Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things and I’ll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things. -Lawrence D. Bell
The name of this week’s parasha, Ekev, besides meaning “because” can also be translated as “heel”. The Kabbalists state that this alludes to the small or minor commandments that one is likely to trample on with their heel.
There are an abundance of commandments that have not made it to the general awareness of our day. For example:
- “Shatnez”: A prohibition to wear any garments that mix wool and linen.
- Shaving: Cannot use a razor on your face/neck.
- Haircuts: Cannot shave the hair over the mandibular joint.
- Tattoos: Prohibited.
- Horoscopes: Prohibited.
- Castration: Prohibited to castrate any being.
Besides the lesser-known commandments, even amongst the more widely known ones such as the Sabbath or eating Kosher, there are countless details and minutia that people choose to remain ignorant about or to be less than careful about.
The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) states that every single object – including the smallest detail or act – has a divine aspect to it. Hence the almost obsessive compulsion of Jewish law with the minutest details of our existence. By taking care of the small items, we merit to connect their divine sparks to the highest spiritual levels.
May we take the small stuff seriously.
To the arrival in Montevideo of Rabbi and Rabbanit Kruger.
Getting without asking
All through nature, you will find the same law. First the need, then the means. -Robert Collier
God knows what we want. Luckily for us, He also knows what we need. Nonetheless, we are commanded to pray to Him on a daily basis. Our sages of the past even formulated specific prayers that we repeat every morning, afternoon and night. After a while, these prayers can appear monotonous.
However, at the end of the silent prayer (known as the “Amida” or “Shemona Esre”) there is space that is set aside for personalized individual prayers. This is the place where we can break free of the formal, highly structured liturgy composed by our Rabbis of old. This is the place to pray specifically for success in our upcoming deal, test or challenge. It is the place to pour our hearts, our innermost private thoughts to God, our wishes, hopes and desires.
The Sfat Emet for parashat Vaetchanan in 5633 (1873) turns this paradigm on its head. He suggests that if we feel that we truly need something, we should focus on the established generalized liturgy as opposed to our specific personal requests. God knows what we want, knows what we need and knows why we are coming to pray. But by concentrating on the prescribed formulas; which include praise of God, general communal and national requests, and thanking God; we will merit fulfillment of our personal needs.
What the Sfat Emet recommends is counterintuitive. Don’t ask God directly for what you need in your prayer. Stick to the standard millennia-old text. He knows what to do. Somehow, acknowledging Him, honoring Him, thanking Him and thinking of the wider community and the world, opens up a channel for God to then demonstrate that He can in fact do anything. He then bestows some of that capacity and blessing on the petitioner who follows the correct sequence of words and thoughts.
May we appreciate the power of our ancient prayers and use them to our benefit.
To our son Akiva on his birthday. May he continue to have his prayers and needs gracefully fulfilled.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. -Nelson Mandela
Different languages have different expressions; different concepts and even different ways of thinking that are not easily translated to other languages. Nevertheless, God spoke to Moses in Hebrew. The Torah is written in Hebrew and that is what our ancestors spoke. The modern world has witnessed the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language and the common tongue of the State of Israel.
Ideally, every Jew should understand Hebrew. There is nothing like reading our sources in the original. Much is lost in translation. However, the reality is that vast numbers of the Jewish people today don’t understand Hebrew. They need to rely on translations. They can only learn Torah in a foreign language.
The Sfat Emet on parshat Devarim in 5635 (1875) explains that the multiplicity of languages in which one can learn Torah is purposeful. He explains that there are certain aspects of the Torah, certain lessons, which can only be transmitted in a different language. While Hebrew is the main language of transmission, the main river that carries the knowledge of millennia, there are other distributaries, other streams that branch off from the main Hebrew one, with their own unique and important lessons.
May we learn those lessons, in whatever language we can.
To the memory of Mr. Lenny Bolnick.
Powerful Holy Words
Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs. -Pearl Strachan Hurd
The Torah takes the spoken word seriously. Very seriously. It dedicates a whole chapter to the laws of vows and if and when they might be annulled. There is an entire tractate of the Talmud that deals with this single issue.
The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) explains that the power of our speech is a particular strength of the Jewish people. Our words can turn ideas into reality. Specifically, by just uttering words of Torah, one has the capacity to connect directly with God. That is the reason for the biblical command to recite the “Shma Yisrael” prayer twice a day, as well as all the other prayers and blessings that the sages commanded. This power converts our wishes and requests into real blessings and bounty.
