Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder (Chukat)

Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder (Chukat)

It’s sin and not poverty that makes men miserable. -Scottish Proverb

The Jewish people demonstrate yet again why God calls them a stiff-necked people. Near the end of their forty years of wandering in the desert, they complain needlessly. They prove to be an ungrateful lot, crying that they have nothing to eat as they are tired of the miraculous sky-delivered Manna that nourished them daily. God’s wrath is immediate. He allows the desert snakes, that were previously kept away from the Israelites thanks to the divine cloud cover, to now enter and attack the Jewish camp.

The poisonous snakes attack and start biting people. People start dying. Belatedly, they realize the error of their ways and apologize to Moses. God commands Moses to construct a giant metallic snake. Whoever looks up at the metal snake is saved, whoever doesn’t, dies.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 21:9 (Chukat) says that God’s solution of the giant snake would seem to fly in the face of convention. He explains that after a person is attacked by some animal, he will be in deathly fear of that animal thereafter. His fear would be so great, that just seeing such an animal again can be enough to fatally threaten the health of the traumatized person. He gives an example of someone bitten by a dog who thereafter will have a mortal fear of dogs, and actually being confronted by a dog or even an image of a dog can threaten their mental, if not their physical health.

So too, the nation of Israel. They had just been bitten by venomous snakes. They are lying there on the desert floor, dying with the poison flowing through their veins. The last thing in the world the snake-victims would want to see is a giant metallic snake over their heads.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that God was trying to make a point. It’s not the snake that kills. It’s the sin that kills. The snake is just God’s agent. Just as the snake was God’s messenger for the punishment, it can just as easily be His agent to heal.

By getting the snake-victims to look up at the metallic likeness of the snake, it forced the Jewish people to acknowledge their faith and belief in God. They needed to realize that what placed them in their precarious life-or-death situation was not the snakes, but rather their obstinacy in refusing to listen to God and following His desires. Their stubborn refusal to see His hand in their lives and to be grateful for his daily sustenance put the people of Israeli in mortal jeopardy. Only confronting the very agent of their misery rekindled their faith in God and saved them.

May we realize that there is often a deeper, spiritual cause for many of our challenges and tribulations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and his new initiative for Jewish education, Emek Hamelech.

The Posture of Prayer (Korach)

The Posture of Prayer (Korach)

In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart. -John Bunyan

Jewish prayer is filled with a variety of different body positions and movements that to the uninitiated may seem confusing. We sit, we stand, we bow, we take steps forward, backwards, we lean on our arm, we stand with our legs together, and thanks to Chassidic influence many also “shuckle” (a back-and-forth shaking movement).

In the confrontation at the start of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses, Moses and Aaron are described as “falling on their faces.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Number 16:22 (Korach) claims that this is the source of our own leaning on our arms during a particularly contrite portion of the daily prayer.

He explains that when Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, it demonstrates three things:

  1. It demonstrates fear and awe of the Almighty;
  2. It demonstrates anguish and submission;
  3. It demonstrates the “imprisonment” of one’s faculties and annulment of one’s senses.

He further delves into how each of these aspects is demonstrated:

By covering our face with our arm, we show humility and shame in front of God. It also shows anguish and submission, prerequisites for repentance. God, seeing our anguish is more likely to accept our prayers. And by covering our eyes and closing our mouth, we show our blindness and our inability to accomplish anything for ourselves without God’s approval.

He observes that the nations of the world have the custom of putting their hands together in prayer from this very same concept of demonstrating that their hands are bound and that they are submitting themselves to the one to whom they are praying, though they themselves no longer realize the biblical origin of their custom.

The Jewish custom of keeping our legs together and unmoving during the silent prayer is a stronger demonstration of this principle, as the movements of the legs are greater than those of the hands to reach ones’ goals and to distance oneself from harm.

However, while many of the positions and movements during prayer are filled with symbolism and significance, without meaningful intent, it is little more than light calisthenics.

May we understand, mean and feel our prayers, no matter how much or little we move.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the residents of Netiv Ha’avot who were forcefully evicted from their homes. May they be resettled quickly, with greater strength and numbers.

