Safety of the Crowd (Ki Tisa)

Safety of the Crowd (Ki Tisa)

Comrades! We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all. -Nikita Khrushchev

God instructs Moses to count the nation of Israel. However, the methodology of the counting is unusual. God instructs Moses to count by collecting a half shekel coin from each adult male of the twelve tribes of Israel (excluding the Levites) as opposed to simply counting how many men are in each tribe. There is actually a prohibition to directly count the individuals.

To this day when counting people, we don’t point at them and count 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. For example, when trying to ascertain if there are ten men for a prayer quorum (a minyan), we traditionally count by saying the words of a verse known to have ten words.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 30:12 (Ki Tisa) wonders as to this apprehensive approach to counting. He explains that there is an inherent safety in being part of the crowd. When we stand out, when we are counted as individuals, we actually invite divine scrutiny and justice as to our actions, and invariably would be found to be failing. He gives the example from the beginning of the story of Ruth, when the man we know to be Elimelech travels and is mentioned merely as a man of Bethlehem, nothing occurs to him. When he is finally mentioned by name, in the next phrase we find that he dies.

Similarly, when the prophet Elisha offers to intercede on behalf of his hostess the woman of Shunam, her response is no thanks, “I dwell among my people.” She doesn’t want attention brought to her personally; she prefers the anonymity of the crowd.

This is not only for protection from harm. Rabbeinu Bechaye expounds that blessings and even miracles can occur to a person thanks to the merit of the crowd. This thinking even goes to the level of objects. He quotes the Talmudic dictum that there is no blessing upon what is counted. When the amount of grain in the granary is unknown, there is still the possibility of a supernatural intervention to increase the amount. Once the grain has been counted or measured, no further blessing is likely. Furthermore, the evil eye tends to fall upon what is measured, weighed or counted.

So while Judaism gives a prominent place, role and value to the individual, it also recognizes the attraction, advantage and strength of strongly identifying with the crowd (a good crowd!), keeping a low profile and not drawing undue attention to oneself.

May we attach ourselves and stick to the best crowds we can find.

Shabbat Shalom & Purim Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the United Synagogue of Great Britain and particularly to the members of their Chevra Kadisha for the incredible work that they perform day after day, year after year.

Etymology of the Ruby (Tetzaveh)

Etymology of the Ruby (Tetzaveh)

I would rather be adorned by beauty of character than jewels. Jewels are the gift of fortune, while character comes from within. –Plautus

Without a doubt the most impressive of the High Priest’s vestments was the Breastplate (the Choshen) containing twelve different stones, one for each Tribe of Israel, with their names engraved on each stone.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 28:10 (Tetzaveh) goes into a quite long and detailed description of each stone and how each stone has a deep and direct connection to the history and inner characteristics of each Tribe.

We independently know that the Tribe of Ruben may have been associated with the ruby. What was perhaps most surprising was to discover Rabbeinu Bechaye’s claim that the source of the name “ruby” is none other than “Ruben.” He implies that the connection between the tribes and their stones are profound.

Following is a list of the tribes, the original name of the stone, an opinion as to a possible modern equivalent (there is much dispute as to what the ancient stone names represent in modern times) as well as Rabbeinu Bechaye’s opinion as to the benefits associated with the stone:

  1. Ruben: Rubin (Ruby). Helps childbirth.
  2. Simon: Pitda (Chrysolite). Cools body.
  3. Levi: Bareket (Onyx). Enlightenment.
  4. Judah: Nofech (Malachite). Overpower enemies.
  5. Yissachar: Sapir (Lapis-Lazuli). Helps eyesight, healing.
  6. Zevulun: Yahalom (Zircon). Helps sleep.
  7. Dan: Leshem (Jacinth).
  8. Naftali: Shvo (Agate). Helps riding.
  9. Gad: Achlamah (Amethyst). Bravery.
  10. Asher: Tarshish (Topaz). Helps digestion.
  11. Joseph: Shoham (Beryl). Perceived well by all.
  12. Benjamin: Yashpeh (Jasper). Helps blood-clotting.

