Unappreciated Gifts

Unappreciated Gifts 

When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. -G. K. Chesterton

The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1777.

From the moment we are born, we get used to breathing, eating, walking, moving, thinking and to the daily miracles that we’ve come to expect. However, the truth is that our life is a gift. We didn’t deserve life. We didn’t earn life. Life is not some reward for a job well done in a previous incarnation. The opposite is true. Our life is given to us unearned.

We come into this world with a debt to God. He has created us with our health, with our faculties and with our families. Our life’s circumstances are purely based on His benevolence for which we will always be in His debt and will never be able to fully repay.

Unfortunately, we often make the mistake of taking life for granted. Not only are we not appreciative of this divine gift, we even start complaining, or resenting the circumstances of our life if they aren’t to our liking. An idyllic, unperturbed life wasn’t part of the deal. Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 32:4 states:

“No creature of God has a claim to existence on its own merits or the right to expect that its aspirations will be fulfilled. For all of its existence is a free gift of God’s creative love. Nevertheless, God treats it as if indeed it had a personal right to existence and welfare.”

God doesn’t owe us anything, not even the breath we take. Nonetheless, God does look out for us. However, He is likely to be kinder if we demonstrated both appreciation and good use of the gifts He has provided us so far.

May we use those gifts to good effect and may we be blessed with good life, health, joy and success in the coming year.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my family. I’m immensely grateful to be celebrating Rosh Hashana together, after several years of being on duty.

Unlimited Potential

Unlimited Potential 

The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good. -Brian Tracy

bamboos

Upon his very final moments of life, Moses delivers a prophetic poem, rich in imagery from nature. He calls upon the heavens and the earth as witnesses. He compares his words to rain and dew upon the vegetation.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) draws on the very first chapter of the Torah to understand the allegories better. When God created man, it says, He created man from the earth (Adama in Hebrew). God named man Adam, because he drew him forth from the earth. The earth represents pure potential. Untouched, the land will not give you anything. However, if you plow it, place seeds in the ground, and especially when you water it, the land will then produce fruit.

Man too, says the Sfat Emet, like the earth that he comes from, has untapped potential. But for man, the water is the oft-compared Torah. When a man drinks from the Torah, when he draws from the Torah, when he is irrigated with Torah, then he has the possibility of reaching his full potential and of bearing fruits that will be of eternal value.

May we have a thirst for Torah and drink deeply from it.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my beloved community of Uruguay.

Forging the Eternal Inheritance

 

A man cannot leave a better legacy to the world than a well-educated family. -Thomas Scott

grandfatherReadingIt is my sober duty to bury the dead and console the living. It gives one ample opportunities to ponder the legacy people leave behind. The family matriarch who lived to see great-grandchildren following in her footsteps of kindness. The grandfather who was a well-known joke-teller with grandchildren who continue with the same entertaining sense of humor. Or those who died before they lived to see successive generations but left behind memories of strength and joy. Or those who left behind money and property to then be squabbled over by the children.

From a multi-generation, decades long perspective, it is sobering to consider what a parent should inculcate in their children, what they should hope to see in their grandchildren, what are the greatest gifts one can bestow on their progeny that will have a positive and lasting impact on ones descendants and on the world.

The Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 32:7 sets the goal of Torah scholarship as the pinnacle of what a parent can hope for. He explains that if a family merits to see three successive generations of Torah scholars, that gift, that accomplishment becomes an eternal inheritance, for the family and for the wider nation of Israel.

One of the great scholars of the past was once asked, how many years did it take him to accumulate the vast knowledge of Torah that was at his fingertips. He answered: “Five minutes.” The questioner looked at the scholar in confusion. The scholar explained: “Whenever I was at a bus stop, whenever I was standing on line, whenever I had five minutes free, I would learn. Those five minutes added up.”

If our fathers were not great scholars, it does not exempt us from striving, nor from setting an example for our children and grandchildren. It just takes five minutes.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Chok Le’Israel. A book the provides really bite-size daily servings of the spectrum of Torah. Very highly recommended.

Voodoo Judaism

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/haazinu-voodoo-judaism/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Voodoo Judaism

It is superstitious to put one’s hopes in formalities, but arrogant to refuse to submit to them. -Blaise Pascal

In Judaism, we have rituals and sacred objects. There is also a belief that performing these rituals and utilizing these objects can have a positive influence on our lives and world. However, if we limit ourselves to merely this method of operation, it is a shallow understanding of how the spiritual world interacts with our physical one.

It is not merely some sorcerous trick, that by putting the traditional mezuza by the door, that one’s home will be protected. It is not slight-of-hand that determines that a person who gives a tenth of his income to charity will see financial success. It is not magic that the reciting of Psalms is known to give solace as well as influence the world around us.

However, when a person deficient in multiple aspects of their lives, blames their ill-fortune on the quality of their mezuza, then there is something wrong with their concept of Judaism, commandments and a relationship with God.

