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Balak 5776-2016

“Balaam Sees the Kenites”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balaam, the gentile prophet, offers three remarkable prophecies/blessings concerning the Jewish people. In his fourth and final prophecy, Balaam delivers a series of prophecies regarding the future of the People of Israel, the nation of Moab and their neighbors.

Turning to Amalek, whom Balaam calls “the first among the nations,” he predicts their end, and assures the eternal destruction of that nation, the archenemy of Israel.

Balaam then contrasts the detested nation of Amalek to the blessed Kenite people, who are descendants of Jethro. Speaking of the Kenites, Balaam lifts his voice in parable, saying, Numbers 24:21-22, אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ וְשִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ. כִּי אִם יִהְיֶה לְבָעֵר קָיִן, עַד מָה אַשּׁוּר תִּשְׁבֶּךָּ, “Strong is your dwelling, and set in a rock is your nest. For if the Kenite should be laid waste, til where can Assyria take you captive?”

Most commentators understand Balaam’s esoteric message to be words of praise for the Kenites for choosing to align themselves with Israel by following them into the harsh wilderness, rather than joining with Amalek, their powerful neighbor. Because of that loyalty, says the Sforno, they will have the honor of placing their “nest” with the Jewish people–Israel will protect the Kenites, and the Kenites will protect Israel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Kenites descended from the original Cain, hence the name, “Kenites.” Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding of Balaam’s mystical words differs in part from the Sforno. According to Rabbi Hirsch, Balaam warns the Kenites to cling to Israel rather than the more powerful Amalek, and urges them to build their nest, as in a rock, next to Israel. If they fail to do so, the Kenites will be exiled by the Assyrians and led away forever in captivity.

Rashi cites the Midrash in Sanhedrin 106a, which maintains that Balaam had a long term relationship with Jethro and the Kenites, having served with Jethro as one of the three members of the tribunal who advised Pharaoh in Egypt (Shemot 5771-2010). Balaam urged Pharaoh to destroy the Jews. Job was silent. Jethro warned Pharaoh not to harm the Jews, and as a result, had to flee for his life.

Eliyahu Kitov notes the stark distinction between the nature of the Amalekite nation and the Kenites. Amalek who is called by Balaam “the first nation,” was the first nation to express hate for Israel and was determined to destroy it. The Kenites were the first to express love for Israel. Soon after the Exodus, the Amalekites followed the escaped Israelites and attacked the elderly and the weak. In distinction, Jethro was most helpful providing sage advice to Moses on how to strengthen the people by building an effective judicial system. When Balaam saw Amalek, he immediately identified with them and their obsession to destroy Israel. Balaam, however, is forced to predict Amalek’s eternal destruction. When he sees the Kenites, he praises them saying, אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ–“Ay’tahn moh’shah’veh’chah,” rather than choose to share your fate with your powerful ally, Amalek, you have chosen instead to embrace the People of Israel.

The Midrash says that Balaam saw in the future that the sons of Yonadav, the son of Rechev (Kings II 10:15), the descendants of Jethro, would sit in a special chamber in the Temple, where the Sanhedrin, the members of the Supreme Court of Israel, meet. He could not understand how they could qualify, since they came from non-Jewish stock. But G-d had other plans. Not only did the descendants of Jethro embrace the Jewish faith by converting to Judaism, G-d gave them a special reward because of the kindness that their ancestor Jethro had shown to Moses. When Moses fled for his life from Egypt to Midian, Jethro warmly welcomed Moses by insisting that his daughters invite the stranger to eat bread with them (Exodus 2:20). As a result, his descendants merited to sit in the special office, in the powerful chamber of the Sanhedrin.

The history of the Kenites and their association with Israel is rather intriguing. Because Balaam advises the Kenites to set their nest in a rock, שִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ–“Sim b’seh’lah kee’neh’cha,” the Kenites never really achieve a permanent dwelling place. At first they dwell in Jericho. During the time of Jeremiah, they are found dwelling in tents, since they deemed it better to dwell in a secure nest (tent), rather than reside in a permanent home that is vulnerable.

The Kenites play an important role in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. In the book of Joshua 4:21, during the battle against the Canaanites led by Deborah and Barak, Yael, the Kenite woman welcomes Sisra, the Canaanite general who has fled from defeat on the battlefield, into her tent and smashes his head with a tent peg. She is then praised by Deborah and immortalized in Deborah’s great song, Joshua 5:24, תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי, מִנָּשִׁים בָּאֹהֶל תְּבֹרָךְ, “May you, Yael, the wife of Chehver, the Kenite, be blessed. May you be blessed above all women in the tents.”

