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Eikev 5775-2015

“‘D’vay’kut’–Bonding with the Al-mighty”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, we read of the deeply spiritual mitzvah of דְּבֵקוּת “D’vay’kut,” of clinging to, or bonding with, G-d.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 10:20 states: אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ תִּירָא, אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד, וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק, וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָּׁבֵעַ, The L-rd your G-d shall you fear, Him shall you serve, to Him shall you cleave, and in His name shall you swear.

At first blush, the idea of clinging to G-d seems to be rather esoteric and mystical, and certainly, not easily accomplished. Truth is, that the idea of clinging to G-d,

D’vay’kut,” was originally thought to be almost impossible to achieve. But, with the evolution of time, its meaning over the years has become increasingly mystical, and more ways of achieving “D’vay’kut” with the Al-mighty have emerged as well.

Maimonides forcefully asserts that it is not possible for a mortal being to cling to G-d, Who does not possess physical form. Instead he concludes that what is meant by this mitzvah, is that every person must seek out, and cling to rabbis, sages and judges, who promote “G-dliness.”.

The common interpretation of the idea of “D’vay’kut,” which is held by the author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch and the Recanati is that, as Maimonides says, this refers becoming close with sages and to those who are pious.

The Recanati maintains, that by clinging to the sage who lives by G-d’s Torah, we come as close as possible to clinging to G-d. Even though we are not directly clinging to G-d, in this way we cling to G-d’s way of life. When we are in close contact with the pious and the sages, we learn how to live in the way that G-d would like us to live. By treating others with kindness and mercy, we mirror G-d’s relationhip with human beings.

The idea of “D’vay’kut,” is found prominently several times in scripture. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:4 states in the well-known verse, וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּהשׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, And you who cling to the L-rd your G-d–you are all alive today. The Psalmist, in 63:9 sings out, דָּבְקָה נַפְשִׁי אַחֲרֶיךָ, בִּי תָּמְכָה יְמִינֶךָ, My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.

The Talmud in Tractate Sotah 14a, cites Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina, who comments on a similar verse in Deuteronomy 13:5: אַחֲרֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן, With the L-rd your G-d shall you walk, and Him shall you fear: His commandments shall you observe, and to His voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave.

Rabbi Hanina says that it is impossible to walk after the Divine Presence, except by emulating His characteristics. What then is meant when it is written that “You shall walk after the L-ord your G-d,” after all, G-d is a consuming fire? Rather, one should emulate the characteristics of G-d. Just as He clothes the naked, so should you dress the naked. Just as G-d visits the sick, so should you visit the sick. Just as G-d comforts the mourners, so should you comfort the mourners. Just as G-d buries the dead, so should you bury the dead.

The idea communicated here is that the concept of bonding with G-d and following in His footsteps means to imitate the many positive attributes of the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra claims that it is not only with one’s behavior that one must cling to G-d, but also with heart and mind.

The Alshich says that clinging to G-d can serve as a counterbalance for those who have sinned and have run from G-d, perhaps to avoid feelings of guilt. When those estranged from G-d begin to cling to G-d and internalize His virtues, they are then capable to again become one with G-d.

In more recent times, the RaMCHaL, in his book, Derech Hashem, argues that as people strive to become perfect in their actions, deeds and qualities, they become closer to G-d. Clinging to G-d does not come through some abstract thought about G-d, but is achieved, rather, when people contemplate and strive to improve their own deeds.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865-1935) asserts that it is impossible to cling to the Divine Presence, unless we cling to the Al-mighty’s paths.

In contemporary times the most popular idea of “D’vay’kut” has become closely associated with sacred music. Soft, slow, emotional songs, that speak of the goodness of G-d, have become a great source of spiritual empowerment, leading those who allow the message of the music to penetrate, achieve a feeling of oneness with the Al-mighty. For those who are able to achieve this exalted spiritually, there is, at once, a powerful embrace of love and passion between the human being and G-d.

It is the ethereal gift of music that is capable of penetrating directly to the inner essence of humankind, which has the ability to passionately unite the human soul with the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5775-2015

“Do Not Add…and Do Not Detract”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we learn of the fascinating and complex mitzvah of not adding or detracting from the mitzvot of the Torah.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:2 states, לֹא תֹסִפוּ עַל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, לִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְו‍ֹת השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of the L-rd, your G-d, that I command you.

The book of Deuteronomy repeats many laws that were recorded in previous books of the Torah. In this manner, Moses, in the last days of his life, hopes to inspire the people of Israel to faithfully observe the entire Torah. He, therefore, reviews some of the commandments with the people, and introduces a number of new laws that had never before been taught.

One of the new concepts introduced by Moses is the prohibition of not adding or detracting from the Torah. Since the Al-mighty is perfect and His Torah is perfect, adding or subtracting from the commandments of the Torah implies that the Torah is, in some way, deficient.

In parashat Re’eh, this same mitzvah is repeated, but there it is articulated in the singular (see Re’eh 5766-2006). In Deuteronomy 13:1, the Torah states, אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ, The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it. Once again, G-d states that the Torah is complete and perfect and that it is offensive in G-d’s eyes for anyone to seek to improve it by adding new commandments, or by removing any of His commandments.

Some commentators suggest that the plural version in parashat Va’etchanan is intended for the judges of the Sanhedrin–the Supreme Court of Israel. Even these important leaders, with all of their knowledge and authority, dare not add or subtract from the words of the Torah. On the other hand, the singular version, in parashat Re’eh, is directed at individual Israelites.

Perhaps the best-known instance of “not adding” and its consequences, is found early in the book of Genesis. When the cunning serpent tries to seduce the woman to eat of the forbidden fruit, the woman replies to the serpent, Genesis 3:3, וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן אָמַר אֱלֹקִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ,  פֶּן תְּמֻתוּן, Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden, G-d has said: “You shall neither eat it or touch it, lest you die.” While the command from the Al-mighty was only not to eat of the tree, Eve added the prohibition of not touching the tree.

Rashi citing the Midrash, says that after hearing the woman’s reply, the serpent pushed Eve against the tree, and said, “Just as you did not die from touching it [the tree], so shall you not die from eating it.” In this way the serpent convinced Eve that she would not die, making her believe that the threat of death was merely G-d’s attempt to intimidate her not to eat. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 29a, sums up this principle with the pithy statement, כָּל הַמּוֹסִיף גּוֹרֵעַ, anyone who adds, actually detracts.

The prohibition of adding is known in Rabbinic literature as, בַּל תּוֹסִיף, “Bal Toh’sif,” not to add. The prohibition against detracting is known as בַּל תִּגֽרַע,“Bal Tigrah.” Prominent examples presented in the Talmud are that priests are not permitted to publicly bless the people and add an additional blessing of their own to the tripartite blessing that was given by Moses. One may not add a fifth parchment scroll to the Tefillin, a fifth species to the Lulav and Etrog or a fifth fringe on the corner of one’s garment. Similarly, prominent examples of “Bal Tigrah” are that one may not omit one of the priestly blessings or reduce the parchment scrolls of the Tefillin or eliminate one of the species of Lulav and Etrog or one of the fringes on one’s garment.

However, it is not a violation of the prohibition of “Bal Toh’sif,” to sleep in the Sukkah for an eighth day, unless it is done in order to observe an additional day of Sukkot. Similarly, it is not a violation of the prohibition of adding, to eat Matzah after Passover is over. It is even permissible to have one etrog to use for the blessing on Sukkot and a second Etrog for display and for beauty.

Similarly, it is not a violation of the mitzvah of “not adding,” for those who live in the diaspora to observe an additional “diaspora day” on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Even though today we know the actual time of the festival, the additional day is intended to strengthen the meaningfulness of the festival and intensify the level of holiday observance outside of Israel.

In his analysis of this mitzvah, Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni suggests the following hypothetical conversation: A person is asked by his neighbor, “Why do you need so many mitzvot?” He responds, “Why do you need such long intestines?” While we may not know the exact details of the physiology of the human body, we believe that the body is created in a proper way, so too is the Torah created complete and perfect.

The Ramban, noted by Nachshoni, states that תַּקָּנוֹת, “Takanot,” decrees and גְּדֵרִים, “Gedayrim,” fences, established by the rabbis to prevent Jews from violating the Torah, are also not included in the prohibition of not adding to the Torah.

The Dubno Maggid, the most famous of the Eastern European maggidim–itinerant preachers) offers a charming parable to better explain this prohibition. A person lent a wooden spoon to a neighbor and when the neighbor returned the spoon, he brought an extra little spoon. When the lender asked why the extra spoon, his friend responded that while the spoon was in his possession it gave birth to a baby spoon.

Each time the neighbor borrowed a utensil, he would return the utensil with a miniature version of the original utensil, claiming that the utensil had given birth. Finally, on one occasion the neighbor borrowed a very valuable silver candelabra. The owner was only too happy to lend the candelabra, hoping that he would gain a valuable baby candelabra when the original was returned.

When the neighbor did not return the candelabra, the owner came to him demanding his candelabra. The neighbor then told him the sad news that the candelabra had died while it was in his possession. Incredulous, the owner says, “How can a candelabra die?” The neighbor responded, “Well if a spoon can give birth, then a candelabra can die!”

The Dubno Maggid explains that the Torah is a gift from the Al-mighty. If one is able to add to it, he can also detract from it. However, if a person believes that the Torah is truly Divine and originates from Heaven, he will not dare change it, by adding or detracting.

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. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי, “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, July 30th and 31st, 2015. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here)

Devarim 5775-2015

“Looking Through the Pain, Toward a Bright Future”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, the book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy.

As the name “Deuteronomy” suggests, much of the contents of Devarim is a repetition of what is found in previous books of the Torah. Nevertheless, there are still more than 70 laws in the book of Devarim that are entirely new (See Devarim 5765-2005). The book of Devarim is seen by traditional commentators as the “last will and testament” of Moses to Israel, spoken during the final five weeks of his life.

At the core of Moses’ message is the centrality of the covenant that G-d made with the Jewish people at Choreb (Sinai), and the peoples’ obligations that flow from that covenant. Although Moses reiterates themes that he had previously pronounced, he particularly emphasizes the importance and uniqueness of the monotheistic belief in the oneness of G-d, and that the Al-mighty serves as the Master of all.

Because G-d is to be the object of Israel’s love and undivided loyalty, the prohibition against idolatry is frequently repeated, as is the prohibition of engaging in magic and sorcery. In order to confirm Israel’s love for G-d, the people are given basic obligations and a set of meaningful ordinances that they are expected to observe with a whole heart. As a reward for loving and obeying G-d, the people will be exalted above all nations. The uniqueness of Israel is not because they are better or superior to others, but rather that the teachings of the Torah, which is their singular possession, makes the Children of Israel special.

It is for this reason that G-d will protect the people who became His partner in the Covenant at Sinai. If, however, the People of Israel violate their oath of loyalty, the price of perfidy will be great. Heaven and earth will come to testify against Israel for their wanton deeds and faithless actions.

Realizing that he has very little time to convey his message to the Children of Israel before he departs from this world, Moses speaks with much love, and hope for the future. His message is filled with great optimism regarding the fruits that will blossom and abound in the Promised Land, and of the enemies who will fall before Israel in battle.

Nevertheless, Moses strongly warns the children not to follow in the wanton footsteps of their stiff-necked parents. He, therefore, recounts the instances where the previous generation, who came out of Egypt, failed the test of loyalty and rebelled against G-d. Moses spoke harshly about the rebels of the previous generation, but to their children, he spoke softly, not wanting to demoralize the new generation.

Moses’ harsh attitude toward the older generation reflects his belief that he has been punished because of the rebelliousness of the People of Israel. He is bitter and bereft and cannot forgive them. Yet he rises to the occasion, to convey a message of hope, redemption and victory to the new generation.

It is this message of hope that is so important to the Jewish people today, especially in light of the ominous “three weeks” period of mourning, which will conclude with the fast of Tisha B’Av on Sunday, July 26, 2015. Moses, who has endured more than forty years of hardship and struggle, who will never himself experience the redemption by entering the land of Israel, and who has every reason to be angry and bitter, nevertheless conveys this inspiring message of hope to the new and future generations of Israel.

As we read and reread the many fateful tragedies that our people have endured, we must become more aware of the many extraordinary moral and ethical victories of the Jewish people. Looking back on the great calamities, we must also be prepared to see the great accomplishments of the Jewish people during their long history and especially the miraculous achievements of the contemporary State of Israel. While we recall the decimation of European Jewry, we must appreciate the dawning of a new day for Torah, Yeshivot and Jewish scholarship in the State of Israel and throughout the world, which is perhaps unparalleled in all the annals of Jewish history.

As we say in the Psalm of the Sabbath day, לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ בַּלֵּילוֹת, At night, we have to hold onto hope through faith, but in the morning we will truly see the loving-kindness of G-d that shines through.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Thursday night, July 16th and all day Friday, July 17th. 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, July 25th and continues through Sunday night, July 26th, 2015. Have a meaningful fast.

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

Matot-Masei 5775-2015

“The Noble Calling of the Levites: Serving as an Exemplar for the Jewish People”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Masei, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, we learn of the cities that were set aside for the Levites in the land of Canaan.

G-d speaks to Moses in the Plains of Moab, by the Jordan, at Jericho, saying, Numbers 35:2, צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָתְנוּ לַלְוִיִּם מִנַּחֲלַת אֲחֻזָּתָם עָרִים לָשָׁבֶת, וּמִגְרָשׁ לֶעָרִים סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַלְוִיִּם, Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling, and open spaces for the cities all around them shall you give to the Levites.

In Numbers 35:7 we learn that the total number of cities that the other tribes are to give the Levites was 48 cities.

The Torah makes it clear that the Levites are a special tribe, a holy and consecrated tribe. They are not expected to serve in the army of Israel or to fight in wars against the nations with whom Israel is to do battle. Instead, they are to serve in the army of G-d. Therefore, they are not even counted in the census of the Children of Israel.

The tribe of Levi did not receive a tribal portion in the land of Canaan, as did the other twelve tribes. Since their main function was to minister in the Temple and serve the People of Israel, these 48 cities were to be their dwelling places.

The commentators state that the 48 cities were spread all over the country and among all of the tribes, in order to expose the tribes of Israel to the “legion of G-d.” It was hoped that all the tribes of Israel and their children would learn from the example of the Levites, and be influenced by their noble actions. Consequently, it was the sacred mission of the Levites to constantly elevate themselves, so that they could influence the others more effectively.

Although it seems coincidental, the Torah clearly states that the cities are to include open spaces. The Torah in Numbers 35:4 declares: וּמִגְרְשֵׁי הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתְּנוּ לַלְוִיִּם מִקִּיר הָעִיר וָחוּצָה, אֶלֶף אַמָּה סָבִיב, Each Levite city must have open space that should extend from the wall of the city outward, a thousand cubits all around. These open spaces should be for the animals, for the peoples’ possessions and for all their needs. It seems clear that the Torah insists on open space for all these cities, so that this undeveloped land left for the people, will enable the residents to enjoy a stroll in the “park,” to have an opportunity to look at the trees and to gain a greater appreciation of nature.

Unexpectedly, in Numbers 35:6, the Torah states that of the 48 cities bequeathed to the Levites, six should be designated as “cities of refuge,” to which those Israelites who are accused of murder shall flee until the matters are adjudicated. Through the rabbinical interpretations, we learn that all 48 cities served as cities of refuge for those who were accused of accidental homicide.

The May’am Lo’ez gives an overview of the role of the Levites. First the May’am Lo’ez asks, Why did the Levites not merit to inherit land in the land of Israel? He explains that the Levites were separated from the rest of the nation in order to do the service of G-d. The Al-mighty commanded that the Levites must always be prepared to do His service, to function as guards for the Holy Sanctuary, the Temple, to serve as doormen for the Gates of Jerusalem, and to open and close the gates of the Temple.

The Levites also functioned as singers and members of the Temple choir, who sang at the sacrificial altars while the sacrifices burned. Employing a range of musical instruments, drums and timbrels, the Levites set the joyous tone for the Temple services.

Underscoring the fact that the Levites were specifically instructed to serve as models and teachers to the People of Israel, the May’am Lo’ez notes that this is why the Levites were separated from the normal workings of the nation and the people. They were intentionally not involved in battle and were not to take possession of any of the lands of Israel. Those who served in the army of G-d, received their compensation not from land, but from Heaven. The May’am Lo’ez concludes with a final observation, noting that anyone, even non-Levites, who are moved to serve G-d, can join the Levites in an unofficial capacity, to serve with them, with their full devotion.

One cannot overestimate the exceptional nature of this idea. G-d designates a particular tribe to dwell among all the Children of Israel so that they can serve as a positive influence on all the tribes. And of all the tribes, He picked the tribe of Levi!

Indeed, the choice of the tribe of Levi was rather odd! After all, the tribes of Simeon and Levi were the two tribes who came to the defense of their sister, Dinah, when she was raped by Chamor in the town of Shechem (Genesis 34). After rescuing their sister, they proceeded to murder all the males of Shechem. Jacob was deeply chagrined by their deed, and was certain that the surrounding nations would reciprocate with a vengeance. But they never came. Scripture testifies that the fear of G-d kept the enemies at bay.

To his last breath Jacob never forgot what Simeon and Levi had done. When Jacob blessed his children at the end of his life, he seemingly cursed both Simeon and Levi. Genesis 49:5-7:

Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy, may My soul not enter! With their congregation, do not join O My honor! For in their rage they murdered people, and at their whim they maimed an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.

The fate of the tribe of Simeon is not clear except for the fact that they did not receive their own land, and were mostly incorporated into the land of the tribe of Judah. But, we do know the fate of the Levites.

The descendants of Levi, who, himself was so violent in Shechem, proved to be the only tribe of Israel who remained loyal during the sin of the Golden Calf, and were eventually rewarded by being chosen to minister in the Temple. In effect, they served as the “paradigmatic penitent.” The Levites sublimated their extreme passion into a passion to serve G-d. They learned to control their anger and turned their intense emotionality into the sublime poetry of the Psalms, composing and singing the beautiful songs that wafted through the Temple Mount. The transformation from violent actors to fully penitent loyal servants was complete, resulting in being perfectly fit to serve as models for all of Israel.

Not only did the Levites serve as models for all of Israel, they also served as models for all accidental murderers, who fled to one of the 48 cities where the Levites resided. In those cities the murderers were inevitably exposed to the religious passions of the Levites, to their songs, their dance, their music, to their beautiful prayers, to their preparedness to serve fully and joyously, even to carry the Tabernacle and its furnishings on their own shoulders. Eager to work day-and-night erecting and disassembling the Tabernacle, they made certain that every one of the Tabernacle’s thousands of parts was in its proper place.

At the end of Moses’ life, Moses “rewrote” the harsh words that Jacob had for his sons, Simeon and Levi, into a very special blessing for the tribe of Levi. On the last day of his life, Moses cried out to the Levites, Deuteronomy 33:10, יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַעֲקֹב, וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, “They [the Levites] shall teach Your [G-d’s] ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel. They shall place incense before Your presence and burnt offerings on Your altar.”

The tribe of Levi is transformed from violent avengers and murderers into sweet singers and exemplars of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Thursday, July 16th and all day Friday, July 17th. 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.

Pinchas 5775-2015

“Learning by Example”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, G-d rewards Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, for turning back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel by zealously avenging those who defied G-d and Moses by publicly committing immorality in front of the People of Israel.

At the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learned that two people, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, challenged Moses by committing this public act of lewdness. In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the Torah identifies the two prominent people as Zimri, the son of Salu, who was the prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, one of the leaders of the Midianite nation. By stabbing both perpetrators with a spear and ending their lives, Pinchas’ action also stopped a devastating plague that had taken the lives of 24,000 people who were part of the orgy of immorality.

In Numbers 25:11, the Al-mighty tells Moses to say to the people: פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. G-d rewards Pinchas with a בְּרִית שָׁלוֹם, Brit Shalom, the covenant of peace, and confirms that Pinchas and his progeny will be part of the eternal covenant of the priesthood, for having been zealous for G-d and for making atonement for the Children of Israel.

Rashi states that the Torah goes out of its way to identify Pinchas as the son of Elazar, and specifically the grandson of Aaron, the priest, as a response to the humiliation to which the tribes had been subjecting Pinchas. According to tradition, Pinchas was constantly teased and harassed that he was the descendant of פּוּטִי, “Puti,”–that his mother’s father (Jethro aka Putiel), fattened calves for idolatry. Therefore, says Rashi, scripture purposely and prominently traced Pinchas’s ancestry back to the noble lineage of his grandfather Aaron.

Many commentators are troubled by the actions of Pinchas. How could Pinchas take the law into his own hands, and execute these two people for their actions, without bringing them to formal judgment? Furthermore, what are the origins of Pinchas’ zealotry? He is, after all, the grandson of Aaron, a man who loved peace and who was a consummate pursuer of peace (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12).

Some of the commentators note that the act of harlotry was performed as a challenge to Moses, and when Moses berated Zimri for being with a Midianite woman, Zimri responded, “but after all, you also took a Midianite woman (Tzipporah) for a wife.”  When Moses did not respond, Pinchas took his mentor’s silence as a signal to step in. Through Pinchas’ zealous actions, the orgy ended, and the plague that had killed 24,000 people ceased.

Rashi, in parashat Balak, Numbers 25:7, providing more detail to the encounter, says that when Pinchas saw Zimri and Cozbi commit their vile act, he was reminded of the law and said to Moses, “I have learned from you, הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִּית קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, that one who has relations with a non-Jewish woman may be killed by zealots.” Moses said to Pinchas, “The one who proclaims the law in public, let him be the messenger.” Whereupon, Pinchas immediately took the spear in his hand and killed the perpetrators.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Pardes, in his studies on the weekly parasha entitled, Min Ha’mah’ah’yan ahl HaTorah, suggests that when Rashi explains Pinchas’ relationship to Aaron the priest, he refers to the actions of Aaron in Numbers 17:12-13. In parashat Shelach after the death of Korach and his cohorts, it records that Aaron took the incense pan and ran into the congregation after the plague had already begun. Presenting the incense and achieving atonement for the people, Aaron stood between the dead and the living and the plague stopped. Rashi emphasizes that Aaron risked his life by literally taking hold of the angel of death and forcing him to stop harming the people.

Pinchas, inspired by his grandfather’s brave actions, subjected himself to danger and struggled with the sinners in order to stop the anger of G-d. It was in this manner that Pinchas hoped, like Aaron his grandfather before him, to bring peace upon Israel and to confirm their sanctity. It is for this reason that scripture attributes the lineage of Pinchas to his grandfather, Aaron, who had a profound influence on Pinchas and served as a great role model for him to emulate.

Heroic acts often inspire others to perform heroic acts. It is therefore probably hardly a coincidence that scripture records in parashat Pinchas, Numbers 26:11, וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ, that the sons of Korach did not die.

According to tradition, the sons of Korach broke from the passionate rebellion of their father and instead chose to follow the directives of their great teacher, Moses. This decision, which saved their lives, enabled them to become the great poets who composed many psalms, including a special psalm that is read before the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. (Pinchas 5765-2005)

Where did the sons of Korach get the courage to swim against the tide of rebellion that had captured the imagination of so many followers and to break with their families? It may very well be that the reason that parashat Korach follows on the heels of parashat Shelach and the story of the scouts and spies, is because the actions of Joshua and Caleb served as the model for the sons of Korach. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to see the truth, despite the mass hysteria that had taken hold of the people.

This example served the sons of Korach well, and despite the close family bond, they were able to disassociate from Korach and do the right thing.

The Talmud often uses the expression, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, that the deeds of the fathers are often signposts for the children. Sometimes it works in a negative fashion, at other times it works in a most positive manner.

Pinchas, indeed, was a descendant of Aaron, both biologically and spiritually. That is why, despite his zealotry, his violent actions notwithstanding, G-d blesses Pinchas with the eternal blessing of peace.

May you be blessed.

Balak 5775-2015

“Uncovering the  ‘Layers’ in the Biblical Narrative”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, seem straightforward, the nuanced text contains several subtle messages.

The parasha opens with the rather innocuous statement that Balak, the son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites.

This refers to the battles reported in last week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, in which the Children of Israel vanquished the Emorites led by the great King Sichon, the most powerful regent at that time. At the same time, the Israelites defeated Og, the powerful king of Bashan, and his kingdom.

The fact that scripture in the opening verse of parashat Balak, identifies Balak simply as the son of Tzipor and not the king of Moab, implies that the Torah regards the hostile actions of Balak toward Israel as personal, rather than reflecting his duties as monarch or king.

The verses that follow reveal even more. The Torah states, in Numbers 22:3, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא, וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, Moab became very frightened of the people [of Israel], because they were numerous and Moab was seized with dread because of the Children of Israel. The commentators see this as an arrogant refusal on the part of Balak to acknowledge the miraculous conquests of Israel, or to attribute Israel’s success to G-d. In fact, it implies that Balak himself was so filled with hatred for the Jewish people that it led his judgment astray. Any clear-minded individual would have immediately recognized that the success of the Israelites was primarily due to Divine intervention. There was no way that a nation of recently-released slaves could so soundly defeat the two most powerful regents on the face of the earth.

Had Balak not been driven by his antipathy toward Israel, he would have quickly concluded that his nation was not at all endangered by Israel. After all, when Moses had previously approached the Moabites to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, and their overtures were rejected, the Israelites simply marched around the land of Moab and made no move to attack them (as reported by Jephthah in Judges 11:18).

The Moabites and Ammonites in particular should have been eager to help Israel as the miserable former-slaves left Egypt and rushed toward the Promised Land, because the Moabites and Ammonites owe their very existence to the People of Israel. After all, it was through Abraham’s intervention that their ancestor, Lot, was saved from Sodom. Even though they turned a deaf ear and refused to help His people, the Al-mighty commanded (Deuteronomy 2:9 & 2:19) that Moab and Amon not be harmed. Balak who was blinded by his rabid hatred of Israel, was unable to see this at all, and was determined to defeat Israel by any means possible.

It was not only Balak who refused to acknowledge G-d’s Hand in Israel’s success. The Da’at Sofrim points out that scripture reports, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד , that the entire nation of Moab was terribly frightened of the People of Israel. Just like their king, Balak, the Moabite people were not frightened of G-d who went before Israel and defeated all their enemies. Instead, they saw Israel as a purely mortal nation who happened to be successful in battle. Had they been afraid of G-d, they never would have tried to undermine Israel by cursing them, seducing them or by hoping to defeat them militarily.

Scripture records that the Moabites were afraid of Israel and were seized with dread because of them. They therefore turned to the elders of Midian, to secure their help, and were particularly hopeful that their famous prophet, Balaam, the son of Beor, would agree to curse the People of Israel, and defeat them spiritually.

The Torah reports that Balak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, who resided in Pethor, to summon Balaam, saying: Numbers 22:5, הִנֵּה עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, הִנֵּה כִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ, וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב מִמֻּלִי, “Behold! The people has come out of Egypt; Behold! It has covered the surface of the earth and it sits opposite me.” The Torah, in Numbers 22:6, continues, וְעַתָּה לְכָה נָּא אָרָה לִּי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, So now–please come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me; perhaps I will be able to strike it and we will drive it away from the land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his brilliant exposition of this episode found in Chemdat Yamim, notes the unusual construction of the phrase, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ,–-which opens with the first person singular verb, אוּכַל–“oo’chal,” and ends with נַכֶּה–“nakeh” a first person plural verb. In effect, Balak says to Balaam, perhaps I will be able, together with you, to defeat Israel.

Rabbi Filber cites the Midrash HaGadol, in the name of Tanchum the son of Chanilay. The Midrash asks: What were Balaam and Balak likened to at this moment? In fact, they were like two butchers, one who knew how to slaughter, the other who was skilled in cutting meat and butchering it properly. The slaughterer said to the butcher, “I will slaughter the animal and you will butcher the meat and together we will prepare the meal.” Said Balak to Balaam, “You curse the people and I will attack them with the sword, and together we will eradicate them from the world,” as it says, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, I will chase them from the land.

Balak knew well that as long as Israel is the subject of Divine protection, he would never be able to defeat the Israelites by sword. He therefore devised a dual attack on Israel. First Balaam will strike Israel’s spiritual protection, by cursing them or by causing them to lapse ethically. Only then, will Moab and Midian together physically attack Israel and chase them from the land.

The textual nuances that are found in the opening verses of parashat Balak reveal many new insights about Balak that are not readily apparent to the superficial reader. Although this text seems particularly nuanced, the truth is that most of the Torah’s verses have many “layers” that can be analyzed in a similar fashion.

Students of the Bible need to be keenly aware of the different levels of study as they read the scriptural messages. Experienced students will soon discover that with the proper skill and effort, layers of a story can often be exposed and revealed, uncovering many underlying factors that are at play in the Biblical narrative.

The subtle messages revealed through the textual nuances of parashat Balak are particularly important because they uncover the true anti-Semitic character of Balak, and the true nature of the battles, both physical and spiritual, that Balak wished to wage against the Jewish people.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 5th, 2015, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 25th and 26th. Have a meaningful fast.

Chukat 5775-2015

“Accepting the Inscrutable”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the statute of the Red Cow, also known as the Red Heifer. The ashes of an unblemished, totally red heifer, that had never worked, were mixed with the holy waters, and the combined mixture was used to sprinkle on those Israelites who had become impure as a result of coming in contact with death. After being sprinkled on the third and seventh day, those who were impure immersed in a mikveh, and were rendered clean once again.

The law of the Red Heifer is known in Hebrew as a חוֹק, —  ”Chok,” a statute that is beyond human understanding. The Torah clearly states as much in Numbers 19:2, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם לֵאמֹר, This is the decree of the Torah which G-d has commanded.

Rashi quoting the Midrash Tanchuma 7-8, explains that the law of the Red Heifer is regarded as the quintessential Chok –-decree–of the Torah. Because of the law’s seeming irrationality, Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, by saying, “What is the purpose of this commandment?”

By categorizing the law as a “Chok,” the Torah declares that the law of the Red Heifer is the decree of One Who gave the Torah, and, therefore, it is not for anyone to question. In other words, no rationale is given for this mitzvah, and because it is inscrutable, one may not ever question its validity.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Red Heifer is that its waters purify those who are contaminated, and contaminate those who are pure.

