Emotional Spectrum

Emotional Spectrum

The depth of our despair measures what capability and height of claim we have to hope. -Thomas Carlyle

The first time God gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments engraved upon the two Tablets of the Covenant – it didn’t work out very well. They created and worshipped the Golden Calf – quite a slap in the face to God. God is ready to destroy the nation. Moshe destroys the Tablets and intercedes, saving the Hebrew nation from destruction. Before and after all this action, we have the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, the Sanctuary where the actual Tablets are meant to rest in the Ark of the Covenant, in the epicenter of the entire effort.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 35:1 provides an analysis of the narrative from the point of the receipt of the second set of Tablets and the actual construction of the previously instructed Sanctuary:

“Now that the Testimony of the Law, the pledge of God’s special Presence in the midst of the people, had been given to Israel once again, the erection of a dwelling place for this Testimony had again become relevant. The grim events described previously, which had jeopardized the realization of this task, are of the most far-reaching significance for the task as such, for the Sanctuary and the purpose for which the Sanctuary is to be erected.”

“The construction of the Sanctuary was to take place under the impact of a completely new experience. The people and the priests had come to realize how weak and imperfect they still were, how much they still needed to work upon themselves incessantly and how greatly they were in need of uplift and atonement. Moreover, they had come to know God in all the severity of His judgment, but also in all the fullness of His grace. They had experienced all the nuances of our relationship with God, from the feeling of utter rejection by God up to the height of Divine favor regained.”

“The Sanctuary to be constructed was to become the place from which the ideal of their vocation would shine forth forever to individual and community alike. It was to be the place where, at any stage of error or weakness, they would find renewed strength to work their way up again and to persevere on the high level of their vocation, and where they would find God’s help and blessing for both objectives.”

“Thus, the experience that had been recorded forever in the history of the nation between the time it had been commanded to build its very first Sanctuary, and the actual execution of that command, is documentary proof that it is possible at any stage of error to return, and to regain the favor of God.”

May we remember that the full gamut of experiences and emotions can always bring us to God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children Eitan and Rebecca, on your wedding! It’s finally here!

 

Success! Official Google Play Developer

Success! Official Google Play Developer

After many months of trial and error, I’ve finally managed to launch my first app! It is currently only available for Androids (I hope to launch an Apple iOS version in the near future, so patience my Apple devotees).

BibleShorts is a visually engaging compendium of much of my Torah material of the past nine years, along with a few other goodies, organized in an intuitive and easily accessible fashion.

Please download it, install it, play with it and give me your feedback.

Thanks!

Bentzi

P.S. Special thanks to Shaltiel Shmidman for his technical guidance and the people at Udacity and AppyPie for their excellent offerings.

Best Efforts

Best Efforts

Life doesn’t require that we be the best, only that we try our best. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Before the construction of the Tabernacle at the foot of Mount Sinai, there is a command to collect a half-shekel contribution from each man over the age of twenty. The rich could not contribute more than half a shekel and the poor could not contribute less. The contribution was the method that the national census was conducted, and so, the amount given needed to be exact.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 30:13, in his flowery language, draws out a few lessons from the half-shekel contribution:

“This they shall give. Not with the sum of his concrete accomplishments but with the symbolic expression of what he knows to be his duty shall each one come near to God at the moment when his is to “pass” from the ranks of the uncounted into the ranks of those that have been counted. There is no greater distinction and no greater bliss than to be among those who have been counted for and by God, to take one’s place on God’s roster even though one be in the most humble circumstances, and even in the most transient moment of life on earth, to be counted as a member of the hosts of God. Only after having become aware of the full extent of his duty and after having resolved to perform it fully can one pass from the nondescript crowd of the selfish multitudes into the ennobled circle of those who have been counted by God, and attain the blissful awareness that he is now among those whom God has numbered among His own.”

“However, the contribution required of each individual is symbolized by Mahazit Hashekel, not one whole shekel but only one half-shekel. Viewed objectively, not even the most complete and perfect contribution of any one individual can accomplish the whole the work that must be done. The effort of any individual can only be a fragment of the whole. An equally selfless sacrifice of his brother is required in order to produce the whole. In fact, it is not expected of any one individual to accomplish the entire task (as per Pirkei Avot 2:21). But the individual is indeed expected to make his personal contribution to the whole, weighed by the standard of the Sanctuary. One shekel was equivalent to 20 gerahs, of which the individual was expected to contribute ten; thus, viewed subjectively, one rounded whole. Let it be his whole contribution as far as he is concerned. Let him weigh it out with scrupulous accuracy, no matter how small a fraction his own contribution represents in relation to the whole of the task to be accomplished. Let him leave nothing undone, let him not withhold any effort, any talent, any ability that could help promote the welfare of the whole. Although you are not expected to complete the entire task, “you are not free to desist from it” (the end of the refrain from Pirkei Avot 2:21). Let his half-shekel comprise a complete unit by the standard of the Sanctuary.”

