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Behar 5776-2016

“Bernie Sanders Meets Parashat Behar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Behar, introduces many of the Torah’s revolutionary economic ideas (see Behar 5765-2005).

For millennia, Jews have been unfairly portrayed as hard-core capitalists and have long been vilified as usurious money lenders. Much of this is due to the tragic history of Jews in Christian lands. In many countries, money lending for interest was forbidden to Christians. The Jews, who could not own land or join trade guilds, were forced to engage in banking and money lending.

Ironically, parashat Behar is one of the primary sources cited by scholars to characterize Judaism’s particularly strong reservations regarding normative capitalism. The Torah boldly proclaims in Leviticus 25:36, אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ-לֹקֶיךָ, וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ, Do not take interest or increase from him [your brother who becomes impoverished], you shall fear your G-d–and let your brother live with you.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that since the real owner of money (read “capital”) is G-d, money is not regarded by Judaism as being of particular significance. On the other hand, land is seen as the true source of sustenance. Says Rabbi Hirsch, “For land and soil are the source of all national wealth, and all movable goods are, in the first instance, the result and product of the blessing of the soil.”

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus argues that שְׁמִיטָּה–“shmitah,” the prohibition to work the land during the seventh year of the sabbatical cycle, that is extensively described in this week’s parasha, underscores the dangers of becoming obsessed with work. Indeed, it is particularly the Shmitah that teaches Jews to “nullify themselves” to the will of G-d.

Parashat Behar opens with G-d speaking to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, Leviticus 25:2, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַהשׁם, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for the L-rd.” Rashi immediately raises the question, “What does the matter of “Shmitah,” (the sabbatical year) have to do with Mount Sinai? After all, were not all the commandments of G-d stated at Sinai?” Rashi responds, that Sinai is purposely mentioned here to teach that just as Shmitah, its general rules, its details and its fine points were stated at Sinai, so too were all the commandments, their general and fine points stated at Sinai.

Rabbi Pincus argues that Rashi’s statement comes to emphasize that in addition to teaching that all the mitzvot were received from G-d at Sinai, this verse also underscores that all mitzvot must be seen through the prism of the mitzvah of Shmitah. Because Shmitah is such a special mitzvah among all the mitzvot, its light radiates upon all the other mitzvot.

From the time of the Patriarchs, agriculture played a central role in Jewish life. The Shemah prayer (Deuteronomy 11:13-14) emphasizes that if the people are loyal to G-d, then the Al-mighty Himself will provide rain and the land will yield its produce. Jews rarely served as dealers of gold and silver or engaged in factory work. In ancient times, Jews were either farmers or shepherds, but primarily agriculturalists who tilled the land and planted vineyards.

By observing the weekly Shabbat and ceasing from labor, Jews declared their own self-nullification to the will of G-d, showing that all sustenance is from G-d. However, even the weekly act of observing the Shabbat does not necessarily show that work must not be the “defining factor” in one’s life. It may simply be that a fatigued farmer is taking a day off from work to rest.

That is not true regarding the year of Shmitah, when a farmer takes an entire year off from farming. The entire economy stops and is often placed at risk. Private fields become public property, allowing anyone to come and pick the products that he/she needs. Debts that were contracted during the previous six years must be forgiven, profoundly underscoring how full trust is placed in the hands of G-d and how G-d’s will becomes the ultimate determining factor rather than one’s own will.

If some of these ideas sound a bit familiar it may be because, to a certain extent, we hear a similar message emanating at times from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He frequently proclaims that the capitalistic system is exploitive, especially of the masses and the lower classes. To his followers, it is clearly unjust that the one percent has amassed most of the wealth of the country.

It is not unusual for citizens in capitalistic systems to primarily identify themselves by their professions and what they do for a living. Members of capitalist societies hardly ever identify themselves as mothers, fathers, husbands, or wives. The entire focus is on how one makes money and how one earns a living. Ironically, the Jews, who have been so closely identified by others with capitalism, come from a tradition that boldly proclaims that we are much more than how we make our living. In fact, the Torah proclaims that it is necessary for Jews to cease work for an entire year in order to demonstrate that what we think we own and what we believe we possess, is not ours and that indeed “the earth and its fullness belong to G-d.” (Psalms 24:1)

Rabbi Pincus underscores this with a touch of irony, recalling how frequently people find excuses by invoking the primacy of work. When asked, “Why didn’t you attend the Torah class yesterday?” They respond, “I had an important business meeting in Tel Aviv.” When questioned, “Why did you run out before the end of prayers?” They answer, “I woke up late and had to rush, so that I wouldn’t be late to the office.” This attitude underscores how earning a living has become primary, while the relationship with G-d is secondary.

Says Rabbi Pincus, Rashi’s message is intended to show that just as Shmitah, the sabbatical year is from Sinai, so too are all the mitzvot from Sinai. G-d, Who provides for us is primary, as are His mitzvot. Everything else is secondary.

The Torah, in Leviticus 25:20-21, states that after enduring a full year of Shmitah, the people will ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year? Behold! We will not sew and not gather in our crops!” G-d responds, וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת בִּרְכָתִי, “I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield a crop sufficient for the coming three-year period. G-d will make certain that the works of our hands and our businesses will be blessed.”

What can be more reassuring than a promise from G-d Al-mighty that He will ordain His infinite blessing upon us?!

Perhaps the columnist and commentator, Dennis Prager, said it best when he wrote: No man has ever said on his deathbed, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office!!”


May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 25th and continue all day Thursday, May 26th, 2016. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Emor 5776-2016

“The Sabbath: Meeting G-d”

A significant portion of this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, is devoted to the rules, regulations and observances of the Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays.

In Leviticus 23:2, G-d speaks to Moses saying, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, מוֹעֲדֵי השׁם אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ, אֵלֶּה הֵם מוֹעֲדָי, Speak to the Children of Israel and say unto them: “These are the L-rd’s appointed festivals that you are to designate as holy convocations–these are My appointed festivals.” The Torah then focuses on the various festivals and the rituals associated with them: Pesach, the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

But before any of the festivals are enumerated, the Torah in Leviticus 23:3, boldly declares the primacy of Shabbat: שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, כָּל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, שַׁבָּת הִוא לַהשׁם בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, For six days labor may be done, and the seventh day is a day of complete rest, a holy convocation, you shall not do any work; it is the Sabbath for the L-rd in all your dwelling places.

