God Starts At Home

God Starts At Home

The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest. -Thomas Moore

home

Jacob departs from his parents. He travels to Haran to establish a family, a home. He travels empty-handed. He stops for the night and has a divine revelation in the midst of his dream. He sees a staircase with its feet in the ground yet reaching the heavens. Angels ascend and descend. God speaks to him, giving him encouragement and making promises.

Jacob wakes up, startled and amazed by the revelation and the realization that he is in a holy place. He takes a rock, anoints it with oil and declares it the House of God (Bet El).

Rabbi Hirsch on this scene in Genesis 28 states the following:

“Jacob goes forth in order to establish a Jewish home, and to this end he takes with him nothing except his own person, the qualities inherent in his personality. This fact is introduced at this point in the narrative, for everything that follows is concerned solely with the establishment of that home. For Jacob was the first to declare that God must be sought, above all, within the home. He was the first to articulate the lofty concept, “the house of God,” which simply means that the place within which the souls of man grow and flourish, and to which in turn brings all that he has accomplished and transforms into life-building activity, is the greatest and nearest place where God may be found and revealed.”

May we have and build homes with God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yehuda and Hadar of Krakow on their marriage.

 

Customized Teaching

Customized Teaching 

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -Sir John Lubbock

frustrated_studentModern parents have mostly outsourced the education of their children. We send them to schools and charge the teachers with the often thankless task of educating the next generation. Within the school system there have been endless debates as to how in fact we should educate our children, what the curriculum should be, what’s a reasonable class size, what are the best methods of instruction, what qualifications the teachers need and much more. None of this, however, absolves the parents of the responsibility of educating and raising their children as best they can.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 25:27 sees fault in the righteous Isaac and Rebecca in their raising of Esau, who the Rabbis named “Esau the Evil”. He explains that they gave their twin boys, Jacob and Esau, the exact same education, without consideration of their very distinct personalities. Jacob was a natural bookworm, comfortable with studying texts, remaining absconded within his tent; a student ideally suited for explorations of the religious and the spiritual. Esau however, was an outdoorsman. He loved nature and the wild. He was physically strong, liked the rugged life, the life of a hunter and perhaps that of a warrior. The study of texts and the spiritual was completely lost on him.

Rabbi Hirsch explains that the boys’ saintly parents forgot or did not heed the dictum, immortalized around 3,000 years ago by King Solomon in Proverbs 22:6 “Instruct the child according to his own way.” Every child (even a twin) has his own unique personality. He will have his own interests, things that excite him and things that bore him. By providing Esau with the same educational curriculum as they did to Jacob, they almost guaranteed that he would come to abandon their beliefs and way of life. Rabbi Hirsch claims that if they had developed a unique curriculum that spoke to Esau’s love of nature, that took into account his strength, skills and courage, it may have directed him to become a mighty man of God, as opposed to merely a mighty hunter.

May we pay attention to and respond accordingly to our children’s’ differing educational needs.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Hebron Fund, for an incredibly inspiring Shabbat in the City of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

Sarah’s Stages of Life

Sarah’s Stages of Life 

Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain.  -Mary Catherine Bateson

happy-old-womanThe first Matriarch of the Jewish people, Sarah, is reported as having lived to the grand old age of 127 years. The phraseology however is unusual. It states that she lived “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”  Rashi, the classic rabbinic commentator, explains that the strange presentation of the years of Sarah’s life comes to teach us that at one hundred years she still had the innocence of a young adult, and that at twenty years old she still had the beauty of a seven year old.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 23:1 takes this interpretation one step further and explains that Sarah’s particular achievement was that she lived each stage of her life correctly and was then able to bring those positive attributes to the next stage of her life. Hence, she possessed an untainted pure beauty from her childhood that stayed with her the rest of her life. Likewise and perhaps connected to it, she retained a childlike innocence both in her young adulthood and throughout her long life.

It seems there was some inner quality in Sarah, independent of any outward guises or efforts, which radiated purity, youth and beauty.

May we find and develop those inner qualities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Tamara on her birthday.

 

Bad Examples

Bad Examples

We are too quick to imitate depraved examples. –Juvenal

john_martin_-_sodom_and_gomorrah

The ancient biblical city of Sodom was considered particularly evil. God eventually decides to destroy the city and almost all of its inhabitants. However, before He does so, He notifies our patriarch Abraham. What then ensues is a surreal haggling between God and Abraham as to how many righteous people in Sodom it would take to save the city.

