Why does the Torah begin with the letter “beth”?

I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.

AUGUSTINE, Confessions, Book XI

When it came to the beginning of creation, Augustine was not the only person who struggled with the meaning of time. Rabbinic wisdom teaches that there are some aspects to creation that are hidden; we cannot presume to know the mind of God. “Why does the Torah begin with the letter בּ (beth = “b”)? Just as the letter בּ (beth) is closed at the sides but is open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind.”[1] The Judean sage Jesus ben Sirach (is 200–180 B.C.E.) offers this practical advice to those who speculate about the “hidden matters” alluded to in the

Creation story:

Neither seek what is too difficult for you,

nor investigate what is beyond your power.

Reflect upon what you have been commanded,

for what is hidden is not your concern.

Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,

for more than you can understand has been shown you.[2]

Sirach 3:21-23 Continue reading “Why does the Torah begin with the letter “beth”?”

Goldstone’s Legacy

Richard Goldstone believes he was standing up for Israel and Jewish ethics. Let us assume that this well-respected judge had the best of intentions. Yet, his conclusion that Israel violated the human rights of the Palestinians strains the imagination beyond the breaking point. Is any kind of war justified according to Goldstone—especially when the enemy cynically deploys human shields while it shoots thousands of missiles over an eight year stretch of time? Not according to Goldstone.

Unfortunately Goldstone never bothered to consider the firsthand evidence from videotapes, or news reports from terrified Palestinians who condemned their own leaders for endangering their lives while exploiting them as human shields.

Asymmetrical warfare poses serious problems that may ultimately destroy the West, unless it develops a practical game plan. The Geneva War Convention never had to deal with such problems. Colonel Richard Kemp told the media but couldn’t tell the Goldstone Commission, because they refused to listen to him, “ I think Israel has very little choice other than to carry on with its military operations until it reaches the conclusion it needs which is to stop Hamas from firing rockets at its people in its territory.” Yet, despite it all Israel went to great pains to minimize civilian carnage.

Israel is fighting the war of the future; one wonders what Goldstone would have said about the United States carpet bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the British and Allie bombing of Dresden during World War II.  If the Allies would have fought like Goldstone recommends, Hitler would have conquered the civilized world. Unfortunately, Goldstone’s acquiescence to the forces of Islamic radicalism and Western appeasement threatens to only create more mayhem in the years to come and less stability or peace for all the countries of the Middle East and beyond. In the meantime, the world community says nothing as Hamas builds towns made up of human shields along its borders for the next round of war.  The real tragedy is that the West has learned absolutely nothing from the appeasement philosophy of the early 20th century. Once again, philosopher George Santayana’s sobering warning, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it” is especially relevant here.

The hypocrisy of the Goldstone is a frightening  and grim indictment of all Western societies. Someday, a historian will write a book, “How the West was Lost . . . ”

History will remember Richard Goldstone as a traitor to his people.

Baseball and Bereshit: God Is A Baseball Fan!


Isn’t amazing that first parsha of the Torah, Berashit, always occurs during the baseball playoffs? Many years ago, when I was a young rabbinical student, I noticed this strange temporal anomaly that led me to the inevitable conclusion  that God is indeed, a baseball fan. Where do we derive this from the parsha? It states: “In the BIG INNING, God created the heavens and the earth,” A “Shabbat Berashit”—“A Shabbat of new beginnings.” After all the excitement of the High Holidays, comes the Shabbat once more

One of the famous questions asked in the Talmud is why did the Torah begin with the second letter of the Aleph Beth– the letter Beth? Why not begin the Torah with the letter Aleph instead?

The Talmudists answered, that the letter Aleph stands for arrur–a curse, whereas the letter Beth stands for bracha– a word signifying blessing. Surely it is better to begin the Torah with a bracha than a curse!

I have often found myself wondering, what kind of question is the Talmud asking in the first place. One could always ask why the Torah did not begin with one letter or another? Continue reading “Baseball and Bereshit: God Is A Baseball Fan!”

Book Review: Why Are Jews So Liberal?

