At the end of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that it was “Pharaoh’s birthday” (Genesis 40:20). This is the only place in the Torah that explicitly mentions a birthday, which leads to the question: are birthday celebrations kosher? Where did birthday parties come from, and what is so special about the day of birth anyway?
In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.
1. Personal Development that Works
Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”
Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.
One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.
There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:
The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.
Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.
Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.
2. The Importance of Community
While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.
Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.
It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.
And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!
3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe
Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.
While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.
The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.
And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.
In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.
The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?
The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.
Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.
And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.
Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)
Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.
This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):
“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…
What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?
The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?
The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?
In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.
Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*
In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.
In the Garden of Eden
The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then
… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”
According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?
The Bird’s Nest
Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well (see, for example, Zohar II, 7b). Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.
Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)
Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):
What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)
The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.
Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]
Warships in Syria
This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.
Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.
And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.
What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.
*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.