Choose Your Weapon Carefully

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-choose-your-weapon-carefully/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Beshalach

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

The People of Israel have finally been redeemed from the enslavement of Egypt. They have marched through the desert. They reach the edge of the sea and suddenly find themselves pursued by the entire armed might of the Egyptian empire.

They panic. They cry. They scream. They complain. Moses calls out to God. God, in one of His most famous and indicative statements replies: “Why do you call out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and Go!”

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 14:15 teases out an important lesson from God’s response. There are times for long prayer, like the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai praying for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are times for short prayers, like the five words Moses uttered when praying for the health of his sister, Miriam. And then, there are times when no words are appropriate, but rather action is called for.

May we choose our strategies correctly, the right prayer or action for the right circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the entire Jewish community of Uruguay. Your hosting of our family has been exemplary. May all our prayers be answered.

 

 

 

Circular Assistance

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bo-circular-assistance/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Bo

Circular Assistance

In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us. -Flora Edwards

According to the Midrash (old post-biblical accounts and stories of biblical events and personalities), Jethro, future father-in-law of Moses, was one of Pharaoh’s counselors. The Midrash states that Jethro argued for the benevolent treatment of the Jews at the time when Pharaoh ordered the drowning of all male babies. When Jethro saw his advice ignored and noticed the growing anti-Jewish climate, he escapes from Egypt and resettles in neighboring Midian.

Years later, Moses flees Egypt, after Pharaoh seeks to kill him for the murder of an Egyptian. Moses ends up in Midian, meets Jethro’s daughters and is invited to eat in the home of Jethro. The Baal Haturim on Exodus 10:12 states that in the merit of having fed Moses, Jethro’s crops were spared from the effects of the plague of locust (I guess he still owned some land in Egypt). He furthermore explains that even an evil person will merit protection because of feeding the righteous. What goes around comes around.

May we always be the vehicle for blessings and protection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who assisted our family during our stay in Montevideo. May you be blessed many times over.

 

 

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Nicknames and Lazy Efficiency

January 21, 2015

Nicknames and Lazy Efficiency

I’ve heard some beautiful names on my travels, but I suppose they’re a bit too grand for daily wear and tear, as you might say. The Gaffer, he says: “Make it short, and then you won’t have to cut it short before you can use it.” – Lord of the Rings

Perhaps it was the Venezuelan education of the ’70s. Perhaps it was the punctilious Christian teachers that insisted on a full, complete and well-articulated pronunciation of words. Whatever the case, the Uruguayan dialect of Spanish has some particularities that were new to me, though I suspect are broader than my limited Latin American experience.

There is a certain logic to the flagrant amputation of Spanish words. To call a “computador” a “compu” makes a lot of sense when you know what the last two syllables will be. Likewise cutting “cumpleaños” (birthday) down to “cumpli” is especially convenient for the children who seem to attend one every week. Perhaps the most common is the exorcism of just one syllable of the ubiquitous “tranquilo” to “tranqui”.

However, when the carnage extends to phrases, now I know I’m in uncharted territory. To turn two words “Ya esta” (that’s enough) into a monosyllable “Ta” – seems a crime of language.

But the mutilation of language does not stop there. It extends deeply and extensively to the area of names. And while one might give credit and presume the shortening of words or names demonstrates a certain efficiency in the use of our breath, I suspect it comes from a cultural laziness to expend more mental or verbal energy than absolutely necessary.

Proper Jewish Uruguayan names are extraordinarily unimaginative. Almost everyone is named Daniel. If you forgot someone’s name and you call them Daniel, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. Gabriel is also an extremely popular name. Rafael is not uncommon (the angels did well in Uruguay). Debora is a hugely popular girls name. Now the problem with these extremely popular names that everyone has is that at times you have no idea who someone is talking about. But fear not! The Uruguayans have a solution to that with the even more popular nicknames.

