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Re’eh 5777-2017

“Coming to Jerusalem–-The Festival Pilgrimages”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we learn of the commandment for the Children of Israel to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrim festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

The Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16 states, שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל זְכוּרְךָ אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר, בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת, וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת, וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם רֵיקָם , Three times a year all your males should appear before the L-rd your G-d, in a place that He will choose: on the Festival of Matzot, the Festival of Shavuot, and the Festival of Sukkot; and he [the Jewish visitor] shall not appear before the L-rd empty-handed.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:17, further states that the Jewish visitor should bring, אִישׁ כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ , Everyone, according to what he can give, according to the blessing that the L-rd your G-d gives you.

Among the three gifts the Jewish visitors were required to bring were, שַׁלְמֵי חֲגִיגָה –“Shalmei Chagiga,” the festival peace offerings which were brought in honor of celebrating the particular holiday. The עוֹלַת רְאִיָּה“Olat R’iyah,” the elevation offering, intended to mark the pilgrim’s visit to the Temple. The third offering was שַׁלְמֵי שִׂמְחָה“Shalmei Simcha,” a peace offering that was eaten to enhance the joy and happiness of the occasion. The value of all these sacrifices is to be commensurate with the prosperity which G-d has blessed the donor.

In order to truly enhance the joy of the holiday, it was not sufficient for the head of the family to only gather with family and friends to participate in the festival offerings. It was most important to invite the poor, the destitute, and especially the Levite to join the family in the festivities. After all, a Jew can only be truly joyous when bringing gladness to the hearts of others as well.

Since the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are aligned with the agricultural festivals, it is important to make a distinction that each of these festivals is much more than a celebration of nature. In Exodus 23:14, the Torah states, “You shall celebrate unto Me,” meaning G-d, in a way that will ensure that Jewish celebrations are not pagan celebrations or celebrations of nature or season.

The Abarbanel records five reasons for visiting the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the three major holidays:

1. G-d gave the Jewish people three extraordinary gifts: Freedom, Torah, and the land of Israel. On Passover, Jews thank G-d for their freedom, on Shavuot they thank G-d for the gift of the Torah, and on Sukkot they thank G-d for the gift of the land of Israel.

2. By visiting Jerusalem on the festivals, Jews confirm the fundamental belief that with G-d’s help, nothing is impossible.

3. By gathering as a community in Jerusalem, the people will be spiritually inspired by the pageantry and public presentations of the rituals performed by the priests and the Levites.

4. Sharing the joyous festivals together with the rest of the People of Israel will affect the way they live together in peace and harmony throughout the rest of the year.

5. The people who live far away from Jerusalem will have the unique opportunity to be in Jerusalem, to meet the great sages and the members of the high courts in order to discuss religious issues with them. They will also have a chance to visit the great academies of learning in Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin, enhancing their education and knowledge.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his Daat Sofrim , notes that the verse in Deuteronomy 16:16, speaks about שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה , that Jews should appear in Jerusalem three times, whereas in Exodus 23:14, the verse uses the language שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים , three feet, three occasions, or three steps. While they both mean three times, the fact that the Torah in Deuteronomy uses the word פַּעַם“pa’am” and in Exodus רֶגֶל“regel”, underscores the difficulty of leaving one’s home and making the challenging trek to Jerusalem.

Through the exegesis, the rabbis learn that only healthy people who are able to go on their own two feet are required to fulfill this mitzvah. Those who need to be driven on a cart or require a stick to walk are exempt.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his book, “The Mitzvot,” concludes that Jews today are also expected to celebrate festivals with great fervor and enthusiasm, with meat and drink, and, just as in Temple days, be joined by the less fortunate.

The absence of sacrifices today can be fulfilled vicariously by giving donations to charities that support Torah learning and help the destitute, which are recognized as being equal to the sacrifices that were given in ancient times.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5777-2017

“Stages of Religious Growth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Eikev, Moses continues his exhortation of the People of Israel, in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land.

Moses speaks of them as a stiff-necked people, reminding the people of their frequent trespasses. He recalls in particular, the sin of the Golden Calf, which he describes in a very personal and emotional tone, in contrast to the Torah’s original telling of the story in Exodus 32, which is more detached and dispassionate. He reminds the people (Deuteronomy 9:5-6), that they were sinful, wicked and defiant and that “G-d’s favor has been bestowed upon them not because of their merits, but rather despite their moral failures.”

