Death by Mediocrity

Death by Mediocrity

“Moderation? It’s mediocrity, fear, and confusion in disguise. It’s the devil’s dilemma. It’s neither doing nor not doing. It’s the wobbling compromise that makes no one happy. Moderation is for the bland, the apologetic, for the fence-sitters of the world afraid to take a stand. It’s for those afraid to laugh or cry, for those afraid to live or die. Moderation…is lukewarm tea, the devil’s own brew.“ Dan Millman, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior

In a world striving for ‘normalcy’ there is a certain comfort in moderation. To fit in, to be part of the crowd, to go with the flow is safe and uncomplicated. To dissent is to ask for trouble. To have a unique opinion or outlook puts you in danger of being ostracized.

However, mediocrity in thought or deed is really the equivalent of a living death.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno makes a radical claim that people would say is both elitist and genetically untenable: Jews are by nature never mediocre.

The very first line of this week’s reading (Deuteronomy 11:26) boldly states:

“Behold! I place before you today a blessing and a curse.”

The Bible then continues here and elsewhere as to the various and bountiful blessings that occur as a result of following God’s commandments as well as the horrible curses that will befall those that ignore God’s commands.

Sforno comments that the Bible, by exclaiming “Behold!” is purposely bringing our attention to a new realization. Namely, that the conduct of the Jewish people is not like that of the other nations. The rest of the world is content with the middle road, with “sufficient”, “average” or even “mediocre” results. Sforno contends that Jews on the other hand tend to go to extremes – for better or worse.

He claims that when a Jew pursues success, he pursues it beyond the sufficient and strives for the utmost in excellence. Conversely, when a Jew is drawn to sin, rebellion or ungodly pursuits, he will aim for the deepest levels possible.

One doesn’t have to look far for some evidence to this thesis. Jews have a highly disproportional number of extremely successful scientists, philosophers, authors, sages and Noble Prize winners, as well as equally notorious gangsters, scam artists, criminals and revolutionaries. Individual members of the Jewish tribe manage to go to both positive and negative extremes of society. This extremism, this escape from mediocrity, has placed many of them in the limelight of history.

Mediocrity has never been a Jewish value. God asks for and demands extreme excellence from us (in blessed pursuits). May we live up to His expectations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my mother.  Not only does she not have a bad bone in her body – she doesn’t have a mediocre one either. Every action, every movement of hers, is in pursuit of excellence. This is perhaps most obvious in her brushstrokes and in the ensuing artistic masterpieces that emerge.

To get a first hand experience of her artwork, you are personally invited to a gala event: The opening night of her first solo exhibition, this coming Thursday night, August 20, at the Jerusalem Theatre. Please see details below. You can visit her website to see a sampling of her paintings at www.niraspitz.com

NiraArtExhibition

Madoff’s Curse

Madoff’s Curse

Bernie Madoff, the convicted perpetrator of what has been called the largest Ponzi scheme in history, is now sitting in jail for the rest of his life. The list of victims of his fraud is broad. The victims include universities, charitable trust funds, non-profit organizations, retirees, high-net-worth individuals — and now his wife.

In an effort to recoup just a fraction of their losses, the victims’ legal representatives are going after any and all assets his wife may have, including artwork and silverware, not to mention cash and bonds. Mrs. Madoff’s lawyers will try to prove that those funds and possessions were hers, inherited and/or independent of Bernie’s shenanigans.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno would have predicted the fate of Mrs. Madoff’s wealth.

Deuteronomy 7:25-26 in an apparently disjointed passage about successful conquering of the Land of Canaan adds:

“The carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire; you shall not covet and take for yourself the silver and gold that is on them, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination of Hashem, your God. And you shall not bring an abomination into your home and become banned like it; you shall surely loathe it and you shall surely abominate it, for it is banned.”

Sforno provides a novel interpretation of these verses. He states that anyone who coveted the illegal silver and gold will first of all not see any gain whatsoever from the ill-gotten funds – and secondly, he will also lose everything that he had rightfully and legally earned before. The dishonest funds will infect the honest funds and together all of the person’s possessions will become valueless.

In the business world, it is common for people to be ruled by greed and fear. It is often considered fair game to make a buck by less than above-board means. Sforno makes two important points. We should get our priorities straight in our commercial efforts; and that deceitful practices are completely counterproductive – not only in the spiritual realm, but in the very practical world of commerce.

May we always be able to walk the ‘golden’ path and reap the rewards, both financial and otherwise, in this world and the next.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the many worthy and noble people and organizations whose activities have come to a halt or been curtailed because of Madoff’s scam. “Relief and salvation shall come from another source.” (Esther 4:14)

Atheists in the Foxhole

Atheists in the Foxhole

The phrase “There are no atheists in a foxhole” was apparently popularized during World War Two, though some attribute its coinage to “The Great War” (World War I). It refers to a common phenomena exhibited most strongly during intense infantry trench warfare. Namely, that in conditions of extreme stress, people who otherwise did not consider themselves religious, or even believers in God, suddenly start praying fervently.

