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Noah 5775-2014

“The Fate of Humankind is Sealed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

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

The final verses of parashat Bereshith speak of the corruption of humankind. The Torah reports (Genesis 6:5), that G-d saw that the wickedness of humankind upon the earth was great, and that all of human thoughts were directed toward doing evil. G-d regretted having made humankind, and announced, Genesis 6:7,

אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם,  כִּי

נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם, I will blot out humankind whom I created, from off the face of the earth–-from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I have reconsidered My having made them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Bereshith 5775-2014

“The Sad Destiny of the Firstborn Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Sukkot 5775-2014

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Yom Kippur 5775-2014

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

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

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

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

Haazinu-Rosh Hashana 5775-2014

“Invoking Heaven and Earth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his brief speech, Reb Elchanan explained:

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

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

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

Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5774-2014

“Repentance-With a Little Help from our Friend in Heaven!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we read the uplifting prediction of the eventual repentance and the concomitant redemption of the Jewish people.

In Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, the Torah asserts that the Jewish people will return to G-d and listen to His voice. G-d will return the exiles, have mercy on His people, and will gather all the dispersed from the far ends of the heavens, bringing them to the land that He promised them. They will return to the land that their forefathers possessed and they will posses it. G-d will do good to His people, making them more numerous than their forefathers.

In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah states, וּמָל השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ, לְאַהֲבָה אֶת השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ, לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ, The L-rd your G-d will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring, to love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.

The numerous ominous curses that were previously heaped upon the Jewish people will be removed from G-d’s people and will instead be placed upon Israel’s enemies. The Jews will return to G-d and heed His voice, and perform all the commandments of G-d.

Especially after all the many dreaded imprecations, the promise of redemption is a most welcome and joyous prediction.

Given the beauty of the poetry describing the return and acceptance of the People of Israel, the imagery of “circumcision” is rather dissonant. The Ramban understands “circumcision”  to mean that G-d promises to remove the evil inclination, to the extent that even free will be nullified, enabling the people to worship G-d in the most natural manner.

Maimonides explains that before Adam and Eve defiantly ate the forbidden fruit, there was no need for human beings to know the difference between good and evil. Humans intuitively knew that sin was bad and was to be avoided. Just as animals have the instinct to flee from danger, it was simply a human instinct to be repelled by sin. According to Maimonides, “to love the L-rd, your G-d, so that you may live,” means that the desire for life is to be the natural instinct of the human being. So when G-d removes the impediment and circumcises the human heart, the people will return to the primordial level of naturally doing good.

Other commentators understand the idea of circumcision in a less radical manner. The Da’at Sofrim says that G-d will reduce the evil inclination, thus increasing the ability of the human being to more easily recognize truth and acknowledge that which is wrong, a skill that, according to the Da’at Sofrim, was acquired during the times of exile. This verse clearly adds the important promise that G-d Himself will assist the people in their process of repentance.

The great challenge, however, in the process of repentance, is that human beings are creatures of habit, and habits by definition, do not easily change. Whether it is drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, or checking one’s email incessantly, watching a particular television program or playing the lottery, expressing oneself with inappropriate language, or even buying a particular brand of underwear, none of these habits are easily broken or even modified. Indeed, most people become deeply entrenched in their fixed patterns, seeking their comfort levels, even if they are well aware that their routines are not the most productive or a healthy way to live.

Clearly, the first and most important ingredient in truly effective self-improvement, is the recognition that one’s routines can be improved, that behaviors can be elevated, and that people can always be better than they were a few minutes ago. It is this critical change in attitude that is necessary in order to change one’s behavior, and is the compelling and most essential element, leading to personal and spiritual growth.

G-d promises His people, in the words of the Torah, that if they only try and take the first step, He will circumcise their hearts, and will make it possible for them, and easier for them, to make those changes. He will help His people recognize that change is necessary, and encourage them with His great love and consideration to make those necessary changes, to allow for true self-improvement.

