Parsha with Rabbi Benji
Parsha with Rabbi Benji is a unique and interesting approach to the weekly parasha. This series, originally published and distributed throughout Sydney Australia, is viewable below and available for download both as individual PDFs and as an entire collection.
Use the buttons below to choose a specific parsha. First choose the book and then select from the drop down menu.
At the pinnacle juncture of the creation story, God states what seems to be a flaw ‘…it is not good for man to be alone’, and at that time, woman is created to be man’s ezer k’negdo or ‘helper opposite him’. Embedded in this strange contradiction in terms, and hidden behind the different names used to describe man throughout the story of creation (adam, ish), are profound paradigms for all humanity. Within the story of the creation of the first human beings, the iconic Adam and Eve, lies a blueprint for the development of interpersonal relationships that will remain relevant for all of eternity.
Noah, the ‘righteous man’, is acclaimed for following God’s instructions in the most meticulous of ways. Yet is simply following God’s commandments enough? The story of Noah and his demise from ‘righteous man’ to ‘man of the earth’, suggests that passive adherence to God’s word is not the ideal for which we should strive. Indeed, it is praiseworthy, but in order for our relationship with God to mature and grow, we need to push ourselves beyond simply following orders, and striving for an active, engaged, two-way relationship.
The twenty-first century presents technological advances that offer an unprecedented level of instant gratification. This reality raises expectations and chips away at our ability to learn patience. One might easily and mistakenly assume the same expectations of immediacy with regard to one’s relationship with religion – providing us with a quick fix and yet in parashat Lech Lecha, God teaches Abraham the importance of perspective and the value of patience in a unique way.
With ten generations between them, two of our iconic ancestors – Noah and Abra- ham - exemplify contrasting physiological responses for coping with crisis. These responses are today described as the ‘Fight, flight or freeze’ phenomenon. Noah responds to the flood by metaphorically ‘fleeing’, and Abraham, in contrast, responds to the destruction of Sodom by ‘fighting’. In any given moment between stimulus and response, lies the opportunity for us to choose. And each of these choices – to freeze, to flee, or to fight – whether we model Noah or Abraham, ultimately dictates the reality we create for ourselves.
Our lives are an endless pursuit of happiness, and many mistakenly link happiness to having ‘everything’ that elusive concept that can be interpreted in so many ways. A brief glimpse into Abraham’s life, and the blessings that he receives from God and shares with his offspring, presents a unique lens through which one can understand the concept of ‘having everything’, and through which one can conclude that the greatest gift of all is the gift of giving itself.
All too often we may despair and get disappointed with the blows that life throws our way. It is not an easy ride, and it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, the knowledge that everything is part of a greater plan. Hidden within an unusually detailed description of Isaac digging wells, we find a profound message of faith, that offers hope and perspective to all of humankind.
During the mad bustle of everyday life, we are often blissfully unaware of anything other than the immediate needs of each individual moment. But flickering past us in our state of semi-oblivion are many potential moments of meaning, growth and opportunity. These missed moments can often lead to an acute sense of painful regret. Jacob’s dream and the sudden realization of his missed opportunity, serve as a wake-up call to us all.
Jacob and Esau, two brothers, each representing diametrically opposed worldviews, are pitted against one another regarding who will carry the torch as leader of the Jewish nation. Will Isaac appoint the more studious and spiritual Jacob, or the more earthly and physical Esau? Does leadership draw upon qualities of the intellect, or does it lean more upon worldly skills? As the complex story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Jacob is undergoing an inner transition, one that enables him to sensitively straddle both worlds, and ultimately become the leader and role model for the People of Israel.
Joseph bursts into our scene in a perplexing manner. Is he immature or is he wise, a shepherd or is a youth? The colourful and sometimes contradictory manner in which the Torah introduces Joseph alludes to the unique skill set that he has for doing just that – connecting with everyone, each at their own level, and drawing out the best in them.
Joseph represents the epitome of success. Rising from the depths of the pit, to becoming viceroy of the mighty Egyptian empire and his profound trajectory of growth seems to pivot around a recurring theme in his life, his dreams. As he grows up and matures, so does his understanding of dreams, until eventually it seems that his astute perceptions and interpretations carry his compatriots and lead him to his ultimate redemption.