Why Are Jews Liberals?

By Norman Podhoretz

Doubleday, 337 pages, $27

Some of you may be surprised to know that shortly before Rosh Hashanah, President Obama made a conference call with more than 1000 rabbis, encouraging them to speak about the health-care reform in their sermons this year. Because of my belief in the separation of Church and State issues, I will respectfully decline. I enjoy writing my own sermons and do not require political assistance from Washington to help craft my holiday message.

The social critic and essayist Norman Podhoretz believes that the appeal to the rabbinic community may be due to the Jewish people’s penchant toward liberal causes, or what he refers to as, “the Torah of liberalism.”

In his most recent and thought provoking book, “Why Are Jews Liberal?”, Podhoretz examines why Jews have been in love with the political left. Podhoretz, you see, was originally a leftist before he moved more toward the right.

The Jewish love affair with the left can be seen in most American elections. With the exception of Jimmy Carter (which was no great surprise given his anti-Jewish and Israel attitude), the Democratic Party has received an amazing 75% of the Jewish vote. Obviously, one reason why the Jews lean toward the left has a lot to do with the fact that Jews have traditionally seen themselves as underdogs in American culture. Our memories of the past still linger with us . . .

Some of our members will certainly remember when Jews were excluded from many of the country’s finest academic schools, or were limited in terms how they could climb up the corporate ladder.  The experience of being socially marginalized has obviously contributed toward the mindset that liberal politics best serves the needs of all of Americans who feel socially or economically earthbound.

There is sadly, a dark side to this kind of devotion. For example, the commitment to the liberal establishment has often supplanted the commitment to Jewish causes and the synagogue. Jews seem to be opting for what  the  sociologist Robert Bellah describes, as an “American social religion.” Statistics seem to support Podhoretz’s premise as well. In the United States, Jews are the least religious group in America—just 16% of Jews attend services at least monthly, and 42% of Jews attend once or not at all. Continue reading “Book Review: Why Are Jews So Liberal?”

Invocation at the Night to Honor Israel 2009

Many Jews have prayed for the return to our biblical homeland. “And let our eyes behold thy return in mercy to Zion. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who restorest thy divine presence unto Zion.”

Today, we are witnessing one of the greatest miracles of human history–the return of the Jewish people to her ancestral homeland. We are living in an age of miracles; a fulfillment of the biblical ingathering of the exiles spoken in Isaiah. Israel is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “God’s echo throughout eternity.”

From the ashes of the Holocaust, we have been privileged to see the rebirth of Israel in our day. The survival of the lamb among a billion wolves demonstrates that God continues to work His miracles in the world today—just like he did in the days of Isaiah and Cyrus of Persia.

Know that each of us plays a vital role in keeping Israel strong. As Bibi Natanyahu said, “W are not strangers to this land; this land knows and recognizes its children.” Our right to the Holy Land does not emanate from the United Nations, nor does it come from the Balfour Declaration itself but from God Himself, which He promised to give to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In every generation since the Roman destruction of Judea, Jews have lived in Israel and will continue to do so until the end of time. Everyone of us, here this evening, is a part of a great majestic chain stretching back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Continue reading “Invocation at the Night to Honor Israel 2009”

Creation as Novelty

In honor of the new Torah reading cycle, I thought I would explain some thoughts about the parsha as it pertains to the miracle of Creation.

However, Ibn Ezra is less convinced and contends that the linguistic evidence does not support such an interpretation.[7] The verb בָּרָא’ may also mean to fashion something out of already existing materials (e.g., the creation of man, whose body came from the dust of the earth, and whose soul issued forth from God’s breath).[8] Ibn Ezra’s comments could also suggest the universe was constructed out of pre-existent matter. However, pre-existent matter need not imply a dualism; it may imply that this ethereal substance is “pre-eternal” only in relationship to the Creation as Novelty. Continue reading “Creation as Novelty”

Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

As I prepare my thoughts for Rosh Hashanah. I become aware of time. Yes, the New Year has arrived. We are blessed to have received it. It ’s true that for many of us the arrival of any New Year on some level makes us a bit anxious. Why is that?!!Time marches on …. We are all a bit older, but are we necessarily wiser? Rosh Hashanah stresses that while time is fleeting, we are ultimately accountable for how we manage and sanctify our time.