It is fascinating to note that the Torah refers to all the festivals including Shabbat, as מוֹעֲדִים–“Moadim,” appointed times. On these special days, Jews “meet” with their Al-mighty Creator.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch brilliantly notes that just as the Tabernacle, the portable מִשְׁכָּן–Mishkan, is known as אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–“Ohel Moed,” the Tent of Meeting, so too, are the Sabbath and festivals called “Moadim,” meeting times.

Rabbi Hirsch writes:

That which the Temple is in space, is what the festivals are in time. Both have our union with G-d as their aim. The one [the Tabernacle] sets G-d’s Torah as the center point of our lives, down in the actual center of our world, and says to us: This is where you find your direction to the way to your G-d. The other [Shabbat and the festivals] call special attention to certain fixed times in the changing course of the year, which were marked by the revelation of G-d in special acts, and says to us: in these times G-d was at one time very near to you, at each anniversary G-d awaits you for renewed and refreshed union with Him.

There is, however, a significant difference between Shabbat and the festivals. The difference is highlighted by the fact that when a festival falls on Shabbat, as the festival of Passover did recently, the central blessing of sanctification in the Amidah prayer concludes with the words, “Blessed are You, G-d, Who sanctifies the Sabbath, Israel and the festivals.”

One would expect the order of the words to be, “Blessed are You, G-d, Who sanctifies Israel, the Sabbath and festivals.” The rabbis therefore deduce from the fact that the Sabbath precedes Israel, that the Sabbath is itself sanctified, and not dependent upon the People of Israel. Festivals, however, require the Jewish people to sanctify them. Thus, even if there were no People of Israel, the Sabbath day would still be sanctified. But, if there were no People of Israel, there would be no festivals.

The specialness of the Sabbath was poignantly underscored to me several years ago in a recording that I heard of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Carlebach related that he was in Cleveland giving a concert, and a woman, who sat in the front row, cried for almost the entire concert. He could not imagine why she was so emotional. Looking for an excuse to speak with her, he asked the woman and her husband if they could give him a lift to the airport.

During the conversation in the car, Rabbi Carlebach asked her husband why his wife was so emotional. The husband said, “It’s her story, let her tell it.” The woman proceeded to tell Rabbi Carlebach that both she and her husband came from wealthy, but very assimilated, Jewish backgrounds, to the extent that they never attended synagogue, not even on the High Holidays. After they were married they tried for years to have a child, but encountered terrible difficulties, experiencing nine miscarriages. When she finally had a successful pregnancy and carried into her ninth month, she went to the doctor who examined her and announced that the child would not survive, and that she should prepare herself for the harsh reality of losing the child. The doctor said to her callously, “You know, some people are just not destined to be parents!” Rabbi Carlebach noted that some doctors should have been butchers.

The woman left the doctor’s office dazed, despondent and determined to commit suicide by jumping off a local bridge. She felt, however, that she owed her husband an explanation, and decided to go home first and leave a note.

On the way to her home, she noticed, for the first time, a little synagogue near her home and decided to walk in. Although she had never been in a synagogue, she walked up to the Ark and started crying her heart out begging G-d to save the baby. After an hour or two of beseeching, she promised that if the baby survived she would light Sabbath candles every Friday night.

Instead of ending her life, she went home and called a distant cousin whom she knew had some religious background and asked her how to light Sabbath candles. The cousin told her that lighting candles would be more meaningful if she were to keep the Sabbath and have a Kosher home. The cousin offered to come right over to explain to her what it meant. By the time her husband came home, the woman had determined to throw out all the non-Kosher dishes, had ordered new appliances to make their home Kosher, and resolved to start keeping the Sabbath.

The woman explained to Rabbi Carlebach that his music evoked in her both tears of joy and tears of sadness. Now that she is a mother, the music, she said, reminded her that G-d had answered her prayers.

Several years later, Rabbi Carlebach was again in Cleveland and wondered how this woman and her husband were doing. When he called, they invited Reb Shlomo to come over to the house for dinner and to meet their three children. The woman insisted on giving Rabbi Carlebach a tour of their large and stately home before they ate. Going from room to room, one more elegant then the next, they finally reached the dining room.

It was Monday night and yet the table was fully set for Shabbat. The woman explained that in their home the Shabbat table is always set, because they begin celebrating the coming Shabbat immediately after the previous Shabbat concludes on Saturday night.

That is what Shabbat meant to that grateful family.

Rabbi Shmuel “Shmelke” Horowitz  the rabbi of Nikolsburg, was known as an “Ish Chessed,” a man of great benevolence.

On one occasion a poor person approached him, but he had no money in his pockets. He ran into his home and took out a brooch from his wife’s jewelry box and gave it to the indigent man.

Soon after, Reb Shmulke’s wife entered the room, noticed that her brooch was missing and informed her husband that he had given away a very valuable brooch. Reb Shmelke started to run after the poor man. Assuming that the rabbi wanted the brooch back, the poor person started running faster. When he could not catch the man, Reb Shmelke shouted out to him, “Reb Yid, I don’t want the jewelry back, I just want you to know how valuable it is. So when you exchange it for money in the market, make certain that you receive the full price and its full value!”

G-d has given the gift of Shabbat to His people, but they frequently fail to recognize its full value. The Sabbath is not only an opportunity for Jews to encounter G-d, it is in fact a vital elixir of life. Furthermore, the world never needed Shabbat more than it needs it now.

While the Sabbath can exist without Israel, the People of Israel cannot exist without the Sabbath. It has been said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” It is G-d’s greatest gift to humankind. Indeed, it is appropriately called a “Taste of the World to Come.” The Talmud (Shabbat 10b) states that G-d has declared, “I have a gift in my treasury. Its name is Sabbath. Go out and tell the Jews about it.”

May you be blessed.

