Category Archives: Haazinu

Smart Repentance (Haazinu)

Smart Repentance (Haazinu)

True repentance has a double aspect. It looks upon things past with a weeping eye, and upon the future with a watchful eye. -Robert Smith

Make Fences

The biblical poem of Haazinu, the penultimate reading of the Torah, has Moses warning the nation of Israel against disappointing God. He calls upon the heavens and the earth to stand as witnesses to his words. He presses Israel to remember it’s history, talks about Israel’s future and warns of the rebelliousness that Israel will be prone to.

The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 32:1, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, connects Moses’ description of Israel’s future sins, as well as his warnings, to the concept of repentance. Yom Kippur is indeed the day consecrated to repentance. It is the day that we believe that God is most forgiving. It is the day that we fast and pray and believe that if we come to God with a contrite heart, He will pardon us, even if we are undeserving. He will give us yet another chance to mend our ways.

However, the Bat Ayin adds that it’s not enough to beat our breasts and wail over our misdeeds. He extols us to be smart about our repentance. We need to make serious efforts to ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes. It’s not enough to admit our guilt, feel bad over our misdeeds and make a general commitment not to repeat them. We need to take active steps to prevent ourselves from sinning again.

As an example, a kleptomaniac, a person who can’t resist stealing things, even if the items are not needed or are of little value, may want to find ways to prevent such theft. They need to avoid situations that would make it easy to steal. They need to find creative ways to avoid “high theft potential” situations.

The Bat Ayin states that true repentance is smart repentance. It’s understanding what are the root causes that lead us to sin, and finding active ways to anticipate, neutralize and guard us from those root causes. It’s what the Sages call creating fences around the Torah. The Sages understood human nature very well and for a number of laws they created such fences to minimize the risk and the temptation. However, if we’re honest, we know ourselves best and need to further tailor our own active, thoughtful, preventative measures. We need to identify the issues that we are struggling with, our personal Achilles heel, and develop plans and strategies to protect ourselves from repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

May we be both honest and smart about our repentance.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,



To the 100th anniversary of the start of the Daf Yomi program. Arguably, one of the most successful Jewish study programs of the modern era.

Scholarly Arrogance (Haazinu)

Scholarly Arrogance (Haazinu)

In the same way that we need statesmen to spare us the abjection of exercising power, we need scholars to spare us the abjection of learning. -Jean Baudrillard

To learn Torah is one of the best and noblest tasks that a Jew can perform. It is to study and delve into the word and wishes of God. It is to get a glimpse of the divine will and to get a further understanding of God’s plan. Learning Torah can become the foundation of divine service, of refined character and elevated intellect.

Since the time of Moses, there were a select few who dedicated their lives to the study of Torah. They became the sages, the scholars, and the great rabbis of old. They were the religious leaders and spiritual giants of our nation. They constantly sought the good of the people, while always seeking to grow in their learning and understanding of the Torah.

However, the Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 32:15 seems to take issue with individuals who indulge in full-time learning but haven’t used it as a source of either personal development or community service. He tells how the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Hassidic movement, bewailed these arrogant scholars who were satisfied with themselves and their full-time learning schedule. The Baal Shem Tov attributed to these scholars the poetic verses:

“So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—

You grew fat and gross and coarse —

They forsook the God who made them

And spurned the Rock of their support.

They incensed [God] with alien things,

Vexed [God] with abominations.”

A life devoted to learning can indeed be ennobling and lead to great contributions to people, communities, and the nation. However, when it is laced with arrogance and self-satisfaction, it is most unbecoming, and instead of being a blessing becomes a curse. Instead of being a beacon to others, it becomes alien and abominable.

May all our pursuits lead to blessings for us and those around us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,



To the protests in Iran.

Sky, Earth and the Four Winds (Haazinu)

Sky, Earth and the Four Winds (Haazinu)

A handful of pine-seed will cover mountains with the green majesty of forests. I too will set my face to the wind and throw my handful of seed on high. -Fiona Macleod








The penultimate Torah reading is a song. The Song of Haazinu. It is prophetic, poetic, and often challenging to decipher. It hints at what the future will bring, what will happen to the people of Israel at the end of days and throughout their long journey, including rewards and punishments. The format, structure, and content of the Song of Haazinu are meant to stand out and to be taken to heart. The following is how it starts:

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;

Let the earth hear the words I utter!

May my discourse come down as the rain,

My speech distill as the dew,

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass.”

The first two phrases are relatively straightforward, calling on the heavens and the earth to bear witness to the following song. However, the next four lines seem to repeat in different variations the theme of rain or water falling on the ground.

The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 32:2 explains that it’s a continuation of the first two phrases and that Moses is calling on additional witnesses to this song besides the heavens and the earth. He is calling upon the four winds to also bear witness. He explains the connection to each wind as follows:

“May my discourse come down as the rain,” refers to the West Wind which comes from the nape of the world and normally brings rain.

“My speech distill as the dew,” refers to the North Wind which is as pleasant as dew (in Israel).

“Like showers on young growth,” is the South Wind which is as stormy as thundershowers.

“Like droplets on the grass,” is the East Wind that disperses seed and grows the vegetation.

Together, the sky, the earth and the four winds are witnesses for this song, part of the covenant between God and Israel. They are more than just witnesses; they are the ones that will be the instruments of God’s punishments or rewards to us. They will withhold rain, sustenance and the basics of life if we aren’t deserving. They will bless us with bounty, health and sustenance if we’re deserving.

May we always be on the side of blessings.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom,



To Encompass Health Rehab and their dedicated staff for taking such great care of my dad, Shlomo Eliezer ben Yetta.



Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

My mother’s obsession with the good scissors always scared me a bit. It implied that somewhere in the house there lurked: the evil scissors. -Tony Martin

In the penultimate reading of the Torah, Moses breaks into song, the Song of Haazinu. The Song of Haazinu is visually and linguistically distinct from the rest of the Torah. Its two symmetrical columns of text highlight the poetic difference from the rest of the Torah prose. Its ancient language hints at future prophecies. Its compactness makes it even more memorable, as it was meant to be.

In one of the darker passages Moses quotes God:

“I will hide My countenance from them,

And see how they fare in the end.

For they are a treacherous breed,

Children with no loyalty in them.” -Deuteronomy 32:20

The Meshech Chochma tries to understand what treachery the Children of Israel will be guilty of. The word in Hebrew that he focuses on is “Tahpuchot” which though translated here as “treacherous” more accurately means “reversals.”

So what “reversals” is the verse talking about? The Meshech Chochma states that there will be reversals of nature. The first is a reversal of human nature. Man has a range of attributes, but by being stuck in the negative traits such as jealousy and covetousness, and minimizing one’s natural generosity, they will cause their own nature to become predominantly evil. That in turn will cause God to reverse nature in the animal kingdom, where previously docile animals will become dangerous. He references such a case, quoting a Midrash that describes sheep that unexpectedly turn violent and actually attack and kill people.

However, man also has the opportunity to reverse his evil nature. Among the primary tools to do so are the host of charitable commandments. After a person has worked hard (especially in an agricultural setting), to plow, sow, tend and harvest his crop, through great effort, to then consistently and generously give of that hard-earned produce in a variety of ways to the poor, will invariably convert man’s nature to a predominantly good one.

When man becomes good, generous, God will also change the nature of the animal kingdom, where all the previously dangerous animals of the world, will become not only safe, but protectors. As proof, he cites the case of the wolves that protected the vacant, unattended homes of those people who travelled for the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

May we always work on improving our natures.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,



To the memory of Prof. Yaakov Katz z”l.

The Purpose of Exile: Converts (Haazinu)

The Purpose of Exile: Converts (Haazinu)

In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis. -Quentin Crisp

The famed Song of Haazinu, Moses’ prophetic, poetic, final words to the nation of Israel, foretells, in cryptic verse, the future of the Jewish people. Among other events, it predicts both the rebellion of the Jewish people against God as well as our eventual exile from the land of Israel.

The Berdichever wonders as to why Haazinu is called a “song” (the Hebrew term “Shira” means a joyous song) if it contains such dire prophecies. What happiness, what joy can be found in our millennia-old exile? What is there to joyously sing about drifting, rootless, through the four corners of the planet for thousands of years? Of never having the safety of a homeland? Of being constantly persecuted? Of expulsions, inquisitions, ghettos, pogroms and a Holocaust?

The Berdichever states that there is not only a silver lining to our Exile, but that there is a deeper, fundamental reason why the nation of Israel needed to wander the globe all these centuries. It was to attract converts. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. In fact, we discourage and make it challenging for non-Jews to undertake conversion to Judaism. Nonetheless, the Berdichever explains that the underlying purpose of our exile has been to gather converts. It is to collect holy sparks, divine souls from among all the nations of the world and bring them into the fold of our people.

That is why the prophecy of Haazinu that foretells our exile is called a “joyous song.” The gathering and elevation of the divine sparks from among the nations of the world are part of our historic mission. It can only be accomplished through the long, globetrotting exile of our people.

May we complete the mission of gathering the sparks and come back home already.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,



To the Bar-Mitzvah of Uriel Williams. Mazal Tov!

Three Types of Idolatry (Haazinu)

Three Types of Idolatry (Haazinu)

Idolatry is in a man’s own thought, not in the opinion of another. -John Selden

In the penultimate Torah reading, Moses bids farewell to the people of Israel in poetic form, in the Song of Haazinu. It is a dense, compact, prophecy-laden account of the history of the world, from the beginning of time until the end of days. One of its sections deals with Israel’s descent into idolatry and reads as follows:

“You grew fat and gross and coarse— he forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of his support. They incensed Him with alien things, vexed Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they had never known, New ones, who came but lately, who stirred not your fathers’ fears.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 32:17 (Haazinu) based on the verse above, explains that there are three types of idolatry.

The first type of idolatry is purely in the mind. It is the belief, the acceptance, that there may be divinity besides or separate from the One God.

The second type of idolatry, the one classically associated with physical idols, was the worship of statues. Apparently, ancient man was more sophisticated than we may have given him credit for. They didn’t necessarily worship lifeless inanimate objects. Rabbeinu Bechaye claims that they were somehow able to draw on the celestial spirits from the stars and constellations and infuse the hand-made objects with some semblance of life. It was those quasi-alive statues that they originally worshipped.

The third type of idolatry was the worship of demons who originated from the netherworld and in the “waters below the earth.” This, Rabbeinu Bechaye highlights was the lowest, the most despicable and the most disgusting type of idolatry, that even our original idolatrous ancestor, Terah father of Abraham, didn’t mess with. Terah and his family it seems had the power and knew the process to create the second type of idolatry, of infusing statues with a celestial spirit. However, members of the young Israelite nation were drawn to the third, the lowliest type of idolatry.

Moses is warning us, in what was meant to be a song to be remembered throughout our history, to stay far away from all forms of idolatry. We should stay away from the brainy, cerebral, intellectual questioning and disassociation from our One God. We should steer clear from the “classic” worship of statues (whether they are lifelike or not). And we should have nothing to do with the stranger beliefs and practices of demonologists and their ilk.

Let’s stick with the simple, faithful belief in God.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Ari Fuld z”l. May God avenge his blood, may his memory be a blessing and may his family and the entire community be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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,



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


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,



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,



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:

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,



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.