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Kedoshim 5774-2014

“The Prohibition of Taking Revenge”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, we find the ever-popular verse of Leviticus 19:18, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, Love thy neighbor as thyself. Rabbi Akiva (1st and 2nd century Talmudic sage) felt this verse to be so vital, that he declared, (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4), זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה, this is a fundamental principle of Torah.

It is fascinating to note that few people are aware that this popular verse is preceded by the words (Leviticus 19:18),לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ , You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people…you should love your neighbor as yourself, I am the L-rd.

While it may be part of human nature to seek revenge, the Torah forbids acting on the desire for revenge, or to even hold a grudge. The Talmud, in Yomah 23a, provides a famous illustration to distinguish between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. If a person asks his neighbor to lend him a sickle, but he refuses, and on the next day, the neighbor asks to borrow an ax, he may not reply, “I will not lend you my ax, because you did not lend me your sickle.” This is revenge. Also, if a person asks his neighbor to lend him a sickle and he refuses, and on the next day the neighbor asks him to lend him a garment, one may not say, “Here is the garment, I am not like you,” because that is bearing a grudge.

Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, The Laws of Knowledge 7:7-8, notes, that to feel a sense of outrage because someone has refused to lend you a sickle is to magnify the importance of the sickle. Material things are just not that important. Maimonides understands the prohibition against bearing a grudge, as a means of avoiding the more serious offense of being vengeful. In order to have a well-established society and proper social life, these negative attitudes must be eliminated.

The Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4, provides an illustration of a man who cuts his hand while cutting meat. That person will certainly not be so foolish to “punish” the hand which did the damage by cutting it. Just as the “other hand” is part of the same person’s body, the other person, our neighbor, is part of our people and our society as well. Harming our neighbor is similar to harming one’s own body.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch asserts that the act of revenge is forbidden, because, in effect, it is like sitting in judgment of one’s neighbor. Only G-d alone can judge a person’s actions. When negative events occur, the victim must ask, why did G-d allow my neighbor to do such a nasty thing to me in the first place.

The Alshich notes that just as G-d is slow to show anger, so must human beings imitate G-d and not respond swiftly with vengefulness. One should allow time for the perpetrator to mend his/her ways, and hopefully apologize for the evil done. While avoiding vengeance, one may surely rebuke one’s neighbor for a wrong or unkind act. The reproof will, hopefully, lead to repentance on the part of the perpetrator.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his Path of the Just, describes the offense of hatred and revenge in the following human terms:

These [negative behaviors], the human heart in its perversity, finds it hard to escape. A man is very sensitive to disgrace, and suffers keenly when subjected to it. Revenge is sweeter to him than honey; he cannot rest until he has taken his revenge. If, therefore, he has the power to relinquish that to which his nature impels him; if he can forgive; if he will forbear hating anyone who provokes him to hatred; if he will neither exact vengeance when he has the opportunity to do so, nor bear a grudge against anyone; if he can forget and obliterate from his mind a wrong done to him as though it had never been committed; then he is, indeed, strong and mighty.

Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg would say, “Do not be vengeful or spiteful. Love your companion as yourself. After all, you frequently err as well. You too are frequently guilty of wrongful acts and often act without giving a matter sufficient thought or consideration. Would you ever think of taking revenge upon yourself?”

The Talmud in Yomah 23a cites the following passage as an ideal toward which to strive: “Concerning those who are insulted by others and do not respond by insulting others, who hear themselves reproached without replying, who perform good deeds out of love and rejoice in their sufferings, Scripture (Judges 5:31) says: “But they that love Him, be as the sun, when he {the sun] goes forth in his might.”

May we all merit to be regarded in the Al-mighty’s eyes as those who, like the sun, bring much light into the world!

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 20th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 21st and 22nd.

חג כשר ושמח.

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

Passover 5774-2014

“The Opening Act”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

As every good scriptwriter, playwright or novelist knows, the opening act of a television presentation, a Broadway show or the opening chapter of a novel, is crucial in determining its success. If the reader’s or participant’s attention is not captured in the first few moments, then the likelihood of success is much diminished.

Obviously, the wise authors of the Hagaddah knew that well, and created a natural, dramatic opening for the Seder, one that has had repeated success for more than two thousand years in Jewish homes and communities around the world.

Before the Seder even begins, the participants are informed of the fifteen “acts” in which they will be asked to participate at the Seder. In many homes, the fifteen steps of the Passover Seder are often sung and explained, so that all will know what to anticipate.

A good dramatist might have suggested that the Seder open with the recitation of the “Mah Nishtanah,” מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה, the Four Questions. After all, what could be more impressive than beginning the evening with a loving scene of the youngest child, standing tall on a chair, reciting the four questions? It is a scene that is embedded in the minds of many who grew up in traditional households.

The recitation of the Four Questions is not only a powerful scene, it is a true showstopper. After all, what could possibly outshine a young child, struggling to remember the questions in Hebrew or in Yiddish, sung with the traditional or contemporary melody? The children, of course, are performing to a most sympathetic audience, who invariably react to the presentation with a rousing ovation.

Instead, the Passover Seder opens with the almost mundane recitation of Kiddush, the sanctification over the wine, and the special blessing for the People of Israel and the day of Passover. Before anything can be said or done at the Passover Seder, it is necessary to affirm the purpose of the night, and the ultimate mission of the Jewish people. Of course, we want to create a magical setting in which the children will be fascinated by the unusual Seder rituals and the exciting stories. But, even more, we want all those who are capable, to understand that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life. It is an especially profound lesson to learn for those who are slaves and whose time is not their own that for those who are free, time is the most precious commodity. That is why the Seder opens with the sanctification of time and the sanctification of the day.

For those who appreciate the many profound lessons conveyed by the Passover holiday and its unique celebratory nature, it is impossible to participate in a Seder as if it were a private family affair. For those who are familiar with Jewish history, it is simply unfathomable for a Jewish household, no matter how poor, to have a family Seder without guests, especially needy guests who have no other place to celebrate the holiday. That is why the Passover Seder begins with the Aramaic declaration of “Ha Lachmah Anya,” הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא, this is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt when we were slaves. Let all who are hungry come and eat with us. Let all who are needy, come and observe Passover with us!

Once the Kiddush concludes and the invitation to guests is extended, the opening act of the Seder is dominated by a series of significant questions. The most obvious question of all is: Why in the world do we celebrate tonight in such an odd manner?

