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Shemini-Yom HaShoah 5775-2015

“Yom HaShoah: Six Million–Minus One”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover II 5775-2015

“The Final Days: Expressing Gratitude”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

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

Passover 5775-2015

“Learning to Revere G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

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

Tzav 5775-2015

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

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

Vayikra 5775-2015

“The Primacy of Independent Thinking”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, contains many laws and directives regarding the various sacrifices and ritual offerings brought by the People of Israel in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple that was built by Solomon in Jerusalem.

Among the various sacrifices that were to be brought by the People of Israel was an intriguing sacrifice known as, פַּר הֶעְלֵם דָּבָר שֶׁל צִבּוּר, a bull that was brought when a legal matter was “hidden” from the congregation.

The Torah, in Leviticus 4:13-14, states, וְאִם כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ, וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל, וְעָשׂוּ אַחַת מִכָּל מִצְו‍ֹת השׁם אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה, וְאָשֵׁמו. וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ עָלֶיהָ, וְהִקְרִיבוּ הַקָּהָל פַּר בֶּן בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת, וְהֵבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵדּ, and if the entire assembly of Israel shall err, and a matter became obscured from the eyes of the congregation; and they commit one from among all the commandments of G-d that may not be done, and they become guilty; when the sin regarding which they committed becomes known, the congregation shall offer a young bull as a sin offering, and they shall bring it before the Tent of Meeting.

The sin offering that is brought in this instance is one of four varied sin offerings recorded in this parashat Vayikra. In addition to the sin offering brought by the leaders of the congregation, there is a sin offering brought by the anointed High Priest, a sin offering brought by the king or a ruler, and a sin offering brought by individual Israelites.

The sin offering brought by the leaders of Israel is offered when a mistaken legal ruling was issued by the sages of the Great Sanhedrin. The Great Sanhedrin, which consisted of 71 scholars and met on the Temple Mount, issued a mistaken ruling in Jewish law, causing the majority of the Jewish people at that time to inadvertently commit a Torah violation. Had an individual or community violated this negative commandment deliberately, the punishment would have been Karet, or excision (TZAV 5767-2007).

Rashi explains that the above understanding of the verse is derived from the Hebrew phrase, כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, the entire assembly of Israel, which means the Sanhedrin. The members of the Sanhedrin issued an incorrect decree, declaring that something prohibited, such as forbidden fat, was permissible. As a result of that incorrect decision, the majority of the people of Israel transgressed.

The Mishna, in Horayot 1:4, teaches that the sin offering brought by the leaders is brought only if the Sanhedrin’s decision had been unanimous, and that not a single member of the Sanhedrin took issue with the decision. If even a single member had acknowledged that a mistake had been made–even if the collective body had refused to acknowledge the mistake, the members of the Sanhedrin would not have had to bring the sacrifice.

The Mishna also states, that the collective Sanhedrin would not bring a sacrifice if the head judge had been absent from the deliberations, or if a single member who voted on the issue in the Sanhedrin had been unqualified, such as a convert, an illegitimate person, one who is too elderly or had no children.  Even if a single sage said, “I do not know…”–in all these instances the members of the Sanhedrin would not bring the sin offering. Rather, all the People of Israel who transgressed as a result of the erroneous decision would have to bring their own personal sin offering.

Even if all the members of the Sanhedrin themselves had sinned, but the majority of the nation had not sinned, the leaders would not bring the sin offerings.

A majority is determined in one of two ways: 1. The majority of the twelve tribes had sinned, even though the number of sinners did not constitute a majority of the population. 2. The majority of the population sinned, even if it was less than half the tribes involved. In each of these instances, the Sanhedrin does not bring a sin offering, but rather the individuals who transgressed bring the sin offering.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his erudite studies on the weekly Torah portion, Hegyonah Shel Torah, offers a fascinating insight regarding this ruling. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 17:10, declares: וְשָׁמַרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ, individual Jews are required to follow the rulings and dictates of the religious leaders. Why then should an individual Jew, who trespassed a Jewish law because of an incorrect decision made by the sages, have to bring a sin offering, rather than the leaders who made the error? Furthermore, why should it make a difference whether it was an incorrect decision rendered by every single member of the Sanhedrin, or if the leading sage was missing?

