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Korach 5777-2017

“Mrs. Ohn: The Unsung Hero”

The Torah, in Numbers 16:1, records the initial steps of the rebellion: וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי, וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן . Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi, separated himself with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and Ohn, son of Peleth, the offspring of Reuben.

Together with 250 men from the Children of Israel who were leaders of the assembly and men of renown, they gathered against Moses and Aaron and rebelled, saying: “All the people of Israel are holy, why do you [Moses and Aaron] exalt yourselves over the Congregation of G-d?”

The rebellion ends when the earth opens and swallows Korach and all his belongings (but not his sons, see Pinchas 5765-2005). The 250 men who had offered the forbidden incense, also met an untimely end when a heavenly fire consumed them.

When the punishment of Korach and his followers is recorded in scripture, there is no mention of Ohn the son of Peleth, who had been part of the initial rebellion. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 109b, reports that Ohn did not die when the earth opened up, nor was he consumed by the heavenly fire. In fact, according to the Midrash, he survived because of his wise wife’s intervention.

Although Ohn had agreed to join with Korach in his rebellion, his wife convinced him that it was a no-win situation for him. Trying to prevent Korach from mixing in to a dispute that should not be his concern, Ohn’s wife argues, that Ohn has nothing to gain: “If Moses wins, you will be subservient to him, and if Korach wins, you will be subservient to him.”

Although Ohn had already given his word to Korach, his wife assured him that she would save him. First, she gave him wine to drink, and he fell asleep. Then, she immodestly uncovered her hair and stood at the opening to their tent. The messengers who came to fetch Ohn to join rebellion left because of Mrs. Ohn’s immodesty. When Ohn finally awoke, the rebellion was long over and Korach and his followers were dead.

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz  explains that the greatness of Mrs. Ohn was that she maintained her self control, enabling her to stand firm in face of the mass hysteria that had gripped the people. Her remarkable ability to break with the prevailing mood, resulted in her husband’s rescue.

This was no little feat. In the midst of the chaos, Mrs. Ohn had the presence of mind to think rationally and present a meaningful argument to her husband. She did not put down Korach, nor did she put Moses down. Instead, she just told her husband that he had nothing to gain by supporting either side.

It is really not clear whether Mrs. Ohn’s arguments ultimately prevailed, because she eventually resorted to an alternative strategy, putting Ohn to sleep. However, Mrs. Ohn’s ability to think clearly and rationally at a time when most people were swept away by the intensity of emotion, is rather remarkable.

There is much we can learn from Mrs. Ohn, given the similar intense emotions that prevail today. Despite the great increase in formal education, and the vast number of citizens who now have secondary, tertiary and graduate educations, as well as the proliferation of immense amounts of information that is available to everybody through newspapers and media, few of us today have the ability or the inclination to sit down in times of crisis and think things out calmly, collectively and rationally. Ours is a world that has been seized by a form of “mass hysteria,” that has gripped not only our country, but, apparently, the entire world.

We see today, almost on a daily basis, numerous cases of people who are simply unable to control themselves, who quickly “lose it.” Fighting, which often ends in violence and tragedy, regularly breaks out over parking spaces and seats on the subway. The number of overdoses due to drugs and pain killers, has been rising dramatically because of out of control use.

Clearly, while much of the explosive increase in the number of cases of financial fraud can be attributed to wanton greed, in certain instances it is not due to scheming and venality. Often, people who make serious business miscalculations, find themselves feeling trapped, with no way to escape except by “cooking the books.” The frequent occurrences of group violence among young people are also often not premeditated. Kids go out to have a little fun, lose control, and wind up hurting others, or worse.

Ironically, this out-of-control “crowd mentality” can work both ways. The same passions that may be used to hurt others, can be put to use to help others. The “mob mentality” can actually be used to save others. Thank G-d, we see that in practice every day. The incredible proliferation of gemachs, free aid societies, where people work together to collect wedding dresses and baby furniture, volunteer to visit the sick and shop for the elderly and the infirm. There are entire communities that come together and form societies in which evil spirits are redirected and transformed into good deeds.

This double-edged sword, the human beings’ ability to do both good and bad, is pithily expressed in the statement found in Ethics of our Fathers (4:2) attributed to Ben Azai, מִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה , One good deed promotes other good deeds, while one evil deed promotes more evil deeds. Similarly, Rashi, citing the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 3:29 states, אוֹי לָרָשָׁע אוֹי לִשְׁכֵנוֹ , Woe to the evil person, woe to his neighbor.

We all need to be able to stop, from time to time, to take long hard looks at the larger picture to see where we fit in, and to recognize how insignificant we each are in relation to the broad scheme of things. Yet, by grouping together with other good people, we can together make a huge difference. We can train and prepare ourselves for those intense and unexpected moments, so we will be equipped to make the proper decisions for life and death, for good and evil.

These decisions will benefit not only ourselves, our friends and our families, but the entire global environment–the world.

Remember that Mrs. Ohn is a paradigm for each one of us. Keep your cool. Think before you act. G-d bless Mrs. Ohn.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5777-2017

“The Slave Mentality”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read of G-d’s shattering decree that the generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land–the land of Israel.

G-d is tired of hearing the complaints of this evil assembly. In Numbers 14:28-29, G-d tells Moses: אֱמֹר אֲלֵהֶם, חַי אָנִי נְאֻם השׁם, אִם לֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם בְּאָזְנָי,  כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה לָכֶם. בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל פְּקֻדֵיכֶם לְכָל מִסְפַּרְכֶם מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה, אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם עָלָי , Say to them [the Israelites]: As I [G-d] live, says the L-rd, as you [the people] have spoken in My ears, so shall I do! In this Wilderness shall your carcasses drop; all of you who were counted in any of your numberings, from twenty years of age and above, whom you provoked against Me.

