The Labor of Thinking

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tisa-the-labor-of-thinking/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Ki Tisa

The Labor of Thinking

It is the power of thought that gives man power over nature. -Hans Christian Andersen

There is a common misconception of Jewish Law that on the Sabbath one needs to refrain from manual labor. The legal biblical term is “melacha” which would be more appropriately translated as any “creative action.” Hence, such mundane and non-taxing actions such as tying a knot, dividing materials, writing and much more are prohibited on the Sabbath, though there is little or no exertion.

The Baal Haturim highlights another aspect of “melacha” that should be refrained from. He claims on Exodus 31:4 that even “thinking” is a form of “melacha.” Now he does not mean the natural brain processes that occur whenever we are conscious and perform any action or have any thought. He is referring to the thinking that is behind any constructive, creative, work-related thought that we are usually busy with throughout the work week.

On the Sabbath, he is telling us to refrain from even “thinking” about our work. There is something against the laws and especially the spirit of the Sabbath, to be preoccupied, to consider, to review, to plan or to have anything to do, even in the solitude of our own minds with “melacha.” Our brains, our emotions and our spirits will thank you for the weekly, enriching, invigorating, rejuvenating and healing respite.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

p.s. For anyone interested in more details on what is and isn’t “melacha” don’t hesitate to contact me.

Dedication

To the new President of Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez. May he give much thought to his leadership of the country.

 

 

Purim for Non-Alcoholics

Purim for Non-Alcoholics

In order to understand the challenges of the Jewish celebration of Purim for non-Alcoholics, we first need to define the current religious/social/cultural phenomena of drunkenness on this particular holiday and we may be served by a contrast to the Alcoholic’s experience.

An alcoholic is a person, for whatever reason, that has an addiction to alcohol. Their addiction is such that they cannot control themselves or refrain from drinking even when it is clear and obvious that negative repercussions will ensue. Alcoholism is a disease, at times fatal. According to most professionals, it cannot be cured, only treated and managed. Alcoholics benefit from therapy, medical treatment and the famed 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would not be difficult to imagine that the culture of drinking on Purim would be a living hell to an alcoholic that is refraining from drinking. He knows that one drink could very well mean his death. It could lead him to that spiral of intoxication that often seems like it will be the last. But first, let us understand and for those unfamiliar, introduce the Purim drinking phenomena.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, the Persian Empire, at that time the world power on Earth, had decreed to exterminate all of its Jewish citizens. As an aside, this is the first point in history where the Nation of Israel is labeled “Jewish” (Yehudim in Hebrew, of the tribe of Judah, the most representative tribe of Israel at that time). As per the story documented in Megillat Esther, the Jews are saved and set the date of Purim (the 14th/15th day of the Hebrew month of Adar) as an eternal celebration. The Rabbis instituted a number of commandments: reading of Megillat Esther, charity, giving food parcels to people and a joyous feast on the day of Purim. The Rabbis state that it is a positive precept to drink at this meal.

One should drink at the festive meal of Purim. However, according to the Rabbis one is prohibited from getting drunk. In more than one source the Rabbis consider getting drunk forbidden and even as one of the worst acts, as a “Chilul Hashem”, a desecration of God’s Name for which only death absolves.

The question then becomes how does one draw the line between drinking and getting drunk? How do we define drunkenness?

Returning to the alcoholic, the question for him is very simple. He cannot afford even one drink. One drink to him means death. An alcoholic is exempt from the command to drink, whether it is the weekly Sabbath “Kiddush” (consecration of the day), the Four Cups that we are mandated to drink during the Pesach Seder, or the drinking during the festive meal of Purim.

As difficult and tragic as an Alcoholic may have it vis-à-vis the directive to drink wine according to Jewish law, there is a large percentage of humanity that does not suffer from this ailment and can drink alcohol without danger or fear of addiction.

