Category Archives: Torah U’mada

Searching for Eden

[First posted at The Times of Israel:]

Ibn Ezra Genesis: Bereshit

Searching for Eden

“Where the apple reddens never pry — lest we lose our Edens, Eve and I.” -Robert Browning

Ever since Man’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, we have sought to rediscover the lost paradise. Scientists, scholars and archeologists have proposed a number of locations for the historic Eden, yet none have been able to confirm (how would they do so?) the ancient home of Adam and Eve.

One of the more popular suggestions places the Garden of Eden near modern-day Kuwait, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the only easily identifiable rivers listed in the creation story. Others have placed it in Turkey between the headwaters of those two rivers.

One of my favorite suggestions is that Israel is the site of the Garden of Eden, based on satellite imaging of pre-flood riverbeds that emanate from the Great Rift we’re sitting on.

The Ibn Ezra however, provides an unusual clue as to where he thinks the Garden of Eden was situated. He states that it was on the equator, where days and nights are equivalent throughout the year. This corresponds exactly with one of the most abundant sites for ancient human fossils, Lake Turkana in Kenya, which is situated on the equator and has been termed by anthropologists “the cradle of humanity.”

However, perhaps more important then finding the ancient fossils of the Garden of Eden, would be to create our own living, existential paradise on earth.

Shabbat Shalom,



In memory of Dr. Irvin Kaplan of Baltimore, MD. A man that healed for over four decades in Baltimore and inspired all who knew him.


Divine Redshift & Blueshift: Spiritual Expansion and Contraction in the Tabernacle

Divine Redshift & Blueshift: Spiritual Expansion and Contraction in the Tabernacle

by Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz

The Question of Color

The color blue plays a prominent role in the Bible. This prominence is most notable via the dye known as tekhelet which tradition relates as being blue and was used in the garments of the High Priest (Exodus 28:5,6,8,15,28,31,33,37) as well as the tzitzit (fringes) which the Bible obligates all men to wear (Numbers 15:38).

A lesser known use of tekhelet was for fabrics that covered a variety of Tabernacle utensils whenever they were transported (Numbers 4:4-15). The list of utensils includes:

–          The Ark

–          The Showbread Table

–          The Candelabrum

–          The Golden Altar

–          The Utensils of the Golden Altar

–          The Altar

The Candelabrum, The Golden Altar and its utensils have almost identical descriptions of the covering procedure. A fabric of blue tekhelet was placed over the object followed by the skin of a takhash. It is not clear what this takhash was, though rabbinic commentaries seem to think it was a particularly beautiful skin that was perhaps even multicolored.

The Ark, The Showbread Table and The Altar had different procedures as per below:

The Ark: The Partition Curtain of the Tabernacle was placed over it, followed by the takhash skin and then followed by the tekhelet.

The Showbread Table was covered first with tekhelet, then its accompanying utensils were placed on the covered table, then the entire combination was covered with a red fabric and then with the takhash.

The Altar was covered by a purple fabric, then its accompanying utensils were placed on it and then the whole combination was covered with takhash.

A summary in table format would look as follows:

Covering order
Article 1 2 3 4
Ark Partition takhash tekhelet
Table tekhelet utensils red takhash
Candelabrum tekhelet utensils takhash
Golden Altar tekhelet takhash
Golden Altar Utensils tekhelet takhash
Altar purple utensils takhash

The differing covering procedures beg the following questions:

  1. What was the purpose of the elaborate coverings?
  2. What was the difference between the covering procedures and what do they demonstrate regarding the qualities of the articles covered?
  3. What qualities did the different coverings provide?

A brief survey of rabbinic commentary provides no answers for the above questions, neither at a specific level nor as part of a general solution.

The author wishes to argue that the answers to the above are based on the interaction between physical properties of the specific colors utilized and the spiritual properties and functions of each of the utensils.

The Doppler Effect

Most of us are familiar with the Doppler Effect. We experience it most commonly when an ambulance or other emergency vehicle approaches. We can tell the direction of movement because of the increased frequency of the siren that we hear. When the ambulance moves away from us, the frequency of the siren drops. The reality of course, is that the frequency of the siren is constant; it is merely its movement through space and time that distorts the frequency that we hear from our specific point-of-view.

The same effect occurs with color and has been noted most famously on a galactic basis. Objects moving further take on a reddish hue while objects moving closer appear bluish. Redshift is evidence of an expanding universe, while blueshift describes the contraction of objects.

Is there a connection between the concepts of expansion and contraction and the components of the Tabernacle?

Deadly Utensils

In Numbers Chapter 4, a group of Levites, the sons of Kehath, are charged with carrying and moving the articles of the Tabernacle whenever the camp of Israel was on the move. However, before the sons of Kehath were permitted to handle these holy articles Aaron and his sons, the priestly Kohanim, needed to cover all the utensils.

The prime reason one would imagine covering the utensils are so they would not be damaged during the hustle and bustle of transport. However, the verse tells us something else, even extraordinary, regarding the transport of these inanimate objects:

“And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture, and all the holy vessels, as the camp is to set forward–after that, the sons of Kehath shall come to bear them; but they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehath in the tent of meeting.” Numbers 4:15

What is it about these utensils that are deadly? How did the priests have regular contact with these utensils and not die? How did the Levites see these utensils on a regular basis and not suffer? Why only during transport were they so dangerous and how did the elaborate coverings neutralize the danger?

Circumscribing the Infinite

A big part of the function of the Tabernacle, and of the commandments in general, is connecting the finite with the infinite. It is the meeting of an immortal soul with a mortal body. It is the nexus of the tangible with the intangible, the spiritual with the physical, the circumscribed with the unbounded. The Sanctuary represents a concentrated meeting of these two extremes.

The untimely death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who brought an unsanctioned fire (Leviticus 10:1-2) demonstrate the fatal danger of interacting in the Sanctuary outside of rigidly defined conventions.

How then does the Sanctuary, its artifacts and rituals breach the wall of the infinite? How does it convey to mortals some aspect of the divine? How does the spirit, through its mortal senses, approach God?

Sacrifice of the Senses

The Sanctuary seems to provide a variety of experiential rituals that may seem unconnected to each other, but that are at once highly symbolic yet unusually holistic. Perhaps a brief review of each artifact and its function will shed greater light upon its overall role and even a certain progression as to its place in the service of the Sanctuary:

The Altar: Was used for the sacrifice of animals. This is perhaps the most physical and common service. Animal sacrifice was known and practiced by humanity for millennia. Nonetheless, it filled a central role in the Sanctuary whereby man could in a sense transmute his persona to the animal being sacrificed, imagining it to be in his own place and feeling upon his body the effect that the particular sacrifice is meant to convey, whether thanks, guilt, supplication or the like. When performed properly, it was a significant transformation of a highly physical act to a spiritual event.

The Showbread Table: Less accessible and common that the use of animal sacrifice. The table and its bread were for the exclusive use of the priests, who ate the holy bread once a week. While not as physical as the killing and burning of an animal, it still involved eating, demonstrating perhaps the divine involvement in providing human sustenance. While the design of the Table was unique and highly symbolic, the utensils were commonplace and perhaps the most ordinary items in the entire sanctuary.

The Golden Altar and Utensils: Used for the daily burning of incense. Much less physical than the previous articles involved in the consumption of food, the Golden Altar affected primarily the senses of smell and sight, creating a strong-smelling column of smoke that rose to the heavens. Other senses besides the one of taste are here engaged in elevating the spirit above the mundane.

The Candelabrum: Lit daily, this is perhaps the most sublime of the senses only affecting sight, shining light – the simplest of the metaphors for connecting a dark material world with a light ethereal one.

The Ark: Affected none of the senses, yet the holiest, most guarded article. Its power is instead a conceptual one, affecting thought. The Ark contains the Tablets of the Law, written by God himself. It is very physical evidence, a testimony of God’s interaction with humanity. It is the infinite intersecting the finite. God has concentrated His presence into a golden box accessible only on the rarest and holiest of occasions. It is the idea of the Ark, of God’s obvious presence in our midst that should have a profound effect upon our relationship to him.

Training and Operations

Having briefly reviewed the role and the connections that each article engenders, it may be easier to understand the reasoning for the different coverings.

When the Sanctuary is fully assembled and functioning an elite cadre of priests tends to the various articles and rituals in a highly prescribed fashion. They are intimately aware of the holiness and distance they must maintain in their very physical interaction with representations of the infinite. They are intensely trained and keep the correct frame of mind when carrying out functions for either individuals or on behalf of the nation as a whole. There are dangers, although, in the day-to-day operations the expectation is that there will be no trouble and the priests do not require further safeguards beyond their intensive training.

Moving Insurance

The Levites charged with moving the holy utensils are another matter altogether. They do not have the requisite training or experience of regular contact with the utensils. Their job is to transport the utensils, taking them out of their normal mode of operation. One of the dangers and in this case a potentially deadly danger (which is famously depicted in the death of Uza for touching the Ark during transport – II Samuel 6:6-7) is that the Levites will handle the utensil inappropriately, perhaps with a lessened regard, seeing it as just another piece of furniture that needs to be moved. He would of course be in error, as these holy articles are nothing less than divine conduits having the power to connect and transcend our physical world and connect us with the eternal.

The power of the holy articles is one that the untrained Levites must be protected against, lest they be struck down for the disrespectful handling of them. Hence the dictate that the articles be covered lest the Levites die.

Covering the Infinite

If we presume that a human conception of the infinite is one of a never-ending expanse of time and space, of an expansive universe greater than man can imagine, the closest scientific representation may be the concept of redshift. How then can man hope to cover the infinite, symbolically if not physically? Our suggestion is that the color blue may counteract redshift.

Blue is the scientific opposite of red. If red is expansion than blue is contraction. If red is moving further away than blue is moving closer. Blue is the ideal protection against a potentially dangerous exposure to infinity. Is that the reason why it is used so predominantly by the High Priest and in our tzitzit? That is a topic for another discussion. However, for our purposes, blue does seem to be the logical choice for protecting the Levites from the holy articles and we see that is the prescribed covering in almost all cases. The exceptions to this may prove the rule.

What is Takhash?

As mentioned in the introduction, it is not clear what the takhash skin was. There are different theories as to what animal may have been the source of this special skin that may or may not have been multi-colored. For the purposes of our theory the characteristics of the takhash will not be significant, as takhash is used without exception for every single article. Whatever the effects and properties of takhash in providing protection, it was apparently consistent and required for every article. What is interesting for us is the differing use of clearly identified colors for different articles.

Ethereal versues Commonplace

The Altar was covered with a purple cover. Building on our theory of using blue to circumscribe the ethereal, the altar was the least ethereal object in the Sanctuary’s repertoire. It was used for the most mundane of actions, the sacrificing of beasts. The spirituality, etherealness of the big heavy altar may be less than that of the more sublime objects and their functions, and therefore the Levites may have required less of the contraction effects of a blue covering. A more neutral purple covering may have been sufficient protection (assuming we are talking about a purple that lies spectrally between red and blue, as opposed to a violet that scientifically is beyond blue, as in ultra-violet).

The only other items that have a covering other than blue are the utensils of the Showbread Table. The dishes, spoons, shelves and bread were covered in a red fabric – the scientific opposite of the constricting effects of the blue. One reason for this may be because of the extremely mundane and commonplace nature of these utensils. All of the other utensils of the Sanctuary are unique in their design if not their use. However, the utensils of the Showbread Table could be found in every home. What is so special about a dish or a spoon? I have one at home. Perhaps, in order to highlight the holiness of these particular items the opposite effect must be invoked. We must take these simple objects and symbolize their connection to infinity. We must “expand” them, if you will. By covering them in red, we are signaling that these objects are truly holy, despite their unassuming appearance. We are scientifically expanding their presence, drawing them closer to infinity.

Finally, the Ark, is different in both the composition of coverings as well as its order. It is first covered with the Partition, a very part of the Sanctuary structure itself. This perhaps highlights more than anything else the extreme holiness and therefore also danger of this object (as attested to by its historical use in battle, notwithstanding the Hollywood depiction in the famous “Raiders of the Lost Ark” film). It is then covered with the standard takhash and then as opposed to all the other articles, it is covered with the blue fabric as the outermost layer. It is reasonable that the Ark with its most sublime and powerful connection to God would require the greatest and most obvious protection with blue on the outside reinforcing and declaring the need for constriction during transport.

Below is a summary table:

Covering order
Article 1 2 3 4 sense ethereal vs. commonplace protection by covering
Ark Partition takhash tekhelet thought most ethereal needs greatest constriction
Table tekhelet utensils red takhash taste (bread) utensils most commonplace needs greatest expansion
Candelabrum tekhelet utensils takhash light “standard” sublimity “standard” constriction effect
Golden Altar tekhelet takhash smell & light “standard” sublimity “standard” constriction effect
Golden Altar Utensils tekhelet takhash smell & light “standard” sublimity “standard” constriction effect
Altar purple utensils takhash taste (meat) most commonplace act needs neutral protection

What does it all mean?

