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Toledot 5778-2017

“Isaac’s Unconditional Love for Esau”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Chayei Sarah 5778-2017

“Who is Eliezer the Damascan?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the death and burial of Sarah, the betrothal and marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, and the death of Abraham. The parasha concludes with a list of the descendants of Ishmael.

A central figure in parashat Chayei Sarah is Abraham’s Damascan servant, Eliezer, who is sent to Haran to find a wife for Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. So central is the personality of Eliezer and his activities to the parasha, that his story is repeated two and a half times, and a full 67 verses are devoted to describing his mission of finding a wife for Isaac.

The rabbis are astounded by the length of the narrative, especially in light of the fact that the Torah is always very sparing on words and hardly ever repeats. The sages therefore state in Bereshith Rabbah 60, יָפָה שִׂיחָתָן שֶׁל עַבְדֵי בָּתֵּי אָבוֹת מִתּוֹרָתָן שֶׁל בָּנִים , the “table talk” of the servants of the patriarch’s household is more notable (literally: beautiful) than the scripture (literally: Torah) of their descendants.

The fact that the story of Eliezer takes up two or three pages of the Torah, while major laws of Judaism are recorded in merely two or three words, underscores the major role that Eliezer plays in the history of the Jewish people and the critical importance of his service to Abraham.

Ironically, later on in the parasha, when Eliezer reports the betrothal encounter to Isaac, he does so succinctly, in a single sentence. In Genesis 24:66, the Torah records, וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה , the servant [Eliezer] told Isaac all the things that he had done. The Torah, in this instance, does not provide any details, illustrating how the Torah, if it wished, could have easily limited the description.

The questions remain, who is Eliezer and why is he so important, that his words are recorded and repeated for posterity for all the generations? To add to the intrigue, the name Eliezer appears only once in the entire narrative, and does not appear even once in the lengthy account of his mission.

The name, Eliezer, is recorded only in Genesis 15:2, when G-d appears to Abraham and promises him that He will be Abraham’s shield and that Abraham’s reward will be very great. Abraham answers, השׁם א־לקים מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי, וּבֶן מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר , My L-rd, G-d, what can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascan Eliezer?”

Throughout the entire narration of the mission, Eliezer is referred to by other appellations, but never “Eliezer.” In Genesis 24:2, he is called by Abraham, עַבְדּוֹ זְקַן בֵּיתוֹ, הַמֹּשֵׁל בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ , the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he [Abraham] had. In Genesis 24:5,9,10 and 17, Eliezer is referred to as הָעֶבֶד –“Ha’eh’vehd,” the servant. In Genesis 24:21,22,26,29,30,32 and 58, he is called, הָאִישׁ –“Ha’eesh,” the man. In Genesis 24:52 and 59, he is referred to as עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם –“Eh’vehd Avraham,” Abraham’s servant. In Genesis 24:61, he is called both “Ha’eesh” and “Ha’eh’vehd,” the man and the servant, and in Genesis 24:65 and 66, he is referred to, three times, as “Ha’eh’vehd,” the servant.

The commentators are perplexed by the absence of Eliezer’s name in the entire narrative of the mission of finding a bride for Isaac. Some suggest that Eliezer realized that it was beyond the capacity of a Damascan slave to find an appropriate mate for the exalted soul of Isaac, who is known after the Akeida as עוֹלָה תְּמִימָה –the “pure sacrifice.” Eliezer knew that only his total dependence upon G-d and the merits of Abraham would help him succeed in his mission. He therefore introduced himself to Rebecca’s family by saying, Genesis 24:34, “I am a servant of Abraham,” and consistently refers to himself as a lowly servant.

An additional fascinating element to the story, developed by the rabbis of the Midrash, is based on the fact (Genesis 15:3), that Abraham is concerned that Eliezer will be his sole heir. This concern is cited by the rabbis of the Midrash as the source for attributing to Eliezer the desire that the mission to Haran not succeed. When Eliezer inappropriately suggests to both Abraham and to Rebecca’s family that perhaps the woman would not return to Canaan with him, the rabbis suggest that Eliezer had a daughter whom he hoped would marry Isaac, and hence, he was really trying to sabotage the match with Rebecca.

The Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer, chapter 31, suggests that when Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, he was accompanied by both Eliezer and Ishmael. Assuming that Isaac would soon die at Abraham’s hands, both Ishmael and Eliezer each suggest that they would be the appropriate heir to the great Abraham. Ishmael reputedly said to Eliezer, “Once Abraham sacrifices Isaac, I will be his firstborn and his sole heir.” Eliezer says to Ishmael, “Abraham has already chased you away into the wilderness, hence, I will be Abraham’s heir.” The Divine Presence responded to Abraham, “Neither of these will inherit you.”

According to the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 59:12, Abraham was well aware that Eliezer wanted his daughter to wed Isaac. Therefore, he specifically instructed Eliezer and made him swear, Genesis 24:3, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּקִרְבּוֹ , You may not [under any circumstances] take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. Rather, go back to my land, to my kindred shall you go, and take a wife for my son, for Isaac.