Kedoshim 5776-2016


In Parashat Kedoshim the Torah proclaims the prohibition of making cuts on one’s skin as a sign of mourning and forbids drawing permanent tattoos on the body.

Scripture, in Leviticus 19:28, states, וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם:  אֲנִי השׁם, You shall not make in your flesh a scratch over a soul and you shall not place a tattoo upon yourselves, I am the L-rd.

Rashi explains that the phrase “scratch over a soul” means that it is forbidden to scratch the flesh of one’s body as a sign of mourning for someone who has died, because such is the practice of the Amorites. Rashi further states that the prohibition of placing a tattoo on one’s body means etching an engraved or embedded mark with a needle on one’s body that can never be erased and remains permanently dark.

Apparently, in ancient times, mutilating one’s flesh as a sign of mourning was a widely-practiced custom among the pagans. Both the one who performs the tattooing and the person who allows himself to be tattooed was subject to the penalty of lashes.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) explains that tattooing was forbidden because of its pagan origins. Both the Sforno and the Chizkuni maintain that the only “cutting of the body” that is permitted by biblical law is circumcision, and that circumcision is to be the only “sign” on a Jew’s body.

The Ohr HaChaim explains that while feelings of mourning for the dead are natural and are to be encouraged, cutting one’s flesh is a sign of excessive mourning and is forbidden. Those who suffer a profound loss may be so carried away by their grief that they begin to mutilate themselves. Though forbidden, it is understandable. Tattooing, however, is done deliberately and in many instances is not motivated by loss or sorrow, but is instead ornamental, and is, therefore, strictly forbidden.

Maimonides in the Laws of Idolatry 12:11, explains that the ancient pagans and idolaters would tattoo themselves as a sign of devotion to their “idolatrous gods.” Even though one can tattoo oneself without intending it to symbolize a commitment to idolatry, the act of tattooing itself is prohibited.

It is interesting to note that despite the strong prohibition against tattooing, one may tattoo oneself for the sake of cosmetic enhancement such as darkening one’s eyebrows for cosmetic reasons.

The great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that cutting one’s flesh and tattooing oneself as a sign of mourning indicates that mourners may feel that their own personal value has been diminished by their loved one’s passing. Rabbi Hirsch declares that no matter how valuable and precious the relationship to the deceased was, the loss does not lessen one’s own worth or value. “Every person has his own importance and meaning before G-d in his existence here below.”

A moving story is told of a Baal Teshuva (a secular Jew who became observant) who very much wanted to go to the Mikveh (immersion pool) as an act of purification before Yom Kippur, but was embarrassed because of the tattoos on his body from his “previous” life. At the Mikveh, he tried to hide his tattoos from others, but was unsuccessful. Soon, a young child noticed the tattoos and began ridiculing the young man in front of the others in the Mikveh. Mortified, he began to cry.

An elderly holocaust survivor walked up to the young man and put his arm about him. Showing him the tattooed numbers from the concentration camp on his own arm, he urged the young man to go with him into the water, saying: “This was my גֵּיהִינּוֹם–gehinom (hell)! Most probably that was your gehinom. Let us go into the Mikveh together.”

There are tattoos, and there are tattoos!

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, May 11th) is observed this year on the 4th of Iyar, Wednesday evening, May 11th, and all day Thursday, May 12th, 2016.


Acharei Mot 5776-2016

“Never Give Up Hope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Acharei Mot opens with a description of the ancient atonement service conducted on Yom Kippur in the Tabernacle for the People of Israel, and provides a detailed account of the well-known scapegoat ritual.

The Yom Kippur atonement service, known as the עֲבוֹדָה—Avodah, is featured prominently in the High Holiday prayer book and is considered one of the highlights of the Yom Kippur prayer service.

At the height of the Yom Kippur service, the High Priest, standing in the “Holy of Holies” chamber, would separately take the blood of both a bull and a he-goat and sprinkle the blood eight times, once upward and seven times downward, toward the Holy Ark. Each time the High Priest sprinkled up and down he would count out loud: 1, 1 and 1, 1 and 2 through 1 and 7 (Leviticus 16:14-15). Scripture states that this ritual provided atonement upon the sanctuary for the contaminations of the Children of Israel and achieved forgiveness for even the peoples’ rebellious sins.

The Torah then instructs the High Priest to repeat the sprinkling in the outer (“Holy”) chamber of the sanctuary toward the פָּרֹכֶת–Parochet, the veil that served to separate the Holy chamber in the Tabernacle/Temple from the Holy of Holies. The verse, Leviticus 16:16, calling for the additional sprinkling concludes with the words, וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם, and so shall he do for the Tent of Meeting that dwells with them, amid their impurity.

Rashi explains that the words, “that dwells with them amid their impurity,” means that even though the Jews themselves are impure, the שְׁכִינָה–Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is always among them.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, elaborates further on the role of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of G-d. Rabbi Soloveitchik draws a distinction between the so-called “natural” attitudes of fathers and mothers to their children. When the baby dirties its diaper, the father often hands the baby over to the mother to be cleaned. The mother, on the other hand, is always ready to clean the child and is prepared to do everything that is necessary, though it may be unpleasant.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that in the spiritual world, the Al-mighty G-d, the Shechinah, is always prepared to help His/Her child, no matter how challenging and rebellious that child may be. Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “The Shechinah is present at the moment that man is in distress and suffers from spiritual crisis. It dwells with them amidst their defilements.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik boldly asserts that the Divine Presence never completely leaves any Jew, no matter how far they may have strayed, no matter how sinful they may be. Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “G-d is there after man sins. He remains hidden in the inner recesses of the heart of even the worst evil-doer, until the moment arrives when he remembers his Maker, renounces his ways and repents.”

In the same vein, the Berditchever Rebbe once commented: “You can be for G-d and you can be against G-d, but you cannot be without G-d.” Though man may abandon G-d, G-d will never abandon man.

The concept of G-d’s unconditional love for His people is profoundly and movingly expressed in the verse found in Deuteronomy 30:4. Speaking of Jews who have drifted or been drawn away from G-d, Moses declares: אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם, מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ, Even though your dispersed shall be at the far ends of the heavens, from there the L-rd will gather you in and from there He will take you.

