Category Archives: Parsha

Starfleet Protocol and the Limits of Assertiveness

Starfleet Protocol and the Limits of Assertiveness

In the new “Star Trek” movie, the brash young Kirk tricks the stoic Spock into ceding authority via a rule of protocol (I don’t want to give away more than that). Though Kirk is regularly at the edge of acceptable military behavior and often tests the limits, he ultimately respects the code of conduct.

In the Starfleet universe, as in most military operations, what leads to a functioning organization is a clear chain of command, governed by written, understood, underlying and agreed upon rules and regulations.

The organization and operation of the Tribes of Israel in their desert wanderings are likewise guided by military protocol and precision. The feature that reaches perhaps the greatest level of detail is that which dictates the Temple/Sanctuary activities.

In Numbers, Chapter 4, there is significant focus on the logistics of transporting the various components of the Sanctuary. It warns that if the Levites responsible are not careful, the infraction would be so severe, that they would be deserving of the death penalty.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno gives an interesting interpretation on the matter. He advises that the Holy components cannot be left unattended or unassigned, lest it engender a struggle as to who would have the honor of carrying the item. The ensuing fracas to reach the item first could lead to pushing and shoving which would be completely inappropriate and disrespectful, especially in the Holy Sanctuary. Such lack of protocol is liable not merely to a ‘court martial’ but to an actual divine death sentence.

Sforno quotes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Yoma 23-24) where such a case occurred in the Temple. The lesson being imparted is that enthusiasm to do good, noble or holy deeds are correct and praiseworthy, but not when it involves running over other people or just basic impropriety. From Sforno it would seem that undue aggressiveness or even rudeness in the pursuit of ‘God’s will’ is not only unacceptable; it is actually considered by God to be a mortal sin.

God seems to be significantly more concerned with how we treat our fellow human (or Vulcan), than how we fulfill the more ritualistic commands.

May we always remember to give precedence to those around us over what may in reality be less important matters, and may we always know when to assert ourselves and when to step back in our life’s pursuits.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To JJ Abrams, Leonard Nimoy and everyone else that made the new “Star Trek” movie amazing. It is a pleasure to watch something that was so exquisitely produced. It even meets a Trekkie’s demanding criteria.

Faith, Famine, Feast, Food

Faith, Famine, Feast, Food

Every seven years, God asks of the Jewish people to commit what conventionally would amount to economic and national suicide. In the land of Israel, farmers must let the land lay fallow (Shmittah). In our modern industrial era, with less than 5% of the population dealing with agriculture, we can’t necessarily appreciate the significance.

However in the pre-industrial world, where as much as 95% of the population was consumed with growing food out of the ground, this sabbatical was the equivalent to telling modern-day man not to use any electronic devices for a year (cars, phones, computers, microwaves, etc – just try to imagine that for a moment).

Actually, it was worse. We could survive, though highly ineffectively, without our electronic gadgets. We would literally starve to death without agriculture.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno draws out some interesting nuances in his analysis of the text as to how we survive the Sabbatical year.

Sforno splits the text into two different demonstrations of faith and their results.

Leviticus 25:19 states:

“The land will give its fruit and you will eat your fill; you will dwell securely upon it.”

According to Sforno, this is the primary and highest level of faith. You are sure that God will nurture you. As a result of this faith, God performs a physiological miracle, and the little food you’ve eaten ends up satisfying you for an abnormally long period of time.

However the text continues:

“If you will say: What will we eat in the seventh year? – behold! We will not sow and not gather in our crops! I will ordain My blessing on you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period. You will sow in the eighth year, but you will eat from the old crop; until the ninth year, until the arrival of (the new) crop, you will eat the old.”

By not planting or gathering in the seventh year and only planting in the eighth year, with the resulting crop arriving in the ninth year, Shmittah is the equivalent of a self-inflicted three year famine.

Sforno explains that a more overt external miracle will be performed for those with lesser faith. For the more nervous souls who start to panic as to what they will have for the seventh, eighth and ninth years, God provides a “down-payment” of a three-fold crop in the sixth year, so that anxious farmers can with greater confidence adhere to the sabbatical ordinance.

