Beware Instant Rewards

Beware Instant Rewards 

 Those who give hoping to be rewarded with honor are not giving, they are bargaining. -Philo
rewards-just-ahead-sign

The concept of reward and punishment is a fundamental belief in Judaism. In multiple places in the Torah, God tells us directly, in no uncertain language, that we will be rewarded for our good deeds and we will be punished for our bad ones. We are encouraged to choose well, to choose the good, to choose life. We are recounted in detail the blessings we will receive for following God’s path, including health, abundance and peace.

Conversely, we are exhorted to avoid evil, to avoid sin, to avoid ignoring God’s instructions. Ignoring God and allowing ourselves to sin leads to death, deprivation and suffering. The Torah in two places gives specific, horrifying details as to the punishments that await us should we choose poorly.

The Sfat Emet on the reading of Balak in 5635 (1875) adds an interesting caveat regarding rewards. He explains that the evil person who does do good, but does so for the reward, will in fact receive his reward – sometimes immediately. But in fact the physical reward that he receives in this world is the extent of what he receives. His motivation is selfish, ignorant and short-sighted. He has his eye on the reward and nothing else. He doesn’t understand that we don’t follow commandments merely for the reward, but rather because it is the will of God.

When we approach the commandments with the correct motivation, it is a benefit to our soul and our eternal existence beyond this physical world. The physical reward in this world is a side-benefit, almost tangential to the reward in the spiritual plane.

May we perform commandments for the right reasons and enjoy their rewards in this world and the next.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

 To Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. A guide, a mentsch, a role-model.

Faith over Reason

Faith over Reason 

Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.  -Kahlil Gibran 

desert-caravanAmongst the hundreds of commandments that God bestows upon the people of Israel, are many that on the surface are difficult to understand. These are classically called “Hok,” or “Hukim” in the plural. King Solomon himself, that most wisest of men, is quoted as stating that the law of the Red Heifer, featured in this week’s Torah reading, was beyond his comprehension.

The Temple rite of the Red Heifer consisted of a rare cow, completely covered in red hair, that was ritually slaughtered and subsequently burned. The resulting ashes were then mixed in water and that water was sprinkled over individuals, purifying those who had been ritually impure because of contact with the dead. What was perhaps most ironic about the rite was that the Kohen doing the sprinkling and having been ritually pure beforehand, became impure by the end of the rite, even though he was the source and cause of purification in others. It’s as if by purifying the other, he absorbs some of the impurity himself.

Nonetheless, the Sfat Emet in 5632 (1872) explains the path to understanding these perhaps incomprehensible commandments. He states that of course every commandment has a reason, but that we can’t understand the reason until after we accept the commandment without an explanation. Then, according to the level of faith, of acceptance of the commandment and the willingness to perform it without understanding, so too will be the level of understanding we achieve.

He further explains that the reasons behind these commandments are actually spiritual matters as opposed to merely intellectual exercises and only the spirit has the capacity to understand, or more accurately to “sense,” the reason behind the commandments.

May we develop the capacity to believe so that eventually we may understand.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish Community of Uruguay on the celebration of its 100th anniversary.

Strength of our Fathers

Strength of our Fathers

My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. -John Bunyan

Lightsaber_LukeObiWan

Korach leads a rebellion against Moses, Aaron and their leadership of Israel. They are accused of unlawfully ruling over the people. Moses seems to take the personal attack to heart and prays to God that the death of the rebels should be most unnatural, a change of the very laws of creation.

Not a moment later and the very earth opens up miraculously and swallows the rebels whole. The Sfat Emet in 5636 (1876) learns an unusual lesson from the episode and the subsequent good stature of Korach’s sons and the eventual leadership of their descendent, the prophet Samuel.

The Sfat Emet explains that by the miraculous punishment of Korach and his companions, when they were sent alive to Sheol (apparently an unpleasant afterworld), they retained their own errors and sins and did not pass them on to their descendants. Had they died in a more conventional fashion, their sons would have inherited their characteristics, including the negative traits that would not have allowed their descendants to have reached the levels of prophecy which they did.

The Sfat Emet therefore states that when a person dies, their children inherit their characteristics, their strengths and their capabilities and continue to contribute positively to the wider community as their parents did before, so that in a sense the power of the parent is never lost, neither to the family nor to the entire community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of Rabbi Miki Mark hy”d.

Vision of the Blind

Vision of the Blind

There’s none so blind as they that won’t see. -Jonathan Swift

blindThe darkness was complete. “I am your guide,” the disembodied voice stated. We were totally dependent on that voice and then the attached hand that guided each of us individually from time to time. We were in the “Blind Museum” in Holon, Israel. Our guide had a distinct advantage over us by the fact that he was blind. He could sense our positions from the sound of our voice. He could navigate the dark rooms and corridors easily. He was at home. We were strangers in a strange land.

