Inversely Proportional Punishment

Inversely Proportional Punishment

Those who know the least obey the best. -George Farquhar

After the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the consecration of the Tabernacle was meant to be the next high point of the sojourn of the Nation of Israel during their desert journey. This portable Temple with the concentrated presence of God amongst them, would accompany the young nation, keeping God ever close.

But amidst the induction of Aaron and his sons as the Kohens, the priestly caste; amidst the festivities, the sacrifices, the rituals and the celebrations – something goes horribly wrong.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, decide, on their own initiative, to introduce a “strange” fire to the proceedings. This uncommanded change to the day’s ritual was met with immediate and devastating results. A fire from the heavens immediately descends and kills Nadav and Avihu instantly.

Commentators offer a range of explanations as to what exactly was the sin of Nadav and Avihu and why they deserved what on the surface appears to be a wildly disproportional punishment for what we might think was a minor infraction at worst.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 10:3 interprets the event as clearly an error on the part of Nadav and Avihu and learns something as to God’s view of moral responsibility, obedience and punishment based on intellectual capacity:

“God says: ‘The more a person stands out from among his people as a teacher and leader in relation to Me, the less will I show indulgence for his errors. Even by having him die I demonstrate that My will is absolute and that not even – indeed, least of all – those nearest to Me, the highest before Me, may permit themselves the slightest deviation from it. This will make the entire nation realize the full, solemn import of the obedience they owe Me.’ Seen in this light, these words of God should be sufficient consolation for Aaron, so that the text can indeed state: ‘And Aharon was silent.” Had his sons not been close to God, allowance might have been made for their aberration, and the Heavenly decree that overtook them might not have come to them as a warning of such solemn import for the entire nation. In sharpest divergence from the modern view, which regards intellectual attainments as a license for moral laxity and tends to make allowances for violators of God’s moral law if they happen to be men of intellect, Judaism postulates that the higher the intellect, the greater must be the moral demands placed upon it.”

Indeed, to paraphrase, borrowing a line from modern culture, we might say that, “With great intellectual power, comes great moral responsibility.”

May we harness our intellects and intelligence morally and not see it as an exemption from our many responsibilities to family, friends, community and society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Education Ministry’s Department for Evaluation of Foreign Academic Degrees. They demonstrated great intelligence and responsibility in evaluating my degrees.

Man with God

Man with God 

Nothing hath separated us from God but our own will, or rather our own will is our separation from God. -William Law 

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 6:2 contrasts the heathen view of Night and Day to the Jewish view, and what that means regarding our relationship to God:

“Night, the time when things are “commingled,” when man, too, reverts to the bondage of physical forces, brings the heathen mind closer to its gods. At night the heathen believes he feel the power of the gods that hold him in bondage along with all other creatures. Conversely, he perceives the day, the time of “standing erect,” when man becomes aware of himself and resumes the struggle to subdue the physical world, as the time when man must take up anew the struggle against the gods.”

“By virtue of the Word of God, the position of Judaism is the direct antithesis to these notions. The Jew need not wait until night in order to feel the power of his God. He stands near to his God particularly when his mind is clear and when he is in the midst of his endeavors to subdue the world. He regards the lucidity of his clear mind, the energy of his free will and the results of his creative endeavors, indeed, all of his free personality that achieves its highest potential during his daily activities, as a gift from his Creator, the One sole God. By breathing into him a tiny spark from the infinite fullness of His own spirit that fills the world with His thoughts, from His own holy, unfettered will, from His own creative power that freely dominates the world which He Himself freely created, God has raised man high to Himself beyond the bonds of the physical world. God has thereby elevated man, made in God’s image, to become a free personality, ruling freely over the world in service of God and God’s purposes. Precisely by implementing this power in his daily personal life does man fulfill the will of his God; only in this manner, uplifted and encouraged by God Himself, can man render his service to God in this world.”

