Category Archives: Parsha

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”.

Flying Lessons

Flying Lessons

After previously denouncing and prohibiting in multiple instances, on pain of death, creation of statues, portrayals of the human form, or anything even remotely resembling idols, God throws an unusual command.

In the building of the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, on the very top of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of the Law are devotedly concealed, God tells us to place, not one, but two human figures.

These two Cherubim, as they are called, have the form of young children with wings on their back.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the seemingly contradictory declaration, by allowing one of the most abhorrent issues in Judaism, in the heart of the most sacred spot of Jewish ritual service.

Sforno claims that it is nothing less than a powerful and overt message. These Cherubim are representations of what today we more commonly refer to as Angels: heavenly ethereal beings that directly fulfill the will of God on earth. In rare occasions they present themselves and allow themselves to be seen by human beings. At times they may appear as unassuming humans, unrecognized in their mission. Most of the time, however, it seems they are invisible to the human eye.

So why are there angels on top of the Ark, and why specifically the winged variety?

I’ll paraphrase from Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz’s notes (the Sforno translator), who draws from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (I:49 and I:54):

The act of flying represents the ability to soar to heights as well as swiftness of movement, both of which require wings. Humans also can aspire to develop spiritual and intellectual potential so as to soar to greater heights of apprehension and understanding of God.

This can only be realized by examining God’s ways, as we see from Moses. One can only know Him, through His ways, which is through his 13 attributes, which can only be gained through the Torah. That is why the Cherubim are not only on the cover, but are gazing at the Ark cover – the source of truth and wisdom – the Torah.

Sforno believes that the Cherubim are an implicit message. That at the heart of the Jewish religion is a belief and a demand that we can and must elevate ourselves. That elevation is accomplished through God’s Law. If we keep our eye on the truth – we can soar like the very angels themselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my sister and brother-in-law, Ilana and Daniel Epstein, on their 13th Anniversary. Besides the 13 Attributes of God and Bar-Mitzvah, 13 are also the Principals of Faith that Maimonides enumerates, and Kabbalists also refer to the 13 petalled rose, among other uses (i.e. great number). May they continue to grow and elevate themselves and may they soar to health, happiness and success with their beautiful family.

The Purpose of Grandparenthood

The Purpose of Grandparenthood

The nation of Israel has received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Bible starts enumerating a long list of additional commandments. Then God gives what amounts to a pep talk to the nation of Israel, how He will send his angel ahead of them and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, to make way for the incoming masses of Israelites.

In the midst of descriptions of enemy destruction and land conquest God states:

“You shall worship God, your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. There shall be no woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land; I shall fill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:25-26)

Instead of paraphrasing or interpreting Rabbi Ovadia Sforno as usual, I’ll just quote him, as his wording is so intriguing (translation courtesy of Artscroll English Sfrono translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz – highly recommended):

“The number of your days I will fulfill: You will live to the (full) measure of oil which is in your lamp of God (the soul of man), i.e., the vitality (or natural force) rooted (in man) from birth. The reverse of this mostly occurs when man dies from (various) illnesses before his basic vitality has ceased. This occurs due to wrong choices (made in life) or due to fate (literally, ‘the order of the planets’) and the elements (literally, ‘foundations’). Now when a man’s numbers of days are fulfilled he will in most cases see children born to his children and he will be able to teach them, as it says: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). (In this fashion) the affairs of (new) generations will be remedied in the lifetime of their elders, as we are told happened with Levi, Kehath and Amram (the ancestors of Moses).”

Sforno then directs us to earlier comments about the great-grandfather, grandfather and father of Moses, who all led exceedingly long lives.

“The longevity of these men enabled them to influence their grandsons as well as their sons. The choice fruit of these spiritual plantings were Moses and Aaron. They are the end result of the many years of education and guidance contributed by Levi, Kehath and Amram, and they are worthy to be chosen as leaders and spokesmen.”

May grandparents have the continuing opportunity to teach and guide their grandchildren, and may parents know how to get out of the way or even facilitate these special opportunities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my grandparents who I learned so much from and to our parents who are such a big influence on our kids (Is it harder for children to listen to the immediately preceding generation? Are we hardwired that way? Is that why Sforno attributes such importance to the grandparents guiding the grandchildren?)