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Naso 5775-2015

“The Fine Nuances of Jealousy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, includes the very challenging portion about the Sotah, the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband.

The laws of the Sotah are recorded in the Torah in Numbers 5:11-31, and raise many issues concerning the Torah’s regard for, and treatment of, women.

The Torah states that any man whose wife goes astray and commits “treachery” against him, must bring his suspected adulterous wife to the Kohen–the priest. Although the illicit couple acted in a compromising manner by being secluded together after being warned not to do so, since there were no actual witnesses, the husband does not know whether or not an adulterous act was committed.

To determine her guilt or innocence, the woman is subjected to a grueling ritual. The priest uncovers her hair and prepares a special sacrifice for her made of barley. The priest pours holy water into an earthen vessel, places dust from the floor of the Tabernacle in the water, writes an oath on parchment, scrapes the ink of the parchment into the water and makes the woman recite the oath. “If you are innocent, then the waters that you drink will not harm you. But, if you are guilty, your stomach will explode and your thigh will crumble and you will be an anathema to Israel!” The woman would then drink the water.

The rabbis assert that if she had actually committed adultery, the woman would die as a result of the Divine test. If she was innocent, however, she would become pregnant, bear a child and the woman’s name would be cleared.

Despite the fact that there were no witnesses and the woman was not caught in an adulterous act, the Torah states that her husband was consumed with jealousy. The Torah, in Numbers 5:14 states, וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהִוא נִטְמָאָה, אוֹ עָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהִיא לֹא נִטְמָאָה, the spirit of jealousy consumes her husband, and he is jealous of his wife and she had become defiled, or the spirit of jealousy passes over him, and she had not become defiled. In either case, the husband takes his wife to the priest to face the ordeal.

It is intriguing to note that the Torah states that the husband is “jealous” of his wife, rather than angry at his wife or vengeful concerning what she had done. The use of the word jealous, suggests that perhaps he is jealous of his wife because she had a secret admirer on the side and he did not.

What exactly does the term, “jealous” mean in this context?

Jealousy is often the result of a rivalry or a suspicion of unfaithfulness. In the Bible, we find that Rachel was jealous of her sister, Leah (Genesis 30:1), who bore several children while Rachel was barren. We also learn that Joseph’s brothers not only hated him (Genesis 37:4), but were jealous of him (Genesis 37:11). When Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp (Numbers 11:26-29), Joshua ran to Moses to demand that they be imprisoned. Moses cried out, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the people of Israel would be prophets.”

The Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, 4:28, sums it up pithily by declaring, הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם, jealousy, lust and desire for honor remove a person from the world. It seems as if jealousy is clearly a bad character trait, which has an extremely corrosive and destructive impact on all involved.

And yet, we find instances where jealousy is regarded as meritorious and positive. The prophet, Isaiah 9:6 speaks of קִנְאַת השם צְבָ־אוֹת, the jealousy for the L-rd of hosts, who detests the idolaters who desecrate the honor of G-d. The very heartening Talmudic statement (Sanhedrin 105b) provides further insight into jealousy: בַּכֹּל אָדָם מִתְקַנֵּא חוּץ מִבְּנוֹ וְתַלְמִידוֹ, a person is jealous of everyone, except of his son and his student. The Talmud statement in Tractate Babba Batra 22a, states that we are not concerned about placing a less advanced student next to a more advanced student, for fear that he (the weaker student) will give up, because קִנְאַת סוֹפְרִים תַּרְבֶּה חָכְמָה, jealousy (competition) between scholars increases wisdom.

The different aspects and applications of jealousy are quite instructive. Character traits are often regarded as either all good or all bad. Love and hostility, generosity and mean-spiritedness, pleasantness and anger, seem to be opposite extremes. We, too often, conclude that only positive traits should be embraced. Nevertheless, we find that even negative traits have their redeeming moments. King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, reminds us that there is a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to make war and a time to make peace. Even when it comes to speaking ill of others, there are redeeming allowances. Consequently, Jewish law allows, indeed, even requires, that לְשׁוֹן הָרָע, L’shon Harah, evil speech, be spoken in instances where the negative information can save a person from a social or financial loss.

Judaism, very much advocates following the שְׁבִיל הַזָּהָב “Shveel ha’zah’hav,” the golden path or the golden mean. Life is rarely perfectly balanced. In most instances, jealousy and hatred are bad, and are to be eschewed. However, there are times when even these perceived negative characteristics need to be invoked.

It should be understood, that had there been no strong feelings between Joseph and his brothers, there would have been no jealousy. Similarly, with respect to the Sotah, were there no positive feelings between the accuser and his wife, there would be no jealousy.

The Talmud in Sotah 3a and 5b concludes that because of his jealous feelings, the husband had legally warned his wife (Naso 5761-2001) in front of witnesses to stay away from her paramour.

Ironically, jealousy, when “properly applied,” can be redeeming, cathartic and redemptive. If the husband of the Sotah did not love or care for his wife, he would have summarily rejected and divorced her. By subjecting his wife to the Divine ordeal that she willingly endures, both husband and wife hope to redeem their marriage that is being challenged. The jealousy actually revealed that there were true feelings on the part of the husband for his wife that motivated both husband and wife to endure the cleansing ritual of the Sotah, no matter how distasteful and embarrassing. Although, at first, it may have appeared otherwise, the husband was determined to prove his wife’s innocence beyond a shadow of doubt, in order to rehabilitate a relationship that had gone awry.

This is the Torah’s way of teaching that even so-called “negative” attributes and behaviors, such as jealousy can be redeeming and beneficial.

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5775-2015

“Finding Value in Every Task”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the Torah describes the structure and layout of the camp of Israel in the wilderness. The locations of the encampments of each of the 12 tribes are delineated, the roles of the three Levitic families are assigned, and their tasks and responsibilities in the Tabernacle are recorded.

In Numbers 4, the Torah assigns the role of the first of the three Levitic families, the Kohathites, who are responsible for the most sanctified furnishings in the Tabernacle.

G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron saying, Numbers 4:18-20,אַל תַּכְרִיתוּ אֶת שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי מִתּוֹךְ הַלְוִיִּם. וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת קֹדֶשׁ  הַקֳּדָשִׁים: אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְאֶל מַשָּׂאוֹ. וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ, Do not cause the tribe of the Kohathite families to be cut off from among the Levites. Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die: When they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden. But they shall not come and look as the Holy things are being covered, lest they die.

