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Kee Tavo 5775-2015

“Making The Final Commitment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses continues to deliver his final message to the Jewish people.

Shortly before they would enter the Promised Land, Moses calls all the people together, including the elders, to affirm their commitment to G-d and to His Torah.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 27:1, reports,וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הָעָם לֵאמֹר,  שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם, Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.” The people were then instructed to inscribe the entire Torah on twelve huge stones, and bring offerings on Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal (see Re’eh 5768-2008), where they were to affirm their loyalty to G-d.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz writes in Da’at Sofrim that from this point in the Torah until the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses conveys a special message to the Children of Israel. Moses now emphasizes that upon their arrival in Canaan, a land that is currently bereft of holiness and abounding in evil, the people will have a singular responsibility to transform it into a Holy land.

Moses describes, in the name of the living G-d, what the future will bring, both the good and the evil, a future that will be both encouraging and intimidating. During part of these admonitions, Moses is joined by Joshua, the elders, the priests and Levites, who will be replacing Moses when he passes on and who will serve as the new teachers and instructors of the people.

Despite the fact that Moses was joined by the elders on many previous occasions, the new mentors are mentioned again at this juncture because until now these newly anointed leaders were seen by the people only as disciples of Moses. In this way, the People of Israel would grow accustomed to the fact that the new teachers have now assumed the primary responsibility of leadership.

As noted above, Moses begins his message by declaring,שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם, observe the entire commandment that I command you this day–using the infinitive form of the word “Shamor,” to guard.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes, that now that the Torah has been given, it is the people’s responsibility to “guard it.”

It is now necessary for the people

to ensure that it [the Torah] is constantly studied and known and carried out, and, moreover, this is not to be the task just of the leaders and elders, the representatives of the nation, but of the whole people as well. Each one separately and all together are responsible for it. That is why Moses took the “Elders of Israel” at his side and placed the whole nation under the obligation to keep the Torah. But he called the now completed Torah “Mitzvah”-one commandment, [implying that] all the laws together form the one mission for which Israel was appointed to fulfill its world-historic “task.”

Rabbi Rabinowitz in Daat Sofrim, notes that the Torah uses the infinitive form of the Hebrew word “Shamor,” because the message is not only intended for the people of the current generation who actually heard Moses’ words, or to any specific group of people, but to all future generations who must become learned in the Mitzvot. The use of the singular form “mitzvah,” rather than plural word “mitzvot”-commandments, is understood by Rabbi Rabinowitz to further underscore that all mitzvot are of equal value.

The choice of the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” that is in the singular in this context, may be better understood from a lesson that is learned from the Jewish conversion process. During the conversion interview the prospective convert is asked a series of questions: Do you renounce any other faith that you may have observed previously? Do you know that the People of Israel are reviled and persecuted people? Are you prepared to join in their fate? Do you agree to observe the entire Torah, both the major mitzvot and minor mitzvot, all those that you already know, and those that you have yet to learn?

The Torah in this verse uses the singular form of the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” in order to convey a powerful message to Israel. Moses, in the name of G-d, instructs the people to observe the entire Torah as if it were a single mitzvah. The generation that is about to enter the land of Israel, who saw all the miracles, must observe all the mitzvot at once. While one can “study” the separate procedures that are part of the process of manufacturing a particular machine, in order to operate the machine it is necessary to know the function of all the parts to make them work together.

The Torah’s emphasis is not just on emotions and feelings, but on observance. Even if one fails to master all the Torah, a commitment must be made to those mitzvot that are “not yet” understood and remain to be wrestled with and resolved. It’s not enough to feel like a good Jew in one’s heart, one has to live, act, behave and practice Jewishly.

Many years ago, I attended a wedding that took place at the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights. As part of the veiling ceremony, the bride’s face was covered with a very thick, opaque veil. Two women behind me were rather offended by the ceremony, and thought that the use of the thick veil was absolutely primitive and barbaric, all the while making loud snide comments about this Chassidic custom.

Coming from the Bronx, I could not restrain myself. I turned and said hostilely to one of the women, “Lady, had this ceremony been taking place on the Himalayas with the guru presiding, you would have said ‘Oh how quaint, how interesting, I wonder what it means?’ But, because it’s a Jewish wedding, you have nothing but disdain for it!” The woman responded, first addressing me as, “Young man,”–something that was true 30 years ago, and saying, “I’ll have you know that I feel like a very good Jew in my heart!”

At that point, I should have simply stifled, and walked away. But, then again, I am from the Bronx. I growled at her and said, “Lady, feeling like a good Jew in your heart, doesn’t make you any more a good Jew, than feeling like an astronaut in your heart puts you on the moon!” Needless to say she did not appreciate my “clever” response.

Truthfully, feeling like a good Jew in one’s heart is very important. But, it is simply not enough. To be part of Jewish eternity, one must be a knowledgeable Jew, not simply a “cardiac” Jew. It is important to master as much information as possible about the Jewish life and Jewish law so that one can practice and participate in Jewish life intelligently and meaningfully.

Perhaps another understanding of the Torah’s use of the singular word “mitzvah”-commandment here means that all observance should be regarded in one’s eyes as if there were one single mitzvah. One must not allow oneself to become overwhelmed by stressing all 613 commandments and the numerous derivative commandments. Focus on one at a time, and do the best you can.

This was the message that Moses conveyed 3,328 years ago. It is as fresh and as relevant today as it was then.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5775-2015

“When a Brother Dies Childless”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn the law of the “levirate marriage,” known in Hebrew as יִבּוּם, “Yee’boom.” “Yee’boom” is the obligation of the surviving brother of a man who died without leaving children to betroth his brother’s widow and bear children, in order to perpetuate his late brother’s name and memory.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 25:5 states, כִּי יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם, וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ, לֹא תִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁת הַמֵּת הַחוּצָה לְאִישׁ זָר, יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ When brothers dwell together and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the deceased shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform levirate marriage.

