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Shoftim 5774-2014

“Justice–the Source of Security of the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, calls upon the People of Israel to formally establish courts of law in every city in the land of Israel.

The Torah mandates that, in addition to the requisite judges, officers of the court be appointed who will be responsible for enforcement of the judicial decisions. These officers are to patrol the streets and marketplaces to enforce standards of honesty, and summon violators before the court to be judged.

One of the most formidable and frequently-cited verses of the Torah is found in this parasha. In Deuteronomy 16:20, Moses cries out to the Jewish People in G-d’s name, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹ קֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land, that the L-rd, your G-d gives you.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his erudite remarks regarding the concept of justice in Judaism, cites Rabbeinu Bachya, who notes that the repetition of the Hebrew words, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק   “Tzedek tzedek,” Justice, justice, is intended to underscore the importance of even-handed justice to all. “Justice,” says Rabbeinu Bachya, is imperative, “whether [it is] to your profit or loss, whether in word or an action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”

Rabbi Hertz considers the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to be the “keynote of the humane legislation of the Torah, and of the demand for social righteousness by Israel’s Prophets, Psalmists and Sages.”

Rabbi Hertz also clarifies the difference in the meaning of “justice” in Jewish tradition in contrast to the meaning of justice to the Greeks:

In Plato’s Republic, for example, it [justice] implies a harmonious arrangement of society, by which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so that those who perform humble functions shall be content to perform them in due subservience to their superiors. It stresses the qualities of human nature…

On the other hand, says Rabbi Hertz, the Jewish concept of justice stresses the equality of human beings. The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of G-d, that every human being possesses a Divine spark, and that each human life is sacred and of infinite worth.

Rabbi Hertz drives the message home by declaring:

Judaism requires that human personality be respected in every human being–in the female heathen prisoner of war, in the delinquent, even in the criminal condemned to death. The lashes to be inflicted on the evil-doer must be strictly limited, lest ‘your brother seem vile unto you’ (Deuteronomy 25:3), and, if he be found worthy of death by hanging, his human dignity must still be respected: his body is not to remain hanging overnight, but must be buried the same day (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Greek idea of justice, argues Rabbi Hertz, is akin to harmony, whereas the Hebrew idea of justice is more akin to holiness.

Quoting an anonymous American jurist, Rabbi Hertz declares that the world owes its conception of justice to the Jews.

In addition to introducing the revolutionary idea of justice to humankind, the fact that the Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:20, links the practice of justice to the security of the land of Israel, is of extreme importance.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his comments to Deuteronomy 16:20, notes as follows:

The double promise of verse 20 (“that you may thrive and occupy the land”) means: To pursue the goal of justice unceasingly with full devotion is Israel’s great task in order that its physical and political existence be secured. The significant truth is thereby laid down, that the possession of the land [by the People of Israel] comes into question every minute, and has to be constantly merited afresh (i.e., through justice) by a Jewish state.

Significantly, we find once again, that there is much in parashat Shoftim’s message that applies to contemporary affairs. The outburst of anti-Semitism throughout the world in response to Israel’s valiant attempt to defend itself from thousands of Hamas missiles, raises many questions in light of what the Torah teaches in parashat Shoftim.

After 2,000 years of exile and the miraculous return of the Jewish people to its land, it seems quite clear from the comments of Rabbi Hirsch (who lived long before the establishment of the State of Israel), that there are no guarantees that the Jewish people will permanently possess the land of Israel. In fact, this very verse boldly implies that the People of Israel may lose possession of the land at any time, especially if they fail to properly practice the mitzvah of justice.

I have often noted, that in all of Jewish history there has never been a period of peace without a concomitant return to G-d. Once again, the Torah here confirms that the security of the land of Israel is not dependent upon military strength, but on the just pursuits of the Jewish people.

Surely, we may vociferously defend ourselves from the vicious anti-Israel outcries of many world leaders, by declaring that Israel’s army is the most moral army on the face of the earth. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has declared that the Israeli army deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the way it has conducted itself. There is no question that numerous Israeli soldiers have lost their lives because they erred on the side of caution in order to protect innocent Palestinian civilians, leaving themselves vulnerable to Hamas terrorists, who take advantage of the I.D.F. soldiers’ compassion.

Let us hope and pray that the meritorious deeds of the Jewish people will soon result in greater security for the State of Israel. While it is important for Jews to continue to speak out frequently, to organize demonstrations and record our voices in support of Israel, it is equally, if not more important to raise the level of our peoples’ moral behavior and actions during this especially sensitive and perilous time for the Jewish people.

If we do this, if we indeed strive for a higher level of sanctity in our words, actions and deeds, the Jewish people will surely prevail, and merit that the security of the land of Israel will be ensured, from now until the end of time.

