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Bereshith 5776-2015

“Seth–Adam and Eve’s Little-Known Son”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, murder is introduced to the world, and the first instance of fratricide is committed by Cain, who slays his brother, Abel.

In Genesis 4:1-2, the Torah informs us that the first human being (Adam) knew Eve, his wife, and that she conceived and bore their first child, Cain. She then bore his brother, Abel. The Torah narrative notes that Cain became an agriculturalist, who tilled the soil, while Abel became a shepherd.

The fateful confrontation between the brothers takes place in a field. The Torah, in Genesis 4:8, relates, enigmatically, that Cain spoke with his brother Abel, but does not tell us what they discussed. Suddenly, scripture declares, Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.

Although there are numerous theories about why they argued, all are speculative. The only thing known for certain is that Abel is no longer among the living. Cain is then harshly cursed by G-d, and is told that the earth has rejected him, and that he will become a wanderer on the face of the earth. Despite his harsh fate, Cain goes on to become the progenitor of many generations of talented children and grandchildren. (Bereshith 5763-2002).

Eventually Cain, the murderer, is killed by his own great-great-grandson, Lamech, apparently by accident.

130 years have passed since the murder of Abel. During these seven generations, nothing at all is heard of Adam and Eve. It is only after we learn how deeply pained Lamech is about the role he played in the death of his great-grandfather, that we are reintroduced to the “First Couple.”

In Genesis 4:25 we are told, וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת, כִּי שָׁת לִי אֱ־לֹקִים זֶרַע אַחֵר תַּחַת הֶבֶל כִּי הֲרָגוֹ קָיִן, Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, saying that: “G-d has provided me another child in place of Abel, for Cain had killed him.”

The Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah, 14:12, maintains that Seth is called, “Seth,” because the world was “set” from him, שֶׁמִּמֶּנּוּ הֻשְׁתַּת הָעוֹלָם. His mother called him, שֵׁת “Sheht” because G-d gave her another child. The Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 23:7 concludes from this, that the Messiah will eventually emerge from Seth, referring to his illustrious descendants, Ruth and King David.

Rashi cites a fascinating Midrash found in Bereshith Rabbah 23:5, which maintains that after the death of Cain, Lamech sought out Adam to confer with him about his marital problems. Apparently, his wives had separated from him (either because he had killed his great-grandfather as well as a son, Tubal Cain, or because the women had calculated that after seven generations the descendants of Cain would all die in a flood).

As a gesture of sympathy to Lamech, Adam reproves his great-grandson’s wives, Ada and Tzeelah, for not fulfilling the commandment of procreation. They sharply respond, “Why don’t you [Adam] practice what you preach. Since the time that G-d decreed (Genesis 3:19) that man will not live eternally, you have separated from your wife for 130 years.” Immediately, Adam knew his wife, and it was then that Seth was born.

In Genesis 4:26, scripture states, וּלְשֵׁת גַּם הוּא יֻלַּד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ, אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם השׁם, And as for Seth, to him also a son was born, and he named him, Enosh. Then it was begun to call in the name of the L-rd.

It is interesting to note that contrary to Biblical custom, it is Seth, not his wife, who gives the name, Enosh, to their son. Although Seth becomes the progenitor of the entire human race, this is all we know about him from the Biblical text.

Two additional references regarding Seth are found in the following chapter that contains the recapitulation of the Biblical genealogy, but they too tell us little about Adam and Eve’s third child. Genesis 5:3 states, וַיְחִי אָדָם שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ כְּצַלְמוֹ, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת, When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot in his likeness and his image, and he named him Seth. In Genesis 5:8, we are informed that Seth died at age 912 years.

The only other indirect scriptural reference to Seth is found in Numbers 24:17, in the final prophecy of Balaam regarding Israel, Moab and their neighbors. There, Balaam predicts that, “A star has issued forth from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israel. He shall pierce the nobles of Moab and undermine the children of Seth.” According to Rashi, the star refers to a Jewish king who will rise, and with his royal scepter bring all those who oppose him under his sway. Not only will he defeat the nobles of Moab, he will actually vanquish the entire world. Since Seth was the progenitor of all humankind, the expression “Children of Seth” is used here to represent all the people on the face of the earth.

The sages note that scripture describes only Seth, but not Cain and Abel, as being born, בִּדְמוּתוֹ כְּצַלְמוֹ, in the image and likeness of Adam, his father. Rabbi Yosi is cited in the Zohar, as saying that this is an indication that it will only be through Seth that the world will continue to exist. Certainly not through Cain or Abel, since Abel, who was childless, was murdered and all of Cain’s children perished in the flood.

Seth is therefore referred to (Zohar Chadash, Ruth 385) as, יְסוֹד הָעוֹלָם “Y’sohd ha’oh’lahm,” the foundation of the world, because of the many good and righteous people who eventually descended from him. According to a Kabbalistic tradition (Zohar, Genesis 371), all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the exception of the last two letters that compose the name Seth were lost after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The other twenty letters of the Hebrew alphabet were restored, when Israel received the Torah at Sinai.

The Sefer Ha’Ikarim, declares that three diverse ideologies are represented by Cain, Abel and Seth, the three children of Adam and Eve. Cain, the agriculturalist, was convinced that working the land was the ultimate duty of humankind. Land and statehood became ultimate values for him, even if it meant that it would be necessary to kill his brother to obtain them. Abel, the shepherd, felt that statesmanship is the fundamental principle of life, a principle of such great import that one must be prepared to place one’s life at risk, and even sacrifice one’s life in order to become a complete human being. Seth regarded worship of the Divine as the foremost principle, rejecting alien authority and material successes. Because Seth’s philosophy was not easily understood by others, few were attracted to his life’s philosophy (Sefer Ha’Ikarim, statement 3, chapter 15).