Those who are familiar with the methods of Jewish study and Jewish education, are well aware of the critical role that questioning plays in Jewish life. All of the Talmud and much of Jewish pedagogy involves questioning. That is why opening the Seder night with the questions of the “Mah Nistanah” מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה, is so natural, questions about the significance of the night, about the special foods that are eaten that night, why we recline in a seemingly defiant manner, rather than sit erect, and why we dip our foods into salt water and other liquids.

The answer to all the questions is found with the introduction of the famed paragraph: “Avadim ha’yee’noo,” עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ, We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik astutely notes that the text does not read, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves,” but rather, “We were slaves to Pharaoh,” in Egypt. Slavery for the Jewish people, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, was a greater external challenge than an internal one. Inwardly, the Jews remained faithful, not only to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but to their language, to their Jewish names, and to their Jewish garb.

It was this faithfulness to Jewish tradition that inspired the Israelites to dream of freedom, even though they were inches away from losing that desire. It is a profound lesson for all freedom- loving people, that enemies can incarcerate the slaves’ bodies, beat and bruise them physically, but faith, internal faith, is not easily denied. The most powerful weapon that the desperate Israelite people had to counteract and defeat their challenges was faith, faith in G-d, and especially faith in their own specialness.

While it may seem difficult to fathom, the Egyptian enslavement actually helped shape the essential character of the Jewish people. It was the experience of common suffering that united the twelve disparate Hebrew tribes into one people. It was the memory of pain that inspired the suffering people to strive to eliminate pain, not only their own pain, but also the pain of others who suffer. While our ancestors, the Israelites, were slaves long ago in the land of Egypt, there are today still many others throughout the world who are not free. The exodus from Egypt was Israel’s most glorious hour. We now need to help others experience their own glorious moments, and to assist those who are not yet free to experience their own exodus, and, hopefully, obtain their own glorious freedom.

The Seder goes on for many hours. The discussions continue long after the Seder has ended. But as our teachers have always emphasized, “This is the essence, the rest is commentary. Go and study!”

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 14th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 15th and 16th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 20th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 21st and 22nd.

חג כשר ושמח.

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

Acharei Mot 5774-2014

“Prelude to Holiness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, literally means “in the aftermath of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu.” Soon after the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, the Al-mighty instructs Moses to inform his brother Aaron that priests are strictly forbidden to enter the sanctuary in an unauthorized manner. This warning is immediately followed by a description of the Yom Kippur atonement service. Thus, parashat Acharei Mot serves very much as an introduction to parashat Kedoshim, preparing the Jewish people to live an ethical, moral and sanctified life.

The other themes found in parashat Acharei Mot also convey the importance of achieving holiness. The description of the Yom Kippur service and the ritual of the scapegoats, is followed by instructions regarding the holiness of meat foods and the prohibition of eating blood. The parasha concludes with an exhortation against defilement, the prohibition of unlawful marriage, unchastity and Molech worship (Acharei Mot 5771-2011).

Among the most important and challenging laws in parashat Acharei Mot is the Almighty’s admonition in Leviticus 18, that the Israelites not follow the practices of the non-Jewish nations. G-d tells Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and to declare that He is their G-d. Furthermore, says G-d (Leviticus 18:3), כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכו, Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, and do not perform the practices of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions. The Torah then declares that the Jewish people are to follow only G-d’s statutes, observe only G-d’s decrees and His laws. Finally (Leviticus 18:5), G-d promises that those who follow the Torah’s noble lifestyle and who properly practice the Torah’s laws and statutes, וָחַי בָּהֶם, shall surely live.

Although the recent Pew Jewish Population Report raised grave concerns in the Jewish community, especially among Jewish leaders, those who are familiar with Jewish history know that assimilation is not at all a new or recent development. Jewish assimilation has gravely impacted on every single generation of Jews, from time immemorial. I was recently told that the late, highly respected, Jewish historian, Professor Sidney Hoenig, had said that throughout Jewish history, there was hardly a single Jewish generation that did not lose a significant proportion of its adherents to assimilation.

Because of the profound impact of the losses on Jewish life due to assimilation, the exhortation of Leviticus 18:3, of not performing the practices of Egypt and Canaan and not following their traditions, has become increasingly important. In fact, over the generations, this particular verse, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכו, You should not follow their traditions, has been singled out, and become a popular clarion call, an all pervasive educational mandate, to protect, promote and strengthen Jewish identity. In fact, it even has its own “shorthand” nomenclature—חוקת הגוים, “Chukat ha’Goyim,” (non-Jewish practices).

In order to preserve Jewish identity, our rabbis and decisors have significantly expanded the breadth of this exhortation by prohibiting any imitation of gentile and idolatrous practices, whether clothing, hairstyle, entertainment or language. In order to protect the people’s fragile Jewish identity, following the sinful practices of non-Jewish societies, and copying their modes of worship is strictly prohibited.

Beware, lest you be ensnared by them and their idolatrous practices, warns the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:30). Do not try to imitate them. Just as your ideas are separate from theirs, you must keep yourselves apart from them, with your unique clothing and your exalted ethical deeds. This is what G-d meant when He declared, Leviticus 20:26: I will separate you from all the nations.

Although there is a long-standing difference of opinion concerning whether the prohibition of imitating gentile practices, “Chukat ha’Goyim,” applies only to the seven original Canaanite nations and the Egyptians, or applies to all gentiles, the emphasis on being separate and different has never been in dispute.

In order to foster Jewish identity, our rabbis called upon members of Jewish communities who lived among non-Jews to dress like Jews and to speak like Jews, using the Jewish language. That accounts for why most Diaspora Jewish communities always used a unique Jewish language, whether Aramaic, Yiddish or Ladino.

The scope of the rabbinic attempts to separate Jews from alien gentile practices has greatly expanded, and in some instances, has resulted in ironic developments. For instance, Chassidic Jews, not only wear extremely unique “Jewish” garb and sport extremely unique haircuts with “Payot,” long side curls, they also, almost always, converse among themselves only in the Jewish vernacular, Yiddish. Ironically, in order to lift their followers out of the widespread depression resulting from extreme poverty and persecution, the early Chassidic leaders encouraged their adherents to dress like the non-Jewish elite, which in most instances meant adopting the garb of the Polish or Russian nobles and princes. Today, those gentile styles are considered uniquely Jewish, such as the high fur hats and the long satin robes. Some Chassidic men even button their shirts and jackets right to left, rather than left to right, to make a distinction from the practices of the non-Jews. In addition, they cut their hair short, so that their hairstyles in no way match those of the non-Jews, except perhaps soldiers who serve in the army or the Marine Corps.

