Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

 In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. -Blaise Pascal

The nation of Israel is born when they are redeemed from the slavery of Egypt. They have witnessed the ten plagues that God brought down upon the Egyptians while sparing the Jewish nation. Pharaoh and his people beg the Israelites to leave. They leave on the night of Pesach (Passover) which would henceforth be eternally commemorated by the Jewish people.

However, Pharaoh changes his mind. He pursues the freed slaves. His powerful chariot army has them trapped, with their back against the sea. God intervenes once again. He keeps the sides separated by a pillar of cloud and fire. He directs Moses to lift his hand and split the sea. The sea splits, the Jews cross over on dry land. The Egyptians are allowed to follow, only to be completely drowned. The entire armed forces of the Egyptian empire are obliterated in one fell swoop. Moses lowers his hand and he and the people of Israel break into song, the Song of the Sea.

The Torah declares that at that point the nation “believed in God and in Moses His servant.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 14:31 (Beshalach) quotes Rabbeinu Chananel who explains that proper Jewish faith can actually be split into four distinct elements:

  1. Belief in God;
  2. Belief in the truth and validity of our Prophets;
  3. Belief in an afterlife that will include rewards for the righteous;
  4. Belief in the coming of the Redeemer.

The reward for sustaining these beliefs is that one will enjoy them when the time comes. The punishment for lack of belief is somewhat self-fulfilling. The unbelievers will not live to experience the afterlife that they don’t believe in. Seems appropriate.

Somehow, the conscious beliefs that we sustain and develop actually create our spiritual reality and fate. By denying God, prophetic truth, reward and punishment, an afterlife or the coming of the Messiah, we cut our very souls off from the future, eternity and destiny of the Jewish people. When we affirm our beliefs in the above, we link ourselves, our destiny, to the unbroken chain of tradition of the eternal people. Our beliefs shape our souls and our souls are intertwined, that is, until we reverse our default ancestral settings and take ourselves out of the communal belief system and the spiritual community itself.

Maimonides famously elaborated and articulated the above basic belief system into the popular 13 Principles of Faith. In some synagogues and communities they are read on a daily basis and can be found in the back of many prayer books. They are worth reviewing regularly.

May our faith be strong and our souls ever linked to our nation and community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Hilda and Jeremy Cohen, on their inspiring hospitality. And to the speedy recovery of Libi Yehudis bas Yochevet.

Growing God

Growing God

Why indeed must God be a noun? Why not a verb — the most active and dynamic of all. -Mary Daly

fibonacci-rose

The Children of Israel have finally escaped the bondage of Egypt. However, shortly after their escape, their Egyptian taskmasters pursue them with the entire might of the Egyptian military. The nascent Jewish nation is trapped with their back to the sea and the Egyptian army, 600 chariots strong, advancing upon them.

Then, miraculously, the sea behind them parts. They walk across the seabed, with a wall of water to their right and to their left, and exit successfully on the other side. Undeterred, the Egyptians follow their freed Hebrew slaves only to discover the sea closing over their heads. The entire armed force of the Egyptian empire is destroyed in one fell swoop.

Incredulous and exultant, Moses and the Jewish people break out in song. Exodus Chapter 15 is famously known as the Song of the Sea. It is so important to the Jewish narrative that the sages instituted the Song as part of the daily morning prayer. Its unusual poetic style is sometimes hard to decipher.

Rabbi Hirsch on verse 2 explains the phrase: “This is my God, to Him would I be a habitation, He was already my father’s God; I would raise Him higher still.”

“He has already proven Himself as the God of my father; even my fathers recognized Him as such and passed this knowledge to me. But I shall endeavor to add still more to the recognition of His greatness and His sovereignty. These words outline the mission of every subsequent generation in Israel: to continue to disseminate the knowledge of God, and allegiance to Him, in ever-growing intensity.”

We cannot rest on the educational, theological and religious laurels of our fathers. We must forge ahead, in every generation, to not only maintain, to not only continue, but to grow, to expand, and to make greater, wider, and stronger the knowledge of and the faithfulness to God.

It’s work that must be done on a daily basis.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the New England Patriots on their inspiring Super Bowl victory.

Duality in Faith

 Faith is a higher faculty than reason. -Henry Christopher Bailey

transcending-duality

Jewish philosophy is filled with duality. The Sfat Emet in 5633 (1873) highlights a whole string of related dualities in this week’s Torah reading. There is the classic differentiation between this physical, material world and the next metaphysical, spiritual world. There is the ongoing duality of man’s evil inclination which is constantly warring against man’s good inclination. There is the biblical duality of the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt versus the subsequent miraculous Splitting of the Sea which is considered an even greater level of divine involvement. The Sfat Emet sees all these dualities not necessarily as opposites, but rather more as complimentary stages, with a lower level and a higher level of the spectrum in question.

The Sfat Emet also explains that there is a duality in matters of faith. There is the faith of the person who doesn’t know anything about God’s divinity. Nonetheless, he believes in God, or perhaps even because of his ignorance, it allows him to have simple faith. That simple faith then enables the believer to learn more about God, to understand God more, to reach for God and connect with Him. This was the faith of the people of Israel as they leave Egypt.

The other faith, the more refined, sophisticated, developed faith, is one based on knowledge of God. That is the faith which Moses reached. Moses’ understanding of God gave him a much more serious, comprehensive and clearer connection to God. The classic analogy is that Moses was able to “see” God through a clear window, while the rest of us, including other prophets, can only perceive God through an opaque window.