Scripture then states that the firstborn child shall perpetuate the name of the deceased brother, so that his memory will not be blotted out from Israel.

However, if the surviving brother does not wish to marry his widowed sister-in-law, then a ceremony that is known as חֲלִיצָה “Chah’lee’tzah,” is performed, releasing him from the betrothal obligation. As part of the ceremony, the widow removes a special shoe that was placed on the foot of her brother-in-law and spits in front of him, saying, “So is done to the man who will not build the house of his brother.”

In general, the Torah prohibits a man from marrying his brother’s wife. However, it is considered an act of great kindness to try to perpetuate the deceased brother’s memory.

Apparently, the custom of the levirate marriage goes back to great antiquity. During the period of the patriarchs, the Torah in Genesis 38 tells of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, who, when her first husband died, was betrothed to his surviving brother. Her second husband, who did not want to impregnate Tamar to perpetuate his brother’s memory, also dies because he was evil in G-d’s eyes.

Since Talmudic times the practice of Ashkenazi Jews has been to perform “Chah’lee’tzah” rather than “Yee’boom.” Chah’lee’tzah is preferred because betrothing the brother’s widow can lead to suspicion that it is being done for personal gain (financial, romantic or physical), rather than out of a desire to fulfill the commandment.

Thus, the practice of “Yee’boom” has been discontinued in Ashkenazic communities. Today, surviving brothers are required to separate themselves from their brother’s widow through “Chah’lee’tzah.” The Chief Rabbinate in Israel has also forbidden the practice of “Yee’boom,” even among Sephardic communities who used to practice it.

There are several interesting technical details regarding the ritual of “Yee’boom.” “Yee’boom” is only required to be performed among brothers who are born to the same father. If the deceased man had children with another woman, “Yee’boom” is not required. If the deceased had no brothers at the time of his death, but a brother was born after his death, that brother is freed from the obligation of “Yee’boom.” If a child was born during the deceased’s lifetime, but then died, there is also no requirement of “Yee’boom.” If the widow is barren and not capable of giving birth, again there is no requirement of “Yee’boom.”

In times when “Yee’boom” was practiced, the court was required in each instance to speak to the surviving brother to determine the best course of action. Under most circumstances, the court would try to persuade the surviving brother to fulfil the commandment of “Yee’boom.” But if they felt that the couple was incompatible, “Chah’lee’tzah” would be recommended.

Rabbeinu Bachya, explains that during the “Chah’lee’tzah” ceremony, having the widow remove the shoe from the brother who refuses to perform the levirate marriage is regarded as a sign of mourning. Since the surviving brother has now demonstrated that he does not desire to keep his deceased brother’s spiritually alive, his brother is now irrevocably dead.

Sforno explains that by spitting on the ground in front of the surviving brother, the widow demonstrates contempt for the man who refuses to perpetuate the memory of her late husband.

The Abarbanel explains that every human being seeks immortality which can be attained in both a spiritual and physical manner. Procreation is the only means of physical immortality, and as such, the soul of a man who dies childless descends into despair, because the soul no longer has a physical vessel. The loss of the physical vessel can be repaired by the birth of a child who will be identified as the son of the deceased. Hence, the levirate marriage results in the closest approximation of physical immortality for the deceased.

Through the remarkable institution of “Yee’boom,” the Torah, in its inimitable way, attempts to sanctify the life of a human being—-even one who is no longer alive.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5775-2015

“Idolatrous Trees and Unqualified Judges”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn of the prohibition of planting forbidden trees and erecting forbidden pillars near a Jewish house of worship.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:21-22 states, לֹא תִטַּע לְךָ אֲשֵׁרָה כָּל עֵץ אֵצֶל מִזְבַּח השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ. וְלֹא תָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, You shall not plant for yourself an idolatrous tree–-any tree–-near the altar of the L-rd your G-d, that you shall make for yourself. And you shall not erect for yourself a pillar, which the L-rd your G-d hates.

Nachmanides states that an אֲשֵׁרָה “Ah’shay’rah,” a forbidden tree, has two meanings. 1. Because idolaters would landscape their temples in order to attract worshipers, an “Ah’shay’rah” may be a tree that is intended for worship whether it is meant to be worshiped immediately, or at some future time, or by someone else; 2. “Ah’shay’rah” could also mean any kind of tree planted near the Temple altar.

Just as the prohibition of “Ah’shay’rah” forbids the planting of any type of tree near a house of worship, similarly, it is forbidden to construct a pillar of stone in order to mark a place of worship. This is true even if the intention is to use the stone for the worship of the G-d of Israel.

The The Alshich raises a question regarding those who plant a tree or establish a pillar. If their intention in planting a tree or placing a pillar is not to serve as a signpost for the people to their pagan temples, as was the motive of the idol worshipers, but rather to beautify the grounds of the Temple, are those who plant a tree or erect a pillar in violation of the prohibitions? The Alschich states that this too is clearly prohibited, because although these actions may seem innocuous at this point, these objects may eventually lead to pagan worship. Small gestures that start out as acts of beautification, or to mark the location, often begin the process of drifting away from Judaism and result in pagan worship. Thus, a pretty tree or a small stone marker may eventually lead to much more serious deviations resulting in total apostasy.

Nachmanides prohibits the placing of a tree or pillar near any house of worship, not only the holy Temple in Jerusalem. No matter how harmless these symbols may seem to be, all places of Jewish worship must be free from any such symbols and foreign religious influences.

The rabbis wonder why the prohibitions of planting forbidden trees and establishing idolatrous pillars follow in the scriptural text immediately after the opening verses of parashat Shoftim regarding appointing judges and officers. In Deuteronomy 16:18, the Torah states, שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ, Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities. The juxtaposition of those two themes lead the sages in Talmud Avoda Zarah 52a to conclude that appointing an unqualified judge is tantamount to planting an idolatrous tree.

