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Vayeitzei 5775-2014

“Twenty Years in the House of Laban”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob follows his parents’ advice to leave home in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. He departs from Beersheba and sets out for his mother Rebecca’s ancestral home in Haran.

Scripture, in Genesis 28:11, declares: וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ that Jacob came upon a certain place (in Bet El) and spent the night there because the sun had set. It is at this location that Jacob dreams his famous dream of a ladder set on earth leading up to heaven and the angels of G-d ascending and descending upon the ladder.

Jacob spends the next twenty years in Haran, at the home of his mother’s brother, Laban. It is in Haran that Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Rachel and Leah, whose handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, eventually became his wives as well. He and his wives are blessed with twelve sons. Unfortunately, Rachel dies in childbirth with the twelfth son–Benjamin.

As noted above, Jacob’s journey begins with the setting sun. His journey, however, concludes in parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:27, with the rising sun. Before the momentous encounter of Jacob and Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel, who changes Jacob’s name to Israel. As the sun rises, the desperate angel cries out to Jacob, שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”

The popular contemporary commentator, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, sees the twenty years that Jacob spent in Laban’s house and Jacob’s struggle with the “dark forces” during this time, as a major epoch in Jacob’s life. Dr. Zornberg refers to this period as “the dark night of the soul,” during which Jacob was repeatedly victimized by Laban, and confronts his own propensity for deception.

The first few verses of parashat Vayeitzei provide insight as to how Jacob managed to face the “dark forces,” and enable him to triumph over the challenges that he is about to face.

The ladder in Jacob’s dream represents to some, the ascent of humankind toward G-d–the religious growth that is necessary for wholesome human development. In order to succeed in this spiritual transformation, only small, but consistent, changes need to be made, step by step. Sufficient time must also be allotted to regain footing between steps, before taking additional steps. Despite proceeding cautiously during this religious development, missteps are inevitable. But, with the proper precautions and devotion, it is possible to recover and continue climbing, forging ahead until ultimately succeeding.

The metaphor of the ladder/staircase warns of the dangers of leaping headfirst into faith with unbridled bursts of enthusiasm. Gaining proper focus and building faith must be a deliberate and careful process. The danger to those who throw themselves into faith in one fell swoop is well known: the faster the embrace of faith, the faster the falling out.

For Jacob to succeed, he needed to go through the step-by-step process of building his faith, encountering challenges, yet always forging ahead.

Fatigued from his journey, Jacob falls asleep. When Jacob awakens from his sleep, he recognizes the overwhelming sanctity of the place, which is filled with the presence of G-d. Scripture testifies that Jacob was a frightened young man. Genesis 28:17 states, וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱ-לֹקִים, וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם, And he [Jacob] became frightened and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of G-d, and this is the gate of the heavens.”

Jacob, who had never been away from home before, and was likely ashamed of why he had left, would probably not have overcome his fears had G-d not appeared to reassure him that his mission will succeed and that he would return home safely. It was exactly what Jacob needed at that moment.

When Jacob finally makes the decision to leave Laban and return to Canaan, it is this dream and G-d’s appearance to him that he recalls, indicating that G-d’s reassurance was with him throughout the twenty years of the “dark night of the soul” that he experienced. It was the assurance that he received from G-d as a young man that gave Jacob the courage to forge ahead, despite the horrible treatment he endured at the hands of his uncle, the treacherous and perfidious Laban.

The Hebrew Bible may legitimately be regarded as a would-be “reality show” for future generations. Its narratives are meant to teach lessons and convey profound messages not only to the People of Israel but to all the children of G-d. The narrative of parashat Vayeitzei is certainly a profound story with a profound message. Those who grow in their faith and those who grow faithfully and successfully are those who proceed step-by-step, slowly, cautiously, carefully, and calculatingly. Those who rush in, unfortunately, often fail.

The experiences and challenges of Jacob teach us that human beings can endure great hardships and significant challenges as long as they feel that they are walking with G-d, Who protects them.

The “Omnipresent” G-d is always there. The only question is whether people will feel confident enough to allow Him to put His hand under their arm and direct them in the path of holiness and spirituality.

May you be blessed.

Toledot 5775-2014

“Good Families Bad Children, Bad Families Good Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twin sons who were born to Isaac and Rebecca, and the children’s very different development and the lifestyles that they each chose for themselves.

In Genesis 25:19, the Torah announces: וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם, אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק, and these are the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham–-Abraham begot Isaac. The rabbis are perplexed by the seemingly unnecessary repetition in the verse. After proclaiming that these are the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham, why was it necessary for the verse to state that Abraham begot Isaac?

Rashi offers two reasons for the repetition. He first suggests that since the Al-mighty in Genesis 17:5 gave Abram the new name Abraham, which means that he will be the father of a multitude of nations, the Torah confirms the beginning of the fulfillment of that role by stating that, “Abraham begot Isaac.”

Rashi also cites a Midrash that asserts that the scoffers of Abraham’s generation claimed that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, who had taken Sarah to his palace, had really fathered Isaac. After all, despite the many years that she and Abraham lived together, Sarah never became pregnant. Therefore, the Al-mighty fashioned Isaac’s face to be identical to Abraham’s, to serve as indisputable evidence that Abraham fathered Isaac. Hence, the reason for the scriptural emphasis.

The Tanchuma Yashan in Toledot 1 asks: But, after all, Abraham bore many children? Genesis 15:14, testifies that Hagar bore a son to Abraham, whose name was Ishmael, and Genesis 25:2 records that Abraham had six additional sons with Keturah. Why then does scripture here identify only Isaac as Abraham’s son?

The Midrash suggests that the reason that only Isaac is mentioned is because Isaac was Abraham’s primary progeny and the main source of his joy and pride. As we know too well, there are children who are ashamed of their parents, like Abraham was of his father, Terach, and Rachel and Leah were of their father, Laban. There are also parents who are shamed by their children, for example, Abraham by Ishmael and even Isaac ultimately understood that Esau was not worthy of receiving the Abrahamic blessing. This was not so in the case of Abraham, who was particularly honored and elevated by his righteous son, Isaac. To mark this special relationship, the Torah explicitly states that Abraham begot Isaac.