We, today, are still a long way off from returning to the primordial nature of Adam and Eve, who had no evil inclination. Yet, we are fortunate to have access to a method that allows us, with G-d’s help, to make the changes, without losing the gift of free will.

This is the blessing of G-d to His people. This is the blessing of the New Year. This is the true blessing of new beginnings.

Wishing you all a כְּתִיבָה וַחֲתִימָה טוֹבָה, a year of peace, a year in which you will be inscribed for good health and abundant blessing.

May you be blessed.

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

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

Kee Tavo 5774-2014

Finding Respite

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is one of two parashiot in the Torah (the other is Bechukotai) that contains the Tochachah, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people and the predictions of Divine punishment.

After describing the frightening horrors that will befall the unrepentant Jewish people, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 28:64, predicts that G-d, as further punishment, will disperse the Jewish people among the nations from one end of the earth to the other, where they will be forced to serve gods of wood and stone.

In addition to the numerous physical challenges that the Jewish people will face during this time of the “eclipse of G-d,” the Torah records that the emotional toll will also be great. Not only will there be the horrors of wars, famine, exile and sickness, but the Torah predicts in Deuteronomy 28:65-66, וּבַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם לֹא תַרְגִּיעַ וְלֹא יִהְיֶה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלֶךָ, וְנָתַן השׁם לְךָ שָׁם לֵב רַגָּז וְכִלְיוֹן עֵינַיִם וְדַאֲבוֹן נָפֶשׁ. וְהָיוּ חַיֶּיךָ תְּלֻאִים לְךָ מִנֶּגֶד, וּפָחַדְתָּ לַיְלָה וְיוֹמָם, וְלֹא תַאֲמִין בְּחַיֶּיךָ  And among those nations you will not be tranquil, there will be no rest for the sole of your foot; there, the L-rd will give you a trembling heart, longing of eyes and suffering of soul. Your life will hang in the balance, and you will be frightened night and day, and you will have no confidence in your life.

Most members of the generation of the Holocaust, along with the post-Holocaust generation, are familiar with, not only the physical toll that the Shoah exacted on its victims, but also its brutal emotional toll. The beatings, medical experiments, starvation, sickness, death marches, and the cruel tortures not only broke the victims physically, but also left deep and painful emotional scars and wounds. Indeed, Hitler’s savage war against the Jews continues to afflict our people even today, among the second, third and fourth generations. Unfortunately, there are an inordinate number of children and grandchildren of survivors who seem unable to find stability, security, love and optimism in their lives.

It is understandable that many survivors of the Holocaust who were profoundly traumatized have emerged emotionally challenged. But who would expect that their children and grandchildren would also bear the scars of the Shoah so deeply? And yet, it is not an infrequent occurrence.

About twenty years ago, I heard a most inspiring but painful firsthand report from a remarkable survivor. Speaking publicly for the first time at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Mr. Chaim Fraiman, who passed away earlier this year, delivered a most heart-rending report of the ordeals that he had experienced during the Holocaust. Enduring the unremitting horrors of the Gestapo and the concentration camps, he miraculously survived the war, together with his sick brother, whom he had protected, nursed and kept alive for many years. Unfortunately, his sick brother succumbed in the D.P. camp, only a few days after liberation.

My personal reaction to the presentation was visceral: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe,” I cried, “Genuk, enough! The Jewish people have endured too much, and this must stop!”

After the horrors of the war were made public, many Jews were under the impression that with the indisputable documentation of the extensive Nazi horrors, together with the miraculous rebirth and development of the State of Israel, the perfidious scourge of anti-Semitism would somehow abate and eventually vanish. For a while there was, what seemed to be, a universal sensitivity. But, only sixty years later, that sensitivity has vanished, and there is now a virulent outbreak of anti-Semitism in countless countries throughout the world, even on the streets of New York and Los Angeles.

It is indeed surreal that in this day and age hundreds, if not thousands, of rockets and missiles have been regularly launched into the population centers of Israel by its savage enemies. Yet, there is little outcry or sympathy from the nations of the world.

Once again, we cry out, “G-d, enough is enough!” The pain is too great to bear, and we continue to suffer.

