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Tetzaveh 5775-2015

“The High Priest Wears the Names of Israel on His Heart”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, contains a number of varied themes, including the oil of the Menorah, the priestly vestments, the inauguration ceremony of the priests, the daily Tamid offering and the Golden Incense Altar.

As we have previously noted (Tetzaveh 5760-2000), the lay priests wore four garments: 1. The כְתֹנֶת, a white linen robe with a checkerboard pattern; 2. מִכְנְסֵי-בָד, white linen britches that reached the priest’s knees; 3. The אַבְנֵט, a multi-colored waist belt; 4. The מִגְבַּעַת, the white linen ribbon that was wound around the lay priest’s head, to serve as a head covering.

The High Priest had four additional garments: 1. The אֵפֹד, the multi-colored apron, strapped around the back and the waist of the High Priest; 2. The חֹשֶׁן, the breastplate with the twelve precious stones; 3. The מְעִיל, the blue poncho-like garment, with pomegranates and bells at the bottom; 4. The צִּיץ, the gold plate with G-d’s name, tied to the forehead of the High Priest. The High Priest also wore a head covering known as the מִּצְנָפֶת, which was also made out of a band of linen, wound in a different manner than the מִגְבַּעַת of the Lay Priest.

The holy vestments worn by the priests are far more than mere garments for the body. As the saying goes, “Clothes make the man,” and often make it possible to distinguish a policeman from a doctor or a scholar. Not only do the priestly vestments serve to identify a priest (lay or High) they also communicate important ideas and messages that have bearing on the priests’ actions and duties.

Among the vestments of the High Priest are two garments that contain engraved stones. When describing the חֹשֶׁן, the Breastplate, the Torah states (Exodus 28:29), וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט עַל לִבּוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ,  לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי הַשׁם תָּמִיד, Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the Breastplate of Judgment when he enters the Sanctuary, as a constant remembrance before G-d. The commentators suggest that these engraved stones teach that a person, or a leader, can carry all of Israel on his heart, implying that a Jew can love and be concerned for the well-being of the collective people of Israel and every single individual.

When describing the manufacture of the אֵפֹד, the apron that the High Priest wears, the Torah states that there are two shoulder straps that are part of the אֵפֹד. Each of the straps has a stone, set in a gold setting on the shoulders. In Exodus 28:9, the Torah states, וְלָקַחְתּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי אַבְנֵי שֹׁהַם, וּפִתַּחְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶם שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, You shall take the two shoham stones and engrave upon them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on one stone, and the names of the six remaining ones on the second stone, according to the order of their birth.

The commentators note that the shoulder stones that contain all the names of the twelve tribes come to teach that it is possible for a human being to carry, and bear the burden of, all of Israel on his shoulders. Some commentators say that this is an allusion to the great scholars who, throughout the ages, have “saved” Israel through their scholarship, like Rabbi Judah the PrinceRashi and Maimonides.

While the two shoulder stones contain the names of all the tribes of Israel, representing the full community of Israel, the 12 stones of the Breastplate are each designated to represent only a single tribe. A leader must carry the needs of the nation on his shoulders, so that he never forgets them. In this sense, it represents the leader who is prepared to carry the load and the burden of the people, even though his personal sense of enjoyment and benefit may not be readily apparent. The leader represented by these two stones is the one who concerns himself with the people and empathizes with their needs and struggles, to be their champion, never shrugging off his load or his responsibility.

The stones of the חֹשֶׁן/Breastplate, on the other hand, represent a different aspect of leadership. In this instance, each of the 12 stones represents a different tribe, and are worn on the leader’s heart. While it is important to feel for Klal Yisrael, for the general community of Israel, a leader must also be concerned with the individuals, with every single tribe and every single member of that tribe, with love and concern.

Leaders are often called upon to tend to the needs of large numbers of people, who are very different from each other, and have different issues. Some individuals need more attention than others. The concerned leader must empathize in his heart and feel the pain of the people he leads and be sensitive to their needs. The leader must see the people’s needs as his own needs.

Each stone of the חֹשֶׁן/Breastplate is therefore different, as are the differences amongst the tribes and the individuals. At times, it is possible that quarrels and enmity will develop. That is why the Al-mighty instructed that each tribe have its own stone, and that the High Priest must carry each individual tribe on his heart, to appreciate the differences, the varied customs and personal practices.

When the Al-mighty beholds the love of the priest for G-d’s people and the love of the people for their neighbors, then the Al-mighty’s love will be awakened, and will shower down upon His people as well.

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 4th-5th, 2015.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Terumah 5775-2015

“The Sanctity of the Synagogue”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, is the first of a series of parashiot that deal with the creation, erecting and furnishing of the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, the portable sanctuary that traveled with the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

As parashat Terumah opens, G-d instructs Moses to call for donations from the people for the building of the Tabernacle. In Exodus 25:2, the Al-mighty says: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה,  מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי, Speak to the Children of Israel, and let them take for me a portion [donations], from every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take My portion.

Rashi citing the Midrash Tanchuma 1, states that the donations made to the Tabernacle–the gold, silver, copper, purple, scarlet wool, linen, goat’s hair, etc. etc., must be given לִשְׁמִי, for Me, specifically dedicated for G-d’s sake. The commentaries explain that the word, לִי, to Me, cannot possibly be understood to mean that the contributions must be given to G-d, for after all, G-d is the Possessor of the entire universe. So, it must mean that everything that is given to the Tabernacle, must be given with a full heart.

