Tag Archives: Drugs

Parshat Bo (5775)

Exodus 10:1-13:16

How Plaguing Addictions Affect Those Other Than Ourselves

Today we are going to talk about addictions. We are not only going to consider the personal struggle with addiction, but we are going to explore how addictions affect the other people in our lives. How they can come to plague not just us alone, but also cause casualty to others.

destitute familyThis topic has been rolling around in my mind since last Shabbat, when I happened upon this verse as I was thumbing my way to the reading for that day. This verse so interested me that I wanted to ask our own Rabbi Osnat Margalith about it right then, but held back so we could tackle the lesson at hand. But just then she quickly affirmed a view that I just saw open up to me moments before. As she noted how Rabbi Abraham Twerski connects the Ten Plagues of Egypt to the stages of addiction. Though I haven’t yet read this book she is referring to, I hope to soon. I’m intrigued now. As I also see so many unique connections along this theme, and today we will explore just some of that.

Not only was Rabbi’s observation timely for where my mind was at the moment, but it’s also a very timely thought for what I have been observing in the lives of people I care about. For as I began to sit down to learn this lesson from this angle of addiction, I was contacted by someone close to me who has had a long road with addiction. Reaching out to me from rehab, where he has been working through his few steps in sobriety.

Hopefully, I have a bit to offer on this subject. As I am no stranger to addicts. And I am no stranger to addiction myself. So when I speak about this, it’s from the position of personal experience. Personal experience which lend to both my empathy and frankness when it comes to this struggle. To this battle of the wills.

As we begin to look at this story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, I want us to keep in mind that this story is about a battle between two wills. The will of G-d and the will of Pharaoh. The narrative takes a focus upon the heart of Pharaoh all through out this part of the story regarding the Israelites exodus to freedom. This story of our fate is deeply intertwined with the narrative of this man’s battle of personal will.

Then again, this is also the case for his people – his Egyptians people and all his faithful servants – and that is something which also needs to be noted.

Now I know that during these weeks nearly everyone is talking about the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in their divrei Torah. What that philosophically means, as well as what the personal implications are for freewill and personal responsibility. And asking difficult questions. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s will here? Was He stacking the cards against Pharaoh? Wasn’t Pharaoh being set-up?

I don’t really want to go trudging down that path too far, because that is low road which many addicts prefer to take when resisting liberation through sober living: It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t be this way if G-d didn’t make me this way. I have a disease, so I’m not responsible for this. This is just the way I’m wired, how can you blame me? G-d has given me a hard life and hard heart, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be this way! This situation I’m in, both G-d and life are setting me up!

Let me be frank and straight to the point with this. None of us should really want to relate ourselves to Pharaoh too much here. As he is an archetypal rasha (evil person) personality. And it is especially so in this respect, when we talk about Pharaoh and his lack of freewill. Did Pharaoh lose his free will because G-d hardened his heart? The Rambam (Maimonaides) in Hilchot Teshuvah says, yes! However, such a person is rare, and we don’t ever want to be that type of person.

The Rambam makes this point in his commentary there, that Pharaoh’s lack of free will and likewise his punishment to follow, this all came about because of his original act of enslavement and oppression. All of this came about because of a primary action, for which he did have free will. The hardening of his heart by G-d was just to grant Pharaoh the toughness of character to resist the repentance which would stop his downfall and much deserved judgment. Judgment for his actions done, not his persisting resistance. G-d was hardening up Pharaoh to cause him to descent into a place in which repentance just wasn’t really possible for him anymore, so that he had to be dealt with as an example.

I know this is deep. Lots of philosophy going on here, and I’m not a philosopher so I encourage you all to look at Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter Six. We could go on and on with this topic, and many people do with heady conversations. But let me try to keep it simple.

The Rambam seems to point to Pharaoh as an extreme example to wake us up. I think the Rambam and most rabbis would agree that there are very few people in the world like Pharaoh. Who are so evil that they lose their ability to repent of their ways entirely. But then again, just look at Pharaoh! Do you want to be Pharaoh? You could end up like Pharaoh. Be careful, you don’t want to be Pharaoh!

Most of us with a history of addiction know what I’m saying here, about what it’s like to start out with the control in our hands when we start with substances (or behaviors) and then in contrast seem to not have any will over it at all at some point. And where our direction towards disaster seems inevitable, we can’t stop it anymore.

I have my own understanding which I’m still considering, but let me quickly share it with you so we can move on to the text and main point of this lesson. Look at the word we have here at the top of our parsha for Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” It says, “hichbadti.” To be hichbid means to be heavy, to be a burden, to be a nuisance; in a literary sense, it also means to intensify, or to aggravate. To me it seems fairly clear that what we see here is that G-d is increasingly burdening Pharaoh, and being a nuisance to him. Intensifying the aggravation for Pharaoh to continuously assert himself as he does to this terrible end. Maybe our understanding might not have to be all that complicated after all.

So much for my gentle side-note, but now lets us move on to main point for this week’s lesson I want us to consider. And I want to focus our lesson on this point, because if we are going to talk about addiction we need to recognize that it affects people other than the addict alone. No, we are not alone in this battle with willpower. As we often drag other people into our suffering along with us. The people closest to us and who we should value the most.

At the top of our parsha for this week, we see that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh because G-d has hardened his heart and the heart of his servants. G-d says that He has done this to make a mockery of the Egyptians. And to display His greatness through the signs and wonders to come, for all generations to know He had done this for them. (Exodus 10:2) Moses approaches Pharaoh and gives him a provoking ultimatum once again.

But notice, before we get a response from Pharaoh this time the servants and advisors raise their cries of concern to him. And they don’t really seem quite as hardened as Pharaoh! No, they do seem to be sensible and responsive at this point. And this is where we find ourselves, as we come upon our key verse for this week. Our text reads as follows:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?’”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם:

Exodus 10:7

Moses has just come before Pharaoh and announced the eighth plague of locusts, and by this point we can only imagine how battered the entire nation of Egypt was at this point. So even the servants, they seem to lose the composure and deference one would normally expect of them before their “divine ruler.” And they speak out in a most striking way.

Look at the text here. Their response is not a simple, “Oh, this guy.” No, they see Moses as a mokeish – he’s is a hindrance, and obstacle; or more precisely Moses is a snare. When they see Moses walking into the room, they see Pharaoh walking into a trap. They know Pharaoh is going to fall for his provocations again. So they have had enough with looking at this guy, Moses.They raise their cries and say to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and let them worship their G-d already!