Let us hope that in this season of forgiveness, the Al-mighty will heed our prayers, and find His people deserving of relief, leading to a complete end to the madness, and the eradication of the irrational hatred towards the Al-mighty’s flock.

Now that we have entered the month of Elul, the month of repentance, let us make certain that, through our noble actions and favorable deeds, we are found worthy of being redeemed from the horrible scourge of anti-Semitism, and that this dreaded night of horror will give way to a beautiful dawn of light and salvation.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5774-2014

“Restoring Lost Possessions–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the 74 commandments (47 negative and 27 positive) that are found in parashat Kee Teitzei is the mitzvah of restoring lost articles to their rightful owners. This mitzvah has already been discussed in Kee Teitzei 5767-2007.

The Torah in Deuteronomy 22:1 states, לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and hide yourself from them, you shall surely return them to your brother.

The Code of Jewish Law states that someone who finds a lost object, even in the public domain, is required to try to restore it to its rightful owner. If the owner is not known, then the finder must care for the lost object and guard it until the owner comes to claim it. This is what is implied in the Torah’s commandment in Deuteronomy 22:3 וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם,…and you find it–you shall not look away and ignore it.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 22:2, provides additional instructions:

וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ אֶל תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ, וְהָיָה עִמְּךָ עַד דְּרֹשׁ אָחִיךָ אֹתוֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתוֹ לו, …then gather it inside your house and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it, and you return it to him. The rabbis derive from this verse that the finder must be proactive, and make a concerted effort to alert the rightful owner of the loss by publicly announcing that the object has been found.

From the words in Deuteronomy 22:2, “Until your brother inquires after it,” it is deduced that the rightful owner must prove his ownership by properly identifying the lost object. It is preferable that the claimant provide clear identification regarding the lost object–such as size, shape, color, ornamentation and/or the location where it was lost. Objects that do not have specific identifications can be considered ownerless, since the owners have probably given up hope of ever retrieving them, at which time the finder can acquire the item as his own. The Code of Jewish Law, however, recommends that the finder go beyond the letter of the law and try to restore even the lost objects that lack identifying signs.

One who finds a lost object is required to return it without compensation, aside from expenditures incurred in order to publicize the loss or to care for the lost object (e.g. safe deposit vault, feeding an animal, etc.). If the lost item is perishable, it is proper to sell it and give the proceeds to the owner, to ensure that at least the basic value is preserved. Lost produce that would spoil, or animals that need to be fed, are to be sold immediately, since they would have no value should the owner appear only after a long period of time.

One of the most important elements in deciding the rightful ownership of a lost article is the issue of יֵיאוּשׁ –“Yei’ush”–-determining whether the original owner despaired of ever recovering the lost article.

Both Maimonides in Laws of Robbery and Lost Property 6:2 and 11:11, as well as Rabbi Joseph Caro, in the Code of Jewish Law, Choshen Mishpat 259:7, declare: “He who saves [retrieves] valuables from a lion or a bear, or from the bottom of the sea or from idolaters, they belong to him, even though the original owner stands and protests.”

After the Holocaust, the concept of “Yei’ush,” played a most significant role in determining the rightful owner of property lost during the Shoah, as well as the famous Sotheby’s case.

A fascinating case regarding “Yei’ush” is recorded in Rabbi Irving J. Rosenbaum’s collection of responsa entitled, The Holocaust and Halakhah.

In February of 1942, the Nazis decreed that the Jews of Kovono, Poland must surrender all their Hebrew books to the authorities or face death. Some of the books that were gathered in this raid were extremely valuable.

Rabbi Rosenbaum recounts the story of a Jewish Ghetto police officer, Yitzchak Greenberg, who placed himself in great personal danger to save some of these prized books. Greenberg buried a chest filled with some of the rarest and most prized books. The hope was that any surviving residents of the Ghetto would return to reclaim these items.