Throughout the early history of Israel, the Kenites play important roles in the destiny of Israel, as friends, compatriots, protectors, judges and scholars in Israel. It is fascinating to see how one small nation, who seems to play a rather insignificant role, has a profound impact on Jewish destiny and on the stage of world history.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 24th, 2016, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, August 13th and 14th. Have a meaningful fast.

Chukat 5776-2016

“The Bronze Serpent”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn that the People of Israel are at it again! Only a short distance remains for them to complete their journey of forty years in the wilderness before they enter the Promised Land. But, again they begin to complain, this time, about the lack of food and water.

This is the last recorded of Israel’s complaints in the wilderness, but it is considered a most grievous one. Their previous complaints were all directed at Moses, the Al-mighty’s faithful servant, but this time it is also defiantly directed at G-d Himself!

The entire episode is recorded in the Torah in only six verses, Number 21:4-9.

The people travel from Mount Hor where Aaron, the High Priest, died and was buried. They were then directed to go by way of the Red Sea and to avoid the land of Edom, whose citizens had refused them passage through their land. Fearing that they, like their ancestors, were moving away from the land of Israel and would die in the wilderness, the Israelites speak up against G-d and Moses saying, Numbers 21:5, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי אֵין ?לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל “Why did You bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the miserable food?”

The great Nehama Leibowitz, points out that when compared with the people’s complaints on previous occasions, there is a significant change in the wording found this time. When they stood in panic at the Red Sea, surrounded by the Egyptians who were pursuing them, they cried out (Exodus 14:11): “What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?”  When Datan and Abiram, who were followers of Korach, confronted Moses, they said, Numbers 16:13, “Is it not enough that you had brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey.” In both instances, the complaints were directed at Moses alone. Here, however, they speak against both Moses and against G-d.

Rashi notes that the sin of the people was particularly galling because they had the temerity to compare the servant, Moses, with the Al-mighty G-d, as if they were equals. This open defiance of G-d Himself, could not go unpunished. The Torah records, in Numbers 21:6, that G-d immediately sends the fiery serpents to the people to bite them.

Dr. Yisrael (Shay) Eldad, in Hegyonot Mikra, points out that serpents appear in three separate narratives of the Torah. In the book of Genesis 3:1-15, the serpent seduces Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. In Exodus 4:2-5, G-d gives Moses the sign to prove his legitimacy, showing him that his staff turns into a serpent. This same staff, later, (Exodus 7:8-13) turns into a serpent, and devours the Egyptian serpents. The fiery serpents who appear in our parasha and attack the Israelites who were complaining, is the third instance.

Eldad points to the continuing decline in the powers of the serpents from when they first appear in Genesis. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is an initiator, who has dominion over the human being and whose words control the human’s actions. In Exodus, Moses controls the serpent through his staff. When the fiery serpents appear in the wilderness, they are no longer in control. The serpent’s power is now a result of the weaknesses of the people. The serpent has, in effect, been transformed into an emissary of G-d.

When he first appears in scripture, the serpent would stealthfully sneak up on the human and attack him from behind. Now the serpent is no longer in control. In fact, Moses holds the serpent up high on a staff to show that both his poison and his ability to seduce has been extinguished, and that G-d Al-mighty is now in charge. The serpent has been transformed into a vehicle serving G-d, directing the people’s attention upward to the Master of the Universe. The defanged serpent no longer has dominion over mankind.

In Numbers 21:6, the Torah states, וַיְשַׁלַּח השׁם בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת הָעָם, וַיָּמָת עַם רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, G-d sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people, and a large multitude of Israel died.

Nehama Leibowitz notes that the Torah here uses the verb וַיְשַׁלַּח–“Va’yeshalach” and the L-rd “let [the fiery serpents] go,” rather than saying that He sent them. Professor Leibowitz notes that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) maintains that the wilderness is a place where fiery serpents, scorpions and drought are common. Only due to Divine intervention have the Israelites never been attacked by these dangerous creatures until now. Similarly, by miraculously providing water, G-d did not allow the people to be overcome by thirst. G-d also sent the manna to provide the people with food in a place where there was none to be found. This certainly should have been a clear sign to the people to recognize that it was only due to the Al-mighty’s supernatural intervention that the people had survived the 40 years in the wilderness.

Instead, the people were indifferent, taking G-d’s loving protection for granted. G-d, consequently, decided to allow nature to resume its ordinary course, permitting the serpents to bite anyone who crossed their path. It was the sin of ingratitude that brought the great punishment upon them.

In an interesting postscript, the Midrash, based on sources in the Bible, notes that the copper serpent that Moses created to direct the people’s attention to G-d, remained with the people as a symbol of admiration for 700 years until the generation of King Hezekiah, chronicled in Kings II 18:14. The Bible reports that when Hezekiah saw that the people began to stray after the copper serpent and using it as an object of worship, rather than an object to increase reverence for G-d, King Hezekiah had the copper serpent destroyed.

