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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.

Pinchas 5774-2014

“The Battle for Women’s Rights”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the five daughters of Zelophehad plead for the right to inherit their father’s land-property in the land of Israel.

Apparently, as a sign of great esteem, the Torah identifies each of the women by name: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. The five sisters stand in front of the Tent of Meeting, before Moses, Elazar the priest and the leaders of the entire assembly, to plead their case. In Numbers 27:3-4, they declare: אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהוּא לֹא הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל השם בַּעֲדַת קֹרַח, כִּי בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לו. לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן, תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ, Our father died in the wilderness, but he was not among those that gathered against G-d in the assembly of Korach, but he died of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.

The commentators note that when the daughters of Zelophehad are identified, their lineage is traced all the way back to Joseph, to underscore the great love for the land of Israel that both Joseph and the daughters of Zelophehad shared. Before he died (Genesis 50:25), Joseph made his descendants promise to bring his bones back to the land of Israel. Now his descendants, the daughters of Zelophehad, also plead for their right to inherit their father’s property in the land of Israel.

As a result of their great love of the land of Israel, the daughters merit that the laws of women’s inheritance are introduced in the Torah. Although the Torah would have included these laws in any case, because of the daughters’ great love for the land of Israel, it was recorded in their names. As the ArtScroll commentary notes: “Few honors can be comparable to that of being the vehicle for the revelation of G-d’s words.”

In Numbers 27:7, G-d declares to Moses that the daughters of Zelophehad speak properly, and that they are entitled to inherit the land of their father. The Torah then proceeds to record the rules of inheritance, stating that if a man dies and has no sons, the inheritance shall pass to his daughter or daughters.

Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his weekly email (Pinchas 2012), uses this opportunity to develop and analyze the Torah’s attitude toward women.

Rabbi Philber notes that the general perception is that Jewish sources do not regard women with great respect or esteem. Women are not seen as dynamic movers and shakers, but rather as passive and retiring. Especially those who have very little familiarity with the original sources are under the false impression that women are regarded as subservient and submissive to men, eager to fulfill their husbands’ wills. This subservience is perhaps reflected in the early Biblical statement attributed to G-d (Genesis 2:18), אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ, I will make a helpmate for him, as if to imply that women are perpetually destined to be man’s “helper.” Similarly, when the angels come to visit Abraham and ask (Genesis 18:9), “Where is Sarah, your wife?” Abraham says, “Behold, she is in the tent,” as if the wife’s place is expected to be in the kitchen. Added to this is the fact that there are many rabbinic statements that appear to be condescending to women, or ascribe to women a secondary, subservient role. So, for instance, the Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 42, declares that the truly appropriate wife is one who fulfills her husband’s will.

However, claims Rabbi Philber, even a cursory examination of the actual Torah sources portrays an entirely different picture of women, who are hardly submissive. In fact, the women of the Torah always stand firmly to defend their views and opinions. They criticize their spouses and often assume positions that are boldly opposite their husband’s opinion. Although the first example is not at all flattering, Eve convinces her husband Adam to sin against G-d, and to eat the forbidden fruit.

After the first example of Eve, however, most of the scriptural examples of women who assume the initiative are very positive, most often bringing blessing in their wake.

Although Sarah was in the tent preparing food when the angels arrived, she was from the very beginning of their relationship, an equal partner with Abraham, making souls in Charan, and converting the women to monotheism (Genesis 12:5). When Sarah takes issue with Abraham regarding the education of their son, Isaac, G-d agrees with Sarah, telling Abraham (Genesis 21:12) that everything that Sarah tells you to do, listen to her voice! From here the rabbis derive (Rashi, Genesis 21:12) that Sarah’s power of prophecy was greater than Abraham’s.

Rebecca also disagrees with her husband, Isaac, and determines to transfer Isaac’s blessing from Esau to Jacob (Genesis 27).

The matriarchs, Rachel and Leah, also seem to take a very independent path from their husband, Jacob, manipulating and directing his actions, resulting in a complete change of the complexion of the patriarchal family (Genesis 30:3 and 16).

Tamar (Judah’s daughter-in-law) is a paradigm of an extremely independent woman, who refuses to accept the despairing attitude of Judah, after the death of his two sons (Genesis 38). Her bold actions lead to the birth of her son, Peretz, son of Judah, progenitor of King David and of the Messiah. Added to this list of dynamic women, of course, is Miriam, who, (according to the Midrash) berates her father for lacking faith in redemption, and for separating from his wife, Yocheved. According to the Midrash, it is in Miriam’s merit that Moses is born.

But the picture of dynamic women is not just relegated to a few specific individual women, but rather all the women of the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, who rise to the occasion. It is they who refuse to sin with the Golden Calf, refuse to give their jewelry to the men, and refuse to join in the sin of the spies. To the contrary, the women in Egypt (again according to the Midrash) in the face of Pharaoh’s murderous decrees, seduce their husbands in order to bear Jewish children, and are fully ready and prepared to rejoice at the time of the Exodus, with drums and musical instruments, because of their abiding faith in redemption.

It is no wonder that our sages say (Talmud Sotah 11b) that only in the merit of the righteous women were our ancestors redeemed from Egypt. Had it been up to the men, redemption may never have arrived.

The daughters of Zelophehad are exemplary in many ways. When these noble women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, hear that the land is going to be divided among the tribes, and that women might be excluded, they were determined to do something about it. When they realized that they would not receive a fair hearing from the men, they decide to appeal to G-d directly. According to the Midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 27:1), they say, “The compassion of the Al-mighty is not like the compassion of flesh and blood. Human compassion favors men over women. But He who created the world is not so. Rather His compassion is both on men and on women, as it says (Psalms 145:9), ‘His compassion is upon all His creatures.’”

That is why The Malbim writes that, confident that G-d would have compassion on them, the daughters of Zelophehad stood before Moses, and each one of them presented their own argument. The first one said, “Our father died in the wilderness.” The second said, “And he was not among the assembly that gathered against G-d (Korach).” The third one said, “Why should our father’s name be omitted?” The fourth one said, “Simply because he had no son.” The fifth one said, “Give us a possession.”

Moses was persuaded to bring their plea before G-d, and G-d readily accepted their argument, saying, Numbers 27:7, כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת , The daughters of Zelophehad speak properly. G-d Himself substantiated their arguments.