Although bowing during prayer services in the Temple was a common feature of the ancient classical worship, when bowing and kneeling became so closely associated with Christian worship, both practices were eliminated among Jews. Kneeling or full body bowing is only performed on Yom Kippur. When bowing became common among Christians during the time of the Holy Roman Empire, the rabbis decreed that Jews cease bowing and folding their hands in prayer because their Christian oppressors bowed and worshiped with folded hands. The double ring ceremony at weddings of the gentile world is also frowned upon in the rigorously religious circles. The fear of being influenced by alien thoughts and philosophies is one of the reasons why many rigorously religious Jews avoid advanced secular education.

As we have previously noted, the proper response to these challenging existential issues lies in a single critical concept–“balance.” Jews may certainly adopt those practices of the non-Jewish world that are moral, ethical and life-enhancing. The concern is about the decadent and immoral practices that must be avoided at all costs.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Horeb, paragraph 505, wisely summarizes the laws of this commandment:

You may imitate the nations among whom you live, in everything which has been adopted by them on national grounds, and not on grounds which belong to their religion or are immoral; but do not imitate anything which is irrational or has been adopted on grounds derived from their religion, or for forbidden or immoral purposes. You may not, therefore, join in celebrating their holy days or observe customs that have their basis and their religious views. You must not, do anything which disturb their holy days or mar their festival spirit; and do not parade your non-participation in their holy days in a manner that might arouse animosity.

This is the true method for achieving holiness.

May you be blessed.

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

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 14th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 15th and 16th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 20th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 21st and 22nd.

Chag Kasher v’Samayach.

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

Metzorah 5774-2014

“The Peddler and Evil Speech”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, again addresses the Biblical affliction Tzara’at, צָּרַעַת. Parashat Metzorah teaches about the cleansing process for the afflicted person who has healed, and Tzara’at in the structure of the home.

In the opening verses of parashat Metzorah, G-d speaks to Moses Leviticus 14:2, saying, זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ,  וְהוּבָא אֶל הַכֹּהֵן This shall be the law [the Torah] of the Metzorah [the afflicted person], on the day of his purification: he shall be brought to the Kohain (the priest).

The Talmud, in Arachin 15b, explains that the disease Tzara’at, is not a dermatological disease, but a spiritual disease that one contracts for speaking Lashon Harah (evil).

The Talmud cites the Talmudic sage, Raish Lakish, who explains: Why does the Torah say, this is the “Torah”–the law, of the Metzorah, מְּצֹרָע? To teach that these are the rules that pertain to one who is “Motzee shaym rah,” מוציא שם רע, who speaks evil of another.

Raish Lakish sees in the striking similarity between the word, “Me’tzoh’rah,” and the expression “Motzee shaym rah,” proof that the disease is a spiritual disease that is contracted from improper speech, and not merely a physical malady.

The Torah Temimah notes that with the exception of this single citation in Leviticus 14:2, the disease, Tzara’at, is never referred to in the Torah, as “Metzorah.” Occasionally the Bible refers to the stricken person as, “Tzah’roo’ah,” and most often, the disease is called “Tzara’at,” but never “Metzorah.” That is why Raish Lakish claims that the word, “Metzorah” is a “not’ree’kohn,” נוטריקון, a Hebrew acrostic for the phrase, “Motzee shaym rah”–speaking evil.

There is a well known Midrash, concerning the evils of improper speech (Midrash Rabba, Leviticus 16:2):

There was a certain peddler, who would wander among the towns near Tzippori [in the Northern Gililee], and would announce [to his would-be customers]: “Who wishes to purchase the elixir of life?” All the people would assemble before him. Rabbi Yannai was sitting [nearby] and studying. He said to him: “Come here, and sell it to me.” He [the peddler] said to him: “You [Torah scholars], and those like you, don’t need it.” [Rabbi Yannai] beseeched him, so the peddler came over and brought him a book of Tehillim (Psalms), and showed him the verse in Psalms 34:13, that reads: “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?” And what does the verse say after that? “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking falsehood.” Rabbi Yannai said: “So too did Solomon say in Proverbs 21:23, ‘Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.’” Rabbi Yannai said: “All my life I would read this verse and did not know where it was explained, until the peddler came and informed me, ‘What man is he that desires life?’ Moses therefore warned Israel, זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָעthis is the law of the Metzorah–Motzee rah, מוציא רע [who speaks evil].’”

The commentators are puzzled as to why Rabbi Yannai was so astounded by the words of the peddler. What did the peddler say that Rabbi Yannai had not known previously? Why was the understanding of the disease of Tzara’at clearer to Rabbi Yannai, as a result of his interaction with the peddler?

Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, in his Studies in the Weekly Parashah, explains in the name of the Akeidat Yitzchak, that the peddler who interacted with Rabbi Yannai regarding the sin of evil speech, did not really introduce any novel ideas that were not known by Rabbi Yannai. However, he did succeed in dramatically underscoring the enormity of the sin of evil speech. The peddler was not satisfied with the fact that he himself already knew the seriousness of the transgression, but felt compelled to go to all the public thoroughfares, to publicize the evils of Lashon Harah among the many community members who habitually engaged in evil speech. The peddler thus followed the paths of Abraham, who went before G-d, rather than Noah, who “walked with G-d.”

Furthermore, Rabbi Yannai was astounded by the depths of perception of the peddler (who was not a scholar), who recognized that speech is the unique essence of humankind, that every person’s life is closely associated and bound to the power of speech, and to the content of every person’s utterings. The peddler, who in fact turned out to be a gifted educator, taught that limiting one’s speech, and sanctifying one’s speech, is the secret of the good life, and underscores the real difference between human beings and all other creatures.

Rabbi Yannai also appreciated the clarity of the peddler’s words, that guarding one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from speaking falsehood, is the basis of proper living and its essence. Although the peddler basically spoke a simple truth, it is because of its simplicity that many people dismiss the importance of proper, sanctified speech. The peddler is comparable to a physician who reveals that a particular malady is not physical, but spiritual. So is the malady of improper speech, a spiritual illness.