The lesson of the serpent is clear. Always beware of the serpent, whose preoccupation is to seduce weak mortals and bite them with his poisonous fangs. Even the serpent who has become an object of admiration and who is intended to remind the people of heaven, can lead them astray. Only in G-d can we trust completely. Beware of any imitations or substitutes.

May you be blessed.

Korach 5776-2016

“Givers and Takers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of Korach’s rebellion against G-d and Moses, and the devastating end that Korach meets when the earth opens and swallows him together with his cohorts.

Parashat Korach opens with a most revealing verse. Numbers 16:1 states, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן, Korach, the son Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, took himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.

The opening words in parashat Korach, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח–“Vah’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach took, are problematic, since there is no object of the verb, “to take.” Recognizing this problem, Rashi explains that the expression, “Vah’yee’kach Korach” means that “Korach took himself,”– he separated himself off to one side to be apart from the assembly of Israel, in order to raise objections regarding the priesthood.

Alternatively, Rashi explains that “Vah’yee’kach Korach,” Korach took, means that through his passionate words of persuasion Korach drew to himself the heads of the courts who were among the people, to support him in his rebellion.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his essay, “Leaders who Give and Leaders who Take,” brilliantly highlights the profound differences between Moses, the leader who gives, and Korach, the leader who takes.

Although Moses was chosen by G-d to be the leader of Israel, he himself was most reluctant to assume the assignment. In fact, Moses pleads with G-d (Exodus 4:13), שְׁלַח נָא בְּיַד תִּשְׁלָח, send anyone but me! G-d, however, refuses to take no for an answer.

It was definitely not because Moses was afraid of challenges that he declined to be the leader of Israel. To the contrary, we see that when Moses was a young prince in the house of Pharaoh surrounded with many luxuries and great opportunities that could have been his as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he refused to adopt for himself this opulent lifestyle. Instead of thinking only of himself, Moses goes out to his brothers, to help them in their travails. There he stands up for his brethren, endangering his life in the process.

The Midrash paints an entirely different picture of Korach. Because he was a Levite, Korach was freed from serving as a slave and instead assumed a rather soft job in Pharaoh’s palace. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15 relates that Korach served in Pharaoh’s house and was in charge of the keys to Pharaoh’s treasury.

In contrast, we see later, at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the true giving character of Moses. Of all the Israelites in Egypt it was Moses who personally assumed responsibility for the removal of Joseph’s bones from Egypt, as Joseph had made the people promise (Genesis 50:25), “You shall take my bones up from this place.”

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 110a states that Korach was also busy, searching for the reputed treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt. Apparently, the great wealth that Korach amassed did not come from his own labors, but from the monies that belonged to others.

While Moses fulfilled the wish of the deceased Joseph, who could not even thank him, let alone reward him, Korach was busy searching for money, gold and silver. Korach indeed was a man on the take (“Vah’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach took).

Not only was Korach on the take for money, which apparently did not sufficiently satisfy him, he was also on the take for honor, and sought desperately to garner authority for himself.

The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, Numbers 16:19 states that Korach gathered all the people to the door of the Tabernacle, seducing them to follow his rebellion with bribes from his wealth that he had improperly taken from two of the treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt.

The Targum Yonatan maintains that Korach, with his massive fortune, sought to have Moses and Aaron and their influence removed from this world. The Talmud, in Eruvin 54b documents that Moses and Aaron, the greatest educators and teachers of Torah, expended great effort to personally teach Torah to their entire generation. This, however, meant little to Korach, who was obsessed with power and authority. By challenging and scheming to defeat Moses, Korach was prepared to destroy all the Torah and education of the generation.

The great Moses was the complete opposite. When Moses’ authority as leader was challenged by Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:27-28), who prophesied that “Moses will die and Joshua will lead the people into the land,” Moses was not threatened by the challenge. Instead, he responds, Numbers 11:29, וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל עַם השׁם נְבִיאִים, “I wish that all the nation of G-d were prophets.” Similarly, when he insisted that G-d forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:32), Moses was prepared to have his name erased from the Torah if G-d would not agree.

Rabbi Filber cites the Netziv who says that the entire world is divided up between givers and takers. The Netziv explains that the verse, Deuteronomy 10:12, מָה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ, כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם, What does the L-rd your G-d ask of you but to fear G-d, is a specific directive to leaders who deal with communal issues and are likely to do things that may favor themselves materially, and lead them to look for honor. A great communal leader, says the Netziv, is not only valued for the good deeds he performs and the meaningful Torah that he transmits, but specifically for how he relates to those who oppose him and those who refuse to fawn before him. A leader must always recognize, says the Netziv, that G-d Who looks at the paths of all human beings is constantly watching from above.

