Inversely Proportional Punishment

Inversely Proportional Punishment

Those who know the least obey the best. -George Farquhar

After the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the consecration of the Tabernacle was meant to be the next high point of the sojourn of the Nation of Israel during their desert journey. This portable Temple with the concentrated presence of God amongst them, would accompany the young nation, keeping God ever close.

But amidst the induction of Aaron and his sons as the Kohens, the priestly caste; amidst the festivities, the sacrifices, the rituals and the celebrations – something goes horribly wrong.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, decide, on their own initiative, to introduce a “strange” fire to the proceedings. This uncommanded change to the day’s ritual was met with immediate and devastating results. A fire from the heavens immediately descends and kills Nadav and Avihu instantly.

Commentators offer a range of explanations as to what exactly was the sin of Nadav and Avihu and why they deserved what on the surface appears to be a wildly disproportional punishment for what we might think was a minor infraction at worst.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 10:3 interprets the event as clearly an error on the part of Nadav and Avihu and learns something as to God’s view of moral responsibility, obedience and punishment based on intellectual capacity:

“God says: ‘The more a person stands out from among his people as a teacher and leader in relation to Me, the less will I show indulgence for his errors. Even by having him die I demonstrate that My will is absolute and that not even – indeed, least of all – those nearest to Me, the highest before Me, may permit themselves the slightest deviation from it. This will make the entire nation realize the full, solemn import of the obedience they owe Me.’ Seen in this light, these words of God should be sufficient consolation for Aaron, so that the text can indeed state: ‘And Aharon was silent.” Had his sons not been close to God, allowance might have been made for their aberration, and the Heavenly decree that overtook them might not have come to them as a warning of such solemn import for the entire nation. In sharpest divergence from the modern view, which regards intellectual attainments as a license for moral laxity and tends to make allowances for violators of God’s moral law if they happen to be men of intellect, Judaism postulates that the higher the intellect, the greater must be the moral demands placed upon it.”

Indeed, to paraphrase, borrowing a line from modern culture, we might say that, “With great intellectual power, comes great moral responsibility.”

May we harness our intellects and intelligence morally and not see it as an exemption from our many responsibilities to family, friends, community and society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Education Ministry’s Department for Evaluation of Foreign Academic Degrees. They demonstrated great intelligence and responsibility in evaluating my degrees.

Man with God

Man with God 

Nothing hath separated us from God but our own will, or rather our own will is our separation from God. -William Law 

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 6:2 contrasts the heathen view of Night and Day to the Jewish view, and what that means regarding our relationship to God:

“Night, the time when things are “commingled,” when man, too, reverts to the bondage of physical forces, brings the heathen mind closer to its gods. At night the heathen believes he feel the power of the gods that hold him in bondage along with all other creatures. Conversely, he perceives the day, the time of “standing erect,” when man becomes aware of himself and resumes the struggle to subdue the physical world, as the time when man must take up anew the struggle against the gods.”

“By virtue of the Word of God, the position of Judaism is the direct antithesis to these notions. The Jew need not wait until night in order to feel the power of his God. He stands near to his God particularly when his mind is clear and when he is in the midst of his endeavors to subdue the world. He regards the lucidity of his clear mind, the energy of his free will and the results of his creative endeavors, indeed, all of his free personality that achieves its highest potential during his daily activities, as a gift from his Creator, the One sole God. By breathing into him a tiny spark from the infinite fullness of His own spirit that fills the world with His thoughts, from His own holy, unfettered will, from His own creative power that freely dominates the world which He Himself freely created, God has raised man high to Himself beyond the bonds of the physical world. God has thereby elevated man, made in God’s image, to become a free personality, ruling freely over the world in service of God and God’s purposes. Precisely by implementing this power in his daily personal life does man fulfill the will of his God; only in this manner, uplifted and encouraged by God Himself, can man render his service to God in this world.”

“The heathen mentality sees daytime as the period when mortals must do battle against the might of the gods. To the Jews day is the time for action, for achievements in the service of God and for his approval. Hence in the Sanctuary of Judaism it is not night that drags day with it into the grave of mortality, but day that raises night with it into the eternity of a life of nearness to God. Physical nature is not the intermediary between the Jew and his God; man’s personality stands high above physical nature and in direct proximity to God. For this reason it was in the wilderness, where man has nothing and no one but himself, that God came near to Israel. It was there that God established with Israel the covenant of His Law. It was there, in the wilderness, where man has nothing to offer to his God except himself, nothing but that which he bears within his own personality, that God first commanded Israel to make the offerings of its own devotion to Him.”

“An unfettered personality that subordinates its thoughts, its aspirations and its achievements to God of its own free will: such is the personality to which God’s command was addressed and which is a prerequisite for the offerings made to Him.”

May we see both Night and Day for what they truly are and endeavor to connect with God rather than foolishly strive against Him.

Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the men, women and children working day and night preparing for Pesach.

Real Direct Prophecy

 Real Direct Prophecy

 A god who let us prove his existence would be an idol. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are some things that are difficult to believe until experienced, and many times the only alternative we have is faith. One such thing is the concept of prophecy and especially the prophecy that we are told Moses experienced. The concept of God speaking directly to a human being or sharing certain images and visions with them might seem strange. Could it have been a function of their imagination? There are countless cases of people with mental illness who believed that God spoke to them. What makes these perturbed people different from our prophets?

Maimonides, amongst other Jewish sages and philosophers, provides various answers as to the validity and divinity of our prophetic tradition as well as to the uniqueness of the communication and interaction that God had with Moses.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 1:1 explains that the actual biblical wording highlights the fact that the prophecy of Moses was a real, clear direct communication from God:

“God’s call is described as an act that was an integral part of His speaking with Moses and in fact defined the manner in which the speaking was done. The word to be communicated to Moses was prefaced by a call to Moses.”

“This formulation of the text was apparently intended to make it clear that when God spoke with Moses it was indeed the word of God addressed to Moses by God Himself. The intention probably was to forestall those deliberate misrepresentations which so delight in changing the Divine Revelation to Moses into something emanating from with Moses himself, thus equating the Revelation with the delusion of so-called manic ecstasy arising from within the man himself. But this is not true.”  

“The word of the speaker cannot in any manner be interpreted as a product also of the mind of him who hears the speech. So, too, the word of God to Moses came purely and solely from God. It did not come from within Moses. It came to Moses from without, calling him away, as it were, from his own thought processes so that he might listen attentively to what God wished to say to him. Thus, the fact that the call from God came directly before God’s words to Moses refutes the notion that these words were preceded by some process taking place within Moses himself. It characterizes God alone as the speaker and Moses merely as the listener. The word of God to Moses was in no manner a phenomenon initiated or evoked by Moses, not even a development Moses could have surmised in advance; it came to Moses as a historic event from without.”

The transmission of the divine will of God to Moses is something that is beyond our ability to comprehend or understand. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because our mental and spiritual faculties are so meager, does not in any way invalidate the historicity of our tradition. Only the feeble-minded dismiss or ridicule what they don’t understand.

What Moses heard and recorded for all of posterity was indeed the voice of God. It was not something he imagined. It was not something he or anyone else made up. It is the will of God as instructed to Moses and transmitted in an unbreakable chain of over one hundred generations. It’s the real thing.

May we appreciate what that means and take advantage of it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of our friends and family who helped make the wedding of our children such an incredible event.

Emotional Spectrum

Emotional Spectrum

The depth of our despair measures what capability and height of claim we have to hope. -Thomas Carlyle

The first time God gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments engraved upon the two Tablets of the Covenant – it didn’t work out very well. They created and worshipped the Golden Calf – quite a slap in the face to God. God is ready to destroy the nation. Moshe destroys the Tablets and intercedes, saving the Hebrew nation from destruction. Before and after all this action, we have the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, the Sanctuary where the actual Tablets are meant to rest in the Ark of the Covenant, in the epicenter of the entire effort.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 35:1 provides an analysis of the narrative from the point of the receipt of the second set of Tablets and the actual construction of the previously instructed Sanctuary:

“Now that the Testimony of the Law, the pledge of God’s special Presence in the midst of the people, had been given to Israel once again, the erection of a dwelling place for this Testimony had again become relevant. The grim events described previously, which had jeopardized the realization of this task, are of the most far-reaching significance for the task as such, for the Sanctuary and the purpose for which the Sanctuary is to be erected.”

“The construction of the Sanctuary was to take place under the impact of a completely new experience. The people and the priests had come to realize how weak and imperfect they still were, how much they still needed to work upon themselves incessantly and how greatly they were in need of uplift and atonement. Moreover, they had come to know God in all the severity of His judgment, but also in all the fullness of His grace. They had experienced all the nuances of our relationship with God, from the feeling of utter rejection by God up to the height of Divine favor regained.”

“The Sanctuary to be constructed was to become the place from which the ideal of their vocation would shine forth forever to individual and community alike. It was to be the place where, at any stage of error or weakness, they would find renewed strength to work their way up again and to persevere on the high level of their vocation, and where they would find God’s help and blessing for both objectives.”

“Thus, the experience that had been recorded forever in the history of the nation between the time it had been commanded to build its very first Sanctuary, and the actual execution of that command, is documentary proof that it is possible at any stage of error to return, and to regain the favor of God.”

May we remember that the full gamut of experiences and emotions can always bring us to God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children Eitan and Rebecca, on your wedding! It’s finally here!

 

Success! Official Google Play Developer

Success! Official Google Play Developer

After many months of trial and error, I’ve finally managed to launch my first app! It is currently only available for Androids (I hope to launch an Apple iOS version in the near future, so patience my Apple devotees).