The rabbis (Genesis Rabbah 60:9), saw this statement as a direct rebuke to Eliezer, the Damascan, who is a descendant of the cursed Canaanites. Embedded in Abraham’s words is the message: “Eliezer, you are cursed and I am blessed. Your descendants may not cling to mine.” Nevertheless, the Midrash does conclude that because of his faithful service to the righteous Abraham, Eliezer was no longer considered amongst those who were cursed, and became blessed.

According to many, it is the exemplar of Eliezer’s total reliance on G-d and Divine Providence, as well as his commitment and loyalty to Abraham that earns Eliezer a full chapter in the Bible in which his every word is analyzed and studied for the secrets of wisdom and faith they contain.

The Tanna D’bai Eliyahu Rabba goes so far as to list Eliezer among the nine people whose righteousness was so great that they entered the Garden of Eden while they were still alive.

May you be blessed.

 

 

Vayeira 5778-2017

“The Alliance with Abimelech”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, is a rich parasha containing many important topics, including the destruction of Sodom, the birth of Isaac and the Akeida–the near death of Isaac and his rescue. One of the fascinating “side” topics found in Genesis 21:22-34 is the alliance and covenant that Abraham concludes with the Philistine king of Gerar, Abimelech.

In Genesis 20, after the destruction of Sodom, Abraham moves south and settles in Gerar, where Abimelech is king. Abimelech abducts Sarah, but G-d prevents him from harming her. As long as Sarah is held captive, the royal family and the people of Gerar are stricken in their bodily organs, unable to relieve themselves or give birth. Only after Abraham prays for them, are they healed.

Rashi  on Genesis 25:19, citing the Midrash, notes that the birth of Isaac occurred only after the abduction of Sarah. Rumors spread that Abimelech was the real father of Isaac. After all, Abraham and Sarah had been married for many years and Sarah never gave birth. The Midrash states that the baby, Isaac, was identical in appearance to Abraham, quickly putting all the rumors to rest.

Why at this particular time does Abimelech now approach Abraham to seek an alliance and conclude a covenant of peace with Abraham, after all, Abraham had always been known in the region as a kind man and a person of peace?

Some of the commentators speculate that once Abimelech saw that Hagar and Ishmael were cruelly sent away from Abraham’s house at Sarah’s request (Genesis 21:14), Abimelech concluded that there was a cruel side to Abraham that he had never seen before. This raised concerns for Abimelech that perhaps Abraham and his progeny could be dangerous neighbors for his descendants. He therefore sought to seal a covenant of peace with Abraham.

Other commentators note that Abimelech was impressed by the many miracles that G-d had performed for Abraham: That Abraham and his family were not harmed by the destruction of Sodom; that Abraham had defeated the four most powerful kings of the time (Genesis 14); the miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham’s old age; and that Sarah was saved from any harm at the hands of two most powerful contemporary kings, Pharaoh and Abimelech.

The Sforno suggests that Abimelech comes to Abraham to tell him that it is only because G-d is with Abraham that he fears Abraham and desires a treaty–not because of Abraham’s wealth or might.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that Abimelech knew that G-d had promised that a mighty nation would descend from Abraham, and now, with the birth of Isaac, he recognizes that this little boy represents the future people of Israel. After the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael, the prophecy was becoming a reality, causing Abimelech to desire a treaty.

The treaty that Abraham concludes with Abimelech is the subject of major controversy among the commentators. Many of the sages considered it improper for Abraham to enter into a treaty in which Abraham limits his descendants’ rights to the Promised Land. Some even conclude, that this oath actually prevented the Israelites in the time of Joshua from conquering Jerusalem where the Philistines had settled (Joshua 15:63).

The Midrash Samuel 12:1 on I Samuel 6:1 stresses that G-d was displeased with this treaty. G-d said to Abraham: “You gave him [Abimelech] seven ewes: As you (Abraham) live, I will delay the joy of your children for seven generations [for the Jews were not able to conquer the land of Israel until seven generations had passed–-Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kehat, Amram, and Moses].”

“You gave him seven ewes: As you live, Abimelech’s descendants will slay seven righteous men of your descendants: Hofni, Phineas, Samson, and Saul together with his three sons.”

“You gave him seven ewes: Accordingly seven of your descendants’ sanctuaries will be destroyed [or cease to be used]. The Mishkan–the tent of meeting, the sanctuaries in Gilgal, Nob, Gibeon, and Shilo, as well as the two Temples [in Jerusalem].”

“You gave him seven ewes: My ark will therefore be exiled for seven months in Philistine territory” (1 Samuel 6:1).

There are even those who suggest that immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses was unable to lead the people through the land of the Philistines directly to the Promised Land because of the covenant that Abraham had made with Abimelech, causing the people to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

Some modern commentators even suggest that the citizens of the State of Israel today are paying the price in contemporary times for Abraham’s improper covenant with Abimelech, which, in some way, obliquely justifies the unjust claims of the contemporary “Philistines”–-the Palestinians.

Thus, we see that all the actions of our great ancestors, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, impact on the future destiny of the People of Israel.

The brief biblical text concerning the alliance between Abraham and Abimelech, continues to reverberate profoundly throughout the millennia of Jewish history.

May you be blessed.

Lech Lecha 5778-2017

“The Beautiful, Barren Matriarchs”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, G-d commands Abram and Sarai (their names had not yet been changed), to give up their past in Mesopotamia and to travel to a new land, an unnamed land, where they will forge for themselves a new future.