Rabbi Firer notes that the words, כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, that all of the community of Israel sinned, imply that not only had the decision been unanimous, but also, that every one of the judges was fitting and qualified to serve, and that no one was missing.

Furthermore, Rabbi Firer Rabbi suggests insightfully that if a decision is not unanimous, an individual Jew may have reason to conclude, or at least suspect, that there may be another valid or reasonable opinion or point of view concerning this issue. Even if a single jurist during the deliberations suggested to the court that the Sanhedrin members may be mistaken, and was overruled by all the other judges, it still leaves room for an individual Jew to question the decision that had been made. This is especially true if the Gadol, the leading sage, was absent, even though replacement scholars attended, and there was still a full complement of 71 members.

Rabbi Firer concludes from this that Jewish law rejects excuses based on ignorance. To the contrary, Rabbi Firer insists that Judaism requires of all Jews to strive to be scholars, to be capable of thinking for themselves, and not simply follow the masses, due to ignorance.

The importance of this insight cannot be overemphasized. In contrast to many other faith systems and philosophies, Judaism encourages every person to strive to achieve erudition and to gain mastery of as much of Jewish knowledge and practice as possible.

Because so much of Jewish life is based on the practice of Jewish law and rituals, educating Jews to master that lifestyle is essential. Indeed, it is not considered proper for mature and educated Jews to run to their rabbis or to the internet every time they encounter a religious issue. A Jew must strive to be a thinker, a challenger, a questioner, and if there is any, even the slightest reason, to doubt the decision made by the highest authorities of Jewish law, one should investigate and study, to determine, through one’s own research and erudition, what the proper practice should be.

In contemporary Jewish life today, there is a growing tendency to minimize the emphasis that Jewish tradition places on self reliance. Especially with the rapid rise of the Chassidic and Yeshiva communities, where so much is dependent on the Rebbe and many do not make a move without consulting their Rosh Yeshiva, the independence of the individual Jew has been compromised. To my mind this has resulted in weakened scholarship and impacted negatively on a Jew’s personal relationship with the Al-mighty, Who places trust in us, by allowing us the latitude to study, research and decide on our own.

Surely, every Jew needs to have a religious mentor and guide. But, a true mentor is one who, like a candle, ignites other candles, and helps new candles burn brightly on their own.

Of course, Jews need to heed the words of our sages, and follow the advice of our leaders, but the loss of independent thinking and opinion is truly grave. We must all prepare ourselves to appreciate and master the intricacies of Judaism, to be equipped to make intelligent decisions for our own benefit, so that we can march ahead, on our own, to influence the world and to inspire others.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, March 20 and 21, 2015.

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5775-2015

“Bringing Heaven Down To Earth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Pekudei, the second of this week’s double parshiot, Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, is finally erected and an elaborate dedication ceremony takes place.

The Torah in Exodus 40:17 relates, וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן, it was on the first month of the second year [from the Exodus from Egypt] on the first of the month, that the Tabernacle was erected. The Torah reports that Moses proceeded to erect the Tabernacle, putting down its sockets, placing its planks and inserting its bars, erecting its pillars, and positioning the cover on the tent over the Tabernacle, as G-d had commanded him.

Moses then proceeded to place the various furnishings in their proper locations inside the Tabernacle, beginning with positioning the Ark behind the פָּרֹכֶת, the dividing curtain, inside the Holy of Holies. Moses then placed the Table of Showbread on the north side of the Tabernacle and inserted the 12 loaves of bread on the table shelves. He then positioned the מְנוֹרָה, the seven-branched candelabra, on the south side of the Tabernacle, and kindled the lights, and placed the Golden Altar in front of the Menorah. Moses proceeded to affix the curtain at the entrance of the Tabernacle, stationed the earthen altar outside the Tabernacle, and placed the washing laver in between the large altar and the Tabernacle. Moses then erected the curtain wall around the entire courtyard of the Tabernacle. As he concluded positioning all the elements of the Tabernacle, a Divine cloud suddenly appeared, covering the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle.

The Midrash states that the process of erecting the Tabernacle began seven days earlier, on the 23rd of Adar and concluded on Rosh Chodesh, the first of Nissan. Since Aaron had not yet been consecrated to serve, Moses acted as the High Priest.  Moses personally erected and disassembled the Tabernacle every day for seven days, taking it down every night. On the eighth day, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Moses erected the Tabernacle for the final time. The duty of erecting and disassembling the Tabernacle was now transferred to the Levites. The Tabernacle was sanctified on that day, the first of Nissan, and Aaron and his sons were consecrated into the priesthood and began to serve.

