Dynastic Soul-Searching

Dynastic Soul-Searching

For a fourteen year old South American student, the cold and cheerless halls of Yeshiva University High School were often a lonely place. However, there was one prominent face I could always count on for a warm smile and a friendly word: Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach (counselor) of the Yeshiva.

In the dark, gothic building in Washington Heights, NY, Rabbi Blau’s friendship was a beacon of light.

Many years later, at a lecture, I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Blau introduce his son Yitzie, a Torah Scholar in his own right, who is also a friend and neighbor of mine.  Rabbi Yosef Blau claimed that Yitzie’s achievements and successes were wholly based on his own hard work and continuous efforts and not as a simple result of his illustrious parentage.

I believe the claim.

In preparation for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana (September 18 & 19 this year), there is a tradition of soul-searching. We stand before God, contemplating our actions, begging for Divine compassion and praying for another chance to do the right thing in the coming year.

One of the prominent themes in the Rosh Hashana liturgy is that we depend on the “merit of our forefathers” (“zechut avot”) in our pleas for mercy.

However, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is not satisfied with this theological crutch. He demands much more of us.

Deuteronomy 30:8-9 declares:

“You shall return and listen to the voice of Hashem, and perform all His commandments that I command you today. Hashem will make you abundant in all your handiwork – in the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your animals, and the fruit of your Land – for good, when Hashem will return to rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers.”

Based on these verses, Sforno claims that if we repent from our misguided notions and ways (‘tis the season…), if we wholeheartedly embrace God’s path, to the best of our understanding and capabilities, then several things will happen:

  1. Our sins will be forgiven.
  2. Not only will our sins be forgiven, the sins will be considered as merits.
  3. God will be very happy with us and bestow on us great good.
  4. God will bestow on us the greatest good we have ever experienced.
  5. Our place in the world and in the scheme of things will be based on our own efforts and merit and not on that of our forefathers.

I’ve been privileged to know a dynasty where each member is a role model in their own right. May they always continue to be so, and may we always have opportunity to learn from them.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova U’metukah,

Bentzi

 Dedication

To Rabbi Yitzie (Yitzchak) Blau. A gentleman and a scholar.

Congratulations on the release this week of his first book,”Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: Ethics & Wisdom of the Aggada”. Based on many articles of his I’ve had the pleasure of reading, I’m sure this book will be both uniquely enlightening and highly captivating.

For details visit: http://www.ktav.com/product_info.php?products_id=2319

A Litigious People

A Litigious People

The dream of many a Jewish mother is to proudly proclaim “My Son, The Lawyer” (after “My Son, The Doctor”).  Why a profession that is so hated by the masses should receive such motherly esteem is a mystery. However, its usefulness is a matter of historical record.

One form or another of public advocacy has apparently existed since pre-history. For centuries, in both Ancient Greece and Rome there existed an illegal cadre of advocates who were paid under the table by clients to represent them. Finally, around the year 40 CE, Emperor Claudius legalized paid advocacy in the Roman Empire. Thus the formal attorney profession was born and became a fixture of judicial systems henceforth.

The Jewish judicial system did not adopt lawyers or advocates until much later in history; however this did not make the system any less active.

Moses complains about this in a worrying line in Deuteronomy (1:12):

“How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens, and your quarrels?”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno clarifies that “quarrels” refers to lawsuits and monetary claims, and that Moses is rebuking the Jewish nation.

Moses had just informed the Children of Israel they were about to enter and conquer the land of Canaan. The upcoming campaign would be one of greater honor and reward than any of their minor and petty issues in the desert. Nonetheless, Sforno explains, this did not deter the Jews from fighting with each other. Litigiousness was so rampant, that a private judge was required for every ten Israelites.

Sforno continues by stating that the source of the litigation was none other than a mean-spirited motivation.

May any legal proceedings we undertake be for good purposes – and may God grant us success in these matters.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the attorneys I have the privilege of knowing and working with. They are an honor to their profession and belie the bad reputation many lawyers have (though that doesn’t stop us from teasing them…)

Future Israeli Gold Rush

Future Israeli Gold Rush

They came by boat. They came by wagon. They traversed oceans and jungles and deserts. They died by the hundreds before ever seeing their destination. By 1849 (hence “forty-niners”), tens of thousands of people from every single continent made their way to California in search of gold.

Before the advent of the American trans-continental railway, the journey from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast took many months and was dangerous and uncertain. They sailed around the tip of South America; or they sailed to Panama, crossed the jungle and took another boat on the other side; or they took their chances with wagons across the entire continent.

Those who survived the journey dug the ground and sifted the streams. The fortunate early arrivals did indeed make handsome profits. The late-comers often spent more than they ever made.