After the war, some of those who survived returned to Kovono to attempt to locate things that they had hidden during the war. One such searcher unearthed the chest in which the valuable books had been hidden. He immediately realized the treasure he had discovered. He declared them to be his based on Jewish law that maintains that anyone who finds property which has been abandoned, may subsequently claim ownership of it.

It did not take long for word of the find to spread among the other survivors of the community. One of the men recognized that among the books were some that had belonged to his family, and even had inscriptions with his family member’s names, and insisted that the books be returned to him. The finder, however, asserted that, since the books had been abandoned, he had the right to claim ownership.

To determine who was the rightful owner, both parties approached Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, one of the few European rabbis and Halachic authorities to survive the Holocaust.

Rabbi Irving J. Rosenbaum writes about the rabbi’s decision:

In his decision, Rabbi Oshry cites the Talmud Baba Kamma 114a, “He who saves articles of value, from the river, or from a marauding band, or from robbers, if the owners have abandoned hope of recovery, they belong to him.” Rashi explains that in all these cases, it is assumed that there had been “Yei’ush,” abandonment of hope of recovery, and therefore the finder has acquired legal ownership through a combination of יֵיאוּשׁ, “Yei’ush” and possession, שִׁינּוּי רְשׁוּת, “Shinui reshut.”

Rabbi Oshry determined that once the Nazis had stolen the books, the original owners had no reason to ever expect that they would be returned. Therefore, it may be readily assumed that they had given up hope of ever recovering the books, since in addition to their possessions, the Jews’ entire earthly existence was at the mercy of the Nazis. Citing the Rashbam, Rabbi Oshry maintained that in the event of military conquest, there is no requirement of “Yei’ush,” since under the laws that govern armed conflict, conquering armies acquire ownership of all spoils of war.

Complicating the issue was the opinion of Tosafot found in Baba Kamma 114b, which speaks directly to the issue of stolen books, specifically, and suggests that even when stolen by non-Jews, there is no automatic despair, since there is no resale market for Jewish books except for the Jewish market. Therefore, the owner retains hope that he may one day be able to repurchase them.

Rabbi Oshry, however, explained that the above opinion does not apply in this case. Since the Nazis intended to destroy the books to use them to make paper, the owner would not have the opportunity to repurchase them. Consequently, there was never any hope of retrieving them.

While Rabbi Oshry did entertain several other scenarios where the original owner could reclaim the books, Rabbi Oshry, nevertheless, concluded, that in all likelihood, the original owner had abandoned any notion that he would be able to recover his property. Since the books were now in the possession of he who found them, they were now the finder’s property in the eyes of Jewish Law.

According to the opinion of the Recanati, restoring a lost article is a mitzvah not to be taken lightly. The Recanati underscores the fact that some people value their possessions so profoundly, that they often regard their property to be of equal value to their lives. Consequently, when they lose something, they feel that part of their life has been lost. Therefore, a person who restores a lost article, may actually be restoring a person’s life. That is why the authorities highly recommend that, even if the finder has legal rights to keep the found article, it be returned its original owner, as a kindness, beyond the letter of the law.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5774-2014

“Justice–the Source of Security of the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, calls upon the People of Israel to formally establish courts of law in every city in the land of Israel.

The Torah mandates that, in addition to the requisite judges, officers of the court be appointed who will be responsible for enforcement of the judicial decisions. These officers are to patrol the streets and marketplaces to enforce standards of honesty, and summon violators before the court to be judged.

One of the most formidable and frequently-cited verses of the Torah is found in this parasha. In Deuteronomy 16:20, Moses cries out to the Jewish People in G-d’s name, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹ קֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land, that the L-rd, your G-d gives you.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his erudite remarks regarding the concept of justice in Judaism, cites Rabbeinu Bachya, who notes that the repetition of the Hebrew words, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק   “Tzedek tzedek,” Justice, justice, is intended to underscore the importance of even-handed justice to all. “Justice,” says Rabbeinu Bachya, is imperative, “whether [it is] to your profit or loss, whether in word or an action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”

Rabbi Hertz considers the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to be the “keynote of the humane legislation of the Torah, and of the demand for social righteousness by Israel’s Prophets, Psalmists and Sages.”