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5774-2014

“Giving Charity Kindly and Generously”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we find particular emphasis on performing acts of kindness, generosity and charity.

While charity is regarded today by most enlightened societies as a positive value, in ancient societies charity was not always acknowledged as a universal good or rational act. Even today, in some contemporary settings, it is still regarded as a questionable value.

For instance, traditional Calvinists do not look upon charity favorably since they believe that one may not interfere with G-d’s will. In fact, helping a person who is poor or widowed or orphaned may be seen as defying G-d’s will. Perhaps their unfortunate situation is intended by G-d to serve as a punishment for sinful deeds, or to strengthen them through the challenge of poverty, widowhood, or being an orphan.

Judaism rejects that kind of thinking and declares that all poor and needy people who ask for help must be responded to immediately. Only G-d may decide whether those in need are deserving of help or not. Those who are asked for help must assume that all mendicants are entirely deserving.

Judaism also has a unique view regarding the attitude of the charity donor. Many religionists assume that all good deeds must be performed with a full and sincere heart. Judaism submits that helping the needy is the primary concern–philosophizing and rationalization can come later. Therefore one is expected to give, even without a full heart, but give.

The Torah was actually the first documented source to introduce the concept of charity to humankind. Deuteronomy 15:7-8, boldly declares, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן. כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לו, If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 14:22, when discussing the issue of tithes, states, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ, You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed. The rabbis (Talmud, Taanit 9a) deduce, utilizing a play on words, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתֽעַשֵּׁר, give tithes in order to become rich. The rabbis further state that charity is the only mitzvah in which there is a guarantee of Divine compensation. Says the prophet (Malachi 3:10), וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת, “Test me in this,” G-d declares, that if you give charity, G-d will be certain to reward the donor’s benevolence.

The Abarbanel notes that a person who gives charity, is not really giving of his own wherewithal. The donated funds actually belong to G-d; the Jew is merely a caretaker of those funds, serving as G-d’s “banker” on earth. The banker who fails to fulfill G-d’s wishes, will lose the deposit. G-d will withdraw the bounty, and bestow it elsewhere.

The Abarbanel further states that charity also serves as a test of one’s faith. A person may assume, incorrectly, that the more charity he dispenses, the less he will have. However, G-d promises just the opposite. Besides, says the Abarbanel, one never knows when the wheel of fortune will turn, and the person with funds today, will find himself in need of sustenance from others tomorrow.

Rashi notes that the words in the verse “a destitute person …any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land,” points to a particular priority to be followed when dispensing charity. Those to be cared for first are the totally “destitute,” who are desperately poor. The words “your brethren,” teach that the closer the relative, the greater the obligation. The words “in any of your cities,” imply that the poor of your own city come before those of other cities. Finally, from the words, “in the land,” we affirm that the poor of the land of Israel come before those of other lands.

The Hebrew word צְדָקָה, “tzedakah” literally means righteousness, not charity, implying that sustaining others is not to be construed as an act of kindness, but rather as the correct thing to do.

Another unique insight of Judaism is that beyond the financial support, meaningful charity involves taking into consideration the personal and emotional needs of the destitute person. Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 250:1) suggests that a formerly wealthy person needs to be sustained according to his particular (even extravagant) needs. Therefore, those who are accustomed to being driven around in a chauffeured limousine must be helped to maintain their dignity and self esteem.

Several years ago, I heard a moving story about Mr. Charles Smith who owned a wholesale vegetable business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. In order to have enough time to prepare properly for the Shabbat, he would always make certain to close his business by noon on Friday, no matter how many orders were still waiting.

After closing for Shabbat, the first thing Mr. Smith did was to call Yeshiva Torah Va’Daath, which was, at the time, located in Williamsburg, to make certain that all faculty members had been paid for the week. If they had not been paid, he would cross the Williamsburg Bridge himself and make certain that everyone was paid before the weekend.

Because he was a wholesaler, he usually had a lot of cash with him. When approached by a poor person on the street who asked for help, he would quickly reach into his pocket and take out a wad of bills, turn and look the other way, and say to the needy person to take as much as he needed.

The author of the Sefer Hachinuch insists that Jews are רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים, the children and grandchildren of naturally merciful people, who are proud to share the mitzvah of charity with the world.

The revolutionary concept of charity is one of the greatest of G-d’s gifts to humanity.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5774-2014

“No Reason to Glory!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, is filled with common sense wisdom. The many insightful observations found in parashat Eikev underscore the pithy observation that, “Common sense is not very common.”

The primary and very commonsensical message of parashat Eikev is that those who follow G-d’s directives will be rewarded, and those who fail to follow His directives will be punished.

Among the important messages communicated in parashat Eikev is the warning against the lure of success and prosperity.

