Perilous Roads

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/balak-perilous-roads/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Balak

Perilous Roads

Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations. -Oliver Goldsmith

dangerous road

 

Although ubiquitous and constant and despite the marvels of modern technology at our disposal, travel remains one of the most fatal human activities, with more people dying from transportation accidents then any other non-medical cause. The advent of smartphones has likely increased the dangers we all face.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 22:22 states that all roads are to be considered a source of danger. It does not matter how accustomed to the road we are or how many times we’ve travelled it.

There is an ancient Jewish Law, that when one sets upon the road to go any distance outside ones city, they must say the Wayfarer’s Prayer. It is a short, simple, direct prayer, beseeching God to protect us from the dangers of the road and to insure we reach our destination safely. We are so concerned about the pitfalls of travel that there is another short blessing of thanks (Birkat Hagomel) which is required for sea and air journeys that must be stated in a Minyan (a quorum of ten men). This is the same blessing as for one who was freed from prison, traversed the desert or recuperated from a bedridden illness.

May we take all appropriate physical, mental and spiritual precautions as we travel from place to place.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To David Taragan, who would so expertly take me safely from place to place.

Beware the Fool

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-beware-the-fool/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Chukat

Beware the Fool

Against stupidity; God Himself is helpless. -Yiddish Proverb

homer-simpson-wallpaper-photo-1600Judaism puts great value on intelligence and learning. One of the highest appellations one can be given is that of “Talmid Chacham” – a wise scholar. Conversely, Jewish tradition is disparaging of the ignoramus, called since Mishnaic times an “am haaretz” – literally “people of the land”, but meaning a boor.

As the study of Torah is the cornerstone of Jewish life and practice, those who decide to be ignorant, those who do not engage in the Torah, those who do not become familiar with its contents, put themselves in a sub-standard position in the hierarchy of Jewish achievement.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 19:2 highlights this reality with a particular law. The people of Israel had an obligation to give a regular contribution of produce to their local Cohen called “Truma”. The Truma had a certain sanctity and the Cohen had to consume it in a state of ritual purity. However, we are warned that we should not give this contribution, we should not give Truma to a Cohen who is an “am haaretz”. If the Cohen is an ignoramus, if the Cohen could not be bothered to learn the laws of the Torah, then he is not deserving of these special contributions.

May we always improve our familiarity and connection to the Torah and merit a myriad of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To a Cohen Talmid Chacham, Dr. Shmuel Katz, on the opening of his sixth free dental clinic in Israel. May blessings come quickly his way and may he merit having some joyous weddings in the very near future.

Corruptibility

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/korach-corruptibility/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Korach

Corruptibility

Remember, when the judgment’s weak, the prejudice is strong. -K. O’Hara

corruption

The theme of justice runs strongly throughout the Torah. We are advised to pursue justice diligently. One of the first organizational efforts of the nascent nation of Israel is to create a justice system. Judges were appointed to represent every ten individuals, with a system of additional judges to handle cases that may have been too difficult for the parochial judges.

This court system is likewise warned of the danger of bribes, with the famous line that “the bribe will blind the sharp ones, and will corrupt the words of the wise.”

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 18:19 explains that a judge’s corruptibility is directly dependent on his financial situation. If the judge is independently wealthy “like a king,” states the Baal Haturim, then his judgement and his rulings will be established and impervious to financial considerations. If, however, the judge is needy “like a Cohen,” (the Cohen in biblical times was completely dependent on the donations, handouts and charity of the Israelite landowners), then his judgements and rulings will only lead to ruin, as he may have other pressures or considerations in mind, besides those of absolute justice.

May we reach levels of success that will make us incorruptible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my teacher from many years ago, Rabbi Kalman Ber, current Chief Rabbi of the city of Netanya. It was an incredible surprise and delight to have him in Montevideo.

The Power of the Few

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shlach-the-power-of-the-few/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Shlach

The Power of the Few

Friends, I agree with you in Providence; but I believe in the Providence of the most men, the largest purse, and the longest cannon. – Abraham Lincoln

risk-board-gameOur individualistic society likes to give importance to the difference one person can make. We have innumerable accounts of how one person, standing up to many, overcomes public opinion, resistance, and ridicule and with faith and perseverance, triumphs against the odds of the many.

However, there is one area of human activity where most are of the opinion that numbers have a direct impact on results: War. Napoleon consistently overruns professional soldiers with masses of conscripted Frenchmen who marched over their well-ordered but fewer enemies. Though the Spartans held the Persians at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae for seven days, eventually superior Persian numbers won the day.

There are obvious exceptions. The battles of modern-day Israel have consistently pitted larger forces against smaller ones, with results that surprised the world. If we go back further in Jewish history we recall the victory of the humble Maccabeans against the mighty Syrio-Greco Empire in memory for which we still celebrate Chanukah more than two millennia later.

