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,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

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

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.

Allergic to Death

Allergic to Death

Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours. -Yogi Berra

Ancient civilizations, believing in the mysterious afterworld, gave much honor and respect to the priestly caste that kept its secrets. These priests, always charged with caring for the dead, were held in high esteem and perhaps even fear and trepidation, for they held the very keys to eternal life. The rituals they performed, the incantations they chanted, the diligent yet inexplicable preparations they undertook all created an impenetrable fog of religious inscrutability that forever divided the uneducated superstitious masses from the elite clergy that grew fat and rich off of the naiveté and trust of their congregants.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 21:5 explains that the Torah takes a diametrically opposed view of the role of priests within Judaism, which can be seen in the laws that guide their conduct. Starting with the establishment of the line of Kohens, with Aaron the High Priest as its founding member, he and his sons are prescribed with rules and strictures that are the antithesis of other priestly castes in the world.

A Kohen not only doesn’t tend to the dead – he is strictly forbidden to even have any contact with the dead (except for his own immediate family). This ingrained aversion or even allergy that a Kohen has to death ensures that the Jewish priestly elite would be much more preoccupied with life and the living than with death and the dying. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:

“Judaism teaches us not how to die but how to live so that, even in life, we may overcome death, lack of freedom, the enslavement to physical things and moral weakness. Judaism teaches us how to spend every moment of a life marked by moral freedom, thought, aspirations, creativity and achievement, along with the enjoyment of physical pleasures, as one more moment in life’s constant service to the everlasting God.”

Judaism takes death seriously, but it takes life even more seriously. May we live it to its fullest potential.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In honor of V Day which was commemorated this week, and all the men and woman who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

Double-Edged Stubbornness

Double-Edged Stubbornness

Obstinacy in a bad cause is but constancy in a good. -Sir Thomas Browne

One of the highlights of the service of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur was the unusual sacrifice procedure of the two goats. Two identical, or as close to two identical goats were selected. They needed to be of the same appearance, size and value. A lottery was performed to determine the fate of these indistinguishable creatures. In a completely random process, almost like the flipping of a coin, the short but distinct future of each of these goats was sealed.

One goat, the “Goat to God,” was sacrificed in the conventional fashion: in the Temple, in front of God, its blood placed on the Altar in holy submission. The second goat, the “Goat to Azazel,” suffered a rare and torturous demise.

The second goat, which thereafter would be popularized as The Scapegoat, was walked out of the Temple grounds, out of the city, passed human habitation and into the desolate desert.  At the top of a cliff, overlooking a ravine, the attending priest would push the goat over the cliff. The Talmud describes that the unfortunate goat didn’t make it halfway down the cliff before it was torn to pieces by the violence of the fall. Somehow, this bloody ritual served as atonement for the people of Israel.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 16:10 explains that the goats represent human choice. Our free will gives us equal access and equal inclination for either good, holy choices or bad, mundane choices. We can choose to be the positive “Goat for God,” or the negative “Goat for Azazel.”

What these choices have in common and their connection to the “Goats” is that either choice relies on stubbornness. To be a “Goat for God” requires an adherence to God’s laws and a repudiation of the enticements of the age that cannot be achieved without extreme stubbornness. Conversely, to be a “Goat for Azazel” demands a consistently stubborn refusal to follow the dictates, the inspiration, the clarity and the illumination of the Torah. The path of Azazel leads to oblivion. The path of God leads to eternal life.

May we use our innate stubbornness to choose goodness, holiness and eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Parts Authority on their incredibly impressive Trade Show at Citi Field. I remember well its very humble beginnings.

It’s not leprosy!

It’s not leprosy!

When the world has got hold of a lie, it is astonishing how hard it is to kill it. You beat it over the head, till it seems to have given up the ghost, and behold! the next day it is as healthy as ever.  -Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

The Torah describes a condition called Tzaraat, which has continuously and erroneously been translated as leprosy. The only connection between these two terms is that they refer to some skin condition, but except for that they are dissimilar and incomparable.

One of the most important Roman historians, Tacitus, is guilty of a great crime against the Jewish people. Besides his anti-Semitic rhetoric, perhaps the most long-lasting damage has been his interpretation of the Hebrew word Tzaraat as leprosy. Tacitus, almost 2,000 years ago, wrote the following fanciful account in his history of the Jews:

“Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods.”

“The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random.”

Tacitus continues to spout further venomous nonsense, which centuries later was picked up by modern historians.  However, perhaps Tacitus’ greatest offense is that his characterization of Tzaraat as leprosy has even made it into modern translations of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus Chapter 13 attacks “Tacitus’ fairy tale” and provides a detailed and lengthy explanation of exactly how Tzaraat has nothing to do with the disease known as leprosy. Tzaraat is not contagious nor were those afflicted quarantined.  Tzaraat is a physical manifestation upon the skin of a spiritual malady. The result of a person contracting Tzaraat is that he is considered ritually impure, not sick.

In the words of Rabbi Hirsch, Tzaraat is the result of “such sins as arrogance, falsehood, avarice and slander which escape the authority of human tribunals.” As a result, God Himself intervenes and dispenses justice by affecting the sinners’ body, possessions and home.

