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Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5774-2014

“Repentance-With a Little Help from our Friend in Heaven!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we read the uplifting prediction of the eventual repentance and the concomitant redemption of the Jewish people.

In Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, the Torah asserts that the Jewish people will return to G-d and listen to His voice. G-d will return the exiles, have mercy on His people, and will gather all the dispersed from the far ends of the heavens, bringing them to the land that He promised them. They will return to the land that their forefathers possessed and they will posses it. G-d will do good to His people, making them more numerous than their forefathers.

In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah states, וּמָל השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ, לְאַהֲבָה אֶת השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ, לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ, The L-rd your G-d will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring, to love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.

The numerous ominous curses that were previously heaped upon the Jewish people will be removed from G-d’s people and will instead be placed upon Israel’s enemies. The Jews will return to G-d and heed His voice, and perform all the commandments of G-d.

Especially after all the many dreaded imprecations, the promise of redemption is a most welcome and joyous prediction.

Given the beauty of the poetry describing the return and acceptance of the People of Israel, the imagery of “circumcision” is rather dissonant. The Ramban understands “circumcision”  to mean that G-d promises to remove the evil inclination, to the extent that even free will be nullified, enabling the people to worship G-d in the most natural manner.

Maimonides explains that before Adam and Eve defiantly ate the forbidden fruit, there was no need for human beings to know the difference between good and evil. Humans intuitively knew that sin was bad and was to be avoided. Just as animals have the instinct to flee from danger, it was simply a human instinct to be repelled by sin. According to Maimonides, “to love the L-rd, your G-d, so that you may live,” means that the desire for life is to be the natural instinct of the human being. So when G-d removes the impediment and circumcises the human heart, the people will return to the primordial level of naturally doing good.

Other commentators understand the idea of circumcision in a less radical manner. The Da’at Sofrim says that G-d will reduce the evil inclination, thus increasing the ability of the human being to more easily recognize truth and acknowledge that which is wrong, a skill that, according to the Da’at Sofrim, was acquired during the times of exile. This verse clearly adds the important promise that G-d Himself will assist the people in their process of repentance.

The great challenge, however, in the process of repentance, is that human beings are creatures of habit, and habits by definition, do not easily change. Whether it is drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, or checking one’s email incessantly, watching a particular television program or playing the lottery, expressing one’s self with inappropriate language, or even buying a particular brand of underwear, none of these habits are easily broken or even modified. Indeed, most people become deeply entrenched in their fixed patterns, seeking their comfort levels, even if they are well aware that their routines are not the most productive or a healthy way to live.

Clearly, the first and most important ingredient in truly effective self-improvement, is the recognition that one’s routines can be improved, that behaviors can be elevated, and that people can always be better than they were a few minutes ago. It is this critical change in attitude that is necessary in order to change one’s behavior, and is the compelling and most essential element, leading to personal and spiritual growth.

G-d promises His people, in the words of the Torah, that if they only try and take the first step, He will circumcise their hearts, and will make it possible for them, and easier for them, to make those changes. He will help His people recognize that change is necessary, and encourage them with His great love and consideration to make those necessary changes, to allow for true self-improvement.

We, today, are still a long way off from returning to the primordial nature of Adam and Eve, who had no evil inclination. Yet, we are fortunate to have access to a method that allows us, with G-d’s help, to make the changes, without losing the gift of free will.

This is the blessing of G-d to His people. This is the blessing of the New Year. This is the true blessing of new beginnings.

Wishing you all a כְּתִיבָה וַחֲתִימָה טוֹבָה, a year of peace, a year in which you will be inscribed for good health and abundant blessing.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashanah 5775 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 24th, 25th and 26th, 2014.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 28th from dawn until nightfall.

Kee Tavo 5774-2014

Finding Respite

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is one of two parashiot in the Torah (the other is Bechukotai) that contains the Tochachah, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people and the predictions of Divine punishment.

After describing the frightening horrors that will befall the unrepentant Jewish people, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 28:64, predicts that G-d, as further punishment, will disperse the Jewish people among the nations from one end of the earth to the other, where they will be forced to serve gods of wood and stone.

In addition to the numerous physical challenges that the Jewish people will face during this time of the “eclipse of G-d,” the Torah records that the emotional toll will also be great. Not only will there be the horrors of wars, famine, exile and sickness, but the Torah predicts in Deuteronomy 28:65-66, וּבַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם לֹא תַרְגִּיעַ וְלֹא יִהְיֶה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלֶךָ, וְנָתַן השׁם לְךָ שָׁם לֵב רַגָּז וְכִלְיוֹן עֵינַיִם וְדַאֲבוֹן נָפֶשׁ. וְהָיוּ חַיֶּיךָ תְּלֻאִים לְךָ מִנֶּגֶד, וּפָחַדְתָּ לַיְלָה וְיוֹמָם, וְלֹא תַאֲמִין בְּחַיֶּיךָ  And among those nations you will not be tranquil, there will be no rest for the sole of your foot; there, the L-rd will give you a trembling heart, longing of eyes and suffering of soul. Your life will hang in the balance, and you will be frightened night and day, and you will have no confidence in your life.

Most members of the generation of the Holocaust, along with the post-Holocaust generation, are familiar with, not only the physical toll that the Shoah exacted on its victims, but also its brutal emotional toll. The beatings, medical experiments, starvation, sickness, death marches, and the cruel tortures not only broke the victims physically, but also left deep and painful emotional scars and wounds. Indeed, Hitler’s savage war against the Jews continues to afflict our people even today, among the second, third and fourth generations. Unfortunately, there are an inordinate number of children and grandchildren of survivors who seem unable to find stability, security, love and optimism in their lives.

It is understandable that many survivors of the Holocaust who were profoundly traumatized have emerged emotionally challenged. But who would expect that their children and grandchildren would also bear the scars of the Shoah so deeply? And yet, it is not an infrequent occurrence.

About twenty years ago, I heard a most inspiring but painful firsthand report from a remarkable survivor. Speaking publicly for the first time at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Mr. Chaim Fraiman, who passed away earlier this year, delivered a most heart-rending report of the ordeals that he had experienced during the Holocaust. Enduring the unremitting horrors of the Gestapo and the concentration camps, he miraculously survived the war, together with his sick brother, whom he had protected, nursed and kept alive for many years. Unfortunately, his sick brother succumbed in the D.P. camp, only a few days after liberation.

