Category Archives: Exodus

Secrets of a Perpetual Student (Yitro)

Secrets of a Perpetual Student (Yitro)

Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century. -S. J. Perelman

Jethro advising Moses
                           AI-generated Parsha Illustration: Jethro advising Moses by BSpitz

I’m going to get a little more personal than usual in this week’s article. Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, is one of my favorite biblical characters. He doesn’t appear very much, but when he does, it’s a unique role. He is the first recorded management consultant (a role I played for many years). He gives brilliant organization advice to Moses as to how to set up a strong and sustainable judiciary and if you read the narratives carefully, it is only when Jethro departs that things go bad for the nascent Jewish nation.

One amazing aspect is how Jethro had the nerve to give Moses advice at all. Moses had communed with God. Moses had enacted the most powerful miracles ever seen on Earth. What could Jethro, as conventionally distinguished as he was, offer to Moses? And furthermore, why should Moses take him seriously? What could the man of God, Moses, learn from the former idolator, Jethro? What insight could the wayward former idolatrous priest convey to a man who had spoken with God?

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 18:19 finds an answer in the way Jethro frames his advice. At the beginning of the well-organized plan, Jethro states, “Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you!” Why mention God at this stage? The Bat Ayin explains that Jethro is referencing God because of one of the very first conversations attributed to God at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. God states “let US make man in OUR image.” Who is God talking to before the creation of man? Why the plural language? The Bat Ayin quotes a well-known Midrash that states that God was speaking to the angels. It was not that God needed the angels’ permission or even input, but rather it was a demonstration of humility on God’s part, to include the other sentient beings, whom he had already created, in on the planning. So, in essence, Jethro was hinting to Moses that if God would humble Himself to seek the input and theoretically listen to the advice of the angels, then Moses could very well listen to and consider Jethro’s advice.

Moses indeed demonstrates why he was considered the humblest of men, and not only listens to Jethro’s advice, but implements it immediately, to good effect.

May we develop the humility to learn from everyone. Our livelihoods will likely depend on it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Turkish earthquake and to the Israeli rescue teams there.

Sinful Doubts (Beshalach)

Sinful Doubts (Beshalach)

At the beginning of every act of faith, there is often a seed of fear. For great acts of faith are seldom born out of calm calculation. -Max L. Lucado

God has pummeled the Egyptian Empire with the Ten Plagues. The nascent Jewish nation has now been freed by its oppressors. It has one stop to make, at Mount Sinai, to receive God’s law, before journeying to the Promised Land of Canaan.

It seems there is a short, direct route to get to their destination, through the land of the Philistines. However, God doesn’t take the Jews through the land of the Philistines. The verse tells us:

“God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 13:17 wonders why, after the Jews witness such momentous miracles, would they have any concerns about war and having to return to Egypt. He answers that in fact, there wasn’t a serious threat. God would not have let them come to harm nor would have allowed them to return to Egypt. Nonetheless, in God’s outpouring of love for the Jewish people, He wanted to keep them far from not only any potential harm, but even from thoughts and fear of harm.

He compares the love of God for the Jewish people to that of a parent for their child. God would go to great extremes to protect the Jewish people at this juncture. God wanted the Jewish people’s complete faith in Him and the security He would provide. For them to have any doubts or lack of faith would be a deficiency. Not only would it be a deficiency, but it would also be sinful. In order to prevent this sin of the mind, the sin of doubt in God, God took the Jewish people the long way out of Egypt. He didn’t take them through the land of the Philistines so they would not even contemplate the possibility of war and so not even a sliver of doubt in God would enter their minds in this formative stage of the nation.

May we strengthen our faith in God and remove doubts of His love for us, even when it’s not always so clear.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the terror victims murdered this past Shabbat in Jerusalem.

Cultivating Calmness (Bo)

Cultivating Calmness (Bo)

Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time. -Thomas Carlyle

Nine plagues have devasted Egypt. There is one more plague coming. But this plague will be the deadliest. It will leave no home unscathed. The Death of the Firstborns. Every firstborn in every home in Egypt would be stricken. This plague would be so rampant, that even the Jewish slaves were warned about it. Even though the plagues had come to Egypt for the purpose of freeing the Jews from their bondage and they had been spared so far from the effects of the plagues, they were nonetheless warned about this one.

God warns the Jews to take a most unusual precaution. They are to slaughter a sacrificial lamb, the Pascual Lamb (Pesach) to be specific. They will take some hyssop, dip it in some of the sacrifice’s blood and spread it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes and not leave their homes the entire night, while the plague would ravage the rest of the country. They would roast and eat of the lamb, together with unleavened bread (Matzah) and bitter herbs (Marror). That moment is what we have celebrated continuously for more than three millennia at the Passover Seder. That moment of devotion and first moment of obedience and worship of God is when a multitude of slaves become the Jewish nation.