In Deuteronomy 8:11, the Torah warns the Jewish people to take heed, lest they forget G-d by not observing His commandments. When everything seems to be going well, when food is plentiful, shelter is secure, cattle, sheep, silver and gold are increasing, a Jew must be constantly aware not to become haughty. G-d, who took the People of Israel out of the land of Egypt out of the House of Bondage must not be forgotten. After all, it was G-d who led the people through the great and awesome wilderness, who brought forth water from the rock, and fed the people manna from heaven. Beware, warns the Torah in Deuteronomy 8:17, lest you react arrogantly to your success, וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ, כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה., and you say in your heart, “My strength, and the might of my hand, has brought me all this wealth.”

Instead, says the Torah, you must remember that it was G-d who endowed you with the wisdom and strength that enabled you to produce the wealth in order to establish His covenant that He swore to your forefathers this day.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber, in his brilliant and insightful volume Chemdat Yamim, cites the responses of a number of the classical commentaries to the question of hubris and haughtiness. They ask: Is it haughty for a person to invest much effort in building up his business? Doesn’t it indicate a lack of faith in G-d?

Rabbi Filber cites the Ran, who suggests that it is acceptable for a wealthy person to say that “My strength, and the might of my hand, has made me all this wealth,” as long as the wealthy person realizes that it is the Al-mighty who provided the talents and resources to acquire this wealth.

Rabbi Filber also cites the Abarbanel, who notes that when Moses said in the name of the Al-mighty that a person should not say, “My strength, and the might of my hand, has made me all this wealth,” does not mean that a person must deny any role in his/her own success, but rather that every person needs to acknowledge that their role was an intermediary, not primary, role. The primary role, of course, was played by G-d, who provided the land, the rain, the wind, and all the other necessary ingredients for the success. Can an ax glory over the woodchopper, claiming that the instrument did all the work, rather than the human being?

After the miraculous victory of the Six Day War, the people of Israel were justifiably euphoric. The military victory was spectacular. In fact, the battle was virtually over in the first six hours of the war, after the Israeli Air Force had completely demolished the Egyptian and Syrian air forces. Immediately following the war, there was a religious acknowledgment of the hand of G-d. But, after a while, many Israelis began to glory in their success.

When the Egyptians started to threaten, Yitzchak Rabin reputedly warned, “We will break their bones.” IDF Chief of Staff General Haim Bar Lev, who built the defense line along the Suez, said “My line is impenetrable!,” yet within a few hours after the start of the Yom Kippur War the Egyptians had washed the line away with fire hoses.

At this moment of great anguish for our people, while the State of Israel is confronted by the wily and the perfidious Hamas terrorists, we dare not glory. First of all, the evil enemy is very clever, having spent many years building concrete-lined tunnels that extend throughout the Northern Gaza and the Southern border of Israel. According to some reports, Hamas operatives were weeks away from staging a massive kidnapping, scheduled to take place on Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014. Such an attack could have crippled Israel, paralyzed its economy, and crushed the morale of the People of Israel.

There are those who suggest that had it not been for the kidnapping of the three Yeshiva students, which led to the massive assault on Hamas, the full extent of these tunnels would not have been discovered, and the future of the entire State of Israel would have been jeopardized.

The soldiers of Israel have fought a valiant battle in Gaza. The enemy is exacting a great price. The Al-mighty, through the instrument of the Iron Dome, is miraculously “catching” the missiles that are being fired onto the populated areas of Israel. The accomplishments of this battle should be a great source of pride, but we must always remember that it is G-d who orchestrates everything from behind the scenes.

Hopefully, the Almighty G-d will allow us soon to see the blossoming of peace quickly in our days, with no or few casualties.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5774-2014

“The Prediction of Return”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, is always read after the Fast of the 9th of Av and after the conclusion of the period of mourning known as the “Three Weeks.”

Although parashat Va’etchanan contains many significant themes, including the Ten Commandments and the Shemah prayer, it also contains the powerful prediction of a massive return and repentance of the Jewish people. This theme of repentance clearly dovetails with the essential message of what needs to be done following the “Three Weeks”–-with the destruction behind us, we must move on and rebuild.

The Torah predicts that the Jewish people will be exiled from the Holy Land, and only few will be left among the nations where G-d will lead His people.  Many will be seduced to worship idols of wood and stone. Nevertheless, the Torah foretells, that in exile, there will eventually be a remarkable return of the people to G-d.

In Deuteronomy 4:29-30, the Torah predicts: וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת השם   אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ, כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.  בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלוֹ   From there [in exile] you will seek the L-rd, your G-d, and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things befall you, at the end of days, you will return unto the L-rd, your G-d, and hearken to His voice.

The Torah, thus, confirms that the L-rd, our G-d, is a merciful G-d, who will not abandon His people or destroy them, and will not forget the covenant that He made with the forefathers of Israel.

This remarkable prediction of return, especially the return of Jews who reside in the Diaspora, in foreign and hostile lands, has, to a great extent, come true in our own time.

After the physical losses of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and the spiritual losses of millions of Jews due to indifference, assimilation and ignorance, the past sixty years of American Jewish life must be noted for the remarkable number of Jews who have returned to observance, and are today living committed Jewish lives. The recent Pew report, with all its ominous analysis and conclusions, also notes that more than one quarter of American Jews today who identify today as Orthodox, report that they come from non-observant homes.

When compared to the millions of assimilated Jews and those who simply walked away from their Judaism, the fact that approximately 125,000 Jews have returned to observance does not seem to be of great significance. Yet, when considered in the context of the massive assimilation and the irresistible blandishments of contemporary society, these numbers are indeed impressive.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus reports that his uncle, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, and one of the most prominent and successful rabbis in the contemporary movement of Jewish return, was once asked an interesting question: In previous generations, they would say that if one succeeded in helping a single Jew return to observance, it was considered a most significant accomplishment. The greatest rabbis and the most righteous leaders in previous generations hardly ever succeeded in returning more than two or three Jews. How did you succeed in helping hundreds of Jews to return?

Rabbi Weinberg responded with a parable: Consider, if you will, a construction site. Walls of steel and concrete are waiting to be properly positioned by a crane that lifts them, to move them to the desired location. While the walls are still suspended by the crane, the workers are able to push and pull them, and position them into their proper locations. How is it possible for the workers to move such heavy loads? Only because the load is being held up by the crane. While they are still suspended, the walls can easily be moved into their proper place.

Citing Maimonides, Rabbi Weinberg explained that the phenomenon of Jewish return in his generation was predicted in the Torah. Maimonides wrote in the Laws of Teshuva, 7:5, that the Torah predicted that the Jewish people will eventually return and repent at the end of their exile, and will be immediately redeemed. This, said Rabbi Weinberg, confirms the Al-mighty’s promise that before the arrival of the Messiah, the people of Israel will return and repent.

In previous generations, explained Rabbi Weinberg, the Jews were weighed down by their oppressors and by their own sinfulness. They could not be lifted from their entrenched positions. In our day, there is a flourishing movement of spirituality, and many Jews and non-Jews are in the process of a significant spiritual quest. It is as if the Al-mighty has lifted the people up with a crane, positioning them for their return. Thus, it is much easier in these days to bring Jews back.

Rabbi Pincus also cites a fascinating Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Kings 247), about King Manasseh, the ancient king of Judah, who was known to be one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel.

Manasseh, the only son of the righteous King Hezekiah, became king at age twelve, and reigned for 55 years. He reinstated pagan worship, and undid the positive religious reforms instituted by his righteous father.

According to the Book of II Chronicles 33:11-13, Manasseh was brought in chains to the Assyrian king, presumably for suspected disloyalty. The Midrash says that he was placed into a large vat with holes, and fires were lit under the vat to cook him alive. When he recognized his desperate situation, Manasseh cried out to every single idolatrous religion in the world, begging to be rescued. But, help never arrived.

At that moment Manasseh recalled that his father had once taught him the Biblical verse found in Deuteronomy 4:30,  בַּצַּר לְךָ וּמְצָאוּךָ כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, stating that when in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto the L-rd, your G-d. Said Manasseh, “If you, G-d of Israel, answer me, good. If not, I will regard you like the other pagan gods.”

The Heavenly angels, who had no sympathy for Manasseh, quickly moved to close all the portals of heaven, so that the evil King’s prayers would not reach the Al-mighty. They called out before G-d, “Master of the Universe, a man who stationed an idol in the midst of the Holy Temple, does he deserve to repent?” Said G-d, “If I do not accept his repentance, then the portals of repentance will be closed to all those who wish to return.” What did G-d do? He dug a channel under His holy throne, so that He could hear the cries of the wicked King, Manasseh.

Rabbi Pincus points out, that in truth, the argument of King Manasseh does not hold up. After all, Manasseh, who worshiped pagan gods his whole life, has a right to expect that the pagan gods would answer him. However, Manasseh, who spent his entire life denying the G-d of Israel, killing G-d’s righteous prophets, and defiling the city of Jerusalem with the blood of innocent victims, has no right to expect to be saved by the G-d of Israel. Besides, his call to G-d came only after he had exhausted his appeals to the pagan gods. His manner of pleading with G-d was truly offensive. Why then should G-d respond to him?