The parable may be applied even further, when considering the nature of the cleansing ritual of the stricken transgressor.

In the Torah, the Kohain serves as a peddler, who through the ritual of cleansing, drives home to the transgressor the importance of proper speech and the immensity of the violation of forbidden speech. The bird that is offered to G-d on the Altar, represents the chirping of the person who speaks evil, whose blood is poured into an earthen pot, as if words, like earthenware, are without meaning and impact. The splint from a cedar tree that is placed in the mixture represents the exalted stature and immense power of words, that can be transformed into a little red thread of pettiness, and the blood of the victim who was slandered.

Purification also requires the washing of one’s clothes, the cleansing of one’s outer garments and the immersing of one’s body in a mikveh. At the end of the seven day period of transformation and repentance, the person who is cleansed must bring an offering. The former speaker of evil, who is now, hopefully, sincerely penitent, must have his ear, thumb and large toe smeared with blood, so that, henceforth, the things that he hears and does with his hands and feet, will be devoted solely to the purpose of seeking and pursuing peace. Only then, will the former transgressor gain atonement for his sins, and return to his tent in peace.

The peddler certainly had much to teach, and did so quite effectively.

May you be blessed.

Tazria 5774-2014

“The Jewish Attitude Toward Healing and Medicine”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, opens with the laws concerning purification of a woman after childbirth. This is followed by an extensive description of the symptoms and treatment of the ancient disease, צָרָעַת Tzara’at.

Although Tzara’at appears to be a dermatological malady, our rabbis have attributed its manifestation to evil speech (see Tazria 5760-2000 & Tazria 5763-2003).

The Torah lists the various forms of the disease and the areas where the disease may appear, such as on the head and face. Scripture also describes the early symptoms of the disease and its proper diagnosis. Tzara’at may appear as a swelling, a scab, as a bright spot on the skin or in a boil or a burn, as an infection on the hair of the head or beard, or as baldness at the front or back of the head.

Those who are diagnosed with Tzara’at are quarantined and sent out of the entire camp of Israel for seven days. Only after healing, is the infected person permitted to return to camp and undergo a cleansing ritual. The parasha concludes with the rules regarding another form of Tzara’at that afflicts garments.

The discussion of Tzara’at continues in next week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, with the rituals of cleansing and purification of the afflicted person, and concludes with the regulations regarding the form of Tzara’at that manifests itself in the structure of Jewish homes.

The two parashiot, Tazria and Metzorah are the closest things to a medical treatise that is to be found in the Biblical text.

Although Jews have always played a prominent role in medicine and in the development of healing, the Bible’s attitude toward medicine and healing appears to be somewhat restrained, perhaps even ambivalent.

Despite its great length and breadth, the Bible says little about medical practice. The earliest reference to illness in the Bible, goes back to Genesis 20:17 and the times of Abimelech, the king of Grar. Abimelech was punished, together with his household, with the closing of their bodily orifices, because the king had taken Abram’s wife, Sarai (their names had not yet been changed to Abraham and Sarah), to his palace. Abram prays to G-d for healing, and they are healed.

Other instances of medical-related references include Isaac, who prays opposite his wife, Rebecca, because she is barren. Later, in Genesis 25:22, when Rebecca conceives and experiences terrible labor pains because the children are fighting inside her, she goes to ask G-d what will be her fate. In Numbers 12:63, Moses prays for his sister, Miriam, who is stricken with Tzara’at, by reciting the very beautiful prayer, “Please G-d, heal her please.” In this week’s parasha, it should be noted that the person who is stricken with the Tzara’at disease is only diagnosed by the priest, but is not treated medically. Instead, he is excluded from the camp, and is expected to heal naturally.

In Exodus 15:25, Moses heals the bitter water at Marah, sweetening it by throwing a branch into the water. In the following verse, Exodus 15:26, G-d promises the Jewish people that all the illnesses and diseases with which the Egyptians were stricken, will not afflict the Jewish people, after all, declares the Al-mighty: “I am the L-rd, your Healer.” In Numbers 21:9, Moses is commanded to make a copper serpent, so that all those who are bitten by the snakes will look up at Heaven and be healed. The prophet, Elisha, sweetens the bitter water of Jericho with salt (Kings II, 2:20-22). He also heals the son of the Shunammite, by praying to G-d and reviving the child, by giving what appears to be artificial respiration (Kings II, 4:34). Naaman, the Aramean general, is healed from his Tzara’at by the prophet Elisha, by bathing in the waters of the Jordan (Kings II, 5:14). Isaiah heals king Hezekiah, through the application of a cake of figs (Isaiah 38:21).

There are a number of other subtle references to medicinal applications and healing. In Genesis 50:2, the healers of Egypt embalm the deceased Jacob. In Chronicles 2, 16:2, there is a reference to King Assah, who, when he was ill, instead of seeking G-d, summoned help only from doctors, implying that King Assah was sinful for not praying to G-d.

Ben Sirah, is probably the first major Jewish source to pay warm tribute to physicians. While he urges the sick to pray for Divine help, he encourages them strongly to seek medical advice. He concludes that G-d has indeed appointed the physician for this beneficent task.

Many prominent medieval rabbis were also distinguished practicing physicians, among them the poet and philosopher, Yehudah HaLevi (1075-1141, Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher), the philosopher and Halachist, Moses Maimonides, as well as Nachmanides.

In his commentary, Mishna Nidarim 4, Maimonides concludes that the mitzvah of healing another person falls under the rubric of restoring a lost object to its proper owner. His conclusion is based on the Talmudic statement found in Sanhedrin 73a, that a person who loses his physical well-being needs to be “restored.” All the members of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Supreme Court of Israel, were expected to be knowledgeable in the art of medicine. The Rabbi Joseph Karo concludes in The Code, that today, to heal one’s self one must not rely on miracles, but rather engage in the common practices of medicine.

The Taz notes that although true healing comes only through G-d’s mercy, not every person merits that mercy, unless they are engaged as well in the natural medical practices. Based on the verse in Exodus 21:19, רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא, the Talmud in Baba Kamma 85a concludes that a person who harms another person, must pay the victim’s loss of income and medical expenses. Rabbi Yishmael deduces from the words, , וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא that a physician is permitted to heal.

