The Teacher’s Sacrifice

Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Vezot Habrachah

The Teacher’s Sacrifice

“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.” -Aristotle

Jewish law dictates significant esteem and honor to ones teacher – sometimes above that of a parent. In our current age such a concept may seem unfathomable. How can this often minimum-wage earner, this socio-economic struggler, this stranger who lectures us, this quasi-professional who may not be qualified to otherwise participate in the workforce be placed on a pedestal above the people who brought us into the world?

As a student, I was subjected to a plethora of mediocre and perhaps even lousy teachers, with a sprinkling of good ones. Once every few years I would cross paths with an extraordinary and even inspiring teacher. I feel their impact to this day. I am now privileged to live in a community with an inordinately high percentage of teachers. I find most of these teachers to be passionate, dedicated and inspiring (and easily qualified to have chosen any profession they may have desired). However, the Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy 33:9) hints at the price they pay – and he is not referring to the financial one.

Moses blesses the tribes in his final speech. The Tribe of Levi was apparently destined to be a tribe of teachers, instructing the Children of Israel as to God’s Laws. To the Levites Moses states the following hard-to-understand line:

“Who said of his father, and of his mother: ‘I have not seen them’; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew he his own children.”

The Kli Yakar explains that these Levite/Teachers are so committed to their studies; they are so absorbed in their teaching profession, that they simply have insufficient time for their family. Not for their parents, not for their siblings and not even for their own children.

This is unfortunately not an uncommon phenomenon among teaching families.

May we all, teacher and non-teachers alike find the right work/family balance and may we also remember that our family are perhaps our most important students.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tovah,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all the teachers in my life. Thank you.

Unconditional Generosity

 Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Unconditional Generosity

Before a final exam or some other major challenge in my life, I would often turn to God and pray. “God, please help me do well,” I would think, or “just get me through this bind,” and then I’d promise that I’d behave, or do something good, or something along those lines. The foundation of such thinking was a classic barter system. God will do something for me and in return I’ll do something for Him.

The Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy 32:6) explains that such a premise is entirely mistaken and that I just didn’t understand this aspect of God. God doesn’t ‘need’ anything from us. And He doesn’t do things for us in exchange for some favor or assistance we provided Him. God is unconditionally generous. There are no strings attached. We may and will receive reward and punishment as a consequence of our deeds, but the life, health and good fortune that He provides can be independent of anything good or bad we may have done. He gives because He is faultlessly generous and giving, whether we are deserving or not.

According to the Kli Yakar, the ‘negotiation’ mentality or belief in the quid pro quo system was both ancient and widespread. Moses berates the entire nation for it, calling us “a vile and unwise nation” on this specific point. We just didn’t get it. God is not some deity that we bring sacrifices or gifts to in order to assuage His anger or get on His good side.

So too, the Kli Yakar directs us in our giving. Ideally, it should be free of ulterior motives. We should give, whether it is time, money, assistance or resources, because it is the right and appropriate thing to do. To expect some advantage, some leverage, some payback down the line, while it may be the reality of many relationships, misses the point. Such generosity is conditional and therefore lacking.

May we free our minds of the barter mentality in our relationship with God and others, strive for the level of unconditional giving, and may we all be inscribed in the Books of Life, Health, Success and All Good Things in the coming Year.

Ktivah Ve’chatimah Tovah,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our parents. Models to us of unconditional generosity.

To the memory of Gavriel Michael of Forest Hills, NY. His life was one of unconditional generosity and kindness to those around him and most especially to my grandmother, neighbors for many decades. He passed away today in NY and will be buried tomorrow in Jerusalem.

 

Evil Thoughts

Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

Evil Thoughts

There is a concept in Judaism that one is only punishable for what one does. You can plan a heist, but are only found guilty for the act of attempting to rob a bank, not for the thought of robbing a bank.

There is however a caveat to this rule. There are some evil thoughts that are punishable. Just the firing of the neurons in your brain focused on some particular evil idea is liable to divine retribution. The horrible, punishable thought is ‘idol worship’, or more properly translated, ‘strange worship’.

The Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy 29:18) draws this conclusion from an interesting verse:

“And it comes to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he blesses himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’”

The evil thinker may believe that as no one besides himself is aware of the thoughts of his heart, then he is both guiltless and beyond punishment. Well – he’d be wrong. God knows.

God knows what is in the heart and mind of man. If man’s mind is preoccupied with ‘strange worship’, with devotion to things, and concepts and pleasures that are beyond those prescribed by tradition – that is punishable. Just the thinking of it is highly problematic. The Talmud states that in some cases the thought of sin can be worse than the sin itself.

