Blessings and Curses come from within

Blessings and Curses come from within

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. -Thomas Jefferson

God prefaces many of His commandments with the line “when you enter the land,” meaning, many of these commandments need to wait until we’re in the Promised Land or are somehow dependent on the land itself. However, after one of these common introductions God goes on to give an unusually specific location and direction as to where the people of Israel should go and what they should do there.

He orders them to congregate at the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal next to the city of Shechem. There, in what turns out to be a massive natural amphitheatre, the assembled nation of Israel are to proclaim the blessings that will be accorded to themselves and their descendents should they listen to God’s commandments, as well as the curses that will befall them should they choose to ignore God’s directives. What is physically unusual about the setting is that although the two mountains are almost identical in their shape, size, location and elevation, Mount Gerizim is verdant and alive; Mount Ebal is barren and desolate. Not surprisingly, the blessings were uttered upon Mount Gerizim, the curses on Mount Ebal.

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 11:29 elaborates:

“Both of them rise from the same soil, both are watered by the same precipitation – rain and dew. The same air passes over them both; the same pollen is blown over them both. Yet Ebal remains starkly barren, while Gerizim is covered with lush vegetation to its very top.”

“Thus we see that blessings and curses are not dependent on external circumstances. Hence, whether we are blessed or cursed is not dependent on the superficial conditions that are imposed upon us, but on how we deal with them – on our attitude…”

Whether we are blessed or cursed is not dependent on any outside force. Our fate doesn’t rely on good or bad luck. Happenstance should not determine our inner reality. The opposite is true. Our attitude, how we see the world, how we perceive things, how we react, how we internalize the reality around us, that will determine whether we are blessed or cursed. It is completely in our hands.

May we be grateful for the blessings in our lives and see it as such.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the tail end of summer. It is beautiful and blessed.

 

Size is Deceptive

Size is Deceptive

What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution. -Henri Frederic Amiel

In Judaism’s vast array of commandments, there are many that we may consider “minor” relative to others that we may think of as more “important.”

It is curious that those definitions are often highly personal ones and invariably accurately reflect the commandments that people either feel more attached to or those they are more dismissive of.

The Torah itself does categorize some prohibitions as more severe than others in terms of the punishment for violating them. However, when it comes to the performance of commandments, Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 7:12 explains the problem with underestimating the value of any commandment we consider minor:

 “We are not to weigh each commandment separately in our minds, to consider which one might yield a greater reward than the others and should therefore be given particular priority and attention. The paths of the Law form ever-widening spheres that merge into one another. We cannot, at one glance, predict the results of the observance of any one commandment. The results mesh with one another, as it were, and the very commandment that would seem to us most insignificant and least important may have the most far-reaching effects.”

There are multiple stories as to how the observance of just one “minor” commandment led to life-altering benefits. Likewise, the converse is true. People who have been dismissive of even the “lightest” commandments have had cause to regret it. The commandments are part of an entire tapestry that weaves our lives into a whole spiritual reality. Each thread is important; each commandment that we can observe is part of the entire picture.

May we strengthen our commitment to even one “small” commandment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the small, undisclosed acts of kindness that often go unnoticed and unmentioned.

 

The Foundation of Jewish Faith

The Foundation of Jewish Faith

If you don’t have solid beliefs you cannot build a stable life. Beliefs are like the foundation of a building, and they are the foundation to build your life upon. -Alfred A. Montapert

Perhaps the most well known verse to a Jew is the “Shma Yisrael.” A translation of it is as follows:

“Hear Israel, God is our God, God is One.” Deuteronomy 6:4

It is taught to children as soon as they can comprehend words. There is a biblical command to recite the paragraph of the “Shma” every morning and every night. It is the verse that is on the lips of martyrs and those who know they are about to die. It is the very foundation-stone of our faith and belief. Rabbi Hirsch elaborates further:

“It is the last truth that a son of Israel, mired in estrangement from his people, will discard. It is the declaration of the Jewish awareness of God’s unity, and it is logically followed by sentences intended to make the Jew aware of his life’s mission, of the objectives of his education, and of the true purpose of his endeavors, personal and public.”

“These statements encompass the basic principles that should guide his conduct, the axioms that should form the basis for all his thinking and the consecration of his domestic and communal life. They are intended to perform these functions no matter where the Jew may live and breathe, raise his children, carry on his domestic and public life; no matter where he lies down and rises up, readies his hands for action and his mind for thought; no matter where he builds his home and where he sets up his gates. That is why he must repeat all these statements to himself early and later, every day of his life.”

