The Two Portals (Tzav)

The Two Portals (Tzav)

I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it. -Morpheus

Two Portals (AI-generated parsha illustration by BSpitz)

The Torah portion of Tzav has God telling Moses to command his brother Aaron, the High Priest, as to the service of the Tabernacle sacrifices. The Bat Ayin on Leviticus 6:2 wonders why the stronger term “Tzav” (command) is used, as opposed to “Daber” (speak).

The Bat Ayin explains that it has to do with the very creation of existence. God created the universe with an underlying attribute of justice. The firm foundation of justice is reflected in the stronger language of “command.” However, God saw that the world could not continue to run exclusively with strict justice, so He also introduced the attribute of mercy and kindness. Justice is reflected in the awe or fear one should have of God, while kindness is reflected in the love we should have for God.

By way of explanation, the Bat Ayin references a Talmudic dictum that states: “A person should always enter two doorways into the synagogue” (Tractate Berachot 8a). The Talmud itself finds the statement to be unclear. What does it mean to “enter two doorways”? How does one enter two doorways? What if the synagogue has only one doorway? The Talmud explains the line to mean that a person should enter at least the length of two doorways into the synagogue. One should not hang around by the entrance as if either isn’t sure they want to stay or is ready for a quick departure.

The Bat Ayin, however, focuses on the original language of the dictum, that there are indeed two separate portals that a person should go through to approach God. The correct entry to God is through two different doors. There is the door of awe and there is the door of love. That is what it means that one should always enter into the synagogue through two doorways. We need to feel proper awe, respect and trepidation when approaching God. At the same time, we need to seek closeness, tenderness, and love, when coming close to the Almighty.

By entering these two portals simultaneously, we increase the chances of that divine connection occurring.

May we increase both our awe and love of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Dragon Haggadah. A new, experimental Haggadah designed for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) players and their families. It weaves some light roleplaying, riddles, puzzles and D&D action into the text and rites of the Seder night. First draft and free for download. Please share with people who would be interested.

Two Illuminations (Vayikra)

Two Illuminations (Vayikra)

There are two kinds of light — the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures. -James Thurber

Moses Squints at Sun

At the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, in the Torah portion of Vayikra, God calls out to Moses twice. He uses two different verbs. The first is “Vaykira,” to call, and the second is “Vayidaber,” to speak. The Bat Ayin on Leviticus 1:1 explains that there are a number of parallels and lessons to learn from the duality of God communicating to Moses in apparently two different fashions:

He compares the first level of communication to both the creation of the world and to the sun. The creation of the world is something that is “hidden” from mortal perception and easy to not believe in, or to not believe in a Creator. Relatedly, the sun is difficult to look at directly and to truly perceive. In a sense, the true essence of the sun is something that is not really visible to mortals. So too, God’s higher level of communication and revelation is something sublime and only perceptible to a few people.

The second level of communication is compared to both the Egyptian Exodus and to the moon. The Exodus was a loud, public event, clearly visible to all. It was felt and witnessed directly by the Egyptians and reverberated throughout the region, if not the world. Similarly, the moon, even at its most brilliant, is fairly easy to see.

The Bat Ayin then compares the two levels of communication to two additional phenomena: clouds and fire. Clouds relate to the first, higher level. They are indistinct, obfuscating, hard to see through. Fire is the second, lower level of communication. Fire is bright, illuminating, distinct.

The Bat Ayin then brings our attention to the fact that the Jews in the desert were exposed to both of these phenomena. A pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire were both present at the Tabernacle. God, in essence, was revealing Himself and communicating with the young nation of Israel at both levels of communication. He was communicating via the hidden, sublime, barely perceptible channel, and he was concurrently communicating in a more open, direct, and discernible way.

It was a confluence of a certain closeness, attachment, identification and even transcendence that permeated the people of Israel during that special, formative period of our nation.

May we find further moments of closeness and transcendence in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To having five planets in view next week.

https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/planetary-alignment-how-to-see-march-2023

Found in Translation (Vayakel-Pekudei)

Found in Translation (Vayakel-Pekudei)

God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. -John Donne

This week’s Torah reading of Vayakel-Pekudei deals with the construction of the Tabernacle, what is called the Mishkan in the Torah. The Bat Ayin on Exodus 38:21 is surprised by the use of the word “Mishkan,” for he explains that it’s not etymologically a Hebrew word, but rather a translation. Part of his surprise is that the Torah is almost exclusively written in Hebrew with just a handful of non-Hebrew words included. Furthermore, Hebrew is the language of creation, for God used the Hebrew language to create the universe, our world and everything in it. It would seem ironic that the first creative effort of the Jewish people should be named with a translated word.

