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,



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

Nation of Individuals

Nation of Individuals

Never be afraid to tread the path alone. Know which is your path and follow it wherever it may lead you; do not feel you have to follow in someone else’s footsteps. -Gita Bellin

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers, God commands Moses to count the army-age men of Israel. They number around 600,000 men above the age of twenty. However, the Torah goes into much more detail than just the final tally of the census. It breaks down the count according to each tribe. It provides the name of each tribe prince. It goes as far as naming the different family clans within each tribe.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 1:1-2 explains that the fact that the Torah describes that level of organizational detail demonstrates that it wasn’t merely an unorganized assembly. Each tribe, each family and each individual counted. Each individual had a unique contribution to the nation that only he could contribute as part of his sub-unit and as part of the whole. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“The community cannot exist as an abstract idea but can have true being only in terms of the totality of it components. At the same time, each member of the community is made aware that he personally “counts” as an important constituent of this totality, and that the task to be performed by the nation as a whole requires every one of its members to remain true to his duty and purposefully devoted to the vocation he shares with all the others.”

Indeed, it is easy to let the burden of the community’s needs be carried by others. There are many who have organizational strengths, passion, time and resources to invest. However, don’t doubt that there is a special and unique purpose that is the domain and prerogative of every single individual. There is a strength, a capacity, a contribution that if we do not make, will be lacking and no one else can ever make it up. The whole will be incomplete. That voice, that hand, that smile will be missing.

May we understand what our individual mission and purpose are and bring our gifts, our talents and our unique capabilities to bear within the totality of the community of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Shavuot Sameach,



To the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst and their outstanding Rabbinic and communal leadership.

Temporal Independence


Temporal Independence

 Infinite-timeTo see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.  -William Blake

As finite time-dependent beings, we find ourselves chained to the inexorable march of time. There is no moving ahead, backward, to the sides or even pausing. The seconds tick by whether we like it or not. The Torah on the other hand has a much more complex and sophisticated relationship to time. In many accounts it is purposely ambiguous, providing little or no information as to when events take place.

However, in many places, the Torah makes sure to mark the year, month, day and location of specific occurrences, as it does at the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar).

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) argues that the Torah itself is above time and nature. However, by signaling specific times, by in a sense lowering itself to the human preoccupation with time, it is providing us with a signpost of where our own time-dependent efforts should be involved.

Namely, our job is to bring the infinite, divine, non-temporal Torah into our finite, mundane, temporal time stream. Though not of our world, nor of our dimensional frames of reference, the Torah was designed for our very physical world. That is why it presumably goes out of its way to make reference to dimensions we are familiar with, time and space. It is inviting us, asking us, demanding of us, to bring it, the Torah, into our world, our domain and our lives.

May we make that connection between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. It just takes time.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,



To the Bat Mitzvah girls of the Integral School on their outstanding performance. Your time has come.



Deathless Future

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Numbers: Bamidbar

Deathless Future

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying. -Woody Allen



Western man is allergic to death. We try to avoid it, escape it, ignore it. We don’t want it mentioned. If we close our eyes, perhaps it won’t notice us. The counterpoint to death-avoidance is the desire to want to live forever. To be forever young.

Interestingly, the Torah also has a death-avoidance culture, but one that translates into ritual “impurity” if one is in contact with death, and which subsequently can be “purified”. Within the Jewish people, there is a subgroup that is commanded as a whole to avoid death. They are the Kohanim, the priestly descendents of Aharon, the original High Priest (Kohen Gadol).

While death is a fact of life, there are some hints that it is not necessarily a permanent arrangement.

In describing the work that the sons of Aharon, the Kohanim, must do in the Tabernacle, the Torah ends the description with the warning, that if they follow the rules, “they will live and they will not die.”

Why the redundancy? It would seem obvious that if someone is going to live they will not die.

The Baal Haturim explains that this is a prophetic hint. On the verse in Numbers 4:19 he details that at some future date, in some eschatological reality, the very Angel of Death will be annulled. Death will have no more sway over humanity.

Humans, or whatever we will be in that future (disembodied souls?) will indeed somehow live forever.

May we be beings worthy of eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuoth Sameach,



To our departed loved ones, who we believe we will be reunited with in some future reality.


First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Netziv Numbers: Bamidbar


“Few men during their lifetime come anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them. There are deep wells of strength that are never used.” -Richard E. Byrd

The beginning of the Book of Numbers reintroduces us to Aaron the High Priest and to his sons. His two eldest, Nadav and Avihu, we are reminded, died while bringing the unauthorized “strange” fire during the consecration of the Tabernacle, where they were immediately struck by divine fire.

Aaron’s two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are introduced with an unusual phraseology, “and they served as priests, Elazar and Itamar, over the face of Aaron their father.”

The Netziv on the verse (Numbers 3:4) explains that by mentioning Elazar and Itamar in this fashion, the Torah is telling us that in fact, these two sons were already at a high enough level of sanctity and devotion that they were each worthy of serving as High Priest. However, Elazar needs to wait almost forty years to take over his father’s role and we have no account of Itamar, the youngest son, ever filling that prestigious position, even though he was qualified. Instead, we see Itamar having secondary managerial roles in the Tabernacle, always in the shadow of his illustrious father and his more honored older brother – though Itamar is not any less qualified for the important tasks.

