Stolen Inheritance

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vezot-habracha-stolen-inheritance/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Vezot Habrachah

Stolen Inheritance

You may not be able to leave your children a great inheritance, but day by day, you may be weaving coats for them which they will wear for all eternity.  -Theodore L. Cuyler

Jewish education starts at the youngest possible age. We start by teaching children verses from the Bible, often with a melody. One of the first verses and perhaps one of the most important ones is from Deuteronomy 33:4:

“The Torah was commanded to us by Moses, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.”

There is something fundamental about the fact that Moses transmitted the words of God to us. And there is something equally important about the Torah being our inheritance.

The Netziv explains this verse further and states that not only is the Torah, Jewish law and tradition our inheritance, not only is it central to Jewish life and continuity, but whoever withholds the transmission of Jewish jurisprudence from their students is as if they are stealing their inheritance.

Parents have not only the responsibility, but the obligation to pass on the chain of tradition to their children. And if their own parents failed in that transmission, it does not absolve them of reclaiming that treasure and passing it on to future generations. It is woefully true that in many families the chain has been broken. Lip service is paid to our Jewish heritage. The most minimal, superficial, watered-down aspects of Judaism is sometimes all that remains. There is so much more!

Let us not be the generation that let the chain remain broken. Let us reforge the chain. Let us insure a Jewish tomorrow for our families. It starts with education.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ronit Stolovas and Nadia Dzimalkowski who have taken upon themselves the coordination of meals for the Uruguayan Shabbos Project – the biggest communal education project of the year.

Voodoo Judaism

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/haazinu-voodoo-judaism/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Voodoo Judaism

It is superstitious to put one’s hopes in formalities, but arrogant to refuse to submit to them. -Blaise Pascal

In Judaism, we have rituals and sacred objects. There is also a belief that performing these rituals and utilizing these objects can have a positive influence on our lives and world. However, if we limit ourselves to merely this method of operation, it is a shallow understanding of how the spiritual world interacts with our physical one.

It is not merely some sorcerous trick, that by putting the traditional mezuza by the door, that one’s home will be protected. It is not slight-of-hand that determines that a person who gives a tenth of his income to charity will see financial success. It is not magic that the reciting of Psalms is known to give solace as well as influence the world around us.

However, when a person deficient in multiple aspects of their lives, blames their ill-fortune on the quality of their mezuza, then there is something wrong with their concept of Judaism, commandments and a relationship with God.

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 32:2 explains that these simpler, ritual commandments are good and have a positive influence on smaller things. But he clarifies that the ultimate benefit comes from hard-earned knowledge of the Torah, of God’s laws and will in this world. That familiarity, when the Torah becomes a part of oneself, influences all other successes.

The little acts are good and important, but they are only the edges of a much vaster system of influences. At the heart of that system is the work and effort we put into understanding God’s directives to us. His Torah. A connection to God via his laws is the ultimate guarantor of eternal success.

May we strengthen ourselves in this New Year to reacquaint ourselves with the rulebook, with the expectations God has of us, which in the end guarantees a deeper, more meaningful and more successful existence.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Misha Beshkin, creator of the “Is It Kosher?” app. He is facilitating the world’s familiarity with Kosher products and has helped bring our Uruguayan list to wider use.

Personal and Group Judgment

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/nitzavim-personal-and-group-judgment/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Nitzavim

Personal and Group Judgment

There is a destiny that makes us brothers, No one goes his way alone; All that we send into the lives of others, Comes back into our own. -Edwin Markham

Jewish prayer consists of both personal pleas and communal orations. The liturgy itself also reflects this duality of seeking the welfare of the individual as well as of the group. The question however, for the High Holidays, is whether this dichotomy continues. Are we judged for our personal faults or are there also some accounting of group sins, and if so, how does that work?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 29:9 digs into the issue and comes to the following conclusions. We are primarily judged as individuals, and not in comparison to others. We are judged based on our own personal potential, on what we could have achieved and didn’t, on what we could have avoided but instead gave in to temptation. Each person has their own unique scale of accomplishments and that is what God looks at.

However, just as a person has their own particular attributes and potential, groups likewise have attributes and potential and God judges the aggregate of the people that make up particular groups, whether it is a family unit, a company, a school, a synagogue, a community, a city, a country or a people. If groups live up to their potential they are duly rewarded – and if they don’t, then their raison d’être comes into question. Each group has its own unique mission that only they can achieve.

May we take the opportunity of the New Year, not only to evaluate ourselves, but also all the different groups we are a part of, and plan on a year where we live our unique potentials and missions both for ourselves and together with all those who we are connected to.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the groups that I am a part of. I beg forgiveness of you for my errors, shortcomings and faults.

Cosmetic Beauty

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tavo-cosmetic-beauty/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

Cosmetic Beauty

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” -Kahlil Gibran

In the Western, Greek-inspired world youth has become synonymous with beauty. To look younger is to be beautiful. To that end, it has become growingly popular to alter ones appearance, even via surgery, to achieve the elusive façade of eternal youth.

Judaism has an opposite view regarding youth and beauty. Old age and hard-earned wrinkles are to be venerated. Outward beauty is often false, deceptive. The beauty of the soul is paramount.

In this week’s Torah reading instructions are provided as to the construction of the altar: only whole stones can be used. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 27:6 explains that the stones for the altar cannot be cut into more convenient or pleasing shapes. The natural stone must be used as is, without alterations or cosmetic surgery. The right stones need to be found and need to be used together with whatever blemishes or imperfections they have, without smoothing them, without cutting them. They are perfect and pleasing and wanted as they were created, in order to build the altar to God.

May we be comfortable with our own superficial blemishes and work instead on our inner beauty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the five beautiful couples that married this week in one unforgettable night. May the beauty you find in each other only grow over time.

 

Foolish Friends

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ki-tetze-foolish-friends/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ki Tetze

Foolish Friends

 “Don’t approach a goat from the front, a horse from the back, or a fool from any side.” -Yiddish Proverb

Human foolishness comes in all shapes and sizes. No person is completely immune from foolish acts, though most of us generally try to avoid doing or saying things we will later regret. Animals on the other hand function almost exclusively on instinct; there are rarely situations in the course of nature in which an animal would be called foolish.

However, in Jewish law, there is a term, typically used for bulls, called “muad”. Muad translates as either notorious or prone to do damage and is a label assigned to an animal that has proven itself to be dangerous, based on past attempts to gore. The owner of a Muad animal is liable for all damages, while a previously tranquil animal has a lower level of liability for the owner.

Men are in a completely different category. They are always considered dangerous. Man is always considered Muad. He is always prone and responsible for damages that he causes his fellow man. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 24:9 fine-tunes this concept even further and states that a person is Muad, even in sins that he commits against another unintentionally.

Meaning, a person is responsible for the damage caused by a completely innocent act or remark, even if there was no harm intended. This gives us a tremendous level of responsibility for what we do and say. We are still guilty of unintended consequences. We must know better. We must think ahead. We must realize the power we have as humans to affect those around us. It is a serious power.

May we use our human capacities well, with foresight and intelligence and avoid both fools and foolishness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the conversion class of Montevideo. Good luck on your upcoming tests!

 

 

Monarchical Vacillation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shoftim-monarchical-vacillation/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Shoftim

Monarchical Vacillation

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” -Sir Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947

The Bible seems to be of two minds when it comes to the topic of Monarchy. On one hand it appears to be a command, that the people of Israel should appoint a king to rule them. On the other hand, both in God’s messages to the people, and as we have seen throughout history – a king is more often than not a greater curse for his subjects than a blessing.

When trying to imagine a Messianic future, there are some as well that picture the return of the Monarchy. It is prophesied that a descendant of King David will rule Israel, but will it be as King, as some benevolent tyrant, or will his powers be circumscribed by some other government institutions creating a balance of power?

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 17:14 explains that the commandment to appoint a king is an optional one. It is only if the people desire and demand a king. If there is a king in place, then the Torah provides certain guidelines, restrictions and privileges for the king. But it is not a necessity for Israel to have a monarch.  It is perfectly permissible for the people of Israel to choose some other form of government for self-rule. It can even be a democracy.

May we improve the governing institutions we have and be grateful that they are not worse.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our elected officials in all their functions and capacities. May God bless them, give them wisdom, compassion and good judgment.

 

 

Inseparable Pair

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/reeh-inseparable-pair/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Reeh

Inseparable Pair

There is one evident, indubitable manifestation of the Divinity, and that is the laws of right which are made known to the world through Revelation.” -Leo Tolstoy

The Bible details and repeats the account of the divine revelation of God to the entire people of Israel, where He, in His Awesomeness, speaks the famous Ten Commandments in front of the multitude of the Jewish nation who heard and accepted and survived the direct and powerful encounter with God. The giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai was probably the most extraordinary moment in all of human history.

However, Jewish tradition tells us that much more than ten commandments were conveyed at Sinai. In fact, the entire corpus of what we know as the Five Books of Moses, including all 613 commandments were transmitted directly to Moses at Sinai. Moses painstaking writes down, verbatim, the words of God to the world.

Yet there is even more. The Netziv on Deuteronomy 12:1 explains that not only was the Written Torah given to Moses at Sinai, but also the Oral Torah was delivered. There is an entire field of knowledge, much more expansive, deeper, filled with mysteries and secrets, that was given over to Moses during his personal encounter with God. The Oral Torah explains the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is inseparable from the Written Torah. The Written Torah cannot be understood, and in places does not make sense, without the explanations of the Oral Torah.

While it is true that the Written Torah is a fundamental, sacred document for us, it is just one part of the puzzle. It is incomplete, even defective, when studied alone, without the complementary Oral Torah. Parts of the Oral Torah were eventually committed to writing. The process started around 2,000 years ago with the Mishna, followed a few centuries later with the Talmud and subsequently with the written codes of law and rabbinic commentaries and explanations.

Both the Written and Oral Torah are our tradition. If we are to embrace our tradition, we should do so fully, completely, understanding it holistically, keeping the inseparable pair united.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new banim and bnot sherut (young volunteer teachers from Israel) that have arrived in Montevideo. May they have much success in transmitting our written and oral traditions and having a positive impact on our community.