Moses recalls (Deuteronomy 9:25-29, 10:10), that had it not been for him, there would have been no way to stop G-d’s anger and vengeance. It was Moses who served as the intermediary between G-d and the people, and who, time and again, rescued them from certain destruction.

It is in this context of exhortation and appeal that Moses teaches the people how to grow close to G-d.

The Chofetz Chaim points out that three times in parashat Eikev, we encounter the expression of לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו , to go in His [G-d’s] ways.

In Deuteronomy 8:6, Moses tells the people, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת מִצְוֹת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וּלְיִרְאָה אֹתוֹ , You shall observe the commandments of the L-rd your G-d to go in His ways and to fear Him. Once again, in Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses says, וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל, מָה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ, כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ , Now, O’ Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the L-rd your G-d to go in all His ways and to love Him.

The Chofetz Chaim points to a third verse in which G-d promises to reward the people for their loyalty, Deuteronomy 11:22, כִּי אִם שָׁמֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשֹׂתָהּ, לְאַהֲבָה אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְדָבְקָה בו , For if you will observe this entire commandment that I command you, to perform it, to love the L-rd your G-d, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him, then G-d will drive out all your enemies.

The Chofetz Chaim notes that while the phrase לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו , to walk in G-d’s ways, is repeated three times, in each instance it is intended to serve a different purpose.

The Chofetz Chaim maintains that there are three stations or degrees of serving G-d. In the first instance it says, לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , to revere the L-rd your G-d. The second level, which is higher than the first, it states, וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ , to love the L-rd your G-d. The third and final level, which is higher than all, is וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ , to cling to G-d.

The Chofetz Chaim maintains that every Jew must strive to rise higher and higher, from one level to the next, from one degree to the next. One must first strive to reach the level of יִרְאָה reverence. When the level of reverence is reached, one must continue climbing to the level of אַהֲבָה – of loving the L-rd. And finally, when reaching the level of loving the L-rd, one must not stand stationary, but must continue to climb, to reach the exalted level of וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ , to cling to G-d.

The root of the Hebrew word דְּבֵקוּת, (d’vekut) is דֶבֶק , glue, meaning to cling or unite. D’vekut represents a spiritual union between the human being and the Al-mighty G-d. It is attainable, by not only following G-d’s dictates due to reverence, and imitating G-d’s ways out of love, but actually attempting to meld with the Al-mighty, to become spiritually united with G-d through acts of goodness, mercy and compassion.

Moses is aware that the People of Israel have a long journey ahead of them, not only to the Promised Land, but a journey that will lead the people through millennia of Jewish history. It is this educational and spiritual “journey” that Moses presents to the people. It is a journey of spiritual growth, from reverence, to loving and, ultimately, to uniting one’s soul with the sanctity of the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.

This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, August 6th and 7th, 2017. Happy Tu B’Av.

Va’etchanan 5777-2017

“The Power of Prayer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we read of Moses’ powerful prayers to be allowed to enter into the land of Israel, and G-d’s refusal to accede to his request.

The rabbis, in Midrash Rabbah in Deuteronomy 1:1, speak of the extraordinary powers of Moses’ prayers to be allowed to enter the land of Israel. Say the rabbis: At that moment, what did Moses do? He dressed himself in sackcloth and sprinkled himself with ashes and stood in prayer, beseeching the Al-mighty G-d, until the heavens and earth and the orders of creation began to quake.

In response, the Al-mighty decreed that the gates to all the seven firmaments be sealed and that all courts of law refuse to accept Moses’ prayers, because the Divine decree was final.

The angels of heaven hastened to lock all the gates of the firmaments of heaven because Moses’ prayers had already risen so high they were like a sharp sword, and as powerful as uttering the Divine name, ripping through everything in its way.

At that moment, Moses’ prayers matched the description found in Ezekiel 3:12, “Then a wind lifted me up and I heard behind me the sound of a great noise, ‘Blessed is the L-rd’s glory from His abode,’” There can be no greater sound than that uttered by Moses.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his collection of insights into the weekly parasha, entitled Tiferet Shimshon on Deuteronomy, notes that the power of Moses’ prayer recalls a discussion in the Zohar.