However, it is worthwhile to note, that just as people have different tolerances to the amount of alcohol they can consume and the progression of incapacitation, so to, there is a spectrum of addiction to alcohol. There are people with mild addictions who suffer infrequently. At the end of the spectrum are the perpetual drunks at death’s door. Also, to bear in mind, there are a growing number of reports of young Jews whose first encounter with heavy use of alcohol and the beginnings of their own alcoholism commences with Purim. That should give every celebrant pause. You may be witnessing, at your own festive meal, the beginning, or for some, the continuation of an addiction nightmare that destroys lives and families.

But now let us return to the happy non-alcoholic. He can drink with impunity. He wakes up the next day and thereafter with no desire whatsoever for alcohol. He is blessed. He can safely drink. However, the prohibition against getting drunk remains.

What is underneath the drinking in Jewish law? First of all, the biblical drink of choice is always wine (according to Maimonides, red is superior to white wine). There is never an obligation to drink beer, liquor, vodka or any other beverage. The juice of the grape has an inherent sanctity that it brings to an occasion.

We consecrate the Sabbath day every week on a cup of wine. It elevates the day and us. On Pesach our drinking of ample wine highlights our freedom and majestic status. On Purim, it is an aid, a lubricant to ease our daily concerns and assist in our joy and celebration on this festive holiday. We are meant to be happier and more relaxed than usual. We are meant to lower some of our inhibitions, be friendlier, more outgoing, but never crossing any limits of propriety. All laws and standards of behavior remain in force. The permission to imbibe more than usual is not permission to be rude, disrespectful, or gross.

Many seem to believe that permission to drink equals permission to be wild. There was an experiment that was done with college students where half of the students were given large quantities of beer and the other half was given water with the flavor of beer. After a few drinks, the water-drinkers behaved as wildly and rowdily as the beer drinkers. There is a social play-acting involved in any group-drinking.

In a crowd, the first barrier to fall is usually the sexual one. Whether it is verbally, visually, or physically, both men and women become more daring, more adventurous, in giving expression to their fantasies. Conversations become louder and more rambunctious. The line between happy and inappropriate becomes thin indeed.

It seems to me that the line at which one becomes drunk is very hazy. By the time someone is close to that line it is often too late and he or she will lack the judgment to refrain from another drink. Then without realizing it, they have crossed into that territory of inappropriate or offensive talk or behavior, lack of coherence or coordination and progressive mental incapacitation, all of which are repulsive to those not in a similar state of inebriation.

What is the point until one should drink? The one clue the Rabbis give to this subjective question is the mysterious line that one should not be able to distinguish between “cursed is Haman (the villain of the Esther story) to blessed is Mordechai (the co-hero with Esther)”. This line has been a source of great controversy with people interpreting it as per their drinking preferences.

When the Rabbis want to describe that someone is really drunk, they called it the “drunkenness of Lot” that under the influence of alcohol allowed himself to have incestual relations with his two daughters. According to various Rabbinic interpretations of the Purim drinking directive, we are directed to only reach a relatively mild level of intoxication.

Nonetheless, the question remains. The simplest answer given by the Rabbis is: you should drink just a little bit more than what you are accustomed to. Therefore, a person who barely drinks wine would satisfy the requirement to drink with just a sip. A person who is accustomed to having a glass of wine with his meals might be required to drink another glass. A person who is accustomed to heavy drinking during his meals may have other issues to worry about than the requirement of Jewish law as to how much he should drink.

Another curiosity the drinking on Purim reveals is the level of hypocrisy that exists in Jewish observance. People who pay little attention to other Jewish laws, all of a sudden become highly observant of this particular command. As is stated in the vernacular, “they are full of it.” Their drinking binge may merely masquerade a closet alcoholic or a repressed soul seeking an excuse to bring his fantasies, delusions, turmoil and demons to the fore. I council such disturbed people to seek therapy and not subject the public to their private ailments. The Talmud states that “when wine enters, secrets come out.” Well, some secrets should remain that way. If one is a holy saint, then please, get so intoxicated that you reveal the metaphysical mysteries of creation. But for the rest of us – put a lid on it. Please, spare us.

