Impure Prophecies

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

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,



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:

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



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,



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

Beneficial Obedience

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Behar

Beneficial Obedience

The ship that will not obey the helm will have to obey the rocks. -English Proverb



God gives the law. The expectation is that we will follow it. But He knows us well. He knows we are a stiff-necked people. He knows that we easily give in to our more basic desires. He knows that wealth, power and comfort corrupt us. He knows that poverty, helplessness and distress weaken us. Nonetheless, we are commanded. We are enjoined to obey.

There are a plethora of blessings that are listed for those that follow God’s commandments, just as there is a long list of curses for those that ignore God’s directives.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 25:11 highlights a particular facet of obedience. He claims that being obedient assures one that their lineage will continue. There is something about following God’s orders that instills in God a desire to see future generations of such people. On the other hand, the punishment for the disobedient is exile. The disobedient will not be able to enjoy life at home. They will be exiled. They will have to wander the earth, separated from their roots.

May we pay attention to what God wants of us and merit a long lineage in our homeland.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the new government of Israel.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: A Jewish Navy

May 5, 2015

A Jewish Navy

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company. -Samuel Johnson

There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the Second. But the seamen were not gentlemen; and the gentlemen were not seamen. -Babington Macaulay

rudderless-shipMy son is a sailor. But he is a sailor in a Jewish navy. He entered the navy after two years of Yeshiva study. He wears a kippah on his head and tzitzit under his uniform. He prays three times a day, puts on Tfilin daily and is careful to eat Kosher food. He serves on a small ship with a big gun. They are twelve guys living in small quarters that go out to sea for three to four days at a time.

After years of patrol duty, his ship is now being dismantled by the crew as part of the maintenance cycle. They tear the ship apart on dry-dock, take apart the engine, the guns, the floor, the bulkhead and any other component that can be unscrewed, unbolted or ripped out. Then the crew puts it all back together again.

One of their active sister ships was down a crew member and my son was drawn as a replacement where he manned the critical radar system of which he’s become an expert. At the end of their 3-day patrol, at the mission debriefing, one of the sailors pointed out that the usual ship’s decoration of posters of unclad women had been taken down and put away out of respect for their guest, my son. This has not been an issue on my son’s home ship, due to the composition of its crew and history. However, the new ship is not atypical of the coarseness of sailors the world over. However, without my son having said a word, without even his knowledge, members of the crew understood that a person who would not be appreciative of the crude objectification of women was coming on board.

Now many sailors, no different than wide swaths of manhood around the planet, are comfortable with, happy with, and will actively surround themselves with images of women in various states of undress. For these particular sailors to have the sensitivity, awareness and willingness to demonstrate some respect on this issue is noteworthy.

I don’t know what a holy sailor would look like, but I think we’re getting some inklings…


The Sin of Missed Opportunities

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Emor

The Sin of Missed Opportunities

Four things come not back. The spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity. -Arabic Proverb

Jewish faith is defined, constrained and guided by a set of rules. Commandments direct how we should act, speak and even think. Jewish law (Halacha) in all of its complexity and subtlety is meant to be a guidebook for life.

To a person that is just becoming familiar with the plethora of laws, the extensiveness and detail of the commandments can be overwhelming. However, there are a number of overarching principles that can assist and that are worth keeping in mind:

  • Continuous Torah study is fundamental – if you don’t know, you can’t do.
  • Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t like to be done to you.
  • The Sabbath is a key mainstay of the Jewish people.
  • Idol worship is a fundamental negation of Jewish faith.

There are a few others, but one that Baal Haturim relates to is chosen by one of the most authoritative redactors of Jewish Law, Rabbi Yosef Karo, to start off his magnum opus, the Shulchan Aruch.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 22:29 warns us not to let the opportunity to perform a Mitzvah (a commandment) pass us by. The chance to fulfill a precept of Jewish law is often fleeting and once lost is gone forever. We are enjoined to be swift in the pursuit of God’s directives. We must awaken with alacrity to use our time, our resources, our intelligence, and our strengths to lead a life that seizes upon the opportunities that are in front of us.

May we always grasp the opportunities to do good.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the team of Merkaz HaHalacha (Center of Jewish Law) who continue to grow and succeed.



Sinner’s Advantage

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Acharai Mot – Kedoshim

Sinner’s Advantage

Many of the insights of the saint stem from their experience as sinners.  -Eric Hoffer

repentUturnA sinner who reaches a level of guilt or even embarrassment over their past failings will often feel inadequate in the presence of those ostensibly better behaved than themselves. They may feel morally inferior, even corrupt in front of those who have not been down the dark roads they’ve traversed. On a devoutness scale, they may always fall short. They may wonder what they can contribute to the world when there are people in it who are so much better than they are.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 20:3 states a principle of faith that turns the above calculation on its head and echoes the Talmudic dictum that “in the place/level that a repentant sinner stands, a completely righteous man cannot stand/reach.”

The Baal Haturim gives more detail to this evocative statement. He claims that when a sinner repents of his sins, somehow, through some divine transmutation, those sins are converted into merits. So if we were to attempt to illustrate the concept mathematically, let us imagine a sinner who is on a divine obedience level of let’s say -10. His friend, the wonderfully righteous man who hasn’t sinned has an impressive +6, 16 levels above our friend the sinner. Should the sinner truly and deeply repent, his level is transformed from a -10 to a +10, surpassing our righteous friend who hasn’t tasted sin.