The Zohar on parashat Balak states that scriptures mention three actual instances of “prayer,” the prayer of Moses, the prayer of King David and the prayer of the עָנִי , the poor man.

In Psalms 90:1 we find, תְּפִלָּה לְמֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱ־לֹקִים , the prayer of Moses, the man of G-d. This prayer is incomparable amongst human beings. In Psalms 17:1, we find the prayer of King David, תְּפִלָּה לְדָוִד . This prayer has no equal amongst kings. Psalms 102:1, תְּפִלָּה לְעָנִי כִי יַעֲטֹף , speaks of the prayer of the poor person when he faints and collapses.

The Zohar asks which of these three prayers is the most significant, and declares that the prayer of the poor person is even greater than the prayer of Moses and the prayer of King David, and precedes all prayers in the world. Why? Because the prayer of the poor person comes from a broken heart.

As Psalm 34:19 states, קָרוֹב השׁם לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי לֵב , the Al-mighty is close to those who have a broken heart. G-d listens to their words and it is the poor person’s prayers that has the power to open the windows of the firmaments.

Despite the overwhelming power of Moses’ prayer, אִישׁ הָאֱ־לֹקִים , the man of G-d, whose prayer was like the utterance of the Divine name, and was able to rip and slice like a sword, it is still unable to compare to the powerful prayer of the poor person with a broken heart.

Rabbi Pincus urges every person to appreciate the importance of the petitions of the poor, and to never ignore them.

In addition, he advises that the most effective method to achieve a good and happy life is that every person should always see themselves as standing before the Al-mighty like a person with a broken heart. These prayers have the power to open up the windows of heaven and bring out the Al-mighty’s abundant blessings of salvation and success.

Moses’ prayers were able to make the heavens tremble, but there is nothing more powerful than the prayers that emanate from a broken heart.

Especially during the “Nine Days,” the period of intense mourning that precedes Tisha B’Av, we have a unique opportunity to seize the mood of the time, to offer truly meaningful prayers with our broken hearts.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, July 31st and continues through Tuesday night, August 1st, 2017. Have a meaningful fast.

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

This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, August 6th and 7th, 2017. Happy Tu B’Av.


Devarim 5777-2017

“The Transformation of Moses is Completed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, known as דְּבָרִים , Devarim–Deuteronomy.

The entire book of Deuteronomy takes place during the final weeks of Moses’ life. In Devarim, Moses reviews and teaches many of the laws of the Torah and much of the history of Israel, stressing those laws and teachings that the people of Israel will need to know in their future life in the Promised Land.

Parashat Devarim opens with the well-known verse, Deuteronomy 1:1, אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן , These are the words (דְּבָרִיםDevarim) that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan… The Torah, in Deuteronomy 1:3, states that it was on the first day of Shevat that Moses began to review the Torah with the people of Israel. According to tradition, he continued until the day before he died, on the seventh of Adar.

The book of Deuteronomy is significantly different from the first four books of the Torah, whose contents are attributed directly to G-d. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people in G-d’s name.

It is quite significant that the final book of the Torah opens with the words, אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה , and these are the words-
דְּבָרִים , (devarim) that Moses spoke, דִּבֵּר ,(dee’ber) to all of Israel.

It is impossible not to be struck by these words. After all, when G-d first revealed Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush, and tried to convince Moses to serve as His agent to redeem the Jewish people, Moses fought bitterly not to be appointed. Even after G-d gave Moses a series of Divine signs, Moses demurs, saying to G-d, Exodus 4:10, בִּי השׁם, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ, כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי , Please my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech. G-d responds to Moses movingly, in Exodus 4:11, “Who makes a mouth for man? Or who makes one mute or deaf or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd? So now go. I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.” Despite G-d’s assurance, Moses responds, Exodus 4:13, “Please, my L-rd, send through whomever You will send.” Send anyone, just not me!

The commentators differ over the meaning of the Hebrew expression, כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן. Rashi says that Moses said of himself that he was a stammerer and a stutterer. Other commentators disagree. The Rashbam says that Moses, who is now 80 years old, meant that he was not fluent in Egyptian, because he was young when he was forced to flee Egypt. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra says that Moses felt inadequate because he was not a polished or gifted speaker. Shadal seems to indicate that because he spoke bluntly and forcefully, Moses felt that he would not be an effective communicator.

