Cultivating Calmness (Bo)

Cultivating Calmness (Bo)

Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time. -Thomas Carlyle

Nine plagues have devasted Egypt. There is one more plague coming. But this plague will be the deadliest. It will leave no home unscathed. The Death of the Firstborns. Every firstborn in every home in Egypt would be stricken. This plague would be so rampant, that even the Jewish slaves were warned about it. Even though the plagues had come to Egypt for the purpose of freeing the Jews from their bondage and they had been spared so far from the effects of the plagues, they were nonetheless warned about this one.

God warns the Jews to take a most unusual precaution. They are to slaughter a sacrificial lamb, the Pascual Lamb (Pesach) to be specific. They will take some hyssop, dip it in some of the sacrifice’s blood and spread it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes and not leave their homes the entire night, while the plague would ravage the rest of the country. They would roast and eat of the lamb, together with unleavened bread (Matzah) and bitter herbs (Marror). That moment is what we have celebrated continuously for more than three millennia at the Passover Seder. That moment of devotion and first moment of obedience and worship of God is when a multitude of slaves become the Jewish nation.

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 12:7 delves into the wording of “blood” (dam in Hebrew) and “homes” (Batim). The Hebrew word “dam” has the same etymology as “quiet” or “silent.” He refers us to the description of God’s encounter with Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12) which uses the same root of “dam” or in this case “demama” to describe the quiet voice:

“And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a quiet murmuring sound.”

Elijah found God in the quiet. The Bat Ayin explains that whenever a thought occurs to us to speak, our first reaction should be to pause, to be quiet and ponder the impact our proposed words will have. In that pause, in that moment of silence, is where we find God. And there comes the connection between the word “dam” silence and the word “batim” homes. By calmly thinking through what we will say, we build the letters in our mind. We are building homes for those thoughts and words and ideas. We are building a more thoughtful communication that takes the unique advantage of having a moment of divine contemplation.

May we learn the value of quiet and use it to enhance our communications.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the hospitality of the community of Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft. Lauderdale.

Super-Prayer Powers (Vaera)

Super-Prayer Powers (Vaera)

I have not placed reading before praying because I regard it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand what we are praying for. -Angelina Grimke

Moses interacts with God in a most unusual, powerful, and effective way when he brings the plagues upon Egypt. The Bat Ayin on Exodus 6:3 learns from the encounters a variety of insights that he believes can make our own interactions with God more powerful, and how our prayers can strive towards the level of prophecy, blessings and even creation.

Moses calls upon the merit of the founding fathers of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They instituted the three daily prayers and there is a power that is not easily broken by a triumvirate of meaningful daily prayer. However, even before the prayer, there is a preparation that can elevate the prayer, akin to how the prophets spoke with God. The preparation is Torah study.

The Bat Ayin explains that each of the three daily prayers draws upon a distinct aspect of one of the patriarchs. By prefacing our prayer with Torah study, we can more readily draw on those spiritual powers. The foundation upon which powerful prayer is built and which Torah study can lead us to, is a grounded sense of humility.

By studying God’s words, commands, and laws, we remind ourselves of who in fact we will be praying to. We are praying to The Creator. We are praying to God, our King, who gave us His laws for us to understand, internalize and follow. We are reading these words and laws (if in the original Hebrew) with the very same letters with which God created the universe.

By connecting with God through the same letters and words He used, it can bestow on us unusual powers: the power to access divine inspiration. It allows us to connect more fully with the spiritual within ourselves and the divine spark that is the seed of prophecy. The power of taping into the primordial letters of creation can become a conduit for blessings and abundance to be part of our lives. And at the highest level, that has likely been understood and wielded by a few rare individuals throughout history, it even bestows on the worthy practitioner some aspect of the powers of creation itself.

Let’s make sure to pray, and to preface it with a deeper connection to the Torah, hopefully leading to blessings, abundance, and a divinely inspired existence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the swearing in of Josh Shapiro as Governor of Pennsylvania.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/new-pennsylvania-governor-josh-shapiro-takes-oath-of-office-on-hebrew-bibles/

Excellent Self-Doubt (Shmot)

Excellent Self-Doubt (Shmot)

Great doubts deep wisdom. Small doubts little wisdom. -Chinese Proverb

Moses confronts Pharaoh BSpitz
Moses confronts Pharaoh, by BSpitz

God appears to Moses at the Burning Bush and instructs him to confront Pharoah and get him to allow the enslaved Jewish people to travel to the desert to worship God. Moses is reluctant and declines the request, citing his unsuitability. After some back-and-forth, God is insistent but tells Moses that his brother Aaron will assist.