There is something truly powerful and valuable about a person who realizes his mistake, regrets it and in a significant fashion turns himself around. This is a tremendously greater challenge than for the person who has not had and has not lived through the same temptations and trials, who is not used to certain behavior or actions. Perhaps where we see the repentant man’s sins used positively (of course this is not an excuse to sin…) is when he uses his unique capacity to assist others with the same background and challenges. The righteous may have a theoretical understanding of the issues, but can rarely reach the level of interaction, communication and effectiveness of the repentant sinner.

May we sinners understand our true value and capacity for good – and fulfill it.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the IDF soldiers assisting the earthquake victims in Nepal. You are an inspiration.



Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Weapon of Mass Education

April 24, 2015

Weapon of Mass Education

camaraTestigoIt started without ceremony. A phone call. A member of my community. She had been contacted by connections from a popular Uruguayan TV program. They wanted to make a program about Judaism in Uruguay – who should be their key person? She wanted to know if I was willing. I protested. Certainly there are people with both more knowledge and better Spanish than me. She insisted. You’re the man. Fine.

The producer came to my office and to this day still refers to me as “Ingeniero” (Engineer) – a title to which he seems to give greater respect than to “Rabino” (which I’m not sure is not valid…). He explains to me what they want to do. I write out a guide and an outline as to what should be included and what we should cover.

That was about a year ago. We didn’t cover everything we hoped, but there is the distinct possibility that we will do more given the great success of the program.

The day the bomb fell was this past Monday, April 20. There was an advance warning. A commercial was posted online. Thanks to the magic of WhatsApp the commercial went viral within the Uruguayan community and in a space of minutes most or all of the Jews of Uruguay knew there would be a program that related to them.

At 10:30pm the bomb fell and changed the community in a way we are just beginning to see.

The host, Kairo Herrera, interviews me and we talk about the history of the Jews in Uruguay, the Holocaust, Shabbat and Brit Milah. There are interviews with the President of the Comite Central, the umbrella Jewish organization of the community. The Shemtov family, the Chabad emissaries in Uruguay for 30 years played a central role in demonstrating and explaining much of Jewish law and rituals.

I was surprised by the number of people who watched it. I was pleased by the number of people in the Jewish community who saw it and congratulated me on a good performance. I was shocked that every other person I met this week saw it and commented on it. The pool people, the garage people, the gardener, the cleaning staff, the security staff. The bank teller starts getting into a discussion with me about the fear of circumcision and other people on the line joined in on the discussion. A Christian woman in the crowd extolled her love of Jews and how her friends from the Church are right now in Jerusalem, our Holy City.

We received a call from an important non-Jewish Kosher food provider that now wants to meet with me.

People are talking about it. Arguing about it. Debating if it’s good for the Jews or bad. Griping whether it was a good representation of Jews or not. To me those issues are secondary. We have a discussion going. People are hearing about Shabbat, about prayer, about Brit Mila, about Jewish history, Jewish faith and Jewish identity. A person in my office with little Jewish interest starts to ask me about spiritual matters.

I receive heartfelt thanks from members of the community. I’m told this is a major building-block for increasing Jewish awareness and practice in a very secularized country.

That was the first wave of the bomb. For the first time in Uruguayan history I’m told, there was a full-length nationally-aired locally produced TV program about Judaism. It helped that it was hosted by one of the more popular personalities, and presented Judaism in a warm and respectful yet approachable fashion.

For the host to explain to the Uruguayan public the laws of the Sabbath, for me was incredible. For him to discover and reconnect with his Jewish origins was clearly emotional and resonated with many. Long-time watchers of Kairo have told me they have never seen him so moved in one of his programs.

That was the direct impact. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who are hearing details of their culture – many for the first time in their lives.

However, the fallout is even more interesting. A large swath of the Uruguayan population also watched the show. Gentiles start to talk with Jews about their religion. And what I sensed from many, and what brings me to tears of joy, is that these Jews respond with pride. Yes, these are our customs. Yes, these are our traditions. This is where we come from. That is our Rabbi.

All of a sudden, people who I’ve met briefly once in my life, or who have merely been in the same room with me for a few minutes, are saying – that’s my Rabbi.

They are telling their coworkers, neighbors, friends how they go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, how their parents were Holocaust survivors, how their uncle, or cousin, or child lives in Israel, how they have a weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner that brings the family together and that they eat some of the exact same foods that they saw on TV. That yes, they and their father before them and their grandfather and all their ancestors going back 4,000 years to our Patriarch Abraham had a Brit Mila, a circumcision that demonstrates our eternal bond between our people and God. They said all of this and more. That was the second wave.

The third wave is a respect that is crystallizing. The gentiles in this very secular country are verbalizing a respect for its Jewish citizens, who they always admired, but saw as hidden behind a veil of secrecy and mysterious and unknown customs. But now they’ve been invited into our homes, to our dinner table and our kitchen. To our ceremonies, histories and beliefs. And the overall reaction to these customs is not aversion, but respect, admiration and perhaps some envy. They sense the antiquity of our roots. They understand the centrality of our family life. They see the strength of our faith.

All of these waves have affected and will affect the Jewish community. To see themselves in the eyes of the Gentile, to stand in front of them with pride and to see respect reflected in their eyes validates their tradition more than a thousand sermons.

Whoever wants to help me with continued Weapons of Mass Education, please be in touch.