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Bo 5778-2018

“Deceptions at the Behest of G-d”


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read of the final three plagues that strike the Egyptians and ultimately lead to the exodus of the Children of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt.

In Exodus 12:51, toward the conclusion of parashat Bo, we read the “official” announcement of the exodus: וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  הוֹצִיא ה׳ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם , It happened on that very day: the L-rd took the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their legions.

The exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt serves as a universal paradigm for the battle for freedom, not only for the Jewish people, but for all the nations of the world. Unjustly forced into servitude, the helpless and downtrodden Hebrews were redeemed from their backbreaking slavery by the intervention of G-d Al-mighty, and His chosen representatives, Moses and Aaron.

This Divine redemption was hardly an accident or coincidence. In fact, it was a fulfillment of a prophecy made 400 years earlier at the Brit Bayn HaB’tarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, where G-d promised Abram, Genesis 15:13-14, וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי, וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל , And G-d said to Abram, “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in the land not their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress them for 400 years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth.”

Despite the primacy of the Exodus story, something seems to be awry. Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel in his masterful collection of essays entitled A Synagogue Companion, points out that deception plays a significant role in this historic redemption.

Rabbi Angel lists the following deceptions:

1. Moses and Aaron repeatedly ask Pharaoh for a three day leave, when in fact they [the Israelites] intend to leave permanently.
2. The Israelites are instructed to ‘borrow’ the Egyptians’ vessels as they leave Egypt [but have no intention of returning them].
3. G-d tells Moses to take a circuitous route so that the Egyptians would think that the Israelites were lost and pursue them, resulting in the Egyptians drowning at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:2-4).

Responding specifically to the charge that the Israelites stole the Egyptians’ vessels, Nehama Leibowitz points out that had the “theft” been a spontaneous action on the part of the downtrodden Israelites, who were enslaved and exploited for two centuries, no explanation of their actions would have been needed. After all, the Torah describes the generation of the wilderness as lacking faith, having a slave mentality and longing for the fleshpots. But, says Nehama Leibowitz, that is not what is related here.

The fact that the Israelites took the Egyptians’ vessels was not because of their frustration or their desire to get back at the Egyptians, but was in response to an explicit Divine command, transmitted through Moses. The Torah, in Exodus 11:2 says, דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם, וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב , Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.

How could G-d order the Israelites to deceive the Egyptians and take their personal property?

Rabbi Angel points out that several commentators, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama the Abarbanel, as well as Nehama Leibowitz, adapt an apologetic approach.

Moses asks for a three day leave to test Pharaoh. If Pharaoh refuses to let them go, it would prove that he is truly hard- hearted. If he would let them go, the Israelites would have returned to Egypt and would have continued to negotiate until they achieved their total freedom.

While this might have been a test, it is obvious from the text that the Israelites were planning on leaving for good, never to return to Egypt.

Rabbi Angel therefore adopts an entirely different approach that is supported by both medieval and contemporary commentaries. The Ibn Ezra and The Ran, as well as contemporary scholar Rabbi Elhanan Samet adopt an unapologetic approach.

As demonstrated by the Midrash cited in Talmud Sanhedrin 91a, the Israelites deserved these vessels as payment for their more than 200 years of slavery. Furthermore, had the Israelites not asked for a three day leave, the Egyptians would never have given them the vessels. An additional purpose of taking the wealth out of Egypt was to lure the Egyptians to the Red Sea where Pharaoh and his hosts would drown. Rabbi Angel says, “They [the Egyptians] deserved to be punished for their enslavement and [the] murder of the Israelites.”

Rabbi Angel explains further that the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh were contentious, and more indicative of war than diplomacy. As a result, it was considered entirely acceptable to deceive the enemy in order to defeat them, not unlike a military sneak attack or ambush.

The events in Egypt leading up to the Exodus were truly extreme, punctuated by the immorality of the Egyptians’ enslavement and murder of the Israelites. This was war, a war of self-defense, and as such, the Israelites were not only entitled to use deception, but required to do so. There was no need to apologize for their actions.

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5778-2018

“Participating in the Communal Pain”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, marks the commencement of the redemption of the People of Israel from their bitter enslavement of Egypt. The Torah introduces the family of Moses and Aaron, and the first seven plagues are visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

Exodus 6:14-28 identifies Moses and Aaron as G-d’s representatives who will lead the Israelites out of the slavery of Egypt. In order to trace the descent of Aaron and Moses, the Torah records the genealogy of Jacob’s eldest children until it reaches the tribe of Levi, from which Moses and Aaron are descended.

The Torah, in Exodus 6:14, begins by listing the families of the tribe of Reuben, and states, אֵלֶּה רָאשֵׁי בֵית אֲבֹתָם, בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן , These are the heads of their father’s house, the sons of Reuben, and then lists the names of Reuben’s children: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron and Carmi. In Exodus 6:15, the Torah records the sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin and Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman (Vayigash 5767-2006).

When listing the names of the children of Levi, the Torah, Exodus 6:16 states, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְתֹלְדֹתָם, גֵּרְשׁוֹן וּקְהָת וּמְרָרִי , These are the names of the sons of Levi, according to the order of their birth, Gershon, Kehath and Merari.

Regarding the tribes of Reuben and Simeon, the Torah merely says, “The sons of,” without mentioning the word, שֵׁמוֹת –“Shay’moht,” the names. However, when identifying the family of Levi the Torah specifically says, “These are the names (Shay’moht) of the sons of Levi.”

The Sh’la HaKodesh explains that the tribe of Levi was different from the other tribes of Israel, in that its members were not included in the decree of enslavement. But, because the Levites felt the pain of their brothers, they sought ways of sharing with their brothers’ plight and empathizing with them. Therefore, they gave their children names that reflected the bitter exile: Gershon, for they were strangers in the land [Egypt] which was not theirs; Kehath, because the Israelites’ teeth were blunted as a result of their slavery; and Merari, to be reminded that the Jews’ lives were “embittered” by the Egyptians.

The Sh’la declares that this important textual nuance teaches that no Jew should ever be left to suffer alone, and that it is essential that every Jew feel the pain of their fellow Jews, even though they themselves may not be suffering. That is why the Al-mighty G-d told Moses (Exodus 3:14) that His name is, אֶהְיֶ־ה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶ־ה , “I will be what I will be”–meaning that I [G-d] will be with them [Israel] during this exile [Egypt] and I will be with them in future exiles.