When performing most mitzvot, the essential objective is to do the right thing, even if one does not have proper intentions. Charity (see Deuteronomy 15:7-11) must be given, even though one’s heart is not into it, even if one really does not care about the poor, the infirm, the widow or the orphan! What is in a person’s heart is irrelevant. The poor and the hungry must be fed, or else you may very well wind up poor and hungry. Even those mitzvot, which do require absolute and total intention, such as giving a get [divorce decree] to a woman, do not require that all aspects of the ritual, the parchment or the pen, be prepared or manufactured with the proper intention.

However, when it comes to building the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, every donation must be given of free will, with a full heart, with unequivocal good-will and with the purest of intentions. The reason for this extraordinary requirement must be because any attempt to build the most perfect dwelling place for G-d, must be thoroughly sanctified. Therefore, every act involved in its creation and construction must be, לֽשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, for the sake of Heaven, with absolute pure and proper intentions.

The great devotion that was required when building the Mishkan, מִשְׁכָּן, and, in later years, in the construction of the בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, the holy Temples in Jerusalem, applies also to the sanctity of contemporary synagogues and houses of study. Just as the Torah states, in Leviticus 19:30, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ that G-d’s sanctuary [the Temple in Jerusalem] must be revered, so too must the sanctity of every synagogue and house of study be revered. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel, 11:16 refers to synagogues and houses of study as, מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט, miniature sanctuaries.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 17b, states that one is not permitted to reside in a city that does not have a synagogue. In Brachot 6a, at least one Talmudic sage is of the opinion that heaven only hears prayers that are uttered in a synagogue. The Jerusalem Talmud Brachot  Ch. 3, states that praying in a synagogue is compared to bringing an actual offering. The sanctity of the synagogue is so great that the Abridged Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) declares that it is forbidden to engage in gossip in the synagogue, or to make any calculations, except those pertaining to religious matters, such as dispersing charity and the like.

The great reverence shown in the building of the Tabernacle and the Temples, must be reflected in one’s behavior while in the synagogue. Synagogues and houses of study must be kept perfectly clean and candles are to be lit in them to show reverence for the place.

Just as the ancient Israelites donated gold, silver and precious stones for the Tabernacle, respect and reverence for the synagogue and houses of study can be demonstrated today by providing beautiful furnishings and decorations for contemporary houses of worship and study. One must not be concerned about demeaning one’s own dignity when it comes to performing menial services that are necessary to properly maintain the synagogue. All Jews should be prepared to roll up their sleeves to maintain the cleanliness and beauty of the synagogue. As King Solomon states in the Book of Proverbs 25:6: Do not glory in the presence of the King. Showing devotion to the Temple and Tabernacle underscores a pure faith and love of G-d, that is greater than one’s concern for one’s own personal stature or dignity.

One must dress respectfully when entering these holy places. Mud must be cleaned from one’s shoes and clean and proper clothes must be worn. One who enters the synagogue must do so with trembling and fear, not behave in a frivolous manner. When exiting the synagogue, one should do so slowly, preferably facing the Ark and walking out backwards (Jerusalem Talmud Brachot Ch. 3). It is forbidden to eat, drink or sleep in places of worship, even if it is only for a short nap. The synagogue should not be used as a place for taking shelter from heat or rain, or to be used as a shortcut, to cut through.

The contemporary controversy over Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount only underscores the great emptiness that we Jews today experience as a result of the absence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In the absence of the Temple, we must all realize that the closest institutions that we have to a Temple today are our miniature sanctuaries–-the synagogues and houses of study. They must be treated with utmost respect and profound reverence. In this way, we demonstrate that we truly deserve to experience the restoration and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, soon in our days.

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5775-2015

“Injuring a Fellow Human Being”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the 63 mitzvot that are found in this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, are the fundamental laws regarding personal injury.

The Torah, in Exodus 21:18-19 states, וְכִי יְרִיבֻן אֲנָשִׁים וְהִכָּה אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בְּאֶבֶן אוֹ בְאֶגְרֹף וְלֹא יָמוּת, וְנָפַל לְמִשְׁכָּב. אִם יָקוּם וְהִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּחוּץ עַל מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ, וְנִקָּה הַמַּכֶּה,  רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא, If men quarrel, and one strikes his fellow with a stone or a fist, and he does not die, but falls into bed, if he gets up and goes about outside under his own power, then the one who struck him be absolved. Only for his lost time shall he pay, and he shall provide for healing.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his masterful book, The Mitzvot: Their Commandments and Their Rationale, lays out the basic rules and legal statutes regarding personal injury. Rabbi Chill cites the Talmudic statement found in the Mishnah, Baba Kama 2:6: אָדָם מוּעָד לְעוֹלָם, that a person is held personally liable for any damage that he or she afflicts on others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously.

Despite the Torah’s statement in Exodus 21:24, עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, an eye for an eye, the oral tradition interprets this statement to mean that a victim is entitled only to monetary compensation for an injury.

Thus, one who causes injury to his neighbor is liable to pay the victim five penalties. These include compensation for: 1. permanent physical disability; 2. pain; 3. medical treatment; 4. loss of earning power resulting from the injury; 5. the indignity and shame inflicted upon the victim.

If there is a reasonable chance that the victim might die from the injury, the Talmud states that the person who inflicted the blow is imprisoned. If the victim recovers and is able to walk out on his own, the perpetrator is then released, but is still liable to pay the victim the five penalties.