The men of the Great Assembly established a prayer for healing in the Amidah (central daily prayer). The eighth benediction, states: “Heal us, Oh L-rd, that we shall be healed. Save us, that we shall be saved. For You, art our praise, grant a perfect healing to all our wounds. For You, Al-mighty King, our faithful and merciful Physician. Blessed art You, oh L-rd, who heals the sick of Thy people, Israel.”

May healing to all those who are in need, come swiftly and completely.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nisan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20.  This year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Monday evening and Tuesday, March 31st and April 1st, 2014.

Shemini 5774-2014

“This is What the L-rd Meant When He Said”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the untimely and tragic deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu.

As we have noted previously in our weekly messages (Shemini 5770-2010), the first of Nisan was supposed to be the most joyous day of Aaron’s life. On this day, the Tabernacle was to be consecrated and Aaron and his four sons were to be invested into the priesthood.

Instead, the Torah in Leviticus 10:1 reports,  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השם, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם  the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took their fire-pan, put fire in the pan, and placed incense upon it; and brought before the L-rd an alien fire that He [G-d] had not commanded them. The Torah then reports, that a fire came forth from before the L-rd and consumed Nadav and Abihu, and they died before the L-rd.

Except for the tantalizing phrase, “they brought before the L-rd an alien fire, that He had not commanded them,” we really have no idea what was the actual sin of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu.

There is little question that the rabbis felt that the Divine punishment meted out to Nadav and Abihu was unduly harsh for a ritual infraction committed by inexperienced priests. The rabbis, therefore, looked for other transgressions that the brothers might have committed that might justify the severe punishment.

Among the possible sins that Nadav and Abihu have committed that warranted death were:

1) Nadav and Abihu had been drinking before they entered the sanctuary.

2) They were guilty of arrogance and irreverence, having gazed boldly at the Divine Presence (Exodus 24:9).

3) They refused to marry and beget children, because they deemed no women good enough for them.

4) They had no respect for Moses and Aaron, and kept wondering when these old men would die, so that they may take control of the community.

5) They were too haughty to ask for advice, or to even consult with each other. Had they sought guidance of Moses, they surely would have avoided disaster.

Whatever the reasons for their deaths, the distraught family of Aaron was left bereft and in deep mourning, on what was intended to be a glorious day of celebration.

In an attempt to console his grieving brother, Moses says to Aaron, Leviticus 10:3, הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השם לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן of this did the L-rd speak, saying: “I will be sanctified to those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.”

The Torah reports that Aaron’s response was silence.

Some commentators conclude from the unexpected deaths of Aaron’s sons, that Nadav and Abihu were both men of truly exalted status who were judged by a stricter standard. In many societies, powerful citizens are often excessively respected or feared, and are permitted greater latitude. Consequently, people of influence frequently behave more permissively. In Judaism, the opposite is true. G-d has higher expectations of His great ones, and deals very strictly with their lapses. That is the true meaning of, בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵש–I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me.

Perhaps even more perplexing than the actual meaning of Moses’ words of condolence is the unusual choice of words that Moses uses to introduce his words of consolation to Aaron: הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השם לֵאמֹר of this, did the L-rd speak, saying, “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me.” The Ramban suggests that when Moses said “of this,” he was referring to the fire itself, as if the fire were a Divine statement, and served as a wordless message of G-d’s intent.

On the other hand, Rashi, says that Moses was actually referring to a previous statement that G-d had made. The deaths of Nadav and Abihu, suggests Rashi, were a fulfillment of G-d’s previous words to Moses, found in Exodus 29:43, in which He said, “I will be sanctified through My glory.”

Expanding on the interchange between Moses and his bereaved brother, the Midrash states that Moses came to Aaron and said to him, “Brother Aaron, it was told to me at Sinai: ‘I am going to sanctify this house, and I will sanctify it through a great man.’ I always supposed that the House would be sanctified either through you or through me. Now it appears that your sons were greater than we, since it was through them that the House was sanctified.” When Aaron heard that his children were punished more severely specifically because they were so close to G-d, he was then comforted.

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, in his 4th volume of Parasha Parables, cites an interpretation attributed to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was attempting to comfort a distraught widow. Rabbi Auerbach explains that the blessing, בָּרוּך דַּיַּן הָאֶמָת blessed are You G-d the true Judge, said by the mourner at the time of the bereavement, is very difficult to understand and accept. Said Rabbi Auerbach to the widow: “You must however say it again and again, as difficult as it may be. Believe me, if you repeat it enough, you will understand it.”

Rabbi Kamenetzky explained that Moses’ words of comfort to Aaron, “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to Me,” had the ability to console his brother, but only if Aaron understood that these special words were said many times before under the most difficult of circumstances.

There are no simple answers to death and bereavement, and no new formulas for condolence. It is, perhaps because words are so inadequate at times such as these that our rabbis have formulated them for us by declaring, המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים May the Al-mighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Allow me a personal note. Although both my parents are gone more than twenty years, I am comforted by the fact that they each lived long and relatively healthy lives. My mother worked until she was 82, and died, after a short illness, at age 85. My father died a year and a half after my mother passed away, at age 89, most likely, of a broken heart.

My wife, Aidel, however, finds the month of Adar to be a very difficult and painful period. The yahrtzeits of her father, mother and grandfather are all in the would-be joyous month of Adar. Aidel’s father died at the age of 54, after being diagnosed ten weeks earlier with pancreatic cancer. Her mother, died at age 83, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s, eventually succumbing to cancer. Her grandfather also died in the month of Adar, and it is his suffering that most reminds me of the trauma of Aaron, who remained silent at the death of his two sons.

Zaidy Spitz, who lost virtually his entire immediate family in the Holocaust, lost a 21 year old son, a yeshiva student who volunteered to serve in the American army and was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. His second son was Aidel’s father. It is impossible for me to fathom any parent being comforted for the loss of even a single child, let alone the loss of two children.

At the end of the day, there really are no adequate words of comfort for such tragedies. That is why we must rely on the old formulas and repeat them again and again, perhaps not to comfort ourselves but at least to help us understand that these words of comfort have been uttered many times before, to others, in many tragic situations that were equal, or perhaps even greater, in magnitude to our own.

May you be blessed.