Often we can build up a picture of a situation in our minds to such a degree that we essentially dictate our perception of reality. Joseph’s brothers have a clear-cut absolute memory of their brother as a bedraggled dreamer at the bottom of a pit. In this context, when they encounter the viceroy of Egypt, despite a considerable number of clues – some explicit, some implicit – they cannot entertain the idea in any way whatsoever, that this leader standing before them is their long-lost brother. This cognitive dissonance, caused by their blinding sense of perception, serves as a reminder to us to continuously review, analyse and check in on our beliefs.
We often automatically assume that the purpose of a commandment is either to strengthen our relationship with God or for the benefit of the subject of our good deed. Less focus is given to the common thread underlying all the commandments – that of the indelible imprint that every good deed, leaves on the soul of the one performing it. This reflexive impact of the commandments is alluded to by Joseph in his final encounter with his elderly father, to whom he lowers his head in respect despite the fact that his father’s eyes have failed him and he therefore cannot see Joseph’s final act of respect towards him.
Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster killing a Hebrew slave, checks that no one is around and steps forward to intervene. The following day, a further encounter with two Hebrews reveals to Moses that someone had in fact seen him killing the Egyptian the previous day. Beneath the surface of this seeming contradiction within the story, lies the basis of a common psychological phenomenon regarding the duty upon each of us to act upon a sense of moral and social responsibility.
In the description of the birth of Moses, the Torah seems to leave out the names of his parents.
Later, however, they are mentioned by name and this delay holds the key to an important lesson for all of us, vis a vis where our focus should be when carving out the path of our own destiny.
In today’s free world, the concept of being a servant to anything goes counter to the values of freedom and liberty. And yet in order to be a religious Jew, the expectation is to act as a servant of God. A cruel and strategic move on the part of Pharaoh when dictating the slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt, sheds light on a liberating perspective of theological freedom.
Amidst the epic events of the Exodus, the Torah’s words are triumphant, celebratory and truly joyous in describing redemption from Egyptian servitude. Yet embedded within these verses, is a short and often overlooked episode, ‘Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had firmly adjured the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you."
Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel are on the brink of receiving the Torah. One would expect this momentous unparalleled event in history, to be highlighted as special, with a majestic name relating to its historical and significant meaning. Yet our sages choose to name this section of the Torah, Yitro. This puzzling choice presents profound insights into the type of mindset that the Jewish Nation needs to develop as a prerequisite for receiving the Torah and embarking on a relationship with God.
Throughout our daily lives we are tasked with sanctifying the mundane moments. We make blessings over food, we sanctify that which we earn by giving charity and we sanctify our time through celebrating the festivals, to name but a few. It is clear that our everyday life needs to be infused with spirituality. One could ask, however, whether that formula also works in the opposite direction, with a duty upon us to infuse the Holy with the mundane. A brief episode where, immediately following the Revelation at Sinai, we find the elders of the Jewish people sitting eating and drinking while gazing at God, sheds interesting light onto the art of juggling the sacred with the mundane.
The Torah seems to make a grammatical error in its description of the sanctuary, revealing the ultimate places where God dwells.
In a stark contrast to what one would normally expect, the Torah goes into immense detail when describing the clothing of the high priest. Does every thread, bell and colour really matter that much? And does that not go completely against the grain of the famous teaching not to look at the container, but rather what it contains? Woven throughout the threads of the priestly garments are underlying messages for us that hint to the priorities we should be setting within our relationships.
Details relating to the hand washing rituals of the priests ahead of their service in the Tabernacle present us with a strange and unexpected connection to the venomous snakes encountered by the generation of the wilderness. Connect the dots, fast forward to our lives today and we discover a basic daily ritual that serves as a stark reminder to us all of the punishment that befell our biblical ancestors when they failed to appreciate the holiness around them.
We identify the head as the seat of intellect, and the heart as the source of emotion. Wisdom can generally be attributed to those who refine their intellect and kindness generally attributed to those who work on their hearts. In that context, when the Torah unusually and repeatedly weaves these two concepts together in its use of the term wise-heart it leaves us wondering what deeper underlying message it might behold.