For many, many people, Purim has become the most horrible holiday of the year. To see their friends, parents, children, spouses and even Rabbis get drunk and behave in offensive ways is just disgusting. Where there is fear or danger of people drinking too much, they are much better off not drinking at all.

So how do you know how much to drink? If there is a chance you may drink too much – then you shouldn’t drink at all. If you can limit yourself and drink just a little bit more than is your weekly custom, then go ahead, fulfill the command and get a little lift in the enjoyment of the holiday.

If you suspect you may overdo it, if someone has hinted or told you that you drank too much in the past, do yourself and especially those around you a big favor. Don’t drink. You may be surprised that you and those around you may actually enjoy the holiday more.

 

Useless Superstition

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tetzave-useless-superstition/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Tetzave

Useless Superstition

Superstition is only the fear of belief, while religion is the confidence. -Marguerite Blessington

There is a common belief in Judaism that the religious article known as a Mezuza, a scroll of parchment with two paragraphs of the Torah written on it, placed on ones doorpost, affords some type of divine protection. A superstitious corollary to that belief is that if something wrong or unfortunate occurs in the home or the family, there may be something faulty with the Mezuza. Indeed, there are startling stories of people who have checked their Mezuza and found an eerie relationship between the fault in the text of their Mezuza and the event that prompted its checking. Going down this road leads to the conclusion that correcting the text of the Mezuza will correct one’s life.

I am often approached by people with various mishaps in their lives who ask me to check their Mezuzas. It somehow eludes them that perhaps their leading a life separated from God, separated from morality, separated from the laws and traditions of the Jewish people, may be the more direct cause of divine retribution than any parchment’s error.

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 28:32 states that the High Priest had a special garment that somehow did afford protection for punishment for the severe sin of gossiping. But he elaborates that the protection only worked after the offender would stop his gossiping ways and repent. Then and only then would the metaphysical properties of the garment provide protection from punishment.

The cause of our mishaps are usually internal. We don’t need to look to Mezuzas, red strings or other mystical solutions to fix the problems inside.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the venerated Chofetz Chaim who made some news this week with the discovery of an old film from 1923 showing him for a few seconds (0:57 to be precise).

 

 

Bread of Faith

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/truma-bread-of-faith/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Trumah

Bread of Faith

There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much. -Mother Theresa

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 26:9 states that in the merit of the service of the Table of the Showbread in the Temple, the entire world was bestowed with blessings.

Story: A simple baker was reading the Torah portion. He read about the Showbread that the priests placed in the Temple every week. He felt bad for God that since the destruction of the Temple, nobody was giving God bread anymore. He decided that in honor of the Sabbath, he would place two loaves of Challah, the traditional bread for the Sabbath, in the Ark of the Torah in the synagogue. He was so excited about his decision, he woke up before dawn Friday morning and placed the very first loaves he had baked in the Ark, with a short prayer to God to accept his offering.

In the same synagogue there was a poor caretaker who had fallen on hard times. He couldn’t afford Challah for that Sabbath. That Thursday night in the synagogue, he cried and pleaded to God to help him, that he should not come to his family empty-handed. As was his ritual, every Friday morning, he cleaned up the synagogue for the Sabbath. He opened the Ark to check on the Torah, and lo and behold! Two warm fresh Challahs were waiting there for him. The caretaker cried for joy, thanking God for this miracle, for remembering him after all and listening to his prayer.

The baker arrived early Friday afternoon to the synagogue, curious as to what had happened to his loaves. He opened the Ark, and to his surprise, the loaves were gone! God had accepted his humble offering! Encouraged, the baker did the same thing the following Friday. The caretaker was humbled and moved each time he found the warm, fresh bread. This cycle continued for months, both the baker and the caretaker filled with an extraordinary joy, yet unaware of each others actions.