My personal reaction to the presentation was visceral: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe,” I cried, “Genuk, enough! The Jewish people have endured too much, and this must stop!”

After the horrors of the war were made public, many Jews were under the impression that with the indisputable documentation of the extensive Nazi horrors, together with the miraculous rebirth and development of the State of Israel, the perfidious scourge of anti-Semitism would somehow abate and eventually vanish. For a while there was, what seemed to be, a universal sensitivity. But, only sixty years later, that sensitivity has vanished, and there is now a virulent outbreak of anti-Semitism in countless countries throughout the world, even on the streets of New York and Los Angeles.

It is indeed surreal, that in this day and age, hundreds, if not thousands of rockets and missiles have been regularly launched into the population centers of Israel by its savage enemies. Yet, there is little outcry or sympathy from the nations of the world.

Once again, we cry out, “G-d, enough is enough!” The pain is too great to bear, and we continue to suffer.

Let us hope that in this season of forgiveness, the Al-mighty will heed our prayers, and find His people deserving of relief, leading to a complete end to the madness, and the eradication of the irrational hatred towards the Al-mighty’s flock.

Now that we have entered the month of Elul, the month of repentance, let us make certain that, through our noble actions and favorable deeds, we are found worthy of being redeemed from the horrible scourge of anti-Semitism, and that this dreaded night of horror will give way to a beautiful dawn of light and salvation.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5774-2014

“Restoring Lost Possessions–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the 74 commandments (47 negative and 27 positive) that are found in parashat Kee Teitzei, is the mitzvah of restoring lost articles to their rightful owners. This mitzvah has already been discussed in  Kee Teitzei 5767-2007.

The Torah in Deuteronomy 22:1 states, לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and hide yourself from them, you shall surely return them to your brother.

The Code of Jewish Law states that someone who finds a lost object, even in the public domain, is required to try to restore it to its rightful owner. If the owner is not known, then the finder must care for the lost object and guard it until the owner comes to claim it. This is what is implied in the Torah’s commandment in Deuteronomy 22:3 וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם,…and you find it–you shall not look away and ignore it.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 22:2, provides additional instructions:

וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ אֶל תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ, וְהָיָה עִמְּךָ עַד דְּרֹשׁ אָחִיךָ אֹתוֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתוֹ לו, …then gather it inside your house and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it, and you return it to him. The rabbis derive from this verse that the finder must be proactive, and make a concerted effort to alert the rightful owner of the loss by publicly announcing that the object has been found.

From the words in Deuteronomy 22:2, “Until your brother inquires after it,” it is deduced that the rightful owner must prove his ownership by properly identifying the lost object. It is preferable that the claimant provide clear identification regarding the lost object–such as size, shape, color, ornamentation and/or the location where it was lost. Objects that do not have specific identifications can be considered ownerless, since the owners have probably given up hope of ever retrieving them, at which time the finder can acquire the item as his own. The Code of Jewish Law, however, recommends that the finder go beyond the letter of the law and try to restore even the lost objects that lack identifying signs.

One who finds a lost object is required to return it without compensation, aside from expenditures incurred in order to publicize the loss or to care for the lost object (e.g. safe deposit vault, feeding an animal, etc.). If the lost item is perishable, it is proper to sell it and give the proceeds to the owner, to ensure that at least the basic value is preserved. Lost produce that would spoil, or animals that need to be fed, are to be sold immediately, since they would have no value should the owner appear only after a long period of time.

One of the most important elements in deciding the rightful ownership of a lost article is the issue of יֵיאוּשׁ, “Yei’ush”–-determining whether the original owner despaired of ever recovering the lost article.

Both Maimonides in Laws of Robbery and Lost Property, 6:2, 11:11, as well as Rabbi Joseph Caro, in the Code of Jewish Law, Choshen Mishpat, 259:7, declare: “He who saves [retrieves] valuables from a lion or a bear, or from the bottom of the sea or from idolaters, they belong to him, even though the original owner stands and protests.”

After the Holocaust, the concept of “Yei’ush,” played a most significant role in determining the rightful owner of property lost during the Shoah, as well as the famous Sotheby’s case.

A fascinating case regarding “Yei’ush” is recorded in Rabbi Irving J. Rosenbaum’s collection of responsa entitled, The Holocaust and Halakhah.

In February of 1942, the Nazis decreed that the Jews of Kovono, Poland must surrender all their Hebrew books to the authorities or face death. Some of the books that were gathered in this raid were extremely valuable.

Rabbi Rosenbaum recounts the story of a Jewish Ghetto police officer, Yitzchak Greenberg, who placed himself in great personal danger to save some of these prized books. Greenberg buried a chest filled with some of the rarest and most prized books. The hope was that any surviving residents of the Ghetto would return to reclaim these items.

After the war, some of those who survived returned to Kovono to attempt to locate things that they had hidden during the war. One such searcher unearthed the chest in which the valuable books had been hidden. He immediately realized the treasure he had discovered. He declared them to be his based on Jewish law that maintains that anyone who finds property which has been abandoned, may subsequently claim ownership of it.

It did not take long for word of the find to spread among the other survivors of the community. One of the men recognized that among the books were some that had belonged to his family, and even had inscriptions with his family member’s names, and insisted that the books be returned to him. The finder, however, asserted that, since the books had been abandoned, he had the right to claim ownership.

To determine who was the rightful owner, both parties approached Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, one of the few European rabbis and Halachic authorities to survive the Holocaust.

Rabbi Irving J. Rosenbaum writes about the rabbi’s decision:

In his decision, Rabbi Oshry cites the Talmud Baba Kamma 114a, “He who saves articles of value, from the river, or from a marauding band, or from robbers, if the owners have abandoned hope of recovery, they belong to him.” Rashi explains that in all these cases, it is assumed that there had been “Yei’ush,” abandonment of hope of recovery, and therefore the finder has acquired legal ownership through a combination of יֵיאוּשׁ, “Yei’ush” and possession, שִׁינּוּי רְשׁוּת, “Shinui reshut.”

Rabbi Oshry determined that once the Nazis had stolen the books, the original owners had no reason to ever expect that they would be returned. Therefore, it may be readily assumed that they had given up hope of ever recovering the books, since in addition to their possessions, the Jews’ entire earthly existence was at the mercy of the Nazis. Citing the Rashbam, Rabbi Oshry maintained that in the event of military conquest, there is no requirement of “Yei’ush,” since under the laws that govern armed conflict, conquering armies acquire ownership of all spoils of war.