Then these servant make a shocking outcry to stress their point, “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?”

I find this statement to be amazing, considering that it is coming from these people who we can only assume are servant advisors of Pharaoh here, getting sassy with the king. Saying, don’t you know that we have already lost this one? This seems to come with both sarcasm and frustration at this point, because surely that had been telling him for a while now that this was out of hand. He needed to stop this insanity already, and let all these people go.

However, I believe there is something deeper than merely a snarky statement made in frustration here. I think that if we consider these people – who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have also endured with Pharaoh all through this – their outcry comes with a lot of weight. An outcry made more in a tone of hysteria. This is a type of human suffering which I think is worth considering. As often times it really does happen like this in the real world.

Consider that these are the servants of Pharaoh. These are people who are quite honored to be able to appear before their Pharaoh. But for as much as they are honored to serve before him – while some of them even advise him and guard him – in their world view he is the one who is supposed to guard and guide them. He is the king of Egypt, he not just represents the people of the land, they also look to him as their source. They look to him to be their strength. He is supposed to be the smartest and strongest guy in the room. Their Pharaoh is supposed to be looking out for them, as their great protector.

But even above all that, they love Pharaoh just as much as they depend upon him for their wellbeing. They absolutely adore this king of theirs. As he is the living symbol of their civilization and religion, they cherish this Pharaoh whom they consider a living deity. So dedicated and adoring, his people are used to following behind him and keeping his every order even unto death.

So now once again, consider all of this suffering here. What Pharaoh is putting himself through, he is not in it alone. His people, they are also suffering through these plagues with him! They don’t want to at this point, and they really shouldn’t have to. Pharaoh’s people have already had enough of this misery, yet he still hasn’t.

They aren’t just being dramatic when they cry out to Pharaoh this way. They have some real suffering going on. Look at the second to the last word of our verse here, you will see it highlighted in red. The word avdah – the world translated as “lost.” We are not just merely talking about Egypt falling. What do we mean here by “lost?” Just for a second think of this word as a noun, to envision this as something for us. What are we talking about here then?

When we mention avedot, we usually mean human losses. Here we are talking about casualties. Generally when we are talking about avedot we are talking about perished people. Human lives which have been destroyed, or even snuffed out all together. And that is clearly evident here already, these people of his are beginning to literally perish along with Pharaoh amidst this battle of the wills in which he is engaging in.

Now I know that we don’t often consider this narrative from the position of the Egyptians. We take this story for it straightforward meaning as it tell us, to cause us to wonder at the glory of G-d’s salvation from generation to generation. (Exodus 10:2)

We don’t generally read this story with ourselves in this uncomfortable position of a stubborn Pharaoh. Even rarer, do we consider the suffering of Pharaoh’s people. But I believe that if we read this story this way we need to also consider the suffering of all the other Egyptian people, his servants and subjects who now are being lost along with their leader in this series of crisis and plagues. Reality is, we should do our best to not relate too much with the position of Pharaoh here and should be worried if we find that we really do.

Today I want those of us who deal with addictions – or addictive behaviors – to consider the suffering that our addictions might cause others in our lives. To the people closest to us. To the people who adore us the most, and for the loved ones who depend on us the most. For the people we care for, and the people who naturally care for us in our times of need. The people whose lives are intertwined with ours, and whose lives are naturally effected by the calamity we attract. Whose lives also begin to be continuously plagued by the consequences of our stubborn refusal to let go of our addictions.

I want us to consider our lives and the people in it who are also becoming casualties in our battle with addictions. As our hearts are often hardened to that sort of rough and twisted life, we need to consider the people who are dragged into this, those who hearts aren’t so hard. Who cannot withstand this type of calamity and loss anymore.

For a hard moment I want us to consider all those in our lives who also find themselves dealing with the disparity, poverty, violence, emotional distress and disease which our addictions often bring into their lives along with us. We aren’t alone in our addictions, a reality we can recognize no matter how cheaply we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So what can we do with this heavy lesson? How can we get out of this cycle of continuously asserting our hardness of heart in pursuit of addiction? I think it should start by softening up our heart to the people closest to us. And as the Rambam says, adjust our hearts so that our will should be to change.

My friends, we need to really listen and give weight to the words of our loved ones. Especially when they put their foot down and say something like they did to Pharaoh: “Hey, we are tired of this already! How long are we going to keep doing this, and having these menacing people in our lives tripping us up? Give it up already. Are you the only one that is so clueless to not have noticed that all is already lost? Make it stop!”

We have a choice to make today. Are we going to listen? Or are we going to harden are our hearts, yet again, until all really is lost?

Something to Consider: Have you ever found yourself at a point in addiction where you honestly feel that you have no free-will over it anymore? Or has your life ever gone out of spiral until you feel like you have no choice in the outcome anymore, where you feel that you simply cannot stop that cycle of tragedy?

Sometimes its hard to get beyond addiction with just the help of loved ones, because they are often as caught up into the momentum of the crisis as we are. And they often times don’t know how to help best. So it is also useful to get professional help from addiction counseling professionals, or support groups and sponsors. People who do have the resources to help you when willpower fails you.

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Chassidic Story: A Man With a Frightening Amount of Potential Within

The Story of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Chaim the Drunk

An ultra-Orthodox Jew lies on the ground drunk during celebrations for the Jewish holiday of Purim in a synagogue in Jerusalem

“Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”

The Belzer Rebbe tells this story of the Baal Shem Tov – the first of the famed Chassidic masters. This story is about one couple who comes to the Rebbe – the grand-rabbi, for a blessing. It was a serious need for this couple, something related to wanting to have a child, or an income to support them; something quite serious, according to the various versions.

As the Baal Shem Tov would do, the story says, he looked into the people standing before him. Their personal attributes and their potential, while pondering the issues facing them. The story says he turns to them and says that there is nothing that he can do. Sure, he’s known as the man of miracles. But this time it’s beyond him.

So as this couple turns to walk away, the Baal Shem Tov notices just how dejected and distraught the husband is. So the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, tells him, “Even though there is nothing I can’t do this for you, I know of someone who can. Go two towns over, and in the back of a tavern you will find him. His name is the holy Reb Chaim. He can do this for you.”

Now this man doesn’t say it, but he thinks that the Rebbe has really lost it this time. Sure, Chassidim are known for doing ecstatic and curious things in one’s joyous expression to G-d. As people say, they are not unknown to stand on their head if needed! But this is not just some rapturous mystical thing the Rebbe has asking of him, or some pious sacred task. He asks him to go to a tavern – which is hardly the place for a gentleman – and in an area which is two towns over, to meet some unknown guy. And all he knows about this man is his name is Chaim.