The rest is history. Not only were the rules of women’s inheritance inscribed forever, but also esteem for women was to be forever elevated.

May you be blessed.

Balak 5774-2014

“Upstaged by a Donkey”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read of Balak, the king of Moab’s attempt to retain the services of Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Jewish people, who were rapidly approaching Balak’s territory, and of whom he was in dread fear.

To recruit Balaam, Balak first sends a delegation of elders of Moab and Midian. G-d, however, informs Balaam (Numbers 22:12) that he may not go with them, that he must not curse those people, for they are blessed. Persisting in his attempt to convince Balaam to curse the people, Balak sends an even more distinguished and larger delegation than the first, promising to shower Balaam with untold honor and riches.

G-d again appears to Balaam (Numbers 22:20), this time telling Balaam that he may go with the delegation, but that he must be certain to do whatever G-d commands him to do.

The Torah, in Numbers 22:21, reports that Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his own donkey, underscoring his eagerness to fulfill the mission of cursing the Jewish people, and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. Despite granting Balaam permission to go, G-d was angry with Balaam, whose antipathy for the Jews was apparent. To block Balaam’s journey, the Al-mighty placed an angel of G-d on the road. While Balaam was riding on his donkey, oblivious to the angel, the donkey saw the angel of G-d standing in the way with a drawn sword in his hand. The donkey swerved from the road and went into the fields. Balaam beat the donkey to try to turn her back on to the proper course.

The angel of G-d then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The donkey, seeing the angel of G-d, pressed herself against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall. So Balaam beat her again. The angel of G-d then positioned himself in a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve left or right. With no room to move, the donkey laid down under Balaam. Frustrated and furious, Balaam beat the donkey with a stick.

G-d opened the donkey’s mouth, who plaintively demanded of Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam responded that the donkey had made a mockery of him, and that if he only had a sword, he would kill the donkey. The donkey then responded to Balaam, “I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day. Have I ever done this to you before?” Balaam answered, “No.”

G-d finally uncovered Balaam’s eyes, enabling Balaam to see the angel of G-d standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand. Balaam bowed down to the ground. The angel of G-d demanded to know why Balaam beat his donkey three times, pointing out to Balaam that the donkey saw the angel but the great prophet, Balaam, did not. Had the donkey not moved away, Balaam would have been dead. Balaam cried out that he has erred, and that he is willing to turn back, if that is G-d’s will.

The angel then told Balaam that he may go with Balak, reiterating G-d’s command that Balaam not say anything, except what G-d allows him to say.

There is a dispute among the commentators about whether the story of Balaam’s speaking donkey is to be taken literally or not. Maimonides, the rationalist, sees the story as a vision or a dream. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says that the donkey did not really speak, but that Balaam was able to understand from the animal’s sounds what the donkey was trying to convey.

Some of the commentators point out that the story is full of irony and even subtle humor. It is not only the fact that the donkey speaks, but what is particularly uncomplimentary to Balaam is that his donkey sees, but the great “prophet,” with his presumed superior spiritual powers, sees absolutely nothing.

The Mishna, in Avot 5:8, declares that at the time of the world’s creation, ten things were created at twilight on the eve of the very first Sabbath: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the mouth of the [Balaam’s] donkey, the rainbow, the manna, the staff, the שָׁמִיר shamir (the worm that cut the rock), the Hebrew alphabet, the instrument that was used to inscribe the tablets, and the tablets themselves.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that, although these ten items are part of the physical world that were created during the first six days of creation, their purpose is more in keeping with the seventh day, because their function is to train human beings for their moral destiny. These ten items therefore represent a transition from the six days of creation to the Sabbath day.

Rabbi Hirsch explains (Siddur commentary on Ethics of the Fathers) how the mouth of Balaam’s donkey fulfills this mission: “This alludes to the faculty of speech, which was temporarily given to the donkey to humble Balaam, to teach a lesson to that man of brilliant speech, at the moment, when led by base passion and impudent conceit, sought to misuse his human gift of speech to curse a whole nation.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch maintains that the confrontation of Balaam with his donkey proves to be Balaam’s undoing, turning Balaam into a laughing stock. Balaam believes he knows how to run the world better than G-d, and yet his donkey sees more clearly than he does. He wants to overpower G-d’s will, and yet his donkey overpowers Balaam’s will. He tries to use his spiritual power to destroy a people, but he has no power over his own jackass. As a result of his raw desire for greatness, he is exposed as powerless and impotent.

Poor Balaam, trying desperately to impress the Moabite delegation with his talents, appears to be inadequate and incompetent. His donkey sees the angel of G-d, but he does not. Balaam, who is supposed to be the great master of words, is speechless, and has to resort to beating his loyal animal into submission. Balaam’s donkey steals the limelight from him, and appears to have a far closer relationship to G-d than the great gentile prophet himself.

After all this embarrassment, one would expect Balaam to show a sign of remorse and humility, but, alas, he does not. His hatred for the Jewish people is so intense and all-consuming that, despite the direct commandment from G-d not to say anything that is not approved by Heaven, Balaam still believes that he can outwit G-d, and curse the Jewish people.

Fortunately, Balaam does not succeed.

Poor Balaam, upstaged by his own donkey.

May you be blessed.

Chukat 5774-2014

“The Inscrutable Statutes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chukat opens with the well-known and deeply inscrutable law of the Red Heifer (cow).

In Numbers 19:2, G-d tells Moses and Aaron: זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השם לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל, This is the statute of the Torah, which the L-rd has commanded, saying: speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take to you a perfectly red Heifer, which has no blemish, upon which a yoke has not come.

The Torah further explains that the Red Heifer shall be given to Elazar, the Priest, who will take it outside the camp, where it will be slaughtered. After performing the blood ritual in front of the Tent of Meeting seven times, the heifer is burned. Its hide, its flesh and its blood with its waste, shall also be burned. The priest is to take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and a crimson piece of wool, and throw them in as the heifer is burned.

The Torah states that the purpose of this ritual is to purify those people who have been contaminated by coming into contact with the dead. Those who are contaminated must be purified on the third day and on the seventh day, by being sprinkled with the waters of the ashes of the Red Heifer. On the night of the eighth, they are to immerse in a Mikveh, to finalize the cleansing.