Complicating the issue was the opinion of  Tosafot found in Baba Kamma 114b, which speaks directly to the issue of stolen books, specifically, and suggests that even when stolen by non-Jews, there is no automatic despair, since there is no resale market for Jewish books except for the Jewish market. Therefore, the owner retains hope that he may one day be able to repurchase them.

Rabbi Oshry, however, explained that the above opinion does not apply in this case. Since the Nazis intended to destroy the books to use them to make paper, the owner would not have the opportunity to repurchase them. Consequently, there was never any hope of retrieving them.

While Rabbi Oshry did entertain several other scenarios where the original owner could reclaim the books, Rabbi Oshry, nevertheless, concluded, that in all likelihood, the original owner had abandoned any notion that he would be able to recover his property. Since the books were now in the possession of he who found them, they were now the finder’s property in the eyes of Jewish Law.

According to the opinion of the Recanati restoring a lost article is a mitzvah not to be taken lightly. The Recanati underscores the fact that some people value their possessions so profoundly, that they often regard their property to be of equal value to their lives. Consequently, when they lose something, they feel that part of their life has been lost. Therefore, a person who restores a lost article, may actually be restoring a person’s life. That is why the authorities highly recommend that even if the finder has legal rights to keep the found article, that it be returned its original owner, as a kindness, beyond the letter of the law.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5774-2014

“Justice–the Source of Security of the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, calls upon the People of Israel to formally establish courts of law in every city in the land of Israel.

The Torah mandates that, in addition to the requisite judges, officers of the court be appointed who will be responsible for enforcement of the judicial decisions. These officers are to patrol the streets and marketplaces to enforce standards of honesty, and summon violators before the court to be judged.

One of the most formidable and frequently-cited verses of the Torah is found in this parasha. In Deuteronomy 16:20, Moses cries out to the Jewish People in G-d’s name, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹ קֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land, that the L-rd, your G-d gives you.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his erudite remarks regarding the concept of justice in Judaism, cites Rabbeinu Bachya, who notes that the repetition of the Hebrew words, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק   “Tzedek tzedek,” Justice, justice, is intended to underscore the importance of even-handed justice to all. “Justice,” says Rabbeinu Bachya, is imperative, “whether [it is] to your profit or loss, whether in word or an action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”

Rabbi Hertz considers the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to be the “keynote of the humane legislation of the Torah, and of the demand for social righteousness by Israel’s Prophets, Psalmists and Sages.”

Rabbi Hertz also clarifies the difference in the meaning of “justice” in Jewish tradition in contrast to the meaning of justice to the Greeks:

In Plato’s Republic, for example, it [justice] implies a harmonious arrangement of society, by which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so that those who perform humble functions shall be content to perform them in due subservience to their superiors. It stresses the qualities of human nature…

On the other hand, says Rabbi Hertz, the Jewish concept of justice stresses the equality of human beings. The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of G-d, that every human being possesses a Divine spark, and that each human life is sacred and of infinite worth.

Rabbi Hertz drives the message home by declaring:

Judaism requires that human personality be respected in every human being–in the female heathen prisoner of war, in the delinquent, even in the criminal condemned to death. The lashes to be inflicted on the evil-doer must be strictly limited, lest ‘your brother seem vile unto you’ (Deuteronomy 25:3), and, if he be found worthy of death by hanging, his human dignity must still be respected: his body is not to remain hanging overnight, but must be buried the same day (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Greek idea of justice, argues Rabbi Hertz, is akin to harmony, whereas the Hebrew idea of justice is more akin to holiness.

Quoting an anonymous American jurist, Rabbi Hertz declares that the world owes its conception of justice to the Jews.

In addition to introducing the revolutionary idea of justice to humankind, the fact that the Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:20, links the practice of justice to the security of the land of Israel, is of extreme importance.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his comments to Deuteronomy 16:20, notes as follows:

The double promise of verse 20 (“that you may thrive and occupy the land”) means: To pursue the goal of justice unceasingly with full devotion is Israel’s great task in order that its physical and political existence be secured. The significant truth is thereby laid down, that the possession of the land [by the People of Israel] comes into question every minute, and has to be constantly merited afresh (i.e., through justice) by a Jewish state.

Significantly, we find once again, that there is much in parashat Shoftim’s message that applies to contemporary affairs. The outburst of anti-Semitism throughout the world in response to Israel’s valiant attempt to defend itself from thousands of Hamas missiles, raises many questions in light of what the Torah teaches in parashat Shoftim.

After 2,000 years of exile and the miraculous return of the Jewish people to its land, it seems quite clear from the comments of Rabbi Hirsch (who lived long before the establishment of the State of Israel), that there are no guarantees that the Jewish people will permanently possess the land of Israel. In fact, this very verse boldly implies that the People of Israel may lose possession of the land at any time, especially if they fail to properly practice the mitzvah of justice.

I have often noted, that in all of Jewish history there has never been a period of peace without a concomitant return to G-d. Once again, the Torah here confirms that the security of the land of Israel is not dependent upon military strength, but on the just pursuits of the Jewish people.

Surely, we may vociferously defend ourselves from the vicious anti-Israel outcries of many world leaders, by declaring that Israel’s army is the most moral army on the face of the earth. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has declared that the Israeli army deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the way it has conducted itself. There is no question that numerous Israeli soldiers have lost their lives because they erred on the side of caution in order to protect innocent Palestinian civilians, leaving themselves vulnerable to Hamas terrorists, who take advantage of the I.D.F. soldiers’ compassion.

Let us hope and pray that the meritorious deeds of the Jewish people will soon result in greater security for the State of Israel. While it is important for Jews to continue to speak out frequently, to organize demonstrations and record our voices in support of Israel, it is equally, if not more important to raise the level of our peoples’ moral behavior and actions during this especially sensitive and perilous time for the Jewish people.

If we do this, if we indeed strive for a higher level of sanctity in our words, actions and deeds, the Jewish people will surely prevail, and merit that the security of the land of Israel will be ensured, from now until the end of time.

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5774-2014

“Giving Charity Kindly and Generously”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we find particular emphasis on performing acts of kindness, generosity and charity.

While charity is regarded today by most enlightened societies as a positive value, in ancient societies charity was not always acknowledged as a universal good or rational act. Even today, in some contemporary settings, it is still regarded as a questionable value.