The commentators suggest that in much the same way as an unqualified judge compromises the notion of justice, so too do planting an idolatrous tree or raising a pillar near a house of worship distort the whole idea of spiritualism and religion.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber cited by Peninim on the Torah, suggests that just as a beautiful “Ah’shay’rah” tree conceals its impurity, making it difficult to recognize its foreign idolatrous purpose, so does an incompetent and unsuitable judge obscure his inability to render proper legal decisions. This is particularly true in the case of judges who are brilliant intellectuals and scholars but lack a refined character and are bereft of sincere internal piety.

Peninim on the Torah also cites Harav Moishe Sternbuch who suggests that the pagan custom of using trees to add external beauty to their temples is not necessary in Jewish houses of worship. In fact, the inner beauty of these structures, characterized by Torah study and prayer, far exceeds any potential external beauty. Similarly, it is the internal piety and righteousness of the scholar that represent the ultimate qualifications of a judge. No fancy titles or degrees are necessary to enhance such a judge’s qualifications.

It is clear that the Torah is far less concerned with external esthetics and is far more concerned with the inner substance and what takes place inside the synagogues and the courts of laws.

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5775-2015

“The Prohibition of Eating the Limb of a Live Animal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, contains 55 mitzvot–17 positive and 38 negative commandments. It is ranked third in the number of mitzvot contained in a weekly Torah portion.

In Deuteronomy 12:20, the Torah enumerates the laws concerning the slaughter of animals for food, which is followed by a warning against the consumption of blood. In Deuteronomy 12:23, the Torah states, רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ, וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר, Only be strong not to eat the blood–for the blood, it is the life–and you shall not eat the life with the meat.

Rashi notes that,  in Sifre 76, Rabbi Yehuda concludes that since Moses had to warn the people to be strong, it must have been a very common practice for people to eat blood in those days. Ben Azzai, however, considers this to be a general exhortation to the people underscoring the importance for Jews to strengthen themselves in the performance of mitzvot. Ben Azzai comes to this conclusion by reasoning that if Moses had to warn the people about avoiding the consumption of blood, which is so repugnant, how much more must the people strengthen their resolve to avoid forbidden activities that are truly tempting.

Rashi concludes, that the words at the end of the verse, “And you shall not eat the soul with the meat,” is a negative commandment, warning the people of the prohibition of אֵבֶר מִן הַחַי “Ay’vehr min ha’chai,” against eating a limb that was detached from an animal that was alive. “Not eating the soul with the meat,” means that one may not eat the meat while the soul is still in it.

The prohibition of “Ay’vehr min ha’chai,” eating the limb that was detached from a living animal, is one of the seven cardinal commandments known as the “Noahide Laws,” which were given to all humanity in the times of Noah. These seven commandments, derived from the verses in Genesis 9:1-17, are traditionally enumerated as: 1. Prohibition of idol worship; 2. Against blaspheming G-d; 3. Against murder; 4. Against incest and adultery; 5. Against stealing; 6. Against eating a live animal; 7. Establishing courts of law and legal systems, to ensure civil order.

The Noahide prohibition of eating an animal’s limb while it is still alive is derived from the verse in Genesis 9:4, אַך בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלו, but flesh with its soul, its blood you shall not eat.

These seven laws, considered the fundamental common standards of human behavior, were given to humankind on the heels of the great flood in Noah’s time, when humans and animals were entirely corrupt in G-d’s eyes.

According to tradition, there is a difference between the prohibitions that pertain to Jews with regard to eating the limb of a live animal and those that apply to non-Jews. Jews are only prohibited to eat limbs of a live kosher animal, while the gentile prohibition applies to all animals. (Of course, Jews are forbidden to eat all non-Kosher animals whether alive or dead!)

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch states that one is not permitted to eat a limb torn from a living animal because of the exceeding cruelty involved. One who cuts off a piece of flesh or tears a limb off of a living animal and eats that flesh or limb, is punishable with lashes.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch declares boldly that eating an animal’s limb while it is still alive is the greatest cruelty in the world. He advises that those who wish to develop positive moral characteristics must first eschew the evil ones. Those who practice positive practices will cling to such practices and perforce behave in moral and ethical ways.

Almost all the commentators agree with the reasoning of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch, and explain that the purpose of the prohibition of eating the limb of an animal while it is still alive, is to assure that humankind will refrain from any act of unspeakable cruelty and inhumanity to animals. Maimonides adds that eating a living animal was a popular heathen practice that must not be imitated by Jews.

The great commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that, “Just as you are not to consume the blood in which the soul has its foremost representative, so you are not to eat the meat at a time when the soul is still in connection with it, in which the [animal’s] joint you are taking for consumption is still under the mastery of the soul.”

Thousands of years before the idea of not causing undue pain to animals was introduced to the Western world, the Torah warned Jews, and even non-Jews, about eating a limb torn from a living animal because of the exceeding cruelty involved.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5775-2015

“‘D’vay’kut’–Bonding with the Al-mighty”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, we read of the deeply spiritual mitzvah of דְּבֵקוּת “D’vay’kut,” of clinging to, or bonding with, G-d.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 10:20 states: אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ תִּירָא, אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד, וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק, וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָּׁבֵעַ, The L-rd your G-d shall you fear, Him shall you serve, to Him shall you cleave, and in His name shall you swear.

At first blush, the idea of clinging to G-d seems to be rather esoteric and mystical, and certainly, not easily accomplished. Truth is, that the idea of clinging to G-d,

D’vay’kut,” was originally thought to be almost impossible to achieve. But, with the evolution of time, its meaning over the years has become increasingly mystical, and more ways of achieving “D’vay’kut” with the Al-mighty have emerged as well.