The more than 22,000 Levites who were charged with caring for the Tabernacle faced a rather daunting task. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of separate parts to the Tabernacle. Each part had to be properly marked and labeled, so that when the Tabernacle would be taken down and erected, reassembled and rebuilt, each of the thousands of parts would be in its proper location.

The three Levitic families, Gershon, Kohath and Merari, who cared for the Tabernacle, were each assigned separate functions and responsibilities. Merari was responsible for the heaviest items in the Tabernacle, the wooden planks that were used for the walls of the Tabernacle, the columns for the curtains and for the courtyard walls, the bases and the sockets. To assist in the transportation of their assignment, they were given four wagons and eight oxen. The Gershonites, who were in charge of the curtains that covered the wooden structure, the divider curtain, the entrance curtains of the Tabernacle and the courtyard, were given two wagons and four oxen. The Kohathites were in charge of all the holy furnishings, the Ark, the Table of Showbread, the Menorah-candelabra, the Golden Altar, the earthen sacrificial Altar and the Laver. The holy furnishings in their charge were to be transported on the Kohathites’ shoulders.

The role of the Kohathites was the most honored role, but also the most dangerous, since improper handling of the holy furnishings could be lethal. The Torah, therefore, warned the Kohathites that they not enter the Tabernacle until the priests had completely covered each of the furnishings with their specially prepared covers. This prevented actual viewing of the furnishings while they were being transported.

The Sforno takes the words, (Numbers 4:19) אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, to mean that every man must do the specific task assigned to him. For this reason, each Levite, and especially members of the family of Kohath, was assigned a specific task in an organized fashion, together with the other Levite members. This assured that the Levites would not compete with one another, or rush to enter the Tabernacle, lest they jostle one another and desecrate the Temple, thereby bringing death upon themselves.

Maimonides, in Laws of the Temple Vessels 3:10-11, derives from this verse that the priest must not only appoint the Kohathite family members to perform specific tasks, he must also personally supervise them, making certain that they not overstep their bounds and die.

Recognizing the immense sanctity of the Tabernacle furnishings and the respect that must be shown to them, the Midrash, in Bamidbar Rabbah 5:1, describes the possible impact of the fear of death upon the Kohathies. Rabbi Elazar ben P’dat is of the opinion that because of the dangers associated with the Ark, the Kohathites were not eager to carry the Ark. That is why the priests had to appoint specific Levites from the family of Kohath to bear the Ark.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani argues otherwise, stating that the Levites were so eager to be assigned the honor of bearing the Ark, that there needed to be designated carriers for the Ark, in order to make certain that the other furnishings of the Tabernacle were not neglected.

This Midrash suggests that there were two classes of Temple attendants, those who were afraid to fulfill the task because of the intense holiness of the furnishings, and another group who was eager to only do the most prestigious work, but not the less prestigious work.

It might also be assumed that there were workers with other attitudes. There were probably those who were slovenly and not eager to work at all, who would rather be back on their farms, tending to their sheep or their fields. There were probably also those who felt themselves unworthy of fulfilling the sacred task of carrying the holy furnishings of the Tabernacle.

By stating אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, the Torah teaches, that not only must every man do his work and recognize the specialness of the task at hand, but that every task, whether in the Tabernacle, at home or in the office, must be seen as a sacred and vital task. Menial tasks must also be regarded as important, because without them, the major tasks could not be completed.

While many aspire to be leaders, unfortunately, few appreciate the contributions of the followers and the support teams. Regretfully, it is very common for people to frequently place values on what they perceive as “important” tasks. But, in the eyes of the Al-mighty, a task that is fulfilled with a full heart, whether large or small, is what is most valued and most significant.

This discussion brings to mind an elderly widow, Mrs. Chernick, whom I first met in the early years of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Mrs. Chernick, who had no children, marched to the beat of her own drummer. She would often tell all who would listen that her greatest aspiration was to serve as the cleaning woman in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Although, being a “cleaning woman” does not really rank as a particularly prestigious job for a nice Jewish boy or girl, I have a distinct feeling that there may be many who would quickly volunteer to assist Mrs. Chernick in her cleaning duties, should the opportunity arise.

With the upcoming festival of Shavuot, זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ, the time of the giving of our Torah, we have a unique opportunity to display our full-hearted devotion to Torah. May the Al-mighty witness our exceptional devotion during the coming holiday, and in its merit reward us with the opportunity to start cleaning the rebuilt Temple very soon.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3328 years ago, is observed this year on Saturday evening, May 23rd, and continues through Monday night, May 25th, 2015.

Behar-Bechukotai 5775-2015

“The Odd Conclusion to the Book of Leviticus”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Bechukotai, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we find two major themes, the תּוֹכָחָה Tochacha–G-d’s admonition and reproof of the Jewish people, and the laws regarding the redemption of vows and tithes.

The Tochacha, G-d’s fearsome reproof of the Jewish people, found in Leviticus 26, is an intimidating document. While the Torah portion opens on a positive note, promising blessings in the wake of obedience, much of the parasha deals with the wages of Israel’s disobedience. The Torah predicts that the defiant Children of Israel will experience sickness, defeat, famine and wild beasts, and proceeds to describe the horrors of siege, and to vividly convey the calamity of national destruction and exile. It does, however, conclude with the promise that repentance shall bring restoration.

The final chapter of the book of Leviticus, chapter 27, instructs the People of Israel concerning the redemption of vows and tithes. It encourages the people to make voluntary contributions toward the upkeep of the Sanctuary, representing the true expression of devotion to the house of G-d.

The Torah then delineates various vows that may be made on behalf of the Temple. One may donate the value of a person (oneself) to the Sanctuary, or redeem an animal and donate the value of that animal to the Temple. The value of a home, or of land or a firstling animal may also be donated to the Temple. Finally, the Torah provides instruction for the redemption of the various tithes–the first tithe, the second tithe and tithes of the herd.

One may wonder what the Tochacha, G-d’s ominous admonition to the Jewish people, has in common with the redemption of vows and tithes, and why these themes specifically appear together at the end of the book of Leviticus. What could possibly be the connection, and what message is the Torah trying to convey?

The noted young scholar, Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his recent volume, A Synagogue Companion, offers an insightful explanation of the structure of the book of Leviticus and its unusual conclusion.

Raising the question of this seemingly odd conclusion to the book of Leviticus, Rabbi Angel asks why, after the climactic blessings and curses in chapter 26, does the Torah conclude with chapter 27 that focuses on those who wish to dedicate their “value” to the Temple, by contributing money equal to their monetary value on the slave market?