“The heathen mentality sees daytime as the period when mortals must do battle against the might of the gods. To the Jews day is the time for action, for achievements in the service of God and for his approval. Hence in the Sanctuary of Judaism it is not night that drags day with it into the grave of mortality, but day that raises night with it into the eternity of a life of nearness to God. Physical nature is not the intermediary between the Jew and his God; man’s personality stands high above physical nature and in direct proximity to God. For this reason it was in the wilderness, where man has nothing and no one but himself, that God came near to Israel. It was there that God established with Israel the covenant of His Law. It was there, in the wilderness, where man has nothing to offer to his God except himself, nothing but that which he bears within his own personality, that God first commanded Israel to make the offerings of its own devotion to Him.”

“An unfettered personality that subordinates its thoughts, its aspirations and its achievements to God of its own free will: such is the personality to which God’s command was addressed and which is a prerequisite for the offerings made to Him.”

May we see both Night and Day for what they truly are and endeavor to connect with God rather than foolishly strive against Him.

Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the men, women and children working day and night preparing for Pesach.

Real Direct Prophecy

 Real Direct Prophecy

 A god who let us prove his existence would be an idol. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are some things that are difficult to believe until experienced, and many times the only alternative we have is faith. One such thing is the concept of prophecy and especially the prophecy that we are told Moses experienced. The concept of God speaking directly to a human being or sharing certain images and visions with them might seem strange. Could it have been a function of their imagination? There are countless cases of people with mental illness who believed that God spoke to them. What makes these perturbed people different from our prophets?

Maimonides, amongst other Jewish sages and philosophers, provides various answers as to the validity and divinity of our prophetic tradition as well as to the uniqueness of the communication and interaction that God had with Moses.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 1:1 explains that the actual biblical wording highlights the fact that the prophecy of Moses was a real, clear direct communication from God:

“God’s call is described as an act that was an integral part of His speaking with Moses and in fact defined the manner in which the speaking was done. The word to be communicated to Moses was prefaced by a call to Moses.”

“This formulation of the text was apparently intended to make it clear that when God spoke with Moses it was indeed the word of God addressed to Moses by God Himself. The intention probably was to forestall those deliberate misrepresentations which so delight in changing the Divine Revelation to Moses into something emanating from with Moses himself, thus equating the Revelation with the delusion of so-called manic ecstasy arising from within the man himself. But this is not true.”  

“The word of the speaker cannot in any manner be interpreted as a product also of the mind of him who hears the speech. So, too, the word of God to Moses came purely and solely from God. It did not come from within Moses. It came to Moses from without, calling him away, as it were, from his own thought processes so that he might listen attentively to what God wished to say to him. Thus, the fact that the call from God came directly before God’s words to Moses refutes the notion that these words were preceded by some process taking place within Moses himself. It characterizes God alone as the speaker and Moses merely as the listener. The word of God to Moses was in no manner a phenomenon initiated or evoked by Moses, not even a development Moses could have surmised in advance; it came to Moses as a historic event from without.”

The transmission of the divine will of God to Moses is something that is beyond our ability to comprehend or understand. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because our mental and spiritual faculties are so meager, does not in any way invalidate the historicity of our tradition. Only the feeble-minded dismiss or ridicule what they don’t understand.

What Moses heard and recorded for all of posterity was indeed the voice of God. It was not something he imagined. It was not something he or anyone else made up. It is the will of God as instructed to Moses and transmitted in an unbreakable chain of over one hundred generations. It’s the real thing.

May we appreciate what that means and take advantage of it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of our friends and family who helped make the wedding of our children such an incredible event.

A Secret to Knowing God

A Secret to Knowing God

Only divine love bestows the keys of knowledge.  -Arthur Rimbaud

HumbleThe Jewish people were given 613 commandments. Many of these commandments appear obvious to us today: don’t kill, don’t steal, respect your parents. However, there are many that don’t appear to make sense, including sacrifices and many other ritual laws. The Hebrew term for such commandments is “chok” – by definition a law that we don’t necessarily understand.

Sfat Emet in 5632 (1872) explains that God commands us to follow in His laws, by first of all, studying His Torah. However, counter-intuitively he states that the goal of Torah study should not be to reach knowledge and understanding. Rather the goal of Torah study is to thereby annul ourselves in front of God. By such annulment (“bitul” is the Kabalistic term) we will then reach that divine understanding. Then, the more one “knows”, the more one annuls themselves, the more divine understanding is provided.