What emerges from all of this is that the least-known child of Adam and Eve becomes the progenitor of all of humankind, and introduces good and noble values into the world that survive the flood. It is the barely-acknowledged Seth, who brings about the renewal of humankind, drawing them all closer to the Divine spirit that inhabits each of them.

May you be blessed.

v’Zot Habracha-Simchat Torah 5776-2015

“The Confluence of v’Zot Habracha and the Holiday”

(originally posted in 5770-2009)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The festival of Simchat Torah, the rejoicing with the Law, is one of two major festivals during which we celebrate with the Torah with great fervor. The festival of Shavuot, observed on the sixth of Sivan, marks the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many Jews celebrate Shavuot by staying up all night studying Torah showing their devotion to Torah and to atone for our people’s reputed sin of falling asleep on the night before the Torah was given at Sinai. Simchat Torah, on the other hand, appears to be a pure, unadulterated celebration of Torah.

The obvious reason that the Torah is the “centerpiece” of this festival is because on this day, with the reading of parashat v’Zot Habracha, we conclude the Five Books of Moses and start the Book of Genesis with parashat Bereishith, the story of creation. Although the weekly portion of Bereishith will be read in its entirety on the following Shabbat, we show our abiding love for Torah by immediately beginning to read the Torah as soon as the Book of Deuteronomy is concluded.

There is a powerful connection between parashat v’Zot Habracha and the festival of Simchat Torah. It is in this parasha that Moses exhorts the Jewish people regarding the importance of establishing Torah as the center of all Jewish life. In Deuteronomy 33:4, as part of his last testament, Moses says, תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, the Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.  Rashi dramatically describes the Jews’ relationship with the Torah by stating:  אֲחַזֽנוּהָ וֽלֹא נַעַזֽבֶנָּה, we grasped it [Torah] and we will never abandon it, underscoring the uncompromising commitment of the Jewish people to Torah and the indispensable role that Torah plays, serving as the lifeblood of all Jews.

So deep is the Jew’s relationship to Torah that the Talmud in Sanhedrin 91b, focusing on the word   מוֹרָשָׁה “mo’rah’shah“-heritage-cites Rabbi Yehudah saying in the name of Rav that whoever withholds a Jewish law or any Torah principle from his disciple is as though he had robbed him of his ancestral heritage. Furthermore, the rabbis boldly assert, the Torah that Moses commanded us is an inheritance destined for all Israel, from the six days of Creation. That is why it is not at all surprising that the Torah is often compared to water without which we could not survive for any extended length of time. Thus, from the rabbinic point of view, on Simchat Torah we do not celebrate the gift of Torah, but rather the very elixir of life.

The Ramban explains the word “Mo’rah’shah” to mean that the Torah is a heritage of the Jewish people, indicating an inalienable possession of the Jewish people that is passed on from generation to generation through transmission and teaching.

The ArtScroll Stone edition of the Chumash cites Rabbi Mordechai Gifter who explains the difference between the Hebrew word  נַחֲלָה, meaning inheritance, and “Mo’rah’shah,” a heritage. An inheritance, says Rabbi Gifter, is for the heirs to use and dispose of in any way they wish. However, a heritage is the property of both the preceding generations and the following generations. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the heirs to preserve the heritage intact for future generations. It may not be frittered away as a common inheritance.

It is because of the fear that Israel would consider the Torah as an inheritance rather than a heritage that Rabbi Yose in Avot 2:17 states, וְהַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ לִלְמֹד תּוֹרָה, שֶׁאֵינָהּ יְרֻשָּׁה לָךְ, prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not given to you as an inheritance. Although, the words “mo’rah’shah” and יְרֻשָּׁה  “y’rusha” are closely related, they apparently do not mean the same thing. Mo’rah’shah means heritage, whereas y’rusha, like nachalah, means inheritance.

In order to further this distinction, our rabbis in Tractate Pesachim 49b offer an unusual interpretation based on a play of words from Deuteronomy 33:4. They insist: Do not read the word as “Mo’rah’shah,” a heritage, but rather as “M’oh’rah’sah,” betrothed. Since an inheritance is something that the heir never built nor was the inherited money personally earned, the heir might treat the estate in a rather flippant manner, squandering and spending it as he pleases. A M’oh’rah’sah, a betrothed woman, on the other hand, is a bride whose future husband has already assumed [in the first part of the wedding ceremony] a series of serious obligations to love, honor, cherish and support his future wife.

Mr. Irving Bunim maintains in his classic work Ethics From Sinai, that our rabbis wisely chose the metaphor of betrothal. The people of Israel are betrothed to Torah because of the sacred vow that was assumed during the marriage ceremony between G-d and Israel at Sinai. It is not simply something inherited from the past, from grandparents and great-grandparents that loses its relevance in the “WiFi” and digital age, but rather something with which the contemporary generation has a personal bond, as did past generations. Far from being a relic of the past, it is the living embodiment of the present and the future.

The literal interpretation of  מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, meaning a heritage of the community of Israel, raises the issue of “unappreciated” heritages. Unfortunately, Jewish history is replete with examples of noble leaders whose children rejected their heritage. The prophet Samuel’s children did not follow his righteous path. Instead, they chose to pursue wealth, engage in bribery and distort judgment (I Samuel 8:1-3). Therefore, they did not inherit the mantle of leadership.

The great Moses himself, we are told in Avot d’Rav Natan 17:3, realized that his own sons would not be worthy of assuming the mantle of leadership for Israel. In despair, Moses wrapped himself in his tallit and cried out before G-d, “Master of the Universe, tell me, who will lead this people?” (See Numbers 27:16-17). The Al-mighty responded (Proverbs 27:18), “Those who guard the fig tree shall eat its fruits.” Only those who prepare themselves to study Torah are worthy of leading the people. While your children sat idly, Joshua served you diligently and accorded you great honor. Joshua would rise early every morning and remain until late each night in your house of study. He would arrange the benches and lay out the carpets. He served you with all his might, preparing himself for future leadership. It is he who is worthy of leading Israel (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 21:15).

While the verse in Deuteronomy seems to indicate that there is a guarantee that Torah will be transmitted from generation to generation, that guarantee is not assured to each person, but rather to the community as a whole. It is therefore incumbent upon each generation to reaffirm its commitment to Torah. That is exactly what we do on the festival of Simchat Torah, by both individually and communally celebrating the conclusion of the study of the Five Books of Moses and reaffirming our commitment to begin anew with enthusiasm and fervor.

May you be blessed.

The final days of the Tishrei holidays begin on Sunday evening, October 4th and continue all day Monday, October 5th, Shemini Atzeret (click here). The festival of Simchat Torah (click here) commences on Monday night, October 5th and is celebrated all day Tuesday, October 6th.

May this season be a joyous time for all, punctuated by happiness and good health. Chag Samayach!

“The Confluence of v’Zot Habracha and the Holiday”

Haazinu-Sukkot 5776-2015

“The Sukkah In The Sky”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Haazinu, the penultimate parasha in the book of Deuteronomy, signals the conclusion of Moses’ departing message to the People of Israel.

The style of Moses’ message changes significantly in parashat Haazinu, moving from prose to poetry. Moses apparently realizes that his words have become inadequate, and only through the drama and beauty of poetry will his final message truly penetrate the minds and hearts of the people.

The majestic poetry of parashat Haazinu describes G-d as the Ultimate Creator of the world, and underscores His special relationship with the Jewish people. G-d has chosen Israel from among all the nations and has singled Israel out to be His own.

In one of the many deeply moving and lyrical verses of parashat Haazinu, Moses describes G-d as an eagle, arousing its nest. In Deuteronomy 32:11-12, Moses sings, כְּנֶשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ, עַל גּוֹזָלָיו יְרַחֵף,  יִפְרֹשׂ כְּנָפָיו יִקָּחֵהוּ, יִשָּׂאֵהוּ עַל-אֶבְרָתוֹ. השׁם בָּדָד יַנְחֶנּוּ, וְאֵין עִמּוֹ אֵל נֵכָר, He [G-d] was like an eagle rousing its nest, hovering over its young, spreading its wings and taking them, carrying them on its pinions. The L-rd alone guided them, and no other power was with them.

In his brilliant commentary on scripture entitled, Da’at Sofrim, Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz explores the inner meanings of the eagle metaphor.

Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that from the very start, G-d cared for the People of Israel with exceptional kindness and sensitivity. Gently, without frightening or intimidating them, He encouraged the people to serve Him. Like an eagle that comes quietly to awaken the slumbering chicks in its nest, using only the most sensitive and caring manner to arouse them, so does G-d arouse His children. Just as the eagle hovers over its young, to awaken them with the soft sounds of its fluttering wings, so does G-d gently awaken the People of Israel. Unlike other birds, the eagle transports its young from place to place by carrying them on its wings, so that they will be protected from all dangers–from hunters below and from menacing birds of prey.

Scripture describes at length the fine details of every action of the eagle, selflessly expressing its devotion and compassion, and declares that G-d similarly protects His people with infinite devotion.

Rabbi Rabinowitz interprets the Bible’s description of G-d carrying His people on His wings as alluding to both the Israelites’ experience in Egypt, and to the future experiences of Israel, when the ingathering of the exiles will take place. By bearing them on His wings, G-d places the People of Israel in the most honored spot, protecting its young from the dangers of above and below.

The three words, השׁם בָּדָד יַנְחֶנּוּ, G-d alone will lead them, are seen as both prophecy and warning, underscoring the special nature of Israel, from which both good and evil result. The Jewish people were, and will always be, an exceptional people, not subject to the rules of nature. Expanding the borders and outlook of the Jewish people is seemingly a positive feature, but because of the nature of the world, it is not at all helpful for the Jewish people to be drawn too closely to other nations. Israel needs to be alone, so that they may be led by G-d to their unique and ultimate destiny.

Only G-d can lead the Jewish people. There are no other powers to whom Israel is attracted and responsive. The nation of Israel will not allow itself to be open to other gods. G-d does not give over the leadership of Israel to other so-called “powers.” The destiny of the people is not even subject to the influence of His angels. G-d alone directs Israel’s destiny. Not only will Israel not worship the perceived powers of nature or other powers, of wood or of stone, recognized by others in the world, they will not even be subject to the angelic powers of heaven. Only G-d.

The powerful image of the eagle hovering over its young, instantly brings to mind the so-called, “Sukkah of the Al-mighty,” hovering over the Jewish people. The rabbis of the Talmud debate whether the ancient Israelites in the wilderness dwelt in actual physical huts–Sukkot, with four walls and a roof, or were enveloped by the seven Divine clouds of glory (Sukkot 5764-2003).

At this time of year, when Jews leave their protected domiciles and “dwell” in their shabby and flimsy Sukkot, they truly realize how closely G-d hovers over His people, gently protecting them from not only the vagaries of the threatening physical elements, but also from the blandishments of the spiritual elements.

The chances of the Jewish people surviving 3,300 traumatic years of Jewish history, underscore the special protection of Israel provided by the Al-mighty. Not only has Israel survived, it has flourished, and has emerged today as a vital and central nation in the world. This could not ever have happened without the “Divine Eagle” protecting Israel, leading Israel, and guiding Israel.

This bold and vital message of Sukkot, is expressed openly in the exceptionally beautiful blessing of the Friday and holiday evening services at which we say: הַפּורֵשׂ סֻכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵ־ל וְעַל יְרוּשָׁלָיִם, Blessed are you, G-d, Who spreads His Sukkah of peace upon us, and upon all His people Israel and upon Jerusalem.

May the Al-mighty bless all His people, Israel, with a happy, joyous and peaceful holiday.

May you be blessed.

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

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, September 22nd through nightfall on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 27th, 28th and 29th, 2015. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Sunday, October 4th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 5th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 5th and continues through Tuesday, October 6th.

Vayeilech/Yom Kippur 5776-2015

“Living a Truly Meaningful Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeilech, is certainly one of the most dramatic and touching parashiot found in the Torah. The parasha is considered to have taken place on the last day of Moses’ life. At age 120, on the 7th of Adar, which is also, according to tradition, the birthday of the heralded leader, Moses is destined to meet his Eternal Maker.

As Moses steps forward to speak to all the people, the Torah dramatically describes his final words, Deuteronomy 31:2, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם, לֹא אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא, וַהשׁם אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, He said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for the L-rd has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan!’”

Although Moses will not be crossing the Jordan, he reassures the people by confirming that G-d will be with them, and that Joshua, his great disciple, shall cross over before the people, as G-d has spoken. Moses informs the people that there is nothing to fear, Deuteronomy 31:6, חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ, אַל תִּירְאוּ וְאַל תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם,  כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ, וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ, “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid and do not be broken before them. For the L-rd, your G-d–it is He Who goes before you, He will not fail you nor will He forsake you.”

At this dramatic moment, Moses proceeds to transfer the mantle of leadership of the People of Israel to Joshua. The greatest leader of all, has now to face the stark reality that he will never enter the Promised Land, a goal to which he aspired his entire life. One would expect this moment to be somewhat bittersweet–proud of what he has accomplished, proud of Joshua, but deeply pained that his greatest goal in life has eluded him.

Instead, we see that Moses proudly and unhesitatingly calls Joshua to him, encouraging him as well, to be strong and courageous when he leads the people to the land that G-d has sworn to give them. He assures Joshua that G-d will be with him as well, and that he should not be afraid or dismayed.

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his recently-published volume, A Synagogue Companion, notes the unparalleled success of the new leader, Joshua, the successor to Moses. Rabbi Angel points out that Moses’ disciple not only leads the nation into the Promised Land, but actually attains “religious heights for the nation, virtually unparalleled through the rest of Biblical history.”

Rabbi Angel identifies four elements that seem to be the root of Joshua’s success:

1. Joshua always had G-d’s help and support, and the religious nature of Joshua’s leadership energized him.

2. Distinct from Moses his teacher, Joshua had the unqualified support of his nation.

3. Furthermore, the people were always actively involved, helping to develop the community along with Joshua.

4. Joshua saw as his foremost charge to study Torah and to teach it. Joshua’s achievements underscore that without the leader’s constant self-growth and sharing with others, Jewish communal leadership will invariably fail.

Rabbi Angel points to the powerful lessons that are derived from the textual subtleties found in the Torah’s description of the ceremony in which Moses ordains Joshua as the future leader of Israel.

The textual nuances noted by Rabbi Angel were already identified by the sages of the Talmud, and come to underscore Moses’ unwavering love and support for his talented disciple. In Numbers 27:18-23, the Torah states, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה, קַח לְךָ אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ בּוֹ, וְסָמַכְתָּ אֶת יָדְךָ, עָלָיו… וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה  השׁם אֹתוֹ…וַיִּסְמֹךְ אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו, וַיְצַוֵּהוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השׁם, בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה, And the L-rd answered Moses, “Take for yourself Joshua, son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hands upon him.”…Moses did as the L-rd commanded him…He laid his hand upon him and commissioned him–as the L-rd had spoken through Moses.

The rabbis of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b, and Sifre 141, note that even though G-d commanded Moses to lay his “hand” (singular) on Joshua, Moses laid both his hands on his student, indicating his full sense of generosity and a complete heart. Rabbi Angel cites Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik‘s insightful comment regarding this ordination. Upon ordaining Joshua, Moses is, in effect, saying to his disciple, “We, the older generation, must lean upon you, the younger generation, for our future, for our eternity. If you do not carry on our teachings, we are consigned to oblivion. If you convey our teachings, we live through you into succeeding generations, as part of the eternal Torah…” (Memories of a Giant, 2003, p. 270).

Much of what is taking place at this time in the transfer of leadership, can be better understood in light of the great work written by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973), in which Dr. Becker argues that most human activity ultimately concerns the denial of one’s mortality.

When G-d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He forbade them to eat from two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. It is not mere coincidence that the Al-mighty singled out these two trees, which represent the two great desires of humankind–-the desire for immortality and the quest for omniscience. Neither is it at all surprising that so much of human history concerns the eternal search for the proverbial “Fountain of Youth,” and that major “youth prolonging” industries flourish today in cosmetics, plastic surgery and fashion, which seek to hide/deny the fact of the inevitable human process of aging and growing old.

Can a human being actually achieve immortality? The answer may be found in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s insightful words, “If you do not carry on our teachings, we are consigned to oblivion. If you convey our teachings, we live through you into succeeding generations, as part of eternal Torah.”

The desire for immortality is closely linked to the Yom Kippur experience. The annual arrival of Yom Kippur represents the ultimate “Day of Judgment.” It is not only a day that emphasizes human mortality, it is, in fact, the day when G-d judges His creatures, deciding who, in the coming year, will live or who will die, who through fire or who through water.

Yom Kippur is intended to be the human being’s annual encounter with death. In this yearly enactment of our own demise, we do not eat, drink, bathe, anoint ourselves in oils, or have sexual relations. We dress in white (shrouds) as if we are living through our own funeral.

As the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) wrote in her epic poem Renascence, only a person who has died and lives again can truly appreciate life. And, only one who fully appreciates life, can fully appreciate how important it is to transmit one’s life’s values to the next generation.