One Friday, the Rabbi of the synagogue woke up early and decided to do some studying in the back of the synagogue. Unnoticed, the Rabbi saw the baker bring in his loaves and put them in the Ark and reverently bestow them to God. Later, he saw the caretaker gingerly, lovingly, removing them and thanking God. The Rabbi understood immediately the error these simpletons were making. He called them both and berated them: “You fools! God is not placing or receiving the Challah. It is your own human hands that are responsible.” Both the baker and the caretaker stood there ashamed, while their foolishness was brought to light and their simple faith shattered.

That night, the Prophet Elijah came to the Rabbi in a dream: “You evil man!” Elijah screamed at the Rabbi. “God has not had as much joy in the world, since the service of the Showbread in the Temple was stopped, as when the baker delivered the Challah, and the caretaker received it, and they both displayed a pure, simple faith. Know that the evil you have done cannot be undone and you have caused great anguish to God!”

Sometimes, simple faith is the best.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our baker, Netanel, on his first batch of successful and tasty biscochos!

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Induction of Rabbi Epstein

February 13, 2015

The Induction of Rabbi Epstein

Rabbi Epstein (left) with Chief Rabbi Mirvis

Rabbi Epstein (left) with Chief Rabbi Mirvis

“Induction” is not a legal term nor a medical procedure. It is the term used by the United Synagogue in Great Britain when officially welcoming and accepting someone as the Rabbi of their synagogue. I had the great joy and privilege of participating in the induction of my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Epstein and my sister, his wife Ilana, as Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue.

The main synagogue was filled with close to 500 attendees. The Rabbi/Chazan of the famed Marble Arch Synagogue, Rabbi Rosenfeld, stood on the high platform in the center of the chamber. In front of him, on the ground below was the men’s choir. With suitable introduction, the Chazan and choir start chanting the welcoming tune of “Baruch Haba” as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Mirvis and Daniel proceed in. They are each adorned with a Talit, the classic prayer shawl.

They walk to the front of the chamber, climb the stage that leads to the Aron Kodesh (the place where the Torah scrolls are kept at the front of the synagogue) and they each sit down in the large wooden, velvet-covered seats on either side of the Aron Kodesh, facing the congregation.

The mayor of the town was present with a ceremonial gold chain with a golden lion on a red background, the centerpiece of this very cool jewelry. There was a member of parliament, a police chief and various other distinguished guests and Rabbis of Britain.

Technically, the service consisted of the Mincha (afternoon prayer) with the addition of the liturgy for opening and closing the Aron Kodesh, as well as additional prayers for the government and royal family, for the State of Israel and its army and for the community.

However, the performance of the Chazan and the choir was so masterful, so moving, that it gave the occasion tremendous significance. I was invited to recite the prayer for the State of Israel and the army. I was told afterwards that my Hebrew/Spanish accent was particularly amusing.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis gave an excellent and warm introduction to Daniel, calling him on more than one occasion an “outstanding Rabbi” and applauding his decision to join the Rabbinate after a twenty-year career in public relations.

Then Daniel spoke. I have not heard him speak very much in public, but this was a speech to remember. He was passionate. He was powerful. He spoke movingly and lovingly of his role, of Ilana’s role, of his children, of community and his hopes, dreams and visions for the community of Cockfosters and N Southgate.

It was a home run. He knocked the ball right out of the park. One could feel the electricity in the air and how the community loves and responds to Daniel. In that brief address, he created a positive energy that can carry his community for a long time to come.

However, that was not the end. To the surprise of the crowd and their parents, Ilana and Daniel’s children got on the stage. Saadia (Stephen), Yoel, Odelle and Jacob gave a tag team speech which was the highlight of the event. It was a moment of such honesty and purity that I don’t think there was a dry eye in the crowd. This is a loving family now embedded in a loving community.

