It’s not the journey, it’s the purpose

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/masai-its-not-the-journey-its-the-purpose/

Netziv Numbers: Masai

It’s not the journey, it’s the purpose

There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but only one view.  -Harry Millner

In my mad rush to book a last minute flight to Israel, I had to study multiple itineraries, websites, schedules and jump through too many web hoops. Flights that I finally managed to reserve suddenly changed prices and eventually disappeared altogether. Reservations that were made were then canceled by the airline. Finally, I got a flight which, as of this writing, I hope will still see me through on my journey to the Holy Land.

Netziv on Numbers 33:1 notes that the term “their journeys” is repeated three times at the introduction of the summary of the stops which Israel made since leaving Egypt until they were about to enter Canaan. He explains that each repetition represents a different purpose for the journey, that the purpose defines the journey and each journey or path requires a separate introduction.

The first leg of the Israelite journey was the Exodus from Egypt with a stopover at Mount Sinai to receive the divine revelation of the Torah, with the final purpose of entering the land of Canaan. However, the mission of the spies went awry and doomed the tribes of Israel to wander in the desert for forty years. The wandering was the second leg of their journey. The third and final leg of the journey was the resumption of the initial purpose – to enter the land of Israel.

Sometimes the journey is defined by its purpose, and to fulfill it, you have to reach the destination. The journey itself becomes secondary.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Dani Baruch of Adventour, for helping me with my journey.

After the Foxhole

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/matot-after-the-foxhole/

Netziv Numbers: Matot

After the Foxhole

Vows are made in storms and forgotten in calm weather.” -Thomas Fuller

We understand the concept of there being no atheists in a foxhole, of the rediscovery of God in the midst of danger. However, what is curious is our attitudes once the threat or need has passed. There is an example of a man late for an important meeting, urgently seeking a parking spot. He prays to God: “God, please help me find a spot and I promise I’ll give a thousand dollars to charity.” He keeps looking and prays even more fervently. “God! Help me with a spot and I’ll give two thousand dollars to charity!” Suddenly, a spot opens up. The man parks and then calls out to God: “God, don’t worry about it. I found a spot on my own!”

The instinctive search for God in times of distress seems to be counterbalanced by the just as natural tendency to forget about God once things are on an even keel. The Netziv on 30:2 warns about this phenomena when the Torah discusses the theme of vows. He explains that it is normal to make vows when distressed and just as normal for those earnest, heartfelt vows to slip our minds just moments later.

But God remembers the vow. According to Jewish law, the promises we make are binding. It has the weight and strength of a contract. We are morally obliged to fulfill our word even if it was uttered in a time of crisis. We must beware of oath-breaking.

May we feel free to call out to God in need, be careful with what we say, and have the perception, memory and will to deliver on our promises.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the AMIA terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires, twenty years ago, this week. And to the continued safety and protection of all those under threat in Israel.

Multitasking during War

Montevideo, July 9, 2014

Multitasking during War

Given my position, my long-time residence in Israel and having children in Israel and one recently enlisted in the army, I have been asked by congregants my position on the current “operation.” What attitude should we take? What can we do? How do we understand and interpret these events? Is it safe to visit Israel?

As Israelis like to say, “we’ve seen this movie before.” Israel has been the ongoing target of terror attacks for decades. When the country’s tolerance level is superseded it mobilizes its forces in a temporary attempt to quell the attacks to a suffer-able level. The Israeli attack pushes the Arabs to empty their arsenal against us. Arab civilians in Gaza will die. World media will accuse Israel at a higher pitch than usual. Israeli residents, this time in a larger radius, including Tel-Aviv and its environs, find themselves in the firing range and having to decide how seriously to take the frightening air raid sirens warning of a missile headed in their direction. Do they take cover in the few seconds they have before impact, pray fervently the missile doesn’t have their name on it and/or try to ignore the piercing unnatural noises and try to go on with whatever activity they were in the middle of?