A Father’s Responsibilities (Shlach)

A Father’s Responsibilities (Shlach)

One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters. -George Herbert

The people of Israel had just been punished with a decree of forty years of wandering in the desert. After the people’s lack of faith following the spies evil report about the Promised Land, God had had enough. The people whom He had taken out of Egyptian slavery, the people whom He revealed Himself to at Mount Sinai, the people whom He had cared for miraculously through their sojourn through the harsh desert had rebelled, had complained and had tried God’s patience one time too many. That generation would die in the desert. Only their sons, the next generation, would merit to enter the Promised Land.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the people of Israel were crushed and despondent due to God’s punishment. Immediately after the narrative regarding the harsh forty-year decree, God transmits a seemingly unconnected set of laws. He starts talking about when they will come to the land and types of sacrifices they will bring.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 15:2 (Shlach) explains that God is comforting the people of Israel after His harsh decree. He is promising them that the next generation will enter the Promised land, that the sons will inherit the land that their fathers were supposed to conquer.

Rabbeinu Bechaye goes on to explain that God was consoling the sons and looking after them as a father. He gives examples as to the different ways that God took care of the children of Israel as a father takes care of his son. Rabbeinu Bechaye takes the opportunity to discuss a father’s responsibilities to his son and goes on to enumerate what those five responsibilities are:

  1. To perform the Brit Mila (circumcision).
  2. To teach him Torah.
  3. To redeem him from the Kohen (only applicable to non-caesarian firstborn sons of non-Levite descent).
  4. To teach him a trade.
  5. To marry him off.

To perform the Brit Mila and to redeem his son from the Kohen are straightforward one-time events. To marry off a child is also generally a one-time event though it takes much more time and effort. To teach a trade is for (hopefully) a limited period, the purpose of which is to lead the son to financial independence. However, there is one obligation that can endure for the life of the father-son relationship: that of teaching the son Torah. The Torah is endless, and hence the obligation to teach one’s child Torah is one that can last a lifetime.

It is not dependent on the age or the circumstances of the son. The son can be an adult with his own children and grandchildren, yet there would still exist that obligation, that divinely ordained responsibility to stay connected to our children through the teaching of Torah.

May we have divine assistance and success in fulfilling all of our parental responsibilities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memories of Milly Buller, as well as Prof. Baruch Brody. Each was a parent of exceptional children. May their families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

To the engagement of our son, Akiva, to Orelle Feuer of Netanya. Mazal Tov!

Managing Righteous Anger (Behaalotcha)

Managing Righteous Anger (Behaalotcha)

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; this is not easy. -Aristotle

Miriam, Moses’ older sister, gossips a bit with their brother Aaron about Moses. Right there in the text, the Torah tells us that Moses was the humblest of men. The minor gossip probably didn’t bother him. However, it bothered God. It bothered God a lot. It bothered God so much that he immediately struck Miriam with Tzaraat, an unusual discoloration of the skin, an instant and clearly visible punishment.

Moses steps in and begs God for mercy, praying to Him “Please heal her!” God responds as follows: “If her father had spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days and then let her be readmitted.” And that is what happens. Miriam is banished from the Israelite camp for seven days. At the end of the seven days she’s readmitted into the camp, presumably healed, and then the entire nation of Israel continues their desert journey.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 12:14 (Behaalotcha) explains the circumstances. He states that there are different levels of reprimand, of lacking favor in someone’s eyes, and therefore different levels of commensurate exile from their sight.

For example, if one insults or otherwise distresses a Torah scholar, the offending person should take upon themselves a self-imposed exile from the scholar of one full day. However, if the person offended was a prophet or one of the “wise men” (apparently different than a Torah scholar), the self-imposed exile needs to be of seven days (like Miriam with Moses). However, if one offended the King or Prince then the exile needs to be of thirty days.

Though anger is considered one of the most dangerous and destructive of emotions, Rabbeinu Bechaye is explaining that God was correct to be “angry” and that it was appropriate for Miriam to be “out of His sight” for a specific and measured timeframe. In a fashion, it allows the offended party time to “cool down” and the offending party time to recover from the shame their actions caused. The Torah is demonstrating that there are times when one is justified in being angry. However, the anger needs to be limited, measured and constructive. The immediate result may be a “time out” for both parties which then allows them to be reunited in friendship and love.

May we beware of the dangers of anger, and if we need to harness it, may we do so carefully and wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the residents of southern Israel who are currently under attack. May God protect you and bring swift reprisal to the attackers.

Immortal Bulls (Naso)

Immortal Bulls (Naso)

Higher than the question of our duration is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he would be a great soul in future must be a great soul now. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

As part of the consecration ceremonies and rituals that surrounded the establishment of the Tabernacle in the desert, the princes of the tribes of Israel donated to the Levites twelve bulls along with six wagons to be pulled by them. These wagons, pulled by a pair of oxen each, enabled the transport and delivery of the materials required for the service to be done in the Tabernacle.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 7:3 (Naso) quotes a Midrash showing Moses, the ultimate negotiator vis-à-vis God, exhibiting some concern about these animals. Moses is quoted as basically saying, “God, what if one of these bulls die? One of the wheels of the wagons would break, then the sacrifice of the princes would be nullified, and the service of the Tabernacle would become void!”

