Category Archives: Parsha

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?)

Commandments Express: Meat and Potatoes

Commandments Express: Meat and Potatoes

After giving the Ten Commandments, God relays a whole host of commandments in bullet-like fashion, in a variety of areas.

I’ll divide them into the following four broad categories:

Slavery and Marriage

The Justice System

Be Nice. Be Fair

God: A Jealous Lover


Slavery and Marriage

Having recently freed the Jewish people from slavery and provided them with a basic foundation of commandments, God picks as the very first set of detailed commandments the need to be sensitive to slaves.

While the Torah did not ignore the highly prevalent institution of slavery, it was highly innovative in terms of giving them basic human rights and recognizing their deprived situation. “To fulfill the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave” [Commandment #42] is a broad enactment that infuses this otherwise difficult reality with dignity, care and eventual self-sufficiency for the slave involved.

Slavery for women in the Torah has an entirely different connotation. It is classically relevant for young girls, for the express purpose of leading to bona fide marriage. “For the master of a Jewish maidservant to either take her for a wife or give her to his son for a wife” [Commandment #43] defines female “slavery” as exclusively a prelude to marriage. This would typically be an arranged contract between a poor or destitute father of the bride with a wealthier perspective husband or father-in-law. The Torah however provides two specific clauses that protect and release the girl if a marriage will not be consummated.

“For the master of a Jewish maidservant to redeem her if he or his son will not take her for a wife.” [Commandment #44]

“The master of a Jewish maidservant cannot sell her to another man.” [Commandment #45]

As can be seen, the Jewish version of slavery, especially regarding women (who were the most exploited) is radically different than anything that existed in the ancient world, or even into modern times.

While on the topic of marriage, the Torah provides a broad command that applies to all brides: “Not to withhold food, clothing or marital relations.” [Commandment #46]

Except for this last commandment, the previous slavery-related ones do not apply in current times.

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The Justice System

The following long stretch of commandments (from number 47 until 62) presumes the existence of a strong judicial system able to enforce Torah-mandated law. Many of the punishments, especially corporal and capital punishment were only used in a society where court-induced punishment would have a deterrent effect. Even when the Great Sanhedrin or Beit Din (the ancient Jewish Supreme Court) was active, they discontinued many of the harsher punishments when the feeling was that certain crimes were rampant.

There were four different execution methods for different crimes, two of which are included in this section:

“For the Beit Din to execute by strangulation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #47]

“Not to strike one’s father or mother.” [Commandment #48] This still applies today, though formerly was punishable by execution.

“For the Beit Din to penalize with fines one who injures his fellow-man.” [Commandment #49]

“For the Beit Din to execute by decapitation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #50]

“For the Beit Din to judge the case of a damaging ox, whether it injured a man or damaged property.” [Commandment #51]

“Not to eat the meat of an ox sentenced to death, even if it was properly slaughtered.” [Commandment #52]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages or injuries caused by someone who dug a pit, ditch or cave in a hazardous area.” [Commandment #53]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a thief who stole from people without their knowing.” [Commandment #54]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by someone’s domestic animal grazing or trampling.” [Commandment #55]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by fire.” [Commandment #56]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of an unpaid guardian.” [Commandment #57]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases between a plaintiff and a defendant.” [Commandment #58]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a paid guardian.” [Commandment #59]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of the borrower of an item.” [Commandment #60]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a seducer.” [Commandment #61]

“Not to allow the practitioner of sorcery or witchcraft to live.” [Commandment #62]

This ends the judicial commandments for now. The progression is interesting, in that it starts with capital crimes, then deals with damages and injuries, theft, negligence, commercial relationships, borrowers, seducers and finally witches, which brings us back to capital punishment.

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Be Nice. Be Fair

Having started the en masse redaction of commandments with sensitivity towards slaves and then development of the justice system, the Torah now addresses (commandments 63 until 85) sensitivity towards other oppressed groups – converts, widows, orphans, poor, sinners and even guilty defendants, and those that defend all of them, namely the courts and ultimately God. Most of the following commandments are considered applicable in our day and age:

“Not to oppress a righteous convert with words.” [Commandment #63]

“Not to wrong a righteous convert in matters of monetary value.” [Commandment #64]

“Not to inflict suffering on any widow or orphan.” [Commandment #65]

“To lend money to the poor of Jewry.” [Commandment #66]

“Not to demand a borrower pay his debt when he cannot.” [Commandment #67]

“To have no part in lending at interest.” [Commandment #68]

“Not to curse a judge.” [Commandment #69]

“Not to curse God.” [Commandment #70]

“Not to curse a ruler of Israel.” [Commandment #71]

“Not to alter the order of precedence of separating and giving tithes.” [Commandment #72]

“To eat no animal with a mortal affliction.” [Commandment #73]This would be directed to the poor person himself, who out of desperation would be tempted to eat from substandard meat.