Life is difficult in Ur Kasdim for Abram’s father, Terach. His son, Haran, dies there. His surviving sons, Abram and Nachor, each marry, but Abram’s wife, Sarai, is barren. Terach takes his son Abram, his grandson Lot and Abram’s wife Sarai and begins to make his way to the land of Canaan, stopping in Haran, where Terach dies.

It is at this point that our parasha, Lech Lecha, opens with G-d’s dramatic command to Abram, Genesis 12:1: לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ , Go for yourself, from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

At age 75, Abram sets out from Haran, making his way to Canaan.

Despite G-d’s promise to Abram that he will see great success in the new land, Abram is immediately faced with a famine and must go down to Egypt. Scripture relates that when he is about to enter Egypt, Abram says to his wife Sarai, Genesis 12:11, הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ , See now, I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. Abram is concerned that the Egyptians will kill him and take his wife. He therefore schemes to have Sarai claim that she is his sister, so that his own life might be spared.

For the first two thousand years from the time of creation, the world was filled with anarchy, murder, idolatry, and rebellion. Now, with the selection of Abram and Sarai by G-d and their mission to settle in Canaan, a new chapter of creation dawns. For the first time there are G-d-fearing human beings–Abram and Sarai, and the destiny of the world is about to be reshaped.

Based on the information provided in scripture, we have no idea what were the unique characteristics of Abram that merited that he be chosen by G-d. We do however know two things about Sarai–-she is barren and she is beautiful.

What is the significance of these two factors that will play an important role in the future history of the Jewish people? Furthermore, not only is Sarai barren and beautiful, so are the other matriarchs–Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

Why are the matriarchs barren? The Talmud, in Yevamot 64a, states that G-d desires the prayers of the righteous, and wants these righteous women to pour out their hearts to Him. The Midrash Rabbah in Genesis 45:4, cites Rabbi Meir, who suggests that G-d wants the matriarchs to be beautiful so that the patriarchs will benefit from their beauty, and pregnancy reduces from their beauty. The commentary Yafei Tohar on the Midrash Shir Hashirim 24, explains that the patriarchs were so wrapped up in their sacred thoughts that they withdrew from the pleasures of this world. The matriarchs’ beauty was meant to arouse their husbands in order to perpetuate humankind.

The Torah testifies that all the matriarchs were beautiful. Genesis 24:16 states regarding Rebecca: וְהַנַּעֲרָה טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד , and the maiden was exceedingly beautiful. Similarly, in Genesis 29:17, scripture describes Rachel: וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה , and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance. Likewise, regarding Leah, Genesis 29:17 notes, וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת , and Leah’s eyes were soft, explained by the commentaries to mean pretty or beautiful.

The rabbis are perplexed why now, as Sarai and Abram approach Egypt, does Abram realize that his wife is so beautiful.

The Ramban suggests that it was because they were approaching a royal city where every beautiful woman was first brought to the king for inspection. Acknowledging his wife’s beauty, Abram grew fearful, lest they would slay him in order for the king to take her.

A Midrash cited by Rashi on Genesis 12:11, states that Abram noticed Sarai’s beauty at this point because normally women lose their beauty due to the exertion of the travels, yet Sarai retained her beauty. Other commentaries say that because of their extreme modesty, Abram would not have noticed her beauty previously. Now, on the journey, says the  Midrash Tanchumah, Abram happened to see that Sarai’s reflection in the water was resplendent as the sun. Targum Yonatansuggests that parts of Sarai’s body were exposed while crossing the river, while Mizrachi maintains that it happened when Sarai fell while crossing the stream.

The simple reason seems to be that now is the time for Abram to become anxious about her beauty, because they are coming to a land whose people are accustomed to seeking out beautiful women, and he will be harmed.

With the opening of a new epoch of creation with Sarai and Abram, the Torah confronts the most vexing issue facing women–how they value themselves. On the one hand, the matriarchs are very beautiful; on the other hand their natural beauty is challenged or compromised by their barrenness and their painful inability to bear children.

Beautiful women who are unable to bear children may lose their comeliness in the eyes of their spouses. On the other hand, those who may not be particularly endowed with beauty can gain beauty in the eyes of their spouses when they have children. In Samuel I 1:8, Elkana says to his barren wife, Hannah, that he is more precious to her than ten children. That great compliment fails to satisfy Hannah, and she goes to Shiloh to pray for a child.

The Al-mighty has blessed humankind with eternal hope. Through the miracles of modern medicine, barren women today are giving birth even in their later years. Both men and women who are considered physically unattractive, can become comely through fashionable clothing, cosmetic enhancement and corrective surgery.

Abram and Sarai inaugurated a new era in human history. That era continues to evolve, improve and even blossom in our days and in our times.

May you be blessed.

Noah 5778-2017

“Rebuilding the World Through the Children of Noah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, focuses primarily on the Flood, it also traces the history of humankind following the Flood. After the passing of Noah, the Torah lists the names of the children of Noah and describes the repopulation of the world.