Well, the man would have done anything the Rebbe asked anyhow, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t understand, but the Rebbe asked him to and so he’s going to do it.

So the chassid makes his way two towns over, and he walks into the tavern. He looks around for a while. And the only thing he really finds is a wild drunkard in the back of the tavern.

In frustration the chassid eventually asks the attendant behind the bar, “Where can I find the holy Chaim?”

The bar tender turns to him and says, “The ‘holy’ Chaim? Don’t know him. The only Chaim we have here is the drunk in the back, spilling beer on everyone.” And he points to the drunkard, who is rambunctiously boozing and throwing his drink about. Barely able to stand, barely able to speak.

So this chassid goes up to Chaim and says, “Reb Chaim, the Baal Shem Tov has sent me. He says I need a bracha (blessing) from you!”

Chaim responds by turning over the tables as he tries to stand, throwing all the booze about. This man Chaim falls on his face. Both this man Chaim and the situation were a mess. The chassid turns to walk away, once again deflated. Wondering why the Rebbe would send him here, to this man. He wonders, was all this just a wild goose chase?

As he turns to walk away he grabs hold of another man and ask again. This fellow confirms, “Yes, this is certainly the holy Reb Chaim.”

To which the chassid replies in shock, “But he’s so drunk!”

However, the fellow reassured him. “Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”

So the chassid thinks it over, until he notices a big man hanging about. A huge guy, who looks like a bouncer. So he pays him off to subdue the drunken Chaim. They eventually strap Chaim to a chair and take to the task of sobering him up. They keep him away from alcohol. And for a day-and-a-half, they attend to this Chaim, feeding him bread and water.

After this much time passed he sobered up, and Reb Chaim become conscious. He then turns to the chassid and extends a blessing, “I give you a blessing of parnasa (income), I give you a blessing of children.” And the chassid goes on his way.

Now we are told this chassid did eventually receive his blessing just as it was told. Indeed, that very year the couple did conceive. And they raised their child well.

But having received his blessing, the chassid later returned to his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov. And he asked the Rebbe, “Why is it that G-d placed such power in the hands of a drunkard?” He was very grateful for the blessings, but still confused by the experience.

The Rebbe turns to him and says, “Some people, if they recognized their light – if they truly recognize their strength – they would be too afraid of it.”

– – –

Before we end this story telling I want to say, this story speaks to me. As I believed it does to so many other people who have dealt with addiction, or love someone dealing with addiction.

For a moment I want us to consider how many people just look away though, how many people just walk away from it. They shake their heads and say, “This guy is so talented and has so much potential. How sad.” And that’s usually not just a polite observation. The truth is most addicts are very intelligent and talented people. They just don’t know what to do with all that pent-up potential. Or it’s so much more than they feel they can handle.

We are also taught by the chassidic masters:

“The biggest challenges are the blessings in our lives. What to do with the gifts, how to utilize them in service of G-d.”

The Kotzker Rebbe

This week’s lessons I very much want to dedicate to Daniel Ardel, my former-partner, for recently celebrating his second year of sobriety. I was so happy to celebrate with him once again, at Beit T’Shuvah. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the program for taking a chance on one of the most severe cases of drug addiction imaginable, and making room for the first Orange County case to be released from jail into their program.

Year Two Sobriety Beit T'Shuvah

Daniel (right) celebrating his second birthday; year two in recovery completed. And to believe, unlike Reb Chaim we didn’t have to tie him down to sober him up! 😉

Though this story is deeper than I can give you in such a short session, just know his story is intense. After coming out of the closet while in yeshiva (orthodox rabbinical academy) in Israel and facing so many conflicts inside himself, he later left religious life behind all together. And faced even more conflict in the spiritual void and cultural longing.

Together we later spent several years locked in addiction together, numbing ourselves for the same reasons. I broke free of addiction before him, and it was very hard watching his continued descent for many more years. Continuously asking him to seek out Beit T’Shuvah, the only program I heard of that I thought could help him face recovery on all levels. In jail the chaplain helped him get in contact, and they took him in. Today he is happy in recovery, seeking out spiritual thrills and busy as part of the program’s thrift store team!

One of the wonderful things about Beit T’Shuvah’s program is that they don’t just don’t detox people. They also deal with the soul and heart level issues. With a congregation that is certainly one of the most soulful shuls anywhere. As well as providing a variety of programs to engage a person and their talents. Art, music, drama, sports, social justice programs, urban farming, just to name a few. A program that works to help a person find their potential. And works with each person to be who they want to be. A wonderful program that people, Jewish or not, find inspiring.

Please support them and your local programs which provide support for those who suffer from addiction. There are people like ourselves, which need to also be liberated to face and actualize their potential.

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Parshat Ki-Tissa (5774)

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Galbanum: Why include this vile fragrance?

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

This week we are going to explore Torah through our sense of smell. We are also going to discuss the different types of scents; good and bad, sweet and sour, pleasant and bitter. We will discuss the way that fragrance can inspire people’s moods. We will also discuss how at other times in our tradition a scent can be used as an example of certain type personality.

In this parsha we get beyond just the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and now we get into the practical measures to make it a working reality. In last weeks parsha we had presented for us the instructions for making the Ketoret – the Temple Incense (see Exodus chapters 25 and 35). Now in the same vein, this week our parsha is discussing the making of the Shemen Meshechat – the fragrant Anointing Oil (שמן המשחה) which was needed for the inauguration. This parsha will also detail how the incense and oil are to be used.

Both of these discussions are very similar. They are both sacred compounds which were made of herbs, spices and resins; made into exclusive blend which could only be used for ritual purposes. They were also made of much of the same herbal products.

In Hebrew the term for herbs and fragrant spices is samim (סמים). A sam (סם) is any type of spice, be it used as a fragrance or as a medication. For this reason the word sam also means a drug or a narcotic. As we know, drugs and medications are often the exact same compound, it’s just a matter of whether or not people are using them properly, and to what concentration. (see similar topic for Parshat Re’eh 2012)

Actually, making perfumed and medication are quite similar in process. The active and fragrant ingredients, which are held in the essential oils of herbs and spices, can be released and collected. These oils from the herbs (samim) can be infused into regular oil (shemen). In this case, olive oil (shemen zayit). (Although it is also common for jojoba to be used as a carrier as well, see “Mystical Aromatherapy: The Divine Gift of Fragrance”)

This is the process which we read of in this weeks parsha:

“And you shall take for yourself top-quality spices: 500 [shekels] of pure myrrh; of fragrant cinnamon, half as much, 250; and of fragrant cane, 250;

And of cassia, 500, after the weight of the sanctuary; and a hin of olive oil.