Maimonides forcefully asserts that it is not possible for a mortal being to cling to G-d, Who does not possess physical form. Instead he concludes that what is meant by this mitzvah, is that every person must seek out, and cling to rabbis, sages and judges, who promote “G-dliness.”.

The common interpretation of the idea of “D’vay’kut,” which is held by the author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch and the Recanati is that, as Maimonides says, this refers becoming close with sages and to those who are pious.

The Recanati maintains, that by clinging to the sage who lives by G-d’s Torah, we come as close as possible to clinging to G-d. Even though we are not directly clinging to G-d, in this way we cling to G-d’s way of life. When we are in close contact with the pious and the sages, we learn how to live in the way that G-d would like us to live. By treating others with kindness and mercy, we mirror G-d’s relationhip with human beings.

The idea of “D’vay’kut,” is found prominently several times in scripture. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:4 states in the well-known verse, וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּהשׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, And you who cling to the L-rd your G-d–you are all alive today. The Psalmist, in 63:9 sings out, דָּבְקָה נַפְשִׁי אַחֲרֶיךָ, בִּי תָּמְכָה יְמִינֶךָ, My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.

The Talmud in Tractate Sotah 14a, cites Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina, who comments on a similar verse in Deuteronomy 13:5: אַחֲרֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן, With the L-rd your G-d shall you walk, and Him shall you fear: His commandments shall you observe, and to His voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave.

Rabbi Hanina says that it is impossible to walk after the Divine Presence, except by emulating His characteristics. What then is meant when it is written that “You shall walk after the L-ord your G-d,” after all, G-d is a consuming fire? Rather, one should emulate the characteristics of G-d. Just as He clothes the naked, so should you dress the naked. Just as G-d visits the sick, so should you visit the sick. Just as G-d comforts the mourners, so should you comfort the mourners. Just as G-d buries the dead, so should you bury the dead.

The idea communicated here is that the concept of bonding with G-d and following in His footsteps means to imitate the many positive attributes of the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra claims that it is not only with one’s behavior that one must cling to G-d, but also with heart and mind.

The Alshich says that clinging to G-d can serve as a counterbalance for those who have sinned and have run from G-d, perhaps to avoid feelings of guilt. When those estranged from G-d begin to cling to G-d and internalize His virtues, they are then capable to again become one with G-d.

In more recent times, the RaMCHaL, in his book, Derech Hashem, argues that as people strive to become perfect in their actions, deeds and qualities, they become closer to G-d. Clinging to G-d does not come through some abstract thought about G-d, but is achieved, rather, when people contemplate and strive to improve their own deeds.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865-1935) asserts that it is impossible to cling to the Divine Presence, unless we cling to the Al-mighty’s paths.

In contemporary times the most popular idea of “D’vay’kut” has become closely associated with sacred music. Soft, slow, emotional songs, that speak of the goodness of G-d, have become a great source of spiritual empowerment, leading those who allow the message of the music to penetrate, achieve a feeling of oneness with the Al-mighty. For those who are able to achieve this exalted spiritually, there is, at once, a powerful embrace of love and passion between the human being and G-d.

It is the ethereal gift of music that is capable of penetrating directly to the inner essence of humankind, which has the ability to passionately unite the human soul with the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5775-2015

“Do Not Add…and Do Not Detract”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we learn of the fascinating and complex mitzvah of not adding or detracting from the mitzvot of the Torah.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:2 states, לֹא תֹסִפוּ עַל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, לִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְו‍ֹת השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of the L-rd, your G-d, that I command you.

The book of Deuteronomy repeats many laws that were recorded in previous books of the Torah. In this manner, Moses, in the last days of his life, hopes to inspire the people of Israel to faithfully observe the entire Torah. He, therefore, reviews some of the commandments with the people, and introduces a number of new laws that had never before been taught.

One of the new concepts introduced by Moses is the prohibition of not adding or detracting from the Torah. Since the Al-mighty is perfect and His Torah is perfect, adding or subtracting from the commandments of the Torah implies that the Torah is, in some way, deficient.

In parashat Re’eh, this same mitzvah is repeated, but there it is articulated in the singular (see Re’eh 5766-2006). In Deuteronomy 13:1, the Torah states, אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ, The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it. Once again, G-d states that the Torah is complete and perfect and that it is offensive in G-d’s eyes for anyone to seek to improve it by adding new commandments, or by removing any of His commandments.

Some commentators suggest that the plural version in parashat Va’etchanan is intended for the judges of the Sanhedrin–the Supreme Court of Israel. Even these important leaders, with all of their knowledge and authority, dare not add or subtract from the words of the Torah. On the other hand, the singular version, in parashat Re’eh, is directed at individual Israelites.

Perhaps the best-known instance of “not adding” and its consequences, is found early in the book of Genesis. When the cunning serpent tries to seduce the woman to eat of the forbidden fruit, the woman replies to the serpent, Genesis 3:3, וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן אָמַר אֱלֹקִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ,  פֶּן תְּמֻתוּן, Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden, G-d has said: “You shall neither eat it or touch it, lest you die.” While the command from the Al-mighty was only not to eat of the tree, Eve added the prohibition of not touching the tree.

Rashi citing the Midrash, says that after hearing the woman’s reply, the serpent pushed Eve against the tree, and said, “Just as you did not die from touching it [the tree], so shall you not die from eating it.” In this way the serpent convinced Eve that she would not die, making her believe that the threat of death was merely G-d’s attempt to intimidate her not to eat. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 29a, sums up this principle with the pithy statement, כָּל הַמּוֹסִיף גּוֹרֵעַ, anyone who adds, actually detracts.

