Blessings and Curses come from within

Blessings and Curses come from within

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. -Thomas Jefferson

God prefaces many of His commandments with the line “when you enter the land,” meaning, many of these commandments need to wait until we’re in the Promised Land or are somehow dependent on the land itself. However, after one of these common introductions God goes on to give an unusually specific location and direction as to where the people of Israel should go and what they should do there.

He orders them to congregate at the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal next to the city of Shechem. There, in what turns out to be a massive natural amphitheatre, the assembled nation of Israel are to proclaim the blessings that will be accorded to themselves and their descendents should they listen to God’s commandments, as well as the curses that will befall them should they choose to ignore God’s directives. What is physically unusual about the setting is that although the two mountains are almost identical in their shape, size, location and elevation, Mount Gerizim is verdant and alive; Mount Ebal is barren and desolate. Not surprisingly, the blessings were uttered upon Mount Gerizim, the curses on Mount Ebal.

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 11:29 elaborates:

“Both of them rise from the same soil, both are watered by the same precipitation – rain and dew. The same air passes over them both; the same pollen is blown over them both. Yet Ebal remains starkly barren, while Gerizim is covered with lush vegetation to its very top.”

“Thus we see that blessings and curses are not dependent on external circumstances. Hence, whether we are blessed or cursed is not dependent on the superficial conditions that are imposed upon us, but on how we deal with them – on our attitude…”

Whether we are blessed or cursed is not dependent on any outside force. Our fate doesn’t rely on good or bad luck. Happenstance should not determine our inner reality. The opposite is true. Our attitude, how we see the world, how we perceive things, how we react, how we internalize the reality around us, that will determine whether we are blessed or cursed. It is completely in our hands.

May we be grateful for the blessings in our lives and see it as such.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the tail end of summer. It is beautiful and blessed.

 

Surviving Calamity

 

Surviving Calamity 

To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. -Roberta Flack 

sufferingContinuing his farewell speech, Moses declares that God places before each of us blessings and curses. The blessings are stated as rewards for what we do right. The curses are punishments for what we do wrong. They both come from God. There are a multiplicity of ways and explanations as to how to understand divine reward and punishment and the related age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.

The Sfat Emet in 5635 (1875) advises us to understand our personal mishaps as messages from God. God is trying to get our attention. Hence, once we understand and incorporate the divine message into our lives, the “curse” has done its job. However, if we wallow in our suffering, if we blame God or the world for the undeserved ill that befalls us, if we don’t learn the lesson, if we don’t move on – the likely outcome is that the curse will continue to run its course, or in some cases become more severe.

But if we accept God’s will, the Sfat Emet continues, if we understand deeply that both the good and the bad come from God, if we seek to improve ourselves after our calamities, then there is a higher probability that we will grow due to our misfortunes, that we will gain the compassion, the empathy, the resilience that we may have been lacking.

May we withstand our trials and get through them stronger, wiser and kinder.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication 

To the memory of Gene Wilder.

 

 

 

The Metaphysics of Charity

Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Reeh

The Metaphysics of Charity

There never was a person who did anything worth doing, who did not receive more than he gave. -Henry Ward Beecher

giving saplingBeing charitable is a Jewish value that is recorded already from the stories of our Patriarch Abraham. In the time of Moses it is codified as law, including the requirement to tithe. The Rabbis give further clarification as to the percentage and measurements of different agricultural donations that each farmer was expected to contribute.

The Baal Haturim on this week’s Torah portion provides a number of pointers as to the metaphysical reality of charity. He states in Deuteronomy 12:19 that the act of giving charity leads directly to increased wealth. In Deuteronomy 15:8 he explains that if a person listens to and provides for the poor, God in turn will listen to and provide for the charitable person. The inverse is also true. If a person ignores the plea of the poor, God is likely to ignore the potentially charitable person.

Finally, the Baal Haturim on Deuteronomy 15:10 details that we should be careful to provide the solicitant what they need. He brings as an example the story of King David who when he was seeking refuge from the ire of King Saul escaped to the Cohanic city of Nov where they provided him with bread and a sword, two things he was in dire need of.

May we have the capacity and opportunity to be generous to those in need and may we see our generosity divinely and abundantly rewarded.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rachel and Shalom Berger on their abundant celebrations.

Inseparable Pair

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/reeh-inseparable-pair/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Reeh

Inseparable Pair

There is one evident, indubitable manifestation of the Divinity, and that is the laws of right which are made known to the world through Revelation.” -Leo Tolstoy

The Bible details and repeats the account of the divine revelation of God to the entire people of Israel, where He, in His Awesomeness, speaks the famous Ten Commandments in front of the multitude of the Jewish nation who heard and accepted and survived the direct and powerful encounter with God. The giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai was probably the most extraordinary moment in all of human history.

