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.

It’s all about the attitude

It’s all about the attitude

A great attitude does much more than turn on the lights in our worlds; it seems to magically connect us to all sorts of serendipitous opportunities that were somehow absent before the change. -Earl Nightingale

There is an ancient formula, an ancient blessing really, handed down from father to son within the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years. A translation of it goes as follows:

“May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face illuminate you and give you grace. May God draw His face to you and place upon you peace.”

This archaic prayer is dictated by God Himself to Moses, commanding Aaron, the High Priest, to bless the nation of Israel with these exact words. To this very day, there is a custom every Friday night at the Shabbat meal, for parents to bless their children with these words. In every synagogue in the world, the descendants of the High Priest, the Kohanim, bless the entire congregation in the ritual known as Birkat Kohanim, where the Kohanim, with the prayer shawl draped over their heads and hands, face the congregation, place their hands in an unusual configuration and proceed to bless those present. This blessing is considered so powerful, that there is a custom not to look at the Kohanim, or their hands, lest we somehow get singed by the force of the divine power they are drawing upon.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 6:24 argues that Birkat Kohanim is not some incantation with mystical power to bless upon recitation. Rather, it is the attitude of the one uttering the words that determines the ultimate efficacy of the blessing:

“There are no magic powers inherent in the priest himself or in the blessing he pronounces. The attitude of the one who pronounces it is an essential part of the blessing; indeed, it is his attitude that turns the formula he recites into a blessing.”

God Himself concludes the dictation of these verses with the affirmation that: “and you shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.”

But it is the power of the intention, the focus, the attitude of the one blessing, that calls forth God, brings Him into our lives and spreads divine blessings to all those upon who we wish it earnestly, passionately and lovingly.

May we be both a source and recipients of grand and multiple blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend Netzer Winter of the Ministry of Commerce’s Maof group, for a fantastic attitude.

Stealing from God

Stealing from God 

Every rascal is not a thief, but every thief is a rascal. –Aristotle 
thief

When a person works for an hourly wage, with a set start time, finish time and lunch break, any time that he is not working, he is stealing from his employer. Of course, it is understandable to make some interruptions to handle necessary personal matters, but playing video games, reading articles with no direct relevance to ones work, or extensive messaging is criminal misuse of the workday.

The Sfat Emet on the portion of Naso for 5631 (1871) takes this idea a step further. He claims that anyone who commits a sin, who disobeys God’s commandments, is in fact stealing from God. God has granted each and every one of us our time in this world, to use as per his instructions. In a sense, God is our full-time, lifetime employer. When we don’t use the time He grants us as He would wish, then we are in fact no less guilty than an employee who ignores his employer’s directives.

If in fact, we continue to abuse the time and resources He grants us, God may deem that we are no longer worthy of remaining in His “employ” or of being granted the capacity and resources He provides for our “work.”

May we take our divinely-granted “job” seriously; may we familiarize ourselves with the “work manual” He has kindly given us; and may we perform our work well enough that He will wish to keep us on the job, with all of the time, resources and comfort we need to succeed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Akiva on receiving his job posting with the 51st Battalion.

Impure Prophecies

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/naso-impure-prophecies/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Naso

Impure Prophecies

It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. -George Macdonald

seanceThere is a special, self-chosen condition, that a person during biblical or temple times could elect for themselves. That condition is known as Nazir or Nazarite. There were three requirements for the Nazir: not consuming anything derived from grapes, not cutting their hair and not coming into contact with the dead.

A person chose to become a Nazir as a way to reach greater levels of holiness and become closer to God. At the end of the Nazir period, they would cut their hair and bring sacrifices in the Temple. During the heightened state of sanctity of the Nazir, it was apparently easier for them to feel the divine presence in their lives and perhaps even reach some minor levels of prophecy.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 6:6 mentions an interesting reason why the Nazir had to avoid the dead during this period. He explains that in the case where the divine presence would rest upon the Nazir, were he to receive some prophetic vision, we don’t want anyone to assume or speculate that he might have consulted the dead for his otherworldly insights.

May we stick to pure and divine sources of information.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jacky Catan and Joel Felder on their upcoming wedding and a future filled will blessings.

Suffering’s Reward

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Naso

Suffering’s Reward

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller

The Torah makes a straightforward connection between doing good and receiving God’s reward and blessing, and doing bad and receiving divine punishment and suffering. Only a few thousand years later do we see rabbinic literature deal with more theologically challenging concepts of sinners who receive reward and righteous who are punished.

Ibn Ezra jumps into this discussion with yet another possibility in the divine ledger-keeping and that is reward as compensation for suffering.

Amongst the strangest rituals described in the Bible is that of the Sotah. It is the process whereby a woman suspected of adultery, who denies any wrongdoing, is publicly degraded and forced to drink a unique concoction called the “bitter waters”. During the times of the Sanctuary and the Temple these bitter waters apparently had the power to determine a woman’s infidelity. If the woman had been untrue, the waters would cause her to die a gruesome death including the rapid swelling of her stomach and the falling off of body parts. However, if she was innocent, the result would be the birth of a healthy baby boy.