Thankfully, however, the converse is also true. In repentance, just the thought itself can count. If someone decides to change his ways, if he truly, earnestly, from the bottom of his heart has committed himself to improve his actions, just that thought is counted as repentance – even if he did nothing yet. Not only that, but the Kli Yakar adds that based on such a powerful thought, based on the commitment, God Himself will help the penitent with the act of repentance. When the sinful opportunity comes again, God, based on the person’s soulful repentance will assist in helping the sinner overcome the temptation.

May we start thinking good thoughts, abandon strange worship and get on the bandwagon of the people God is promoting.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our friend, Ruth Lieberman of Alon Shvut, on her instrumental assistance in getting Bob Turner elected to the 9th Congressional District in New York (my home district of Forest Hills). Though politics is filled with strange worship, there is clearly some divine promotion going on. Click here to read about her amazing accomplishment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ultimate Blessing

Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

The Ultimate Blessing

This week’s Torah portion gives a long list of curses as well as blessings. The curses are frightening. They are so horrible that the tradition is to read them in a hushed tone in the synagogue. The blessings on the other hand are wonderful. We could only wish for them to all come true. Blessings of wealth and success. Of children and peace. Of power and dominion. Of honor, recognition and admiration from the ends of the earth.

The Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy 28:8) however is not satisfied with these blessings. He claims that these blessings are just an appetizer. The true blessing, the ultimate blessing, is something completely different.

The problem with the listed blessings, he feels, is that they are finite. Anything that can be counted is limited. It will come to an end. The highest blessing can only be bestowed on something infinite. All else pales in comparison to a never-ending blessing. Such a blessing can only attach itself to something that will never run out, that can never be taken away – something intrinsic to each individual.

The Kli Yakar claims that the ultimate blessing can only be absorbed by the soul. The infinite human divine soul is able to achieve the ultimate blessing. That blessing is a connection with God. The development of fear of God, of awe of God, of love of God, creates a new reality deep within us. The striving for an ever growing God-consciousness pervades our souls for eternity. That is a blessing that is forever.

In this period before the High Holidays, the month of ‘return’, may we develop this ultimate blessing for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To God. We probably don’t acknowledge Him as much as we should. According to tradition, He is more approachable these days. Let’s do lunch with Him or something.

 

The Strength of Silence

 Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Ki Tetze

The Strength of Silence

“It is no little wisdom for a man to keep himself in silence and in good peace when evil words are spoken to him, and to turn his heart to God and not to be troubled with man’s judgment.” Thomas Kempis

The news, media and our own selves seem to thrive on disparaging remarks. To take one’s enemy, opponent, associate or even loved one a peg down is almost instinctive in many circles. It is constructive criticism, we argue. They deserve it, we explain. Someone needs to point out their weight, or their poor economic policies, or their warped ideologies.

However, a well-prepared victim is not without recourse. Armed with biting comments, the best defense is an aggressive attack. The attacker becomes fair game for a return of well-deserved and now called-for criticism. It can be entertaining watching verbose opponents sparring with each other (the British Parliament a famous example).

The Kli Yakar (23:14) however has an entirely different reaction to a verbal attack. From verses on actual warfare he explains the ideal counter-attack is none other than silence. Silence will stop an attacker’s diatribe in its tracks. There is only so long one can criticize an opponent that is ignoring verbal nonsense. This is not to diminish the harm or wrong that such attacks represent. Ideally one should avoid and not have to put up with such abuse. However, in the reality of being subjected to unwarranted criticism, silence is not only golden, it’s smart.

May we learn to keep our peace, on both the giving and the receiving end.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all of the schools and teachers that have just completed their first full week back to school. The structure, and the periods of silence and peace it engenders in the home is truly appreciated.

Fall of the Wise

Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Shoftim

Fall of the Wise

“As favor and riches forsake a man, we discover in him the foolishness they concealed, and which no one perceived before.” Jean De La Bruyere

Stupidity is contagious, and it stems from arrogance. At least that is what the Kli Yakar (link) argues. He is so concerned about people becoming infected with this disease that he even prescribes that one should be careful where he lives so as not to catch it. The criteria he gives for determining the suitability of ones domicile is the character of the judge of the town. The Kli Yakar (Deuteronomy Chapter 16) explains that if the judge is arrogant, even the wisest scholar will fall prey to foolishness, just by association.

Arrogance leads to thinking one knows it all, or is always right in their opinions. That of course leads to foolishness, for even King Solomon the Wise fell most disastrously relying on his own council. The Kli Yakar’s greater concern is the infectiousness of incorrect thinking. If a judge, or a leader, or any other great and wise person, take on the attribute of arrogance, leading to faulty judgment, others around them, others that look up to them, admire them and see them as role models, may also exercise poor judgment. Entire communities may crop up with an error in their thinking and life – all based on one arrogant wise man whose foolishness may doom generations.

May God spare us the arrogance of the wise and keep us near the humble of any stature.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

On the marriage of Tamar and Marki Roig. They are each of both noble stature yet humble bearings. May it ever be so.

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).