Moses not only felt inadequate as a speaker, but also as a leader. When the people were in the wilderness and complained about the Manna, Moses cried out to G-d, Numbers 11:11, “Why have You done evil to Your servant? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?” Moses offers a most dramatic and plaintive plea, Numbers 11:12, הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי אֵת כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה אִם אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ, כִּי תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת הַיֹּנֵק עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו , Did I [Moses] conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You [G-d] say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling, to the land that You swore to its forefathers?”

My father, Moshe Aharon Buchwald, of blessed memory, used to joke about some of the people who came from his shtetl in Poland, Biala. Growing up in great poverty, many Jewish children never had a chance to receive even a basic education, and were functionally illiterate. However, when they arrived in America, they immediately enrolled in public schools and, lo and behold, they soon became quite educated, serving as public leaders, at times, delivering eloquent public addresses. My father compared this to Moses, who, when he first started out, was a stammerer and a stutterer, unable to speak a word. After crossing the sea, the Torah tells us (Exodus 15:1), אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה , that Moses became the “Poet Laureate” of Israel, composing the most beautiful songs and poetry. So it was with his fellow Biala landsman, who crossed the sea in steerage, arrived at Ellis Island, and after focusing on education, became eloquent “singers.”

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים , these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel. The “inarticulate” Moses, who insisted that, “I am not a man of Devarim, I am not a man of words,” not only became a man of words, but an entire book of the Torah records his final days as the ultimate “Man of Words.” Not only has Moses been transformed into a passionate and an articulate orator and speaker, he has also become a tireless leader. The man who cried, “Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it?” has become a gifted leader, who has enabled an enslaved people to be taken out of Egypt and brought to the very doorstep of the Promised Land. Through his leadership and his cajoling, he succeeded in breaking the resistence and indifference of these difficult people, persuading them to leave the land of their enslavement, and they all left. And when they stood before their first challenge, and began to complain about the Manna and begged to be taken back to Egypt, Moses was able to transform the mixed multitude of former slaves into a powerful people, who are now free to conquer and settle in the Holy Land.

The task of transforming the rebellious people was far more difficult than taking them out of Egypt. For forty years Moses educated the people, taught them the statutes and laws of G-d, and gave them the Torah. He organized a judicial system and stood up to their every complaint, rebellion and challenge. With a soft hand and a loving heart, he served as the shepherd of the people of Israel, answering all their requests and responding to all their complaints with infinite patience and with fatherly love–despite all the great disappointments and the lack of gratitude displayed by the stiff-necked People of Israel. And when it was necessary for him to reprove them and even punish them, he did so with great humility, never asking for anything in return, only longing to see the fulfillment of the holy task of redeeming G-d’s people.

The man who said, ”I am not a man of words,” the man who asked, “Did I conceive this entire people, did I give birth to it?,” eventually became the great orator and the thoroughly devoted nursemaid of his people.

The book of Deuteronomy confirms that the transformation of Moses is now complete.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Sunday evening, July 23rd and all day Monday, July 24th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.

Matot-Masei 5777-2017

“Vows and Oaths”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashiot Matot and Masei are the last two parashiot of the book of Bamidbar–Numbers. The focus of these two final parashiot shifts from Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness to the settlement in the land of Israel. In preparation for the peoples’ entry into the land of Israel, the Torah presents the rules and regulations regarding oaths and vows that underscore the holiness of the Promised Land, and the new, elevated lifestyle that the people will experience there.

Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel and says to them, Numbers 30:3, אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַהשׁם אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ, לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ, כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה , If a man takes a vow to the L-rd or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word, according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his Da’at Sofrim, explains the juxtaposition between parashat Matot and the previous parasha, Pinchas, which lists the daily, Shabbat and holiday sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle/Temple. He explains that since many offerings in the Temple were brought to fulfill vows and oaths that people had made, it is necessary to emphasize how careful one must be with words that are uttered from one’s mouth. These rules and regulations are particularly directed to the heads of the people, the princes and the tribal leaders, so that they could teach them to the people of Israel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz points out that vows enable mere mortals to spiritually elevate G-d’s creations and make them holy. Therefore, invoking vows and oaths must be done with extreme care. Because vows are often motivated by a desire to do something extraordinary, those who make the vows may not be able to fulfill them. Consequently, the leaders of Israel must teach the people about the proper use of vows as well as the ability to nullify them.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his wonderful work, The Mitzvot, the Commandments and Their Rationale, underscores that the human being, who is blessed with superior intelligence, must recognize the importance of not making statements indiscreetly or rashly. This, of course, applies to all human speech, but especially to vows and oaths.