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 32:2 explains that these simpler, ritual commandments are good and have a positive influence on smaller things. But he clarifies that the ultimate benefit comes from hard-earned knowledge of the Torah, of God’s laws and will in this world. That familiarity, when the Torah becomes a part of oneself, influences all other successes.

The little acts are good and important, but they are only the edges of a much vaster system of influences. At the heart of that system is the work and effort we put into understanding God’s directives to us. His Torah. A connection to God via his laws is the ultimate guarantor of eternal success.

May we strengthen ourselves in this New Year to reacquaint ourselves with the rulebook, with the expectations God has of us, which in the end guarantees a deeper, more meaningful and more successful existence.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Misha Beshkin, creator of the “Is It Kosher?” app. He is facilitating the world’s familiarity with Kosher products and has helped bring our Uruguayan list to wider use.

Beware the Four Horsemen

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/haazinu-beware-the-four-horsemen/ ]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Beware the Four Horsemen

“I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” -Woody Allen

Death chases us all down like an implacable horseman; it is merely the time and the manner of the dying that is a variable. The famed Four Horsemen of Apocalypse or of Death are drawn from the verses of The New Testament, but there are earlier echoes of the concept in our Torah.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 32:24 draws our attention to what he calls the four agents of death: Famine, Plague, Wild Beasts and the Sword.

God sends these as a direct consequence for our wrongdoings, not to destroy the world, but as both personal and communal punishments for choosing the wrong path.

To be spared from these terrible endings the Torah suggests a very simple solution: Follow God’s commandments. Let’s take the opportunity of this Rosh Hashana to review the commandments we should be working on and reestablish that God is the boss.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the end of the year 5773 and to the beginning of 5774. May the new year be filled with all the wonderful blessings we hope for.

 

Hearing-Aid for the Dead

Ohr Hachayim Deuteronomy: Haazinu

 [First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hearing-aid-for-the-dead/]

Hearing-Aid for the Dead

“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it.” -Germaine De Stael

One of the cardinal beliefs of Judaism, as articulated by Maimonides in his thirteen principles of faith is that at some point in the future God will bring the dead back to life:

Principle 13: “I believe with complete faith that there shall be a revival of the dead…”

Who God will revive is another matter entirely, and there is great debate amongst Rabbis as far back as the Mishna (2,000 years ago) as to what qualifies someone for revival or not.

Moses, in his eloquent and final poetic prophecy to the Children of Israel states:

“Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” –Deuteronomy 32:1

The Ohr Hachayim wonders what aspect of the earth Moses is addressing. He answers that Moses is speaking to none other than the dwellers of the earth, those buried there, namely, the dead.

The Ohr Hachayim explains very simply that if one heard God’s voice, God’s instructions, God’s precepts while they were alive, they will hear God’s voice again when he calls the dead from their slumber and they will awaken. If one was deaf during his lifetime to God’s call, to God’s whispering, to God’s directives, then he is unlikely to hear Him when he calls again during the promised revival of the dead.

May we unclog our ears and our minds and listen to what God is telling us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To AV Israel. A worthy organization for hearing-impaired children in Israel.

Unconditional Generosity

 Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Unconditional Generosity

Before a final exam or some other major challenge in my life, I would often turn to God and pray. “God, please help me do well,” I would think, or “just get me through this bind,” and then I’d promise that I’d behave, or do something good, or something along those lines. The foundation of such thinking was a classic barter system. God will do something for me and in return I’ll do something for Him.

The Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy 32:6) explains that such a premise is entirely mistaken and that I just didn’t understand this aspect of God. God doesn’t ‘need’ anything from us. And He doesn’t do things for us in exchange for some favor or assistance we provided Him. God is unconditionally generous. There are no strings attached. We may and will receive reward and punishment as a consequence of our deeds, but the life, health and good fortune that He provides can be independent of anything good or bad we may have done. He gives because He is faultlessly generous and giving, whether we are deserving or not.

According to the Kli Yakar, the ‘negotiation’ mentality or belief in the quid pro quo system was both ancient and widespread. Moses berates the entire nation for it, calling us “a vile and unwise nation” on this specific point. We just didn’t get it. God is not some deity that we bring sacrifices or gifts to in order to assuage His anger or get on His good side.

So too, the Kli Yakar directs us in our giving. Ideally, it should be free of ulterior motives. We should give, whether it is time, money, assistance or resources, because it is the right and appropriate thing to do. To expect some advantage, some leverage, some payback down the line, while it may be the reality of many relationships, misses the point. Such generosity is conditional and therefore lacking.

May we free our minds of the barter mentality in our relationship with God and others, strive for the level of unconditional giving, and may we all be inscribed in the Books of Life, Health, Success and All Good Things in the coming Year.

Ktivah Ve’chatimah Tovah,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our parents. Models to us of unconditional generosity.

To the memory of Gavriel Michael of Forest Hills, NY. His life was one of unconditional generosity and kindness to those around him and most especially to my grandmother, neighbors for many decades. He passed away today in NY and will be buried tomorrow in Jerusalem.