The paradox of the Red Heifer is that those who are impure are purified by its waters, while those who are pure who come in contact with it are rendered impure. Even the priests and others who perform the Red Heifer rituals become impure. That is why the Torah portion opens with the words, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה , This is the statute of the Torah. A “Chukah,” is a type of religious law that has no apparent rhyme, reason or rationale to it. It is, indeed, inscrutable.

Rashi explains in his opening comment on the parasha, that the “Satan” and the nations of the world taunt the People of Israel by pointing out the irrationality of the law of the Red Heifer, saying: “What is this commandment? And what reason is there to it?” Therefore, scripture boldly asserts that the law of the Red Heifer is a “statute,” declaring that it is a decree from Heaven that G-d has issued. The People of Israel dare not reflect upon it, or question it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his monumental work, Horeb, A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observance, brilliantly explores the underlying details of the practical religious observance. In Horeb, Rabbi Hirsch categorizes the 613 commandments into six distinct categories: 1. תּוֹרוֹת, Toroth: Fundamental principles relating to mental and spiritual preparation for life, such as the sovereignty of G-d, Revelation, and love of G-d. 2. עֵדוֹת, Edoth: Symbolic observances representing truths which form the basis of Israel’s life. Examples are the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, the holidays of Israel, circumcision, Mezuzah. 3. מִּשְׁפָּטִים, Mishpatim: Declarations of justice toward human beings, such as the prohibition of murder, injury, assault and battery, lying, flattery, hypocrisy. 4. חֻקִּים, Chukim: Laws of righteousness toward the creations that are subordinate to the human being: toward earth, plant, animal, toward one’s own body, mind, spirit and word. Respecting all beings as G-d’s property. Respect for the feelings and instincts of animals. The prohibition of suicide and self-injury and self-ruin. 5. מִצְו‍ֹת, Mitzvot: Commandments of love. The obligation to strive through love to draw near to G-d. Respect for parents, age, wisdom, and virtue. Study of Torah and pursuit of general education. 6. עֲבוֹדָה, Avodah: Divine service. Prayer, communal worship, reading the Torah, reverence for the holy Temple and for schools.

While many of the laws of Judaism described in the six categories of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch have a rational basis, the Torah itself does not provide any rationale for the mitzvot, underscoring that the reason that the mitzvot are observed is not due to convenience, ethical or environmental values, but rather because they are decreed by G-d.

The Sifra Kedoshim 9, states that a person should not say: “I abstain from pig, because I don’t like it. Or I refrain from drinking blood or committing promiscuous acts because they are abhorrent.” Rather, one should say that the non-kosher foods may very well be delicious, and the immoral acts may be pleasurable, but G-d commanded not to eat or engage in these forbidden things. It is not because they are revolting or detestable.

Maimonides, in the laws of Meilah, 8:8, writes:

It is fitting for a person to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah, and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which a person finds no reason, and understands no cause, should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not ‘break through to rise up against the Lord, lest the Lord strike him,’ (Exodus 19:24), nor should his thoughts regarding Torah be like his thoughts concerning profane matters.

David Holzer, in his enlightening transcriptions of the recordings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, entitled, The Rav Thinking Aloud on the Parsha, quotes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as saying that the Rambam

is against ascribing lesser significance to Chukim, [statutes] or secularizing them. In other words, one must not interpret Chukim in practical terms, and inject contemporary meaning into them.

Continues Rabbi Soloveitchik,

You will ask me, what is the practical interpretation of Chukim? If a rabbi tries to interpret, מַאֲכָלוֹת אֲסוּרוֹת [forbidden foods] in terms of hygiene or sanitation, or הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה טָהֳרַת,[laws of family purity] in terms of sexual psychology…this is exactly what the Rambam meant should not be done. You don’t achieve anything by it… Educated people, intelligent people, scientific minds, cannot be so easily fooled.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Jews of faith must accept and practice the statutes regardless of whether they fit into the frame of reference of modern civilization or not. Reverence and awe are required before the Divine Imperative. Surrender to G-d is the highest category of faith that reaches its apex when performing Chukim.

Once again, we find that it is necessary for humans to humble themselves before the Al-mighty, since the finite human being can never fully comprehend the Infinite G-d. A person of faith must be prepared to admit that there are many things that G-d has created and commanded that are beyond human understanding.

As one who has devoted much of his life trying to explain the complicated and perplexing aspects of Torah and Judaism to Jews of little or limited background, the preparedness to admit that “I do not know” is a veritable mantra for me that I readily employ, perhaps too frequently. As a Beginners Rabbi for the last 38+ years, I am often compelled to say that “I am just a Beginners rabbi. You will have to ask a real rabbi.”

Fortunately, my students’ questions often reflect my own inner inquisitiveness. I remember, as a young man, being challenged by things that I learned about Torah and Judaism. Having often been put into a position of trying to explain to others, I was frequently hard-pressed to find cogent reasons that would render these laws meaningful to myself, let alone to others.

During my teen years, as I read the weekly Torah portion and encountered problematic texts whose explanation and rationale eluded me, I began the practice of recording in a notebook all the issues that I found challenging. Each year, I reviewed the notebook and added to it. As I learned more about Torah, I was able to begin to address some of the questions, in fact, quite a few of the questions. And yet, there were some whose explanations continued to elude me, and found myself unable to fathom how the L-rd had commanded them. And yet, because I discovered along the way so many revolutionary concepts when I reviewed the Torah, and found so many truly rational and significant meanings to the questions that I had raised, that I soon came to the conclusion that it was only because of my inabilities, my own shortcomings, that I could not find the answers to the imponderable questions. There were answers, but I was just not up to finding them.

And so, the Jew of faith continues to believe and to act as if there definitely are answers, but not all answers are immediately available. We walk with pride, with our heads covered and wear our religious practices on our sleeves, because we have the confidence in a Judaism that has proven to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time, to live ethical and moral lives. It is this marvelous educational method and the Al-mighty’s guide book, His Torah–that He has entrusted in the hands of the Jewish people, that has enabled the People of Israel to achieve these unprecedented successes.

As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Fuhn a kasheh schtarbt men nisht” You don’t die from a question! In fact, questioning is one of the great assets of Jewish life. We will struggle to uncover the answers, but we will not be defeated if we do not find answers to everything we ask.

It is with great pride that we receive the Torah that G-d  entrusted in our hands, and do the best we can to explain it, and to share its revolutionary ideas and concepts with the world. In this way we hope to lead humanity toward a life of greater goodness and kindness, reflected in humankind’s good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.