May we distance ourselves from negative personality traits and acts and thereby be spared from God’s modern substitutes for Tzaraat, which contrary to popular translations have nothing to do with leprosy!

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ed and Dalia Stelzer for their hospitality and more.

Inversely Proportional Punishment

Inversely Proportional Punishment

Those who know the least obey the best. -George Farquhar

After the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the consecration of the Tabernacle was meant to be the next high point of the sojourn of the Nation of Israel during their desert journey. This portable Temple with the concentrated presence of God amongst them, would accompany the young nation, keeping God ever close.

But amidst the induction of Aaron and his sons as the Kohens, the priestly caste; amidst the festivities, the sacrifices, the rituals and the celebrations – something goes horribly wrong.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, decide, on their own initiative, to introduce a “strange” fire to the proceedings. This uncommanded change to the day’s ritual was met with immediate and devastating results. A fire from the heavens immediately descends and kills Nadav and Avihu instantly.

Commentators offer a range of explanations as to what exactly was the sin of Nadav and Avihu and why they deserved what on the surface appears to be a wildly disproportional punishment for what we might think was a minor infraction at worst.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 10:3 interprets the event as clearly an error on the part of Nadav and Avihu and learns something as to God’s view of moral responsibility, obedience and punishment based on intellectual capacity:

“God says: ‘The more a person stands out from among his people as a teacher and leader in relation to Me, the less will I show indulgence for his errors. Even by having him die I demonstrate that My will is absolute and that not even – indeed, least of all – those nearest to Me, the highest before Me, may permit themselves the slightest deviation from it. This will make the entire nation realize the full, solemn import of the obedience they owe Me.’ Seen in this light, these words of God should be sufficient consolation for Aaron, so that the text can indeed state: ‘And Aharon was silent.” Had his sons not been close to God, allowance might have been made for their aberration, and the Heavenly decree that overtook them might not have come to them as a warning of such solemn import for the entire nation. In sharpest divergence from the modern view, which regards intellectual attainments as a license for moral laxity and tends to make allowances for violators of God’s moral law if they happen to be men of intellect, Judaism postulates that the higher the intellect, the greater must be the moral demands placed upon it.”

Indeed, to paraphrase, borrowing a line from modern culture, we might say that, “With great intellectual power, comes great moral responsibility.”

May we harness our intellects and intelligence morally and not see it as an exemption from our many responsibilities to family, friends, community and society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Education Ministry’s Department for Evaluation of Foreign Academic Degrees. They demonstrated great intelligence and responsibility in evaluating my degrees.

Man with God

Man with God 

Nothing hath separated us from God but our own will, or rather our own will is our separation from God. -William Law 

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 6:2 contrasts the heathen view of Night and Day to the Jewish view, and what that means regarding our relationship to God:

“Night, the time when things are “commingled,” when man, too, reverts to the bondage of physical forces, brings the heathen mind closer to its gods. At night the heathen believes he feel the power of the gods that hold him in bondage along with all other creatures. Conversely, he perceives the day, the time of “standing erect,” when man becomes aware of himself and resumes the struggle to subdue the physical world, as the time when man must take up anew the struggle against the gods.”

“By virtue of the Word of God, the position of Judaism is the direct antithesis to these notions. The Jew need not wait until night in order to feel the power of his God. He stands near to his God particularly when his mind is clear and when he is in the midst of his endeavors to subdue the world. He regards the lucidity of his clear mind, the energy of his free will and the results of his creative endeavors, indeed, all of his free personality that achieves its highest potential during his daily activities, as a gift from his Creator, the One sole God. By breathing into him a tiny spark from the infinite fullness of His own spirit that fills the world with His thoughts, from His own holy, unfettered will, from His own creative power that freely dominates the world which He Himself freely created, God has raised man high to Himself beyond the bonds of the physical world. God has thereby elevated man, made in God’s image, to become a free personality, ruling freely over the world in service of God and God’s purposes. Precisely by implementing this power in his daily personal life does man fulfill the will of his God; only in this manner, uplifted and encouraged by God Himself, can man render his service to God in this world.”

“The heathen mentality sees daytime as the period when mortals must do battle against the might of the gods. To the Jews day is the time for action, for achievements in the service of God and for his approval. Hence in the Sanctuary of Judaism it is not night that drags day with it into the grave of mortality, but day that raises night with it into the eternity of a life of nearness to God. Physical nature is not the intermediary between the Jew and his God; man’s personality stands high above physical nature and in direct proximity to God. For this reason it was in the wilderness, where man has nothing and no one but himself, that God came near to Israel. It was there that God established with Israel the covenant of His Law. It was there, in the wilderness, where man has nothing to offer to his God except himself, nothing but that which he bears within his own personality, that God first commanded Israel to make the offerings of its own devotion to Him.”

“An unfettered personality that subordinates its thoughts, its aspirations and its achievements to God of its own free will: such is the personality to which God’s command was addressed and which is a prerequisite for the offerings made to Him.”

May we see both Night and Day for what they truly are and endeavor to connect with God rather than foolishly strive against Him.

Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the men, women and children working day and night preparing for Pesach.