Category Archives: Parsha

Tripartite Forgiveness (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

Tripartite Forgiveness (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

God pardons like a mother, who kisses the offense into everlasting forgiveness. -Henry Ward Beecher

Mom caught son stealing pie

In one of Moses’ last speeches to Israel, he declares that “You are standing today, all of you, before your God.” The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 29:9 explains that when Moses is saying “today” he is referring to Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish calendar year.

The Bat Ayin then quotes a midrash from Vayikra Rabah 30:7 that states that God forgives the nation of Israel in three different stages. He forgives a third of our sins on the eve of Rosh Hashana, He forgives a second-third of our sins during the Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur), and He forgives the third-third of our sins on Hoshana Rabbah (the penultimate day of Sukkot).

The Bat Ayin wonders as to the timing and significance of Rosh Hashana eve, the Ten Days of Repentance (which includes the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and Hoshana Rabbah. He explains that each stage of forgiveness is for different types of sin. The first stage is for the sin of illicit relations. The second stage is for sins of theft. The third stage is for gossiping.

He elaborates that God first forgives the sin of illicit relations because He wants the world to start the new year with a clean slate in that department. There is something fundamental about the sin of illicit relations that otherwise prevents repentance in all other matters, both for the individual, but also for the world at large. That’s why it’s forgiven on the eve of Rosh Hashana.

During the Ten Days of Repentance, God forgives for the sin of theft, which is understood to be widespread. It is not only an absolution for bank robbers. It is for all types of theft, big and small. Whether it’s theft of money, theft of items, theft of time. It includes misappropriating someone’s investment of time, effort, resources, trust, confidence. How many times have we failed a friend or loved one? How many times did we “steal” their trust? How many times did we say we’d do something and didn’t do it – always for legitimate reasons, but we nonetheless proved that it wasn’t important enough for us. That too is a theft and is the main forgiveness God grants through the period of the High Holidays.

The final forgiveness is given on Hoshana Rabbah. The Kabbalists explain that it is the day when whatever decrees were written and signed during the High Holiday are finally sealed and delivered for the year, so to speak. And it is reserved for the most pervasive, perhaps the most rampant sin of all. Gossip. And God forgives us of this and of all these sins with just one simple condition (besides seeking forgiveness directly from the injured party where possible). Remorse. We must regret and feel remorse for these failings of character and make a serious, concerted effort to reduce if not outright remove these defects from our interpersonal relationships.

May we appreciate and take advantage of the fresh start and opportunities of a New Year.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Charles Meisels z”l. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Remember what Not to Forget (Ki Tavo)

Remember what Not to Forget (Ki Tavo)

Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with freedom of the press but the sealing up of a nation’s heart, the excision of its memory. -Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Questioning

In the beginning of the Torah reading of Ki Tavo, Moses instructs the nation of Israel regarding the obligation of the future farmers of Israel to bring from their first fruits to the Temple and the ceremony of presenting them to the Kohen. The ceremony recalls Jewish history up to that point in a few concise verses and actually forms the base of the text for the Passover Haggadah.

The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 26:2 connects the obligation to bring the first fruits to the very first fruits that God caused to grow at the creation of the world. In discussing creation, he further draws on God stating that He “forms light and creates darkness” (Isaiah 45:7). The word “darkness” in Hebrew, (CHoSHeCH), has the same letters as the word “forgot,” (SHaCHaCH)

The Bat Ayin explains that when God created man, the darkness that He is referring to is man’s capacity to forget. That capacity in fact is what gives human beings an aspect of free will. If we had perfect memories and always remembered to follow God’s commands, if our pristine faculties of recall didn’t allow us to ever veer from the right path, then we would be angels and not human beings.

However, the lack of a strong memory doesn’t excuse us. Just two verses earlier (Deuteronomy 25:19) in a seemingly paradoxical command, we are told we need to destroy the memory of the nation of Amalek (the nation that ambushed Israel when they exited Egypt and would prove to be a nemesis throughout the biblical account). The command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is punctuated with the phrase “don’t forget,” (Lo TiSHKaCH). So, do we have to forget them? Do we have to remember to forget them? Or do we have to forget to remember them? It seems counterintuitive.