Moses and Aaron meet with Pharaoh, however, that first meeting is counterproductive. Not only does Pharaoh not permit his Jewish slaves the respite that is asked for, but he makes their servitude even more grueling. Moses, despondent, complains to God and says, “not only have You not helped, You’ve made matters worse!”

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 5:22 questions how Moses, the father of all prophets, could address God this way. How could Moses have the gall to accuse God of anything, let alone of making anything worse? He answers that if one reads the context of Moses’ seeming accusation, Moses states that “ever since I came to Pharaoh,” things have gotten worse. In essence, Moses is saying that it’s his fault. He’s saying that God couldn’t affect the miraculous liberation of the Jews because Moses was a faulty and unworthy messenger. Moses was filled with self-doubt.

The Bat Ayin explains that it was exactly Moses’ self-doubt that eventually made him an ideal messenger for God. God was not looking for a brash, confident, self-assured intermediary. He was looking for a quiet, humble, bashful messenger. He specifically wanted someone who didn’t think they were worthy. Moses’ outstanding self-doubt is what made him the ideal candidate to speak for God.

Moses thought of himself as lowly and unworthy, and as a result, God bestowed the spirit of prophecy and knowledge of God upon Moses as with no other mortal before or after.

May we use our self-doubts as foundations of humility to ascend to greater knowledge of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 146 new species of animals and plants that were added to our planet in 2022.

The Yoke of Monarchy (Vayechi)

The Yoke of Monarchy (Vayechi)

There is something behind the throne greater than the King himself. -William Pitt The Elder Chatham

Jacob is on his deathbed and calls his sons together for a final farewell. He shares his parting words; some are harsh reprimands, and some are effusive blessings. The son who receives the most fulsome blessings is Joseph, Jacob’s favorite. Following is a part of the blessing

“The God of your father’s [house], who helps you,

And Shaddai who blesses you

With blessings of heaven above,

Blessings of the deep that couches below,

Blessings of the breast and womb.

The blessings of your father

Surpass the blessings of my ancestors,

To the utmost bounds of the eternal hills.

May they rest on the head of Joseph,

On the brow of the elect of his brothers.”

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 47:31 wonders as to why, besides being Jacob’s favorite son, does Joseph receive such a magnanimous blessing and such respect from Jacob, to the point that Jacob bows down to Joseph, indicating that he considered Joseph to have the attribute of Kingship.

He explains that there was something unique about Joseph that led him to such wild success in life, including becoming the de facto ruler of the Egyptian empire, as well as receiving Jacob’s eternal blessings and his deference. What made Joseph stand out is that he always kept in mind that God was his King and nobody else.

When Joseph is seduced by Potiphar’s wife, Joseph remains steadfast and keeps front and center his obedience and allegiance to God. Even when he is miraculously freed from his incarceration and brought before Pharaoh, Joseph doesn’t forget for a moment that God is in charge, nor does Joseph hesitate to state so to Pharaoh. That steadfast devotion to the true Monarch of the World is what ironically liberates him from any other monarch or servitude. By placing himself squarely under the yoke of God, he frees himself from the yoke of labor or human servitude. He no longer needs to worry about his physical sustenance nor human rulers. That is an aspect of Kingship that Jacob saw in Joseph and bowed towards.

May we find ways to increase our service to God and reduce our subservience to material masters.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the British Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, on being knighted by King Charles III.

Utter Confusion (Vayigash)

Utter Confusion (Vayigash)

When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion. -Herbert Spencer

Joseph, in his role as Viceroy of Egypt, and still unrecognized by his brothers, has orchestrated an elaborate charade to implicate their younger brother, Benjamin, in the theft of his silver goblet. Joseph announces that Benjamin will remain in Egypt as Joseph’s slave and that the other brothers are free to return home to their father Jacob in Canaan.