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 12:7 delves into the wording of “blood” (dam in Hebrew) and “homes” (Batim). The Hebrew word “dam” has the same etymology as “quiet” or “silent.” He refers us to the description of God’s encounter with Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12) which uses the same root of “dam” or in this case “demama” to describe the quiet voice:

“And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a quiet murmuring sound.”

Elijah found God in the quiet. The Bat Ayin explains that whenever a thought occurs to us to speak, our first reaction should be to pause, to be quiet and ponder the impact our proposed words will have. In that pause, in that moment of silence, is where we find God. And there comes the connection between the word “dam” silence and the word “batim” homes. By calmly thinking through what we will say, we build the letters in our mind. We are building homes for those thoughts and words and ideas. We are building a more thoughtful communication that takes the unique advantage of having a moment of divine contemplation.

May we learn the value of quiet and use it to enhance our communications.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the hospitality of the community of Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft. Lauderdale.

Excellent Self-Doubt (Shmot)

Excellent Self-Doubt (Shmot)

Great doubts deep wisdom. Small doubts little wisdom. -Chinese Proverb

Moses confronts Pharaoh BSpitz
Moses confronts Pharaoh, by BSpitz

God appears to Moses at the Burning Bush and instructs him to confront Pharoah and get him to allow the enslaved Jewish people to travel to the desert to worship God. Moses is reluctant and declines the request, citing his unsuitability. After some back-and-forth, God is insistent but tells Moses that his brother Aaron will assist.

Moses and Aaron meet with Pharaoh, however, that first meeting is counterproductive. Not only does Pharaoh not permit his Jewish slaves the respite that is asked for, but he makes their servitude even more grueling. Moses, despondent, complains to God and says, “not only have You not helped, You’ve made matters worse!”

The Bat Ayin on Exodus 5:22 questions how Moses, the father of all prophets, could address God this way. How could Moses have the gall to accuse God of anything, let alone of making anything worse? He answers that if one reads the context of Moses’ seeming accusation, Moses states that “ever since I came to Pharaoh,” things have gotten worse. In essence, Moses is saying that it’s his fault. He’s saying that God couldn’t affect the miraculous liberation of the Jews because Moses was a faulty and unworthy messenger. Moses was filled with self-doubt.

The Bat Ayin explains that it was exactly Moses’ self-doubt that eventually made him an ideal messenger for God. God was not looking for a brash, confident, self-assured intermediary. He was looking for a quiet, humble, bashful messenger. He specifically wanted someone who didn’t think they were worthy. Moses’ outstanding self-doubt is what made him the ideal candidate to speak for God.

Moses thought of himself as lowly and unworthy, and as a result, God bestowed the spirit of prophecy and knowledge of God upon Moses as with no other mortal before or after.

May we use our self-doubts as foundations of humility to ascend to greater knowledge of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 146 new species of animals and plants that were added to our planet in 2022.

Overabundance of Just Enough (Pekudei)

Overabundance of Just Enough (Pekudei)

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. -Franklin D. Roosevelt

In building the Tabernacle in the desert, at the foot of Mount Sinai, God directs Moses to take up a collection of materials from the people of Israel. They donate gold, silver, copper, wood, skins, cloth, thread and anything else that was needed. The people of Israel are so generous with their contributions that the artisans tell Moses they need to stop with the contributions. They have more than enough material to complete the construction of the Tabernacle.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 38:21 reads a seeming contradiction in the verse. The verse can be read as saying that there was enough, meaning they received exactly the materials they needed and not more, but that at the same time they had too much. So, which is it? Was it enough or was it too much?

The Chidushei HaRim answers that because the people of Israel contributed to the Tabernacle for the sake of Heaven, without any ulterior motives, they reached a place over and above nature itself. They reached a place where there was no contradiction between “just enough” and “too much.” Having reached that supernatural place because of their selfless generosity, it empowered the people of Israel to have access to that supernatural state for all time.

The Chidushei Harim continues to explain that what the people of Israel proceed to do with that eternal power is to construct the Mishkan L’edut “A Tabernacle for the Pact.” What exactly the Mishkan L’edut is and how it differs, if it does, from the simpler appellation of just Mishkan “Tabernacle” he doesn’t say. Though it is likely safe to suggest that it is directly related to the Tabernacle housing the Luchot HaBrit, the Tablets of the Pact with the Ten Commandments written on them by the hand of God. A Pact between God and the people of Israel that would last forever and that would survive the Tabernacle itself in its travels and various incarnations.