The language used in the Torah to describe the erecting of the Tabernacle is somewhat perplexing. In Exodus 40:17, the Torah states that, on the first day of the first month of the second year הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן, the Tabernacle was erected. The very next verse, Exodus 40:18 states, וַיָּקֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, and Moses erected the Tabernacle.

The passive word הוּקַם, was erected, implies that the Tabernacle was erected by itself, apparently, miraculously. However, Exodus 40:18 states clearly that Moses erected the Tabernacle.

Rashi in Exodus 39:33 addresses this ambiguity by citing the Midrash Tanchumah:

Because [Moses] had not done any work on the construction of the Tabernacle, the Al-mighty left the erecting to him [so he should not feel left out]. No human being was able to erect it [the Tabernacle] because of the weight of the beams, as a man does not have the strength to set them upright. But Moses erected it. Moses said to the Al-mighty, “How can erecting [the Mishkan] be accomplished by human beings?” The Holy one, blessed he He, said to him, “You [Moses], involve yourself in erecting the Tabernacle with your own hands and it will appear as if you were setting it up, but it will rise upright and stand by itself.” This is the meaning of what is said, “The Mishkan was set up” [as if it were set up by itself].

It is difficult to fully appreciate how special a moment it was when the Tabernacle was finally completed and began to function. The design, erecting and fashioning of the Tabernacle was clearly a physical phenomenon. The Hebrew slaves, whose only skills up until this point had been gathering straw and making bricks in Egypt, were somehow able to fashion the most intricate furnishings of the Tabernacle, and design, weave and sew the most ornate garments of the lay and High Priests. All this took place in the wilderness, among people who had no training for the specialized work in metal, precious stones, weaving and carpentry that was required. And, yet, with G-d’s help, it was miraculously accomplished.

Nevertheless, all the workmen, with their newly-discovered talents, and even the great Moses, could not raise up the Tabernacle to ready it for the arrival of the Divine Presence. Therefore, G-d instructed Moses to make an extra special effort and lift the beams to place the coverings over them. When Moses’ efforts failed at first, G-d advised him that a sincere effort would succeed. That is exactly what happened. The Al-mighty helped Moses raise the beams and cover them with the special Tabernacle covers, and the Divine Presence filled the Tabernacle.

It was only through the extraordinary spiritual devotion of Moses and the People of Israel that the Tabernacle was transformed from a purely physical structure into the “Dwelling Place” of the Divine Presence. It is through extraordinary human effort that the Divine Presence is brought down to earth to dwell in the Tabernacle.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where do you find G-d?” He wisely answered, ”Wherever you let Him in!” The ancient people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, let G-d in, and brought the Divine Presence to dwell in a human structure.

It is that very same Divine Presence that continues to envelop the Al-mighty’s people to this very day.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this coming Friday night, March 1, 2013. We expect over 50,000 participants throughout North America. Please call 1(888) SHABBAT, or click here to find a local Shabbat Across America and Canada location, and sign up for “a Taste of Shabbat,” a taste of the World to Come!

Kee Tisah 5775-2015

“Aaron, What Did This People Do To You?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we, once again, encounter the tragic saga of the Children of Israel’s grievous sin with the Golden Calf.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to understand regarding the sin of the Golden Calf is the role played by Aaron, Moses’ brother–soon to be the High Priest of Israel. Was Aaron acting as a collaborator with the rebels, due to his dread of confronting the people lest he be murdered by the rebels, like his nephew, Hur? Or, perhaps, Aaron was trying to stall the people in the hope that Moses would soon return and put an end to the rebellion

Based on the approach of the Midrash Rabba Exodus 3, a number of commentators suggest that Moses’ reluctance to accept the leadership of the people of Israel was not because Moses felt unqualified or not up to the task, but rather that he felt strongly that his older brother Aaron, was the more natural and deserving leader. Not only did Moses recognize that Aaron already had many years of experience leading the people in Egypt, he was also concerned that Aaron would be deeply hurt if Moses suddenly assumed the leadership role. G-d’s reaction to Moses’ reluctance was to immediately display anger at Moses.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his wonderful studies in the weekly parasha, Chemdat Yamim, points out that the relationship between Moses and Aaron, was highly unusual. Under normal circumstances, when vying for the limelight or aspiring to a high position, competitors are invariably ruthless, acting as if they are prepared to swallow their rivals alive. They are only too happy to seize the top position by any means possible, and quash the opposition by any and all means.