For instance, traditional Calvinists do not look upon charity favorably since they believe that one may not interfere with G-d’s will. In fact, helping a person who is poor or widowed or orphaned may be seen as defying G-d’s will. Perhaps their unfortunate situation is intended by G-d to serve as a punishment for sinful deeds, or to strengthen them through the challenge of poverty, widowhood, or being an orphan.

Judaism rejects that kind of thinking and declares that all poor and needy people who ask for help must be responded to immediately. Only G-d may decide whether those in need are deserving of help or not. Those who are asked for help must assume that all mendicants are entirely deserving.

Judaism also has a unique view regarding the attitude of the charity donor. Many religionists assume that all good deeds must be performed with a full and sincere heart. Judaism submits that helping the needy is the primary concern–philosophizing and rationalization can come later. Therefore one is expected to give, even without a full heart, but give.

The Torah was actually the first documented source to introduce the concept of charity to humankind. Deuteronomy 15:7-8, boldly declares, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן. כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לו, If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 14:22, when discussing the issue of tithes, states, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ, You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed. The rabbis (Talmud, Taanit 9a) deduce, utilizing a play on words, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתֽעַשֵּׁר, give tithes in order to become rich. The rabbis further state that charity is the only mitzvah in which there is a guarantee of Divine compensation. Says the prophet (Malachi 3:10), וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת, “Test me in this,” G-d declares, that if you give charity, G-d will be certain to reward the donor’s benevolence.

The Abarbanel notes that a person who gives charity, is not really giving of his own wherewithal. The donated funds actually belong to G-d; the Jew is merely a caretaker of those funds, serving as G-d’s “banker” on earth. The banker who fails to fulfill G-d’s wishes, will lose the deposit. G-d will withdraw the bounty, and bestow it elsewhere.

The Abarbanel further states that charity also serves as a test of one’s faith. A person may assume, incorrectly, that the more charity he dispenses, the less he will have. However, G-d promises just the opposite. Besides, says the Abarbanel, one never knows when the wheel of fortune will turn, and the person with funds today, will find himself in need of sustenance from others tomorrow.

Rashi notes that the words in the verse “a destitute person …any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land,” points to a particular priority to be followed when dispensing charity. Those to be cared for first are the totally “destitute,” who are desperately poor. The words “your brethren,” teach that the closer the relative, the greater the obligation. The words “in any of your cities,” imply that the poor of your own city come before those of other cities. Finally, from the words, “in the land,” we affirm that the poor of the land of Israel come before those of other lands.

The Hebrew word צְדָקָה, “tzedakah” literally means righteousness, not charity, implying that sustaining others is not to be construed as an act of kindness, but rather as the correct thing to do.

Another unique insight of Judaism is that beyond the financial support, meaningful charity involves taking into consideration the personal and emotional needs of the destitute person. Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 250:1) suggests that a formerly wealthy person needs to be sustained according to his particular (even extravagant) needs. Therefore, those who are accustomed to being driven around in a chauffeured limousine must be helped to maintain their dignity and self esteem.

Several years ago, I heard a moving story about Mr. Charles Smith who owned a wholesale vegetable business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. In order to have enough time to prepare properly for the Shabbat, he would always make certain to close his business by noon on Friday, no matter how many orders were still waiting.

After closing for Shabbat, the first thing Mr. Smith did was to call Yeshiva Torah Va’Daath, which was, at the time, located in Williamsburg, to make certain that all faculty members had been paid for the week. If they had not been paid, he would cross the Williamsburg Bridge himself and make certain that everyone was paid before the weekend.

Because he was a wholesaler, he usually had a lot of cash with him. When approached by a poor person on the street who asked for help, he would quickly reach into his pocket and take out a wad of bills, turn and look the other way, and say to the needy person to take as much as he needed.

The author of the Sefer Hachinuch insists that Jews are רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים, the children and grandchildren of naturally merciful people, who are proud to share the mitzvah of charity with the world.

The revolutionary concept of charity is one of the greatest of G-d’s gifts to humanity.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5774-2014

“No Reason to Glory!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, is filled with common sense wisdom. The many insightful observations found in parashat Eikev underscore the pithy observation that, “Common sense is not very common.”

The primary and very commonsensical message of parashat Eikev is that those who follow G-d’s directives will be rewarded, and those who fail to follow His directives will be punished.

Among the important messages communicated in parashat Eikev is the warning against the lure of success and prosperity.

In Deuteronomy 8:11, the Torah warns the Jewish people to take heed, lest they forget G-d by not observing His commandments. When everything seems to be going well, when food is plentiful, shelter is secure, cattle, sheep, silver and gold are increasing, a Jew must be constantly aware not to become haughty. G-d, who took the People of Israel out of the land of Egypt out of the House of Bondage must not be forgotten. After all, it was G-d who led the people through the great and awesome wilderness, who brought forth water from the rock, and fed the people manna from heaven. Beware, warns the Torah in Deuteronomy 8:17, lest you react arrogantly to your success, וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ, כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה., and you say in your heart, “My strength, and the might of my hand, has brought me all this wealth.”

Instead, says the Torah, you must remember that it was G-d who endowed you with the wisdom and strength that enabled you to produce the wealth in order to establish His covenant that He swore to your forefathers this day.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber, in his brilliant and insightful volume Chemdat Yamim, cites the responses of a number of the classical commentaries to the question of hubris and haughtiness. They ask: Is it haughty for a person to invest much effort in building up his business? Doesn’t it indicate a lack of faith in G-d?

Rabbi Filber cites the Ran, who suggests that it is acceptable for a wealthy person to say that “My strength, and the might of my hand, has made me all this wealth,” as long as the wealthy person realizes that it is the Al-mighty who provided the talents and resources to acquire this wealth.

Rabbi Filber also cites the Abarbanel, who notes that when Moses said in the name of the Al-mighty that a person should not say, “My strength, and the might of my hand, has made me all this wealth,” does not mean that a person must deny any role in his/her own success, but rather that every person needs to acknowledge that their role was an intermediary, not primary, role. The primary role, of course, was played by G-d, who provided the land, the rain, the wind, and all the other necessary ingredients for the success. Can an ax glory over the woodchopper, claiming that the instrument did all the work, rather than the human being?

After the miraculous victory of the Six Day War, the people of Israel were justifiably euphoric. The military victory was spectacular. In fact, the battle was virtually over in the first six hours of the war, after the Israeli Air Force had completely demolished the Egyptian and Syrian air forces. Immediately following the war, there was a religious acknowledgment of the hand of G-d. But, after a while, many Israelis began to glory in their success.