You shall make it a holy anointing oil, a perfumed compounded after the art of the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.”

וְאַתָּה קַחלְךָ, בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ, מָרדְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת, וְקִנְּמָןבֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם; וּקְנֵהבֹשֶׂם, חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִ.

וְקִדָּה, חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וְשֶׁמֶן זַיִת, הִין.

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתוֹ, שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַתקֹדֶשׁרֹקַח מִרְקַחַת, מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵחַ; שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַתקֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה.

Exodus 30:23-25

In the commentary by Rashi for these verses, we are reminded of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah regarding the way in which the fragrant anointing oil was made. There are two common method that could have been used to make such a perfumed substance. (also see the source, Talmud Bavli, Keritot 5a-6b)

The first being the boiling of the spices in oil, thus releasing the scent directly into the oil and then straining out the spices. This process I understand well, it is a process that people like myself commonly use for extraction of the medicinal substances from natural products like cannabis (As you know, I have been battling a life threatening illness. See a demonstration of medical marijuana extraction into fats in this video, “How To Make Cannabis Butter, Cooking With Marijuana). This is the method suggested by Rabbi Meir.

The second option is actual perfuming, in which you merely capture the scent of the spices alone through contact and exposure (thank you Rabbi Juan Mejia for enlightening me on this!). This is something new to me, but interesting to learn. In the old days perfume was most commonly made by taking fresh spices, flowers and hydrated barks and placing them directly into oil. (see this method explained “Making Essential Oils at Home”) Yet another method of perfuming still relies on contact transfer as well. It is when the herbs are placed in water to release the oils, olive oil would then be floated over the surface to capture the essential oils and fragrances of the spices, the mixed oils would then be skimmed from the mixture or distilled off; the water in the mixture is very slowly boiled off, leaving only the fragrant substance. This latter method is suggested by Rabbi Yehudah.

I find this topic fascinating, because it a good demonstration of how much knowledge we have lost in the consumer age. In days gone by, people readily knew how to made extracts and perfumes, but in the lack of practice the details are not understood by most of us today.

I’m not going to take on that debate at this time, as we don’t really know the final answer to the question of which method was used anyhow. Both methods compromise a certain precondition, either the purity (clarity) or the need to be throughly mixed. What we do know is that what ever method used had to get the essence of 75 pounds of spices into a hin of oil; about a gallon of oil. Either method is quite difficult and requiring great care, considering in most cases even anything over a 1% solution of cinnamon alone could burn the skin!

The creation of this composition, for now will have to remain a mystery. We are further told that we are not allowed to recreate this formula of anointing oil. We cannot experiment with it to find out. It is sacred, and should not be poured directly on to human flesh (al basar adam lo yisach, see verse 32). Do we mean it should not be poured, just rubbed on to a person? The next verse seems to clarify by suggesting we cannot place this on foreign, non-priest, (al zar, see verse 33); it can only be used for anointing the priests.

This is what we appear to observe concerning the oil, which was to be placed directly on to Aharon and his sons to sanctify them for their priestly service.

Now it is most obvious to many of us why it is so important that this anointing oil be fragranced, as in our tradition spices are of great significance. Spices are said to awaken the soul, and enlighten the eye. For this reason we use spices during Havdalah – to end Shabbat we inhale the spices deeply to reawaken our souls for the week of labor ahead. The pleasantness of spices moves us in a way that is inspiring.

But what about spices that don’t smell so good? In fact, many medicinal herbs do not smell nice. Notice it is their horrible smell which also makes them unpalatable, just too awful to want to be tasted. Things which are too bad to drink or even smell on their own.

Actually in our parsha, we are faced with just that. This discussion is also in close chronologically with the Talmud as well. This topic arises surrounding the equally sacred Ketoret incense.

And Hashem said to Moses:

Take for yourself spices;

balsam sap,


and galbanum;

spices and pure frankincense;

They shall be of equal weight

And you shall make it into incense,

a compound

according to the art of the perfumer,

well blended, pure, holy.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| kach-lecha samim

| nataf

| ushchelet

| vechelbenah

| samim ulevonah zakah

| bad bevad yihyeh

| Ve’asita otah ktoret

| rokach

| ma’aseh roke’ach

| memulach tahor kodesh

Exodus 30:34-35

In the production of the Ketoret, there are eleven spices that are used to create that blended compound. The spices and mixtures were prepared by grinding them down very fine, and then mixing them together by spatula blending. Turning over and over, utill mixed.

All the ingredients seem to make sense except for the galbanum. That is one of the substances that we understand the least, but which is the most discussed among the curious. There is a reason why we want to understand this, as our rabbis are also of the opinion that small amounts of all of the ketoret spices are placed into the anointing oil as well. Galbanum would have naturally have been one of the ingredients.

Today modern science sheds some light on the origins and possible usefulness of this herbal ingredient.

First off, we know that this that chalbena/galbanum comes for the east, deeper into Asia. Native to Iran and then spread through the regions of Afghanistan, it subsequently was brought west to Syria and Canaan. It likewise spread into India and China, who have the finest specimens we favor for medicine to this day. This plant has a bamboo-like cane stalk, and is commonly called “the giant fennel.”

What is it used for? More often than not, in literature it is used for burning, such as for making torches in classic Greek literature. It also most commonly used externally as a natural remedy. Whereas many items are applied to the skin, galbanum can also be used as an inhalant and a fumigant as well. It’s external uses are said to cure many things, but namely for releasing muscle spasms. It has also known to be used as a remedy for epilepsy, hysteria and giddiness, among other things. It is also useful as an insect repellent, when utilized as a fumigant (through smoke; interestingly that is one of the few observations about the Ketoret and Temple in our tradition, there were no presence of flying insects)

Galbanum can also be used internally, to treat a cough and asthma. When mixed with other compounds like myrrh it can be used as antidote for poison, with honey it can be used as a laxative and deobstruent. It’s apparently very good for the stomach, liver and spleen. Although today, much of the knowledge necessary for medicinal use is lost in it’s countries of origin. (see Encyclopædia Iranica: Galbanum)

However, today people still make extracts of galbanum and place them on neck, temples and on spasming muscles.