However, there is a caveat. It all depends on the words we choose. When we use holy words, when we use words of blessing, of peace, of faith, of Torah, then the transformation to reality can occur. However, when we waste our words on mundane matters, frivolous matters, lowly matters, inappropriate matters, we are squandering that divine gift.
The Sfat Emet concludes that in accordance with how we watch and protect our speech, so too is the measure of power that we have to see our hopes and dreams come to fruition.
To Ana Duchits. She has that power.
Deciphering Life’s Mission
How can we know ourselves? Never by reflection, but only through action. Begin at once to do your duty and immediately you will know what is inside you. -Johann von Goethe
Pinchas publicly kills the rebel prince Zimri, and his impromptu lover, Kozbi, during their act of public promiscuity, thereby stopping the deadly plague that killed 24,000 men of Israel. Pinchas is then awarded a “Pact of Peace” by God (see Numbers Chapter 25).
The Sfat Emet in 5645 (1885) states that this “Peace” is really “Completeness” and it is the highest attribute one can reach in life. However, it comes about when one finally understands his mission in this world. But to make matters trickier, he explains that it is impossible for us to find our life’s mission on our own. We can only understand it with God’s help.
The key to receiving this divine assistance, the Sfat Emet continues, is the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, a day designed for spiritual tranquility and joy, we can receive an “additional spirit” that somehow reveals our mission. Every person has their own particular hidden attributes they need to reveal and resistances they need to overcome. It’s a mission that lasts a lifetime.
May we figure out our missions and perform them successfully.
To the Hogar Israelita (Jewish Old-Age Home) of Montevideo, on completing the important mission of achieving full Kosher certification for their facility.
Beware Instant Rewards
Those who give hoping to be rewarded with honor are not giving, they are bargaining. -Philo
The concept of reward and punishment is a fundamental belief in Judaism. In multiple places in the Torah, God tells us directly, in no uncertain language, that we will be rewarded for our good deeds and we will be punished for our bad ones. We are encouraged to choose well, to choose the good, to choose life. We are recounted in detail the blessings we will receive for following God’s path, including health, abundance and peace.
Conversely, we are exhorted to avoid evil, to avoid sin, to avoid ignoring God’s instructions. Ignoring God and allowing ourselves to sin leads to death, deprivation and suffering. The Torah in two places gives specific, horrifying details as to the punishments that await us should we choose poorly.
The Sfat Emet on the reading of Balak in 5635 (1875) adds an interesting caveat regarding rewards. He explains that the evil person who does do good, but does so for the reward, will in fact receive his reward – sometimes immediately. But in fact the physical reward that he receives in this world is the extent of what he receives. His motivation is selfish, ignorant and short-sighted. He has his eye on the reward and nothing else. He doesn’t understand that we don’t follow commandments merely for the reward, but rather because it is the will of God.
When we approach the commandments with the correct motivation, it is a benefit to our soul and our eternal existence beyond this physical world. The physical reward in this world is a side-benefit, almost tangential to the reward in the spiritual plane.
May we perform commandments for the right reasons and enjoy their rewards in this world and the next.
To Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. A guide, a mentsch, a role-model.
Faith over Reason
Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking. -Kahlil Gibran
Amongst the hundreds of commandments that God bestows upon the people of Israel, are many that on the surface are difficult to understand. These are classically called “Hok,” or “Hukim” in the plural. King Solomon himself, that most wisest of men, is quoted as stating that the law of the Red Heifer, featured in this week’s Torah reading, was beyond his comprehension.
The Temple rite of the Red Heifer consisted of a rare cow, completely covered in red hair, that was ritually slaughtered and subsequently burned. The resulting ashes were then mixed in water and that water was sprinkled over individuals, purifying those who had been ritually impure because of contact with the dead. What was perhaps most ironic about the rite was that the Kohen doing the sprinkling and having been ritually pure beforehand, became impure by the end of the rite, even though he was the source and cause of purification in others. It’s as if by purifying the other, he absorbs some of the impurity himself.
Nonetheless, the Sfat Emet in 5632 (1872) explains the path to understanding these perhaps incomprehensible commandments. He states that of course every commandment has a reason, but that we can’t understand the reason until after we accept the commandment without an explanation. Then, according to the level of faith, of acceptance of the commandment and the willingness to perform it without understanding, so too will be the level of understanding we achieve.
He further explains that the reasons behind these commandments are actually spiritual matters as opposed to merely intellectual exercises and only the spirit has the capacity to understand, or more accurately to “sense,” the reason behind the commandments.
May we develop the capacity to believe so that eventually we may understand.
To the Jewish Community of Uruguay on the celebration of its 100th anniversary.