Category Archives: Rabbeinu Bechaye

Secret Jerusalem (Re’eh)

Secret Jerusalem (Re’eh)

The first rule in keeping secrets is nothing on paper. -Thomas Powers

There is an ancient Jewish tradition regarding an eternal, concentrated divine connection to the city of Jerusalem, and more specifically to the Temple Mount. What was known as Har Hamoriah (Mount Moriah) within Jerusalem is attributed as a focal point of God on earth going as far back as Adam, continued with Abraham and the binding of Isaac, and formalized when King David bought the land as the site of the Temple which his son Solomon would build.

However, if we look in the Five Books of Moses, Jerusalem is not mentioned in that regard. Instead, we repeatedly get the mysterious phrase “the place that God will select.” Only after King David’s conquest of Jerusalem and the building of the first Temple, do the other prophets of the Bible refer to the holy city with love and yearning.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 12:5 (Re’eh) wonders as to the flagrant and consistent absence of “Jerusalem” throughout Moses’ books and the presence of the vague and prophetic “the place that God will select.” He answers that the hiding of the identity of God’s focal point in the world was purposely kept hidden for as long as possible, for at least three different reasons, as follows:

  1. If the nations of the world would have known that prayers and sacrifices made in Jerusalem are accepted, they would have gone to battle for it, causing great bloodshed.
  2. If the Canaanites living in Israel at the time would have known that the Jewish nation were to conquer its land and worship God from Har Hamoriah, they would have destroyed the place with every means at their disposal.
  3. If the tribes of Israel would have known of the supreme importance of Jerusalem, they would have fought amongst themselves to claim that area. Even though they had known of the spiritual importance of Jerusalem and Har Hamoriah, they didn’t realize that that would be “the place that God will select.”

Subsequent history did prove that Jerusalem became a place of great bloodshed and destruction as well as a point of contention between the tribes of Israel, with the Temple on Har Hamoriah being the pivotal point of the conflicts.

However, the many prophecies about Jerusalem also promise that it will become a city of peace, a city of brotherly love, a city of wisdom, of justice, of light, of instruction. Its spiritual power is indisputable and a source of inspiration and longing for more than just the Jewish people.

May we live to see all of the prophecies of Jerusalem fulfilled, and get to enjoy and bask in its spiritual light.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Elchanan, on staring his active military service.

Three Powers of Prayer (Ekev)

Three Powers of Prayer (Ekev)

Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence. -Martin Tupper

Moses, in his final days with the nation of Israel, gives them what is in essence his God-mandated Last Will and Testament. In this week’s reading we have what has become the second paragraph of the biblically-prescribed Shma prayer. The very first verse of that paragraph enjoins us to serve God with “all of our heart.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 11:13 (Ekev) explains that to serve God with all of our heart is nothing other than prayer. He further elaborates that there are three particular powers to prayer. Prayer has the power to change nature. Prayer has the power to save one from danger. And prayer has the power to annul negative divine decrees. Rabbeinu Bechaye gives a biblical example for each:

  1. Changes nature: When Isaac prayed for his wife Rebecca to bear a child, his prayer changed her physical condition which had made it previously impossible for her to have a child.
  2. Saves from danger: He gives an example from Psalms (Chapter 107) which describes various travails, including sailors in a tempest, who cry out to God, and God subsequently replaces the tempest with tranquil waters.
  3. Annuls decrees: King Hezekiah (Book of Isaiah, Chapter 38) becomes fatally ill. The prophet Isaiah brings word from God that Hezekiah has been decreed to die shortly. Hezekiah cries out and prays to God profusely. God then tells Isaiah to inform Hezekiah that he’s received a reprieve and God will extend his life an additional fifteen years.

Rabbeinu Bechaye adds more background on the case of King Hezekiah. After Isaiah had given Hezekiah the initial decree, Hezekiah berates Isaiah and tells him to leave, for he has a tradition from his father’s house (he was a descendant of King David), that even if a sword is to your neck, you should not cease from praying to God for mercy. That in fact, prayer is more powerful than prophecy.

However, since the time of the second Temple, it seems Jews have lost the skill, the know-how to compose their own effective prayers. At that time, the Men of the Great Assembly (the Sanhedrin) composed a broader, catch-all prayer, the Shemona Esre prayer (said right after the Shma prayer), which includes praise of God, requests and thanks. The Shemona Esre is a platform to address all of our needs, both as individuals and as a nation. We ask for wisdom, repentance, salvation, healing, sustenance, justice, redemption and more. The Sanhedrin have given us the template; we need to fill it with meaning, with earnestness, and with our own personal call to God. He’s listening.

May we take the time to pray to God, and with these awesome powers at our disposal have the wisdom to know what to ask for and how to ask for it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Aryeh and Leora Lustig, on their wedding.