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

Tzav 5774-2014

“The Perpetual Fire”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Last week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, introduced the five main sacrificial offerings: the Ohlah עֹלָה: the burnt-offering, the Mincha מִנְחָה: the meal-offering, the Shelamim שְׁלָמִים: the peace-offering, the Chatat חַטָּאת: the sin-offering and the Ahsham אָשָׁם: the guilt-offering.

In parashat Vayikra, the Torah addresses the donors who brought these offerings. In the first two chapters of this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, the Torah speaks to the Kohanim, the preists, Aaron and his sons, to teach several additional laws that pertain to these sacrifices.

Parashat Tzav opens with a charge to the Kohanim, to clean the ashes from the Altar, daily, and to dispose of the ashes outside the camp.

This is immediately followed by a directive concerning the fire on the Altar. Leviticus 6:5 reads, וְהָאֵשׁ עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ תּוּקַד בּוֹ לֹא תִכְבֶּה, וּבִעֵר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עֵצִים בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר, the fire on the Altar shall be kept burning on it, it shall not be extinguished; and the Priest shall kindle wood upon it every morning. The following verse, Leviticus 6:6, reiterates the command: אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה, a permanent fire shall remain aflame on the Altar; it shall not be extinguished.

Many are familiar with the “eternal light,” that is usually affixed above the Ark in traditional synagogues, that remains constantly lit. That light, reminiscent of the light of the Menorah, recalls the western-most candle of the Candelabra, which burned 24/7 in the ancient Tabernacle and Temples.  Rashi cites the Talmud Yoma 45b, and notes that since the Torah states regarding the light of the Candelabra (Exodus 27:20) לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר  תָּמִיד,that the lamp must burn continually, the rabbis conclude that the flame of the Candelabra is to be taken from the perpetual fire of the Altar.

Again citing the Talmud in Yoma 45b, Rashi concludes that the numerous references to “fire” in these verses indicate that there were at least three fires on the Altar. The Torah, in Leviticus 6:2, mentions the word fire twice: עַל מוֹקְדָהon the flame, and וְאֵשׁ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, תּוּקַד בּוֹ –and the fire of the Altar shall be kept aflame on it. These two references, together with the previously noted reference to fire in verse 5, indicates that there were at least three fires burning on the Altar.

The three fires even have formal names: מערכה גדולה, the large fire upon which the offerings were burned, קטורת  של ומערכה שנייה, a second fire of incense, from which burning coals were taken and brought into the sanctuary for the morning and afternoon incense service, and האש לקיום מערכה, the pyre for the perpetuation of the fire, from which burning wood was added to the large flame whenever necessary.

The rabbis of the Midrash contend that the very first fire on the Altar came forth from G-d’s presence. It was reputedly endowed with special powers, and many miracles were subsequently associated with the fire.

The Torah, in parashat Shemini, Leviticus 9:24, describes the appearance of the first fire.

After the Tabernacle was erected for the first time on the first day of Nissan, the priestly service began. Moses and Aaron came to the Tent of Meeting to bless the people, and G-d’s presence was seen by all. The Torah states, וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי השם, וַתֹּאכַל עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת הָעֹלָה וְאֶת הַחֲלָבִים, a fire went forth from before G-d and consumed upon the Altar the elevation offerings and the fats, and the people saw and sang glad song, and fell upon their faces.

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 7:5, notes that the Altar of the original Tabernacle that Moses built was used for about 116 years. 39 years in the wilderness, 14 in Gilgal, 13 in Nob and 50 in Gibeon. During all those years, the Altar fire burned continuously, yet the Altar’s thin copper layer never melted, and its wooden structure never caught fire. The Talmud, in Yoma 21b, depicts the appearance of the fire on the Altar as a flame that crouched in the shape of a lion, and blazed as brilliantly as the sun.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the rabbis of the Talmud, (Yoma 45b), learn from the Torah’s focus on the perpetual fire on the Altar, that every fire in the Tabernacle, the fire for the incense Altar, as well as the permanent flame of the Menorah, and even the glowing coals that were taken on Yom Kippur into the Holy of Holies with the incense, were all ignited from the fire of the sacrificial Altar in the courtyard.

Rabbi Hirsch offers a particularly meaningful explanation that helps elucidate the ritual of the Eternal Flame:

There is only one place for the fire of Torah, and from there one must kindle all the other fires in the Sanctuary…. In order for the spiritual to permeate life, actions must be consecrated to the Torah. Without the fire of the offerings on the outside Altar there can be no life on the Golden Altar, on the Menorah or in front of the Cherubim in the Sanctuary. Without sacrifice on the Altar of Duty there can be no elevation of the soul, no illumination of spirit, no soaring to the ideal of the Torah, which rests beneath the wings of the Cherubim.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the Temple today, and are sadly bereft of the perpetual flame that served as a powerful source of inspiration for our people. It, therefore, behooves us to ignite the perpetual flame that is within our hearts, to assure that our commitment to Judaism and Jewish life never wavers, and remains perpetually passionate and burning brightly at all times.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, March 15-16, 2014. Since the Fast of Esther cannot be observed on Shabbat, it will be observed on the previous Thursday, March 13, from dawn to nightfall.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive Biblical commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

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

Vayikra 5774-2014

“The Essence of Sacrifice”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we once again encounter the challenging issue of animal sacrifice.

In several previous weekly messages we have discussed animal sacrifice and have offered possible clarifications of the meanings behind this ancient ritual. (Vayikra 5764-2004)

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer whom we have cited on numerous occasions in our weekly Torah messages, offers a novel and compelling understanding of the purpose of animal sacrifice.

Rabbi Firer argues that more than animal sacrifice serves to atone for sins of the past, the offerings actually serve to prevent future sinful actions. Citing Maimonides Laws of Repentance 1, Rabbi Firer notes that there can be no offerings without repentance, and that the purpose of repentance is to prevent a repeat of sinful actions.

Animal sacrifices are not intended to serve as a compensation for sins that were committed in the past, but to influence the donor to improve in the future. By guaranteeing that the sinful deed is not repeated, these offerings have the power to achieve atonement for the past.

As support for his contention that offerings do not serve to atone for past deeds, Rabbi Firer cites the first offerings ever brought, those offered by Cain and Abel. The Torah in Genesis 4:3, never refers to the first two sacrifices as atonement for sinfulness. It merely reports that the offering of Abel was accepted, and that the offering of Cain was rejected.

