Overabundance of Just Enough (Pekudei)

Overabundance of Just Enough (Pekudei)

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. -Franklin D. Roosevelt

In building the Tabernacle in the desert, at the foot of Mount Sinai, God directs Moses to take up a collection of materials from the people of Israel. They donate gold, silver, copper, wood, skins, cloth, thread and anything else that was needed. The people of Israel are so generous with their contributions that the artisans tell Moses they need to stop with the contributions. They have more than enough material to complete the construction of the Tabernacle.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 38:21 reads a seeming contradiction in the verse. The verse can be read as saying that there was enough, meaning they received exactly the materials they needed and not more, but that at the same time they had too much. So, which is it? Was it enough or was it too much?

The Chidushei HaRim answers that because the people of Israel contributed to the Tabernacle for the sake of Heaven, without any ulterior motives, they reached a place over and above nature itself. They reached a place where there was no contradiction between “just enough” and “too much.” Having reached that supernatural place because of their selfless generosity, it empowered the people of Israel to have access to that supernatural state for all time.

The Chidushei Harim continues to explain that what the people of Israel proceed to do with that eternal power is to construct the Mishkan L’edut “A Tabernacle for the Pact.” What exactly the Mishkan L’edut is and how it differs, if it does, from the simpler appellation of just Mishkan “Tabernacle” he doesn’t say. Though it is likely safe to suggest that it is directly related to the Tabernacle housing the Luchot HaBrit, the Tablets of the Pact with the Ten Commandments written on them by the hand of God. A Pact between God and the people of Israel that would last forever and that would survive the Tabernacle itself in its travels and various incarnations.

May we always feel that we have enough in the physical realm while always reaching to connect with more of God in the spiritual realm, via the eternal Pact, the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the many volunteers who are helping the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and in particular to my friend Rabbi Avi Baumol of Krakow who is actively helping at the Ukrainian border. They are raising funds needed for the effort at this link: https://www.friendsofjcckrakow.org/ukraine

Being Smart is Secondary (Vayakhel)

Being Smart is Secondary (Vayakhel)

Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live as well as think. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the construction of the Tabernacle, God designates Bezalel as the master architect. The verse states:

“See, God has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, endowing him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 35:30 highlights the fact that Bezalel is singled out by “name.” He then proceeds to quote the Mishnaic dictum of “It’s better to have a good name than good oil,” which is classically interpreted to mean that it’s better to have a good name as an upstanding person than wealth and riches.

He then draws a comparison between the good name the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi possessed versus the good oil, the anointing oil, that was used to anoint and consecrate Nadav and Avihu as Kohens, as priests in the Tabernacle.

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, went too far in their roles when they brought the strange, unasked-for fire in the Tabernacle and were promptly struck down by God with a divine fire. Conversely, the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were unharmed when they were thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

The Chidushei HaRim interprets the analogy of “oil” as being wisdom. He would interpret the dictum as “It’s more important to first possess good character before wisdom.” He claims that while Nadav and Avihu were extremely intelligent, their characters were not yet developed and mature enough as compared to their intelligence. Therefore, their intelligence was on a rocky foundation.

Their father, Aaron, possessed both character and wisdom which is hinted at by the verse in Psalms:

“It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down according to his character traits.” -Psalms 133:2

May the strength of our character always be a foundation for whatever intelligence we’re blessed with.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the safety and wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.

Essential Anonymous Author (Ki Tisa)

Essential Anonymous Author (Ki Tisa)

The cult of individuality and personality, which promotes painters and poets only to promote itself, is really a business. The greater the genius of the personage, the greater the profit. -George Grosz

Last week’s Torah reading, the Torah reading of Tetzave, is notorious for not mentioning the name of Moses throughout the reading portion. It’s an unusual phenomenon, given the fact that Moses is the intermediary throughout these commands. Readers have become accustomed to the mantra-like repetition throughout much of the Five Books of Moses of the verse “And God spoke to Moses saying.” However, in Tetzave, this ubiquitous phrase, as well as Moses’ very name is conspicuously absent.