In this scene, described so dramatically in parashat Vayeilech, Moses teaches all of humankind, not just the value of dying a meaningful death, but also the value of living a meaningful life. His greatest desire to enter the land of Israel has been denied. But, there is not the slightest indication of despair. Moses knows, with certainty, that his great disciple, Joshua, will carry on his work, and through that legacy, Moses himself will continue to live.

This is the lesson that must be at the forefront of our Yom Kippur experience. It is this great New Year’s “resolution” that we must embrace as we approach the fateful day of Divine Judgment. It is this powerful message that will enable us to achieve and live a truly meaningful life.

May you be blessed.

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

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, September 22nd through nightfall on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 27th, 28th and 29th, 2015. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Sunday, October 4th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 5th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 5th and continues through Tuesday, October 6th.

Nitzavim/Rosh Hashana 5775/5776-2015

“Standing Firmly Before G-d and Man”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, Moses, on the final day of his life, gathers all the People of Israel together–from the lowliest laborer to the most important official, inviting all of them to pass into the Covenant of the Al-mighty, to establish the people as G-d’s People.

The powerful narrative begins in Deuteronomy 29:9, with Moses addressing the amassed audience: אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, You are standing today, all of you before the L-rd your G-d: the heads of your tribes, your eldest, your officers–all the men of Israel.

In addition to “all the men of Israel,” Moses makes a point of addressing his message to the rest of the nation as well, speaking even to the small children, the women, the converts who are in the midst of the camp of Israel, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water. He informs them that they are soon to pass into the Covenant of the L-rd their G-d, and through the oath that G-d will seal with them on this very day.

In Deuteronomy 29:12, Moses explains to the people the purpose of G-d’s oath:לְמַעַן הָקִים אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם וְהוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לֵא־לֹקִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב, In order to establish you today as a people to Him, and that He will be a G-d to you, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.

Rashi, citing the Midrash, says that after hearing the 98 ominous curses of the ,תּוֹכֵחָה Tochaycha, which are recorded in Deuteronomy 28, the people panicked, seeing their future as bleak and hopeless. Moses reassured the people that G-d will not abandon them. After all, they had sinned many times previously, and are all still standing there before G-d. The Tochaycha was never intended to be a threat of destruction. Rather, it was hoped that the Tochaycha and the Divine imprecations would bring people to repentance and cause them to refrain from further sin.

Rabbi Nissen Telushkin, in his collection of commentaries on the weekly parasha known as HaTorah V’ha’Olam, interprets this particular portion as conveying a powerful message of mutual responsibility that should resonate with all Jews, especially during these High Holy Days.

Rabbi Telushkin notes that the painful exile in Egypt lasted for 210 years. 110 of those years were years of actual enslavement that broke the people’s spirit, leaving them with a feeling of emptiness and worthlessness. Their suffering was so great, and their concern to find their next piece of bread and source of water in order to stay alive was so desperate, that they were unable to see the sufferings of others.

When the Al-mighty sent Moses to redeem the People of Israel and to free them from slavery, He told Moses, Exodus 9:13, הַשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וְהִתְיַצֵּב לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה. Using the same root of the Hebrew word הִתְיַצֵּב “hit’yaht’zayv,” meaning to stand erect, that was used in the opening verse of Nitzavim, G-d tells Moses to rise in the morning and to stand up before Pharaoh. Emphasizing that Moses was surely not alone, G-d tells Moses to stand straight like a free person, and not to bend or bow slavishly before Pharaoh, and certainly not to plead. Moses must tell Pharaoh, forthrightly, that the L-rd, G-d of the Hebrews said, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me!” Declare to the Egyptian ruler that, “We are no longer your slaves. The People of Israel are servants only to G-d!”

Later, when the people stood at the Red Sea and were chased to the very shores of the sea by the Egyptians who were closing in on them, the people again despaired. G-d told the people, in Exodus 14:13, אַל תִּירָאוּ, הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת השׁם, Do not be afraid, הִתְיַצְּבוּ “Hit’yahtz’voo,” stand up straight, and see the salvation of G-d.

Once again, at Mount Sinai, the root of the Hebrew verb to stand erect is used. When Moses goes out from the camp toward G-d, to the people who are at Mount Sinai, the Midrash, commenting on Exodus 19:17, states, וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ “Va’yit’yatz’oo,” He found the people already standing erect on their own like a bride and groom, and Mount Sinai suspended over them like a bridal canopy. The people, who were now a united people, would no longer be alone. Now they would be a real nation, each one in a position to look after their neighbor and bear responsibility for their fellows.

The concept of עֲרֵבוּת, “Ah’ray’voot,” being responsible for one another, requires that every Jew reach out to strengthen one another and spread the word of Torah. A G-d-fearing Jew is expected to share his reverence for the Al-mighty with others. A Jew, whom G-d has graced with wealth, must use that wealth for the benefit of others, to help the poor of the nation and the Torah scholars. It is not enough for individuals alone to make this effort. Every Jew is expected to mobilize others to become involved in performing acts of kindness and chessed.

In the opening verse of this week’s parasha, when Moses told the people אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם, You are standing today upright, all of you before G-d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officers…from the hewer of wood to the drawer of water–he is actually warning those who are in positions of wealth, strength and influence that they cannot stand by indifferently on the sidelines allowing others to do the work. Even the poor have to help those who are worse off than themselves.

Rabbi Telushkin nostalgically recalls the time that he was a student in the Yeshiva of Slutsk, in White Russia, a school that depended on the generosity of the local Jewish populace to sustain them. Even the poor local woodchoppers would make an effort to donate wood, in order to provide heat for the Yeshiva. The local drawers of water would similarly draw water three times a day to give the students to drink, because they too wanted to share in the great mitzvah. Not a single person tried to avoid bearing the burden of responsibility.