Rabbi Angel insightfully suggests that the final two chapters of the book of Leviticus represent two unique models of Israel’s relationship with G-d. The Tochacha, found in chapter 26, represents the covenantal relationship between G-d and the People of Israel that was forged at Mount Sinai. This covenant reflects the relationship of mutual obligation between the Al-mighty and His people.

The final chapter of Leviticus, chapter 27, however, describes a relationship that is not borne of obligation but rather of love, given voluntarily. This special sense of dedication is underscored by members of the Jewish community who choose to donate their value, or the value of their property, to G-d. In this manner do Jews symbolically dedicate their lives to G-d.

This particularly profound message applies to many aspects of contemporary life as well. In business and in the professional world, commitments are made between employer and employee in order for both to benefit economically and achieve material success. This success allows both parties to earn a living and put bread on their tables. While the work and fiscal relationship between employer and employee and their mutual commitment is significant, the most effective professional commitments are those that are made because both boss and worker truly enjoy making meaningful contributions, not only to the business, but to society and to humankind, as well.

In marriage, both husband and wife take upon themselves the obligation to support one another in truth, and together share a hope to raise a family that will enlighten the world with their good and noble deeds. This relationship of responsibility and accountability is most profoundly enhanced by feelings of mutual love and respect.

These two unique models of Israel’s relationship with G-d that are found in this unusual conclusion to parashat Bechukotai, serve as a most fitting conclusion to the book of Leviticus, a book that is dedicated to bringing sanctity into the world. In order to do so effectively, the Jewish people must first sanctify themselves, then sanctify the nation, all the while serving G-d with a full heart.

There can be no more meaningful or effective relationship than one in which there is a melding of the sense of obligation, together with the feelings of deep love and devotion.

It is this special relationship that serves as a most fitting conclusion to the book of holiness, the book of Leviticus.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed this Saturday night, May 15th through Sunday night, May 16th. This year marks the 48th anniversary of the reunification of the city.

Emor 5775-2015

“Distractions, Distractions!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Emor, opens with an extensive series of laws regarding the conduct of the Kohanim, the priests of the Jewish nation, who minister and serve in the Tabernacle and the Temple.

Because of the elevated status of the Kohanim and the sanctity of the Tabernacle and Temple, priests are required to follow a strict physical and spiritual regimen. Due to the serious responsibilities conferred upon them, the Kohanim are expected to live up to a sacred ideal, and be adequately prepared to properly perform their Temple and Tabernacle duties.

As we have previously noted (Emor 5765-2005), members of the priestly class are not permitted to come into contact with death. A lay priest may only attend the funerals of his seven closest relatives Relatives . The High Priest may not even attend the funeral of his own mother and father. The Torah declares, in Leviticus 21:10-11, that the Kohen who is exalted above his brethren (the High Priest), shall not, because of mourning, let his hair grow long or rend his garments. He may not contaminate himself [by coming in contact] with any dead person, even his mother or father. Leviticus 21:12 further states, וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא, וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֵת מִקְדַּשׁ אֱ-לֹהָיו,  כִּי נֵזֶר שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת אֱ-לֹהָיו עָלָיו, אֲנִי השׁם  He [the High Priest] shall not leave the Sanctuary [because of a death in his family] and he shall not desecrate the Sanctuary of his G-d; for a crown–-G-d’s oil of anointment–-is upon him; I am the L-rd.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 18a, records the debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah the Prince regarding the meaning of this verse. Rabbi Meir maintains that although the High Priest may not take part in his parents’ funerals, he may follow the funeral procession at a distance. Rabbi Judah takes the words, “He shall not leave the Mikdash (Sanctuary),” literally, and maintains that the Kohen Gadol may not leave the Temple at all during the funeral of a parent. Rashi, notes that the rabbis learn from this verse that a High Priest who has suffered the loss of a close relative is permitted to perform the Temple service even while he is an אוֹנֵן “Oh’nayn,” in deep mourning, prior to the burial of the deceased. An ordinary Kohen, however, who performs the Temple service while he is an Oh’nayn, is considered to have defiled the sanctuary.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum in Peninim on the Torah suggests that a profound homiletical message may be derived from this verse. Rabbi Scheinbaum writes: “The Kohen Gadol, and for that matter anyone who makes the Sanctuary/Bais HaMedrash his home his place of study, should see to it that when he leaves, it should be only for a matter of great urgency or necessity. His spiritual sustenance is provided in the Sanctuary and every interruption diminishes the spiritual flow.”

This metaphorical interpretation has important contemporary implications. While history is generally looked upon as a record of the many great human accomplishments, at the same time, in important respects, civilization has significantly regressed. While contemporary science has mastered the ability to fly at much faster speeds than ever before, has landed men on the moon, and has enabled voices to be instantly transmitted from one end of the globe to the other, in other significant respects, humankind has retrogressed.

Because of the industrial revolution and its many scientific and mechanical advances, fewer people today are involved in farming or engaged in rigorous manual labor. The physical skills possessed by the ancient agricultural and hunting societies are rarely to be found among today’s workers. Despite many great contemporary medical discoveries, because of our modern habits and lifestyle, our eyesight and hearing are no longer as acute as they were among the ancients. As a result of the development of the printed book, our memories have also been compromised, and our abilities to concentrate have sharply diminished. Many young people today communicate orally only infrequently, responding instead only to texting and Facebook messages. In the “soundbite generation,” voice communication among young people has become much less common.

Attention spans among (not limited to young) people today have also become progressively shorter. “Tweeting,” which is a method of sending electronic messages composed of no more than 140 characters, has created a new standard of communication. While it has eliminated many unnecessarily long-winded notes, it has also eclipsed well-thought-out and seriously researched messages. The ability to sit through long, intricate lectures is rapidly vanishing. Ours is an age where almost everyone is easily distracted.

The message of Leviticus 21:12, וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא, He [the High Priest] shall not leave the sanctuary, is of great importance. This verse not only restricts the priestly class from leaving the “Sanctuary,” but calls on all to recognize and acknowledge the importance of remaining in the “Sanctuary.” Because of the growing inability to focus, and the constant distractions, significant life-moments are often interrupted or neglected. One may be deeply engaged in a most intense and important discussion with a child or a spouse, yet feel compelled to respond to the beckoning call of email or the buzzing of the Twitter or Facebook account. In such instances the message to the child or the spouse is eminently clear: “Whoever is texting or calling is much more important than you. That is why I must interrupt our conversation and respond to them.”