May we always feel that we have enough in the physical realm while always reaching to connect with more of God in the spiritual realm, via the eternal Pact, the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the many volunteers who are helping the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and in particular to my friend Rabbi Avi Baumol of Krakow who is actively helping at the Ukrainian border. They are raising funds needed for the effort at this link: https://www.friendsofjcckrakow.org/ukraine

Being Smart is Secondary (Vayakhel)

Being Smart is Secondary (Vayakhel)

Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live as well as think. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the construction of the Tabernacle, God designates Bezalel as the master architect. The verse states:

“See, God has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, endowing him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 35:30 highlights the fact that Bezalel is singled out by “name.” He then proceeds to quote the Mishnaic dictum of “It’s better to have a good name than good oil,” which is classically interpreted to mean that it’s better to have a good name as an upstanding person than wealth and riches.

He then draws a comparison between the good name the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi possessed versus the good oil, the anointing oil, that was used to anoint and consecrate Nadav and Avihu as Kohens, as priests in the Tabernacle.

Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, went too far in their roles when they brought the strange, unasked-for fire in the Tabernacle and were promptly struck down by God with a divine fire. Conversely, the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were unharmed when they were thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

The Chidushei HaRim interprets the analogy of “oil” as being wisdom. He would interpret the dictum as “It’s more important to first possess good character before wisdom.” He claims that while Nadav and Avihu were extremely intelligent, their characters were not yet developed and mature enough as compared to their intelligence. Therefore, their intelligence was on a rocky foundation.

Their father, Aaron, possessed both character and wisdom which is hinted at by the verse in Psalms:

“It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down according to his character traits.” -Psalms 133:2

May the strength of our character always be a foundation for whatever intelligence we’re blessed with.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the safety and wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.

Essential Anonymous Author (Ki Tisa)

Essential Anonymous Author (Ki Tisa)

The cult of individuality and personality, which promotes painters and poets only to promote itself, is really a business. The greater the genius of the personage, the greater the profit. -George Grosz

Last week’s Torah reading, the Torah reading of Tetzave, is notorious for not mentioning the name of Moses throughout the reading portion. It’s an unusual phenomenon, given the fact that Moses is the intermediary throughout these commands. Readers have become accustomed to the mantra-like repetition throughout much of the Five Books of Moses of the verse “And God spoke to Moses saying.” However, in Tetzave, this ubiquitous phrase, as well as Moses’ very name is conspicuously absent.

There is a Midrash that explains a possible reason, traced back to this week’s reading. The nation of Israel famously forces Aaron to construct the Golden Calf which they then proceed to worship, against God’s freshly delivered Ten Commandments. God threatens to destroy the Jewish nation in punishment. Moses intercedes, begs God for mercy, and in an unusual argument, he tells God to erase his name from God’s book. God responds that he won’t erase Moses’ name, but rather that of those who have sinned so blatantly against God.

The Midrash explains that the absence of Moses’ name from last week’s reading is a small reminder or even punishment for Moses’ suggestion that his name be erased.

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 32:32 has a completely different explanation for why Moses’ name isn’t mentioned in the portion of Tetzave. He states that when one toils in studying the Torah, in unlocking its secrets, in transmitting Torah to others, then indeed, a person merits that the Torah lesson should be repeated in their name, that the agent of transmission should be remembered by name. However, there is an entirely different level of Torah transmission. There is the level when a person is willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. When Moses stood up to God to protect the Jewish nation from His wrath, when Moses was willing to be erased from the Book that he was so integral in its transmission, then Moses ascended to the level of not just being a transmitter of the Torah, but of being part and parcel of the Torah.

In a sense, Moses, by his sacrifice, became so integral to the Torah that his individuality was subsumed by the Torah, and he ceased for that period of time to exist independent of the Torah. His integration with the Torah was so profound that his name became unnecessary. For those verses and chapters where he’s not named, he was one with the Torah, so it became extraneous to name him.

May we find ways to learn, transmit and attach ourselves to the Torah, at all levels.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Ariel family of the Kadima-Zoran community in Israel for being blessed with growing the largest strawberry in the world: https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-strawberry-wins-guinness-record-as-worlds-largest/

Acolytes of an Anonymous Sage (Tetzave)

Acolytes of an Anonymous Sage (Tetzave)

Avoid popularity if you would have peace. -Abraham Lincoln

A special part of the Tabernacle service was the lighting of the Candelabrum, the Menorah. This special task was charged to Aaron, the first High Priest and to his descendants after him. Not only was Aaron responsible for lighting the Menorah and creating light in the sanctified place, but he also possessed an inner light that shone upon those he interacted with (as did Moses in a much more pronounced and observable way).

Aaron, along with his brother, Moses, are the righteous sages of their generation, as well as role models and inspiration for all future generations. These Tzadikim, these righteous ones, managed to communicate directly with God (Moses more so than Aaron), were beloved by Him and intercede on multiple occasions on behalf of the people of Israel, when God’s wrath is upon them.