The Bat Ayin explains that the Hebrew word for “universe” or “world” has the same root as the word “hidden,” for God’s role in the creation and sustenance of our world is in fact hidden. It is easy to not see or to deny God’s hand in our existence. One of our missions in this world is to discover the hiddenness of God. To find God in the physical and mundane. To find God in the translation of the eternal and spiritual to the temporal and material. All of our world is, in essence, a translation of metaphysical concepts to our tangible reality. Therefore, the Bat Ayin concludes that it is particularly appropriate that the Mishkan is a translated word, for it hints at the role it plays and our mission to uncover and decipher God in our everyday lives.

By revealing that God is behind the scenes, by sharing that there is an active, benevolent, all-powerful Creator that was, is and will be the force that encapsulates all of reality, we bring light into the darkness of an otherwise random and meaningless existence. We promote the divine characteristics of lovingkindness, charity, truth, and all of God’s attributes. We translate the sacred and transcendent to human terms.

May we always be involved in the translation and transmission of good and noble efforts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son, Yehuda, on his enlisting in the IDF’s Kfir infantry division next week.

Together, we see the Face of God (Ki Tisa)

Together, we see the Face of God (Ki Tisa)

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. -Psalms 133:1

Students of the Torah text are familiar with a classic quandary. At Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God. The Torah describes the meeting as follows:

“And God would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another.” -Exodus 33:11

However, just a few verses later, when Moses asks to see God’s Presence, God replies:

“But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live.” -Exodus 33:20

Rabbinic commentators provide a multiplicity of answers to explain the conundrum. The Bat Ayin explains that neither verse is talking about absolute conditions. It’s not that Moses always spoke with God “face to face” or that no human can ever “see” God (however we understand those concepts). The ability to “see” God’s “face” is a function of time and particular circumstances.

He elaborates that God is the ultimate “One.” God is Unity and Unified and One in an absolute way that we can’t understand. However, there is another entity that also has the potential to be One and Unified, namely, the nation of Israel. When we are together and united the divine presence more readily rests upon us. It was at that point in history, at the foot of Mount Sinai, at the receipt of the Ten Commandments, that the nation of Israel was united “as one man with one heart.” Because Moses so identified with that unity of the people, because he mirrored that oneness, he was able to speak to God face to face.

However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, after the nation descended into sin and discord, that unity was lost. And even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, could no longer base his prophetic powers on the unity of the people and therefore could no longer encounter God in the same way.

May we make greater efforts to see our brothers “face to face” and strive for an understanding of each other and a unity that is vital for our nation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Addendum: Blessing for Unity provided by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon of Alon Shvut (my translation):

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He should bless and protect every single one of the nation of Israel. He should place in our hearts the capacity to look at everything with a good eye. He should place in us great love for every single person of Israel, and may we merit strong unity and complete redemption, speedily in our days and let us say Amen.

Dedication

To the birth of our newest grandson, Gilad Eliya Spitz, son to Orelle and Akiva. Mazal Tov!

Jewish Fire, Water, Wind and Earth (Tetzave)

Jewish Fire, Water, Wind and Earth (Tetzave)

Nature that framed us of four elements, warring within our breasts for regiment, doth teach us all to have aspiring minds. -Christopher Marlowe

The Four Elements (AI-generated parsha illustration, by B. Spitz)

At the foot of Mount Sinai, when God gives the nation of Israel the Tabernacle instructions, it includes details of the construction of the structure, the formation of the utensils, the design of the clothing and the acts of the sacrificial service that will be performed there. The Bat Ayin on Exodus 27:20 digs deeper and relates the overall activity to its most basic elements. He traces all of the efforts to the formative four elements which classically were seen as composing all material things, namely, fire, water, wind and earth. He relates that each of the four elements hints at some deeper attribute that should underscore the meeting of man and God at the divine focus that the Tabernacle was meant to be.

Water represents the aspect of lovingkindness, which at its source is about humility. Lovingkindness comes from a most elevated divine source but needs to lower itself to the mortal realm to have an impact, just as water flows from higher to lower elevations.

Fire represents strength, for one requires strength to overcome one’s worldly, material desires.