The Bat Ayin explains that the attribute of Amalek was to cause Israel to forget God. Amalek caused Israel to focus on the material, causal world and to forget the spiritual and divine world. Amalek would deny the existence and presence of God in our lives. It is that atheism that we need to remove from our minds. It is the darkness that repudiates God that we need to escape. The foundational belief in God is such a fundamental issue that we can’t forget the struggle. We can’t forget the existence of God. We can’t forget to deny the deniers. It is something we can’t afford to forget.

May we always remember the fundamental principles that should guide our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the anniversary of the European outlawing of the crossbow in 1146, intended to end war for all time…

https://www.rallypoint.com/shared-links/the-crossbow-a-medieval-doomsday-device-militaryhistorynow-com

Loved Son of Hated Wife (Ki Tetze)

Loved Son of Hated Wife (Ki Tetze)

Beautiful light is born of darkness, so the faith that springs from conflict is often the strongest and the best. -R. Turnbull

Hated Wife Precious Son

The Torah describes a case of a man married to two women (which was allowed in biblical times). In this case, the man loves one of the wives and hates the other. The hated wife gives birth to a son before the loved one does. The Torah mandates that the husband must recognize the son of the hated wife as his firstborn along with the legal benefits and obligations that come with that title.

The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 21:15 digs deeper into the symbolism of the case. The verse mentions the loved wife before the hated one. He explains that it hints that we should do what is “loved” before what is “hated,” namely we should start our day with prayer and Torah which is “loved” by God before engaging with the mundane, secular world which in a sense is “hated” by God as compared to prayer and Torah.

However, continuing with the analogy, the “hated” wife gives birth to a “firstborn” son. The Bat Ayin explains that while the “loved” activities of prayer, Torah and fulfilling God’s commands are indeed dear to God as compared to one’s other activities, there is a reversal of sorts. When one is engaged in their secular activities (after the more sacred ones), there is an opportunity – not present in the sacred activities, to extract some aspects of good from the mundane. By engaging honestly, pleasantly, and meaningfully in one’s work, studies and other “non-religious” activities, one can actually draw out and elevate the divine aspect of that activity hidden in the coarse garb of the material world. One can draw out what the Kabbalists call “sparks” (nitzotzot in Hebrew) of holiness, that otherwise would have been lost and buried.

This is the “firstborn” of the analogy; the “firstborn” from the “hated” wife, those sparks of divinity from our mundane activities are precious to God. In a sense, they are on a higher level than the conventional “loved” activity of Torah and prayer. Perhaps because it is harder to find and to get. Perhaps because we have to struggle with the reality of unholiness. Perhaps because those sparks are so hidden and ephemeral.

May we enjoy the benefits of doing “loved” activities as well as revealing the hidden, precious “firstborn” sparks all around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Batsheva Nigri z”l, murdered by Arab terrorists down the highway from my home. May God avenge her blood.

House of Words (Shoftim)

House of Words (Shoftim)

A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words… the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt. -Mark Twain

Stone Aleph

The beginning of this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim instructs the people of Israel: “Judges and officers shall you place for yourselves in all your gates.” The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 16:18 explains that the interestingly phrased command is hinting at a number of deeper lessons.

One of those lessons is the connection between the words we speak and the quality of our Shabbat. The Kabbalistic book, Sefer Hayetzirah, The Book of Formation, alludes to calling letters stones and words houses. By speaking and enunciating sacred letters and words we are using holy stones to build a domicile for God in our world and in our lives.

The most important timeframe when such transcendent architecture takes place is on the Sabbath. By being cognizant on the Sabbath of not speaking mundane things or worse, by being conscientious in our saying the words of our prayers with meaning and not by rote, by taking the opportunity to learn Torah, to speak Torah, to share words of Torah, by sanctifying our thoughts, our speech and our actions, we consecrate ourselves and create a suitable conduit for God to more closely attune Himself to our lives. In some spiritual way, it can even repair certain aspects of the damage our misused words may have done during the course of the week. What prayers did we utter without thinking? What innocent comments inadvertently hurt somebody’s feelings? What nonsense did we discuss? (Other, more willful, and harmful use of our gift of speech needs more serious and more direct repentance).

