The Creation of Hell

The Creation of Hell

So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the burning marl. Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is – other people! -Jean-Paul Sartre

                                                                  Chart of Hell, Sandro Botticelli, circa 1485.

According to ancient Jewish sources, Hell was created on the second day of creation. The plain text narrates how on the second day of creation, God creates the firmament which separates between the upper waters and the lower waters. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 1:4 wonders why the second day of creation doesn’t end with the characteristic phrase “and it was good,” which other days mention. He quotes the creation of Hell as a reason; however, he adds that something else was created on that same unfortunate day: quarrelling.

The term for second in Hebrew, “Sheni,” already hints at the unlucky nature of the number two. “Sheni” is related to the word “Shinui” which means difference or change. There is something negative and even dangerous when there are unwarranted differences between things and people or even to just being the second and being compared to what came before. It sets the stage for quarrelling. Even nature itself seems to quarrel with God from the second day and onwards. None of God’s further commands to the inanimate world were correctly implemented. For example, on the third day, God commanded that the earth produce fruit trees, meaning trees whose bark would be savory and could be eaten, however, the land decided to produce only fruit-bearing trees, with inedible bark.

The concern with the number two was serious enough that even the Talmud mentions a superstition about bad luck in eating pairs of a food or drinking pairs of drinks. Nonetheless, Rabbeinu Bechaye’s main point is that whoever instigates a quarrel will be judged in Hell. There is a direct correlation between creating anguish, controversy and clashes between people, and experiencing Hell.

However, we also know that arguments for the sake of Heaven, which are handled with sensitivity, intelligence and respect, will eventually be settled well.

May we avoid unnecessary quarrels and stick to Heavenly arguments.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,



To the beginning of a new year of commentary. May it lead us on peaceful ways.

Dark Fire

Dark Fire

The crux is that the vast majority of the mass of the universe seems to be missing. -William J. Broad

Cosmologists have a problem. According to their observations and calculations, our universe should have significantly more matter and energy than they are able to perceive. They have termed these mysterious forces as “dark matter” and “dark energy” though they frankly don’t know what either of these things might be. They estimate that dark matter and dark energy respectively make up as much as 26.8% and 68.3% of our known universe (together 95.1%!). The cosmos that our puny brains and science can currently observe and define makes up less than 5% of the composition of our universe.

In this regard, more than one hundred years ago, Rabbi Hirsch comments on the 3,000 year old passage in Deuteronomy 33:2. He touches on his own divine cosmological explanation, with a term the sages called “dark fire.” It is an unseen power that is responsible for everything in our universe (think of Star Wars’ “the Force”) and in my opinion, might even account for some of the mass and energy that modern science is unable to perceive or measure. However, what is most interesting about Rabbi Hirsch’s description is that man is the only creature that may actually have some say, some control, on how this unseen, elemental force plays a role in his life:

 “Esh (fire) is the force that generates movement, change and life in all physical creations; the dark, invisible fire, as our Sages call it, through which the eternal, God-given laws for the universe are fulfilled. These laws operate in all creatures without their being aware of them, and independently of their will. But these same laws, established and willed by God, the Supreme Consciousness and Will, and operating through the almighty power of His will, are to work differently with man, the creature called upon to exercise moral free will. In the case of man, God’s Law is not to operate from within him, without his conscious will; it is to come to him from without, so that, out of his own free volition, he may absorb it in his mind and will.”

Rabbi Hirsch then draws a parallel between this dark fire and the Torah. He posits that the Torah is somehow “fire-become-law”, a humanly comprehensible insight and access into some of these elemental forces. By fulfilling God’s Law we can take conscious control of these powers as well as our own personal destinies.

We no longer need a Jedi Master to instruct us as to the workings of the universe. All its secrets might be found in the Torah.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose powerful commentary has accompanied us this entire year.

Unappreciated Gifts

Unappreciated Gifts 

When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. -G. K. Chesterton

The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1777.

From the moment we are born, we get used to breathing, eating, walking, moving, thinking and to the daily miracles that we’ve come to expect. However, the truth is that our life is a gift. We didn’t deserve life. We didn’t earn life. Life is not some reward for a job well done in a previous incarnation. The opposite is true. Our life is given to us unearned.

We come into this world with a debt to God. He has created us with our health, with our faculties and with our families. Our life’s circumstances are purely based on His benevolence for which we will always be in His debt and will never be able to fully repay.

