaron with incense in his ladle right into the middle of where the plague had started. Aaron rushes in and stops the plague, standing right in between the dead and the living; giving a very palpable demonstration that incense, correctly used, is not only not dangerous, but can save lives. In a matter of moments, 14,700 had died from the plague. Aaron and his incense were the only things that stood between the dead and the survivors.

May we realize the value of rituals as well as the value of good deeds.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of our niece Leora Spitz to Sammy Landesman. Mazal Tov!

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand. -Bertrand Russell

There were multiple crises, challenges, and mistakes that occurred during the journey of the nation of Israel through the desert. Perhaps none were as dramatic and impactful as the Sin of the Spies. Moses chose twelve men, one from each tribe, each one a prince, a man of high character and position. He sent them on what should have been an easy and straightforward mission: Check out the land. Check out the land that was promised to us by our all-powerful God, the God who liberated us from the most powerful empire and army on the planet, the God who revealed Himself to us at Mount Sinai when the entire world shook from His presence.

However, ten of the twelve spies returned with a negative, disheartening report, which struck fear into the nation of Israel, causing them to cry, to rebel against God’s plans. God, in His fury, struck down the ten rebellious spies and decreed the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert to the rest of the nation.

The mission of the spies should have been just a formality. Why the need to check something God had promised would be a land “flowing with milk and honey”? If God could destroy the largest, most powerful military at the time in Egypt, why would there be any concern over the smaller, weaker vassal Canaanite city-states?

A related question is that with such promises and such Omnipotent strength on their side, why would Moses send spies at all? and once he did authorize such a mission, how could it have led to such calamitous results?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 13:33 explains that Moses had a significant divergence in his thinking from the ten spies. Moses indeed did not need to send spies, as he had no reason to doubt God’s promise. However, he thought it a good idea to send the spies as a preparatory scouting team. He had every intention of going into the land and the spies were an appropriate step to advance God’s promise, to check out the routes and the practical tactical steps they would take to conquer the land.

However, the ten spies had entirely different motives. Their motivation was to determine if Israel should venture into the land or not. They were less moved by God’s promise, but rather gave in to their fears and let their fears overtake the faith they should have had as direct witnesses and beneficiaries of God’s might.

Moses’ tragic error was that he attributed to the spies the same intentions he had. He incorrectly assumed that the spies were looking for practical means to implement God’s will. His assumption of their good intentions proved disastrous.

It’s nice to assume the best of people, but not when there’s reason to believe otherwise.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those fighting antisemitism.

African Royalty (Behaalotcha)

African Royalty (Behaalotcha)

He that can work is born to be king of something. -Thomas Carlyle

There is a large gaping mystery in the biography of Moses. The Torah describes the birth of Moses in Egypt. It recounts the dramatic story of his mother having to put him on the river to save him from the Egyptian decree to murder all of the newborn Jewish boys. We see him taken and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. We have snippets of him as presumably a young man, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was harming a Jewish slave. We see him break up a fight between two Jews. We see him flee to Midyan after Pharaoh puts out a death warrant for him. In Midyan he helps the daughters of Jethro, High Priest of Midyan, in their struggle for water with the local shepherds and he then marries one of those daughters, Tzipora.

However, the next part of his biography that we can put on a timeline is when the Torah tells us that he’s eighty years old when he returns to Egypt to confront (the new) Pharaoh and take the Jewish people out of bondage.

What happened to all the intervening decades? Where was he and what did he do between the time he fled from Egypt as a young man until he returned as an octogenarian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 12:3 provides an answer based on the story of siblings Miriam and Aaron discussing Moses’ “Kushite woman.” The classical interpretation is that the Kushite woman is referring to Tzipora, Moses’ wife. However, the Bechor Shor explains that there was another woman in Moses’ life. This woman was the queen of the kingdom of Kush (what is today Upper Egypt and Sudan) and that Moses served as the king of Kush for forty years, where according to the Midrash he was a revered warrior and served with great distinction.

It is interesting to note that Moses’ background as a long-serving monarch of one of the major kingdoms of the era didn’t even merit a footnote in the Torah. His later role of freeing Israel from Egypt, receiving the Torah and leading Israel, would completely overshadow even as grandiose a title as King or Emperor.

May our greatest accomplishments always lie ahead of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To crowdsourcing in general and Fiverr in particular.