According to Jewish folklore, the city of Chelm was famous for its notoriously foolish “wise men and women” Yet, despite their foolishness, there are many wonderful pearls of wisdom in these anecdotes because, in a paradoxical sense, we are all “Chelmites.”

On one occasion the Chelmites complained about the lack of time in their lives. It seemed that they had long lists of things to do and never had time for themselves. At a town meeting, the Chelmites arrived at what appeared to be a novel solution to their dilemma–They would bargain formore Time!They all agreed to send Raizel–her bargaining skills were legendary among the Chelmites.

After she traveled to Warsaw, she met with many of the Jewish leaders and finally negotiated a fixed price for a large shipment of time that would be sent by a train to Chelm. The shipment of time was late. Well, actually, it never arrived.

All the townspeople were complaining; they didn’t know what to do.

One day Beryl, the mayor’s uncle, came to visit and found everyone waiting in the town square. When the Chelmites told Beryl what they were waiting for, he began to laugh. “Foolish people,” he said, “You cannot buy time. You can only use what time you have. Someone has taken advantage of you because you have tried to buy something that cannot be sold.”

There is something more important than the measurement and control of time; how we spiritually utilize our time is also of great importance. Continue reading “Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah”

Some say, “A Shabbat elevator is no way for a good Orthodox Jew to go down …”

It has been said that necessity is often the mother of invention. The Sabbath is only one good case in point.  Modern Orthodox engineers developed a special Sabbath elevator programmed to stop at designated floors so observant passengers never have to press buttons.  Similar machines have been developed by the Tsomot Institute for milking cows and operating electric-powered wheelchairs on the Sabbath.

The Ultra-Orthodox (a.k.a. Haredi = “Tremblers,” or “Quakers”) never cease to surprise—even when it comes to the religious sensibilities of their own following. A number of leading Haredi rabbis decided to ban the use of the famous “Shabbat elevator,” which has been used for several decades since 1964. In addition, many large families with small children living on the upper floors will also be affected, besides hospitals and hotels. Yet, the massive loss of money, inconvenience and hardship never seems to register on the Haredi hierarchy of values.

What makes this recent decree all the more interesting is the fact that even the ultra-Orthodox have expressed surprise and disdain at this latest attempt by the Haredi rabbis to micro-manage their lives. For older Haredi Jews living in penthouse apartments, the Shabbat elevator is the only way for them to get from their rooms on the upper floors to the dining hall and synagogue.

Like the innocent child from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, pious Jews who have long used the Shabbat elevator quipped, “What changed suddenly? What was kosher until now is suddenly treife?” Similar reactions can be heard throughout the elderly populated city of Tovei Ha’Ir in Israel and they are hardly alone. For the high-rising apartments of Manhattan, the rabbinic ruling has effectively kept many Jews confined to their home on the Sabbath. Continue reading “Some say, “A Shabbat elevator is no way for a good Orthodox Jew to go down …””

Creation as Novelty

In honor of the new Torah reading cycle, I thought I would explain some thoughts about the parsha as it pertains to the miracle of Creation.

Creation as Novelty

The verb  בָּרָא (bara) = “created”) connotes God’s absolute effortless creativity. In the Tanakh, this term is used exclusively with respect to Divine creativity, for human creativity is limited by the materials it has access to—this is not so with God. This distinction may also explain why many medieval rabbinic thinkers like Saadia[1], Maimonides[2], Ramban[3], Abarbanel[4], Seforno[5] and others believe this verb alludes to the concept of creatio ex nihilo (creation from “nothing”) since only God can create from the non-existent. Elsewhere in the Tanakh, בָּרָא’ introduces something surprisingly novel, wonderful, and awe-inspiring. [6] Continue reading “Creation as Novelty”