This virtuous cycle can also be achieved, not only by annulling oneself to God, but also to the needs of the people of Israel. For the people of Israel are considered God’s agents in the world. When one wholeheartedly puts the interests of the Jewish people before one’s own personal interests, it is a potential gateway to knowledge and understanding of God.

May we gain greater wisdom and understanding of God and our roles in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the 100th birthday of Bernard Lewis, a modern-day sage with prophetic instincts.

 

Miraculous Nature

Miraculous Nature

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. -Albert Einstein

seed-sowing

There is a biblical command of the sabbatical year, the original divine order to leave ones field fallow every seven years. To willingly forsake ones livelihood, to have faith that nature itself will somehow be altered and that one’s food production will increase miraculously would seem foolhardy at best. However, the biblical text itself anticipates this fear and promises abundant produce to those who comply with God’s will.

In a sense, we have come to define nature as phenomena we have been accustomed to: the rising of the sun, the birth of a child, the decomposition of a seed and its subsequent growth into a plant, and so much more. Nature is commonplace and taken for granted, though no less incredible, even if science has given us explanations for how these things take place.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1877) explains that miracles and nature are one and the same and that what we know as nature is in fact the greatest miracle. Furthermore, for a person of faith that understands the divine origin of both and that they are both expressions of divine will, what the world calls miracles can occur to a person of faith with greater frequency because they are no longer blind to the hand of God.

He adds that just as there are laws of nature, there are likewise laws of miracles, which the people of Israel are predisposed to.

May we appreciate the miraculousness of nature and the naturalness of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s various technology industries. It is becoming natural to see the miracles they are developing.

 

Powerful Humility

Powerful Humility

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God. -Monica Baldwin

Captain_America

Humility should not be confused with low self-esteem. Moses, considered the most humble of men, did not lack self-esteem. What he did accomplish was to submit himself completely to the will of God. That was part of his unsurpassed humility and his greatness.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 and 5638 (1877 and 1878) on the weekly Torah reading of Emor explains the power of being humble. A person who humbles himself before God, who controls his own desires in favor of what he understands to be God’s commands, will merit seeing God alter the very fabric of reality to realize the humble man’s positive desires.

Furthermore, the humble man, who does his positive actions discretely, will eventually have a public reward. The converse also being true, that the sinner who sins privately, and remains unrepentant, will eventually have the ignominy of some public shame.

May we reach true humility, by having a correct relationship to God and witness miracles and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the humble people at Kohelet Policy Forum who are accomplishing powerful things.

Mundane Sanctity

Mundane Sanctity 

If your heart were sincere and upright, every creature would be unto you a looking-glass of life and a book of holy doctrine. -Thomas Kempis

dirty_handsThe sin of the Spies, who scared the Children of Israel from wanting to enter the Land of Canaan, resulted in the punishment of forty years in the desert. There is an opinion that one of the motives of the Spies might have been connected to the idea of holiness.

The Spies felt that the Children of Israel in the desert were in a utopian condition. The manna fell to them from heaven. Their clothing and shoes miraculously stayed in pristine condition. They didn’t have to work. They were all united and camped around the Holy Tabernacle which was in their midst. All they needed to concern themselves with on a daily basis was to hear the words of Torah from Moses, the great teacher.

They knew that once they crossed into the Promised Land, the overt miracles would cease. They would have to work for a living. Till the soil. Plant crops. Pray and hope for rains that would grow their grains. Gather the produce. Sift and mill and grind. Again they would have to live the ancient curse upon Adam, that by the sweat of their brow they would eat bread.

The work, the dealing with the material and mundane would threaten their state of holiness. However, the Sfat Emet in 5632 (1872) states that a greater level is achieved by bringing the holy to the mundane, by sanctifying the material world. It is easy to remain pure and holy in one’s ivory tower. The real challenge, the real goal is to go out into the world, work the land, interact with everything that makes up the world we live in and introduce the spiritual to it. That elevates the world and everything in it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Israel Elwyn group that has visited us in Uruguay. Their efforts and presence has elevated our own handicapped members and the entire community.