Firstly, we have proposed answers as to the reason, purpose and functions of the coverings in a coherent theory that addresses the differences between the articles being covered. Namely, that blue has the potential to protect and constrict exposure to infinity, while red may have the opposite affect, expanding the symbolic and spiritual attributes of the object in question and bringing it closer to infinity. Hence the strategic use of these colors for the different utensils of the Sanctuary.

What are the deeper implications of such a theory? What is the meaning of the use of scientific theories in understanding spiritual phenomena and ritual law? How do we contend with infinity? How do we approach infinity respectfully, cautiously, yet protect ourselves from potentially overwhelming affects? Is there some spiritual significance and affect of color? How does such a theory translate into our current lives?

I leave these new questions to the reader to ponder.

* * * * * *

For reference, below, is the prime source text from Numbers Chapter 4:

1 And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 2 ‘Take the sum of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, 3 from thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter upon the service, to do work in the tent of meeting. 4 This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting, about the most holy things: 5 when the camp sets forward, Aaron shall go in, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of the testimony with it; 6 and shall put thereon a covering of sealskin, and shall spread over it a cloth all of blue, and shall set the staves thereof. 7 And upon the table of showbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the pans, and the bowls, and the jars wherewith to pour out; and the continual bread shall remain thereon. 8 And they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet, and cover the same with a covering of sealskin, and shall set the staves thereof. 9 And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the candlestick of the light, and its lamps, and its tongs, and its snuffdishes, and all the oil vessels thereof, wherewith they minister unto it. 10 And they shall put it and all the vessels thereof within a covering of sealskin, and shall put it upon a bar. 11 And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of sealskin, and shall set the staves thereof. 12 And they shall take all the vessels of ministry, wherewith they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of sealskin, and shall put them on a bar. 13 And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon. 14 And they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof, wherewith they minister about it, the fire-pans, the flesh-hooks, and the shovels, and the basins, all the vessels of the altar; and they shall spread upon it a covering of sealskin, and set the staves thereof. 15 And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture, and all the holy vessels, as the camp is to set forward–after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear them; but they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting.

“Because I Said So”

Leviticus Hizkuni: Behar

“Because I Said So”

There are few sentences as frustrating to a child to hear as “Because I Said So.” Conversely, there are few sentences as gratifying to a parent to say (and be obeyed) as “Because I Said So.” In typical parent-child relationships, there is an understanding that some requests must be obeyed with no questions asked. A child’s natural curiosity and delaying tactic of asking “Why?” is run over in the quest to do (or not do) whatever the parent has demanded.

God is apparently not so different. According to Rabbi Yaakov ben Manoach (Hizkuni) God’s commandments are to be obeyed merely because He commanded them. The reasons behind the commandments are secondary or incidental.

Hizkuni illustrates this concept from the command to lay ones field fallow every seven years. The verse states that this should be done “for God.” Since antiquity, farmers have known of the beneficial effects for soil of leaving the field uncultivated for a period of time. Notwithstanding the value of such a practice to the farmer, Hizkuni highlights that the motivation to perform the command should be simply because God commanded it.

There has been a growing awareness that multiplicities of Jewish practices are good for ones mental, emotional and spiritual health. Kosher food has long been lauded as healthier than non-Kosher food. Ritual immersion is credited with saving Jewish communities during the Black Plague and to this day is seen as being an intrinsic part of the success of many Jewish marriages. Chinese scientists have discovered that the exact points on the body where Tefillin are placed as well as covering ones head, is conducive to a greater spiritual and positive state of mind. Jewish mourning practices have been recommended by psychologists as the best way for an individual, families and communities to overcome the tragedy of death. There are endless further examples.

Nonetheless, all of the above does not affect our obligation to perform and obey commandments. If we were to ask God why we need to perform any specific commandment, His answer would be simple: “Because I Said So.”

May we perform commandments out of a sense of such obligation, despite knowing the good effects they may have on us.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Eric Greenberg who reminded me of the Chinese scientists/Tefillin connection.

Spiritual Contagion

Leviticus Hizkuni: Tazria

Spiritual Contagion

Attitudes are contagious... Is yours worth catching?

