Enlightenment comes in stages (Shmot)

Enlightenment comes in stages (Shmot)

Enlightenment must come little by little-otherwise it would overwhelm. -Idries Shah

Moses, while tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert, sees a strange and wondrous sight. He notices a tree on fire, but for some reason, the tree is not consumed by the fire. Out of curiosity, he approaches, and then he sees what appears to be a celestial being within the flames in the tree. Finally, he perceives, in some way that we can’t describe or comprehend, the presence of God.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 3:1 explains that the staggered revelation of the supernatural was purposeful and for Moses’ benefit. Had God revealed Himself to Moses in one shot, Moses would have fled, completely overwhelmed by the Divine Revelation. Therefore, God started with a mysterious fire that didn’t burn the tree. Moses’ interest was piqued, his mind prepared for the unusual. Next, the sighting of an angelic being alerted Moses to the fact that it was a spiritual, otherworldly event. Finally, God could approach Moses; even speak to him in a way that allowed Moses to keep his composure, his mental stability.

Rabbeinu Bechaye compares the gradual revelation to a man who has been sitting in darkness for some time. His eyes have become used to the dark. Should he go from pitch black to bright light too quickly, he would be blinded, perhaps even damage his eyesight. The way to transition is to look at a small sliver of light and get used to that before being exposed to stronger, brighter light.

It is the same with mental light. The mind needs to start with concepts that it’s familiar with, before it can comprehend greater truths, more powerful revelations. God takes the same approach when introducing His commandments to Israel. He starts with some basics, such as the Sabbath and civil laws. Then He proceeds to the Ten Commandments, and thereafter He presents the bulk of the Torah’s commandments.

God also gave us a parallel phenomenon in nature. Dawn commences slowly; just a sliver of light. The light seems to grow slowly, giving our eyes a chance to get used to it. In a gradual process light fills the sky until we can handle the light of a bright, sunny day.

May we see ever increasing light in our lives, and not be blinded by it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Iranian protesters. May you overcome the darkness and turn your country to light.

Secrets of Creation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinhas-secrets-of-creation/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Pinhas

Secrets of Creation

This most beautiful system The Universe could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. -Sir Isaac Newton

creation-of-the-universe

The Talmud warns us not to delve too deeply into the origins of the Universe. It further states that those who are privy to the secrets of creation should only transmit them to worthy students, and even then only in private discussions.

As Moses prepares to pass the reigns of leadership to his disciple Joshua, the Baal Haturim on Numbers 27:20 reveals that Moses also transmitted to Joshua the secrets of the “Merkava” and of creation.

The “Merkava” (literaly, Chariot) refers to the prophetic visions documented by Ezekiel as to the divine presence. It is a very deep, esoteric study which preoccupies many kabbalists. Creation is likewise veiled by the mists of time. Even with various scientific theories and advances, we cannot easily answer some of the most basic questions as to how or why we have the particular physical universe we’re familiar with.

However, it was important for at least the spiritual leaders of the generation to have some familiarity with these fundamental concepts, to know, from tradition, what the elemental forces and functioning of both our spiritual and physical existence are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paco Diez, composer, singer and leading disseminator of traditional Sepharadic music. His concert in Montevideo was a spiritual experience.

with Paco Diez

Delayed Repercussions

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yitro-delayed-repercussions/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Yitro

Delayed Repercussions

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences. – Robert Louis Stevenson

Moses arrives in a strange land. He has escaped his birthplace of Egypt. He has left his birth-nation of Israel. He finds himself amongst the idolaters of Midian and hosted by their High Priest, Jethro. Jethro appears to be a kindly, wise man. He gives Moses his daughter in marriage. However, the two men come from very different cultures and traditions, and that is where the trouble begins.

Moses comes from a monotheistic religion that believes in the one, unseen, allpowerful God. Jethro serves man-made idols. They both realize the importance of educating children. The midrash states that Moses made a deal with Jethro. Moses promised that his first son would be raised in the ways of idol worship (keep in mind this happens before the initial encounter of Moses and God at the burning bush). However, the Baal Haturim on Exodus 18:3 explains that Moses expected the wise Jethro to finally understand the error of his idolatrous ways and allow the son of Moses to be raised according to the Jewish faith.

That is indeed what happens, but the Baal Haturim says that the damage was already done, though we are not to see the results until the following generation. At the end of the book of Judges there is a not-so-subtle hint that the grandson of Moses becomes a High Priest to idol worship. The deal, even though apparently annulled was fulfilled anyway, not with a son, but with a grandson.

May we be cautious of the deals we get into or hope to get out of. They have a way of biting you when you least expect it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, on his induction as Rabbi of Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue. May it be a deal they and the community enjoy for a long time

 

 

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beshalach-choose-your-weapon-carefully/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Beshalach

Choose Your Weapon Carefully

Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

The People of Israel have finally been redeemed from the enslavement of Egypt. They have marched through the desert. They reach the edge of the sea and suddenly find themselves pursued by the entire armed might of the Egyptian empire.