In the next stage (if it actually gets that far) there will be a ground invasion. How far we go, how much damage to the terrorists we do and how many of our soldiers die will be a function in part of the backbone and determination of our political leaders and the ever present concern as to world opinion.

In between the air sirens, following news as to where missiles landed, worrying obsessively about our brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, neighbors, students and friends in the army and in the target zones, we have a life to live. Businesses and organizations to run. Families to feed.

A friend on Facebook noted that today the Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange had positive gains on good volume. For those under the more frequent barrage of missiles, it is very difficult to function. But for the rest of the country, life goes on. For the soldiers and reservists on duty, now is a moment of truth. But for the millions of other Israelis, it’s another day on the job.

For those that are far, it can often seem confusing. Have the Tel-Aviv stock brokers no soul? How can they trade in the middle of a war, you might say. Is the car salesman, and for that matter the buyer, so heartless as to buy a new car while our brothers are risking their lives? Is the falafel vendor in Afula so insensitive as to peddle his food with a smile as children in Sderot cower at any loud noise?

The truth is that Israel has been at war with its neighbors since its very inception and our enemies have never stopped. We have tried very hard to live “normal” lives knowing very well that we are surrounded and have in our midst enemies whose only desire is to destroy us. There have merely been lulls in their efforts. That is all. Escalation should neither be a cause of panic or surprise.

I worry for every single resident of Israel. But then again, I’ve always worried. I read the reports with anguish and anxiety, but I continue with my day and the things I need to do. I pray fervently for divine protection and salvation, and think of ways to strengthen and support the country and those working towards its defense.

Years ago, during one of the many escalations in our ongoing war, a figure who I admired advised me to stay in Israel, against my parents wishes. He said that even during war, Israel is the safest place for a Jew. I still believe that today.

I pray that God will continue to protect us, that our forces will cause long-term, if not permanent damage to those that wish to kill us, and that the day will come soon where we no longer need to send our loved ones to battle.

Purposeful Reward

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinchas-purposeful-reward/

Netziv Numbers: Pinchas

Purposeful Reward

Each of our acts makes a statement as to our purpose.” -Leo Buscaglia

It is one of the more violently graphic scenes in the Torah. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, takes a spear and in one blow kills a prince of Israel as well as a Moabite princess as they are being publicly intimate. The scene of this gruesome double murder is in front of the otherwise unresponsive leadership of Israel.

This fierce act is credited with stopping a sudden plague that killed 24,000 people in Israel for the sin of illicit relations. In what is perhaps the most surprising and ironic outcome of Pinchas’ vigilantism is that God bestows Pinchas with a “Covenant of Peace” and includes him in the prestigious caste of the Priesthood (to be a Kohen).

The Netziv on Numbers 25:13 explains that Pinchas’ reward is a natural outcome of his act. What Pinchas was in essence doing when he killed the overly affectionate lovers was protecting the Jewish people from a virulent licentiousness that had reached so far and with such fervor that a prince of Israel was ready to perform such an act publicly in front of the leaders of the nation. Pinchas stops the decadence dead in its tracks (literally).

For taking such a principled stand and for being ready to protect the nation of Israel from such immorality Pinchas is rewarded with the charge of continuing to protect the Jewish people. That was the classical task of the Kohen; to educate the nation of Israel as to God’s laws and traditions, to serve as role models of service of God and to thereby protect the Jewish people from the danger and damage of immorality.

May we each have the good fortune of finding our purposes and the reward of being able to fulfill that purpose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the many and varied protectors of Israel and to our son Eitan who joined their forces this week.

Beware the Curse

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

Netziv Numbers: Balak

Beware the Curse

“An orphan’s curse would drag to hell, a spirit from on high; but oh! more horrible than that, is a curse in a dead man’s eye!” -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

An enemy with a slightly greater understanding of God’s relationship to the Jewish people rises up against us. Balak the King of Moab, fears the Israelite approach to his kingdom. Though Israel merely wants to pass by peacefully and God has ordered Moses not to fight the Moabites, Balak nonetheless hires a powerful man to help with his struggle against Israel.

