Double-Edged Stubbornness

Double-Edged Stubbornness

Obstinacy in a bad cause is but constancy in a good. -Sir Thomas Browne

One of the highlights of the service of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur was the unusual sacrifice procedure of the two goats. Two identical, or as close to two identical goats were selected. They needed to be of the same appearance, size and value. A lottery was performed to determine the fate of these indistinguishable creatures. In a completely random process, almost like the flipping of a coin, the short but distinct future of each of these goats was sealed.

One goat, the “Goat to God,” was sacrificed in the conventional fashion: in the Temple, in front of God, its blood placed on the Altar in holy submission. The second goat, the “Goat to Azazel,” suffered a rare and torturous demise.

The second goat, which thereafter would be popularized as The Scapegoat, was walked out of the Temple grounds, out of the city, passed human habitation and into the desolate desert.  At the top of a cliff, overlooking a ravine, the attending priest would push the goat over the cliff. The Talmud describes that the unfortunate goat didn’t make it halfway down the cliff before it was torn to pieces by the violence of the fall. Somehow, this bloody ritual served as atonement for the people of Israel.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 16:10 explains that the goats represent human choice. Our free will gives us equal access and equal inclination for either good, holy choices or bad, mundane choices. We can choose to be the positive “Goat for God,” or the negative “Goat for Azazel.”

What these choices have in common and their connection to the “Goats” is that either choice relies on stubbornness. To be a “Goat for God” requires an adherence to God’s laws and a repudiation of the enticements of the age that cannot be achieved without extreme stubbornness. Conversely, to be a “Goat for Azazel” demands a consistently stubborn refusal to follow the dictates, the inspiration, the clarity and the illumination of the Torah. The path of Azazel leads to oblivion. The path of God leads to eternal life.

May we use our innate stubbornness to choose goodness, holiness and eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Parts Authority on their incredibly impressive Trade Show at Citi Field. I remember well its very humble beginnings.

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.

Sinner’s Advantage

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/kedoshim-sinners-advantage/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Acharai Mot – Kedoshim

Sinner’s Advantage

Many of the insights of the saint stem from their experience as sinners.  -Eric Hoffer

repentUturnA sinner who reaches a level of guilt or even embarrassment over their past failings will often feel inadequate in the presence of those ostensibly better behaved than themselves. They may feel morally inferior, even corrupt in front of those who have not been down the dark roads they’ve traversed. On a devoutness scale, they may always fall short. They may wonder what they can contribute to the world when there are people in it who are so much better than they are.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 20:3 states a principle of faith that turns the above calculation on its head and echoes the Talmudic dictum that “in the place/level that a repentant sinner stands, a completely righteous man cannot stand/reach.”

The Baal Haturim gives more detail to this evocative statement. He claims that when a sinner repents of his sins, somehow, through some divine transmutation, those sins are converted into merits. So if we were to attempt to illustrate the concept mathematically, let us imagine a sinner who is on a divine obedience level of let’s say -10. His friend, the wonderfully righteous man who hasn’t sinned has an impressive +6, 16 levels above our friend the sinner. Should the sinner truly and deeply repent, his level is transformed from a -10 to a +10, surpassing our righteous friend who hasn’t tasted sin.

There is something truly powerful and valuable about a person who realizes his mistake, regrets it and in a significant fashion turns himself around. This is a tremendously greater challenge than for the person who has not had and has not lived through the same temptations and trials, who is not used to certain behavior or actions. Perhaps where we see the repentant man’s sins used positively (of course this is not an excuse to sin…) is when he uses his unique capacity to assist others with the same background and challenges. The righteous may have a theoretical understanding of the issues, but can rarely reach the level of interaction, communication and effectiveness of the repentant sinner.

May we sinners understand our true value and capacity for good – and fulfill it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the IDF soldiers assisting the earthquake victims in Nepal. You are an inspiration.

 

 

Religious Convenience

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/kedoshim-religious-convenience/

Netziv Leviticus: Kedoshim

Religious Convenience

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a trend in religious life, whether one was born into it, or one joins it later in life, to live a certain lifestyle, within a certain community. Aspects of religious service become rote. We do things without giving it much thought. It becomes convenient. If we are confronted with a change from the comfortable, if there is something in the religious obligation that we don’t like or inconveniences us, then we decide that we are doing enough in our divine obligations, that there is no need to be “so” religious.

In a related theme, there is an unusual and particularly harsh punishment concerning eating of sacrificial meat that was offered during Temple times. It is meant to be consumed within two days. If it is eaten on the third day – a sin known as “pigul”, the violator’s punishment is “karet”, which is translated as “cut off”. “Karet” is variably explained as he will die young, his children will die, and/or his eternal soul will cease to be. However one looks at it, it seems like an inordinately unforgiving penalty for what amounts to eating leftovers a day past their expiration date.

The Netziv on Leviticus 19:8 explains that the infraction reveals a much deeper problem. If one eats within the prescribed time, then all is well. However, if one decides that it is not convenient, that he wishes to indulge a bit more in the tasty and expensive meat that he already paid for and grilled, then it demonstrates that his entire service of God is really self-serving. His lifestyle is in reality one of indulgence and gratification and is an express rejection of and rebellion against God. Such a person though outwardly “observant” has issues with his understanding of the demands and responsibilities of divine service.

May we strengthen the good things we do and do them because they are right, and not just convenient.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who exerted themselves in preparing and providing Kosher for Passover food. It certainly wasn’t convenient, but was highly delicious and appreciated.

 

With great power…

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/kedoshim-with-great-power/]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Kedoshim

With great power…

“He who is false to present duty breaks a thread in the loom, and will find the flaw when he may have forgotten its cause.” -Henry Ward Beecher

In the fabricated mythology of our modern era, perhaps one character stands alone as the epitome of responsibility. I am talking, of course, of Marvel Comics’ angst-ridden, smart-mouthed, arachnid-powered Spider-Man.

In the story of his genesis, the super-powered youth hailing from Forest Hills, NY, (my neighborhood!), uses his newfound abilities exclusively for fame and glory. He witnesses an armed robbery, and in his egocentric blasé, allows the thief to escape, though he could have easily stopped him. However, fate is not kind to the unhelpful bystander. The same thief later accosts and kills Spider-Man’s beloved uncle and guardian, Uncle Ben.

Awakened harshly and directly to the consequences of his inaction, Spider-Man vows to dedicate his life to fighting injustice, living by his dead uncle’s motto, which Marvel has made so famous: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that Spider-Man’s self-blame is well placed. In Leviticus 19:11 he explains the unusual usage of the plural form in the commandment of not to steal. He explains that it means to include not only the direct perpetrator of a crime, but also those that stand by quietly and do nothing when they could have. They are equally guilty of the crime.

Spider-Man took the lesson to heart. May we never stand by idly when duty calls.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the fictional Parker family (Peter/Spider-Man, Uncle Ben and Aunt May). They were entertaining role models.

The Power of Ten

Kli Yakar Leviticus: Kedoshim

 

The Power of Ten 

It happens often, when I’m at a daily prayer gathering, that we are missing the tenth man that makes up the required quorum (minyan) to start communal prayer. There is a certain anxiety that sets in, in anticipation of the tenth man showing up.

One might think that prayer, which is generally a highly private, individual matter, is better, or at least equal, done in solitude. Judaism does not seem to agree with such a view. Especially regarding regular scheduled prayer. 

There are a variety of Jewish rituals that require ten men in order to proceed. The Kli Yakar highlights this fact from Leviticus 19:2:

“Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”

 

The Kli Yakar explains that ‘congregation’ refers to a minimum of ten men, and that a ‘holy’ act requires this number. Not only is this number required for ritual efforts, but ten Jewish men, united by one purpose, creates holiness. There is some intrinsic otherworldly power in the gathering of at least ten men for divine service. 

May we avail ourselves of such gatherings when we can.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Bentzi

Dedication 

To my sons, for organizing a minyan, when I had already given up hope.