On November 23, 1992, the New York Times posted an obituary for the late Sylvia Weiss. Sylvia Weiss had three daughters. Two of the daughters had non-Jewish family names and were apparently intermarried. Sylvia Weiss herself had a “companion” named Vincent J. Tufarlello. The obituary also noted that she had one grandchild named “Shmuel Dovid.”

The family of Sylvia Weiss was quite assimilated, but she nevertheless left one grandson, Shmuel Dovid, not Samuel David. Although she herself was at “the far ends of the heavens,” the L-rd gathered her family in.

This may very well be the meaning of our verse, הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם, G-d, Who dwells among them, amidst their impurity.

Though man may abandon G-d, thank G-d, G-d never abandons man.

This verse serves as a powerful lesson for us as well. We must never give up hope on ourselves, or on others. After all, G-d will always be by our side.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Wednesday night, May 4th, and all day Thursday, May 5th, 2016.


Passover II 5776-2016

“The Final Days of Passover: Love and Hope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to tradition, on the seventh day of Passover the sea split and the ancient Israelites marched triumphantly through the waters on dry land to freedom.

The exodus from Egypt is universally regarded as a most momentous and unique occasion in Jewish history. So much so, that G-d is often simply identified, as He is in the Ten Commandments, as the G-d who took the People of Israel out of Egypt. It is as if the fact that G-d created the world is taken for granted, and that, the most important relationship that Israel has with the Al-mighty is that He took them out of Egypt.

Among the “Six Zechirot,” the six events that the Torah commands  to always remember and that is recited by some as part of the daily prayers, the first event to remember is the exodus from Egypt. As recorded in Deuteronomy 16:3, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.

Not only is the exodus regarded as a key historical component in the relationship between G-d and Israel, Jewish tradition even considers the exodus from Egypt as the beginning of the special love relationship between G-d and His people. The prophet Jeremiah exclaims 2:2, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, “I [G-d] remember favorably the devotion of your [Israel’s] youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” Despite the challenges and the vicissitudes that the “lovers” endured, the loyalty that the people exhibited during the exodus and the forty years of wandering in the wilderness was never to be forgotten. Consequently, the exodus is seen as the veritable betrothal of G-d to His people, Israel.

The custom of reading Shir Hashirim, the book of Song of Songs, on Passover is a reflection of the fervent love between the handsome shepherd (G-d Al-mighty) and the beautiful maiden (the People of Israel). The Passover holiday is thus, a de-facto celebration of Israel’s special relationship with the Divine.

On the final day of Passover, the Haftarah, the prophetic selection, is read from the Book of Isaiah 10:32-12:6. On the day that marks the great redemption of the People of Israel, the splitting of the sea and the liberation from Egypt, the Haftarah speaks of the ultimate redemption–the arrival of the Messiah.

Isaiah, who prophesied at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, offers one of scripture’s most stirring and defining prophecies concerning the “End of Days.” The Ten Tribes were already lost, and it seemed as if the remaining two tribes would also soon be vanquished. Rather than focusing on destruction, Isaiah looks favorably to the future, and declares, that “Out of the tree stump of Jesse” will grow a great monarchy that will, once again, reflect the spirit and wisdom of Jewish holiness. Peace will prevail, the lion and the lamb, and all mortal enemies, will dwell together in peace. The Al-mighty will gather His dispersed children from the far ends of the earth, hostility between Judah and Ephraim will cease, and love and brotherhood will prevail. The land of Israel will be reconquered from its enemies.

In his analysis of the holiday Haftarah, Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel  writes of the painful anguish of a broken heart, suggesting that G-d’s heart is broken whenever He sees that the Divine love between Himself and Israel has been rejected. Humanity failed G-d in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and Cain murdered Abel. This was followed by the sinful generation who were drowned in the flood during Noah’s time and those who were dispersed from the Tower of Babel. How painful the sight of the Golden Calf must have been for the Al-mighty, and the peoples’ constant attraction to idolatry and immorality, ultimately leading to the destruction of the Temple and the nation’s exile.

Rabbi Angel suggests that the Haftarah of Isaiah is read on the final day of Passover precisely because it predicts that, despite the ominous reality, the glorious harmony of nature will be restored. Israel will, once again, dwell in a new Garden of Eden, the people of Israel will live in tranquility with one another, and that despite the many setbacks, the peoples’ relationship with G-d will be restored and reaffirmed.

Rabbi Angel asks, “Is it possible to have a new love as great as the first love, when everything could have been perfect?” Quoting from the words of the prophet Jeremiah (16:14-15), Rabbi Angel maintains that when the redemption comes, it will eclipse the original exodus.

The prophet Jeremiah predicts that a time is coming when people will no longer refer to the Al-mighty as the G-d Who brought His people out of the land of Egypt, but rather the G-d Who restored the Ten Tribes of Israel who were lost.

This is the theme of the final days of Passover. The special relationship of love and hope that the Jewish people have with G-d, and that has survived through so many trials, will be renewed, strengthened and will continue forever.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 28th, and continue Friday and Saturday, April 29th and 30th. For more information see NJOP’s website

Passover I 5776-2016

“The Children, The Children!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have previously discussed (Passover 5760-2000), children play a central role in the Passover Seder and in the Haggadah.

The rituals of the seder seek to involve the children as much as possible. To maintain the children’s attention and encourage them to ask questions, the Matzahs are frequently covered and uncovered and the seder plate is removed from the table and returned to the table. Perhaps the best known part of the seder is the מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה–Mah Nishtanah, the four questions that the children ask. Another popular feature is the “Four Children”: the wise child, the prodigal child, the innocent child and the one who does not know to ask.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, who is known widely as the  Malbim is one of the preeminent Bible commentators of modern times. His insights are so penetrating, that his comments are often assumed to be of a scholar who lived a thousand years earlier, in the times of Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra.

The Malbim, who wrote a commentary on the Haggadah called Medrash Haggadah, raises many fundamental questions about the structure of the Haggadah and proceeds to elucidate the underlying principles that guided the authors of the Passover Haggadah.