The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 113b) states that our speech on Shabbat should not be like that of a weekday. The Shabbat Musaf prayer refers to “you fixed Shabbat” (Tikanta Shabbat). The Bat Ayin explains that we need to use Shabbat to fix our talking, to fix our speech. By reinforcing within ourselves the belief in God’s existence, power, and presence, we may strengthen our discipline in using our faculty of speech properly, even nobly.

When we build such a divine edifice on the Sabbath just by watching how we use our unique human gift of speech, the positive impact that it will have on ourselves, our families, our friends, our communities, and the wider world will stand and resonate throughout the week.

Our ability to speak is an exceptionally powerful ability. May we use it well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the discovery of an apparently 5,500-year-old city gate (the oldest so far) in Israel.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/discovery-of-israels-oldest-gate-resets-clock-on-local-urbanization-by-centuries/

The Curse of Lottery Winnings (Reeh)

The Curse of Lottery Winnings (Reeh)

We must do our business faithfully, without trouble or disquiet, recalling our mind to God mildly, and with tranquility, as often as we find it wandering from him. -Brother Lawrence

Tranquil Study

Statistics indicate that over seventy percent of lottery winners become broke within five years of winning the lottery. That means they become WORSE off than before they won millions of dollars.

Related to the above perhaps counterintuitive expectation, the Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 11:26 ponders the very purpose of material wealth and rewards in this world. If indeed the purpose of the journey of our souls in this world is for the eternal spiritual rewards of the next world, then why should we be concerned with bounty in this world, why should we pray for it and why should God promise it to us if we follow His laws?

The Bat Ayin explains that material wealth in this world is merely a means to an end. The objective of God’s physical blessings during our mortal existence is for one purpose – to better serve Him. Having a roof over our heads, decent clothing, nutritious food, effective transportation, and the income to support all our needs is solely to allow us to carry out our divine obligations. The tangible rewards we receive are a means to serve God with greater tranquility. The greater our economic stability, the more capable and tranquil we should be in our service of God.

However, the Bat Ayin adds that God also knows that money and wealth can corrupt. He knows the corrosive impact that material plenty can have on a soul. Therefore, in some cases, God withholds the bounty for our own good. Not only does He not want us to be among those seventy percent of lottery winners who lose their money, but He also doesn’t want us to be among the well-off who lose their souls.

May we remember what our divine blessings are for.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Aliyah of our niece and nephew, Leora and Sammy Landesman. Mazal Tov!

Quadratic Iron Wives (Ekev)

Quadratic Iron Wives (Ekev)

Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them. -Hermann Hesse

Iron Wives

The Torah describes that the land of Canaan, the Promised Land that the nation of Israel is about to enter has stones of iron, “BaRZeL” in Hebrew. Hebrew doesn’t really have letters for vowels; hence I only capitalized the actual Hebrew letter equivalent of “Bet,” “Resh,” “Zayin,” and “Lamed,” which also happens to be an acronym of Jacob’s wives, namely Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah.

The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 8:9 states that the mention of the word BaRZeL, which encompasses the names of the four wives of Jacob, the women who gave birth to the twelve tribes of Israel, hints at other deep and significant foursomes. One foursome are the four elements; earth, wind, fire, and water which comprise our physical reality. Israel is a microcosm of all of reality.

However, then he delves into an even more esoteric foursome, the four worlds discussed in Kabbalistic works. Following is an extremely brief and insufficient description of these four levels of existence and reality:

Assiyah (Action): The physical world of tangible reality and actions.

Yetzirah (Formation): The realm of emotions and spiritual energies.

Beriah (Creation): The world of intellect and divine knowledge.

Atzilut (Emanation): The highest realm of pure spirituality and divine essence.

These interconnected worlds form an existential framework that governs the universe and our comprehensive reality.

The Bat Ayin provides further hints as to the divine source of reality and how these worlds impact our body, our mind, and our hearts; how our very thoughts and speech are influenced by these otherwise unseen realms. However, if we internalize that God is the source of both our perceived as well as our unperceived realities, then we can more easily draw on the divine blessings that ultimately emanate from Him.

There is a vast reality, way beyond what we can perceive with our senses and it’s all to our eternal benefit.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Maxine Thau z”l. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Memory Power (Vaetchanan)

Memory Power (Vaetchanan)

Memory is the cabinet of the imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, and, the council chamber of thought. -Giambattista Basile

 

Moses, telling the nation of Israel about the primacy of the Torah that was bestowed upon them, adds an additional warning:

“But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.”