In the poetic swansong of Moses, at the very end of his biblical narrative, he blesses the tribes:

“Of Zevulun he said: Rejoice, O Zevulun, in your excursions, and Yissachar in your tents. The tribes will assemble at the mount; there they will offer offerings of righteousness, for by the riches of the sea they will be nourished, and by the treasures concealed in the sand.”

Deuteronomy 33:18-19

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno predicts a future rush to the tribal territory of Zevulun and Yissachar.

Sforno claims that in the future, all the nations of the world will come to Israel for the unique and precious items that only the tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar will possess. Sforno explains that these will be items drawn from their waters and found in their sands.

While there may be many theories as to what these treasures may be, I suspect that we have yet to discover, create or successfully market that truly exclusive and highly prized commodity that the world will rush to us for.

In the meantime, may we all continue searching, exploring, creating and developing the unique treasures we can each bring forth to the world.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Rabbi Ovadia Sforno. He has guided me and inspired me in my studying of the Torah this year. His words have been as precious as hidden treasure. Goodbye Sforno. We shall return to you.

Water for Growth

Water for Growth

In the rare song from Moses – ‘Haazinu’, he uses the metaphor of water as Torah, coming down and being absorbed by various audiences:

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth. May my teachings drop like the rain, may my utterance flow like the dew;

like storm winds upon vegetation and like raindrops upon blades of grass.”

Deuteronomy 32:1-2.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that the same Torah and the same instruction is valuable, though different, for a spectrum of people:

1. “Rain”: for those with ‘understanding’ who will absorb the ‘essence’ of Wisdom.

2. “Dew”: for the ‘simple’ person. Even a little bit (like dew for vegetation) is very good and provides Knowledge.

3. “Storm winds”: for the ‘insightful’ – they will perceive Wonders.

4. “Raindrops”: again for the ‘simple’ person (I guess extended exposure), will give them Understanding of their Creator (which I presume then brings one up to the level of ‘understanding’.)

The order of ascendancy according to Sforno seems to be (see table below also):

A. Dew (2)

B. Raindrops (4)

C. Rain (1)

D. Storm winds (3)

SfornoHaazinuTable

Though Moses presents it in an alternating structure; my theory is that it is a repetitive (like the rains) and constantly ascending formation. Meaning, once one has reached the highest rung (Insightful) of a certain level, he moves up to the lowest rung (Simple) of an even higher level (see figure below). This would result in continuous growth (hopefully) by extended exposure and involvement with Torah.

SfornoHaazinu

May we take and make the opportunities this year to grow in all areas: physical, educational, social, financial and spiritual.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tovah,

Bentzi

Dedication

To both the physical and spiritual gardeners of Yeshivat Har Etzion. As I spend more time in the Yeshiva at this time of the year, I appreciate both the beautiful grounds keeping as well as the spiritual tending that occurs at the Yeshiva.

The Diamond in the Cesspool

The Diamond in the Cesspool

The Egypt of our ancestors was apparently one of great moral depravity. Egyptian culture was submerged in a superficial, materialistic, hedonistic, idol worshipping, incestuous reality. A by-product of such a society was many unwanted births and a cheapening of life.

In the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel have evolved from honored guests and royal protégés, to feared enemies and eventually downtrodden slaves. The low point of this progression is perhaps the draconian edict to kill all newborn Jewish boys.

Into this environment Moses is born. Fearing for his life, the mother of Moses takes the desperate measure of placing the three-month old into a basket to float on the river. Moses’ sister, not without hope, keeps an eye on the basket (Exodus 2).

Pharaoh’s daughter spots Moses’ basket while bathing in the Nile. She investigates and is surprised to find baby Moses within.

At this point Rabbi Ovadia Sforno asks as to why Pharaoh’s daughter would claim Moses. Sforno explains that it was apparently common practice for Egyptians to discard unwanted children into the river, and there would be a plethora of abandoned children to be claimed.

Sforno answers that the “goodness” of Moses was “shinning” and was clearly visible for anyone to see. Pharaoh’s daughter said to herself: “This is not some bastard or unwanted child. This is a beautiful Israelite child. He is so stunningly gorgeous that I must claim him for myself.”

Sforno continues to explain that Moses was visibly outstanding because of the “ingredients” put into him. Following is a translation of Sforno’s comment regarding the reaction to the birth of Moses by his mother, that “he was good”:

“She noted that he was more beautiful than normal, and thought that this was for an intended purpose from his Creator, for the beauty of the form indicates the quality of the ingredients and the complete power of the Designer.”

As we all know, Moses was indeed intended for supreme greatness, even amidst the decadence and immorality of Egyptian culture.

