Old Eternal Law

Old Eternal Law

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. -Henry Miller

The Torah is filled with arcane laws, many of which no longer apply in our day and age. One of the most esoteric and least understood laws is the one about the Red Heifer. The Torah prescribes an unusual ritual that was performed in the times of the Temple.

A completely red cow was taken and slaughtered. The cow was then burned together with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. The resulting ashes were then mixed with water from a fresh spring source. All of this process was done in a state of extreme ritual purity, yet those involved in the preparation became impure. This water mixture had the unique and exclusive ability to purify anyone who had become ritually contaminated by any contact with the dead.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 19:10 highlights that the Torah’s conclusion to this section is unusual. It states that “…it shall remain for them an everlasting statute.” By concluding this law in such a forceful fashion, the Torah is coming to teach a much deeper lesson than merely redacting a ritual that would not apply for a majority of Jewish history. It is coming to affirm that there is an eternal aspect to the law. The eternal aspect is not necessarily that the formula for purification is reenacted, but rather that the law itself, along with all of the Torah is of divine origin. And hence, that fundamental to our lives is the unflinching belief that the Torah and its laws are of eternal value. There are continuous lessons to be learned, by all people, in all ages, from the Torah. But the first step is an actual belief in the divine and the eternal nature of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch states that in this case: “the dictum of the Red Heifer proclaims the principle of atonement and the fundamental tenet that all authority is based on the Law and that all hopes for Israel’s salvation are dependent on Israel’s recognition of the Law as an everlasting norm for Israel.”

May we learn and successfully apply the ancient lessons of the Torah in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the eventual separation of Religion and State which certain political actions are hastening.

The Authority of Servitude

The Authority of Servitude

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. -Max De Pree

Some of the high and mighty of Israel contest the authority of Moses. Moses’ reaction is unusual. He falls on his face. He doesn’t debate with Korach and his followers. He doesn’t remind them that God chose him. He doesn’t mention that he consistently refused the job and repeatedly asked God to choose someone else. Moses, the unquestionable choice of God to lead the people of Israel, doesn’t do any of what we might expect him to do to buttress his position and exert his divinely-ordained authority.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 16:4 explains the rationale for Moses’ submissive response of falling on his face, as opposed to the myriad of stronger responses he could have faced this rebellion with.

Korach and his followers weren’t being rationale. They had an agenda, with little connection to the reality or history of their miraculous exodus from Egypt and the direct divine revelations they encountered in the dessert. Moses understood that it would be folly to debate these people. Furthermore, since God had appointed Moses, it was God’s job to reaffirm His decision that Moses was his choice. The discussion was out of Moses’ hands.

Rabbi Hirsch explains further:

“The veracity of a messenger can be confirmed only by the one who sent him; so, too, the authenticity of Moses’ mission can be confirmed only by God Himself. For this reason Moses does not utter a word to counter Korach’s accusations. If God would not consider it proper to refute Korach’s words by reconfirming the authenticity of Moses’s mission, then his mission was indeed at an end, and so “he fell on his face.”

However, we know that God did indeed intervene in a most dramatic way which cost Korach and the rebels their lives. The authority of Moses and Aaron is clearly demonstrated by God, to the eventual satisfaction of the nation of Israel. God retained the men that demonstrated true service and violently and destructively removed the self-serving demagogues.

May our varied leaders understand the meaning of service.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the authoritative team at Farsight, for their incredible example of service.

Clothes make the human

Clothes make the human

Modesty is the conscience of the body. -Honore de Balzac

In order to understand the Mitzva of Tzitzit, the commandment for men to wear fringes on the four corners of a garment, Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 15:41 takes us all the way back to the Garden of Eden, to Adam and Eve, and the sin of the forbidden fruit.

Eve took the fruit because it seemed pleasurable. Adam and Eve ignored God’s direct warning and let their instinct for physical gratification supersede the spiritual reality they were a part of. That is when they lost their innocence. That is when they demonstrated the strength of their animalistic nature and the weakness of their human resolve. That is when they realized that their nakedness was a source of shame and embarrassment, for they proved themselves no better than animals, though they were blessed with a divine spirit, intellect, intelligence, free will. That is when they are exiled from the Paradise of Eden.

That is when God gives them clothing.

