Category Archives: Parsha

Questioning Certainty (Vayera)

Questioning Certainty (Vayera)

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. -Eugene Ionesco

God commands Abraham to circumcise himself. There is a Midrash that recounts how Abraham asked his friends, Eshkol, Aner and Mamre for their opinion on the matter. Without getting into what their answers were, the Bat Ayin on Genesis 20:1 wonders as to the question itself.

Abraham had received a direct command from God. We have seen, both before this command and after it, that Abraham performed all of God’s commands without question or hesitation. Whether it was to leave his homeland and his family, or to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham is the model of enthusiastic and unquestioning divine obedience. So why does Abraham ask the opinion of his friends regarding this command?

The Bat Ayin answers that Abraham had no doubts regarding performing this command. His intention was to fully and immediately fulfill God’s command. However, there’s an added benefit of asking others, even when there is no question or doubt as to what the answer is. The Bat Ayin explains that by asking others a question, even if the answer is clear and obvious, Abraham is involving them in the process and in the answer. By inquiring of others what one should do regarding performing God’s will, one is thereby also involving them in God’s will. They need to pause and think about it. They must consider what it means to be involved in that divine connection. Though the answer may be clear, there’s value in giving it further consideration, of spending more time on thoughts of the divine.

Abraham could have just gone ahead and performed the circumcision without discussing or consulting with anyone. By asking his friends, he involved them in the divine service. He brought them closer to God and to God’s way of thinking; all of that with a simple, obvious question.

May we learn to use questions in our divine service, whether we know the answers or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Beit Yosef community of Las Vegas.

Attracted to Holiness (Lech Lecha)

Attracted to Holiness (Lech Lecha)

A soul without a high aim is like a ship without a rudder. -Eileen Caddy

Abraham is famously directed by God to leave his homeland and venture to the land of Canaan, a land that God would bequeath to Abraham and his descendants. However, what is perhaps less noticed, is that a few verses before God’s directive to Abraham, the Torah tells us how Terach, Abraham’s father, takes his family from their homeland, from Ur of the Chaldeans and heads to Canaan. However, Terach’s journey ends when they arrive in the town of Haran, before entering the land of Canaan. It is only Abraham, later, who successfully enters Canaan.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 12:1 wonders as to what the cause of the apparent false start was. Why does Abraham’s family, when accompanied by his father Terach head towards Canaan, before God commands it; why are they initially unsuccessful in entering and why later, does Abraham, without Terach, succeed?

He explains that while still in Ur of the Chaldeans Abraham started to perceive the holiness of the land of Canaan. He ventures west, attracted by the holiness of Canaan, independently of God’s command. His father Terach, seeing Abraham’s efforts, is taken up by the spiritual journey and he too seeks the holiness of Canaan. However, upon reaching the town of Haran, in close proximity to Canaan, they realize something that gives them pause. They come to the conclusion that though they’re attracted to the holiness, they don’t feel themselves worthy of entering the land. They are not yet at a level where they could fully connect with the inherit holiness of the land.

It is then, after God’s command, that Abraham redoubles his spiritual efforts and realizes that he needs to divest himself of his material, worldly attachments. Only with a pure spiritual focus can one fully connect to the inherent holiness of the land. Abraham succeeds in reaching that spiritual level, that focus on the transcendent and that connection with God. He is then worthy of entering the land and claiming its spiritual and material bounty for himself and his descendants.

May we take advantage of the road to holiness our forefathers already paved for us and bequeathed to us and connect to the holiness of the land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To democracy.

Learning from the Sinners (Noach)

Learning from the Sinners (Noach)

Passions are vices or virtues to their highest powers. -Johann von Goethe

Ten generations after Adam arrived on the scene, humanity has descended into moral depravity. God is so disappointed with the work of His hands that he is ready to wipe out all of creation. Every person is sentenced to death due to their evil actions, everyone that is, except for Noah and his family. In a world that has become completely corrupt and immoral, one man stood out for his righteousness, in stark contradistinction to every other person around him.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 6:9 wonders how Noah was able to remain untainted. How could Noah, immersed in a complete global civilization dedicated to wickedness, stay uncorrupted. He answers that Noah indeed did learn something from all the sinners around him. He learned from their passion.

Noah saw the passion with which his civilization pursued their vices. He saw the passion with which they chased worldly, mundane, and material pleasures. He saw the passion with which they sought physical gratification. He saw the passion with which they sought to help themselves at the expense of others. He saw the passion with which they sought to dismiss, put down, and insult others. He saw the passion with which humanity devolved into a selfish, callous, hateful world of self-serving, arrogant, greedy individuals. All these unbridled passions led to a licentious, thieving, murderous civilization that infected the very planet itself.