May we always merit miracles of either variety; being sated and/or having enough, and may God always give us the strength and confidence to do His will despite our fears.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our neighbors, Kobi and Adi, and their new gourmet chocolate venture “Bluma”. As an honorary taste-tester I have partaken of miraculously filling and scrumptious chocolates that would be satisfying for years if they weren’t so addictive.

For orders contact them at bluma.chocolate@gmail.com or 052-8348071 and 052-8767147.

Demonology

Demonology

In the last several centuries, demonology has not been a popular Jewish subject, though belief in them by the general public had been widespread until modern times. The Talmud has numerous demon stories and there are various references throughout the Bible.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno however seems to have been a strong believer in their reality and this usually succinct commentator goes to great lengths to describe the habits and nature of what we generally today believe to be mythical creatures.

In Leviticus 17:7 it states:

“And they shall slaughter no longer their offerings to the “sheerim” (demons) that they stray after…”

Sforno explains that while Israelites typically did not worship demons, they did seek them out for some of the unique services they could provide, such as messengers to far off lands (precursor to modern telecommunications?).

Sforno exhorts us to actually be knowledgeable about these “mezikim” (injurers), as paraphrased below from the Talmud (Tractate Chagiga 16a):

“Demons can fly from one side of the world to the other, can tell the future, they eat, drink, reproduce and die.”

The scientist and doctor that was Sforno attempts to give a rational explanation for how they function:

“They can see, but are not visible. This cannot be unless they are composed of an extremely fine substance which is invisible. Since they eat and drink, their food must be of a substance composed of something extremely fine which is assimilated into the organism consuming it. Now there are no compositions known to us more refined than the ‘vapor’ of blood (oxygen!!) from which the spirit, which carries the life force, exists. This force being carried is the soul of life through which every creature lives…as it says “For the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23).

Sforno continues to explain that the demons live off blood but cannot take it unless someone spills it for them and are then in that persons debt. Demons also like the company of people who consume blood themselves, as they will have similar dispositions (antecedent to vampires?).

He ends with a warning that demons are really bad news, and the Torah obviously knowing this, order various preventive measures (including covering the blood of a slaughtered animal) to keep us away from them.

Chasidic lore has it that the Baal Shem Tov, in the 1700s, arranged via divine intervention for the removal of all demons from the earthly plane, which may be one reason why we really haven’t heard from them lately.

In any case, may all our demons, whether real or imagined be banished, or at least safely tucked away where they will do no harm.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

No dedication this week. I had a few candidates to compare to blood-sucking demons, but decided that “discretion is the better part of valor.”

Al Hanisim report

Thank you to everyone for the warm words of interest and appreciation for the Al Hanisim. We received great feedback from people from a spectrum of Judaism from all over the world, many of which had apparently chosen to use our text.

Due to the strong interest (and debate) that our text has engendered, we will continue to work on it. For some of the public discussion (in Hebrew) check out the comments at: alhanisim.blogspot.com

Strategy for China’s Female Infanticide

Strategy for China’s Female Infanticide

China and other countries in the region are known to have a deep and long-standing cultural preference for the birth of boys. In China, for the last few decades, the issue has been more pronounced because of the “one-child policy” that limits the majority of families to only having one offspring.

China has reached a disparity of approximately 117 boys for every 100 girls born, while the world average is around 105 boys for every 100 girls. Abortion of the female fetus is believed to be the main culprit in the disproportion between boys and girls born.

Leviticus 12:2 starts the discussion of the issue of male births and the subsequent purification process that the Torah requires as follows:

“If a woman caused fructification of seed and gives birth to a male…”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno quotes a Talmudic commentary on this line from Tractate Niddah 31a:

“If a woman emits seed first, she bears a male.”

Sforno, who was a doctor, amongst many other qualifications, explains that the partner who emits “seed” last will be the more dominant gender. Meaning if the woman ovulates after the man emits seed, the child is more likely to be a girl.

Modern medical studies have supported Sforno’s theory. The timing of ovulation can have a strong effect on the acid/alkaline balance in the vaginal canal, thereby either preserving or destroying the male Y chromosome. If ovulation occurs first, the alkaline neutralizes the acid, saving the Y chromosome, and significantly increasing the odds of a boy. If ovulation occurs later, the acid is likely to get rid of the Y chromosome, resulting in a girl.