It is generally natural to view the world through a polarized lens that draws a clear distinction between the holy and the profane. A very subtle distinction however, between the blessing Moses gives the people upon their completion of building the Tabernacle and the promise that God gives the people upon commanding them to build it, actually teaches the opposite and highlights the value in appreciating the delicate tango that exists in the world between the sacred and the secular.
When assessing the value of physical goods, the measure is relatively simple to gauge. It becomes more complex however when seeking to understand the measure of good deeds and next week we will learn the ancient Torah system.
Among families, mundane chores are often, quite organically, divided up between the members of the household, so that there is usually one person whose job it is, for example, to take out the trash. Have you ever wondered, however, about the mundane tasks that needed taking care of in the Temple? Who cleared the dishes? Who took out the trash? Fascinat- ing insights into the routines of priestly life teach important life lessons on sanctifying the mundane, preserving humility and appreciating the Divine gift of each new day.
If all fish that have scales also have fins, why do the laws of kashrut need to specify that a kosher fish must have both fins and scales? Why not simply specify that it must have scales? Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s two sons that they should ‘multiply like fish’ unexpectedly sheds light on the deeper metaphorical meaning behind this intriguing aspect of the laws of kashrut.
As the well-known phrase goes, it takes lemons to make lemonade and rain to make rainbows. In life, there are many ways in which to regard every situation, and it is up to us to seek out the positive lens through which to view the world. Will we be those that simply see the lemons and the rain, or will we generate positivity through adopting a brighter perspective? The Torah’s discussion of leprosy, and in particular its use of the word “nega”, meaning affliction, provides the key to unlocking a truly optimistic attitude.
So often as children we are told not to speak badly about others behind their backs. We are told not to tell tales, not to lie, and not to use swear words. There are many very clear instructions about what we must not do in the realm of speech. The biblical remedy for the tzaraat disease (leprosy), often described as the punishment for lashon hara - slanderous speech - strangely and unexpectedly involves the very specific use of two birds. Beneath the surface of this fascinating instruction lies a metaphor for forging successful interpersonal relationships throughout our lives.
In our modern world, it is easy to view freedom as the ultimate value - freedom from oppression, freedom to act, freedom to choose, freedom to speak - after all, it is our right to sail freely through our world. What happens, however, to a boat with no rudder, a map with no legend, or a sailor with no compass? A single phrase that is repeated over and over in the Torah’s description of immoral relationships, offers insight into the ultimate moral compass that guides our navigation of this world.
It would be very easy, and somewhat natural, for us to simply accept the habits, tendencies and character traits with which we were created. ‘That’s just who I am’ we can humbly say to ourselves and anyone who is listening. Self-acceptance, after all, seems so much less challenging than self-growth. Yet, a very subtle yet specific ordering of the words in the commandment about honouring our parents alludes to our responsibility to challenge our default path, and to take the reins in determining our own destiny.
At some point in our lives, it is likely that we will find ourselves in a position of authority, whether in the community, family or professional context. With this authority often comes respect and esteem from others. It is easy to become arrogant and let the authority go to one’s head. A subtle nuance in the Torah’s command to the priests that they should be ‘holy to God’ offers us a blueprint for how to counter this mindset and carry our authority with humility.
Peer pressure generally has negative connotations. We warn our children against the potential dangers of following the crowd and of adopting negative behaviours in order to fit in with their peers. In essence, however, peer pressure also contains a positive element. The knowledge that we are not alone in the challenges we face offers us solace. This, after all, is the very foundation for the establishment of support groups. One of the perplexing commandments involved with the Jubilee year serves as a piercing remind- er to us of the positive effect of peer support rather than peer pressure.
It is easy to reflect on certain aspects of life as distinctly holy or spiritual. This applies to specific times, such as Shabbat, specific places, such as the synagogue, and specific activities, such as prayer. In the same vein, it is easy to understand how one could perceive any other time, place or activity as relatively mundane. Through the use of just one simple word, the Torah offers a glimpse into a contrasting perspective, one that has the potential to spiritually enhance our entire existence.
In our constant drive towards spiritual growth and fulfilment, it could be assumed that we are trying to emulate angels, those ultimate celestial beings who dwell in the proximity of the Divine Presence. However, the brief waving of flags at the foot of Mount Sinai teaches us an important distinction between angels and humans that offers us an insight into our tremendous potential to soar to even greater heights than the holy angels.