Noah saw and learned from this passion. However, instead of focusing on self-gratification, Noah learned to channel that fiery passion into serving God. He passionately sought to do good. He passionately sought to be kind and ethical. He passionately sought to help and care for others. He passionately focused on the spiritual and the sacred. He passionately avoided all the vices, greed and materiality that surrounded him. He passionately clung to God’s directions and will.

Because of his positive passion, Noah and his family merited to be saved from the cataclysmic flood. He merited to be the progenitor of our post-flood civilization and gave humanity a new start.

May we learn from the passion of others and channel those passions for good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the fascinating research effort of studying the Earth’s magnetic field and using it to further prove the accounts of the Bible. https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-researchers-say-magnetic-fields-provide-way-to-securely-date-biblical-events/

Angels Can’t Repent (Bereshit)

 We are never like angels till our passion dies. -Sir John Denham

In the beginning, God created the universe. However, according to Kabbalah, our physical universe is the last of a succession of dimensions that God created. The other dimensions are of a spiritual, ethereal nature. The process by which God created all of the dimensions was to somehow undergo a “contraction” of some aspect of Himself to make room for apparently independent, sentient, conscious entities other than Himself.

The dimensions that are “closer” to God’s less-diluted presence, the spiritual realms, feel His presence so strongly that obeying God is much less of an issue, as it would be counterintuitive to do anything against the more obvious presence of God. However, our physical realm is so far removed from God’s clear presence that it becomes quite easy to forget about God, to deny His existence and to outright do the exact opposite of what understanding His existence would prompt us to do.

The Bat Ayin on Genesis 1:1 explains that there is a correlation between spiritual proximity to God and the term we call Holiness (Kedusha). The closer one is or gets to God, the holier they become. However, there is a tradeoff of sorts. The holier one is, the more exacting God is. Thus, the angels who are ostensibly holier and closer to God have no margin of error. There is no repentance for the angels in their spiritual existence. Humans, on the other hand, are very different.

Humans, because of our spiritual distance from God, are able to sin. We are able to ignore the subtle and not so subtle indications of God’s existence. That allows us and gives us the free will to deviate from the path that God would have initially preferred we follow. However, that distance, that propensity to sin, the ability to do wrong is the very reason we can also repent.

In fact, the ability to repent is not just a benefit of being in the mortal, physical realm, but rather a feature. The built-in ability to repent signifies the underlying kindness that God avails us mortals. The spiritual realm is a more justice-oriented dimension. Lacking our physical bodies, we no longer have the opportunity to act, to do, to mend our ways. The spiritual world is the place where we receive, realize, and access the fruit of our actions in the physical world, both the good and the bad.

May we take advantage of all the opportunities in our physical world to do good, to repent for the bad and to partake in the lovingkindness that is the foundation of our material existence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of Yoel and Alaina Epstein. Mazal Tov!

Free for the Taking (Vezot Habrachah)

Free for the Taking (Vezot Habrachah)

Only the curious will learn and only the resolute overcome the obstacles to learning. The quest quotient has always excited me more than the intelligence quotient. -Eugene S. Wilson

In Moses’ last words to the nation of Israel, he provides blessings to the nation. The blessings are to the individual tribes as well as to the nation as a whole. This final portion of the Torah starts as follows:

This is the blessing with which Moses, God’s agent, bade the Israelites farewell before he died. He said:

God came from Sinai,

And shone upon them from Seir;

[God] appeared from Mount Paran,

And approached from Ribeboth-kodesh,

Lightning flashing at them from [God’s] right.

Lover, indeed, of the people,

Their hallowed are all in Your hand.

They followed in Your steps,

Accepting Your pronouncements,

When Moses charged us with the Teaching

As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that the “They” in the verse in Deuteronomy 33:3, “They followed in Your steps / Accepting Your pronouncements,” is hinting at a specific group of people.

He explains that it’s describing those who travel from town to town in order to learn Torah. It often happened that the town a person was living in didn’t have a Torah teacher at all, or one that was suitable, or one that a person could effectively learn from. Thus, the frustrated student would be obliged to travel to other towns to find that elusive Torah teacher who was available, disposed and who could successfully teach the prospective student.

Moses is blessing the students who go out of their way, who are willing to go to great lengths, even to relocate, in order to find that live transmitter of Torah. Moses is blessing them that they will be successful in their quest for learning and that it should occur as smoothly as possible.

