Say little, do much

Say little, do much

A dog that barks much is never a good hunter. -Proverb

The Torah and the Rabbis had little use for braggarts. They consistently look unfavorably at those who talk much, but at the end of the day don’t come through. On the other hand, they laud those who under-commit yet over-perform. We should always be striving to deliver beyond expectations, as the ancient sage Shamai famously exhorts in Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) 1:15, “say little and do much.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 23:15 learns the above from the story and actions of Abraham. When the angels come to visit Abraham, Abraham states that he’ll give them some bread, but in actuality brings out a veritable feast, including mounds of freshly baked cakes and freshly-prepared meat. Abraham proves himself to be the model of generous hospitality. The righteous say little and do much.

Conversely, the wicked say much and don’t even do a little. We see this from the scene of the negotiation between Abraham and Efron. Abraham’s wife Sarah had passed away in the city of Hebron. Abraham needs to bury her and has identified the Cave of Mahpelah, within Efron’s property as the ideal location. Efron is effusive in his declarations that he will gift not just the cave, but the entire property to Abraham. However, the bottom line is that Efron demands a princely sum of 400 shekel for land whose market value was likely significantly cheaper. Rabbeinu Bechaye adds that the numerical value of Efron’s name is equivalent to “evil eye,” indicating his miserly attitude.

There is a direct correlation of being generous with ones time and resources for the benefit of others and delivering over and above the call of duty, without saying much or drawing attention to oneself. Likewise, there is also a direct correlation between loud proclamations of future generosity and effort, yet a stingy and underwhelming  performance.

May we be among those who say little and do much.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our daughter, Tiferet, on her Bat-Mitzvah.

 

You can choose your friends

You can choose your friends

Tell me who’s your friend and I’ll tell you who you are. -Proverb

God commands Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s home. In the process, Abraham is also leaving his childhood friends, the social network he grew up with and was familiar with his entire life. He’s commanded to leave all he knew, his comfort zone, and move to a new land, a new climate, a new culture and a new people.

We may go through life surrounded by friends of circumstance. Classmates, co-workers or neighbors become our closest friends, not from any conscious decision, but rather from a natural progression of circumstance, comfort and inertia. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 12:1, quoting King Solomon asks us to reconsider how we choose our friends. King Solomon in Proverbs 13:20 states: “He who walks with the wise will become wise, but the companion of fools will come to harm.”

So too, Abraham needed to leave the foolish people of his hometown before he could truly grow and serve God. They were holding him back from becoming the great man he had the potential to be: the beloved of God, the beacon of his generation and the forefather of the Jewish people.

Rabbeinu Bechaye is not saying we need to move countries to find worthy friends. What he is saying is that we should become closer to the wise and put some distance from the foolish. It’s a conscious effort. When we take the path of least resistance, we may fall back to old, unproductive patterns and relationships. However, when we look around and actively seek out those who are wise, those who are pursuing noble goals, people of character, integrity and purpose, and befriend them, we elevate ourselves. There is nothing artificial or conniving in purposely seeking out new friends, better friends, inspiring friends; of finding areas of joint interest; of identifying shared dreams and aspirations; of pursuing a common cause for the greater good.

Rabbeinu Bechaye compares befriending the wise to walking into a perfume store. Even if one didn’t buy anything, just having been in the store already improves ones scent. So too, being in the presence of the wise will rub off on a person. The converse is likewise true.

May we be worthy of wise friends and enjoy each other’s company.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my own childhood friends, who’ve stayed in touch through all the continents and decades.

Bad Examples

Bad Examples

We are too quick to imitate depraved examples. –Juvenal

john_martin_-_sodom_and_gomorrah

The ancient biblical city of Sodom was considered particularly evil. God eventually decides to destroy the city and almost all of its inhabitants. However, before He does so, He notifies our patriarch Abraham. What then ensues is a surreal haggling between God and Abraham as to how many righteous people in Sodom it would take to save the city.

Abraham starts the bidding at fifty people and God agrees. Abraham quickly lowers the bid to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty and finally ten. God agrees to each of Abraham’s offers. Abraham stops at ten, apparently understanding that he can’t ask for less than ten righteous people to save Sodom. It turns out there aren’t even ten. Sodom is subsequently destroyed in a dramatic telling in Genesis Chapters 18 and 19.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 18:1 wonders as to why God informs Abraham of His plans and enters into the bizarre negotiation. Rabbi Hirsch explains that God wanted Abraham to understand and be aware of the evil of Sodom so that Abraham’s descendents should never become like the people of Sodom. They should beware of the horrendous example of those people.

However, the episode also demonstrates Abraham’s love of humanity. It didn’t matter to him how despicable the Sodomites were. They were human beings created in the image of God and he would make every reasonable effort he could, even arguing with God, to save them. Abraham was not an isolationist looking out exclusively for his own interests. He did look out for his family and allies first, but he did not turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

May we surround ourselves with and look up to good examples.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Leonard Cohen. His music reached and inspired many.

 

Abraham the Individualist

Abraham the Individualist

Not armies, not nations, have advanced the race; but here and there, in the course of ages, an individual has stood up and cast his shadow over the world. -Edwin Hubbell Chapin

individualistIn the very first recorded conversation between God and Abraham, God commands Abraham “Lech Lecha” which can be translated as “go for you” or “go to you.” Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 12:1 explains that it is a command to “go your own way” or “follow your unique path.”

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates that one of the prominent beliefs during Abraham’s time was the primacy of the communal over the individual and the priority of centralization of authority rather than individual decision-making. It engendered the “tyranny of the majority” (a phrase originally seen in the writing of John Adams, and subsequently popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill).