Rabbi Pincus explains that if G-d would not accept Manasseh’s repentance, it would indicate that Manasseh had crossed a line of no return with his sinfulness, implying that there are limits to G-d’s mercy. The difference between the Al-mighty and all other so-called “powers,” is that G-d’s mercy is truly limitless. Therefore, even Manasseh may plead for forgiveness for his sinfulness, and G-d will indeed forgive him.

According to the account in Chronicles, as a result of his contrition, Manasseh was restored to the throne and abandoned idolatry. He subsequently removed the foreign idols and called upon the people to worship in the traditional Jewish manner.

Although there is a Talmudic dispute about whether King Manasseh merited a portion in the World to Come (Talmud Sandhedrin 90a and 104), there is no question that the mercy of G-d is endless.

Let us sincerely hope and pray that the special period of repentance that begins in just a few short weeks with the arrival of the month of Elul, will be a period of profound Divine mercy, leading to the Ultimate Redemption.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, August 4th and continues through Tuesday night, August 5th, 2014. Have a meaningful fast.

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

Devarim 5774-2014

“Moses: The Lonely Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, opens the fifth book of the Torah, the book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy. Much of the book of Deuteronomy consists of a repetition of the history of the People of Israel from the time of the Exodus, until the people reach the borders of the Promised Land (Devarim 5765-2005).

As we have previously noted (Devarim 5773-2013), parashat Devarim is traditionally read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, which is known as Shabbat Chazon, the “Sabbath of the Vision,” alluding to the opening word of the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah that is read as the Haftarah on Shabbat Chazon. The prophet Isaiah predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem if the Jewish people fail to repent.

There is a prominent allusion to Tisha B’Av in parashat Devarim. In his review of the post-Exodus history of the people, Moses recalls the selection of the seventy elders of Israel to help him govern the people. Because the people had grown so large and unwieldy, Moses cried out, Deuteronomy 1:12, אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם, How can I, alone, carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels? Moses then challenges the people to provide distinguished men, who are wise and understanding, to serve together with him as leaders of the people.

It is hardly an accident that Moses uses the Hebrew word, אֵיכָה, “Eicha,” how–how can I alone carry your contentiousness. “Eicha,” is also the first word of the Scroll of Lamentations (known as Megillat Eicha) and is found in the Haftarah of Shabbat Chazon, as well.

At first glance, it would appear from the above citation that Moses is complaining about the burdens of leadership.

Vilna Gaon notes that the uncommon use of the word, “Eicha,” which parallels the first word of the Book of Lamentations, obviously underscores the connection to the destruction of the Temple.

But the Vilna Gaon notes further that the verse in which Moses expresses his self-doubts, also includes the word, לְבַדִּי, “L’vah’dee,” which means alone. “How can I alone,” asks Moses, “carry your contentiousness?” In the opening verse of the Book of Lamentations as well, not only does the word, “Eicha” appear, but so too does the concept of loneliness. The prophet Jeremiah laments: אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד, How did the city of Jerusalem, this once-great metropolis, become a city that sits in solitude? Thus, the Vilna Gaon argues, the real connection between parashat Devarim and Tisha B’Av, is not how the great hardships occurred, but rather the loneliness of both Moses and the city of Jerusalem.

Moses certainly was not complaining about the burdens of leadership. He was a most gifted and accomplished leader, who could resolve almost every communal issue. The loneliness, however, was too much for him to bear.

Had the people at least appreciated what Moses had done for them, he would not have been so lonely. But instead, they constantly attacked him, criticized him, and found fault with him. The great Moses needed support, which is what he, at least partially, found when the seventy members of the Sanhedrin joined in his efforts to lead the people. Moses certainly could have managed without the people’s accolades, but the loneliness was too much for even the great Moses to bear.

And so it was similarly with the city of Jerusalem. At the time of the destruction of the first Temple, as reported by the prophet Jeremiah, the city of Jerusalem was alone, the people in Jerusalem were alone. Although they all suffered together in the calamity of the destruction and the oppression of the Babylonians, there was no unity among the people. All were preoccupied with their own suffering, unable to see beyond their own needs. They needed a sympathetic shoulder, they needed someone to share their burdens, but no one else seemed to care, because they were all so wrapped up in their own troubles.

As usual, there are contemporary lessons to be learned from these ancient texts. In this time of great communal need, with the murderous attacks of the Hamas terrorists, and the hundreds of lethal missiles that have been fired upon the State of Israel, to the indifference, it seems, of the entire world, the People of Israel have one great asset, their unity and their common concern and care for each other.

Ironically, the unity that the people of Israel are currently experiencing emerged from the crisis of the three kidnaped and murdered teens. Nevertheless, the degree of selflessness and giving that the People of Israel exhibited during the search for the kidnaped victims, and in the battle that ensued with the Hamas terrorists, is perhaps unmatched in the annals of human history.