The Chidushei HaRim adds that at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai all of existence was silent. It was so quiet that not even a bird chirped. The purpose of the silence was to show that everyone can listen to the Torah. There is nothing stopping anyone from listening to the lessons of the Torah. It is free for the taking.

May we make the important effort to learn Torah however we’re able to.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Hakhel ceremony, which is celebrated once every seven years during the Sukkot holiday immediately after the Sabbatical (Shemita) year.

Scholarly Arrogance (Haazinu)

Scholarly Arrogance (Haazinu)

In the same way that we need statesmen to spare us the abjection of exercising power, we need scholars to spare us the abjection of learning. -Jean Baudrillard

To learn Torah is one of the best and noblest tasks that a Jew can perform. It is to study and delve into the word and wishes of God. It is to get a glimpse of the divine will and to get a further understanding of God’s plan. Learning Torah can become the foundation of divine service, of refined character and elevated intellect.

Since the time of Moses, there were a select few who dedicated their lives to the study of Torah. They became the sages, the scholars, and the great rabbis of old. They were the religious leaders and spiritual giants of our nation. They constantly sought the good of the people, while always seeking to grow in their learning and understanding of the Torah.

However, the Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 32:15 seems to take issue with individuals who indulge in full-time learning but haven’t used it as a source of either personal development or community service. He tells how the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Hassidic movement, bewailed these arrogant scholars who were satisfied with themselves and their full-time learning schedule. The Baal Shem Tov attributed to these scholars the poetic verses:

“So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—

You grew fat and gross and coarse —

They forsook the God who made them

And spurned the Rock of their support.

They incensed [God] with alien things,

Vexed [God] with abominations.”

A life devoted to learning can indeed be ennobling and lead to great contributions to people, communities, and the nation. However, when it is laced with arrogance and self-satisfaction, it is most unbecoming, and instead of being a blessing becomes a curse. Instead of being a beacon to others, it becomes alien and abominable.

May all our pursuits lead to blessings for us and those around us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the protests in Iran.

The Harder They Fall (Vayelech)

The Harder They Fall (Vayelech)

Strength instead of being the lusty child of passion, grows by grappling with and subduing them. -James Barrie

Perhaps one of the greatest leaders the nation of Israel ever had, after Moses, is his successor, Joshua. Joshua is prominent early in the biblical narrative. We see Moses selecting Joshua to lead the Israelite armed forces against the Amalekite ambush shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the desert journey, we see Joshua at Moses’ right hand, his aide-de-camp, his devoted disciple.

God Himself names Joshua as Moses’ successor when Moses pleads with Him to ensure that Israel will continue to have a mortal leader after God decrees his death. Joshua is the divinely ordained successor to Moses and his subsequently miraculous and powerful conquest of the kings of Canaan prove his suitability for the role.

However, the Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 31:7, wonders as to a particular refrain that is repeated constantly regarding Joshua. Moses and then later God, as well as the nation of Israel, repeatedly tell Joshua “Be strong and of good courage” – Chazak ve’ematz. Why does Joshua, who was clearly a great man, need such repeated encouragement? It would make more sense to offer a weak, untried leader such ongoing support. Why did a proven, accomplished, and seasoned leader such as Joshua require such reassurance?

The Chidushei HaRim posits that it was actually Joshua’s greatness that was his Achilles Heel. Joshua was such a great man, that the slightest infraction might have spelled his doom. When one reaches the level of the fully righteous, the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to their otherwise saintly behavior and can bring with it significant negative consequences.

A greater person is held to a greater standard. The Chidushei HaRim states that if such a person were to deviate as much as a hairsbreadth from God’s directive, it could completely doom them. Therefore, ironically, the greater a person is, the more protection and support they require. Hence the need for the repeated instances of God, Moses and the nation supporting Joshua with the refrain of Chazak ve’ematz, be strong and of good courage.

May we all be providers and recipients of strength and support, no matter what level of greatness we’re currently at.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Eviation’s first test flight of their prototype all-electric airplane.

Marking Renewal (Nitzavim)

Marking Renewal (Nitzavim)

So long as a person is capable of self-renewal they are a living being. -Henri Frederic Amiel

The Torah reading of Nitzavim is generally read around Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew word Nitzavim can be translated as “standing” or “assembled.” The beginning of the reading can be translated as follows:

“You are standing this day, all of you, before your God —your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer— to enter into the covenant of your God, which your God is concluding with you this day.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuternomy 29:9 quotes the great Rabbinic commentator Rashi, who states that as the nation of Israel was transitioning from one leader (Moses) to a new leader (Joshua) they were made a “Matzevah.” While it’s not exactly clear in this instance what the meaning of Matzevah refers to, it’s interesting to note the etymological similarity between the word Nitzavim and the word Matzevah.