In Jewish historical memory, there is no day more painful or stressful than the 9th of Av (observed this year tonight and tomorrow). It is the day when God’s wrath descended on his chosen nation repeatedly throughout millennia. The most significant events for which we commemorate and fast on the 9th of Av are the destruction of both Temples, the massacre of the Jewish people and the exile of remaining survivors from the Land of Israel.

However, whether it was the punishment of 40 years of dying in the desert or the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the 9th of Av has repeatedly symbolized death, destruction, exile, and the unleashing of God’s general fury on a people that he generally is assumed to protect.

The various punishments that God will visit upon the Children of Israel are recounted in excruciating detail in various places in the Bible. A more general description is given early in this week’s reading:

“When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the land, you will grow corrupt…and you will do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger Him… you will surely perish quickly from the land… you shall not have lengthy days upon it, for you will be destroyed…Hashem will scatter you among the nations where Hashem will lead you… when you are in distress and all these things have befallen you… you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice.”

[excerpts Deuteronomy 4:25-30]

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the juxtaposition of God’s wrath followed immediately in the next verse, by His forgiveness:

“For Hashem, your God, is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.”

[ibid 4:31]

Sforno explains that God’s forgiveness is a function of our return to God, and that our return to God is actually a direct and natural reaction to the trouble he inflicts on us.

When cataclysm and tragedy hits us, either on a personal or a national level, it is hard to be philosophical. However, Sforno maintains, that even though we may not or can not understand at the time the reasons for our misfortunes, one aspect of it is actually a call from God to return to Him. And it’s directed towards the atheists in their foxholes as well.

May our sorrows be turned to joy and may we witness the healing of our people and the rebuilding of the Temple speedily in our days.

May you have an easy and meaningful fast and a Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our modern-day exiles from Gush Katif, many of whom are still reeling and suffering from their communal 9th of Av. May they all find homes, jobs, respect, tranquility and stability quickly.

Evil’s Innocent Accomplices

Evil’s Innocent Accomplices

Some time ago, I was drafted by the Israeli Police to assist in an international manhunt. My getting enmeshed in the particular case was fairly distressing and a confidant of mine was concerned about my getting further entangled in this mess.

However, shortly thereafter he encouraged my involvement with the following quote by Edmund Burke:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I thought Ayn Rand expanded nicely on this in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”:

“The spread of evil is the symptom of a vacuum. Whenever evil wins, it is only by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles.”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno comes to a related conclusion as to the acquiescence signified by silence from a more domestic example regarding a married woman taking a vow (Numbers 30:15):

“If her husband shall be silent about her from day to day – he will have let stand all her vows; or all the prohibitions that are upon her, he will have let them stand, for he was silent about her on the day of his hearing.”

Sforno comments:

“Silence by the one who can protest is like agreement, for the one who is silent is as if he agreed with the act.”

Silence may be golden, but there are times where it may be criminal. May we always know the difference.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the Israel Police Force. I found them to be determined, resourceful and relentless. May they always be a tool of justice.

Outrageous Immortality

Outrageous Immortality

The quest for eternal life is recorded by humanity as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh (22nd century BCE). Judaism does not attribute much value to eternal corporeal life in this world except in one notable personality.

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen takes fatally violent vigilante action against a couple committing public and prohibited intercourse (Numbers 25:6-8). Rabbis and commentators expound at length the rarity of such vigilantism being sanctioned. They go into even more detail as to the spiritual, emotional and relational requirements of the vigilante himself who single-handedly acts as judge, jury and executioner.

Pinchas was apparently a rare individual, who under extremely trying circumstances, did the completely right thing at exactly the right time with utterly proper intentions. This combination of performing the right and dangerous deed against an entire nations-worth of disapproval or apathy, with pure and unwavering commitment to God, earns Pinchas the singular reward of the “Covenant of Peace” from God.

It seems odd that for such an outrageous and brutal deed, Pinchas should be rewarded with what seems the exact converse – Peace.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno also wonders at this apparent dichotomy of the aggressive man achieving Peace. Sforno explains that the peace Pinchas gets is a peace treaty with none other than the Angel of Death, who can no longer affect him.

In a sense, Pinchas, via his commitment, conquered Death. Sforno details that according to one opinion Pinchas went on to live for hundreds of years. According to another tradition, Pinchas is in reality the personality better known as Elijah the Prophet.

The following story from the Zohar reinforces the point:

“When God brought Elijah up to heaven, the Angel of Death stood against him.

God said: “For this purpose I created heaven: so that Elijah would come up here.”

Angel of Death: “God, now the people will have what to say – that they should not die, just as Elijah.”

God: “He is not like other people. He can eliminate you from the world; you do not know his power.”