Brother Judah, in a great act of repentance for having sold Joseph into slavery, steps forward and confronts the Viceroy/Joseph in an attempt to rescue Benjamin. Judah altruistically offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin. At this point Joseph, overcome with emotion, reveals himself as their long-lost brother and the family is happily reunited.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 44:18 examines Judah’s speech to the Viceroy/Joseph and focuses on the part where Judah says to Joseph “because you are like Pharaoh.” The verse is making an equivalence between the righteous Joseph and the (ultimately) evil Pharaoh. The Bat Ayin explains that when Israel is in exile, there is no visible difference between the righteous and the evil. This is in contrast to when Israel is redeemed and in its own land with a greater revelation of God’s presence. In such a reality God more readily shows His pleasure with the righteous and with His more visible blessings they ascend in their righteousness. The evildoers in such a reality descend and are punished more clearly for their sins.

However, the current reality of exile is that God’s presence is significantly hidden. As a result of that, the clearly righteous can be wracked with travails, while evildoers enjoy the blessings and bounty of this world. Our experience is that God can be so obscured that there is no apparent difference between the fate of the righteous and the evil. There is utter existential confusion regarding good and evil, reward and punishment, and God’s involvement in our lives. In such a reality it becomes easy to equate a righteous Joseph with an evil Pharoah.

Nonetheless, the confusion of the world doesn’t absolve us from pursuing good and believing in God’s benevolent presence. Sometimes He even lets us peek behind the curtain and get a glimpse of His handiwork. In fact, the more we believe in Him, the more He shows Himself.

May we get more glances of clarity within the confusion of our times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new project of replenishing the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) with desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea. https://www.timesofisrael.com/pioneering-plan-inaugurated-to-top-up-sea-of-galilee-with-desalinated-water/

Giving the Benefit of the Love (Miketz)

Giving the Benefit of the Love (Miketz)

Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world… Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis. -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

At the end of the previous Torah portion, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of his jail mates, Pharoah’s butler (who is pardoned and reinstated) and Pharaoh’s baker (who is found guilty and executed). In the current Torah portion, thanks to that display of insight, Joseph is called upon to interpret the dreams of Pharoah himself. It’s an opportunity that answers Joseph’s prayers, releases him from incarceration, and elevates him to the role of Viceroy of the Egyptian empire.

Using Joseph’s story as a springboard and looking at the Hebrew etymology of the words butler (saar hamashkim) and baker (saar haafot) the Bat Ayin on Genesis   examines further the divine mechanics of prayers being answered. He differentiates between those who are more deserving like the butler and those who are less, like the baker.

The root for the word butler, shk, is the same as the root for kissing. The root for the word baker, af, is the same as the root for anger. The Bat Ayin explains that when someone is on God’s good side, it’s as if God is “kissing” the person and their prayers are more easily answered. When someone isn’t really listening to God, it incites God’s “anger” and separation from God, making his prayers much less effective. However, the Bat Ayin states that there is a remedy: if one somehow “joins” with all of Israel in one’s prayers.

The most effective way to “join” all of Israel, is to love everyone of Israel. The only way to love everyone of Israel is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. By giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, it enables the ability to love everyone. When a person loves all of Israel then they are connected to all of Israel, and no matter how undeserving that individual is, they reach the level of “kissing” God and that opens the gateways of prayers, acceptance, and blessings.

May we learn to be more loving as well as giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the lighting of the Menorah of Rabbi Baruch and Rachel Posner of the iconic picture in Nazi Germany. It was lit by their grandson in front of the German Prime Minister and his wife, in his grandparents’ home in Kiel, Germany, where the original picture was taken.

 See below picture and link to article about it:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/18/photo-taken-by-rabbis-wife-in-1931-symbolising-jewish-defiance-of-the-nazis-comes-home

Dangerous Spiritual Success (Vayeshev)

Dangerous Spiritual Success (Vayeshev)

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. -Bill Gates

The Torah builds up and then describes a frightening scene of brotherly hatred. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. To compound the insult to Jacob’s other children, Joseph describes to them, not one, but two dreams that hint at his eventual leadership of all his brothers. Later, when Jacob sends Joseph to check on the wellbeing of the brothers and their sheep, the brothers plot to kill Joseph as he approaches them.