Korach 5774-2014

“Aaron Stops the Plague”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the dramatic rebellion of Korach, Datan and Abiram, and their co-conspirators–members of the tribe of Reuben and 250 important leaders of Israel.

Korach protested against Moses and Aaron for what he thought was the lack of fairness in the makeup of the leadership of Israel. Korach complained that Moses had usurped all the temporal/political powers for himself by assuming the leadership of Israel, and had relegated the religious/spiritual powers to his brother, Aaron. Korach thought that as a member of the noble tribe of Levi himself and as part of the special family of Kehat, he was clearly entitled to play a major leadership role in Israel.

Shaken by Korach’s charges against him, Moses tells Korach that on the very next morning, G-d will show the people who G-d’s chosen leaders truly are. He instructs Korach’s followers to take firepans and place fire and incense on them, and allow G-d to choose who is holy. The next morning the 250 men with the firepans, and Aaron, with his own firepan, stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, as G-d’s presence appeared before the entire assembly of Israel.

Despite the Al-mighty’s anger and His wish to immediately destroy the entire community, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces to ask that G-d punish only the guilty perpetrators. Moses and Aaron plead with the innocent people to separate themselves from Korach and his evil followers.

When Moses finished speaking, the ground that was under Korach and his followers split, and the earth swallowed Korach, his family and all the people who had joined Korach, their households and all their wealth. Korach and his followers descended alive into the pit, the earth covered them, and they were lost forever.

All of the People of Israel who were around Korach and his followers, fled for their lives, lest they be swallowed up as well. The Torah in Numbers 16:35 reports that a flame then came forth from G-d and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.

G-d instructed Moses to tell Elazar, the son of Aaron, to collect the 250 firepans from amidst the fire, for they had become holy, and to fashion the firepans into a covering for the Altar, where they should serve as a reminder to the Children of Israel, that no one who is not of the offspring of Aaron, may draw near to bring up the smoke of incense before G-d.

Despite the miracles that the people saw and the severe punishment of Korach and his assembly, scripture reports, Numbers 17:6, וַיִּלֹּנוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמָּחֳרָת עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר:  אַתֶּם הֲמִתֶּם אֶת עַם השם, The entire assembly of the Children of Israel complained on the next day against Moses and Aaron, saying: “You have killed the people of G-d.” Notwithstanding the miracles of the earth splitting and the fire coming down from Heaven and devouring the 250 holders of incense, the people brazenly and willfully continue to confront and challenge Moses.

In a Dvar Torah that appeared in the Shabbat Echod of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in June 2009, a prominent member, Gideon Schor, cogently argues that it is possible to interpret this new challenge as an even greater crisis to Moses than Korach’s rebellion. He writes: “While Korach and his supporters accused Moses and Aaron of self-aggrandizement, and of offending mortals, the people as a whole were now accusing Moses and Aaron of murder and of offending G-d Himself.”

G-d’s reaction was fast and furious. The Tent of Meeting, by now, was covered by a cloud, and the Glory of G-d appeared. G-d declares, Numbers 17:10, הֵרֹמּוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת, וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע, Remove yourselves from among this assembly, and I shall destroy them in an instant!

Moses and Aaron again fall on their faces. Moses resorts to a last-ditch effort to save the Jewish people.

Rashi citing Talmud Shabbat 89a, explains that when Moses had ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, each of the ministering angels, even the Angel of Death, taught him a secret. The Angel of Death’s lesson was that incense has the power to stop a plague.

Since the people of Israel were convinced that the incense had previously caused the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, now had led to the demise of Korach’s 250 followers, G-d wanted to show the People of Israel that incense was not lethal. It is sin that causes death.

Moses instructs Aaron to take his firepan, put fire from the Altar upon it, place incense on it, and go quickly to the assembled masses to provide atonement for them, for the plague had begun and the fury of G-d had turned toward the people.

Aaron does as Moses instructed. He runs into the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun. Scripture in Numbers 17:13, describes the scene: וַיַּעֲמֹד בֵּין הַמֵּתִים וּבֵין הַחַיִּים, וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה,

And he [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked. 14,700 people died in that plague.

In his D’var Torah, Gideon Schor suggests that if Aaron were an ordinary person he would have argued with Moses about having to risk his life to save these despicable rebellious upstarts, who do not deserve to be saved. Besides, if G-d wants to destroy them, who is Aaron to interfere with the Al-mighty’s plans. Furthermore, no one really knows whether the secret of the incense will even work. Why then should Aaron risk his life for those who plot against G-d and the Jewish people, knowing that few of them, in similar circumstances, would have risen up to save Aaron? Aaron would be justified to be fearful of G-d’s anger for intervening on behalf of the wrongdoers. With piles of bodies already lined up, why would Aaron feel that he could do anything to stop the plague?

Gideon Schor further points out, that Numbers 17:12 indicates,  וַיִּקַּח אַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, וַיָּרָץ אֶל-תּוֹךְ הַקָּהָל, וְהִנֵּה הֵחֵל הַנֶּגֶף בָּעָם, that Aaron brazenly risked his life by running into the very midst of the congregation. The plague had already begun among the people, and Aaron, without hesitation, stood with his own body in the line of fire to protect the people from the Angel of Death.

Gideon Schor concludes that it was Aaron’s אַהֲבַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, Ahavat Yisrael, his abiding love for the Jewish People that made him dismiss any fear for his own safety. Following Moses’ instructions, Aaron heroically and selflessly took up the peoples’ cause, literally wrestling with the Angel of Death, to save those who strayed and protect those who were sick. He simply refused to give up on even a single Jew, even those who were unworthy.

I would like to add one more element to Gideon Schor’s insightful interpretation of why Aaron stood up for the people, aside from his total devotion and love for the People of Israel.

For Aaron, the bringing of the קְטֹרֶת, Ketoret, the firepans with the incense, was not just a religious ritual that G-d had commanded. The Ketoret weighed heavily on Aaron. It was laden with painful and excruciating memories. It was due to the Ketoret brought improperly by Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, that they died (Leviticus 10). To Aaron, and to many of the people of Israel, the Ketoret was considered סַם הַמָּוֶת, Sahm Ha’mavet–poison, an instrument of G-d’s wrath, associated with instant death. Yet, it is this same Ketoret that Aaron brings on Yom Kippur, in the privacy of the Holy of Holies, facing his Creator alone, to beg for forgiveness for the People of Israel.