Is there a sensible response to the perpetual question of the Jewish people–“Eichah?” How could this have happened? The answer is, yes! The people of Israel can address every issue, as long as we are not alone. Of course Israel is never alone because the Al-mighty is always with His people. But, that is not enough. For the loneliness of our people to permanently vanish, it is incumbent upon each and every member of the Jewish community to feel the pain of every Jew who is suffering and threatened, indeed to feel the pain of all innocent human beings in this world, who are facing great horrors and unprecedented suffering because of the bestial actions of a growing number of very wicked people.

The answer to Jewish loneliness is, as Rashi noted on Exodus 19:2, “One people, one heart.” May this period of communal mourning be a time of enhanced mutual concern, which will usher in the dawn of peace and tranquility, for all people throughout the world.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) was observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorated the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av.  Tisha B’Av will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Masei 5774-2014

In light of the precarious situation in Israel, we offer the following prayer on behalf of the well being of the citizens of Israel:

“Our brothers, the entire family of Israel, who are in distress and captivity, whether they are on sea or dry land-may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and soon-and let us say: Amen.”


“On the Road: The Lessons of Hindsight”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Masei, concludes the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers. Parashat Masei is always read during the period of the “Three Weeks,” which begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. The “Three Weeks” conclude with Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.

There is, not unexpectedly, a confluence between the theme of the 42 stops that the people made during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the steps that led to the destruction of the first and second Temples. The details of the ancient Israelites’ itinerary in the wilderness should not be summarily disregarded. In fact, studying the travels of the ancient Israelites is important for those who wish to understand the developments of both later and contemporary Jewish history. Jews must always be familiar with Jewish history, in order to learn from the lessons of the past.

An oft-cited aphorism in rabbinic literature (based on a Midrash Rabba Genesis 48:7, and cited in Nachmanides’ commentary on Genesis 12:10) that conveys one of the most profound lessons of Jewish history is, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, the experiences of the ancient ancestors are often predictors of the Jewish future. Aside from the fact that history in general, and Jewish history in particular, has a tendency to repeat itself, it is important for any intelligent person to heed, and learn from, the errors of the past. It matters little whether the errors were perpetrated personally or by others.

In our analysis of Matot-Masei 5769-2009, we noted that the 42 locations are enumerated in the Bible to refute the claim of the skeptics who refuse to accept that miracles occurred in each one of the 42 locations. By enumerating the detailed itinerary of the journeys of the Jewish people, travelers can actually visit the wilderness and confirm for themselves how great the miracles were that the people experienced during that time, surviving in that most challenging environment for forty years.

In our analysis of Masei 5771-2011, we noted that a vital message of the parasha was not only that one must not lose sight of one’s destination when on a journey, but that the journey itself is often as important as the destination. Not only must the destination be reached, but that the destination be reached in a proper, ethical and moral fashion, is at least as important as the journey itself, if not more.

Many commentators, both ancient and contemporary, are struck by the numerous repetitious phrases found in the opening chapter of Parashat Masei. The parasha begins with the words, Numbers 33:1, אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם, בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן And these are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went forth from the land of Egypt, according to their legions, under the hand of Moses and Aaron. When listing the earliest journey, in Numbers 33:3, the Torah states, וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרַעְמְסֵס, noting that the people traveled from Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month of the first year, after the Exodus. And then, in Numbers 33:5, scripture records, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, וַיַּחֲנו בְּסֻכֹּת, and the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses, and encamped in Sukkot. The phrase, וַיִּסְעוּ, they traveled, and the phrase, וַיַּחֲנוּ, and they camped, are repeated 42 times in the Biblical itinerary.

Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum, in the eighth series of Peninim on the Torah, notes that most people think that in order to correct the mistakes that are made in life, it is necessary to live life over again. Rabbi Scheinbaum, however, quotes HaRav Moshe Swift, z”l who rejects this as a non-Torah point of view. While the Kabbalists believe in reincarnation and soul migration, normative Jewish tradition maintains that to right the wrongs that people have committed, one need only look back. This powerful message of parashat Masei, is the reason for the repetition of the phrases, “And they journeyed,” “and they rested.”

Life is a journey of both opportunities and challenges, very often of opportunities and challenges that repeat themselves. If we pay attention to our previous experiences, or those of others, we can almost always learn how to properly respond to both the opportunities and the challenges, the good fortune and the misfortunes. It is often only from hindsight that we learn how grateful we must be when we are blessed with good health, and the courage we need when faced with ill health.

The popular Hebrew motto (apparently of medieval Jewish origin), אֵין חָכָם כְּבַעַל הַנִּסָיוֹן, There is no person as wise as the one who has already faced the experience, rings so very true here.

This, of course, may be the reason for the frequent coinciding of parashat Masei with the dreaded days of the Three Weeks.