The great leader is a giver not a taker. Unfortunately, Korach never seemed to appreciate that vital message or absorb that critical value. As a result, Korach wound up seducing hundreds and thousands of his followers, leading them into the earth and to ultimate destruction.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5776-2016

“A Name Change Becomes a Game Changer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read the well-known story of the scouts who are sent into the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the Children of Israel’s arrival in the land.

As previously noted (Shelach 5764-2004), the leaders who were sent into Canaan were not intended to be spies, but were meant to serve as scouts who represented their individual tribe’s interests. The tribe of Zebulun, for instance, needed to make certain that their land was located by the sea because of the sea-faring interests of the tribe’s members. Judah needed to make certain that their territory included fertile lands, which were located in a proper climate for the vineyards they were to plant, which would enable them to produce quality grapes and vintage wine.

When Moses sends out the scouts, G-d tells him (Number 13:2), that, אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, you [Moses] shall send one man each from his father’s tribe, every one a leader among them. These select representatives were all men of great stature, who were obviously trusted by their tribal members to serve as their loyal representatives.

The very next verse states that Moses sent them into the wilderness of Paran at the command of G-d. Scripture (Numbers 13:3) testifies, כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים, רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה, they were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel were they.

The Torah then proceeds to list each of the twelve tribal leaders by their personal names and their fathers’ names. Oddly, when the list concludes, the Torah notes (Numbers 13:16), אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ, וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, these are the names of the men whom Moses sent to tour the land. Moses called Hoshea, son of Nun, “Joshua.”

Rashi famously comments that Moses renamed Hoshea, Joshua, explaining that the name change represented a prayer for Joshua. Moses beseeched G-d: יָ־הּ יושִׁיעֲךָ מֵעֲצַת מְרַגְּלִים, May G-d save you [Joshua] from the conspiracy of the spies.

This comment seems to indicate that Moses did not have great confidence in the representatives who were being sent to Canaan. Therefore, he felt it necessary to provide additional support for Joshua with a special blessing. By adding the Hebrew letter י–“Yud” to Joshua’s name, together with the letter ה–“Hay,” the new name formed the first part of the Tetragrammaton, the sacred four letter name of G-d. This not only symbolized Joshua’s future role as the leader of Israel, but also invoked G-d to be ever-present with Joshua and to protect him from the evil intrigues of the inhabitants of the land and of his unreliable colleagues.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the change of name was intended to not only impact on Joshua, but also upon his companions. The other scouts would now have to call Joshua by his new name, which would impress upon them that they were engaged in a sacred Divine mission. They would now know that G-d, who in the past had always helped Joshua and the Jewish people, would be their salvation in the future as well. Additionally, by adding the single letter “Yud” to the name Hoshea, it now becomes a future name, rather than a name of the past.

Some would argue that Moses changed only the name of Joshua, and not the names of any of the other scouts, because anything improper that Joshua, Moses’ primary disciple, might do would reflect poorly on his mentor, Moses.

The Targum Yonatan suggests that Moses blessed only Joshua because of Joshua’s extreme humility. Moses felt that Joshua’s exceptional modesty would make him susceptible to the evil persuasions of his fellow spies.

Not everyone agrees that Joshua was meek and impressionable. The Chofetz Chaim suggests that there were significant personality differences between Joshua and Caleb. Joshua, who was naturally forceful, would have no compunctions about speaking out strongly against the spies. Caleb, on the other hand, who was more retiring, usually kept his opinions to himself. Because Joshua was so outspoken he was more likely to be harmed by the other spies, and was in need of an extra blessing.

What about Caleb? Where did he find the strength to resist the evil influences of the other scouts?

Scripture, in Numbers 13:22, reports, that as the scouts traversed the land of Canaan, וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב, וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן, the scouts ascended in the south and “he” arrived in Hebron. Noting the change from the plural to the singular, Rashi comments that only Caleb alone went to Hebron, where he prostrated himself in prayer on the graves of the Patriarchs, praying that he not be enticed by his companions or be party to their evil schemes.

This narrative, perhaps, displays a philosophical difference of opinion between Joshua and Caleb regarding the benefits and blessings of past generations. Caleb felt that by going to the ancestral graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and offering intensive prayer, he would gain strength and inspiration.

Moses felt, and perhaps Joshua did as well, that contemporary leaders possess a power within themselves to invoke a strength equal to the strength of the great Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which will enable them to resist evil.

While scripture does not determine which of these two methods is stronger or more effective, it is good to know that even an average Jew can choose either of these venues, or both, and hopefully be spared from the evil influences, and emerge blessed as well.