The Midrash Hagadol claims that people would constantly praise Abraham for meriting to have a son as wonderful as Isaac. The Radak suggests, that because Isaac was so scrupulously honest, thoroughly faithful, determined to live by following the straight path, and, like his father, demonstrated love to all of G-d’s creations, people would immediately identify him as the son of Abraham.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for children to also visit great shame and ignominy upon their parents. Some commentators (Midrash Rabba Numbers 21:4) suggest that the verse purposely omits the birth of Ishmael, because Ishmael traveled in the wrong circles and was consistently involved in evil, thereby not only compromising his own good name, but disgracing the name and reputation of his family as well.

The rabbis of the Talmud underscore how easy it is for a child to be drawn in to the evil patterns of one’s family. The Talmud in Eruvin 70b suggests that the inheritance that is bequeathed to a child is very much like the limb (foot) of the father. Just as one sheep follows another, so do children follow their parents’ example.  The Talmud Ketubot 63a affirms that the actions of the mother are often mimicked by her daughters.

Scripture records that while familial behavioral patterns are common, there are many exceptions to this rule, for both good and evil. The saintly prophet, Eli, Samuel I 2:12, had sons who were wicked. On the other hand, Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, came from the rather shady family whose members included the notorious characters Bethuel and Laban. But, Rebecca was able to swim against the tide, emerging righteous and chaste.

Despite biological propensities and tendencies, each person must be judged on his or her own merits. The importance of checking family roots and backgrounds notwithstanding, we see (Genesis 25:20) that Abraham did not hesitate to marry off his very spiritual and righteous son Isaac, to Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramite, and the sister of Laban the Aramite. Rebecca was able to overcome the grave disadvantage of being the daughter and sister of wicked people, and a product of the wicked environment in which she was nurtured. Rebecca did not learn from their nefarious deeds, and instead blossomed as a rose in a thorn bush.

While the lessons of parashat Toledot, are particularly relevant, emphasizing the importance of family background, the actions of the individuals have the ability to trump the biological and familial factors. The Torah, in Genesis 25:27, states, וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים when the boys grew older, Esau became the hunter and Jacob became the innocent man who dwelled in tents. We see clearly that the factors that determine the character of a person are  their personal developmental experiences and the paths that they personally choose to follow in life.

Unfortunately, there are many children from good families who become entangled in the negative elements of their environments, forsaking all they learned when they were young. Fortunately, there are also those who emerge from difficult and challenging backgrounds, who pull themselves up to become great people and even greater leaders.

May you be blessed.

Chayei Sarah 5775-2014

“Are Marriages Made in Heaven?”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the death and burial of Sarah, and of Abraham’s concern in his old age about finding a proper mate for his beloved son, Isaac.

It is in parashat Chayei Sarah that Abraham instructs his Damascan servant, Eliezer, to return to Abraham’s homeland and to his kindred, to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor, to take a wife for Isaac. In the city of Nahor, Eliezer encounters the beautiful Rebecca, who agrees to give him water and offers to water his camels as well. Having fulfilled the omen that would determine the proper mate, Eliezer was convinced that this was indeed the right woman for his master’s son.

After relating the details of his improbable encounter to Rebecca’s family, Eliezer asks whether Laban and Bethuel, Rebecca’s brother and father, will allow Rebecca to return to Canaan to marry Abraham’s son.

Scripture, in Genesis 24:50, relates, וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מֵהשׁם יָצָא הַדָּבָר, לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, רַע אוֹ טוֹב, Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The matter stemmed from the L-rd! We can say to you, neither bad nor good.” They then confirm that Eliezer may take Rebecca to Canaan to be a wife to his master’s son, as G-d has spoken.

This particular episode may very well be the original source of the popular expression, “a match made in heaven.”

There seems to be much support in Jewish tradition for the concept that matches are indeed made in heaven. In fact, the Talmud in Moed Katan 18b, cites three verses, one each from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, to confirm that marriages are the handiwork of the Al-mighty. The verse cited from the Torah, is the just-cited verse of Genesis 24:50, where Laban and Bethuel say that the matter stems from the L-rd. The verse from the Prophets, found in Judges 14:4, regarding Samson’s choice of Delilah as his wife, states that Samson’s father and mother knew not that it [the match with Delilah] was of the L-rd. The verse cited in Proverbs 19:14, proclaims that, “House and riches are the inheritance of fathers, but the prudent wife is of the L-rd.”

Many additional traditional sources may be brought to support the claim that marriage is Divinely directed. The well-known Talmudic citation in Sotah 2a states, that forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, “The daughter of so and so shall marry so and so.”

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his truly insightful writings on the weekly Torah portion, entitled, Chemdat Yamim, deals extensively with the issue of marriages being preordained. Rabbi Filber asks, if indeed a heavenly voice proclaims that a particular man shall marry a particular woman, and that, as Laban and Bethuel said, “the matter stems from the L-rd,” then what was the point of Abraham warning Eliezer not to take a woman of Canaan for his son Isaac? After all, the match was already a fait accompli. And what do we make of Eliezer’s warning to Laban and Bethuel, that if they refuse to allow Rebecca to go back to Canaan with him, Genesis 24:49, “Tell me, and I will turn to the right or to the left and leave.”

In his comprehensive analysis of the issue, Rabbi Filber cites a host of alternate sources that seem to indicate that marriages are not made in heaven. After all, the rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Batra 109b, advise that a person should always try to associate (for marriage purposes) with good people. Moses ultimately married the daughter of Jethro (an idolatrous priest of Midian), and begot a rebellious grandson, Jonathan. On the other hand, Aaron married the daughter of the righteous Aminadav, and had a most worthy grandson by the name of Pinchas.

The Talmud in Baba Batra 110a also recommends that he who takes a wife should inquire about the character of the bride’s brother, to see what kind of children he will have. The Talmud in Pesachim 49b advises that a person should sell all that he owns in order to marry the daughter of a scholar. If one does not marry the daughter of a scholar, the rabbis proceed to list the most desirable families in descending order. 1. The daughter of the great men of the generation (the civil communal leaders). 2. The daughter of the heads of synagogues. 3. The charity treasurer’s daughter. 4. The daughter of an elementary school teacher. What is the point of these recommendations, if Heaven has already decreed who one should marry?