The Bat Ayin on the verse of Deuteronomy 4:9 delves into the spiritual dimensions of forgetfulness. He explains that our ability to remember the Torah is directly correlated to our spiritual efforts. He goes even further and states that remembering is an act of attaching oneself to what is holy, while forgetfulness is a function of arrogance and a distancing from God.

The Talmud, in Tractate Sotah 5a, in its discussion of the extreme dangers of arrogance, states that a Torah Scholar is permitted to have one-eighth of one-eighth of arrogance, namely, no more than one sixty-fourth of arrogance. However, if a person allows themselves even a fraction more arrogance, one sixty-third, then one is in trouble. Sixty-three in Hebrew letters spells the word “Gaas” which means arrogance. And once a person falls into arrogance, even though they are learned Torah scholars, they will forget their learning, they will be unable to access not only deeper levels of Torah, but they will become blind even to plain, obvious, revealed Torah. They will forget the divine content.

The Bat Ayin points out that later the Torah warns against excessive eating which also leads to forgetfulness. He quotes the Chapter of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) that instructs one who wants to acquire Torah to reduce their eating, their sleeping, and in general, their worldly affairs. Being absorbed in the material pleasures of the world divert and sidetrack a person from God, from His Torah, and causes one to forget what they’ve already learned. Holding on to one’s learning is a constant effort, not only in reviewing one’s material, but avoiding the pitfalls of arrogance and worldly pleasures.

May we actively remember our Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To World Drowning Prevention Day. Let’s be careful and attentive.

Divine Megaphone (Devarim)

Divine Megaphone (Devarim)

The ability to express an idea is well nigh as important as the idea itself. -Bernard Baruch

Moses Addressing

Moses, since the Exodus from Egypt, through the wandering in the desert for forty years and their final encampment by the eastern banks of the Jordan River, is constantly addressing the people of Israel. We know that the people of Israel had over 600,000 men of military age and likely comprised a total population of a few million people.

A question I always had was, how did Moses physically communicate with the entire nation at once? Even if a few million people squeezed into as tight an area as possible, we would be talking about an area that would comprise thousands upon thousands of acres. Remember, we are talking about a time before any electronic voice amplification technology existed. Was there some rudimentary Egyptian bullhorn used to address large crowds? Was there some forgotten Mesopotamian technology that amplified voices?

Before the age of electricity, it was presumed that a crowd of 5,000 was a natural limit that could be addressed, not including a stadium or some other enclosed and acoustically enhanced location. Benjamin Franklin tested a particularly powerful preacher, George Whitefield, who successfully addressed a crowd of 30,000 people in Philadelphia. Whitefield spoke from the top of the Court House steps on Market Street. Franklin was able to hear him up until about Front Street, half a mile away, at which point he could no longer hear him. The question still remains, how did Moses address a crowd that was one hundred times larger, over presumably a much larger area?

The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 1:1 wonders the same thing. The verse states that Moses addressed ALL of Israel. So how did he accomplish such a herculean task? How did he address millions of people at once? The Bat Ayin answers that God was Moses’ megaphone. God consistently and supernaturally amplified Moses’ voice whenever he wanted to address all of Israel. That in a sense, it was really some aspect of God’s voice that was coming out of Moses’ throat. Not only was Moses speaking the words that God put into his brain, but God was using Moses’ mouth and raising the reach and volume to divine levels. Moses’ attachment to God was so strong that he became a full and complete conduit to transmit God’s words to Israel. Moses faithfully transmitted both the words and the voice of God.

May we always appreciate the divine nature of the Torah that’s in our hands.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

To Herzog’s Yemei Iyun (Bible Study Days) in Alon Shvut. It constantly amazes me how so much relevant and new material can be gleaned from something so old.

Levels of Control (Matot-Masai)

Levels of Control (Matot-Masai)

Nothing is more dangerous than a friend without discretion; even a prudent enemy is preferable. -Jean de La Fontaine

Moses addresses the leaders of the tribes of Israel. He instructs them as to the laws of vows. He instructs them about literally, “what comes out of your mouths.” The Bat Ayin on Numbers 30:2 connects the fact that Moses is addressing the leaders of the tribes to a person’s ability to control their mouth.