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a’lot’cha 5776-2016

“Moses Realizes that His Dreams Were Not Going to be Fulfilled”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha is one of the richest parashiot in the Torah with respect to scriptural narrative and Jewish law. The parasha contains many fascinating themes that, at times, do not seem to easily correlate with one another.

Despite having reviewed this parasha many times and having frequently analyzed its contents, it is always heartening to find that, as with all of Torah, there is always much more to learn. It is especially exciting when an original thinker, such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explores the parasha and adds his profound, and at times, eclectic, insights to the discussion.

About midway through the parasha, in Numbers 9:15, the Torah relates that on the day that the Tabernacle was finally erected, a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, remaining there during the day, and at night a fire appeared that remained there until morning. We are also informed that the People of Israel traveled according to the word of G-d, and that only when G-d gave the signal did the four camps begin to travel. Once the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle and began to move forward, the priests sounded their silver trumpets, the Levites immediately began to dismantle the Tabernacle, and the various camps and tribes of Israel began to move.

Since Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, possessed great knowledge of the wilderness, Moses, in Numbers 10:29, appealed to Jethro to remain with the Israelites as they travel, and to serve as the peoples’ “eyes.”

For the very first time, the Torah, in Numbers 10:35-36, reports the Ark being lifted, leading the people in their journey.

Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the excitement that Moses most likely felt at the time of this inaugural journey. This was not a test run, but the actual fulfillment of a lifetime of dreams of Moses and all the People of Israel to enter the Promised Land. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that in this case there were “no delays, no procrastination, no ifs…It is going to happen right now, not tomorrow, right now, Nohs’im ah’nahch’noo–נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ, present tense, we are traveling now!” (Numbers 10:29). He [Moses] was certain that he would soon climb to the top of Mount Lebanon…there was no doubt about his destiny!

Moses and the Children of Israel were literally days away from fulfilling their dream. There was no need for scouts to reconnoiter the Promised Land or to assess the quality of its inhabitants.

Rashi quoting the Sifre notes that because the Al-mighty wanted to bring the people directly into the land of Israel, they miraculously traversed a distance that would normally take three days, in a single day.

But, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great dream of entering the land was not to be. This time it was not because of the worship of a Golden Calf or of any other idol, and not because of the failure of the spirit of the People of Israel who were taken in by the negative reports of the scouts. It was, because, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the people had apparently subtly adopted an alien way of life, a pagan way of life. More than G-d detests the idols themselves, He detests their way of life. Sooner or later, an intelligent person will realize that an idol is but wood and metal, empty of all content and meaning. The pagan way of life, however, has powerful deceitful attraction for its followers, leading to a decadent lifestyle and degenerate behavior.

What was the peoples’ sin that so changed the course of Jewish destiny?

When the people cried for meat and G-d brought them the Slav, the quail, the Torah in Numbers 11:32 reports, וַיָּקָם הָעָם כָּל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל הַלַּיְלָה וְכֹל יוֹם הַמָּחֳרָת, וַיַּאַסְפוּ אֶת הַשְּׂלָו, and the people rose up all that day and all the night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Obsessed with desire, the gluttonous people completely lost control. So uninhibited was their behavior that the wrath of G-d was kindled, resulting in the deaths of those who lusted. As Numbers 11:34 testifies, the peoples’ profligate actions were immortalized, and the place was to be known forever as קִבְרוֹת הַתַּאֲוָה, the Graves of those who Lusted.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the peoples’ behavior was particularly egregious because the Israelites had previously demonstrated that they knew how to act properly. He points out that the proper, Jewish way of satisfying desires, is portrayed in the Torah in Exodus 16. There Scripture reports that when the people hungered for food, G-d brought down the Heavenly bread, known as Manna. In Exodus 16:17-18, the Torah relates that when collecting the Manna, the People of Israel did as G-d had commanded them, וַיִּלְקְטוּ, הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט. וַיָּמֹדּוּ בָעֹמֶר וְלֹא הֶעְדִּיף הַמַּרְבֶּה, וְהַמַּמְעִיט לֹא הֶחְסִיר. אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ לָקָטוּ, Whoever took more and whoever took less, they measured an Omer. And whoever took more had nothing extra and whoever took less was not lacking; everyone according to what he eats had they gathered. Contrary to prevailing belief, true enjoyment can be achieved through economic limitedness rather than excess.

In stark contrast, when Moses saw the decadent behavior of the Jewish people who lusted for meat, he knew that not only were the people doomed, but that his dreams would be undone, as well. This generation would not enter the Holy Land and neither would Moses.

The verses, Numbers 10:35, וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, signaling the transport of the Ark, that was supposed to lead Moses and the people into the Promised Land, now leads them away from the Promised Land. That is why there are two inverted “Nuns” on either side of the verses. Jewish history became inverted. No longer can it be said, “Nos’eem ah’nach’noo,” we are surely traveling to the Promised Land as Moses had said previously with profound assurance.