Massive Blessings (Naso)

Massive Blessings (Naso)

To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings. -Mary Baker Eddy

In the Torah reading of Naso, we’re introduced to the famed Priestly Blessing, the Birkat Cohanim, that to this day are pronounced by those of Cohen ancestry in the synagogues on a daily basis (in Israel) and on the holidays (in the Diaspora). It has also become a beloved custom for parents to bless their children every Friday night with the Birkat Cohanim blessing by placing their hands on their children’s heads right before the Shabbat meal. The Birkat Cohanim blessing reads as follows:

“May God bless you and protect you.

May God deal kindly and graciously with you.

May God bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.”

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 6:24 wonders as to the details of what “bless” actually means in this context. What does God’s blessing entail?

He then proceeds to provide us with a nice list of what God’s full blessing encompasses and what it is that the Cohens are pronouncing upon us or what a parent is wishing upon their children when they state this formulaic blessing.

For God to “bless” you, means that he will grant you children, a healthy body, intelligence, longevity, and greatness. It means that these blessings will accompany you at home and during your travels, whether you are coming or going, whether in the city or the fields, whether in your basket or your kneading bowl. It means you will be blessed with happiness, that you will be happy with your portion in life. All of these elements comprise a blessing and a blessed life.

The second part of the first verse of the blessing asks for God to protect you. It is asking for God to protect you from evil; that all of the blessings that have been granted should remain untouched, undisturbed, unharmed, complete; that the progeny, health, wisdom, long life, and accomplishments should remain strong and unblemished without any evil corrupting it; that we should remain happy with our lot in life, for ultimately it is God who provides or withholds what we would consider blessings and it is God who takes them away.

May we appreciate all of the blessings in our lives and may God continued to grant them and protect them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all friends of Israel. Thank you.

Firstborn Conundrum (Bamidbar)

Firstborn Conundrum (Bamidbar)

You can’t push anyone up the ladder unless he is ready to climb himself. -Andrew Carnegie

Already during the events of the Exodus, God demonstrates a special relationship with firstborn children. During the tenth plague to strike Egypt, the Plague of the Firstborns, God kills all of the Egyptian firstborns and spares all of the Jewish firstborns. God makes a point of repeating this fact and having us commemorate that event.

Furthermore, God’s saving of the Jewish firstborns creates an obligation on the part of those firstborns as well as all firstborns thereafter. The Jewish firstborn boys belong to God and have a higher obligation of servitude than those not born first.

It seems there was even a plan of their being a constant elite cadre of firstborns that would serve as priests in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple, honored and eternal servants of God. However, the firstborns messed up. They proved unready for this special honor and distinction.

According to the Bechor Shor on Number 4:13, because of the sin of the Golden Calf, which included firstborns from most of the tribes of Israel, all of the firstborns then and thereafter were disqualified from the previously planned honorary role. In their place, God substituted the tribe of Levi, who had not participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. He elevated the Levites to take the role that had been previously assigned to the firstborns.

Additionally, to keep the Levites focused on their sacred ritual duties, the entire tribe of Levi did not inherit any land in Israel. They did not have the burden of owning land, of having to farm it or manage it. Their time was meant to be exclusively dedicated to the service of God and their brother tribes were directed to support the Levites with a tithe of their produce.

On the other hand, the firstborns, all of whom had been cast out from the Temple service were legislated as getting a double portion of their father’s inheritance compared to their non-firstborn brothers. The Bechor Shor implies that in a sense in the trade of the Levites for the firstborns in the Temple service, the firstborns received the Levites’ material possessions, hence the double portion.

May we all become worthy of divine service no matter our birth order or tribe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the safety of all of Israel.

Uninterrupted Blessings (Behar-Bechukotai)

Uninterrupted Blessings (Behar-Bechukotai)

In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently. -Anthony Robbins

The Torah portion of Bechukotai provides a long list of blessings that God will bestow on the nation of Israel. The blessings are conditional. God declares that the blessings will only come to fruition if we obey God’s laws and commands. On the other hand, God provides an even longer list of curses. Understandably, the curses will fall upon us if we rebel against God and ignore his commands.

In these descriptions, there’s very much a sense of the God-Man relationship being a reciprocal one. If man is good, obedient, and follows God’s laws, God will show his munificence to man. If man betrays God and violates God’s wishes and instructions, God’s wrath will be unleashed upon man.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 26:5 delves deeper into the idea of the reciprocal relationship and explains that the reciprocity can be quite direct and highly dependent not only on what we do but also on whether it’s consistent or not.