The Sfat Emet on the Torah reading of Shelach for 5631 (1871) states that what we see can often deceive us. We must focus instead on the inner reality of each person, each thing and each situation. The outer layer that is visible to the eye often hides a much deeper and more meaningful reality.

Our sojourn through the darkness of the Blind Museum highlighted this reality. Just by the sound of our voice, the guide could tell something about our personalities, our concerns, our predicaments, besides our locations. We in turn got a sense of his kindness, his intelligence, his sense of humor, without laying eyes on him.

The Sfat Emet explains that the Sin of the Spies was that they let their eyes deceive them. They saw the outward impressive military might of the Canaanite kingdoms. This caused them to lose faith in God and His power over all of reality. If they would have ignored the sight of their eyes and understood and believed in the true inner reality, they would have had faith and they would have succeeded in their conquest of Israel.

Sometimes it’s better to ignore the evidence of our eyes. Sometimes the blind man sees more than we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Gabi, our guide at the Blind Museum, “Dialogue in the Dark,” at the Israel Children’s Museum in Holon. Extremely recommended visit.

Learning from Desire

Learning from Desire 

 The starting point of all achievement is desire. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desires bring weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat.  -Napoleon Hill

desire3Desire can be strong. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, blocking out all other needs or even reason. One might think that the desire for something with a negative consequence would be bad. However, the Sfat Emet on the Torah reading of Behaalotcha in 5633 (1873) indicates otherwise. There is a world of a difference between wanting to do something wrong and actually doing something wrong.

For example, eating pork is prohibited by the Torah and therefore undertaking such an action is bad. However, the desire itself is not bad and may be part of natural and understandable cravings. Our humanity imposes itself by the discipline of controlling our desires.

The Sfat Emet states that all desires are good and that we must learn from these powerful desires how to serve God. When one sees the burning desires of others for things that are bad, it’s an example of the passion with which we must seek to perform God’s will. When we pursue God’s Word and commands with burning desire, with unquenchable passion, using the understanding of negative desires in the world, we actually elevate all of those desires to the service of God.

May all of our desires be harnessed for positive and divine pursuits.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. An exciting and successful program for overseas students.

Stealing from God

Stealing from God 

Every rascal is not a thief, but every thief is a rascal. –Aristotle 
thief

When a person works for an hourly wage, with a set start time, finish time and lunch break, any time that he is not working, he is stealing from his employer. Of course, it is understandable to make some interruptions to handle necessary personal matters, but playing video games, reading articles with no direct relevance to ones work, or extensive messaging is criminal misuse of the workday.

The Sfat Emet on the portion of Naso for 5631 (1871) takes this idea a step further. He claims that anyone who commits a sin, who disobeys God’s commandments, is in fact stealing from God. God has granted each and every one of us our time in this world, to use as per his instructions. In a sense, God is our full-time, lifetime employer. When we don’t use the time He grants us as He would wish, then we are in fact no less guilty than an employee who ignores his employer’s directives.

If in fact, we continue to abuse the time and resources He grants us, God may deem that we are no longer worthy of remaining in His “employ” or of being granted the capacity and resources He provides for our “work.”

May we take our divinely-granted “job” seriously; may we familiarize ourselves with the “work manual” He has kindly given us; and may we perform our work well enough that He will wish to keep us on the job, with all of the time, resources and comfort we need to succeed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Akiva on receiving his job posting with the 51st Battalion.

Temporal Independence

 

Temporal Independence

 Infinite-timeTo see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.  -William Blake

As finite time-dependent beings, we find ourselves chained to the inexorable march of time. There is no moving ahead, backward, to the sides or even pausing. The seconds tick by whether we like it or not. The Torah on the other hand has a much more complex and sophisticated relationship to time. In many accounts it is purposely ambiguous, providing little or no information as to when events take place.

However, in many places, the Torah makes sure to mark the year, month, day and location of specific occurrences, as it does at the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar).

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) argues that the Torah itself is above time and nature. However, by signaling specific times, by in a sense lowering itself to the human preoccupation with time, it is providing us with a signpost of where our own time-dependent efforts should be involved.

Namely, our job is to bring the infinite, divine, non-temporal Torah into our finite, mundane, temporal time stream. Though not of our world, nor of our dimensional frames of reference, the Torah was designed for our very physical world. That is why it presumably goes out of its way to make reference to dimensions we are familiar with, time and space. It is inviting us, asking us, demanding of us, to bring it, the Torah, into our world, our domain and our lives.

May we make that connection between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. It just takes time.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bat Mitzvah girls of the Integral School on their outstanding performance. Your time has come.