Interestingly, Rabbi Filber cites a Tosefta in Sotah 5, where Rabbi Meir warns that anyone who marries an improper woman violates five Torah violations: not being vengeful, not bearing a grudge, not hating your brother, loving your neighbor as thyself and the requirement to strive to live with your brother in peace. The rabbis even claim that one who marries an improper woman will most likely also violate the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, because he will eventually refrain from being with his wife. If Heaven has already decreed that he should marry this woman, how then can he be responsible for violating these Torah commandments? And if he does marry the right woman, then why does the Talmud suggest that such a person will be rewarded by being kissed by Elijah the Prophet, and that G-d will love him?

Rabbi Filber cites the Shee’bohlei Ha’leket (authored by Rabbi Tzidkiyahu ben Abraham 13c.), who carefully notes that Talmud states that the voice from Heaven announces, but does not decree, that this woman shall marry this man. It is only a heavenly announcement, not a decree. The ultimate decision regarding whether to marry a particular woman or not, or whether to marry a particular man or not, is in the hands of the individual man or woman, the prospective bride and groom. Otherwise, there would be no free will.

Heaven did not prevent Rebecca from choosing her own soulmate, and heaven could not prevent Samson from marrying the mate of his choosing. Rabbi Filber argues that an announcement from Heaven does not compel a person to fulfill that pronouncement. The pronouncement merely indicates that the Al-mighty seeks to aid the person to find the proper mate. But the final decision is always in the hands of the individual.

Rabbi Filber cites Maimonides who argues in his introduction to Avot, Sh’moneh Prakim chapter 8, that G-d cannot command one to perform a mitzvah.

The Ya’avetz, Rabbi Jacob Emden explains Maimonides’ statement by clarifying that even a Divine decree is never permanent, and cannot override a person’s free will. Rather, a Divine decree is much like a suggestion, indicating that if that path is chosen, it will be propitious, and if not, it may result in suffering.

Citing a version of the rabbinic statement in Moed Katan 18b, that every single day a voice goes out from Heaven and announces that this woman will marry that man, Rabbi Filber even suggests that a person’s status changes each day, confirming free will, and that matches are made according to each person’s status at that particular time.

In his analysis, Rabbi Filber concludes that one always has free will, and the ability to choose one’s own destiny is absolute.

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5775-2014

“One Woman’s Cry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we read the well-known biblical narrative regarding the destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Genesis 18:20-21 the Torah states, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד. אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא, אֵדָעָה  And G-d said, “Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave, I will descend and see, if they act in accordance with its outcry–-then destruction! And if not, I will know.”

When Abraham learns of the Al-mighty’s plan to destroy Sodom, he pleads with G-d to save the city on behalf of the few righteous people who dwell in Sodom. But, even a few righteous people are not to be found. G-d then proceeds to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, allowing Lot and his family to escape destruction. Eventually, only Lot and two of his daughters survive.

The rabbis of the Talmud record many of the horrendous deeds of the Sodomites. The Sodomites’ practice was to offer perverse hospitality to travelers to whom they provided sleeping accommodations. If the guests were too tall for the short beds that were given, the Sodomites would cut off the guests’ limbs to make them fit. If the guests were too short for the beds, they would stretch the guests until their limbs would be ripped out of their sockets. Visitors who entered Sodom with money would be put to death and their money stolen. A farmer who displayed his produce publicly would soon find that the Sodomites would each take a small sample until nothing was left, each claiming that they had not really taken anything of value. In Sodom, vice was virtue, and virtue was vice. In fact, in Sodomite courts, the victims, rather than the evil perpetrators, were fined and punished. Through their perverse laws, the Sodomites became experts in the practice of adultery, incest and many other sexual crimes.

The commentators, however, are puzzled by the choice of words used by the Torah to describe the wickedness of the people of Sodom. When G-d says that He will go down to see the cries that came to Him, rather than using the Hebrew plural, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָם, (whether in accordance with their outcry) the feminine singular word, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ, her cry, is used.

Rashi on Genesis 18:21 declares: צַעֲקַת רִיבָה אַחַת שֶׁהָרְגוּ מִיתָה מְשֻׁנָּה עַל שֶׁנָתְנָה מָזוֹן לְעָנִי , Citing the sages of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, Rashi explains that the word “her cries” refers to the cries of one particular young girl whom the Sodomites killed in an unnatural manner, for secretly providing food to a poor man.

Some claim that the particular young girl who defied the laws of Sodom was Plotit, Lot’s daughter. Since it was a regular sport for the Sodomites to watch the poor languish and die in their city, when they saw that the impoverished victim did not die, they soon discovered that he was being secretly fed. According to tradition, they tied Plotit to a tree, covered her with honey, and left her to be stung to death by bees. Her cries reached up to heaven (Vayeira 5763-2002).

Many years ago, I heard Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski speak at an AJOP Convention about the very serious “singles” problem that confronts contemporary Jewish society, and, in particular, the observant Jewish community, focusing on the large number of single women who are unable to find appropriate mates.

Rabbi Twerski interpreted the above-cited verse homiletically, noting that because of the cries of a single woman, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were unilaterally destroyed. If that is the case, argued Rabbi Twerski, what will be the penalty of contemporary Jewry for the cries of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of women, who are crying out for help, receiving little help and little sympathy?

It is unclear why there appear to be so many eligible and engaging young women who are unmarried. Of course, women face greater pressure because of their ticking biological clocks. Men can more easily afford to take their time. It may also be that because men have more mobility, when they leave the traditional Orthodox community, they seem to vanish. Whereas women, usually remain within the community, in their attempts to hopefully find their own personal happiness.

In the Upper West Side community of Manhattan, there have been many attempts to help single women. There was, for a time, a significant communal effort to encourage families to invite singles to organized meals, where designated hosts would try to introduce young men and women to each other. Aish HaTorah, at one point, promoted speed dating. Rabbi Mark Wildes and Manhattan Jewish Experience have been doing a great job with younger singles. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis of Hineni offers large classes for singles. She and her staff are deeply involved in Shidduchim, finding mates. Of course, the internet dating sites have been extremely helpful. SawYouAtSinai, Frumster and YU Connects, are considered successful matchmaking venues. NJOP is proud that over the years, the singles dinners that our organization has sponsored have successfully introduced young couples. My own feeling is that Torah classes often prove to be a great meeting venue, because it is where quality people go, and can meet like-minded people.