At the last moment, instead of directly killing him, they throw him into an empty well. The Torah, which is typically thrifty in the use of extra words tells us that “the well was empty, it had no water.” It would seem obvious that if it’s empty, there wouldn’t be any water in it. Many commentaries expound on this seeming redundancy in the verse.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 37:24 uses the verse as a springboard to discuss some of the ways we fool ourselves into unhealthy behavior, even, or especially, when we start off on the right path. He explains that our evil inclination will start off by having us consider all of our good traits and accomplishments, and that we should be proud of them. However, that is just the beginning of the insidious strategy. The second part is that our evil inclination, having achieved a feeling of pride for our legitimate traits and accomplishments, will then have us develop pride in things that we haven’t reached or achieved. This strategy is hinted at in the description of Joseph in the well. The first part, “the well was empty,” mirrors a person’s spiritual reality and the pride they feel in the success they’ve achieved so far. The second part, “it had no water,” is the delusion we have once we live too much off feelings of spiritual success.

The Bat Ayin suggests that the remedy is to return to a humbler approach, where though we can be happy about and celebrate our successes, we must realize that even our successes are thanks to God and are in His hands and therefore we should circumscribe any undue pride even in successes we’ve achieved.

May we have many successes to be humble about.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for their significant fusion ignition breakthrough.

Antidote to the Seven Deadly Sins (Vayishlach)

Antidote to the Seven Deadly Sins (Vayishlach)

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

It seems that the concept of seven deadly sins already existed in Jewish sources and may predate the version popularized by Christian theologians. The Jewish version, according to some opinions, differs minutely from the more popular one and can be listed as follows (based on the Vilna Gaon on his commentary on Tractate Berachot 4b):

  1. Gluttony
  2. Envy
  3. Pride
  4. Stinginess
  5. Lust
  6. Hatred
  7. Sloth

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 33.:3 references that Jacob struggles with “seven evil traits.” The way he overcame them were by the “seven holy traits.” The “seven holy traits” may be more familiar to some and have been popularized by the listing of the “lower” seven Kabbalistic “Sefirot.” A loose translation of them would be:

  1. Kindness
  2. Strength
  3. Splendor
  4. Victory
  5. Glory
  6. Foundation
  7. Kingship

The Bat Ayin suggests that somehow Jacob’s evil twin brother Esau was the embodiment of the seven evil traits and that Jacob was able to subdue those evil traits within himself via his conflict with his brother. The idea is hinted at in the verse which states that “He himself [Jacob] went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.”

The Bat Ayin explains that ironically, Jacob was able to rise above these evil traits by abjection. By humbling himself, by realizing all the reasons he should be contrite and humble, it allowed him to quash and nullify the evil traits within himself and thus give rise and power to the seven holy traits which cancelled and supplanted the evil ones.

May we beware of all evil traits within ourselves and look to supplant them with holy ones.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To 18forty.org – whose podcasts I’ve recently discovered and found to be outstanding, deep and thought provoking.

Prophetic Vision (Vayetze)

Prophetic Vision (Vayetze)

As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. -William Blake

The encounter with God is often a nebulous affair. It seems that prophetic visions are challenging for most mortals to withstand, let alone fully and deeply comprehend. The sages liken the prophetic experience as seeing someone through a clouded window. The most prominent exception is Moses, who is described as perceiving God clearly, through a “clear window” (Asplakariah Meirah is the term that’s used).

However, between the clear and the clouded visions, there are nuances as to how one achieves prophetic clarity. The Bat Ayin on Genesis 28:10 delves into some of the factors of prophetic vision based on Jacob’s journey.

He explains that the first level of prophecy is achieved by wholehearted fulfillment of God’s commandments. This is the level of entry into the land of Israel and is similar to the level achieved by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The most holy person entering the most holy place on the most holy day of the year. By actively and fully pursuing and fulfilling all of God’s desires one can strive for the initial level of prophecy, the Asplakariah She’eina Meriah – the unclear window into the realm of prophecy.

The next level of prophetic vision is achieved by immersion in God’s Torah. By fully accepting, embracing, and internalizing God’s word, one’s mind and heart are sanctified. The Torah has the power to enlighten and show a person the path they should undertake.

The Bat Ayin draws all of this out from the somewhat repetitive verse “And Jacob left Beer Sheva and went to Charan.” We were just told of Jacob’s journey a few verses before that. The Bat Ayin relates the word Charan to the word Cherut, meaning freedom. Jacob travelled from his earnest and dutiful fulfillment of God’s commands to a level of fully delving into the Torah, thereby reaching a higher level of awe of God, of freedom and of even being able to see the angels, besides the prophetic vision he was granted.

May we, in our own small ways, reach for glimpses of the divine and holy by doing what’s right and learning what God says about it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of one of my rabbinic inspirations, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu z”l.

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