Free Protection (Naso)

Free Protection (Naso)

You must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. -Andrew Jackson

The Torah reading of Naso is a diverse and content-rich portion. It includes a description of the work the Levites performed transporting the Tabernacle components during their desert journey. It has instructions regarding the treatment of anyone who is ritually impure, their need to exit the camp and purify themselves. We then have the unusual description of the Sotah ceremony, the ritual for a wife suspected and accused of adultery by her husband, followed by the narrative of the laws of the Nazirites who abstain from wine, from cutting their hair and from the defilement of the dead.

The second half of the portion of Naso gives a detailed and extensive description of the sacrifices and gifts the princes of the tribes of Israel bring for the dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. It is notable for the twelve detailed repetitions of what is ostensibly the same offering over and over and over again.

However, nestled in between these two sections of Naso, we have the famed priestly blessing, just a few verses long. It states as follows:

“God will bless you and protect you. God will light His countenance upon you and grace you. God will turn His countenance towards you and give you peace.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 6:24 wonders as to the need to mention protection together with blessing in the first verse. By way of explanation, he contrasts the blessing of God to the blessing of a king of flesh and blood. When a human king bestows upon a person some blessing or some gift, once that person has departed from the king’s presence there is little to then stop robbers from harming him, stealing the gifts and nullifying whatever blessing the king gave.

However, with God’s blessings, the protection of that blessing is part and parcel of what God is bestowing. The protection of the blessing is included in the blessing itself.

The Chidushei HaRim continues that even if a mortal king were to assign guards to escort and protect the recipient of his gift, that is not how mortal blessings are given and even such protection would be limited. On the other hand, God’s protection is intrinsic to the blessing and inseparable from God’s will.

May we always be recipients of gifts of the divine variety that will remain unharmed and untouched by any negative intentions.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bat-Mitzvah of our niece, Illyana Spitz. Mazal Tov!

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The multitude which is not brought to act as a unity, is confusion. That unity which has not its origin in the multitude is tyranny. -Blaise Pascal

The name of the fourth of Moses’ five books of the Torah is called Bamidbar in Hebrew, meaning “in the desert.” As with the four other books, it is also the name of the first Torah portion of its eponymous book. While one can’t argue with the fact or the appropriateness of calling the book which deals primarily with Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the Book of In the Desert, it is interesting that the translators chose to call it the Book of Numbers.

It is not entirely inappropriate, for there is a significant preoccupation with counting the numbers of the Children of Israel, both at the beginning of their desert journey as well as at the end of it, as well as some other counting and numbering going on.

One of the peculiarities that become clear in the counting of Israel is the hierarchy of different groups vis-à-vis access to and service in the Tabernacle. The Kohens have the preeminent role, followed by the Levites in a supporting role, and finally the rest of the tribes of Israel. The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 1:1 discusses the importance and value of the different designations and separations. There are differences between individuals, families, groups and nations and it would be a mistake to look at or think of every individual as part of some universal, monolithic, amorphous whole. The identity, distinctions and roles serve a purpose.

However, when these disparate groups come together and unite while still retaining their distinctions and identities, that is when something truly special happens, that is when the elusive peace we are always seeking is possible. The Chidushei HaRim quotes a well-known Talmudic dictum that there is no vessel that can contain blessings for Israel except for peace. He adds that there is a hint in this dictum in the word “vessel” itself, which in Hebrew is “Kli.” He states that “KLI” is the acronym for Kohen, Levi, Israel. When Kohens, Levites and the rest of Israel are united, while still retaining their identities and their roles, that is when we create peace and that is when we can truly become vessels for bountiful blessing.

May we reach that unity, peace and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Daniel and Rebbitzen Ilana Epstein on their induction as the Rabbinic couple at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue of London.

Wandering Aimfully (Bechukotai)

Wandering Aimfully (Bechukotai)

It is the first of all problems for a man to find out what kind of work he is to do in this universe. -Thomas Carlyle

The beginning of the Torah reading of Bechukotai has God declaring that if we walk in His ways, in His laws, He will bless us with plenty. The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 26:3 focuses on the verb of walking and draws our attention to a Midrash about King David and walking.

King David is quoted as saying “God, every day I would say to myself I’m going to walk to such and such place, but my legs would take me to synagogues and study halls.”

The Chidushei HaRim provides two different homiletical explanations for the message of the Midrash. The first explanation is that every day, every person has a different mission to accomplish. Our missions are not static. It’s not the same mission every day, rather every day presents a new challenge, a new task, a new twist, even a new nuance we are meant to undertake. Related to the point of our missions, is that every mission is unique to each person and no person can accomplish or do someone else’s mission for them. Our legs are what take us to our missions. While we might have thought we were going to one place, in fact, we’re being led to confront, deal, help, intervene, say a kind word, or do whatever it is that our personal unique mission for the day is.