The clothing served two purposes: one, to cover the nakedness, to demonstrate that they are indeed human, distinct from animals, that there is such a concept as modesty, that our instinct for physical gratification must be controlled, channeled, even sanctified. The second purpose is to protect them from the environment. The world outside of Eden is one of thorns and thistles, where weather, the elements, the surroundings are no longer idyllic.

The language of the command of the Tzitzit warns not to go after “your heart and after your eyes,” exactly the error and language used to describe the sin of Adam and Eve. The Tzitzit is a direct reminder as to the primal purpose of clothing: We are humans, not animals. Do not give in to animalistic urges. We are spiritual beings encased in flesh and bone. The body, that source of potential physical pleasure, needs to be clothed, needs to be modest; physical pleasures need to be partaken in specific, healthy, constructive ways.

When we forget the lessons of Adam and Eve, when we “go after our hearts and after our eyes,” when we forget the concept of modesty, when we forget the intrinsic nobility of man, then we risk becoming little more than sophisticated animals, driven and controlled by our urges.

May our clothing ever be dignified.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In support of Rabbi Joseph Dweck, a modest and dignified leader.

Batman and Soviet Jewry

Batman and Soviet Jewry

In the mid-80’s, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) at Yeshiva University organized a trip for volunteers to travel to Washington, D.C. to educate members of congress as to details of what the struggle was actually about. They split us up into pairs and we wandered the halls of congress seeking congressmen that would listen to us. In most cases we were politely attended by the Legal Aid of each congressman, who would give us a few minutes of their time, listen to our rehearsed speech, take dutiful notes, and tell us earnestly that they would convey are message to the congressman. We repeated this routine from office to office.

However, in one office the story went a little differently. We were sitting with the Legal Aid, giving our schpiel, when someone walked out of the Congresswoman’s office. The Legal Aid turned to us and said: “Do you know who that is? That’s Adam West, Batman!” My friend and I looked at each other, turned to the Legal Aid and said, “Excuse us for a moment.” He nodded in comprehension. We ran out of the office and down the hall to catch up with the long strides of the tall celebrity.

He must have heard us coming (he was Batman after all). He turned around and as we came within arm’s reach, he grabbed each of us by the lapel of our suit jackets and in his deep Batman voice declared: “You villains, you!”

I wanted to respond with something witty like “Holy mackerel, Batman!” but we were simply awestruck and dumbfounded and merely gazed at him in open-mouthed, wide-eyed adulation. He smiled a big heroic smile, turned around and continued on his way. This was the highlight of our Soviet Jewry trip.

We returned to the congresswoman’s office and now the Legal Aid ushered us into the office of the congresswoman herself, Barbara Vucanovich of Nevada. She was a gracious host. The reason Adam West had been visiting is because their children had just gotten engaged to each other. Congresswoman Vucanovich then proceeded to inquire about Soviet Jewry and after our talk she promised to vote in favor of whatever legislation would help the cause.

We all know how the struggle for Soviet Jewry ended and now you know that Batman himself had a small, if not heroic, part in this battle of good against evil. May he rest in peace.

 

 

Long Divine Plan

Long Divine Plan 

A good plan is like a road map: it shows the final destination and usually the best way to get there. -H. Stanley Judd

Amongst the many unique and unusual aspects of the Torah, as compared to any other book of law ever composed, is that a significant portion of the prescribed laws were not relevant to the time or place where the Torah was first introduced.

Many of the laws are dependent on a land yet to be conquered. Many require a Temple yet to be built. Many involve businesses, courts and institutions that were yet to become reality. All human law systems come to address existing issues, to give an answer to a pressing need or situation, to solve or prevent a problem in society. The Torah’s laws are for the most part forward-looking, imagining the people of Israel, in the land of Israel, with its own self-rule. Some of the laws are so esoteric that the Sages of old claim they will never be applied, while many other laws will only become relevant again in the Messianic Era.

