Useful, Thoughtful, Meaningful Prayers (Tzav)

Useful, Thoughtful, Meaningful Prayers (Tzav)

 Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

There is a not-uncommon phenomenon in Hebrew prayer, of people not understanding what they are saying. This goes so far as to the trend of some people, trying to be particularly devout, of reciting Psalms throughout the day, though they may not understand the words. Some go so far as to recite the entire Book of Psalms in one sitting or even multiple times a day, leaving time for little else in their days.

The source for the power of prayer in general and Psalms in particular is an ancient tradition. The Talmud affirms that “whoever says the Praise of David (referring to Psalm 145) every day is guaranteed the World to Come.”

However, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 7:37 (Tzav) adds a caveat to the above. The prayers are mainly effective when we understand what we’re saying. While there is some value to saying it even if we don’t fully understand, the power of the prayers is when we are able to internalize the concepts we’re saying, when we are able to delve into the meaning within our communications with God.

There is a related principle from this week’s Torah reading regarding the sacrifices. The Sages explain that even just reading about the sacrifices, especially in our day and age, while the Temple is yet to be rebuilt, is akin to actually bringing the real flesh-and-blood sacrifices. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that here too, it’s not just reading the words, but really contemplating the significance of the words, the profound messages and the divine imperative which underlines the holy texts.

A related challenge is that for those who pray on a daily basis, and recite the same text all the time, the act of praying can become monotonous. It can become a burden. People may speed through the text just to get it over with. Their mouths may be saying the words, but their hearts and minds are most likely elsewhere. The truth however, and a response to the challenge, is that the words of the prayer are rich and complex. They are filled with nuance and significance which can take a lifetime to discover. They can lead to greater insights as to our history and our tradition. That is part of Rabbeinu Bechaye’s suggestion. He guides us to delve into the interpretations of prayer. There are mystical hints. One can find the keyhole to wonders. It should lead to a growing faith in God and indeed the World to Come.

May we rediscover the meaning, usefulness, sublimity and power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,



To the members of The Westside Shul in LA for a warm welcome and a meaningful prayer service.

Vital Clear Communication (Vayikra)

Vital Clear Communication (Vayikra)

It is still not enough for language to have clarity and content… it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion. -Rene Daumal

There is a great biblical mystery, that for thousands of years Rabbinic commentators have been unable to agree as to its solution. It has to do with the sudden, Divinely-enacted execution of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses.

To recap, at the consecration ceremony for the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu, of their own initiative, decide to offer what the Torah describes as a “strange” fire. The response is instant and fatal. The verse is short and cryptic: “And a fire came from God and consumed them and they died in front of God.”

The commentators have a spectrum of opinions as to why they were killed. It ranges from them having been drunk, to choosing not to marry, to wishing Aaron and Moses dead already so they can take charge, to the arrogance of bringing an offering nobody commanded.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 1:7 brings a simple yet chilling opinion. He says they were killed because they misunderstood the instructions. God instructs: “And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar.” Nadav and Avihu interpreted that they should bring fire from outside. They didn’t think or bother to ask Moses for clarification (perhaps out of arrogance). That mistake proved fatal.

Based on this Rabbeinu Bechaye elaborates on the Talmudic dictum of being punctiliously careful with the words we say and especially when repeating the words of our sages. If Nadav and Avihu, whom after Moses there was nobody of their stature, could make such a grave error of misunderstanding with such dire consequences, how much more so must we, simple mortals, be careful in the clear transmission of information? He further warns that whoever changes or alters holy words, even one letter or the order of the words, is changing the very intention of God and will be cast off.

Hence, the Talmudic practice of the Rabbis repeating what they heard from their own teachers verbatim and getting into major debates if there were even minute differences in their traditions.

May we bear messages worth transmitting and may we do so clearly.

Shabbat Shalom,



To all the participants and organizers of the Jerusalem Marathon. It was a special treat to join runners, joggers, walkers and strollers from all over the country and the world in this amazing event.

What goes up must not come down (Vayakel-Pekudei)

What goes up must not come down (Vayakel-Pekudei)

For one who has been honored, dishonor is worse than death. -Bhagavad Gita

In the course of my career, I’ve had occasion to advise CEOs and directors of organizations as to personnel issues. Many of us are familiar with the “Peter Principle” which explains that often people are promoted to their level of incompetence. For example, just because someone is an excellent engineer doesn’t mean they’ll make a good engineering manager. However, a hopeful management will promote the individual, who will not perform, and the hapless engineer will be stuck at that level of the organization. They will not be moved further up the chain because of poor performance at their new level, nor will they be demoted, because, that’s just not done.

However, more enlightened organizations, realizing their mistake, may indeed return the unfortunate engineer to their former position. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 40:18 (Pekudei) explains why that may also be a mistake.