The Torah does not clearly spell out why Cain’s offering was rejected. It does, however, report (Genesis 4:4) that Abel brought מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן,  of the choice fat sheep, whereas Cain brought (Genesis 4:3) מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה–only “pedestrian” fruits of the earth–nothing special.

Rabbi Firer suggests that the story of Cain rising up against his brother and killing him, recorded in Genesis 4:8, provides strong evidence that Cain had failed to repent from his evil thoughts at the time that he brought his offering. Apparently, G-d was able to discern that Cain had offered his sacrifice without ever having renounced the evil that was in his heart and, therefore, rejected Cain’s offering.

Rabbi Firer argues that bringing such an offering without Teshuva (repentance) is ineffective, and should never have been brought in the first place.

In light of this novel understanding of animal sacrifice, Rabbi Firer also offers new insight into understanding the custom of why little children begin studying Torah with the book of Leviticus. Leviticus, after all, is a book that is preoccupied with the rituals of animal sacrifice. There are certainly many other, more child-oriented, parts of scripture that are far more appropriate for neophytes.

The Torah portions of Leviticus and animal sacrifice were surely quite relevant to adults in ancient times, when the ritual of animal sacrifice was actually practiced. But what, after all, is the point of little children learning these esoteric matters, especially at a time that there is no Temple and no sacrifices? Surely, it would be far more sensible to teach a child from the book of Genesis and the story of creation, which could implant in a child’s impressionable heart and mind the seeds of faith in the Creator. Even the book of Exodus might inspire a young child regarding the redemptive qualities of G-d by learning about the People of Israel’s miraculous departure from Egypt.

Rabbi Firer suggests, that a child who learns the book of Leviticus, and gains an understanding that the offerings are meant to prevent sin, rather than atone for sin, may very well be less likely to sin.

Rabbi Firer’s original interpretations underscore the limitlessness of the insightful meanings that can be found in every facet of Torah. Just when we thought we might have exhausted every possible avenue of interpretation, we discover that there is so much more to serve as a source of inspiration.

May you be blessed.

“Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this coming Friday night, March 7, 2014. We expect over 50,000 participants throughout North America. Please call 1(888) SHABBAT, or click here to find a local Shabbat Across America and Canada location, and sign up for “a Taste of Shabbat,” a taste of the World to Come!

Pekudei 5774-2014

Moses Retires from Center Stage

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, the moment for which the People of Israel have long been waiting, has finally arrived–the completion of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

According to tradition, on Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishrei, Moses brought down the second set of the Tablets from Sinai. On the very next day, the 11th of Tishrei, the People of Israel began generously donating the varied materials for the building of the Mishkan. Some rabbinic commentators maintain that the Tabernacle was completed on the 25th of Kislev (the future date of Chanukah), but was not permanently erected until three and a half months later, on the first of Nissan. Others say that the Mishkan was not completed until the first of Adar. Most commentators maintain that the Tabernacle was set up for the very first time on the 23rd of Adar, and then dismantled each day, until it was permanently erected on Rosh Chodesh, the first of Nissan.

In Exodus 40:33, the Torah states that Moses erected the courtyard that encircled the Tabernacle and the Altar, and placed the curtain of the gate at the entrance to the courtyard. Exodus 40:33 concludes: וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַמְּלָאכָה,  with these final actions, Moses completed the work of the Tabernacle. What a dramatic moment!

But, the drama was about to intensify.

The Torah in Exodus 40:34 reports, וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וּכְבוֹד השם מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן, that a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the L-rd filled the Tabernacle. The following two verses, Exodus 40:35-36, state that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the cloud that rested upon it, because the glory of the L-rd filled the Tabernacle. However, when the cloud rose up from the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on their journeys. As we know from the description in Numbers 9:15-23, the cloud served as a would-be guide for the people of Israel, directing them when and where to travel and encamp.

Rashi is perplexed by the verse (Exodus 40:35) that records that Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting. After all, the verse in Numbers 7:89, states clearly that Moses did enter the Tent of Meeting. This scriptural contradiction appears to be a classic case of two biblical verses that contradict one another.

The issue of the contradicting verses is noted in a famous Braita, a Talmudic teaching that was omitted from the formal edited version of the Mishna, and was cited in the discussions in the Talmudic academies. The Braita is known as the Braita of Rabbi Ishmael, and is recited every day at the beginning of the morning prayer service, as a way of including Torah study in the Jew’s daily routine.

Rabbi Ishmael says that the Torah is elucidated and interpreted through thirteen principles. The very last of these principles is when two passages contradict one another. The contradiction, says Rabbi Ishmael, is resolved only when a third passage is found to reconcile them.

Philip Birnbaum, in his classic translation of The Daily Prayer Book provides the following example:

In Exodus 13:6 we read: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread,” and in Deuteronomy 16:8 we are told: “Six days you shall eat unleavened bread.” The contradiction between these two passages is explained by a reference to a third passage (Leviticus 23:14), where the use of the new produce is forbidden until the second day of Passover, after the offering of the Omer. If, therefore, the unleavened bread was prepared of the new grain, it could only be eaten six days of Passover. Hence, the passage in Exodus 13:6 must refer to unleavened bread prepared of the produce of a previous year.

Thus, there is no contradiction.

Similarly, the contradiction between the verse that states that Moses was unable to come into the Tent of Meeting, and the verse that reports that Moses actually entered the Tent of Meeting is resolved by a third verse, or at least the end of one of the verses already cited. Exodus 40:35 states that Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud that rested upon it, כִּי-שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן.  Now it is clear that as long as the cloud rested on the Tabernacle, Moses was unable to enter the Tabernacle. However, when the cloud rose up, Moses could enter the Tabernacle and speak with the Al-mighty.

The Da’at Sofrim briliantly elucidates this issue. Rabbi Rabinowitz maintains that Moses could not enter the Tabernacle because “the creations of his [Moses’] hands had exceeded Moses’ own greatness.”