The prohibition of adding is known in Rabbinic literature as, בַּל תּוֹסִיף, “Bal Toh’sif,” not to add. The prohibition against detracting is known as בַּל תִּגֽרַע,“Bal Tigrah.” Prominent examples presented in the Talmud are that priests are not permitted to publicly bless the people and add an additional blessing of their own to the tripartite blessing that was given by Moses. One may not add a fifth parchment scroll to the Tefillin, a fifth species to the Lulav and Etrog or a fifth fringe on the corner of one’s garment. Similarly, prominent examples of “Bal Tigrah” are that one may not omit one of the priestly blessings or reduce the parchment scrolls of the Tefillin or eliminate one of the species of Lulav and Etrog or one of the fringes on one’s garment.

However, it is not a violation of the prohibition of “Bal Toh’sif,” to sleep in the Sukkah for an eighth day, unless it is done in order to observe an additional day of Sukkot. Similarly, it is not a violation of the prohibition of adding, to eat Matzah after Passover is over. It is even permissible to have one etrog to use for the blessing on Sukkot and a second Etrog for display and for beauty.

Similarly, it is not a violation of the mitzvah of “not adding,” for those who live in the diaspora to observe an additional “diaspora day” on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Even though today we know the actual time of the festival, the additional day is intended to strengthen the meaningfulness of the festival and intensify the level of holiday observance outside of Israel.

In his analysis of this mitzvah, Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni suggests the following hypothetical conversation: A person is asked by his neighbor, “Why do you need so many mitzvot?” He responds, “Why do you need such long intestines?” While we may not know the exact details of the physiology of the human body, we believe that the body is created in a proper way, so too is the Torah created complete and perfect.

The Ramban, noted by Nachshoni, states that תַּקָּנוֹת, “Takanot,” decrees and גְּדֵרִים, “Gedayrim,” fences, established by the rabbis to prevent Jews from violating the Torah, are also not included in the prohibition of not adding to the Torah.

The Dubno Maggid, the most famous of the Eastern European maggidim–itinerant preachers) offers a charming parable to better explain this prohibition. A person lent a wooden spoon to a neighbor and when the neighbor returned the spoon, he brought an extra little spoon. When the lender asked why the extra spoon, his friend responded that while the spoon was in his possession it gave birth to a baby spoon.

Each time the neighbor borrowed a utensil, he would return the utensil with a miniature version of the original utensil, claiming that the utensil had given birth. Finally, on one occasion the neighbor borrowed a very valuable silver candelabra. The owner was only too happy to lend the candelabra, hoping that he would gain a valuable baby candelabra when the original was returned.

When the neighbor did not return the candelabra, the owner came to him demanding his candelabra. The neighbor then told him the sad news that the candelabra had died while it was in his possession. Incredulous, the owner says, “How can a candelabra die?” The neighbor responded, “Well if a spoon can give birth, then a candelabra can die!”

The Dubno Maggid explains that the Torah is a gift from the Al-mighty. If one is able to add to it, he can also detract from it. However, if a person believes that the Torah is truly Divine and originates from Heaven, he will not dare change it, by adding or detracting.

May you be blessed.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי, “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, July 30th and 31st, 2015. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here)

Devarim 5775-2015

“Looking Through the Pain, Toward a Bright Future”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, the book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy.

As the name “Deuteronomy” suggests, much of the contents of Devarim is a repetition of what is found in previous books of the Torah. Nevertheless, there are still more than 70 laws in the book of Devarim that are entirely new (See Devarim 5765-2005). The book of Devarim is seen by traditional commentators as the “last will and testament” of Moses to Israel, spoken during the final five weeks of his life.

At the core of Moses’ message is the centrality of the covenant that G-d made with the Jewish people at Choreb (Sinai), and the peoples’ obligations that flow from that covenant. Although Moses reiterates themes that he had previously pronounced, he particularly emphasizes the importance and uniqueness of the monotheistic belief in the oneness of G-d, and that the Al-mighty serves as the Master of all.

Because G-d is to be the object of Israel’s love and undivided loyalty, the prohibition against idolatry is frequently repeated, as is the prohibition of engaging in magic and sorcery. In order to confirm Israel’s love for G-d, the people are given basic obligations and a set of meaningful ordinances that they are expected to observe with a whole heart. As a reward for loving and obeying G-d, the people will be exalted above all nations. The uniqueness of Israel is not because they are better or superior to others, but rather that the teachings of the Torah, which is their singular possession, makes the Children of Israel special.

It is for this reason that G-d will protect the people who became His partner in the Covenant at Sinai. If, however, the People of Israel violate their oath of loyalty, the price of perfidy will be great. Heaven and earth will come to testify against Israel for their wanton deeds and faithless actions.

Realizing that he has very little time to convey his message to the Children of Israel before he departs from this world, Moses speaks with much love, and hope for the future. His message is filled with great optimism regarding the fruits that will blossom and abound in the Promised Land, and of the enemies who will fall before Israel in battle.

Nevertheless, Moses strongly warns the children not to follow in the wanton footsteps of their stiff-necked parents. He, therefore, recounts the instances where the previous generation, who came out of Egypt, failed the test of loyalty and rebelled against G-d. Moses spoke harshly about the rebels of the previous generation, but to their children, he spoke softly, not wanting to demoralize the new generation.

Moses’ harsh attitude toward the older generation reflects his belief that he has been punished because of the rebelliousness of the People of Israel. He is bitter and bereft and cannot forgive them. Yet he rises to the occasion, to convey a message of hope, redemption and victory to the new generation.

It is this message of hope that is so important to the Jewish people today, especially in light of the ominous “three weeks” period of mourning, which will conclude with the fast of Tisha B’Av on Sunday, July 26, 2015. Moses, who has endured more than forty years of hardship and struggle, who will never himself experience the redemption by entering the land of Israel, and who has every reason to be angry and bitter, nevertheless conveys this inspiring message of hope to the new and future generations of Israel.