Rabbi Chill outlines the methods of assessing compensation. 1. For permanent physical disability, the perpetrator must pay the assessed difference between the financial value of the individual’s service before the injury and the value of his service after the injury. Thus, the perpetrator must pay the difference in the value of a worker who has lost a limb, as opposed to a worker who is uninjured. 2. The compensation for pain is assessed on the basis of the pain caused when performing a surgical procedure on the injured person with anesthesia or without anesthesia. 3. All medical treatment and all doctor bills must be paid in full to the victim until he or she is fully healed. 4. The perpetrator must pay the victim for the loss of any earnings suffered during the convalescence and rehabilitation period. 5. Finally, if there is a permanent injury leading to an embarrassing deformity, compensation must be paid for the embarrassment suffered by the injured party. Also, payment is to be made for how the injury was inflicted, whether the perpetrator was a minor, an animal, etc., and what embarrassment was suffered in the way the injury was inflicted.

Rabbi Chill points out that the Torah (Exodus 2:13) is so concerned with the sanctity of human life, that it calls one who even raises his hand against another person, a רָשָׁע, a wicked person. To achieve full contrition, the perpetrator must also beg the victim for forgiveness.

The rabbis deal extensively with the issue of the challenging implications of the verse, “An eye for an eye,” (Lex Talionis) insisting that it can only mean monetary compensation. After all, it would be impossible to equitably take out the eye of a person who is already missing one eye, since rendering the perpetrator totally blind, would hardly be “measure for measure.” Also, it is impossible to accurately gauge whether a particular perpetrator could physically withstand the amputation of a particular limb (see Mishpatim 5762-2002).

The Talmud in Baba Kama 84a states: We have learned that an “eye for an eye,” means monetary compensation. But, perhaps it means an actual eye? Rav Ashi therefore said, it is learned from the words, Deuteronomy 22:29, “For he [the man who raped a woman] had humbled her…”  Just as in the case of rape, the punishment is monetary compensation, so in the case of injury, it is monetary compensation.

According to Rabbi Joseph Hertz the rule of “an eye for an eye,” is worded in this manner, even though it means monetary compensation, is so it will serve as a means of setting the maximum equitable punishment. One may not demand more than the value of an eye for an injury done to an eye, since there must be an equitable relationship between the crime and the punishment. Rabbi Hertz adds that not only must the punishment be equitable, but that all citizens must be considered equal before the law, and that all injuries must be valued according to the same standard. One cannot take out two eyes for a single eye, even though the victim may be a member of the royal family. The same punishment must be meted out to both royalty and to the lowly worker.

Considering that there are legal systems today that still practice “an eye for an eye,” the Torah’s understanding of the laws of personal injury are quite remarkable, especially in light of their great antiquity.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.

Yitro 5775-2015

I Shall Come to You and Bless You

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, after the dramatic pronouncement of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the Torah, once again, strongly warns the people against idol worship.

In order to discourage alien worship, the Torah commands the building of an altar made of earth and stone, where the people are to properly worship. In Exodus 20:21, the Torah states,  מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי, וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלָמֶיךָ, אֶת צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת בְּקָרֶךָ, בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ, An Altar of earth shall you make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings and your peace-offerings, your sheep and your oxen; wherever I cause My Name to be mentioned I shall come to you and bless you.

The Da’at Sofrim explains that one should not incorrectly conclude that, just because the Divine Presence does not dwell among idols that are the handiwork of man, there are no sacred places. To the contrary, there are sacred places in the land of Israel where the Divine Presence does indeed dwell. However, legitimate holy places may not be designated by humans, as is the practice of the gentiles who designate mountains, valleys and trees for worship. Only those places where G-d Himself chooses to place His Name and allow His Divine Presence to dwell, only those are to be considered holy and blessed places.

The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez notes that the Hebrew word הַמָּקוֹם, in the verse,  בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם, in every place, has an extraneous letter ״ה״ (“Hay”). This letter refers to the five sacred places in the land of Israel, where the Divine Presence will dwell: the portable Tabernacle in the wilderness, the first permanent sanctuary in Shiloh, the first Temple, the second Temple and eventually the third Temple. Only in these five places may the ineffable name of G-d be pronounced.

Commenting on the words of the verse, בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם, “Wherever I cause My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you,” the Talmud in Sukkah 53a states in the name of the sage, Hillel, that the Al-mighty announces to the Jewish people, “If you come to My home, I will come to your home. And if you do not come to My home, I will not come to your home.” This is understood to mean that if the Jews come to G-d’s home–attend synagogues and houses of study, then He will come to their homes and bless them.

The Talmud in Sotah 38a states that the extra ״ה״ (“Hay”), in the word הַמָּקוֹם, implies that G-d will come to the Jewish people in His Temple, whether it will be a temporary or permanent location.

Commenting on the verse, בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי, “Wherever I cause My Name to be mentioned I shall come to you and bless you,” the Talmud Yerushalmi, in Brachot 4:4, notes that the verse does not use the second person form, תַּזְכִּיר  (“Tazkir”), that you will cause My Name to be mentioned, but אַזְכִּיר  (“Azkir”), implying that I [G-d] will cause My Name to be mentioned. From here the rabbis deduce that a person should always pray in a place that is especially designated for prayer. Therefore, “Wherever I cause My Name to be mentioned” means that, in sacred places and even in houses of worship, there must always be special places that are designated for prayer.

The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez points out that the word אַזְכִּיר (“Az’kir”) is first person, singular, implying that the Al-mighty Himself will pronounce the Name. Therefore, in ancient times, on Yom Kippur, when the priest pronounced the ineffable name of G-d, the amplified sound of G-d’s own voice was heard, making it possible for all of the People of Israel to hear, even those who were standing far from the Holy of Holies. G-d will also aid the High Priest to pronounce the Name properly.

