Category Archives: Parsha

Sacrificing to God (Bereshit)

Sacrificing to God (Bereshit)

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service. -John Burroughs

Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve is the first person recorded as bringing a sacrifice to God. He brings from the fruit of the land. Abel, his younger brother, follows in his brother’s footsteps but brings an animal from his flock as a sacrifice.

God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but rejects Cain’s. The question is why. What difference was there between Cain’s fruit to Abel’s animal that God should reject one and accept the other?

The Meshech Chochmah states that it had to do with each sibling’s respective efforts. To merely pluck fruit off a tree and sacrifice that to God is not truly a sacrifice. It is not a sacrifice of time, effort or resources. To sacrifice an animal that you fed and cared for is a significant sacrifice of time, effort and value.

Cain’s sacrifice was insignificant and God, therefore, rejects it. Abel’s sacrifice was significant and God accepts it. This connects to the same rationale as to why in times when sacrifices were offered there was a prohibition to offer grains or honey (date honey). Both grains and honey are unprocessed; very little human effort has gone into them. This is as opposed to bread, wine, olive oil or animals all of which require significant human work and investment and are accepted as sacrifices.

It seems that when we offer something to God, even if it’s voluntary, God wants us to make a serious effort. He doesn’t want a shallow display. It shouldn’t be just marking off a box to say “we did it,” just to get some onus off our backs. He wants us to mean it. He wants our sacrifices to be meaningful. He wants us to pour our heart and soul as well as our hands and our wallets into anything we offer to Heaven. It shouldn’t be cheap or superficial. It should be deep, valuable and meaningful. It should be an investment of thought, time and effort.

God accepts real sacrifice. He values and cherishes it. And He reciprocates in multiples of whatever we ourselves invest.

May we make correct and worthy sacrifices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Ronald Joseph Sassoon z”l, who passed away on Tuesday; and in honor of his great-grandson, Eitan Aryeh Eliezer Gilat, whose Brit Mila was on Wednesday. Condolences and Mazal Tov to the entire family.

The Beginning of Anti-Semitism (Vezot Habracha)

The Beginning of Anti-Semitism (Vezot Habracha)

The jealous are possessed by a mad devil and a dull spirit at the same time. -Johann Kaspar Lavater

During his last moments on Earth, Moses blesses the nation of Israel. He blesses them collectively as well as each tribe in particular. In his poetic blessing, he recounts how God revealed Himself at Mount Sinai and gave the nation of Israel the Torah at that momentous gathering.

The Berdichever quotes the well-known Midrash that before giving the Torah to the Jewish nation He offered the Torah to the other nations of the world. Each nation inquired of God as to what was written in this Torah He was offering them. God mentions it says “don’t steal,” or “don’t murder,” or whatever commandment He knew that particular nation would find too much for them to want to adhere to. In turn, each nation turns down God’s offer of the Torah.

The Jewish people famously go on to accept the Torah before even hearing any details as to what’s written in it. According to the Berdichever, this blind faith in God and acceptance of the Torah caused two different reactions. It endeared the Jewish people to God even more, but it also gave birth to what we call anti-Semitism, the pervasive and often irrational hatred of the Jewish people.

The Berdichever says the hatred is hinted at in the very name Sinai (it has the same Hebrew root as the word “sina” which means hatred). The favored attention of God for the Jewish people and their receipt of the Torah from God generated massive jealousy from the nations of the world. There was no such hatred of the Jewish people before the giving of the Torah. After the giving of the Torah starts the global phenomena of non-Jews hating Jews for no other reason than their being Jewish. The Jew-hatred extends to people who have never even met a Jew.

The Berdichever indicates that the Jew-hatred doesn’t stem from any wrongdoing a Jew may have done, nor from any offense a non-Jew may have suffered from the hand of an individual Jew. Rather it comes from deep jealousy of the Jewish people, starting from our collective ancestors at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people elected to accept God’s detailed and often demanding laws, which created both a great responsibility as well as a closer connection to the divine, while the nations of the world opted out of such a possibility (on a national basis). They hate us for that; even if they don’t realize it. It has expressed itself in multiple incarnations and with a plethora of excuses throughout the generations, but underlying it all is simple jealousy of our relationship with God.

May we see the prophesized end of anti-Semitism speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my beloved in-laws, Yossi & Gita Tocker, on their 50th wedding anniversary! Mazal Tov!!!!!

The Purpose of Exile: Converts (Haazinu)

The Purpose of Exile: Converts (Haazinu)

In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis. -Quentin Crisp

The famed Song of Haazinu, Moses’ prophetic, poetic, final words to the nation of Israel, foretells, in cryptic verse, the future of the Jewish people. Among other events, it predicts both the rebellion of the Jewish people against God as well as our eventual exile from the land of Israel.