Abraham starts the bidding at fifty people and God agrees. Abraham quickly lowers the bid to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty and finally ten. God agrees to each of Abraham’s offers. Abraham stops at ten, apparently understanding that he can’t ask for less than ten righteous people to save Sodom. It turns out there aren’t even ten. Sodom is subsequently destroyed in a dramatic telling in Genesis Chapters 18 and 19.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 18:1 wonders as to why God informs Abraham of His plans and enters into the bizarre negotiation. Rabbi Hirsch explains that God wanted Abraham to understand and be aware of the evil of Sodom so that Abraham’s descendents should never become like the people of Sodom. They should beware of the horrendous example of those people.

However, the episode also demonstrates Abraham’s love of humanity. It didn’t matter to him how despicable the Sodomites were. They were human beings created in the image of God and he would make every reasonable effort he could, even arguing with God, to save them. Abraham was not an isolationist looking out exclusively for his own interests. He did look out for his family and allies first, but he did not turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

May we surround ourselves with and look up to good examples.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Leonard Cohen. His music reached and inspired many.

 

Abraham the Individualist

Abraham the Individualist

Not armies, not nations, have advanced the race; but here and there, in the course of ages, an individual has stood up and cast his shadow over the world. -Edwin Hubbell Chapin

individualistIn the very first recorded conversation between God and Abraham, God commands Abraham “Lech Lecha” which can be translated as “go for you” or “go to you.” Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 12:1 explains that it is a command to “go your own way” or “follow your unique path.”

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates that one of the prominent beliefs during Abraham’s time was the primacy of the communal over the individual and the priority of centralization of authority rather than individual decision-making. It engendered the “tyranny of the majority” (a phrase originally seen in the writing of John Adams, and subsequently popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill).

Abraham, by leaving his country, his birthplace and his people, by demonstrating an unyielding belief in one God, by standing up to the entirety of the rest of the polytheistic world, indeed carved his own path. He demonstrated an unflinching capacity to do his own thing, to go his own way, to be his own person, to do what he knew to be correct though the entire planet thought otherwise. He is a model of the Individual, of the non-conformist, of the person who will take a stand for what is right though it is unpopular. His is the lesson that even if the majority believes in something or says something, it doesn’t necessarily make it right.

May we hold steadfast in our positive and unique paths.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the global Shabbat Project and especially to those organizing it and celebrating it in their own unique ways in Uruguay.

 

Humanity’s Harmonizing Diversity

Humanity’s Harmonizing Diversity

If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear. –Gene Roddenberry

noah

According to the biblical account, all of humanity descends from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Cham and Yafet. Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 6:10 explains that the name of each son carries great significance.

Shem, literally means “name”, suggestive of man’s ability to name things, to get to the heart of the phenomena he confronts. This is an intellectual and spiritual attribute.

Cham, meaning “hot”, represents the sensual aspect of man.

Yafet, from “beauty”, signifies man’s search for beauty in the world.

Rabbi Hirsch explains that these varying traits are purposeful and are meant to be channeled individually in the proper fashion as well as brought together to complement each other.

He learns it from the verse that states that Noah was “righteous, morally pure and walked with God.”

The intellectual attribute of Shem, instead of being directed to mundane matters, should seek to “walk with God”; the sensual traits of Cham need to strive for moral purity; and Yafet’s search for beauty should rather be a search for righteousness, for goodness. Each of these corrected traits then complement each other.

May we correct all of our traits at the individual level as well as at the global level.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the US Elections. While not harmonious it is certainly entertaining.

Why Creation Matters

Why Creation Matters

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

-Cecil Frances Alexander

creation-2The creation of our world, of our universe, lies hidden in the mists of time. The easy, simple belief was to believe that the world was, is and always would be. That there was no creation event, that there was no Prime Mover of time and space. That is the faith of those that would deny God.

However, since the advent of the Big Bang theory, which understands that ours is not a static universe, there is scientific support for the idea of some sort of beginning in time and space. This would seem to lend credence to the concept of a Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) by a Creator independent of space and time. Nonetheless, scientists go to great lengths to seek some primordial cause to the Big Bang that would remove God from the equation. They have yet to make any convincing cases.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (see here for biography), on his very first comments to the Book of Genesis, explains that belief in anything else than God as the be all and end all of the entirety of creation is the basis of all idol worship until this very day. That is the reason why the Torah starts with the story of creation, that God in effect brought existence into being. That is the foundation of correct belief. If we don’t believe that God is behind it all, responsible for all, we will be lacking in our faith and consequently in our actions and in our life.

God is the Creator. The Creator of Everything. That’s important.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our sons Yehoshua Simcha and Yehuda Ohr on the occasion of their Bar-Mitzvah.