When the Egyptians started to threaten, Yitzchak Rabin reputedly warned, “We will break their bones.” IDF Chief of Staff General Haim Bar Lev, who built the defense line along the Suez, said “My line is impenetrable!,” yet within a few hours after the start of the Yom Kippur War the Egyptians had washed the line away with fire hoses.

At this moment of great anguish for our people, while the State of Israel is confronted by the wily and the perfidious Hamas terrorists, we dare not glory. First of all, the evil enemy is very clever, having spent many years building concrete-lined tunnels that extend throughout the Northern Gaza and the Southern border of Israel. According to some reports, Hamas operatives were weeks away from staging a massive kidnapping, scheduled to take place on Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014. Such an attack could have crippled Israel, paralyzed its economy, and crushed the morale of the People of Israel.

There are those who suggest that had it not been for the kidnapping of the three Yeshiva students, which led to the massive assault on Hamas, the full extent of these tunnels would not have been discovered, and the future of the entire State of Israel would have been jeopardized.

The soldiers of Israel have fought a valiant battle in Gaza. The enemy is exacting a great price. The Al-mighty, through the instrument of the Iron Dome, is miraculously “catching” the missiles that are being fired onto the populated areas of Israel. The accomplishments of this battle should be a great source of pride, but we must always remember that it is G-d who orchestrates everything from behind the scenes.

Hopefully, the Almighty G-d will allow us soon to see the blossoming of peace quickly in our days, with no or few casualties.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5774-2014

“The Prediction of Return”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, is always read after the Fast of the 9th of Av and after the conclusion of the period of mourning known as the “Three Weeks.”

Although parashat Va’etchanan contains many significant themes, including the Ten Commandments and the Shemah prayer, it also contains the powerful prediction of a massive return and repentance of the Jewish people. This theme of repentance clearly dovetails with the essential message of what needs to be done following the “Three Weeks”–-with the destruction behind us, we must move on and rebuild.

The Torah predicts that the Jewish people will be exiled from the Holy Land, and only few will be left among the nations where G-d will lead His people.  Many will be seduced to worship idols of wood and stone. Nevertheless, the Torah foretells, that in exile, there will eventually be a remarkable return of the people to G-d.

In Deuteronomy 4:29-30, the Torah predicts: וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת השם   אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ, כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.  בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלוֹ   From there [in exile] you will seek the L-rd, your G-d, and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things befall you, at the end of days, you will return unto the L-rd, your G-d, and hearken to His voice.

The Torah, thus, confirms that the L-rd, our G-d, is a merciful G-d, who will not abandon His people or destroy them, and will not forget the covenant that He made with the forefathers of Israel.

This remarkable prediction of return, especially the return of Jews who reside in the Diaspora, in foreign and hostile lands, has, to a great extent, come true in our own time.

After the physical losses of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and the spiritual losses of millions of Jews due to indifference, assimilation and ignorance, the past sixty years of American Jewish life must be noted for the remarkable number of Jews who have returned to observance, and are today living committed Jewish lives. The recent Pew report, with all its ominous analysis and conclusions, also notes that more than one quarter of American Jews today who identify today as Orthodox, report that they come from non-observant homes.

When compared to the millions of assimilated Jews and those who simply walked away from their Judaism, the fact that approximately 125,000 Jews have returned to observance does not seem to be of great significance. Yet, when considered in the context of the massive assimilation and the irresistible blandishments of contemporary society, these numbers are indeed impressive.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus reports that his uncle, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, and one of the most prominent and successful rabbis in the contemporary movement of Jewish return, was once asked an interesting question: In previous generations, they would say that if one succeeded in helping a single Jew return to observance, it was considered a most significant accomplishment. The greatest rabbis and the most righteous leaders in previous generations hardly ever succeeded in returning more than two or three Jews. How did you succeed in helping hundreds of Jews to return?

Rabbi Weinberg responded with a parable: Consider, if you will, a construction site. Walls of steel and concrete are waiting to be properly positioned by a crane that lifts them, to move them to the desired location. While the walls are still suspended by the crane, the workers are able to push and pull them, and position them into their proper locations. How is it possible for the workers to move such heavy loads? Only because the load is being held up by the crane. While they are still suspended, the walls can easily be moved into their proper place.

Citing Maimonides, Rabbi Weinberg explained that the phenomenon of Jewish return in his generation was predicted in the Torah. Maimonides wrote in the Laws of Teshuva, 7:5, that the Torah predicted that the Jewish people will eventually return and repent at the end of their exile, and will be immediately redeemed. This, said Rabbi Weinberg, confirms the Al-mighty’s promise that before the arrival of the Messiah, the people of Israel will return and repent.

In previous generations, explained Rabbi Weinberg, the Jews were weighed down by their oppressors and by their own sinfulness. They could not be lifted from their entrenched positions. In our day, there is a flourishing movement of spirituality, and many Jews and non-Jews are in the process of a significant spiritual quest. It is as if the Al-mighty has lifted the people up with a crane, positioning them for their return. Thus, it is much easier in these days to bring Jews back.

Rabbi Pincus also cites a fascinating Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Kings 247), about King Manasseh, the ancient king of Judah, who was known to be one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel.

Manasseh, the only son of the righteous King Hezekiah, became king at age twelve, and reigned for 55 years. He reinstated pagan worship, and undid the positive religious reforms instituted by his righteous father.

According to the Book of II Chronicles 33:11-13, Manasseh was brought in chains to the Assyrian king, presumably for suspected disloyalty. The Midrash says that he was placed into a large vat with holes, and fires were lit under the vat to cook him alive. When he recognized his desperate situation, Manasseh cried out to every single idolatrous religion in the world, begging to be rescued. But, help never arrived.

At that moment Manasseh recalled that his father had once taught him the Biblical verse found in Deuteronomy 4:30,  בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, stating that when in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto the L-rd, your G-d. Said Manasseh, “If you, G-d of Israel, answer me, good. If not, I will regard you like the other pagan gods.”

The Heavenly angels, who had no sympathy for Manasseh, quickly moved to close all the portals of heaven, so that the evil King’s prayers would not reach the Al-mighty. They called out before G-d, “Master of the Universe, a man who stationed an idol in the midst of the Holy Temple, does he deserve to repent?” Said G-d, “If I do not accept his repentance, then the portals of repentance will be closed to all those who wish to return.” What did G-d do? He dug a channel under His holy throne, so that He could hear the cries of the wicked King, Manasseh.

