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.

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Fire, Water, Desert (Bamidbar)

Am I willing to give up what I have in order to be what I am not yet? Am I able to follow the spirit of love into the desert? It is a frightening and sacred moment. There is no return. One’s life is charged forever. It is the fire that gives us our shape.  -Mary Caroline Richards

The fourth book of the Five Books of Moses, the book of Numbers, is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. It means “in the desert.” In the first sentence of the book, God orients us as to where and when we are in the story of our ancestors. We are in the Sinai Desert on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt.

The most important event after the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah in an historic divine revelation on Mount Sinai.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on that first sentence, Numbers 1:1 (Bamidbar) quotes the Midrash which states that the Torah was given via three things: fire, water and desert. Both blazing fire and a downpour of water accompanied the giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel in the desolation of the Sinai desert. There are pure, elemental forces at work here.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that just as all three of those elements: fire, water and the desert, are free to all that want it, so too the Torah is free and available to all those who wish to acquire it.

Additionally, the symbolism of the Torah being given in the desert is that just as the desert is “Hefker,” ownerless, so too a person who wishes to truly acquire the Torah must also make themselves “Hefker,” ownerless, without any other master but God, and the desire to acquire His Torah, His rulebook.

When one taps into the forces and elements around us, to free ourselves of extraneous masters, we are able to acquire the wisdom, the insight, the light, the wellbeing and the strength that the Torah can impart.

May we become free of the extraneous and focus on the basic, the essential and the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the community of Aish Kodesh (literally “Holy Fire”) of Woodmere, NY.

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

Regretting Good (Bechukotai)

People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent. -Bob Dylan

There are two somewhat arcane commandments (among many) that always nagged me. I was always uncomfortable with them. I couldn’t make sense of them. The first one is called Tmura (not to be confused with Truma). It basically means that if I’ve consecrated an animal to be brought as an offering and then I have a change of heart and decide to consecrate a different animal instead, both animals become consecrated. How does that make sense? This is a voluntary gift; shouldn’t I have the right to change my mind?

In a related vein, the second commandment has to do with Temple gifts and donations. If I decide to gift my property to the Temple and then decide I want it back, I need to pay a 25% fee on top of the original value of my property to get it back. If the Temple were to sell it to anyone else, they would charge the original/market value. Again, I seem to be getting penalized for my generosity!

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 27:10 (Bechukotai) provides an answer to both quandaries. The Torah is concerned that we may come to regret our generous gesture. In a fit of inspiration, on a high of closeness to God, we may decide to consecrate the best animal from our flock to God. However, the feeling may pass. We may say to ourselves: “What was I thinking!? That’s a really expensive animal! I could have shown my love or appreciation to God just as well with a cheaper animal.”

However, the Torah states that not only does our original consecration hold, but that it will cost us more if we try to get out of it somehow. Jewish law is so strict on this account that it doesn’t even allow one to change an inferior animal for a better one. The rationale is that if we allow changing of any animals, eventually we will find a way to change a better animal for a worse one.

The same logic of forcing us to hold fast to our generous impulse applies in the consecration of property. If you want it back it’s going to cost you an added 25%. The Temple is going to be selling it in any case, but the Torah doesn’t want us and won’t let us in these cases go back on our word.

We should never, ever regret the generosity we show or the good that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s firefighters, who kept us safe from the Lag Ba’Omer bonfires and who currently battle the fires out of Gaza.

Positive Discrimination (Behar)

Positive Discrimination (Behar)

It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home. -Carl Rowan

Judaism is tribal. Its prime concern is for members of the tribe. Its laws, restrictions, concerns and benefits almost exclusively deal with Jews. Throughout history, Jews, the Torah and the Talmud have been accused of unfair discrimination and racism. Many Rabbis and commentators have explained the rationale for the preferential treatment by Jews of other Jews above gentiles. One explanation is that it is more of a spectrum of responsibilities.

Jewish law codifies that one’s responsibility is first and foremost for oneself. “If I’m not for me, who will be?” is the famous dictum from the Mishna of Pirkei Avot, followed immediately by the phrase “if I am just for myself, what am I?” My father would often explain: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anybody else?”

The next circles of responsibility are for one’s immediate family, followed progressively by other family, friends, neighbors, community, the Jewish people, and then the rest of the world. One cannot and should not have the same measure of responsibility for every single person on the planet. However, within this hierarchy the Torah repeatedly stresses certain individuals for whom we should take additional responsibility, for whom we should have extra concern. Those are “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” the more disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:50 (Behar) adds a nuance from the Talmud which demonstrates a type of reverse discrimination. He states that while it is an abominable sin to steal from a fellow Jew, it is actually even worse to steal from a non-Jew.

He explains that stealing from a non-Jew is not just criminal but actually what is called in Hebrew a “Chilul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, one of the worst offences possible. The perpetrator of a “Chilul Hashem” is in a sense “embarrassing” God, and God will want to have nothing to do with such a person.

One of the primary missions of a Jew is to be a beacon of light to the world. When we betray that mission by demonstrating to the non-Jew that we feel comfortable stealing from them, it is a catastrophic failure of our mission on Earth, which in a sense negates our very purpose of being.

May we always be careful and honest in our dealings and even more so with those outside the tribe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our very distant cousins, the Samaritans, on their fascinating reenactment of the Pesach sacrifice.