Moses, however, was meek, so much so, that he refused to accept the position of leader, because he felt his brother more qualified. Therefore, when Aaron met his brother upon Moses’ return to Egypt after fleeing to Midian for many years, Aaron recognized that he was greeting the man who basically would depose him from the top leadership position, which he had been faithfully fulfilling during the 40 years of Moses’ absence. Aaron was now being asked to assume a lower position, to serve as an assistant to his younger brother, Moses.

There can be no more fitting test of a person’s greatness and mettle, than to assume a demotion of authority with equanimity. Yet Aaron accepted the lesser position, not only with love, but with genuine happiness. The Midrash states that when G-d told Moses that his brother Aaron will see him and will rejoice, G-d was actually informing Moses: Are you concerned that Aaron will be upset? To the contrary, you will discover that he will be only too happy. The mission of redeeming the Jewish people is his primary concern, everything else is secondary. The responsibilities that Moses and Aaron were to assume and share, were not to be seen as a compromise, but rather a fulfillment of separate duties, allowing each to fulfill what the other lacks.

When Aaron goes out to greet Moses upon Moses’ arrival in Egypt, Aaron meets his brother at the Mountain of G-d and kisses him. The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah 5, says that at that moment, חֶסֶד, loving kindness and truth met, and that righteousness and peace kissed each other (Psalms 85:11). The rabbis state that חֶסֶד is represented by Aaron and אֶמֶת, truth, is represented by Moses.

Not only did the two brothers fulfill separate but complementary roles, they also had different approaches to the task at hand. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 7b suggests that Moses’ determination to achieve success was more like “hell or high water,” and “let the law pierce the mountain.” Aaron’s disposition was to pursue peace and to instill peace between man and his fellow man.

The rabbis portray Aaron as a man of compromise. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 7a, says that when Aaron saw that Hur, his nephew, Miriam’s son, had been murdered for trying to stop the rebels from worshiping the calf, he thought to himself, that if he were killed by the people for resisting their idolatrous actions, the people would never be able to achieve forgiveness. Therefore, Aaron concluded that it was preferable for him to “worship” the Golden Calf and take the blame upon himself, in the hope that the people would be forgiven. As Rashi states, Aaron purposely compromised himself by manufacturing the Golden Calf. The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 10:3 further underscores Aaron’s selflessness attributing the following thoughts to Aaron: It is preferable that the ugliness be attributed to me, rather than to the people of Israel.

Rabbi Filber points out that compromise itself is not at all a negative quality, but must always be done with forethought and care. This is precisely where we see how well Moses and Aaron complemented each other. Moses served as the man of truth, while Aaron acted as the man of peace. To make certain that neither of them went overboard, they served each other as a system of checks and balances.

Rabbi Filber points out that never do we find that Aaron was actually punished for the sin of the Golden Calf. To the contrary, his status is elevated after the rebellion and he soon assumes the exalted position of High Priest. Even Moses refuses to condemn Aaron, but rather asks gently, Exodus 32:21: “What did this people do to you, that you brought a grievous sin upon it?,” implying that the people were so out of control, that Aaron was totally helpless to stop the rebellion.

It was the unlikely melding of the strong and firm personality of Moses and the loving compromising qualities of Aaron that constituted the proper balance in this extraordinarily delicate situation, and succeeded in staving off what most likely would have been the total destruction of all the people.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 4th-5th, 2015.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Tetzaveh 5775-2015

“The High Priest Wears the Names of Israel on His Heart”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, contains a number of varied themes, including the oil of the Menorah, the priestly vestments, the inauguration ceremony of the priests, the daily Tamid offering and the Golden Incense Altar.

As we have previously noted (Tetzaveh 5760-2000), the lay priests wore four garments: 1. The כְתֹנֶת, a white linen robe with a checkerboard pattern; 2. מִכְנְסֵי-בָד, white linen britches that reached the priest’s knees; 3. The אַבְנֵט, a multi-colored waist belt; 4. The מִגְבַּעַת, the white linen ribbon that was wound around the lay priest’s head, to serve as a head covering.