Citing the Mishna Nedarim 3:1, Rabbi Chill notes that there are certain vows that are uttered that are automatically invalid: 1. נִדְרֵי זֵרוּזִיןNidrei Zairuzim, oaths, often made to spur business, that are uttered for the purpose of convenience, but are never meant seriously. 2. נִדְרֵי הֲבַאיNidrei Havai, exaggerated oaths, in which someone promises to do something on the condition that he beholds something unusual or impossible, such as if he sees a million people at once or encounters a flying camel. 3. נִדְרֵי שְׁגָגוֹתNidrei Shegagot, unintentional vows, in which a person mistakenly takes an oath based on something that he thought he had done, such as eat or drink, but he did not. 4. נִדְרֵי אֳנָסִיםNidrei Anasim, a person who takes a vow but is unable to fulfill the vow because of health reasons, or in the case of sudden, unexpected circumstances that require that person to leave the city.

There is a legal difference between what is known as a נֶדֶרNeder (vow) and a שְׁבוּעָהShevuah (oath). The person who makes a Neder, vows, “I will not drink this wine.” The person making a Shevuah says, “I swear not to drink wine.” In the instance of the Neder, the object is forbidden, while in the Shevuah the person is forbidden from engaging in that act.

The holy scriptures strongly advocate against taking vows. The Book of Ecclesiastes 5:4 advises, better not to vow, than to vow and not fulfill.

Judaism in general, and in the scriptures specifically, strongly underscores the sanctity of words. The opening words of the Torah already describe how important and powerful words are, as G-d creates the world through words. The Torah frequently commands one to distance oneself from falsehood, and repeatedly emphasizes against insulting the stranger, the convert or the physically disabled. Words are real and have the power to heal and hurt, to elevate and to denigrate.

The extraordinary power of speech is the Al-mighty’s unique gift to the human being, shared with no other creature. Only humans have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy through vows and oaths.

The Chatam Sofer points out that the laws of vows and oaths are directed primarily to the heads of the tribes and the princes, because people in high public office are more frequently tempted to make promises that they cannot keep.

As a unique gift from G-d to humankind, the endowment of speech must be fiercely guarded and used correctly. It is perhaps the most powerful tool in the human repository to bring goodness and blessing to the world. It must be used with the utmost care and discretion.

May you be blessed.


Pinchas 5777-2017

“Pinchas and King David”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the close of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read of the zealous act of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, who speared to death a Jewish leader and a Midianite woman who were committing a public act of harlotry in front of the people.

In this week’s parasha, we learn that the perpetrators who died were both distinguished people, whose names were Zimri the son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi the daughter of Tzur, one of the leaders of Midian.

In the opening verses of parashat Pinchas, G-d informs Moses that Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, will be rewarded for turning back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel. We learn that only because of Pinchas, did G-d not destroy the Children of Israel in His vengeance.

In Numbers 25:12-13 the Torah then declares, לָכֵן אֱמֹר, הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם. וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם, תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵא־לֹקָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל , Therefore, say: “Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him, and his offspring after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he took vengeance for his G-d and he atoned for the Children of Israel.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asks the following cogent question: Pinchas commits an act of killing in G-d’s name and he and his progeny are rewarded by being elevated to the priesthood, where they will serve in the Tabernacle or Temple for all time. On the other hand, King David, who fought many wars on behalf of G-d, was told that because he had spilled so much blood in battle, he would not be allowed to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Only King David’s son, Solomon, would build the Temple.

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that both King David and Pinchas performed acts that were legally justified and through which G-d’s name was sanctified throughout the world.

Rabbi Soloveitchik proceeds to deliver an extensive discourse on pacifism, emphasizing, that while Judaism is a religion of peace, it is not a pacifist religion. He argues that Jews must stand up for themselves, and those who fail to do so will ultimately surrender everything to evil.

