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Yom Kippur 5775-2014

“The High Priest’s Dilemma–What to Wear on Yom Kippur?”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Torah reading from Leviticus 16:1-34,that is read on Yom Kippur morning in synagogues throughout the world, describes the death of Aaron’s two sons and details the Yom Kippur service performed by the High Priest.

On the 17th of Tammuz, less than six weeks after having received the Ten Commandments on the 6th of Sivan, the Children of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf. On the first day of Elul, Moses went up to heaven for forty days and nights to beseech the Al-mighty for forgiveness for the Jewish people, and finally returned on the 10th of Tishrei with the second set of Tablets, assured of G-d’s forgiveness. This fateful day was ordained for posterity as Yom Kippur, the eternal day of forgiveness.

Yom Kippur was to be celebrated (it was considered a happy day) in future years in the Tabernacle and in the Temples with elaborate rituals of forgiveness. The comprehensive ceremony of forgiveness which was very demanding on the High Priest, consisted of, among other things, the bringing of the שְׁנֵי שְׂעִירִים, the two he-goats.

For the highly symbolic ritual of atonement on Yom Kippur, the High Priest wore two sets of vestments. One set of clothing, known as בִּגְדֵי זָהָב, the golden vestments, consisted of eight garments, four of which contained gold. The other set of garments called בִּגְדֵי לָבָן, white vestments, were made entirely of white linen.

During the Yom Kippur ceremony, the High Priest changed his clothes five times, each time immersing himself in a Mikveh and washing his hands and feet, both before and after changing garments. Thus, the High Priest went to the Mikveh five times on Yom Kippur, and washed his hands and feet ten times.

The Torah, in Leviticus 16:3-4, provides highly specific instructions regarding the manner in which the High Priest is to enter the קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים, the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum. בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ, Thus, shall Aaron come into the sanctuary, with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for an elevation offering. Regarding the vestments of the High Priest, the Torah in Leviticus 16:4, states: כְּתֹנֶת בַּד קֹדֶשׁ יִלְבָּשׁ, וּמִכְנְסֵי בַד יִהְיוּ עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ, וּבְאַבְנֵט בַּד יַחְגֹּר, וּבְמִצְנֶפֶת בַּד יִצְנֹף, בִּגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ הֵם, וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ וּלְבֵשָׁם, He shall don a sacred linen tunic; linen breeches shall be upon his flesh, he shall gird himself with a linen sash, and cover his head with a linen turban; They are sacred vestments–-he shall immerse himself in water and then don them.

Why was it necessary for the High Priest to change his garments so frequently? Apparently, when performing the basic rituals of Yom Kippur, the High Priest wore the golden garments. However, during the portions of the service when the High Priest sought forgiveness for sin for the Jewish people, he wore the white garments. The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 26a explains that the reason for this was to conform to the Talmudic principle that אֵין קָטֵגוֹר נַעֲשֶׁה סַנֵּגוֹר, a prosecutor cannot become a defender.

In the early 1970s, Carl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, authored a book called, Whatever Became of Sin, decrying the fact that people at that time no longer called bad things “evil,” often preferring to simply explain evil away. Debby Boone said it best in the famous song of the 70s, You Light Up My Life, singing the words, “It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right.”

Today, we are quick to assume that mass murderers are “sick,” and Jihadists are “abnormal.” While some of these people might well be mentally ill, there certainly those who are simply evil, and we should not explain away their actions by attributing them to a malady. These are people who are evil, who perpetrate evil for the sake of evil. These actions must be recognized as evil, and the perpetrators punished for their wickedness.

Even in Jewish life today, many rabbis argue that we no longer have the ability to properly fulfill the mitzvah of תּוֹכָחָה, Tochacha, of reproof. Therefore, it is often best to withhold reproof. Unfortunately, many of us fancy ourselves as modern-day Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740–1809, Chasidic leader famed for his love for all Jews), would-be Chasidic rabbis who often focus on a Jew’s personal merits, thereby covering up or explaining away the improper actions of that person.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin speaks out strongly against those who justify every infraction committed by a Jew, too often finding excuses to explain away their sinfulness. A doctor who refuses to disclose the true diagnosis to the patient, argues Rabbi Sorotzkin, is often harming the patient, rather than helping him or protecting him.

Therefore, says Rabbi Sorotzkin, when the High Priest addresses the people of Israel, he must wear his golden vestments, reflecting strong leadership and unimpeachable authority. This way, the High Priest can speak firmly to the people, and reprove them for their sinfulness, enabling them to reflect on their sins and repent. However, when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) communes directly with G-d, beseeching the Al-mighty to intercede on behalf of His flock and to forgive them for their misdeeds, he must wear the simple white linen vestments, the symbol of virtue, purity, modesty and humility.

That is obviously the reason for the custom of Jews to dress in white on Yom Kippur, and to wear a white Kittel, as a symbol of purity, to meekly beseech forgiveness.