Those of us who have sat through many Passover seders are convinced that the Haggadah brilliantly tells the story of the Egyptian slavery and the exodus from Egypt, melding both Talmudic exegesis and storytelling, to make a maximum impression on the participants. Meaningful rituals are added to create an enchanting atmosphere for all the Passover celebrants and to drive home the message of Divine salvation.

Because many are so familiar with the text of the Haggadah, it is barely noticeable that the structure of the Haggadah is complex and jumbled, often appearing to be in no meaningful order. Despite the confusing array of unconnected paragraphs, we have become so accustomed to the confusion that we take for granted that the compilers knew exactly what they were doing.

At the Passover seder, every Jew is required to fulfill five mitzvot. The Biblical mitzvot are to eat matzah (Exodus 12:18) and to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). The three rabbinical ordinances include, drinking four cups of wine, eating Maror and reciting הַלֵּל–Hallel, the psalms of praise.

The Malbim knew very well that the Haggadah, one of the most important Jewish liturgical books, was designed to teach a profound lesson. He therefore sets out to elucidate the seemingly confusing structure and to clarify its message.

The Malbim explains that the word הַגָּדָה–Haggadah, comes from the Hebrew verb, לְהַגִּיד, which means “to tell.” The word, לְסַפֵּר–tsah’pehr, to relate or to recount, also appears in many places in the Passover story (e.g. “In order that you relate, tsah’pehr, in the ears of your children,” Exodus 10:2). The name of the volume, however, is “Haggadah,”–telling, and not סִיפּוּר—-“Sippur” recounting.

The Malbim points out that although there are several verses in which the Torah commands to recount the story of exodus they all relate to telling the story of Egypt in response to a child asking and questioning. Only the verse of Exodus 13:8, וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה השׁם לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם, and you shall tell your child on that day, saying: “It is because of that which the L-rd did for me when I came forth out of Egypt,” is not prompted by a child’s question. Since only this verse indicates that the commandment to tell the Exodus story applies whether or not a child asks, it serves as the definitive source of the Passover mitzvah for every Jew to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, and serves as the primary basis for the Haggadah.

The Malbim underscores this by clarifying the seeming disorder of the structure of the Haggadah.

The section of the Haggadah known as מַגִּיד–“Magid,” tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, and consists of sixteen separate sections. Beginning with הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא–“Ha lach’ma anya”– This is the bread of affliction, it is followed by the “Mah Nish’tah’nah”– Why is this night different?, עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ—“Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo”– We were slaves in the land of Egypt, the four sons and the declaration that the covenant with G-d has sustained Israel throughout the years and generations. This is followed by the requirement that every person see him/herself as if he/she went out of Egypt, and concludes with the beginning of “Hallel,” the psalms of praise.

Noting that the Haggadah does not follow chronological order, the Malbim asks why does the text of “Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo,” we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt precedes מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, that at first our fathers were idolaters? After all, that narrative speaks about Terach, Abraham’s father, who lived hundreds of years before Abraham’s children descended to Egypt. The Malbim in fact asks an entire series of challenging questions about the order of the sixteen sections of the Magid section.

The Malbim explains that only because we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt are we obligated to tell the story of the exodus. The experience of slavery is the fundamental reason why we have the seder in the first place and read from the Haggadah. Although, “Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo,” “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” is not the story itself, it is the basic reason why there is a mitzvah to tell the story. It is because we were slaves to Pharaoh that every Jew, even the wisest of sages, must tell the story each and every year, even though they know it well.

The Malbim declares that telling the story of the exodus is intended to serve as much more than a mere expression of gratitude to G-d or a basic acknowledgment of His role in our salvation. The greater purpose of the seder is not at all to serve our own spiritual benefit, but to serve the children’s benefit. Of course, we must be certain that we too not forget what G-d did for us, but more importantly, we must conclusively guarantee that our children and future generations will recall the exodus. Only in this way will the children understand that their lives too were fundamentally affected by that miraculous event, and it is their obligation as well to praise and thank G-d. For this reason, every Jew, in every generation, is commanded to tell the story and elaborate upon the events of the exodus. The sages and the wise people must not be exempted from this obligation. After all, the collective consciousness of the Jewish Peoples’ history needs to be regularly refreshed, so that the future generations will perpetuate this practice and do the same.

As we sit at our seder tables this year recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt, let us remember that the Haggadah’s primary message and concern is about “the children, the children!” We must spare no effort to effectively inspire the next generation to pass this vital message on to their children and to their children’s children, as well.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 22nd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 23rd and 24th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 28th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 29th and 30th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

Metzorah 5776-2016

“G-d Has Pity on the Property of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, opens with a detailed description of the purification ritual for the מְצוֹרָע–Metzorah, the person who had contracted the צָרַעַת–Tzara’at disease, and is now cured. According to tradition, this spiritual/dermatological disease resulted from, among other things, speaking לְשׁוֹן הָרָע –Lashon Harah, evil speech about others ( Tazria 5763-2003). The parasha also introduces an additional manifestation of the Tzara’at disease that appears in the houses of the Israelites.

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Biblical narrative is out of chronological order. Although mentioned last in the text, the first manifestation of the Tzara’at disease appears on a wall in the Jew’s home as a warning that he or she must mend their ways and stop speaking Lashon Harah. If they do not heed this admonition, the Tzara’at then appears on their clothes. If they still continue their evil speech, only then does the Tzara’at appear on their bodies. The final stage is reached when the person’s entire body is covered with Tzara’at.

If the affliction strikes the house of a Jew, the Kohen must come to inspect the apparently mildew-like blight on the house. If it is not clear whether the discoloration is the actual Tzara’at disease, the house is sealed for seven days and is reinspected at the end of this incubation period. If, the infected area is then declared טָמֵא–Tah’may, unclean, the infected stones must be removed and the walls of the home replastered. If, however, the infection recurs, the entire house must be destroyed.

Despite the loss of the house, the neighbors may still be unaware that the reason the house was demolished was due to the Tzara’at plague. As an alibi, the violator can always claim that his family is remodeling their home, and no one will know that the loss was because of the homeowner’s improper behavior.