The most common type of nickname is to shorten or mangle someone’s last name. Gabriel Boruchovas is efficiently shortened to “Boru.” Some retain childhood nicknames well into adulthood, so that “Pato” (Duck) seems to be a perfectly reasonable form of address. Another curious phenomenon is the love-fest Uruguayans seems to have with the consonant “ch” (as in chocolate, not as in Michelle). I do not lie when I say I know people who are called: Chocho, Chiche, Chichi, Chuchu and I’m sure I’m forgetting some other iterations of a double “ch” with a variety of vowels.

I count myself fortunate that I arrived in Uruguay ready with a two-syllable nickname, so that “Bentzi” seems to come easily to Uruguayan lips, though some that want to be even more efficient, just call me “Rav.”

Faith is the Cure

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vaera-faith-is-the-cure/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Vaera

Faith is the Cure

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. -Vaclav Havel

The greatest, most powerful, most important orator in Jewish history, Moses, started off with some type of speech impediment. Commentators have a variety of opinions as to exactly what the problem was, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that Moses had no desire to speak publicly. He was so perturbed by his condition that he was willing to argue with God Himself to be spared from being the divine spokesman.

God berates Moses and asks him who he thinks gives man the capacity to speak in the first place? God seems particularly harsh with Moses on this count. The question is why does God give Moses such a hard time on an issue that anyone who has ever felt discomfort or even sheer terror in front of an audience can appreciate? Why was God so demanding, even insistent that this poor, speech-challenged man should have to speak in front of the mortal ruler of the most powerful empire on Earth? Couldn’t God have chosen a natural orator, a seasoned politician, even a classroom teacher? Why did he have to focus on a lonely desert shepherd for whom the extent of discourse up until then was probably limited to giving directions to sheep?

According to the Baal Haturim on Exodus 6:30, Moses needed to have faith that God has the power to rectify the situation. God chose Moses on purpose, knowing his limitations and perhaps even because of his limitations. God knows that Moses can and will overcome them. He just needed to be placed in the position to have the necessity to overcome his challenges. Otherwise, he may have forever remained incapacitated. What angered God about Moses’ fear and denial was his lack of faith. All that he needed to overcome was faith.

It was clearly not a simple or direct path for Moses, but eventually he acquires that faith and becomes the fundamental leader of the Jewish people.

May we each overcome our particular challenges and thereby merit to contribute in our own way to our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ed Stelzer. It’s incredible where challenges and faith can lead us and how roads diverge and then intertwine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Homeless Parking Gangsters

January 12, 2015

Homeless Parking Gangsters

It is not uncommon, while walking down select streets of Montevideo, to see a homeless man (they are usually men, though there are a number of women as well), sleeping on a piece of cardboard, under a threadbare blanket, against the side of a building. Under him are all of his worldly possessions, which conveniently fit into a garbage bag. This is not small fortune, as one must bear in mind there is an entire strata of society here that makes a living by raiding garbages (or homes), usually on their horse-drawn carriages with a humungous one-ton resin bag on the back and then sell their take at the various and popular flea markets around town.

They are homeless during the night and late morning as well – depending on the neighborhoods. Residential neighborhood homeless go to sleep later and wake up later; commercial neighborhood homeless go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. However, during the day and the evening they work. One of the most popular jobs is as a parking Mafioso.

They stake out a street (often the one they sleep on), put on a dirty reflective yellow vest that no longer reflects anything and give uninterested drivers directions as to how to park their car, sometimes directing other cars to wait patiently while you get into your spot. Very nice community service type of thing. When the driver returns to his car and is ready to pull out, our Good Samaritan once again officiously directs traffic and tells you when to pull out. By now, Uruguayans are trained to tip these parking gangsters for this unrequested service. When I first arrived to Montevideo, I was scandalized by the constant low-level extortion of these unofficial, unregulated parking attendants. Why should I have to pay these guys for something I didn’t want or ask for? Is there a hidden threat that they would damage my car or allow harm to come to it, if I didn’t give them “protection money?” [Note: After months and months of waiting we finally got a replacement car!]