Angel of Death: “Give me permission to go down to him.”

God: “Go down.”

As soon as Elijah saw him, he forced the Angel of Death beneath his feet and sought to eliminate him from the world, but God did not give him permission. Thereupon he bent the Angel of Death beneath him and went up to heaven. (Zohar Chadash 76a).”

Pinchas (a.k.a. Elijah) goes on to fulfill a number of eternal roles in Jewish history: Brit Milah, Passover Seder, and countless recorded physical appearances throughout the centuries.

May his long prophesized public return happen speedily in our days, preceding, as it is foretold, the Great and Awesome Day of God (Malachi 3:24).

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Rabbi Lazer Brody.  By a series of circumstances, I ended up having the honor of driving this special man home to Ashdod from Efrat. His life’s mission is the hastening of the redemption via educating “Faith”.

I was most impressed by the books he translated of Rabbi Shalom Arush, and I highly recommend them. The Garden of Emuna (now reaching 1 million in sales – unheard of for Jewish books), and The Garden of Peace (a must for every married man).

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Ex ore parvulorum veritas, an ancient Latin proverb, is most commonly translated as: “Out of the mouths of babes – truth.” This phrase can be traced back to our own book of Psalms 8:2: “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings You established strength.”

The Latin version reflects a concept that is seen throughout Jewish thought and most notably in the Talmud: children, even unwittingly, will state the Truth, whether uncomplicated, with some deeper meaning, or even on a prophetic level.

One of the first prayers (or truths, if you will) that children learn to sing when attending Jewish pre-school is the famous verse of “Mah Tovuh”:

“Mah Tovuh Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael.”

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Numbers 24:5

This is one of the blessings that the sinister prophet Bilaam is forced by God to proclaim over the people of Israel.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno inquires as to the meaning behind this blessing which might give additional insight as to why this particular verse is used at the very beginning of the Morning Prayer service, and as to why it has become over the centuries a favored song of Jewish children.

Sforno explains that “tents” refers to Torah study halls, and that “dwelling places” refers to synagogues. Sforno further elaborates that synagogues are uniquely suited for the receipt by God of a person’s prayers.

Sforno’s point bears examining. He seems to be claiming that the same person, praying at the same time, with the same concentration, intensity, sincerity and heartfelt emotion will have a dissimilar effect depending on whether they are praying from the privacy of their home or in the more public synagogue. The mere change of location and sanctity of the place will have a radically different positive result on the response to our prayers.

May we always have opportunity to pray in a synagogue and may God answer our prayers for the best.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all of our very cute (luckily for them) children who have now started their summer vacation. It is quite a treat to hear them singing their prayers with joy, enthusiasm and earnestness. We can learn from them.

Sin, Disease and Healing

Sin, Disease and Healing

Out of the many symbols modernity has inherited from the ancient world, one of the creepiest must be that of the medical profession. The serpent entwined around a rod always seemed to be an odd choice for healers.

Star of Life (w/Rod of Asclepius)
Star of Life (w/Rod of Asclepius)

The Rod of Asclepius, as it is formally known, gets its name and attribution from Greek mythology (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_of_Asclepius), however while reading this week’s Torah portion, one can’t help but conclude that as in many other things, the Jews were involved in the creation of this symbol first.

In Numbers Chapter 21, the Children of Israel complain against God and Moses (yet again!), and as punishment God sends “fiery serpents” that start biting and killing the complainers. The people admit that they sinned and Moses prays to God. Verse 8 and 9 are the response:

“God said to Moses: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a serpent of copper and placed it on the pole; so it was that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live.”

The physician, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, combines both a physical and metaphysical explanation of how the healing occurred. A few hundred years before fellow Europeans discovered the concept of vaccination (though there is undocumented evidence that Chinese and Indian healers knew this centuries before), Sforno discusses how substances taken from or related to a particular disease (in our case ‘fiery serpents’) could heal an ailing patient.

Sforno’s other point is that a medical ailment can actually be a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. Therefore the cure can only be attained by a spiritual correction.

In our case, Sforno explains that the Children of Israel sinned by evil speech towards God and Moses. Hence they were punished by the mouth of the snake. Combining the concept of inoculation with repentance, it becomes immanently logical that the cure would likewise involve a snake.

By Moses placing a snake high up on a pole, he both reminded the Jews of their sin and compelled them to look heavenward. If they repented, placed their trust once again in God, and accepted the bitter medicine of the truth, then they would be healed.

May we always be healed of whatever ails us, whether spiritual or physical, and may we find quick healing in our gaze Heavenward.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Dr. Moshe Wiesel. A man that has successfully recreated what I thought was an outdated profession – the village doctor. May he continue being an effective agent of healing for all of us and we wish him and us much luck and success in his founding of Alon Shvut’s Youth Minyan.

An Exploration of Classic Jewish Texts

%d bloggers like this: