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Nitzavim/Rosh Hashana 5776/5777-2016

“Israel’s Charge to Impact on the World”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, Moses, on the last day of his life, renews the Covenant of G-d with His people, Israel.

In his opening foray (Deuteronomy 29), Moses rails against the improper behaviors of the Jewish people, and warns them harshly about the specific violation of idolatry. He cautions the people that all the curses and imprecations that G-d had mentioned previously, will befall them if they allow themselves to be led astray and worship idols.

As Moses continues his message, he emphasizes that the actions of the nation will not only impact on the Jews themselves, but also on the non-Jewish world.

G-d will not forgive those who choose the path of sinfulness, and will punish the people for allowing the evil to influence them. When foreign nations and the next generation of Israelites will see a land stricken with plagues, they will behold sulfur and salt, and a conflagration of the entire country. Nothing will grow, nothing will sprout, it will be like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorah, Adma and Zeboiim (Deuteronomy 29:22).

So great will be the destruction, that the nations of the world will call out in wonderment (Deuteronomy 29:23), “Why did G-d do this to this land? Why this wrathfulness and great anger?” The nations themselves will conclude (Deuteronomy 29:24), עַל אֲשֶׁר עָזְבוּ אֶת בְּרִית השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵי אֲבֹתָם, אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת עִמָּם בְּהוֹצִיאוֹ אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, because they [the Israelites] forsook the Covenant of the L-rd, the G-d of their forefathers, that He sealed with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt.

The gentile nations will actually recognize that the punishments brought upon Israel are because the people worshiped alien gods instead of worshiping the true G-d. All will now recognize that G-d’s anger has now flared out against the land to bring upon it the entire curse, exiling the people with great fury.

The nations of the world also play a role in the great sin of the Golden Calf. When confronted with the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleads with G-d to forgive the people, and presents G-d with the argument, saying, Exodus 32:12, לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, “Why should Egypt say: ‘With evil intent did He [G-d] take them [the Israelites] out [of Egypt] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from off the face of the earth?’”

These are but two examples where Moses invokes the reactions of the nations of the world, when they behold the evil deeds of Israel and their punishments. Clearly, the actions of Israel impact on the entire world!

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in an insightful essay concerning Rosh Hashana, asks a rather obvious question that few have asked previously, concerning a prominent phrase that is recited in the Rosh Hashana liturgy. This phrase, which appears repeatedly in the text of the High Holiday Amidah reads:  וַתִּתֶּן לָנוּ ה׳ אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ בְּאַהֲבָה אֶת יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן הזֶּה, יוֹם תְּרוּעָה, מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם You, L-rd our G-d, have given us with love this day of remembrance, a day of the sounding of the shofar, a holy convocation, a memorial to the exodus of Egypt.

It is surely understandable, says Rabbi Filber, that Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot serve as legitimate memorials to the exodus from Egypt. After all, the exodus, the giving of the Torah and dwelling in booths in the wilderness were directly related to the peoples’ departure from Egypt. Similarly, the prohibition of work (“creative labor”) on the Sabbath is also directly related to the exodus from Egypt, as is specified in the Ten Commandments, where it states, Deuteronomy 5:11-15, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy…and you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the L-rd your G-d took you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

But what reason is there to regard Rosh Hashana, “the day of the sounding of the Shofar,” as a remembrance to the exodus from Egypt?

Rabbi Filber cites a Midrash Mechilta, explaining why the Torah did not begin with the Ten Commandments. The Midrash compares it to a king who wishes to rule over a people. Before accepting him as their monarch, the people ask him what he has done for them? He then proceeds to build walls for them, bring them food and water and fights battles to defend them. Only then do they agree to make him king. Similarly, only after G-d took the people out of Egypt, split the sea, brought them manna, gave them water and quail, defeated Amalek, did the people hail G-d and accept Him as their King.

Thus we see, that the exodus from Egypt is not simply an historic event of the past that is to be venerated, but rather an ongoing process of liberation that continues to this very day. It was the exodus from Egypt that enabled the People of Israel to accept G-d as the Ultimate Power. Now that the People of Israel are subjects of the Al-mighty G-d, their destiny on earth is to teach the nations of the world to also embrace G-d and to perfect the world under the rule of the Al-mighty.

Therefore, each year, when Jews assess their deeds of the previous year, they must ask themselves, “Did we bring the nations of the world closer to the kingship of G-d?”

That is why, on Rosh Hashana, as Jews stand in prayer in their synagogues, they declare, מְלוֹךְ עַל כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוֹ בִּכְבוֹדֶךָ, G-d, reign over the entire universe, in Your glory, be exalted over all the earth in Your grandeur, shine forth in Your splendid majesty over all the inhabitants of Your world. May every existing being know that You created it, and every creature realize that You created it, and may every breathing thing proclaim: “The L-rd, G-d of Israel is the King and His kingship rules over all.”

May you be blessed.

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

Rosh Hashana 5777 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2016.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 from dawn until nightfall.

Kee Tavo 5776-2016

“The Power of the Word אָמֵן–‘Amen’

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses prepares the Jewish people for the experiences that that they will soon encounter, upon entering the Promised Land.

As a sign that they commit themselves fully to G-d and His Torah, the People of Israel are to inscribe the entire Torah on twelve huge stones, gather at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, where they are to “pledge allegiance,” to G-d and His Torah.

Six tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim and the other six on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:12-13). The Ark, the priests and the elders of the Levites were positioned in the valley between the mountains. The elders of the Levites in the valley would call out twelve blessings and curses, each blessing followed by a curse. The 12 tribes on the mountaintops would respond to each set of blessings and curses with the word, אָמֵן–“Amen!”

The twelve curses pronounced by the Levites include: 1. Cursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image…and emplace it in secret. 2. Cursed is the one who degrades his father and mother. 3. Cursed is the one who moves the boundary of his fellow. 4. Cursed is one who causes a blind person to go astray on the road. 5. Cursed is one who perverts a judgment of a proselyte, orphan or widow. 6. Cursed is one who lies with the wife of his father. 7. Cursed is one who lies with any animal. 8. Cursed is one who lies with his sister. 9. Cursed is one who lies with his mother-in-law. 10. Cursed is one who strikes his fellow stealthily. 11. Cursed is one who takes a bribe to kill a person of innocent blood. 12. Cursed is one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them. (See Kee Tavo 5770-2010)

Each statement begins with the word אָרוּר “arur,” cursed, and after each statement, the Torah notes: וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם, אָמֵן, the entire people shall say, אָמֵן.

The word, אָמֵן is generally considered to serve as an affirmation of what had previously been said. The first instance where the word אָמֵן appears in the Torah is in Numbers 5:22, at the Sotah ritual, where a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband has to say ”אָמֵן, אָמֵןafter pronouncing the oath of the Sotah.

The word אָמֵן serves many purposes. The Rambam in the Laws of Oaths, 2, states that one who responds with the word אָמֵן after an oath is considered to have uttered the oath from his own mouth. A second purpose of the word אָמֵן is to serve as a prayer or a request that a wish be fulfilled.

The Midrash in Devarim Rabba 7, states that אָמֵן has three meanings: an oath, an acceptance and an affirmation of belief. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 111a suggests that the three letters of the word אָמֵן represents the words, אֵ־ל מֶלךְ נֶאֱמָן, that G-d is a faithful G-d. The Code of Jewish Law Orach Chaim 124:6, states that a person who says אָמֵן should have in mind that the blessing that he has pronounced is true and that he believes in it.

The Talmud in Sukkah 51b, reports that the synagogue in ancient Alexandria was so large, that officials stood at the front of the synagogue with signs in their hands, to let the people in the back know when they had to respond with the word אָמֵן.    

One should not respond אָמֵן to one’s own blessing, since it is considered undignified. The exception to this rule is after the third blessing of the Grace after Meals, where the word אָמֵן is included as part of the blessing of rebuilding Jerusalem. אָמֵן is added, to distinguish between the first three blessings that are of Torah origin and the fourth blessing that is rabbinic.

The Talmud in Shabbat 119b, cites the sage Resh Lakish, who quotes the verse from Isaiah 26:2, פִּתְחוּ שְׁעָרִים, וְיָבֹא גוֹי צַדִּיק, שֹׁמֵר אֱמֻנִים. The prophet declares, “Open the gates so that the righteous nation can enter, the one who keeps its faith.”  Playing on the Hebrew word אֱמֻנִים, Resh Lakish states: Do not interpret this as the one who keeps its faith, but rather one who recites אָמֵן. He boldly declares that anyone who recites אָמֵן with a whole heart will find the gates of the World to Come open to him.

Reciting אָמֵן after a blessing made by someone else, has the power to affirm that blessing. So it is with the recitation of Kiddush on Shabbat or Havdala after Shabbat, reciting אָמֵן after the blessing is regarded as if the listener had personally recited the blessing.

The origin of responding אָמֵן probably dates back to Talmudic times when most of the people did not know the prayers by heart and had no prayer books. The cantor or the communal leader would therefore recite the blessings aloud, and by responding אָמֵן, the community would fulfill their obligation (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 34b).

It is from the ceremony that took place on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, that is fully described in the book of Joshua 8:30-35, where the ritual use of the word אָמֵן originally occurred.

אָמֵן is indeed a powerful word, with powerful implications, justifying the statement of Resh Lakish, that one who recites the word אָמֵן with a full heart will gain entry into the World to Come.

May you be blessed.

Vayeilech/Yom Kippur 5777-2016

“Patience Tempered With Love”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeilech, we once again encounter Moses, on the last day of his life, bidding farewell to his beloved people. He urges the people to place their trust in G-d, and assures them that, under their new leader Joshua, they will triumph over their enemies as they had with him as their leader.

In Deuteronomy 31:14, G-d tells Moses that his days are numbered and that he will soon pass from this world, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה, הֵן קָרְבוּ יָמֶיךָ לָמוּת, קְרָא אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַאֲצַוֶּנּוּ, וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, The L-rd spoke to Moses, “Behold, your days are drawing near to die; summon Joshua, and both of you shall stand in the Tent of Meeting, and I shall instruct him.” So Moses and Joshua went and stood in the Tent of Meeting.

This moment was truly challenging for Moses. Not only would he soon die, but also, there was no longer any possibility that he would pass on the mantle of leadership to one of his own sons. On the other hand, Joshua could surely be considered his own spiritual offspring. After all, the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 19b), that one who teaches his friend’s child Torah is considered as if he actually fathered that child. Moses could certainly rejoice knowing that the new leader of Israel would be his beloved spiritual heir, Joshua, who had been his longtime aide and disciple.

Rabbi Nissen Telushkin,  in his erudite book of Torah commentary entitled Sefer HaTorah V’Ha’Ohlam, cites the Midrash Sifre. The Midrash describes a piercing message that Moses imparted to Joshua before his death.

Says the Midrash:

At that moment, Moses gathered his strength in order to reassure Joshua, in front of all the people of Israel. As the verse states (Deuteronomy 31:7), Moses called to Joshua and said to him before all the people of Israel, חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, ‘Be strong and courageous. Behold all the people that I am giving over to you [the People of Israel], they are like young and immature goats. Don’t pay much attention to what they do. Even their Master [G-d] did not pay much attention. As it says, Hosea 11:1, כִּי נַעַר יִשְׂרָאֵל, וָאֹהֲבֵהוּ, when Israel was a child, then I loved him.’

The Midrash demonstrates Moses’ unbridled love for Israel, especially in light of his difficult relationship with the people.

Moses is now 120 years old. For 40 years he has led G-d’s flock, with little נַחַת–pleasure or satisfaction, to show for all his efforts. From the moment that he, as a prince, left the royal palace of Pharaoh and went out to help his brethren, he was attacked, demeaned and belittled. Because of the wicked Israelites who reported to Pharaoh that Moses had killed an Egyptian, Moses was forced to flee to Midian, where he was to remain for many years.

Moses faced continuous strife and crisis with the Children of Israel, and constant complaints–no water, not enough food, not enough meat, fear that the enemies would attack Israel.

From his youth, to his last breath, Moses devoted his entire life in the service of the people. He redeemed them from the misery of slavery, creating a nation exalted with the Torah that it received at Sinai. Yet, most of his life he was reviled by the people, and harassed by their constant complaints. With unbridled audacity they call out to Moses, Exodus 5:21, “May G-d look upon you [Moses] and judge, you have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh.” Numbers 16:13: “Is it not enough that you [Moses] have brought us up from the land flowing with milk and honey, to cause us to die in the Wilderness?!”

Despite the frequent abuse to which Moses was subjected by the people, when the time comes for Moses to depart, he draws Joshua close to him, advising him to treat the people gently. “They are like young goats, immature children, you must treat them with care, with love, as you would an infant.”

Moses shares with Joshua his extensive insights regarding leading the Israelites, cautioning him, that if he does not have sufficient patience, he will never succeed as a leader.

Patience, explains Moses, means being prepared to suffer indignity and personal attacks, just as he had during much of his own lifetime. Patience and understanding cannot be affected or artificial, contrived or controlled. Patience must be genuine, warm and loving. Tolerance must be a result of love, for without genuine warmth and love, the leadership will never be accepted or effective.

Rabbi Telushkin writes about a friend of his in Minsk, Lithuania, a Lubavitcher Chasid, who used to fast frequently. Rabbi Telushkin once asked his friend why he was fasting on a particular day. The Chasid said that he saw one of the Jews from their synagogue doing something improper. When he rebuked him, the Jew would not accept his rebuke. The Chasid realized that it must have been his own fault, since the Talmud states that those who give rebuke properly with fear of Heaven in their hearts, their words are never rejected.

Moses tells Joshua that G-d too looks away from the sins of Israel, who are referred to in scripture (Deuteronomy 14:1), as G-d’s children, and because of His love for them, He is prepared to suffer.

Rabbi Meir, in Tractate Sanhedrin 46a, says that when a person is in pain, the Divine Presence says, “My head hurts, My hand hurts, because I too am suffering with my people.” When Israel is exiled, the Divine Presence is exiled as well (Talmud Megillah 29a). That is what is meant in the verse, כִּי נַעַר יִשְׂרָאֵל, וָאֹהֲבֵהוּ, “They are but children, and I love them.”

The message of tolerance and patience that Moses conveyed to Joshua was not an original message. It was a lesson that Moses himself had learned directly from G-d Al-mighty, who is always tolerant and long-suffering of His people, Israel. Moses can even tell Joshua not to pay much attention to the sins and trespasses of Israel, because G-d Himself also looks the other way!

How fortunate are we, the People of Israel, to have a G-d who is long-suffering and forgiving, and prepared to look the other way.

Although it is encouraging to hear this message on the eve of Yom Kippur, we must not take advantage of the Al-mighty’s extraordinary love and mercy. We need to properly earn G-d’s forgiveness, by strengthening our faith and improving our actions, and by pouring out our hearts with sincere love in prayer before our ever-forgiving G-d.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה–Shanah Tovah and a גְמַר חַתִימָה טוֹבָה–G’mar Chatimah Tovah, 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.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 from dawn until nightfall.

The New Year holiday is immediately followed on Friday night, and Saturday, October 7th and 8th, by Shabbat Shuva.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, October 11th through nightfall on Wednesday, October 12th, 2016. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 16th, 17th and 18th, 2016. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Sunday, October 23rd. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 24th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 24th and continues through Tuesday, October 25th.

Kee Teitzei 5776-2016

“The Mitzvah of Burying the Dead”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As previously noted, this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, contains more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah–27 positive mitzvot and 47 negative mitzvot.

The Talmud, in Shabbat 127a, enumerates several mitzvot whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, yet whose principal remains intact for that person in the World to Come. Among the precepts whose principal remains intact in the World to come, are honoring father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride and escorting the dead. The rabbis explain that although those who perform these righteous acts are rewarded for their actions in this world, the reward that is due them in the World to Come will not be diminished.

Thus we see, that respectfully escorting and caring for the dead, providing the deceased with a proper funeral and burial, are among the most noble acts that a person may perform. Rashi, (Genesis 47:29), citing the Midrash, refers to the act of burial as, חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת–kindness and truth, since the beneficiary is never able to repay the favor.

Although there are many references in the Torah to burial, the key source for the obligation to bury the dead is found in this week’s parasha, but only obliquely.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, states, וְכִי יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת וְהוּמָת,ִ  וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ עַל עֵץ. לֹא תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל הָעֵץ כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, כִּי קִלְלַת אֱ־לֹקִים תָּלוּי, וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת אַדְמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, If a man shall have committed a sin whose judgment is death, he shall be put to death, and you shall hang him on the gallows. His body shall not remain for the night on the gallows, rather you shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging person is a curse of G-d, and you shall not contaminate your land which the Lord your G-d gives you as an inheritance.

The first allusion to burial in the Torah is found in the punishment that is meted out to the first human beings for eating the forbidden fruit. There, G-d admonishes humankind, Genesis 3:19, עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה, כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ, כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב [You shall eat bread by the sweat of your brow], until you [Adam and Eve] return to the ground from which you had been taken, for you are dust, and to dust shall you return. When Sarah dies, Abraham buys a burial plot at Machpelah Cave (Genesis 23:16-18). Jacob, in Genesis 35:20, erects a monument on the burial place of Rachel. When Joseph dies (Genesis 50:26), he is embalmed and placed in a casket. The Torah reports, in Deuteronomy 34:6, that Moses was buried in the land of Moab, and that no one knows where G-d buried him.

The Midrash, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 21, says that Adam learned about burial from the birds of the heavens. When Abel was murdered by his brother Cain, Adam and Eve sat crying and mourning not knowing what should be done with the deceased, because no one had ever died before. A raven passed by carrying the lifeless body of a bird, and buried it in the earth. Adam said, “I will do like the raven.” He immediately took his son’s remains, dug a grave and buried him there.

From the specific words concerning the capital offender who is hanged and then buried, found in Deuteronomy 21:23, כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, you must bury him on that very day, we learn that burial must take place with alacrity. The rabbis (Talmud Sanhedrin 46a) explain that swift burial applies not only to capital offenders, but to all who die, and that postponing or delaying burial is a transgression of the negative mitzvah of לֹא תָלִין- you shall not allow the body to remain unburied. However, in certain instances, in order to show additional respect to the deceased, a burial may be delayed in order to provide the deceased with a proper casket, shrouds, to allow mourners and relatives to come and pay respect, or to allow word to get out to other localities (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 357).

So great is the importance of the mitzvah of burial, that even a High Priest who is preparing to perform the sacred service on Yom Kippur who encounters an unknown dead body in the field, must contaminate himself in order to bury the dead, thus disqualifying himself from the Yom Kippur service. Known as מֵת מִצְוָה, burying a person who would otherwise not be properly buried is considered to be one of the highest of all the mitzvot.

The late Rabbi Maurice Lamm 24, in his classic work, the Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, writes, “The religious concept underlying this law is that man, made in the image of G-d, should be accorded the deepest respect. It is considered a matter of great shame and discourtesy to leave the deceased unburied–his soul has returned to G-d, but his body is left to linger in the land of living.”

Rabbi Lamm suggests that an additional psychological benefit to burying the deceased as quickly as possible is to relieve the unbearable mental strain placed on the family, when the deceased is not buried for a long time.

The horror of not being properly buried is punctuated in the תּוֹכָחָה–Tochacha, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people. In Deuteronomy 28:26, one of the curses with which Israel is threatened is, “Your carcases shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.”

That the sanctity of human life is so highly regarded in Judaism, is confirmed by the fact that even a lowly criminal, who has been hanged, must have his body removed and respectfully interred before sunset. Not to do so, is considered an affront to G-d, and a defilement of the Land of G-d.

Rashi, in Deuteronomy 21:23, cites the parable of identical twin brothers, one a nobleman, the other, a marauder who was captured and hanged. People who see the body hanging, think it is the nobleman. And so it is a disgrace to G-d, in Whose image the human being is created, not to bury the dead as quickly as possible.

Once again, we see how highly Judaism cherishes the concept of “the sanctity of human life.” It is now entirely understandable why the Talmud in Shabbat states, that caring for the dead is one of those very special precepts “whose fruits we eat in this world, but whose principle remains intact for us in the World to Come.”

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5776-2016

“The Dangers of Pridefulness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the fascinating topics that we find in this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, is the Torah’s prediction that in the future, the nation of Israel will ask for a king to rule over them.

In Deuteronomy 17:14 we read the verse, כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ, וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי, When you come to the Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say: “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.”

The Torah allows the Jewish people to set a king over the people, but only one whom G-d chooses. There are many qualifications and restrictions that apply to the king of Israel. He must be Jewish. He may not have too many horses or too many wives, and he may not amass too much wealth.

Although the king is the ultimate monarch, he is to be subservient to G-d and to the Torah. To underscore the king’s subservience, once the king is coronated and sits on the throne, he must write for himself two copies of the Torah, one to keep in his treasury and the other to be with him at all times.

The Chatam Sofer notes that the king must consult the Torah for guidance on how to conduct himself and how to properly rule over the people. In order to remain true to the Torah, the king is required to confer with the religious leaders of the nation, the Sanhedrin–the Supreme Court of Jewish law, and abide by their decisions.

The Torah sets the tone for the king’s personal conduct and serves as his practical life guide. Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:19) requires that the king have the Torah with him at all times to read from all the days of his life, so that the king will learn to properly fear the L-rd, his G-d, to observe the words of His Torah and the decrees, to perform them.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 17:20, suggests that one of the reasons that the king must have the Torah with him is, לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול, לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו, בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל, So that his [the king’s] heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that his years over the kingdom be prolonged, he and his sons, amid Israel.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus, in Tiferet Shimshon, suggests that because the king has greater responsibility, he has to be particularly careful not to allow his pride to get the best of him. This is true also of people of great wealth or those blessed with great intelligence. Because of their endowments, they bear greater responsibility, since everything they have is ultimately a gift from G-d, and much more is expected of them.

The commentators regard the statement, לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו, So that the king’s heart does not become haughty over his brethren, as an important warning against excessive pride, not only in kings, but for all people. The rabbis regard pride as a detestable trait that is despised by G-d, even in kings, who have a right to show their authority and to act with a measure of haughtiness. Only G-d is to be exalted. Only to Him is there to be limitless praise and glory. As the Prophet Jeremiah powerfully declares, Jeremiah 9:22-23, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the wealthy man glory in his wealth, let not the powerful man glory in his power.” The only legitimate glory for man is to glory in understanding and knowing G-d.

To say the least, the rabbis are not fond of prideful people. The Talmud states that one who takes upon himself too many restrictions is considered a בַּעַל גַּאֲוָה–“Ba’al guy’vah,” a prideful person. A haughty communal leader is not to be suffered (Talmud Psachim 113b). The Talmud in Sotah 5a states, that anyone who acts pridefully and seeks a position of importance and high authority, will never succeed. Anyone who flees from importance and high authority, authority will run after him.

This is similar to the famous statement found in Ethics of the Fathers, (Avot 1:13), that declares that anyone who seeks honor, honor will flee from him. When I was a small boy, my father, of blessed memory, used to tell me of the man who came to his rabbi in tears, crying, “Rabbi, I have been running away from honor and glory for many years and honor has not pursued me. Why?” The rabbi told him, “Because, when you ran away from honor, your head was always turned back to see if honor was chasing you!”

There is no question that people in positions of high authority require respect and honor. Nevertheless, the Torah declares that even a king’s heart may not be haughty and prideful, and that even a monarch must behave with a measure of modesty and meekness.

Of course, if this is true of a king, how much more must it be of the general population.

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5776-2016

“Preserving the Sanctity of Sacred Objects and Sacred Ideas”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Very soon after the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 12, highlights the special sanctity of Eretz Israel, the Promised Land that the Children of Israel are about to enter.

Scripture, in Deuteronomy 12:1 declares, אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן השׁם אֱ־לֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ,  כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה, These are the decrees and the ordinances that you shall observe to perform in the Land that the L-rd, the G-d of your forefathers, has given you to possess it, all the days that you live on the Land.

The Torah then warns the people that because of the land’s exalted sanctity, they must utterly destroy the idols that may be found in the land and any vestiges of idol practice. Even the roots of idolatrous trees must be removed from the ground. The Torah cautions the people to shatter all idolatrous altars, smash the pagan pillars and burn their sacred trees in fire. All idolatrous images must be cut down and even the names of idolatrous places are to be obliterated.

As if to starkly contrast the negative impact of idolatry with the positive impact of Jewish sacred objects, the Torah cautions that Jewish objects that are sacred to G-d must be properly preserved and treated with utmost respect and dignity. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 12:4 declares: לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַהשׁם אֱ־לֹהֵיכֶם, You shall not behave in this manner with the L-rd, your G-d. The Torah insists that only in the place where G-d chooses to place His Divine Presence (meaning Jerusalem), may the people bring their sacrifices and offerings and eat of the sacred offerings.

Rashi explains that the declaration, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן, you shall not do so, is the source of important lessons: 1. Offering sacrifices for the sake of Heaven in any place, other than the place where G-d chooses(Jerusalem) is prohibited. 2. While one is permitted (indeed required) to smash the idolatrous altars and destroy their names, this may not be done to the sacred places of Judaism or do anything that may in any way desecrate G-d’s name. Erasing G-d’s name or destroying a stone of the Sacred Altar in Jerusalem is forbidden.

Offering a fascinating alternate interpretation of this verse, Rashi explains that the People of Israel are not only to cleanse the land from the defilement of the idolaters, they may also in no way defy G-d. Their sinful behavior would bring destruction upon the people, and bring defilement upon the holy altars and the sacred Temple of Jerusalem.

The commentators also warn against the fallacious reasoning that may lead the people to conclude that since the Temple and its altars were built by humans, it may be permissible to destroy the Temple furnishings that are the work of their own hands. They explain that once the stones become an integral part of the Temple, they are sacred, and no one may defile their sanctity.

Expanding the prohibition, the commentators explain that just as defiling sacred objects is forbidden, so is defacing sacred ideas.

Thus, sacred writings that have G-d’s name on them, may not be erased or destroyed, and must be carefully handled. Worn sacred objects and writings that can no longer be used must be respectfully buried, such as scrolls of Torah, prayer books, Bibles, Tefillin, Mezzuzot, etc.

The seven sacred names of G-d may not be erased or profaned by using them in vain. They are: 1. The Tetragrammaton, the four letter Hebrew name of G-d. 2. “Eh’lo’ah;” 3. “Shah’dai;” 4. “Ayl;” 5. “Ah’doh’nai;” 6. “Eh’lo’him;” 7. “Tz’vah’oht.”  The penalty for effacing the sacred names of G-d is very severe.

Other names by which G-d is known, such has חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם–compassionate and merciful, may be erased. Instances in the Torah where the names of G-d appear, but are not intended to be sacred, may be also be erased. Thus, when Lot says to the messengers who come to Sodom (Genesis 19:18), אַל נָא, אֲדֹנָי, “Please, my masters,” in this case אֲדֹנָי–“Ah’doh’nai” means, my masters, and is not sacred, even though the Hebrew word is the same as G-d’s name.

The Hebrew language is often referred to as לְשׁוֹן הַקֹּדֶשׁ–the Holy Tongue, and the holiness of the language is maintained to this day. Even in the contemporary State of Israel, modern day Hebrew contains very few expletives. Most of the local curse words are from Arabic.

Because of the sanctity of G-d’s names, it has been the Jewish custom for millennia for Jews to protect the names of G-d, never writing them for a non-sacred purpose, frequently inserting hyphens between letters, in order to make certain that they are not intended to be sacred. A good example of the lengths to which the Jewish people go to protect the holy names, is that, even in English, the word “G-d” is often written with a dash, even though it certainly is not a sacred name. In this way, the sanctity of name is preserved.

A holy book that falls to the ground, is lifted carefully and kissed, the way a child who falls might be kissed.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that the particularly sensitive treatment shown to holy writ creates a sense of awe and trepidation, not only for the names of G-d and the sacred objects, but for the entire concept of serving G-d with complete respect and reverence.

In sum, we see that the Jewish concept of “sanctity” is not only revolutionary, but also ubiquitous. Holy objects and holy ideas are treated with utmost reverence and love. In truth, sacred objects are often treated as if they were alive and breathing. Since the purpose of almost all of Judaism is the sanctity of all human life, it is quite understandable that Judaism may, at times, treat inanimate objects as if they were living. In this manner we are assured that the sanctity of holy objects and holy ideas are safeguarded and properly preserved.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5776-2016

“Caring for the Weak and the Vulnerable”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the important mitzvot found in this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah bids the Jew to be G-dlike by caring for the orphan and the widow, loving the proselytes and giving them bread to eat and clothes to wear.

In Deuteronomy 10:19, the Torah declares, וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, You shall love the stranger (proselyte/convert) for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 36 times, more than any other mitzvah, the Torah exhorts the People of Israel to care for and love the גֵּר–“Gehr,” the stranger.

As the great social philosophers often proclaim: a society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Judaism (Talmud Sotah 14a) demands that Jews strive to emulate G-d. This practice, known in philosophy as “Imitatio Dei,” demands that just as He [G-d] is kind, so must we be kind; just as He is filled with compassion, so must we be filled with compassion; just as He is long-suffering, so must we be long-suffering.

According to tradition, our Torah contains 613 mitzvot–365 negative mitzvot and 248 positive mitzvot. Many, if not most, of these mitzvot are revolutionary. Yet, perhaps none is more remarkable than the mitzvah to love the stranger. At a time when the entire world was dogmatically xenophobic, threatened by strangers and rejecting of outsiders, Judaism declared that loving the stranger would be the hallmark of its legal and social systems.

According to tradition, the city of Sodom was known for its venal snobbery and elitism. Strangers were treated with disdain and often subjected to physical abuse and torture. When Lot told his sons-in-law that Sodom would soon be destroyed (Genesis 19:14), they laughed at him cynically saying, “You fool, a city filled with music and culture, and you say that Sodom will be destroyed!”

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch offers an extensive exposition on mitzvah number 431, entitled, “To love the stranger (the convert).” The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that because the convert forsook his family and his nation, to take shelter under the wings of a new, strange nation, the People of Israel must be particularly sensitive to his loneliness and vulnerability.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch warns to be especially careful when speaking with a convert, making certain not to be insensitive or to bring up unseemly behaviors from the past. The Chinuch further notes that the community must be particularly mindful to treat converts carefully, to show concern for their needs and to come to their aid, since as fragile strangers, they have no one to turn to for help.

In a remarkable and unexpected departure from his normal style, the Sefer Ha’Chinuch concludes his analysis of the mitzvah of loving the stranger by extending it, insisting on the need to show sensitivity to all people. The Sefer Ha’Chinuch declares that Jews must learn from this “precious mitzvah,” to have compassion on all people who are strangers, including those who come from other cities or foreign countries, and are now alone in new cities and countries. Later commentators have noted that particularly because they are alone, all strangers need to be embraced, including newcomers to a neighborhood, new students in school, and new employees.