The Talmud, in Taanit 11a, emphasizes that it is crucial for every individual Jew to participate in the pain of the community. Our rabbis taught, when Israel is in trouble and one individual separates himself from the communal pain, two ministering angels who accompany that person, place their hands upon his head and say, “May this person who abandoned the community, not behold the consolation of the community.” Similarly, when the community is in trouble, one should not say, “I will go home, eat and drink, and all will be well with me!”

Our rabbis say that Moses’ actions during Israel’s battle with Amalek recorded in Exodus 17:12, show that even those who are perfectly righteous must feel the pain of the community. The Torah notes that as the battle with Amalek wore on, Moses’ hands grew heavy. In order to assist the weary leader, Aaron and Hur took a stone and placed it under Moses, for him to sit on. They thus supported Moses’ hands, enabling Moses’ hands to remain in faithful prayer until sunset, when Israel was victorious.

Why was Moses standing during the battle? Couldn’t someone have found a chair for him to rest upon during the battle? Rather Moses said, “If the people in battle are in pain, I will also be in pain. After all, those who experience the pain of the community will merit to see the redemption and consolation of the community.” (Talmud, Taanit 11a)

We see, that even though Moses grew up in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, he strongly identified with the Jewish people.  The Torah confirms, that from the early years of Moses as a public figure, Exodus 2:11, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם , that he went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. But he did not simply “observe,” he actually risked his own life to save the life of a Jew who was being beaten by an Egyptian.

Furthermore, from the names that Moses gives his children, in Exodus 18:3-4, we see his abundant empathy for his people. He calls his eldest son “Gershom,” כִּי אָמַר, גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה , for he says, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” He named his second son “Eliezer,” כִּי אֱ־לֹקֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה , For the G-d of my father came to my aid and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.

Moses really should have named his first child “Eliezer,” since his rescue from the sword of Pharaoh took place before Moses was exiled to Midian. Yet, even though Moses grew up in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, and never himself participated in either the exile of Egypt or the enslavement, still he was deeply concerned for the pain of the enslaved Israelites, rather than his own pain of having to flee to Midian. In fact, he refers to the land of Midian as, אֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה , a foreign land, because it was so distant from his enslaved brethren in Egypt.

The greatness of Moses is clearly evident from the fact that at the moment of Moses’ highest joy, when his first child was born, he preoccupied himself with the pain of his brothers, the Jewish people.

It is reported that the great Jewish leader, Rabbi Elazar Shach  would never eat breakfast until late in the morning because he was pained that so many Jewish children in Israel were not getting a religious education. He did not want to eat while secular children were hungry for Torah.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5778-2018

“The Missing Years in the Life of Moses”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of the enslavement of the Jewish people and the birth of Moses–the great leader whom G-d chooses to lead the people out of the slavery of Egypt.

As we have previously noted (Shemot 5765-2004), although Moses is a gifted leader, and is regarded as the greatest prophet and leader ever to arise in Israel, the so-called, “Savior of Israel,” is not the “son of G-d,” but a mere mortal, born to, Amram and Jochebed, human parents of flesh and blood.

When his mother has to hide the newborn child, who is doomed to die along with all the Israelite male children, Moses is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised in Pharaoh’s palace. The Bible reports, that even though Moses grew up as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s court, when he went out, he acknowledged the Jews as his brethren, and felt their burdens.

The Bible in Exodus 2:11 states, וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו , Moses, the prince of Egypt, saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brethren. When he [Moses] looked this way and that and saw that no one was coming to the Hebrew’s aid, he struck the Egyptian, killing him, and buried his body in the sand.

The Bible reports, that the very next day, Moses went out and saw two Hebrews fighting with one another. Moses, who has an extremely high sense of morality, reproves the wicked person who is striking his fellow, saying, Exodus, 2:13-14, לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ ? “Why do you strike your fellow?” The wicked Jew responds, מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ, הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי ? “Who appointed you [Moses] as an officer and judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?”

When Moses realized that the matter of his killing the Egyptian had become publicly known, he was frightened. Sure enough, when Pharaoh heard about this matter, he sought to kill Moses, causing Moses to flee before Pharaoh to the land of Midian. There Moses eventually met his wife, Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, at the well.

According to many calculations, Moses was twenty years old when he fled to Midian. The Bible tells us that after beholding the manifestation of G-d in the Burning Bush, Moses returns to Egypt to meet with Aaron. He is 80 years old when he speaks to Pharaoh (Exodus7:7). However, there is no account in the Bible for the sixty years between fleeing Egypt and returning to Egypt.

The great historian, Flavius Josephus, cites two aggadic traditions. The first maintains that Moses lived for twenty years in Pharaoh’s house and fled to Midian, where he remained for sixty years. When he sees the vision of the Burning Bush, he undertakes the mission of liberating the people of Israel. The second account is that Moses lived for forty years in Pharaoh’s house before going to Midian, where he stayed for forty years until G-d called him to redeem Israel.

The problem with these Midrashic traditions is that they do not explain how Moses, a prince in the palace of Pharaoh, was transformed into the charismatic military and spiritual leader that he eventually became. If he remained in Egypt until he was forty, he could have possibly learned the skills of the monarchy from all that he experienced while living in the court of Pharaoh. But, that assumes that Moses did not become a playboy and spend time gambling at the casinos near the great pyramids of Ghiza.

An alternate Midrashic source provides an entirely different account of what happened to Moses from age twenty to age eighty.

Moses did not go directly to Midian, but fled first to Ethiopia, where he joined the army of the Ethiopian King Kikanos. King Kikanos and his generals took a liking to Moses because he was courageous like a lion and his face gleamed like the sun.

According to the source of this Midrash, the capital city of Ethiopia had been captured by Balaam and his sons, through acts of sorcery and treachery. Using his unique talents while the king of Ethiopia and his troops were out of the city, Balaam raised up the walls of the capital and filled the ditches with water that was infested with snakes and scorpions, rendering them impassable. Try as he may, King Kikanos and his Ethiopian troops could not defeat Balaam, and had no luck penetrating the city fortifications.

Nine years after Moses’ arrival in Ethiopia, King Kikanos died, and the people chose Moses the Hebrew as their new leader. Fighting sorcery with sorcery, Moses instructed the Ethiopian army to go into the wilderness to capture the native storks and their chicks. He instructed them how to teach the baby chicks to fly and to jump in response to the commands of their trainers.