They panic. They cry. They scream. They complain. Moses calls out to God. God, in one of His most famous and indicative statements replies: “Why do you call out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and Go!”

The Baal Haturim on Exodus 14:15 teases out an important lesson from God’s response. There are times for long prayer, like the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai praying for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are times for short prayers, like the five words Moses uttered when praying for the health of his sister, Miriam. And then, there are times when no words are appropriate, but rather action is called for.

May we choose our strategies correctly, the right prayer or action for the right circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the entire Jewish community of Uruguay. Your hosting of our family has been exemplary. May all our prayers be answered.

 

 

 

Circular Assistance

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bo-circular-assistance/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Bo

Circular Assistance

In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us. -Flora Edwards

According to the Midrash (old post-biblical accounts and stories of biblical events and personalities), Jethro, future father-in-law of Moses, was one of Pharaoh’s counselors. The Midrash states that Jethro argued for the benevolent treatment of the Jews at the time when Pharaoh ordered the drowning of all male babies. When Jethro saw his advice ignored and noticed the growing anti-Jewish climate, he escapes from Egypt and resettles in neighboring Midian.

Years later, Moses flees Egypt, after Pharaoh seeks to kill him for the murder of an Egyptian. Moses ends up in Midian, meets Jethro’s daughters and is invited to eat in the home of Jethro. The Baal Haturim on Exodus 10:12 states that in the merit of having fed Moses, Jethro’s crops were spared from the effects of the plague of locust (I guess he still owned some land in Egypt). He furthermore explains that even an evil person will merit protection because of feeding the righteous. What goes around comes around.

May we always be the vehicle for blessings and protection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who assisted our family during our stay in Montevideo. May you be blessed many times over.

 

 

 

 

Faith is the Cure

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vaera-faith-is-the-cure/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Vaera

Faith is the Cure

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. -Vaclav Havel

The greatest, most powerful, most important orator in Jewish history, Moses, started off with some type of speech impediment. Commentators have a variety of opinions as to exactly what the problem was, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that Moses had no desire to speak publicly. He was so perturbed by his condition that he was willing to argue with God Himself to be spared from being the divine spokesman.

God berates Moses and asks him who he thinks gives man the capacity to speak in the first place? God seems particularly harsh with Moses on this count. The question is why does God give Moses such a hard time on an issue that anyone who has ever felt discomfort or even sheer terror in front of an audience can appreciate? Why was God so demanding, even insistent that this poor, speech-challenged man should have to speak in front of the mortal ruler of the most powerful empire on Earth? Couldn’t God have chosen a natural orator, a seasoned politician, even a classroom teacher? Why did he have to focus on a lonely desert shepherd for whom the extent of discourse up until then was probably limited to giving directions to sheep?

According to the Baal Haturim on Exodus 6:30, Moses needed to have faith that God has the power to rectify the situation. God chose Moses on purpose, knowing his limitations and perhaps even because of his limitations. God knows that Moses can and will overcome them. He just needed to be placed in the position to have the necessity to overcome his challenges. Otherwise, he may have forever remained incapacitated. What angered God about Moses’ fear and denial was his lack of faith. All that he needed to overcome was faith.

It was clearly not a simple or direct path for Moses, but eventually he acquires that faith and becomes the fundamental leader of the Jewish people.

May we each overcome our particular challenges and thereby merit to contribute in our own way to our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ed Stelzer. It’s incredible where challenges and faith can lead us and how roads diverge and then intertwine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gentle Strength

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-gentle-strength/

Netziv Numbers: Chukat

Gentle Strength

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  -Eric Hoffer

“Rotund” was the simplest way to describe the smiling, mild mannered professor who lectured us regarding ancient Near East archeology. However, what belied that gentle exterior was a martial arts master who could pulverize bricks with a single blow. During one particularly disruptive class the professor warned in a deceptively mild tone, which I remember decades later: “Don’t confuse niceness with weakness.” The class immediately quieted down.

Ancient enemies of Israel did confuse politeness with feebleness. Moses and the Israelites asked permission of the nations in their path in the desert to pass peacefully through their territory on their way to the Promised Land. According to the Netziv on Numbers 21:1, these nations assumed that Israel was nicely asking for permission because they didn’t have the strength to pass by force of arms. The nations saw such politeness as a sign of weakness and marched to war upon the presumably feeble Israel. What ensued was a massacre. Israel completely destroyed the entire armies and leadership of the two attacking kings of Sichon and Og and conquered their entire territory in a swift decisive victory that caused the entire region to tremble in fear of the approaching Israelites.

May our enemies learn to fear us and may we show strength to people who don’t understand gentleness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s army and security forces. May God protect them during their search for our sons: Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.