The High Priest had four additional garments: 1. The אֵפֹד, the multi-colored apron, strapped around the back and the waist of the High Priest; 2. The חֹשֶׁן, the breastplate with the twelve precious stones; 3. The מְעִיל, the blue poncho-like garment, with pomegranates and bells at the bottom; 4. The צִּיץ, the gold plate with G-d’s name, tied to the forehead of the High Priest. The High Priest also wore a head covering known as the מִּצְנָפֶת, which was also made out of a band of linen, wound in a different manner than the מִגְבַּעַת of the Lay Priest.

The holy vestments worn by the priests are far more than mere garments for the body. As the saying goes, “Clothes make the man,” and often make it possible to distinguish a policeman from a doctor or a scholar. Not only do the priestly vestments serve to identify a priest (lay or High) they also communicate important ideas and messages that have bearing on the priests’ actions and duties.

Among the vestments of the High Priest are two garments that contain engraved stones. When describing the חֹשֶׁן, the Breastplate, the Torah states (Exodus 28:29), וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט עַל לִבּוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ,  לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי הַשׁם תָּמִיד, Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the Breastplate of Judgment when he enters the Sanctuary, as a constant remembrance before G-d. The commentators suggest that these engraved stones teach that a person, or a leader, can carry all of Israel on his heart, implying that a Jew can love and be concerned for the well-being of the collective people of Israel and every single individual.

When describing the manufacture of the אֵפֹד, the apron that the High Priest wears, the Torah states that there are two shoulder straps that are part of the אֵפֹד. Each of the straps has a stone, set in a gold setting on the shoulders. In Exodus 28:9, the Torah states, וְלָקַחְתּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי אַבְנֵי שֹׁהַם, וּפִתַּחְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶם שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, You shall take the two shoham stones and engrave upon them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on one stone, and the names of the six remaining ones on the second stone, according to the order of their birth.

The commentators note that the shoulder stones that contain all the names of the twelve tribes come to teach that it is possible for a human being to carry, and bear the burden of, all of Israel on his shoulders. Some commentators say that this is an allusion to the great scholars who, throughout the ages, have “saved” Israel through their scholarship, like Rabbi Judah the PrinceRashi and Maimonides.

While the two shoulder stones contain the names of all the tribes of Israel, representing the full community of Israel, the 12 stones of the Breastplate are each designated to represent only a single tribe. A leader must carry the needs of the nation on his shoulders, so that he never forgets them. In this sense, it represents the leader who is prepared to carry the load and the burden of the people, even though his personal sense of enjoyment and benefit may not be readily apparent. The leader represented by these two stones is the one who concerns himself with the people and empathizes with their needs and struggles, to be their champion, never shrugging off his load or his responsibility.

The stones of the חֹשֶׁן/Breastplate, on the other hand, represent a different aspect of leadership. In this instance, each of the 12 stones represents a different tribe, and are worn on the leader’s heart. While it is important to feel for Klal Yisrael, for the general community of Israel, a leader must also be concerned with the individuals, with every single tribe and every single member of that tribe, with love and concern.

Leaders are often called upon to tend to the needs of large numbers of people, who are very different from each other, and have different issues. Some individuals need more attention than others. The concerned leader must empathize in his heart and feel the pain of the people he leads and be sensitive to their needs. The leader must see the people’s needs as his own needs.

Each stone of the חֹשֶׁן/Breastplate is therefore different, as are the differences amongst the tribes and the individuals. At times, it is possible that quarrels and enmity will develop. That is why the Al-mighty instructed that each tribe have its own stone, and that the High Priest must carry each individual tribe on his heart, to appreciate the differences, the varied customs and personal practices.

When the Al-mighty beholds the love of the priest for G-d’s people and the love of the people for their neighbors, then the Al-mighty’s love will be awakened, and will shower down upon His people as well.

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 4th-5th, 2015.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Terumah 5775-2015

“The Sanctity of the Synagogue”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, is the first of a series of parashiot that deal with the creation, erecting and furnishing of the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, the portable sanctuary that traveled with the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

As parashat Terumah opens, G-d instructs Moses to call for donations from the people for the building of the Tabernacle. In Exodus 25:2, the Al-mighty says: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה,  מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי, Speak to the Children of Israel, and let them take for me a portion [donations], from every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take My portion.