When the chicks matured, Moses ordered their owners to withhold food from them for three days. He told the soldiers to prepare for battle and to take the young storks in their hands. When they approached the moat that was filled with snakes, he instructed the Ethiopian hosts to release the storks, who immediately devoured all the snakes. Sounding their horns, the Ethiopian soldiers proceeded to sack the city, killing over a thousand compatriots of Balaam. Together with his sons and other sorcerers, Balaam fled to Egypt, where they soon became advisors to Pharaoh.

The Ethiopians hailed Moses as a hero, anointed him as their king and gave him the wife of the late King Kikanos to serve as his queen. Moses, however, refused to cohabit with the woman who was a Canaanite.

During his time as the king of Ethiopia, Moses assembled a powerful army of 30,000 soldiers bringing security and tranquility to Ethiopia and to the entire region.

After serving, with much success, as king of Ethiopia for forty years, the wife of the deceased king of Ethiopia approached the senior members of Ethiopia nobility and revealed to them that during all this time Moses had refused to cohabit with her. She argued that since Moses was not a believer in the Ethiopian gods and is not loyal to the Ethiopian traditions, he is not fit to rule Ethiopia. Now that the son of King Kikanos had matured, she demanded that he should be made king instead of Moses. Even though the Ethiopian people loved Moses, they replaced him with the young Ethiopian prince. Showering Moses with gifts and praises, they bid Moses farewell as he left Ethiopia and went to Midian.

Although this Midrash is but a legend, it fills in many unknowns in the story of Moses. It explains how Moses became a great warrior and military strategist, matured into a wise and beloved king, learning how to manipulate the masses of people, to run the military and the economy of a great country. This is not something that Moses could have learned while he was shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian. As a shepherd in Midian, Moses could have been drawn close to G-d and could have grown in his spirituality as he meditated in the beautiful pastures of Midian, but it would not explain how a young, freshly-minted, prince of Egypt, developed the wisdom and courage to confront the greatest contemporary king of all, Pharaoh of Egypt, and to eventually defeat him.

It is during this period that Moses, the young prince of Egypt, becomes “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses, our Master; Moses, our teacher; Moses, our leader.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5778-2017

“Blessing the Children–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is chock-full of blessings. Before his passing, Jacob not only blesses his twelve sons but also blesses his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. (See Vayechi 5769-2009).

In Genesis 48:20, the Torah records,וַיְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמוֹר, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה , So he [Jacob] blessed them [Joseph’s sons] on that day saying, “By you shall Israel bless saying: ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’”

The Ozar Dinim U’minhagim states as follows: It is the custom of parents to bless both their male and female children on the eve of the Sabbath and holidays after evening prayers or upon entering the house. Grown children also receive a blessing from their parents. Those who bless, place their hands on the head of those to be blessed and say: יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה , May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe. Females are blessed with the formula: “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” This blessing is then followed with the priestly blessing: “May G-d bless you and keep you. May G-d make His face shine toward you and show you grace. May G-d lift up His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”

It is then customary for parents to add a personal blessing. For young children, it is customary to say the conclusion of Jacob’s blessing to Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48:16): הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי , May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land.

Some have the custom to bless married children with two hands and single children with one hand.

Rabbi Jacob Emden writes in his siddur, that it is Jewish custom to bless the children on the eve of the Sabbath. Both parents and teachers bless their children and students after evening prayers because the splendor of G-d is abundant at that time. There are those who have the custom to repeat the blessing upon children on Saturday night as well, at the close of the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath is considered an especially propitious time for blessings, because the negative spirits are rendered powerless on the Sabbath, and cannot interfere with the blessings.

The Chatam Sofer suggests that during the week, adults, who are preoccupied with earning a living, often rush through their prayers without proper focus. On Sabbath and holidays, they have the opportunity and the time to bless their children properly. Others maintain that weekdays are often tense and stress-filled times, and parents are unable to muster the proper attitude that is necessary to bless children. Sabbath brings with it its own joy, rendering it a most propitious time for blessings.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov argues, that in ancient times, it was very rare for children to be blessed by their parents. He even suggests that had Rebecca and Isaac blessed their children regularly, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau would never have developed, since Esau would have been blessed many times and would not have been envious of his brother Jacob’s blessings.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains why girls are blessed in the names of the Matriarchs, whereas boys are not blessed in the names of the Patriarchs, but rather in the names of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe. He suggests that the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe, is chosen over the Patriarchs because Ephraim and Menashe were the first siblings between whom there was no rivalry and the first where the birthright was not contested. “What better way to bless one’s children than with a blessing of peace?”

Senator Joseph Lieberman in his book on the Sabbath, The Gift of Rest, writes: “Of all the things that observant Jews do on the Sabbath…I would put blessing your family high on the list. It is a priceless moment of connection that no matter what has happened during the week, the parent feels blessed to have that child…As a parent you know that weeks can go by when you think of your children less as a blessing and more as problems to be solved…Stopping to bless your children once a week makes us pause to appreciate how blessed we are to have them in the first place and reminds them of the love we feel for them.”

Nachmanides points out that Jacob’s words, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל , in you shall Israel invoke blessing, should really be in the plural form, בָּכֶם , rather than the singular, since Jacob is addressing Ephraim and Menashe. The Ramban explains that the phrase “in you” really applies to Joseph, meaning that the nation of Israel will bless itself with Joseph’s children and say to those who are being blessed, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” The greatest blessing that one can bestow upon a person is that he may be like someone who is generally recognized as a blessed person. It is Joseph who serves as a model for all fathers, who is the happiest of fathers. Jacob, in effect, says that every family should hope to have the good fortune that Joseph had, a father who will lead his children to their grandfather for a blessing that will hopefully apply to all generations simultaneously.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch  writes: For Joseph to be the only Jew in Egypt and to still raise children who remain, for all time, the model of Jewish aspiration and blessing, is an achievement worthy of emphasis!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Thursday, December 28, 2017, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.

Vayigash 5778-2017

“Jacob’s Enhanced Joy from Joseph His Righteous Son”


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, after 22 years of separation, the elderly Patriarch Jacob, is reunited with his beloved son, Joseph, who is now the Viceroy of Egypt.

After revealing himself to his brothers, and dramatically reuniting with his beloved brother, Benjamin, Joseph, kisses all his brothers, and cries.

Pharaoh is delighted with the reunion of Joseph and his brothers, but is most eager to keep Joseph in Egypt. He instructs Joseph to shower his family with gifts to bring back to Canaan and urge his brothers to bring their father Jacob, as well as their families, down to Egypt, where they will be well taken care of during the famine. When Joseph sends his brothers off, he warns them not to become agitated on the way, by blaming each other for what they had endured.

Upon reaching Canaan, Jacob’s sons eagerly tell their father, Genesis 45:26, עוֹד יוֹסֵף חַי, וְכִי הוּא מֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם , “Joseph is still alive and that he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!”

Scripture reports that Jacob’s heart went numb, and that Jacob did not believe them. Only when they told Jacob all that Joseph had said to them, and when Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport them, did his spirits revive.

The Torah then reports that Israel (Jacob) says, Genesis 45:28, רַב עוֹד יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי, אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת , “Enough, my son Joseph is still alive, I must go and see him before I die!”

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, notes that the brothers told Jacob two things: 1. that Joseph was still alive; 2. that he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Rabbi Pincus points out that a righteous person is called, אִישׁ חַי , a living man, and that the Talmud Brachot 18a, derives from this that righteous people are considered alive even when they are dead, because of the Torah that they taught and the life lessons that they modeled, which live on forever. When the brothers said to Jacob that Joseph was still alive, they informed Jacob that despite all he had endured in Egypt, Joseph had kept the faith and remained righteous throughout the 22 year ordeal of being separated from family.

But what about the second part of their report that the brothers delivered to Jacob, that Joseph is now the ruler over all the land of Egypt? To this important information, Jacob does not seem to react. Instead, Jacob’s apparent response was, “Enough that Joseph is alive, it is sufficient to know that he is living and remained righteous. What does it mean to me that he is a great officer and ruler in all of Egypt? All of this is vanity. What is most important is that Joseph remained righteous.  That is what makes me happy. That is why I long to see him. Had he not remained righteous, who knows if I would ever want to see him again?”

When Jacob and Joseph eventually meet, they fall on each other’s shoulders and cry. Old man, Israel, says to Joseph, Genesis 46:30, אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת פָּנֶיךָ, כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי , “Now I can die, after my having seen your face, because you are still alive.” Jacob feels particularly secure with his life’s legacy now that he is aware of Joseph’s many righteous accomplishments, saving an entire civilization from famine and destruction, without making moral compromises. All of Joseph’s good deeds will have an impact for generations, redounding to the benefit of the person who fathered that child, meaning Jacob himself.

Rabbi Pincus points out that when Jacob says, אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם , “I will die this time,” it is because Jacob is finally certain that he will only die once, and not, G-d forbid, die many deaths–-from a child who embarrassed him by departing from the path, and performing evil deeds. “I now see that you, Joseph, have remained a righteous person. I am now certain that I will only die once, and that all the good deeds that you have performed will be credited to me, and after I die, in your merit, I will certainly be elevated in the World to Come.”

How timely and profound is this story of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob dismisses all the wealth, prominence, honor and prestige that Joseph has amassed for himself. All he is concerned about are Joseph’s good deeds and his righteousness.

We have been witness of late of people who have led extraordinarily productive professional lives, who were, until recently, revered for their accomplishments, have amassed untold wealth, rewards and accolades, and are now reduced to ridicule and scorn, because of their impulsiveness and inability to control themselves, that has now become public.

It is not coincidental that the Talmud (Yoma 35b) says that in the end of days, when people come to plead before the Divine Tribunal and claim that their mortal temptations were so great they had to eventually yield, it will be Joseph, who withstood the temptations of the wife of Potifar, who will stand as prosecutor and say: “Were you more handsome than I? Were you more pressured than I was? I did not yield, and maintained my piety.”

This is why Jacob rejoiced in the righteousness of his son. That is why he says, “I am now prepared to die.”

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Tuesday night, December 12, 2017 and continues through Wednesday evening, December 20, 2017.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.


Mikeitz 5778-2017

“Returning the Stolen Goblet to Joseph”


In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, the confrontation between Joseph and his brethren reaches its peak when Joseph’s steward accuses the brothers of stealing the special cup from which Joseph drinks and with which he regularly divines.

The brothers deny stealing anything from Joseph. In their defense they respond, Genesis 44:8, הֵן כֶּסֶף אֲשֶׁר מָצָאנוּ בְּפִי אַמְתְּחֹתֵינוּ הֱשִׁיבֹנוּ אֵלֶיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וְאֵיךְ נִגְנֹב מִבֵּית אֲדֹנֶיךָ כֶּסֶף אוֹ זָהָב , “Here, look: the money that we found in the mouth of our sacks we have brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How, then, could we have stolen from your master’s house any silver or gold?” The brothers are so certain that no one has stolen anything that they boldly declare, Genesis 44:9, “Anyone among your servants with whom it [the cup] is found shall die, and we also will become slaves to my Lord!”

Rashi states that the formulation of the brothers’ defense is one of the ten קַל וָחוֹמֶרKahl Va’chomers, a priori reasoning lines that are stated in the Torah. The brothers argue that if they were honest enough to return the money that they found in their sacks from the previous visit, why would they now steal additional property which is not theirs?

The rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Kama 113b, comment on this by quoting the rabbinic dictum, “Stealing from a Canaanite [gentile] is forbidden, but one may keep the lost object of the Canaanite.” Therefore, in the case of Joseph, who the brothers assumed was not Jewish, the money that Joseph’s brothers found in their sacks should be considered the lost object of a gentile that need not be returned to the non-Jewish owner. Nevertheless, they returned it, going beyond the letter of the law. How then could they have stolen Joseph’s cup, or anything from a gentile, which is strictly forbidden for a Jew?

Rabbinic literature contains extensive discussions regarding the status in Jewish law of the non-Jew and non-Jewish property. When are non-Jews and their property treated equal to Jews and their property, and when are they not treated equitably?

The Talmud, in Baba Kama 38a, reports that the Roman government once sent two officials to Israel to study and evaluate the Torah. After the Roman representatives had read it three times, they reported that they found the Torah to be primarily truthful, except for the case of a Jew’s ox that gored a gentile’s ox, in which case there would be no liability. In the event the situation were reversed and a gentile’s ox gores a Jew’s ox, compensation would need to be paid.