The second explanation is geared towards introverts, or those who don’t like crowds or public gatherings. The Chidushei HaRim explains that King David is talking about how his original intent was to perform some commandment or to study Torah on his own, but his feet would take him to the synagogue or the study hall to perform the commandments in a group, with the community, to pray and study Torah with people as opposed to on his own. While of course there is a value and often a need to perform things on one’s own, there is a much higher value when we perform these things in a group.

May we let our feet take us to good things and places as well as to wander with purpose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT, for their warm hosting, and to Howard and Eileen Spielman of Sharon, MA, for knowing how to wonderfully surprise.

Tangible Breath (Behar)

Tangible Breath (Behar)

A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything. -Napoleon Bonaparte

Hebrew is a language with many amorphous words. The same word can have multiple meanings which will vary based on the context or even the interpretation. One of my favorite is the word “Havel.” It is most commonly translated as vanity or futility, as in the opening verse of King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) “Havel havalim, amar kohelet, havel havalim, hakol havel. – popularly translated as “Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vain.”

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 25:8 gives a vastly deeper and more significant explanation to what “Havel” may be referring to.

He starts off with a seemingly dichotomous use of the word “Havel” by the sages who state that the world is in existence solely thanks to the “Havel” of the mouths of young students. That begs the question that if “Havel” is vanity or futility, how does such “Havel” maintain the universe? The classic translation of “Havel” in this context is the “speech” of the young students. Somehow something as nebulous as the sounds of Torah which emanate from young children’s mouths are so precious and vital that they give the universe the capacity to exist, that the breath they use to repeat the Torah they learned is so powerful that the breath in a sense creates reality.

The Chidushei HaRim compares it to God’s own “breath” which brought life to Adam and all of existence. He then takes this concept to the mortal plane. Man has the capacity to create and destroy with the breath of his mouth. The words we use have very tangible, real-world consequences. We can build up or tear down people, their identity, their reputation, their livelihood, their opportunities and everything that makes them who they are and gives them life.

In the context of the Torah reading of Behar, a person can decide whether to give instructions regarding keeping the agricultural laws, specifically the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Proper observance of these laws is what gives the land and those who dwell on it continued existence and blessing. One opinion as to the reason the Jewish people were exiled from the land of Israel millennia ago was exactly because of their failure to keep these laws. That failure revoked their right to exist on the land and led directly to their forceful and violent expulsion.

So, another understanding of the word “Havel” might be “divine breath.” Therefore, instead of translating King Solomon’s famous phrase as “Vanity of vanities, all is vain,” we might read it as “Divine breaths of divine breaths, all is divine breath.” It is a fundamental understanding that God is behind everything and responsible for everything, and that we ourselves have the gift of “divine breath” to make a positive impact in His world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yair Maimon of Tekoa, for his bravery, alertness and presence of mind to shoot the terrorist attacking him right outside his home.

Sabbath Radiance (Emor)

Sabbath Radiance (Emor)

Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Among the many commandments included in the Torah reading of Emor is a listing of the various holidays of the year. Launching that festive list is the Sabbath. While the Sabbath is not strictly a holiday, and it does occur in a consistent seven-day schedule it, perhaps unexpectedly gets to top the list of the holidays of Israel.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 23:3 digs deeper into the significance of the Sabbath being considered a holiday. He explains that the nation of Israel is responsible for establishing the dates of the holidays. Holidays in Hebrew are also referred to as “Zmanim” – literally it means Times. Somehow, the establishment of Time is the domain of Israel and in some mystical sense, Israel creates Time. Continuing with this esoteric line of thought, the Sabbath is the “life” of Time, the kernel that allows Time to proceed. The existence and the observance of the Sabbath are the foundation for the continued stream of time as we know it. Hence, it starts off the list of all other holidays.

Linking these ideas together, that Israel is responsible for Time and the Sabbath is the foundation of Time, is the corollary that the Jewish people and the Sabbath are one. The Chidushei Harim expounds this parallelism from two biblical verses in which each one refers to “dwelling places.” The verse in the reading here of Emor states “it is God’s Sabbath in all your dwelling places.” The other verse in the Book of Exodus describes the plague of darkness, with which God struck the Egyptians, and the verse continues “and for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwelling places.” Just as light dispels darkness, the Sabbath dispels darkness.

The Sabbath has the power to dispel the darkness of the soul, to shine a light of spiritual radiance into the dark recesses of our existence. The Sabbath has the capacity to banish what ails us, to polish our inner selves to the point where we can more truly and clearly appreciate and connect to God.

May we merit to bask in the full radiance of a divine Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Netanel on his engagement to Adina Spielman of Bet Shemesh. Mazal Tov!

