Category Archives: Sforno

Three Prerequisites for Spiritual Success

Three Prerequisites for Spiritual Success

Our forefather Jacob is on the run. He has been exiled from his birthplace in Israel, he is fearful of his brother’s murderous intentions, and is heading to his uncle, Lavan, a notorious swindler. His first night on the road Jacob has a prophetic dream and God addresses him, blesses him and reassures him. (Recap of Genesis 28).

In the morning, Jacob pronounces a solemn vow, which at first reading is strange (Genesis 28:20):

“If God will be with me, and protects me on this road that I travel, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I will return in peace to my father’s house and God will be for me to a God”.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno seems to indicate that Jacob’s vow is not so much conditional, but is rather a request and an affirmation. It should not be understood in a business sense that if God doesn’t deliver than Jacob will not accept God. Rather Jacob is praying to God for the above mentioned requests, as these are the minimal conditions for Jacob to be able to worship God properly.

Sforno breaks down Jacob’s requests into three specific groupings that are critical for a person’s success and states as follows, by quoting the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Eruvin 41b:

“These things deprive a man of his senses and of knowledge of his Creator… foreigners, an evil spirit, and oppressive poverty.”

Sforno then links the request in Jacob’s vow to these three areas:

“protects me” – from foreigners (idolaters)

“bread” – saves from oppressive poverty

“peace” – saves from illness that is related to an evil spirit

Jacob understood very well the precarious situation he was in, as well as the danger he was heading into. He translated God’s blessings to him, into near term specific requests in order that he could continue to fulfill the mission God had outlined for him.

Jacob needed divine assistance to protect him from the idolatrous influences of his day. He required God’s hand to save him from poverty as well as from the illness of an evil spirit. With these items in hand, Jacob would have a solid foundation for embarking on his mission and giving birth to the people who would become the Children of Israel.

May Jacob’s vow apply in full force to his modern-day progeny. May we be saved from foreign influences, poverty, illness and all evil. May we merit that “God will be for me to a God.”

Shabbat Shalom,



To my young nephew and God-son, Jacob Yechiel Epstein, named after my grandfather of blessed memory, Jacob Yechiel Spitz. May he benefit from the many blessings bestowed upon our forefather and his namesake, and may he be a source of ‘nachas’ to his family, community and the people of Israel.

The Second Great Famine

The Second Great Famine

Not unlike The Second Great Depression that is currently staring us in the face, our forefather Isaac had to deal with The Second Great Famine of the Middle East (there were probably more, but his is only the second one in the biblical narrative. The first was the one his father, Abraham, had confronted a generation earlier (as referred to in Genesis 26:1).

In those days, draught and famine led directly to starvation and death. Abraham’s strategy was to head to the greener pastures of Egypt. Isaac also considers the same strategy, however God directly instructs him to stay within the boundaries of Israel (Genesis 26:2). Isaac stays in the area of Grar, ruled at the time by Avimelech (we’ve seen this neighborhood before as well with Abraham – Genesis 20:1).

One of the predictable things that ensue next is a battle for water rights. In the middle of the draught, Isaac, with great effort seeks out water and digs wells in locations that his father had staked in the past. The locals fight him claiming the water belongs to them. Two well digging operations end in failure. Instead of prolonging the altercation, Isaac moves on.

Isaac’s third attempt is successful, or far enough from the locals for him to remain undisturbed. Once Isaac has established an operating well, he departs the immediate vicinity of Grar and moves on to nearby Beer Sheva.

That very same night, God appears to Isaac and blesses him. Then Isaac builds an altar and does something the Torah describes as “calling in the name of God”. The Torah makes multiple references to Abraham doing likewise. The simplest explanation is that he was merely giving a heartfelt thanks and prayer to God. Another interpretation is that these were major communal and social events, where the forefathers spread the knowledge and name of God to all those surrounding them in the area.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that it is after this precise action of “calling in the name of God”, however Sforno might have understood that term, that massive success came to Isaac, even in the middle of the Great Famine. A few verses earlier, Isaac is reported as having cultivated 100 “shearim” – some great abundance of crop. He is so successful, that Avimelech banishes him from Grar for fear of him being a draw on resources. However, after Isaac moves to the Beer Sheva area, he immediately and almost effortlessly finds another well. Isaac then becomes such a force in the area that Avimelech comes to Isaac with his General, Pichol, and sues for a peace treaty with him.