As the discussion on this case unfolds in the Talmud, the rabbis cite the verse in the Torah, Exodus 21:35, which refers to the case of a man’s ox that gores his neighbor’s ox and dies. They suggest that the conclusion depends on how one views the word “neighbor.” If the word is defined to not include gentiles, then when a Jew’s ox gores an ox belonging to a non-Jew, the Jew should not have to pay damages. However, if the word “neighbor” includes non-Jews, then a Jew would be liable for damages. The Jerusalem Talmud in Baba Kamma 4:3 cites a parallel story in which Rabbi Gamliel forbids the use of an object stolen from a non-Jew, lest it cause G-d’s name to be profaned.

To simplify a complicated issue, it is fair to say that in general, the word “neighbor” in the Bible applies only to Jews and not to non-Jews. Much of Jewish law was designed to promote a lifestyle that would keep Jews separate from gentiles in order to prevent Jews from assimilating and behaving in an idolatrous manner. Sharing meals together was prohibited, as was eating non-Jewish food or drinking non-Jewish wine. Jews were not allowed to conduct business with idolaters before gentile holidays, and were prohibited from engaging in partnerships with idolaters.

Many of the medieval commentators, especially those who resided in Christian countries, worked to reapply the laws with respect to gentiles.

An early authority, Rabbeinu Gershon of Mainz declared that non-Jews who do not reside within the land of Israel can not be considered true idolaters. Therefore, Jews could conduct business with them on the gentile holidays.

Rabbeinu Tam noted that, since the Christian church no longer sacrificed to the idols, doing business with them was now permitted. He went so far as to say that the oaths of Christians were no longer oaths in the name of the idolatrous gods, but rather oaths in the name of the “Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

Later, the 14th century sage, Rabbi Menachem Ha’Meiri, declared that Christians were not idolaters, because he interpreted “idolatry” to mean not in keeping with laws. His conclusion, too, eliminated the legal restrictions against Christians.

Throughout Jewish history, questions arose regarding lost or stolen property of the non-Jews. The general practice is, that Jews who find lost property belonging to a Jew are required to publicize that a lost item had been found in an effort to find the real owner. The argument was that since non-Jews did not expend a similar effort to return the lost property of Jews, Jews were not obligated to make such efforts to return lost items belonging to non-Jews.

Despite this dictum, there were, however, many instances in which Jews went beyond the letter of the law, extending kindnesses to non-Jews despite the lack of a legal requirement to do so. So, for instance, even though the Jewish community refused to accept charity from non-Jews, in order to preserve peace, Jews extended charity and provided burial to the poor of other faiths. (Mishnah in Gittin 5:8).

Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik explains that wherever there is a desecration of G-d’s name it is forbidden to keep a lost object of a non-Jew and it must be returned. The Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Metziah 2:5, reports the famous story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite and discovered a precious stone tied to its neck and returned it to the Ishmaelite, who praised the G-d of the Hebrews, thus sanctifying G-d’s name. Similarly, when Joseph’s brothers returned the lost money, they did it publicly in order to sanctify G-d’s name.

It is a well-known dictum, that when a human life is in danger, one may violate the Shabbat. But, there is a great debate over whether this principle applies to non-Jewish lives as well. Some great sages, such as the Chofetz Chaim, opposed the practice on the part of Jewish doctors to tend to the non-Jewish sick on Shabbat. However,  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a most influential modern Halachic authority, objected to the Chofetz Chaim’s conclusion, arguing that if it became known that a Jewish physician refused to treat a non-Jew on Shabbat, while he permitted himself to treat Jews, it would foster much animosity and it would be harmful to the Jewish community.

We see here the evolution of Jewish law, from a time when non-Jewish societies would never come to the aid or benefit of the Jewish people, to a time where there is general reciprocity. Although Jewish reciprocity today is based on the technicality to sanctify G-d’s name, the basic implementation of the law for Jew and gentile is the same: If non-Jews return the lost objects of Jews, then Jews must return the lost objects of non-Jews. If non-Jews return what is stolen, then Jews must return what is stolen. In fact, Jews must always return what is stolen from non-Jews even if the non-Jews do not return what is stolen.

May the positive actions and noble behavior of the Jewish people always serve as a great source of light and enlightenment to all people.

Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah will begin on Tuesday night, December 12, 2017 and continues through Wednesday night, December 20, 2017.

Wishing all a very Happy Chanukah.

Vayeishev 5778-2017


Vayeishev 5778-2017

“The Jealousy Between Brothers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In parashat Vayeishev we read of the powerful forces of jealousy and enmity that rip apart the family of Jacob and his twelve sons.

Already in the opening verses of Vayeishev, we learn of a number of reasons for Joseph’s brothers’ formidable resentment of him. The Torah tells us, in Genesis 37:2, וְהוּא נַעַר , that Joseph was a lad, perhaps implying that Joseph was immature. It further informs us: וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם , [Joseph] hung out with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (originally handmaidens, now Jacob’s wives) and brought back evil reports about them to Jacob their father.

The Torah continues to build the case for the brothers’ jealousy of Joseph. Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ, וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים , Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all of his sons, since he was the child of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colors. Clearly, Jacob’s favoring of Joseph led to the brothers’ resentment!

The saga of Joseph continues with Joseph relating his provocative dreams to his brothers, implying that he is going to lord over them. In Genesis 37:4 the Torah tells us that when the brothers saw the coat of many colors, and recognized the fact that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his brothers, וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם , they hated him and could not speak to him peaceably. When Joseph tells the second dream to his brothers, the Torah reports, Genesis 37:5, וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ , they hated Joseph even more.

Even when Joseph relates his dreams to his love-struck father, Jacob recoils and says, “What is this dream that you have dreamt? Are we to come–-I and your mother and your brothers–-to bow down to you to the ground?” The Torah once again records the brothers’ reaction, in Genesis 37:11, וַיְקַנְאוּ בוֹ אֶחָיו , his brothers were jealous of him. Now an element of jealousy has been added to the previous feelings of hatred.

In a keen analysis of this episode, Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer in his Hegyonah Shel Torah on Genesis, asks a number of pointed questions. If the reason that Jacob loved Joseph was because Joseph was the child of his old age, then shouldn’t Jacob have loved Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, even more, or at least as much as Joseph? Why did he not give a colored coat to Benjamin?