But it is not only in the area of Shadchanut (matchmaking) that women need help. The Agunah issue has yet to be resolved. Unfortunately, many women are unable to obtain their religious divorce, get, from recalcitrant husbands. Although efforts have been made, and organizations have been founded, to help these “anchored” women, there is still much to do.

Single motherhood and fatherhood have become an increasing communal concern, as balancing a career with child rearing is much more difficult in a one parent family.

For Jewish women it seems that these are the “best of times and the worst of times.” Fortunately, we have also seen the burgeoning growth of educational opportunities for women, even in the traditional community. Women are rising to the highest levels of academia, and have emerged as exemplars of Jewish learning and teaching. While much has been accomplished on behalf of women in the last quarter century in the traditional Jewish community, much is the result of the advocacy on behalf of women by women. Yet, trying issues remain, and much remains to be done for women.

We must bear in mind that because of the cries of one single woman, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were entirely destroyed. Surely, we must all open our ears and hearts to listen to the cries, to respond to, and address the challenges that some women face.

May you be blessed.

Lech Lecha 5775-2014

“Lot Grows Increasingly Estranged from his Uncle Abram”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, Abram (he has not yet been renamed Abraham) concludes the journey he has made from Ur Kasdim and Charan and arrives in Canaan, a journey that will impact on the destiny of the Jewish people and the world.

Scripture, in Genesis 12:4, tells us, וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו השׁם, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ לוֹט, וְאַבְרָם בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵחָרָן, The first thing that Scripture notes after stating that Abram went as G-d had spoken to him, was that Lot went with Abram, and that Abram was 75 years old when he left Canaan.

According to Genesis 11:28,  Lot’s father, Haran, had died. A well-known Midrash, relates that Haran had been “incinerated” in a fiery furnace by King Amraphel because of his lack of respect for the pagan gods. The fact that the Torah emphasizes that Lot went with Abram, implies that there was an extremely close relationship between Abram and his orphaned nephew.

The Torah (Genesis 12:5) then proceeds to state, וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כָּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן, וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן, Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the people that they had acquired in Charan, and they embarked for the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. Although Lot had been mentioned previously (in verse 4) as the first to accompany Abram, already by verse 5, Lot followed Abram’s wife, Sarai. Apparently, the distancing had already begun.

Abram starts to make his mark in Canaan by building altars throughout the land, and calling out the name of G-d, in the hope of persuading the local people to adopt his monotheistic beliefs. Abram continues his travels, journeying steadily toward the south, but Lot is no longer mentioned.

In Genesis 12:10 the Torah states that a famine has struck the land of Canaan and Abram is forced to go to Egypt. Although Sarai, Abram’s wife is mentioned as being with Abram, Lot is not mentioned until Abram and Sarai are expelled from Egypt.

In Genesis 13:1, Scripture records,  וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה, Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south. Scripture also notes that Abram had now become a very wealthy man, laden with cattle, silver and gold. In fact, Abram’s possessions are mentioned in the verse even before Lot, indicating a further distancing.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points to a further textual distinction underscoring the distancing between Abram and Lot. When the Biblical narrative in Genesis 12:5 introduces Lot, we are told that Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew, and all their possessions, and the souls they had made. The verse actually uses the Hebrew conjunctive word, “Eht,” four times, implying there was a very close relationship and a powerful bond, not only between Abram and Sarai, but also between Abram and Lot, all the possessions and all the souls that accompanied them on the journey. However, in Genesis 13:1, when Abram departs from Egypt, the Hebrew term “im” is used, and they no longer appear as one large cohesive family, whose property was shared, in a common household. It seems, in fact, that Lot is hardly a member of Abram’s family. He may be biologically related to Abram, he may be friendly with Abram, but something happened along the way to create a distance. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that Lot’s success in Egypt led to a parting between Lot and Abram’s family.

Scripture, in Genesis 13:5, states: וְגַם לְלוֹט הַהֹלֵךְ אֶת אַבְרָם הָיָה צֹאן וּבָקָר וְאֹהָלִים, Because of Lot’s closeness with Abram, Lot merited to have hoards of flocks, herds and tents. The abundance of their collective possessions was so great that the land could not support them dwelling together.

What was it that changed the close symbiotic relationship that Abram and Lot once had into a relationship that was growing more and more distanced? So distant in fact, that Lot actually finds new compatriots in, of all places, Sodom.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that Abram, Sarai and Lot’s sojourn in Egypt was over an extended period of time, and perhaps lasted several years. During that time, Abram succeeded economically, becoming even wealthier. Lot, as well, benefitted from Abram’s economic prowess.

What was the cause of Lot’s estrangement? Apparently Lot was dazzled by the environment, seduced by Egyptian riches, its great technology and materialistic culture. While Abram, the farmer and the shepherd, saw Egypt as a primitive land of pagan culture, Lot saw Egypt as a gold mine of new technology, and advanced industry. Lot could not resist the environmental influences.

“This,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “is basically the acid test of a Jew: whether he can resist pressures, environmental pressures, if he could withstand the impact of great material culture which is morally and ethically very primitive. Abram could resist but Lot could not.”

Of course, an even greater estrangement occurs when Lot soon chooses to move toward Sodom, eventually deciding to live among its wicked citizens. In short order, Lot becomes a judge and an enforcer of the Sodomite lifestyle.

The rest is history, a tragic history that has unfortunately been repeated throughout Jewish history by other would-be “Lots.”

May you be blessed.

Noah 5775-2014

“The Fate of Humankind is Sealed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we read of the deluge that inundated the world, ending human life on earth except for the eight people who were aboard the ark with Noah.

The final verses of parashat Bereshith speak of the corruption of humankind. The Torah reports (Genesis 6:5), that G-d saw that the wickedness of humankind upon the earth was great, and that all of human thoughts were directed toward doing evil. G-d regretted having made humankind, and announced, Genesis 6:7, אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם,  כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם, I will blot out humankind whom I created, from off the face of the earth–-from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I have reconsidered My having made them.