May we all be granted the Divine pardon with great love.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה Shanah Tovah and a גְּמַר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, October 3rd through nightfall on Shabbat, October 4th, 2014. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 8th, 9th and 10th, 2014. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.

Haazinu-Rosh Hashana 5775-2014

“Invoking Heaven and Earth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It seems so natural to always begin the New Year with parashat Haazinu, the majestic song of Moses, which he sang moments before his passing. For those who read the parasha in translation, so much is lost–it is like kissing the bride through the veil. The Hebrew words are truly extraordinary, the poetry is exalted, and its message, profoundly elevating.

The late Bible scholar, W. Gunther Plaut, keenly established the context of the Haazinu message in his contemporary commentary, by writing:

The Bible ascribes three songs to Moses, of which two are in the Torah: One delivered after Israel’s rescue from the Reed Sea, at the beginning of the desert wanderings (Exodus 15), and the other here, at the end. These two poems may therefore be seen to frame the wilderness experience, and though on the surface they appear to serve different purposes–the first a thanksgiving hymn, the second a poem of the future–they both deal with Israel’s survival. At the sea, the physical existence of the nation was assured, but the forty years that followed put its spiritual future in doubt. Now at the borders of the Promised Land, Moses celebrates the eventual realization of G-d’s will for His people. He sings a hymn of hope to an Israel that will prevail in spirit as well as in body.

Gunther Plaut further describes the essence of the Haazinu message as follows:

The poem warns; it instructs; it gives hope. Israel’s past history has amply demonstrated G-d’s love and care, and these will not be found wanting in the future. Rebellion against His law may put Israel in dire straits, but in the end G-d will be shown not to have forgotten the people He had created. At the close of the recital, Moses is bidden to ascend Mount Nebo and prepare for death.

Notwithstanding the extreme drama of the moment–-the last day of Moses’ life–and despite being the longtime leader of Israel, the burning question remains: How does Moses, the mortal disciple, dare to attempt to sum up the past, present and future of Jewish life? How does this audacious man, who is called by the Torah, Numbers 12:3, “the meekest man on earth,” and who once described himself as, Exodus 4:10, כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן, אָנֹכִי, unable to speak, a stammerer, a stutterer, suddenly feel so confident as G-d’s representative, revealing no compunction about predicting Israel’s future. Added to this, this bold former shepherd audaciously calls upon heaven and earth, to enlist their services as witnesses to the words that he is about to speak. Deuteronomy 32:1, הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה, וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי פִי, Give ear, O Heavens, and I will speak; may the earth hear the words of my mouth. Who is this man, who as a child was found in the little ark in the bulrushes, and who now presumes to speak for G-d, shamelessly invoking heaven and earth?

The commentators explain Moses’ presumptuousness by referring to the very next verse, Deuteronomy 32:3, כִּי שֵׁם השׁם אֶקְרָא,  הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלקינוּ, When I call out the name of the L-rd, ascribe greatness to our G-d. Everything that Moses does is not at all for his own self-aggrandizement, but to honor G-d. The only reason that Moses calls on heaven and earth to testify, is to enhance the glory of the Al-mighty.

The Peninim on the Torah tells the story of the famous Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941), who was murdered at the hands of the Nazis, who once ascended to the lectern in his community of Baranovich, Poland, and began to speak, like Moses, invoking the heavens and the earth. Who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovich, who had the audacity to invoke heaven and earth in G-d’s name? Rabbi Wasserman too was not seeking glory for himself, but rather was seeking to bring greater honor to G-d.

In his brief speech, Reb Elchanan explained:

A similar idea applies to each and every one of us, as we stand, once again, at this time of year, entreating Hashem for yet another year of life, of health, happiness and prosperity. We have to ask ourselves: ‘Why are we asking? In what merit are we asking? What right do we have to ask? Are we that deserving?’

If we ask for כְּבוֹד שָׁמַיִם, to glorify heaven, to give honor to Hashem, however, that is a different story. If we ask to live so that we can provide our children with Torah true חִנּוּך (education); if we are asking for health, so that we can serve Him better; if we ask for prosperity so that we have the ability to help others; if we ask for the ability to study more Torah, in order to perform more mitzvot with greater enthusiasm–then, we have a right to ask. Indeed, under such circumstances, we are empowered to ask.

Moses’ final message is hardly bold or audacious. Rather, it is an empowering message, transferring the authority to speak in G-d’s name from one generation to the next, to ensure that the new transmitters will be loyal and faithful to the Al-mighty, as the old ones were.

During these fateful days of judgment, let us embrace this responsibility, resolving to transmit G-d’s message, a message that will serve as a vital link in the chain of continuity of Jewish life. We, too, can become contemporary prophets, bringing G-d’s words to the world, enlightening humankind with His transcendent message of goodness and grace.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה Shana Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

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.

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.