Why were King David’s actions, which brought sanctity to G-d’s name, considered a liability? They should have been regarded as assets. The fact that King David was a warrior for G-d, should have confirmed David’s claim to be designated the builder of the sanctuary. The fact that David united the people, in addition to his many heroic military exploits, should have granted him a priority over others for constructing the Temple. After all, the battles he fought were the battles of G-d.

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that before one can focus on constructing the Sanctuary, it is necessary to achieve peace by defeating all of Israel’s enemies. It was David who achieved this peace. And, even though Solomon was allowed to build the Temple, his kingdom was to come apart soon after his death, when the Ten Tribes, under the leadership of Jeroboam, would withdraw from the kingdom and form the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the reason that Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land was not because of any sin or shortcoming, but rather because the land was not yet ready for permanent holiness. That holiness would have to wait, and come later in the time of Ezra. Furthermore, had Moses entered the land, the land would have immediately become entirely holy, automatically heralding the Messiah. The Al-mighty felt however, that the world was not yet ready for the Messiah.

Similarly, with King David. Had King David been allowed to build the Temple, the Temple, because of David’s exalted status, would have lasted forever. But, the world was not ready for the eternal Temple. But when it will be ready, it will be King David and his descendant, the Messiah, who will build it. Although David was surely worthy of building the Temple, the world was not yet worthy.

Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes, “Fighting a just and righteous battle for Hashem’s name does not disqualify one from serving in His Temple–-if anything, it prepares one for that service as we see with Pinchas. David’s wars should have, in fact, made him the perfect agent to build the Temple, except that he was too perfect.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s analysis still fails to explain why, even though David was not allowed to build the Temple, Pinchas was given the eternal covenant of Priesthood. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik asked the question, “How could Pinchas be rewarded with a covenant of peace? After all, G-d rewards and punishes “measure for measure” and Pinchas’ actions were actions of violence and bloodshed?”
Reb Chaim suggests that outwardly Pinchas’ behavior appeared bloody and vicious, but his inner motives were in fact guided by a desire for peace and well-being among the Jewish people. This fact is testified to by the Torah which states (Numbers 25:11), that “Pinchas…has turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel…and because of him I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance.”.

Reb Chaim distinguishes between the true zealot, whose actions are intended to honor G-d, and who has the best interests of society at heart, and the false zealot, who is motivated by self-righteous and fanatical belief. Reb Chaim explains that while both housewives and cats hate mice, the former hates having to kill them and hopes never to see any, whereas the cat eagerly awaits catching more mice.

Reb Chaim further explains that the difference between the two is evident in their attitudes toward violence. The truly pious person agonizes when, after all options have been exhausted, they feel they must resort to violence. The person motivated by false zeal secretly celebrates having to do so.

Killing was the last thing that Pinchas wanted to do. He was brokenhearted over the fact that he had no other recourse. His primary intention was to bring sanctity to the camp of Israel and to save the people from the plague that had already killed 24,000 people. It is in this merit that G-d gave him the בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם , the everlasting covenant of the priesthood, which he so eminently deserved.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) is observed this year on Tuesday, July 11, 2017, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the Three Weeks period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, July 31st and August 1st.


Balak 5777-2017

“Influencing the Will of G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learn that the Moabite king, Balak, the son of Zippor, is overwhelmed with fear as a result of what he had seen Israel do to the Amorites, crushing them in battle. Although the Moabites and Midianites were long-term enemies, they now joined together in order to defend themselves from the threat of the Children of Israel.

Recognizing that he could not vanquish the Israelites in a military battle, Balak decides to call upon Balaam, the famed gentile prophet, to curse Israel. The Moabite king initially sends elders of Moab and Midian to the prophet Balaam, to convince him to come and curse the Children of Israel. After consulting with G-d, Balaam is informed, Numbers 22:12, לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם, לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא , “You shall not go with them! You shall not invoke curse upon the people, for they are blessed!”

Balak sends a second delegation of even higher ranking officers, promising Balaam much honor and riches if he would curse the Jewish people. Balaam again declines, saying that even if Balak would give him a household of gold and silver, he is unable to transgress the word of G-d, to do anything small or great.
Balaam, however, is reluctant to give up. He requests that the emissaries stay the night, so that he can once again “consult” with G-d. In Numbers 22:20, G-d says to Balaam, אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם, וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה , “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but the thing that I shall speak to you that is what you shall do.”