Especially during this time of the year, during the special High Holy Days, we must all be deeply cognizant and aware that our welfare is totally dependent on G-d. This, of course, does not relieve us of the personal responsibility to help others who are in need.

Today, G-d continues to urge His people to pass through His Covenant, to once again establish us as a people to Him. We are no longer a group of diverse and disparate individuals, but a united nation, the nation of G-d, which assumes its responsibility and fulfills its duties in order to merit the full measure of blessings from the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.

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

Rosh Hashana 5776 is observed this year on Sunday evening, September 13th, and all day Monday, September 14th and Tuesday, September 15th, 2015.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Wednesday, September 16th, 2015 from dawn until nightfall.

Kee Tavo 5775-2015

“Making The Final Commitment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses continues to deliver his final message to the Jewish people.

Shortly before they would enter the Promised Land, Moses calls all the people together, including the elders, to affirm their commitment to G-d and to His Torah.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 27:1, reports,וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הָעָם לֵאמֹר,  שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם, Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.” The people were then instructed to inscribe the entire Torah on twelve huge stones, and bring offerings on Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal (see Re’eh 5768-2008), where they were to affirm their loyalty to G-d.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz writes in Da’at Sofrim that from this point in the Torah until the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses conveys a special message to the Children of Israel. Moses now emphasizes that upon their arrival in Canaan, a land that is currently bereft of holiness and abounding in evil, the people will have a singular responsibility to transform it into a Holy land.

Moses describes, in the name of the living G-d, what the future will bring, both the good and the evil, a future that will be both encouraging and intimidating. During part of these admonitions, Moses is joined by Joshua, the elders, the priests and Levites, who will be replacing Moses when he passes on and who will serve as the new teachers and instructors of the people.

Despite the fact that Moses was joined by the elders on many previous occasions, the new mentors are mentioned again at this juncture because until now these newly anointed leaders were seen by the people only as disciples of Moses. In this way, the People of Israel would grow accustomed to the fact that the new teachers have now assumed the primary responsibility of leadership.

As noted above, Moses begins his message by declaring,שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם, observe the entire commandment that I command you this day–using the infinitive form of the word “Shamor,” to guard.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes, that now that the Torah has been given, it is the people’s responsibility to “guard it.”

It is now necessary for the people

to ensure that it [the Torah] is constantly studied and known and carried out, and, moreover, this is not to be the task just of the leaders and elders, the representatives of the nation, but of the whole people as well. Each one separately and all together are responsible for it. That is why Moses took the “Elders of Israel” at his side and placed the whole nation under the obligation to keep the Torah. But he called the now completed Torah “Mitzvah”-one commandment, [implying that] all the laws together form the one mission for which Israel was appointed to fulfill its world-historic “task.”

Rabbi Rabinowitz in Daat Sofrim, notes that the Torah uses the infinitive form of the Hebrew word “Shamor,” because the message is not only intended for the people of the current generation who actually heard Moses’ words, or to any specific group of people, but to all future generations who must become learned in the Mitzvot. The use of the singular form “mitzvah,” rather than plural word “mitzvot”-commandments, is understood by Rabbi Rabinowitz to further underscore that all mitzvot are of equal value.

The choice of the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” that is in the singular in this context, may be better understood from a lesson that is learned from the Jewish conversion process. During the conversion interview the prospective convert is asked a series of questions: Do you renounce any other faith that you may have observed previously? Do you know that the People of Israel are reviled and persecuted people? Are you prepared to join in their fate? Do you agree to observe the entire Torah, both the major mitzvot and minor mitzvot, all those that you already know, and those that you have yet to learn?

The Torah in this verse uses the singular form of the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” in order to convey a powerful message to Israel. Moses, in the name of G-d, instructs the people to observe the entire Torah as if it were a single mitzvah. The generation that is about to enter the land of Israel, who saw all the miracles, must observe all the mitzvot at once. While one can “study” the separate procedures that are part of the process of manufacturing a particular machine, in order to operate the machine it is necessary to know the function of all the parts to make them work together.

The Torah’s emphasis is not just on emotions and feelings, but on observance. Even if one fails to master all the Torah, a commitment must be made to those mitzvot that are “not yet” understood and remain to be wrestled with and resolved. It’s not enough to feel like a good Jew in one’s heart, one has to live, act, behave and practice Jewishly.

Many years ago, I attended a wedding that took place at the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights. As part of the veiling ceremony, the bride’s face was covered with a very thick, opaque veil. Two women behind me were rather offended by the ceremony, and thought that the use of the thick veil was absolutely primitive and barbaric, all the while making loud snide comments about this Chassidic custom.

Coming from the Bronx, I could not restrain myself. I turned and said hostilely to one of the women, “Lady, had this ceremony been taking place on the Himalayas with the guru presiding, you would have said ‘Oh how quaint, how interesting, I wonder what it means?’ But, because it’s a Jewish wedding, you have nothing but disdain for it!” The woman responded, first addressing me as, “Young man,”–something that was true 30 years ago, and saying, “I’ll have you know that I feel like a very good Jew in my heart!”

At that point, I should have simply stifled, and walked away. But, then again, I am from the Bronx. I growled at her and said, “Lady, feeling like a good Jew in your heart, doesn’t make you any more a good Jew, than feeling like an astronaut in your heart puts you on the moon!” Needless to say she did not appreciate my “clever” response.

Truthfully, feeling like a good Jew in one’s heart is very important. But, it is simply not enough. To be part of Jewish eternity, one must be a knowledgeable Jew, not simply a “cardiac” Jew. It is important to master as much information as possible about the Jewish life and Jewish law so that one can practice and participate in Jewish life intelligently and meaningfully.