Unfortunately, the “Three Weeks” visited the Jewish people early this year, in the form of the “18 Days,” during which the Jewish people prayed fervently and spared no physical or spiritual effort in order to ensure the safe return of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. Alas, it was not to be.

There is certainly much that we can learn from hindsight from the recent tragic kidnaping and murder of the three yeshiva boys in Israel that relates to the theme of וַיִּסְעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ, they traveled and they rested.

A number of important issues were quickly raised as a result of the tragedy that are presently being discussed and addressed.  Among them is the safety of hitchhiking and the lack of secure public transportation in the area where the kidnaping occurred. Another is the concern about the lack of an immediate response to the boys’ distress call. Within weeks a new operational app was activated to address this issue.

It was fascinating to learn that it was local civilians who discovered the graves of the kidnaped boys. They were the ones who knew the area well, and were almost able to pinpoint the location of where the boys’ bodies were buried, all because of experience. Because they traveled and they camped.

We also learned, so tragically, that apparently Jews are capable of committing atrocities as well. Whether as an evil act of revenge or of insanity, these nefarious acts must be carefully reviewed in order to avoid any recurrences in the future. The future of our people may be determined by these vile actions.

One of the most important lessons that emerged from this very tragic scenario, is the unity that crises such as these create among the people of Israel and of Jews worldwide–the remarkable and unprecedented outpouring of spirituality and prayer, that impacted on us all.

This universal unity is a truly rare occurrence in Jewish history, and should not be allowed to be frittered away. The brotherhood and love that the crisis created among the people, should be carefully preserved, to serve as a true and everlasting memorial to the lives of the three boys. The selfless devotion that was in evidence during this incredible period of charity and kindness must also be preserved. As reflected in the theme and the title of the book written by Mrs. Sherri Mandell, whose 13-year-old son Koby was also a victim of murderous terrorists in May of 2001-–these surely are the “blessings” of a broken heart.

May we all learn from our travels, the ancient travels of forty years in the wilderness, the travels that the Jewish people endured between the periods of destruction of the first Temple and the second Temple, and our contemporary travels. Let us heed these lessons well and benefit from the incredible opportunities that hindsight affords us.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) was observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorated the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the Three Weeks period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Matot 5774-2014

Hakarat HaTov: Expressing Appreciation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Matot, we read of G-d’s command to Moses to avenge the Children of Israel against the Midianite nation.

What was the reason for this Divine call to action?

In Numbers 25:1-9, we read of the act of harlotry committed by Zimri, the son of Salu, a Simeonite prince and Cozbi, the daughter of Tzur, a Midianite princess. It is the zealous Pinchas who puts an end to the harlotry by spearing both of the perpetrators to death in front of the people.

In Numbers 31:2, G-d instructs Moses, saying, נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים, Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites. Rashi explains that even though the Moabites also caused the Israelites to sin, G-d did not ask that they be avenged, because the Midianite women were the main seducers and the ones who caused the Israelites to worship the idol of Pe’or. They even sent one of their princesses to lead the debauchery.

When the battle with the Midianites was discussed in last year’s Torah message (Matot 5773-2013), we emphasized the role of Pinchas in leading the battle. This year’s message, however, elaborates on an important lesson that may be gleaned from the details of this battle.

The commentators are puzzled by the fact that despite G-d’s direct request that Moses personally avenge the Children of Israel against the Midianites, we find that Moses is not involved in the battle. Instead, Scripture (Numbers 31:6), reports that Moses mobilizes one thousand soldiers from each tribe and that Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Cohen, leads the people into battle.

The Da’at Z’kenim explains that, despite the fact that G-d tells Moses to avenge the Midianites, Moses felt that because he grew up in Midian it would be inappropriate for him to battle with them, since the Midianites had done him so many kindnesses after he fled Egypt as a young man. As the popular aphorism advises, “The well from which you draw water should not be polluted with dirt.”

The practice of הַכָּרַת הַטּוֹב  Hakarat HaTov, of expressing thankfulness and appreciation for a kindness rendered, is a significant value in Jewish life. It is a theme that repeats itself throughout the Torah. Already in the story of Egypt, we learn (Exodus 1:8) וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם, that a new king rose over Egypt who did not recognize that Joseph had saved both the Egyptian people and the world from starvation and from likely total destruction.

Similarly, we learn that Moses already practiced Hakarat HaTov early in his life. In Exodus 7:19, G-d says to Moses, to say to Aaron, “take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt…and they shall become blood.” Explains Rashi, because the waters protected the infant, Moses, when he was in the bulrushes, both of the first two plagues, blood and frogs, were performed by Aaron, who struck the waters instead of Moses. Similarly, it is Aaron, in Exodus 8:12, who is instructed to strike the dust of the land, so that the dust may become lice throughout the land of Egypt. The dust had protected Moses from punishment, when the earth hid the body of the Egyptian whom Moses had killed.