As opposed to a physical foundation which is built once, a spiritual foundation is something that we must review, rebuild and reinforce constantly. It is a critical aspect of our lives that we must strengthen on a daily basis, morning and night. For if our faith weakens, if the foundation of our spiritual lives is unstable, the edifice of our lives begin to crumble.

May we find the capacity and strength to build noble lives. Sometimes it’s as simple as reciting a meaningful “Shma.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the more than one thousand souls that ascended the Temple Mount as we commemorated its destruction. You console us.

Israel the Non-Imperialist

Israel the Non-Imperialist

Sovereignty over any foreign land is insecure. -Seneca the Elder

Historically, Israel was blessed with fearsome warriors. The ancient near east quaked in their sandals as the Children of Israel approached the borders of successive nations. There was the miraculous Exodus from Egypt and the Splitting of the Sea, which basically destroyed the mighty Egyptian empire.  Forty years later, there was the lightning-fast conquest of the lands of Sihon King of Emor and Og King of Bashan. The other nations learned that God was with Israel and that the new generation of Israelites was fearless.

However, what the non-Canaanite nations did not know was that God had given an express command for Israel not to attack the neighboring nations, not even to threaten them. This included not attacking Israel’s distant cousins, the Edomites, the Moabites and the Amonites.  Had Sihon and Og left Israel alone, if they would have let Israel pass through to Canaan peacefully, they too would have remained unscathed and unconquered.

Rabbi Hirsch (in the 1800s) on Deuteronomy 2:5 details:

“Israel is to take its place among the nations with a God-fearing respect for their possessions. Israel must not see itself as a nation of conquerors from whom no nation on earth will henceforth be safe. Rather, Israel must limit its military actions and prowess to the task of occupying that one sole land which God has intended for it and promised to it from the very outset of history.”

Israel has its Promised Land. Every other land is off-limits to Israel. Just as God assigned a particular land to the Jewish nation, so, too, He assigned other lands to other peoples. The Torah goes out of its way to detail the conquests of other lands that God facilitated for other nations.

There are people in the world who imagine that Israel has imperialistic designs or “Zionist plots.” Often these people and their theories are anti-semitically motivated and are disengaged both from reality, as well as from our very nature and founding as a people. In the end, they are either distorting reality for their own purposes or just clueless.

What we will fight for is to defend the land that God has finally returned us to, but we have no designs or interest in anyone else’s land.

May we remain steadfast in protecting our people and our land and may our enemies learn again to fear us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of the recent victims of terror. God will avenge their blood.

 

Diaspora Jewry Knesset Representation

Diaspora Jewry Knesset Representation

Our forefathers made one mistake. What they should have fought for was representation without taxation. -Fletcher Knebel

There’s an apocryphal statement that goes as follows: “One third of Israelis serve in the army, one third of Israelis work, and one third of Israelis pay taxes. The problem is that it’s always the same third.”

Since announcing my candidacy for Zehut International’s slot in the Zehut Knesset list, more than one person has complained that they feel it is unfair for non-Israeli citizens to have any say in the make-up of our parliament. If they live here, if they pay taxes, then they can vote, they say. There is an obvious logic to their argument. Just as we believe there should be no taxation without representation, the converse can also hold true that there should not be representation without some type of taxation.

However, there is a limit to that logic, especially regarding Israel.

If the State of Israel were merely a country of its citizens, a country like many other countries in the world, then it would be quite sensible to prevent any outsiders from meddling in our internal political process. However, Israel is so much more than that.

Israel is the Jewish homeland. Israel is a state for all Jews, wherever they are in the world. The relationship between Israel and world Jewry is an unbreakable bond that transcends politics. It is a yearning and a bond and a prayer that have been on our lips and in our hearts for two millennia. Israel is made up of our ancestors, our grandparents, our cousins, our brothers and our sisters who have come back from the far reaches of our planet to resettle the land. And they continue to do so. Distinctly from any other country in the world, every Jew can and should have a say as to the destiny of the State of Israel.

Understandably, those of us who are blessed and have the merit to live in Israel, to work in Israel, to pay taxes in Israel, to have children who serve in the army of Israel, should have a significantly greater say in our fate and destiny. Right now Israeli citizens have an exclusive say in Knesset elections and in the primaries of all of the political parties that hold primaries.

The innovation which Zehut has introduced for its primaries is to allow every tenth spot to be determined by vote of Jews in the Diaspora. This is a significant and meaningful innovation, though at this early stage of Zehut’s development it may be seen as a symbolic gesture. Keep in mind, there are a number of Israeli political parties which have no primaries at all, where their list is determined directly by the party leadership. Also, we’re talking here about the primaries, not the government election.