The Red Heifer and its irrationality is but a paradigm of much of life. Despite the significant efforts that we invest in trying to find the reason and the rationale behind all that we do and everything that happens, there are many things in life that are simply beyond human comprehension.

One of the major issues in Jewish life is the irrational nature of the anti-Semitism that is constantly directed toward the Jews. This anti-Semitism has led to totally irrational attacks on Jews throughout the ages. To underscore how pervasive anti-Semitism has been in Jewish history, there was even a special fast day declared many centuries ago, that is indirectly related to parashat Chukat.

The major commentator on the Code of Jewish Law, the Magen Avraham commenting on Orach Chaim 580, states that in Paris, in the Hebrew year 5004, corresponding to the date of June 17, 1244, a decree was issued by a commission of Catholic theologians, to burn cartloads of the Hebrew Talmud. This tragic burning of 24 wagonloads of the precious and irreplaceable books of the Talmud took place on the Friday prior to the reading of parashat Chukat.

According to tradition, the great sages of that time were deeply troubled by this calamity, and in a dream received a Heavenly reply that pronounced three Aramaic words, דָּא גְּזֵרַת אוֹרַיְתָא. These words are the Aramaic translation of the second verse of parashat Chukat, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, which translates as, “This is a decree of the Torah.” This vision was taken to mean that it had already been predetermined that on the week prior to the reading of the Torah portion of Chukat, this tragedy would occur. Therefore, the sages decreed that the fast should not be observed on a particular day of the month, like other fasts, but instead every year, on the Friday prior to the reading of parashat Chukat.

Around the year 1240, an apostate Parisian Jew, named Nicholas Donin, convinced King Louis IX of France that he would be able to prove the truth of Christianity through the Talmud. If Donin would successfully prove his contention, all the Jews would have to convert to Christianity.

The Chief Rabbi, and head of the Yeshiva of Paris, Rabbeinu Yechiel who is mentioned many times in the Talmudic commentary known as Tosafot, was charged to head the team of four rabbis who would debate Donin. Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against Rabbeinu Yechiel and his three cohorts, since without the ability to speak openly they were unable to say anything critical about the church or Christianity, rendering the debate futile.

Through their skillful debating and their brilliant defense of the Talmud, Rabbeinu Yechiel and the other Jewish scholars were still able to convince the king that it was impossible to prove the efficacy of Christianity through the Talmud. The king, however, felt that the contents of the Talmud were insulting to Christianity, and in 1242, he recommended to the commission of Catholic theologians, that all existing copies of the Talmud be collected and destroyed. It must be underscored that this was about two hundred years before the printing press and that the volumes of Talmud that were destroyed were handwritten on parchments using quill pens. It is estimated that the 24 cartloads contained about 12,000 volumes of priceless Hebrew manuscripts.

Despite the valiant defense of the Talmud by Rabbeinu Yechiel, the king proceeded to confiscate all the money and property of the Jewish community and expel the Jews from France. This same King Louis IX was canonized by the church as a saint in 1297. The American city, Saint Louis is named after him, as is the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball team.

There is a poignant and controversial postscript to the story. It is well-known that certain elements of the Jewish community in the 12th and 13th centuries were not happy with the works of Maimonides and were especially displeased with his מוֹרֵה נְבוּכִים, the Guide to the Perplexed, which was based on Aristotelean philosophy and considered by some to contain heresy.

The great sage, Rabbeinu Yona of Gerondi and his followers declared war on the Guide and even reported the “heretical works” to the Christian authorities who publicly collected and burnt all the confiscated copies of the Guide to the Perplexed.

There are those who theorize, although it is impossible to prove, that the payback for burning Maimonides’ works was the confiscation and destruction of all the books of the Talmud from the Jewish community.

Hence, the fast that was declared on the Friday before parashat Chukat is not only because of the great destruction and expulsion that took place among French Jewry, but is also a reflection of the unnecessary enmity and the unwarranted jealousy that abounded in the Jewish community in those days. These attitudes led to the tragic destruction and expulsion.

It is reported that as a result of the burning of the Talmud, Rabbeinu Yonah acknowledged his error, renounced his former opposition to the works of Maimonides, and begged forgiveness for his actions.

The Al-mighty’s ways are often inscrutable. Try as we may to understand them, we often fail to see the Divine logic. It is important to know when to yield and simply accept the limits of the mortal mind and human understanding.

May you be blessed.

Korach 5775-2015

“The Devastating Impact of Dispute”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the rebellion of Korach and his cohorts against Moses, Aaron and G-d.

In Numbers 16:3, the Torah records that Korach and his followers gathered together against Moses and Aaron and cried out to them: רַב לָכֶם, כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם, It is too much for you! For the entire assembly–all of them–are holy and G-d is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?

According to the commentaries, Korach’s complaint was that Moses had usurped all the power, making himself king and installing his brother as the High Priest, leaving the people emasculated and powerless.

When Moses heard this, scripture tells us (Numbers 16:4),וַיִּפֹּל עַל פָּנָיו, he, Moses, fell on his face. Moses then told Korach and his followers, Numbers 16:5,בֹּקֶר, וְיֹדַע השׁם אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו, in the morning G-d will make known the one who is His own and who is holy, and He will draw him close to Himself and whomever He will choose, He will draw close to Himself.

Rashi clearly states that Moses fell on his face because of the dispute. It is not that Moses was distressed that as a result of Korach’s charges against him, he would lose his own personal prestige. Moses was distressed because he realized that he would have little chance to gain forgiveness for the Israelites, since this was the fourth time that the people had corrupted their ways and had sinned against G-d.

The people first sinned with the incident of the Golden Calf. Then the מִתְאֹנְנִים Mit’oh’n’nim, the people who were looking for any excuse to fight, began to quarrel. This was followed by the scouts who came back with an evil report about the land of Canaan, and now the rebellion of Korach.

When Korach began his dispute, Moses’ hands became weak and he no longer had the strength to plead on behalf of Israel. Rashi cites the parable of the king’s son who acted disrespectfully toward his father, but each time the prince’s friend placated the king on the son’s behalf. When the son acted improperly the fourth time, the friend said, “How long can I bother the king? Perhaps he will no longer accept placation from me.”