The affliction on one’s wardrobe is similar. If the infection spreads throughout the clothing, then all the clothing must be destroyed. Still the victim can always say that he is in the process of buying a new wardrobe, and no one would know that all the clothing was burned due to evil speech.

The unrepentant violator, who, after all this, has still not learned his lesson, is then further stricken with symptoms that appear on the flesh of his body. If the spots on his skin are declared Tah’may (impure) by the priest, he is sent out of the camp for seven days. Yet, he can always claim that he is going on vacation. When he returns, he can cover over the infection and nobody will ever know that he was sent away because the Kohen declared that he is a בַּעַל לְשׁוֹן הָרָע, a “master of evil speech.”

Obviously, excuses can only hide the true reason for this malady for so long. If, after all this, he still does not repent, the violator’s entire body is covered with the disease and the Kohen declares him טָהוֹר–Tahor, pure, allowing him to remain in the camp. Despite being entirely covered with the Tzara’at symptoms, he is pure. The disease has now become public and he will be regarded by all as a destructive speaker of evil, who must be avoided.

As is true in many instances, the Torah conveys subtle lessons through seemingly innocuous verses. The Torah’s description of the visit of the Kohen who is assigned to diagnose the affliction found in the house, is one such an instance.

The Torah states, in Leviticus 14:36, that even before the Kohen enters the house, וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וּפִנּוּ אֶת הַבַּיִת בְּטֶרֶם יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַנֶּגַע, וְלֹא יִטְמָא כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת, וְאַחַר כֵּן יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַבָּיִת, he [the Kohen] shall command, and they shall clear the house when the Kohen has not yet come to look at the affliction, so that everything in the house should not become impure; and afterward shall the Kohen come to look at the house.

Rashi explains that everything in the house will automatically become impure if the house is not emptied before the Kohen sees the affliction and pronounces it impure.

Everything declared impure in the house then has to be purified by taking it to the mikveh. The only two items in the house that cannot be made pure again are food and earthen vessels. However, food that is impure may be still eaten as long as the person who eats the food is also in a state of ritual impurity. Earthenware dishes can also be used in a state of impurity, as long as the person who uses them is in a state of impurity.

Rashi explains that the reason for removing all the belongings from the stricken home is that the Torah has pity on property that belongs to Israel. But, after all, as has already been noted, very little is actually lost, since all the furnishings and the vessels in the house, with the exception of earthenware, can be immersed in the mikveh, and even the food can be eaten in a state of ritual impurity. The only real loss is the earthenware vessels, which can only be used in a state of ritual impurity, or else they have to be destroyed. But earthenware vessels are relatively inexpensive, resulting in only a negligible loss to the homeowner.

Citing the Sifra and Rashi, the ArtScroll commentary explains that beyond the Al-mighty’s intention to spare Israel from even trivial financial losses, this particular Torah portion comes to teach an important lesson. “If G-d is so sympathetic toward wicked people, whom he afflicts with Tzara’at, surely He has compassion for the righteous. And if G-d is so concerned about their property, surely He is concerned for the lives of their sons and daughters.”

How often do we say to ourselves that we cannot be bothered with trivial things? How often do we say to ourselves that our time is much too valuable to stop for a moment to help a person who is sad or crying? How often do we allow ourselves to get distracted and fail to hold the door open for the next person, or too preoccupied to say “Thank you” to someone who has done us a favor?

Fortunately, for the Al-mighty, nothing is too trivial. Otherwise, not only His people, Israel, but all of humankind, would be in big trouble.

As we enter the month of Nissan, the month of Passover and the acknowledged month of redemption, we must realize how fortunate we are that the Al-mighty surely graced us when He heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and did not decide that it was too trivial for Him to address their needs and redeem the people.

As we, once again, annually re-experience the exodus from exile, enslavement and persecution to freedom, we need to express our profound gratitude to the Al-mighty for His constant kindness, for always watching over His People Israel, and for redeeming them.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 22nd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 23rd and 24th.

Tazria 5776-2016

“Heavenly Reminders”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, focuses on the Biblical malady known as צָרַעַת–Tzara’at, often incorrectly identified as leprosy.

Although Tzara’at had physical, dermatological symptoms, according to tradition, Tzara’at, is a spiritual disease resulting from לְשׁוֹן הָרָע–Lashon Harah, speaking evil (Tazria 5763-2003). Tzara’at manifests itself on the human body, on clothing and appears on the walls of homes as well.

In order to properly identify the malady, the inspection must be performed by an expert, usually a Kohen, priest. As we noted previously (Tazria 5763-2003), if the Kohen is not sufficiently knowledgeable, a physician or one who is well-versed in identifying the disease could do so, but the sick person could not be quarantined or sent out of the camp until the priest himself pronounced him either טָהוֹר (Tahor)– pure or טָמֵא (Tameh)- impure, or determined if an incubation period was required, and ordered a seven-day quarantine.

One of the symptoms of Tzara’at as recorded in Leviticus 13:38, was בֶּהָרֹת לְבָנֹת, white spots. There are four shades of white spots that are associated with Tzara’at, which the Kohen must identify in order to render the stricken person impure. However, the Torah notes, Leviticus 13:39, וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן, וְהִנֵּה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרָם בֶּהָרֹת, כֵּהוֹת לְבָנֹת, בֹּהַק הוּא פָּרַח בָּעוֹר, טָהוֹר הוּא, the Kohen shall look and behold!–on the skin on the flesh are dim white spots, it is a בֹּהַק (Bohak, a simple skin discoloration) that has erupted on the skin, it is pure.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his collection of insights on the weekly parasha known as “Darash Moshe,” questions why it is necessary for a person who has a simple skin discoloration to go to the Kohen for a diagnosis. Even if the person is himself a knowledgeable Torah scholar or a dermatologist and can easily diagnose the discoloration as a non-defiling Bohak, the Kohen must be called in for his opinion.

Rabbi Feinstein suggests that any person who suffers a skin discoloration, especially one that is easily mistaken for Tzara’at, must seek to determine the cause of the discoloration. Even a benign discoloration must be investigated. (This should serve as a reminder for everybody to schedule their annual body scan at a doctor or dermatologist). The Talmud in Brachot 5a, records that those visited by suffering, must always check their deeds, to make certain that their suffering is not a result of Divine punishment for possible incorrect actions.