Public Vindication (Emor)

Public Vindication (Emor)

Innocence is like polished armor; it adorns and defends. -Bishop Robert South

It is not uncommon for the media to accuse a person or group of some misdeed, splash it in bold type on the front page of the newspaper, and then when innocence has been discovered, will print a retraction in small type buried in the back of the paper, if at all. By then the damage has been done, the reputation of the accused has been tarnished, even ruined beyond repair.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 22:27 (Emor) highlights the fact that God has the contrary approach to vindication. He gives an analogy to a woman from a royal household of whom rumors of some misdeed are spread about by members of the royal court. The king himself investigates and finds the rumors to be baseless. The king then proceeds to throw a royal banquet, inviting the entire royal court, and places this innocent woman at the head table next to him, thereby declaring in the clearest possible way that the king has found her to be innocent and favorable in his eyes.

Thus Rabbeinu Bechaye explains the question as to why the bull is mentioned in the Torah as the most important animal to be sacrificed. He states that the elevated importance of the bull comes to publicly vindicate the grave sin which was committed with its likeness, namely the sin of the golden calf. By giving such honor to the adult version of the calf, God is in a sense stating that the Children of Israel weren’t truly to blame for that egregious sin. God “researched” the matter and discovered that it was not the Israelites that initiated the turn to idol worship, but rather the “Erev Rav,” the mixed multitude of people who had joined the Jewish nation during its exodus from the slavery of Egypt. It was this multitude of peoples, of idolatrous background, who called for and incited the impressionable Jewish people to worship the golden calf.

God does forgive the nation of Israel, and the importance of the bull in the sacrificial order demonstrates the public vindication for that sin.

May we always be found innocent of misdeeds and may we be vindicated of any misattributed wrongs, sooner or later.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Akiva Schwartz on his Bar-Mitzvah.

Don’t Curse the Deaf (Acharei-Kedoshim)

Don’t Curse the Deaf (Acharei-Kedoshim)

Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life… is a monster for which the corruption of society forever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret. -Percy Bysshe Shelley

There is an unusual command in the Torah not to curse a deaf person. On the surface it doesn’t make sense. What’s the big deal? They don’t hear it. It doesn’t hurt or offend them. Why is the Torah hyper-sensitive as to what we say, especially when the subject of our cursing can’t even hear it?

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 19:14 (Kedoshim) gives two answers.

The first answer is that if God is so concerned about what we say to or about someone who is incapable of hearing our words, how much more so must we be careful when speaking to or about someone who can hear our words. If the Torah explicitly commands us not to curse someone who won’t be impacted, hurt, offended or embarrassed by our cursing them, then we clearly need to refrain from doing so to someone who will be hurt by our words.

The second answer is that God’s concern in this case is not actually for the deaf person. The deaf person due to his inability to hear is indeed protected from hearing foul language or anything derogatory directed towards him. God is concerned for the one cursing, even if nobody else hears them. There is something contaminating, spiritually corrosive, about cursing, that chips away at a person’s soul. That is the reason for God’s strange warning. It’s not to protect the one being cursed, but rather to protect the one cursing.

God is always listening. God never forgets. There is a divine eternal record of all of our actions, of all of our words and even of all of our thoughts. God here is commanding that our words should be clean. Our words should not harm or offend. Our words are what make us human. They are a divine gift which enables us to live together, to work together, to love, to share, to show tenderness, compassion, friendship. God is warning us not to abuse that gift. God will judge us by the words we choose to use, even if nobody else hears them.

May we think before we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my beloved State of Israel on the 70th anniversary of its re-establishment.

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them. -Alice Sebold

The Torah spends several chapters on the ritual treatment of a biblical spiritual malady called “Tzaraat” popularly mistranslated as leprosy. The person who suffered from the Tzaraat, called a “Metzora”, while not a leper, did suffer from an unusual skin condition that was cured in biblical times by exile from the camp and then a ritual purification and sacrifice process.

Most rabbinic commentators explain that the malady of Tzaraat affected primarily those guilty of gossiping. Gossiping was so onerous a crime that God Himself would alter the laws of nature and personally intervene to strike the offending gossiper with this strange and unusual malady.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 14:2 (Metzora) quotes the Talmud that states that gossiping is so horrendous that it is actually worse than murder, illicit relations and idolatry COMBINED.

I always thought this Talmudic dictum somewhat of an exaggeration, until I had the misfortune to witness first-hand the destruction caused by gossip. It has to do with cutting bonds.

Murder is the cutting of the bond of life; cutting off or destroying the connection between a body and a soul.

Illicit relations is the cutting of the bond of family. Adulterers destroy the bond between a husband and wife, sabotaging that basic unit of society.

Idolatry is the cutting of the bond with God. Idolaters sever the connection between man and the divine.

Then why is gossiping worse than all three of the cardinal sins put together? Because a gossiper destroys all of these bonds, and more. Gossip destroys the bonds of self, of family, of faith, and of community. It is a betrayal of the trust that is inherent in any group, destroying all the bonds that make us who we are. There are few murders that are worse than that.

Rabbeinu Bechaye adds another Talmudic dictum that gossip kills three people. It kills the gossiper, it kills the listener and it kills the person being gossiped about.

So the next time you want to share a juicy or even innocuous tidbit about someone you know, think again. You may be committing murder.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Devorah and David Katz on the opening of their new bakery location of Pat BaMelach in Efrat. Check it out!