Rabbi Hertz also clarifies the difference in the meaning of “justice” in Jewish tradition in contrast to the meaning of justice to the Greeks:

In Plato’s Republic, for example, it [justice] implies a harmonious arrangement of society, by which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so that those who perform humble functions shall be content to perform them in due subservience to their superiors. It stresses the qualities of human nature…

On the other hand, says Rabbi Hertz, the Jewish concept of justice stresses the equality of human beings. The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of G-d, that every human being possesses a Divine spark, and that each human life is sacred and of infinite worth.

Rabbi Hertz drives the message home by declaring:

Judaism requires that human personality be respected in every human being–in the female heathen prisoner of war, in the delinquent, even in the criminal condemned to death. The lashes to be inflicted on the evil-doer must be strictly limited, lest ‘your brother seem vile unto you’ (Deuteronomy 25:3), and, if he be found worthy of death by hanging, his human dignity must still be respected: his body is not to remain hanging overnight, but must be buried the same day (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Greek idea of justice, argues Rabbi Hertz, is akin to harmony, whereas the Hebrew idea of justice is more akin to holiness.

Quoting an anonymous American jurist, Rabbi Hertz declares that the world owes its conception of justice to the Jews.

In addition to introducing the revolutionary idea of justice to humankind, the fact that the Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:20, links the practice of justice to the security of the land of Israel, is of extreme importance.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his comments to Deuteronomy 16:20, notes as follows:

The double promise of verse 20 (“that you may thrive and occupy the land”) means: To pursue the goal of justice unceasingly with full devotion is Israel’s great task in order that its physical and political existence be secured. The significant truth is thereby laid down, that the possession of the land [by the People of Israel] comes into question every minute, and has to be constantly merited afresh (i.e., through justice) by a Jewish state.

Significantly, we find once again, that there is much in parashat Shoftim’s message that applies to contemporary affairs. The outburst of anti-Semitism throughout the world in response to Israel’s valiant attempt to defend itself from thousands of Hamas missiles, raises many questions in light of what the Torah teaches in parashat Shoftim.

After 2,000 years of exile and the miraculous return of the Jewish people to its land, it seems quite clear from the comments of Rabbi Hirsch (who lived long before the establishment of the State of Israel), that there are no guarantees that the Jewish people will permanently possess the land of Israel. In fact, this very verse boldly implies that the People of Israel may lose possession of the land at any time, especially if they fail to properly practice the mitzvah of justice.

I have often noted that in all of Jewish history there has never been a period of peace without a concomitant return to G-d. Once again, the Torah here confirms that the security of the land of Israel is not dependent upon military strength, but on the just pursuits of the Jewish people.

Surely, we may vociferously defend ourselves from the vicious anti-Israel outcries of many world leaders, by declaring that Israel’s army is the most moral army on the face of the earth. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has declared that the Israeli army deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the way it has conducted itself. There is no question that numerous Israeli soldiers have lost their lives because they erred on the side of caution in order to protect innocent Palestinian civilians, leaving themselves vulnerable to Hamas terrorists, who take advantage of the I.D.F. soldiers’ compassion.

Let us hope and pray that the meritorious deeds of the Jewish people will soon result in greater security for the State of Israel. While it is important for Jews to continue to speak out frequently, to organize demonstrations and record our voices in support of Israel, it is equally, if not more important to raise the level of our peoples’ moral behavior and actions during this especially sensitive and perilous time for the Jewish people.

If we do this, if we indeed strive for a higher level of sanctity in our words, actions and deeds, the Jewish people will surely prevail, and merit that the security of the land of Israel will be ensured, from now until the end of time.

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5774-2014

“Giving Charity Kindly and Generously”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we find particular emphasis on performing acts of kindness, generosity and charity.

While charity is regarded today by most enlightened societies as a positive value, in ancient societies charity was not always acknowledged as a universal good or rational act. Even today, in some contemporary settings, it is still regarded as a questionable value.

