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B’ha’a’lot’cha 5776-2016

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Naso 5776-2016

“Reflections on the Meaning of Peace”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5776-2016

“A Tiny Letter Conveys a Profound Lesson”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

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

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Bechukotai 5776-2016

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then is the proper Jewish response to the Tochaycha?

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Behar 5776-2016

“Bernie Sanders Meets Parashat Behar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May you be blessed.

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

Emor 5776-2016

“The Sabbath: Meeting G-d”

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Hirsch writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what Shabbat meant to that grateful family.

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Kedoshim 5776-2016

“Tattoos”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are tattoos, and there are tattoos!

May you be blessed.

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

 

Acharei Mot 5776-2016

“Never Give Up Hope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

 

Passover II 5776-2016

“The Final Days of Passover: Love and Hope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Passover I 5776-2016

“The Children, The Children!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

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