Seeing the Instructions (Kedoshim)

Seeing the Instructions (Kedoshim)

What we learn only through the ears makes less impression upon our minds than what is presented to the trustworthy eye. -Horace

The Torah reading of Kedoshim deals with the concept of sanctity, of being holy, transcendent. It covers a wide range of topics: respecting our parents, keeping the Sabbath, avoiding idol worship, offering the sacrifices to God in the correct form, leaving of your crops to the poor. The list goes on and on.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 19:11, noting the parallels and repetitions of the Ten Commandments here, recalls how at Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were presented, it says that the Jewish nation “saw the sounds.” Besides the normal impossibility for humans to see sound waves unaided, the Chidushei HaRim wonders as to what the purpose for us would be to have been able to visualize the words that God was uttering to the nation of Israel.

He explains that there was a very straightforward reason that has to do with some of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew language. He gives the example of the command not to steal, which phonetically is pronounced “Lo tignovu.” “Lo” in Hebrew is spelled with a Lamed and an Alef. However, there is a phonetically similar word, likewise pronounced “Lo” but spelled with a Lamed and a Vav, which translated in this context would mean “for him, steal” which is diametrically opposed to the command not to steal.

As such, it became imperative for the Jewish people to see the words, to see the written spelling of God’s commands to remove any doubt or hesitation as to what God’s intentions were. Therefore, God needed to miraculously provide visual captions for all the commandments, besides the powerful audio feed.

May we realize that just hearing something isn’t always enough. Sometimes things literally need to be visually spelled out to be properly understood and absorbed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Nachshon Lustig on his Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

Actively Passive (Acharei Mot)

Actively Passive (Acharei Mot)

To make oneself an object, to make oneself passive, is a very different thing from being a passive object. -Simone de Beauvoir

According to both biblical and Midrashic sources, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, were great men. In some respect, they were even considered greater than Moses and Aaron, which makes it even more perplexing how such prestigious and religiously accomplished individuals could deserve such a dramatic divine punishment. How was it that a divine fire killed these two great men on the very day of the consecration of the Tabernacle?

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 16:3 states that while Nadav and Avihu were clearly great men and purely motivated, they made a critical mistake. They showed initiative at the wrong time. Furthermore, the demonstration of initiative in the wrong instance indicates a dangerous understanding of man’s role in God’s world.

It demonstrated a belief that they controlled the world to an extent, that they were the masters of the outcome of events, that the strength of their hand would shape reality. The Chidushei HaRim explains at length that such belief is a fallacy and misunderstands God’s active role in the world.

He highlights the underlying premise that God is in complete control of everything. A grain of sand does not move unless God allows it. God gives us free will and the ability to exercise it. He will rarely intervene in our actions in a direct or obvious way, but He is the ultimate enabler of everything that occurs in the world. We have an obligation to follow His commands and to use our free will to do what God asks. However, when we use our abilities and initiative to do something God hasn’t commanded, it presumes a certain arrogance and belief that we can determine what should and will happen in the world.

When those instincts of wanting to act when we aren’t supposed to come to the fore, we need to consciously refrain from pursuing those actions. We need to actively be passive. That is what Moses tells the Jews when they stood at the Sea with the Egyptian army poised to attack them: “God will fight for you, and you stay still.”

There are times for action, there are times for initiative, but perhaps no less important, there are times not to take the initiative, not to react, not to presume that we are the masters of what occurs, but rather to remember that God is the ultimate conductor. Ironically, once we internalize that we’re not the ones in control, it enables greater autonomy in God’s world. Once we realize that God is ultimately in control, it gives us a greater ability and license to correctly exercise our free will.

May we realize what things we can and should get involved in, and in which things we shouldn’t.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe. Wishing him and the rest of the Dragon Endeavour crew a safe return.

Erroneously Humble (Metzora)

Erroneously Humble (Metzora)

Don’t be humble, you’re not that great. -Golda Meir

This week’s Torah reading deals with the laws of the Metzora, a person who was afflicted with Tzaraat, an unusual skin disease that was ascribed to some spiritual infraction. While the details of what that infraction might be are not mentioned in the Torah, the Sages ascribe a number of various sins as to the reason why a person might contract Tzaraat.

In any case, after the Metzora’s exile from the Israelite camp and the healing of their symptoms, the Torah prescribes a detailed sacrifice and purification process. Part of the process includes using both hyssop and cedar wood.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 14:4 quotes the grand rabbinic commentator, Rashi, who states that a person will be afflicted with Tzaraat due to haughtiness. Therefore, it is sensible and symbolic that as part of the purification process, hyssop, a lowly humble shrub should be used. It reminds the haughty, arrogant Metzora of the need to learn humility and make humility a more serious part of their persona going forward.