The people must first rid themselves of the decadent pagan values. Only then, can they enter the Promised Land, the sensitive Holy Land that rejects unholy behavior.

May you be blessed.

Naso 5776-2016

“Reflections on the Meaning of Peace”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, includes the well-known “Priestly Blessings,” the brief but beautiful, threefold blessing that Moses instructs the Priests (Kohanim)–the children of Aaron, to bestow upon the People of Israel.

Known in Hebrew asבִּרְכַּת כֹּהֲנִים–Birchat Kohanim, the three verses (Numbers 6:24-26), that constitute this blessing consist of only fifteen words. The three blessings have a lyrical rhythmic form, and reflect a majestic solemnity.

According to the Talmud, Birchat Kohanim was one of the most impressive features of the service in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it still holds a prominent place in daily and holiday synagogue worship.

The first and briefest blessing (Numbers 6:24)(only three words) יְבָרֶכְךָ השׁם, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ, is the blessing that G-d will guard over Israel. The second blessing (Numbers 6:25) יָאֵר השׁם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ, is the blessing that G-d will shine His face on Israel and be gracious unto them. The final blessing (Numbers 6:26), יִשָּׂא השׁם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם, is the blessing that G-d lift up His countenance toward Israel and grant them peace.

The structure of the blessings indicates that the final blessing of peace is the ultimate blessing. The power of the blessing of peace can be better appreciated from the Talmudic statement in Uktzin 3:12, the concluding statement of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel that could better contain blessing for Israel except that of peace, as it is written, Psalm 29:11, “The L-rd will give strength onto His people. The L-rd will bless His people with peace.”

Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar, cited in Midrash Tanchuma 7, says that peace is great because G-d concludes all His blessings with the word, peace, “Shalom,” a reference to the final blessing of Numbers 6:26, May G-d lift up His countenance toward Israel and grant them peace.

The Da’at Sofrim asserts that after the first two blessings of the Priestly Blessings for G-d to guard His people and give them grace, the Priests must pray for G-d to lift His face to His people, because that gesture of “lifting His face”  is the most effective means of achieving Divine forgiveness for sin. While the promise of the second blessing to make His face shine is sufficient to achieve forgiveness for the righteous, it is not sufficient for the wicked. The blessing for G-d to lift His face is intended as a plea for G-d to lift the sins from off His people Israel, and to treat them with mercy beyond the letter of the law, granting them full forgiveness.

The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 17b tells the story of Bloria, a woman convert to Judaism, who asked Rabbi Gamliel: How can G-d show His people special consideration? After all, the Torah clearly says in Deuteronomy 10:17 that G-d does not lift His countenance to forgive those who are undeserving and is not subject to bribery. From this seeming contradiction, the well-known principle that is invoked on the High Holidays is derived–that G-d mercifully forgives only those who sin against Him. To gain forgiveness for sins committed against a fellow human being, one must first obtain forgiveness from the actual victim.

The Sifra in parashat Bechukotai 7, notes that a person may have prosperity, health, food and drink, but if there is no peace, it is all in vain. The concluding blessing must therefore be the blessing of peace assuring true tranquility.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz cites the British scholar  Rabbi Morris Joseph on his notes on the Priestly Blessing, who writes as follows:

Peace, say the Rabbis, is one of the pillars of the world; without it the social order could not exist. Therefore let a man do his utmost to promote it. Thus it is that the greatest sages made a point of being the first to salute passersby in the street. Peace is the burthen [burden] of prayer with which every service in the synagogue concludes; “May He who makes peace in His high heavens grant peace onto us.” The Jew who is true to himself will labor with special energy in the cause of peace. A war-loving Jew is a contradiction in terms. Only the peace-loving Jew is a true follower of his Prophets who said universal brotherhood in the forefront of their pictures of coming happiness for mankind, predicting the advent of a Golden Age when nations should not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war anymore.

The Midrash Rabba, Deuteronomy 5:15, states that the ultimate purpose of the entire Torah is to promote peace, as Solomon writes in the Book of Proverbs 3:17, Her [the Torah’s] paths are pleasant paths and all its ways are peace.

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5776-2016

“A Tiny Letter Conveys a Profound Lesson”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, is the opening Torah portion of the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, also known as the Book of Numbers. Much of the Book of Bamidbar deals with the laws and history of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which served as the center of the people’s life during their years in the wilderness.

The Ramban suggests that the reason that the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were placed in the center of the people’s camp was to serve as a Heavenly substitute, representing the perpetual presence of “Mount Sinai” at the center of the people.

A good part of parashat Bamidbar speaks of Israel’s life in the wilderness and the special duties assigned to the Levites.