May we as people, not only survive the difficult economic storm, but also thrive as our forefathers did before us.

Shabbat Shalom,



This week’s dvar torah is dedicated to Dr. Shmuel Katz of Ramat Bet Shemesh. He is a clear fountain of Torah and Chesed in often muddled and troubled waters. May his efforts be rewarded one hundred times over.

The Matriarch is Dead! Long Live the Matriarch!!

The Matriarch is Dead! Long Live the Matriarch!!

Tibetan Buddhists have the interesting tradition of searching for their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lamai, only after the previous one has died. They believe that the spirit of their leader is reincarnated in a child born after the leader’s death. This passing of the leadership torch amongst the Tibetans has been occurring since the 1400s, which is not so long ago by Jewish standards.

Approximately 4,000 years ago, the Torah notes with some detail (Genesis 23:1), our Matriarch Sarah passed away. Her son, Isaac, was the one in whom God chose to continue the complete Abrahimic tradition in worship of God, and transmitting His message via his future progeny. With Sarah’s mission accomplished, it was now time for the next generation to take center-stage.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the adjacent juxtaposition of the birth of Rebecca (Genesis 22:23) with the death of Sarah only 2 verses later. His answer is both simple and perhaps surprising. The death of Sarah and the birth of Rebecca are intertwined. He claims that when Sarah died, Rebecca was born. There needed to be Matriarcal continuity to the embryonic Jewish nation. This was provided by Rebecca with her timely birth, subsequent marriage to Isaac, her own delivery of Jacob and Esau, and then her pivotal role in the blessings they would receive.

Sforno states that Rebecca is the continuation of Sarah. While he doesn’t talk about reincarnation per se, there is certainly an element of it in this case. In the Dalai Lama theology, reincarnation may be central, but for us it’s just old news.

May we always enjoy and appreciate our part in the eternal people, and get to see our efforts of continuity bear fruit.

Shabbat Shalom,


Dedication: This dvar torah is dedicated to Sarah and Baruh Mori of Istanbul, who were such fantastic hosts during my stay there. Sarah is a true Jewish Matriarch and a bastion of the Jewish community there, very much in the footsteps of her namesake.

Angel, Merchant, Prophet, Doctor

Angel, Merchant, Prophet, Doctor

Three angels in the visage of merchants visit the campsite of Abraham. The recorded discussion is extremely brief (Exodus 18:9,10). The angels inquire as to Sarah’s whereabouts, Abraham responds that she is in the tent, and then they proclaim the joyous and incredulous news that at the same time next year, 90-year old Sarah will give birth to a son.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno asks a simple question. Why did the angels need to come and deliver their prophecy? Just a few days and verses earlier (Exodus 17, verses 16,19 and 21) God directly informs Abraham in unequivocal terms regarding the impending birth, the timing, and even the name – Isaac.

Sforno, back in the 1500s, provides a surprising, and what might appear in his continuation as a medically advanced answer: the angel’s reason for visiting Abraham’s household and proclaiming their prophecy, was to make Sarah happy. The Torah indeed reports to us the immediate reaction to the angel’s therapy (Exodus 18:12): Sarah laughs at the wild and unlikely news.

Sforno continues with a line that would please a modern psychotherapist: the happiness of the pregnant mother will lead to a healthier baby. It would be interesting to discover if this was a common belief of Sforno’s time, or if he was unique in this viewpoint. Seeing as Isaac lived to the reported ripe old age of 180 years, these angelic doctors seemed to know what they were doing.

Like our forefathers before us, may we always strive and succeed to be happy and healthy in body, in mind and in spirit.

Shabbat Shalom,


A Rose by Any Other Name?

A Rose by Any Other Name?

God reveals Himself to Abraham in this week’s parasha (Genesis Ch. 17, verse 1) with the name “Shadai” (letters Shin, Daled, Yud). Centuries later when He reveals Himself to Moses, the Torah goes out of its way (Exodus Ch. 6, verse 3) to point out that he did not reveal Himself to the forefathers with the Tetragammaton, the Four-Letter Name of God (letters Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh).

What difference does it make by what name we know God? Why did Abraham, Isaac and Jakob receive one name and Moses another?

The 16th century Italian commentator, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, brings our attention to two different levels of divine involvement implied in the different names. “Shadai” can also be read and translated as “That is sufficient”. It implies God’s self-sufficiency and ability to Be and to create the universe ex-nihilo. He exists without there being anything else, or with anything else acting on Him. The relationship of God to Man represented by “Shadai” is one within the normal bounds of nature and that was the basis of the relationship God had with our forefathers.

However, there is an even higher level of expression of the divine, that of revealed, public miracles that are completely outside the bounds of nature, as well as the level of prophecy that only Moses was privy to. This aspect of God was new to the nascent Jewish nation and required specific instructions and formulation. From the moment of Exodus forward, the relationship between God and Israel would be predicated by the supernatural, such as the Egyptian plagues, the splitting of the sea, the Sinai covenant, and all the miracles that have been a part of Jewish history since.

God’s willingness to be actively and sometimes visibly involved in the lives of people and nations marks a higher level of connection and divine love that we should always be cognizant and appreciative of.

“If I were a rich man…”

“If I were a rich man…”

Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting my father’s Rebbe, the Admor of the Shomer Emunim chasidim, together with my father and my brother Kalman. The Admor congratulated Kalman on the birth that morning of a new son (9th child!) and then continued with a two hour discussion of the latest world financial situation, geopolitics, Israeli history, war, peace and the end of days. He made reference to the Talmud, Zohar, Ramban, his own esteemed father (the founder and author of the “Shomer Emunim”) as well as many other Jewish sages.

One of the Admor’s more chilling statements was about the upcoming global financial calamity (and we thought we just passed one). One of his sources (I think it was the Zohar) explains that throughout history, most of the Jewish population made due with whatever material wealth came their way and were satisfied.

The Zohar predicts however, that in the beginning of Messianic times the Jewish population as a whole will reach historic levels of wealth and quality of life. Jews will then become accustomed to this opulence and luxury. Once the Jewish people have made such lifestyles a requirement, God will pull the metaphorical rug from under our feet and leave us materially destitute and financially impoverished.

Rabbi Ovadio Sforno gives an interesting perspective and strategy for viewing material wealth, or the lack thereof.

Deuteronomy 26:17 states:

“You have distinguished Hashem today to be a God for you, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His decrees, His commandments, and His statutes, and to hearken to His voice.”

Sforno explains that at the end of the 40 year sojourn in the desert, the Jewish people reaffirmed their commitment to God and His Torah. Part of the reaffirmation and the ensuing “deal” actually included two different aspects of materialism:

  1. Submission to financial punishment for transgression of God’s laws.
  2. Assertion that following God’s laws is greater than any material benefit.

The above may be small consolation to those addicted to their comforts. However, it may serve as good perspective if the proverbial Fiddler looses his footing from his mansion roof.

May we always have everything we truly need. And may we see it and appreciate it.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the author, Sholem Aleichem, whose story Tevye and His Daughters inspired the popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. He vividly captured the humility and material poverty of our ancestors, the conditions of which to us, in our period of opulence, seem like fiction.

Culled from Wikipedia

Fiddler on the Roof is a musical with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, set in Tsarist Russia in 1905. It is based on Tevye and his Daughters (or Tevye the Milkman) and other tales by Sholem Aleichem which he wrote in Yiddish and published in 1894.

Chagall's Fiddler on the Roof
Chagall's Fiddler on the Roof

The musical’s title stems from a painting by Marc Chagall, one of many surreal paintings he created of Eastern European Jewish life, often including a fiddler. The Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyfulness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance.

The original Broadway production of the show, which opened in 1964, was the first run of a musical in history to surpass the 3,000 performance mark. Fiddler held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years until Grease surpassed its run. The production was extraordinarily profitable and highly acclaimed. It spawned four Broadway revivals, a successful 1971 film adaptation, and the show has enjoyed enduring international popularity. It is also a very popular choice for school and community productions.