G-d then decrees that the People of Israel shall not come into the land which He promised to give them. Only Caleb, the son of Jephunneh and Joshua, the son of Nun, and the children (whose parents were afraid would be taken captive in the land of Canaan), will He bring to the land that their parents despised.
To the people themselves, G-d says,”But you, your carcasses shall drop in this Wilderness.” Your children will roam in the wilderness for forty years and bear your guilt, until the last of your carcasses will perish in the wilderness.

G-d declares that the people will roam in the wilderness for forty years like the number of days that the scouts spied out the land. For forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year, they shall bear their iniquities. In this wilderness will the people who left Egypt cease to be, and there they shall die.

Dr. Israel Eldad, in his truly incisive book, Hegyonot Mikra, offers superb insights into the episode of the scouts and the punishment visited upon the People of Israel. The scouts, says Eldad, were not the first to be sent into Israel by G-d. In fact, there was a man by the name of Abram, to whom G-d says (Genesis 12:1), לֶךְ לְךָ …אֶל הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ , Go to the land…that I shall show you.

Abram, whom Eldad calls “the first idealist,” was not told the name of the land or the nature of the land. G-d chose Abram and said to him, לֶךְ לְךָ , go, and he went, without questioning his mission or G-d’s intentions. שְׁלַח לְךָ , (Numbers 13:2) (send for your sake), which G-d said to Moses regarding the scouts, was different. In both instances, it meant to go from one land to another. However, Abram’s decision to follow G-d’s directives was based on spiritual commitment and faith. The scouts’ decision to go was intended to effect an escape from the people’s “slave mentality.”

Moses, who was aware of the nature of the scouts, was hoping to control the negative passions of the former slaves, and to convert their slave mentality into a positive force. That is why Moses did not lead the people directly into the land of Israel through the land of the Philistines, hoping that the longer journey would result in the people’s spiritual transformation.

Moses was hoping that within a year or two, especially with the giving of the Torah, the slave mentality would recede and vanish. By structuring the people into tribal groups, establishing an army and leading them as a united people, they would coalesce into a united community.

Despite the continuing issues that arise throughout their wanderings in the Wilderness, Moses seems to blame the problems on the עֵרֶב רַב , the mixed multitude. The fact that the Israelites are going back to the land of the Patriarchs does not seem to be of interest to them at all. They would rather go back to Egypt, to eat the “wonderful” foods that the Egyptians served them. They forgot the price they paid for that food, the savage beatings, the drownings of their children and the backbreaking work.

Moses misjudged the Jewish people. He thought that the enslavement was a shell that could be peeled off after experiencing a year of freedom. G-d therefore tells Moses to send the scouts to see for himself the peoples’ corruptness, and their deeply embedded slave mentality.

The dispute between Joshua, Caleb and the other ten scouts was not about the nature of the land of Israel, but rather about the nature of the people. The scouts’ mission was not to reveal the weakness of the land, but rather to uncover the weakness of the people. This weakness was clearly exposed after hearing the reports from the ten scouts, when the people lifted up their voices and started to cry that night (Numbers 14:1-2), “Had we only died in Egypt! Had we only died in the Wilderness!”

This “thirst” is not the type that can be quenched miraculously by drawing water from a rock. This hunger cannot be sated by Manna from Heaven. The defining issue, says Eldad, is fear, and even miracles cannot overcome the internal fear and faintheartedness of the people. Moses’ inspiring speeches cannot help, neither can his staff. Only if there is faith in the people’s soul, can fear be overcome. Without faith, the fear will remain and intensify, the body will tremble and the people will insist on returning to Egypt.

Caleb and Joshua try their best to convince the people, by declaring (Numbers 14:7), טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד , that the land is very very good. Even when they say (Numbers 14:8), “If G-d wants us, He can bring us to this land,” the people remain stiff-necked in their resistance. After all, how can these rebellious people who have no desire for G-d, know that G-d wants them?

That is why, ultimately, there is no remedy. That is why the generation that was raised in Egypt, and who are dominated by the slave mentality, need to be replaced by people who were born in freedom, who are capable of developing a relationship with the Al-mighty, based on loving faith in G-d who cares for them.

Because if G-d desires them, and they desire G-d, no matter how great the challenge, they can overcome.

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a’lot’cha 5777-2017

“The Convert and the Second Passover”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, we learn of the fascinating law of פֶּסַח שֵׁנִיPesach Shay’nee, the “makeup date” for those who were unable to keep Passover on its proper date, the 15th day of Nissan.

The Torah, in Numbers 9:10-11, reads as follows, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר,  אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶה טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַהשׁם. בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ,  עַל מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ , G-d spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the Children of Israel: If any man will become contaminated through a human corpse or on a distant road, whether you or your generations, he shall make the Pesach offering for the L-rd. In the second month, on the fourteenth day in the afternoon shall he make it; with Matzot and bitter herbs shall he eat it.”

Because celebrating the Passover and valuing freedom is so essential to Jewish identity, the ritual observance of Passover may not be skipped or omitted. Also, since celebrating Passover is a positive commandment whose punishment for neglecting it is כָּרֵתKarayt, excision, a person who misses observing Passover because he/she was in a state of ritual impurity or unable to get to Jerusalem on time, must observe it a month later (Passover 5763-2003).

This law in itself is fascinating. But, equally fascinating, at least, is the concluding verse concerning the second Passover, that is found in Numbers 9:14, וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַהשׁם, כְּחֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח וּכְמִשְׁפָּטוֹ כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה,  חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ , When a convert shall dwell with you, he shall make a Passover offering to the L-rd; according to the decree of the Passover offering and its law, so shall he do; one decree shall be for you, and the proselyte and the native of the land.