While attributing different properties and powers to a variety of stones is common to many ancient cultures (and some New Age groups), what is interesting is Rabbeinu’s Bechaye’s claim that in order for the power of these stones to be effective, the user must be ritually pure. He warns that if a person is not ritually clean, the stones will be either ineffective, or even harmful. The topic of ritual purity is quite involved with a long list of laws and details, but at the simplest level today it involves immersion in a ritual bath (Mikveh) within the guidelines of Jewish law. He explains that the stones interact based on a person’s spiritual level, where purity or impurity plays an important role.

So while there may be some truth and validity to the idea of the power of particular stones, ones character and spiritual life are of greater significance. Artifacts and even religious items are always secondary to the person and the spirit. Such is always the case.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims and mourners of the Parkland shooting tragedy.

The Price of Laziness (Trumah)

The Price of Laziness (Trumah)

A lazy person, whatever the talents with which he set out, will have condemned himself to second-hand thoughts and to second-rate friends. -Cyril Connolly

Moses calls upon the nation of Israel to donate material for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, the structure that will house the Tablets of the Law which they received on Mount Sinai. This portable Temple would accompany the Jewish people throughout their desert journey until they entered the land of Israel. Within Israel, the Tabernacle would have a semi-permanent structure and location, until the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon, hundreds of years later.

What is particularly impressive about Moses’ call for donations was the speed with which the Jewish nation responded. The donations came so quickly and so plentifully, that the artisans actually had to tell Moses to announce to the people to stop bringing anything more. They had more than they needed.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 25 (Trumah) learns a lesson as to the vital importance of such alacrity and the converse hazards of laziness. Laziness is a negative trait, but it is particularly damaging when it comes to bear on the performance of commandments.

Rabbeinu Bechaye gives a number of examples, the first being prayer. It is not hard to pray. What is challenging during prayer is to remain focused on the words you’re saying, on connecting and actually communicating with God, and not letting your mind wander to ruminations about work, money, possessions and other mundane thoughts. Not only is such prayer not effective – it is an affront to God, and may provoke His ire more than His pleasure. (This doesn’t mean you’re better off not praying – it means focus!).

Laziness can affect all aspects of our lives, primary our work lives. Rabbeinu Bechaye expands, based on King Solomon’s phrase that “as smoke is to the eyes, so too is the lazy person to his senders.” When you want to warm yourself by lighting a fire, if the fire produces a lot of smoke which then goes into your eyes, you may not remain so pleased with the fire. Likewise, a lazy person who is assigned a task or an errand will somehow manage to spoil the undertaking by their lack of energy, drive or motivation.

Quoting the Sages of the Talmud, “If someone said: “I didn’t try and I accomplished, don’t believe them. I tried but I didn’t accomplish, don’t believe them. I tried and I accomplished, believe them.” For that reason, King Solomon in Proverbs constantly attacks laziness and asks us to look at the industrious ants as positive models who work hard in the summer to provide for themselves in the winter. For those who stir themselves and are quick to work hard, especially in Torah, in the commandments and in character development, they will see gains, they will see accomplishment, they will elevate themselves from level to level, and will always make progress in their lives. The lazy ones will always fall back.

May we get our acts together, get out of bed, and conquer ourselves and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our forces engaged on the Syrian front.

 

Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)

Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)

Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them. -Jean Jacques Rousseau

The Jewish nation has escaped from the slavery of Egypt, they crossed the Sea, received the Ten Commandments. Now, one of the first commands after the pyrotechnic divine Revelation on Mount Sinai is the laws of…slavery.

The Jews had felt the whip of the slave-master on their backs. Slavery was extremely fresh in their memories. Just a few months prior they had been considered the property of Egypt.

