Category Archives: Parsha

Head, not Tail (Ki Tavo)

Head, not Tail (Ki Tavo)

Think like a man of action, and act like a man of thought. -Henri Bergson

Moses blesses the Nation of Israel with detailed, flowing, prophetic blessings that includes the following verse:

“And you shall be for a head and not for a tail, and you shall be up and not be down.” – Deuteronomy 28:13

The Berdichever calls our attention to the extraneousness of the phrases “not for a tail” and “not be down.” If you’ll be a “head,” it would seem obvious that you won’t be a “tail.” Likewise, if you’re “up,” you won’t be “down.” So why the redundancy?

The Berdichever explains that there is a deeper meaning to the repetitiousness of “head” versus “not tail” and “up” versus “not down.” It has to do with the three different worlds that we inhabit: the world of thought, the world of speech and the world of action.

The world of action is the most physical, the one we perceive with our senses, the one we interact with most. We are present in the world of action. We act on people and things and they likewise act upon us.

The world of speech is a bit more sublime. There may not be strict physical interaction, but speech is the medium whereby we convey our needs, desires and ideas to one another.

The world of thought is the most sublime of all. It is dominated by our internal thoughts, ideas, musings. It is our internal dialogue, our mental landscape, and it is only limited by our imagination.

According to Kabbalah, the “lowest” of all worlds is the world of action. The world of action is the furthest away from our true essence, from our spiritual reality. “Above” the world of action is the world of speech. Speech does start to capture the uniqueness of being an articulate human spirit, but it is often a clumsy tool, not always able to encapsulate or convey our true thoughts and feelings. The highest world is the world of thought. Our unadulterated thoughts have the closest contact with our spiritual selves.

The Berdichever details that the “head” of the world of action is equivalent to the “tail” of the world of speech. Similarly, the “head” of the world of speech is the same as the “tail” of the world of thought. However, there is nothing “above” the “head” of the world of thought.

Hence, the blessing is that we should be a “head”, the very “head” of the world of thought, with nothing “above” us. That is when we are closest to infinity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli democracy.

Elevating Joy (Ki Tetze)

Elevating Joy (Ki Tetze)

To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven. -Johannes A. Gaertner

 

 

The Torah reading of Ki Tetze has a seemingly eclectic grouping of commandments. One of them, a biblical precursor to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations, states as follows:

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. – Deuteronomy 22:10

As he typically does, the Berdichever reads deeply into the verse and comes up with some interesting revelations about joy and the ideal form of enjoying joy.

Just as one may experience joy when building a new house, so too, any new joy that one experiences, can be built up, and elevated. It starts with the realization that it all comes from God and we need to demonstrate gratitude to Him.

And just as one might build a parapet on the highest point of the structure, the roof of a house, so too, there is a way to circumscribe and direct our highest emotions of joy to gratitude. The Berdichever explains that the way to connect our joy to its divine provenance is by articulating gratitude; it is by using words of Torah, of prayer, of songs and praises to God.

The Berdichever adds that the power, the force behind the words of praise we use is also God (or God’s name to be more specific) and that in Hebrew, the numerical value of God’s name (26) is identical with the numerical value of “your roof” (26) showing the deep linkage between these concepts. We extend, enhance and elevate our joy by articulating and exhibiting gratitude, using holy words directed to God.

May we always have the state of mind to experience joy and elevate it by being grateful to its ultimate source.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the incoming students of Midreshet Torah V’Avodah and their newly appointed Rosh Bet Midrash, Rabbanit Dr. Tamara Spitz!

Thoughts bounce back as consequences (Shoftim)

Thoughts bounce back as consequences (Shoftim)

A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences. -Norman Cousins

Moses, at the beginning of the Torah reading of Shoftim, commands the nation of Israel to appoint judges and officers, and to place them at every “gate” (meaning, every town) to judge the nation with righteousness.

However, the Berdichever explains that this injunction also reveals some of the basic elements of divine justice.

God is the ultimate judge. However, the judgments we mortals receive from above are heavily influenced by our own very human judgments below. Strict justice can be mollified by mercy and compassion. But that compassion must be present on earth. God needs to see that we are merciful if He is to temper His justice with mercy.

If God sees that we are merciful in our lives, then he will likewise be merciful with us, even if by the pure logic of justice, we might have been deserving of stricter and harsher punishments.