However, with time, I have come to appreciate these harmless ruffians. I have come to believe that there is indeed some element of protection they afford for a symbolic donation. Cars do not seem to be harmed on their watch. They are actively self-employed. They are entrepreneurs. In some streets there seems to be a concession system. That’s management and expansion possibilities.

I smile at the regular ones in the morning and wish them a good day. I ask them how they’re doing. There is one who I used to see twice a day, when I was living alone on Blvr. España and walked from there to the synagogue. His name is Eduardo. He has his own chair. He’s fairly laid back about his duties. He seems either regularly content or drugged. He somehow always has a beer in his hand and on cold days the traditional mate drink.

There is another one I know well by sight. He is on Blvr. Artigas, between Av. Brasil and Maldonado. He is darkened by standing the entire day in the unprotected sun. Thick white hair adorns his round wrinkled face. He has a cane that he uses imperiously to direct people to empty spots under his dominion. The challenge is that Blvr. Artigas is a major artery and more than 95% of the drivers are just passing by with no interest in parking. This does not deter our noble cane-waving attendant. He waves his cane with a seriousness of purpose; he looks at each driver zooming by as if they are a perspective parker, and directs all of the incoming traffic to parking spots that nobody wants. No one pays him any attention. He is completely ignored by the commuting masses. Though he takes his self-appointed job seriously, nobody else does.

I wonder how many of us have similar situations?

Persistent Divinity

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shmot-persistent-divinity/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Shmot

Persistent Divinity

There is genius in persistence. It conquers all opposers. It gives confidence. It annihilates obstacles. Everybody believes in a determined man. People know that when he undertakes a thing, the battle is half won, for his rule is to accomplish whatever he sets out to do. -Orison Swett Marden

God chose Abraham to found the Chosen Nation. His first son, Ishmael, from an early age already, didn’t really follow his father’s footsteps. God tries again with Abraham’s second son, Isaac. Isaac is blessed with twins. The firstborn, Esau, while retaining good relations with his father, was not cut out to continue the path of Abraham. God continues with the second twin, Jacob. Finally, after the third generation, Jacob has twelve sons and they all continue in God’s path. They are the founding tribes of the Nation of Israel.

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 1:5 compares the above chronology to an architect who builds a palace. The architect’s first effort was with one pillar. The palace did not last long. He tried again with two pillars. Same result. He tries once again with three pillars with the same failure. Finally, he goes all out and designs the palace with twelve columns. The palace remains steady until this day.

May we never be discouraged by defeat or failure in our noble enterprises. Persistence is key to success, which are both divine qualities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish summer communities of Las Toscas and Atlantida. We are looking forward to a special Shabbat together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generational Patience

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayehi-generational-patience/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayehi

Generational Patience

There are times when God asks nothing of his children except silence, patience and tears. -C. S. Robinson

A great evil was done to Joseph. His very brothers, his very flesh and blood, plan to kill him, but then change their mind and have him sold as a slave. Years later, when they meet again and at the very moment when Joseph can have his vengeance, he instead forgives them.

Years after that, after their father Jacob passes away, his brothers are still unconvinced by Joseph’s mercy. Joseph reiterates that he harbors no ill will, that he does not seek a redress for the wrongs that his brothers afflicted upon him.

However, in the last verses of the book of Genesis, the last words Joseph speaks in his life, he makes his brothers’ children swear that they will return his body to the land of Israel. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 50:25 asks why Joseph didn’t make this demand of his own children, who presumably have a greater responsibility to see to the wishes of their patriarch.

The Baal Haturim answers that in this instance we are finally seeing, in a very subtle way, Joseph’s demand for the long-delayed justice for the sin of the brothers. The brothers were responsible for exiling Joseph from the land of Canaan, and specifically from Shechem. It is their responsibility to return him to Canaan. Joseph’s remains are finally carried by Moses himself and then by Joshua, who buries him by the city from which he was taken – Shechem.

May we be spared from causing or suffering injustices, and may we have the strength and patience to bear them when they occur.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To God, who we forget about, don’t take seriously enough, or take for granted. He works out everything in the end.