In the opening verses of parashat Noah, Genesis 6:9, we are introduced to Noah as a righteous and perfect man in his generation who walked with G-d. The Torah recalls, once again, the terrible corruption of humankind. Genesis 6:11, וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹקִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס  Now the earth had become corrupted before G-d; and the earth had become filled with robbery. G-d determines to punish the evil people, Genesis 6:13, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹקִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס מִפְּנֵיהֶם, וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ, G-d said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am about to destroy them from the earth.” G-d then instructs Noah to begin constructing the Ark out of gopher wood.

Apparently, the sin that sealed the fate of the generation of Noah was חָמָס, robbery and thievery. Rabbi Johanan, in tractate Sanhedrin 108a, states: “Come and see how awesome is the power of thievery (חָמָס). After all, the generation of the flood transgressed all of the sins, but the decree was not issued until they began to engage in thievery. As it is written, Genesis 6:13, ‘The end of all flesh has become before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them.’” Similarly, the Midrash Rabbah 38:6 states, “the generation of the flood was immersed in thievery. Therefore, nothing survived.”

The question is asked widely among the commentaries: Why did the sin of thievery bring about the fateful decree of total destruction? After all, the people were corrupt in many aspects of life, perhaps all aspects of life. They were, in fact, particularly sexually corrupt with both humans and animals.

Ethics of our Fathers (Avot 1:17) notes that the world exists on three things, “Justice, truth and peace.” The crime of thievery however, leads to great interpersonal discord, ultimately resulting in an upheaval of the entire social order, making justice impossible. Without the fundamental structure of justice, the earth could not survive, and had to be destroyed.

The Meloh Ha’Omer states that our compassionate G-d never immediately punishes a sinner with death (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 17:4). Usually, Divine punishment is meted out first by striking one’s wealth and wherewithal. However, if the loss of wealth does not impact upon one’s wicked behavior to bring about repentance, then the evil person is punished physically. Thus, we see that a person’s wealth and wherewithal can serve as a protective atonement for one’s soul, but only when the wealth belongs to the evil perpetrator. However, if it is stolen wealth, it can never serve as atonement.

Rabbi Joseph Shaul Nathanson, cited in Eesh L’ray’ay’hoo, offers the following parable: A stork once stood by the river hunting for food. Sighting its prey, the bird inserted its beak into the water and pulled out a fish, ready to devour it. The fish mournfully began crying for its life: “Please, don’t kill me, I am one of G-d’s creations.” Upon opening its mouth to plead for its life, the fish actually dropped a smaller fish that it was about to swallow. The stork said, “Such a hypocrite you are. You eat your brother and plead with me not to devour you?” So, says Rabbi Nathanson, the people of the generation of the flood were truly worthy of punishment for the many sins that they had committed. Yet, G-d’s compassion held sway. However, when He saw that the people were stealing one from another, their pleas for mercy were ignored, since they themselves had rejected the pleas of all the victims of their theft.

The Ramban writes that thievery is a rational law of nature, which should be intuitively acknowledged by all as sinful. After all, since no one wishes to be victimized by the loss of property, everyone should strictly refrain from stealing. That is why a thief is so broadly detested in the eyes of G-d and by society.

The Da’at Sofrim also argues that the fate of humankind was sealed because of חָמָס, thievery, because it is such a logical precept. The fact that the people were so thoroughly immersed in thievery indicates that the generation of the flood had lost its capacity for rational thought. Engaging in such wholesale thievery implies that the people of Noah’s generation no longer had any chance of returning humankind to morality. Despite their many other sins, it was חָמָס  Chah’mas that sealed their fate.

Apparently, the behavior of the people of the generation of the flood progressively deteriorated. When they first became corrupt, they engaged in sins covertly before G-d, such as sexual immorality and idolatry. But later, when the earth had become filled with robbery, their sinfulness and evil became obvious to all. Those who sin privately often still have a sense of right and wrong. Hence, the need for privacy. But once people develop a habit of sinning, immoral behavior becomes more broadly accepted, soon becoming normative, resulting in public and shameless illicitness..

Thus we see that חָמָס, thievery, sealed their fate.

May you be blessed.

Bereshith 5775-2014

“The Sad Destiny of the Firstborn Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

A prominent feature of the book of Genesis is the struggle for family leadership between the firstborn and the younger siblings. The “strugglers” include: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Judah, Joseph and Judah, Menashe and Ephraim.

It is fascinating that, in each case, the younger child emerges as the victor over the biological firstborn, indicating that the birthright is not a factor of chronological age, but rather a factor of the spiritual character of the child who is eventually chosen to serve as the firstborn.

In his popular Bible study guide entitled, Sh’aylot V’nosim B’Tanach (Questions and Themes in Bible) Professor Menashe Duvshani analyzes these filial rivalries. In parashat Bereshith, Cain, the first human child, is born to his parents, Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, G-d prefers his younger brother, Abel. Even after Abel’s death at Cain’s hand, the birthright is transferred to Seth, the youngest son. The family of the firstborn, Cain, as well as his descendants, are ultimately lost in the great flood.

Despite being the first born son of Abraham, Ishmael does not emerge as the leader. Instead, the birthright passes to Isaac. It is through Isaac, the son of Sarah, that G-d promises Abraham that the Divine destiny shall pass. Ishmael subsequently becomes estranged from both his family and from the land, settling outside of the land of Israel.

Although Esau was born before his twin brother Jacob, the birthright passes to Jacob because he was considered the more worthy child. Jacob is blessed twice by Isaac, first unwittingly (when Isaac intended to bless Esau), with blessings of economic success and temporal power over nations. The second blessing, that Isaac knowingly blesses Jacob, passes the Divine Abrahamic covenant on to Jacob (Genesis 28:4).

Despite being the first born child of Jacob, Reuben nevertheless loses the birthright, as it passes to Judah, another of Jacob’s firstborn children. Reuben is thought to have committed three improper acts which cause him to fall out of favor: 1. After the death of Rachel, Reuben moved his father’s bed into his mother Leah’s tent, an act that was regarded as violation of his father’s bed (Genesis 35:22). Even on his deathbed, in his blessing to his children, Jacob is still angry, recalling Reuben’s grievous sin, and transfers the birthright from Reuben. 2. Reuben, the eldest son, failed to save Joseph from the hands of his brothers, and was unable to stop the sale of Joseph to the Midianites. 3. When Jacob’s children wish to go down to Egypt to buy more food, Jacob refuses to allow Benjamin to go with them. At that time, Reuben suggests to his father, Genesis 42:37, אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ,  You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you. Jacob is appalled by Reuben’s irrational suggestion, yet, subsequently, readily accepts Judah’s offer to act as surety for Benjamin.

