Integrity’s Origins

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; he was priest of G-d the Most High.” – Genesis 14:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

A tenth of all that Abraham retrieved from the five kings was given to Melchizedek; the remainder was considered properly tithed from the perspective of a later Torah injunction; yet, Abraham kept none of this, for his reward has to do with heaven and earth. Therefore, what has any man to offer Abraham? The King of Sodom’s riches would have been devoid of any spiritual blessing, since they would not have been bestowed upon Abraham by G-d; but, rather by man.

While it is true that blessings can be given to someone through men, according to G-d’s design, this would not have been the case, in regard to the loot that was recovered by Abraham, when he rescued his nephew Lot, who was captured by the five kings. Why? Because Abraham was righteous, and “disdained profit gained through oppression” (Akeidas Yitzchak; That is to say that he forsook the wealth that was rightly his according to custom in order to maintain his integrity.

Every now and then, we may find ourselves in a similar position, not necessarily having to do with possessions; rather, as pertaining to a challenge designed to test the integrity of our convictions. Our belief and practice, as well as the strength of our convictions must be tested, so that we are able to permit these to take root in actuality. Otherwise, how would we know whether we have what it takes to act upon our convictions?

Although we have potential, whether from inborn traits or learned moral qualities that we have acquired along the way, some of these may only be in a potential resting state, until activated by the challenges in our lives. Everything in our lives that is presented to us as a challenge, obstacle, or hurdle, has a reason, concomitant with our purpose in life. It is our integrity that is born out of the way we meet these existential realities; and, if we handle them well, then we may increase in moral strength and character.

It’s Covenantal

weekly Torah reading: parashas Noach 5782

“I will establish My covenant with thee; and thou shalt come into the ark.”

– Genesis 6:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

From the beginning of time, G-d did not plan on catastrophes, turmoil, and strife amongst mankind. Rather, mankind brought this upon themselves. When G-d created the world, He brought into existence human beings that were given free will. Yet, this freedom only exists within the overall construct of consequences, in regard to the types of choices man makes for himself. Freedom is circumscribed by guidelines and boundaries, in order to maintain the truest sense of freedom, that is to say, freedom from subjugation to evil.

Too often, we would like to point the finger at something outside of ourselves, condemning it as inappropriate, wrong, or even evil in and of itself. A sense of injustice, or righteous indignation compels some of us to seek amendments. Try as we may to subdue, suppress, and right the wrongs, we would do better to look within ourselves. This is where the real battle is fought, between the yetzer tov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Through tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul), transformation becomes available to all who seek sincere self improvement. As Ghandi said, “Be the change that you would like to see in the world.” Yet, condemnation, shaming, and cancelling out of the other, will only bring a false utopia, that neglects to root out its own evil inclinations. “And the L-RD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, JPS 1917 Tanach). Yet, Noach found favor in the eyes of the L-RD. And, the L-RD established His covenant with Noach, his family, and all of mankind.

Even so, man continued to rebel, in opposition to G-d; hence, the building of the Tower of Babel, wherein, man attempted to make a name for himself, to the exclusion of His Creator. Thus, a misguided effort was brought to halt through G-d’s intervention. Today, we may ask ourselves, whether we are contributing to the divine blueprint or an alternative design, that erroneously leaves G-d out of the equation. “Choose this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15, JPS).

Gan Eden Essentials

parashas Bereishis 5782

“The L-RD G-d took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” – Genesis 2:15, JPS 1985 Tanach

Adam was given the responsibility to avdah (work) and shomer (guard) the garden of Eden. Yet, not until after Adam and Chava were expelled from Gan Eden, was he commanded to till the earth outside of the garden. The question may be asked, what was the essential difference between his responsibilities in regard to Gan Eden, and what comprised his role, once expelled?

A union with G-d (yichud, in Hebrew) constituted the existential nature of life in Gan Eden. Yet, that perfect relationship of oneness with G-d was broken by disobedience, having partaken from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When both Adam and Chava had partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they became self-aware, because the unity with G-d was interrupted.

As a result, existentially outside of Paradise, even before being officially expelled, their existence was disrupted by their own sin. In other words, they no longer were within the domain of perfect correspondence with the various components of Gan Eden. Sin, shame, and rebellion had entered into the picture, thereby disrupting peace and contentment.