May our faith, perception and connection to God carry us through difficult times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Gila Weinberg on the publication of her excellent book, Not So Grim, Jewish Fairy Tales.

 

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-choose-your-weapon-carefully/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Beshalach

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

The People of Israel have finally been redeemed from the enslavement of Egypt. They have marched through the desert. They reach the edge of the sea and suddenly find themselves pursued by the entire armed might of the Egyptian empire.

They panic. They cry. They scream. They complain. Moses calls out to God. God, in one of His most famous and indicative statements replies: “Why do you call out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and Go!”

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 14:15 teases out an important lesson from God’s response. There are times for long prayer, like the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai praying for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are times for short prayers, like the five words Moses uttered when praying for the health of his sister, Miriam. And then, there are times when no words are appropriate, but rather action is called for.

May we choose our strategies correctly, the right prayer or action for the right circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the entire Jewish community of Uruguay. Your hosting of our family has been exemplary. May all our prayers be answered.

 

 

 

Liar’s Reward

First posted on the Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-liars-reward/

Netziv Exodus: Beshalach

Liar’s Reward

“Falsehood is invariably the child of fear in one form or another.” -Aleister Crowley

The adage of the boy who cried wolf is important and well-known, however, the Netziv has a slightly different take on it.

The nation of Israel has escaped from the centuries of Egyptian slavery. God parted the sea for them, allowing them to miraculously walk on dry land and see the Egyptian military annihilated. The Israelites walk through the desert, find a stream of bitter waters and then Moses is directed to put nearby trees in the water, thereby sweetening the stream and providing water to the entire nation.

However, a chapter later, the Israelites find themselves again without water, but this time the interplay is different. They complain that they have no water. Moses is not impressed by their complaint. Only after they complain does the text say that the people were thirsty. The Netziv on the verse (Exodus 17:3) explains that though they lacked water they complained before they became thirsty. And so, the false complaint of thirst came true. He then expands that whoever fakes a complaint, eventually it will become true.

A person who claims to not have money, will eventually see that fulfilled. A person who lies about his inability to do something, eventually will lose that ability. A boy who cries wolf, not only will he not be believed, but eventually will have his false statement made true and bring a wolf upon himself.

May we be very careful about our claims and statements, lest they become true.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To truth-speakers. May only blessings be your reward.

Why Seven Days?

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-why-seven-days/]

Ibn Ezra Exodus: Beshalach

Why Seven Days?

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you don’t let other people spend it for you.” -John Dryden

A seven-day week does not reflect any natural phenomena. As opposed to a day, a lunar month or a solar year, a week is an artificial creation.

Some interesting exceptions to the seven-day week include the Igbo people of Nigeria (4 days), the Javanese of Indonesia (5 days) and the Akans of West Africa (6 days that have been mixed with a 7-day week giving a 42-day cycle).

Historically, the Romans had an 8-day week for a time, until they met the 7-day week which became more popular. Both ancient China and Egypt had a 10-day week. In more modern times, during the excitement of revolution, the French adopted a 10-day week. It lasted for nine and a half years (1793-1802). The Soviets experimented with a 5-day week from 1929-31 and then tried a 6-day week until 1940. None of these counting systems have survived.

Why does almost all of humanity follow a 7-day week? Ibn Ezra claims (Exodus 16:1) that it comes from the Torah. God mandated a 7-day week to remember Creation as well as to remember the Exodus. Curious how the entire world has adopted this Jewish tradition – in most cases without even knowing it.

I wonder what other traditions have permeated the world and which others may still do so?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jared Diamond and his glorious book Guns, Germs and Steel, where among other things he highlights potential causes as to the fate of societies and civilization.

The Physics of Miracles

Ohr Hachayim Exodus: Beshalach

 The Physics of Miracles

 “A miracle is nothing more or less than this. Anyone who has come into a knowledge of his true identity, of his oneness with the all-pervading wisdom and power, this makes it possible for laws higher than the ordinary mind knows of to be revealed to him.”

 -Ralph Waldo Trine

Miracles, however we understand them, happen for a reason. By looking deeper into the cause and effect of miracles, one might discover that they actually follow certain patterns, are affected by certain principles, even follow certain rules. Below is a start of a list:

  1. Don’t make God work too hard. God prefers to keep certain miracles “private” (i.e. when the prophet Elisha revives the dead boy or when the poor woman receives an abundance of oil, the door is closed in both cases – see II Kings Chapter 4).
  2. Be good. God may perform miracles for those deserving of it (splitting of the Reed Sea – Ohr Hachayim Exodus 14:15).
  3. Learn Torah. God is said to have created the world using the Torah as a “blueprint.” Those who master the Torah may wield some power over creation (Moses mastering the sea – Ohr Hachayim Exodus 14:27).
  4. Knowing the mind of God. God did not command that the Jews refrain from leaving anything over from the daily Manna. It was an innovation Moses introduced, understanding God’s intention. God approved of Moses’ command and performed a miracle to “back him up” whereby worms ate whatever Manna was left over the next day (Ohr Hachayim Exodus 16:19).

There are more rules and regulations as to how miracles work, but this list is a good start: don’t make a show (when not needed), be good, study Torah and know God.

May we all merit seeing miracles every day of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the miracle of rain. After many relatively dry years, Israel had the wettest January on record (at least 26 days) and it has raised the water-level of the Kinneret (our main reservoir) by 55 centimeters in January. Currently it stands at -213.11 centimeters, which is 11 centimeters below the Kinneret’s red line.