He suggests that God is expecting us to be consistently devoted to Him – not just once in a while, or when it’s convenient, or when we feel like it. God expects us to be continuously cognizant and obedient to His commandments. He wants us to be constantly occupied with His Torah. If we are steadfast in taking God’s requests seriously, He will be unwavering in bestowing blessings upon us. His blessings won’t be just once in a while, but rather constant.

The blessing states:

“Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone.”

The Bechor Shor details that there will be an uninterrupted stream of material blessing. There will not be anything lacking. We will be healthy and strong. We will be safe and secure and will be able to fully enjoy all of these material blessings without any fear or concern.

However, to receive the uninterrupted blessings from God, He requires that we provide uninterrupted service to Him. It’s a two-way relationship. We have to earn our blessings. God does provide plenty of unearned blessings continuously, but the Bechor Shor implies that to reach the level of full unending blessings requires a more serious commitment on our part.

May we appreciate all the blessings in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the victims of the Meron tragedy and to the complete and rapid healing of the injured.

Historic Anticipation (Emor)

Historic Anticipation (Emor)

Life… It tends to respond to our outlook, to shape itself to meet our expectations. -Richard M. DeVos

Pesach (Passover) is among the better known and more celebrated Jewish holidays. However, exactly fifty days after Pesach we celebrate what might perhaps be an even more important and significant holiday, Shavuot. Pesach famously celebrates the liberation of the proto-nation of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people’s encounter with God fifty days later at Mount Sinai, where through the process of God’s revelation to us, we received His Torah, His commandments, and took on the covenant that is what truly makes the people of Israel into a Nation.

Shavuot is the only holiday that we have a biblical injunction to count towards. In this week’s Torah reading God commands:

“And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the holiday (Pesach)… seven complete weeks, until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days…”

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 23:16 gives an analogy to a man who is in prison and a servant of the king comes to inform the prisoner that on such-and-such day the king will release him from prison, and that fifty days later, he will give him his daughter, the princess, in marriage. The prisoner’s initial thoughts are merely “I just hope he gets me out of here.” However, once he’s released and sees that the servant’s words came true, now he gets excited about the prospect of marrying the princess, and with great anticipation starts counting fifty days until the promised day.

So too, once the people of Israel witnessed Moses’ promise of redemption fulfilled, once they experienced the exodus from Egypt, they looked forward to what the Sages have termed the marriage ceremony between God and Israel, fifty days later.

God Himself commands that the counting be done every year in order to constantly endear the Torah to the Jewish nation, for the Torah is an indescribably precious gift God gave to Israel, a possession with which God, in a way beyond our comprehension, created the very universe.

May we appreciate anew the giving of the Torah and celebrate the anniversary of that matrimony with great anticipation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the birth of Eitan Tzvi Lustig. Mazal Tov to the entire family!

Love wins over Hate (Acharei Mot – Kedoshim)

Love wins over Hate (Acharei Mot – Kedoshim)

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Torah attempts to legislate a good, just, socially responsible society. It introduces multiple laws, a significant percentage of which remain the foundation of Western civilization: The more obvious ones like don’t murder and don’t steal; setting up courts; convictions based on corroborated and verified testimony; financial laws legislating honest business practices and safeguarding of the consumer, and much more.

However, the Torah’s concern for how we relate to our fellow man seems to take this social responsibility to extremes, to even regulate how we feel about our fellow man, even people who we may have good reason to dislike.

In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us not to gossip, not to hate our brothers in our heart, not to take vengeance, or not even to bear a grudge.

Elsewhere, the Torah strengthens the command of not hating nor bearing a grudge, by giving a specific example. If you see a person that you hate struggling with his laden donkey, you must help him.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 19:18 touches on the danger of pent-up hatred. If there’s an issue, if your friend did something untoward, it should be pointed out (if possible and if it will be productive). Holding a grudge is unhealthy and eventually leads to even more destructive vengeance of one type or another.

The Bechor Shor explains that God is telling us that “your love of Me (God) can outweigh your hatred of your friend.” If your friend asks you to lend him something, when he didn’t help you in your time of need, even though he was ostensibly able to, nonetheless, you are commanded to help him. Don’t take even petty vengeance or have a grudge that grows and festers into cancerous vindictiveness that contaminates human relations.

Rather, through one’s love of God, one can overcome and even forget one’s hatred. Eventually, forced graciousness will lead to genuine rapprochement, renewed peace, and stronger friendship.

May we find ways to make peace with friends we may have offended, and vice-versa.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedications

On the birth of our great-nephew, Yehoshua Yechiel Spitz. Mazal Tov!

On our son Netanel’s enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces.