Immortal Bulls (Naso)

Immortal Bulls (Naso)

Higher than the question of our duration is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he would be a great soul in future must be a great soul now. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

As part of the consecration ceremonies and rituals that surrounded the establishment of the Tabernacle in the desert, the princes of the tribes of Israel donated to the Levites twelve bulls along with six wagons to be pulled by them. These wagons, pulled by a pair of oxen each, enabled the transport and delivery of the materials required for the service to be done in the Tabernacle.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 7:3 (Naso) quotes a Midrash showing Moses, the ultimate negotiator vis-à-vis God, exhibiting some concern about these animals. Moses is quoted as basically saying, “God, what if one of these bulls die? One of the wheels of the wagons would break, then the sacrifice of the princes would be nullified, and the service of the Tabernacle would become void!”

God responds to Moses: “Moses, you’re right! Therefore, these bulls will live forever.”

The Midrash doesn’t leave well enough alone with that. In typical Talmudic fashion, the Rabbis have a debate as to how long the bulls of the Tabernacle lived. The Sages state that the bulls lived until the construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (over 480 years later), when King Solomon offered them as sacrifices in that consecration ritual. Rabbi Meir, however, disagrees, and states that the Tabernacle bulls continue to live to this day, that they never aged, never got any blemish and never got ill.

Rabbeinu Bechaye draws out an additional lesson from the above Midrash. He states that if these bulls, these simple creatures, gained eternal life by merely being beasts of burden around the holy work of the Tabernacle, then how much more so are we assured of eternal life by attaching ourselves to God, the Eternal, the Creator of the universe.

May we always be attached to God and to holy work, as simple or as menial as it might be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paraguay, on moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Am I willing to give up what I have in order to be what I am not yet? Am I able to follow the spirit of love into the desert? It is a frightening and sacred moment. There is no return. One’s life is charged forever. It is the fire that gives us our shape.  -Mary Caroline Richards

The fourth book of the Five Books of Moses, the book of Numbers, is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. It means “in the desert.” In the first sentence of the book, God orients us as to where and when we are in the story of our ancestors. We are in the Sinai Desert on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt.

The most important event after the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah in an historic divine revelation on Mount Sinai.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on that first sentence, Numbers 1:1 (Bamidbar) quotes the Midrash which states that the Torah was given via three things: fire, water and desert. Both blazing fire and a downpour of water accompanied the giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel in the desolation of the Sinai desert. There are pure, elemental forces at work here.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that just as all three of those elements: fire, water and the desert, are free to all that want it, so too the Torah is free and available to all those who wish to acquire it.

Additionally, the symbolism of the Torah being given in the desert is that just as the desert is “Hefker,” ownerless, so too a person who wishes to truly acquire the Torah must also make themselves “Hefker,” ownerless, without any other master but God, and the desire to acquire His Torah, His rulebook.

When one taps into the forces and elements around us, to free ourselves of extraneous masters, we are able to acquire the wisdom, the insight, the light, the wellbeing and the strength that the Torah can impart.

May we become free of the extraneous and focus on the basic, the essential and the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the community of Aish Kodesh (literally “Holy Fire”) of Woodmere, NY.

On Capital Punishment

On Capital Punishment

 Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden

God is very clear on where He stands on the topic of capital punishment. Even though God commands Do Not Murder (as opposed to Do Not Kill) in the Ten Commandments, there is a long list of sins (murder among them) that God prescribes the death penalty for. Already to Noah and his sons God warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.”(Genesis 9:6)

The Rabbis however explained that in most of those cases, it is actually quite rare for the death penalty to be carried out. The guilty party needs to have been given an explicit and detailed warning before committing the sin; there needs to have been two valid witnesses to the sin and a variety of other judicial requirements. No video or circumstantial evidence suffice.

The more bloodthirsty among us may feel that this practical suspension of justice is unfair. How is it that all these sinners and murderers can roam around free and unpunished? The Talmud tells us not to worry. God has his way of inflicting the right punishment on each deserving individual, at the right time and in the right form, if the human court is unable to carry out its duty.

The more merciful among us may feel that punishment for crimes, even one as odious as murder, is unwarranted, and that the death penalty especially has no place in modern civilization.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 35:33 explains part of the rationale for the death penalty:

“A human society that does not regard the blood of each of its members as sacred, one that does not take up the cudgel for innocent human blood that has been spilled negates the very purpose for which the forces of earth operate.”

“The hypocrisy can be purged from the land only if the innocent blood that has been spilled, and the human being who has lost his life as a result, finds an advocate in the society that survives him and the murderer is made to atone for his deed by dying at the hands of that advocate, thus losing his own life, which he has forfeited by his crime. For since he has spilled the blood of his fellow man, his own blood no longer has a right to life; he has forfeited his own right to existence. And to tolerate the continued existence of one who knowingly and deliberately murdered a fellow man would be a travesty on the dignity of man, who was made in the image of God.”

May all murderers be brought to justice, whether earthly or divine, and may we see justice reign in the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the confluence of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin that we have started this week in the Daf Yomi cycle, with Maimonides’ Laws of Sanhedrin that we are in the midst of in the Rambam Yomi cycle – both of which deal with the subject of capital punishment.

Children redeem

Children redeem

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. -James Baldwin

The structure of inheritance of the Land of Israel as stated in the Torah is unusual. It was based on the identity of the men of the generation preceding the exodus out of Egypt, but also dependent on the number of their male descendants that actually entered the land forty years later. That territory was bequeathed to the men that entered the land based on their connection to their grandfathers. However, if we think about it, this retroactively made their dead grandfathers the owners of that land that they never saw nor stepped on, by the mere fact that their grandchildren entered the land.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 26:55 highlights this phenomenon and teaches two lessons from this inheritance mechanism.

One, that God’s promises — in this case, of the land of Israel – are so certain to come to pass, that they actually convey a legal right and it transformed the last generation of Jewish slaves in Egypt into the rightful landowners of the yet-to-be-conquered land, able to bequeath it to their grandchildren when they actually enter and take possession of the land.

Two, in Rabbi Hirsch’s own words: “The greatest and most precious acquisitions of parents and grandparents are children and grandchildren that prove themselves loyal and true to their heritage. Such progeny bear witness to the merits of its forebears and atones for their shortcomings.”

The generation of the desert was a particularly difficult generation. They had experienced the Exodus, seen the Ten Plagues upon Egypt, traversed the Parting of the Sea, and had been part of God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai where He declared the Ten Commandments and presented Moses with the entirety of the Torah. Nonetheless, they proved to be a stiff-necked people, creating and worshipping the Golden Calf, complaining and demonstrating consistent lack of faith in God and His precepts. That generation was doomed to die in the desert. They were not worthy of entering the Promised Land.

Nonetheless, even with such a historic disappointment, they must have done something right, for their children did enter and inherit the land. The children were worthy and they had received instruction from their parents.

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates: “… that the sons were given the land only as heirs of their fathers and as bearers of their names, proves that, notwithstanding the error that had cost their fathers the right to enter the land, these same fathers, during thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness, had implanted the right spirit in the new generation.”

Whether we like it or not, our children will often emulate and learn from us, for better or worse. However, they can also be a source of redemption, correcting the errors we didn’t have the opportunity, wisdom or strength to correct, but wished to nonetheless.

May we appreciate the positive lessons and model of our parents and may we aim to be worthy of emulation by the next generation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To new colleagues and friends on the West Coast, and their children.

Well-rounded Blessings

Well-rounded Blessings

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. -Albert Einstein

Balak, King of Moab, fearful of the Israeli nation’s proximity to his border, hires the famed sorcerer Bilaam to curse the people of Israel. Bilaam had a reputation for successfully cursing whomever he wished to curse. However, in what turns out to be a highly comic series of events, every time Bilaam opens his mouth to try to curse, and contrary to his own will, God has some of the most beautiful blessings in the entire Torah come forth from his lips.

Balak takes Bilaam to three different locations, with the hope that perhaps the differing vantage points will provide Bilaam a better chance of overcoming the divine insistence on blessing Israel as opposed to letting Bilaam curse them.

Rabbi Hirsch in Numbers Chapters 23 and 24 explains the deeper significance of each of the locations from the point of view of Balak and the three characteristics he sought to attack within Israel:

The first location, the high places of Baal represents the supreme “force of nature” and material prosperity.

The second place, the Field of Seers represents insight, prudence and foresight; intellectual and spiritual powers.

However, after neither of those attacks succeeded, after Balak and Bilaam understood that there was no chink in the armor of Israel in those attributes, they sought one last angle. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“A nation may be blessed with every conceivable material and spiritual gift and still hasten headlong into ruin. Providence may shower upon it all the treasures, all the physical and spiritual wealth that heaven affords, and yet that nation may bear within itself a worm devouring it from within so that all its prosperity will be turned into adversity, and it will ultimately become not only unworthy but also incapable of receiving and retaining God’s blessings. This worm is called immorality; it is the shameless surrender to dissolute sensualism.”

That is what is represented by the third and final location, the Peak of Peor. At that point in time, Bilaam was not able to find anything amiss in the morality of Israel and hence the source of one of the most beautiful phrases that he utters, referring to Israel’s moral purity, and which have been made a part of our daily liturgy: “How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel.”

Rabbi Hirsch adds that those people and nations that respect and promote the principles for which Israel stands, will themselves reap all the blessings of material abundance and a rich intellectual and spiritual life, based on a clear moral existence.

May we strive for and achieve those goals.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Budapest, a beautiful city, gifted with many blessings.

Old Eternal Law

Old Eternal Law

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. -Henry Miller

The Torah is filled with arcane laws, many of which no longer apply in our day and age. One of the most esoteric and least understood laws is the one about the Red Heifer. The Torah prescribes an unusual ritual that was performed in the times of the Temple.

A completely red cow was taken and slaughtered. The cow was then burned together with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. The resulting ashes were then mixed with water from a fresh spring source. All of this process was done in a state of extreme ritual purity, yet those involved in the preparation became impure. This water mixture had the unique and exclusive ability to purify anyone who had become ritually contaminated by any contact with the dead.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 19:10 highlights that the Torah’s conclusion to this section is unusual. It states that “…it shall remain for them an everlasting statute.” By concluding this law in such a forceful fashion, the Torah is coming to teach a much deeper lesson than merely redacting a ritual that would not apply for a majority of Jewish history. It is coming to affirm that there is an eternal aspect to the law. The eternal aspect is not necessarily that the formula for purification is reenacted, but rather that the law itself, along with all of the Torah is of divine origin. And hence, that fundamental to our lives is the unflinching belief that the Torah and its laws are of eternal value. There are continuous lessons to be learned, by all people, in all ages, from the Torah. But the first step is an actual belief in the divine and the eternal nature of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch states that in this case: “the dictum of the Red Heifer proclaims the principle of atonement and the fundamental tenet that all authority is based on the Law and that all hopes for Israel’s salvation are dependent on Israel’s recognition of the Law as an everlasting norm for Israel.”

May we learn and successfully apply the ancient lessons of the Torah in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the eventual separation of Religion and State which certain political actions are hastening.

The Authority of Servitude

The Authority of Servitude

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. -Max De Pree

Some of the high and mighty of Israel contest the authority of Moses. Moses’ reaction is unusual. He falls on his face. He doesn’t debate with Korach and his followers. He doesn’t remind them that God chose him. He doesn’t mention that he consistently refused the job and repeatedly asked God to choose someone else. Moses, the unquestionable choice of God to lead the people of Israel, doesn’t do any of what we might expect him to do to buttress his position and exert his divinely-ordained authority.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 16:4 explains the rationale for Moses’ submissive response of falling on his face, as opposed to the myriad of stronger responses he could have faced this rebellion with.

Korach and his followers weren’t being rationale. They had an agenda, with little connection to the reality or history of their miraculous exodus from Egypt and the direct divine revelations they encountered in the dessert. Moses understood that it would be folly to debate these people. Furthermore, since God had appointed Moses, it was God’s job to reaffirm His decision that Moses was his choice. The discussion was out of Moses’ hands.

Rabbi Hirsch explains further:

“The veracity of a messenger can be confirmed only by the one who sent him; so, too, the authenticity of Moses’ mission can be confirmed only by God Himself. For this reason Moses does not utter a word to counter Korach’s accusations. If God would not consider it proper to refute Korach’s words by reconfirming the authenticity of Moses’s mission, then his mission was indeed at an end, and so “he fell on his face.”

However, we know that God did indeed intervene in a most dramatic way which cost Korach and the rebels their lives. The authority of Moses and Aaron is clearly demonstrated by God, to the eventual satisfaction of the nation of Israel. God retained the men that demonstrated true service and violently and destructively removed the self-serving demagogues.

May our varied leaders understand the meaning of service.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the authoritative team at Farsight, for their incredible example of service.