Balaam, who despite G-d’s warning, is eager to do harm to the Israelites, arises early the next morning, saddles his own donkey and begins to make his way to meet Balak. Even though G-d has given him permission to go, G-d is angry at Balaam, seeing his enthusiasm, and places an angel on the road to stop Balaam. Although the great prophet Balaam is unaware of the angel, the lowly donkey sees the Divine emissary and refuses to travel further. After hitting his donkey several times, the donkey speaks up, and Balaam finally sees the angel. The angel of G-d gives Balaam one last warning, saying, Numbers 22:35, לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר , “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that shall you speak!”

Many commentators are troubled by the fact that at first G-d firmly tells Balaam not to go. He then gives Balaam some sort of ambiguous permission, but restricts his ability to curse the Jewish people. Has Balaam successfully influenced the will of G-d?

According to Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz the author of Da’at Sofrim, this portion teaches much about the principles of Divine Providence and of free will that is accorded to all human beings.

Rashi  picks up on G-d’s words to Balaam in Numbers 22:20, אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם , “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them.” Rashi derives from the word לְךָ “to you,” the connotation “for your benefit.” Meaning, if it would be to Balaam’s financial advantage to go, he was free to do so.

Although not commenting directly on Rashi, Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that despite all the commandments, including the many restrictions that G-d has given, human beings still have free will to violate those restrictions, even if only for personal financial gain. Rabbi Rabinowitz cites the pithy statement of the sages (Talmud Makot 10b), בְּדֶרֶך שֶׁאָדָם רוֹצֶה לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ , Heaven directs a person in the path that he wishes to take.
When G-d informed Balaam on the first night that he should not go, the will of G-d should have been clear to Balaam. Even if G-d subsequently gave him permission to go, he should have at least asked, as did the prophet Samuel (Samuel I 16:2) when he was sent to anoint King David, אֵיךְ אֵלֵךְ? “How can I go?” Balaam did not do that, because he was determined to curse the Jewish people, despite G-d’s admonishments.

Even though Balaam himself acknowledges that, Numbers 23:19, לֹא אִישׁ אֵ-ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם , that G-d is not like a human being who changes His mind, Balaam knows well that humans are accorded free will, and hopes that perhaps through prayer and petition he can eventually change G-d’s mind.

Balaam then resorts to sorcery in order to overcome G-d’s decree forbidding him to curse the people of Israel. Each time he is about to deliver another one of his prophetic messages, both Balaam and Balak move further away from the People of Israel, hoping that the peoples’ G-dly influence would be diminished as he and Balak distance themselves from the people. The reduced presence of sanctity would somehow allow Balaam to curse the Jewish people despite G-d’s unequivocal decree otherwise.

Balaam learns the hard way that he cannot outfox the Al-mighty, and that although there is free will in the world, G-d has the right to limit that free will, under certain extraordinary circumstances.

It is only when Balaam realizes that he is unable to curse the Jewish people that he resorts to a reliable method of harming the Jewish people–seducing the Israelite men with gentile women. As a result of Balaam’s plot (Numbers 25:9), 24,000 Israelites are killed in a plague as retribution for the Jewish men consorting with the Midianite women.

Balaam is able to defy G-d, and go with Balak to curse the Jews in order to benefit himself and enhance his own wealth. However, he is unable to change G-d’s will when it impacts on others. Thus, he cannot curse Israel.

Balaam tries to bend the rules, but ultimately he is cooked in his own stew.

May you be blessed.

Chukat 5777-2017

“Moses’ Painful Words of Comfort”

Among the diverse themes found in parashat Chukat, we learn of the death of Aaron.

According to tradition, on the first day of Av, in the fortieth and final year of the Israelites’ march through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, Aaron dies. The Torah, in Numbers 33:39, reports that Aaron was 123 years old when he passed, and was succeeded as High Priest by his son, Elazar. Before he died, Aaron had the unique satisfaction of seeing his son Elazar clothed in the garments of the High Priest. The great father is succeeded by his great son.

In Numbers 20:25-26, G-d says to Moses, קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ, וְהַעַל אֹתָם הֹר הָהָר , “Take Aaron and Elazar, his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor. Take off the vestments of Aaron and dress Elazar his son in them, then Aaron shall be gathered in and die there.”