Air represents the beauty of balance and of refined speech (the breath of one’s mouth), particularly when one uses their faculty of speech for studying God’s Torah and in prayer to Him.

Earth represents the foundation for the other elements, allowing their expression and interaction. That requires complete humility and is the prime focal point for the presence of holiness to embed itself.

The relationship of the quadrilateral facet of the elements to the divine connection which we can achieve through the Tabernacle is hinted at in the often-interpreted verse about its construction. God states:

“And make for me a Temple and I will dwell among them.”

The plural form of “among them” is unexpected. The unexpectedness is exhibited in Hebrew with the suffix of the closed letter “mem” which itself has a shape that very much resembles a square, hinting at the four spiritual elements which taken together point at a holistic approach to approaching God.

May we turn these elemental, spiritual traits to our service of and connection to God.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the discovery in Israel of a 2,500-year-old potsherd with the inscribed letters of the name of ancient King Darius of Persia on it. It’s uncanny timing that Darius was the father of King Achashverosh from the Book of Esther that we read next week for Purim. https://www.jpost.com/archaeology/article-733038

Concentrated, Humble God (Truma)

Concentrated, Humble God (Truma)

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God. -Monica Baldwin

After the Jewish nation has fled Egypt, had the sea part for them, received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and started learning in earnest the laws of God, God commands them to build the Tabernacle. In fact, the remainder of the Book of Exodus deals predominantly with the instructions regarding the Tabernacle and its subsequent construction.

For those of us familiar with the narrative, we are already accustomed to the presence of the Tabernacle. Presumably, even the idolatrous cultures at the time would find nothing surprising about a dedicated edifice for a divinity. However, from a Jewish theological perspective, the concept can be startling. Can we really create an abode for an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God? What does it even mean?

The Bat Ayin focuses on the prime verse in Exodus 25:8 which states:

“And make for me a Temple and I will dwell among them.”

He explains that it indeed stretches the theological imagination as to how the presence of God can be somehow more focused in a prescribed spatial location and that in some unknowable way it was a function of God humbling Himself. In order to connect with us in a more tangible and intimate way God elected to have some aspect of Himself concentrated (as in the Kabalistic concept of Tzimtzum). This apparently reflects an incredible level of humility. Again, it is impossible to imagine these concepts, but it takes a divine magnitude of humility to somehow redirect or refocus a part of the divine essence to a point in space and time.

The Bat Ayin adds, that part of this distillation effort on God’s part was a reflection of the nation of Israel also demonstrating humility. That when Israel was commanded to construct the Tabernacle, they needed to show their reverence to God in their thoughts, their speech and their deeds. The only way to accomplish that was to have true and wholehearted humility and subservience to God. When God saw Israel’s humility, He mirrored their efforts, humbled Himself and concentrated an aspect of His presence into the physical structure of the Ark of the Covenant that was housed within the Tabernacle.

May we realize the value of healthy humility and that God is closest to the humble.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son, Yehoshua Spitz, on his graduation from the outstanding Mechina Olamit pre-military training program, and his enlisting in the IDF’s artillery division next month.

Serving Ishmael (Mishpatim)

Serving Ishmael (Mishpatim)

Appreciation is a combination of understanding, quiet amazement, and gratitude. Appreciating something permits its experience and integration. -Harry Palmer

A View of Jerusalem by BSpitz

The telling of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai in last week’s reading of Yitro marks the end of the predominantly narrative parts of the Torah. Now that the Torah has been given to the nation of Israel, we’re introduced to a barrage of legal code. Perhaps appropriate for a people just recently freed from slavery, this week’s reading of Mishpatim starts off with the Torah’s laws as to how one should treat their slaves, a practice that was still universal at that time and remained so until relatively modern times.

Without diminishing the Torah’s innovations in its much more humane approach to slavery, where human rights are decreed to people who were previously viewed as mere property, the Bat Ayin on Exodus 21:7 nonetheless delves deeper into the spiritual causes of slavery and specifically the oppression and servitude that Jews have been subject to for over millennia.

The verse he focuses on states:

“If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go free as other slaves do.”

