Talmudic Risk-Diversification

Talmudic Risk-Diversification

Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible. -Cadet Maxim

The Torah is filled with stories of people who risked it all, put their faith in God and beat the odds. Perhaps the most famous is Moses, the humble shepherd with a speech impediment, who listened to God and challenged mighty Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire. Moses went on to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, leaving Egypt decimated and in ruins.

However, for those that haven’t heard the voice of God, our sages suggest a more nuanced approach to risk.

Our patriarch Jacob faced the possibility of war against his brother Esau; therefore, he spread out his risk in preparation for the potential battle, splitting his forces into two. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 32:9 (Vayishlach) connects the strategy of spreading or diversifying risk to an important Talmudic teaching related to financial risk management:

“A person should always split his capital into three: one third should go into land, one third should go into business and one third should be readily available.”

The logic behind the Talmudic dictum is both reasonable and fiscally sound. To have one third of one’s capital in land (back then it wasn’t as volatile as today) was a stable long-term investment. One third in business was where one could earn a greater return on investment, with its accompanying level of risk. To keep one third liquid allowed the possibility for fast reaction to opportunities in the market, emergencies, or as became common in later centuries, rapid escape. Included in this mix is the other financial command of setting aside one tenth of one’s income to charity.

A modern-day portfolio according to Talmudic financial advice would then consist of the following:

  • 30% in stable, long-term investments,
  • 30% in higher risk, higher reward entities,
  • 30% in cash or highly liquid instruments, and
  • 10% for charity.

The Torah tells us of the fantastic financial success that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob enjoyed and attributes it to divine intervention. However, it is likely that once they had their wealth they knew how to protect it and grow it intelligently, with continued divine assistance.

May both our risky and our more mundane endeavors be blessed with divine success.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the city of Scottsdale, Arizona. A wonderful place to conduct business.

The Darkness Will Pass

The Darkness Will Pass

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. -Carl Gustav Jung

pre-sunrise

After twenty years, Jacob escapes from his treacherous father-in-law, Laban, only to approach his deadly brother, Esau. The night before his fateful meeting he is accosted by an angel. They wrestle the entire night, and only with the approach of dawn does Jacob get the upper hand on his otherworldly opponent. It is at that momentous encounter that Jacob is named Israel, the name we carry to this day.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 32:27 explains that throughout the night, the adversary appears to be stronger. With daybreak, suddenly Jacob sets the terms to end the conflict. The single request is the recognition that Jacob is deserving of a blessing and not of persecution. Rabbi Hirsch elaborates: “…only by paying him such recognition will the nations bring blessings also upon themselves, and only thus will the promise, “and through you will all the families on earth be blessed, and through your seed” [Genesis 28:14] be fulfilled.”

The enemy fights ceaselessly throughout the night to destroy Israel. When morning approaches the enemy is ready to give up, but Jacob will not cease his struggle until he is accorded recognition by being blessed.

Rabbi Hirsch continues:

“The goal of history is not that Jacob should be forced to merge into the mass of nations, but the reverse. The nations must come to understand that precisely those principles which Jacob has championed and held aloft amidst all these struggles hold also the happiness of those nations which adopt them as their own.”

The night will pass, daybreak shall come. We will emerge stronger and victorious and will both receive and bestow blessings. It is already coming to fruition.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication 

To Bob Dylan on his Nobel Prize

Idolatry Allergy

Baal Haturim Genesis: Vayishlach

Idolatry Allergy

Whatever a man seeks, honors, or exalts more than God, this is the god of his idolatry. -William B. Ullathorne

I grew up with a variety of allergies. There were foods, substances and smells that would make me sick and specifically trigger respiratory difficulties. In my youth, during visits to a specific person’s home, I would unexpectedly start to sneeze uncontrollably. I was informed afterwards that every time I would have a sneezing attack it coincided with someone smoking marijuana in a nearby room.

But perhaps the most surprising allergy of all was not to any particular molecule that made its way into my respiratory system. In the course of my teenage travels, I had opportunity to be exposed to real live examples of idol worship: people praying, chanting, bowing down and performing religious service in front of statues. Just the sight, the approach, just to be in the same physical space or structure as the good old-fashioned idolaters made me physically uncomfortable. At the time I was not yet aware of the prohibition by Jewish law of entering a Temple of idols. Nonetheless, my body, apparently of its own volition, reacted negatively to any encounter with these structures and activities, typically with feelings of nausea.

In the Torah we see a similar but broader national effect. Jacob’s wayward brother Esau, together with his growing clan, leaves their ancestral land of Canaan. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 36:7 explains that because of the divine presence in Canaan, Esau could not stay there with his brother Jacob. He says that a similar effect occurred in the separation between the children of Israel and the Egyptians who needed to live in different areas. We cannot be in the same place as idolaters, and vice versa.

May we identify the idolatry in our lives and separate ourselves from it and from within us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my Tikvah Fund friends. It was thrilling to explore the Bible and discover excellence.

 

 

The Blessing of Necessity

 

 Necessity is the mother of attraction.  -Luke McKissack 

flock-of-sheep

Jacob has an emotional reunion with Esau, his twin brother who wanted to kill him 20 years earlier. In preparation for the potentially explosive meeting, Jacob sends multiple flocks of various domesticated animals as a gift to his estranged brother.

Esau, in an understandable display of magnanimity declines the extremely valuable and generous gifts and states “I have a lot, brother. You should keep what’s yours.” However, Jacob is not to be dissuaded and gives a long speech pressuring Esau to accept the gift, finally stating “I have all.” Esau yields and accepts the gift.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) explains that there is a significant difference between having “a lot” and having “all.” Having a lot is the trait of the wicked Esau, who has more than he needs and may even boast of his wealth. To such individuals God gives more than necessary and that is the end of further divine care or involvement in their lives. The extreme material wealth and success they have may be the extent of their reward for the meager good they have done in their lives. No more rewards or happiness will come their way, in this world, or the next.