In reviewing Zehut’s decision to assign one tenth of its list to votes from the rest of the world, I thought it highly appropriate that they choose specifically that ratio.

The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin 49b states: “Ten measures of wisdom descended upon the world. Israel took nine of them, and the rest of the world took one.”

Israel and the Israeli electorate do not possess all the wisdom of the world, nor do they have the sole right to an opinion as to the fate of Israel. Jewish Diaspora has a role. That role may be limited and tightly circumscribed, but it is an important and meaningful role nonetheless. To give Diaspora Jewry a disproportional role in Israeli elections would be inappropriate. But to give them no role whatsoever misses the point of the connection and the dependence we have to each other. A tenth of the vote is both sensible and talmudically based.

I look forward to our Diaspora siblings taking advantage of this unique opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the Israeli political process, and I hope that my Israeli friends will both appreciate and welcome this important, though limited, participation of our brethren in the electoral process.

Shavua Tov,

Ben-Tzion Spitz

Zehut International Candidate for the Knesset

bentzispitz@gmail.com

Running for the Knesset

I’m returning to Israeli politics. This time in a new party and in a new role. I’ve been invited to run in the primaries of the Zehut party to compete for a spot in their Knesset list.
However, there is a new and unique twist. The Zehut party has assigned spots on their list that non-Israeli Jews can vote for, for those who are members of Zehut InternationalThis is the first time in the history of the State of Israel that Jews from the Diaspora are given a voice to determine potential Knesset members. Mind you, it’s not a huge say, but it is a start. Zehut is assigning every tenth spot on its list to a Zehut International candidate. Meaning spots 10, 20 and 30 on their list are reserved for candidates voted on by Zehut International members.
Now for any party, especially a new one, there is always the possibility that they will receive fewer seats than hoped for, if any. Realistically, based on the latest polls, it would be incredibly impressive if even one Zehut International candidate makes it into the Knesset. Nonetheless, that is the spot I’m running for.
I would like to ask of you three things:

1. I generally use this email list for my Torah writings and want to keep it that way. I will create a separate list for my political updates. If you want to be on that list, please let me know.

2. Check out Zehut International. If it’s interesting to you, join, and then vote for me in the primaries. Note: Membership in Israeli political parties is fee-based, unlike in the US or other countries. Consequently membership numbers are often low and each vote carries a lot of weight. Because Zehut International is such a new initiative, its membership is just getting started, and members will have a dis-proportionally large impact on the coming election. 

3. If you’re interested in helping out with my campaign, please let me know.

Thanks,
Ben-Tzion Spitz

On Capital Punishment

On Capital Punishment

 Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden

God is very clear on where He stands on the topic of capital punishment. Even though God commands Do Not Murder (as opposed to Do Not Kill) in the Ten Commandments, there is a long list of sins (murder among them) that God prescribes the death penalty for. Already to Noah and his sons God warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.”(Genesis 9:6)

The Rabbis however explained that in most of those cases, it is actually quite rare for the death penalty to be carried out. The guilty party needs to have been given an explicit and detailed warning before committing the sin; there needs to have been two valid witnesses to the sin and a variety of other judicial requirements. No video or circumstantial evidence suffice.

The more bloodthirsty among us may feel that this practical suspension of justice is unfair. How is it that all these sinners and murderers can roam around free and unpunished? The Talmud tells us not to worry. God has his way of inflicting the right punishment on each deserving individual, at the right time and in the right form, if the human court is unable to carry out its duty.

The more merciful among us may feel that punishment for crimes, even one as odious as murder, is unwarranted, and that the death penalty especially has no place in modern civilization.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 35:33 explains part of the rationale for the death penalty:

“A human society that does not regard the blood of each of its members as sacred, one that does not take up the cudgel for innocent human blood that has been spilled negates the very purpose for which the forces of earth operate.”

“The hypocrisy can be purged from the land only if the innocent blood that has been spilled, and the human being who has lost his life as a result, finds an advocate in the society that survives him and the murderer is made to atone for his deed by dying at the hands of that advocate, thus losing his own life, which he has forfeited by his crime. For since he has spilled the blood of his fellow man, his own blood no longer has a right to life; he has forfeited his own right to existence. And to tolerate the continued existence of one who knowingly and deliberately murdered a fellow man would be a travesty on the dignity of man, who was made in the image of God.”

May all murderers be brought to justice, whether earthly or divine, and may we see justice reign in the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the confluence of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin that we have started this week in the Daf Yomi cycle, with Maimonides’ Laws of Sanhedrin that we are in the midst of in the Rambam Yomi cycle – both of which deal with the subject of capital punishment.