The problem with using galbanum is that it is terribly hard to use, since it smells so terrible. It‘s odor is described simply as “intense green,” by most people. A green and almost piny fragrance. However, raw and in its purer form, people merely describe it as smelling like turpentine.

There is no way around it, process it all you want, the stuff is awful. So why is it that we are asked to use something so foul and bitter smelling in the incense, and thus in turn also include it in the anointing oil?

Rashi brings up this point as well in his commentary regarding the smell of chalbana/galbanum. Rashi says:

And galbanum: A spice with a vile odor, called galbane [in Old French], galbanum. The Scripture counted it among the ingredients of the incense [in order] to teach us that we should not look with disapproval at including Jewish sinners with us when we assemble for fasting or prayer. [The Torah instructs us] that they should be counted with us. [from Ker. 6b]”

וחלבנה: בשם שריחו רע וקורין לו גלבנא, ומנאה הכתוב בין סמני הקטורת, ללמדנו, שלא יקל בעינינו לצרף עמנו באגודת תעניותינו ותפלותינו את פושעי ישראל שיהיו נמנין עמנו:

Rashi to Genesis 30:34

Here Rashi brings us back to the Talmud, to the same sections we were previously discussing. And in this commentary we have it reaffirmed for us, we are all in agreement that this substance smelled “ra,” it was a bad and dare we say “evil” smelling substance. It smells nasty, that’s what ra means. It doesn’t get much more descriptive than that.

And this is why we most often discuss galbanum, people want to know why this vile smelling ingredient needs to be included. Our rabbis, since as far back as any of us can remember, have taught that the reason we include the chalbana is because the mixture would be incomplete without it, it just wouldn’t smell right. The rabbis not just make the point that it needs to be mixed in with other substances to be acceptable. But that the other spices of the Ketoret would themselves not smell right unless this bitter ingredient was included in the mix. This re’ach ra – this evil smell.

You know more often than not when I talk to people about going to synagogue or joining in a Jewish event, I often have people tell me that they don’t belong. Few will tell me that they are just too much of a sinner. But that’s what many suggest. Instead many people instead suggest that they are just too bitter of a person to fit into a community. There is no place for them, they aren’t needed.

Our tradition would suggest that even if it were true, that one could claim that either themselves or some other Jew is just too bitter, in fact too sinful of a person to be part of the Jewish community; that is the very reason why that person needs to be included.

Just like mixing incense or perfumes, a really good fragrance is not just one type of smell. It’s nice, but that will never do. In a good mix, in a proper blend we have several smells mixed together, each complimenting each other. On their own they are lovely, but together they can be something amazing.

It’s no different when it comes to community, the personalities can often temper and compliment each other. It is good that we be in the mix with other Jewish people, even us sharp personalities like myself. Other people can help take the edge off us. Our friends and loved ones bringing balance to us.

But even more so, we need to all recognize that we as a community are incomplete if we don’t have some of those more intense and strong personalities that most people would rather avoid. Even those bitter persons. We need to have some of their sharpness and distinctive intensity, they accentuate us. They are needed to bring balance and wholeness to us all.

The Talmud, which Rashi is paraphrasing here in his commentary, actually takes it one step further. We are taught that we are not to look down on the person who comes to be included in the prayers of the Jewish people. When they come on holy and auspicious days like Yom Kippur, we don’t belittle them. Think about it, what point is a day of fasting and repentance if the sinners where not included? We need their prayers to be part of ours in order for our supplications to be complete.

The great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l clarifies on this for us, by taking us down a mystical route. So I quote the master:

The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor… which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy.

Following the idea of the ten fragrant spices and the single unpleasant one, the Talmud (Keritot 6b) states: ‘Every communal fast that does not include sinners of Israel is not a fast.’ This is derived from the fact that the incense included Chelbenah-galbanum. Just as the Chelbenah was necessary to give the other spices exactly the right fragrance, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and who must re-elevate himself through repentance. In particular, when a difficult punishment has been decreed against Israel because of some evil deed, this very evil must be taken and elevated. Thus, the idea of transforming evil by elevating it back to its source in holiness is intimated in the incense. It is for this reason also that a communal fast must include ‘the sinners of Israel.'”

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Innerspace” p. 87

Are you bitter? Then you have a place with us! Are you an unpleasant person? The Jewish community needs you! Are you a sinner? Then we need you to be part of this as well. Maybe you feel like the 11th ingredient, the odd-man-out; but you aren’t useless, you are part of our essential make-up. We are incomplete without you. You are part of the blend that makes the Jewish people so unique and so intense. Your distinctiveness is needed to help elevate the spiritual and communal experience of the rest of us!

Do-It-Yourself Project Suggestion:

Want to experiment with some of what we have learned today about the production of oils and perfumes? As we have discussed, there are several ways of transferring fragrances into oil. If you can make iced tea, you can make perfumed oils. Learn how to make Lavender Scented Oil today from the video below.

Recommended articles:

Parshat Shemini (2012)

Parshat Shemini (2012)
Leviticus 9:1-11:47

What the Torah Tells Us About Holding Your Drink

In this weeks parsha, we read of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who died after brining “aish zarah / strange fire” in their incense pans and placed it upon the altar. The scheme of the parasha like most of this book does not go in chronological order necessarily, but this incident hangs over the whole parsha. We aren’t exactly sure what this means.The sages gives us the opinions that either they arrogantly brought foreign corruption upon the sacred altar, others suggest that they were caught up in a form of fatal religious ecstasy. (see Leviticus 10:1-2)

Though we aren’t sure exactly for what reason they died, it was such a dramatic and heartbreaking loss on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle Sanctuary – that G-d changes directions. Up until now He speaks to Mosheh – to Moses – but now in compassion He reaches out to Aharon directly.

“And Hashem spoke to Aharon saying:

You shall not drink strong wine to intoxication,

nor your sons,

when you enter into the Ohel Moed [the Tent of Meeting]

so that you do not die.

This is an eternal statute throughout your generations.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Aharon lemor:

| Yayin veshechar al-tesht atah

| uvanelcha

| itach bevo’achem el-Ohel Mo’ed

| velo tamutu,

| chukat olam ledoroteichem.