The Berdichever wonders as to why Haazinu is called a “song” (the Hebrew term “Shira” means a joyous song) if it contains such dire prophecies. What happiness, what joy can be found in our millennia-old exile? What is there to joyously sing about drifting, rootless, through the four corners of the planet for thousands of years? Of never having the safety of a homeland? Of being constantly persecuted? Of expulsions, inquisitions, ghettos, pogroms and a Holocaust?

The Berdichever states that there is not only a silver lining to our Exile, but that there is a deeper, fundamental reason why the nation of Israel needed to wander the globe all these centuries. It was to attract converts. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. In fact, we discourage and make it challenging for non-Jews to undertake conversion to Judaism. Nonetheless, the Berdichever explains that the underlying purpose of our exile has been to gather converts. It is to collect holy sparks, divine souls from among all the nations of the world and bring them into the fold of our people.

That is why the prophecy of Haazinu that foretells our exile is called a “joyous song.” The gathering and elevation of the divine sparks from among the nations of the world are part of our historic mission. It can only be accomplished through the long, globetrotting exile of our people.

May we complete the mission of gathering the sparks and come back home already.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bar-Mitzvah of Uriel Williams. Mazal Tov!

Prophetic Clarity (Vayelech)

Prophetic Clarity (Vayelech)

As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. -William Blake

Moses was facing his last moments in the mortal realm. He had transferred his authority to his disciple, Joshua. Before he ascended Mount Nevo, where he would see the Promised Land and shed his physical form, Moses gives his final swan song, a prophetic poem, a song both mystical and barely decipherable, filled with imagery, analogies and deep messages; the Song of Haazinu, which he introduces in this week’s Torah reading.

The Berdichever wonders as to why out of all of the Books of Moses, this last portion, the Song of Haazinu, is so unclear. In all the rest of the Torah, Moses generally writes the word of God clearly, plainly, in a way that is easy to understand the simple meaning of the message. Why is the Song of Haazinu so hard to understand?

The Berdichever answers with the well-known understanding that Moses was unique among all those who prophesized. Moses had the exclusive gift of having completely “clear” prophecies, of somehow “seeing” and “hearing” God clearly and being able to transmit that prophecy completely and perfectly.

However, in his final hours, Moses had passed on a measure of his power to Joshua. At that point, Moses was more like our other prophets who weren’t able to perceive God “clearly.” Like the other prophets, Moses needed to rely on imagery and analogies to paint a prophetic picture as opposed to being able to plainly articulate the Voice of God. It doesn’t make the Song of Haazinu any less true or valid. If anything, it makes it deeper, filled with obviously more layers of meaning and mystery.

May we learn to decipher some of the meaning of the Song of Haazinu and uncover some of its important and prophetic messages.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tovah,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Torah Ve’Avodah family for a wonderful Rosh Hashana.

Handling Blessings (Nitzavim)

Handling Blessings (Nitzavim)

You must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. -Andrew Jackson

Moses continues describing the blessings that God will bestow on the people of Israel. He declares:

And the Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers. – Deuteronomy 30:9

The Berdichever ties his explanation of how blessings work to the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana God judges the world, the Jewish nation, and each of us individuals. He decides and decrees our fate for the coming year. Who will live and who will die; who will be healthy and who will be sick; who will be rich and who will be poor; and everything that will occur to us in the coming year.

We, of course, pray for blessings. We pray for life, for health, for income, for joy, for safety, and for success in all our efforts. And God wants to shower us with blessings. He really does. The Berdichever quotes the popular Talmudic dictum: “More than the calf wants to drink, the cow wants to nurse.” God wants to give us blessings even more than we want to receive them.

However, the Berdichever explains, we don’t always receive the blessings we request. We need to be capable and ready to actually accept and handle the blessing. We aren’t always ready for the blessings.

When we pray and make a request of God and God deems us prepared to receive the requested blessing, it gives God tremendous joy. He bestows the blessings happily.

However, if we’re not ready, it saddens God. It saddens Him that He is in some fashion prevented from acquiescing to our requests – for our own good. Just as a plant that receives too much water can be drowned, so too, if we haven’t made ourselves into an appropriate receptacle to receive the blessings we seek, God’s showering our requests upon us could damage us (just look at the tragic history of many lottery winners).

God’s prevention of sending blessings our way is in fact an indictment of Him. When the Heavenly Court is reviewing each individual’s case, and hears everyone’s pleas and requests, God’s inability to grant our requests because of our unsuitability is embarrassing to Him. He wishes He could, but knows that were He to follow through with our hearts desire, it would be damaging and destructive to us. He can’t bestow the particular blessings until we’re ready.

May we be indeed become worthy and ready to receive all the blessings we hope for.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatimah Tovah,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the OU’s fantastic Torah New York event.

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!