To say that we were impressed by the induction ceremony of a United Synagogue Rabbi is an understatement. The British know how to put on pomp and ceremony. But despite what felt like a coronation ceremony, it did not feel superficial. It was heartfelt. It was run and organized by a group of hard-working, dedicated volunteers with real respect and admiration for their new Rabbinic couple. Great honor and respect was likewise given to the outgoing, retiring Rabbi Fine, Rabbi of the community for 27-years. I had the privilege of siting next to him. He was smiling and content throughout the event and very pleased with Daniel.

The cynic in me wondered what the value of such a ceremony might be. Neither in Israel nor in many other countries is their such a show for introducing a new Rabbi. In Israel, most Rabbis are civil servants and a dime a dozen. I don’t recall such ceremonies in other countries or communities in which I’ve lived. Part of it, I’m sure, is cultural. Many communities would not have the thought, interest or patience in welcoming their Rabbis in such a fashion. But I think something of the nature should be part of the introduction of a Rabbi and his family to a community. There should be an event that not only honors the Rabbi, but by default bestows great honor, energy and strength to the community.

I was very impressed by the community of Cockfosters and N Southgate. May they, together with the Epsteins, enjoy many years of activity, growth and success.

For a detailed article on the event, click here.

Smooth Talkers

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/mishpatim-smooth-talkers/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Mishpatim

Smooth Talkers

We kill everybody, my dear. Some with bullets, some with words, and everybody with our deeds. We drive people into their graves, and neither see it nor feel it. -Maxim Gorky

There are people, who through the power of their personality, their charisma and their eloquence can get unsuspecting victims to do something of their own free will that may go against their own interests and well-being. The reason they are influential is because humans on a whole are a trusting species. Our society would disintegrate if the foundation of trust did not underlie basic human interactions.

However, there are some opportunists that take advantage of this visceral trust, play upon people’s feelings and beliefs and sell them something which is simply not real, not true. The Baal Haturim on Exodus 21:14 compares these smooth talkers to false prophets. The false prophet would often prophecy what the people wanted to hear. They would soothe their fears and not confront them with the reality ahead. Not warn them of the error of their ways in time for them to correct it and save themselves. The false prophets doomed themselves and their followers to oblivion.

The Baal Haturim compares both the smooth talkers and the false prophets to murderers. By betraying the trust people put in them, they are killing them. They are destroying the relationship of trust that connects them to life. In some cases they even lead them to actual death.

May truth and honesty always be our hallmark.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the honest people in our lives. You are a beacon in an often hazy and dark world.

 

 

 

Delayed Repercussions

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yitro-delayed-repercussions/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Yitro

Delayed Repercussions

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences. – Robert Louis Stevenson

Moses arrives in a strange land. He has escaped his birthplace of Egypt. He has left his birth-nation of Israel. He finds himself amongst the idolaters of Midian and hosted by their High Priest, Jethro. Jethro appears to be a kindly, wise man. He gives Moses his daughter in marriage. However, the two men come from very different cultures and traditions, and that is where the trouble begins.

Moses comes from a monotheistic religion that believes in the one, unseen, allpowerful God. Jethro serves man-made idols. They both realize the importance of educating children. The midrash states that Moses made a deal with Jethro. Moses promised that his first son would be raised in the ways of idol worship (keep in mind this happens before the initial encounter of Moses and God at the burning bush). However, the Baal Haturim on Exodus 18:3 explains that Moses expected the wise Jethro to finally understand the error of his idolatrous ways and allow the son of Moses to be raised according to the Jewish faith.

That is indeed what happens, but the Baal Haturim says that the damage was already done, though we are not to see the results until the following generation. At the end of the book of Judges there is a not-so-subtle hint that the grandson of Moses becomes a High Priest to idol worship. The deal, even though apparently annulled was fulfilled anyway, not with a son, but with a grandson.

May we be cautious of the deals we get into or hope to get out of. They have a way of biting you when you least expect it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, on his induction as Rabbi of Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue. May it be a deal they and the community enjoy for a long time