May we all transcend the negative environments around us, and like Moses, take the great ingredients that are a part of us – and shine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the recovery of 2nd Lieutenant Aharon Karov of the IDF Paratrooper Brigade. Aharon is from the community of Karnei Shomron. He left to Gaza the morning after his wedding to lead his soldiers. He was critically injured from a blast within a booby trapped home in Northern Gaza. Please pray for him – Aharon Yehoshua ben Chaya Shoshana. May our soldiers be safe, may the wounded recover and may the mourners be comforted.

Unfamiliar terms?

Drawn from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile

The Nile is a major north-flowing river in Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world.[1]

The northern section of the river flows almost entirely through desert, from Sudan into Egypt, a country whose civilization has depended on the river since ancient times. Most of the population of Egypt and all of its cities, with the exception of those near the coast, lie along those parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan; and nearly all the cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt are found along the banks of the river. The Nile ends in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Nile (iteru in Ancient Egyptian) was the lifeline of the ancient Egyptian civilization, with most of the population and all of the cities of Egypt resting along those parts of the Nile valley lying north of Aswan. The Nile has been the lifeline for Egyptian culture since the Stone Age. Climate change, or perhaps overgrazing, desiccated the pastoral lands of Egypt to form the Sahara desert, possibly as long ago as 8000 BC, and the inhabitants then presumably migrated to the river, where they developed a settled agricultural economy and a more centralized society.

Sustenance played a crucial role in the founding of Egyptian civilization. The Nile is an unending source of sustenance. The Nile made the land surrounding it extremely fertile when it flooded or was inundated annually. The Egyptians were able to cultivate wheat and crops around the Nile, providing food for the general population. Also, the Nile’s water attracted game such as water buffalo; and after the Persians introduced them in the 7th century BC, camels. These animals could be killed for meat, or could be captured, tamed and used for ploughing – or in the camels’ case, travelling. Water was vital to both people and livestock. The Nile was also a convenient and efficient way of transportation for people and goods.

The structure of Egypt’s society made it one of the most stable in history. In fact, it might easily have surpassed many modern societies. This stability was an immediate result of the Nile’s fertility. The Nile also provided flax for trade. Wheat was also traded, a crucial crop in the Middle East where famine was very common. This trading system secured the diplomatic relationship Egypt had with other countries, and often contributed to Egypt’s economic stability. Also, the Nile provided the resources such as food or money, to quickly and efficiently raise an army for offensive or defensive roles.

The Nile played a major role in politics and social life. The pharaoh would supposedly flood the Nile, and in return for the life-giving water and crops, the peasants would cultivate the fertile soil and send a portion of the resources they had reaped to the Pharaoh. He or she would in turn use it for the well-being of Egyptian society.

The Nile was a source of spiritual dimension. The Nile was so significant to the lifestyle of the Egyptians, that they created a god dedicated to the welfare of the Nile’s annual inundation. The god’s name was Hapy, and both he and the pharaoh were thought to control the flooding of the Nile River. Also, the Nile was considered as a causeway from life to death and afterlife. The east was thought of as a place of birth and growth, and the west was considered the place of death, as the god Ra, the sun, underwent birth, death, and resurrection each time he crossed the sky. Thus, all tombs were located west of the Nile, because the Egyptians believed that in order to enter the afterlife, they must be buried on the side that symbolized death.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that ‘Egypt was the gift of the Nile’, and in a sense that is correct. Without the waters of the Nile River for irrigation, Egyptian civilization would probably have been short-lived. The Nile provided the elements that make a vigorous civilization, and contributed much to its lasting three thousand years.

A Blessing on Your Head

A Blessing on Your Head

Joseph enters with his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to visit with the bed-ridden patriarch, Jacob (Genesis 48). Jacob inquires as to who is accompanying Joseph. Joseph responds that it his two sons, and then Jacob asks that they come closer so he may bless them.

Before continuing with the blessing, the Biblical narrative seems to go out of its way to mention that Jacob had trouble seeing. Jacob proceeds to kiss and hug his grandchildren and then in what sounds like somewhat elaborate maneuvering, Joseph extricates his sons from Grandpa Jacob’s embrace, so that they may now bow down to receive the formal blessing.

Biblical commentators give a range of interpretations to the above actions. Rabbi Ovadia Sforno however, takes the narrative at face value. Jacob had trouble with his vision, Sforno explains. In order to properly bless the boys, he had to see them; hence, his request to bring them closer.  The loving Patriarch kisses and hugs them, which Sforno says was so “his soul may attach to them and his blessing to them should come to pass”.

Jacob then gives them blessings that are included in the blessings many traditional Jews pronounce to their children to this day on Friday nights (“May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. May God bless you and safeguard you. May God illuminate His face for you and be gracious to you. May God turn His face to you and establish peace for you.”)

Sforno then provides other examples of vision being a critical component of blessings, such as Moses viewing the entire land of Israel.