Thus, within the garden, prior to the aveirah (sin), a G-d centered focus permeated every act, in regard to their endeavors. As explained elsewhere, that avdah refers to perfection of the soul, as per man being described as a nefesh chaya (literally, living soul; Ibn Ezra). Thereby, the refining of one’s personality is tantamount to the service that is concomitant with gan eden, when doing so under the guidance of H’Shem.

Yet, having been expelled, their lives subsequently encompassed, a self focused reality, wherein one attempts to improve himself, according to his own design, irrespective of the original blueprint. Having already given in to temptation, and partaken of the forbidden fruit, mankind was now subject to the challenges of dealing with his own unruly nature that had been unleashed.

The only way back to the garden is through acknowledgment of our own misguided attempts to continue on the path of independence from G-d; then to realize over time that these attempts are vain, and return to the original blueprint for our lives. This blueprint is known as the Torah, meaning “instruction.” All of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) is of benefit for this endeavor, as well as listening to our conscience; for, G-d has given us an inner guidance system, with a homing beacon, called the soul.

Clouds of Glory

Sukkot 5782 – Shabbat Chol HaMoed

Torah reading: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

The word sakoti, similar to sukkah, means cover or covering, and is found in the following verse: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover [sakoti] thee with My hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:22, JPS 1917 Tanach). Perhaps, this is at least one connection found to Sukkot in the parashas chosen as the reading for Shabbat Chol HaMoed.

Creation as Witness

weekly Torah reading: parashas Haazinu 5782

“Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 31:19, JPS 1917 Tanach

Moshe teaches B’nei Yisrael a song that will serve as a witness against the people, when they turn away from H’Shem in the distant future.  The song connotes the response of Creation to the mitzvoth (good deeds) and aveiros (transgressions) of B’nei Yisrael. 

The idea, as explained in commentary, is that all of Creation will respond in proper accordance, to both the good deeds and sins that are committed in the future. Thus, the children of Israel would be held accountable, so to speak, by all aspects of G-d’s creation found in the biosphere.

This is really an amazing condition, that seems nothing short of what might be called mystical, or at least spiritual in its fulfillment. Yet, in theological actuality, this simply has to do with G-d’s sovereignty. For He is L-RD over all of His creation; and, furthermore, his moral law is as if interwoven into the very fabric of creation.

Some aspects are already clear, as mentioned previously in Torah; for instance, an abundance of rain for the crops when Israel is in obedience to Torah vs. the withholding of rain when Israel transgresses. Yet, overall, the imagination can only wonder how else the promises would be fulfilled. Additionally, whether this actuality may apply to our own lives today, is wondrous to ponder upon.

Shabbat Shuvah 5782

“And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.'”

– Deuteronomy 31:17, JPS 1985 Tanach

“They will be intelligent enough to conclude that all the troubles which suddenly overtook them must be due to G-d having deliberately left their midst.”

– Or HaChayim on Deuteronomy 31:17,

The key word here in this commentary is “deliberately,” as if it is implied that the people realized that their own sins compelled G-d to abandon them. This is an important connection for them to make, whereas without recognizing their own complicity, would only have led to blame G-d for His abandonment of them, as if they had no part in the matter. Consider the attitude of some, in blaming G-d for harsh events in life, holding Him accountable for our suffering, without acknowledging the sins that created the distance between us and Him in the first place. The point being, that it is the wrong attitude to have, a spoiled mindset to think that we deserve better, despite our abandoning Him through our own misdeeds. And, yet, He is compassionate and merciful, inasmuch that hiding His face from us, He desires us to cry out with a heartfelt repentant stance, taking it upon ourselves, to return to Him, in all of our ways, in order to elicit His forgiveness. Thus, it may be seen in regard to what is sometimes called today “tough love,” for example when parents stop enabling their children who exhibit poor behavior, and, rather, deny them assistance, or any kind of monetary support until they correct their errant ways.

And, so, we do not understand G-d to be capricious: rather everything is ultimately designed for our benefit, even the chastisement that is placed upon us, when we go astray of G-d’s commandments. For nothing happens by chance in an ordered world, that is a world whose order is often above our own understanding. Any randomness that appears to occur is only based upon  a perspective that does not have the type of faith in H’Shem that accepts His sovereignty over all events in the world, as well as those that occur to us on an individual level. To understand that everything happens according to G-d’s will, or is permitted by Him, is to recognize His absolute sovereignty in all realms of life. Surely, He is not to blame when bad things happen to good people, for man is responsible for his own sin against his fellow man, and if G-d permits something bad to happen to us, it is for a reason, that we are to attempt to understand. Otherwise, we will fall prey to a lack of faith in Him as sovereign. Furthermore, to be angry at Him for the bad things in our lives is to deny His sovereignty over us. We must return to Him, especially as we feel compelled to do on Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance), so that we do not hold any grudges against the very one whose wisdom soars above our own.