Rabbi Firer suggests that Jacob’s love for Joseph was not so much due to his special feelings for Joseph, but because of Jacob’s great love and special feelings for Rachel. Rachel’s love for her son, Joseph, penetrated the heart of Jacob, so that he too fawned over and loved Joseph. As scripture states, Genesis 29:18, וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל , and Jacob loved Rachel. Whomever Rachel loves is loved by Jacob. But Benjamin never merited to be loved by his mother because she died in childbirth. While Benjamin was also a child of Jacob’s old age (Joseph and Benjamin were the last children born to Jacob), the reason that Joseph is singled out for special love was because of his mother’s love for him, and his father’s love for Rachel.

Rabbi Firer points out, insightfully, that despite Jacob’s favoring Joseph, and despite Joseph’s heady dreams, the real reason for the brothers’ jealousy toward Joseph was because they were concerned for the honor of their mother, Leah. They saw Jacob’s special love for Joseph as an affront to Leah. Clearly, their mother Leah was not as loved by her husband as was her sister Rachel. It was not because of their own honor that they resented Joseph, but rather for the honor of their mother, Leah.

Rabbi Firer continues and asks why it was necessary to bring Benjamin down to Egypt? After all, now that the ten brothers were in Egypt, Jacob would have to come down to Egypt fulfilling the promise of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:13). In this covenant, G-d promised Abraham that he shall surely know that his children will be strangers in the land that is not theirs, and that they will be enslaved and persecuted for 400 years. Now that the mission was complete, Joseph could have revealed himself to his brothers and Jacob would certainly come. What does bringing Benjamin down to Egypt add to the saga?

Rabbi Firer maintains that for the sake of Jewish posterity and because of the damage the resentment could cause in the future, it was necessary to uproot the jealousy from the hearts of the sons of Leah toward their brothers, the sons of Rachel.

When Jacob sends his ten sons down to Egypt, Genesis 42:4, to buy food, the Torah says, וְאֶת בִּנְיָמִין אֲחִי יוֹסֵף לֹא שָׁלַח יַעֲקֹב אֶת אֶחָיו, כִּי אָמַר, פֶּן יִקְרָאֶנּוּ אָסוֹן , Jacob did not send Benjamin down because he was afraid that there would be an accident or a tragedy. The fact that the sons of Leah, along with Bilhah and Zilpah are sent down to Egypt and subjected to the dangers, but not Benjamin, would arouse jealousy among the brothers who would see it as another affront to mother Leah. In order to uproot this jealousy from their hearts, it was necessary to subject Benjamin as well to danger by sending him to Egypt. This demonstrates that it was not because of Jacob’s impassioned love for Benjamin that he did not send him down to Egypt, but rather due to Benjamin’s tender age.

Only after Jacob finally sends Benjamin down to Egypt together with all his brothers, does the jealousy cease, and is uprooted from the hearts of the brothers, allowing the family to continue on the path to fulfill the intended destiny of the Children of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Vayishlach 5778-2017

“The Tragic Death of Mother Rachel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we learn of the untimely and tragic death of Mother Rachel as she was giving birth to Benjamin, her second son. (For an additional analysis of the birth of Benjamin see Vayishlach 5768-2007).

Scripture (Genesis 35:18) reports that Rachel’s last dying wish was to name the child, בֶּן אוֹנִי , meaning son of my mourning. Jacob, however, did not want the child to bear the burden of that grievous name, so he called him “Benjamin,” meaning the son of my right hand.

According to Seder Olam, Jacob was much older than Leah and Rachel. In fact, Laban’s twin daughters were reportedly born on the very day that Jacob received his father’s blessings. Leah and Rachel were both 22 years old when they married Jacob. Rachel was barren for 7 years, and Jacob was already 91 years old when Joseph, Rachel’s first child, was born. Eight years later, at age 99, Jacob entered the land of Israel and Rachel died. The Matriarch Rachel was only 36 years old. Tradition maintains that Leah died at age 44.

The commentators speculate why Rachel was taken at such a young age. The many reasons they suggest recall the speculation regarding the devastating Divine punishment of Moses, forbidding him entry into the Promised Land. Looking for a reason that would justify G-d’s harsh punishment of Moses, the commentators pile it on. One of the commentators even remarked sarcastically,  that while Moses committed only one sin, the commentators attribute to him multiple sins and violations.

Similarly, in their efforts to determine the real cause of Rachel’s premature death, the commentators offer many theories and possibilities. None of the proffered reasons are conclusive, since the Bible never confirms the reason for Rachel’s death. Nevertheless, each of the speculative reasons can serve as a life lesson for all about proper conduct and values.

Given Rachel’s history of fertility issues, Rachel’s premature death might have been health related. Rachel had difficulty conceiving, and was barren for 7 years. It could very well be that these issues intensified, resulting in her premature demise.

The Mishnah in Shabbat 2:6 declares that there are three transgressions for which women die in childbirth. Although the Matriarch Rachel was apparently not guilty of any of those transgressions, childbirth is always treacherous.

Even if Rachel did not die because of her health issues, she may have, by her careless utterances, made herself spiritually vulnerable to premature death. After seeing that her sister Leah had given birth to four children, she cried out in desperation to Jacob, Genesis 30:1 הָבָה לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי , give me children, otherwise I am dead!

Our rabbis (Avot 1:11) state, חֲכָמִים, הִזָּהֲרוּ בְּדִבְרֵיכֶם , wise people be careful with your utterances! In this case, Rachel may have unintentionally brought upon herself her tragic death.

A second instance of costly utterances appears in this saga when Rachel steals her father’s תּרָפִים -fetishes (Genesis 31:19). So certain is Jacob that no one in his household had stolen anything from Laban, that he publicly declares in Genesis 31:32 עִם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶת אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יִחְיֶה, נֶגֶד אַחֵינוּ הַכֶּר לְךָ מָה עִמָּדִי, וְקַח לָךְ , “With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen ascertain for yourself what is [yours that is] with me and take it back!” Despite the fact that Jacob had no idea that Rachel had taken the fetishes, she was punished because of the utterance of the righteous Jacob. Apparently, her account in heaven was examined and Rachel’s tragic judgment was carried out during the vulnerable time of childbirth.