It seems that Israel’s judicial, military, and most likely political leadership during their years of wandering in the desert was organized in a hierarchical system, as initially proposed by Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. Back in the Book of Exodus, shortly after the nation of Israel is miraculously freed from Egypt, crosses the Reed Sea and camps out at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jethro gives Moses much needed advice. He saw Moses attending individually to every single person in Israel, tells him it’s unsustainable and recommends a hierarchical meritocracy. Moses implements Jethro’s plan and establishes the roles of Captains of Ten, Captains of Fifty, Captains of One Hundred and Captains of One Thousand.

The Bat Ayin suggests that a person achieved a higher rank based on their ability to control their mouth. Those who exhibited the greatest control over what they said, how they said it, when they said it, to whom they said it, and perhaps most importantly, what they didn’t say – those people merited the highest rank within the leadership of Israel. The less prudent, less sensitive, less cautious and less circumspect a person was in their dialogue, the lower their rank, and ostensibly, those with little control of their speech were not given any positions of responsibility.

However, the control of their tongue was a product of their awe and reverence of God. The stronger a person understood their divine responsibilities and obligations, the more a person sought sanctity and transcendence. The more they used their powers of speech for noble and holy purposes, the more they were elevated.

May we always use caution and deliberation in what we say and achieve greater levels of divine connection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the surprising discovery of a large, 50km wide, cooled magma patch on the far side of the moon, which may have been generated by volcanic eruptions from radioactive elements billions of years ago. Scientists are still trying to figure it out.

Counter-productive Ambition (Pinchas)

Counter-productive Ambition (Pinchas)

The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream. -William Shakespeare

Men of Israel, while camped in the desert, are seduced by Midianite and Moabite women into both adultery and idolatry. The moral breakdown is so pervasive that a prince of the Israelite tribe of Simeon, Zimri, publicly couples with a Midianite princess, Kozbi, in front of Moses and the leadership of Israel. While this is happening, and as a direct result of the mass-lewdness, a divinely ordained plague is rapidly killing off thousands of Israelites. While the rest of the leadership seems paralyzed, Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, proceeds to kill the indiscreetly romantic prince and princess. Thereafter, the plague comes to a sudden halt, after killing 24,000 Israelites.

God is then effusive in his praise of Pinchas and his actions and elevates him and all his descendants to Kohanic status. The Bat Ayin on Numbers 25:10 states that Pinchas’ courage in taking upon himself the killing of Zimri and Kozbi and his subsequent divine reward are both tied to his innate humility. He explains that Pinchas’ underlying trait was one of humility, which enabled him to clearly see what his obligation was. His subsequent humility after God’s praise further cemented the eternal nature of his reward.

The Bat Ayin takes the opportunity to expound on the power of humility and the dangers of what he sees as the opposite of humility – undue ambition. Pinchas was happy with his lot. He wanted only what God wanted for him. He only wanted to do God’s will. Therefore, when he was confronted with the challenging situation of Zimri and Kozbi, his deep humility, his singular desire to do God’s will, gave him the distinct clarity as to what God wanted of him. Pinchas proceeds, still retaining his humility, to follow God’s desire. Even after his subsequent elevation, Pinchas retains his humility as he understands that his new status is likewise God’s desire.

The Bat Ayin continues that when God intends for a person to have something, there is nothing that person can do to change that eventuality. Likewise, if God doesn’t intend for a person to receive something, there is nothing that person can do, there is no agency in the universe that will bring them one iota closer to receiving what God will not allow. If a person has ambitions beyond what God has decreed, they will be disappointed and struggle in vain. If anything, undue ambition, to desire what God doesn’t desire for us is an arrogance that can have detrimental and counter-productive effects. A classic example is the Midrash about the first days of Creation when the moon complained to God that there can’t be two rulers of the sky, both the moon and the sun – the moon implying that it should be the unrivaled ruler. However, the moon’s ambition backfired; God decreed that the moon should be diminished while the sun would be the prime ruler of the sky.

May we channel our ambitions to things we’re certain God would want.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son, Yehoshua, on completing his Masa Kumta (end of training, capped by overnight trek and receipt of his unit’s beret).