The Bible, in Genesis 10:1 states, וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת בְּנֵי נֹחַ, שֵׁם חָם וָיָפֶת, וַיִּוָּלְדוּ לָהֶם בָּנִים אַחַר הַמַּבּוּל . These are the descendants of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the Flood. 

Although there is a rabbinic dispute regarding which of Noah’s three sons was the oldest, certainly the most significant child is Shem, from whom the Semitic nations and the Jews are descended. The three sons of Noah, eventually, were also the progenitors of the seventy nations who inhabited the world in those days.Abraham was a tenth generation descendent of Noah, through his son Shem.

A particularly notable descendent of Shem was his fifth generation great-grandson, עֵבֶר -Eber, who, according to rabbinic sources, played a key role in resurrecting the world after its near destruction in the time of Noah. According to the Midrash, Eber was one of the few righteous men in those times, who along with his great, great, great-grandfather Shem, established a yeshiva. Since the Torah had not yet been given, speculation is that Shem and Eber, like Abraham, had rationally come to the conclusion of the existence of many of the ethical and moral laws that eventually would be revealed in the Torah.

At their house of study, Shem and Eber spent time studying and propagating these principles, trying to inspire the world to follow, at least, the basic laws of humanity. Maimonides, in the Laws of Idolatry 1:1, regards Eber as one of the few individuals along with Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, and Shem, who came to the conclusion that there was one Creator, despite the fact that all of humanity at that time was worshiping idols.

The name Eber, in Hebrew, means “to come across.” The Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 3, explains that Eber and his family came across from the other side of the Euphrates River. Consequently, all of Eber’s descendants were known as עִבְרִי -Ivri (crossers). Thus, Abraham’s descendants became known as עִבְרִים -Ivrim, Hebrews, because he too had crossed the river. According to Rashi, they were named Ivrim because they were descended from Eber.

The commentary to Rashi, Mizrachi Genesis 39:14, maintains that only someone who was both a descendant of Eber and had crossed the river, is known as Ivri. Thus, only Isaac, and not Ishmael, is known as an Ivri.

The impact of Shem and Eber on humankind was profound and, according to the Talmud, Megilla 17a, Jacob spent 14 years studying Torah at the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber before joining Laban and his family in Haran.

Two key descendants of Eber were his son פֶלֶג -Peleg and his son יָקְטָן -Jokton. The word “peleg,” which means to split, confound or confuse, refers to the great purging of the nations that took place in Peleg’s days (Genesis 11:7-9), during the period of the Tower of Babel. Some attribute the scheme of building the tower to Peleg himself, which is why the generation is named after him, דּוֹר הַפְלָגָה , the generation of confounding, confusion and splitting.

Peleg’s son, Jokton, also played a central role in the development of humankind. The Radak explains that Peleg named his son Jokton, from the Hebrew word קָטָן , meaning small, because from the time of Peleg’s birth, human longevity began to diminish. Because he was born physically smaller than those who preceded him, Jokton’s father, Eber, concluded that his son’s years would be fewer than previous generations.

Rashi, based on the Midrash, claims that Jokton merited to establish many families because he was humble and frequently belittled himself. The Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 6:6, cited by Rashi, claims that Jokton merited to establish thirteen large families. Jokton, despite being small of stature and who diminished himself, serves as a paradigm of humility to those who are large and imposing.

It could very well be that the name Jokton is the first allusion in the Bible to the ideas of humility and modesty–characteristics that are of enormous importance in Jewish and human values. Noah, as well as Joseph’s son Ephraim, and Moses are all considered to have been extraordinarily modest people who profoundly influenced Jewish posterity.

When Abraham, Genesis 23, comes to the children of Het to purchase a grave for his wife, he bows down before the people of the land who call him, Genesis 23:6, נְשִׂיא אֱ־לֹקִים , Prince of G-d. Despite being so exalted, Abraham in his great modesty, continues to bow. The Midrash HaGadol (an anonymous 14th century compilation of aggadic midrashim on the Pentateuch), states that because of the two times that Abraham humbled himself before the children of Het, nations of the world would later humble themselves before his descendants, the People of Israel.

The special qualities derived from the descendants of Noah–crossing the river and swimming against the tide, as well as their modesty and humility, have served the Jewish people well over the millennia. The continued practice of these qualities by the Jewish people will undoubtedly serve the people well in the future. 

May you be blessed. 

 

Bereshith 5778-2017

“The Torah Promotes the Work Ethic”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Bereshith, after six days of creating the world, G-d rested on the seventh day, blessed it and designated it as a sanctified day of rest to be known as Shabbat.

In Genesis 2:4, the Torah describes the state of the world after creation. Genesis 2:5 records, כֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, וְכָל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח, כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר השׁם אֱ־לֹקִים עַל הָאָרֶץ, וְאָדָם אַיִן לַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה . Now all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth, and all the herbs of the field had not yet sprouted, for the Lord G-d had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.

The Torah (Genesis 2:6) then notes that a mist ascended from the earth and watered the whole surface of the soil.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his commentary, Daat Sofrim, writes that human history began under extraordinarily promising conditions. The earth was full of light, radiating splendor and pleasure, and G-d’s creations were free of worries, stress, and suffering. The primordial human beings were placed in an entirely spiritual setting where they could live a pure and elevated life. Only after the humans proved that they were not capable of living a fully spiritual life in the Garden of Eden, were they removed from the garden. The earth, despite its immense resources and potential wealth, was desolate, disorganized. The original splendor had vanished.