Abraham, by leaving his country, his birthplace and his people, by demonstrating an unyielding belief in one God, by standing up to the entirety of the rest of the polytheistic world, indeed carved his own path. He demonstrated an unflinching capacity to do his own thing, to go his own way, to be his own person, to do what he knew to be correct though the entire planet thought otherwise. He is a model of the Individual, of the non-conformist, of the person who will take a stand for what is right though it is unpopular. His is the lesson that even if the majority believes in something or says something, it doesn’t necessarily make it right.

May we hold steadfast in our positive and unique paths.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the global Shabbat Project and especially to those organizing it and celebrating it in their own unique ways in Uruguay.

 

Delayed Punishments

 

 Whenever a human being, through the commission of a crime, has become exiled from good, he needs to be reintegrated with it through suffering. The suffering should be inflicted with the aim of bringing the soul to recognize freely some day that its infliction was just. -Simone Weil

Joseph_and_Potiphar's_Wife

The Torah believes in punishment, either divine or court-inflicted. However, it generally comes from either a sense of justice and creating balance, or in somehow rehabilitating the evil-doer. It is interesting to note that the concept of a jail is almost completely absent from the Jewish legal code. There was either financial compensation, corporal punishment or the death penalty.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1876) asks how did God allow Joseph to be punished and placed in prison after he withstood the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, when according to the sages, it was a divine test greater than all the tests the Patriarchs endured. He answers that it was punishment for an earlier sin.

According to the Midrash, the ancient oral tradition that accompanied the written Torah, Joseph sinned when as a youth of seventeen he slandered his brothers to their father Jacob. But God postponed that punishment to a better time. That time is exactly after Joseph had performed an act of moral courage that transforms him and places him at a higher spiritual level. Now that Joseph is more righteous, two things happen. He somehow has greater strength and capacity to bear the punishment, but now, God is also more exacting with him and so the punishment must be meted out. In a way, Joseph’s newly acquired righteousness now forces him to confront and seek atonement for his earlier sins.

The Sfat Emet warns based on this episode, that if a person performs some great act or avoids serious sin, he shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate himself; as such pride may invite a closer examination of his past and bring down punishment for previous sins.

May we realize our mistakes and repent for them and so reach those higher ethical levels without paying a painful price for previous indiscretions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication,

To Nobel Laureate Professor Dan Shechtman of Israel on his inspirational visit to Uruguay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Programmed Luck

 

 

 I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. -Thomas Jefferson 

roulette-wheel

The servant of Abraham, named in the Midrash as Eliezer, is tasked with the mission to travel north-east out of Canaan to return to Abraham’s family in Haran and find a bride for Isaac. However, Eliezer has a conflict of interests.

According to the Midrash, Eliezer was hoping that Isaac would marry one of his own daughters thereby uniting the venerable servant to the family of the man he so admired. But Abraham prohibits Eliezer from allowing Isaac to marry any woman from Canaan, including Eliezer’s daughters, even if he should fail to find a bride for Isaac. Nonetheless, what choice would there be if Eliezer failed in his mission? If Eliezer were to return empty-handed from his search, then perhaps it would be better for Isaac to marry one of Eliezer’s presumably well-educated daughters rather than the local idol-worshipping Canaanites?

However, we see Eliezer acting honestly and nobly and even praying for the success of his mission. The Sfat Emet in the year 5632 and 5633 (1872 and 1873) explains that Eliezer was praying that he shouldn’t be biased. He prayed that he should fulfill his mission with completely pure intentions of finding the best bride for Isaac and completing Abraham’s wishes, despite his own personal hopes and desires. By suppressing his own private aspirations and staying purely focused on his mission, he merited unprecedented fortune in accomplishing his task. He finds the bride, Rebecca, our Matriarch, immediately – what are the odds amongst an entire city of people? Against family resistance, proposed delays and according to the Midrash, an assassination plot, Eliezer returns with Rebecca the very next day – his mission a historic and miraculous success – against all odds.

The Sfat Emet states that when one has a pure heart, God nullifies the very fabric of time and nature to assist man with his mission.

May we be so pure of purpose and lucky in our results.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To outgoing President of the Jewish Community of Uruguay, Alberto Buszkaniec. He has had purity of purpose and great success in his noble charge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Guests

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayera-sacred-guests/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayera

Sacred Guests

A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly. -Homer

In some ancient cultures, guests held a sacred and honored role. Once a person entered the tent or home of a host, they were under the host’s protection and cared for in every way.

We see this quite dramatically with Abraham’s wayward nephew, Lot. Lot, apparently attracted to the avarice of the Sodomites, settles his family next to the infamous city. However, he learned at least one thing from Abraham: Hospitality.

When the two disguised angels arrive in Sodom, Lot rushes to greet them and basically forces them to come as guests to his house.

The Baal Haturim on Genesis 18:5 explains that Lot was actually pained when he did not have guests and that the opportunity to host someone gave him great joy.

We see afterwards that Lot takes his hosting responsibility to such an extreme that he is willing to allow his own daughters to be harmed by a mob rather than permit anyone to touch his guests.

I don’t know if we need go to such lengths to make our guests feel comfortable, but there is something special in the bond that is created when people break bread together.

May we have occasion to enjoy both hosting and being hosted by members of our communities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Adrian Weiszman for spearheading the initiative of organized regular Shabbat meal hosting in our community. For more information contact proyectoshabatuy@gmail.com