Leviticus 10:8-9

Does that mean that one is not allowed to drink wine when on duty? Not necessarily. The key word here in our text here is veshechar – from the simple Hebrew word “shechar / to make one drunk.” Rashi citing the opinion of the Sifra says that this doesn’t mean just to drink alcoholic beverages; but to drink a lot, undiluted, and uninterrupted until it leads to intoxication. (Sifra/Torat Kohanim 10:35) Because the key point is intoxication Ibn Ezra and the Sadia Gaon say this also applies to any other intoxicant aside from wine as well.

Noticing that this comes just after Moses instructed Aharon regarding the proper practice of the priestly duties, and immediately after the instructions regarding ritual purity. (see Parshat Shemini-2011) If we look at the text it is not hard to understand that the prohibition against Temple service while intoxicated is to safeguard one from accidents that could result in death. This ritual service is powerful and needs to be taken on with solemness, intention and sobriety.

But it’s more than just that. The priests not only had to take into consideration their own ritual cleanliness, but also that of the people they were appointed to serve. Notice the Torah continues on by stating it this way:

“So that you will be able to distinguish

between holy and profane (or the common),

and between the ritually unclean and the pure.”

| Ulehavdil

| bein hakodesh uvein hachol

| uvein hatame uvein hatahor.

Leviticus 10:10

Though strictly speaking, like most of the laws of Leviticus, these were originally mostly intended to apply to the Levitical priests and sons of Aharon. The priests acted in many functions, their chief responsibilities were not just to ritual but also serving as the physicians. Peoples inflictions and infections would be examined and a course of action prescribed, then followed up with them to insure they were cured.

But the post-Temple world, in the absence of the Temple cult and the change of station regarding purity in this void (all of us being ritually unclean, because we don’t have the Temple there is no essential remedy nor application for cultic purity) our rabbis broadened these commandments and helped apply them to the everyday lives of the common Jew.

But for the rabbis, the teachers and legal chiefs of our people, they also took from it a very solemn personal understanding based on the continuing verse:

“To instruct [also render decisions]

the Children of Israel

in the statutes

that Hashem spoken unto you

from the hand of Moses”

| Ulehorot

| et-benei Yisrael

| et kol-hachukim

| asher diber Hashem aleihem

| beyad-Moshe.

Leviticus 10:11

The sanheidrin, the assembly of the people always existed since biblical times in some fashion. (see Parshat Shoftim 2011) But in the absence of an active priesthood many of the functions fell squarely on the shoulders of the scholars and sages – our rabbis. They began to instruct and became the only body of people to render decisions and instructions for us. They declared that we should understand this to mean that one should not lay down halachic decisions when intoxicated. The priests weren’t allowed, neither should we. Not that the position is the same, the level of severity for an intoxicated priest is seemingly great enough to demand the death penalty, but it is not so for a mere teacher from among the congregation of Israel. That does not mean that one’s intoxication might not lead to their death, but it doesn’t demand it either in the case of a scholar. (see Rashi for v.11)

But as we look over this text we can begin to see that safety is not the only key issue here. The other is that one is not able to give judgment on matters of good and bad, sacred and profane when impaired. How can one whose senses are numbed and is not of a clear mind be able to distinguish between the two? This reason of temperance to maintain responsibility is equally important. Rashi teaches us in his commentary for verse 10 that a priest who performs any type of service or work his deeds are “avodato pesulah / his service is invalid” when drunk. Not just invalid but pasul – meaning inappropriate.

Just because Torah nor Jewish Law demands exacting punishment doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences when one gives in to debauchery. (see “When Redemption Turns Fatal: Atonement and the implications of premature death) But we cannot safeguard ourselves, nor be useful and appropriate when we do not have the clarity of mind to distinguish between good and bad.

Our tradition, where as it demands solemn sobriety of mind when it comes to our responsibilities, it does not demand that we become teetotalers. Halacha does not demand that we go dry and abstain. Though notice that here the text does step out of the normal mode of narrative with G-d Himself speaking to an individual and asking them to warn for future generations of the dangers of losing ones sensibility to inebriation.

Wine is a very important part of our tradition, we make Kiddish on it because it is a symbol of joy and celebration for each Shabbat and holiday. We are just coming out of Pesach with the four large cups we drink. Alcohol is not something taboo or disapproved; in fact if anything it is prescribed. So much so that some people make issue with one certain holiday because in all Jewish communities we are accustomed to drinking significantly on it; it is on Purim, which we celebrated just a few short months ago. And it is ordinarily prescribed that we not just drink, but drink to full intoxication. This is not just some obscure tradition by any measure, it comes from the Talmud itself.

Let us look at this text because it also gives us some good historical background and a good lesson to learn about how to handle our drink when we are partying. The Mishnah states:

“Rava said: It is the duty of a man

to make himself bisumi

[intoxicated, lucid, mellow]

on Purim until

he doesn’t know the difference between

‘Cursed is Haman’ and

‘Blessed is Mordechi.'”

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש |

לבסומי |


בפוריא |

עד דלא ידע בין |

ארור המן |

לברוך מרדכי |

Mishnah, Megilah 7b

According to our tradition, we are told by the Mishnah, the highest and authoritative level of oral tradition and case law, that one is to become intoxicated and make revelry until he cannot distinguish the difference between the mention of the name of evil Haman and saintly Mordechi during the reading of Megillat Esther. We begin to enjoy ourselves and loosen up to the point that not even the mention of our foe can bring us down – its all good in our haze of liquid joy and communal celebration. We are encouraged to get caught up in the ecstasy.

Now historicallyy we should understand that wine in the biblical times was not just for celebration, it was also used for everyday table use as a regular drink like we would soda, tea or juice today at our dinner table. Water was often of such poor quality wine was safer to drink, and to avoid intoxication wine would be watered down. In this diluted and yet still acidic state the plain water would not be as harmful or foul-tasting. Not that all wine was made to be highly intoxicating to begin with.

In fact to reach intoxication often times fragrant spices (Heb. basamim) and other additives were loaded into wine and drinks. Even resins (such as from the balsam tree, see בלסם) were known to be utilized by the Greeks for causing elucidation and intoxication. Others uses myrrh and frankincense as well in the days of the Temple and rishonim. For this reason it makes sense that many of the sages interpret in our parsha the word yayin to mean “strong drink” and insist it does not merely mean wine. It is spiked wine made for intoxication, with the aim of unbridled tipsiness; or bisum in modern Hebrew.

Our rabbis and our own linguistic deduction shows us the same reasoning of the rabbis. We can see they are correct in their assertion that in our parasha’s use of the word v’shachar means “to the point of intoxication” is correct; that one should not run around shikur (Heb. drunk) all that time. We are to be cautious so that intoxication does not lead to a lack of reasoning and enviably our harm.