The Chidushei Harim on Exodus 27:20 takes the opportunity to embark on an exposition regarding a Tzadik. He quotes a Talmudic dictum that there isn’t a generation that doesn’t have its share of Tzadikim, righteous people at the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Furthermore, every person has the capacity to connect somehow with a Tzadik of their generation, even if they don’t know the identity of the Tzadik.

He explains that one of the mechanisms to connect to a Tzadik which can assist in our stronger connection to God, is through the Sabbath. The Sabbath too possesses a special divine light. If a person enters the Sabbath with a sense of trepidation, of awe, of expectancy in the upcoming closer encounter with God, those feelings allow for a greater absorption of the sanctified light of the Sabbath, a light similar to the light that a Tzadik is imbued with and which can radiate onwards to those in his generation.

Somehow, bringing in the Sabbath with the right anticipation connects us to this divine light shared by the Tzadikim of our generation.

May we be able to discern and appreciate the light of Shabbat and come in contact with Tzadikim, whether we or they know so or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who’ve completed and to those who’ve started the cycle of learning Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) as part of the 929 program. Mazal Tov!

Divine Charity Cycle (Trumah)

Divine Charity Cycle (Trumah)

The human contribution is the essential ingredient. It is only in the giving of oneself to others that we truly live. -Ethel Percy Andrus

The Jewish nation has been freed from Egypt; they’ve received the Torah with God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai. Now, at the foot of the mountain, they start their next grand task, the building of the Tabernacle with all its sacred objects, including the altars, the Candelabrum, the Showbread Table and in the inner sanctum, in the Holy of Holies, the Ark containing the Tablets of the Law.

However, to build this Tabernacle with its array of special items, materials are needed. And that’s how this week’s Torah reading starts off. God instructs Moses to ask for donations (this is the original synagogue fundraiser).

God tells Moses:

“And you will take for Me a contribution, from every person whose heart so moves him, you shall take My contribution.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 25:2 notes the possessive language of “take,” “for Me,” and “My.” He explains that God is saying a few things in this verse. The first part is that a person needs to “take” themselves out of their mundane matters of this world. God is saying you need to take yourselves away from your narrow, personal, selfish concerns and dedicate yourselves “for Me.” Only a person whose heart moves him to contribute can really dedicate themselves to God. There is little room for God in the selfish man’s heart.

However, the Chidushei HaRim’s deeper point is that the truth is that everything we contribute to God is already His. All of creation, everything in it, ourselves, our possessions, our abilities, our time, are all from Him. When we give to Him, we are giving Him what is His. Any illusions we have that something, anything, belongs to us, is false and misleading. God has given us of His bounty, of His blessings, in part, to see how we use them. How do we use our gifts and blessings? Do we hoard? Do we keep it to ourselves? Do we only think of ourselves? Or do we think of a greater purpose, be it family, community, those that are more needy or disadvantaged?

Drawing on God’s blessings and participating in the divine cyclical chain of giving is a privilege which can be continuously improved, strengthened and renewed.

May we find the most effective uses for the bounty God gives us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the start of two months of Adar in this Jewish leap year. May they usher in greater joy.

 

Tribal Accountability (Mishpatim)

Tribal Accountability (Mishpatim)

Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

At God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai which accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments, the recently freed nation of Israel assembled at the foot of the mountain and heard both God and Moses. In their eagerness to take on God’s commandments the people of Israel loudly declare “we will do, and we will listen.”

This declaration is considered a great merit to the Jewish people and implies that they committed themselves to keep the commandments, to perform the commandments, to “do” them even before they’ve fully studied them or understood them – the “listen” part. It’s considered a higher form of service, to commit oneself to undertake God’s instructions and only afterward to explore deeply and understand them. Hence, first to do and then to listen. The Talmud refers to this strategy as a secret previously only known to the angels (Tractate Shabbat 88).

The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 24:7 notes the plural form of the declaration. Each individual doesn’t say “I will do, and I will listen,” but rather they are inclusive of each other, “WE will do, and WE will listen.”

He explains that their eagerness and enthusiasm regarding the Torah was so great, and they understood it to be such a dear, sweet, divine gift, that not only was each individual more than ready to take on this commitment for themselves, but they were ready to make themselves accountable for their fellow Jew. Each member of the tribes of Israel stated that not only would they accept God’s commandments, but they would also be a guarantor for their brethren. They would be there for each other, for all of history. Hence the “we.” Each person would be accountable for the next. This would not be a solitary, individualized commitment, but rather a communal, tribal, and national commitment.

Hence the ancient dictum “All of Israel are guarantors one for the other.” The physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual well-being of our brothers is always our concern. We can never turn a blind eye and we are constantly enjoined to help, to support, to lend a hand. We are responsible, we are accountable, we are the guarantors of one another.

May we always be able to assist those in need, on as many fronts as needed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To when snowfall is beautiful.