Rashi citing the Midrash Tanchuma 1, states that the donations made to the Tabernacle–the gold, silver, copper, purple, scarlet wool, linen, goat’s hair, etc. etc., must be given לִשְׁמִי, for Me, specifically dedicated for G-d’s sake. The commentaries explain that the word, לִי, to Me, cannot possibly be understood to mean that the contributions must be given to G-d, for after all, G-d is the Possessor of the entire universe. So, it must mean that everything that is given to the Tabernacle, must be given with a full heart.

When performing most mitzvot, the essential objective is to do the right thing, even if one does not have proper intentions. Charity (see Deuteronomy 15:7-11) must be given, even though one’s heart is not into it, even if one really does not care about the poor, the infirm, the widow or the orphan! What is in a person’s heart is irrelevant. The poor and the hungry must be fed, or else you may very well wind up poor and hungry. Even those mitzvot, which do require absolute and total intention, such as giving a get [divorce decree] to a woman, do not require that all aspects of the ritual, the parchment or the pen, be prepared or manufactured with the proper intention.

However, when it comes to building the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, every donation must be given of free will, with a full heart, with unequivocal good-will and with the purest of intentions. The reason for this extraordinary requirement must be because any attempt to build the most perfect dwelling place for G-d, must be thoroughly sanctified. Therefore, every act involved in its creation and construction must be, לֽשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, for the sake of Heaven, with absolute pure and proper intentions.

The great devotion that was required when building the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, and, in later years, in the construction of the בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, the holy Temples in Jerusalem, applies also to the sanctity of contemporary synagogues and houses of study. Just as the Torah states, in Leviticus 19:30, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ that G-d’s sanctuary [the Temple in Jerusalem] must be revered, so too must the sanctity of every synagogue and house of study be revered. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel, 11:16 refers to synagogues and houses of study as, מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט, miniature sanctuaries.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 17b, states that one is not permitted to reside in a city that does not have a synagogue. In Brachot 6a, at least one Talmudic sage is of the opinion that heaven only hears prayers that are uttered in a synagogue. The Jerusalem Talmud Brachot  Ch. 3, states that praying in a synagogue is compared to bringing an actual offering. The sanctity of the synagogue is so great that the Abridged Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) declares that it is forbidden to engage in gossip in the synagogue, or to make any calculations, except those pertaining to religious matters, such as dispersing charity and the like.

The great reverence shown in the building of the Tabernacle and the Temples, must be reflected in one’s behavior while in the synagogue. Synagogues and houses of study must be kept perfectly clean and candles are to be lit in them to show reverence for the place.

Just as the ancient Israelites donated gold, silver and precious stones for the Tabernacle, respect and reverence for the synagogue and houses of study can be demonstrated today by providing beautiful furnishings and decorations for contemporary houses of worship and study. One must not be concerned about demeaning one’s own dignity when it comes to performing menial services that are necessary to properly maintain the synagogue. All Jews should be prepared to roll up their sleeves to maintain the cleanliness and beauty of the synagogue. As King Solomon states in the Book of Proverbs 25:6: Do not glory in the presence of the King. Showing devotion to the Temple and Tabernacle underscores a pure faith and love of G-d, that is greater than one’s concern for one’s own personal stature or dignity.

One must dress respectfully when entering these holy places. Mud must be cleaned from one’s shoes and clean and proper clothes must be worn. One who enters the synagogue must do so with trembling and fear, not behave in a frivolous manner. When exiting the synagogue, one should do so slowly, preferably facing the Ark and walking out backwards (Jerusalem Talmud Brachot Ch. 3). It is forbidden to eat, drink or sleep in places of worship, even if it is only for a short nap. The synagogue should not be used as a place for taking shelter from heat or rain, or to be used as a shortcut, to cut through.

The contemporary controversy over Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount only underscores the great emptiness that we Jews today experience as a result of the absence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In the absence of the Temple, we must all realize that the closest institutions that we have to a Temple today are our miniature sanctuaries–-the synagogues and houses of study. They must be treated with utmost respect and profound reverence. In this way, we demonstrate that we truly deserve to experience the restoration and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, soon in our days.

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5775-2015

“Injuring a Fellow Human Being”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the 63 mitzvot that are found in this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, are the fundamental laws regarding personal injury.