Yes our tradition allows us to embrace the ecstasy! But the Gemara gives us a warning to not get overwhelmed by it:

“Rava and Rabbi Zera

made their Purim feast

with one another.

They became drunk;

Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zera.

The next day, he asked for mercy for him,

and his life was resuscitated.

The next year, he [Rava] said to him:

‘Let my Master come

and we shall make a Purim feast

with one another.’

He [Rabbi Zera] said to him:

‘Miracles don’t happen every single time.'”

רבה ורבי זירא |

עבדו סעודת פורים |

בהדי |

הדדי איבסום |

קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא |

למחר בעי רחמי |

ואחייה |

לשנה אמר ליה |

ניתי מר |

ונעביד סעודת פורים |

בהדי הדדי |

אמר ליה |

לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא |

Gemara, Megillah 7b

Some scholars contend this is just an allegory. Others who are more mystical take this completely literally. We see two rabbis celebrating Purim and are discharging their obligation to drink to intoxication and celebration. As they are drunk Rava takes out his shochet’s knife – a knife for kosher ritual slaughtering of animals for food – and slits the neck of his friends and companion Rabbi Zera. When Rava wakes up in the morning and realizes what he has done, as a learned man of medicine and as a tzaddik – a righteous and saintly man – he quickly acted. After praying for mercy for his companion, he was brought back to life.

As intense as this crisis is, in the end Rabbi Zera and all of us understand that he was intoxicated and not within his proper state of mind. He does not seem to be punished or held criminally accountable nor sued for negligence. And there is no bad blood between the rabbis even after this whole event. The love was still there, but that doesn’t mean he needed to go there again. Having adverted danger before, it was better to be on the safe side.

The Torah doesn’t demand that we avoid the drink, but it most certainly does insist that we avoid harmful situations; not relying on miracles or fate to rescue us.

Parshat Re’eh (2011)

Parshat Re’eh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

How Moses challenged both Israel and G-d to consider their ways. Engagement goes both ways.

“Behold, I lay before you today

blessing and a curse”

| Re’eh anochi notain lifneichem hayom

| b’racha uk’lalah.

Deuteronomy 11:26

Investigate with Looking GlassThe name of our parsha is “re’eh,” which is often translated as behold and see. Just as in the English and Romance languages such a word is used quite flexibly, the same is true in Hebrew. To ra’ah not only means to see, but also to perceive, to understand, to determine; it can also mean to investigate, check or examine.

As we come into the this parsha we have Moses speaking to the nation, as we will read starting in verse 29 the people are commanded that when they come into the land of Israel they are to divide up the tribes, half are to go to Mount Gezarim to hear the pronounce blessings and affirm them with the word “amein,” and half of the tribes are to remain on Mount Eival and affirm the words of the curses likewise with the word “amein;” they are to be affirmed as they are pronounced by the priests (see Deut. 27:11-14).

Even though we are going to deal with this in our studies of Parshat Ki Tavo in a few weeks, it is important that we make sure we are already in the proper frame of mind. As we come into this study it is essential for us to realize that we are not talking about the people being offered either enchantment or hexing. Basic Judaism everyone knows is that a blessing is not anything magical, it’s merely taking an ordinary thing and elevating it for a divine purpose; wine, bread, fruit, water, just about anything. To say words acknowledging the handwork of G-d in the item, and connect it to a spiritual task. We recognize the goodness in it and therefore gratefully bless G-d; we elevate His Name, we don’t enchant Him. But how about for cursing? That is something we don’t often hear about. Thank G-d, we don’t go around cursing each other in our culture, it’s so foreign of a concept that few understand what is meant. But to kalal – to curse – means use an expletive, a swearword.

What Moses is telling the people is that he is placing before them the following conditions, if they keep them they will have reason to bless, but if they don’t they will groan with curses. What are the conditions? Let’s read on:

“The blessing if you give heed

to the commandments

of Hashem your G-d

which I command to you today.

The curse if you do not heed

the commandments

of Hashem your G-d

but turn from the path

which I have commanded to you today,

to follows after other gods,

after which you have not known.”

| Et-haberachah asher tishme’u

| el-mitzvot

| Hashem Eloheichem

| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom.

| Vehakelalah im-lo tishme’u

| el-mitzvot

| Hashem Eloheichem

| vesartem min-haderech

| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom

l alechet acharei elohim

| acherim asher lo-yedatem.

Deuteronomy 11:28-29

It’s very clear, we keep mitzvot (the commandments) and we will have blessings, but if we abandon the path and go seeking after novel religious experiences we are going to be cursed. It’s simple and clear. Also let us bring to mind the concept understood by the Kabbalist, to l’daat Hashem is to know G-d intimately, like a man knows his wife; it means to make an intimate union, thats how close the communion is. G-d does not want us to know other gods in that way.

One of the things we have been discussing as we deal with the subject of prayer and kabbalah is how to connect to G-d (see article “Breaking Down Elitism in Kabbalah Study“). We understand as the scriptures say that G-d is the sole Authority in the universe, He stands alone as the only power (see Isaiah 45). He is all-powerful; this force was already described in Devarim (Deuteronomy) as:

“For Hashem your G-d

is a consuming fire;

a jealous G-d.”

| Ki Hashem Elocheicha

| aish ochlah hu,

| El kana.

Deuteronomy 4:23

This scripture we can easily understand: as G-d is all-powerful we know that it is not possible to literally connect to G-d, to touch the Divine, or else we would be devoured by the sheer glory of this force that drives all of existence. We also understand since G-d is not a person (Numbers 23:19), that G-d is not driven by emotions as we are, so we must understand this word jealous in its pure sense, kanah means the demand to be exclusive to someone (see Parshat Nasso). G-d wishes that we understand that He is everything, and therefore by virtue of that He is everything we need! And secondly, He demands that we come to the conclusion in ourselves that He is our entire world, there is none other to even consider. G-d being the sole force in our universe permeates all, anything that is not according to His order is consumed and destroyed; it is an anomaly that is canceled out.

Understanding this we move beyond the childish concept of G-d as a whim driven person who is prone to emotional outbursts that we need to fear. Instead the scriptures present us with a picture of G-d as a fire, not just a fire but a fire that consumes everything and anything; an all-consuming fire. Now a fire is not good or bad, nor is it happy or angry when it does what it does. Fire when utilized properly brings us warmth, comfort and light; it is useful and necessary. But when used improperly it can burn, destroy, harm and even kill. But we need not fear G-d, as one might a fire. In fact we shouldn’t even fear fire at all, instead we should show a respect for it and its nature. So too our fear for G-d should be, that we should be in keeping with the proper respect for G-d’s order in this dynamic universe in order to receive the benefits of His light. Because if we do not, then we can be harmed; though it has nothing to do with maliciousness, that is the natural outcome of our misuse.

What Moses is doing here is laying out this Torah before the people and saying to them this is a powerful tool, for those of who follow the instructions that were given by G-d through him it would serve them well. But if they did not show proper respect in order to do it, it would come to harm and destroy them. It has nothing to do with the desires of G-d nor the nature of His Torah, it merely has to do with how they utilize it.

This principle is also mirrored in the Oral Torah, the Talmud:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani [said]:

Rabbi Yonatan [pointed out the following]


It is written:

The authority of Hashem is right,

gladdening the heart. (Psalm 19:9)

But it is also written:

The word of Hashem is tried. (Psalm 28:31)

If he is meritorious, it gladdens him;

if not, it tries him.

Resh Lakish said: From the body of

the same passage this can be derived:

If he is meritorious, it tries him unto life;

if not, it tries him unto death.”

רבי שמואל בר נהמני |

רבי יונתן |

רמי |

כתי |

פקודי ה׳ ישרים |

משמחי לב |

וכתיב |

אמרת ה׳ צרופה |

זכה משמרתו |

לא זכה צורפתו |

ריש לקיש אמר מגופיה דקרא |

נפקא זכה |

צורפתו לחיים |

לא זכה צורפתו למיתה |

Talmud Bavli Yoma 72b

If one does what they told, to keep the mitzvot and stay true to Hashem their G-d then this Torah will be something for them to rejoice over. But if not, this Torah is going to be something that is going to be very trying for them, in fact to the point that they will perish.

Now the latter part of this text is interpreted by our rabbis a bit more deeply, and honestly more appropriately, by translating it as “if he merits it, then it is a drug of life, if not it is a poison of death.” This is most likely because the word for “try,” or “tests” as some say, actually means to be refined, to be purified (the word צרף). In the figurative sense what this alludes to is essential extracts that were used as medicines, the first drugs in existence. Many of the rabbis were well-educated in medicine, and this concept was understood easily by them. That a drug when used properly can bring health and repair to the body, but when misused and if we do not follow the instructions as given, it can become a poison of death to us. There is nothing wrong with the prescribing physician or the remedy, the fault lies in the user if there are mishaps! So too is the Torah like a drug, it bring us health or ruin depending on how much we respect the power of it.

Moses tells us to “re’eh,” to examine for ourselves, to check, to investigate to see if this is not true. If we do, we will be able to see and understand that this is true, determining that G-d really does fill the lives to those who hold to His ways with blessings, whereas those who have not have perished from the face of the earth. The Torah, unlike the religions of world does not demand that you “see it my way,” but that you examine it in order to perceive it for oneself.

In Torah Living, Engagement Goes Both Way

There is another place in the Chumash (The Torah, The Five Books of Moses), that also displays the flexibility of this word “re’eh,” both cases in an engaging fashion as well. For those who know the Jewish faith, the idea of being engaged and challenging in the words of Torah is not anything new to the average reader. But to those that are of different faiths it can seem perplexing how often in the Hebrew scriptures the righteous engage G-d. Not only do they engage G-d, but they do so in very direct and strong terms. Not only are we allowed to consider the truth of G-d’s ways, but we are given the ability to approach G-d that He give consideration to us as well.

In Exodus 33 after the disastrous incident of the golden calf Moses approaches G-d, Who has separated His presence from before the people so as not to consume them until they all die. In verse 5 they are clearly told that if G-d were to let Himself approach them His presence would annihilate them. Therefore Moses separates the tent of meeting from the rest of the community of Israel and sets it up outside of the camp, where G-d would meet with him according to His command. As G-d is still in the act of ruling on the punishment for the people Moses gives us two strong ways of looking at the word “re’eh,” as well as surprises many people with a point-blank challenge to G-d Himself:

“And Moses said to Hashem:

See, you have said to me:

Bring this people up

but you have not let me know

who you will send with me.

And you have said:

I shall know you by name

and you shall also have favor

in My eyes.

And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes

show me your way, that I know You,

so that I might find favor in Your sight.

And consider that this nation is Your people!”

| Vayomer Moshe el-Hashem:

| Re’eh, atah omer elai

| ha’al et-ha’am hazeh

| ve’atah lo hodatani

| et asher-tishlach imi

| Ve’atah amarta

| yedaticha veshem

| vegam-matzata chen

| be’einai.

| Ve’atah im-na matzati chen be’eineicha

| hodi’eni na et-derachecha ve’eda’acha

| lema’an emtza-chen be’eineicha

| ure’eh ki amecha hagoy hazeh.

Deuteronomy 33:12-13

The context of the situation is one in which G-d is so fed up with the people after the golden calf that He is considering annihilating the entire nation aside from Moses and building a new nation out of him alone. (Exodus 32:10) But then Moses intercedes on their behalf and G-d forgives them. However, there yet remains the issue of consequence, they are no longer able to enjoy the Presence of G-d surrounding them in the midst of the camp, it takes residence outside the camp and calls only to Moses now. But Moses is not content to go forwards without the Presence of G-d still remaining with them. G-d does actually consider what Moses has to say, and honors his request because we read in the next verse:

“And He said: My Presence shall go with you

and give you rest”

| Vayomar panai yelechu

| vahanichoti lach.

Deuteronomy 33:14

Moses approaches G-d basically saying, “Look, this is what you said but I still don’t know how this all works and who You are. Show me your path and I will follow it, then I will know You and be able to please You. Think about it, these are Your people but we don’t know what You want us to do.” Moses is asking G-d to consider His relationships to His people, and the task at hand so as to examine if His dealing with them is best for the goals which He has set for them.

If the King of the universe allows His perfect way to be open to scrutiny, how much more should we as ordinary and faulty people be open to considering our ways. Are our ways consistent with the outcome that we desire in life? If not then we need to just admit it and make a new plan of action.

The Torah was give to us as a comprehensive plan at Moses’ requested. Here in Devarim – or as it is called in the Talmud the Misheh Torah, the repetition of the Torah – we are being told what it means. That this Torah can either bring life to us or death to us. But the decision of that outcome is completely up to us, it all has to do with how we receive it! How receptive are you as a person, my friend?

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