The Ramban says that this law comes to teach that not only do the converts in the time of the Egyptian exodus need to observe Passover, but that all future converts, even those who did not personally experience the exodus, must participate equally in the observance of Passover

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch  expresses it beautifully by saying that this particular mitzvah points to the complete equality of every convert to Judaism, in every way, in the eyes of the Torah, “For by his [the convert’s] thus celebrating the Passover lamb, the whole Jewish past becomes his too, and…any difference in his treatment, socially or legally, which might be incited by reference to where he came from, is completely eliminated.”

Rabbi Hirsch points out that the law of the convert is recorded in the passage concerning the second Passover, because one might think that a convert, as part of Israel, must participate with the rest of the community of Israel, on the official date, the fifteenth of Nissan. However, a convert who converted to Judaism after the celebration of Passover might not have to celebrate that particular year. חֻקָּה אַחַת , the Torah declares that there is only one statute that applies to both Jews and to converts. The convert is equally obligated to observe the second Passover, as are all Jews born to Judaism.

The ArtScroll Chumash commentary explains that all Jews are holy because they have holy souls. According to the Midrash, the corruption of Egypt was so great that the Jews in Egypt reached the 49th level of impurity. Had the corruption gone one level further, their holy souls would have been destroyed or lost. Therefore, the significance of the exodus from Egypt, which rescued all Jewish souls from ultimate contamination and destruction, is of particular importance, and must be observed by all–those who are born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism.

The Talmud in P’sachim discusses a fascinating rule regarding Passover. The law requires that every person who joins in the celebration of Passover, who eats the Pascal sacrifice, must be designated as a member of a group. Whether participating as one family or several families, every participant must be personally invited and certified as a member of that group.

The Talmud in P’sachim 91b declares that a Passover group may not be composed entirely of converts. The reason cited by the Talmud for not allowing exclusive groups of converts to celebrate Passover together is because converts are so diligent and careful in the performance of mitzvot, that they will inevitably accept upon themselves unnecessary stringencies, which will possibly result in a violation of the proper observance.

The Talmudic reasoning is a fascinating sociological observation about not only converts to Judaism, but also about Jews who have returned to Jewish observance, who are often significantly more conscientious about their observance, than those who were raised observant.

The whole issue of stringency in Judaism is a rather fascinating topic. Often, a person in doubt, chooses to follow the more stringent practice. That is why it is often said that super-observance often reflects doubt and ignorance. If one were properly schooled, and had sufficient mastery of the information, one would have no doubts. It takes a genuine scholar and a knowledgeable person to choose the more lenient path. The less knowledgeable person is always afraid of making a mistake and frequently chooses the more severe practice.

The laws of Pesach Sheni, the second Passover, not only inform us of the true reasons for Passover observance, but also enlighten us about important practices in determining Jewish law.

May you be blessed.

Naso 5777-2017

“G-d’s Gift of a Second Chance”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, is the longest of all the parashiot of the Torah. It is appropriately read most often on the Shabbat that immediately follows Shavuot, indicating the Jewish People’s great love for Torah. It is interesting to note that the 176 verses in parashat Naso is the same number of verses in the longest chapter of Psalms, chapter 119. 176 is also the number of folios, in the largest tractate of the Talmud, Baba Batra.

One of the many diverse themes that are found in parashat Naso is the command in Numbers 5, to purify the camp of Israel.

Nachmanides explains that in order to make the camp worthy of the newly-erected Tabernacle and G-d’s Divine Presence that had settled among the Jews, the people of Israel had to purify their camp of any ritual contamination.

In Numbers 5:2, G-d speaks to Moses and says to him, צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וִישַׁלְּחוּ מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה כָּל צָרוּעַ וְכָל זָב וְכֹל טָמֵא לָנָפֶשׁ , Command the Children of Israel that they expel from the camp everyone [stricken] with the צָרַעַת –Tzaraat disease, everyone who has a זָבZahv, emission, and all those contaminated by contact with a human corpse.

Rashi explains that there were three concentric camps at the time of Israel’s encamping. The camp of the “Divine Presence” was at the center, in the innermost square, and consisted of the Tabernacle and the courtyard surrounding the Tabernacle. The Levites, Moses and Aaron were encamped in the middle square, around the four sides of the Tabernacle and the courtyard. The Israelites encamped in the outermost square, on all four sides of the Levites.

Rashi explains that those who were stricken with Tzaraat were sent out of all three camps. Those who had experienced a Zahv–emission were permitted in the Israelite camp, but were sent out of both the camp of the Divine Presence and the Levites’ camp. Those who had come in contact with a dead body were prohibited entry only to the camp of the Divine Presence.

The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez suggests that the Torah records the mitzvah of the purification of the camp at this particular point, in order to prove to the Israelites that their camp was also regarded as holy. The May’am Lo’ez maintains that when the Israelites saw that the Divine Presence had settled on the newly-erected Tabernacle, and that the Levites were stationed around it to protect the Tabernacle, they felt bereft, thinking that their camp was without sanctity. Now that they learned that those people stricken with Tzaraat could not enter the camp of Israel, they realized that all three camps were sanctified and that the Divine Presence was indeed in their camp as well.

The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 7:1, records the reason for sending out the unclean Israelites from their camps. Says the Midrash, just as the dross must be removed from the silver in order to see its beauty, so too did the camp of Israel need to be purified in order to see the peoples’ beauty.

The Midrash explains that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were a beaten and broken people. Due to the arduous labor of building with bricks and mortar, and having to climb great heights, most of the people were ill and disabled. Some were injured by falling stones; others had lost hands or vision as a result of work accidents.