God responds to Moses: “Moses, you’re right! Therefore, these bulls will live forever.”

The Midrash doesn’t leave well enough alone with that. In typical Talmudic fashion, the Rabbis have a debate as to how long the bulls of the Tabernacle lived. The Sages state that the bulls lived until the construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (over 480 years later), when King Solomon offered them as sacrifices in that consecration ritual. Rabbi Meir, however, disagrees, and states that the Tabernacle bulls continue to live to this day, that they never aged, never got any blemish and never got ill.

Rabbeinu Bechaye draws out an additional lesson from the above Midrash. He states that if these bulls, these simple creatures, gained eternal life by merely being beasts of burden around the holy work of the Tabernacle, then how much more so are we assured of eternal life by attaching ourselves to God, the Eternal, the Creator of the universe.

May we always be attached to God and to holy work, as simple or as menial as it might be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paraguay, on moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Am I willing to give up what I have in order to be what I am not yet? Am I able to follow the spirit of love into the desert? It is a frightening and sacred moment. There is no return. One’s life is charged forever. It is the fire that gives us our shape.  -Mary Caroline Richards

The fourth book of the Five Books of Moses, the book of Numbers, is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. It means “in the desert.” In the first sentence of the book, God orients us as to where and when we are in the story of our ancestors. We are in the Sinai Desert on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt.

The most important event after the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah in an historic divine revelation on Mount Sinai.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on that first sentence, Numbers 1:1 (Bamidbar) quotes the Midrash which states that the Torah was given via three things: fire, water and desert. Both blazing fire and a downpour of water accompanied the giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel in the desolation of the Sinai desert. There are pure, elemental forces at work here.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that just as all three of those elements: fire, water and the desert, are free to all that want it, so too the Torah is free and available to all those who wish to acquire it.

Additionally, the symbolism of the Torah being given in the desert is that just as the desert is “Hefker,” ownerless, so too a person who wishes to truly acquire the Torah must also make themselves “Hefker,” ownerless, without any other master but God, and the desire to acquire His Torah, His rulebook.

When one taps into the forces and elements around us, to free ourselves of extraneous masters, we are able to acquire the wisdom, the insight, the light, the wellbeing and the strength that the Torah can impart.

May we become free of the extraneous and focus on the basic, the essential and the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the community of Aish Kodesh (literally “Holy Fire”) of Woodmere, NY.

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent. -Bob Dylan

There are two somewhat arcane commandments (among many) that always nagged me. I was always uncomfortable with them. I couldn’t make sense of them. The first one is called Tmura (not to be confused with Truma). It basically means that if I’ve consecrated an animal to be brought as an offering and then I have a change of heart and decide to consecrate a different animal instead, both animals become consecrated. How does that make sense? This is a voluntary gift; shouldn’t I have the right to change my mind?

In a related vein, the second commandment has to do with Temple gifts and donations. If I decide to gift my property to the Temple and then decide I want it back, I need to pay a 25% fee on top of the original value of my property to get it back. If the Temple were to sell it to anyone else, they would charge the original/market value. Again, I seem to be getting penalized for my generosity!

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 27:10 (Bechukotai) provides an answer to both quandaries. The Torah is concerned that we may come to regret our generous gesture. In a fit of inspiration, on a high of closeness to God, we may decide to consecrate the best animal from our flock to God. However, the feeling may pass. We may say to ourselves: “What was I thinking!? That’s a really expensive animal! I could have shown my love or appreciation to God just as well with a cheaper animal.”

However, the Torah states that not only does our original consecration hold, but that it will cost us more if we try to get out of it somehow. Jewish law is so strict on this account that it doesn’t even allow one to change an inferior animal for a better one. The rationale is that if we allow changing of any animals, eventually we will find a way to change a better animal for a worse one.

The same logic of forcing us to hold fast to our generous impulse applies in the consecration of property. If you want it back it’s going to cost you an added 25%. The Temple is going to be selling it in any case, but the Torah doesn’t want us and won’t let us in these cases go back on our word.

We should never, ever regret the generosity we show or the good that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s firefighters, who kept us safe from the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and who currently battle the fires out of Gaza.