If the Chinese would just follow Sforno’s prescription they could probably produce more boys naturally as opposed to murderously skewing the gender balance.

May all parents cherish their children no matter what the gender and may we successfully see them producing future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Nachshon Chagai Lustig, the newborn son of Debbie and Mark Lusting of Alon Shvut and the fifth boy of five. Mazal Tov on the basketball team and the new house!

The Eternal Life Diet

The Eternal Life Diet

After eating too much Matzah, potatoes, eggs and all the new Kosher for Pesach foods that weren’t even kosher in the past during the rest of the year, it certainly seems time for a diet. The Torah obliges with what is perhaps the main list of eating restrictions that God commands.

While it’s hard enough to stick to one of the more recent popular diets, the Torah’s diet can be fairly limiting. However, while the Torah doesn’t promise a slim figure, reduced calorie intake or feeling full, it has other rewards in store.

Leviticus 11:43-44 states regarding eating non-kosher items:

“…do not defile yourselves with them, and do not become impure, for I am the Lord, your God, and you will make yourselves Holy; and you will be Holy, for I am Holy…”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the repeated mention of “Holy” regarding our eating habits. He explains that the first aspect of holiness by refraining from eating “contaminating” foods is to prepare ourselves and our bodies for holiness and a closer relationship with God.

The second mention of holiness refers to the fact that those who adhere to the laws of eating kosher are granted the possibility of nothing less than eternal life. (That beats any diet I know hands down!)

Sforno adds the caveat that one needs to “walk in God’s ways” as well, but the Kosher diet seems to be a prerequisite of sorts for an everlasting spiritual relationship with God.

Sforno further explains that God also offers to become a coach for anyone who embarks on this diet, quoting the dictum from the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 39a) that if a person makes himself Holy a bit, he is made Holy a lot (with divine help).

In this post-eating holiday period may we all return/start/continue with better eating habits and may a reasonable concern for the laws of eating properly guide our gastronomic decisions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of Sylvia Jaffe Feigenbaum (Chana Sara bat Mirtza) of Efrat/Cleveland. The mother of my aunt Eudice Spitz and the Matriarch of the extensive Feigenbaum tribe.

While much has and will be said and written about this remarkable woman, one recollection from the many that I found noteworthy is that this was the only family I knew that under her leadership published a regular newspaper about and for the family, to keep her clan connected in a way that is amazing and enviable and I am certain will be felt for many generations to come.

Scouring Our Souls

Scouring Our Souls

In the preparations for Passover, there is an inordinate focus on cleaning. We clean the bedrooms, the floors, the windows, the refrigerator, the cabinets, the drawers, the counters, the oven, and every nook and cranny that is accessible and even some not so easily accessible.

This tradition has been attributed as the source for the popular term and activity of Spring Cleaning amongst the general population. Many Rabbis however, have taken the arduous task of cleaning our physical home and transposed it as an opportunity to get our spiritual homes in order.

This weeks’ Torah reading also reflects a similar theme.

The Torah gives a detailed list of further types of sacrifices that are brought at the Temple. A fairly common variety is the “chatat” offering, known also as the sin-offering. This category of sacrifice is utilized as a tool of repentance for a spectrum of transgressions – from seeking forgiveness for the entire people of Israel, down to the penitence of an individual.

The list of sacrifices also includes the “olah” offering group, or the elevation-offering. The “olah” is less remorseful and more commemorative, and is apparently meant to “elevate” our connection with God.

In Leviticus 8:2, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno inquires as to the mention of the “chatat” first. He says that the precedence is important. The law requires that the “chatat” is sacrificed before an “olah”.

Sforno explains that there is no sense or rationale to bring the elevation-offering before the sin-offering. Seeking to elevate ourselves and come closer to God will be difficult if there are still unrepentant or unaddressed sins on our psyche.

Sforno seems to indicate that we need to clean up our act first, or at least take concrete steps towards redeeming ourselves before seeking to rise further in our spiritual stature, and that is mirrored by the order of the sacrifices.

May we succeed in cleaning both our homes and our spirits, and may the upcoming Holiday help elevate us further.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Bentzi

Dedication

In memory of Mr. Ben Genauer of Seattle/Jerusalem, patriarch and grandfather of a large and wonderful clan, including my sister-in-law, Nechama Spitz. Though I only met him recently I was so struck by how a man of his very advanced years was brimming with zest for life, happiness and love of family.