As we read and reread the many fateful tragedies that our people have endured, we must become more aware of the many extraordinary moral and ethical victories of the Jewish people. Looking back on the great calamities, we must also be prepared to see the great accomplishments of the Jewish people during their long history and especially the miraculous achievements of the contemporary State of Israel. While we recall the decimation of European Jewry, we must appreciate the dawning of a new day for Torah, Yeshivot and Jewish scholarship in the State of Israel and throughout the world, which is perhaps unparalleled in all the annals of Jewish history.

As we say in the Psalm of the Sabbath day, לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ בַּלֵּילוֹת, At night, we have to hold onto hope through faith, but in the morning we will truly see the loving-kindness of G-d that shines through.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Thursday night, July 16th and all day Friday, July 17th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.

The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon“–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, July 25th and continues through Sunday night, July 26th, 2015. Have a meaningful fast.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, nachamu ah’mee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Matot-Masei 5775-2015

“The Noble Calling of the Levites: Serving as an Exemplar for the Jewish People”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Masei, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, we learn of the cities that were set aside for the Levites in the land of Canaan.

G-d speaks to Moses in the Plains of Moab, by the Jordan, at Jericho, saying, Numbers 35:2, צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָתְנוּ לַלְוִיִּם מִנַּחֲלַת אֲחֻזָּתָם עָרִים לָשָׁבֶת, וּמִגְרָשׁ לֶעָרִים סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַלְוִיִּם, Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling, and open spaces for the cities all around them shall you give to the Levites.

In Numbers 35:7 we learn that the total number of cities that the other tribes are to give the Levites was 48 cities.

The Torah makes it clear that the Levites are a special tribe, a holy and consecrated tribe. They are not expected to serve in the army of Israel or to fight in wars against the nations with whom Israel is to do battle. Instead, they are to serve in the army of G-d. Therefore, they are not even counted in the census of the Children of Israel.

The tribe of Levi did not receive a tribal portion in the land of Canaan, as did the other twelve tribes. Since their main function was to minister in the Temple and serve the People of Israel, these 48 cities were to be their dwelling places.

The commentators state that the 48 cities were spread all over the country and among all of the tribes, in order to expose the tribes of Israel to the “legion of G-d.” It was hoped that all the tribes of Israel and their children would learn from the example of the Levites, and be influenced by their noble actions. Consequently, it was the sacred mission of the Levites to constantly elevate themselves, so that they could influence the others more effectively.

Although it seems coincidental, the Torah clearly states that the cities are to include open spaces. The Torah in Numbers 35:4 declares: וּמִגְרְשֵׁי הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתְּנוּ לַלְוִיִּם מִקִּיר הָעִיר וָחוּצָה, אֶלֶף אַמָּה סָבִיב, Each Levite city must have open space that should extend from the wall of the city outward, a thousand cubits all around. These open spaces should be for the animals, for the peoples’ possessions and for all their needs. It seems clear that the Torah insists on open space for all these cities, so that this undeveloped land left for the people, will enable the residents to enjoy a stroll in the “park,” to have an opportunity to look at the trees and to gain a greater appreciation of nature.

Unexpectedly, in Numbers 35:6, the Torah states that of the 48 cities bequeathed to the Levites, six should be designated as “cities of refuge,” to which those Israelites who are accused of murder shall flee until the matters are adjudicated. Through the rabbinical interpretations, we learn that all 48 cities served as cities of refuge for those who were accused of accidental homicide.

The May’am Lo’ez gives an overview of the role of the Levites. First the May’am Lo’ez asks, Why did the Levites not merit to inherit land in the land of Israel? He explains that the Levites were separated from the rest of the nation in order to do the service of G-d. The Al-mighty commanded that the Levites must always be prepared to do His service, to function as guards for the Holy Sanctuary, the Temple, to serve as doormen for the Gates of Jerusalem, and to open and close the gates of the Temple.

The Levites also functioned as singers and members of the Temple choir, who sang at the sacrificial altars while the sacrifices burned. Employing a range of musical instruments, drums and timbrels, the Levites set the joyous tone for the Temple services.

Underscoring the fact that the Levites were specifically instructed to serve as models and teachers to the People of Israel, the May’am Lo’ez notes that this is why the Levites were separated from the normal workings of the nation and the people. They were intentionally not involved in battle and were not to take possession of any of the lands of Israel. Those who served in the army of G-d, received their compensation not from land, but from Heaven. The May’am Lo’ez concludes with a final observation, noting that anyone, even non-Levites, who are moved to serve G-d, can join the Levites in an unofficial capacity, to serve with them, with their full devotion.

One cannot overestimate the exceptional nature of this idea. G-d designates a particular tribe to dwell among all the Children of Israel so that they can serve as a positive influence on all the tribes. And of all the tribes, He picked the tribe of Levi!

Indeed, the choice of the tribe of Levi was rather odd! After all, the tribes of Simeon and Levi were the two tribes who came to the defense of their sister, Dinah, when she was raped by Chamor in the town of Shechem (Genesis 34). After rescuing their sister, they proceeded to murder all the males of Shechem. Jacob was deeply chagrined by their deed, and was certain that the surrounding nations would reciprocate with a vengeance. But they never came. Scripture testifies that the fear of G-d kept the enemies at bay.

To his last breath Jacob never forgot what Simeon and Levi had done. When Jacob blessed his children at the end of his life, he seemingly cursed both Simeon and Levi. Genesis 49:5-7:

Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy, may My soul not enter! With their congregation, do not join O My honor! For in their rage they murdered people, and at their whim they maimed an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.

The fate of the tribe of Simeon is not clear except for the fact that they did not receive their own land, and were mostly incorporated into the land of the tribe of Judah. But, we do know the fate of the Levites.