The Torah’s directive to the High Priest calls, not only on him, but on each of us to recognize that while our careers and places of business may be important, they must not be regarded as our “Sanctuary.” Unquestionably, our synagogues and houses of learning are of great value, but even they should not be considered “ultimate sanctuaries.” In the absence of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the only “ultimate sanctuary” for the Jewish people today is the Jewish home and family. The sanctuary of the Jewish home should be our primary focus, and spouses and children must be regarded as the foremost priority.

The message of the Torah to the ancient priests is a vitally important universal message, to establish proper priorities in life! Business and profession must be seen as a means, not an end. Work is necessary in order to provide for the essential needs of the family: shelter, food, transportation, etc.. Even Torah study has its purpose, to convey to our children the importance of Torah values.

This message of parashat Emor is a universal call to focus on priorities and diminish distractions. Surely, the distraction for the priest is a serious one, the death of the High Priest’s parents. What could be more important than attending the funeral of one’s parent? The answer provided by this message of parashat Emor is that serving G-d and nation by prioritizing family, is of even greater import.

Distractions that are around us at all times, need to be overcome and defeated. Priorities must be properly set. While one cannot always remain in the sanctuary, the sanctuary can often be taken with us. It is for this reason that scripture declares that the People of Israel shall be, Exodus 19:6, מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ, We are all, in essence, a kingdom of priests–and a people who must always strive to become a holy nation.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 6th and continue all day Thursday, May 7th, 2015. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5775-2015

“Having Thoughts About False Gods”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, the Torah strictly prohibits Jews to turn to idols and false gods for any reason.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with a strong exhortation to all Jews to show proper respect to the “three partners” in the creation of every human life–G-d, father and mother. This is followed by the prohibition of introducing any false gods into this creative partnership. In Leviticus 19:4, the Torah declares,אַל תִּפְנוּ אֶל הָאֱלִילִם, וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם, אֲנִי השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיכֶם, Do not turn to the idols, and molten gods shall you not make for yourselves–-I am the L-rd, your G-d!

In Rabbi Abraham Chill’s acclaimed compendium and explication of Judaism’s 613 Mitzvot, entitled The Mitzvot, Their Commandments and Their Rationale, Rabbi Chill offers many wonderful insights into all the mitzvot of the Torah. Of particular interest are his comments regarding the negative mitzvah that prohibits Jews to turn to idols and false gods.

Rabbi Chill notes that because of the human being’s “proclivity to transgress,” the Torah introduces 365 prohibitions intended to restrain people from doing wrong. It is widely acknowledged that the first principle of doing good, is to do no wrong. Consequently, the Torah contains more negative mitzvot (365 injunctions), than positive commandments (248). It must be remembered, that in order to do good, one needs to be proactive, while in order to do evil or harm, one need not do anything. One can be a collaborator to evil by merely standing by and watching as evil occurs.

Thus, we are forbidden to not only worship false gods, but to even consider that there is any validity to the claims that these false gods exist at all. While giving consideration to the existence of false gods is prohibited, it is not punishable, unless these thoughts lead to actions, which then, of course, are punishable. This injunction is reaffirmed by the well-known verse found in the second paragraph of the Shema, in Numbers 15:39, “And you shall not go after your own heart or your own eyes, which you are accustomed to follow.”

Rabbi Chill cites four well-known medieval commentators and their views on this subject.

The Ibn Ezra maintains that a person may not even consider the concept of idolatry as being legitimate, and must regard idols as non-entities, not worthy of being given even the slightest thought or regard.

Nachmanides notes that even if an oracle or “false god” predicts a future occurrence, and the prediction comes true, one must not give credence to the prediction or the occurrence. The same is true of a false prophet. The fact that a predicted prophecy comes true is no proof of the prophet’s authenticity, especially if the prophet also makes pronouncements that conflict with the precepts of the Torah. In both instances, the so-called “miraculous” occurrences must be attributed to G-d, and not to the idolatrous source or the false prophet. Nachmanides goes even further, strictly prohibiting even engaging in debate regarding the existence of pagan gods or the sanctity of their priests.

The The Alshich questions the need for the Torah to prohibit or even warn against pagan gods. After all, the prohibition should be superfluous for those who already believe in one G-d. The Alshich, therefore, suggests that the Torah issues this warning especially to those who believe that the entire world was created by G-d. Thus, one who worships the sun, the moon, the seas or the sky, may believe that he/she is truly worshiping G-d. Therefore, the Torah strongly declares that while G-d’s creations may be admired, they must not be worshiped.

The Sefer Hachinuch raises the specter of those who study forbidden subject matters for the sake of ‘intellectual inquiry.” While Judaism recognizes the importance of open-mindedness, the Chinuch warns that these intellectual pursuits tend to become addictive, often making it impossible for one to distinguish between honest academic exploration and false and misleading conclusions. Because of the powerful blandishments of the idolatrous subject matter, such inquiries often result in the inability of the student to separate from the dangerous subject matter. No longer able to identify what is beautiful and sanctified in life, the Torah recommends refraining altogether from having contact with that subject matter.

The proliferation of electronic media today (which itself is often addictive), allows the intellectually curious to inquire and learn about virtually everything, more than ever before. This, as well, underscores how easily it is to become addicted to the blandishments of modernity.

Addictions are common today and the objects of addiction are legion. The elements and range of addictions is endless. Many are addicted to things that we encounter frequently and often take for granted in our daily lives, such as: sports, gambling, drugs, cars, money, women, men, video games, movies, music, clothes, exercise, and many more. The advantage of media proliferation is that it often shows how intelligent people can be easily manipulated, become radicalized, and even be persuaded to commit acts of violence in the name of the new “deity.”

We see today more cult-like behavior than ever before. While the blandishments are becoming more powerful, the human being’s ability to resist the temptations seems to be growing increasingly weaker. Although the Torah’s strong derogation of idolatry seems inimical to Judaism’s openness and its strong predilection against stifling ideas and opinions, the growing inability to adequately fight the blandishments, perhaps justifies the rabbinic declaration that Jews must not give idolatrous practices any credence whatsoever. In fact, this out-of-character prohibition represents one of the earliest attempts in human history to stifle the flow of truly-dangerous ideas and prevent the terrible harm these ideas may wreak upon society.

It is always fascinating to see how forward-thinking Judaism truly is, especially in light of new developments and ideas that are emerging every day.

May you be blessed.