The Book of Bamidbar opens with G-d speaking to Moses on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the Exodus, telling Moses to count the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, according to their families, their fathers’ households and by the number of names. Every man, twenty years old and older who is qualified to serve in the army of Israel, is to be counted.

A representative leader of each of the twelve tribes joined Moses and Aaron to conduct the national census. When listing the names of the leaders of each tribe, the leader of the tribe of Gad is identified in Numbers 1:14 as, לְגָד, אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן דְּעוּאֵל, for the tribe of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel.

The commentators raise an issue regarding the leader’s name. In the very next chapter, in Numbers 2:14, when the camp’s setup and structure are described, the prince of the tribe of Gad is identified with a slight change as, אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן רְעוּאֵל, Eliasaph the son of Reuel, not “Deuel.”

Nachmanides suggests that Eliasaph’s father had two names, “Deuel,” which indicates that he knew G-d, and “Reuel,” indicating that he constantly imagined G-d in his heart. Scripture preserved both names in order to convey that both these special qualities were found in Eliasaph’s father.

The Radak says that both names are actually identical. He attributes the change to the fact that both the Hebrew letters, ד–“dalet” and ר–“raysh,” are graphically similar, and are consequently often interchanged. Therefore, some people pronounce the name דְּעוּאֵל–“Deuel” while others pronounce it רְעוּאֵל–“Reuel.” The Torah preserves both names in order to underscore that both names are essentially the same.

Some commentators identify “Reuel” as Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.  After all, Reuel (Exodus 2:18) was one of Jethro’s seven names. The Baalei Tosafot contend that after he converted, Jethro’s name was formally changed to “Deuel,” indicating that Jethro knew G-d. The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to explain why the child of a convert is listed as the leader of the tribe of Gad. After all, the “default” tribe for converts is the tribe of Judah.

The Imrei Noam , cited by Pninim ahl HaTorah, says that the change of names comes to teach an important ethical lesson. The Midrash states that the tribe of Dan, who was the firstborn child of Zilpah (Leah’s handmaiden), was given a great honor and was designated to lead an entire דֶּגֶל–degel (banner), that included the tribes of Asher and Naphtali. Gad, who was the first born child of Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaiden), after all, could have easily protested why Dan was given the honor of leading a banner of three tribes and not Gad. Therefore, because Eliasaph was prepared to concede and forego the deserved honor, and did not complain, his father’s name was changed to “Reuel,” which means, רֵעַ אֵ־ל–“Ray’ah Kayl,” a friend of G-d, just like Moses. One who avoids disputes, and is willing to forego a truly deserved honor, is considered to be a true friend of G-d. Additionally, although the exact place of Moses’ burial is not known, he is buried in the territory of Gad, on the east bank of the Jordan.

Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein tells the story of a young man who, because of a great act of generosity in his youth, was given many wonderful rewards in his life, becoming a great scholar and marrying a truly exceptional woman. His unusually good fortune was attributed to the fact that when he was about to become Bar Mitzvah, another young boy had his Bar Mitzvah scheduled for the exact same date. When the rabbi suggested that they pick a lottery, which he won, he chose not to have the Bar Mitzvah in that shul, allowing the other child to have the Bar Mitzvah, and instead celebrated his own Bar Mitzvah at a distant shul.

In Hebrew and in Rabbinic literature the quality of giving up what is justifiably due one is known as וַתְּרָן–“Vatran,” one who is willing to give up what is legitimately coming to him, yielding and compromising on what is rightfully his. The acquiescent person thus acknowledges that there is a Higher Power in charge, and that this is the way it’s meant to be.

This important lesson is all derived from the slight change of spelling in the name of Deuel, the father of Eliasaph.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed on Saturday evening, June 4th through Sunday night, June 5th. This year marks the 49th anniversary of the reunification of the holy city.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3328 years ago will be observed this year on Saturday evening, June 11th, and continue through Monday night, June 13th, 2016.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Bechukotai 5776-2016

“The Tochaycha–G-d’s Daunting Reproof of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, contains the first of two Tochaychot–תּוֹכֵחוֹת, G-d’s reproofs or admonitions of the People of Israel, which are contained in the Torah. The latter Tochaycha–תּוֹכֵחָה is found in parashat Kee Tavo, Deuteronomy 28:1-68.

The Tochaycha in parashat Bechukotai differs from the one in parashat Kee Tavo in the following ways. The message in Bechukotai is in the plural, and is delivered by G-d to the People of Israel, including Moses, who is in the midst of the people.

The Tochaycha in parashat Kee Tavo, however, delivered in G-d’s name by Moses, is formulated in the Hebrew singular. For example, Deuteronomy 28:34 states, וְהָיִיתָ מְשֻׁגָּע מִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה, and you (singular) will be driven mad by what your (singular) eyes behold. Whereas, in Bechukotai, G-d speaks in the Hebrew plural directly to all the people, declaring, in Leviticus 26:4, וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם, I will provide your rains in their proper times. The word “your” is in the Hebrew plural form, and is directed to the entire nation, rather than individuals.