Though we may be limited in what we can accomplish individually, if we try our best, if we give it our all, it will be a complete contribution in the eyes of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend Egbert Pijfers on his visit to Israel and his participation in the Jerusalem Marathon with all the other runners, especially those doing so for the multiplicity of charitable causes.

Dedicated Self-obsolescence

Dedicated Self-obsolescence

The most important outcome of education is to help students become independent of formal education. -Paul E. Gray

There are multiple professions whose main task, whose overarching goal is to put itself out of business. Doctors want to heal all their patients. Firemen want fires to disappear. Car mechanics want to fix all cars. One can develop their own list of these self-negating roles. Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 27:20 adds another profession: teachers.

In the very beginning of the parsha, the Torah mentions the lighting of the Menorah. Rabbi Hirsch compares the lighting of the flame to teachers lighting the flame of Torah in their students:

to make light spring up. This term for kindling lights is used only in connection with the care of the Menorah. It precisely describes the task of the keepers of the flame; i.e., to hold the kindling flame against the wick to be kindled until the wick “continues burning on its own.” The task of the Torah teacher is to render his services unnecessary. His task is not to keep the “laity” forever dependent upon him. This is meant as an admonition to both teachers and students that they should be patient and persevering.”

Teachers of Torah have a sacred role; sacred but well defined. It is not meant to be a lifelong dependency. It is meant to be a limited relationship whereby the student can become independent. Where the student can stand on his or her own feet and think for themselves, ask for themselves, look up sources for themselves and make decisions for themselves. It is always good to have teachers who are available to give guidance, to answer the thorny questions that are beyond us, but we cannot live our lives tied by an umbilical cord to our teachers.

Good teachers give their students the tools, the confidence, the wherewithal to know both how to ask and how to answer their own questions.

I recently heard a student of Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik state that whenever he approached the Rabbi with a question, 9 times out of 10 Rabbi Soloveitchik would tell him, an advanced Rabbinic student at the time: “do what you think is right.”

May we light the fire of Torah in many students, and just as importantly, may we know how to pull back and let them shine on their own.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Josh and Margot Botwinick on the birth of their son Yoshiyahu Reuven. They are lighting many beautiful flames.

Golden Spirit

Golden Spirit

An excellent man, like precious metal, is in every way invariable; A villain, like the beams of a balance, is always varying, upwards and downwards, himself his own dungeon. -Saskya Pandita

Since time immemorial, mankind has admired metals for their strength, their reliability, their durability. It is therefore no coincidence that the first three materials that God requests for the construction of His Sanctuary are gold, silver and copper.

Because of our modern sophisticated metallurgical products, in our industrialized and technologically advanced era, we generally don’t have an instinctive understanding of the roles and properties of these different metals. In biblical and pre-industrial times there was a greater affinity and appreciation for the different metals, how they were found, refined, processed and used.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus Chapter 25 explains how these precious metals are mentioned here not only for their practical uses, but also because of the characteristics they represent:

“In our discussions of Jewish symbolism we have shown how the Biblical text has chosen metals, because of their hardness, as the most appropriate metaphors for firmness and strength. Because of the value attached to metals, Scripture employs them as symbols of the value attached to qualities of the spirit. But it is especially because of their metallurgical properties that Scripture cites metals as the most striking symbol of all that is good and true, in “alloys” of various degrees with evil and falsehood, and as a metaphor for the process of “testing” and “refinement” associated with truth and morality. Copper symbolizes baseness, or nature still in its unrefined state. Silver connotes a more advanced stage at which the object is still in need of purification but has clearly become amenable to refinement. Gold, which primarily occurs in unalloyed form and can withstand the most rigorous tests, is taken as the symbol of the purest, most genuine form of moral nobleness and true constancy.”

“Metals combine maximal ductility with maximal firmness. When softened by fire and beaten with a hammer while still soft, they can be given any desired shape, but once they have received that shape they retain it so firmly that it can be destroyed only by superior force. Hence metals symbolize to us the character trait we should activate in our obedience to the dictates of duty and particularly to the will of God as it has been revealed to us. Indeed, the Word of God is described as a “hammer” and a “fire.”

“Consequently, metals, more than any other substance in nature, present themselves as the most fitting symbol of what our moral attitude should be toward our calling.”

In Rabbi Hirsch’s analogy, copper would be our starting point, silver is the next level of refinement and gold is the goal. The fire and hammer of God’s word should mold us; guide our innate strength and capacity, to shape ourselves as vessels for Him. Once we have found that ideal path, that ideal form of service, we should not be easily moved from it, but rather retain a solid, useful, steadfast direction, that is not easily bent or turned.