It is clearly understandable how if we act compassionately with others, God will act compassionately with us. However, the Berdichever takes this concept a quantum leap forward, by explaining that it’s not only our acts that are mirrored and paid back upon us, but that even our thoughts are held against us or stand to our benefit.

He states that when we judge people favorably, meaning when we think well of others, even if it is a completely internal dialogue in our minds, God will actively judge us and reward us in very real and concrete ways. Giving others the benefit of the doubt forces God to likewise give us the benefit of the doubt. It makes God find some favor, lean towards being more merciful, spare us from deserved punishments and treat us with a compassion that mirrors our own compassionate thoughts.

May our own positive thoughts of others be rewarded with positive outcomes for ourselves and for those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Binyamin Tabory zt”l. A great teacher in Israel. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Daily Clarity (Reeh)

Daily Clarity (Reeh)

In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration. -Ansel Adams

Moses, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River is addressing the nation of Israel in his epic swan song. Before they enter the land of Canaan, to conquer it under the leadership of his disciple, Joshua, Moses continues his final lecture that we know as the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses.

Moses has delved into our history, our sins, as well as God’s deliverance. Moses discusses the laws we need to keep, the ethics that underlie God’s commands and now, in the Torah reading of Reeh, he touches on a recurring theme, that of free-will, where he implores us to choose wisely.

In the first verse of the reading of Reeh, Moses declares: “See, I place before you, today, blessing and curse.”

The Berdichever wonders as to the emphasis in this verse on the word “today.” He explains that God renews all of creation on a daily basis. The world we are living in on Tuesday is a completely different world than the one we inhabited on Monday. Likewise, the world we experience on Tuesday is different from the world we will encounter on Wednesday. God, in His infinite power, somehow recreates, rebuilds, reanimates the entire cosmos every single day. Every star, every planet, every molecule and every subatomic particle is brought into existence again and again by God’s will every day.

And just as the universe is renewed on a daily basis, we humans are also granted a daily renewal. That daily renewal includes the capacity of greater clarity. We are given the ability to see the world with a new set of eyes every single day. We have the capacity to see better, deeper, clearer than we did yesterday.

That in and of itself is a recurring blessing. We can perceive, apprehend and understand what we couldn’t understand the day before. By realizing the newness, the freshness of the new day, we also concretize the new blessings that accompany that day. “Today” and every day is a blessing. Each and every day is a new blessing. Each and every day we receive new blessings. Each and every day God is personally bestowing on each and every one of us new blessings.

The more we realize the extent of the blessings, the more we receive, the more we appreciate, the more we enjoy.

May our days be filled with ever-growing clarity and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the weddings of my nephews: Saadya (Stephen) to Addi, and Avrumi to Liba Ahuva. Mazal Tov!!

A Theory of Reincarnation (Vaetchanan)

A Theory of Reincarnation (Vaetchanan)

To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. -TS Eliot

In the Torah reading of Vaetchanan, Moses advises the nation of Israel to follow the laws which God commanded them “today.” The Berdichever explains the meaning of “today” based on the basic Kabbalistic concept of reincarnation; the belief that our souls are reborn into “new” bodies over the course of history.

According to the Berdichever, when the Torah here says “today,” it means in “this incarnation.” Meaning, get it right this time, so you don’t have to come back again in another incarnation. He raises a related question as to a soul which has lived through successive incarnations. At the End of Days, when we merit the Resurrection of the Dead, (the thirteenth and last of Maimonides’ fundamental Jewish beliefs), in what body will we be resurrected? Will it be our first body? Our last body?

The opinion of the Kabbalists is that we’ll be resurrected in our original bodies. However, the opinion of the “mechakrim” (the investigators – I’m not sure exactly who he’s referring to) is that we’ll be resurrected in our final bodies.

The Berdichever explains that they’re both right, and that in fact the resurrection will occur from some amalgamation of the limbs of all our bodies throughout time, the limbs which are really the same in each incarnation.

He clarifies further by detailing that the Mitzvot, the commandments, are each connected to a different limb or part of the body. Each commandment which we perform sustains a specific part of the body, while each commandment which we neglect or violate harms a specific part of the body. So, for example, if we failed in a commandment which is related to the eyes, the eyes will become spiritually damaged (and perhaps physically as well).