The Talmud in Brachot 6a learns another lesson from the verse, “Wherever I cause My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” Though Jewish tradition encourages group learning rather than individual learning, even a single person who sits and studies Torah will find the Divine Presence in his midst. We also learn that those who study Torah are permitted to pronounce the verses using the actual sacred names of G-d.

Perhaps the major lesson to be learned from this verse is that the Al-mighty stands ready to help those who make the effort to draw closer to Him. This concept is reminiscent of the statement of the Kotzker Rebbe. When the Rebbe was asked, Where do you find G-d? He answered, “Wherever you let Him in!”

It is incumbent upon everyone who wishes to find G-d to make the effort to draw closer to the Divine and to open the door. This will allow the Divine Presence to enter, envelope His people with His great love, and bless them with the special blessing of the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.

B’shalach 5775-2015

“One Heart, as One Man”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we read of the triumphant departure of the People of Israel from Egypt, and their miraculous salvation at the shores of the Red Sea.

In last week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we learn of the dreaded final plague–the Death of the Firstborn. Pharaoh awakens in the middle of the night, he and his servants and all of Egypt, and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was not a single Egyptian home where there was not someone dead.

Pharaoh calls Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night (Exodus 12:31), and literally, chases the Children of Israel out of Egypt. The Egyptians urge the People of Israel to hurry to leave the land, for they were afraid and said, Exodus 12:33, כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים, “We will all die.”

In parashat B’shalach, Exodus 14:5, we learn, that when the king of Egypt saw that the People of Israel had fled, Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart, and said, Exodus 14:5, מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂינוּ, כִּי שִׁלַּחְנוּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָבְדֵנוּ, “What is this that we have done, that we have sent away Israel from serving us?” Pharaoh immediately harnessed his chariot, took six hundred select chariots along with all the chariots of Egypt to pursue Israel, and succeeded in overtaking Israel who were encamped by the sea.

Scripture describes the scene in Exodus 14:9, וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיַּשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתָם חֹנִים עַל הַיָּם, כָּל סוּס רֶכֶב פַּרְעֹה וּפָרָשָׁיו וְחֵילוֹ, Egypt pursued them [the Israelites], and overtook them encamped by the sea, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh and his horsemen and army… Exodus 14:10 continues, וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב, וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַשׁם, Pharaoh brought himself close; the Children of Israel raised their eyes, and behold!–-Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; the Children of Israel cried out to G-d.

Students of the Bible know that the Torah always exercises extraordinary care in its choice of every single word. What is troubling in these two previously cited verses, is the change from singular to plural and from plural to singular. In verse 9, Scripture uses the term, וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם…וַיַּשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתָם, The Egyptians [plural] pursued them, and they [plural] overtook them. Yet in verse 10, it states, “And Pharaoh [singular] brought himself close,” וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, “an Egyptian was journeying [singular] after them.” Even the description of Pharaoh’s animals in verse 9 states,כָּל סוּס רֶכֶב פַּרְעֹה , that all the “horse,” rather than horses, and “chariot” of Pharaoh, rather than chariots.

Rashi quoting the Mechilta states that the reason that it says נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, that an Egyptian was chasing [singular] after the Israelites, is because they pursued Israel, בְּלֵב אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד, with one heart as one man. Rashi thus underscores that the Egyptians were unified in their goal. Although they started out in verse 9 chasing and overtaking the Israelites as individual Egyptian soldiers, they were steeled by their enmity for the Jewish people, and became united in their pursuit, a unity that was a result of their rabid hatred of the Jewish people.

This rather well-known rabbinic maxim, בְּלֵב אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד, one heart as one man, is repeated again in a varied form in parashat Yitro. After crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. Scripture states in Exodus 19:2,וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי, וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר, וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר, They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai, and encamped in the Wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain. This verse also starts with the plural, וַיִּסְעוּ…וַיָּבֹאוּ…וַיַּחֲנוּ, they [the Israelites] traveled, they came, they camped. But then it changes, וַיִּחַן שָׁם, and they [singular], encamped opposite the mountain. Quoting the Mechilta, Rashi states, כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד, As one man, with one heart.

Why the difference? Regarding the Egyptians, Rashi declares: “With one heart as one man,” but now at Sinai, the unity of the Israelites is described by Rashi as “One man, with one heart.”

Apparently, when Israel encamped under the mountain, they were united as one man, and as a result, their hearts were united as a single heart. The Egyptians, however, in parashat B’shalach, were blinded by their hatred and their profound passion to destroy the Jews. While they had a common desire, their hatred confounded them, rendering them unable to pull themselves together to actualize their desire to destroy the Jewish people.

Whereas the love in the hearts of the Jewish people united the people at Sinai, the unity of the Egyptians in their hatred made all their chariots appear like רֶכֶב, one chariot, and all their horses as סוּס , a single horse. Their unity was not a sign of strength, but rather an indication of weakness.

The Midrash Rabbah Genesis 55:8 cites Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who teaches that the great power of love and the great power of hatred can distort the truth. אַהֲבָה מְקַלְקֶלֶת אֶת הַשּׁוּרָה וֽשִּׂנְאָה מְקַלְקֶלֶת אֶת הַשּׁוּרָה, love is blind and so is hatred. Both hatred and love cause people to do things that they would never normally do.