In a strange sequence of seemingly unconnected verses, the Torah jumps from a national census to stealing, from an adulterous woman to a nazir who abstains from wine and cutting hair, and then to the priestly blessings. And yet we know that nothing in the Torah is random. How, then, do these seemingly disparate ideas weave together to form eternal lessons for preserving healthy relationships on all levels, and the key to a life of elevated sanctity?
From a young age children are taught about the miraculous food given to the People of Israel by God during their journey through the desert. This legendary and extraordinary food, the manna, was known to take on the taste of any food that the people desired. And yet the people complain about the food, harking back to the variety of culinary options they enjoyed while in Egypt. Why, while seemingly living the dream and being provided with a food that can literally taste of anything, do the Children of Israel still complain?
Scouts are sent to the Land of Israel with the task of assessing the Promised Land. Following years of wandering in the desert, and generations of dreaming of the Land, the nation’s eyes and ears are all focused on the return of the scouts, eagerly awaiting their positive report. And yet in the ultimate anticlimax, the scouts return despondent and negative. How did it all go so wrong? An analysis of the episode of the scouts highlights for us the importance of maintaining a strong self-image in the face of adversity, and the inherent dangers of placing too great an emphasis on the percep- tions of others.
Korach is in search of power. As is natural, he seeks a weakness he can exploit. He searches for a crack in the leadership into which he can step and wreak havoc. He elects to criticise Moses - who is famous for his humility - for taking on too much power. The one attribute of Moses that he decides to highlight is the one at which Moses most excels. Is this not a flawed strategy?
It is natural that when situations arise we seek out previous similar situations in order to help guide our responses. Indeed, in the legal system, the concept of precedent - previously established principles or rules - guides judicial leaders as to how to deal with subsequent similar instances. If that is so, then what is the problem with Moses striking the rock to bring forth water? Surely he is simply replicating his reaction to very similar circumstances just a generation earlier? Why is his punishment so severe, when his act is seemingly calling upon a precedent from years gone by?
As the Israelites make their long and arduous journey through the wilderness, they live in unparalleled proximity to the Divine Presence. They experience miracles on a daily basis, and enjoy protection from Heaven night and day. They are on the brink of entering the Land of Israel. All is perfectly in place for them to fulfil their destiny and become a holy nation. And yet, we read of their moral demise and acts of immorality with the Moabite and Midianite women. If they, who can almost tangibly feel God’s Hand on a daily basis, can nonetheless falter and fail in the face of temptation, then what hope is there for us, all these generations later?
In a moment of true greatness, showing himself to be a role model to all of us, Moses responds with grace and humility to the devastating news that he will not be entering the Land of Israel. Whereas many would respond with acute disappointment and maybe even anger, Moses, our ultimate leader, immediately focuses on the process for the appointment of a new leader for his precious charges. And in that very moment, when his dreams have been absolutely crushed, the manner in which he asks God about the leadership plan holds a clue to his unparalleled greatness.
The Land of Israel is an inheritance that the Children of Israel have been awaiting for four hundred years. During that time, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were wanderers, the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, and subsequently they spend forty years wandering the desert - all for the sake of entering the land. Now, the Children of Israel are about to finally receive that which they have been promised. They are about to fulfil their destiny and realise their dream. They are right outside the land! Why then, at this climactic moment in history, do Reuben and Gad choose to declare their desire to live outside the land? Why do they want to forsake their right to their homeland?
On the brink of entry into the Promised Land, the Torah diverts the focus for just a moment and enters into an unusual level of detail about the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert. Why do we need to know all the details? What is the significance of each of the different locations and stages of the journey? Perhaps within this unlikely list of travel coordinates lies the ultimate code to achieving true peace of mind.
How often do we pick up the phone to ask a friend for advice and listen intently to their valuable words? And then, how often are the tables turned, and we find ourselves dishing out pearls of incredible wisdom and revolutionary advice to those exact same friends? An enigmatic omission when Moses is reminiscing about his strategic plan for leadership, teaches us that, with just a little digging below the surface, and tapping into the nuances of our inner resources, we can discover all the advice that we may ever seek, simply waiting to be revealed.