When they arrived in the wilderness, the Al-mighty said to Himself, “Is this the way the Torah is going to be respected? Shall I give the Torah to a generation of cripples? I could wait for a new generation to be mature enough to accept the Torah, but that would take too long!”

G-d then instructed His angels to quickly heal the people. The rabbis confirm their healing from the Torah’s descriptions at the revelation of Sinai. Proof that no one was lame is derived from Exodus 19:17, which states that the people stood beneath the mountain. No one was missing limbs, because it says in Exodus 24:7 that the Jewish people replied, “Anything that G-d spoke,we will do.” No one was deaf, because the verse in Exodus 24:7 says, “We will hear.” None of the people were blind, since it says in Exodus 20:15, “And all the people saw the voices.” No one was mute, because it says in Exodus 19:8, “And all the people answered.” Clearly, the Torah describes a people who were completely healed.

However, when the people later worshiped the Golden Calf, they were once again stricken. They became זָבִיםZavim, מְצוֹרָעִים —Metzoraim (stricken with Tzaraat), and rendered impure with the contamination of death. In order to achieve purity, the stricken people were sent out of the camp.

This challenging Midrash in effect reports that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were a pitiful bunch. Many of them were physically blemished and brutally injured from the inhumane work. But they were miraculously made whole again at Sinai, and the integrity of their souls was matched by their physical perfection. However, as they wandered in the wilderness and distanced themselves from Sinai, the effects of the miracles at Sinai began to wear off. They began to grumble about the hardships of the journey. Soon their now-blemished souls began to be reflected in their physically-blemished bodies.

Casual observers may ask, how those who had once been lame, or blind or mute, or missing a limb, who had witnessed their own miraculous return to wholeness, could possibly fail to express gratitude for their wondrous healing?

Unfortunately, many of us behave in a similar manner in our own lives. A close friend moves away, but a new friend is made soon after. A precious piece of jewelry is lost, but is soon replaced with a new, even more precious, piece of jewelry. A pet passes away, and a new pet is embraced. G-d often gives people second chances but they fail to express their gratitude for those second chances. Those who fail to do so and those who fail to acknowledge the graciousness of the Al-mighty, will often find themselves isolated–-surrounded by hosts of ungrateful people like themselves.

G-d’s greatest desire is that the camp of Israel be filled with sanctity, happiness, joy, and that the people find abundant reason for expressions of gratitude and thankfulness.

There is no human being who has not been given a second chance. These opportunities for new beginnings are true gifts from the Al-mighty, that need to be acknowledged and appreciated, and not rejected, because of some shiny calf, that beckons and tempts us with its golden body.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3329 years ago is observed this year on Tuesday evening, May 30th, and continues through Thursday night, June 1st, 2017.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Bamidbar 5777-2017

“The Danger of Seeing the Holy Furnishings”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, concludes with G-d’s stern warning to Moses and Aaron forbidding the Levites to enter the Tabernacle to assemble and disassemble the sanctuary structure before the holy furnishings are properly covered.

In Numbers 4:20, the Torah instructs Moses to warn the Levites, specifically the family of Kehat, וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵת , They [the Kehatites] shall not come and look as the holy [furnishings] are covered, lest they die.

The meaning of the above verse is the subject of dispute. The literal meaning of the word, כְּבַלַּעK’vah’lah, means “to swallow,” asserting that the Levites not come and look as the holy things are being swallowed, lest they die.

The Rashbam explains that K’vah’lah, implies that when the Levites dismantle (“swallow”) the Tabernacle, G-d Himself is revealed, and if they saw the Holy Divine Presence, they would die.

Rashi maintains otherwise. He explains that K’vah’lah here means that Levites may not be present as the holy vessels are covered (“swallowed”) and carefully placed in their containers.

The great contemporary commentator Nehama Leibowitz asked the question, “What was the grave sin that warranted such a dire penalty, which the Levites had to fear when engaged in transporting the holy appurtenances?”

Professor Leibowitz cites the Midrash Rabbah (Numbers 5) quoting Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, who says in the name of Rabbi Yosse ben Zimra, that because of the extraordinary sanctity of the Ark, the Levites would be afraid to handle it, lest they be struck down and die. Therefore, they would prefer to handle the other vessels–the table, candlesticks, and the altars, neglecting and slighting the Holy Ark.

Rabbi Samuel bar Rabbi Nachman disagreed and said that, to the contrary, because of its great sanctity, the people would vie to carry the Ark, even at the risk of their lives, and leave the other furnishings without anyone to transport them. This would leave the sanctuary in turmoil. That is why G-d said that Aaron and his sons must assign each Levite to a specific appointed task.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that if the holy vessels were not covered, the Levites would come to regard them as ordinary utensils. They would fail to see the utensils’ deep mystical meaning and would be much less likely to respect their profound value. As a result, the Levites might become so consumed by the privilege of transporting the holy vessels, and not show the proper respect for the vessels’ special sanctity.

The Abarbanel maintains that the Torah mandates that the vessels be covered before the Levites come in, so that the Levites not attempt to grasp beyond their capacity and try to comprehend what is the Holy of Holies.

Professor Leibowitz cites the 16th century Italian commentator R. Moshe Hefez , who suggests that the holy vessels must be covered because otherwise the Levites would become victims of pride and vanity, due to the fact that they had been specifically selected for this important task. However, when the vessels are covered, and their beauty cannot be viewed, the vessels are likely to be considered a burden, and the Levites would have no reason to be prideful.

The Sforno suggests that the penalty for seeing the holy vessels was purposely made severe in order to instill in the Levites a sense of utmost respect and order. The Sforno cites the tragic case recorded in the Talmud in Yoma 23a, of two young priests who ran up to the altar in order to be the first to remove the ashes. The priest who reached the altar first was stabbed by the other.