After sinning with the forbidden fruit, humankind was now destined to do battle with the powers of nature. In order to create for themselves a life in the real world, they would have to struggle to succeed. Human beings would now be constantly weary, hungry, barefoot and mortal, with the prospect of death always looming, a far cry from the utopian conditions in which they had originally been created.

When humans were first created, they emerged as kings, not laborers, and were certainly not inclined to work. In that purely spiritual environment, it was impossible for primordial man to recognize that real pleasure in life comes from work. He could not fathom the insightful conclusion reached by Ben Hey-Hey who declared (Avot 5:27), לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אַגְרָא , according to the effort is the reward.

To keep things fresh in the world, G-d had to bring a mist, for there was no man to “work the soil.”

As the story evolves, in Genesis 2:15, G-d takes the human beings and places them in the Garden of Eden, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ , to work it and to guard it. After all, every meaningful relationship requires not only work, but effort to preserve the work, to enhance it, to make it more meaningful. It is in this rather obscure statement, that the Torah reveals the subtle formula for a meaningful existence. Not only is there a need to work, but also to guard, to preserve, to conserve, and to protect the works of our hands and our environment.

This revolutionary idea that the Torah records, goes back 5778 years. Although it was revealed in antiquity, humanity today is still trying to understand and appreciate the inevitable conclusion: The more effort invested in a relationship–the greater the reward. Only through intense effort and labor can human beings re-create the original spiritual environment intended for humanity.

It was this special work ethic that played a critical role in the establishment and founding of the State of Israel.

One of the truly fascinating pioneers of modern-day Israel, was A.D. Gordon (1856-1922), a man who came from a traditional Jewish background and lived most of his life as a religious Jew. At age 48, he moved to what was then Palestine. Although he had no training in farming or agriculture, he decided that he was going to work the land with his own two hands and make it blossom. Working long days, in often brutal conditions, dedicating his nights to study, A.D. Gordon was soon recognized as a revolutionary and came to be considered the father of “Torat ha’Avodah,” proclaiming the immense value of labor, especially of manual labor. Until he passed at age 68, he supported himself as a menial agricultural laborer working every day.

In his writings he declared, “The land of Israel is acquired through labor, not through fire and not through blood.” Returning to the soil, he proclaimed, would transform the Jewish people and allow its rejuvenation.

His writings boldly reflect his uncompromising commitment to these ideals:

The Jewish people have been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for 2000 years. We have been accustomed to every form of life, except a life of labor–a labor done at our behalf and for its own sake. It will require the greatest efforts of will for such people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for a national life, we lack the habit of labor . . . for it is labor which binds the people to its soil and to its national culture, which in turn is the outgrowth of the people’s toil and the people’s labor (A.D. Gordon, Our Tasks Ahead, 1920).

As we start the new year, it is important for us to appreciate how vitally important is the ingredient of labor. It is only through our willingness to invest sincere effort into the principles we cherish that our dreams will be realized and our connection to the Al-mighty G-d solidified. This powerful message is found in the very first parasha of the Torah. We must embrace it, practice it and make certain to transmit it to the future generations.

May you be blessed.

The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 11th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 12th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 12th and continues through Friday, October 13th.

Sukkot 5778-2017

“Jewish Unity and the Festival of Sukkot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Of all the Jewish holidays, the one holiday that is singled out as a “Festival of Joy” is Sukkot. As the Torah in Deuteronomy 16:13-15 declares, חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים…וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ…וְהָיִיתָ, אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ , You shall make the festival of Sukkot for a festival day….You shall rejoice in your festival….and you will be completely joyous. That is why the rabbis call the festival of Sukkot, זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ , the time of our rejoicing. Rabbi Yaakov Filber points out in his writings, that the nature of the joy that is experienced on Sukkot is much more than simply the joy of an individual. It is intended to be a festival of communal joy that the entire nation of Israel experiences. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:14 explicitly includes the broad spectrum of the community in this joy, וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ, אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ , You shall rejoice on your festival–you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan and the widow who are in your cities. The happiness experienced on this festival is to be a collective happiness, resulting from the sense of unity and feelings of equality among the people. The Midrash Rabbah in Leviticus 30:2 explains the expression שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת , fullness of joy, found in Psalms 16:11, תּוֹדִיעֵנִי אֹרַח חַיִּים, שֹׂבַע שְׂמָחוֹת אֶת פָּנֶיךָ, נְעִמוֹת בִּימִינְךָ נֶצַח , You make known to me the path of life, in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand are pleasures evermore. Playing on the word שֹׂבַע , whose root is related to the Hebrew word שֶׁבַע , seven, the Midrash draws a reference to the seven mitzvot that are associated with the festival of Sukkot: etrog, hadass (myrtle), lulav (palm), aravah (willow), the Sukkah, the festival sacrifice and the mitzvah to be happy. There are many references of unity that are alluded to on the festival of Sukkot. The rabbis of the Talmud in Menachot 27a, state:

Of the four species that are used for the lulav, two are fruit bearing (the etrog and the lulav) and two are not (the myrtle and the willow). Those which bear fruit must be joined to those which bear no fruit, and those which bear no fruit must be joined to those which bear fruit. A person does not fulfill his obligation [of holding the lulav together with the other species] unless they are all bound in one band. And so it is with Israel’s conciliation with G-d, [it is achieved] only when they [the people] are all [bound together] in one band, as it is stated by the prophet Amos 9:6, He [G-d] Who builds His chambers in heaven, and founded His band upon the earth.

