Smart Jews

 If a man’s eye is on the Eternal, his intellect will grow. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

brainThere has been much written extolling the intelligence of Jews on one hand, and on the other hand analyzing the historical reasons for such a phenomenon. In his Commentary article “Jewish Genius,” Charles Murray argues that the reason for Jewish intelligence harks back to the very founding of Judaism as a law-intensive community. The requirement to be proficient, educated, literate in a plethora of detailed laws forced Jews as a people to develop levels of intellect unparalleled in the ancient world.

The Sfat Emet in 5635 (1875) mentions that Moses was apprehensive about the Jewish people being able to learn all the details of the Torah. However, at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai the Jewish people exclaim famously, “we will do and we will listen,” classically interpreted as we will accept the commandments and then we will learn the details.

The Sfat Emet says that God vouched for the people of Israel and assured Moses that they would be able to cope with all of the laws. But the Sfat Emet states that there is a catch to this ability to comprehend the laws, and it is intrinsic to the statement of “we will do and we will listen.” In order to understand God’s laws, we must first accept them, before we understand them. We must be willing to undertake this mission, to accept the “yoke of Heaven” before we can hope to comprehend His laws. Only after we have submitted ourselves to God can we understand Him and His detailed Laws. Trying to understand God before accepting Him is unlikely to ever work.

May we be intelligent enough to bring God into our lives and reach greater levels of understanding of the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Createspace. An incredibly smart publishing solution that I am so happy to be using.

 

Tough Starts

 Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so as though we were making the first step toward disaster. -William Bridges

bike uphillThere is an ancient Hebrew saying that “all beginnings are difficult.” The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1877) analyzes this concept from a Kabbalistic vantage. He explains that in every endeavor there are two parts – the beginning, and the remainder of the effort. He states that the beginning is always under the jurisdiction of the “Attribute of Justice,” while the remainder of the effort is under the influence of the “Attribute of Mercy.”

What that means is that in the beginning we need to work hard. Nothing comes easy. The beginning is the point of the greatest resistance, the greatest fear and the greatest risk. If we don’t put in serious effort, if we don’t give it our all – the chances of making it past the initial stage are limited. “Justice” reviews our efforts closely. “Justice” does not accept slipshod work. “Justice” has no patience for half-hearted efforts. We have to earn our accomplishments – most especially as we start on the path.

However, something happens as we pass the threshold of action. Once we have taken those initial difficult steps, once we have firmly planted ourselves on the road to accomplishment, the “Attribute of Mercy” takes over. Things get easier. Matters work out. That initial resistance has been broken and the sailing gets smoother. God’s “Attribute of Mercy” gifts success to the person who has committed himself, who has embarked on his mission.

May we undertake positive goals and see them accomplished despite rough beginnings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Benjamin Tocker on his Bar-Mitzvah. You’re off to a good start!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duality in Faith

 Faith is a higher faculty than reason. -Henry Christopher Bailey

transcending-duality

Jewish philosophy is filled with duality. The Sfat Emet in 5633 (1873) highlights a whole string of related dualities in this week’s Torah reading. There is the classic differentiation between this physical, material world and the next metaphysical, spiritual world. There is the ongoing duality of man’s evil inclination which is constantly warring against man’s good inclination. There is the biblical duality of the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt versus the subsequent miraculous Splitting of the Sea which is considered an even greater level of divine involvement. The Sfat Emet sees all these dualities not necessarily as opposites, but rather more as complimentary stages, with a lower level and a higher level of the spectrum in question.

The Sfat Emet also explains that there is a duality in matters of faith. There is the faith of the person who doesn’t know anything about God’s divinity. Nonetheless, he believes in God, or perhaps even because of his ignorance, it allows him to have simple faith. That simple faith then enables the believer to learn more about God, to understand God more, to reach for God and connect with Him. This was the faith of the people of Israel as they leave Egypt.

The other faith, the more refined, sophisticated, developed faith, is one based on knowledge of God. That is the faith which Moses reached. Moses’ understanding of God gave him a much more serious, comprehensive and clearer connection to God. The classic analogy is that Moses was able to “see” God through a clear window, while the rest of us, including other prophets, can only perceive God through an opaque window.