Ibn Ezra on Numbers 5:28 suggests that the resultant birth of a child is a gift, a reward from God to the mother for the blameless suffering she was subjected to. Her being accused by her husband of adultery and the subsequent public degradation despite her repeated, vehement and true affirmations of innocence need to be compensated.

This is when God steps in and rewards the mother with one of the most precious gifts possible: a healthy child.

May all our sufferings lead to sweet rewards.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Menachem Burstein (originally from Uruguay) and Machon Puah who helps so many families achieve the special gift of a child.

And Mazal Tov to my colleagues in Montevideo, Rabbi Eliyahu and Natalie Galil on the birth of their fourth child!

Nearby Exile

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/naso-nearby-exile/

Netziv Numbers: Naso

Nearby Exile

“Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile, his friends are everything.” -Willa Cather

Solitary confinement is known as one of the harshest punishments prisoners are given. There is something in being alone for too long that is of greater anguish than physical pain. However, being alone is not only a function of physical separation. There is a social exclusion that can be just as damaging, if not more so, than being the sole occupant of a cell.

For a person that became ritually impure during the sojourn of the tribes of Israel in the desert, the prescription was a temporary exile from the camp. The Netziv on Numbers 5:4 warns however, that when the unfortunate person was exiled, they needed to make sure they did not stray too far away.

The simplest reason is for physical protection. Being outside, yet in close proximity to the camp, afforded some shelter from external forces that may seek to harm the isolated member of the group. For an outsider, from a distance, it would be hard to distinguish the exiled from the tribe.

However, there is a more practical reason. Remaining close, even while in exile, makes it easier to return.

May we keep ourselves and those we have exiled from our lives within reach of the core of our tribe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

 

Dedication

To Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay, for a wonderful and meaningful visit to his old community.

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Bus-hawkers

Friday May 17, 2013

Bus-hawkers

Today, for the first time, I ventured onto Montevideo’s public transportation. They don’t have subways, but they do have what appears to be a reasonably efficient bus system. The bus stop is conveniently a few meters away from my new bachelor pad (perhaps more on the apartment another time). I wasn’t sure exactly where to get off, but I had informed the driver of my destination and hoped for the best.

On the following stop, a man jumped onto the bus with a bouquet of leggings flowing out of his hands. He immediately proceeded to give his song and dance as to the quality of his merchandise, as to the special price and that due to his injured arm this was the best way he could make a living. If I closed my eyes I would be transported to the subways of New York. He even had the same rhythm of voice, the same practiced pitch of feigned excitement that was suitably ignored by all the commuters. Some things are universal.

One woman however did buy a pair of the warm-looking leggings. I felt that hawking on a bus was somehow a greater invasion of privacy (harder to ignore?) and yet more effective for the salesman.

The successful merchant got off at the next stop, and was quickly followed by an old man selling bandaids. He was less successful and also got off a stop later, not surprised or moved by the lack of clients.

Anxious to find the street I needed to get off on, I got a good look at the main drag of Montevideo, Avenida 18 de Julio. It reminded me very much of London’s Oxford Street with an eclectic mix of fancy stores and modern stores interspersed with older, more rundown cousins, underneath offices and apartment buildings. Various street-vendors were thrown into the mix. There are two main differences though between 18 de Julio and its British counterpart. The Uruguayan version is much more rundown, with unartistic graffiti sullying the walls.

The second difference, and I think I finally figured out part of the special charm of Montevideo, are the statues. This is not a scientific study, but I get the sense that Montevideo probably has a higher per capita presence of statues than other comparable cities. The classic architecture of Montevideo is European with a hodgepodge of different eras next to each other. In general it gives the city a pretty character beyond the more modern or utilitarian buildings. However, interspersed throughout the city and often in unexpected nooks and crannies, one will find a classic bronze statue. I don’t know if there was a sale decades ago on bronze statues, but for the most part they are very well made, some quite stately and noble looking, though rusted and dirty. One statue reminded me of the scene from Lord of the Rings with the gigantic stone statues guarding the approach to Minas Tirith.

In any case, despite my enrapture with the local scenery, the bus driver remembered my request and told one of the other passengers, who told me where to get off.

But now, back to things Jewish and Rabbinic.

Shavuot was wonderful. It’s been many years since I’ve celebrated a two-day holiday (besides Rosh Hashana), but there was something nice about an additional enforced day of rest. The holiday was filled with fantastic energy in the all-night learning, delicious food, generous hosting and thought-provoking theological discussions. I ended up giving a lecture on the questionably adulterous origins of King David (always a fun and popular talk). The first time around I gave it in English to a small group. Later in the night I received another request and gave it again. The following day word of further interest got around and I gave it in Spanish to a larger audience. I think the talk actually improved as the languages got harder for me.

Next week should be the first normal week on the job for me and I am looking forward to it, though I suspect there is nothing “normal” about this job…

Shabbat Shalom!