At the shiva this week I learned much more about him and it seems clear that his life was one of constant elevations, kindness, generosity and achieving closeness to God in his own unique way. May he be a “melitz yosher” for his entire family and the people of Israel.

The Crime of Ignorance

scientiapotentiaThe Crime of Ignorance

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Admiral John Poindexter, the former US National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, formulated the concept of an “Information Awareness Program” to better gather intelligence from the public at large. For a short time, he ran this new division within the Department of Defense. There was however a media backlash to the idea of public surveillance and congress stopped funding it about a year later.

Poindexter’s ill-fated idea gave rise to at least two notable items. The first is a slew of Hollywood movies and TV shows featuring some take-off of his concept either with a secret do-good mass-intelligence gathering group, or the more interesting ones is with such a system gone bad (either corruption, off-track idealism and/or technology take-over), which brings all the fears of “Big Brother” to life.

The second and more relevant point for us is the motto he promoted. According to a friend of mine from the defense/intelligence community, Poindexter had the phrase “Knowledge is Power” on his desk and this became the de facto slogan for his division, though in the fancier Latin: “Scentia Est Potentia” (see ominous logo).

“Scentia Potentia Est” (“For also knowledge itself is power”) was originally mentioned by Francis Bacon in Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Bacon apparently took it from our own Mishlei (Proverbs) 24:5:

“A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength.”

If knowledge is indeed power then the converse, ignorance should equal weakness or feebleness.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno takes the issue of ignorance further.

Starting in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), the Torah goes into much depth and detail as to the different sacrifices that are brought to the Temple.

One interesting sacrifice that is demanded is for a sin that one “might” have done. If someone is not sure if he committed a sin, the Torah still demands that the maybe perpetrator bring a sacrifice as an act of contrition and repentance.

Sforno explains that the problem is not just the uncertainty of having performed a sin, but rather the potential sinner having put himself in the position in the first place. Sforno accuses the sinner (the Torah considers him so, whether he did the feared act or not) of ignorance.

By not knowing the laws of the Torah, a person is more likely to fall into error. According to Sforno, in Judaism, “I didn’t know” is not an excuse. Ignorance is not only helplessness or infirmity. Ignorance is a crime.

May we constantly cure our many points of ignorance, especially in the realm of Jewish law, and may our storehouses of knowledge always be used to keep us out of trouble.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all Jewish womenfolk, who are so diligently preparing for the Passover holiday, with vast erudition as to the many and often intricate laws of having a Kosher Pesach.

The Finest Workmanship

The Finest Workmanship

 

There is a story told to young design engineers about Henry Ford. Always looking to get efficiencies out of his cars, he would visit car junkyards and examine the remaining components. Upon discovering a bolt that was still in good condition, while the rest of the car had fallen apart, he exclaimed: “This bolt was over-designed!”

 

Ford’s goal was that the entire car should break down around the same time. If a single bolt remained that was still useful it meant that too much steel went into the construction. Multiplying that waste by thousands or millions adds up.

 

Hence the current plethora of products that are purposely designed to fall apart shortly after the warranty expires.

 

The young Israelite nation was not without its design engineers. However they had a different design philosophy.

 

The Children of Israel start building the Tabernacle in the desert. The Jewish people are called on to donate to the construction, and they do so, to such an extent, that the artisans instruct Moses to stop collecting. They have enough materials and then some.

 

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the unusual repetition and phraseology of the fact that the artisans had additional material.

 

Sforno draws an interesting lesson from the phrase and the extra material. In an age of “just-in-time” manufacturing, short supply lines, recycling, cost-cutting and making sure a manufacturer has just enough and no more, Sforno’s following insight may seem surprising.

 

Sforno explains that in order to do a good job, the workers needed extra material. Just the knowledge that additional material is available would insure that they don’t skimp on any aspect of the construction. They know they can invest everything they require to construct whatever it is they’re making in the best way possible. Cutting corners is not the way God wants us to do things.