Why is the dispute of Korach any worse than the other three rebellions of the people: the Golden Calf, the Murmurers and the spies? Each of these was a terrible affront to G-d’s dignity, yet the Al-mighty forgave the people.

One might assume that “dispute” is just one bad trait among many that are considered improper. However, dispute really is regarded as far worse and far more lethal and destructive, than other bad traits.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Pardes, author of Min Ha’Maayan ahl HaTorah, in his weekly analysis of the parasha, claims that there is a basic difference between the essential nature of the People of Israel and the nature of the other nations of the world. The nations of the world consist of groups of people who band together to become a single nation, and even after they join into a single nation they remain as individuals in the new collective.

The Jewish people are just the opposite. Because the People of Israel each draw their inspiration from a single collective communal soul, their unity is their most salient feature. Although they are also comprised of individuals, they continuously nurture from the same original collective soul of the People of Israel. We therefore find that the unity of Israel and the love of one Jew for another and drawing other Jews who are distant near, together constitute an essential quality of the Jewish people, without which, the Jewish people become disconnected.

Because of the special nature of the Jewish people, we learn that dispute is not only a bad quality, it is destructive of Jewish unity and destructive of the soul of the people. In fact, it stands in stark contrast to the idea of the statement, attributed to G-d, “Who is like My people Israel, a singular nation on earth?” (Talmud Brachot 6a, Shabbat Mincha prayer)

That is why G-d punished Korach and his followers so severely and swiftly, creating a new form of death, when the earth opened up and swallowed the disputants. Those who cause dispute destroy the soul of the people, and lose all rights to exist, together with their wives, their children, and their students. Rashi, in Numbers 16:6 says that because Korach attempted to destroy the unity of Israel, Moses said to them, “Among the ways of others, there are many rites and many clergymen, and they do not all gather together in one house of worship. We have none but one G-d, the Al-mighty, one Ark, one Torah, one altar and one High Priest. Yet you 250 men seek the high priesthood?”

The sin of those who worshiped the Golden Calf, the Murmurers and the spies, constituted a direct rebellion against the link between the people and the Al-mighty. That was bad enough, but not nearly as bad as the dispute of Korach, which challenged the unity of the People of Israel, trying to disconnect them from the collective soul of Israel.

That is why Moses was able to defend the people in the first three instances and achieve forgiveness for them, reconnecting them with G-d. But at the rebellion of Korach, Moses lost his strength and was not capable of helping. So he fell on his face.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5775-2015

“The Sin of the Spies–Revisited”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read of the sin of the scouts whom Moses sent out, at G-d’s behest, to scout out the land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest of Canaan.

In Numbers 13:2, G-d says to Moses: שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, send forth men, if you please, and let them scout out the land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his father’s tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them.

These twelve men of stature set forth to Canaan to scout out the land. Ten of the twelve scouts return with a negative report, and convince all the Israelites that the land of Canaan is (Numbers 13:32) “a land that devours its inhabitants.” Upon seeing the huge samples of fruit that the scouts brought back and after hearing the reports of the giants who inhabit Canaan, the people were traumatized by fear.

After crying the entire night, the Israelites began to murmur against Moses and Aaron, saying, Numbers 14:2,לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לוּ מָתְנוּ “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in the wilderness. Why is G-d bringing us to the land [Canaan] to die by the sword, our wives and young children will be taken captive?! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Joshua and Caleb make one last effort to calm the people, begging them not to rebel against G-d, assuring them that the land of Canaan could be easily captured. The people, however, and the entire assembly would not listen, and were ready to pelt Joshua and Caleb with stones, when the glory of G-d suddenly appears in the Tent of Meeting.

The Al-mighty informs Moses that He is prepared to destroy all the people with a plague. Moses, however, convinces G-d to spare the people, but the Israelites will be severely punished. Rather than go forth to the land of Canaan, all the people are to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, one year for each day that the scouts were in Israel. All the men of Israel who are 20 years and older are to die in the wilderness, never reaching the Promised Land of Israel.

According to tradition, the peoples’ murmuring took place on the 9th day of the month of Av, a day that was to become a national day of mourning for all future generations. It is a day set aside as a day of mourning for the destructions of the two Temples in Jerusalem, and many other calamities that occurred on the 9th of Av.

The commentators struggle to understand how the people, who had witnessed so many great miracles, could go wrong. The Malbim famously suggests that the twelve tribal leaders began as scouts, looking for the best lands for their own individual tribes, but lost their courage when they beheld the fearsome inhabitants of Canaan. (See Shelach 5764-2004)

The Baal HaTanya in the Likkutei Torah, gives a radically different interpretation of the event. The founder of Chabad Chasidut suggests that the ten spies made a serious theological error, failing to appreciate the proper relationship between G-d and His people.

From the time that the People of Israel left Egypt until this very moment, the peoples’ care was entrusted into the hands of the Al-mighty. They drank water from a well that followed the Israelites through the wilderness in the merit of Miriam, and were given manna to eat that came down from heaven every day but Shabbat. The Midrash even states that the Children of Israel were surrounded by seven clouds that transported the people, washed their clothes and enabled their garments to expand as their bodies grew. The people were constantly and completely enveloped by the loving embrace of G-d.

When the scouts reached the land of Canaan and saw a land truly flowing with milk and honey, they knew that their previously coddled lifestyle would change radically in this new land, and understood that their food and water would no longer come easily. They would now have to plow the fields and sow seeds for the wheat to grow, tend to their flocks and bake their own bread. Their idyllic spiritual existence would come to a dramatic end. They would now have to earn bread by the sweat of their brow. They would no longer be a purely spiritual people, in fact, much of their lives would be defined by their need to earn a material livelihood.

Although the idyllic life in the embrace of the Al-mighty sounds utopian, it is hardly a real life. Real life requires working diligently to earn a living, supporting a family, nurturing children, teaching family members a trade and skills that are necessary for life. Real life involves performing the mitzvot of the Torah, and through the mitzvot, completing the work of creation started by the Al-mighty, and in this manner, perfecting the world under the Al-mighty’s rule.

A Jew is not meant to live a parasitic or robotic existence. A Jew is meant to be an active and thoroughly contributing participant in the world, engaged in creative work, healing the sick, and providing for those who are in need.