According to scholars, one of the most influential individuals in the history of knowledge was a man by the lengthy name of Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’. In English he is more commonly known by his Latinized name: Avicenna.

Approximately one thousand years ago, Avicenna discovered the contagious aspect of infectious diseases and was the first to prescribe quarantine as a means of limiting contagion.

However, more than two thousand years before Avicenna, the Children of Israel were practicing quarantine – not for physical maladies, but rather for spiritual ones.

The Torah explains in great detail the malady of tzaraat, which is commonly and mistakenly translated as leprosy. The Rabbis explain that tzaraat was a direct physical manifestation on the skin of a spiritually diseased person. It is most often associated with the sin of tale-bearing; however there are a host of other sins that are also attributed to tzaraat.

Part of the treatment for someone stricken with tzaraat was to exile them from the Camp of Israel. They were to have no human contact and be treated as if they were dead. The afflicted individual also practiced the rituals of mourning, basically mourning their own quasi-death (see this week’s story below for a fictionalized interpretation).

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that the reason for the exile was not only as a corrective measure for the sinner. It was also to protect the community from the sinner’s negative traits until his rehabilitation was complete and he could once again safely join the community of Israel. Hizkuni indicates that the condition of tzaraat, of picking up a spiritual ailment, is contagious.

Thus, according to Hizkuni, the exile of the sinner served a twofold purpose. The primary one was for him to be separated from his daily life, routine and overall normal human existence and consider the severity of his sin which has transformed him into someone who is functionally ‘dead’ in the eyes of God and the community. This painful separation would hopefully cause him to return from the error of his ways. The second was to keep the toxic influence of the person with tzaraat away from the community, lest it infect others.

May we always aim for and surround ourselves with spiritual health and thereby also achieve, maintain and spread physical health.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the speedy recovery of all those that need it.

Schrödinger’s Financial Cat

Exodus Hizkuni: Ki Tisah

Schrödinger’s Financial Cat

According to physicists, the act of measurement can affect or even destroy possibilities. This was noted most famously in the 1935 thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger. In a series of letters between himself and Einstein, Schrödinger postulated the following (simplified) scenario:

There’s a cat in a box. There’s some radioactive material as well. The radioactive material may or may not decay. If it decays, it will trigger a reaction that will kill the cat. If it does not decay, the cat remains alive. There is no way to know the state of the cat unless you open the box. As long as the box is closed, the cat can be dead or alive. The second you open the box, you have either killed the cat, or given it another lease on life.

Schrödinger’s Cat

Schrödinger used this example in part to demonstrate the ridiculousness of quantum mechanics as it relates to the world that we are familiar with (the Newtonian, non-Einsteinian world). Schrödinger’s cat remains relevant though in the quantum world where the very act of observing or measuring will taint your results and where uncertainty prevails. (While the theory is clearly wrong in Newtonian mechanics, I believe it is quite valid regarding interpersonal mechanics).

It is curious that Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) centuries earlier postulates a parallel theory – not regarding quantum particles, but regarding money.

In Exodus 30:12, God does not allow the direct counting of the Children of Israel. Each individual places a half-shekel in a collection box. The total money is counted and the numbers of Israelites are then determined indirectly.

Hizkuni makes reference to the episode when centuries later, King David conducted a formal and direct census of the Children of Israel (Samuel II 24:1-16). The results were the divine punishment of a plague as referenced in the above verse.

Hizkuni then quotes a famous Talmudic line (Bava Metzia 42a – check it out for other investment tips), that blessing only rests on things that are hidden from the eye. In other words, once you measure, once knowledge of a financial position or stake is clear and public, it is harder for uncertainty to work to your advantage. God is less predisposed to bestow his blessing via that channel. He is not as likely to change the possibilities of a larger holding or better results if you are monitoring the minutia for all to see (hence the other part of the Talmudic tips to diversify and be discreet with one’s portfolio).

May our finances always be alive and well and may areas of uncertainty only reveal blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Professor Komar, a student of Einstein. He tried teaching us the equations, but we were more interested in the stories.

The Price of Fear

Genesis: Vayishlach

The Price of Fear

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

The Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear, “Dune”, Frank Herbert

Paul Atreides, the hero of Frank Herbert’s classic Sci-Fi epic “Dune”, overcomes his fear by reciting the Bene Gesserit Litany. If only it were always that easy.

In Jacob’s biblical struggle with the angel, he is wounded. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) attributes the angel’s ability to wound Jacob as a result of fear.