The focus on the sanctity of the Tabernacle, and particularly the sanctity of the Ark and the Torah, at this time of year, is certainly no coincidence, since parashat Bamidbar usually precedes the festival of Shavuot and the celebration of the giving of the Torah. It is particularly telling that many of the commentators focus on the eagerness of the Levites to see the holiness of the Torah.

As the Torah is carried around in many congregations with song and joy, we pay tribute to the singular document that serves as the undeniable lifeline of the Jewish people. The Torah is, after all, as the verse in Proverbs 3:18 declares עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ–It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed Tuesday evening, May 23rd through Wednesday night, May 24th. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city.


Behar-Bechukotai 5777-2017

“If Your Brother Becomes Impoverished”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Behar, the first of this week’s two parashiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we encounter the mitzvah requiring Jews to redeem the land of fellow Jews who become impoverished.

The Torah, in Leviticus 25:25 states, כִּי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וּבָא גֹאֲלוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו וְגָאַל אֵת מִמְכַּר אָחִיו , If your brother becomes impoverished and sells part of his ancestral heritage, his redeemer who is closest to him, shall come and redeem that which his brother sold.

Rashi citing the Sifra indicates that one may not sell his ancestral land (patrimony) unless he becomes totally impoverished, and even then should not sell all of it.

According to the Talmud in Kedushin 21a, a dispute is recorded whether the Torah requires the relative to redeem the land or urges the relative to redeem the land. All agree, the closer the relative, the greater the responsibility. However, since all Jews are related, going all the way back to Jacob, the responsibility to redeem the land ultimately, applies to all Jews. (See Behar-Bechukotai 5769-2009).

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in Da’at Sofrim, notes that the sages attribute the poverty requiring the sale of the land, to the sin of not keeping the sabbatical year, Shemita–failing to allow the land to lay fallow during the seventh year. For this sin, the landowner may have to sell his property, including his land and his house. He may even have to sell himself–to serve as a Hebrew slave, or even as a slave to a gentile.

Says Rabbi Rabinowitz, even though the suffering is a result of Divine decree, the Torah insists that every Jew must be merciful, and stand at the side of those who are poverty stricken and redeem their land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his volume Chemdat Yamim, cites the interpretation of the Or HaChaim on this verse who interprets it homiletically. If a “man” has no redeemer, is a reference to G-d. If no Jew sufficiently motivates the people to repent and G-d is left with no redeemer, then G-d must find His own way, and lift His hands. The Jews will receive punishment while in exile, until such time as they recognize the need to repent and serve G-d. Only then will they be returned to their ancestral patrimony.

Rabbi Filber quotes the work of Rabbi Issachar Shlomo Teichtal, “Aym Ha’Bah’nim S’may’chah,” אֵם הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה , which was written as a response to the Satmar Rebbe’s strong objections to the establishment of the State of Israel. Rabbi Teichtal writes that the punishment that the Jewish people experience, is G-d’s way of arousing people to return to the Holy Land. He quotes Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who cites the verse in Song of Songs 1:4, מָשְׁכֵנִי אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה , “drag me after you and we will run together.” Explaining that there are two ways of taking ownership of an animal: the first is to call the animal to follow; the second is to beat it with a stick, as it runs in front of the master.

Rabbi Teichtal declares that if the People of Israel heed the voice of G-d calling them to return to the Land of Israel, G-d will lead the people to the land and they will follow without pain or suffering. However, if the people fail to listen to G-d’s beckoning, then they will suffer greatly from the beatings of the enemies, until there will be no escape except to the Land of Israel.

As we approach the celebration of the 50th year of the unification of the Holy City of Jerusalem, the message of return should be ringing in our ears. Although it is difficult for many of us to leave the comforts of the diaspora and relocate to Israel, there are important steps that can be taken to show our unrequited love for the land. Among the important gestures are supporting charities and institutions in Israel, vacationing in Israel more frequently, encouraging our children to study and to even live in Israel, buying a second home and investing in business in Israel.

These steps, although limited, will serve as a strong indication of our sincerity and our willingness to place the land of Israel and the City of Jerusalem at the forefront of our joy, “Ahl rosh simcha’tay’noo,”  עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ.

May you be blessed.

Emor 5777-2017

“Communicating a Vital Message Clearly”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Emor, contains 63 mitzvot– 39 negative and 24 positive. Parashat Emor ranks second, after parashat Kee Teitzei (74 mitzvot), as the Torah portion containing the most mitzvot.

Parashat Emor focuses on two major themes. The parasha opens with a comprehensive list of the regulations concerning the holiness of the priests and the sanctity of the Tabernacle/Sanctuary. The second part of parashat Emor is devoted to the theme of the Jewish holidays–Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, their rituals and observances.

The opening verse of parashat Emor is the subject of much discussion. The Torah states, in Leviticus 21:1, וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו , And G-d spoke to Moses: “Say unto the Kohanim (priests), the sons of Aaron, and tell them: None of you shall contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people.” The Torah goes on to note that all priests–-descendants of Aaron and his sons, are not permitted to contaminate themselves by coming into contact with any dead person. In fact, the only funerals that they may attend are those of their seven closest relatives: mother, father, unmarried sister, brother, daughter, son and wife (Emor 5762-2002).

The commentators are perplexed by the redundant wording in the opening verse in which G-d tells Moses, “Say to the priests”…and, “You shall say to them” that they are forbidden to be contaminated by coming into contact with the dead.

Rashi citing the Talmud in Yevamot 114a says, that “say” indicates that adult priests are forbidden to make themselves impure through the dead, and “you shall say” indicates that they must protect the minor priests from becoming impure.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz, the author of Da’at Sofrim, explains that the Torah repeats, “Say…and say,” to alert the priest that conveying this important lesson only once is not sufficient. This message must be repeatedly stated to warn the priests to be extremely cautious to guard their purity. Not only adult priests, but even minor priests are forbidden to come into contact with impurity. While this is true of all prohibitions found in the Torah, it is especially true with respect to protecting the priests from their impurities, which is an extremely severe violation.