However, just a few verses later, after having just given his thesis as to the need to see in order to bless, Sforno makes an about-face. In the same visit Jacob blesses Joseph as well. Sforno, who understands that Joseph is not close enough for Jacob to really see, states that Jacob blesses and can bless Joseph without having to touch him, be near him or even see him.

Sforno seems to be implying that while the common way to bless is to see the person or object one is blessing, people have the power to also bless at a distance without even seeing the party being blessed. Perhaps it was the strong and loving nature of the Jacob-Joseph relationship that enabled this more powerful connection, bypassing the common method.

May we always be both recipients and deliverers of blessings – and may they all come true!

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our friends, neighbors and relatives; sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, who are fighting in Gaza (and now to the North as well). May God keep them safe and return them home whole and uninjured.

Unfamiliar terms?

Drawn from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_blessing

The Priestly Blessing, (translit. Birkat Kohanim), also known in Hebrew as Nesiat Kapayim, (lit. Raising of the Hands), is a Jewish prayer recited by Kohanim during certain Jewish services. It is based on a scriptural verse: “They shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them.”[1] It consists of the following Biblical verses (Numbers 6:24-26):

May the Lord bless you and guard you –
May the Lord shine His countenance toward you and be gracious to you –
May the Lord lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace –

This is the oldest known Biblical text that has been found; amulets with these verses written on them have been found in graves in dating from the First Temple Period, and are now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan Hand Salute for his character, Mr. Spock, on Star Trek. He has explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father’s tallit and saw the gesture; many years later, when introducing the character of Mr. Spock, he and series creator Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal “Live long and prosper” greeting. The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and thus was television & science fiction history made.

J’accuse!

J’accuse!

In perhaps one of the most emotional and dramatic scenes in the Bible, the unrecognized Joseph, regent of Egypt, orders the enslavement of his younger and only full sibling, Benjamin. Judah, the half-brother originally responsible for the sale of Joseph into slavery, confronts the regent and pleads for mercy (Genesis 44:18).

Judah gives a long and moving monologue, explaining the special relationship Benjamin has with father Jacob, of the fatal effects if they are not reunited, and how Judah himself is willing to become a slave in Benjamin’s place.

The irony of the situation is acute. The brothers who were so eager to sell Joseph into slavery are now going to extreme lengths to prevent the same fate from occurring to the last son of Jacob. They appear to be repenting from their previous attitude of brotherly enslavement.

Joseph can no longer handle the display of fraternal loyalty and maintain his charade. He shouts for every person except the brothers to leave his presence, and then in a cry that reverberates throughout Egypt, reveals himself: “I am Joseph!” (Genesis 45:3)

The very next words that Joseph speaks are difficult to understand: “Is my father still alive?” Of course his father is still alive! One of Judah’s arguments for sparring Benjamin was to keep Jakob alive. Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to this question of Joseph, the very first words he utters to his brothers as his revealed self.

Sforno answers that Joseph was accusing the brothers.

Joseph is asking: How is my father still alive after my own disappearance? Why weren’t you concerned for his well-being when you sent me into a long and indefinite bondage? It’s so nice that all of a sudden you are so caring for Benjamin, but how could you have betrayed me and our father with my slavery and silence all these years?

The next words of the same verse state: “and the brothers were not able to answer him, for they were fearful of him.”

The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Chagigah 4b) explains that the shock and shame of the brothers at this moment was so intense that they were literally left speechless with no defense they could provide for their crimes. The same Talmud continues that if the reaction to the reprimand of a man of flesh and blood is so bad; imagine how severe God’s reprimand will be for our own personal crimes and misdemeanors.

Nonetheless, after Joseph’s initial revelation and accusation, he becomes conciliatory, forgiving them and explaining his view that his sale into slavery was really part of a divine plan to save the entire family of Jacob.

Jacob’s family is then finally reunited and united, and the brotherly rivalry is set aside — for a least a number of centuries.

May we always strive for brotherly bonds, within our families, our communities and throughout our people.

Dedication

To my brother Kalman, living in Tifrach in the Negev, which has now become the front line of a very real battle. May God continue to protect him, his family and all the residents around Gaza.

————————

Unfamiliar terms?

J’accuse (“I accuse”) was an open letter published on January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore by the influential writer Émile Zola.

The letter was addressed to President of France Félix Faure, and accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French General Staff officer sentenced to penal servitude for life for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the first page of the newspaper, and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel on February 23, 1898. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England, returning home in June 1899.

Other pamphlets proclaiming Dreyfus’s innocence include Bernard Lazare‘s A Miscarriage of Justice: The Truth about the Dreyfus Affair (November 1896).

As a result of the popularity of the letter, even in the English-speaking world, J’accuse! has become a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against a powerful person.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%27accuse_(letter)