The Torah, in fact, explicitly relates the mitzvah of joy to the mitzvah of taking of the four species together. In Leviticus 23:40, it is written: You shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the citron tree, the branches of the date palms, twigs of a plaited tree, and brookwillow; and you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for a seven day period. The theme of unity is similarly found not only with the four species, but with the Sukkah itself. The Talmud in Sukkah 27b, states, that even though the rabbis declared that one may not use a borrowed lulav on the first day, nevertheless, one may sit in a sukkah belonging to a neighbor. As the verse in Leviticus 23:42 underscores: You shall dwell in booths for a seven day period, every native in Israel shall dwell in the booths. The Talmud concludes from the phrasing of the verse that all of Israel are worthy of sitting in one great big Sukkah. An additional theme of unity and Sukkot is found in tractate Sukkah 2a. Citing the verse from Leviticus 23:43, בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים , You shall dwell in the booths for seven days, the Talmud derives that, “Just as every Jew must leave his permanent dwelling place for seven days and live in a temporary dwelling place, so must every Jew on Sukkot live equally in a temporary dwelling, poor and rich alike.” Similarly, the mitzvah of הַקְהֵל (Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777-2017), celebrated every seven years on Sukkot, brings everyone together–the men, the women, the babies, and the strangers who are in your gates. The festival of Sukkot marks the conclusion of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish year where Jews all travel to Jerusalem and come together to celebrate in united happiness. It is only natural that on the last day of Sukkot, the festival of Simchat Torah, the rejoicing of the law, is celebrated. This is intended to teach that the true joy of Judaism is not only external, but internal. Consequently, the Al-Mighty is not satisfied with people only serving or worshiping G-d. The Torah expects the people to observe בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב , with happiness and with a full heart. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 28:47, warns that evil will befall the people, because they failed to serve the L-rd amid gladness and goodness of heart when everything was abundant.
Looking closely at the verse, we see that the Torah does not reprove the people for not worshiping. In fact, it is clear that the people do serve the L-rd their G-d, but do not serve with happiness and with a full heart. That is why the final Torah reading of the year is always about experiencing full happiness on the festival of Sukkot. May you be blessed. The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 4th, 5th and 6th, 2017. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 11th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 12th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 12th and continues through Friday, October 13th.  

Yom Kippur 5778-2017

According to tradition, the Torah was given to the People of Israel at Mount Sinai in the Hebrew year 2448 (1312 BCE), on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. On the seventh day of Sivan, Moses went back up the mountain for forty days to be with G-d and to master the Oral Code.

Forty days later, on the seventeenth of Tammuz, Moses descended the mountain with the two tablets of G-d in his arms. When he beheld the frenzied People of Israel worshiping the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets.

Moses remained in the camp with the people for forty days and then returned to Mount Sinai on the first day of Elul. After remaining atop the mountain far an additional forty days, Moses descended and joined the people on the tenth day of Tishrei–Yom Kippur. The Divine clouds, that had always hovered above the people but had vanished when they sinned, suddenly reappeared, confirming Divine forgiveness for the nation. In recognition of these clouds of mercy, the People of Israel celebrated their first Sukkot holiday, as the prayer states, וּפְרושׂ עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלומֶךָ, Spread over us Your canopy, “Sukkah,” of peace.

The Midrashic tradition records a dispute regarding which came first, Yom Kippur or the sin of the Golden Calf. The Tanna Dabai Eliyahu Rabba, 28  records, that on the final day of the forty days that Moses was on Mount Sinai preparing to deliver the second set of tablets, the heavens declared a fast day, so that the evil inclination would not hold sway. On the very next day, the people arose early in the morning to greet Moses as he returned.

The People of Israel cried when they saw Moses, and he cried when he saw the people, until both cries ascended directly to G-d. G-d’s compassion reached out to the people and He accepted their repentance. G-d pronounced a vow to the people, saying, “My children, I swear in My great Name and in My Holy Throne, that this crying will be converted into happiness and great joy. This day [Yom Kippur] will be a day of atonement and forgiveness, for you and your children, until the end of generations.”

The Midrash Rabbah  on Genesis 2, maintains that G-d established the Day of Atonement even before the sin of the Golden Calf. According to the Midrash, Yom Kippur was given as a gift to the first humans, Adam and Eve. In fact, when the Bible declares, (Genesis 1:5), “And there was evening and there was morning, one day,” this “day” was the gift of Yom Kippur that G-d gave to the people.

According to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 46, it was not the atonement and the repentance of the people for the sin of the Golden Calf that led to the establishment of Yom Kippur, but rather it was the Day of Atonement that caused the people to do Teshuvah, to repent. When the people saw in the written Torah that Moses had delivered, that there was a specific day of atonement on which the people were to afflict their souls and sound of the shofar, they all fasted, young and old.