The story centers on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his family and religious traditions while outside influences encroach upon their lives. He must cope with both the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters—each one’s choice of husband moves farther away from the customs of her faith—and with the edict of the Tsar that evicts the Jews from their village.

Death, Taxes and the Vow-breaker

Death, Taxes and the Vow-breaker

“He who promises more than he is able to perform, is false to himself; and he who does not perform what he has promised, is a traitor to his friend.”

George Shelley

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

Plato (427 BC – 347 BC), Dialogues, Phaedo

“But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), Letter to Jean Baptiste Le Roy (1789)

What’s the connection between a false person, death and taxes?

Besides the common desire to avoid all three, the false person, the dying man and the tax-payer all end up paying their bill, one way or another.

The Grim Reaper and the Taxman are notoriously implacable pursuers; however God is apparently also relentless with the vow-breaker.

“When you make a vow to Hashem, your God, you shall not be late in paying it, for Hashem, your God, will demand it of you, and there will be a sin in you.”

Deuteronomy 23:22

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that if a man says that he will contribute something, and is then negligent in fulfilling his word, God will make sure that the item or money he promised will be taken away from him, and will somehow make it to the proper end user. The negligent man will not be credited, even though he is now objectively poorer and the charitable intention has been fulfilled by divine intervention. Furthermore, his negligence will be considered a sin by God.

I guess God doesn’t like having to go through the extra “effort” of getting the man’s word fulfilled, or appreciates the person’s attitude (“I didn’t mean it”, “I didn’t really promise”, “It’s not like it’s in writing”).

Remember the two rules of a good politician:

  1. Keep all your promises.
  2. Don’t promise anything.

If we give our word, we should always be able to keep it.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my parents on their anniversary today. People of their word, while being highly charitable with their time, spirit and resources.



“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” Mark Twain

The army marches across the field. Boots stomp indiscriminately on newborn sheaves of wheat. The advancing troops see the walled city in the distance, with the torches and boiling pitch ready to be used on them. This promises to be a difficult siege.

The engineering unit armed with axes and saws, starts foraging for wood and trees, to build the siege engines. One of the soldiers from the unit finds a strong, unusually tall olive tree that he knows will make an excellent battering ram. He starts hacking away at the tree. The unit commander runs to the soldier and starts yelling:

“Hey Shmeril! Stop!! We can’t chop down fruit trees! Weren’t you listening to the orders!?”

Shmeril dutifully stops cutting down the tree, apologizes and goes on to look for other suitable non-fruit bearing trees.

As the Israelite campaign to conquer the land of Canaan commences, one of the unusual commands they have to deal with is:

“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you? Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down, and build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is conquered.”

[Deuteronomy 20:19-20]

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, present in Italy during the period of the great wars between its city-states, draws military strategy from the verse.

Sforno contends that cutting down a fruit tree is a particularly destructive act. It is often done by an army that wants to starve a city under siege after it leaves the theater of combat.

In other words, it is an act of desperation done by an army that doesn’t really believe it will conquer the city. Cutting down fruit trees will actually signal to the defending city, that the attacking army doesn’t have the confidence to win. The battle is lost, before it has begun.

May we employ confidence in all our worthy battles — and thereby achieve success.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,



To my son, Akiva Moshe, on the occasion of his Bar-Mitzvah. His confidence and fearlessness is inspiring — especially his bravery when climbing trees.

May he continue to be a source of ‘nachas’ for the family, especially now as he takes on “The Commandments”.

Speaking of commandments, and in Akiva’s honor, we’ve launched a new website (in construction mode now), that will reduce and categorize the commandments to more manageable numbers. Check out the work-in-progress and give us your feedback and suggestions at:

Death by Mediocrity

Death by Mediocrity

“Moderation? It’s mediocrity, fear, and confusion in disguise. It’s the devil’s dilemma. It’s neither doing nor not doing. It’s the wobbling compromise that makes no one happy. Moderation is for the bland, the apologetic, for the fence-sitters of the world afraid to take a stand. It’s for those afraid to laugh or cry, for those afraid to live or die. Moderation…is lukewarm tea, the devil’s own brew.“ Dan Millman, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior

In a world striving for ‘normalcy’ there is a certain comfort in moderation. To fit in, to be part of the crowd, to go with the flow is safe and uncomplicated. To dissent is to ask for trouble. To have a unique opinion or outlook puts you in danger of being ostracized.