Surely Moses and Aaron wanted to show the People of Israel that Ketoret was not Sahm Ha’mavet, poison, but that sin is the poison. Defying and disobeying G-d, can, and does, result in death.

Perhaps Aaron wanted to show that just as a bereaved parent, who loses a child in an accident or due to disease, can choose to donate that child’s organs, so that others may live, Aaron sought to perpetuate the memory of his dead sons, keeping others alive by using the very instrument and performing the very ritual by which his own sons lost their lives.

It was a lesson that Aaron learned from his deceased sons, that Ketoret can be both a source of death and the elixir of life.

The tens of thousands of Israelites, who were saved from the plague, will always remember that they were spared because of the bravery and selflessness of Aaron, and because of the elixir of life that Aaron brought to perpetuate the memory of his two sons, who were lost in the tragedy of the Ketoret.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5774-2014

“Do Not Follow After the Desires of Your Heart and Eyes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

While the major theme of parashat Shelach concerns the scouts who return from the Land of Israel with an evil report and the Al-mighty’s decision that the people of Israel will not enter the Promised Land for forty years, there are several other important themes found in the parasha.

Other topics in parashat Shelach include: the proper amounts of meal offerings and wine libation that are brought together with the various sacrifices, the requirement to give a piece of the dough (Challah) to the priests, the laws regarding intentional and unintentional idol worship, and the story of the M’ko’shaish מְקֹשֵׁשׁ, the person who violated the Shabbat in the wilderness by gathering wood on the Sabbath day. The parasha concludes with the well-known third and final paragraph of the Shemah שְׁמַע prayer, regarding the mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes required to be placed on all four-cornered men’s garments.

The last five verses of parashat Shelach, Numbers 15:37-41, speak of the commandment of Tzitzit צִיצִת. The children of Israel are commanded to make for themselves Tzitzit (fringes on the corners of their garments) throughout their generations. Each fringe is to have a thread of T’chaylet תְּכֵלֶת, a special blue dye, so that when the Jew sees the Tzitzit, he shall remember all the commandments of G-d and perform them. Numbers 15:39 concludes וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים  אַחֲרֵיהֶם…[The purpose of the Tzitziot is] so that you not follow the desires of your heart and your eyes, which lead you astray. The paragraph concludes: It [this Mitzvah] is for you to remember and perform all of G-d’s commandments, and be holy for your G-d. I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your G-d. I am the L-rd, your G-d.

There is no other nation like the people of Israel, who are so thoroughly obsessed with learning and education. Maimonides writes (Laws of Torah Study 1:8) that every Jew is required to learn Torah, whether rich or poor, healthy or ailing, young or  weakened by old age. Even a pauper or a man with a large family has to establish set times for Torah learning during the day and night. The obsession with learning Torah and education has led our rabbis to say (Mishnah Peah 1:1) that, “Learning Torah is equal to all other mitzvot” and that (Talmud Kiddushin 40b), “Studying is greater than doing, because studying leads to doing.”

Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his important and insightful volume Hemdat Yamim, notes that there is a longstanding debate among the classical Jewish philosophers regarding the requirement to study Torah and the pursuit of education. Does the requirement apply to the study of Torah and Judaism exclusively, or does it also include secular education? It is a debate that continues to rage to this very day. However, all agree, that only those secular studies that enhance Torah study should be pursued. “Secular studies” that are destructive, may not be studied. (There are some authorities who maintain that it is important to know what the heretics and enemies say, in order to respond properly to skeptics, when necessary).

Because of the dangers that abound in being exposed to destructive ideas and philosophies, the Torah sets boundaries, and demands that Jews not follow “the desires of their hearts and eyes.” These limitations set by the Torah, fly against much of contemporary opinion and values. Effective education, declare many contemporary experts, must be “open” and “open-minded,” requiring the legitimization of virtually all speech and study, even that which is harmful and dangerous. They further believe that those who honestly seek truth, must allow for an uncompromised free exchange of ideas in the media and press, in universities and in all places of study.

Judaism also recognizes and values the benefits that accrue from open-mindedness and honest intellectual inquiry. Yet, Jewish law sets limits. Just as there are limits to what a person eats, in order to protect one’s physical health, so must caution be exercised when imbibing ethical and spiritual knowledge. In fact, many Torah rules are purposely designed to “limit” our physical and intellectual activities. The laws of Lashon Hara לָשׁוֹן הָרַע  restrict wanton speech, the laws of Kashrut כַּשְׁרוּת  restrict what foods may be eaten, and the laws of forbidden marital relationships restrict certain sexual activities.

Rabbeinu Bachya, in his introduction to Chovot Halivavot, Duties of the Heart, strongly advocates openness in education; arguing that without broad knowledge, grasping the depths of the Torah to its fullest would be impossible.

On the other hand, Rabbi Judah HaLevi, in his masterwork, the Kuzari, argues that the Torah of G-d is entirely and totally pure, rendering it superior to any other body of knowledge, or the intellectual explorations of any researcher or scholar (Kuzari: Article 2:26).

I believe it was the literary critic, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), who once quipped that, “Some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out!” This is the apparent condition of contemporary society.

As we write, the media continues to focus on the most recent mass killing that occurred near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara.  The young gunman, described as mentally ill or demented, authored a long “manifesto,” spelling out his grievances toward the women on campus who rejected him socially. This recent attack has touched off an anguished conversation regarding the ways in which women are perceived sexually, and the violence frequently perpetrated against them. Talk of “misogyny” has captured the airwaves. Men and women are urging authorities to consider the implications of the recent attack and its impact on society. Women are no longer willing to tolerate the unrelenting catcalls, leers, and the fears of sexual violence that they constantly experience. No longer free to walk the campus alone, they need to travel in packs and carry pepper spray in their purses for protection.

Yet, the issue is greater than male attitudes toward women and people’s obsession with sexuality. What we see today is nothing more than the seeds that we have sown over the past thirty, forty years, with the increasing and unrelenting breakdown of morality and moral behavior. How can it be that a noble nation such as ours, has been reduced by such ignoble values and behavior? Should we really be surprised by the contemporary lack of morality and decency when more than 85% of American entertainment features violence and sex? And much of the change of values took place long before the internet pushed the envelope, providing much greater exposure of new perversions, which were beyond imagination just a few years ago.