The compelling interpretation of the Baal HaTanya, however, raises a serious question: If the only reason the People of Israel were reluctant to enter Canaan was because they wanted a more spiritual life, why were they punished so harshly?

A story is told of a man who had amassed a great fortune and decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of Torah. He set himself up in a separate room of his house where he would not be disturbed, and began to study day and night. When the room grew dark, he would light a candle, so that he would not miss a moment of study. He left little time for anything else, not his children, nor his wife, nor did he respond to the pleas of the poor and to others in need.

When he realized that he would die soon, he called his children and told them that they will inherit all his wealth. All he asked of them was, that when he passes on, to please place a paraffin candle in his coffin so that when he arrives in the World to Come, he could immediately light the candle and resume the study of Torah.

When he passed on and arrived in the World to Come, he immediately took out his candle to enable him to study the Torah, but realized that he had forgotten matches.

He ran from place to place, but there was no one who could give him a match. Soon he encountered people with candles, the same poor people whom he had chased away from his door and others in need, but they could not help. Instead they explained to him that candles in the World to Come are lit with matches from the real world. Matches are the good deeds and the acts of compassion that one performs in the real world.

Despite the great value that Judaism places on Torah learning and spirituality, Torah study is meant to be a means to achieve perfection, and a way of teaching people what is right and wrong, and to influence others to do good deeds.

The ancient Israelite scouts had to learn that Utopia is achieved through one’s own efforts and not given on a silver platter by the Al-mighty. The scouts’ philosophical error was not only a mistake, it was an error that resulted from a dangerous, self-centered, attitude.

It is the farmer who plants the seeds that yield the wheat and the baker who bakes the bread, and the shepherd who prepares the flocks, who make it possible for the students to study, enabling the Torah to be disseminated, and allowing human beings to become partners with G-d in the perfection of creation and the betterment of humankind.

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a'lot’cha 5775-2015

“Hubris Revisited”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, G-d tells Moses to instruct Aaron concerning the lighting of the Menorah, the seven branched candelabra, that provides light to the interior of the Tabernacle.

In Numbers 8:3, the Torah confirms that Aaron received the message and fulfilled G-d’s instructions. וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן אַהֲרֹן אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה הֶעֱלָה נֵרֹתֶיהָ,  כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השם אֶת מֹשֶׁה, and Aaron did so; toward the face of the Menorah, he kindled the lamp as the L-rd had commanded Moses.

Rashi notes that the verse emphasizing that “Aaron did so,” is intended to serve as praise of Aaron, “Sheh’loh shee’nah,” that he did not deviate in the slightest from the instructions that he received.

The commentators on Rashi are perplexed. Would Aaron, or for that matter anyone, deviate from the instructions that they had received directly from G-d? What kind of praise is this then for Aaron, and what is Rashi trying to teach?

B. Yeushon, in his highly-regarded compendium of commentators, Meotzarenu Hayashan, cites Rabbi Meir of Premishlan who suggests that the purpose of stating that Aaron did as G-d had instructed, serves to underscore that even though Aaron had reached the highest spiritual level by lighting the Menorah and entering into the Holy of Holies, he did not let success go to his head and remained the same modest person that he was before–a person who “loves peace and pursues peace.” (Avot 1:12)

The Sapirstein edition of Rashi cites the Maharik who states that even though the responsibility of lighting the Menorah involved menial tasks, including preparing the wicks that were covered with soot and oil, Aaron chose to fulfill this important task himself, rather than assign it to a lay priest.

The Chatam Sofer states that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, has the option of performing whatever procedures in the Temple service that he chooses. Although Aaron would be in charge of the lighting of the Menorah for the rest of his life, he might have assumed that on the first day following the passing of his two sons, Nadav and Abihu, someone else would be assigned that task. Instead, Aaron chose to do it himself, demonstrating to all that he accepted the Divine decree regarding the death of his sons, without question.

The Sefat Emet states that the phrase “and Aaron did so” underscores the fact that the lighting of the Menorah never became a matter of routine to Aaron. His fervor remained intense throughout his life, even though the same ritual was repeated every single day.

The Da’at Sofrim states that this was not the first time that Aaron was called on by G-d to perform an action that required great attention to detail. However, the lighting of the candelabra involved not only very specific physical tasks, but also highly intense thoughts and intentions. While the physical task of lighting the candles was relatively easy for Aaron to master, having the proper attitude, thoughts and intentions were much more challenging. Yet, he did so with full focus and total sincerity, enabling the lighting of the candelabra to achieve its utmost impact and efficacy.

There is a well-known story circulating in the Yeshiva world about a young, recently married, gifted scholar, who complained to his Rosh Yeshiva that his wife showed insufficient respect for Torah, because she had asked her husband to take out the garbage. The Rosh Yeshiva, feigning anger, told the student that the next time his wife has the “chutzpah” to ask him to do such a thing, he should immediately call the Rosh Yeshiva, and he will personally attend to the matter with dispatch.

The next time the wife asked her new husband, the young scholar, to take out the garbage, he immediately phoned his Rosh Yeshiva, who quickly arrived at the house to take out the garbage!

It is not uncommon for those who become successful in business and more elevated in stature and public esteem, to become filled with hubris.

As the Director of NJOP, I have been fortunate to meet many successful people, young and old. Not only are almost all those I have met fine and respectful, and, of course generous, they are, for the most part, exceedingly modest. Many even feel that giving charity is a privilege, and that NJOP is doing them a favor by giving them the opportunity to share in the many good deeds and good works that our organization performs.

I am often humbled by the young men and women who have studied with NJOP, who, though they began with very little, achieved unusual financial success. Yet, they feel strongly that the wealth is not theirs. Some spend hours each day dispensing charity when they could be vacationing on exotic islands or circling the world on luxury yachts.

I too learned an important lesson when my name was included several years ago on a list of the top 50 American rabbis. When I told my wife about the honor, she said to me, “Number 24, please take out the garbage.”

The fact that I have shared this story with you, shows that I still have not sufficiently mastered the fine art of modesty.

May we all learn from the example of Aaron, the High Priest, to walk humbly with G-d, and not take ourselves too seriously.

May you be blessed.

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