Powerful Mezuza Protection (Vaetchanan)

Powerful Mezuza Protection (Vaetchanan)

Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. -John Quincy Adams

One of the more recognizable and widely used Jewish artifacts, even in Jewish homes that are not otherwise observant, is the Mezuza. The Mezuza is a small piece of parchment, with two paragraphs from the book of Deuteronomy written on it, in the ancient fashion. Not coincidentally, these are the first two paragraphs of the biblically-mandated Shma prayer, where the commandment of Mezuza is articulated. The Mezuza is typically housed in a simple container (which over the years has evolved into more intricate and beautiful designs) and placed on the upper third of a doorpost, on the right side of the entry to whatever house or room lies beyond the door.

The Mezuza has taken on the status of a talisman, a metaphysical object that conveys some otherworldly protection to those that have it. It is not an uncommon belief that when some tragedy befalls a home that one should check their Mezuzas. Finding an error in the text of the Mezuza is attributed as the cause of the misfortune. However, this misses the point and purpose of the Mezuza.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 6:9 (Vaetchanan) explains that in ancient days, the nations of the world believed that the fate and well-being of their homes were determined by the constellations. Astrology and horoscopes were the arbiters of success or failure. For that reason, on the outside of the Mezuza scroll, we write one of the names of God, the one in particular that apparently vanquishes any astrological effects and highlights that good and bounty come from God and not from any particular astronomical phenomena.

Rabbeinu Bechaye details what it is about the Mezuza and its two paragraphs that truly make it so important, so powerful. It is not the physical object (though it must be scrupulously written), but rather, the ideas contained within. The Mezuza text talks about God’s Unity, the study of His Torah, reward and punishment and hints at the Exodus from Egypt with all the accompanying miracles. This text establishes three fundamentals of Jewish belief: faith in God; God’s constant renewal and presence in our world; and the truth of prophecy, God’s ability to communicate with man, and for man to be able to hear His call.

It is remembering these principles that gives us power and protection. It is by constantly remembering and affirming these fundamental ideas and beliefs of Judaism which brings us under God’s wing. That is why we have it at the entrance to our homes and rooms. That is the reason many Jews touch the Mezuza on entering and exiting their domicile. There is no commandment to touch the Mezuza. The commandment is to remember and be always cognizant of some of the founding principles of Judaism, part of what makes us merit God’s greater intervention and concern for our lives and wellbeing.

May the ideas and principles we establish in our homes make us worthy of divine protection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Mendy Shemtov of Montevideo, for his efforts to provide every Jewish home with a Mezuza.

The Judge behind the Judge (Dvarim)

The Judge behind the Judge (Dvarim)

Men in general judge more from appearances than from reality. All men have eyes, but few have the gift of discernment. -Niccolo Machiavelli

The fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy, is in essence a long, detailed, yet powerful and prophetic speech by Moses, given during his final days on earth. It is filled with history, laws, articles of faith, as well as a vision for the future. Moses describes, among a plethora of items, the creation and comportment of a judiciary. In a profound statement, he exhorts judges to “fear no man, for judgment is God’s.”

However, for a human judge, that is easier said than done. Communal Rabbis, for example, are often called upon to adjudicate between members of their community. These are people with whom he generally has an ongoing relationship. Some may be important and influential leaders of the community. The Rabbi’s livelihood and position may well be in jeopardy if he rules against such a person. Who knows what vengeance a disgruntled plaintiff may take against the Rabbi who ruled against him? Even more dramatic and well publicized are the cases involving members of organized crime networks. Judges of such high-profile cases must be of a particularly strong constitution. When such powerful men threaten a judge, they know their lives are in danger.

To complicate matters further, no judge can ever know the full extent of circumstances behind a case. Are there ameliorating factors? Who is telling the truth? Is there fabricated evidence or testimony? How does one interpret the law in this particular case? No two cases are ever exactly the same and precedent, while helpful, can’t always make the ruling and capture the nuances of a case in front of you.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 1:17 (Dvarim) elaborates further on Moses’ command to “fear no man, for judgment is God’s.” He explains that judges should fear no person, even if they are violent or dangerous. We should try, within the realm of our human capacity and faculties, to see that justice is done. However, even if we should err, ultimately God is the one who ensures that justice is served. If a judge wrongfully fined a plaintiff, the judge has sinned, and God will make sure the plaintiff receives what is owed to him through other means.

We must always do our very best, without fear. God will take care of the rest and make sure that ultimately, justice is served.

Shabbat Shalom and may we have a meaningful fast of Tisha B’Av,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the next US Supreme Court Justice. May he serve the people well, with honor, dignity and justice.

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

If money is all that a man makes, then he will be poor. Poor in happiness and poor in all that makes life worth living. -Herbert N. Casson

The nation of Israel had just vanquished two major kingdoms on the eastern side of the Jordan River, across from the land promised to them. After the battles, and with all the pasture around them, two tribes approached Moses. The tribes of Ruben and Gad came up to Moses and declared that they were laden with vast amounts of animals and the current land they were in was perfect for them. They wanted to stay, to settle outside the Promised Land, with their flocks.

Moses gets angry, there ensues a discussion, and the tribes of Ruben and Gad declare that they will leave their flocks and their families in the east and go battle with the rest of Israel in the west, until the land is fully conquered. After the expected conquest, they will return to the land, to their flocks and family.