When we truly love someone, we find ourselves willing to do almost anything. We help them with enthusiasm and we are always ready to go that extra step. What if, however, as our very act of service towards them, we are required to curb our enthusiasm and refrain from going that extra step? Twice daily we recall the command to love God with all our heart, our soul and our might, which is why, when Moses relays the prohibition against adding anything to the Torah’s laws, it leaves us particularly perplexed.
Quite surprisingly, the precise location of Mount Sinai - the setting for what is arguably the most iconic moment in Jewish history, the Revelation of God’s Torah to the world - is unknown. In contrast, the location of Mount Moriah, the location of the Binding of Isaac, and where both Temples stood, is known to all. Sitting in the heart of Jerusalem, people visit Mount Moriah daily to draw inspiration from its holiness and pay respect to the site. The contrast between the two mountains reflects deep-rooted themes about our purpose on this earth, which in turn shed light onto the significance of bread in our relationship with God.
As time marches relentlessly forward, new discoveries are constantly being made, causing the world to be in a perpetual state of growth and evolu- tion. Every single day, great strides are made in technology, and every single moment, scientific advances are made at a pace that outsteps even the greatest scientists themselves. Not least among these are the advances in the field of communication, which has revolutionised the world and transformed, for eternity, the global into the local. At what cost, however, is the world evolving? How far-reaching is the impact? Is it conceivable that these technological successes might actually be impacting our ability to fulfil some of our most basic biblical obligations?
We have all experienced at some point or another this moment of paralyzing fear - physical or psychological - which absolutely consumes our mind and our being. Through delineating three categories of people who are exempt from battle, the Torah offers us a timeless lesson of how to stand up in the face of such fears, tackle them head on, and prevail.
A quick skim through the Torah can open our eyes to a code that sometimes provides invaluable guidance and insights into the most contemporary of subjects. Pre-dating modern philosophy by millennia, the Torah gave a voice to the voiceless, advocating for animals long before the RSPCA was even conceived.
In the verses commanding us to look after the needy there is a strange requirement to declare that we have performed the mitzva and that we have not forgotten it. This is intriguing, for surely if we are stating that we have performed something, we have obviously not forgotten it? Although confusing on the surface, hidden behind this strange command lies the blueprint for successfully addressing some of the ills of society.
From the age that a child learns to read, he or she is taught that learning Torah is of utmost importance, a paramount value in our lives. The question is, though, whether our Torah education should be viewed as exclusively an ‘end’ in and of itself, or as a means to an end as well. And if it is indeed, in part, a means, then what is the ultimate purpose? An enigmatic use of the word ‘heavens’ in the middle of Parashat Nitzavim unexpectedly sheds light on these questions, offering us clarity as to the purpose of life.
Millennia ago people travelled in encampments. Today they travel in airplanes. Millennia ago people communicated by word of mouth. It could take weeks or months to get a message to someone on the next hilltop. Today, they share messages in an instant. Millennia ago the most sophisticated tools might have been a chisel and a ploughshare. Today, with the development of the hi-tech field, the possibilities are endless. In this context of an ever-evolving world, one could understandably think that our world bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of our forefathers. And yet, as the baton of leadership is passed from one great to the next, in the Torah encounter eternal lessons that are perhaps even more relevant today than ever before.
The famous Latin proposition ‘Cogito, ergo sum’, stated by sixteenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, translates into English as ‘I think, therefore I am,’ indicating that our thoughts are definitive of who we are. More than a thousand years earlier, talmudic scholars debated whether our essence is indeed defined by our thoughts or by our actions. Intriguingly, an approach is hinted to earlier still; two thousand years prior, the order of words that Moses used when describing our nation contained a very subtle hint.
We have become accustomed to the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the funerals of national leaders. Governors, royalty, presidents and politicians all come together to pay their homage. Wreaths and bouquets are laid down on the leader’s resting place, in their honour and in their memory, marking the spot for all to see. The press and media are prevalent, with live streams and broadcasts of the ceremony, maximising respect to the deceased and to their legacy. And yet, at the tremendously poignant and sad time when Moses passes away, his soul quietly leaves this earth. No pomp. No ceremony. Not even a known burial place. How is it that when the greatest leader of all time passes through his final moments on earth, the Torah’s description is so understated?