Because our eyes (and any other body parts) were damaged, the soul needs to be reincarnated. The next body which our soul inhabits will have the same eyes as our previous body, because we will still need to rectify that part of the body. So, it is not only our souls which keep coming back to this earth, but also a replica of the same body parts which will keep coming back into new incarnations.

As long as we haven’t rectified all of our body parts over the course of our multiple incarnations, our souls need to keep coming back until we get it right and have a complete and fully rectified set of limbs. Our souls, apparently, really don’t like coming back again and again, and would much rather we get it all done in one shot – but alas, it doesn’t always seem to be the case.

So it’s possible that the bodies we successively inhabit are physically identical to each other and therefore there would be no physical difference between the body of our first incarnation and the body of our last incarnation and we would be instantly recognizable by all of our likewise recognizable family and friends across our many incarnations when we are all resurrected at the End of Days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our earlier and future selves.

Multilingual Torah (Dvarim)

Multilingual Torah (Dvarim)

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow. -Oliver Wendell Holmes

With the people of Israel camped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, Moses gives what is likely the longest and most important sermon in history. The sermon lasts weeks. Moses, knowing his preordained death is near, delves into the recent history of the Jewish people, the future, and the divinely mandated laws, the heart and soul of the Torah, in exquisite detail that we still have, word for word, in the Fifth Book of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy.

Rashi, the premier rabbinic commentator, tells us that when Moses explained the Torah, he did so in seventy languages. The Berdichever asks why. The entire nation of Israel spoke Hebrew. What reason could Moses have for taking the painstaking effort of translating the Torah, not just to one other language, but to seventy other languages?

The Berdichever answers his own question and explains that specifically in that place, outside of Israel, there was a vital importance in Moses translating the Torah into all the languages of the Earth. The very survival of the nation of Israel depended on it.

Moses knew, through divine prophecy, that the Jewish people would eventually be exiled from the land they were about to conquer, and would wander throughout the world, reaching all corners of the planet. They would be adrift in a sea of languages. God needed to provide some “hooks,” some linguistic connection to keep the bond between the Torah and the Jewish people going. The Torah itself has a handful of foreign words, including some of Aramaic, Egyptian and African origin. However, a full (oral) translation was required to really serve the Diaspora that has spanned millennia and continents.

Somehow, this early translation of the Torah, outside of Israel, is what has sustained the nation of Israel in its long exile.

May our exile end and may we witness the rebuilding of our Temple in Jerusalem, speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the amazing Yemei Iyun – Bible Study program of Herzog College.

Elevating the Sparks (Masaei)

Elevating the Sparks (Masaei)

There are glimpses of heaven to us in every act, or thought, or word, that raises us above ourselves. -Arthur P. Stanley

 

In Jewish mysticism, Kabbala, there’s a concept of divine, spiritual sparks that are scattered and dispersed throughout the world. Many of these sparks are locked, imprisoned, bound to some mundane earthly reality, waiting to be unlocked, freed, released to return to the spiritual world, to return somehow to the divine source from whence they came.

Part of man’s task in this world is to find those sparks and free them. Many sparks are waiting, have been waiting for eons for specifically one person to come at an exact moment in time and through some positive act, some Mitzvah, free that spark and enable that spiritual ascendance, that consummation of a divine reunion that had been waiting for all of history.

The Torah portion of Masaei lists the forty-two different places where the nation of Israel camped during their forty-year sojourn through the desert. In some places they camped just for a day, in some they camped for years. The language the Torah uses to describe the stops alternates between and conjoins the term “journeys” (“Masaiehem”) and “outings” (“Motzaiehem”).

The Berdichever explains how a key purpose of each of these stops in their journey was to bring out (“Lehotzi” – the same verb as “outings”) the hidden divine sparks that were scattered throughout the desert.

In some locations, they were able to extract and elevate the spark quickly, hence they only needed a short visit. Some locations required years of effort to free the spark and therefore the long residence in those places. Different locations and different sparks also needed different types of effort. Some sparks could only be released by a divine service that focused on awe of God. Others could only be freed by demonstrating love of God. A third type of spark required a combination of both types of service, represented by the Kabbalistic attribute of “Tiferet” – glory.

By being in the right place, at the right time, for the right amount of time and performing the right actions, the nation of Israel was able to elevate the scattered and imprisoned divine sparks and reunite them with their original source.

May we use all of our sojourns to elevate the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Hillel and Yael Simon, for inspiring hosting of our family.