The Mizrachi says that the first “say” is addressed to Moses, while the additional “and you shall say to them” is the beginning of the words that Moses is to say to the priests themselves.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets the verse to mean: “You are priests by virtue of the fact that you are the sons of Aaron.” You have a responsibility to teach your children, beginning when they are very young, the importance of not becoming contaminated by contact with the dead. This represents an acknowledgment that the priests’ high status is the result of a familial line that must be honored.

The ArtScroll Chumash cites Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who derived from this verse homiletically that the Torah cautions adults to be mindful of their own behavior, because the example that they set will have a profound impact on the children who learn from them.

Rabbi Solomon Breuer , cited by Peninim on the Torah argues that there is a very important reason why the language of “Say onto them” is reiterated with respect to the actions of the Kohanim. Rabbi Breuer cites the well-known tradition that is brought down in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers (1:12) regarding Aaron being a pursuer of peace, a lover of G-d’s creations, who brings them close to Torah.

The mitzvah of burying the dead is known in the Torah (Genesis 47:29) as חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת .Chessed shehl emet” is regarded as the ultimate act of loving-kindness that is based on pure truth. Since the dead cannot express their gratitude to those who are burying them, it is deemed to be a totally selfless act that is unrewarded in this world.

Aaron is seen by the rabbis of the Talmud to be the paradigm and personification of the man of Chessed and the man of peace. In fact, every Jew is encouraged to follow Aaron’s exalted character of showing infinite love, kindness and consideration. It was through constant repetition and reiteration that the message of Aaron was communicated to his children.

Parashat Emor, which features the prohibition of the priests, the sons of Aaron, to come in contact with the dead, requires the prohibition to be reiterated even more emphatically. After all, the priests, as people who are indoctrinated in the art of loving-kindness, would naturally seek, with extraordinary zeal, to perform the ultimate act of kindness, by pursuing the mitzvah of burying the dead.

The Torah, therefore, declares that priests may not only not bury the dead, they cannot even come into contact with the dead. They must distance themselves entirely from death.

The one mitzvah that would seem natural for the priests to perform is the one they are warned not to do, simply because G-d said so. Though it may be counterintuitive to the children of Aaron, respect for the Higher Power takes precedence over  fellow humans.

Obedience to the Al-mighty, in this case, the demand that the priests go against their natural proclivity for kindness, must be ingrained in their education from their early childhood. A single speech is not sufficient. It must be iterated and reiterated, and communicated by constant repetition to their children as well.

This lesson applies not only to the priests and their children, but to all the People of Israel, who sincerely wish to be sanctified and elevated.

May you be blessed.

This Tuesday evening, May 9th through Wednesday evening, May 10th is Pesach Shay’nee, the second Passover. Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Saturday night, May 13th and continue all day Sunday, May 14th, 2017. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777-2017

“Judging Others Favorably”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, has 38 negative and 13 positive mitzvot and ranks fifth in the number of mitzvot that are contained in a single parasha. Parashat Kedoshim also contains many of the Torah’s most exalted ethical and moral laws and principles.

Of the many acclaimed ethical and moral laws, one of the most inspiring verses is found in Leviticus 19:15, which reads, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט,  לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל, וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל,  בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ , You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.

More than 3,300 years ago, the Torah warned that a judge must not be partial to a poor man in judgment. Despite the natural tendency to show overwhelming sympathy for the poor and helpless, justice must not be compromised when the poor man is in the wrong.

The Sifra even states that a judge must not say to himself, “This man is rich and well-connected; how can I put him to shame by deciding against him?”

When sitting in judgment, a judge may not be prejudiced in favor of the poor or fear offending the wealthy or the great. To this end, the Sifra states that one litigant is not permitted to state his case at length while the other is required to cut it short. If one of the litigants is allowed to sit, the other may not be kept standing. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7a) states that a judge should feel as though a sword is always suspended above his head throughout the time he sits in judgment. This is the literal meaning בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ , with righteousness you shall judge your fellow. Judgment must be equitable and fair, without any compromise.

Rashi citing the Talmud in Shavuot 30a, states that in addition to the literal meaning, the verse also teaches that one must always give others the benefit of the doubt. This was later famously codified in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers (1:6), in the name of Joshua the son of Perachia, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת , Make certain to judge everyone favorably, always giving them the benefit of the doubt.

This concept brings to mind an old Indian saying that always made me smile, “Don’t judge a fellow Indian until you have walked a mile in his/her moccasins!”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch  points out, that in judgment, a deliberating judge may consider outside factors, but the final judgment must be rendered only on the basis of pure justice. This is in stark contrast to the practice in the social sphere where people are encouraged to judge their neighbors and give them the benefit of the doubt, even though, by the strict letter of the law, they may not deserve it.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, refused to accept calumny, or hear anything negative about a fellow Jew under any circumstances.

A story is told that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was once walking in Berditchev on Shabbat, and saw a young man smoking. Approaching the young man he said, “Young man, obviously you have forgotten that it is Shabbat!” The young man rudely responded, “Rabbi, of course I know that it’s Shabbat!” Desperate to find some justification for the young man, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, “Then perhaps you have forgotten that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” The young man snapped back, “Of course I know, Rabbi, that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” Even more desperate, the rabbi said, “Perhaps you are sick and the doctor has prescribed that you must smoke on Shabbat!?” The young man said, “Look, Rabbi, I know it’s Shabbat, and I know it’s forbidden to smoke on Shabbat, and no doctor has prescribed that I need to smoke on Shabbat!” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned his eyes toward heaven and plaintively said, “Look how wondrous are Your people, Israel, O’ G-d, they might openly defy You and smoke on Shabbat, but they will never utter a false word from their mouths!”