God introduces to the world an entirely different concept of “slavery.” It is a temporary condition. A Jewish man, out of luck and resources (typically because he stole something and then couldn’t repay), becomes an indentured servant for six years. He must be treated well and cared for. He must have a quality of life equal to that of his master. However, if he becomes comfortable with his servitude and his master, he can request to stay on longer. The Torah prescribes that in such a case the master takes this slave to the doorpost and pierces the slave’s ear by the doorpost, marking him, branding him as a slave until the Jubilee year, when all slaves are freed, all men of Israel reclaim their ancestral lands.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 21:6 (Mishpatim) explains the rationale for the ear-piercing ceremony, as that namely a Jew should know better than to choose slavery, no matter how comfortable it may be. God took us out of the chains of Egypt to serve Him, not to serve human masters. The ear that heard God’s commands and disobeyed them will be pierced by the new master he’s chosen for himself. By piercing the slave’s ear, the master is following God’s command and demonstrating that at least the master is exclusively subservient to God and not to man. This was a fundamental principle, the principle of personal freedom and subservience only to God, which the slave was disregarding. Man is meant to live free and not be the slave of any other human being. It may seem ironic, but the Torah transmits the message that by serving God exclusively we thereby gain freedom from human domination. There is only one Master – God. Therein we can find our freedom.

May we choose who and what we serve wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Marvin Rosen of Teaneck, NJ. I spent many special Shabbats at his home and at his table. May his family be consoled among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Women’s Candle Power (Yitro)

Women’s Candle Power (Yitro)

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining- they just shine. -Dwight L. Moody

Among the Ten Commandments, the fourth is to remember the Sabbath. Every week of the year, from sunset on Friday afternoon until nightfall Saturday night, Jews are prohibited from performing a host of labors and activities, including direct use of any electronic device, traveling and more. The disconnection from the daily grind, the electronic maelstrom, the bombardment of media and messages and madness allows for a rare and life-rejuvenating ability to rediscover tranquility, family and community. It affirms sanity, re-energizes life-force and gives us the power to successfully conquer another week of our lives. The Sabbath is always welcomed first and foremost by the woman of the house lighting Shabbat candles.

When God presents the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, He introduces the subject with an unusual phraseology. He addresses Moses and commands: “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 19:3 (Yitro) explains that “the house of Jacob” (Beit Yaakov) refers to the women, while “the children of Israel” (Bnei Yisrael) refers to the men.  God addresses the women before the men. He elaborates that it was important, even vital for the women to be spoken to first at this momentous, historic revelation of God.

He focuses on the mother’s role in nurturing her children. He states that a mother is the initial cause and motivation for her child to study Torah and therefore, when she lights the Shabbat candles on Friday eve, a command that is reserved for the woman, she has a special power to pray at that moment, to request and to receive children who will brighten the world with their Torah; for the moment of performing a commandment is propitious for having such requests fulfilled.

Rabbeinu Bechaye elaborates that for the merit of lighting the Shabbat candles and creating light, the woman will merit to have children, masters of Torah, which is also called light, as King Solomon stated in Proverbs: “For the candle is a commandment (Mitzvah) and the Torah, light. The sages echoed this sentiment with the statement that whoever is careful with lighting Shabbat candles will merit having children who will become Torah scholars.

May we each brighten the world in our own way and may we merit having and seeing children whose light will both burn brightly as well as kindle the light of others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

Happy New Year to the trees of the world, with whom we celebrate their new year today, Wednesday January 31, on the Hebrew date of 15 of Shvat (Tu B’Shvat).

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

Four Parts of Faith (Beshalach)

 In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. -Blaise Pascal

The nation of Israel is born when they are redeemed from the slavery of Egypt. They have witnessed the ten plagues that God brought down upon the Egyptians while sparing the Jewish nation. Pharaoh and his people beg the Israelites to leave. They leave on the night of Pesach (Passover) which would henceforth be eternally commemorated by the Jewish people.