The Tabernacle that was erected through the efforts of Moses was filled with a sanctity that even the most exalted of mortals (Moses himself) could not enter. The Da’at Sofrim points out that apparently the Tabernacle had varied levels of holiness. The verse begins by stating that Moses could not enter the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud that hovered over it, but concludes by stating that the glory of G-d filled the מִּשְׁכָּן, the Tabernacle. The “Tent of Meeting,” had a lower level of holiness, than the “Mishkan” (Tabernacle), a word that derives from the root of the Hebrew word “to rest.” This indicates that although the dwelling place of G-d began as a “tent” for gathering the people, it evolved into a Mishkan, a place where the Divine Presence filled every nook and cranny.

The lessons of the exclusion of Moses from the Tabernacle are profound, underscoring that there were times that even the great Moses who had invested superhuman efforts to build the Tabernacle, could not enter.

Those who invest intensely in a project, no matter what it may be, a building, a musical composition, a work of art, designer clothes, often feel, when it is completed, a well-deserved sense of pride and satisfaction in the accomplishment. On occasion, they may even feel a sense of ownership, though the artisan is certainly not the owner.

Moses had every right to feel that the Tabernacle belonged to him. It was Moses who mobilized the people, called for the donations, and accounted for every gift that was donated. He was in charge of every detail, every wooden plank, every curtain, all the threads, the gold, the silver, the precious metals and precious stones. Suddenly we are told that the great Moses, the foremost Jewish spiritual leader of all time, the master who chose Betzalel, the talented young architect, could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud that dwelt upon it and hovered above it.

The great Moses experiences an uneasy transformation. He becomes as one of the nation. After all that Moses had done, he became just another plain Jewish citizen.

The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was not Moses’ after all. It had become הָעֵדוּת מִּשְׁכָּן,  a Tabernacle of Testimony. It was now an אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד , a gathering place for the people. It was not the Tabernacle of Moses, it was the Tabernacle of the People.

Despite his tireless efforts, the Tabernacle did not belong to Moses, but to the nation. The great Moses was required to retire from center stage.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.

Vayakhel 5774-2014

“Lip Service is Hardly Enough”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, the people of Israel deliver their abundant contributions to be used in constructing the Tabernacle. The chief architects and the craftsmen are selected, and work on erecting the Tabernacle commences.

The people’s donations were so generous and so forthcoming that Moses was eventually required to proclaim, Exodus 36:6:  אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אַל-יַעֲשׂוּ-עוֹד מְלָאכָה לִתְרוּמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ,  No man and woman shall do more work toward the gift of the Sanctuary! This, of course, was probably the first and last time that donations to a united Jewish appeal had to be discouraged due to over-subscription!

The Torah, in Exodus 35:21, underscores the people’s unprecedented generosity of spirit:  וַיָּבֹאוּ, כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ, הֵבִיאוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמַת השם לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכָל-עֲבֹדָתוֹ, וּלְבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ, and every man, whose heart inspired him, came, and everyone whose spirit motivated him, brought the portion of the L-rd, for the work of the Tent of Meeting, for all its labor and for the sacred vestments.

In the following eight verses, Exodus 35:22-29, the Torah describes the extreme generosity of the varied segments of the people and the types of gifts they brought. Apparently, some donations came from both men and women, others, only men, others, only women. Even the presidents of the twelve tribes of Israel brought their own special gifts.

The great Nehama Liebowitz in her work, Studies in Shemot, on the book of Exodus, points out that different forms of the verb, לְהָבִיא, to bring, appear nine times in the nine verses describing the contributions.

Citing the Ramban, Nehama Leibowitz notes that the Torah emphasizes the people’s gifts in order to praise the people, to highlight the people’s special devotion, and to underscore that they were prepared to give up a good part of their material wealth for the service of G-d.

But not everyone agrees that the generosity of the people toward the construction of the Tabernacle was so overwhelming. Professor Leibowitz, notes the statement of Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi, cited in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1. Rabbi Yehuda points out, that in comparison to the people’s generous contributions to create the Golden Calf, the contributions to the construction of the Tabernacle truly pale.

Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Pazi cried out: “How can we read these texts, and not recoil [in dismay]?” What is the reason for Rabbi Yehuda’s dismay? When reporting the people’s generosity to the Golden Calf, Rabbi Yehuda cites a verse in Exodus 32:3: וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל-אַהֲרֹן… כָּל-הָעָם אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב,  all the people ripped off their golden ornaments…and brought them to Aaron. Whereas, with regard to donations brought for the Tabernacle, it describes those who brought as those whose hearts were lifted, whose spirits were moved, who had a generous heart, a woman who was wise-hearted, and men and women whose hearts decided to donate.

Apparently, only a limited number of the people of Israel were “inspired” to donate for the Tabernacle. Whereas, for the Golden Calf, all the people donated.

The commentators, of course, rush to the defense of the People of Israel, noting that donations to the Golden Calf, consisted only of gold earrings, whereas, donations to the Tabernacle, consisted not only of gold earrings, but also included donations of all vessels of gold, as well as all sorts of precious metals, silver, brass, and precious stones and threads.

The Abarbanel underscores that the contributions for the Tabernacle were given, נְדָבָה לַהשם , with special devotion, as pure–hearted donations specifically for G-d, and with no ulterior motives.

The Malbim also notes how often the word, “heart,” is mentioned with regard to the contributions, underscoring that the people gave with a full heart to the Tabernacle.

Thus, the status of the gifts of the People of Israel for the Tabernacle, was most elevated. These contributions were made without any hesitation, with full hearts and with total generosity.

Despite the great sincerity of the donors, the Torah makes a point of emphasizing the fact that the contributions were not only “pledged,” but were actually delivered. This is the reason for the multiple repetitions of the verb, “to bring.” After all, one can have the best of intentions when donating, but never get around to writing the check or putting the donation in the mail, assuring that it reaches its appropriate destination.

My father, Moshe Aaron Buchwald, of blessed memory, would jokingly point to the differences between the charitable giving practices in the United States and those in his European Shtetl in Poland. He noted that when the Torah was carried around the synagogue in Europe, the people would kiss the mantle of the Torah with their lips. When an appeal was made for charity, the people would be forthcoming and deliver the money with their hands. In America, the customs are reversed–the congregants kiss the Torah with their hand, touching their hand to the mantle and then kissing their fingers, and give with their mouths. They make pledges, but they do not always pay!

Thus, we see, the laudable devotion of the people’s heart. But, lip service was hardly enough. Action was required. That is why the Torah repeatedly records the actions of the people, over and over again.

May you be blessed.