Unfortunately, today, there are no prophets to inspire the people to repent, nor a High Priest to perform the ritual of the scapegoat, and there is no Holy Temple to help the people to atone. We have only the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to help us atone.

Therefore, it is most vital to acknowledge that the Ten Days of Penitence are special times for atonement. G-d is out “in the field” waiting for His people to return and repent. So propitious is this time that the rabbis of the Talmud declare (Talmud, Yoma 86b) that when one repents with a full heart, not only are his/her sins forgiven, but sins are actually turned into merits.

Clearly, the Al-mighty greatly desires the peoples’ repentance. So desperately does G-d want to forgive us, that it is reflected in the Midrash that Yom Kippur was created even before the sin of the Golden Calf.רַחֲמָנָא לִבָּא בָּעֵי, Sanhedrin 106b, G-d wants our hearts. Come, let us go out now and embrace Him, and pour out our hearts before the Al-mighty. This is the propitious moment. Let us not fritter away this very precious opportunity.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah and a G’mar Chatimah Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, September 29th through nightfall on Saturday, September 30, 2017. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 4th, 5th and 6th, 2017. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 11th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 12th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 12th and continues through Friday, October 13th.

Rosh Hashana-Ha’azinu 5778-2017

“The Blame Game”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

America, and the American media, in fact, the world and world media, are frequently consumed with what is known as the “Blame Game.” Is Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, a maniacal provocateur, or is President Trump falling into a trap that Jong-Un has set to spark a world conflagration? Can’t mention the “Blame Game,” without noting that the tabloids were absolutely obsessed with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, taking sides on who was responsible for the couple’s breakup after thirteen years of being together and six children.

The Bible is filled with stories of blame. In Genesis 3:12, when G-d asks Adam why he ate of the forbidden fruit, Adam responds by blaming G-d. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate it!” The woman also says to G-d that it’s His fault. “The serpent deceived me and I ate,” (Genesis 3:13).

An obvious case of blaming the other is found in the story of Cain and Abel. When G-d confronts Cain for killing his brother, G-d says to Cain, Genesis 4:9, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain replies by refusing to accept the blame, saying, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In Genesis 30:1-2, when Rachel saw that she had no children, she desperately beseeches Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob responds callously, that it is not his fault. “Am I in place of G-d, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” I am fertile, I have children. It’s your problem!

In Genesis 42, after Joseph demands that Benjamin remain as a slave in Egypt as punishment for stealing Joseph’s chalice, Joseph’s brothers say to one another that they are guilty for what they did to Joseph when he besought us and we would not hear. That is why this distress has come upon us. Reuben then laces in to them, saying (Genesis 42:21,22), “Did I not speak unto you, saying, do not sin against this child, and you would not hear? Therefore all this blood is required.”

There is even a reference in this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, in which G-d scolds the People of Israel for not acknowledging their own shortcomings. Instead, they accuse G-d of being corrupt and show no gratitude for all the good G-d has done for them. In Deuteronomy 32:6, G-d declares:הַלְהשׁם תִּגְמְלוּ זֹאת, עַם נָבָל וְלֹא חָכָם, הֲלוֹא הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ, הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ , Is it to the L-rd that you do this, O vile and unwise people?Has He not created you and established you?

Now we discover that Taylor Swift, America’s great pop singer, has issued a new record-breaking single entitled, “Look at what you made me do,” filled with rage and even hatred for others. But, the greatest anger is reserved for herself. She says, “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead.”

The ten day period of penitence between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is meant to be a time for intensive introspection. Each person is to look into their deepest inner selves, not to blame themselves or others, but to find the faults that are in themselves, and are oh so human.

The Bible, in Ecclesiastes 7:20, gives us an out by boldly proclaiming, כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא . There is no perfectly righteous person who does no evil. We are, after all, human. We fail, we sin. Rabbi Mark Wildes, in his dynamic “Eli Talks” (Jewish adaptation of the inspirational “Ted Talks”) speech, refers to failure as “falling back,” which is to be seen as one of the most powerful gifts that we have–to pick ourselves up and repair ourselves.

The most challenging first step of Teshuvah is recognizing that we’ve done something wrong, accepting that it is our fault no matter who might have provoked or seduced us. G-d has given each one of us the wisdom and the strength to recognize what is wrong and the ability to resist the temptations. An even greater gift is that once we have yielded to temptation, we can stand up, march on and even wipe our slates clean and start new and fresh.

Maimonides says that the Teshuvah process continues by resolving not to commit the sin again. Ultimately, the greatest test of Teshuvah is to be faced with the same temptations, to blow them away and to not yield. That person, Maimonides suggests, is a Ba’al Teshuvah Gemura, a person who has completely repented (Laws of Teshuvah 2:1).

Taylor Swift is wrong. We do not die from sin. In fact, we can grow as a result, if we strive to extirpate the sin from within us, to be reborn and cleansed again. Now that we are aware and know the bitter wages of sin, we can perform good, positive actions with fresh enthusiasm. This is healthy guilt, not destructive guilt, which comes to our salvation, encouraging us to be better than we were yesterday.

This is the message of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is not, “Look what you made me do,” it is “Look what I let happen to me, and I am determined never to let it happen again!”