The Tochaycha in parashat Bechukotai opens with a series of blessings, that is followed by a long list of dire warnings and, if the people fail to heed G-d’s words, potential curses. A number of commentaries, including the Ibn Ezra note that while the blessings found in the opening section of the Tochaycha are fewer in number than the threats and curses, the blessings are of significantly greater quality. The purpose of the long list of curses is to instill fear in the people’s hearts and to keep them from sinning.

The opening blessings of the Tochaycha in Bechukotai are both inspiring and majestic, suggesting G-d’s reluctance to chastise His people. The Al-mighty promises, in Leviticus 26:11-12, וְנָתַתִּי מִשְׁכָּנִי בְּתוֹכְכֶם, וְלֹא תִגְעַל נַפְשִׁי אֶתְכֶם. וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בְּתוֹכְכֶם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵא-לֹקִים, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי לְעָם, I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst; I will be your G-d and you shall be My people.

The sudden transition to the curses is dramatic and fear-provoking. The Torah in Leviticus 26:21 warns, וְאִם תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי, וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, If you remain hostile (קֶרִי–keh’ree) toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. The Al-mighty will allow wild beasts to attack the people and bereave the nation of their children and wipe out their cattle. He shall decimate them, and their roads shall become deserted.

The Hebrew word “keh’ree,” found in Leviticus 26:21, appears nowhere else in the Bible in that form and reflects the people’s disobedience. The commentators wrestle with its meaning. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman interprets it to mean that the people will act at “cross purposes” with G-d, doing the opposite of what He commands. They will behave like children who, claiming their autonomy, do the opposite of what their parents have instructed.

Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra maintain that the word “keh’ree” is derived from the Hebrew word mikreh–מִקְרֶה, chance. It suggests that the people follow G-d’s words only when it is convenient, or when things work out favorably, rather than acting properly and consistently out of faith or love.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter  suggests that the Hebrew root of the word “keh’ree” is kor–קוֹר, cold, expressing G-d’s disappointment with the lack of passion with which the people perform the mitzvot. When the people do fulfill the Divine commandments, they do so perfunctorily, coldly, in a calculated manner and without feeling, draining the mitzvot of their religious value.

In response, the Al-mighty declares, Leviticus 26:24, that if the people observe without love, G-d will act toward the people “b’keh’ree,” coldly, without love, making forgiveness for their misbehavior more difficult.

The Midrash Sifra notes the repetition of the phrase, “Sevenfold for your sins,” is found in both Leviticus 26:18 and 26:21. The Sifra maintains that this repetition indicates that the people will experience a seven-step process as they draw away from the Al-mighty. These steps are alluded to by the wording of the Torah’s reproof:

  1. The people will cease learning Torah.
  2. Because of their lack of education and ignorance, the people will come to believe that the commandments are a matter of personal choice rather than moral obligations.
  3. The people will resent those who study and practice, because of the guilt they feel due to their own lack of commitment.
  4. In order to make themselves feel less guilty they will prevent others from fulfilling the commandments.
  5. They will ultimately deny that the commandments are of Divine origin.
  6. This will lead the people to deny the existence of a covenant between G-d and Israel.
  7. The people will ultimately deny the existence of G-d.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9, that there is nothing new under the sun. Examining the seven steps of disengagement, it is difficult to ignore the fact that many of these same actions are taking place today before our very eyes in our own times. The root of apostasy is the vast Jewish illiteracy and the tragic lack of even a basic Jewish education. The illiteracy inevitably leads to a total rejection of G-d and of the traditional way of Jewish life.

What then is the proper Jewish response to the Tochaycha?

Those who desire to see a bright Jewish future must be passionate about Jewish learning. They cannot be casual! They must strive to establish the best schools with the finest teachers for the children, and provide all Jewish children with positive, joyous, Jewish experiences. We cannot overdose on Judaism.

Our dear friend and supporter, Mr. Sam Domb, a passionate advocate for Jewish education recently said that if we fail to pay now for quality Jewish education, we will have to pay Rabbi Buchwald later to help bring our estranged children back. While NJOP would welcome greater support, we certainly do not wish to receive it under those trying circumstances.

Those who truly care, must not compromise on either the quality or quantity of education. If we do, we will be visited with the same horrors that we read of in parashat Bechukotai. The writing on the wall is very clear. By sincerely devoting ourselves to ensure a proper Jewish education for every Jewish child and for ourselves as well, we can spare ourselves grave agony.

May you be blessed.

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.