A prime biblical example (Numbers 22:4) is the long history of enmity that existed between the Midianites and the Moabites. Yet in the time of Balak and Balaam, they united because of their common hatred of the Jewish people. In our own times we see that the Shiites hate the Sunnis, the Syrians hate the Iraqis and the Iraqis hate the Iranians, but in their hatred of their common enemy, Israel, they are united!

Festering hate is not only painful, but destructive. Out of nowhere, Former President Carter blames Israel for the murders in France. Signs are raised, demonstrations are held worldwide, blaming Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians as the cause for the social unrest in Ferguson. Whenever a despot needs a way to unite his people, Israel is blamed. Hugo Chavez, the former leader of Venezuela, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed leaders of Iraq and Libya respectively, frequently verbally attacked Israel. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President has raised calumny of Israel to an art form, using Israel as a way of distracting the people from the failures of his domestic and foreign policies as the leader of Turkey.

We need to look no further than the unity of our enemies, to recognize that Israel and the Jewish people are being scapegoated. In our unity, כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד, as one man with one heart, we need to commit and recommit ourselves to our G-d, Who is the ultimate source of Israel’s salvation.

May you be blessed.

Bo 5775-2015

“The Intuitive Jew”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the eighth and ninth plagues–locusts and darkness, are visited upon the Egyptians. At long last, the tenth and final plague, the Death of the First Born, strikes the Egyptians and the Israelites triumphantly depart from Egypt to freedom.

In Exodus 13:3, Moses says to the newly-liberated people, זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא הַשׁם אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה, Remember this day on which you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage-–for with a strong hand, G-d removed you from here.

The people have just been freed from 110 years of slavery. The “iron” of liberation is still burning hot! Yet, Moses is concerned that, in future years, the emancipated slaves and their offspring will fail to fully appreciate the extent of their miraculous liberation from Egypt. Moses even reminds the people (perhaps with tongue-in-cheek), Exodus 13:3, וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל חָמֵץ, Therefore, Chametz (leaven) may not be eaten!

Rashi cites the Mechilta, which derives from the word זָכוֹר, remember, that every Jew must remember the Exodus every single day. The commandment to remember is fulfilled by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema, שְׁמַע, prayer each day, which concludes with the statement, “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you [the Children of Israel] out of the land of Egypt.”

The fact that Rashi not only emphasizes the importance of remembering, but states that “one must remember every single day,” implies that remembering even a profound historical experience such as the Exodus, can be extremely challenging.

Even from a contemporary perspective, it is virtually inconceivable that an American soldier who fought in the American Revolutionary War would ever forget that miraculous victory, in which a group of gangly, untrained, Colonial fighters defeated the British, the most powerful military force on the face of the earth at that time. Is it possible that Americans today, who are blessed with so much good as a result of the Revolutionary War, would forget the immense gift that the martyred Revolutionary soldiers bequeathed to them?

Of course, the same could be said of the Haganah forces of the Israeli War of Independence, or the miracle of the Six Day War in 1967. Could soldiers who fought in these battles or citizens who lived through those challenging times ever forget the miracles they saw? And even if they do remember, will they be able to meet even the greater challenge of passing on that same passion to the next generation, and the generations that follow!

By noting that the word “Zachor” is in the infinitive form rather than the imperative, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch captures the exquisite nuances of the Hebrew word “Zachor,” remember. Rabbi Hirsch declares that the Torah thus implies that the experience of the Exodus must always be kept in remembrance. The Exodus experience must become an essential ingredient of the Jewish character and persona, very much like breathing, like the beating of a Jewish heart. It must be intuitive, part of the very essence of every Jew. Not an easy task, to be sure.

I vividly recall my chemistry professor, who would say to his students, “Gentlemen, if I wake you at two in the morning, and ask you the oxidation number of the element Iron (FE), I expect you to know it spontaneously!” When the great professional basketball players approach the hoop for a “simple” lay up, they respond intuitively, even though, the pass may come from behind their backs, and require all sorts of contortions of the body. All these movements are performed very naturally and virtually unconsciously. That is the way the Jew must feel, not only about the Exodus from Egypt, but about every aspect of being a Jew.

The word “Zachor” is repeated many times in the Bible. Perhaps the most frequently repeated reference is the citation from the Ten Commandments that is recited as part of the Shabbat morning Kiddush. The Bible in Exodus 20:8 states, זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ, Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it.

I recently had a conversation with a very successful 80-year-old businessman, who became more observant in his later years. First he made his home kosher, then started to observe the Shabbat and now attends synagogue three times a day for daily prayers.

He said to me that he used to regard the Sabbath as a terrible burden, as one unending series of “nos” and “don’ts.” He literally dreaded the Sabbath day. This man, who is still very active and successful in business, informed me that today he deeply cherishes every single aspect of the Sabbath day, very much like a parent’s love for a child. He related his love for the Sabbath day to me with such a profound passion, that I felt embarrassed by my own inadequate feelings.

The message of “Zachor” is a most profound and powerful message. Being Jewish and loving G-d must always be at the top of our consciousness, and our most deeply-felt commitment. It is the love of G-d and His Torah that has to be our most passionate emotion. Our thirst for the Al-mighty can never be sated. We must all strive to become “Intuitive Jews.”

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5775-2015

“The Measure of Brotherly Love”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we read of the Al-mighty’s renewed promise of redemption, the genealogy of Moses and Aaron and the first seven of the ten plagues that are visited upon Egypt.

After being reassured by G-d that the redemption is at hand, Moses is instructed by the Al-mighty to go to Pharaoh, and to demand that Pharaoh send the Children of Israel from his land. Moses however, demurs, saying, Exodus 6:12, הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם, “Behold the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I am slow to speak!”