In a deeply moving ceremony that was described in a previous weekly message (Chukat 5761-2001), Moses takes his older brother, Aaron, up Mount Hor, which literally means a mountain on top of a mountain, to prepare for his demise.

Rashi quoting the Sifre states that Moses brought Aaron into a cave on top of the mountain where there was a burning lamp and a bed. Moses removed the eight special garments of the High Priest from Aaron and, one by one, transferred them to the new High Priest, Elazar.

He then instructed Aaron to climb onto the bed, straighten his arms, close his mouth and close his eyes. According to tradition, Aaron then died with a kiss from G-d.

The “kiss of death” is understood to mean that the soul of Aaron united with the holiness of the Divine Presence. In the Talmud, Brachot 8a, it is described as the soul effortlessly departing as if removing a “hair from milk.”

The Pri Tzedek  explains that some sinful people suffer difficult deaths because their souls have become too closely attached to this world, and its blandishments. The sages (Brachot 8a) compare such a death to removing thistles which have become ensnared in a sheep’s wool. Righteous people, however, such as Moses and Aaron, experience no pain, since their souls remain pure as the day they were born. That is why their deaths are described as “death by a kiss” from the Al-mighty

Citing the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that when G-d instructs Moses קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן , “take” Aaron, it means that he should do so by using consoling words and persuade Aaron by saying, “Happy are you that you will merit to see your own crown being given to your son, something to which I [Moses] am not privileged.”

To what exactly is Moses referring when he says: “I am not privileged”? Already in parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha (Numbers 12:1) there is allusion to the lack of domestic tranquility in Moses’ family, when Miriam and Aaron reprove Moses for being estranged from his wife, Tzippora.

Other references are found in scripture where there are indications that Moses was distant from his wife and sees little satisfaction from his children.

When Moses is summoned back to Egypt (Exodus 4:24-26), an angel of the Al-mighty tries to kill him on the way because he has not circumcised his newborn son. Tzippora has to grab a flint stone to circumcise the child and save Moses’ life (Shemot 5762-2001). Moses always felt that his mission to rescue the People of Israel was more important than his own personal life and his family.

While Aaron’s surviving sons serve as his assistants and successors, Joshua, Moses’ loyal disciple, becomes the primary assistant and the successor to Moses, and not one of Moses’ own children.

The Midrash (Mechilta Yitro and Yalkut Shemoni Exodus 1:2) maintains that when Moses left Midian to return to Egypt, Jethro required him to take an oath that his oldest son would be given over to the service of idolatry. The fulfillment of this oath is alluded to in the Book of Judges 18:30, where a Levite by the name of Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Menashe, becomes a priest for idolatry, in the northern city of Dan. The rabbis (Baba Batra 109b) maintain that that person is none other than Moses’ grandson. To save Moses from shame, a diminutive “Nun” appears in the word, “Menashe,” to disguise the name of “Moshe.”

While it is true that Aaron suffered a most devastating loss in his life when his two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, brought a strange fire and died, he did experience much happiness and joy from his two youngest sons. Clearly, the joy that Aaron saw from his youngest children could never make up for the profound loss of his two eldest children.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to suggest that Moses would be prepared to trade his lot and the fate of his own children with that of Aaron and his children.

Notwithstanding, here was Moses, standing aside his beloved brother, Aaron, who was soon to pass away. Moses witnesses the emotional transfer of the sacred garments from Aaron to Elazar, who enters into the exalted position of High Priest. Moses comforts his brother Aaron by saying to him that at least he merited to see joy from his children before his passing, and knowing that there will be continuity in his family. This, of course, is something, which Moses himself will never merit.

The outstanding character of Moses is once again on display. Like a committed friend, a good counselor and a devoted spiritual leader, Moses fulfills his task of seeking to bring comfort to his brother, Aaron, saying words of consolation to Aaron that are deeply distressing to himself. Knowing that he does not see, and will never see, great joy from his own children, Moses, nevertheless, forces himself to say, “Look how lucky you are, brother Aaron.” Comforting others with words that are so profoundly personally painful, is surely going far beyond the call of duty.

Moses does not hesitate, and says what needs to be said, “You, Aaron, had the nachat (pleasure) of seeing your children. Something that I did not. May you be comforted and go to your eternal rest with that knowledge.”

Few mortals could say those heartbreaking words under such circumstances. But then again, Moses was no ordinary mortal.

May you be blessed.

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.