Rabbi Pincus points out, that in truth, the argument of King Manasseh does not hold up. After all, Manasseh, who worshiped pagan gods his whole life, has a right to expect that the pagan gods would answer him. However, Manasseh, who spent his entire life denying the G-d of Israel, killing G-d’s righteous prophets, and defiling the city of Jerusalem with the blood of innocent victims, has no right to expect to be saved by the G-d of Israel. Besides, his call to G-d came only after he had exhausted his appeals to the pagan gods. His manner of pleading with G-d was truly offensive. Why then should G-d respond to him?

Rabbi Pincus explains that if G-d would not accept Manasseh’s repentance, it would indicate that Manasseh had crossed a line of no return with his sinfulness, implying that there are limits to G-d’s mercy. The difference between the Al-mighty and all other so-called “powers,” is that G-d’s mercy is truly limitless. Therefore, even Manasseh may plead for forgiveness for his sinfulness, and G-d will indeed forgive him.

According to the account in Chronicles, as a result of his contrition, Manasseh was restored to the throne and abandoned idolatry. He subsequently removed the foreign idols and called upon the people to worship in the traditional Jewish manner.

Although there is a Talmudic dispute about whether King Manasseh merited a portion in the World to Come (Talmud Sandhedrin 90a and 104), there is no question that the mercy of G-d is endless.

Let us sincerely hope and pray that the special period of repentance that begins in just a few short weeks with the arrival of the month of Elul, will be a period of profound Divine mercy, leading to the Ultimate Redemption.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, August 4th and continues through Tuesday night, August 5th, 2014. Have a meaningful fast.

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

Devarim 5774-2014

“Moses: The Lonely Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, opens the fifth book of the Torah, the book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy. Much of the book of Deuteronomy consists of a repetition of the history of the People of Israel from the time of the Exodus, until the people reach the borders of the Promised Land (Devarim 5765-2005).

As we have previously noted (Devarim 5773-2013), parashat Devarim is traditionally read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, which is known as Shabbat Chazon, the “Sabbath of the Vision,” alluding to the opening word of the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah that is read as the Haftarah on Shabbat Chazon. The prophet Isaiah predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem if the Jewish people fail to repent.

There is a prominent allusion to Tisha B’Av in parashat Devarim. In his review of the post-Exodus history of the people, Moses recalls the selection of the seventy elders of Israel to help him govern the people. Because the people had grown so large and unwieldy, Moses cried out, Deuteronomy 1:12, אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם, How can I, alone, carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels? Moses then challenges the people to provide distinguished men, who are wise and understanding, to serve together with him as leaders of the people.

It is hardly an accident that Moses uses the Hebrew word, אֵיכָה, “Eicha,” how–how can I alone carry your contentiousness. “Eicha,” is also the first word of the Scroll of Lamentations (known as Megillat Eicha) and is found in the Haftarah of Shabbat Chazon, as well.

At first glance, it would appear from the above citation that Moses is complaining about the burdens of leadership.

Vilna Gaon notes that the uncommon use of the word, “Eicha,” which parallels the first word of the Book of Lamentations, obviously underscores the connection to the destruction of the Temple.

But the Vilna Gaon notes further that the verse in which Moses expresses his self-doubts, also includes the word, לְבַדִּי, “L’vah’dee,” which means alone. “How can I alone,” asks Moses, “carry your contentiousness?” In the opening verse of the Book of Lamentations as well, not only does the word, “Eicha” appear, but so too does the concept of loneliness. The prophet Jeremiah laments: אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד, How did the city of Jerusalem, this once-great metropolis, become a city that sits in solitude? Thus, the Vilna Gaon argues, the real connection between parashat Devarim and Tisha B’Av, is not how the great hardships occurred, but rather the loneliness of both Moses and the city of Jerusalem.

Moses certainly was not complaining about the burdens of leadership. He was a most gifted and accomplished leader, who could resolve almost every communal issue. The loneliness, however, was too much for him to bear.

Had the people at least appreciated what Moses had done for them, he would not have been so lonely. But instead, they constantly attacked him, criticized him, and found fault with him. The great Moses needed support, which is what he, at least partially, found when the seventy members of the Sanhedrin joined in his efforts to lead the people. Moses certainly could have managed without the people’s accolades, but the loneliness was too much for even the great Moses to bear.

And so it was similarly with the city of Jerusalem. At the time of the destruction of the first Temple, as reported by the prophet Jeremiah, the city of Jerusalem was alone, the people in Jerusalem were alone. Although they all suffered together in the calamity of the destruction and the oppression of the Babylonians, there was no unity among the people. All were preoccupied with their own suffering, unable to see beyond their own needs. They needed a sympathetic shoulder, they needed someone to share their burdens, but no one else seemed to care, because they were all so wrapped up in their own troubles.

As usual, there are contemporary lessons to be learned from these ancient texts. In this time of great communal need, with the murderous attacks of the Hamas terrorists, and the hundreds of lethal missiles that have been fired upon the State of Israel, to the indifference, it seems, of the entire world, the People of Israel have one great asset, their unity and their common concern and care for each other.

Ironically, the unity that the people of Israel are currently experiencing emerged from the crisis of the three kidnaped and murdered teens. Nevertheless, the degree of selflessness and giving that the People of Israel exhibited during the search for the kidnaped victims, and in the battle that ensued with the Hamas terrorists, is perhaps unmatched in the annals of human history.

Is there a sensible response to the perpetual question of the Jewish people–“Eichah?” How could this have happened? The answer is, yes! The people of Israel can address every issue, as long as we are not alone. Of course Israel is never alone because the Al-mighty is always with His people. But, that is not enough. For the loneliness of our people to permanently vanish, it is incumbent upon each and every member of the Jewish community to feel the pain of every Jew who is suffering and threatened, indeed to feel the pain of all innocent human beings in this world, who are facing great horrors and unprecedented suffering because of the bestial actions of a growing number of very wicked people.

The answer to Jewish loneliness is, as Rashi noted on Exodus 19:2, “One people, one heart.” May this period of communal mourning be a time of enhanced mutual concern, which will usher in the dawn of peace and tranquility, for all people throughout the world.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) was observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorated the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av.  Tisha B’Av will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Masei 5774-2014

In light of the precarious situation in Israel, we offer the following prayer on behalf of the well being of the citizens of Israel:

“Our brothers, the entire family of Israel, who are in distress and captivity, whether they are on sea or dry land-may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and soon-and let us say: Amen.”