What is most telling is the order which these two tribes phrase their request. They place the flock before their family. Many of the commentators highlight the priorities these two tribes are exhibiting as well as Moses’ response to them. Moses flips the order, basically saying, take care of your family before you take care of your flock.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 32:2 (Matot-Masai) takes the criticism even further. He claims that because the tribes of Ruben and Gad put their financial gains and greed before their families’ wellbeing, all their financial gains were cursed.

By being more concerned with their material wealth, their livestock, with animals, rather than with human beings and their own flesh and blood, they doomed themselves, and eventually were left with neither. Indeed, the tribes to the east of the Jordan would be the first to be exiled and seemingly lost to Jewish history.

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his criticism with the famous dictum from Pirkei Avot (Chapters of our Fathers) which asks rhetorically, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”

May we be thankful for all the blessings in our life and especially for the one of family.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the summer, and more opportunities for the family to spend time together.

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful, and we prefer the pleasures of illusion. -Aldous Huxley

During my years in Uruguay, I met multiple people who had discovered, some quite recently, that they had Jewish ancestors. Many of them were descendants of the crypto-Jews of Spain, that significant portion of the Jewish community that chose to convert to Christianity centuries ago, rather than be exiled from the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabel. They kept their Jewish identity and practice secret, especially from agents of the Inquisition. I’ve heard estimates that as much as twenty percent of those of Spanish descent are of Jewish origin. We’re talking about tens of millions of souls.

However, that was not the only source of newfound Jews. There were a number whose grandparents had hidden any trace of their Jewishness during the Holocaust, that on their deathbeds, or even after, were revealed to be Jewish. My friend, Rabbi Avi Baumol, active in the Krakow Jewish community, confirms that there is a growing phenomenon of young Poles discovering their Jewish pedigree and returning to their roots.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 26:51 (Pinchas) analyzes the census that Moses conducts at the end of the Jewish forty-year journey through the desert. He then calls upon the prophecy from Isaiah (Chapters 54 and 49) which claims something surprising for a nation that was always the smallest, the weakest, the most insignificant in terms of population. The claim is that at the end of days, Jews will be the largest nation on the planet and they will return in mass to Israel.

Have we seen the initial trickle of what may turn out to be a flood? Are the Ethiopian Jews a sign of more to come from the African continent? Are the Bnei Menashe of India a portend of a more significant influx from the subcontinent? Are the resurfacing Jews from throughout the Americas and Europe a hint of much more below the surface?

What of more ancient rumors and theories of the lost ten tribes? Are the Celts and their progeny somehow our long-lost cousins? Do the Jews of Kaifeng, China, really predate the Tang dynasty (618-907) and are they perhaps just the tip of the iceberg as to what part of the Chinese population is actually Jewish?

The possibilities are both intriguing and exciting. What would it mean to the world to suddenly have hundreds of millions of people, perhaps over a billion souls, identify themselves as Jewish, and show solidarity with Israel? That is one of the possible scenarios of the Messianic age.

May we be welcoming to all who seek us out and demonstrate kindness and graciousness to make us a tribe worth rejoining.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Ethiopian Jews. You are our brothers, no matter what any bureaucrat says.

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings. -Frederick the Great

The nation of Israel was nearing the end of their punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert. They were ready to enter the land that God had promised them. Just a couple of kingdoms stood in their way. Moses sends messengers to the first king in their path, Sichon, king of the Emorites. Moses asks for safe passage and offers to pay for anything the people of Israel would consume on the way. Sichon answers by marching his massive, overwhelming army towards the Israelite camp. However, a one-sided battle ensues with Israel completely annihilating the Emorite army and conquering the entirety of Sichon’s kingdom. The same exact scenario plays itself out with Og the giant, King of Bashan.

Rabbeinu Bechaya on Numbers Chapter 22 (Balak) explains that both Sichon and Og relied on their strength of arms and the size of their armies. They assumed that the smaller, less experienced Israelite army would be easy to destroy. What they didn’t take into account is that while the might of a mortal king is defined by the strength and size of his army, such military force is meaningless to God. God is not defined by any physical attribute. God is the cause of every physical attribute.

The massive armies of Sichon and Og basically evaporated in front of God’s wishes for Israel to win the battle. The Torah reports that Israel killed every single combatant without losing one person on their side. This unnatural victory had Balak, King of Moab, scared witless. He was depending on his bigger, more powerful neighbors to defend him from what he saw as the Israelite threat. He abruptly discovered that the monarchs he felt were so strong, turned out to be of no consequence when facing God’s plans. All those men, all those armies that defined the strength of those kings, proved to be ephemeral.

Balak understood that physical force would have no effect against the nation of Israel. He then went on to try non-military strategies with mixed results. He had learned that in a world where God intervenes, strength of arms does not a king make.

May we realize where our true strengths lie.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the World Cup players, with the exciting wins, upsets and perhaps some divine involvement as well.