By accepting full responsibility for his brother Benjamin, Judah emerges as the leader of his brothers. It is therefore Judah whom Jacob chooses to send ahead to Goshen, before they arrive in Egypt (Genesis 46:28), and who represents the brothers before Pharaoh (Genesis 44:14). The birthright is thus conferred upon Judah.

The rivalry for the birthright continues, as Judah now struggles with Joseph. The competition between Judah and Joseph that takes place in Egypt, is, in fact, representative of the long historic struggle between these two tribes that occurs in future generations, as to who was to emerge as the supreme leader of Israel.

In later years, during the times of the judges and the kings, the tribe of Ephraim (the descendants of Joseph’s oldest son) saw itself as a chosen tribe, since Joshua, the great conqueror of the land, was of the tribe of Ephraim. During the reigns of King David and Solomon, the struggle between Judah and Ephraim abated, but eventually resumed, resulting in the split of the kingdom after the death of King Solomon.

Obviously, when Joseph reigned over Egypt, the hand of Joseph was superior, confirmed by Jacob who doubled the tribal inheritance of Joseph by converting the tribe of Joseph into two separate tribes (Genesis 48:5). In Jacob’s final message to his children, Judah and Joseph receive the most extensive and generous blessings.

In the time of King David, the monarchy was firmly in the hands of the tribe of Judah. However, according to Chronicles I, 5:1-2, the birthright remained with Joseph.

Although the reason is not stated, Jacob transfers the birthright from Joseph’s oldest son, Menashe, to the younger son, Ephraim (Genesis 48:19), predicting that Ephraim will be greater than Menashe.

Clearly, every single firstborn child in the book of Genesis winds up on the short end. The fact that the birthright is always transferred from the older son cannot be merely coincidence. Apparently, the Torah wishes to teach that one does not merit the birthright simply by accident of birth. The privilege of the birthright belongs to the child who merits it, even though that child may be younger.

A similar pattern is seen with the eventual chosenness of the People of Israel, who were certainly not the oldest among the nations. When the Jewish people emerged from Egypt, dozens of other sovereign states already existed, far more powerful and more numerous than Israel. These nations, like Egypt, already possessed developed lands and had created advanced civilizations. The Edomites even had an established monarchy. Why then did G-d choose the People of Israel, a numerically small nation who had been lowly slaves to Pharaoh? Apparently, to teach that G-d does not choose based on external or physical merits, but rather uses a higher yardstick.

The principle of spiritual chosenness is confirmed by the story of the selection of King David as king, when the prophet Samuel is sent to Jesse in Bethlehem to choose a successor to King Saul. At the behest of G-d, he does not choose the handsome and valiant first born, Eliav, but instead chooses David, the youngest of Jesse’s many sons. In fact, scripture relates that G-d instructs Samuel not to choose Eliav despite his stature and comeliness, Samuel I 16:7, כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם, וַהשׁם יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב, because the human being can only see with his eyes, but G-d can see into the heart.

The Divine method of choosing continues until this day. As the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 106a), רַחֲמָנָא לִבָּא בָּעֵי, G-d’s utmost desire is to feel the yearnings of the hearts of His creations. He therefore chooses to reward those followers who merit the Divine blessing on the basis of their inner spiritual commitment, faith and sincerity.

May you be blessed.

The intermediary days of Sukkot (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.

Sukkot 5775-2014

“Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s Observations on the Sukkot Festival”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov was one of Israel’s most prolific and acclaimed religious writers. His monumental Hebrew work, Sefer Ha’toda’ah, known in English as The Book of Our Heritage, has become a standard reference guide. Rabbi Kitov also wrote extensively on the weekly Torah portion. His works are truly unheralded masterpieces.

In his weekly analysis of the Torah portion, on parashat Emor, in Sefer Ha’parashiyot, Rabbi Kitov presents an in-depth analysis of the festival of Sukkot. The entire chapter of Leviticus 23 in Parashat Emor focuses on the Jewish festivals, beginning with Shabbat, followed by Passover, Shavuot, the counting of the Omer, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and finally the festival of Sukkot.

Regarding the festival of Sukkot, the Torah in Leviticus 23:42-43, states, בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים,  כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, אֲנִי השם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, You shall dwell in booths for a seven day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in booths. So that your future generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt; I am the L-rd, your G-d.

The imagery of the Sukkah is analyzed at great length in rabbinic literature. There is even a debate in the Talmud as to whether the “Sukkah” in which the people of Israel dwelled during the sojourn in the wilderness was an actual physical Sukkah or a spiritual Sukkah, in which the Al-mighty wrapped the People of Israel, as a gesture of love.

Citing the interpretation of the Zohar, Rabbi Kitov notes that the Torah’s repeated emphasis on the mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah comes to affirm that those who sit in a Sukkah on the festival are actually sitting בְּצֵל אֱמוּנָה, in the shadow of heavenly faith. By leaving their homes and dwelling in an insecure Sukkah, Jews demonstrate immense faith in G-d, Who protects His people. When sitting in the Sukkah, the people can dwell without fear, because they have been rendered impervious to harm. Those who leave their homes to dwell in a flimsy hut, exposed to the raw elements, become part of this exclusive coterie of faith.

An additional reason for the ritual of dwelling in the Sukkah at this particular season is because the festival of Sukkot took place at the time of the ingathering of the harvest. When farmers saw their storehouses and homes filled with the abundant produce of the field, there was concern that they would become arrogant. Dwelling in a temporary and flimsy Sukkah made the farmers realize that it was not their “hands and might that accomplished all this,” but rather the Al-mighty Who gave them the rich crops, and endowed them with all the good that their fields have yielded. That is why all Jews, even small children, are instructed to dwell in the Sukkah, and bless the Al-mighty whenever they eat in the Sukkah.