Unfortunately, we often make the mistake of taking life for granted. Not only are we not appreciative of this divine gift, we even start complaining, or resenting the circumstances of our life if they aren’t to our liking. An idyllic, unperturbed life wasn’t part of the deal. Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 32:4 states:

“No creature of God has a claim to existence on its own merits or the right to expect that its aspirations will be fulfilled. For all of its existence is a free gift of God’s creative love. Nevertheless, God treats it as if indeed it had a personal right to existence and welfare.”

God doesn’t owe us anything, not even the breath we take. Nonetheless, God does look out for us. However, He is likely to be kinder if we demonstrated both appreciation and good use of the gifts He has provided us so far.

May we use those gifts to good effect and may we be blessed with good life, health, joy and success in the coming year.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom,



To my family. I’m immensely grateful to be celebrating Rosh Hashana together, after several years of being on duty.

Ingredients of Jewish Leadership

Ingredients of Jewish Leadership

A good leader needs to have a compass in his head and a bar of steel in his heart. -Robert Townsend

Leadership and the struggles around it are an ongoing theme in the Torah. Whether it’s the leadership of a family or of the nation, the Torah reveals to us, the good, the bad and the ugly of those who seek power and those who ultimately wield power.

One of my favorite phrases in the entire Torah is from the parting words of Moses to his disciple Joshua (and subsequently repeated by God to Joshua). Moses is about to die and Joshua has been appointed to lead the stiff-necked people of Israel into the Promised Land and to conquer the entrenched Canaanite nations. Moses tells him “Chazak Veematz” which can be translated as “be strong and courageous,” or as Rabbi Hirsch translates it “be steadfast and strong.”

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 31:7 explains that the ideal Jewish leadership is predicated on a steadfast commitment to the Torah and a resolute determination to enact the principles of the Torah in our lives. In his own words:

“‘Be steadfast and strong;’ this is interpreted in Berakhoth 32b (Babylonian Talmud) as follows: “Be steadfast in keeping the Torah and strong in good deeds”; remain steadfast in looking to the Torah for an understanding of your tasks, and be strong in overcoming any obstacles to the fulfillment of these tasks. Be steadfast in adhering to your principles and be strong in carrying them out: these are the most important qualities required of a leader.”

The Torah is the rulebook of the Jewish people. In order to provide leadership to the Jewish people one must be not only familiar with the rulebook, but embrace it, internalize it and live it, despite the constant struggle and challenges of performing what it asks of us “with all our hearts and all souls.”

May we each be leaders in our own homes and communities.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the candidates of Zehut for their leadership and dedication.


The Art of Charity

The Art of Charity

Charity should begin at home, but should not stay there. -Phillips Brooks

The Torah introduced to the world the charitable concept of tithe (Maaser), of giving one tenth of our income to the needy. However, the Torah is particularly sophisticated and nuanced as to how, when, what, to who, and how much charity we are to give.

In analyzing the Torah’s charity directions we need to take into account that it was presented to an agricultural society (which has defined humanity for the last several millennia). Every tenth animal from the flock was given as charity. Besides ten percent of the produce that was collected, any produce that was dropped, forgotten or left behind became the property of the poor (within well-defined parameters). A corner of one’s field was left for the poor to harvest. Much of the agricultural gifts weren’t so much handouts as much as an opportunity for the poor to gather and earn food for their families, while doing work and keeping some semblance of honor.

Within the concept of tithe itself, there are actually three different types: Maaser Rishon (first tithe) given to the Levites, Maaser Sheni (second tithe) taken by the farmer himself (or traded for money for food) together with his family and consumed festively in Jerusalem, and Maaser Ani (the poor’s tithe) given to the poor.

Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 26:15 explains the significance of these three types of tithes. Maaser Rishon, the first tithe, was given to the Levites, for they were the ones charged with the education of the people of Israel. They were responsible for transmitting the Torah, its moral and spiritual precepts to the people. That is the foundation of our nation. Maaser Sheni, the second tithe, was eaten and enjoyed by the farmer’s family in a state of purity within the walls of Jerusalem. One of the underlying concepts is the care we need to take of our own physical selves, our families and the moral purity of our actions in this physical world. The third tithe, that of Maaser Ani, for the poor, is the basic and simple responsibility we have to those less fortunate than us. We cannot see our brethren go hungry. We have the obligation to ease their distress as we are able to. No success is complete without looking out for the weaker ones of our communities.