G-d, however, persists, and commands both Moses and Aaron regarding the Children of Israel and Pharaoh, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.

Unexpectedly, the Biblical narrative abruptly stops, and the Torah begins to list the genealogy of the tribes of Israel, beginning with the tribes of Reuben and Simeon, and concluding with the tribe of Levi.

Rashi explains that the reason that the Torah provides the genealogical list of the tribes at this point is to record the pedigree of the tribe of Levi and its most noted members, Moses and Aaron. The descendants of Reuben and Simeon are listed only to allow the Torah to focus on the genealogy of the tribe of Levi.

Thus, when listing the Levite families in Exodus 6:20, the Torah records that Amram married his aunt, Jochebed, who bore him Aaron and Moses. This then is followed by records of the family of Levi and the listing of the sons of Aaron.

The genealogy concludes with the statement in Exodus 6:26-27, הוּא אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר אָמַר הַשׁם לָהֶם, הוֹצִיאוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם. הֵם הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, לְהוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם, הוּא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, This was Aaron and Moses to whom G-d said: “Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt according to their legions.” They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; this was Moses and Aaron.

Many commentators, as well as Rashi, are puzzled by the change in the order of the names of Aaron and Moses in the two verses. Rashi explains that the Torah purposely lists Aaron before Moses in certain places and in other places records Moses before Aaron, in order to teach that both Moses and Aaron are of equal stature. (Rashi, quoting the Mechilta 12:1 and Shir Ha’Shirim Rabba 4:5).

The commentators question the assertion that Aaron could possibly be as great as Moses. After all, Moses spent forty days and forty nights in Heaven with the Al-mighty (Deuteronomy 9:11). The Torah testifies (Numbers 12:3) that Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth, and that, of course, implies that he was more humble than Aaron as well. Scripture declares (Deuteronomy 34:10) that no prophet in Israel has ever arisen as great as Moses. How then could Moses and Aaron be considered equal to one another?

The Da’at Sofrim argues that the verse comes to underscore that Moses and Aaron were equal in humility. The Da’at Sofrim further asserts that just as it is customary for a great person to be given proper honor, so too is it customary, even in the best families, to ensure that the firstborn be accorded the proper respect.

However, says the Da’at Sofrim, these two great redeemers, Moses and Aaron, knew that the older must submit to the younger, since Aaron knew that his younger brother was to fulfill a greater task. Yet, with all his greatness, Moses knew to accord the proper honor to Aaron, the firstborn. Although the greatness of Aaron paled in comparison to the greatness of Moses, because of their mutual respect, they are seen as equal to one another.

The Malbim points out that both brothers played significant, but different, roles. When it came to the physical task of leading the Jews out of Egypt, Aaron played the more significant role, because the people were more attracted to him and his generous personality. Therefore, he alone spoke to the Children of Israel. However, when it came to the need to separate the people from the intense spiritual impurity of the Egyptians, Moses played the primary role.

The Torah Temimah notes a slightly different distinction in the brothers’ roles. When it came to acting as a spokesman, the Torah Temimah asserts, as did the Malbim, that Aaron’s role was primary. However, it was Moses who played the primary role in orchestrating the exodus from Egypt. The Torah Temimah points out that in verse 26, which specifically speaks of taking the Jews out of Egypt, Aaron is mentioned first. However, in verse 27 which refers to “speaking,” Moses is mentioned first, reversing the order that we might have expected. This, explains the Torah Temimah, is Scriptures’ way of indicating that both Moses and Aaron were equal to one another. Although they were both worthy and capable of being the speaker and the executor, Moses was given the primary role.

The Ha’amek Davar notes that the Israelites regarded Aaron as primary, even over Moses, because the people were never in a position to recognize Moses’ greatness, since he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace and spent much time in Midian. Thus, the people more easily recognized the sanctity and greatness of Aaron over Moses. However, in Pharaoh’s eyes, Moses was always recognized as greater, since Pharaoh already knew Moses’ brilliance from his youth, but he was not really familiar with Aaron.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, notes that throughout the book of Genesis, families are rent asunder because of lack of domestic tranquility. Brothers fight against brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.

The book of Exodus marks a radical departure from the contentious family relations. When Moses returns from Midian (Exodus 4:27), he is greeted by his brother, Aaron, with a kiss. When the elders of Israel see the brotherly love between Moses and Aaron, the people are profoundly impressed. They are so deeply moved by the display of brotherly love that Scripture reports, Exodus 4:31, וַיַּאֲמֵן הָעָם, And the people believed.

The people were convinced that such brotherly love could only happen due to Divine intervention. Immediately, Scripture reports: “And they [the people] heard that G-d had remembered the Children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.”

The powerful demonstration of brotherly love between Moses and Aaron gave people hope, hope that redemption was at hand. Just as these brothers can love one another, so can there ultimately be peace for the Jewish people, and G-d will ultimately redeem His people from the enslavement and persecution of Egypt.

When these two great men, Moses and Aaron, demonstrated to the people that brothers can cherish each other, the people were reassured that redemption is indeed possible, and that its arrival is imminent.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5775-2015

“Moses–The Mysterious Early Years”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, the Torah reports that Moses, the Jewish child who was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s palace, grew up identifying with his Jewish brothers.

In Exodus 2:11, scripture records, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם , And it happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens.