There is a Midrash that explains a possible reason, traced back to this week’s reading. The nation of Israel famously forces Aaron to construct the Golden Calf which they then proceed to worship, against God’s freshly delivered Ten Commandments. God threatens to destroy the Jewish nation in punishment. Moses intercedes, begs God for mercy, and in an unusual argument, he tells God to erase his name from God’s book. God responds that he won’t erase Moses’ name, but rather that of those who have sinned so blatantly against God.

The Midrash explains that the absence of Moses’ name from last week’s reading is a small reminder or even punishment for Moses’ suggestion that his name be erased.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 32:32 has a completely different explanation for why Moses’ name isn’t mentioned in the portion of Tetzave. He states that when one toils in studying the Torah, in unlocking its secrets, in transmitting Torah to others, then indeed, a person merits that the Torah lesson should be repeated in their name, that the agent of transmission should be remembered by name. However, there is an entirely different level of Torah transmission. There is the level when a person is willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. When Moses stood up to God to protect the Jewish nation from His wrath, when Moses was willing to be erased from the Book that he was so integral in its transmission, then Moses ascended to the level of not just being a transmitter of the Torah, but of being part and parcel of the Torah.

In a sense, Moses, by his sacrifice, became so integral to the Torah that his individuality was subsumed by the Torah, and he ceased for that period of time to exist independent of the Torah. His integration with the Torah was so profound that his name became unnecessary. For those verses and chapters where he’s not named, he was one with the Torah, so it became extraneous to name him.

May we find ways to learn, transmit and attach ourselves to the Torah, at all levels.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Ariel family of the Kadima-Zoran community in Israel for being blessed with growing the largest strawberry in the world: https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-strawberry-wins-guinness-record-as-worlds-largest/

Acolytes of an Anonymous Sage (Tetzave)

Acolytes of an Anonymous Sage (Tetzave)

Avoid popularity if you would have peace. -Abraham Lincoln

A special part of the Tabernacle service was the lighting of the Candelabrum, the Menorah. This special task was charged to Aaron, the first High Priest and to his descendants after him. Not only was Aaron responsible for lighting the Menorah and creating light in the sanctified place, but he also possessed an inner light that shone upon those he interacted with (as did Moses in a much more pronounced and observable way).

Aaron, along with his brother, Moses, are the righteous sages of their generation, as well as role models and inspiration for all future generations. These Tzadikim, these righteous ones, managed to communicate directly with God (Moses more so than Aaron), were beloved by Him and intercede on multiple occasions on behalf of the people of Israel, when God’s wrath is upon them.

The Chidushei Harim on Exodus 27:20 takes the opportunity to embark on an exposition regarding a Tzadik. He quotes a Talmudic dictum that there isn’t a generation that doesn’t have its share of Tzadikim, righteous people at the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Furthermore, every person has the capacity to connect somehow with a Tzadik of their generation, even if they don’t know the identity of the Tzadik.

He explains that one of the mechanisms to connect to a Tzadik which can assist in our stronger connection to God, is through the Sabbath. The Sabbath too possesses a special divine light. If a person enters the Sabbath with a sense of trepidation, of awe, of expectancy in the upcoming closer encounter with God, those feelings allow for a greater absorption of the sanctified light of the Sabbath, a light similar to the light that a Tzadik is imbued with and which can radiate onwards to those in his generation.

Somehow, bringing in the Sabbath with the right anticipation connects us to this divine light shared by the Tzadikim of our generation.

May we be able to discern and appreciate the light of Shabbat and come in contact with Tzadikim, whether we or they know so or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who’ve completed and to those who’ve started the cycle of learning Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) as part of the 929 program. Mazal Tov!

Divine Charity Cycle (Trumah)

Divine Charity Cycle (Trumah)

The human contribution is the essential ingredient. It is only in the giving of oneself to others that we truly live. -Ethel Percy Andrus

The Jewish nation has been freed from Egypt; they’ve received the Torah with God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai. Now, at the foot of the mountain, they start their next grand task, the building of the Tabernacle with all its sacred objects, including the altars, the Candelabrum, the Showbread Table and in the inner sanctum, in the Holy of Holies, the Ark containing the Tablets of the Law.

However, to build this Tabernacle with its array of special items, materials are needed. And that’s how this week’s Torah reading starts off. God instructs Moses to ask for donations (this is the original synagogue fundraiser).

God tells Moses:

“And you will take for Me a contribution, from every person whose heart so moves him, you shall take My contribution.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 25:2 notes the possessive language of “take,” “for Me,” and “My.” He explains that God is saying a few things in this verse. The first part is that a person needs to “take” themselves out of their mundane matters of this world. God is saying you need to take yourselves away from your narrow, personal, selfish concerns and dedicate yourselves “for Me.” Only a person whose heart moves him to contribute can really dedicate themselves to God. There is little room for God in the selfish man’s heart.

However, the Chidushei HaRim’s deeper point is that the truth is that everything we contribute to God is already His. All of creation, everything in it, ourselves, our possessions, our abilities, our time, are all from Him. When we give to Him, we are giving Him what is His. Any illusions we have that something, anything, belongs to us, is false and misleading. God has given us of His bounty, of His blessings, in part, to see how we use them. How do we use our gifts and blessings? Do we hoard? Do we keep it to ourselves? Do we only think of ourselves? Or do we think of a greater purpose, be it family, community, those that are more needy or disadvantaged?

Drawing on God’s blessings and participating in the divine cyclical chain of giving is a privilege which can be continuously improved, strengthened and renewed.

May we find the most effective uses for the bounty God gives us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the start of two months of Adar in this Jewish leap year. May they usher in greater joy.

 

Tribal Accountability (Mishpatim)

Tribal Accountability (Mishpatim)

Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

At God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai which accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments, the recently freed nation of Israel assembled at the foot of the mountain and heard both God and Moses. In their eagerness to take on God’s commandments the people of Israel loudly declare “we will do, and we will listen.”

This declaration is considered a great merit to the Jewish people and implies that they committed themselves to keep the commandments, to perform the commandments, to “do” them even before they’ve fully studied them or understood them – the “listen” part. It’s considered a higher form of service, to commit oneself to undertake God’s instructions and only afterward to explore deeply and understand them. Hence, first to do and then to listen. The Talmud refers to this strategy as a secret previously only known to the angels (Tractate Shabbat 88).

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 24:7 notes the plural form of the declaration. Each individual doesn’t say “I will do, and I will listen,” but rather they are inclusive of each other, “WE will do, and WE will listen.”

He explains that their eagerness and enthusiasm regarding the Torah was so great, and they understood it to be such a dear, sweet, divine gift, that not only was each individual more than ready to take on this commitment for themselves, but they were ready to make themselves accountable for their fellow Jew. Each member of the tribes of Israel stated that not only would they accept God’s commandments, but they would also be a guarantor for their brethren. They would be there for each other, for all of history. Hence the “we.” Each person would be accountable for the next. This would not be a solitary, individualized commitment, but rather a communal, tribal, and national commitment.

Hence the ancient dictum “All of Israel are guarantors one for the other.” The physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual well-being of our brothers is always our concern. We can never turn a blind eye and we are constantly enjoined to help, to support, to lend a hand. We are responsible, we are accountable, we are the guarantors of one another.

May we always be able to assist those in need, on as many fronts as needed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To when snowfall is beautiful.