This week’s Torah reading presents an array of both past and future laws as well as the narrative of some of the disappointments God had with Israel. Rabbi Hirsch, commenting on Numbers 8:1 comes to the following conclusion:

“Precisely the paradox that there should have been such a wide gap between Israel as it was at the time of the Giving of the Law, on the one hand, and the Law and its assumptions and requirements, on the other, a gap that could be bridged only over a span of centuries, should be the most eloquent proof that this Law is indeed of Divine origin and should mark it as a unique phenomenon in the history of mankind. All other codes of law were predicated on conditions that prevailed at the time of their origin. This Law is the only one to have set itself up as the supreme goal of human development on earth; it still awaits a generation sufficiently mature at last to translate its ideals into reality.”

God’s Torah is a long term plan for the nation of Israel and for the world as a whole. It is a plan that has been unfolding for more than 3,000 years with agonizing lows and dizzying highs. Just fifty years ago we reached another milestone in that inscrutable plan: the reunification of Jerusalem and the return of the Jewish people to much of its ancestral land.

May we witness and participate in more positive developments of this historic process.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On 50 years of renewed Jewish sovereignty over ancient Jewish land.

It’s all about the attitude

It’s all about the attitude

A great attitude does much more than turn on the lights in our worlds; it seems to magically connect us to all sorts of serendipitous opportunities that were somehow absent before the change. -Earl Nightingale

There is an ancient formula, an ancient blessing really, handed down from father to son within the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years. A translation of it goes as follows:

“May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face illuminate you and give you grace. May God draw His face to you and place upon you peace.”

This archaic prayer is dictated by God Himself to Moses, commanding Aaron, the High Priest, to bless the nation of Israel with these exact words. To this very day, there is a custom every Friday night at the Shabbat meal, for parents to bless their children with these words. In every synagogue in the world, the descendants of the High Priest, the Kohanim, bless the entire congregation in the ritual known as Birkat Kohanim, where the Kohanim, with the prayer shawl draped over their heads and hands, face the congregation, place their hands in an unusual configuration and proceed to bless those present. This blessing is considered so powerful, that there is a custom not to look at the Kohanim, or their hands, lest we somehow get singed by the force of the divine power they are drawing upon.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 6:24 argues that Birkat Kohanim is not some incantation with mystical power to bless upon recitation. Rather, it is the attitude of the one uttering the words that determines the ultimate efficacy of the blessing:

“There are no magic powers inherent in the priest himself or in the blessing he pronounces. The attitude of the one who pronounces it is an essential part of the blessing; indeed, it is his attitude that turns the formula he recites into a blessing.”

God Himself concludes the dictation of these verses with the affirmation that: “and you shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.”

But it is the power of the intention, the focus, the attitude of the one blessing, that calls forth God, brings Him into our lives and spreads divine blessings to all those upon who we wish it earnestly, passionately and lovingly.

May we be both a source and recipients of grand and multiple blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend Netzer Winter of the Ministry of Commerce’s Maof group, for a fantastic attitude.

Nation of Individuals

Nation of Individuals

Never be afraid to tread the path alone. Know which is your path and follow it wherever it may lead you; do not feel you have to follow in someone else’s footsteps. -Gita Bellin

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers, God commands Moses to count the army-age men of Israel. They number around 600,000 men above the age of twenty. However, the Torah goes into much more detail than just the final tally of the census. It breaks down the count according to each tribe. It provides the name of each tribe prince. It goes as far as naming the different family clans within each tribe.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 1:1-2 explains that the fact that the Torah describes that level of organizational detail demonstrates that it wasn’t merely an unorganized assembly. Each tribe, each family and each individual counted. Each individual had a unique contribution to the nation that only he could contribute as part of his sub-unit and as part of the whole. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“The community cannot exist as an abstract idea but can have true being only in terms of the totality of it components. At the same time, each member of the community is made aware that he personally “counts” as an important constituent of this totality, and that the task to be performed by the nation as a whole requires every one of its members to remain true to his duty and purposefully devoted to the vocation he shares with all the others.”

Indeed, it is easy to let the burden of the community’s needs be carried by others. There are many who have organizational strengths, passion, time and resources to invest. However, don’t doubt that there is a special and unique purpose that is the domain and prerogative of every single individual. There is a strength, a capacity, a contribution that if we do not make, will be lacking and no one else can ever make it up. The whole will be incomplete. That voice, that hand, that smile will be missing.

May we understand what our individual mission and purpose are and bring our gifts, our talents and our unique capabilities to bear within the totality of the community of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst and their outstanding Rabbinic and communal leadership.