Rabbi Yonason Sacks questions the reason for being thankful to the water and earth. Both the water and the earth could hardly make a conscious effort to help Moses. Inanimate objects could not possibly understand or benefit from appreciation, and therefore, gratitude is not something that they require. Rabbi Sacks therefore suggests that instead of assessing the effort made by the one who committed the act of kindness, one should instead adopt the position of the recipient of the act, and look at how much they benefitted.  Moses’ enormous sense of gratitude came from having derived benefit from the water and dirt.

The Torah also notes (Exodus 4:18), that before leaving Midian, after being instructed by G-d to go back to Egypt to save the Jewish people, Moses felt it imperative to ask permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to leave.

It is no coincidence that the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:4) prohibits the two nations of Ammon and Moab from marrying into the Jewish people. These two nations failed to show proper gratitude and appreciation to the Jewish people. After all, it was in the merit of Abraham that their ancestors, Lot and his two daughters, were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ammon and Moab owe their entire existence to Abraham and to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, they refused to allow the Jewish people to pass through their land when they were on their way to Israel, even refusing to give the Israelites any bread or water. Such heartless people can never marry into the Jewish people.

The Talmud in Brachot 7b, declares that it was the matriarch Leah, who was the first person to express gratitude to G-d. Through prophecy, she understood that the four matriarchs would ultimately give birth to twelve tribes and, and that she was entitled to only three of the twelve children. So when her fourth child was born, she calls him, Judah (Genesis 29:35), declaring, “This time, I shall thank G-d,” The rabbis explain that of course she was grateful when her first three children were born, but once she received more than her fair share, she was even more grateful, and named the child, Judah. Now, whenever she would encounter the child, she would recall the deep gratitude that she owes G-d at all times, and not only immediately after the child is born. There are many wonderful tales of great rabbis and leaders who expressed uncommon gratitude to G-d and to humankind.

The Chasidic leader, Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, wrote in his last will and testament, that every Sabbath eve, right before the Sabbath, he would express gratitude to the Al-mighty for the many gifts that G-d had bestowed upon him. When he would put on his beautiful Sabbath clothes, he would acknowledge how truly undeserving he was of the beautiful clothes. He further acknowledged that there are so many more righteous people than he, who do not have special clothes for Shabbat. Rabbi Ziskind would also thank G-d for his weekday clothes, and in the winter for his warm clothes, recognizing how impoverished he would be if he would not have proper clothing.

It is told that the Chofetz Chaim, was forever expressing his gratitude to the bathhouse attendant, who saved his life after he had passed out in the bath.

It is related that Rabbi Elazar Shach and many other great contemporary rabbis were meticulous about thanking everyone, even those who did a slight favor for them.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein , would lean over from the passenger seat in the car to thank the person who collected the tolls at the tollbooth.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lapian made a point of expressing thanks to everyone, even if he paid for their services, such as a bus driver, shoemaker, or grocer. Rabbi Lapian was often seen cleaning the bench in his yeshiva. When a student offered to clean the bench for him, he would say, “No, thank you. I want to clean this bench myself, since I owe the bench Hakarat HaTov. Each morning this bench helps me fold my talit. It makes sure that my talit does not drag on the floor while I am folding it.”

Some of you may know that I suffered a knee accident in early May, falling down a flight of stairs and rupturing the tendon to the quadriceps (thigh) muscle, requiring an operation. Thank G-d, I am recuperating well, and no longer need to walk with crutches, but I still wear a full length brace on my left leg.

You can hardly imagine the joy that being relieved of using the crutches brought me. I was finally able to use my hands. I am now starting to bend my knee. Last week, for the first time, I walked without a brace. Who would ever believe the sheer elation that these actions would bring me–-actions that we consider “second-nature.” No longer will I take for granted the morning blessing that is recited for G-d Who makes firm the footsteps of man.

Clearly, it should not take a calamity for each of us to appreciate that even the smallest actions are a gift from the Al-mighty. Every breath, every blink of the eye! It is for that reason that we need to thank the Al-mighty for everything that we have, at every opportunity that we can.

If Moses was able to express his gratitude to the inanimate sea and the earth, how much more must we express our gratitude to other human beings for their kindnesses, and to the Al-mighty  G-d, of course!

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.

Have a meaningful fast.

Pinchas 5774-2014

“The Battle for Women’s Rights”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Balak 5774-2014

“Upstaged by a Donkey”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, Balaam does not succeed.

Poor Balaam, upstaged by his own donkey.

May you be blessed.

Chukat 5774-2014

“The Inscrutable Statutes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continues Rabbi Soloveitchik,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.