For instance, traditional Calvinists do not look upon charity favorably since they believe that one may not interfere with G-d’s will. In fact, helping a person who is poor or widowed or orphaned may be seen as defying G-d’s will. Perhaps their unfortunate situation is intended by G-d to serve as a punishment for sinful deeds, or to strengthen them through the challenge of poverty, widowhood, or being an orphan.

Judaism rejects that kind of thinking and declares that all poor and needy people who ask for help must be responded to immediately. Only G-d may decide whether those in need are deserving of help or not. Those who are asked for help must assume that all mendicants are entirely deserving.

Judaism also has a unique view regarding the attitude of the charity donor. Many religionists assume that all good deeds must be performed with a full and sincere heart. Judaism submits that helping the needy is the primary concern–philosophizing and rationalization can come later. Therefore one is expected to give, even without a full heart, but give.

The Torah was actually the first documented source to introduce the concept of charity to humankind. Deuteronomy 15:7-8, boldly declares, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן. כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לו, If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 14:22, when discussing the issue of tithes, states, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ, You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed. The rabbis (Talmud, Taanit 9a) deduce, utilizing a play on words, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתֽעַשֵּׁר, give tithes in order to become rich. The rabbis further state that charity is the only mitzvah in which there is a guarantee of Divine compensation. Says the prophet (Malachi 3:10), וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת, “Test me in this,” G-d declares, that if you give charity, G-d will be certain to reward the donor’s benevolence.

The Abarbanel notes that a person who gives charity is not really giving of his own wherewithal. The donated funds actually belong to G-d; the Jew is merely a caretaker of those funds, serving as G-d’s “banker” on earth. The banker who fails to fulfill G-d’s wishes will lose the deposit. G-d will withdraw the bounty, and bestow it elsewhere.

The Abarbanel further states that charity also serves as a test of one’s faith. A person may assume, incorrectly, that the more charity he dispenses, the less he will have. However, G-d promises just the opposite. Besides, says the Abarbanel, one never knows when the wheel of fortune will turn, and the person with funds today will find himself in need of sustenance from others tomorrow.

Rashi notes that the words in the verse “a destitute person …any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land,” points to a particular priority to be followed when dispensing charity. Those to be cared for first are the totally “destitute,” who are desperately poor. The words “your brethren,” teach that the closer the relative, the greater the obligation. The words “in any of your cities,” imply that the poor of your own city come before those of other cities. Finally, from the words, “in the land,” we affirm that the poor of the land of Israel come before those of other lands.

The Hebrew word צְדָקָה, “tzedakah” literally means righteousness, not charity, implying that sustaining others is not to be construed as an act of kindness, but rather as the correct thing to do.

Another unique insight of Judaism is that beyond the financial support, meaningful charity involves taking into consideration the personal and emotional needs of the destitute person. Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 250:1) suggests that a formerly wealthy person needs to be sustained according to his particular (even extravagant) needs. Therefore, those who are accustomed to being driven around in a chauffeured limousine must be helped to maintain their dignity and self esteem.

Several years ago, I heard a moving story about Mr. Charles Smith who owned a wholesale vegetable business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. In order to have enough time to prepare properly for the Shabbat, he would always make certain to close his business by noon on Friday, no matter how many orders were still waiting.

After closing for Shabbat, the first thing Mr. Smith did was to call Yeshiva Torah Va’Daath, which was, at the time, located in Williamsburg, to make certain that all faculty members had been paid for the week. If they had not been paid, he would cross the Williamsburg Bridge himself and make certain that everyone was paid before the weekend.

Because he was a wholesaler, he usually had a lot of cash with him. When approached by a poor person on the street who asked for help, he would quickly reach into his pocket and take out a wad of bills, turn and look the other way, and say to the needy person to take as much as he needed.

The author of the Sefer Hachinuch insists that Jews are רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים, the children and grandchildren of naturally merciful people, who are proud to share the mitzvah of charity with the world.

The revolutionary concept of charity is one of the greatest of G-d’s gifts to humanity.

May you be blessed.