In short, our spirit, our dedication, our commitment should be metal-strong.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the precious women of Garin Be’Matan. Stay strong. You’re on amazing paths.

Useless Jails

Useless Jails

It isn’t true that convicts live like animals: animals have more room to move around. -Mario Vargas Llosa

prison

I had occasion to visit a Uruguayan jail and the cells of the least privileged inmates. To say that caged animals live better is a serious understatement of the physical, social, emotional and psychological hell the inmates go through. While being admitted to this prison is in fact a death sentence for many, those who do survive and get out, return to society as broken human beings, often even more dangerous to themselves, their families, their communities and society at large.

The Torah portion of Mishpatim dives into a plethora of civil laws, many of them dealing with violent crime. What is interesting and perhaps counterintuitive to our society is that amongst the variety of punishments – execution, lashes, making reparations, and a prominent case which includes a period of indentured slavery – a prison sentence is never mentioned.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus Chapter 21 in his characteristically eloquent style explains:

“Prison sentences, with all the attendant despair and moral debasement behind prison bars, with all the woe and misery that imprisonment inflicts upon the prisoner’s wife and children, are unknown in God’s Law. Where God’s Law holds sway, prisons as an abode for criminals do not exist. Jewish Law provides only for detention pending trial, and even this can happen only in accordance with a judicial procedure set down in detail. Such a detention can be of short duration only, and circumstantial evidence is inadmissible.”

“But even this solitary case (of indentured slavery), in which the Law decrees loss of freedom as the consequence of a crime, cannot be construed as a “punishment.” The purpose of this law cannot be punishment because it sentences the thief to six years’ servitude only with the purpose of making restitution for the actual value of the theft.”

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates further that the slavery comes into play only if the value of what the thief stole is in excess of his working capacity. Additionally:

“The victim of the theft has the right to waive restitution derived from the sale of the thief and to content himself with a signed promise from the thief to pay restitution as soon as his material circumstances improve.”

Prison is not the solution. It even likely exacerbates the problem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Martín Correa González and all the other dedicated workers in the Uruguayan prison system.

Extra-terrestrial Law

Extra-terrestrial Law 

Written laws are like spider’s webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and the poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful. –Anacharsis 

mt-sinai

Man-made law has an inherent danger. It is fallible. They are created by men with a limited view and perception of reality, with no way to see all the repercussions and unintended consequences of their legislative efforts. Even judges who interpret the law and officers who enforce the law are likewise liable to make egregious mistakes. All of this is in addition to the tendency for laws to mirror and be an outgrowth of whatever values and moral standards tend to be popular in the host civilization of that era.

Not so the Torah. It is a fundamental belief of Judaism, that the laws of the Torah as written and as transmitted thereafter through the chain of tradition originated from God Himself.

Rabbi Hirsch in Exodus Chapter 19 elaborates:

“Jewish law is the only system of laws that did not emanate from the people whose constitution it was intended to be. Judaism is the only “religion” that did not emanate from the human beings who find in it the spiritual basis for their lives. It is precisely this “objective” quality of Jewish Law and of the Jewish “religion” that makes them both unique, setting them apart clearly and explicitly from all else on earth that goes by the name of law or religion.”

“All other “religions” and codes of law have originated only in the human minds of a given era; they merely express the conceptions of God, of human destiny, and of their relationship to God and to one another held by a given society at a specified period in history. Hence all these man-made religions and codes, like all other aspects of human civilization – science, art and folkways – are subject to change with the passing of time. For by their very nature and origin they are nothing but expressions of levels reached by civilization at various stages in human development.”

“Not so the Jewish “religion” and Jewish Law. They do not stem from beliefs held by human beings at one period or another. They do not represent time-bound human concepts of God, of things human and Divine. They are God-given; they contain ideas that, by the will of God, should mold the concepts of men for all time with regard to God and to things Divine, but above all with regard to man and human affairs. From the very outset the Law of God stood in opposition to the people in whose midst it was to make its first appearance on earth. It was to prove its power first of all upon this people, who opposed it because they were “a stiff-necked people.” But precisely the resistance which this Law encountered among the people in whose midst it obtained its first dwelling place on earth is the most convincing proof of the Divine origin of this Law, a law which did not arise from within the people but came to the people from the outside and required centuries of struggle to win this people for itself so that they would become bearers of the Laws of God through the ages.”

“All this (unique preparations at the foot of Mount Sinai) is done in order to make clear that this law originates from a source outside the earth and outside mankind.”

The Torah is God’s rulebook for life on Earth. May we remember to take His laws seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

Congratulations to Shlomo Neeman on his election as the new Mayor of Gush Etzion.