There is a principle in the Talmud (Tractate Menachot 99a) that states that “we raise things up (in holiness), but we don’t bring them back down.” We learn the “raise” part from the utensils that were used by Korach’s rebellious group when challenging Moses’ leadership. Even though their challenge was ill-considered, it seems there was some desire on their part for greater involvement in divine service. God struck them down, but their utensils survived and were “raised” to serve as the coating for the Tabernacle’s altar.

We learn “don’t bring them back down” from this week’s Torah reading. It states that Moses “raised” the Tabernacle. However, while it is clear that Moses raised and took down the Tabernacle multiple times, it never says that Moses “took down” the Tabernacle.

We learn from this the extreme sensitivity of not bringing down even objects, let alone people, once they’ve been raised to a certain position.

May we always be rising and raising others, and finding creative solutions for those that may be stuck.

Shabbat Shalom,



To all the Yeshiva guys entering the army this week. May you have a safe and successful service.

Safety of the Crowd (Ki Tisa)

Safety of the Crowd (Ki Tisa)

Comrades! We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all. -Nikita Khrushchev

God instructs Moses to count the nation of Israel. However, the methodology of the counting is unusual. God instructs Moses to count by collecting a half shekel coin from each adult male of the twelve tribes of Israel (excluding the Levites) as opposed to simply counting how many men are in each tribe. There is actually a prohibition to directly count the individuals.

To this day when counting people, we don’t point at them and count 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. For example, when trying to ascertain if there are ten men for a prayer quorum (a minyan), we traditionally count by saying the words of a verse known to have ten words.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 30:12 (Ki Tisa) wonders as to this apprehensive approach to counting. He explains that there is an inherent safety in being part of the crowd. When we stand out, when we are counted as individuals, we actually invite divine scrutiny and justice as to our actions, and invariably would be found to be failing. He gives the example from the beginning of the story of Ruth, when the man we know to be Elimelech travels and is mentioned merely as a man of Bethlehem, nothing occurs to him. When he is finally mentioned by name, in the next phrase we find that he dies.

Similarly, when the prophet Elisha offers to intercede on behalf of his hostess the woman of Shunam, her response is no thanks, “I dwell among my people.” She doesn’t want attention brought to her personally; she prefers the anonymity of the crowd.

This is not only for protection from harm. Rabbeinu Bechaye expounds that blessings and even miracles can occur to a person thanks to the merit of the crowd. This thinking even goes to the level of objects. He quotes the Talmudic dictum that there is no blessing upon what is counted. When the amount of grain in the granary is unknown, there is still the possibility of a supernatural intervention to increase the amount. Once the grain has been counted or measured, no further blessing is likely. Furthermore, the evil eye tends to fall upon what is measured, weighed or counted.

So while Judaism gives a prominent place, role and value to the individual, it also recognizes the attraction, advantage and strength of strongly identifying with the crowd (a good crowd!), keeping a low profile and not drawing undue attention to oneself.

May we attach ourselves and stick to the best crowds we can find.

Shabbat Shalom & Purim Sameach,



To the United Synagogue of Great Britain and particularly to the members of their Chevra Kadisha for the incredible work that they perform day after day, year after year.

Etymology of the Ruby (Tetzaveh)

Etymology of the Ruby (Tetzaveh)

I would rather be adorned by beauty of character than jewels. Jewels are the gift of fortune, while character comes from within. –Plautus

Without a doubt the most impressive of the High Priest’s vestments was the Breastplate (the Choshen) containing twelve different stones, one for each Tribe of Israel, with their names engraved on each stone.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 28:10 (Tetzaveh) goes into a quite long and detailed description of each stone and how each stone has a deep and direct connection to the history and inner characteristics of each Tribe.

We independently know that the Tribe of Ruben may have been associated with the ruby. What was perhaps most surprising was to discover Rabbeinu Bechaye’s claim that the source of the name “ruby” is none other than “Ruben.” He implies that the connection between the tribes and their stones are profound.

Following is a list of the tribes, the original name of the stone, an opinion as to a possible modern equivalent (there is much dispute as to what the ancient stone names represent in modern times) as well as Rabbeinu Bechaye’s opinion as to the benefits associated with the stone:

  1. Ruben: Rubin (Ruby). Helps childbirth.
  2. Simon: Pitda (Chrysolite). Cools body.
  3. Levi: Bareket (Onyx). Enlightenment.
  4. Judah: Nofech (Malachite). Overpower enemies.
  5. Yissachar: Sapir (Lapis-Lazuli). Helps eyesight, healing.
  6. Zevulun: Yahalom (Zircon). Helps sleep.
  7. Dan: Leshem (Jacinth).
  8. Naftali: Shvo (Agate). Helps riding.
  9. Gad: Achlamah (Amethyst). Bravery.
  10. Asher: Tarshish (Topaz). Helps digestion.
  11. Joseph: Shoham (Beryl). Perceived well by all.
  12. Benjamin: Yashpeh (Jasper). Helps blood-clotting.