Spiritual Intuition (Yitro)

Spiritual Intuition (Yitro)

Intuition comes very close to clairvoyance; it appears to be the extrasensory perception of reality. -Alexis Carrel

The Jewish nation is assembled in perhaps one of the most historic moments in human history. God reveals Himself to an entire nation and pronounces the famous Ten Commandments. Among the Ten Commandments is the directive to remember and consecrate the Sabbath.

One of the many interesting aspects of the Ten Commandments is that Moses repeats them. We hear them for the first time here in the Book of Exodus as we hear of the revelation on Mount Sinai. However, Moses retells the encounter forty years later in the Book of Deuteronomy and quotes, almost verbatim, all the Ten Commandments, with some minor but notable differences.

One of the more interesting differences is that while in Exodus the commandment of the Sabbath is introduced with the word “Remember” (Zachor), in Deuteronomy the same commandment is introduced with the word “Keep” (Shamor).

The oral tradition tells us that really God said both words, Remember and Keep, (Zachor and Shamor) simultaneously. Moses took the opportunity of the retelling of the Ten Commandments to split the words up and put one in each location, even though they had been uttered by God at the same moment.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 20:8 wonders as to what purpose does it serve God to utter two words simultaneously, when we humans would have difficulty hearing, let alone comprehending, what would seem like an audio cacophony to our ears.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that there is a value to the normally impossible simulcast of God’s parallel utterances, even if we cannot comprehend and don’t understand what He’s saying. He states that the command is coming from a place beyond comprehension, but that nevertheless, the spirit absorbs and understands the message even if our intellect does not. That somehow, we have an intuition, a spiritual intuition that can decipher God’s otherwise incomprehensible messages, which would be impossible to understand through pure cerebral analysis. That understanding rests deep within us, but it is there, nonetheless.

May we learn how to tap into our spiritual intuition and understand more of God’s messages.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To 25 years in Israel.

Everyone Gets Saved This Time (Beshalach)

Everyone Gets Saved This Time (Beshalach)

Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains. -Jean Jacques Rousseau

Against all conceivable odds, the tyrannical Egyptian Empire is brought down to its knees by The Ten Plagues and Pharoah finally tells Moses that the Jewish slaves are free to go worship God in the desert as they requested. Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, but with a further destination in mind. The text states that the Children of Israel left Egypt “Chamushim”, normally translated as armed or equipped. However, there is a chilling Midrash that explains the word comes from the root of “Chamesh” which means five, and that the verse is hinting that only a fifth of the Jewish nation left Egypt.

The Midrash asks the reasonable next question that if only one fifth of the Jews left Egypt, what happened to the other four fifths? What happened to eighty percent of the Jewish people in Egypt? The Midrash answers that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish slaves had no interest in leaving Egypt. They refused to accompany Moses into the desert and to freedom. God struck down those four fifths. According to the Midrash, God destroyed those Jews during the plague of Darkness. He used the cover of darkness to hide the fact from the Egyptians. Only twenty percent of the Jewish slaves escaped and accompanied Moses into the desert. Only their children would eventually make it to the Promised Land a generation later.

The story doesn’t end there, however. In a certain sense the Exodus and the redemption from Egypt was a prelude to the future prophesied Messianic redemption. Some have imagined that in that future event there will likewise be a parallel culling of those who “don’t make the cut,” of those who refuse to leave their version of Egypt, however one might define that.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 14:11 states that in the future redemption, as opposed to the Egyptian Exodus, everyone will be included. Every member of the Jewish people will “make the cut.” Every Jew will be included in whatever God has in store for the days of the Messiah. That the Messianic era will be grander, stronger and more powerful than the Egyptian Exodus, not only in its scale, but also in the fact that all Jews will be included this time. The event itself will serve to somehow free or redeem those of us who are still enslaved or unredeemed, one way or another.

May our freedoms and redemptions come soon.

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of my teacher, Rabbi Dr. J. Mitchell Orlian Z”L.

