Sufficient Scholars?

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/devarim-sufficient-scholars/

Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Dvarim

Sufficient Scholars?

Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments. -Plato

one-in-a-crowd

There is a belief in Jewish tradition, that the merits of a Torah scholar, of a “Talmid Chacham”, that dedicates himself exclusively to studying Torah the entire day, provides a physical protection to the Jewish population around him. The mere act of profoundly and deeply reading and reviewing the ancient texts, of immersing oneself in the sea of Torah scholarship affords to others a divine safeguard against the evils of the world.

While this is an old, long-held belief, in recent decades it has become a more popular and underlying philosophy for growing segments of the Jewish nation. One question that may be asked is what is the ideal required ratio of these “spiritual defenders” as compared to the population being protected. How many of our sons should dedicate themselves to what otherwise might be considered activities that don’t contribute materially to society? How many Torah scholars do we require as compared to active soldiers? How many people should be working for a living and how many should confine themselves to the four walls of the study hall as a career path?

Interestingly enough, the Baal Haturim provides an answer. He states on his commentary to Deuteronomy 1:3 that one “Talmid Chacham”, one true Torah scholar, has the capacity to “protect” 40,000 people. For every 40,000 residents, one Talmid Chacham is enough. So for example, for a population of 8,000,000, the math would indicate that we would want 200 full-time professional Torah scholars.

One would therefore hope that the quality, commitment and seriousness of thousands upon thousands of men who ostensibly dedicate their lives exclusively to Torah study will afford us great protection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the true Torah scholars out there.

A Leader’s Vow

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/matot-a-leaders-vow/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Matot

A Leader’s Vow

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

yiftahs daughter

One of the more disturbing stories in the Bible is that of the Israelite leader, Yiftah, in the Book of Judges. He was an outcast, but apparently with some leadership qualities. He attracted and led a band of ruffians. When the people of Israel are threatened, the elders turn to Yiftah for military assistance.

Before battle Yiftah takes an oath, that if God gives him victory over his enemies, in thanksgiving, Yiftah will sacrifice to God the first thing to greet him upon his successful return home. Perhaps Yiftah imagined a lamb would run to him, or some other livestock would cross his path. However, upon Yiftah’s successful victory and subsequent return, none other than his beloved daughter, his only child, runs out to greet her victorious father. Yiftah tears his clothing in anguish, and the simplest reading of the verses indicate that he does kill his daughter as a human sacrifice to God.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 30:2 explains that it is the nature of Israelite leaders to make vows and call for divine intervention when their people are in trouble. However, all the Rabbis are in agreement that Yiftah erred grievously, first, in making such a poorly worded vow, and second, in fulfilling such a dastardly act that is abhorrent to God. There is a procedure in Jewish law for rescinding poorly made vows that Yiftah should have availed himself of.

May we avoid vows. But if we make them, we should make them wisely and fulfill them honorably.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Miriam Cohen of Melbourne. May any and all vows be filled with blessings.

 

 

Secrets of Creation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinhas-secrets-of-creation/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Pinhas

Secrets of Creation

This most beautiful system The Universe could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. -Sir Isaac Newton

creation-of-the-universe

The Talmud warns us not to delve too deeply into the origins of the Universe. It further states that those who are privy to the secrets of creation should only transmit them to worthy students, and even then only in private discussions.

As Moses prepares to pass the reigns of leadership to his disciple Joshua, the Baal Haturim on Numbers 27:20 reveals that Moses also transmitted to Joshua the secrets of the “Merkava” and of creation.

The “Merkava” (literaly, Chariot) refers to the prophetic visions documented by Ezekiel as to the divine presence. It is a very deep, esoteric study which preoccupies many kabbalists. Creation is likewise veiled by the mists of time. Even with various scientific theories and advances, we cannot easily answer some of the most basic questions as to how or why we have the particular physical universe we’re familiar with.

However, it was important for at least the spiritual leaders of the generation to have some familiarity with these fundamental concepts, to know, from tradition, what the elemental forces and functioning of both our spiritual and physical existence are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paco Diez, composer, singer and leading disseminator of traditional Sepharadic music. His concert in Montevideo was a spiritual experience.

with Paco Diez

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.