While attributing different properties and powers to a variety of stones is common to many ancient cultures (and some New Age groups), what is interesting is Rabbeinu’s Bechaye’s claim that in order for the power of these stones to be effective, the user must be ritually pure. He warns that if a person is not ritually clean, the stones will be either ineffective, or even harmful. The topic of ritual purity is quite involved with a long list of laws and details, but at the simplest level today it involves immersion in a ritual bath (Mikveh) within the guidelines of Jewish law. He explains that the stones interact based on a person’s spiritual level, where purity or impurity plays an important role.

So while there may be some truth and validity to the idea of the power of particular stones, ones character and spiritual life are of greater significance. Artifacts and even religious items are always secondary to the person and the spirit. Such is always the case.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the victims and mourners of the Parkland shooting tragedy.

The Price of Laziness (Trumah)

The Price of Laziness (Trumah)

A lazy person, whatever the talents with which he set out, will have condemned himself to second-hand thoughts and to second-rate friends. -Cyril Connolly

Moses calls upon the nation of Israel to donate material for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, the structure that will house the Tablets of the Law which they received on Mount Sinai. This portable Temple would accompany the Jewish people throughout their desert journey until they entered the land of Israel. Within Israel, the Tabernacle would have a semi-permanent structure and location, until the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon, hundreds of years later.

What is particularly impressive about Moses’ call for donations was the speed with which the Jewish nation responded. The donations came so quickly and so plentifully, that the artisans actually had to tell Moses to announce to the people to stop bringing anything more. They had more than they needed.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 25 (Trumah) learns a lesson as to the vital importance of such alacrity and the converse hazards of laziness. Laziness is a negative trait, but it is particularly damaging when it comes to bear on the performance of commandments.

Rabbeinu Bechaye gives a number of examples, the first being prayer. It is not hard to pray. What is challenging during prayer is to remain focused on the words you’re saying, on connecting and actually communicating with God, and not letting your mind wander to ruminations about work, money, possessions and other mundane thoughts. Not only is such prayer not effective – it is an affront to God, and may provoke His ire more than His pleasure. (This doesn’t mean you’re better off not praying – it means focus!).

Laziness can affect all aspects of our lives, primary our work lives. Rabbeinu Bechaye expands, based on King Solomon’s phrase that “as smoke is to the eyes, so too is the lazy person to his senders.” When you want to warm yourself by lighting a fire, if the fire produces a lot of smoke which then goes into your eyes, you may not remain so pleased with the fire. Likewise, a lazy person who is assigned a task or an errand will somehow manage to spoil the undertaking by their lack of energy, drive or motivation.

Quoting the Sages of the Talmud, “If someone said: “I didn’t try and I accomplished, don’t believe them. I tried but I didn’t accomplish, don’t believe them. I tried and I accomplished, believe them.” For that reason, King Solomon in Proverbs constantly attacks laziness and asks us to look at the industrious ants as positive models who work hard in the summer to provide for themselves in the winter. For those who stir themselves and are quick to work hard, especially in Torah, in the commandments and in character development, they will see gains, they will see accomplishment, they will elevate themselves from level to level, and will always make progress in their lives. The lazy ones will always fall back.

May we get our acts together, get out of bed, and conquer ourselves and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,



To our forces engaged on the Syrian front.


Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)

Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)

Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them. -Jean Jacques Rousseau

The Jewish nation has escaped from the slavery of Egypt, they crossed the Sea, received the Ten Commandments. Now, one of the first commands after the pyrotechnic divine Revelation on Mount Sinai is the laws of…slavery.

The Jews had felt the whip of the slave-master on their backs. Slavery was extremely fresh in their memories. Just a few months prior they had been considered the property of Egypt.

God introduces to the world an entirely different concept of “slavery.” It is a temporary condition. A Jewish man, out of luck and resources (typically because he stole something and then couldn’t repay), becomes an indentured servant for six years. He must be treated well and cared for. He must have a quality of life equal to that of his master. However, if he becomes comfortable with his servitude and his master, he can request to stay on longer. The Torah prescribes that in such a case the master takes this slave to the doorpost and pierces the slave’s ear by the doorpost, marking him, branding him as a slave until the Jubilee year, when all slaves are freed, all men of Israel reclaim their ancestral lands.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 21:6 (Mishpatim) explains the rationale for the ear-piercing ceremony, as that namely a Jew should know better than to choose slavery, no matter how comfortable it may be. God took us out of the chains of Egypt to serve Him, not to serve human masters. The ear that heard God’s commands and disobeyed them will be pierced by the new master he’s chosen for himself. By piercing the slave’s ear, the master is following God’s command and demonstrating that at least the master is exclusively subservient to God and not to man. This was a fundamental principle, the principle of personal freedom and subservience only to God, which the slave was disregarding. Man is meant to live free and not be the slave of any other human being. It may seem ironic, but the Torah transmits the message that by serving God exclusively we thereby gain freedom from human domination. There is only one Master – God. Therein we can find our freedom.

May we choose who and what we serve wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Marvin Rosen of Teaneck, NJ. I spent many special Shabbats at his home and at his table. May his family be consoled among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.