 

May we always be both creators and patrons of only the finest workmanship.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Bentzi

 

Dedication

 

To the Nachmani Family of Alon Shvut. They are artisans of the highest order. Every act they do is done to the fullest. Skimping is not a word in their vocabulary.

Chutzpah, Sin, Loyalty and Rejoicing

Chutzpah, Sin, Loyalty and Rejoicing

By almost all accounts, the greatest sin of the generation of Israelites that left Egypt was the creation of the Golden Calf.

Moses was absconded somewhere in the sky together with God, receiving the Torah for us. The masses and rabble, frightened perhaps by Moses’ delayed return, get anxious. They press his brother, Aharon, the High Priest, to create an idol for them to worship. After collecting all their gold, Aharon puts it together in the fire, and walla! – out comes the Golden Calf.

All of this occurred a mere forty days after the Jews heard the Ten Commandments from the Voice of God Himself. In those selfsame commandments, he states very explicitly: Don’t worship other gods. Don’t make any idols. So it would seem to be the height of rebellion, and outright ‘chutzpah’, to build this idol at the foot of Mt. Sinai, as close as one could physically get to God at that moment in time.

Aharon, in a delaying tactic, after having made the Calf, announces that there will be a general celebration the next day.

Moses finally descends when the party is in full swing, smashes the newly minted Tablets of The Law, destroys the Calf, has the Levite tribe kill the worst offenders and extensively asks God for mercy (busy day).

We are told that if it weren’t for the intervention of Moses, God would have wiped out the fledgling Jewish nation and started anew with Moses as the progenitor of a new Chosen People.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno examines these passages in depth and makes a startling statement: Making the Golden Calf was horrible – but it was the festival surrounding it that really incensed God.

Bad enough to sin and show disloyalty to God. But to rejoice and take pleasure in it, to literally dance around the cause of God’s wrath – that’s really going overboard.

The sages say that every calamity, every punishment, even every minor mishap that happens to every Jew, since that moment until this very day, has a component of punishment from that event.

By the same token, every act of loyalty to God, by every one of us, no matter how small, surely absolves us of some of the damage our ancestors committed.

May we always merit doing acts of loyalty to God, and to know at what events and what occasions to celebrate.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my grandfather, Yechiel (Yakov) Spitz, z”l, whose Yartzheit was this week. He was a loyal and humble servant of God, and a model for his descendents.

God: Up Close and Personal

God: Up Close and Personal

God commands the Children of Israel to build a Sanctuary for Him. He goes into excruciating detail as to the entire minutia of the construction, the sacrifices and the priestly service. In the midst of the divine shopping list, He states that He will dwell amongst us and be for us a God (Exodus 29:45).

The statement seems both obvious and redundant.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the extraneous phrase and offers a theologically important opinion:

And I will be their God: To direct their affairs without an intermediary.”

Sforno is promoting the concept that divine plans and orders are placed upon mankind via a host of angelic middlemen. However, when it comes to the Children of Israel, God takes a personal and direct role. We get His full and undivided attention for good or ill, as it were.

Other peoples and nations suffer through the celestial bureaucratic machinery that has its own rules, regulations and patterns of nature. The Jewish people on the other hand have the ear of the head-honcho himself, who can quickly and easily bypass his own henchmen and intervene, sometimes dramatically, in the lives of His people.

Sforno continues:

“And they will not need fear the heavenly signs, for they will be more honored before Me than the heavens whose movement is directed through the angels.”

Sforno seems to be implying, that the Children of Israel are not only immune or protected from the effects of the “natural” world as directed by his ethereal minions, but in a sense, are even above them.

He ends his comment with the following powerful statement:

“And as a result of all this their eternity is ensured.”

It is not without reason that the Children of Israel have been named by some, the Eternal People. It seems that by being so closely connected and identifying with the Eternal One, by fulfilling our mission as individuals and as a nation, we also join the institution of Eternity.

May we make our homes places where He would be comfortable hanging out, and eternally merit feeling His proximity.

Dedication

To Isaac Asimov. One of my favorite authors and one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. Though he was a self-avowed atheist/humanist, I believe this Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised, Columbia-educated Jew was an ‘ehrlech yid’ at heart. When writing the word “Eternity” in capital letters, I couldn’t help thinking of one of his great books: “The End of Eternity”.