Jacob’s apparently bloodthirsty brother, Esau, was on his way to confront Jacob together with 400 of his men (posse anybody?). It would seem normal, if not prudent, to have some fear of the situation. Hizkuni however, is of the opinion that we should not have fear of any mortal device or intention. This requires a high level of general faith. Hizkuni seems to demand this of Jacob. Jacob is further taken to task as he had been reassured previously and directly by none other than God Himself (can’t ask for a better bodyguard):

“Behold I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go.” Genesis 28:15

Because Jacob exhibited fear –

“Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him.” Genesis 32:8

— he became vulnerable to attack and injury. Otherwise, Hizkuni claims, he would have been impervious to attack.

In the popularized words of FDR:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945), First Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1933

When they are fearful, I often tell my children that fear is a healthy thing – a sign of intelligence. If we did not fear (and respect) the flame, we would get burned. The key is to establish the correct relationship to the fear.

One last quote:

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

May we succeed in conquering all our fears, and thereby prevent unnecessary injury.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Frank Herbert, the creator of what many have termed the best Science-Fiction book ever – “Dune”. Even non-Sci-Fi fans might appreciate his masterpiece.

Evil’s Innocent Accomplices

Evil’s Innocent Accomplices

Some time ago, I was drafted by the Israeli Police to assist in an international manhunt. My getting enmeshed in the particular case was fairly distressing and a confidant of mine was concerned about my getting further entangled in this mess.

However, shortly thereafter he encouraged my involvement with the following quote by Edmund Burke:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I thought Ayn Rand expanded nicely on this in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”:

“The spread of evil is the symptom of a vacuum. Whenever evil wins, it is only by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles.”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno comes to a related conclusion as to the acquiescence signified by silence from a more domestic example regarding a married woman taking a vow (Numbers 30:15):

“If her husband shall be silent about her from day to day – he will have let stand all her vows; or all the prohibitions that are upon her, he will have let them stand, for he was silent about her on the day of his hearing.”

Sforno comments:

“Silence by the one who can protest is like agreement, for the one who is silent is as if he agreed with the act.”

Silence may be golden, but there are times where it may be criminal. May we always know the difference.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the Israel Police Force. I found them to be determined, resourceful and relentless. May they always be a tool of justice.

Sin, Disease and Healing

Sin, Disease and Healing

Out of the many symbols modernity has inherited from the ancient world, one of the creepiest must be that of the medical profession. The serpent entwined around a rod always seemed to be an odd choice for healers.

Star of Life (w/Rod of Asclepius)
Star of Life (w/Rod of Asclepius)

The Rod of Asclepius, as it is formally known, gets its name and attribution from Greek mythology (see, however while reading this week’s Torah portion, one can’t help but conclude that as in many other things, the Jews were involved in the creation of this symbol first.

In Numbers Chapter 21, the Children of Israel complain against God and Moses (yet again!), and as punishment God sends “fiery serpents” that start biting and killing the complainers. The people admit that they sinned and Moses prays to God. Verse 8 and 9 are the response:

“God said to Moses: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a serpent of copper and placed it on the pole; so it was that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live.”

The physician, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, combines both a physical and metaphysical explanation of how the healing occurred. A few hundred years before fellow Europeans discovered the concept of vaccination (though there is undocumented evidence that Chinese and Indian healers knew this centuries before), Sforno discusses how substances taken from or related to a particular disease (in our case ‘fiery serpents’) could heal an ailing patient.

Sforno’s other point is that a medical ailment can actually be a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. Therefore the cure can only be attained by a spiritual correction.

In our case, Sforno explains that the Children of Israel sinned by evil speech towards God and Moses. Hence they were punished by the mouth of the snake. Combining the concept of inoculation with repentance, it becomes immanently logical that the cure would likewise involve a snake.

By Moses placing a snake high up on a pole, he both reminded the Jews of their sin and compelled them to look heavenward. If they repented, placed their trust once again in God, and accepted the bitter medicine of the truth, then they would be healed.

May we always be healed of whatever ails us, whether spiritual or physical, and may we find quick healing in our gaze Heavenward.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Dr. Moshe Wiesel. A man that has successfully recreated what I thought was an outdated profession – the village doctor. May he continue being an effective agent of healing for all of us and we wish him and us much luck and success in his founding of Alon Shvut’s Youth Minyan.