The word for “slave” in this verse (Amah) is the same one used to describe Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, who gave birth to Abraham’s son, Ishmael, progenitor of the Arab nation. The Bat Ayin, based on the Zohar, reads the verse as stating that “daughter” in the above verse represents Jerusalem, the beloved city of Israel. He explains that if the Jewish people don’t have the proper appreciation for the importance and sanctity of the land, and specifically for Jerusalem, and the Jewish covenant with God, the result is that they will become subservient to the descendants of Ishmael. Furthermore, the subservience will be so powerful, that Jerusalem or Israel will not be freed easily from Ishmael’s dominion. The Bat Ayin rereads the verse as saying:

“If the Jewish people abandon Jerusalem (and the divine covenant) to Ishmael, it will not be freed as other dominions are freed.”

The lack of appreciation for Jerusalem and the connection to God that it represents ultimately leads to a long, challenging, and circuitous road back.

May we continue to enhance our connection to God, our appreciation for Jerusalem and to experience true freedom throughout the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the outstanding OurCrowd Summit in Jerusalem.

Secrets of a Perpetual Student (Yitro)

Secrets of a Perpetual Student (Yitro)

Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century. -S. J. Perelman

Jethro advising Moses
AI-generated Parsha Illustration: Jethro advising Moses by BSpitz

I’m going to get a little more personal than usual in this week’s article. Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, is one of my favorite biblical characters. He doesn’t appear very much, but when he does, it’s a unique role. He is the first recorded management consultant (a role I played for many years). He gives brilliant organization advice to Moses as to how to set up a strong and sustainable judiciary and if you read the narratives carefully, it is only when Jethro departs that things go bad for the nascent Jewish nation.

One amazing aspect is how Jethro had the nerve to give Moses advice at all. Moses had communed with God. Moses had enacted the most powerful miracles ever seen on Earth. What could Jethro, as conventionally distinguished as he was, offer to Moses? And furthermore, why should Moses take him seriously? What could the man of God, Moses, learn from the former idolator, Jethro? What insight could the wayward former idolatrous priest convey to a man who had spoken with God?

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 18:19 finds an answer in the way Jethro frames his advice. At the beginning of the well-organized plan, Jethro states, “Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you!” Why mention God at this stage? The Bat Ayin explains that Jethro is referencing God because of one of the very first conversations attributed to God at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. God states “let US make man in OUR image.” Who is God talking to before the creation of man? Why the plural language? The Bat Ayin quotes a well-known Midrash that states that God was speaking to the angels. It was not that God needed the angels’ permission or even input, but rather it was a demonstration of humility on God’s part, to include the other sentient beings, whom he had already created, in on the planning. So, in essence, Jethro was hinting to Moses that if God would humble Himself to seek the input and theoretically listen to the advice of the angels, then Moses could very well listen to and consider Jethro’s advice.

Moses indeed demonstrates why he was considered the humblest of men, and not only listens to Jethro’s advice, but implements it immediately, to good effect.

May we develop the humility to learn from everyone. Our livelihoods will likely depend on it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Turkish earthquake and to the Israeli rescue teams there.

Sinful Doubts (Beshalach)

Sinful Doubts (Beshalach)

At the beginning of every act of faith, there is often a seed of fear. For great acts of faith are seldom born out of calm calculation. -Max L. Lucado

God has pummeled the Egyptian Empire with the Ten Plagues. The nascent Jewish nation has now been freed by its oppressors. It has one stop to make, at Mount Sinai, to receive God’s law, before journeying to the Promised Land of Canaan.

It seems there is a short, direct route to get to their destination, through the land of the Philistines. However, God doesn’t take the Jews through the land of the Philistines. The verse tells us:

“God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 13:17 wonders why, after the Jews witness such momentous miracles, would they have any concerns about war and having to return to Egypt. He answers that in fact, there wasn’t a serious threat. God would not have let them come to harm nor would have allowed them to return to Egypt. Nonetheless, in God’s outpouring of love for the Jewish people, He wanted to keep them far from not only any potential harm, but even from thoughts and fear of harm.

He compares the love of God for the Jewish people to that of a parent for their child. God would go to great extremes to protect the Jewish people at this juncture. God wanted the Jewish people’s complete faith in Him and the security He would provide. For them to have any doubts or lack of faith would be a deficiency. Not only would it be a deficiency, but it would also be sinful. In order to prevent this sin of the mind, the sin of doubt in God, God took the Jewish people the long way out of Egypt. He didn’t take them through the land of the Philistines so they would not even contemplate the possibility of war and so not even a sliver of doubt in God would enter their minds in this formative stage of the nation.

May we strengthen our faith in God and remove doubts of His love for us, even when it’s not always so clear.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the terror victims murdered this past Shabbat in Jerusalem.

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.

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