In 1973, Karl Menninger wrote, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Wendy Shalit published, “The Return to Modesty.” 3300 years earlier the Torah declared: Set limits! Limits must be established and must be enforced–one may not follow the desires of one’s heart and one’s eyes. “Anything goes” is a recipe for anarchy, which is exactly where we find ourselves today.

Gone are the calls for good and noble deeds and behavior. No longer are actions of chivalry, kindness and good manners, admired, praised or esteemed. “We want what we want, and we want it now!” Woe onto the person who tries to stop us from getting what we want.

The Tzitziot, the little tassels on the corner of the garments are meant to remind us that there are limits. But more important than the Tzitziot themselves, is the need for a determined citizenry to set its endangered ship straight. We must declare boldly that, “Enough is enough!” The debauchery, harmful behaviors, perverted values, will no longer be tolerated.

Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are wonderful values– theoretically. But when exercised without limits, they are destructive, not constructive. Judaism has always taught that “structure” is what sets us free and allows us to accomplish much more than those who act without structure. Lack of structure and boundaries lead to chaos.

As the savagery progresses, no one is really safe. We are all subject to the blandishments of the evil that surrounds us. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all being rapidly reduced as human beings, even those who think they live in protective cocoons and isolated ghettos.

Remember the Tzitziot, the fringes, and the message of the tassels, and especially heed the final words of the Torah’s message regarding the Tzitziot (Numbers 15:40), לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם–remember and perform. It is not sufficient to simply remember, it is necessary to remember and perform. By carefully performing mitzvot both major and minor, without regard to their respective reward, we can be transformed into a holy nation, distancing ourselves from those evil passions that tend to corrupt. In that way, we will hopefully become קְדֹשִׁים לֵאלֹקֵיכֶם, Holy to G-d.

And if we, the People of Israel, are indeed successful in transforming ourselves, we will be in a powerful position to influence society at large. The message of the tassels may not only save us, but the world as well, by creating a universe thoroughly devoted to morality, goodness and holiness.

Remember the message of the Tzitziot!

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a’lot’cha 5774-2014

“The Difference Between Moses and the Other Prophets”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, reaches its exciting crescendo in Numbers 12, with the story of Miriam and Aaron who speak against their brother, Moses (for details, see B’ha’a’lot’cha 5771-2011). G-d’s anger is kindled at Miriam and Aaron, and eventually Miriam who was regarded as the instigator is punished–stricken with the Tzara’at disease for seven days.

The commentators suggest that Miriam and Aaron were angry with their brother over the fact that Moses had taken a Cushite woman–either Moses was estranged from his wife Zippora, or had taken an additional wife. Miriam and Aaron confront their brother Moses, saying, Numbers 12:2, “Is it only to Moses to whom G-d speaks? Did He not speak to us as well?”

Because Moses was the meekest person on the face of the earth, G-d comes to his defense. He summons Moses, Aaron and Miriam to come out of the Tent of Meeting. Descending in a pillar of cloud, the Al-mighty stands at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and calls Aaron and Miriam.

G-d harshly rebukes Moses’ siblings, saying, Numbers 12:6-8: וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי, אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם–השם בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּו.

לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה,  בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּאֹ. פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת השם יַבִּיט, וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה.

Hear now My words. If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I, G-d, make Myself known to him; in a dream, I will speak with him. Not so is My servant, Moses. My entire house, he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in clear vision and not in riddles. At the image of G-d does he gaze. Why did you not fear to speak against My servant, Moses?

Two of Maimonides famed Thirteen Principles of Faith address the specific issue of the status of prophets and the special status of Moses. In Principle number six, Maimonides declares: I firmly believe that all the words of the Prophets are true. Principle number seven: I firmly believe that the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, may he rest in peace, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both of those who preceded and those who followed him.

Principle number seven uncompromisingly declares that the nature and power of the prophecy of Moses was entirely different and superior to that of the other prophets.

Nevertheless, while it is important to note that despite the difference in caliber between Moses and the other prophets, it is entirely improper to diminish the status of the other prophets and their prophecies.

Maimonidies, in the Laws of the Principles of Torah 7:6, clarifies the essential differences between the other prophets and Moses. All the prophets prophesied by falling on their faces, and losing control of their powers and faculties. Moses prophesied while standing strong on his feet, maintaining full consciousness.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his posthumously collected lectures, Tiferet Shimshon, explains that when people hear astonishing or shocking news, their entire psychological demeanor is often impacted. They begin gasping and can hardly catch their breath. They often lose control over their faculties. Shaking and trembling, they often cannot close their mouths or keep their hands and feet steady. In some instances, a person may be so traumatized that he loses awareness of his location and his surroundings. A sleeping person, explains Rabbi Pincus, cannot stand because he has no control over his muscles and skeletal structure.

All of the prophets, except for Moses, lost control when they heard the word of G-d. That is why prophets (for example the Prophet Elisha in Kings II 9:11) are sometimes referred to in scripture, as “Meshugah,” crazy. When prophets prophesy, they are oblivious to what is going on around them, and feel as if there is no one else in the world. They are alone with their Creator. They are not embarrassed by what others say about them or their unusual actions.

Moses, however, says Rabbi Pincus, was different. He did not lose control of his faculties like the other prophets, whose experiences were in direct contradiction to human nature. However, Moses’ nature was so exalted, the prophecy impacted on his entire personality, until Moses became (Deuteronomy 33:1) ,אִישׁ הָאֱלֹ קִים, a man of G-d. There was no contradiction between the “Eesh,” the human being, and the “Elokim,” the G-d Who was within him. His prophecy was natural to him. That is why he did not have to fall down to prophesy like the other prophets.