However, Jewish tradition tells us that much more than ten commandments were conveyed at Sinai. In fact, the entire corpus of what we know as the Five Books of Moses, including all 613 commandments were transmitted directly to Moses at Sinai. Moses painstaking writes down, verbatim, the words of God to the world.

Yet there is even more. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 12:1 explains that not only was the Written Torah given to Moses at Sinai, but also the Oral Torah was delivered. There is an entire field of knowledge, much more expansive, deeper, filled with mysteries and secrets, that was given over to Moses during his personal encounter with God. The Oral Torah explains the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is inseparable from the Written Torah. The Written Torah cannot be understood, and in places does not make sense, without the explanations of the Oral Torah.

While it is true that the Written Torah is a fundamental, sacred document for us, it is just one part of the puzzle. It is incomplete, even defective, when studied alone, without the complementary Oral Torah. Parts of the Oral Torah were eventually committed to writing. The process started around 2,000 years ago with the Mishna, followed a few centuries later with the Talmud and subsequently with the written codes of law and rabbinic commentaries and explanations.

Both the Written and Oral Torah are our tradition. If we are to embrace our tradition, we should do so fully, completely, understanding it holistically, keeping the inseparable pair united.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new banim and bnot sherut (young volunteer teachers from Israel) that have arrived in Montevideo. May they have much success in transmitting our written and oral traditions and having a positive impact on our community.

Divine Entrapment

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/reeh-divine-entrapment/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Re’eh

Divine Entrapment

“One must be aware that one is continually being tested in what one wishes most in order to make clear whether one’s heart is on earth or in heaven.” -Pir Vilayat Khan

The Bible presents a thorny theological issue with the case of a false prophet. The false prophet is someone, usually charismatic, eloquent and powerful who may have the ability to read divine signs and even foretell the future. He would seem to be someone with the authority of God, but there is something off about him, something that just doesn’t add up.

The false prophet changes something. It may be a little thing, it may seem inconsequential. What the false prophet changes is the law. He reinterprets the Law of Moses against the structure and tradition of the sages. We don’t know his reasons, but the bottom line is that he is wrong.

How can God allow a being such as a false prophet to exist? How can God bless an individual with prophetic ability that will mislead the people of Israel from their faith, beliefs, traditions and rules?

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 13:4 explains very simply, based on the verses, that God sends the false prophet to test us. He wishes to test us and demonstrate that we overcome. We should not be swayed by the charismatic leader. We should not be fooled by holy charlatans. We should not be tricked by apparently divine signs. We need to think for ourselves. We need to understand the laws and traditions and not rely on magical incantations or otherworldly promises. We must remain strong in our faith, in the unbroken traditions and the chain of law that has kept us as a people to this very day.

May we see tests of faith for what they are and pass them with flying colors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of the people who guided us in our voyage to Buenos Aires. They were each true prophets that led us to a wonderful trip and fantastic food.

 

Prophetic Frauds

Ohr Hachayim Deuteronomy: Re’eh

Prophetic Frauds

 “The wisest prophets make sure of the event first.” –Horace Walpole

In the summer of 1503, over the course of his fourth and last voyage, Christopher Columbus and his crew found themselves stranded on the island of Jamaica. His ships were damaged by a major storm and no help was forthcoming. After six months of native hospitality, Columbus’ crewmen had overstayed their welcome and the locals refused to provide the Europeans with any more food.

[the rest of this Torah Insight is at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/prophetic-frauds/]

Wear Sunscreen

Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Re’eh

Wear Sunscreen

“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.” Mary Schmich

There is a story of a man who is shown a vision of Hell. It is a roomful of people with their elbows locked straight. They have forks in their outstretched arms and tables brimming over with all the food they would want to eat. But their forks can’t reach their mouths and so they live in eternal torment and hunger, not being able to feed themselves, though surrounded by food.

The room next door is Heaven. The people in Heaven have their elbows equally locked and are also surrounded by food, yet they’re eating merrily. One person feeds his friend. Simple and effective, yet a solution those relegated to Hell can either never think of or bring themselves to do so.

The Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy 11:26) quotes a similar interpretation as to the equivalence between Heaven and Hell (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 8b). According to the Talmud, Heaven and Hell are exactly the same “place” (not even separate rooms). In that common afterlife, the spiritual strength of the sun will be released. The wicked will be burned by it, while the righteous will rejoice in its splendor.

Somehow our actions in this world build a sort of ‘spiritual sunscreen’. Those that develop it will enjoy the spiritual sun of the afterlife. Those that don’t build up such a sunscreen will suffer in the world-to-come.

May we figure out how to get that sunscreen, and put it on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To conventional sunscreen that lets us enjoy the summer sun (in the northern hemisphere — though the southern hemisphere gets its fair share of the sun even in their winters).