“For a judge not to hear one plaintiff when the other is not present.” [Commandment #74]

“For the court not to accept testimony of a man of sin.” [Commandment #75] – Referring to public sinners of certain categories whose personality is considered less than trustworthy.

“Not to impose the death penalty unless there is a majority of at least two judges who declare a guilty verdict.” [Commandment #76]

“A judge should not merely follow the opinions of others, but should have his own clear understanding in giving a verdict.” [Commandment #77]

“To follow the majority in laws of the Torah.” [Commandment #78]

“Not to pity a poor man in a trial.” [Commandment #79]

“To assist in unloading a domestic animal.” [Commandment #80]

“For a judge not to pervert justice for a sinner because of his wickedness.” [Commandment #81]

“For a Beit Din not to decide a guilty verdict on a capital case based on circumstantial evidence alone.” [Commandment #82]

“For a judge to accept no bribe.” [Commandment #83]

“To leave ownerless everything the land produces in the seventh year.” [Commandment #84]

“To rest from work on the Sabbath”. [Commandment #85] – This is the flip side of Commandment #32: “Not to work on the Sabbath” (one prohibits working, the other commands rest). It also relates to the immediately preceding commandment of resting of the land on the seventh year, and is of greatest value to the poor.

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God: A Jealous Lover

Having protected the interests of the downtrodden as well as defined in detail the relationship to and responsibilities of judges, God now defines in more detail (Commandments 86 to 94) additional specific aspects of the Jew’s relationship to God Himself. Almost like a jealous lover, God demands an exclusive worshipful relationship, gifts, visitation, and unique or even puzzling demonstrations of loyalty:

“Not to swear in the name of an idol.” [Commandment #86]

“To entice no one in Jewry to worship an idol.” [Commandment #87]

“To go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple for the three festivals.” [Commandment #88]

“Not to bring the Passover sacrifice while there is still leavened bread (chametz) in our possession.” [Commandment #89]As perhaps the most important if not popular of the three festivals, the Torah adds some critical rules as to the Passover sacrifice.

“The kohanim (priests) cannot leave the fats of the Passover sacrifice overnight without being burnt on the altar.” [Commandment #90]

“To bring the first fruit that ripens on a tree (bikurim) to the Holy Temple and give it to the Kohen (priest).” [Commandment #91]This typically coincides with the second of the three yearly pilgrimages, the summer Pentecost holiday (Shavuot).

“To cook no meat with milk.” [Commandment #92]There is no apparent direct link of this commandment to the others, though the meat versus milk command is declared in three different iterations in equally unexpected locations. It seems to be some general ubiquitous type of commandment that applies to our daily necessity to eat and probably defines more than almost anything else our daily and almost constant respect of God and His laws in a most practical and concrete fashion.

“Not to make a treaty with idol worshippers.” [Commandment #93]

“Not to settle idol worshippers in our land.” [Commandment #94]

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Now that’s a set of laws

God has covered sensitivity to the weak and oppressed, established a judicial system, the interaction of the two and details as to the type of relationship He expects from the Jewish people. This is certainly a robust basis for the healthy functioning of a society. However God wants much more, and foremost is to be closer to the Jewish people.

The next set of commandments will deal with the setting up, operation and procedures whereby the Jewish people can have the closest physical connection to God – in the service of the Holy Temple.

“Knock, knock”

“Knock, knock”

After the miraculous escape of the Children of Israel from Egypt, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, sends word that he is coming to meet them at their encampment in the desert, accompanied by Tzipora, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders why Yitro needs to send word ahead. Yitro could have spared the expense and effort of sending a messenger through the desert to inform Moses of what was going to happen in any case. Yitro could have even surprised Moses with the welcome sight of the wife and children that he hadn’t seen in some time.

Sforno explains that it is simply good manners. Sending a simple messenger ahead would give Moses sufficient time to prepare for their arrival. Moses can then organize their accommodations so there wouldn’t be an embarrassing wait were they to suddenly appear.

Sforno brings as support for such etiquette the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim 112a):

“Do not enter your house suddenly, even more so to your friend’s house.”

One might think that it would be permissible or even praiseworthy to check in suddenly on the goings-on in ones house. A surprise inspection can confirm that everything is truly in order and keep people on their toes. However Sforno reminds us, that in truth, sudden appearances are rude, startling, and an invasion of privacy. If it’s for inspection purposes they demonstrate a lack of trust or sensitivity.

Sforno and the Talmud don’t mean to dissuade people from making casual and unplanned visits to their friends and family. They just suggest that you call first or at the very least knock.

May we always have the capacity and enjoyment of welcoming friends and family to our homes.

Dedication

To all of our friends and family who drop by our centrally located home. We love it. Keep visiting, with or without warning. Just knock.