Returning to the One

“And thou shalt bethink thyself among all the nations, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the L-RD thy G-d, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command thee this day.”

– Deuteronomy 30:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The call of teshuvah (repentance) is to return from our own errant ways, in order to embrace the ways of G-d. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the L-RD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9, JPS).

Therefore, when we acknowledge our own sense of spiritual poverty, we may aspire to a greater understanding through the word of G-d. For “man doth not live by bread alone, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the L-RD doth man live” (Deuteronomy 8:3, JPS).

The phrase vahasheivosa ell’vavecha (“then you will take it to your heart,” Deuteronomy 30:1) conveys the understanding, that an intellectual knowledge alone, concerning the importance of the service of G-d, is not enough; rather, it is necessary to bring this awareness into one’s heart – the seat of the emotions. As a result of this endeavor, teshuvah (repentance) will follow.

In the modern world, we are conditioned to believe that whatever choices we make in our lives, are more or less acceptable, as long as we are tolerant and considerate of others. While tolerance and consideration are important, without formulating guidelines of some sort for ourselves, we will continue to be without principles to rest our sense of morality upon.

Ultimately, adopting the values inculcated to us in the words of G-d, will bring a sense of consistent truths into our awareness, so that we may truly live in accordance with the designs of the Creator, Who only has our best interests in mind.

Entering the Land

“And it shall be on the day you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which the L-RD your G-d gives you.” – Deuteronomy 27:2

Upon crossing the Jordan into the Promised land, at that time, the children of Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, would set up great stones, plaster them, and write the commandments on them. They were instructed by Moses to to do so, before he passed away. Thus, as a permanent reminder of the commandments, this act would help to preserve the commandments as a testimony for the B’nei Yisrael.

Moreover, Moses instructed the Levites to call out the blessings and curses from atop two mountains, as the Children would pass through on their journey into the land. Taking into consideration as well, the five weeks of admonitions and cautionary statements, in an attempt to compel the new generation to abide in the Torah presented at Sinai, it seems that every measure was being taken to safeguard the covenant upon their transition into the land.

The covenant made by Moses with the Children of Israel at Sinai was renewed by Moses shortly before the people entered the land. Moses knew that without the very present help of G-d who accompanied the B’nei Yisrael in the wilderness, as well as the manna, and other miracles that they witnessed, the people would be prone to forget Him.

Thus, a bulwark of impressions was designed to foster a remembrance of the covenant, throughout their lives, especially during the immediate challenges ahead. Yet, after Joshua the nation fell into disarray, during the period of the judges, until the unification of Israel under David’s reign.

The crossing into the Promised Land may be compared historically to the expectations of European Jews, who looked for a brighter future in America. Yet, the land of golden opportunity was also a place of allurement and distractions from the truths of Torah. I myself grew up as a Conservative Jew; however, Judaism was a small part of my life, and never found its way into my daily mindset until many later years. Rediscovering the rich heritage of my ancestors has been a great blessing to me. And, I look forward to entering the Promised Land, when Malchus Elokim (the Kingdom of G-d) is established on earth.

parashas Ki Seitze 5781

“When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood [guilt] upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.”

– Deuteronomy 22:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

“Roofs of houses in the ancient Near East were flat and were regularly used for a variety of purposes: drying and storing produce, strolling and socializing, and sleeping in warm weather.”  (p.201, The JPS Commentary Deuteronomy).  The danger of falling off the roof was a constant risk unless a parapet was put in place around the perimeter of the roof.

The literal translation of the verse is “lest a fallen one should fall.” How can that be? How can one be fallen, even before he falls? The phrasing implies that the one who might potentially fall was already a sinner. Therefore, the fallen one is due punishment from H’Shem, for some sin that had already been committed.

Yet, we are commanded to build a parapet so this “fallen one” does not fall and injure himself on our own roof. Following the commandment, prevents the punishment from being enacted upon a “fallen one,” through neglect, were the homeowner otherwise not as conscientious to put a protective fence in place.

That is to say, that bad things happen through the instrumentation of others who are lacking in character. Yet, G-d’s people are called towards righteousness, in all of our ways. Moreover, we have the responsibility of being considerate, for the sake of others. If something negative occurs, let it not be on our watch.