BibleShorts is a visually engaging compendium of much of my Torah material of the past nine years, along with a few other goodies, organized in an intuitive and easily accessible fashion.

Please download it, install it, play with it and give me your feedback.

Thanks!

Bentzi

P.S. Special thanks to Shaltiel Shmidman for his technical guidance and the people at Udacity and AppyPie for their excellent offerings.

Best Efforts

Best Efforts

Life doesn’t require that we be the best, only that we try our best. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Before the construction of the Tabernacle at the foot of Mount Sinai, there is a command to collect a half-shekel contribution from each man over the age of twenty. The rich could not contribute more than half a shekel and the poor could not contribute less. The contribution was the method that the national census was conducted, and so, the amount given needed to be exact.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 30:13, in his flowery language, draws out a few lessons from the half-shekel contribution:

“This they shall give. Not with the sum of his concrete accomplishments but with the symbolic expression of what he knows to be his duty shall each one come near to God at the moment when his is to “pass” from the ranks of the uncounted into the ranks of those that have been counted. There is no greater distinction and no greater bliss than to be among those who have been counted for and by God, to take one’s place on God’s roster even though one be in the most humble circumstances, and even in the most transient moment of life on earth, to be counted as a member of the hosts of God. Only after having become aware of the full extent of his duty and after having resolved to perform it fully can one pass from the nondescript crowd of the selfish multitudes into the ennobled circle of those who have been counted by God, and attain the blissful awareness that he is now among those whom God has numbered among His own.”

“However, the contribution required of each individual is symbolized by Mahazit Hashekel, not one whole shekel but only one half-shekel. Viewed objectively, not even the most complete and perfect contribution of any one individual can accomplish the whole the work that must be done. The effort of any individual can only be a fragment of the whole. An equally selfless sacrifice of his brother is required in order to produce the whole. In fact, it is not expected of any one individual to accomplish the entire task (as per Pirkei Avot 2:21). But the individual is indeed expected to make his personal contribution to the whole, weighed by the standard of the Sanctuary. One shekel was equivalent to 20 gerahs, of which the individual was expected to contribute ten; thus, viewed subjectively, one rounded whole. Let it be his whole contribution as far as he is concerned. Let him weigh it out with scrupulous accuracy, no matter how small a fraction his own contribution represents in relation to the whole of the task to be accomplished. Let him leave nothing undone, let him not withhold any effort, any talent, any ability that could help promote the welfare of the whole. Although you are not expected to complete the entire task, “you are not free to desist from it” (the end of the refrain from Pirkei Avot 2:21). Let his half-shekel comprise a complete unit by the standard of the Sanctuary.”

Though we may be limited in what we can accomplish individually, if we try our best, if we give it our all, it will be a complete contribution in the eyes of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend Egbert Pijfers on his visit to Israel and his participation in the Jerusalem Marathon with all the other runners, especially those doing so for the multiplicity of charitable causes.

Dedicated Self-obsolescence

Dedicated Self-obsolescence

The most important outcome of education is to help students become independent of formal education. -Paul E. Gray

There are multiple professions whose main task, whose overarching goal is to put itself out of business. Doctors want to heal all their patients. Firemen want fires to disappear. Car mechanics want to fix all cars. One can develop their own list of these self-negating roles. Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 27:20 adds another profession: teachers.

In the very beginning of the parsha, the Torah mentions the lighting of the Menorah. Rabbi Hirsch compares the lighting of the flame to teachers lighting the flame of Torah in their students:

to make light spring up. This term for kindling lights is used only in connection with the care of the Menorah. It precisely describes the task of the keepers of the flame; i.e., to hold the kindling flame against the wick to be kindled until the wick “continues burning on its own.” The task of the Torah teacher is to render his services unnecessary. His task is not to keep the “laity” forever dependent upon him. This is meant as an admonition to both teachers and students that they should be patient and persevering.”

Teachers of Torah have a sacred role; sacred but well defined. It is not meant to be a lifelong dependency. It is meant to be a limited relationship whereby the student can become independent. Where the student can stand on his or her own feet and think for themselves, ask for themselves, look up sources for themselves and make decisions for themselves. It is always good to have teachers who are available to give guidance, to answer the thorny questions that are beyond us, but we cannot live our lives tied by an umbilical cord to our teachers.

Good teachers give their students the tools, the confidence, the wherewithal to know both how to ask and how to answer their own questions.

I recently heard a student of Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik state that whenever he approached the Rabbi with a question, 9 times out of 10 Rabbi Soloveitchik would tell him, an advanced Rabbinic student at the time: “do what you think is right.”

May we light the fire of Torah in many students, and just as importantly, may we know how to pull back and let them shine on their own.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Josh and Margot Botwinick on the birth of their son Yoshiyahu Reuven. They are lighting many beautiful flames.