Perhaps another understanding of the Torah’s use of the singular word “mitzvah”-commandment here means that all observance should be regarded in one’s eyes as if there were one single mitzvah. One must not allow oneself to become overwhelmed by stressing all 613 commandments and the numerous derivative commandments. Focus on one at a time, and do the best you can.

This was the message that Moses conveyed 3,328 years ago. It is as fresh and as relevant today as it was then.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5775-2015

“When a Brother Dies Childless”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn the law of the “levirate marriage,” known in Hebrew as יִבּוּם, “Yee’boom.” “Yee’boom” is the obligation of the surviving brother of a man who died without leaving children to betroth his brother’s widow and bear children, in order to perpetuate his late brother’s name and memory.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 25:5 states, כִּי יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם, וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ, לֹא תִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁת הַמֵּת הַחוּצָה לְאִישׁ זָר, יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ When brothers dwell together and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the deceased shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform levirate marriage.

Scripture then states that the firstborn child shall perpetuate the name of the deceased brother, so that his memory will not be blotted out from Israel.

However, if the surviving brother does not wish to marry his widowed sister-in-law, then a ceremony that is known as חֲלִיצָה “Chah’lee’tzah,” is performed, releasing him from the betrothal obligation. As part of the ceremony, the widow removes a special shoe that was placed on the foot of her brother-in-law and spits in front of him, saying, “So is done to the man who will not build the house of his brother.”

In general, the Torah prohibits a man from marrying his brother’s wife. However, it is considered an act of great kindness to try to perpetuate the deceased brother’s memory.

Apparently, the custom of the levirate marriage goes back to great antiquity. During the period of the patriarchs, the Torah in Genesis 38 tells of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, who, when her first husband died, was betrothed to his surviving brother. Her second husband, who did not want to impregnate Tamar to perpetuate his brother’s memory, also dies because he was evil in G-d’s eyes.

Since Talmudic times the practice of Ashkenazi Jews has been to perform “Chah’lee’tzah” rather than “Yee’boom.” Chah’lee’tzah is preferred because betrothing the brother’s widow can lead to suspicion that it is being done for personal gain (financial, romantic or physical), rather than out of a desire to fulfill the commandment.

Thus, the practice of “Yee’boom” has been discontinued in Ashkenazic communities. Today, surviving brothers are required to separate themselves from their brother’s widow through “Chah’lee’tzah.” The Chief Rabbinate in Israel has also forbidden the practice of “Yee’boom,” even among Sephardic communities who used to practice it.

There are several interesting technical details regarding the ritual of “Yee’boom.” “Yee’boom” is only required to be performed among brothers who are born to the same father. If the deceased man had children with another woman, “Yee’boom” is not required. If the deceased had no brothers at the time of his death, but a brother was born after his death, that brother is freed from the obligation of “Yee’boom.” If a child was born during the deceased’s lifetime, but then died, there is also no requirement of “Yee’boom.” If the widow is barren and not capable of giving birth, again there is no requirement of “Yee’boom.”

In times when “Yee’boom” was practiced, the court was required in each instance to speak to the surviving brother to determine the best course of action. Under most circumstances, the court would try to persuade the surviving brother to fulfil the commandment of “Yee’boom.” But if they felt that the couple was incompatible, “Chah’lee’tzah” would be recommended.

Rabbeinu Bachya, explains that during the “Chah’lee’tzah” ceremony, having the widow remove the shoe from the brother who refuses to perform the levirate marriage is regarded as a sign of mourning. Since the surviving brother has now demonstrated that he does not desire to keep his deceased brother’s spiritually alive, his brother is now irrevocably dead.

Sforno explains that by spitting on the ground in front of the surviving brother, the widow demonstrates contempt for the man who refuses to perpetuate the memory of her late husband.

The Abarbanel explains that every human being seeks immortality which can be attained in both a spiritual and physical manner. Procreation is the only means of physical immortality, and as such, the soul of a man who dies childless descends into despair, because the soul no longer has a physical vessel. The loss of the physical vessel can be repaired by the birth of a child who will be identified as the son of the deceased. Hence, the levirate marriage results in the closest approximation of physical immortality for the deceased.

Through the remarkable institution of “Yee’boom,” the Torah, in its inimitable way, attempts to sanctify the life of a human being—-even one who is no longer alive.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5775-2015

“Idolatrous Trees and Unqualified Judges”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn of the prohibition of planting forbidden trees and erecting forbidden pillars near a Jewish house of worship.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:21-22 states, לֹא תִטַּע לְךָ אֲשֵׁרָה כָּל עֵץ אֵצֶל מִזְבַּח השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ. וְלֹא תָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, You shall not plant for yourself an idolatrous tree–-any tree–-near the altar of the L-rd your G-d, that you shall make for yourself. And you shall not erect for yourself a pillar, which the L-rd your G-d hates.

Nachmanides states that an אֲשֵׁרָה “Ah’shay’rah,” a forbidden tree, has two meanings. 1. Because idolaters would landscape their temples in order to attract worshipers, an “Ah’shay’rah” may be a tree that is intended for worship whether it is meant to be worshiped immediately, or at some future time, or by someone else; 2. “Ah’shay’rah” could also mean any kind of tree planted near the Temple altar.

Just as the prohibition of “Ah’shay’rah” forbids the planting of any type of tree near a house of worship, similarly, it is forbidden to construct a pillar of stone in order to mark a place of worship. This is true even if the intention is to use the stone for the worship of the G-d of Israel.

The The Alshich raises a question regarding those who plant a tree or establish a pillar. If their intention in planting a tree or placing a pillar is not to serve as a signpost for the people to their pagan temples, as was the motive of the idol worshipers, but rather to beautify the grounds of the Temple, are those who plant a tree or erect a pillar in violation of the prohibitions? The Alschich states that this too is clearly prohibited, because although these actions may seem innocuous at this point, these objects may eventually lead to pagan worship. Small gestures that start out as acts of beautification, or to mark the location, often begin the process of drifting away from Judaism and result in pagan worship. Thus, a pretty tree or a small stone marker may eventually lead to much more serious deviations resulting in total apostasy.

