Self-inflicted Escalating Punishments (Bo)

Self-inflicted Escalating Punishments

Every guilty person is his own hangman. -Seneca the Elder

                                                                     John Martin, The Seventh Plague, 1823

God pours his wrath over the people of Egypt. Plagues of blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, boils, hail, locust and more devastate the mightiest empire on the planet for refusing to let the People of Israel go. Pharaoh stands firm against this onslaught, consistently denying the Hebrew nation its freedom. He insists on keeping them enslaved, not allowing them their requested three-day journey to worship God.

In the end, it is Pharaoh’s stubbornness (which at some point may have been augmented by God) that dooms Egypt. Had he let the Jews go at the first request, he and his country would have been spared from all the pain, death and destruction.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 12:33 (Bo) explains that Pharaoh’s thick-headedness, his denial of God and his refusal to send the Jews as requested were reciprocated in the harshest terms in a way that he would irrefutably acknowledge God, by being on the receiving end of the plagues, and he would ultimately be forced to send the Jews out of Egypt.

Rabbeinu Bechaye gives an example of a minister who asked his servant to buy him some fish; the servant went and bought him a putrid piece of fish. The minister, as punishment, gives the servant three options:  “eat the fish yourself, get one hundred lashes, or pay one hundred pieces.” The servant says: “I’ll eat the fish,” but halfway through it he says, “I can’t eat anymore, I’d rather get the lashes.” They lash him, but halfway through he says, “I can’t handle it, I’d rather pay the one hundred pieces.” The servant ended up inflicting on himself all three punishments.

So to it was with Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They were lashed with all the plagues, they sent the Jews out, and they also sent them with gold and riches.

May today’s stubborn enemies of Israel receive their comeuppance speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Judge Mchaim Lieberman on his 50th birthday. May he continue to mete out justice when he can.

God’s Finger (Vaera)

God’s Finger (Vaera)

When I was young, I said to God, god, tell me the mystery of the universe. But God answered, that knowledge is for me alone. So I said, god, tell me the mystery of the peanut. Then God said, well, George, that’s more nearly your size. -George Washington Carver

In the third of what would be the ten plagues to hit Egypt, Pharaoh’s sorcerers insightfully declare “this is God’s finger.” They understood from the third plague, the plague of lice, that this was not some sleight of hand or some conjurers trick. This was direct divine intervention. They would learn, to the point of destruction, that there is an active, involved God who feels free to direct matters and phenomena in a more “personal” fashion and not always leave things up to “nature” or probability.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 8:15 (Vaera) quotes Rabbi Saadia Gaon who highlights that there are only two other events in the Hebrew Bible where the finger of God is mentioned. One is when it describes the writing of the Ten Commandments upon the tablets of the law. The second is in a description of the creation of the celestial spheres (Psalms 8:4). This limited and exclusive use of God’s Finger in the biblical text comes to teach a deeper lesson, namely that God is ultimately responsible for everything in our world, big, little, sacred or mundane.

From the largest creations known to man, the planets and the stars, to the smallest visible creature, a gnat; God is the Creator of the massive, the minuscule, and everything in between. However, He is also the scribe of the Tablets of the Law, the material of which was merely the lowly rock, but no earthly item ever possessed such divine radiance.

The reason the term Finger of God is used in all three wildly different aspects is to relay that God is capable of everything. It is all within His capacity. The infinitely large and the infinitely small are equally within His purview. God is involved behind the scenes in creating, overseeing and enabling our reality. His preference is, as with the commandments, that we use the material reality that He provides and sustains to reach for the sacred, the holy and the divine. Then we may have a chance to grasp a part of God.

May we see the finger of God in our reality and appreciate it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Father of Modern Hebrew, on his 160th anniversary.

 

Enlightenment comes in stages (Shmot)

Enlightenment comes in stages (Shmot)

Enlightenment must come little by little-otherwise it would overwhelm. -Idries Shah

Moses, while tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert, sees a strange and wondrous sight. He notices a tree on fire, but for some reason, the tree is not consumed by the fire. Out of curiosity, he approaches, and then he sees what appears to be a celestial being within the flames in the tree. Finally, he perceives, in some way that we can’t describe or comprehend, the presence of God.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 3:1 explains that the staggered revelation of the supernatural was purposeful and for Moses’ benefit. Had God revealed Himself to Moses in one shot, Moses would have fled, completely overwhelmed by the Divine Revelation. Therefore, God started with a mysterious fire that didn’t burn the tree. Moses’ interest was piqued, his mind prepared for the unusual. Next, the sighting of an angelic being alerted Moses to the fact that it was a spiritual, otherworldly event. Finally, God could approach Moses; even speak to him in a way that allowed Moses to keep his composure, his mental stability.