Tazria-Metzorah/Yom HaAtzmaut 5775-2015

“Finding the Silver Lining”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Tazria, the first of this week’s double parashiot Tazria-Metzorah, we encounter the laws of צָרָעַת Tzaraat, the dermatological disease (sometimes mistaken for leprosy), that, according to tradition, afflicted those who spoke לָשׁוֹן הָרָע “lashon harah,” evil about others.

The Torah, in Leviticus 13:2 states that G-d spoke to Moses saying: אָדָם כִּי יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת, וְהוּבָא אֶל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים, If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot and it will become a Tzaraat affliction on the skin of his flesh, that person shall be brought to Aaron, the Priest, or to one of his sons.

The priest shall look at the affliction and determine whether or not the person has the Tzaraat disease. If the Kohen confirms that the person is indeed afflicted with the disease, he declares the sticken person impure. The victim is initially sent away, outside of the camp of Israel, for a period of one week. If the disease begins to heal, the victim must again wait, and eventually go through an elaborate cleansing ritual. (Tazria 5763-2003)

Struck by the use of the word, וְהָיָה “V’hah’yah,” in the text, some of the commentators point to the Midrash, Bereshith Rabbah 43:3, which states that wherever the word “V’hah’yah” (which means, and it shall be or it shall become) appears in the text it indicates joy. This, of course, raises a question about the use of the word, “V’hah’yah” in this context, which states, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת, and it shall become the Tzaraat affliction on the skin of his flesh. How can joy possibly be associated with the horrible dermatological disease, Tzaraat?

In Numbers 12:12, when Moses prays for his sister to be healed from Tzaraat, he states, אַל נָא תְהִי כַּמֵּת, אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרו, “Let her [Miriam] not be like a corpse, like one who leaves his mother’s womb with half his flesh having been consumed!” Then Moses cries out, אֵ־ל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ, Please G-d, please heal her! (Numbers 12:13). Can one who is afflicted with Tzaraat, in which half his flesh has been consumed, possibly be joyous?

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh,  on Leviticus 13:2 states that the fact that the verse says that it will become a Tzaraat affliction on the “skin of his flesh,” indicates that the Tzaraat symptoms on the person are only skin deep, but not internal. The sin that the person has committed will leave a mark on the flesh, but only on the surface of the skin and not the internal flesh. Since it is only superficial, the victim can be cleansed through the process of Teshuva, repentance.

Thus we see that the dreaded dermatological disease, Tzaraat, creates a stark sense of awareness benefitting the person who is a sinner, who had gossiped, who could not control his G-d-given faculty of speech, and who hurt others by spreading malicious information about them. The disease does indeed have a beneficial purpose.

The famed biblical riddle found in the book of Judges 14:14, attributed to Samson, conveys this same message. When Samson found a beehive in the body of a lion that he had previously killed, he said: וּמֵעַז יָצָא מָתוֹק, from the strong, or bitter source has come honey and sweet. Thus, we see the potentially redeeming quality of being stricken by Tzaraat, if it leads to repentance.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov,  commenting on the powerful renewal and redemptive properties of the Hebrew month Nissan, points out that the ability to redeem and renew is reflected in much of Jewish history.

When Isaac was born, many concluded that the child had been born to become a slave (fulfilling the Divine prophecy of the Covenant Between the Pieces). Instead, Isaac became the progenitor of a great nation of free people. When Abraham took Isaac to be slaughtered on Mount Moriah, all concluded that this was the end of the line for the Jewish people. Instead the Akeida turned out to be a great source of merit that resulted in a powerful future for the Jewish people. The same is true of Jacob, who was certain that he would be cursed for deceiving his father by impersonating his brother Esau. Instead, he emerged with multiple and abundant blessings. Even the bitter enslavement in Egypt led to the Exodus, resulting in the formation of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, and the transformation of twelve disparate tribes into one united nation.

Thus we see that Jewish history in general, which is often perceived as being one unending series of tragedies, persecutions, destructions and exiles, has many silver linings. Many of our peoples’ tragedies have been transformed into joyous holidays and occasions, providing our people with reasons to celebrate their rescue and salvation.

In contemporary society, we see that those in pain often must “hit rock-bottom” before they can acknowledge their dire situation, and pull themselves up for redemption.

Judaism, however, sees even pain itself as redemptive, often serving to warn those who suffer of dangers that need to be addressed. Thus, even Jews who have distanced themselves from tradition, can find their way back when they realize how existentially alone they are without their people.

A prime example of the restorative power of faith is the establishment of the State of Israel, following on the heels of the darkest period of Jewish history. Although it is impossible to suggest that Yom Ha’Atzmaut somehow compensates for the incomprehensible losses of the Shoah, certainly no one would have believed that a mere 70 years after the Holocaust, Jews would have a flourishing homeland of their own and that Torah learning would reach unprecedented levels, hardly ever matched in all of Jewish history.

The message of parashat Tazria, and the Tzaraat plague is a profound message of hope. Through Teshuva, repentance, by returning to G-d, those who suffer can be healed. While the pain and suffering is often very great and appears to be unyielding, G-d’s healing and infinite restorative powers are always to be found.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, April 22nd) is observed this year on the 4th of Iyar, Wednesday evening, April 22nd, and all day Thursday, April 23rd.

Shemini-Yom HaShoah 5775-2015

“Yom HaShoah: Six Million–Minus One”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This year on the 27th of Nissan, which is Wednesday evening, April 15th through Thursday, April 16th, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day will be commemorated. In lieu of a message for parashat Shemini (for past Shemini messages, please access the archive), I am sharing with you a rather incredible story that was written more than twenty years ago, by Avi London, a former member of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service, and was first published in the Tishrei 5755-September 1994 Bereishith Beginners newsletter. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.

As the Hebrew year 5754 (September 1994) comes to a conclusion, I realize how many new beginnings were given to me and my family during this very special year. It’s not just that my life and the lives of my entire family have been made richer because of this year’s surprising events–it’s that G-d’s hand was so evident and so abundantly generous.

To begin, this past June, I married my wife Betsy. For many, marriage is an expected event in one’s life cycle. But to all of our friends and family our marriage was a veritable miracle, since I took a bit long to finally set the date for the wedding. I won’t tell you how long, but calling it a “miracle” is hardly an understatement. On June 12th, I happily assumed the role of husband.

A second miracle was that after more than 50 years, my family was reunited with a half-sister we assumed was long dead.