Powerfully Powerless (Bo)

Powerfully Powerless (Bo)

Let not thy will roar, when thy power can but whisper. -Thomas Fuller

Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the most powerful empire of the world in his day. He decided who would live and who would die. He decided who would be wealthy and who would be poor. He decided who would be free and who would be enslaved. It is no wonder that not only was he worshipped as a god, but he even thought of himself as a god.

Enters Moses, the self-proclaimed leader of the lowly slave race of Jews, claiming that there is some unseen God who demands obedience. Pharaoh quickly and cruelly laughs him out of the palace while cracking down even harder on the enslaved Jewish nation.

Moses together with his brother Aaron become the agents of the famed Ten Plagues. Before each series of plagues Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Jewish nation go serve their God. Pharaoh consistently either declines to let them go, or reneges on his promise to let them go after a plague has passed.

Pharaoh is unwilling to bend to the attack of the plagues to the point of ludicrousness and national oblivion. His stubbornness would seem almost comical if it weren’t so devastating. The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 10:2 states (as do a number of other commentators) that after a certain point of Pharaoh hardening his own heart against the Jewish people and not letting them go, that eventually God steps in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart as well to give Pharaoh the strength to continue to resist the onslaught of the plagues. A normal human being, even one as narcissistic and self-adoring as Pharaoh, unaided, would eventually succumb and give in to the divinely ordained plagues and free the Jewish people. God wanted Pharaoh to have the strength to continue to resist until all the plagues had been unleashed.

The Chidushei HaRim adds that God had another reason for giving Pharaoh additional power to withstand the devastation of the plagues. God wanted to show the Jews and the world that there is no power, there is no force, there is no situation that God can’t save the Jewish people from. Even the most powerful man of the most powerful empire, with divinely reinforced stubbornness is as nothing for God to affect salvation when and how He chooses.

May we realize that power is so often just a façade, a temporary mirage.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Webb telescope and all those involved in its planning, construction and launch, including my friend Michael Kaplan, recently interviewed here: https://www.timesofisrael.com/space-is-changing-webb-is-just-the-start-says-ex-israeli-who-was-in-from-its-dawn/

Comfortable Exile (Vaera)

Comfortable Exile (Vaera)

The comfort zone takes our greatest aspirations and turns them into excuses for not bothering to aspire. -Peter McWilliams

The Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptians for centuries. The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 6:6 wonders not so much as to how the Jewish people endured, but how did they leave? He picks out an interesting nuance from the text.

God says to the Jewish nation in Egypt, “And I will take you out from under the labors of Egypt.” The key word in Hebrew is “sivlot” which is commonly translated in this context as “labors.” The Chidushei HaRim reads “sivlot” as bearing, as in they were bearing the pain of Egypt. The verse would then read “And I will take you out from bearing the pain of Egypt.”

The Chidushei HaRim explains that the Jewish people had adjusted to their exile and their enslavement. They had learned to bear it. In a certain sense they had even become comfortable with their slavery. We see multiple indications of that later during the desert journey, when at the first whiff of trouble or challenge or hardship, the people complain and want to go back to Egypt.

God is telling them, “I’m going to make your enslavement unbearable.” And indeed, He does, as Moses’ involvement initially ratchets up Pharoah’s crackdown on the Jewish people. Overnight, the Egyptians stop providing the Jews with straw for the brick production, whilst still demanding that the Jews keep the daily quotas intact. The Jewish people had thought that their enslavement was bearable and didn’t want to rock the boat of their relations with the Egyptians, as we see in the Jewish taskmasters’ complaint about Moses’ intervention. God sets plans in motion to make the enslavement unbearable, to make the Jewish people ready to leave their previously comfortable enslavement.

The Chidushei HaRim stresses that when Jews decide that they can endure exile, if Jews decide that they are not ready to leave the comfort of their golden exile, redemption will never come.

May we always be prepared to transition from comfort to redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Hebrew word of the year — tirlul, translated as “lunacy.”

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