Although Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day has passed, a well-known story is told of the heroic efforts of Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who, after liberation, visited the concentration camps’ inmates in an effort to help and comfort them, and to organize for them a semblance of Jewish life. One Jew whom he encountered refused all the rabbi’s pleas to join any of the prayer services. “I don’t want to be identified as a Jew. I don’t want a minyan or any prayer service, absolutely nothing!” He was angry, not only at G-d, but at Jews in general.

In an effort to comfort the bitter survivor, Rabbi Silver asked, “But all the Jews who survived suffered like you did. Why are you angrier than the others?”

The anguished Jew related to the rabbi that when they rounded up the Jews in the camps, there was one Jew who succeeded in secreting in a siddur, prayer book. He let it be known that those prisoners who wanted to clandestinely pray with his siddur, could pray for a half hour, in return for half their daily ration of bread. Prayer for a full hour could be arranged in return for a full ration of bread. Because of his business, said the survivor, “He ate so much that he eventually became ill and died.”

The angry Jew asked, “How could G-d allow such a corrupt Jew to sell prayers in return for bread from people who were starving. I don’t want to be part of these people; I don’t want to have anything to do with them!”

Rabbi Silver responded, “Why do you insist on looking at this one corrupt, foolish and desperate Jew, who sold the prayers for food? Why don’t you focus rather on all those Jews who were prepared to give up their ration of food in those dire circumstances, in order to have a chance to pray for half an hour or an hour from a prayer book? Why do you look only at the negative and not see all the positive?”

Unfortunately, it is sadly true that many of us, too frequently, look at the negative rather than focus on the positive.

It may have been the Kotzker Rebbe who was once asked about Jews who pray so quickly that they can barely get the words out of their mouths. The Rebbe pointed out that there are some Jews who feel they have to dwell on every single word in prayer, and say them with the proper awareness and respect. There are other Jews, however, who love G-d so much, they cannot wait to get the words out of their mouths, and that is why they pray so quickly.

Whether that is true or not, the idea of giving every individual the benefit of the doubt is not only appropriate, it actually reflects the Jewish tradition of showing heartfelt compassion, whenever possible.

Our sages often point out that when our time comes to be judged in the World to Come, we hope that we too will be judged with that extra measure of compassion by the Al-mighty tribunal and by the Al-mighty Himself.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, May 1st) is observed this year on the 6th of Iyar, Monday evening, May 1st, and all day Tuesday, May 2nd.

Tazria-Metzorah 5777-2017

“Insights to be Gleaned from the Metzorah, the Person Stricken with the Tzaraat Disease”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzorah, we learn of the symptoms of the Tzaraat disease and the details of the purification ritual for the Metzorah (the person stricken with the disease).

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Tazria, we learn of the symptoms of Tzaraat, the “spiritual dermatological disease” that is generally attributed to the specific sin of Lashon Harah, of speaking evil.

As we have previously learned (Tazria 5768-2008), the symptoms appear in three forms: שְׂאֵתS’ayt, סַפַּחַתSah’pah’chaht and בַּהֶרֶת Bah’heh’reht. S’ayt is a rising or bump in the skin. The rabbis learn that as a result of hubris or smugness, a person puts another person down in order to raise himself up.

Sah’pah’chat is a spreading skin inflammation. The rabbis suggest that a person who wishes to increase (“spread”) his possessions, belittles his competitor, saying that he is unskilled or not proficient in business.

Bah’heh’ret  means a lightening of color or a white inflammation. The rabbis suggest that it represents a person who attempts to show how bright or smart he is at the expense of the next person.

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his insightful volume Synagogue Companion, points to several important universal lessons to be gleaned from the Tzaraat disease and the ritual cleansing of the stricken person who has healed.

One of the key biblical accounts that serves as a proof-text confirming that Tzaraat is not a simple dermatological disease but a spiritual disease is the saga of Miriam who is afflicted with Tzaraat for speaking against Moses. The Torah, in Numbers 12:11-12, states that when Miriam was stricken, Aaron begged Moses, “Oh my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her [Miriam] not be as one dead who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

The Torah thus implies that a person stricken with Tzaraat whose skin peels away like a stillborn is considered dead. Other parallels to the death experience include that once the Metzorah is declared impure, he tears his clothing, lets his hair go loose and covers his lips, symbolically hiding from the rest of the world, like a person in mourning.

Through the duration of the ailment, the person stricken with Tzaraat is banished from society and is not permitted to live within the city limits. In fact, he is required to stay outside the camp, where the flocks of Israel are penned. It is hard to speak Lashon Harah when there is no audience except sheep and flocks. To keep others away from him, the Metzorah must continuously cry out, טָמֵא טָמֵא”,” “Impure, impure!”

Rabbi Angel points out that the ritual of purification from the disease described in parashat Metzorah closely resembles other key rituals that are recorded in the Torah. For example, once the Tzaraat symptoms are healed, the former gossiper must appear at the Tabernacle and sacrifice two birds. One bird is designated as a sacrifice to G-d, while the other is set free, strongly paralleling the ritual of the scapegoat–the two goats that are brought for atonement on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16).

During the cleansing ritual, the priest sprinkles the blood of the sacrifices mixed with cedar, hyssop and scarlet wool, which strongly resembles the ritual of the Parah Adumah–the red heifer (Numbers 19), which serves to purify a person who has come into contact with death. In this case, the Metzorah himself is considered symbolically dead.