Nachmanides prohibits the placing of a tree or pillar near any house of worship, not only the holy Temple in Jerusalem. No matter how harmless these symbols may seem to be, all places of Jewish worship must be free from any such symbols and foreign religious influences.

The rabbis wonder why the prohibitions of planting forbidden trees and establishing idolatrous pillars follow in the scriptural text immediately after the opening verses of parashat Shoftim regarding appointing judges and officers. In Deuteronomy 16:18, the Torah states, שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ, Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities. The juxtaposition of those two themes lead the sages in Talmud Avoda Zarah 52a to conclude that appointing an unqualified judge is tantamount to planting an idolatrous tree.

The commentators suggest that in much the same way as an unqualified judge compromises the notion of justice, so too do planting an idolatrous tree or raising a pillar near a house of worship distort the whole idea of spiritualism and religion.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber cited by Peninim on the Torah, suggests that just as a beautiful “Ah’shay’rah” tree conceals its impurity, making it difficult to recognize its foreign idolatrous purpose, so does an incompetent and unsuitable judge obscure his inability to render proper legal decisions. This is particularly true in the case of judges who are brilliant intellectuals and scholars but lack a refined character and are bereft of sincere internal piety.

Peninim on the Torah also cites Harav Moishe Sternbuch who suggests that the pagan custom of using trees to add external beauty to their temples is not necessary in Jewish houses of worship. In fact, the inner beauty of these structures, characterized by Torah study and prayer, far exceeds any potential external beauty. Similarly, it is the internal piety and righteousness of the scholar that represent the ultimate qualifications of a judge. No fancy titles or degrees are necessary to enhance such a judge’s qualifications.

It is clear that the Torah is far less concerned with external esthetics and is far more concerned with the inner substance and what takes place inside the synagogues and the courts of laws.

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5775-2015

“The Prohibition of Eating the Limb of a Live Animal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, contains 55 mitzvot–17 positive and 38 negative commandments. It is ranked third in the number of mitzvot contained in a weekly Torah portion.

In Deuteronomy 12:20, the Torah enumerates the laws concerning the slaughter of animals for food, which is followed by a warning against the consumption of blood. In Deuteronomy 12:23, the Torah states, רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ, וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר, Only be strong not to eat the blood–for the blood, it is the life–and you shall not eat the life with the meat.

Rashi notes that,  in Sifre 76, Rabbi Yehuda concludes that since Moses had to warn the people to be strong, it must have been a very common practice for people to eat blood in those days. Ben Azzai, however, considers this to be a general exhortation to the people underscoring the importance for Jews to strengthen themselves in the performance of mitzvot. Ben Azzai comes to this conclusion by reasoning that if Moses had to warn the people about avoiding the consumption of blood, which is so repugnant, how much more must the people strengthen their resolve to avoid forbidden activities that are truly tempting.

Rashi concludes, that the words at the end of the verse, “And you shall not eat the soul with the meat,” is a negative commandment, warning the people of the prohibition of אֵבֶר מִן הַחַי “Ay’vehr min ha’chai,” against eating a limb that was detached from an animal that was alive. “Not eating the soul with the meat,” means that one may not eat the meat while the soul is still in it.

The prohibition of “Ay’vehr min ha’chai,” eating the limb that was detached from a living animal, is one of the seven cardinal commandments known as the “Noahide Laws,” which were given to all humanity in the times of Noah. These seven commandments, derived from the verses in Genesis 9:1-17, are traditionally enumerated as: 1. Prohibition of idol worship; 2. Against blaspheming G-d; 3. Against murder; 4. Against incest and adultery; 5. Against stealing; 6. Against eating a live animal; 7. Establishing courts of law and legal systems, to ensure civil order.

The Noahide prohibition of eating an animal’s limb while it is still alive is derived from the verse in Genesis 9:4, אַך בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלו, but flesh with its soul, its blood you shall not eat.

These seven laws, considered the fundamental common standards of human behavior, were given to humankind on the heels of the great flood in Noah’s time, when humans and animals were entirely corrupt in G-d’s eyes.

According to tradition, there is a difference between the prohibitions that pertain to Jews with regard to eating the limb of a live animal and those that apply to non-Jews. Jews are only prohibited to eat limbs of a live kosher animal, while the gentile prohibition applies to all animals. (Of course, Jews are forbidden to eat all non-Kosher animals whether alive or dead!)

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch states that one is not permitted to eat a limb torn from a living animal because of the exceeding cruelty involved. One who cuts off a piece of flesh or tears a limb off of a living animal and eats that flesh or limb, is punishable with lashes.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch declares boldly that eating an animal’s limb while it is still alive is the greatest cruelty in the world. He advises that those who wish to develop positive moral characteristics must first eschew the evil ones. Those who practice positive practices will cling to such practices and perforce behave in moral and ethical ways.

Almost all the commentators agree with the reasoning of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch, and explain that the purpose of the prohibition of eating the limb of an animal while it is still alive, is to assure that humankind will refrain from any act of unspeakable cruelty and inhumanity to animals. Maimonides adds that eating a living animal was a popular heathen practice that must not be imitated by Jews.

The great commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that, “Just as you are not to consume the blood in which the soul has its foremost representative, so you are not to eat the meat at a time when the soul is still in connection with it, in which the [animal’s] joint you are taking for consumption is still under the mastery of the soul.”

Thousands of years before the idea of not causing undue pain to animals was introduced to the Western world, the Torah warned Jews, and even non-Jews, about eating a limb torn from a living animal because of the exceeding cruelty involved.

May you be blessed.

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.

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