Rabbi Kitov cites an interesting Midrash that traces the origins of the Sukkah to the time of the exodus from Egypt. The Midrash maintains that the enslavement of the people ceased six months before the actual exodus. During that six month period, the Israelites dwelled in their secure and peaceful homes, together with the abundant riches that the Egyptians had showered upon them. During this time, all the Egyptians, even the evil Pharaoh and his servants, tried to persuade the Jewish people not to leave the blessed land of Egypt.

When the day came for Israel to be redeemed, the Torah, in Exodus 12:37 records, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטָּף, the Children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about 600,000 men on foot, aside from the children. This huge assemblage, consisting of about three million individuals, left their homes and their cities with all the good that they had amassed in Egypt, to follow G-d into the wilderness. On faith alone, they marched with the Al-mighty to a place without shelter, shade, food, or water, populated by snakes and scorpions. Despite the unknown destination, the people never hesitated or questioned G-d about their final destination, seemingly unconcerned about where they would find shelter from the burning heat during the day and the frigid cold at night, or from where their food and sustenance would come.

The Torah notes that the people traveled a distance of about 125 miles, “From Rameses to Succoth.” A trip of this magnitude would normally take a single individual at least three days. For three million men, women, children, sheep, cattle and flocks, a journey of this length would take six or seven days or more. Nevertheless, the Torah reports that the people of Israel reached Succoth in but a single day. To emphasize the exalted level of faith to which the people had risen in their relationship with G-d, the Torah in Exodus 19:4 records, “And I carried you on the wings of eagles.” This comes to teach, that those who travel at the behest of G-d, who place their faith fully in the Al-mighty, will not be forsaken. If necessary, G-d will happily perform miracles for such a faithful flock.

As a reward for the people’s spiritual devotion and uncompromised faith, G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and took the people out of Egypt with an outstretched hand.

G-d declared to the Jewish people, “My beloved son, you are not Pharaoh’s servants. You are not servants to their gods or committed to their faiths. You are My servants. I took you out from the hand of Pharaoh, and I redeemed you from all the meaninglessness of Egypt. Leave your homes and your fortified shelters and come under the security of My wing. This will be your true security. Their castles and fortresses are nothing compared to the unremitting love of the Divine clouds that have enveloped you.”

It was not long after, at Sinai, that the Al-mighty betrothed the Jewish people, entering them under the Chuppah, under the shade of G-d’s Sukkah. It was there that G-d acquired His people, forever and for eternity.

May the festival of Sukkot that we celebrate at this time, serve as a renewal of the nuptial vows of old, between G-d and His people. May we all soon dwell in the Al-mighty’s ultimate Sukkah in good health, peace and tranquility.

May you be blessed.

he first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 8th, 9th and 10th, 2014. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.

Yom Kippur 5775-2014

“The High Priest’s Dilemma–What to Wear on Yom Kippur?”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Torah reading from Leviticus 16:1-34,that is read on Yom Kippur morning in synagogues throughout the world, describes the death of Aaron’s two sons and details the Yom Kippur service performed by the High Priest.

On the 17th of Tammuz, less than six weeks after having received the Ten Commandments on the 6th of Sivan, the Children of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf. On the first day of Elul, Moses went up to heaven for forty days and nights to beseech the Al-mighty for forgiveness for the Jewish people, and finally returned on the 10th of Tishrei with the second set of Tablets, assured of G-d’s forgiveness. This fateful day was ordained for posterity as Yom Kippur, the eternal day of forgiveness.

Yom Kippur was to be celebrated (it was considered a happy day) in future years in the Tabernacle and in the Temples with elaborate rituals of forgiveness. The comprehensive ceremony of forgiveness which was very demanding on the High Priest, consisted of, among other things, the bringing of the שְׁנֵי שְׂעִירִים, the two he-goats.

For the highly symbolic ritual of atonement on Yom Kippur, the High Priest wore two sets of vestments. One set of clothing, known as בִּגְדֵי זָהָב, the golden vestments, consisted of eight garments, four of which contained gold. The other set of garments called בִּגְדֵי לָבָן, white vestments, were made entirely of white linen.

During the Yom Kippur ceremony, the High Priest changed his clothes five times, each time immersing himself in a Mikveh and washing his hands and feet, both before and after changing garments. Thus, the High Priest went to the Mikveh five times on Yom Kippur, and washed his hands and feet ten times.

The Torah, in Leviticus 16:3-4, provides highly specific instructions regarding the manner in which the High Priest is to enter the קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים, the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum. בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ, Thus, shall Aaron come into the sanctuary, with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for an elevation offering. Regarding the vestments of the High Priest, the Torah in Leviticus 16:4, states: כְּתֹנֶת בַּד קֹדֶשׁ יִלְבָּשׁ, וּמִכְנְסֵי בַד יִהְיוּ עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ, וּבְאַבְנֵט בַּד יַחְגֹּר, וּבְמִצְנֶפֶת בַּד יִצְנֹף, בִּגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ הֵם, וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ וּלְבֵשָׁם, He shall don a sacred linen tunic; linen breeches shall be upon his flesh, he shall gird himself with a linen sash, and cover his head with a linen turban; They are sacred vestments–-he shall immerse himself in water and then don them.

Why was it necessary for the High Priest to change his garments so frequently? Apparently, when performing the basic rituals of Yom Kippur, the High Priest wore the golden garments. However, during the portions of the service when the High Priest sought forgiveness for sin for the Jewish people, he wore the white garments. The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 26a explains that the reason for this was to conform to the Talmudic principle that אֵין קָטֵגוֹר נַעֲשֶׁה סַנֵּגוֹר, a prosecutor cannot become a defender.

In the early 1970s, Carl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, authored a book called, Whatever Became of Sin, decrying the fact that people at that time no longer called bad things “evil,” often preferring to simply explain evil away. Debby Boone said it best in the famous song of the 70s, You Light Up My Life, singing the words, “It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right.”

Today, we are quick to assume that mass murderers are “sick,” and Jihadists are “abnormal.” While some of these people might well be mentally ill, there certainly those who are simply evil, and we should not explain away their actions by attributing them to a malady. These are people who are evil, who perpetrate evil for the sake of evil. These actions must be recognized as evil, and the perpetrators punished for their wickedness.

Even in Jewish life today, many rabbis argue that we no longer have the ability to properly fulfill the mitzvah of תּוֹכָחָה, Tochacha, of reproof. Therefore, it is often best to withhold reproof. Unfortunately, many of us fancy ourselves as modern-day Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740–1809, Chasidic leader famed for his love for all Jews), would-be Chasidic rabbis who often focus on a Jew’s personal merits, thereby covering up or explaining away the improper actions of that person.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin speaks out strongly against those who justify every infraction committed by a Jew, too often finding excuses to explain away their sinfulness. A doctor who refuses to disclose the true diagnosis to the patient, argues Rabbi Sorotzkin, is often harming the patient, rather than helping him or protecting him.

Therefore, says Rabbi Sorotzkin, when the High Priest addresses the people of Israel, he must wear his golden vestments, reflecting strong leadership and unimpeachable authority. This way, the High Priest can speak firmly to the people, and reprove them for their sinfulness, enabling them to reflect on their sins and repent. However, when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) communes directly with G-d, beseeching the Al-mighty to intercede on behalf of His flock and to forgive them for their misdeeds, he must wear the simple white linen vestments, the symbol of virtue, purity, modesty and humility.

That is obviously the reason for the custom of Jews to dress in white on Yom Kippur, and to wear a white Kittel, as a symbol of purity, to meekly beseech forgiveness.

May we all be granted the Divine pardon with great love.

May you be blessed.

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

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, October 3rd through nightfall on Shabbat, October 4th, 2014. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 8th, 9th and 10th, 2014. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.

Haazinu-Rosh Hashana 5775-2014

“Invoking Heaven and Earth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It seems so natural to always begin the New Year with parashat Haazinu, the majestic song of Moses, which he sang moments before his passing. For those who read the parasha in translation, so much is lost–it is like kissing the bride through the veil. The Hebrew words are truly extraordinary, the poetry is exalted, and its message, profoundly elevating.

The late Bible scholar W. Gunther Plaut keenly established the context of the Haazinu message in his contemporary commentary, by writing:

The Bible ascribes three songs to Moses, of which two are in the Torah: One delivered after Israel’s rescue from the Reed Sea, at the beginning of the desert wanderings (Exodus 15), and the other here, at the end. These two poems may therefore be seen to frame the wilderness experience, and though on the surface they appear to serve different purposes–the first a thanksgiving hymn, the second a poem of the future–they both deal with Israel’s survival. At the sea, the physical existence of the nation was assured, but the forty years that followed put its spiritual future in doubt. Now at the borders of the Promised Land, Moses celebrates the eventual realization of G-d’s will for His people. He sings a hymn of hope to an Israel that will prevail in spirit as well as in body.

Gunther Plaut further describes the essence of the Haazinu message as follows:

The poem warns; it instructs; it gives hope. Israel’s past history has amply demonstrated G-d’s love and care, and these will not be found wanting in the future. Rebellion against His law may put Israel in dire straits, but in the end G-d will be shown not to have forgotten the people He had created. At the close of the recital, Moses is bidden to ascend Mount Nebo and prepare for death.

Notwithstanding the extreme drama of the moment–-the last day of Moses’ life–and despite being the longtime leader of Israel, the burning question remains: How does Moses, the mortal disciple, dare to attempt to sum up the past, present and future of Jewish life? How does this audacious man, who is called by the Torah, Numbers 12:3, “the meekest man on earth,” and who once described himself as, Exodus 4:10, כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן, אָנֹכִי, unable to speak, a stammerer, a stutterer, suddenly feel so confident as G-d’s representative, revealing no compunction about predicting Israel’s future. Added to this, this bold former shepherd audaciously calls upon heaven and earth, to enlist their services as witnesses to the words that he is about to speak. Deuteronomy 32:1 reads: הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה, וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי פִי, Give ear, O Heavens, and I will speak; may the earth hear the words of my mouth. Who is this man, who as a child was found in the little ark in the bulrushes, and who now presumes to speak for G-d, shamelessly invoking heaven and earth?

The commentators explain Moses’ presumptuousness by referring to the very next verse, Deuteronomy 32:3, כִּי שֵׁם השׁם אֶקְרָא,  הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלקינוּ, When I call out the name of the L-rd, ascribe greatness to our G-d. Everything that Moses does is not at all for his own self-aggrandizement, but to honor G-d. The only reason that Moses calls on heaven and earth to testify is to enhance the glory of the Al-mighty.

The Peninim on the Torah tells the story of the famous Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941), who was murdered at the hands of the Nazis and who once ascended to the lectern in his community of Baranovich, Poland, and began to speak, like Moses, invoking the heavens and the earth. Who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovich, who had the audacity to invoke heaven and earth in G-d’s name? Rabbi Wasserman too was not seeking glory for himself, but rather was seeking to bring greater honor to G-d.

In his brief speech, Reb Elchanan explained:

A similar idea applies to each and every one of us, as we stand, once again, at this time of year, entreating Hashem for yet another year of life, of health, happiness and prosperity. We have to ask ourselves: ‘Why are we asking? In what merit are we asking? What right do we have to ask? Are we that deserving?’

If we ask for כְּבוֹד שָׁמַיִם, to glorify heaven, to give honor to Hashem, however, that is a different story. If we ask to live so that we can provide our children with Torah true חִנּוּך (education); if we are asking for health, so that we can serve Him better; if we ask for prosperity so that we have the ability to help others; if we ask for the ability to study more Torah, in order to perform more mitzvot with greater enthusiasm–then, we have a right to ask. Indeed, under such circumstances, we are empowered to ask.

Moses’ final message is hardly bold or audacious. Rather, it is an empowering message, transferring the authority to speak in G-d’s name from one generation to the next, to ensure that the new transmitters will be loyal and faithful to the Al-mighty, as the old ones were.

During these fateful days of judgment, let us embrace this responsibility, resolving to transmit G-d’s message, a message that will serve as a vital link in the chain of continuity of Jewish life. We, too, can become contemporary prophets, bringing G-d’s words to the world, enlightening humankind with His transcendent message of goodness and grace.

May you be blessed.

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

Rosh Hashanah 5775 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 24th, 25th and 26th, 2014.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 28th from dawn until nightfall.