In the 1930s, my father married a Jewish woman from his shtetl in Poland, and shortly after, they moved to Israel. My father’s wife found life too harsh in Israel, and two years later they divorced and she returned to Poland. Upon her return, she discovered that she was pregnant. My father learned of the birth of his daughter, Sarah, from his sisters who still lived in Poland, and who actively cared for the child. After the war, my father searched for his former wife and his daughter, but was told that they were dead.

Several years ago, my father’s sister became obsessed with the idea of finding out the actual fate of the child. She went back to Poland to conduct a thorough search, but found nothing. Upon her return, she remembered that a letter containing a picture of the child had been sent to the family. She searched desperately, and shortly after the picture was found, she died.

It was at that time, two and a half years ago, that my sister Nili (from our father’s second marriage, of course), decided to search for our sister, operating under the assumption that perhaps our sister had assumed a new identity in order to avoid the Nazis, or perhaps she was smuggled out of the country. Because of Nili’s tireless efforts and never-ending determination, this past April, our sister “Naomi” was found living in Israel.

Sarah, at the age of three, had been smuggled out of Poland, first to Vienna and then to Yugoslavia. From there she was taken by ship to Argentina where she lived in a Jewish orphanage. At the age of five, she was adopted by a Catholic Uruguayan family, who renamed her “Naomi” after their own daughter who had died. Although she was raised as a Catholic, at age 16, as her mother lay dying, Naomi was told she was Jewish, and that she was expected to marry a Jewish man!

To the dismay of her adoptive Catholic family, Naomi fell in love with a Catholic Uruguayan medical student, whom she married in a Catholic ceremony. For two years her family refused to have anything to do with her, until her husband, Ariel, converted to Judaism. The couple was re-married in a synagogue, and their son and daughter were raised as Jews and sent to Hebrew school.

At age 15, their son was recruited by the Israeli intelligence to spy on the Nazis living in Uruguay. When things got too hot, they were advised by the Israelis to leave the country, and twelve years ago they moved to Israel where they now reside.

My sister Nili’s efforts to find Sarah through conventional means proved fruitless. In desperation, we turned to holy men and psychics who directed us to Israel. Finally, we placed an ad in an Israeli newspaper containing as many of the factual details we knew. Naomi’s family pointed the ad out to her, and she responded. When we received a picture of Naomi, we knew immediately that we had found our long-lost sister–-she looked like a twin to Nili. DNA testing confirmed the relationship!

Meeting our long-lost sister was, for us, dramatic and heartrending, and, of course, a wonderful addition to our family. For Naomi, it was much more. At the age of fifty-seven, she discovered a family she never knew existed. For the first time in her life, she met her father this past April, as well as her sister and me. She had always felt an emptiness inside of her, a sense of being incomplete. Now that the questions of who she is and where she was from have been answered, there is a feeling of being whole. Finally, a sense of tranquility.

When Nili and Naomi were reunited in Israel this past April, they made a trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, to remove her name from the list of the dead. It was the first such case.

As 5755 begins, the London family has much to celebrate. We look forward to getting to know Naomi and her family better. But most of all, we thank Hashem for answering our prayers by giving us our sister Naomi to love, and to share a future with us, a future which no one even dared to dream would ever exist.

Avi London, now retired, was the Assistant Plant Operation Manager of Hot Sox Co.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Wednesday night April 15th, and all day Thursday April 16th, 2015.

Passover II 5775-2015

“The Final Days: Expressing Gratitude”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his masterful work Sefer HaTodaah (The Book of Our Heritage), explains that the seventh day of Passover (as well as the eighth day outside of Israel) is not a separate holiday like Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot. Instead, the final days of Passover are simply considered the conclusion of the Passover holiday, requiring no special שֶׁהֶחֱיָנו Sheh’heh’cheh’yah’noo blessing to be recited at candle lighting or in the festival Kiddush.

On the Jewish historical calendar, the seventh day of Passover is regarded as the day that the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea took place. And yet, the Torah, in Exodus 12:16 simply states,וּבַיוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, וּבַיוֹם הַשְׁבִיעִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם: כָּל מְלָאכָה לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה בָהֶם,  And on the first day shall be a holy convocation and on the seventh day shall be a holy convocation for you, no work may be done on them.

It is interesting to note that the above verse makes no reference to the Exodus from Egypt, which is mentioned in the Torah on virtually all other festivals and holidays. Similarly, there is no allusion to the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, which took place on Nissan 21, the final day of Passover.

The rabbis attribute the absence of any reference to the Exodus to the fact that Jewish holidays, in general, do not mark the defeat of Israel’s enemies, but rather celebrate Jewish salvation. Since the Al-mighty does not rejoice over the destruction of the wicked, the People of Israel must not regard the enemy’s defeat as the reason for the festive day. Indeed, the commandment in Exodus 12, to celebrate the seventh day, was given even before people knew that on that day they would be saved from the hands of the Egyptians, or that the Egyptians would drown in the sea. The Torah, it seems, purposely obscures the connection between the splitting of the sea and the holiness of the day.

Rabbi Kitov cites a most profound statement from the mystical book of the Zohar, regarding the singing of the Song of the Sea by the Israelites. Rabbi Simeon said that when the Israelites were standing by the sea singing the song, the Al-mighty appeared to them along with His heavenly hosts, in order to provide the people with an opportunity to recognize and acknowledge that it was the “King” who performed the miracles leading to the people’s salvation. In this way, the Al-mighty assured that every individual Jew would realize and know the greatness of the salvation, enabling each Israelite to behold what even the greatest of Israel’s future prophets would not be able to comprehend.

A careful review of the song that Israel sang testifies that all the Israelites were able to comprehend these most profound wisdoms, and had reached the greatest intellectual heights. If not, how was it possible that all the people of Israel sang precisely in unison, that not one of them changed the words that were sung by all the others, and that not a single person sang a note earlier or later than the others? Rather, they all sang together, in a perfectly unified group. The Heavenly Spirit that emerged from their mouths and souls, enabled the people to sing together as if their voices emanated from a single mouth. Even fetuses in the uterus of pregnant mothers sang together and beheld what the greatest prophets, like Ezekiel, could not see. In effect, all of Israel saw through a single eye.

When they finished singing, the people’s souls were inspirited with special fragrances, causing each person to desire to see even more. Because of their unquenched spiritual thirst, the people refused to move from the place. At that moment, Moses said to G-d, “Because of their great desire to see the radiance of Your face, Your children refuse to move from the sea.”