Others attribute the fault to Jacob. The sages, in Talmud Rosh Hashana 6a, state that, “Whoever leaves a vow unfulfilled, his wife dies.” When Jacob left the land of Canaan, he vowed (Genesis 28:20-22) that he would return to Beth El and sacrifice to G-d. It is perhaps for this reason that Jacob was punished by having to bury his beloved Rachel.

The Midrash Rabbah Genesis 31:14, cites an opinion that Rachel died first, before Leah, because Rachel presumptuously and disrespectfully spoke up before her older sister. After working for Laban for 20 years and being constantly conned out of his proper wages, Jacob summoned his wives to the field and told them of his plans to leave Haran and their father, Laban. Both wives supported his decision, but Scripture in Genesis 31:14 says, “Then Rachel and Leah answered saying,” indicating that the younger Rachel replied before her older sister, Leah. Other commentators disagree with the contention that Rachel failed to show proper respect to Leah, citing the Torah report that Jacob summoned his wives, Rachel and Leah, in that order. Obviously, since Rachel was called first, she was not acting improperly when she responded first. Why then did she die? Because of the curse that Jacob uttered regarding the theft of Laban’s fetishes.

The Ramban commenting on Deuteronomy 18:25, notes that the Torah forbids a man from marrying two sisters. Although the Torah had not yet been given, many maintain that the Patriarchs rationally came to the conclusion of all the laws of the Torah and observed them. Nachmanides argues that as long as Jacob was in Padan Aram, Mesopotamia, and not in the land of Israel, he was not punished for having married two sisters. But, once he arrived in the Holy Land of Israel, it was necessary for Rachel, who married Jacob after Leah, to pass away, so that Jacob would not be in violation of the Torah’s prohibition and defiling the sanctity of the Holy Land.

The rabbis underscore how profound and personally devastating, Rachel’s death was to Jacob. In Genesis 28, the Torah tells of old Jacob’s illness in Egypt and of Joseph’s visit to his ailing father, together with his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. Jacob made Joseph swear that he would not bury Jacob in Egypt after his death. Jacob was rather defensive about this request because he himself did not bury Joseph’s mother, Rachel, in the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, even though her burial place in Bethlehem was near the Machpelah Cave.

In Genesis 48:7, Jacob says to his son Joseph, וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן, מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן , But as for me–-when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan. The rabbis in Genesis Rabbah 97:7 learn from the expression “Rachel died on me,” that Rachel’s death was the hardest of all the troubles that Jacob endured during his lifetime. The rabbis in Talmud Sanhedrin 22b learn from these same words that a wife’s death and loss profoundly affects her husband.

Furthermore, before his death, when Joseph blesses his children, he tells his son, Joseph, Genesis 49:25, “The G-d of your father Who helps you, and Sha-dai Who blesses you…blessings of the breast and the womb…” The rabbis in Genesis Rabbah 98:20 comment on this and say, “Come and see how greatly Jacob loved Rachel. Even when he came to bless her son [Joseph], he made him [Joseph] secondary to her. When he gives him the ‘blessings of the breast and the womb’ he is saying to Joseph: May the breasts that nursed such a son, and the womb that brought him forth be blessed.”

This great woman, the Matriarch Rachel, died at the young age of 36, but in her abbreviated lifetime made a profound impression upon all who knew her, and on the future destiny of the People of Israel.

May her memory be a blessing to all.

May you be blessed.

Vayeitzei 5778-2017

“Three Wells ”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves Beer Sheba to escape the wrath of Esau and travels to Haran to be with his uncle, Laban.

As he leaves the Holy Land, Jacob has a powerful spiritual experience in which he dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder that leads to heaven.

Describing Jacob’s arrival in Haran, the Torah, in Genesis 29:2 states, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ, כִּי מִן הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים, וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר , He looked and behold–-a well in the field! And behold! Three flocks of sheep lay there beside it, for from that well they would water the flocks, and the stone over the mouth of the well was large. Scripture explains that only when all the shepherds were assembled could they together roll the huge stone from off the mouth of the well and water the flocks.

There is much speculation regarding the purpose of the huge stone. The most plausible reasons for placing the stone on top of the well were to protect the water and to prevent people from falling into the well.

Others suggest that the huge stone was there for other, non-practical, reasons. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asserts that the Arameans were not men of good character. Since they did not trust one another, there was fear that if the well were left open to all, some shepherds would take more than their fair share. Since it was necessary for all the shepherds to be there in order to roll the stone off, the equitable distribution of the water was ensured.

Jacob is surprised to see that the local shepherds had gathered around the well and were not out in the field grazing the sheep, and caring for the owners’ flocks properly. While in conversation with the shepherds, Rachel arrives. So taken is Jacob with the young woman, that he singlehandedly lifts up the stone and waters her flocks.

Wells play an important role in several narratives in the Torah. There are, in fact, three similar accounts in the Torah that tell of travelers who come to a well to find a mate.

The first occurrence in the Torah is found in Genesis 24:11. Eliezer, Abraham’s Damascan servant, brings his master, Abraham’s camels outside of the city of Nachor, to the well of water, at evening, as the female water drawers come out. The second well story is found in our parasha, in Genesis 29:2. In the third case, found in Exodus 2:15-17, Moses has fled Egypt and comes to dwell in the land of Midian. He sits down by the בְּאֵר , a well. The High Priest of Midian has seven daughters who come to the well to draw water, fill the troughs and give drink to their father’s flocks. As Moses watches, the local shepherds chase the women away.

Although the three stories appear to be quite similar, there are significant differences. In fact, there are basic differences concerning the wells themselves.

In the city of Nachor, where Eliezer comes, the shepherdesses apparently go out together every day toward evening, to draw water. This was necessary for their protection from the boys who would frequently harass them. The well, in this case, is located outside the city. Except for the troublesome shepherds, the story focuses only on the women. The well here seems to be a communal well that is governed by communal laws. The water is open and free for anyone to take. The fact that the well is outside the city indicates that the location is secure from enemies and bad elements, and is even safe for girls who go out to draw water.

The well, mentioned in our parasha, serves only to water flocks and is not open to communal use. It is subject to use only during those hours when the shepherds come together. The men here play a significant role, for without them, there would be no access to the water.

The well that Jacob comes to is בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה , a well in the field. It is not near any inhabited areas, but farther away, closer to the pastures, and its use is limited only to flocks that belong to the members of the local community. The well seems to be owned or controlled by the local community whose shepherds dug it, and may not be used by anyone else. The source of the water does not appear to be an open stream, but rather a flow of underground water. The well itself needs to be protected, because of the scarcity of water.