Balak understands that physical force cannot prevail against the Jewish nation. Therefore, he hires the sorcerer Bilaam, who is reputed to have the power to effectively curse whom he wants. What follows is an ironic, comical and embarrassing tale of Bilaam attempting to curse Israel and in three successive attempts, with God’s direct involvement – blessings come out of Bilaam’s mouth to the great chagrin of Balak.

The Netziv on Numbers 22:11 explains that the plan of this diabolical duo was faulty in its spiritual understanding. The Netziv states that curses only work where there is sin. At that moment in the desert when Bilaam set out to curse Israel, he could not see or find any sin. His attempts to curse would prove ineffective because there was no negative spiritual act for it to take a hold off.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali for whom we mourn deeply.

 

Gentle Strength

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-gentle-strength/

Netziv Numbers: Chukat

Gentle Strength

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  -Eric Hoffer

“Rotund” was the simplest way to describe the smiling, mild mannered professor who lectured us regarding ancient Near East archeology. However, what belied that gentle exterior was a martial arts master who could pulverize bricks with a single blow. During one particularly disruptive class the professor warned in a deceptively mild tone, which I remember decades later: “Don’t confuse niceness with weakness.” The class immediately quieted down.

Ancient enemies of Israel did confuse politeness with feebleness. Moses and the Israelites asked permission of the nations in their path in the desert to pass peacefully through their territory on their way to the Promised Land. According to the Netziv on Numbers 21:1, these nations assumed that Israel was nicely asking for permission because they didn’t have the strength to pass by force of arms. The nations saw such politeness as a sign of weakness and marched to war upon the presumably feeble Israel. What ensued was a massacre. Israel completely destroyed the entire armies and leadership of the two attacking kings of Sichon and Og and conquered their entire territory in a swift decisive victory that caused the entire region to tremble in fear of the approaching Israelites.

May our enemies learn to fear us and may we show strength to people who don’t understand gentleness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s army and security forces. May God protect them during their search for our sons: Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.

Too Holy

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

Netziv Numbers: Korach

Too Holy 

“Fanatical religion driven to a certain point is almost as bad as none at all, but not quite.” -Will Rogers

My Talmud instructor (Rebbe) at Yeshiva University (YU), Rabbi Shimon Romm of blessed memory, had a lasting impact on me. Since his childhood he was considered a Torah prodigy. He was an alumnus of the famed Mir Yeshiva that escaped the Nazis and ended up for a time in Shanghai. After Shanghai, he spent a number of years in Israel and subsequently moved to New York. At YU he was one of the only Rabbis that gave his classes in Hebrew. He had a photographic memory and a sharp sense of humor.

A line I heard from him often was “don’t be too religious”. He was particularly acerbic against the growing movement of Jews who continually sought greater levels of strictures in the name of religion. In that sense, he mirrored the thoughts of the Netziv on the episode of Korach and his supporters.

In this week’s Torah reading, two hundred and fifty men of ostensibly high religious standing join Korach’s desert rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach and his supporters are killed by very clear divine intervention, with the two hundred and fifty men being burned by divine fire when they bring incense as part of their effort to reach an even higher level than what they were at.

The Netziv warns in Numbers 16:1 that an attempt to reach too high in ones holiness can actually lead a person to go against basic commandments that God does demand we perform. It becomes ironic that a person seeking to become holier ends up failing in basic principles. The Netziv claims that though the person may get some credit for good intentions, they are nonetheless punished by God for their wrong-headed, holier-than-thou, anti-Torah acts.

As something else that Rabbi Romm would say: “Be a mentsch (well-behaved man) before trying to be a tzaddik (a holy man).”

May we aim for high levels of holiness, without forgetting the more fundamental commandments that are the basis of good, proper human relationships.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To the safe and speedy return of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.

Mazal Tov to our Akiva on his graduation from high school.