The Al-mighty responded by covering almost His entire countenance. Several times, Moses ordered the people to move, but because they could still see part of G-d’s hidden splendor, they refused to leave. Only when the people finally saw the radiance of G-d dwelling in the wilderness, did they begin to move, to pursue the presence of G-d.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus, in his magnificent work Tiferet Shimshon, declares that in each generation, every Jew must sing the song that Israel sang at the sea, in order to properly praise G-d for all the wondrous miracles of which they are recipients, every single moment.

Rabbi Pincus imagines what it would have been like for contemporary Jews to be among those who departed from Egypt after hundreds of years of exile and back-breaking slavery. After being redeemed by G-d with open miracles, Pharaoh chases after the people attempting to murder the infants and children. At the last moment, the sea that is blocking the escape route is split by Moses and turned into dry land. Had we been among those who walked out of the sea unscathed, we too would have sung with great fervor and enthusiasm.

But Rabbi Pincus suggests that celebrating the glorious past is not enough. Jews today need to recognize the miracles of G-d, big and small, every single day. We need to appreciate the fact that when we come home we can open a refrigerator and find it full of food, and closets that are filled with fine clothes for ourselves and our children. This, too, should be considered the equivalent of the miracle of splitting of the sea, and requires a proper response, filled with enthusiasm, bursting into song to express profound thanks to G-d.

If we are blessed with good health, says Rabbi Pincus, and with bodily functions that are properly operating, it is certainly a good reason to sing to G-d with enthusiasm. Every day, every person must recognize G-d’s constant miracles. The fact that we are able to open our eyes each morning and see once again, and be blessed with a heart that beats, is reason for us to burst out in spirited song to acknowledge and declare gratitude for the daily miracles that we receive from our Creator.

And that is why, when the song of Israel crossing the sea is recited in our daily prayers, it must be said word-for-word carefully, pleasantly and with great conscientiousness, as if we too crossed through these ancient waters.

The message of the final days of Passover is that the Song of the Sea must always be with each Jew–strong, fervent and fresh. The ancient waters that are constantly splitting before us, every moment of our lives, must be acknowledged as we call out proudly to the Al-mighty: “Who is like You, O’ L-rd among the mighty?”

May you be blessed.

Please note:  The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 9th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 10th and 11th. For more information see NJOP’s website.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

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

Passover 5775-2015

“Learning to Revere G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There is a fascinating debate in the Passover Hagaddah regarding the number of plagues that struck the Egyptians at the sea.

We are well aware of the Biblical narrative that describes the ten fateful plagues that struck the Egyptians in Egypt. But where do we find that any plagues struck the Egyptians at the sea as well?

In the Passover Hagaddah, Rabbi Jose the Galilean begins a conversation by asking: How does one derive that the Egyptians in Egypt were struck with ten plagues, and with fifty plagues at the sea? He explains that the Torah records that when the Egyptian magicians were unable to replicate the third plague of lice, they cried out to Pharaoh, (Exodus 8:15) “It is the finger of G-d.” However, at the sea, the Torah reports, in Exodus 14:31, that when “Israel saw the ‘hand’ which G-d laid upon the Egyptians, the people feared G-d and they believed in G-d and in His servant, Moses.” Rabbi Jose explains that if the ten plagues that struck the Egyptians in Egypt were described as only one finger, then, surely, at the sea, where the Egyptians were struck with a whole hand (five fingers), they must have suffered fifty plagues.

In the Hagaddah, both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva cite a series of descriptive Biblical words to conclude that each of the plagues in Egypt was a multiple plague. Expanding on the interpretation of Rabbi Jose, Rabbi Eliezer claims that in Egypt the Egyptians were struck with forty plagues, and by the sea, with two hundred plagues. Rabbi Akiva maintains that in Egypt the Egyptians were struck with fifty plagues, and at the sea, with 250 plagues.

The famed Bet HaLevi raises a profound question regarding the verse in Exodus 14:31, cited by the Midrash, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת השׁם, that after the Egyptians drowned in the sea, the people feared G-d and believed in His servant, Moses. Does this not imply, asks the Bet HaLevi, that until this point, the people of Israel did not fear G-d, and that only from this point on did they fear G-d?

How is it possible, asks the Bet HaLevi, that after witnessing the ten plagues and the many other miracles in Egypt, the Israelites did not develop a sense of fear of G-d? And what was it that the Israelites saw later when the Egyptians drowned in the sea that ultimately inspired them to fear G-d?

The concept of “fear of G-d” is troubling and requires clarification. While the Hebrew word, יִרְאָה–“Yirah,” may be translated to mean fear, it is more correctly translated as “reverence.” This is true as well with regard to the commandment to fear one’s father and mother. It is not fear of punishment or retribution that children must develop, but rather fear out of love and respect, hence, reverence. Children should be fearful of hurting their parents’ feelings when doing something wrong, or when treating them disrespectfully. And so it is with fear of G-d.

The Bet HaLevi explains that the Israelites did not gain reverence for G-d from seeing the ten plagues strike the Egyptians, because what they were witnessing at that time in Egypt was G-d punishing the evil Egyptians. Invoking His quality of justice, reflected in the name אֱ-לֹקִים–“Eh’loh’heem,” the G-d of power, the Al-mighty visited retribution upon the Egyptians. The suffering of the Egyptians was well deserved, due to their wickedness and abundant evil deeds. Since the Jews were without merits at that time, the afflictions of the Egyptians had nothing to do with the merits of the Jews. In fact, the Israelites were at the point of virtual “oblivion” because of their own appalling behavior and near-total assimilation (see Passover 5767-2007).

At the sea, however, when the Israelites saw G-d’s mercies reflected in G-d’s name–-the Tetragrammaton, they soon developed a love and reverence for Him. By that time, the Jews had, through their good actions, already become worthy and had earned the right for G-d to intervene on their behalf, and for them to be saved. By that time, they had actually showed the courage to defy their Egyptian masters by brazenly seizing lambs on the tenth day of Nissan and publicly declaring that they intend to slaughter the Egyptian god, the lamb, on the night of the fourteenth. Also, the many Jews who were uncircumcised, fearlessly underwent circumcision, allowing them to eat the Paschal offering.

When the people departed from Egypt to follow Moses and Aaron into the wilderness, they left behind their homes and many of their belongings, without knowing what fate had in store for them. The prophet, Jeremiah (2:2), declares that G-d never forgot this amazing act of חֶסֶד–Chessed, loving-kindness, לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה, that you [the people of Israel] followed G-d into the wilderness and into a land that was not sown.