A Matzeva is often a monument, some type of marker to designate the importance of a place or event (Matzeva also means tombstone). The Chidushei HaRim explains that there is a purposeful confluence between Nitzavim, Rosh Hashana and the need for an allegorical marker.

At the end of our year, just as at the end of a reign, it’s important to make an accounting of what was achieved during that time period. What did we do with the time given to us? What did we contribute to the world? What new, positive thought, word or act did we think, speak, or do during the course of the year?

It is important and valuable to go through the exercise of review and introspection and then to somehow mark in our minds and spirits these positive accomplishments. We need to create an internal monument of sorts for all the good we did in the Hebrew calendar year of 5782.

Once we’ve marked the good we’ve done in 5782, we can then more powerfully embark on our new goals, our spiritual renewal for 5783.

May we note and feel all the good we’ve been a part of this year and launch forward into a blessed and successful 5783.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the five Red Heifers who arrived in Israel. See details here: https://www.jpost.com/judaism/article-717650

First Powerful Fruits (Ki Tavo)

First Powerful Fruits (Ki Tavo)

In every phenomenon the beginning remains always the most notable moment. -Thomas Carlyle

A farmer works hard tilling, planting, and tending to his crops, be it grain or fruit. He prays hard for rain. He looks up to the sky expectantly. When the blessed rain does come, he looks to the ground lovingly, hoping it will be enough. Then he waits. And waits some more. He will go out to his crops daily, searching anxiously for those first stalks, those first buds, that initial flowering of fruit that will demonstrate that all his hard work, all his prayers and worries weren’t for naught.

And then he finds it. His heart is filled with joy. He’s ecstatic. His efforts have borne fruit – literally. That initial sign of growth promises that all the rest will follow, but that first fruit carries a very special place in his heart.

Enters the Torah and tells the farmer, that that first fruit, that joyous sign of success and plenty, that promise of a full crop to come, that very first fruit, needs to be marked and then brought to God once it ripens.

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 26:2 wonders why that’s so. Why is it that at the first signs of fruit, at the emotional apex of agrarian life, God is demanding specifically those fruits? He answers that there’s an incredible power to the beginning and first of anything. A person will attach themselves to that first occurrence with all their strength. God is asking that we redirect that powerful attachment to Him.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that the phenomenon of strong attachment to first things is not limited to agriculture, but that it pervades all aspects of life, and we should keep in mind the same divine request in our own lives. By dedicating the first minutes of our day, the first days of the year to God, we give a divine blessing and power to the rest of the day, the rest of the year and to all our efforts.

May we encounter fresh beginnings regularly and may they signify blessings for all that follows.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Queen Elizabeth II. May her memory be a blessing. And to the success of King Charles III.

Worthy Enough (Ki Tetze)

Worthy Enough (Ki Tetze)

You have no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself; and how little I deserve it. -W. S. Gilbert

The Israelite tribe of Dan had a checkered history. At some point during the desert journey, they were outside of the protective cloud that the rest of the tribes of Israel were in. The Midrash names the tribe of Dan as particularly connected with idolatry. However, the tribe of Dan also carried the prestigious flag of the “Measef” – the Gatherer. They were the tribe that marched last whenever the Israelites travelled. It was a credit to their strength and courage that they held the rearguard.

The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 25:18 wonders as to the negative portrayal of the Danites, and in actuality, flips the narrative around. He explains that the Danites were a people who were particularly concerned with justice and looked at things from the perspective of fairness and impartiality (as per Tractate Pesachim 4a). They did some soul-searching and came to the conclusion that they weren’t worthy. They weren’t worthy to be included with the rest of the tribes of Israel within God’s protective cover.

However, that was their mistake. Once God had directed them to join the rest of the tribes and come within the cloud, it didn’t matter that they weren’t worthy. God had deemed them worthy enough. And by declining God’s invitation to join the rest of the tribes, even though their rationale had some elements of noble self-sacrifice, it was considered akin to idol worship. Hence, the statement of their being associated with idolatry.

The Chidushei HaRim extrapolates this lesson to all of God’s commands. Though we may not be worthy, though we may think we don’t have the merit or the right to be considered part of God’s camp, nonetheless, we should join the camp whenever possible and keep as many of God’s commands as we’re able, even if we don’t feel worthy enough.

And may we always bear in mind that we are truly worthy enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Dr. Dodi Tobin z”l. A tremendous inspiration and a heartbreaking loss. May God comfort her family among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.