“On the Road: The Lessons of Hindsight”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Masei, concludes the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers. Parashat Masei is always read during the period of the “Three Weeks,” which begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. The “Three Weeks” conclude with Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.

There is, not unexpectedly, a confluence between the theme of the 42 stops that the people made during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the steps that led to the destruction of the first and second Temples. The details of the ancient Israelites’ itinerary in the wilderness should not be summarily disregarded. In fact, studying the travels of the ancient Israelites is important for those who wish to understand the developments of both later and contemporary Jewish history. Jews must always be familiar with Jewish history, in order to learn from the lessons of the past.

An oft-cited aphorism in rabbinic literature (based on a Midrash Rabba Genesis 48:7, and cited in Nachmanides’ commentary on Genesis 12:10) that conveys one of the most profound lessons of Jewish history is, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, the experiences of the ancient ancestors are often predictors of the Jewish future. Aside from the fact that history in general, and Jewish history in particular, has a tendency to repeat itself, it is important for any intelligent person to heed, and learn from, the errors of the past. It matters little whether the errors were perpetrated personally or by others.

In our analysis of Matot-Masei 5769-2009, we noted that the 42 locations are enumerated in the Bible to refute the claim of the skeptics who refuse to accept that miracles occurred in each one of the 42 locations. By enumerating the detailed itinerary of the journeys of the Jewish people, travelers can actually visit the wilderness and confirm for themselves how great the miracles were that the people experienced during that time, surviving in that most challenging environment for forty years.

In our analysis of Masei 5771-2011, we noted that a vital message of the parasha was not only that one must not lose sight of one’s destination when on a journey, but that the journey itself is often as important as the destination. Not only must the destination be reached, but that the destination be reached in a proper, ethical and moral fashion, is at least as important as the journey itself, if not more.

Many commentators, both ancient and contemporary, are struck by the numerous repetitious phrases found in the opening chapter of Parashat Masei. The parasha begins with the words, Numbers 33:1, אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם, בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן And these are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went forth from the land of Egypt, according to their legions, under the hand of Moses and Aaron. When listing the earliest journey, in Numbers 33:3, the Torah states, וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרַעְמְסֵס, noting that the people traveled from Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month of the first year, after the Exodus. And then, in Numbers 33:5, scripture records, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, וַיַּחֲנו בְּסֻכֹּת, and the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses, and encamped in Sukkot. The phrase, וַיִּסְעוּ, they traveled, and the phrase, וַיַּחֲנוּ, and they camped, are repeated 42 times in the Biblical itinerary.

Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum, in the eighth series of Peninim on the Torah, notes that most people think that in order to correct the mistakes that are made in life, it is necessary to live life over again. Rabbi Scheinbaum, however, quotes HaRav Moshe Swift, z”l who rejects this as a non-Torah point of view. While the Kabbalists believe in reincarnation and soul migration, normative Jewish tradition maintains that to right the wrongs that people have committed, one need only look back. This powerful message of parashat Masei, is the reason for the repetition of the phrases, “And they journeyed,” “and they rested.”

Life is a journey of both opportunities and challenges, very often of opportunities and challenges that repeat themselves. If we pay attention to our previous experiences, or those of others, we can almost always learn how to properly respond to both the opportunities and the challenges, the good fortune and the misfortunes. It is often only from hindsight that we learn how grateful we must be when we are blessed with good health, and the courage we need when faced with ill health.

The popular Hebrew motto (apparently of medieval Jewish origin), אֵין חָכָם כְּבַעַל הַנִּסָיוֹן, There is no person as wise as the one who has already faced the experience, rings so very true here.

This, of course, may be the reason for the frequent coinciding of parashat Masei with the dreaded days of the Three Weeks.

Unfortunately, the “Three Weeks” visited the Jewish people early this year, in the form of the “18 Days,” during which the Jewish people prayed fervently and spared no physical or spiritual effort in order to ensure the safe return of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. Alas, it was not to be.

There is certainly much that we can learn from hindsight from the recent tragic kidnaping and murder of the three yeshiva boys in Israel that relates to the theme of וַיִּסְעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ, they traveled and they rested.

A number of important issues were quickly raised as a result of the tragedy that are presently being discussed and addressed.  Among them is the safety of hitchhiking and the lack of secure public transportation in the area where the kidnaping occurred. Another is the concern about the lack of an immediate response to the boys’ distress call. Within weeks a new operational app was activated to address this issue.

It was fascinating to learn that it was local civilians who discovered the graves of the kidnaped boys. They were the ones who knew the area well, and were almost able to pinpoint the location of where the boys’ bodies were buried, all because of experience. Because they traveled and they camped.

We also learned, so tragically, that apparently Jews are capable of committing atrocities as well. Whether as an evil act of revenge or of insanity, these nefarious acts must be carefully reviewed in order to avoid any recurrences in the future. The future of our people may be determined by these vile actions.

One of the most important lessons that emerged from this very tragic scenario, is the unity that crises such as these create among the people of Israel and of Jews worldwide–the remarkable and unprecedented outpouring of spirituality and prayer, that impacted on us all.

This universal unity is a truly rare occurrence in Jewish history, and should not be allowed to be frittered away. The brotherhood and love that the crisis created among the people, should be carefully preserved, to serve as a true and everlasting memorial to the lives of the three boys. The selfless devotion that was in evidence during this incredible period of charity and kindness must also be preserved. As reflected in the theme and the title of the book written by Mrs. Sherri Mandell, whose 13-year-old son Koby was also a victim of murderous terrorists in May of 2001-–these surely are the “blessings” of a broken heart.

May we all learn from our travels, the ancient travels of forty years in the wilderness, the travels that the Jewish people endured between the periods of destruction of the first Temple and the second Temple, and our contemporary travels. Let us heed these lessons well and benefit from the incredible opportunities that hindsight affords us.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) was observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorated the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the Three Weeks period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Matot 5774-2014

Hakarat HaTov: Expressing Appreciation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Matot, we read of G-d’s command to Moses to avenge the Children of Israel against the Midianite nation.

What was the reason for this Divine call to action?

In Numbers 25:1-9, we read of the act of harlotry committed by Zimri, the son of Salu, a Simeonite prince and Cozbi, the daughter of Tzur, a Midianite princess. It is the zealous Pinchas who puts an end to the harlotry by spearing both of the perpetrators to death in front of the people.