May our faith, perception and connection to God carry us through difficult times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Gila Weinberg on the publication of her excellent book, Not So Grim, Jewish Fairy Tales.

 

The Secret of Ten

 

 We have what we seek. It is there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us. -Thomas Merton

NO.-10

When God creates the world, He doesn’t do so in one fell sweep. It’s a process. He takes His time. The narrative of Genesis has God creating our world via ten different utterances. Ten divine statements are what brought everything into being.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) explains there is a deep and intrinsic connection between the Ten Utterances of Creation, The Ten Plagues of Egypt and The Ten Commandments of Mt. Sinai.

The Ten Utterances created the world. The Ten Plagues afflicted the world, but in some metaphysical way the affliction refined the Ten Utterances and revealed the Ten Commandments that illuminated the world. Creation was completed only when the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai took place and the powerful Ten Commandments were given.

There is an essential connection between the creation of the world, the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation of Sinai. The confluence of Ten hints at that.

May we appreciate the confluences in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the convergence of many friends and family for a wonderful celebration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Exodus

 Of all the marvelous works of God, perhaps the one angels view with the most supreme astonishment, is a proud man.  -Charles Caleb Colton

moses-leading-israelites-out-of-egypt

One of the cornerstones of Judaism is how we relate to the Exodus from Egypt. We mention it daily in our prayers. In the Torah, God refers to Himself most often, not as the God of Creation, nor even as the God of our Forefathers, but as the God who took us out of Egypt.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) explains that the concept of Exodus is one which we experience personally on a daily basis. And it is most directly connected to pride. When a person thinks that any achievement in his life is the result of his own efforts, it will not be long before God will bring him travails to demonstrate how little he truly controls. The frequent and even daily travails are then meant to humble us, to lead us to remember God, to call to God and then to find redemption from those same travails. The God who saved us from Egypt will likewise save us from our current hardships, enslavement and anguish. The path to redemption is to lose the self-pride of success, to be humble, to remember the Almighty and to hope for divine salvation, all with the requisite healthy and reasonable efforts. And we need to repeat this daily. Hence the daily recollection of the Exodus.

May we experience successive redemptions, both small and large.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Avi Spitz and Yael Kohn on their upcoming wedding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Necessary Anti-Semitism

 There is no medicine to cure hatred. -Publilius Syrus

Anti-Semitism has plagued the Jews from the moment we became a people, perhaps even beforehand. The first organized expression of anti-Semitism occurred during the formation of the people of Israel, from a large family to a nation, during their centuries in Egypt. The Egyptians, slowly but surely, enslaved most of the Jewish population.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) quotes the Kabalistic tome, the Zohar, which states that the slave labor the Egyptians forced over the Jewish people was actually a good thing, as it kept the young Israelite nation from mixing with the other nationalities. He continues that it was God himself who planted hatred of the Jewish nation in Egyptian hearts – that the Egyptians really wanted to like the Jews, but that it was a divine decree in order to distance the two peoples from each other.

The Sfat Emet then states that hatred of the Jews did create a widening gap between the two nations and that the further the Israelites moved from the Egyptians, the stronger Israel actually became.

May we be strong enough as a people and no longer “need” anti-Semitism in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Masa Israel that does so much for strengthening Jewish identity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Most Heartbreaking Day

December 27, 2015

The Most Heartbreaking Day

She was only eight years old. She was healthy. She was happy. She had loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. She was biking with her parents and younger sister by the beautiful boardwalk of Punta del Este. It was the beginning of the summer break. The season hadn’t started in full. There were barely any cars on the road.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Somehow her bike got caught on something. She fell off the bike and tumbled into the street. The driver didn’t see her. Didn’t stop in time. Melanie did not survive the impact.

In my two and a half years on the job, I have buried many people. Young, old, wealthy, poor, sick, healthy. People without a friend to accompany them and people accompanied by hundreds of friends and family. People who died suddenly and people who were in death’s clutches for months and even years.