Rabbeinu Bechaye compares the gradual revelation to a man who has been sitting in darkness for some time. His eyes have become used to the dark. Should he go from pitch black to bright light too quickly, he would be blinded, perhaps even damage his eyesight. The way to transition is to look at a small sliver of light and get used to that before being exposed to stronger, brighter light.

It is the same with mental light. The mind needs to start with concepts that it’s familiar with, before it can comprehend greater truths, more powerful revelations. God takes the same approach when introducing His commandments to Israel. He starts with some basics, such as the Sabbath and civil laws. Then He proceeds to the Ten Commandments, and thereafter He presents the bulk of the Torah’s commandments.

God also gave us a parallel phenomenon in nature. Dawn commences slowly; just a sliver of light. The light seems to grow slowly, giving our eyes a chance to get used to it. In a gradual process light fills the sky until we can handle the light of a bright, sunny day.

May we see ever increasing light in our lives, and not be blinded by it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Iranian protesters. May you overcome the darkness and turn your country to light.

The Missing Ten Tribes (Vayechi)

The Missing Ten Tribes (Vayechi)

Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future. -Hannah Arendt

The term “Jew” is derived from Judean, meaning descendants of Judah. But Judah was only one of the sons of Jacob, only one of the tribes of Israel. Our history tells us that before the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, more than 2,700 years ago, our brothers, the ten northern tribes of Israel, were conquered and exiled by the king of Assyria. They have been lost to our history ever since.

There is a wide ranging discussion as to the fate of these lost ten tribes. However, every year there is more evidence of how far descendants of the tribes of Israel reached. They may have reached as far as India, China and even the Americas. Even more significantly, members of these recently discovered tribes have been accepted as Jewish by leading Rabbis and have come back to the land of Israel. This includes the Ethiopian Jews who trace their ancestry to the tribe of Dan and the Indian Jews who still refer to themselves as the children of the tribe of Menashe.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 49:1 (Vayechi) foretold the return of the missing tribes centuries ago and explained that our patriarch Jacob prophetically hinted at these events in his last words to his children. Jacob uses two different terms for “you will be gathered” in his dying words. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Jacob was referring to two gatherings, each related to two redemptions. The first redemption was that the Children of Israel, all twelve tribes, would be redeemed from the slavery of Egypt and all of them would be brought to the land of Israel. The second redemption which will parallel in many respects the redemption from Egypt, refers to the end of days, the Messianic era that would encompass two broad “gatherings.”

The first gathering to Israel would be the return of the descendants of Judah (which includes the tribe of Benjamin as well as Levites and Kohens) – which we are witnesses to in the modern era. The second gathering will be that of the ten tribes during the final redemption, bringing together all the tribes of Israel after millennia of separation, something that we see unfolding before our very eyes.

May our brothers from all corners of the earth find their way home and may we welcome them back graciously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the organization Shavei Israel, which has been so vital in helping find and bring back our lost tribes.

Angry Words

Angry Words

A gentle response allays wrath; A harsh word provokes anger. – King Solomon, Proverbs 15:1

Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, has sprung the trap on his brothers, who still don’t recognize that he’s their sibling. He decrees that young Benjamin will be his slave based on fabricated evidence, while the other brothers can return to Canaan to their father Jacob. The whole ruse is patently unfair. They’ve been set up. Judah steps up and asks for a private audience with Joseph.

Judah, softly, gently, respectfully yet passionately, argues his case in front of the viceroy. He retells the history of how they came to the unfortunate situation. Judah ends his moving plea by offering himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph can no longer contain himself, is moved to tears, and reveals his true identity to his brothers in what becomes perhaps one of the most emotional reunions depicted in the Torah.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 44:18 (Vayigash) analyses the recounting of events, of Judah’s daring approach to viceroy Joseph, of his tactics in confronting the powerful ruler who held their fate in his hands.  Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Judah was successful in calling on Joseph’s compassion by speaking calmly and gently to the harsh accusations and decree. Had Judah responded with righteous indignation, he would have only succeeded at kindling Joseph’s own anger which may have led to a worse outcome. By confronting the situation with calm, patience and understanding, Judah assured the best possible outcome. He allowed Joseph’s better nature to determine the rest of the story, not vengeance or a momentary fit of anger.

Rabbeinu Bechaye however, adds that there were two other elements in Judah’s address to Joseph. Besides entreating, softly pleading with Joseph for mercy, he also called on Joseph to be fair with their family and particularly their aging father who would be heartbroken should Benjamin not return. His final point is that he’s prepared for battle. The Midrash shares with us ancient tales of how Judah faces off against Joseph, prepared to tear Egypt apart should Joseph continue with his unfair enslavement of Benjamin.

Rabbeinu Bechaye however repeats and reinforces the value of training oneself to speak calmly and to always answer angry words with patience. There is no better way to inflame a situation than by answering anger with anger; and there is no better way to forestall a fight than to answer anger with calm.