The Torah narrative itself tells little about Moses’ formative years. All we know is that he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in the water, given over to his biological mother for several years until he was weaned, and then returned to Pharaoh’s palace. There is a difference of opinion among the rabbis of the Midrash as to whether Moses was twenty or forty years old when he finally went out to look at the burdens of his brothers.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov the extraordinary commentator and compiler, fills in many of the details of Moses’ life by gathering Midrashim from many sources, reconciling them and reconstructing the early years of the life of Moses.

Rabbi Kitov reports that Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, where he was accorded great respect and honor, more than any other member of Pharaoh’s household. He was more handsome, more brilliant, and braver than anyone else in Egypt. As he was the reputed “son” of the daughter of Pharaoh, he was regarded as the natural heir to the throne. The few “insiders” who were aware of Moses’ Hebrew origins kept quiet about his background, for fear of offending Pharaoh and his daughter.

Even though Pharaoh at times had second thoughts about Moses, he eventually convinced himself that Moses was the biological child of his daughter and thus his own biological offspring. He therefore offered Moses the authority over whatever he wanted. Moses asked for free reign over the workers of Egypt.

Although Moses’ true intentions were to help the Hebrew slaves, no one but he and Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, knew the real reason for his desire to aid the slaves.

The true hero of this story is Bitya (see Shemot 5760-1999), Moses’ adopted mother who strongly encouraged her son to go out to meet his biological brothers, the Jews, and advised Moses to pay no heed to those Egyptians who insincerely honored and fawned over him.

In his role as the supervisor of the workers and slaves, Moses frequently visited the land of Goshen. It was in his role as an overseer that Moses introduced and developed advanced technology that was used by the Egyptian workers. He reportedly built ships and invented machinery for cutting and shaping stones. He developed new types of weapons for battle, and uncovered novel ways of drawing water from underground sources. All the while, Moses kept his distance from his Jewish brothers. Those Jews who knew of Moses’ Hebrew origins, resented his seeming indifference to their suffering. But Moses was hardly indifferent to his brothers’ travails.

Seeing how the Israelites suffered, Moses convinced Pharaoh that by refusing to give the Hebrew slaves a day off and forcing them to perform many forms of unnatural work, Pharaoh was actually damaging the economy of Egypt. Once persuaded that the economy of Egypt needed healthy, strong and well-motivated slaves, Pharaoh relieved the Israelites of work on Shabbat. Moses taught the slaves how to work smartly to avoid injury, and even tended to those who were hurt. No one suspected that Moses was doing this to help the Jews, since they all saw it as an effort to enhance Egypt’s economy.

G-d, however, saw in Moses’ great concern for his brothers, the making of a natural leader for His people. The Midrash says that because of the way that Moses reached out to his brothers, he was rewarded by Heaven with perfect health throughout his long life. He was also rewarded after his passing to be personally buried by the Al-mighty Himself (Deuteronomy 34).

Obviously, in the midst of the brutal enslavement and persecution of the Hebrew slaves, for a man like Moses to emerge from a Jewish family to lead the Children of Israel from slavery to freedom, many fortuitous elements had to come together. In light of the sparse information provided by the Torah, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s rich analysis and insights add much to our understanding of the man Moses and his emergence as the great leader of his people of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5775-2015

“Jacob Remembers Rachel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob, who has been living in Egypt for seventeen years, makes his son, Joseph, swear that he not be buried in Egypt. Jacob insists that his body be transported out of Egypt and that his final resting place be in the Machpelah tomb with his forefathers, Abraham and Isaac.

Scripture, in Genesis 47:29 states, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, שִׂים נָא יָדְךָ תַּחַת יְרֵכִי, וְעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת, אַל נָא תִקְבְּרֵנִי בְּמִצְרָיִם, Jacob called for his son Joseph and said to him, please– “If I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do kindness and truth with me–please do not bury me in Egypt.” Joseph swears to his father, and Israel (Jacob) bows down toward the head of the bed.

When Joseph is informed (Genesis 48) that his father is ill, Joseph takes his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to see his ailing father. After recounting a bit of history confirming that G-d has given him the land of Canaan, Jacob announces, Genesis 48:5, אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה, כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי, that Joseph’s two sons who were born in Egypt will now belong to him [Jacob], and that Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine [Jacob’s] like Reuben and Simeon. Any children who are born to Joseph afterward, will be Joseph’s and will be included in the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Unexpectedly, Jacob raises the issue of Joseph’s mother, Rachel. Although Joseph had already sworn to his father that he will make certain to bury his father in Canaan, Jacob recalls, Genesis 48:7, וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן, מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּעוֹד כִּבְרַת אֶרֶץ לָבֹא אֶפְרָתָה, וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם, “But as for me–when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road while there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.”

Rashi explains that Jacob raises the issue of the burial of Rachel with Joseph because, even though Jacob is insisting that Joseph make the great effort to bury him in Canaan, Jacob did not do the same for Rachel who died on the way to Bethlehem. Jacob was apparently anticipating that Joseph might object to Jacob’s request to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah, especially since Jacob did not make the extra effort on behalf of Joseph’s mother, Rachel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that during this entire conversation, the Torah refers to Jacob as “Jacob,” and not as “Israel.” Only when Jacob confers the tribal status on Manasseh and Ephraim does it say, Genesis 48:2, וַיִּתְחַזֵּק יִשְׂרָאֵל, and “Israel” became strong when Joseph approached him.

Rabbi Hirsch argues that when Jacob confers tribal status on Ephraim and Manasseh, it is a personal decision, because of his overwhelming love for Joseph (hence the use of the name “Jacob”), and entirely unrelated to national considerations. Jacob was concerned that Rachel would be forgotten, and that her grave would not be frequently visited. Ten tribes of Israel would certainly go to the Machpelah Cave to visit Abraham, Isaac, their father, Jacob, and their mother, Leah. But who would visit Rachel’s grave? Possibly only the descendants of Joseph and Benjamin.