There is an unusual account in the Torah of a particularly unsuccessful Israelite battle. It occurs immediately after the Sin of the Spies, when the representatives of the Twelve Tribes returned from spying the land, gave a frightening report as to the strength of the Canaanite enemies and in turn caused panic and hysteria amongst the people of Israel. God punishes that generation of men to die in the desert and the entire Israelite nation to wander in the wilderness outside of Canaan for forty years.

However, after the punishment is decreed, men repent and issue a war cry, stating that they are not afraid and will proceed with the invasion of Canaan, as planned previously. But it is too late. Moses warns them that God is no longer with them and that they will fail. They ignore Moses’ warning. They attack and are soundly defeated by the Canaanites.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 14:40 states that we are talking about an Israelite army of 600,000 that was not able to defeat a much smaller enemy. However, he goes on to recall how biblical Jonathan (son of King Saul) with just the assistance of one lad was able to rout an entire Midianite army. God has no qualm to save with many or with few.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the upcoming wedding of Andrea Klotnicki and Bruno Zalcberg. May they always triumph against all odds.

A Father’s Blessing

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behaalotcha-a-fathers-blessing/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Behaalotcha

A Father’s Blessing

Blessed indeed is the man who hears many gentle voices call him father!  -Lydia Maria Child

FatherSonFistsThe Children of Israel had no sooner started their desert journey when they start complaining. Moses, fed up with the growing irritation cries out to God, asking rhetorically that if he gave birth to these stubborn people does it give him the obligation to care for their every need and whim?

Moses is so despondent by the burden of the people of Israel that in his despair he actually asks God to kill him. God helps Moses by both providing meat to the insatiable Israelites as well as directing Moses to gather seventy elders to assist in the burden of leadership.

While on the theme of birth and sons, the Baal Haturim on 11:12 takes the opportunity to relate some of the characteristics that a father normally transmits to his sons. He names five:

  1. Looks/appearance
  2. Strength
  3. Wealth
  4. Wisdom
  5. Longevity

When these characteristics are good and passed down to children, fathers can take some measure of pride, and children some measure of gratitude. When the characteristics are poor, fathers can feel some guilt and children can assign blame.

However, neither pride nor guilt, gratitude or blame will help us make the most of the gifts we possess.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Bar-Ilan University, training grounds for many fathers and sons.

Impure Prophecies

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/naso-impure-prophecies/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Naso

Impure Prophecies

It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. -George Macdonald

seanceThere is a special, self-chosen condition, that a person during biblical or temple times could elect for themselves. That condition is known as Nazir or Nazarite. There were three requirements for the Nazir: not consuming anything derived from grapes, not cutting their hair and not coming into contact with the dead.

A person chose to become a Nazir as a way to reach greater levels of holiness and become closer to God. At the end of the Nazir period, they would cut their hair and bring sacrifices in the Temple. During the heightened state of sanctity of the Nazir, it was apparently easier for them to feel the divine presence in their lives and perhaps even reach some minor levels of prophecy.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 6:6 mentions an interesting reason why the Nazir had to avoid the dead during this period. He explains that in the case where the divine presence would rest upon the Nazir, were he to receive some prophetic vision, we don’t want anyone to assume or speculate that he might have consulted the dead for his otherworldly insights.

May we stick to pure and divine sources of information.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jacky Catan and Joel Felder on their upcoming wedding and a future filled will blessings.

Deathless Future

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bamidbar-deathless-future/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Bamidbar

Deathless Future

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying. -Woody Allen

immortal

 

Western man is allergic to death. We try to avoid it, escape it, ignore it. We don’t want it mentioned. If we close our eyes, perhaps it won’t notice us. The counterpoint to death-avoidance is the desire to want to live forever. To be forever young.

Interestingly, the Torah also has a death-avoidance culture, but one that translates into ritual “impurity” if one is in contact with death, and which subsequently can be “purified”. Within the Jewish people, there is a subgroup that is commanded as a whole to avoid death. They are the Kohanim, the priestly descendents of Aharon, the original High Priest (Kohen Gadol).

While death is a fact of life, there are some hints that it is not necessarily a permanent arrangement.

In describing the work that the sons of Aharon, the Kohanim, must do in the Tabernacle, the Torah ends the description with the warning, that if they follow the rules, “they will live and they will not die.”

Why the redundancy? It would seem obvious that if someone is going to live they will not die.

The Baal Haturim explains that this is a prophetic hint. On the verse in Numbers 4:19 he details that at some future date, in some eschatological reality, the very Angel of Death will be annulled. Death will have no more sway over humanity.

Humans, or whatever we will be in that future (disembodied souls?) will indeed somehow live forever.

May we be beings worthy of eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuoth Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our departed loved ones, who we believe we will be reunited with in some future reality.