Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent. -Bob Dylan

There are two somewhat arcane commandments (among many) that always nagged me. I was always uncomfortable with them. I couldn’t make sense of them. The first one is called Tmura (not to be confused with Truma). It basically means that if I’ve consecrated an animal to be brought as an offering and then I have a change of heart and decide to consecrate a different animal instead, both animals become consecrated. How does that make sense? This is a voluntary gift; shouldn’t I have the right to change my mind?

In a related vein, the second commandment has to do with Temple gifts and donations. If I decide to gift my property to the Temple and then decide I want it back, I need to pay a 25% fee on top of the original value of my property to get it back. If the Temple were to sell it to anyone else, they would charge the original/market value. Again, I seem to be getting penalized for my generosity!

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 27:10 (Bechukotai) provides an answer to both quandaries. The Torah is concerned that we may come to regret our generous gesture. In a fit of inspiration, on a high of closeness to God, we may decide to consecrate the best animal from our flock to God. However, the feeling may pass. We may say to ourselves: “What was I thinking!? That’s a really expensive animal! I could have shown my love or appreciation to God just as well with a cheaper animal.”

However, the Torah states that not only does our original consecration hold, but that it will cost us more if we try to get out of it somehow. Jewish law is so strict on this account that it doesn’t even allow one to change an inferior animal for a better one. The rationale is that if we allow changing of any animals, eventually we will find a way to change a better animal for a worse one.

The same logic of forcing us to hold fast to our generous impulse applies in the consecration of property. If you want it back it’s going to cost you an added 25%. The Temple is going to be selling it in any case, but the Torah doesn’t want us and won’t let us in these cases go back on our word.

We should never, ever regret the generosity we show or the good that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s firefighters, who kept us safe from the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and who currently battle the fires out of Gaza.

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.

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.

 

Self-punishment

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behukotai-self-punishment/

Netziv Leviticus: Behukotai

Self-punishment

“A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences.” -Norman Cousins

The Torah is as harsh with its punishments as it is generous with its rewards. Some people, while happy to receive rewards for good acts, believe it unjust for us to be punished for going against the directives of God.

The Netziv on Leviticus 26:3 explains that God’s list of punishments shouldn’t be seen as capricious intervention on His part against those who ignore Him. Rather it is a list of warnings, much like a doctor’s health warning, that if a person chooses to follow an unhealthy path, then the inevitable consequence is the pain and suffering that will ensue.

The “punishments” then are not necessarily some special response on God’s part, but rather it is the natural result of the actions we take. God is merely warning us to avoid such paths in order to be spared from the resultant outcome.

So for our own selfish interest and self-preservation, there may be some wisdom in following God’s directives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To the good Rabbis of Buenos Aires for such a warm welcome.

 

Messianic Predictions

Kli Yakar Leviticus:Bechukotai

Messianic Predictions

Every generation since the destruction of the Second Temple has anticipated the arrival of the Messiah, who would usher in a new age and build the Third Temple. It is an article of Jewish faith as popularized by Maimonides and sung to various tunes (Ani Maamin). 

The Kli Yakar provides some hints as to the magnitude of the Messianic era, based on a verse in Leviticus 26:10. He writes that there are secrets hidden within the verse and then takes us to verses in Jeremiah 23:7-8. English translations don’t to justice to the Hebrew (the curious can look them up), but the point is that the miracles of the Egyptian Exodus will seem paltry compared to the miracles we will witness in the Messianic age.

I was told the very same thing by a living sage just a few weeks ago. The Rebbe of the Shomrei Emunim Hasidim, echoed the same verse from Jeremiah and then based on the Biblical commentary of the great Don Isaac Abarbanel (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508) proceeded to translate the following predictions to our times: 

          A military aircraft will be crashed into the Vatican sparking a religious war.

          There will be a nuclear war that will change the world.

          Israel will be the only safe place in the world, which will witness amazing miracles of salvation. 

I asked the Rebbe the all-consuming question on all prophetic efforts – “when?” He answered that not even Elijah the Prophet knows when he will arrive to announce the coming of the Messiah. However, he added that he can come in an instant – any instant.

I asked him: “How do we prepare? What can we do?” 

He answered: “Only through Torah and good deeds.”

May we merit welcoming the Messiah speedily in our day with all the accompanying good it entails. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi 

Dedication 

To Elijah and the Messiah. I imagine you’re anxious too. I expect your timing will be just right.