This was by far the saddest day in my job.

In Uruguay, the Jewish community typically has what’s called a “Velorio”, a time before setting off for the cemetery where people can console the family. For most burials it becomes a semi-social scene. Melanie’s family did not announce a Velorio, but rather informed the public to meet directly at the cemetery. At the place of the Velorio, the immediate family and intimate friends gathered.

However, I was the first one at the site. I had stayed over from another Velorio event. I was there when the small casket was brought in. I was there when close friends came in and broke down in tears. And I was there when Melanie’s parents came in. I cannot recall a more heart-wrenching experience in my life. The parents and grandparents threw themselves over the casket, bawling loudly, screaming, shrieking. One of the grandmothers almost fainted. They cried and cried and cried. Finally the time to leave for the cemetery came. The mother refused to leave the casket. She had to be pried loose from the small wooden box. Finally we started the short procession from the hall to the hearse. I started chanting the traditional Psalm over the wailing of the family. We finally made it to the hearse. I asked the father to say Kaddish. The mother insisted on saying it as well. I read it together with them as we slowly made our way through the text broken by sobs and short breaths. Tears were flowing freely down my face and the face of every person present.

A procession followed the hearse a few meters into the street as I chanted Psalm 91 again, the sobbing and wailing momentarily muted.

We met again at the cemetery. I have never seen so many people at the cemetery. It was a hot, hot Sunday afternoon. It was a bit eerie to see a wall of people in the cemetery lined up perfectly under the shade of the roof.

Rav Mijael was there and as he had a close relationship with the family, he took the lead on the procession. We brought the coffin directly into the crowd under the large roof over the entrance to the cemetery. Rav Mijael wisely opted not to enter into the hall. It would have been a disaster. We needed to do this quickly. The parents did Kria and ripped their garments with such anguish and ferocity that I was reminded forcefully of the wisdom of our traditions. We then went immediately to the burial site. The coffin looked painfully small in the standard sized grave. We started covering the coffin and that’s when the family lost it. If they were wailing and sobbing before, now they were screaming. Primal screams of a such a deep loss, of such a sharp pain that I’m crying again just writing it. Relatives kept pouring water over the parents’ heads as there was a real fear they would pass out. Someone wisely had an ambulance on hand, for the heat and the grief were enough to seriously incapacitate someone.

The mother fell to her knees, grabbed the loose earth and threw it into the grave as it quickly filled up, screaming, almost incoherently, at God. The entire time the parents and grandparents were physically held up (or back) by their loving relatives. They clutched them tightly as in their grief-induced madness they could barely control their own bodies, alternatively fighting to break free or slumping to the ground. When the grave was completely covered, the screaming didn’t end.

Rav Mijael had me chant the next Psalm over the sound of the wailing. Then he got the father to say the Kaddish at the gravesite. I was so choked up, I could barely answer. Rav Mijael then ended with the El Male Rachamim, the prayer for the elevation of the soul. At the request of the family, they asked not to be hugged and kissed afterwards as is typical. They just wanted to go home. The large crowd obliged.

Usually, after a typical burial, non-family members catch up, shmooze. Here it was quiet. Hundreds of people and nobody wanting to talk. Just whispers, just small consolations.

And then people started to come up to me. How can this happen? How can God allow this? How can I believe in God if He can do this?

Still choked up, to some people I simply could not answer, could not find my voice, open my mouth. I shook my head as another tear came loose. When I did find my voice, it was to say that there are no answers. We certainly don’t have the answers and now is certainly not the time to theorize about why or to try to understand God. We just need to stick together, to support the family and be there for them. Some people took the small comfort I offered.

I debated whether I should write such personal details of such a painful burial. But this is a tragedy that has affected the entire community. And so I write this first of all for the community, in our shared grief. And second of all, in sharing our grief to also share in the consolation. We cry together with Melanie’s family. And we are together. Each in our own way. And that is the strength of our community. And it is not to be taken lightly or for granted.

May God console Melanie’s family and our whole community amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.