When the People of Israel acknowledged that their salvation was from G-d, they burst out in song, “Your right hand, oh L-rd, is glorified with strength, Your right hand, oh L-rd, smashes the enemy” (Exodus 15:6). In Kabbalah, the right hand represents the attribute of Divine mercy.

For the first time, the Jews understood that, unlike mortal kings of flesh and blood, G-d’s attributes of strict justice and mercy could be united. G-d can, at once, show compassion and justice, steadfastness and mercy.

It was only at the sea that the People of Israel gained a sense of יִרְאָה, reverence for G-d, because by that time, through their courageous actions, the Israelites had earned the right for G-d to shower His people with love and mercy.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 3rd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 4th and 5th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 9th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 10th and 11th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

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

Tzav 5775-2015

“When Performing a Mitzvah Comes at a Significant Personal Cost”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, for the most part, continues the Torah’s review of the rules and regulations governing the sacrifices and offerings. The conclusion of the parasha, however, describes the consecration of the priests into the priesthood.

In Leviticus 6:2, G-d speaks to Moses saying,צַו אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה, Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering. The Torah continues to explain that the burnt-offering is to stay on the flame of the Altar all night, until the morning, and that the fire of the Altar should be kept lit at all times.

The Hebrew word, צַו, which means command, appears only in the verses describing the offerings that are brought by the community, but not in the verses regarding personal offerings. In fact, regarding personal offerings, the Torah, in Leviticus 1:2-3, says, אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַהשׁם… לִרְצֹנוֹ, לִפְנֵי השׁם,” When a man among you brings an offering to G-d…he shall bring it of his own accord, underscoring that these offerings must be of one’s own free will. The Talmud in Menachot 110a states that the Al-mighty, in effect, declares: You are not bringing offerings for My satisfaction, but for your own satisfaction.

Rashi, citing Kedushin 29a, points out that the Torah’s use of the expression, צַו–command Aaron–implies an expressed urgency for both the immediate moment and for future generations. In fact, wherever the Torah uses the word,צַו, rather than, דַּבֵּר or אֱמֹר, speak or say, it indicates an urgency and that the command be fulfilled immediately, or that the command must continue to be performed by future generations.

To further explain the urgency implied by the word,צַו, “command,” Rashi cites the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, who maintains that scripture urges the priests to serve faithfully, especially in situations where there is a potential financial loss.

The Gur Aryeh explains that the ancient priests suffered financial losses when serving in the Temple because they were not paid for performing the sacrificial service. Also, additional financial loss occurred during the time that the priests served on the Temple rotation, because of their inability to work the fields or to take care of their flocks.  However, in almost all instances when sacrifices were brought, the priests received part of the meat of the sacrificed animals to take home and share with their families.

Although the priests were usually able to benefit from the meat of the sacrifices to compensate for their losses, in the instance of the עֹלָה, “Oh’lah,” the burnt-offering, the priests didn’t receive anything, since the “Oh’lah,” sacrifice was entirely burned on the Altar. The only compensation the priests received from the “Oh’lah” was the hide and the skin, which did not amount to much, especially given the significant loss of income from other work that they might have been able to do.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lida points out another intriguing anomaly. When the people of Israel sin and must bring sin offerings, the priests benefit greatly from these offerings. Ironically, the more the people sin, the greater the benefit to the priests. Consequently, it was particularly important that the Torah urge the priests to do their work faithfully not only when the תָּמִיד, Tamid, daily burnt offering, is sacrificed, but at all times.

That is why, says Rabbi Elimelech, the Torah uses the expression, זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה, that this is the Torah, the “teaching,” of the Oh’lah. When performing in the Temple, the priests must make a special effort to teach the people, and even reprove them if necessary, so that they not stray from the proper path and be certain to distance themselves from sin. Even though fewer sins will result in fewer sacrifices from which the priests benefit, and will mean a loss of income, the priests must be faithful in their service.

Unfortunately, we learn from Jewish history that eventually, by the later Second Temple period, the priesthood became terribly corrupt, and the High Priesthood was often sold to the highest bidder. In fact, some of the High Priests were far from faithful believers, subscribing to the beliefs of the Sadducees, who rejected the Oral Code, adhering only to the written words of the Torah. The Maccabees themselves, who were priests, usurped the kingship, which was intended exclusively for the tribe of Judah and not the priests. This ultimately led to the wholesale corruption of the priesthood and the Jewish monarchy, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Probity in financial matters is a high and exalted value in Jewish life that is emphasized again and again in the Torah. Moses declares (Numbers 16:15) that as a leader, לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי, I have not taken even a single donkey from the people as compensation for the service that I rendered to the Jewish people. In parashat Pekudei, Exodus 38:24-31, Moses and Aaron give a strict and exact accounting of all the valuables that were donated by the people for the building of the Tabernacle.

Although it is not widely known, there are three, not two, instances in the Torah, where the Torah promises “length of days” as a reward to those who perform particular mitzvot: 1. Exodus 20:11, honoring father and mother. 2. Deuteronomy 22:6-7, chasing away the mother bird when taking the chicks. 3. Deuteronomy 25:13-15, honesty in business–-having honest weights and measures.

Because the powerful lure of ill-gotten gains, the Code of Jewish Law demands that there must be several officials who together oversee communal charity funds. In fact, the Talmud, in Yoma 38a, cites several impressive examples of public servants who would deprive themselves of certain luxuries and conveniences so that they would be above any suspicion of wrongdoing: The House of Garmu never allowed their children to eat bread of fine flour, lest the people say that it was taken from the Showbread that their priestly family produced for the Tabernacle. The House of Avtimas never allowed the brides of their family to wear perfume, lest the people accuse them of using the perfumes of the incense that their priestly family was charged with producing. Similarly, any person who entered the “Shekel Chamber” in the Temple was not permitted to wear a sleeved cloak, shoes or sandals, lest they be accused of pilfering shekels from the Temple charity funds.

It was especially challenging for the ancient priests, who depended greatly upon the flesh gifts of the sacrifices for their livelihoods, to be scrupulously honest when they served their rotations in the Temple, particularly if their families may not have enough to eat.

The reward for honesty, however, is extremely great. In fact, the greater the challenge, the greater the temptation and the greater the reward. Since G-d sets and decrees a person’s level of income, ill-gotten gains will never bring benefit. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all Jews to aspire to be beyond reproach, by maintaining their absolute honesty, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Like the priests of old, we must maintain our moral standards, even when facing significant personal financial challenges.

May you be blessed.

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

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 3rd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 4th and 5th.