The Kli Yakar comments on the verse (Genesis 47:21), וְאֶת הָעָם הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶעָרִים, that Joseph transferred the people of Egypt from one end of Egypt to the other. The Kli Yakar explains that Joseph did this in order to make the Egyptians aware of what it means to be strangers, since those who never experienced being a stranger cannot have full compassion on those who are.

My esteemed friend and famed author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, has an especially sensitive ear that is particularly attuned to human needs. Sensitivity is a theme that recurs in many of his writings. He discusses the prohibition of a would-be-customer entering a store to ask a salesperson the price of an item when he has no intention of buying. Rabbi Telushkin also suggests that when one hears the siren of a fire engine or a speeding ambulance, that instead of expressing annoyance with the shrill noise, he recommends that people utter a little prayer that the firefighters reach the scene of the fire in time to save lives, and that the ambulance successfully transport the sick safely so that they may be properly treated and hopefully healed.

When studied objectively, it is obvious that these sensitivities are beyond human sensitivities. Clearly, these superhuman sensitivities are ultimately Divine sensitivities, which have been transmitted to the world through the Al-mighty’s Torah.

The sensitivity that is found abundantly throughout this ancient document, the Torah, is truly breathtaking, and surely points to the Divine Hand in its authorship.

Those who are fortunate to have learned Torah, must embrace these wonderful values. Only in this manner is there hope that the world will be perfected, hastening the Ultimate Redemption in our own lifetimes.

May you be blessed.

 

 

 

Va’etchanan 5776-2016

“Blessing G-d for the Good and the Bad”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, includes the שְׁמַע–“Shemah,” the central Hebrew prayer in which Jews, twice daily, accept upon themselves the dominion of G-d.                     

 The opening verse of the Shemah, found in Deuteronomy 6:4, reads: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ השׁם אֶחָד, Hear O’ Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One! The Shemah is the “oldest and greatest of our prayers” and is generally regarded as the supreme declaration of faith in Judaism. It is often the first prayer taught to little children, the last words recited by Jews before they die, and uttered by would-be Jewish martyrs who face the prospect of death at the hands of their enemies.

 The second verse of the Shemah, וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, calls upon Jews to love the L-rd their G-d with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might.

Rashi notes that this verse comes to teach several basic elements of faith: Jews should always perform G-d’s words and commandments out of love.  Jews should fulfill G-d’s instructions with all their heart, utilizing both the inclination to do good and even the drive to evil. Never should there be any suspicion or doubt in a Jew’s heart regarding G-d, His actions, or His decisions.

Citing the Talmud in Brachot 54a, Rashi interprets the phrase וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ with all your soul, to mean that a Jew must love G-d even if G-d takes one’s soul away. Thus, Jews must be prepared to forfeit their lives for the sanctification of G-d’s name when the situation calls for it.

Rashi interprets the expression וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, sometimes translated as with all your might, to mean that one must love G-d with all one’s possessions and belongings. Citing the Talmud in Brachot 54a, Rashi notes that בְּכָל מְאֹדֶךָ can also mean that one must be prepared to accept G-d’s judgment with every measure (midah) that G-d metes out, whether good or bad.

In addition to the previously-mentioned interpretation of the words בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ“bechol nasfshecha,” to mean that one must love G-d even if He [G-d] takes your life away, the Talmud in Brachot 54a, further elaborates, stating that a Jew is expected to bless G-d for the evil that one experiences, just as G-d must be blessed for the good that one experiences.

An interesting aspect of this principle is the double blessing, one for evil and one for good, that one must make upon suffering the loss of a close relative who has left the bereaved mourner a significant legacy.

The Talmud (Berachot 61b) relates the tragic case of Rabbi Akiva (Talmudic sage c. 40-c. 137) who was martyred during the Roman Hadrianic period. As Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was scraped with steel combs, he continued to recite the Shemah. Beholding Rabbi Akiva’s incredible courage in face of torture and certain death, his students were astounded by their rabbi’s deep faith. They asked him, “Our master, how far must one bear one’s faith?” He responded, “My entire life, I was saddened that I never had the opportunity to fulfill the verse [of the Shemah], “bechol nasfshecha,” even if He [G-d] takes your soul. Now that I have that opportunity, should I not fulfill it?”

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva intoned the last word of the opening verse of the Shemah, אֶחָד, the L-rd is One, until his soul departed from his body. A voice then came forth from heaven and proclaimed, “Praised are you Akiva, you are destined to a life in the World to Come.”

One of the important principles of faith that is articulated by the rabbis (Brachot 60b) is the statement כָּל דְּעָבִיד רַחְמָנָא לְטַב עָבִיד, basically asserting that whatever the All-Merciful G-d does is always for the benefit of humankind. The Talmud (e.g., Taanit 21a and Sanhedrin 108b) abounds with stories of people who would often say גַּם זוֹ לְטוֹבָה, “this too is for the good”–even when terrible tragedies befell them.

The rabbinic proclamation that one needs to bless G-d for the evil, just as He is to be blessed for the good, is both fascinating and perplexing.

This idea is predicated on the assumption, that in a real sense, the ethical world operates very much like the physical world. If there were no darkness, there would be no light. Were there no cold, there would be no heat. If there were no sadness, there would be no joy. If there were no death, there would be no life. If there were no illness, there would be no healing.

I recall a provocative discussion about good and evil. It was suggested that if every time a plane filled with travelers was about to crash, a Divine hand appeared to gently bring it down to earth, there would be little or no progress in the world. The world would cease to move forward. Humankind would be in its own spiritual/physical “Garden of Eden” leaving the Al-mighty to care about all threats and concerns. Of course, there would be no need for crews to maintain airplanes, and no reason to improve on the comfort, speed or safety of airliners. Progress would basically come to a total and absolute halt.

I recently came across a most enlightening tale of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. Feeling pity on the butterfly, the observer cut the butterfly loose from its cocoon, lifting the undeveloped butterfly out. Unfortunately, because the butterfly never struggled to emerge from its cocoon, it did not develop its muscles and was unable to fly or search for food. Its life ended shortly after it left its place of birth.

Going through life without obstacles is actually crippling. The obstacles we face in life are often blessings that strengthen us, leaving us with the ability to not only fly, but to actually soar.

May you be blessed.

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.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 18th and 19th, 2016. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here).