In Numbers 31:2, G-d instructs Moses, saying, נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים, Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites. Rashi explains that even though the Moabites also caused the Israelites to sin, G-d did not ask that they be avenged, because the Midianite women were the main seducers and the ones who caused the Israelites to worship the idol of Pe’or. They even sent one of their princesses to lead the debauchery.

When the battle with the Midianites was discussed in last year’s Torah message (Matot 5773-2013), we emphasized the role of Pinchas in leading the battle. This year’s message, however, elaborates on an important lesson that may be gleaned from the details of this battle.

The commentators are puzzled by the fact that despite G-d’s direct request that Moses personally avenge the Children of Israel against the Midianites, we find that Moses is not involved in the battle. Instead, Scripture (Numbers 31:6), reports that Moses mobilizes one thousand soldiers from each tribe and that Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Cohen, leads the people into battle.

The Da’at Z’kenim explains that, despite the fact that G-d tells Moses to avenge the Midianites, Moses felt that because he grew up in Midian it would be inappropriate for him to battle with them, since the Midianites had done him so many kindnesses after he fled Egypt as a young man. As the popular aphorism advises, “The well from which you draw water should not be polluted with dirt.”

The practice of הַכָּרַת הַטּוֹב  Hakarat HaTov, of expressing thankfulness and appreciation for a kindness rendered, is a significant value in Jewish life. It is a theme that repeats itself throughout the Torah. Already in the story of Egypt, we learn (Exodus 1:8) וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם, that a new king rose over Egypt who did not recognize that Joseph had saved both the Egyptian people and the world from starvation and from likely total destruction.

Similarly, we learn that Moses already practiced Hakarat HaTov early in his life. In Exodus 7:19, G-d says to Moses, to say to Aaron, “take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt…and they shall become blood.” Explains Rashi, because the waters protected the infant, Moses, when he was in the bulrushes, both of the first two plagues, blood and frogs, were performed by Aaron, who struck the waters instead of Moses. Similarly, it is Aaron, in Exodus 8:12, who is instructed to strike the dust of the land, so that the dust may become lice throughout the land of Egypt. The dust had protected Moses from punishment, when the earth hid the body of the Egyptian whom Moses had killed.

Rabbi Yonason Sacks questions the reason for being thankful to the water and earth. Both the water and the earth could hardly make a conscious effort to help Moses. Inanimate objects could not possibly understand or benefit from appreciation, and therefore, gratitude is not something that they require. Rabbi Sacks therefore suggests that instead of assessing the effort made by the one who committed the act of kindness, one should instead adopt the position of the recipient of the act, and look at how much they benefitted.  Moses’ enormous sense of gratitude came from having derived benefit from the water and dirt.

The Torah also notes (Exodus 4:18), that before leaving Midian, after being instructed by G-d to go back to Egypt to save the Jewish people, Moses felt it imperative to ask permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to leave.

It is no coincidence that the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:4) prohibits the two nations of Ammon and Moab from marrying into the Jewish people. These two nations failed to show proper gratitude and appreciation to the Jewish people. After all, it was in the merit of Abraham that their ancestors, Lot and his two daughters, were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ammon and Moab owe their entire existence to Abraham and to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, they refused to allow the Jewish people to pass through their land when they were on their way to Israel, even refusing to give the Israelites any bread or water. Such heartless people can never marry into the Jewish people.

The Talmud in Brachot 7b, declares that it was the matriarch Leah, who was the first person to express gratitude to G-d. Through prophecy, she understood that the four matriarchs would ultimately give birth to twelve tribes and, and that she was entitled to only three of the twelve children. So when her fourth child was born, she calls him, Judah (Genesis 29:35), declaring, “This time, I shall thank G-d,” The rabbis explain that of course she was grateful when her first three children were born, but once she received more than her fair share, she was even more grateful, and named the child, Judah. Now, whenever she would encounter the child, she would recall the deep gratitude that she owes G-d at all times, and not only immediately after the child is born. There are many wonderful tales of great rabbis and leaders who expressed uncommon gratitude to G-d and to humankind.

The Chasidic leader, Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, wrote in his last will and testament, that every Sabbath eve, right before the Sabbath, he would express gratitude to the Al-mighty for the many gifts that G-d had bestowed upon him. When he would put on his beautiful Sabbath clothes, he would acknowledge how truly undeserving he was of the beautiful clothes. He further acknowledged that there are so many more righteous people than he, who do not have special clothes for Shabbat. Rabbi Ziskind would also thank G-d for his weekday clothes, and in the winter for his warm clothes, recognizing how impoverished he would be if he would not have proper clothing.

It is told that the Chofetz Chaim, was forever expressing his gratitude to the bathhouse attendant, who saved his life after he had passed out in the bath.

It is related that Rabbi Elazar Shach and many other great contemporary rabbis were meticulous about thanking everyone, even those who did a slight favor for them.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein , would lean over from the passenger seat in the car to thank the person who collected the tolls at the tollbooth.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lapian made a point of expressing thanks to everyone, even if he paid for their services, such as a bus driver, shoemaker, or grocer. Rabbi Lapian was often seen cleaning the bench in his yeshiva. When a student offered to clean the bench for him, he would say, “No, thank you. I want to clean this bench myself, since I owe the bench Hakarat HaTov. Each morning this bench helps me fold my talit. It makes sure that my talit does not drag on the floor while I am folding it.”

Some of you may know that I suffered a knee accident in early May, falling down a flight of stairs and rupturing the tendon to the quadriceps (thigh) muscle, requiring an operation. Thank G-d, I am recuperating well, and no longer need to walk with crutches, but I still wear a full length brace on my left leg.

You can hardly imagine the joy that being relieved of using the crutches brought me. I was finally able to use my hands. I am now starting to bend my knee. Last week, for the first time, I walked without a brace. Who would ever believe the sheer elation that these actions would bring me–-actions that we consider “second-nature.” No longer will I take for granted the morning blessing that is recited for G-d Who makes firm the footsteps of man.

Clearly, it should not take a calamity for each of us to appreciate that even the smallest actions are a gift from the Al-mighty. Every breath, every blink of the eye! It is for that reason that we need to thank the Al-mighty for everything that we have, at every opportunity that we can.

If Moses was able to express his gratitude to the inanimate sea and the earth, how much more must we express our gratitude to other human beings for their kindnesses, and to the Al-mighty  G-d, of course!

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Have a meaningful fast.