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5778 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 20, 21 and 22, 2017.

The New Year holiday is immediately followed on Friday night, and Saturday, September 22-23, by Shabbat Shuva.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 24, 2017 from dawn until nightfall.

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

 

Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777-2017

“Inspiring the Next Generation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayeilech, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we read, what is to my mind, one of the most remarkable of all the Jewish observances in Jewish life, known as הַקְהֵל“Hak’hel.”

There are, for sure, many profoundly dramatic moments on the Jewish calendar.

As we stand before the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, facing the impending judgment of the Heavenly tribunal, we feel the profound majesty of Al-mighty G-d enveloping our very being.

On Passover, we recall, each year, the power and the grandeur of the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, as we reenact the redemption from Egypt at the seder.

Every week, the Jewish people joyously welcome the Sabbath, in order to better appreciate the Al-mighty’s acts of creation, and savor the benefits of G-d’s greatest gift to humankind, the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest.

And yet, despite these very special moments in Jewish life, it is impossible not to include the little-known ritual of “Hak’hel,” in the pantheon of G-d’s greatest gifts to His people.

In Deuteronomy 31:10, Moses commands the People of Israel to gather together for the special observance of “Hak’hel.” Every seven years, as they celebrate the festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem, the Children of Israel, led by the King of Israel, are to come together to read the Torah for all the people. Deuteronomy 31:12 states,הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ,  לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת , Gather together the people–-the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities, so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear the L-rd your G-d, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.

The ceremony of “Hak’hel,” takes place every seven years, immediately following the year of שְׁמִטָּהShemita, the year in which all the farmers allow their lands to lie fallow. During this entire year the land is given an opportunity to regenerate and the bodies and souls of the People of Israel are rejuvenated through physical rest and the study of Torah.

On the festival of Sukkot, during the year that immediately follows the sabbatical year, the king of Israel himself would rise to teach the people Torah. This very special occasion is intended to underscore the primacy of Torah study, by emphasizing that everyone, king, scholar, farmer, women and children, come together to experience this unprecedented educational celebration.

Rashi citing the Talmud Chagiga 3a, explains that the men come to the “Hak’hel” ceremony לִלְמוֹד –“lil’mod,” to study, the women, לִשְׁמֹעַ –“lish’moh’ah,” to hear, and the small children, לְתֵת שָׂכָר לִמֽבִיאֵיהֶם , to give reward to those who bring them.

This traditional interpretation raises questions about the efficacy of Torah education for women. After all, while the men come to “study,” women only come to “listen.”

This issue has been debated in the Talmud by the great scholars over the centuries. The majority of rabbinic opinions maintain that women must learn Torah too, so that they will know how to properly practice the mitzvot. The debate over the requirement to study is really regarding the Oral Code, the Talmudic exegesis of the written Torah. Obviously, without knowing the Oral Code, it would be impossible for the women to fulfill a good part of Jewish observance. Observant Jewish women must have at least an academic mastery of the Rabbinic interpretations of the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity and many other mitzvot, which comprise a major part of Jewish life.

The unresolved question is whether women must engage in the purely academic, scholarly side of Jewish learning, which does not impact on Jewish living and observance.

I would like to suggest that there is another way of interpreting the words of Rashi when citing the Talmudic tradition stating that the men come לִלְמוֹד , to study, and that the women come, לִשְׁמֹעַ , to listen or to hear.

A most profound educational insight, one that has bearing on the Talmudic citation in Rashi’s commentary, may be derived from the basic statement of faith that Jews recite daily: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ, השׁם אֶחָד , Listen, O Israel, the L-rd is your G-d, the L-rd is one.

The word, שְׁמַע –“Shemah,” cannot merely mean to “listen.” After all, the “Shemah” is a declaration of intense and deep faith in G-d, and cannot mean to only hear the words, to only mouth the words, or to allow the words to penetrate one ear and go out the other.

Shemah,” in this case, must mean that every Jew must strive to achieve a deep and profound understanding of G-d, as well as the nature of G-d, leading to total faith in Him.

While the men may come to the “Hak’hel” ceremony to study, to engage in the rigorous back-and-forth arguments about the meaning of the words and the lessons to be derived from the textual nuances, the women are there “lish’moh’ah,” to help derive the deep and profound spiritual messages that are hidden within the texts and the words of the Torah. While the men engage in analyzing the fine points of scholarship, the women discover and uncover the profound messages that lie within the text, and teach them to the men and children. While לִלְמוֹד means to learn, לִשְׁמֹעַ , means to understand, to absorb, to bring the message home and to allow it to penetrate one’s heart and mind, which is, of course, the most effective way of transmitting these teachings to future generations of family and young people.

And, finally, why does the Talmud state that the children are brought “in order to give reward to the parents who bring them”? Because a most profound lesson is conveyed to a child when parents, not caretakers, personally accompany their children to school, deeply affirming the value of education. The joint learning of child and parent has a most intense impact on the child, on the family and on Jewish future.

Like the celebration of “Hak’hel,” the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur afford Jews the world over a unique opportunity to study and to listen together as one united Jewish family. May the experiences of these High Holidays be a source of profound and positive impact on family and nation for the entire year to come, and may the year 5778 be a blessed one for all people.

May you be blessed.