However, the trait of the righteous Jacob is to be content with what he has. It is all he needs. It is sufficient. God continually makes sure he has everything he needs at the time and nothing more. Nothing extraneous is given until such a time as it is needed. A person who requests and just gets his current necessities on a regular basis is likened to a vessel that can continually receive God’s blessings.

Furthermore, the righteous when they request their needs do not do so out of a sense of entitlement, thinking that somehow they deserve it. They realize that these are underserved gifts from God that we request in humility. God, out of a sense of benevolence grants us our daily necessities.

When a person realizes this reality and as the Mishna in Pirket Avot states, is happy with their portion, then they are truly wealthy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Mauricio Macri on his successful election as the new President of Argentina. We hope that he is what the country and the continent needs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Respeto secreto

Netziv Génesis: Vayishlaj

Respeto secreto

“Lo que se dijo en el oído de un hombre es a menudo oído cien millas de distancia.” -proverbio chino

Jacobo le teme a su próximo encuentro con su hermano separado Esaú. Esaú está en camino a encontrarse con Jacobo con una fuerza de 400 hombres. Jacobo envía múltiples delegaciones llevando ganado como regalos a su hermano peligroso.

Finalmente se reúnen en un momento dramático y emotivo con abrazos, besos y llorando. Jacobo entonces se humilla a sí mismo de una manera que es casi vergonzosa. Él llama a su hermano “maestro” en varias ocasiones, refiriéndose a sí mismo como “su siervo”. Si Jacobo fue sincero o no en su abnegación está abierto a debate, pero lo que el Netziv de 32:5 Génesis deja claro es que Jacobo fue cuidadoso y consistente para asumir el papel servil.

El Netziv señala que no sólo es Jacobo servil frente a Esaú, sino también cuando está fuera de la vista y muestra a su hermano el mismo nivel de respeto. En conversaciones privadas de Jacobo con sus propios siervos, hace asimismo referencia a su hermano como “mi maestro” y a sí mismo como “su siervo”. El Netziv enseña las señales de que debemos cultivar el hábito de referirse a las personas con sus propios nombres, títulos y con respeto, tanto en público como en privado. Otros se darán cuenta de la forma en que hablamos y utilizarán los nombres y términos que utilizamos, para bien o para mal.

Que podamos hablar correctamente de los demás y en términos respetuosos.

Shabat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedicación

Al Rabino Ariel Kleiner. Un hombre por quien tengo gran respeto, a pesar de las diferencias ideológicas.

Secret Respect

[First posted on the Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayishlach-secret-respect/]

Netziv Genesis: Vayishlach

Secret Respect

“What is told into the ear of a man is often heard a hundred miles away.” -Chinese Proverb

Jacob fears his upcoming encounter with his estranged brother Esau. Esau is on his way to meet Jacob with a force of 400 men. Jacob sends multiple delegations carrying livestock as gifts to his dangerous brother.

They finally meet in a dramatic and emotional moment with hugging, kissing and crying. Jacob then abases himself in a manner that is almost embarrassing. He calls his brother “master” repeatedly, while referring to himself as “your servant.” Whether Jacob was sincere or not in his abnegation is open to debate, but what the Netziv on Genesis 32:5 makes clear is that Jacob was thorough and consistent in assuming the servile role.

The Netziv points out that not only is Jacob subservient in front of Esau, but also when he is out of sight he shows his brother the same level of respect. In Jacob’s private discussions with his own servants, he likewise refers to his brother as “my Master” and to himself as “his servant.” The Netziv signals that we should cultivate the habit of referring to people with their proper names, titles and with respect, both in public and in private. Others will pick up on how we speak and use the names and terms we use, for better or worse.

May we speak properly of others and in respectful terms.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Ariel Kleiner. A man for whom I have great respect, despite ideological differences.

 

 

Clean Prayer

[First posted at The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/clean-prayer/]

Ibn Ezra Genesis: Vayishlach

Clean Prayer

“Cut your morning devotions into your personal grooming. You would not go out to work with a dirty face. Why start the day with the face of your soul unwashed?” -Robert A. Cook

Through fate and circumstance, I’ve had opportunity to observe many types of groups and religions at prayer in different parts of the world. Whether it was Christians in one of the resplendent churches of the city of Ouro Preto, Brazil, Muslims in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul or Buddhists in Bangkok, there are a number of common denominators to the act of prayer.

There is typically a seriousness, an awe, a somberness, in the realization that one is confronting a higher power. It is perhaps ironic then that in Judaism, especially in a number of Orthodox Jewish synagogues, these aspects may be lacking in communal prayer. One is more likely to find disinterest, boredom, chatting and a great rush to be done with it. It would appear as more of an obligation that one needs to discharge rather than an opportunity to reach God in a place, at a time and with a group that is particularly structured for such a purpose.

Perhaps it is the burden of having such meetings so frequently. Perhaps it is the regularity of it. The predictability. The liturgy. I don’t know. However, perhaps the worst offense is when someone rushes into the synagogue with dirty clothing.

After the fracas of Jacob’s children with the Canaanite city of Shechem, Jacob orders his camp to get rid of any idols, wash up and change their clothing. Ibn Ezra (on Genesis 35:2) adds that this is the source that when one goes to a fixed place to pray, he should do so with a clean body and garments.

May we always show the appropriate attitude when praying, inside and out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friends and neighbors in synagogue. Let’s cut the chatter a bit.