The final part of the purification process involves the sprinkling of the blood onto the extremities of the healed Metzorah–his ears, fingers and toes (Leviticus 14:14-17). This particular ritual resembles the consecration ceremony of the priests for the Temple service (Leviticus 9).

Rabbi Angel suggests that these three rituals were meant to achieve three critical purposes in the healing of the Metzorah.

The gossiper is not only to achieve Teshuva with the two birds, which is similar to the repentance achieved by Israel through the two goats, he is also to be purified through a ritual that is similar to the Red Heifer. But, Rabbi Angel points out that purifying one’s self is not enough. The Metzorah must strive even higher, and attempt to achieve קְדוּשָׁהKedusha, holiness and sanctity. With the sprinkling of the blood on the different parts of the Metzorah’s body, the sinner who has now been cleansed and purified, rises to a significantly higher level, similar to the sanctified priests who perform the Temple service.

The Metzorah acts like a mourner who, through introspection, mourns for himself. In this way, he not only cleanses and purifies himself, he actually pursues a process that brings him to a better place than he was before the sinful action began, to a place of elevated sanctity and holiness.

We see that the entire concept of Tzaraat appears, at first blush, rather primitive. However, Tzaraat, like many other obscure concepts that appear in the Torah, when studied carefully, is deeply insightful and convey a message of timeless importance to all of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day,  was observed this year on Sunday night, April 23rd, and all day Monday, April 24th, 2017.

Shemini 5777-2017

“The Unending Mourning”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu. The deaths occurred on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, the day that the Tabernacle was to be consecrated and Aaron and his sons were to be inducted into the priesthood.

The Torah, in Leviticus 10 states, that the Nadav and Abihu took firepans and placed a “strange fire” on them that G-d did not command. Suddenly, a fire came out from heaven and devoured them both alive before G-d. Moses said to his brother, Aaron,(Leviticus 10:3), “This is what G-d meant when He said that ‘I will be sanctified with those who are closest to Me.’” Aaron’s response was total silence.

After Nadav and Abihu’s bodies were removed from the holy sanctuary, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, not to display any signs of mourning. Leviticus 10:6 states, רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא תִפְרֹמוּ, וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה יִקְצֹף; וַאֲחֵיכֶם כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִבְכּוּ אֶת הַשְּׂרֵפָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף ה׳ , “Do not leave your heads unshorn, do not rend your garments, that you not die and He [G-d] become wrathful with the entire assembly; and your brethren, the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that the L-rd ignited.”

The commentators are perplexed by the statement that, “Your brethren, the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that G-d ignited.” The verse seems to indicate that the entire House of Israel, meaning the Jewish people collectively, has a responsibility and obligation to mourn for the sons of Aaron. The verse does not even seem to set limits. Does “the entire House of Israel” mean that the generation of Nadav and Abihu are supposed to mourn, or that all future generations throughout Jewish history are to mourn?

Many commentators see this as an obligation for all future generations to mourn the death of Aaron’s sons. The Netziv,  in his commentary on the Bible, Ha’amek Davar, asks how is it possible to expect the People of Israel to mourn for thousands of years for Aaron’s sons? After all, there is a great ongoing debate regarding whether, because of their actions, Nadav and Abihu deserved to die a premature death (see Shemini 5776-2016).

The Ha’amek Davar avers that during periods of national mourning and sadness, people may recall their own personal losses and use those moments of national mourning to mourn for them.

The Torah Temimah suggests that the participation of all of Israel in Aaron’s pain will make it easier for him to endure, and eventually achieve consolation for his great loss.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, develops these thoughts, poignantly and with great insight.

Rabbi Pincus points to the introduction that is often found in the traditional High Holiday Machzor to the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, which indicates that כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל , the entire House of Israel, every Jew, until the end of generations, must mourn for the death of Aaron’s sons.

Yet, notes Rabbi Pincus, this requirement seems to go against normative Jewish tradition. Referring to the interpretation of the rabbis (Talmud, Moed Katan 27b) on Jeremiah 22:10, “Do not weep for the dead king,” the sages state that one should not cry exceedingly for the dead or overly wail their loss. The rabbis even set limits: three days for crying, seven days for eulogizing, thirty days for not cutting ones’ hair and not wearing freshly laundered garments. Beyond that period of mourning, the Al-mighty declares, “Are you more compassionate than I am?”

Rabbi Pincus points to the traditional custom of giving the mourners their first meal of eggs and lentils, foods that are round-shaped, underscoring that the circle of life is repetitive and that while the sun sets it also rises again. The new generation somehow makes up for the losses suffered in the previous generations. Therefore, one must not overly mourn the losses.

Why then, do the rabbis seem to say regarding Nadav and Abihu that there are to be no limits to the Jewish peoples’ mourning?

Rabbi Pincus points out that limits are set for mourning for those who pass away in a normal manner. However, those who pass away prematurely are forever missed because they were unable to achieve their potential or their greatness, and hence become irreplaceable. One who loses a hand, will always feel the loss of that hand.

Rabbi Pincus points out that there are certain types of losses for which mourning is never-ending, such as for the myriad lost in the destructions of the Temples, lives that were uprooted, never to be replaced. Therefore, even though many centuries have passed, mourning will always continue. The small numbers of Jews worldwide is an indication that those who perished for the sanctification of G-d’s name can never be replaced.

Some of the losses are not only irreplaceable, they have also unfortunately opened the floodgates of evil against the Jewish People. The mourning for the broken tablets and the burning of the Torah by Apostomus on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, made the Torah more vulnerable than ever before. The sanctity of the Torah was breached, and the dread of harming it by the enemies of the Torah was much reduced.

Once again, we see eternal lessons that are found in the seemingly insignificant nuances of the Torah text. These lessons are powerful and relevant, and are truly eternal lessons for all ages and for all generations.

May you be blessed.