The descendants of Levi, who, himself was so violent in Shechem, proved to be the only tribe of Israel who remained loyal during the sin of the Golden Calf, and were eventually rewarded by being chosen to minister in the Temple. In effect, they served as the “paradigmatic penitent.” The Levites sublimated their extreme passion into a passion to serve G-d. They learned to control their anger and turned their intense emotionality into the sublime poetry of the Psalms, composing and singing the beautiful songs that wafted through the Temple Mount. The transformation from violent actors to fully penitent loyal servants was complete, resulting in being perfectly fit to serve as models for all of Israel.

Not only did the Levites serve as models for all of Israel, they also served as models for all accidental murderers, who fled to one of the 48 cities where the Levites resided. In those cities the murderers were inevitably exposed to the religious passions of the Levites, to their songs, their dance, their music, to their beautiful prayers, to their preparedness to serve fully and joyously, even to carry the Tabernacle and its furnishings on their own shoulders. Eager to work day-and-night erecting and disassembling the Tabernacle, they made certain that every one of the Tabernacle’s thousands of parts was in its proper place.

At the end of Moses’ life, Moses “rewrote” the harsh words that Jacob had for his sons, Simeon and Levi, into a very special blessing for the tribe of Levi. On the last day of his life, Moses cried out to the Levites, Deuteronomy 33:10, יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַעֲקֹב, וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, “They [the Levites] shall teach Your [G-d’s] ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel. They shall place incense before Your presence and burnt offerings on Your altar.”

The tribe of Levi is transformed from violent avengers and murderers into sweet singers and exemplars of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Thursday, July 16th and all day Friday, July 17th. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av. The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon“–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

Pinchas 5775-2015

“Learning by Example”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, G-d rewards Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, for turning back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel by zealously avenging those who defied G-d and Moses by publicly committing immorality in front of the People of Israel.

At the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learned that two people, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, challenged Moses by committing this public act of lewdness. In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the Torah identifies the two prominent people as Zimri, the son of Salu, who was the prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, one of the leaders of the Midianite nation. By stabbing both perpetrators with a spear and ending their lives, Pinchas’ action also stopped a devastating plague that had taken the lives of 24,000 people who were part of the orgy of immorality.

In Numbers 25:11, the Al-mighty tells Moses to say to the people: פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. G-d rewards Pinchas with a בְּרִית שָׁלוֹם, Brit Shalom, the covenant of peace, and confirms that Pinchas and his progeny will be part of the eternal covenant of the priesthood, for having been zealous for G-d and for making atonement for the Children of Israel.

Rashi states that the Torah goes out of its way to identify Pinchas as the son of Elazar, and specifically the grandson of Aaron, the priest, as a response to the humiliation to which the tribes had been subjecting Pinchas. According to tradition, Pinchas was constantly teased and harassed that he was the descendant of פּוּטִי, “Puti,”–that his mother’s father (Jethro aka Putiel), fattened calves for idolatry. Therefore, says Rashi, scripture purposely and prominently traced Pinchas’s ancestry back to the noble lineage of his grandfather Aaron.

Many commentators are troubled by the actions of Pinchas. How could Pinchas take the law into his own hands, and execute these two people for their actions, without bringing them to formal judgment? Furthermore, what are the origins of Pinchas’ zealotry? He is, after all, the grandson of Aaron, a man who loved peace and who was a consummate pursuer of peace (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12).

Some of the commentators note that the act of harlotry was performed as a challenge to Moses, and when Moses berated Zimri for being with a Midianite woman, Zimri responded, “but after all, you also took a Midianite woman (Tzipporah) for a wife.”  When Moses did not respond, Pinchas took his mentor’s silence as a signal to step in. Through Pinchas’ zealous actions, the orgy ended, and the plague that had killed 24,000 people ceased.

Rashi, in parashat Balak, Numbers 25:7, providing more detail to the encounter, says that when Pinchas saw Zimri and Cozbi commit their vile act, he was reminded of the law and said to Moses, “I have learned from you, הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִּית קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, that one who has relations with a non-Jewish woman may be killed by zealots.” Moses said to Pinchas, “The one who proclaims the law in public, let him be the messenger.” Whereupon, Pinchas immediately took the spear in his hand and killed the perpetrators.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Pardes, in his studies on the weekly parasha entitled, Min Ha’mah’ah’yan ahl HaTorah, suggests that when Rashi explains Pinchas’ relationship to Aaron the priest, he refers to the actions of Aaron in Numbers 17:12-13. In parashat Shelach after the death of Korach and his cohorts, it records that Aaron took the incense pan and ran into the congregation after the plague had already begun. Presenting the incense and achieving atonement for the people, Aaron stood between the dead and the living and the plague stopped. Rashi emphasizes that Aaron risked his life by literally taking hold of the angel of death and forcing him to stop harming the people.

Pinchas, inspired by his grandfather’s brave actions, subjected himself to danger and struggled with the sinners in order to stop the anger of G-d. It was in this manner that Pinchas hoped, like Aaron his grandfather before him, to bring peace upon Israel and to confirm their sanctity. It is for this reason that scripture attributes the lineage of Pinchas to his grandfather, Aaron, who had a profound influence on Pinchas and served as a great role model for him to emulate.

Heroic acts often inspire others to perform heroic acts. It is therefore probably hardly a coincidence that scripture records in parashat Pinchas, Numbers 26:11, וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ, that the sons of Korach did not die.

According to tradition, the sons of Korach broke from the passionate rebellion of their father and instead chose to follow the directives of their great teacher, Moses. This decision, which saved their lives, enabled them to become the great poets who composed many psalms, including a special psalm that is read before the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. (Pinchas 5765-2005)

Where did the sons of Korach get the courage to swim against the tide of rebellion that had captured the imagination of so many followers and to break with their families? It may very well be that the reason that parashat Korach follows on the heels of parashat Shelach and the story of the scouts and spies, is because the actions of Joshua and Caleb served as the model for the sons of Korach. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to see the truth, despite the mass hysteria that had taken hold of the people.