Because Jacob feared that Rachel’s memory would effectively be forgotten, he decided that Joseph, Rachel’s first-born, must assume the position of the first-born of the tribes. By designating the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh to be counted among the tribes like Reuben and Simeon, Jacob thus bequeathed to Joseph the double portion due to the first-born.

With two new tribes emerging from Joseph, there will be more immediate family to remember, visit and care for Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem.

Jacob was clearly demonstrating his undying affection for Rachel, and, in so doing, granted to Rachel in her death what she never merited to receive during her lifetime.

May you be blessed.

Vayigash 5775-2014

“Joseph Calms His Brothers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers.

Scripture reports that Joseph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of those who stood before him, and called out to remove everyone. Only he, alone with his brothers, were there when he revealed his identity.

Genesis 45:3, describes the highly charged moment: וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו, And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified before him.

The Egyptian tyrant who now stands before Jacob’s sons accusing them of being spies, who arrested their brother, Simeon, and had just accused their youngest brother Benjamin of being a thief, this cruel and inhuman monster who threatens now to turn them all into slaves, suddenly reveals himself as their brother! Not only their brother, but their long-lost brother, whom they had sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites twenty-two years ago! It is certainly no surprise that they were in shock and speechless.

Joseph asks his brothers to come near and to approach him, and once again identifies himself by saying, Genesis 45:4, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” There is no question that the brothers at this moment were convinced that all is lost, and that the guillotine blade was about to drop. There really was no hope. Their evil deed had finally been publicly exposed, and they would have to pay with their lives.

Instead, their brother Joseph’s tone changes, as he generously and gently says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ, וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ-לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם, “And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”

Joseph explains, Genesis 45:6-8, “For those two years has the hunger years been in the midst of the land, and there are yet five years in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest. Thus G-d has sent me ahead of you, to ensure your survival in the land, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. And now: It was not you who sent me here, but G-d; He has made me father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler throughout the entire land of Egypt.”

While Scripture describes this most dramatic moment, we can not really know the thoughts in Joseph’s head or the brothers’ feelings at this time. Fortunately, the The Malbim, one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of Bible, fills in the details with rich commentary.

The Malbim sees the scene as follows: Joseph could no longer hold himself in from the emotional encounter with his brothers, who were standing before him. He demands that all the people leave the room when he reveals himself. Joseph began to cry so loudly, that all of Egypt, even Pharaoh’s entourage heard his crying. The brothers had no idea why Joseph was crying or why he cleared the room. The brothers were astounded, frozen in fear, fearful of vengeance. In fact, when Joseph then asked if his father was still alive, they assumed that Joseph meant, is my father still alive after all the grief that you had caused him by selling me?

Joseph reveals himself, but the brothers do not respond. The Malbim suggests that Joseph was under the impression that the brothers did not answer him because either they did not believe that he was really Joseph, or because they still harbored hatred for him, and regretted only that they had sold him rather than killed him, allowing him to become an authority over them. A third possibility is that they were truly regretful and penitent for the evil that they had done to their brother.

The Malbim explains that Joseph responds to all three possibilities. He reveals himself by saying, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt.” Only Joseph could have known that fact. There was no longer any room for doubt that the man standing before them was their long-lost brother Joseph.

Assuming that they were regretful for the terrible deed that they committed, Joseph says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ, “Do not be distressed.” To address the possibility that they still hated him, Joseph says to them, וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, “Do not reproach yourselves for not having finished me off. For if you are fearful that I will avenge you, do not be afraid, for G-d sent me here to save people. Your resentment of my elevated royal status will also be of no benefit, for clearly you have no ability to cause me harm. Furthermore, there is good reason to abandon your feelings of vengeance, because your lives, the lives of your families and the lives of the entire world depend upon me, since there are five more years of famine and the world must be saved.”

When Joseph tells his brothers, that “it was not you who sent me here, but G-d,” the Malbim sees in Joseph’s words to his brothers a powerful theological lesson to them regarding Divine intervention.

Joseph boldly tells his brothers that they are not responsible for their actions, because everything that had occurred was Divinely ordained. He is, in effect, saying to his brothers: “You were like vessels in the hands of G-d, and the resulting sale benefitted all of humankind. If you are saddened by the fact that you became the Divine instrument to allow this evil to occur, there is no reason to be sad, because you did me and the world the greatest favor. Look at my position in the kingdom of Pharaoh.”

The Malbim offers a powerful parable of a man who threw his neighbor into the ocean. Although the victim could have drowned, he survives and in the process finds a most precious stone in the sea. Says Joseph, “As a result of your actions, I have become, אָב לְפַרְעֹה, A father who offers advice to Pharaoh (through the dream), וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל בֵּיתוֹ, in charge of his entire palace, and eventually becoming, וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, the ruler of all of Egypt. This is hardly a reason to be sad.”

The traumatized brothers are persuaded by Joseph to calm down. Only then, does Joseph advise his brothers to hurry back to Canaan, to tell their grieving father, Jacob, Genesis 45:9, that “G-d has made me [Joseph] master of all of Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay.”

The Malbim in his inimitable style, analyzes every word carefully to reveal the intimate secrets of the text and the true inner feelings of the Biblical characters.

While we usually gloss over these details when reading these narratives, the Malbim finds treasures in every single word. How fortunate are we to be able to share in his insights.

May you be blessed.