However, the Chidushei HaRim wonders why cedar wood is also included in the formula. The cedar is one of the tallest, strongest, and most majestic biblical trees. It would seem strange that someone who has been diagnosed with a case of undue haughtiness should have the mightiest product of the land as part of their purification process.

He answers that the cedar is required for the opposite case of arrogance – misplaced humility. There are times when a person is called on to step forward. They will have the opportunity to do some good deed, to stand up for what’s right when it might be unpopular, to perform some Mitzvah when it’s inconvenient or might attract unwanted attention. Then a person might incorrectly humble themselves and think “who do I think I am that I should do this thing and go against the current.” They put themselves down as the lowly hyssop shrub. That is also wrong. They need to raise themselves like the great cedar and step forward. They need to strengthen themselves to do what’s right, what’s needed, and what perhaps no one around them is willing to do. In such situations, there is no place for erroneous humility. A person needs to proudly and courageously do God’s will.

May we avoid both ends of the attitudinal spectrum, both arrogance, and inappropriate humility.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Pesach preparations.

The Proximity of Being Far (Tazria)

The Proximity of Being Far (Tazria)

Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire. -Francois de la Rochefoucauld

The Torah reading of Tazria delves into what might be considered arcane laws of the ritual purity of a woman after childbirth. According to Torah law, a woman after childbirth becomes ritually impure for a determined period of time. After that time, she needs to bring a sacrifice as part of her purification process enabling her to once again access the Temple and visit that holy location.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 12:2 delves into what’s behind that period of distancing, of keeping a woman who has just given birth, far from the Temple. He draws on the story of Abraham bringing Isaac to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed as per God’s command. The verse there describes how Abraham had seen the place from “afar.” He was far away when he encounters some aspect of divinity. To make the quandary more poignant, the Chidushei HaRim implies that Abraham, who is about to undertake the most meaningful and trying moment of his life, the fulfillment of God’s apparent command to sacrifice his son, finds that God is “distant.” Nonetheless, Abraham pushes on, despite the distance, and aims to bridge that gap, not only geographically but spiritually as well.

After the fact, after Abraham successfully passes the challenge of obeying God’s command and after Isaac is spared, Abraham realizes that God’s apparent distance was a good and necessary thing. It made him tap into his love of God. It made him dig deeper into the inner recesses of his soul and realize that God is always with him, no matter how “distant” God may seem.

Abraham passed on this capacity to feel God to all of his descendants. It is one of the reasons that in the Amida prayer we reference the “shield of Abraham.” It energizes and invigorates our ability to connect to God, whether we are feeling near or distant. In a certain sense, there can even be an advantage to feeling distant as that can increase the yearning, the desire and the impetus to reach out to God and to explore our own inner reserves to find and connect with Him.

May we always find God, no matter how distant He may seem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Yazan Fallah from Kasra Samia, and Shirel Aboukaret from Netanya, the two Border Police officers killed in the terrorist attack in Hadera on Sunday.

Instructions Grant Existence (Shmini)

Instructions Grant Existence (Shmini)

I count life just a stuff to try the soul’s strength on. -Robert Browning

On the eighth day of the very detailed and instruction-filled consecration ceremony of the Tabernacle, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a “strange” fire, an unscripted part of the ceremony. The response is immediate and fatal. God sends a fire that kills both of them instantly.

There’s a plethora of commentaries as to what exactly Nadav and Avihu’s sins were and why the repercussions were so severe.

The Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 10:1 provides a fascinating thought as to the actual mechanics of what was going on.

He states that Nadav and Avihu were in a state of total devotion to God. They wanted to cleave and attach themselves to God, and at what they thought was a propitious time, they created this innovative offering of bringing a fire which was not commanded into the Sanctuary. Their devotion to God was indeed supreme and admirable. However, their innovating to such an extent and putting their entire heart and soul into something God didn’t command proved to disrupt the mechanics of their very existence.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that when we do something for God, when we perform a Mitzva, we are somehow expending our soul. It seems the soul seeks to connect to God more seriously and wants to “jump ship” from our mortal forms. However, the very Mitzva we perform, the instructions that God has given us, are what reinstate and keep the soul in the body. The Mitzvot, the instructions which God has commanded in some spiritual sense are the very things that grant our existence.

However, when Nadav and Avihu “gave it their all” for something which God had not commanded, there were no instructions, there was no Mitzva to revitalize their souls and make sure they stayed alive. Therefore, immediately after they offered this “strange” fire, they couldn’t remain in physical existence. Their souls could no longer stay in their bodies as there was no Mitzva, no instruction set, that would “reinstall” their souls. Hence we have the Midrash that states that God’s fire consumed Nadav and Avihu’s souls but their bodies remained intact.

May we keep to the instructions as much as possible. They’re challenging enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky zt”l.

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