However, mediocrity in thought or deed is really the equivalent of a living death.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno makes a radical claim that people would say is both elitist and genetically untenable: Jews are by nature never mediocre.

The very first line of this week’s reading (Deuteronomy 11:26) boldly states:

“Behold! I place before you today a blessing and a curse.”

The Bible then continues here and elsewhere as to the various and bountiful blessings that occur as a result of following God’s commandments as well as the horrible curses that will befall those that ignore God’s commands.

Sforno comments that the Bible, by exclaiming “Behold!” is purposely bringing our attention to a new realization. Namely, that the conduct of the Jewish people is not like that of the other nations. The rest of the world is content with the middle road, with “sufficient”, “average” or even “mediocre” results. Sforno contends that Jews on the other hand tend to go to extremes – for better or worse.

He claims that when a Jew pursues success, he pursues it beyond the sufficient and strives for the utmost in excellence. Conversely, when a Jew is drawn to sin, rebellion or ungodly pursuits, he will aim for the deepest levels possible.

One doesn’t have to look far for some evidence to this thesis. Jews have a highly disproportional number of extremely successful scientists, philosophers, authors, sages and Noble Prize winners, as well as equally notorious gangsters, scam artists, criminals and revolutionaries. Individual members of the Jewish tribe manage to go to both positive and negative extremes of society. This extremism, this escape from mediocrity, has placed many of them in the limelight of history.

Mediocrity has never been a Jewish value. God asks for and demands extreme excellence from us (in blessed pursuits). May we live up to His expectations.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my mother.  Not only does she not have a bad bone in her body – she doesn’t have a mediocre one either. Every action, every movement of hers, is in pursuit of excellence. This is perhaps most obvious in her brushstrokes and in the ensuing artistic masterpieces that emerge.

To get a first hand experience of her artwork, you are personally invited to a gala event: The opening night of her first solo exhibition, this coming Thursday night, August 20, at the Jerusalem Theatre. Please see details below. You can visit her website to see a sampling of her paintings at


Madoff’s Curse

Madoff’s Curse

Bernie Madoff, the convicted perpetrator of what has been called the largest Ponzi scheme in history, is now sitting in jail for the rest of his life. The list of victims of his fraud is broad. The victims include universities, charitable trust funds, non-profit organizations, retirees, high-net-worth individuals — and now his wife.

In an effort to recoup just a fraction of their losses, the victims’ legal representatives are going after any and all assets his wife may have, including artwork and silverware, not to mention cash and bonds. Mrs. Madoff’s lawyers will try to prove that those funds and possessions were hers, inherited and/or independent of Bernie’s shenanigans.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno would have predicted the fate of Mrs. Madoff’s wealth.

Deuteronomy 7:25-26 in an apparently disjointed passage about successful conquering of the Land of Canaan adds:

“The carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire; you shall not covet and take for yourself the silver and gold that is on them, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination of Hashem, your God. And you shall not bring an abomination into your home and become banned like it; you shall surely loathe it and you shall surely abominate it, for it is banned.”

Sforno provides a novel interpretation of these verses. He states that anyone who coveted the illegal silver and gold will first of all not see any gain whatsoever from the ill-gotten funds – and secondly, he will also lose everything that he had rightfully and legally earned before. The dishonest funds will infect the honest funds and together all of the person’s possessions will become valueless.

In the business world, it is common for people to be ruled by greed and fear. It is often considered fair game to make a buck by less than above-board means. Sforno makes two important points. We should get our priorities straight in our commercial efforts; and that deceitful practices are completely counterproductive – not only in the spiritual realm, but in the very practical world of commerce.

May we always be able to walk the ‘golden’ path and reap the rewards, both financial and otherwise, in this world and the next.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the many worthy and noble people and organizations whose activities have come to a halt or been curtailed because of Madoff’s scam. “Relief and salvation shall come from another source.” (Esther 4:14)