The The Malbim points to seven profound differences between the prophecy of Moses and the other prophets. 1. All the prophets prophesied through a dream or a stupor. Moses, however, was always awake and aware. 2. The other prophets were overcome with fear and trembling, while Moses stood firm and strong. 3. The other prophets saw visions and fantasy. Moses saw direct reality. 4. The other prophets prophesied in riddles. Moses received the direct message and conveyed direct messages. 5.The prophesies of other prophets were conveyed through angels. Moses heard the message directly from G-d Himself. 6. The other prophets prophesied in an arbitrary and spontaneous manner. Whereas, Moses, states his prophecy boldly and directly whenever he deems it necessary. 7. The other prophets prophesied as if they were masquerading as spiritual beings, covering their mortal bodies. That is why their visions were always in the form of dreams and illusions. But, Moses’ vision was always a direct vision, as if Moses had risen above the abstract world, enabling him to prophecy using his own intelligence, without illusions, as if his soul had separated from his body.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds, that when G-d says, “Not so My servant, not so Moses,” He means that Moses is more than a prophet, who stands permanently in G-d’s service. As a human being, Moses rises above all mortals. Everything is open, unlocked and uncovered for him, “In My whole home he is trusted.” Everything in G-d’s household, in this world, which is able to be comprehended by mortal flesh and blood, stands open for him. To a servant who is not entrusted with the whole of the house, certain things are inaccessible…but all this is different with one who is trusted with free entry everywhere in the house. Moses “wanders freely, always in the Light of the House. He has the full, unabbreviated, uncovered knowledge.”(Hirsch pp 191-192, verse 7)

Eliyahu Kitov notes that when other prophets prophecy, they are relieved of their essence, and made into a new creature. Only after the conclusion of their prophesies do they return to their natural essence. Kitov also maintains, that all other prophets do not have the power to prophecy at will. Moses did not have to wait for a propitious time, and could summon the prophecy at his desire. That is why Moses was able to say, (Numbers 9:8) עִמְדוּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָה, Stand here, and I will hear the words of the L-rd.”

In light of all the special qualities of Moses, Principle number seven of Maimonides’ articles of faith, of belief in the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, in the truth of his prophecy, and that he was the chief of all prophets for all times, becomes even more formidable and takes on even greater profundity.

Especially in the week in which we celebrate the festival of Shavuot, the giving of the Torah to the People of Israel by G-d at Sinai at the hand of Moses, it is important to appreciate even more the special qualities of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:4), עֶבֶד השם, G-d’s faithful servant.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3326 years ago, is observed this year on Tuesday evening, June 3rd, and continues through Thursday night, June 5th, 2014.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Naso 5774-2014

“The Gift that Keeps on Giving”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Naso is hardly a simple parasha. It contains many themes, of both major and of seemingly lesser significance.

Parashat Naso opens with the conclusion of the counting of the people of Israel that began in parashat Bamidbar, and continues with the purification of the camp. It then focuses on the portion of the Sotah–the woman suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, the laws of the Nazarite, the Priestly Blessings, and finally, the gifts brought to the Tabernacle by the tribal leaders of Israel.

In Numbers 5, immediately following the laws regarding the purification of the camp of Israel, and immediately preceding the portion of the Sotah, a group of verses warn against stealing from a proselyte, and underscore the requirement to properly pay commitments that were made for the upkeep of the Temple and for the support of the Priesthood. These seemingly innocuous verses teach some very powerful lessons.

The laws regarding the theft from proselytes, powerfully emphasize the terrible financial treachery that is committed when one steals from a fellow Jew who has no protection–no family, no tribe, no relatives! Stealing from the proselyte is regarded as perfidy against G-d Himself, for the proselyte is so totally defenseless. A famous statement attributed to many leaders and social philosophers, maintains that a civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

After boldly establishing the rules protecting proselytes, the Torah, in Numbers 5:9-10, makes the following statements about religious donations, וְכָל תְּרוּמָה לְכָל קָדְשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיבוּ לַכֹּהֵן–לוֹ יִהְיֶה

וְאִישׁ אֶת קֳדָשָׁיו, לוֹ יִהְיוּ; אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן לַכֹּהֵן, לוֹ יִהְיֶה Although an accurate translation of these verses is difficult, one common translation is: And every portion from any of the holies that the Children of Israel bring to the Kohen, shall be his. A man’s holies shall be his, and what a man gives to the Kohen, shall be his.

No wonder that the commentators argue so actively over the meanings of this complex text.

Rashi says that despite the reference in the verse to the Hebrew word, תְּרוּמָה  “Terumah,” Numbers 5:9 refers not to regular heave offerings, “Terumah,” but to בִּיכּוּרִים “Bikurim,” the first fruits of the harvest that are brought to the Priest. The Torah states that once the Bikurim are given to the Priest, they become the property of the Priest and his family.

Rashi provides an intriguing interpretation of verse 10, stating that although the Priests and Levites have rights to collect special gifts, תְּרוּמוֹת-Terumot–heave offerings, and מַעַשֹרוֹת-Maasrot–tithes, Priests and Levites cannot forcefully take these gifts from the donors. וְאִישׁ אֶת קֳדָשָׁיו, לוֹ יִהְיוּ A man’s holy things shall be his. Every farmer has the right to determine of his own free will, to whom to give his heave and tithes offerings. (I have previously noted that this may be the first reference to an economy that is “service based.”) The Israelites are entitled to freely pick, which Priests and Levites have served them best, and support them at the expense of the others who have been less responsive to the community’s needs.

Rashi, in his comments on verse 10, provides an alternate Midrashic interpretation cited by the Sifre, based on the words, וְאִישׁ אֶת קֳדָשָׁיו, לוֹ יִהְיוּ. Says the Sifrei, A man’s holies shall be his–-one who withholds his tithes and does not give them, that tithe “shall be his;” that is, the end will be, that his field will produce nothing but one tenth of what it used to produce. According to this approach, the conclusion of the verse teaches that if the citizens give to the Kohen the gifts that befit the priests, the people will consequently have much wealth.

Many of the commentators cite similar, but related, anecdotes, with respect to a person’s charitability and the return guaranteed by Heaven. The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez tells of a man who owned only one field that would produce one thousand bushels. Each year, the owner would religiously dedicate one tenth of the produce (100 bushels) for the tithe, as the Torah requires. That one field sustained the owner and his entire family, children and grandchildren, all the days of the owner’s life.

When his end came near, the owner called his son, warning him to be careful about caring for the field, because all of the family’s sustenance had come from that field. The first year, the son donated the entire reckoning of one tenth of the produce. But each year, the son reduced his donations, and each year the field produced less and less, until the field produced less than one hundred bushels. The members of his extended family showed little sympathy for the new owner, explaining to him, that until now, he was the master of the field and the Al-mighty was the Priest, but now he is the Priest and the Al-mighty has become the Master of the field.