Polonius vs. Nachmanides

Polonius vs. Nachmanides

As my 14-year old son goes out for the first time to the broader world for the summer without parental supervision, I sought some worthwhile advice to impart to him.

One tidbit comes from Rabbi Ovadia Sforno.

In the rebellion of Korach, Datan and Aviram (Number Chapter 16), Moses warns the bystanders to stand aside and move away from the rebels. Sforno explains that even though the bystanders were innocent of any rebellion, this innocence would not protect them if they remained in close proximity to evildoing.

There are two more famous words of fatherly advice that literature has produced. One is the parting words of Shakespeare’s Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3:

“The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!”

The second stream of advice that I think is more comprehensive and interesting to compare is that of the non-fictional Ramban (Nachmanides) to his son Nachman. It is believed that the letter was written in Israel around 1267 in Acre (Akko), Israel and sent to Nachman in Catalina, Spain. The full letter is found in the back of many older siddurim. There are a number of books that give a more detailed analysis of this treasure that generations of Jewish father’s have passed on to their children. In contrast, Judaism has issues with some of Polonius’ philosophy, most notably on lending to the needy.

For those with limited patience for the Ramban’s medium-length but beautiful letter, I’ve summarized it below:

Listen my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the guidance of your mother:

–          Speak gently

–          Don’t get angry

–          Be humble

–          Fear God

–          Contemplate the above

–          Be in Awe of God

–          Guard against sin

–          Be happy with your lot

–          Let God’s spirit rest on you

–          Don’t be prideful

–          Remember, all are equal before God

–          Imagine you are always standing in front of God

–          Speak with reverence

–          Act with restraint

–          Respond gently to all

–          Study Torah diligently

–          Put learning into practice

–          Review your actions morning and evening

–          Purify your thoughts before prayer

–          Think before you speak

Review weekly

If you do so, heaven will answer your heart’s desires.

May our children be familiar with good advice, if not listen to it (and be able to tell the difference), and may we follow it ourselves for their sake, if not our own.

Shabbat Shalom,



To our son Eitan. A young man going to explore the world. God is with us. We just need to remember to be with Him.

For the full version of the Ramban’s letter, click here.

Starfleet Protocol and the Limits of Assertiveness

Starfleet Protocol and the Limits of Assertiveness

In the new “Star Trek” movie, the brash young Kirk tricks the stoic Spock into ceding authority via a rule of protocol (I don’t want to give away more than that). Though Kirk is regularly at the edge of acceptable military behavior and often tests the limits, he ultimately respects the code of conduct.

In the Starfleet universe, as in most military operations, what leads to a functioning organization is a clear chain of command, governed by written, understood, underlying and agreed upon rules and regulations.

The organization and operation of the Tribes of Israel in their desert wanderings are likewise guided by military protocol and precision. The feature that reaches perhaps the greatest level of detail is that which dictates the Temple/Sanctuary activities.

In Numbers, Chapter 4, there is significant focus on the logistics of transporting the various components of the Sanctuary. It warns that if the Levites responsible are not careful, the infraction would be so severe, that they would be deserving of the death penalty.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno gives an interesting interpretation on the matter. He advises that the Holy components cannot be left unattended or unassigned, lest it engender a struggle as to who would have the honor of carrying the item. The ensuing fracas to reach the item first could lead to pushing and shoving which would be completely inappropriate and disrespectful, especially in the Holy Sanctuary. Such lack of protocol is liable not merely to a ‘court martial’ but to an actual divine death sentence.

Sforno quotes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Yoma 23-24) where such a case occurred in the Temple. The lesson being imparted is that enthusiasm to do good, noble or holy deeds are correct and praiseworthy, but not when it involves running over other people or just basic impropriety. From Sforno it would seem that undue aggressiveness or even rudeness in the pursuit of ‘God’s will’ is not only unacceptable; it is actually considered by God to be a mortal sin.

God seems to be significantly more concerned with how we treat our fellow human (or Vulcan), than how we fulfill the more ritualistic commands.

May we always remember to give precedence to those around us over what may in reality be less important matters, and may we always know when to assert ourselves and when to step back in our life’s pursuits.

Shabbat Shalom,



To JJ Abrams, Leonard Nimoy and everyone else that made the new “Star Trek” movie amazing. It is a pleasure to watch something that was so exquisitely produced. It even meets a Trekkie’s demanding criteria.