This example served the sons of Korach well, and despite the close family bond, they were able to disassociate from Korach and do the right thing.

The Talmud often uses the expression, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, that the deeds of the fathers are often signposts for the children. Sometimes it works in a negative fashion, at other times it works in a most positive manner.

Pinchas, indeed, was a descendant of Aaron, both biologically and spiritually. That is why, despite his zealotry, his violent actions notwithstanding, G-d blesses Pinchas with the eternal blessing of peace.

May you be blessed.

Balak 5775-2015

“Uncovering the  ‘Layers’ in the Biblical Narrative”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, seem straightforward, the nuanced text contains several subtle messages.

The parasha opens with the rather innocuous statement that Balak, the son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites.

This refers to the battles reported in last week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, in which the Children of Israel vanquished the Emorites led by the great King Sichon, the most powerful regent at that time. At the same time, the Israelites defeated Og, the powerful king of Bashan, and his kingdom.

The fact that scripture in the opening verse of parashat Balak, identifies Balak simply as the son of Tzipor and not the king of Moab, implies that the Torah regards the hostile actions of Balak toward Israel as personal, rather than reflecting his duties as monarch or king.

The verses that follow reveal even more. The Torah states, in Numbers 22:3, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא, וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, Moab became very frightened of the people [of Israel], because they were numerous and Moab was seized with dread because of the Children of Israel. The commentators see this as an arrogant refusal on the part of Balak to acknowledge the miraculous conquests of Israel, or to attribute Israel’s success to G-d. In fact, it implies that Balak himself was so filled with hatred for the Jewish people that it led his judgment astray. Any clear-minded individual would have immediately recognized that the success of the Israelites was primarily due to Divine intervention. There was no way that a nation of recently-released slaves could so soundly defeat the two most powerful regents on the face of the earth.

Had Balak not been driven by his antipathy toward Israel, he would have quickly concluded that his nation was not at all endangered by Israel. After all, when Moses had previously approached the Moabites to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, and their overtures were rejected, the Israelites simply marched around the land of Moab and made no move to attack them (as reported by Jephthah in Judges 11:18).

The Moabites and Ammonites in particular should have been eager to help Israel as the miserable former-slaves left Egypt and rushed toward the Promised Land, because the Moabites and Ammonites owe their very existence to the People of Israel. After all, it was through Abraham’s intervention that their ancestor, Lot, was saved from Sodom. Even though they turned a deaf ear and refused to help His people, the Al-mighty commanded (Deuteronomy 2:9 & 2:19) that Moab and Amon not be harmed. Balak who was blinded by his rabid hatred of Israel, was unable to see this at all, and was determined to defeat Israel by any means possible.

It was not only Balak who refused to acknowledge G-d’s Hand in Israel’s success. The Da’at Sofrim points out that scripture reports, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד , that the entire nation of Moab was terribly frightened of the People of Israel. Just like their king, Balak, the Moabite people were not frightened of G-d who went before Israel and defeated all their enemies. Instead, they saw Israel as a purely mortal nation who happened to be successful in battle. Had they been afraid of G-d, they never would have tried to undermine Israel by cursing them, seducing them or by hoping to defeat them militarily.

Scripture records that the Moabites were afraid of Israel and were seized with dread because of them. They therefore turned to the elders of Midian, to secure their help, and were particularly hopeful that their famous prophet, Balaam, the son of Beor, would agree to curse the People of Israel, and defeat them spiritually.

The Torah reports that Balak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, who resided in Pethor, to summon Balaam, saying: Numbers 22:5, הִנֵּה עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, הִנֵּה כִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ, וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב מִמֻּלִי, “Behold! The people has come out of Egypt; Behold! It has covered the surface of the earth and it sits opposite me.” The Torah, in Numbers 22:6, continues, וְעַתָּה לְכָה נָּא אָרָה לִּי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, So now–please come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me; perhaps I will be able to strike it and we will drive it away from the land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his brilliant exposition of this episode found in Chemdat Yamim, notes the unusual construction of the phrase, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ,–-which opens with the first person singular verb, אוּכַל–“oo’chal,” and ends with נַכֶּה–“nakeh” a first person plural verb. In effect, Balak says to Balaam, perhaps I will be able, together with you, to defeat Israel.

Rabbi Filber cites the Midrash HaGadol, in the name of Tanchum the son of Chanilay. The Midrash asks: What were Balaam and Balak likened to at this moment? In fact, they were like two butchers, one who knew how to slaughter, the other who was skilled in cutting meat and butchering it properly. The slaughterer said to the butcher, “I will slaughter the animal and you will butcher the meat and together we will prepare the meal.” Said Balak to Balaam, “You curse the people and I will attack them with the sword, and together we will eradicate them from the world,” as it says, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, I will chase them from the land.

Balak knew well that as long as Israel is the subject of Divine protection, he would never be able to defeat the Israelites by sword. He therefore devised a dual attack on Israel. First Balaam will strike Israel’s spiritual protection, by cursing them or by causing them to lapse ethically. Only then, will Moab and Midian together physically attack Israel and chase them from the land.

The textual nuances that are found in the opening verses of parashat Balak reveal many new insights about Balak that are not readily apparent to the superficial reader. Although this text seems particularly nuanced, the truth is that most of the Torah’s verses have many “layers” that can be analyzed in a similar fashion.

Students of the Bible need to be keenly aware of the different levels of study as they read the scriptural messages. Experienced students will soon discover that with the proper skill and effort, layers of a story can often be exposed and revealed, uncovering many underlying factors that are at play in the Biblical narrative.

The subtle messages revealed through the textual nuances of parashat Balak are particularly important because they uncover the true anti-Semitic character of Balak, and the true nature of the battles, both physical and spiritual, that Balak wished to wage against the Jewish people.

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 5th, 2015, 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, July 25th and 26th. Have a meaningful fast.

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