Each person has hidden strengths, talents and potential that their current circumstances don’t give them the freedom to develop or use. That does not diminish the individual, nor are they free to ignore such attributes. One must seek where they can best use their strengths for the tasks at hand.

May we have opportunities to use as much of our potential as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the upcoming Hebrew Studies teachers of Integral whom I’ve had the great privilege of teaching. May they fulfill their teaching potential and pass on our heritage to many students.




Adventures of a Chief Rabbi, May 10, 2013

Friday May 10, 2013

Rules of the Game

Rabbis are privy to a whole gamut of personal issues, domestic anguish, political intrigue and other sins and scandals that are just below the sensors of the general public. These are often dramatic stories, historical novellas and enough juicy material to make a tabloid blush.

Being the formal Rabbi of a country may brings these themes to a whole new level.

Inquiring minds however, will be disappointed. I will not be sharing much of the filth, dirt, backstabbing, idiocy, lunacy, pig-headedness and outright insanity that are the purview of successful newscasters. I will not divulge any story where there is the slightest possibility of either the innocent or the guilty being identified, or where a member of the community will find offense. It gives me very limited use of my material…

However, I am a writer. The need to write is in my blood. I look at the world with the eyes of a writer, noting setting, context, texture, story, details to populate the page. And there are wonderful stories here.

I want to write a story of the people of the Rambla, the miles-long boardwalk that to me represents the ease and tranquility of the city. Couples jogging, lovers walking, families strolling, fisherman casting their lines to the sea with faith and hope that their measly bait will entrap a scrumptious dinner. I noticed a number of people with their backs resting against the red-stone pillars that are spaced every few meters along the edge of the seawall. They were writing, drawing, sketching, listening to music. And some just sat there looking out to the sea. I don’t know what they sought there, or what they had lost. Perhaps just the soothing rhythm of the waves lapping the edge of the city gave them solace after a long day.

There must be an architectural school nearby, for there were a few people looking exactingly at seafront buildings over the top of their pencils.

But back to the Rabbi business. I had my first real halachic (Jewish law) question this week for which I did not have a ready answer. The mashgiach (Kosher overseer) of one of the Jewish schools which is under our supervision was asked if oil that was used to cook fish can thereafter be used to cook meat. We’re talking about industrial-sized cooking and a lot of oil. He had instructed the school not to, but was not sure. I suspected that he was right, but did not recall the source myself. Thanks to the support and responsiveness of other Rabbis that have agreed to be “on call” for me, I received a rapid answer. It turns out we were right. One cannot use oil that was used to cook fish for meat afterwards. For those halachically oriented some sources include Yoreh Deah 116:2, based on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 77B. Also, שות דברי שלום ב, קיב; קנין תורה ה, צא. (Special thanks to Rabbi Don Channen of Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim and Rabbi Michael Rubinstein, Rabbi of Yavne, Montevideo).

Part of my job, is the religious leadership of what some have termed a “non-observant Orthodox Jewish community”. For those that have grown up in a strictly Orthodox environment and even for those who choose to move from a secular life to one that is more in tune with an Orthodox lifestyle, the concept of a non-observant Orthodox community may seem perplexing. And indeed, there is a built-in dichotomy that can be maddeningly incomprehensible, illogical and even contradictory. However, it is the reality and it works to a certain extent. I believe that it requires a mental and existential balance that will only function via practice. It is probably a good thing that I have been a part of Yeshivat Har Etzion and been an avid consumer of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings where dichotomy, apparent contradiction, differing philosophies and viewpoints can find peaceful coexistence. Hopefully, I’ll write much more on this in a politically sensitive way in the future.

This just in. Have been invited to Yitzhak Perlman concert this Sunday night. Rank Hath Its Privileges!

Lions of Israel

[First posted on The Times of Israel:]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Bamidbar

Lions of Israel

“True courage is a result of reasoning. A brave mind is always impregnable.” -Jeremy Collier

There are multiple accounts of the miracles of the Six Day War, when in the summer of 1967, against all odds, Israel not only survived, but prevailed over the Arab countries that had vowed to eradicate our homeland.

My father, then an American student, was one of a handful of volunteers that boarded a plane and contributed to the war effort. This was just two months before his scheduled wedding day, and despite protests and concerns of his family and bride he entered the war zone.

Though he was stationed in a rearguard position, he was spared from any fighting due to the surprising turns of the war.

Ibn Ezra on Numbers 1:19 equates an army’s frontline with the rearguard, from our ancestors in the desert:

“Know that there were no tribes as brave as the tribe of Judah who was compared to a lion, and the tribe of Dan, who was likewise compared (to a lion) by Moses, and therefore they were positioned in the front and in the back (of the army of Israel).”

May we ever have lions to inspire us and give us courage to undertake risky adventures for the sake of our brothers.

Shabbat Shalom and belated Yom Yerushalayim Sameach,



To my father, Elliot Spitz, and to all the soldiers of Israel and for the miracle of regaining our ancient capital after millennia which we celebrated yesterday, Jerusalem Day.