However, Pharaoh changes his mind. He pursues the freed slaves. His powerful chariot army has them trapped, with their back against the sea. God intervenes once again. He keeps the sides separated by a pillar of cloud and fire. He directs Moses to lift his hand and split the sea. The sea splits, the Jews cross over on dry land. The Egyptians are allowed to follow, only to be completely drowned. The entire armed forces of the Egyptian empire are obliterated in one fell swoop. Moses lowers his hand and he and the people of Israel break into song, the Song of the Sea.

The Torah declares that at that point the nation “believed in God and in Moses His servant.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 14:31 (Beshalach) quotes Rabbeinu Chananel who explains that proper Jewish faith can actually be split into four distinct elements:

  1. Belief in God;
  2. Belief in the truth and validity of our Prophets;
  3. Belief in an afterlife that will include rewards for the righteous;
  4. Belief in the coming of the Redeemer.

The reward for sustaining these beliefs is that one will enjoy them when the time comes. The punishment for lack of belief is somewhat self-fulfilling. The unbelievers will not live to experience the afterlife that they don’t believe in. Seems appropriate.

Somehow, the conscious beliefs that we sustain and develop actually create our spiritual reality and fate. By denying God, prophetic truth, reward and punishment, an afterlife or the coming of the Messiah, we cut our very souls off from the future, eternity and destiny of the Jewish people. When we affirm our beliefs in the above, we link ourselves, our destiny, to the unbroken chain of tradition of the eternal people. Our beliefs shape our souls and our souls are intertwined, that is, until we reverse our default ancestral settings and take ourselves out of the communal belief system and the spiritual community itself.

Maimonides famously elaborated and articulated the above basic belief system into the popular 13 Principles of Faith. In some synagogues and communities they are read on a daily basis and can be found in the back of many prayer books. They are worth reviewing regularly.

May our faith be strong and our souls ever linked to our nation and community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Hilda and Jeremy Cohen, on their inspiring hospitality. And to the speedy recovery of Libi Yehudis bas Yochevet.

Self-inflicted Escalating Punishments (Bo)

Self-inflicted Escalating Punishments

Every guilty person is his own hangman. -Seneca the Elder

                                                                     John Martin, The Seventh Plague, 1823

God pours his wrath over the people of Egypt. Plagues of blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, boils, hail, locust and more devastate the mightiest empire on the planet for refusing to let the People of Israel go. Pharaoh stands firm against this onslaught, consistently denying the Hebrew nation its freedom. He insists on keeping them enslaved, not allowing them their requested three-day journey to worship God.

In the end, it is Pharaoh’s stubbornness (which at some point may have been augmented by God) that dooms Egypt. Had he let the Jews go at the first request, he and his country would have been spared from all the pain, death and destruction.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 12:33 (Bo) explains that Pharaoh’s thick-headedness, his denial of God and his refusal to send the Jews as requested were reciprocated in the harshest terms in a way that he would irrefutably acknowledge God, by being on the receiving end of the plagues, and he would ultimately be forced to send the Jews out of Egypt.

Rabbeinu Bechaye gives an example of a minister who asked his servant to buy him some fish; the servant went and bought him a putrid piece of fish. The minister, as punishment, gives the servant three options:  “eat the fish yourself, get one hundred lashes, or pay one hundred pieces.” The servant says: “I’ll eat the fish,” but halfway through it he says, “I can’t eat anymore, I’d rather get the lashes.” They lash him, but halfway through he says, “I can’t handle it, I’d rather pay the one hundred pieces.” The servant ended up inflicting on himself all three punishments.

So to it was with Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They were lashed with all the plagues, they sent the Jews out, and they also sent them with gold and riches.

May today’s stubborn enemies of Israel receive their comeuppance speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Judge Mchaim Lieberman on his 50th birthday. May he continue to mete out justice when he can.