The Torah, in Exodus 21:18-19 states, וְכִי יְרִיבֻן אֲנָשִׁים וְהִכָּה אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בְּאֶבֶן אוֹ בְאֶגְרֹף וְלֹא יָמוּת, וְנָפַל לְמִשְׁכָּב. אִם יָקוּם וְהִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּחוּץ עַל מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ, וְנִקָּה הַמַּכֶּה,  רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא, If men quarrel, and one strikes his fellow with a stone or a fist, and he does not die, but falls into bed, if he gets up and goes about outside under his own power, then the one who struck him be absolved. Only for his lost time shall he pay, and he shall provide for healing.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his masterful book, The Mitzvot: Their Commandments and Their Rationale, lays out the basic rules and legal statutes regarding personal injury. Rabbi Chill cites the Talmudic statement found in the Mishnah, Baba Kama 2:6: אָדָם מוּעָד לְעוֹלָם, that a person is held personally liable for any damage that he or she afflicts on others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously.

Despite the Torah’s statement in Exodus 21:24, עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, an eye for an eye, the oral tradition interprets this statement to mean that a victim is entitled only to monetary compensation for an injury.

Thus, one who causes injury to his neighbor is liable to pay the victim five penalties. These include compensation for: 1. permanent physical disability; 2. pain; 3. medical treatment; 4. loss of earning power resulting from the injury; 5. the indignity and shame inflicted upon the victim.

If there is a reasonable chance that the victim might die from the injury, the Talmud states that the person who inflicted the blow is imprisoned. If the victim recovers and is able to walk out on his own, the perpetrator is then released, but is still liable to pay the victim the five penalties.

Rabbi Chill outlines the methods of assessing compensation. 1. For permanent physical disability, the perpetrator must pay the assessed difference between the financial value of the individual’s service before the injury and the value of his service after the injury. Thus, the perpetrator must pay the difference in the value of a worker who has lost a limb, as opposed to a worker who is uninjured. 2. The compensation for pain is assessed on the basis of the pain caused when performing a surgical procedure on the injured person with anesthesia or without anesthesia. 3. All medical treatment and all doctor bills must be paid in full to the victim until he or she is fully healed. 4. The perpetrator must pay the victim for the loss of any earnings suffered during the convalescence and rehabilitation period. 5. Finally, if there is a permanent injury leading to an embarrassing deformity, compensation must be paid for the embarrassment suffered by the injured party. Also, payment is to be made for how the injury was inflicted, whether the perpetrator was a minor, an animal, etc., and what embarrassment was suffered in the way the injury was inflicted.

Rabbi Chill points out that the Torah (Exodus 2:13) is so concerned with the sanctity of human life, that it calls one who even raises his hand against another person, a רָשָׁע, a wicked person. To achieve full contrition, the perpetrator must also beg the victim for forgiveness.

The rabbis deal extensively with the issue of the challenging implications of the verse, “An eye for an eye,” (Lex Talionis) insisting that it can only mean monetary compensation. After all, it would be impossible to equitably take out the eye of a person who is already missing one eye, since rendering the perpetrator totally blind, would hardly be “measure for measure.” Also, it is impossible to accurately gauge whether a particular perpetrator could physically withstand the amputation of a particular limb (see Mishpatim 5762-2002).

The Talmud in Baba Kama 84a states: We have learned that an “eye for an eye,” means monetary compensation. But, perhaps it means an actual eye? Rav Ashi therefore said, it is learned from the words, Deuteronomy 22:29, “For he [the man who raped a woman] had humbled her…”  Just as in the case of rape, the punishment is monetary compensation, so in the case of injury, it is monetary compensation.

According to Rabbi Joseph Hertz the rule of “an eye for an eye,” is worded in this manner, even though it means monetary compensation, is so it will serve as a means of setting the maximum equitable punishment. One may not demand more than the value of an eye for an injury done to an eye, since there must be an equitable relationship between the crime and the punishment. Rabbi Hertz adds that not only must the punishment be equitable, but that all citizens must be considered equal before the law, and that all injuries must be valued according to the same standard. One cannot take out two eyes for a single eye, even though the victim may be a member of the royal family. The same punishment must be meted out to both royalty and to the lowly worker.

Considering that there are legal systems today that still practice “an eye for an eye,” the Torah’s understanding of the laws of personal injury are quite remarkable, especially in light of their great antiquity.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.