May we not be the source of heated conversations and may we diffuse those that start that way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the voters of Zehut International who have put their trust in me.

Thank you Zehut International members!

Dear Zehut International members,

zehut_logo_newThank you!  Thank you for being part of this historic process. Thank you for electing me to the prime Zehut International slot in Zehut’s Knesset list. We are breathing a badly needed breath of fresh air into the Israeli political system, and we are already seeing positive changes.

Israel’s political landscape has been dominated by personality politics and failed ideologies (or lack of ideologies). Zehut is not about one personality or another. Zehut is about having a clear understanding of who the Jewish people are and what our purpose here is. It’s about having a clear vision for the future of Israel. It’s about having a clear plan, fully documented and articulated as to how to repair the affairs of Israeli society. The plan includes how to reduce and remove government’s toxic and insidious involvement in too many aspects of our private lives. The plan includes clear, logical, achievable ways to reduce the cost of living in Israel, to reduce the price of housing, to boost the economy, to improve education, health care and to safeguard our land, our people and our future.

The Zehut platform is comprehensive and ambitious. It is comprehensive in that it believes that with proper leadership there are a tremendous number of policy initiatives that we can undertake. It is ambitious in that it seeks and requires nothing less than leadership of the State of Israel.

Now the hard work begins. That of bringing our message to the Israeli electorate. Many voters are both politically cynical and creatures of habit. They cannot imagine a new party making significant gains on their first election. They will tell you without a shadow of a doubt that there is no chance of Zehut passing the electoral threshold. They are simply wrong, short-sighted and unimaginative. There are some people who it’s just not worth talking to. They are often the first to complain about any given situation, but ultimately the last to do anything to help.

However, there is an entire country of Israelis that are seeking a new solution. They are thirsty for clear leadership, vision and direction. We need to show them we have within Zehut that leadership, that vision, that direction. Our job, the job of Zehut International members did not end with the primaries yesterday. Our job is just beginning.

Our job is to engage with every Israeli voter we can, even if you don’t currently live in Israel. Our job is to a shine a light on the mess that is the Israeli political situation and state loud and clear: “We can fix this!” We know how, we have a roadmap and we have the people.

I beg every one of us to become familiar with our platform. It is not something that can be easily reduced to slogans or pithy statements. There is depth, there is intelligence, there is nuance. Our political challenges will not be overcome by soundbites. They will be overcome by educating the public as to the solutions to the myriad issues we are facing.

Zehut, fixing Israel, realizing what Jewish identity means in a Jewish state, defining what we seek from a Jewish state, should be part of our daily discussions and dialogue.

I am humbled by the collective trust you have given me as your Zehut International representative. I thank you again for this trust, I take the task and mission seriously and I hope I will live up to your expectations.

As always, I am available for all discussions and inquiries on this important subject.

Sincerely,

Ben-Tzion Spitz

The Source Material of Dreams

The Source Material of Dreams

Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal. -Pamela Vaull Starr

Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, has a disturbing dream. Seven sickly bone-thin cows consume seven healthy large cows; seven sickly shriveled wheat stalks absorb seven healthy robust wheat stalks. Pharaoh is shaken by the vision and knows it portends some danger to the Egyptian empire. After his advisors and wise men fail to interpret the dream to his satisfaction, the young Hebrew slave, Joseph, imprisoned in the royal dungeon is remembered and brought to Pharaoh to try his luck at interpreting what no one else could. Joseph does it, predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, is elevated and thereby saves himself, all of Egypt and eventually his family, who join him in Egypt once the prophesized famine hits the region.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 41:1 (Miketz) explains the components that make up a person’s dreams and what elements of them are prophetic.

There are three inputs to our dreams: food; thoughts; and what he calls “strengthening of the soul.”

Food causes “fumes” to go to the brain. Dreams that come as a result of what we ate are nonsense. Our thoughts during the day, will lead to dreaming of those matters at night. Those dreams hold no significant importance.

However, the third element of a dream comes from the “strengthening of the soul,” and according to Rabbeinu Bechaye entails a minor prophecy. The dream’s source is the soul and is independent of anything we might have thought about previously. It comes from the power of our imagination to picture matters that the soul senses while awake. Our imagination then illustrates these visions to our mind in our dream-state when we are free of the noise, inputs, stimuli and distractions of our waking hours. These visions are true when the person’s imaginative powers are strong and he hasn’t thought about the vision previously.

This is similar to the minor prophecy that the sages attribute to children and fools, as they don’t have the same mental filters rational adults have developed for such prophetic messages.

He adds that both the righteous as well as the wicked can receive such prophetic dreams. In Pharaoh’s case, God specifically sent the prophetic dream to him, to set in motion the release and elevation of Joseph.

May we strengthen our own souls and dream prophetic dreams.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish community of Atlanta. I had the privilege to enjoy your southern hospitality in a time of need.