Then and only then, after we have fulfilled these three different dimensions of charity, that of looking out for our nation’s educational needs, that of looking out for the physical and moral welfare of our own families and that of looking out for the weaker members of our people, then can we call out to God as the passage concludes and declare: “God, I’ve done what You’ve asked. Look down from Your Holy abode, from the Heavens, and bless Your people, Israel, and the land You have given us.”

May our ability and capacity to help our families, our communities and our needy never falter.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the myriads of people affected by Hurricane Harvey. May we be able to help them, each according to our own capacity and may they recover quickly and return to the safety and comfort of their own homes and institutions.

The Danger of Good Food

The Danger of Good Food

He who is a slave to his stomach seldom worships God. -Sa’di

One of the more curious commandments in the Torah is that of the Rebellious Son. Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy describes the unusual case of a young man that doesn’t listen to his parents, and after appropriate warning is actually executed by the court for his rebelliousness. The Talmud explains that the case of the Rebellious Son is merely theoretical; that it never happened and never will happen, but rather it is there to teach us some deeper lessons.

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates that the Rebellious Son is presented in order to help us be better parents. One of the curious aspects that doom the Rebellious Son to his fate is actually gluttony. Now there are a whole host of crimes which we know are much worse than merely indulging in ones appetite. Why is gluttony in one so young deserving of a death sentence?

Rabbi Hirsch answers that a home which focuses more on its food than on the spiritual aspect of its lives is one where the children will have little hope for the future. If the priority is the taste and quality of a meal and not the values and ethics instilled in the next generation, oblivion is the likely outcome:

“Of all the possible moral perversions, the Law has chosen as a criterion of completely hopeless corruption the case of a Jewish youth who, having reached adolescence, a time in life when he should enthusiastically embrace every ideal of spirituality and morality, devotes himself to drink and gluttony instead. Herein lies another important hint for both the father and the mother, and also for the spirit to be cultivated in the home where young human souls are to mature toward their moral and spiritual future: If for nothing else but the sake of their children, parents should be careful not to allow “good food and drink” to assume a place of predominance in their home and among the members of their household. Only where spiritual and moral factors are given priority over all other considerations can that atmosphere develop in which young human emotions will be protected from brutalization.”

While consuming good food is certainly enjoyable, when it becomes a focus and priority of our lives, we may fear that our moral compass is confused. Instead, spiritual food for our souls and the souls of our children should be the guiding light in the educational diet of our homes.

Shabbat Shalom,



To all the excellent cooks who infuse their meals with spirituality.

Land and Justice

Land and Justice

Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn’t be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice. -Maria Corazon Aquino

The Torah links the concept of pursuing justice with the ability to possess the land of Israel. Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 16:20 elaborates that our ability to possess the land is actually a function of the pursuit and promotion of justice. When justice is absent or lacking, then we actually run the risk of losing our right to the land. The converse is also true, that when justice reigns, so too, our claim to the land will be unquestioned. In his own words:

“Justice – right — the shaping of all private and communal affairs in accordance with the requirements of God’s Law, is to be the one supreme goal sought purely for its own sake; a goal to which all other considerations must defer. Israel’s sole task is to pursue this goal unceasingly and with single-minded devotion, “so that you may live and take possession….” If Israel does this, it has done everything within its power to secure its physical and political existence.”

“Note that even now, when it clearly refers to the time when Israel has already completed its occupation of the Land, the text still uses the term “and take possession,” with reference to the political security that Israel will gain if it will honor and promote justice. The use of this term makes clear the crucial fact that Israel’s possession of the land can be called in question at any time, and that Israel must take possession of its land anew at every moment, as it were, by making certain that the Jewish state will honor justice and translate it into reality throughout the land.”

When injustice abounds, it nullifies our right to the land, or severely weakens it. Throughout our long history, the injustices we have perpetrated, or allowed to occur unchallenged, have invariably led to war, destruction and exile. Though we may have had right on our side, our misdeeds have consistently snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. We need to constantly earn our right to the land by being a beacon of truth, morality and justice to all. When we fulfill our mission, God fulfills His ancient promises to us.

When true justice returns to Zion, then secure peace will not be far behind.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the Bitton family of Great Neck, for their wholehearted hosting and pursuit of justice, peace and loving-kindness.