Meotzarenu Hayashan cites a story regarding the great Baron Rothschild of Frankfurt. When Rothschild was once asked about his tremendous wealth, he responded by citing the verse in parashat Naso (Numbers 5:10), וְאִישׁ אֶת קֳדָשָׁיו, לוֹ יִהְיוּ, A man’s holies shall be his. The Baron explained that he considers his only real wealth to be the contributions and donations that he made for the sake of the community and charity. “After all, that is the only wealth that is secure and cannot be taken from me,” affirmed the Baron. But a person can never be certain about the rest of his wealth. Rothschild therefore considered his own “personal material wealth” insignificant in his own eyes.

The Peninim on the Torah, records the story of a wealthy miser in Baghdad, who absolutely refused to give charity to the poor, declining to share the fruits of his “hard-earned” wealth with others.

One day, while sitting in his beautiful garden, his butler, who was about to serve him a magnificent meat lunch, slipped, dropping the plate of meat into the dirt.

As the butler was about to throw the meat away, the miser saw a poor man on the other side of the fence, whose mouth was watering from just looking at the delicious food. Out of character, the miser immediately instructed the butler to give the dirty piece of meat to the poor person.

That night, the miser had a dream that he was in the Garden of Eden, and everybody was sitting by a long table waiting to be served. The waiters eventually served a most magnificent meal to all the assembled, but skipped over the miser. Expressing his displeasure over being passed, he demanded a portion from the waiter, who brought him a meager piece of dirty meat. When the miser complained, the waiter said, “Why are you complaining? This [the Garden of Eden] is the world of reward, where one is compensated commensurate to one’s actions in the other world. The reward you receive here is in accordance with what and how you gave there.”

As we see from our Torah portion, “a man’s holies,” that which he shares with holiness, is precisely what he will ultimately receive in return. What we give now, is what we will eventually receive.

The next time we are asked to help those who may be in need, we need bear in mind the important implications of the Divine system of reward.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed this Tuesday evening, May 27th through Wednesday night, May 28th. This year marks the 47th anniversary of the reunification of the city.

Bamidbar 5774-2014

“Counting the Jews, Again!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, G-d speaks to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Exodus from Egypt.

The Al-mighty (Numbers 1:2) commands Moses: שְׂאו אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם–בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count.

This is the third time that G-d commands that the people should be counted. The first time the people were counted (Exodus 12:37), was when they left Egypt. Again they were counted (Exodus 38:26) after the sin of the Golden Calf, to see how many survived the punishment of the idolaters. They are now counted for a third time, when G-d is about to rest His Divine Presence among the people.

The Ramban suggests three reasons why G-d wanted the people counted. 1. To confirm G-d’s deep love for the Jewish People through their amazing population growth over 210 years– 70 people originally came down with Jacob from Canaan to Egypt and there now were almost two million people. 2. By having Moses and Aaron and the leaders of the tribes personally count the people, the Israelites learned who their leaders were, and, even for a short while, had the exclusive personal attention of Moses and Aaron. 3. Had sin of the leaders who were sent to scout out the Land of Israel not occurred(Numbers 13 and 14), the people would have gone directly into the land of Israel, and therefore, a military census was needed.

From just the few opening verses of parashat Bamidbar that describe the counting, we learn the very special meanings and nuances of the methods employed in taking a census of the Jewish people. In Numbers 1:2-3, G-d tells Moses to take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count. From twenty years of age and up–-everyone who goes out to the army in Israel–-you shall count them according to their armies, you and Aaron. The Torah, in Numbers 1:4, then states, וְאִתְּכֶם יִהְיוּ, אִישׁ אִישׁ לַמַּטֶּה–אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא  And with you [to assist in counting] shall be one man from each tribe, a man who is a leader of his father’s household.

The Biblical commentators carefully examine and analyze this verse, which contains many important guidelines to understanding the nature of Jewish leadership and Jewish family life. The M’lechet Mach’sheh’veht argues that words of the Hebrew text actually imply that the heads of their families’ households must be accepted and admired by their own families. Jewish leaders must be authentic–people who are privately what they appear to be publicly. There is no room for arrogance or for acting publicly in a different way than one acts privately.

The Ya’arot Devash has a slightly different take on that concept. He states that a person who is רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו, the head of his father’s household, and is accepted as a leader by his own family, he is one who can truly be a leader of the tribes of Israel.

Similarly, the Zion Hillel cited in Iturei Torah argues, that only a person who is embraced and lauded in his own home, in his own environment, can be a leader of the Jewish people.

The Korban Oni interprets the verse’s use of the word,ַמַּטֶּה , staff, to mean “tribe,” to teach that only “a leader who considers himself a staff–modest, humble” is suitable to serve as the head of his father’s household. The Zohar (the basic work of Jewish mysticism attributed to the 2nd century sage, R. Simon bar Yochai, and his disciples) in Genesis 1:22, similarly states, “He who is small, is truly great.”

The Kli Yakar notes that use of the words אִישׁ and הוּא in the verse, אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא, (a man who is a leader of his father’s household) means that every person who was the head of a tribe, needed to consider himself to be not so much a leader, but rather a regular member of the tribe. Each one had to behave like an אִישׁ, (a man) just like every other member of the tribe, even though he was a leader, and had authority over the masses.

The Luach Erez notes that the words,אִישׁ  אִישׁ, literally mean, a man from each tribe. The doubling of the word אִישׁ, implies that leaders should be one man who is equal to two men. He must be committed to both his own family life and to public life. Public life should never cause leaders to ignore or neglect their wives and children. By blending these two roles, one becomes two.

The Dan Midaniel notes that the verse אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא, seems to have an additional word, הוּא, meaning “he.” Every man, he must be the head of his father’s household.

Other commentators see in the use of the word “he,” a person who is either entirely good or thoroughly bad, like King Ahaseureus, bad from beginning to end, or Abraham, who was righteous from beginning to end.

Very often, says the Dan Midaniel, when a person is appointed to a position of leadership and power, the new leader frequently gets carried away, forgets his brothers and his former friends, and is often times transformed into an entirely different person. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes, regarding the tribal princes, אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא, even after these men were made the heads of their father’s households, they always sought to be the same person they were originally. Without glorying over the community or taking advantage of the Holy nation, they remained genuine people, from beginning to end.

May you be blessed.