At first glance, the well in the story of Moses in Midian seems to be similar to the well where Jacob meets Rachel. However, there is a significant difference. Both the wells of Eliezer and Jacob are in Mesopotamia, a land that is blessed by powerful rivers–the Tigris and the Euphrates, and abundant rain. The land of Midian is hot and arid, with poor soil. Its Bedouin residents are always fighting for bare subsistence, and only the strong survive. They fight over every inch of land and every drop of water. Although the daughters of Jethro arrive at the well long before the male shepherds, they are soon chased away. Only the presence of Moses, who fights off the shepherds, makes it possible for them to water their sheep.

Wells, in many cultures, are a positive symbol of abundance, good fortune and comradery. Wells are often seen as vehicles that ensure the future fate of the people of the community.

But every well is different. Depending on the environment they serve, wells elicit different reactions, often coinciding with the needs of the time and the location.

Judaism regards water as a holy commodity. In fact, Torah itself is often (Isaiah 55:1) compared to water. Thus, tradition reveres water, both literally and symbolically. It is at the well where matchmaking takes place, where courts of law meet and important decisions are rendered.

In a most profound way, the well may represent the actual destiny of the People of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Toledot 5778-2017

“Isaac’s Unconditional Love for Esau”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Isaac was 60 years old when his wife, Rebecca, gave birth to twin boys after a difficult labor.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:27, highlights the different natures of the twins as they grew older: וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים , The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents. This verse is understood by the commentators to mean that Esau was a hunter, while Jacob was a scholar who lived in the tents and, presumably, studied Torah.

In a particularly revealing verse concerning the relationships in Isaac’s home, the Torah, in Genesis 25:28 states, וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו, וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב , And Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth; but Rebecca loved Jacob. As we have noted previously (Toledot 5760-1999), this verse reveals much about the relationship between the parents and their twin sons. It underscores that Isaac loved (past tense) Esau for utilitarian purposes–because Esau fed his father venison. Rebecca, on the other hand, loves (a continuous present form of the verb) Jacob. No reason is given. She loves Jacob because he is Jacob, just a wonderful child.

While it is always easier to focus on the good child, our commentators expend much effort trying to understand the challenging and difficult Esau.

A fascinating Midrash found in Exodus Rabbah 1:1, states that while yet young, Esau abandoned the good path. However, because Isaac loved Esau so much, he spared the rod and refused to reprove the child. Instead of this gentle approach bringing Esau closer to his father, it distanced Esau, to the extent that Esau subtly desired his father’s death. When describing Esau’s hatred toward Jacob for stealing his blessing from Isaac, the Torah (Genesis 27:41) reveals that Esau thought to himself, “May the days of mourning for my father draw near, then I will kill my brother, Jacob.”

While the unconditional love that Isaac showed Esau did not positively impact on his son, as Isaac had hoped, Isaac’s relationship with Jacob was quite different. According to tradition, Isaac would study Torah with Jacob in the house of study, and would reprove Jacob when necessary, fulfilling the dictum of Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves his child brings him closer with discipline.” The commentators explain that wise parents do not overlook their children’s faults, but exercise disciplinary measures that would hopefully correct those faults.

Some of the commentators are troubled by the fact that the “holy” Isaac loved his wicked son, Esau, simply because Esau fed him meat. Finding this interpretation difficult, the rabbis (Tanchuma 27:8) explain this to mean that Esau would “trap” his father with his words. Esau would deceive his father, Isaac, into thinking that he was righteous, by asking Isaac all sorts of sophisticated religious questions concerning the laws of tithing salt.

The Talmud, in Tractate Sabbath 89b, records that in the future, the Al-mighty will confront all three patriarchs, and say to them, “Your children have sinned.” Both Abraham and Jacob will say to the Al-mighty, “If that is the case, wipe them [the Children of Israel] off the face of the earth, for the sanctification of Your name!” On the other hand, when the Al-mighty criticized Isaac, telling him that his children had sinned against G-d, Isaac will say, “Sovereign of the Universe! Are they my children and not Your children? Do You not call them, ‘My sons’?”

Isaac proceeds to argue with G-d that during the average life span of 70 years, there is really very little accountable sinning. Isaac notes that until age 20 a person is not punished for misdeeds. Of the remaining 50 years, 25 years of nights must be subtracted, for a sleeping person does not sin. Another twelve and a half years are allotted to prayer, eating and taking care of bodily needs. Thus, only twelve and a half years of sins remain. “You, G-d,” said Isaac, “Should be able to handle those twelve and a half years. If not, let’s share, half will be my responsibility and the other half Yours. If you say that they should all be upon me, please recall that I offered myself up before You as a sacrifice at the Akeida, and in that merit all the sins should be forgiven.”

At that moment the people of Israel cried out, “You, Isaac, are our [true] father. You are our father.” Isaac protested, “No, G-d is our Father and our Redeemer, everlasting is His name.”

A story is told that the great Rabbi Chaim of Chernovitz, had a son who left the religious fold. Reb Chaim, nevertheless, embraced his son and supported him with food and clothing, taking care of all his needs, and fulfilling all of his requests with love.

Every morning, the rabbi would humbly open his prayers before the Creator of the World and cry: “Master of the World, look at what I am doing with my son. Although he fails to walk in the righteous path, nevertheless, I treat him generously and with loving-kindness, and I am but flesh and blood. You, our merciful Father, are a kind Deity, Who has infinite loving-kindness, should You not behave in a like manner toward Your children, Israel. Even though they may not fulfill Your wishes, nevertheless, You should have mercy on them, like a father on a son. Al-mighty G-d have mercy on us, and invoke Your Divine influence to fulfill all our needs. Should You not, Al-mighty G-d, learn from an insignificant person like me how to treat Your children?”

The patriarch Abraham chased his son, Ishmael, from his home. Father Jacob was not faced with a prodigal child. Isaac alone showed unconditional love, so that in the end of days, he would be able to challenge the Al-mighty, and bring merit to all the Children of Israel.

Many parents face the often maddening challenges of nurturing children. We must all learn from Isaac not to embarrass them, not to put them down, and surely not to send them away. As difficult as it may be, we must embrace them, support them, clothe them and care for them with abundant love. Hopefully, in this manner, they will return, and we, as parents, will derive great pleasure from them and their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.