Devarim 5776-2016

“Moses the Stammerer, Becomes a World-Class Orator”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With parashat Devarim, we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah. The book of Deuteronomy records the bold words of Moses, including not a few words of stinging rebuke directed at the People of Israel.

When we encounter Moses early in his “career” at the scene of the Burning Bush, we find a former prince of Egypt who has no desire to be a leader. So great is Moses’ reluctance to assume the responsibility of leading Israel, that he refuses to accept the task even when G-d informs Moses, in Exodus 3:16, that he has the unique opportunity to free the people from slavery in Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land of Israel. G-d says to Moses (Exodus 3:16), ”Go and gather the elders of Israel and tell them that G-d has remembered them, and that He is taking them up from the affliction of Egypt, and bringing them to the land flowing with milk and honey.”

Even when G-d specifically tells Moses in Exodus 3:18 that his mission will succeed, and that, וְשָׁמְעוּ לְקֹלֶךָ, “they will listen to you,” Moses, seemingly contradicts G-d (See Shemot 5769-2009), and responds, Exodus 4:1, , וְהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִיThey will not believe me and they will not listen to my voice!”

In order to instill confidence in Moses and win over the skeptics, G-d provides Moses with several wondrous signs: (Exodus 7:8-18) His staff turns into a serpent; Moses’ hand becomes leprous; and G-d shows Moses how to turn water into blood.

Moses continues to argue that he is absolutely unfit to lead. In Exodus 4:10, Moses plaintively cries, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם, גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ.  כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי , “Please, my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” G-d then responds, Exodus 4:11-12, “Who makes a mouth for man, or who makes one dumb or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd? So now, go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you should say.”

After all this, Moses has the audacity to say to the Al-mighty, as reported in Exodus 4:13, “Please my L-rd, send through whomever You will send,” in effect, saying to G-d, “Send anyone You’d like, just not me!”

G-d is angry and instructs Moses to speak to his brother, Aaron and put the words of G-d into Aaron’s mouth. G-d assures Moses that He will be with his [Moses’] mouth and with Aaron’s mouth. He [Aaron] will speak to the people for you. He will be your mouth and you will be his leader.

The rest is history!

The ArtScroll commentary quotes the Vilna Gaon, who comments on the differences in the spoken words of Moses:

“[The words spoken to Moses in] the first four books [of the Torah] are [words that came] directly from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, [spoken] through the throat of Moses. Not so is Deuteronomy. Israel heard the words of the book [of Deuteronomy] the same way that they heard the words of the prophets that came after Moses. The Holy One, blessed be He, would speak to the prophet today and on a later day he [the prophet] would go and make the vision known to Israel. Accordingly, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, the word of G-d had already been removed from him. So, too, the book of Deuteronomy was heard from the mouth of Moses himself.”

Throughout the Torah we find the constant refrain, וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, “the L-rd spoke to Moses, saying.” Whenever G-d spoke to Moses, Moses simply repeated the words that G-d, in effect, had dictated to him. However, only in the book of Deuteronomy, does Moses say nine times, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֵלַי, “The L-rd spoke to me.” (See Deuteronomy 1:42, 2:9, 3:2). Like the many prophets in later Jewish history whose messages were conveyed in their own words, the words spoken by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, were composed by Moses himself and delivered to the people.

To explain Moses’ newfound ability, the rabbis of the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 1) quote the Al-mighty saying, “Look how precious is the language of the Torah, for it heals the tongue. As stated in Proverbs 3:18, עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ, “The Torah is a tree of life to those who hold onto it.”

Rabbi Levi asks: Why do we need to go to the book of Proverbs for proof, we can learn directly from the Torah? After all, until Moses merited to receive the Torah, Moses says about himself that he is not a man of the spoken word. However, once he received the Torah, his tongue was healed and began to speak. As the Torah says in parashat Devarim, (Deuteronomy 1:1) אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, these are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel.

All the words that Moses, the stammerer and stutterer, spoke to Israel, which are recorded in the Torah before the book of Deuteronomy, were spoken haltingly by Moses. This was so, for it was preferable that no one suspect that the words were accepted by the people only because they were spoken by a great orator who had made up these words himself. However, now that Moses is conveying his own message to the people, and not G-d’s, his tongue was healed, so that his words would directly penetrate the hearts of those he was addressing.

Not only does Torah heal, Torah inspires. Those who teach Torah know that the give-and-take between teacher and student often clarifies the Torah’s message, revealing hidden secrets that normal reading or perusing may obscure. Learning Torah and teaching Torah transforms one from being merely a receptacle of Torah, into a font of wisdom that is capable of inspiring others.

And so it was with Moses, the man who stuttered and stammered, and who could barely open his mouth, became an inspirer, a golden-throated preacher, a teacher and orator.

My father, of blessed memory, Moshe Aharon Buchwald, had a wicked sense of humor. He would often wonder out loud how some of his quiet, meek acquaintances from his Shtetl in Poland, were suddenly transformed into extremely verbal and outgoing personalities upon arriving to the shores of America, becoming big “machers.” Tongue-in-cheek, my father would point to Moses, who was a stutterer and a stammerer in Egypt. Yet, when he crossed the sea, אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה, Moses became a great singer, poet and orator.

Perhaps crossing the great Atlantic Ocean was enough to transform the “Greenhorns” from Poland. But, for Moses, the source of his speaking ability was the inspiration he received from the Torah, which contains power within it to transform all those who embrace it.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Thursday evening, August 4th and all day Friday, August 5th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.

The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon” –the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, August 13th and continues through Sunday night, August 14th, 2016. Although Tisha B’Av is normally observed on the 9th day of Av, since the 9th of Av, this year, falls on Shabbat, it is observed a day later, on Sunday, the 10th of Av. 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. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמּי, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Matot-Masei 5776-2016

“Rosh Chodesh Av – Remembering the Passing of a Beloved Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Masei, the second of this week’s combined parashiot Matot-Masei, features a lengthy list of 42 locations where the Israelites encamped during their forty years of wandering in the Wilderness.

When read in the synagogue, the text of the travel itinerary is usually chanted by the Torah reader using a special singsong melody, underscoring the long and arduous journeys the Israelites endured in the Wilderness.