Rabbi Feinstein explains why even a victim afflicted with a Bohak that is definitely pure, must go to the Kohen. The Kohanim, who serve not only as clergy but also serve as the educational officers of Israel, are in a position to help identify the improper action that might have caused the discoloration, and help the victim improve his/her ways.

Rabbi Feinstein cites a fascinating Talmudic statement found in Erchin 16b, where the Rabbis teach that any frustrating experience, even misplacing something of insignificant value momentarily, is considered suffering. These upsetting experiences may very well be a message from the Al-mighty. If the message is not taken seriously, greater suffering will soon come.

In the summer of 1985, I was sent to Israel by the Avi Chai Foundation to do research on various Israeli outreach organizations.

One of the most popular Israeli outreach organizations, “Arachim,” was holding a weekend seminar for non-religious Jews in Jerusalem. I arrived at the hotel where the seminar was being conducted on Saturday night.

I found it odd that the person whom the organization assigned to serve as my guide was a rather overweight, frumpy religious looking fellow, whose shirt was hanging out of his pants, and walked with a limp. When he told me that he was going to be one of the featured speakers later in the program, I was even more puzzled.

It was probably around midnight when this fellow, with his black hat and beard, his tzitzit hanging out, began to address the non-religious attendees, mesmerizing them with his personal story.

He identified himself as a former Israeli Air Force jet pilot, who was shot down on a mission over Syria. One of his feet was terribly mangled in the crash and had to be amputated, if I recall correctly, without anesthesia.

He was thrown into a prison dungeon where he had to change the bandages himself, because the prison guards who were revolted by the wound that was infected and oozing pus, refused to touch him. Apparently, other Israeli soldiers were also captured at this time and he was imprisoned in a cell together with 3 or 4 other Israeli P.O.W.s.

None of the Israelis were religious, but they knew that the Passover Holiday was rapidly approaching. Somehow, they managed to get some wine, and I believe some matzah, and on Passover eve they sat around at a makeshift seder attempting to recall from memory whatever they remembered from their family seders. It was at that time that the Air Force pilot vowed to himself that if he were ever released from prison and returned home, he would begin to take his faith more seriously.

Eventually, he was released, but soon forgot about his personal vow. He was simply too overjoyed to be back with his family, his wife and his children, to remember, and he continued to live a very secular life.

I do not recall the exact details, but soon after disturbing things began to occur. It might have been a minor car accident or a child who fell and broke an arm, or a small fire that started in his home, whatever it was, it was enough to cause him to begin questioning why these bad things were happening to him. He then remembered the vow that he had taken while he was in the Syrian prison.

His story was truly captivating, not only to me, but to all the secular Jews who were listening, enraptured by his fascinating story about how he became religious.

It is from parashat Tazria that we learn that we dare not disregard even a simple Bohak, a non-defiling discoloration of the skin. G-d continuously sends us messages. We must keep our eyes and ears open constantly to recognize them, hear them, and properly respond to them.

Please note: This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, April 8th and 9th, 2016.

Shemini 5776-2016

“Good Intentions Gone Awry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we learn of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, who were punished for bringing a strange fire upon the altar.

Ironically, the first day of Nissan was intended to be the greatest day of Aaron’s life. The newly built Tabernacle was to be consecrated and the priests (Aaron and his four sons), were to be invested into the service of the Priesthood with great fanfare.

The entire nation was summoned to congregate at the Tent of Meeting in anticipation of this great day. Moses calls out to the people, Leviticus 9:6, saying, זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם תַּעֲשׂוּ, וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד השׁם, “This is the thing that the L-rd has commanded you to do; then the glory of the L-rd will appear to you.” Moses reassures the people that once the formal dedication ritual is concluded by Aaron and his sons, the glory of G-d will appear before them on this very day.

The Midrash, Sifra 9:6 states, that Moses advised the People of Israel that they must remove the “evil inclination” from their hearts in order to unite in reverence and in faith, to properly serve G-d. Just as G-d represents unity, so must the peoples’ service be united before G-d, so that the glory of the L-rd may appear.

The Ha’amek Davar says that these Midrashim indicate that different groups of people saw the worship of G-d from differing perspectives. Among these diverse groups was one that felt a zealous urge to cling as closely as possible to G-d. The Netziv suggests that such zealous behavior occurred several times in Jewish history. The 250 people, who offered the forbidden incense together with Korach and his cohorts, were actually of pure hearts and acted with pure intentions. Despite their good intentions, what they did was wrong in G-d’s eyes.

Therefore, Moses advised the people, before the consecration of the Tabernacle, that if they intend to demonstrate their love of G-d they must first remove the evil inclination from their hearts, and must seek to draw closer to G-d through holiness, and not in a forbidden fashion. In addition, only through a united effort will their good intentions be rewarded.

In his comments on parashat Shemini explaining the actions of Nadav and Abihu, Rabbi Shimon Schwab invoked the well-known aphorism cited in Bereishit Rabbah 55, which states, אַהֲבָה מְקַלְקֶלֶת אֶת הַשּׁוּרָה, love is blind and corrupts clear thinking. Although the commentaries have identified many reasons for Nadav and Abihu’s punishment, Rabbi Schwab suggests that they may have been punished despite their noble intentions. Apparently, Nadav and Abihu were swept away by their ardent zeal, and offered forbidden incense on the altar that had not been commanded by G-d. The Sifra 10:1 maintains that, “they [Nadav and Abihu] rejoiced when they saw the new fire come down upon the altar, and decided to add love to love,” leading them to sin.

Early in my outreach career, I had a Talmud teacher who was upset that my outreach friends and I were spending so much time reaching out to the so-called “non-committed” Jews. He said, “Some people are מְבַטֵּל תּוֹרָה, waste time from Torah study, in order to commit sins. Others, waste time from Torah study for the sake of mitzvot.” After all these years, I have still not resolved that issue in my mind.

Rabbi Schwab apparently would often advise people to be careful not to, “let their יֵצֶר הַטּוֹב [good intentions] run away with themselves.” He suggested that people must constantly examine their goals, to see that, despite their noble intentions, their passion and their zeal, that they not wind up destroying instead of building.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

Tzav 5776-2016

“Dressing Properly for Special Occasions”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, opens with detailed instructions to the Kohanim, the priests, regarding taking the ashes from the sacrificial altar and attending to the fires on the altar.

The very first service of the day for the Kohanim was to scoop up a shovelful of ashes from the sacrificial altar and place the ashes on the floor of the Tabernacle courtyard near the side of the altar. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that by taking a portion of the ashes that were created from the sacrifices of the previous day and placing them at the side of the altar before beginning the new day’s service, the priests symbolically declare that they will continue serving G-d today, as they had yesterday and be certain to conduct themselves according to the dictates of the Al-mighty’s will.

If, after separating the ashes, there was still a significant accumulation, the priest would clean the excess ashes from the altar, and proceed with the offerings of the new day.

Before beginning the task of cleaning the altar, the Torah, in Leviticus 6:4, states that the Kohen must change his clothes, וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהוֹצִיא אֶת הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל מָקוֹם טָהוֹר, and he [the priest] shall remove his garments, and don other garments, and he shall remove the ash from outside the camp, to a pure place.

The parasha begins with the word צַו, (“Tzav”) indicating that G-d told Moses to “command” Aaron and his sons regarding the duties they must perform with respect to the burnt offering. Nevertheless, Rashi maintains that despite the Torah’s declarative tone, the words, וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו, and he [the priest] shall remove his garments, is not a command, but rather a recommendation of proper conduct, so that the priest not dirty his good clothes. Rashi cites Tractate Yoma 23b, arguing that the garments in which a person is dressed when he cooks a pot of food for his master, must not be worn when pouring a cup of wine for him. The sacred duties, with which the priest is charged, must be performed in a dignified manner. However, the cleaning should be done while wearing inferior garments, and not the fine clothes he had been wearing.

The commentators note that this suggestion to the priest for “proper conduct” may very well be the source of the Jewish custom to wear one’s best clothes in honor of Shabbat. However, when performing menial tasks on Shabbat one should wear inferior clothes and change into one’s finest clothes for celebrating the Shabbat meals or going to synagogue.

I have often written and spoken about how much contemporary society takes for granted having clean, well-tailored, clothes to wear, and what a special gift clothes are. Clothes in Jewish tradition are regarded as a reflection of the Divine, since they were the only gift that G-d personally gave the human beings in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21).

Not long ago, perhaps, in some instances less than a hundred years ago, if one wanted clean clothes in the middle of the winter, it was necessary to go out to the river or the lake and break the ice to wash a shirt or a blouse in the freezing cold water. Today, we take all that for granted. A good shirt that may have a slight ring-around-the-collar is often thrown into the rag bag.

There are today still people in certain parts of the world who have barely a loincloth with which to cover themselves and others who shiver at night because they do not possess warm coats or blankets. When a religious Jew puts on a significant new garment it is customary to say the blessing, מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרֻמִּים, thanking G-d for clothing the naked, followed by the blessing שֶׁהֶחֱיָנו, thanking G-d for being kept alive, and experience this wonderful occasion.

In many “chareidi” or “chasidish” circles it is still customary to wish a person who dons a new garment for the first time: “titchadeish,” “May you wear it in good health.”.

This brings to mind a rather haunting story that my father would tell me when I was young. It was written by the Haskalah writer, David Frishman (1859-1922, a Polish poet, essayist, storyteller, critic and journalist, one of the first major writers of literature in modern Hebrew) and is actually entitled, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ “Titchadeish.”

The story is about a little boy, the son of a very poor tailor. Frishman, anticipating a strong reaction to this story by the reader, even warns readers not to take the story too much to heart or become depressed, because it is, after all, only a story about the son of a poor tailor.

The story opens on the eve of Passover. The impoverished tailor has been working nonstop, for three days and three nights, trying desperately to finish tailoring the new clothes for the wealthiest man in town and his family. At the last minute, just before sundown, the tailor delivers the new clothes to his clients, has a few minutes to wash his and his son’s hands and face, before running off to the synagogue.

At the synagogue, all the congregants are dressed in their new holiday clothes and wishing each other  “titchadeish,” “May you wear it in good health,” except for the tailor and his son.

Despite his best efforts to involve his son in the seder ritual, the only question the boy wants to ask is why no one wished him, “titchadeish.” His father explained that only those who are wearing new clothes are greeted in this manner. When his mother saw the pained face of her child, she tried to encourage him by saying that hopefully next year he will receive new clothes for Passover.

But he did not receive new clothes for the next Passover, or the next, or the next.

At age twelve, the young boy was sent to apprentice at another tailor in town, where he was treated harshly. On one occasion, when he was instructed to deliver new clothes to a client, he stopped at his own home first to try on the new garments. When it was discovered, he was punished harshly by the tailor’s wife.

Never jealous of those who had new clothes, the young boy was only hurt that he could never have his own new garments, and spent many hours dreaming about being dressed in new clothes.

Unfortunately, he never did obtain a new set of clothes. When he was about eighteen, he started coughing and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was hoped that he would recover, but instead he became weaker, developing a high fever. When he closed his eyes, he saw an incredible sight of thousands of angels descending upon him. In their hands they carried pure white clothes and sang together, repeatedly: “titchadeish, titchadeish, titchadeish”. And then, the dark angel appeared…

He was buried in his new white clothes, the shrouds, but no one wished him, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ.

It is hard to relate to such intense poverty, or even conceive of any teenager who never had a single new set of clothes! This sad story drives home, in a most tragic way, how important are the gifts of good health and the garments we are fortunate to possess.

As we celebrate the joyous month of Adar II, and start preparing for the wonderful Passover holiday, may we all be blessed with good health, and be privileged to acquire new clothes for the holiday, so that we be in a position to be wished, “titchadeish,” and have the opportunity to wish others “titchadeish,” May we all wear our new garments in good health!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 23rd-24th, 2016.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.