In Numbers 33:1, Rashi points out that of the 42 encampments, the first fourteen occurred before the mission of the scouts and the last eight stops were in the fortieth year after Aaron’s death. Thus, we learn that during the 38 intervening years, there were “only” twenty journeys, including 19 years that were spent encamped in a single location, Kadesh Barnea.

The listing of the journeys is pretty much routine. The first journey recorded in Numbers 33:5, reads, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּת, and the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses and encamped in Succot. We are then informed that the people journeyed from Succot and encamped in Ethan and turned back to Pi-Hahiroth. On rare occasion, does scripture pause after noting a location to add a brief comment.

So, in Numbers 33:9, we learn that in Eilim there were twelve springs of water and 70 date palms (B’shalach 5776-2016). Numbers 33:14, reports that in Rephidim there was no water for the people to drink.

In Numbers 33:37, we are told that the people journeyed from Kadesh and encamped in Mount Hor, at the edge of the land of Edom. The Torah, in Numbers 33:38-39, then devotes two verses to recount the death of Aaron, וַיַּעַל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אֶל הֹר הָהָר, עַל פִּי השׁם וַיָּמָת שָׁם: בִּשְׁנַת הָאַרְבָּעִים לְצֵאת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי, בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ. וְאַהֲרֹן בֶּן שָׁלֹשׁ וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה בְּמֹתוֹ בְּהֹר הָהָר, Then Aaron, the Kohen went up to Mount Hor, at the word of the L-rd, and died there, in the fortieth year after the Children of Israel went forth from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month. Aaron was 123 years old at his death on Mount Hor.

The details of Aaron’s death had already been reported in parashat Chukat, Numbers 20:22-29. Yet, they are repeated again here in parashat Masei. Despite the fact that there were several other significant events that were also previously reported, none are repeated in the travel itinerary: the sin of the Golden Calf; the negative report of the scouts; the rebellion of Korach; the death of Miriam; מֵי מְרִיבָהthe waters of rebellion, where Moses hit the rock, and lost his right to enter the Land of Israel. What can possibly be so significant about the death of Aaron that required recalling his passing?

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in Da’at Sofrim  always seems to uncover important messages that are found in seemingly insignificant words of the Biblical narratives. He points to some intriguing and novel information that is provided in the two verses. By stating that Aaron, the High Priest, ascended the mountain at the word of the L-rd, we are faced with the sad reality that from this point, Moses, leads the people alone. Additional details are also uncovered regarding the death of Aaron. While facing one’s mortality is never pleasant, we learn that Aaron ascended the mountain without hesitation, fully accepting the fact that his time had come to pass on and that the Children of Israel were now capable of reaching the Promised Land without him.

Rabbi Rabinowitz further notes, that in Numbers 20, where Aaron’s death is described at length, no date is mentioned and we are left with no idea when it occurred. In parashat Masei, the exact date of Aaron’s passing is recorded: the first day of the fifth month, which is the month of Av. Furthermore, we are told that Aaron lived to the ripe old age of 123. After the period of the Patriarchs and their children, the ages of leaders are rarely mentioned in the Bible. Rabbi Rabinowitz says that noting Aaron’s exact age comes to teach that G-d granted the Jewish people the privilege of Aaron’s extended life, so that he would be present throughout the forty years, enabling the beloved High Priest to remain with his people in the wilderness, until they reached the “gates” of the Holy Land.

The Midrash notes that Moses was jealous of Aaron’s noble and gentle death. Based on the Midrash, Rashi states in Numbers 33:38, that Aaron died with a gentle kiss from the Al-mighty, a fact that is derived from the Hebrew expression that recalls that Aaron went up to Mount Hor, עַל פִּי השׁם, at the word, literally, “at the lips” of the L-rd, and died there.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus emphasizes the singular importance of the fact that the date of Aaron’s passing, the first of Av, is recorded. No other great personage in scripture, at least no one in the Five Books of the Torah, has the date of his death recorded, or established as a would-be yahrtzeit to be observed on the anniversary of his death. In fact, the Tur notes that even though the first of Av is Rosh Chodesh, the righteous are permitted to fast in honor of Aaron.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that Aaron’s passing was unique, because Aaron, as we are told in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 1:12, was the great teacher of peace and pursuer of peace. His passing left future generations pained and bereft, because there is no greater loss than the passing of one who embodies peace and is the primary pursuer of peace in the world.

Some of the commentators conclude that Aaron’s death on Rosh Chodesh Av is the reason for the Talmudic dictum (Taanit 26b), which states:מִשֶּנִּכְנַס אָב מְמַעֲטִין בְּשִׂמְחָה , with the arrival of the month of Av there is a reduction in joy. The beginning of the month of Av marks the beginning of the “Three Week” mourning period for the Temples and the exile. Rav Pincus even suggests that the passing of Aaron, the man of peace, was so profound that it resulted in the loss of the Temples. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) states that the second Temple was destroyed because of “wanton hatred,” שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם. In the absence of a bold leader like Aaron, the people were unable to control their wanton behavior, leading to the destruction.

Rabbi Pincus notes that the statement found in the Mishna in Avot encouraging all to become students of Aaron, to love peace and pursue peace, comes to underscore that everyone needs a mentor who will teach them to love peace. Rav Pincus points out, ironically, that despite giving abundant lip service to the primacy of peace and the value of peace, most people prefer discord far more than peace, because when all is peaceful, life is boring. But when a juicy dispute ignites, life suddenly becomes colorful and exciting.

Many people, says Rabbi Pincus, who seem on the surface to be quiet and passive, veritable wallflowers, are suddenly transformed, during times of dispute and enmity, into harsh and judgmental misanthropes.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that we be truthful with ourselves. Dispute is surely as sweet as honey and as tasty as nectar. Only a man of great stature, such as Aaron, could impact so profoundly on the world’s inhabitants, encouraging all to love peace, even before taking a single practical step to pursue peace.

Aaron, says Rabbi Pincus, taught the people to love the “boring” peace, and to abhor the “thrill” of dispute. That is why the day that Aaron left this world is a day of pain and mourning for all generations.

It is vital to constantly recall the Torah of Aaron, to fully understand, that even though dispute and hatred may seem tempting and intriguing, the outcome is always tragic, resulting in great loss and pain, travail and turmoil. True peace, however, yields genuine pleasure, bountiful success and untold blessings for those who pursue peace.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Thursday evening, August 4th and all day Friday, August 5th. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av. The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon“–-the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction