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Shemot 5777-2017

“From Whence Shall Come My Salvation?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, is the opening portion of the book of Exodus, also known as Sefer Shemot, the second of the five books of the Torah. The book of Shemot concerns the period of time during which the twelve tribes of Israel are transformed into a single nation through the common experiences of enslavement in Egypt, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.

Parashat Shemot opens with the birth of Moses who is saved from the Nile River by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace. Despite being raised as Egyptian nobility, young Moses sees the Israelites as his brothers. (Shemot 5763-2002).

When Moses encounters an Egyptian smiting a Jew, and no one comes to the Jew’s aid, Moses kills the Egyptian and buries his body in the sand. The very next day, when Moses goes out, he sees two Jews fighting with each other. According to the Midrash Rabba (Exodus 1:28), one of the two men fighting is the very same person who was being beaten by the Egyptian, and whose life Moses had saved. When Moses tried to stop the aggressor, he cries out (Exodus 2:14): “Who appointed you as an authority, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?”

Once Moses’ deed became public, Pharaoh sought to kill Moses. The young prince fled to the land of Midian where he sat by the well waiting for the local people to arrive. Soon Moses was again confronted with injustice and felt compelled to intervene.

When Moses saw the shepherds of Midian harassing Jethro’s daughters, not allowing them to water their father’s sheep, he chased the shepherds away and personally watered Jethro’s sheep himself.

Surprised to see his daughters arrive home early, they explained to Jethro,(Exodus 2:19), אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים, וְגַם דָּלֹה דָלָה לָנוּ, וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת הַצֹּאן , thatan Egyptian man saved them from the shepherds, and he even drew water for us, and watered the sheep.

The fact that Moses is identified by the daughters of Jethro as an Egyptian, is not looked upon favorably by the commentators. After all, in Genesis 39:14, when Joseph rejected the advances of Mrs. Potiphar, she clearly identifies Joseph to the servants of Potiphar as a Jew who is mocking them, indicating that Joseph did not hide his origins and publicly identified as a Jew in Egypt. Moses, however, apparently allowed others to think he was an Egyptian and did not correct them. Because of this, says the Midrash, Joseph merited to be buried in the Holy Land, whereas Moses was buried in the Wilderness of Moab.

The Midrash Rabba, Exodus 1:32, raises concerns regarding the verse in Exodus 2:19, “and they [the daughters of Jethro] said that an Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds.” The Midrash asks, “Is Moses an Egyptian? Clearly, he is a Hebrew!” The Midrash then explains, that Moses is referred to as an Egyptian, only because his clothes were Egyptian.

The Midrash also offers an alternate explanation: The term אִישׁ מִצְרִי –“Ish Mitzri” (an Egyptian man), can be compared to a person who is stung by a viper and runs to the water to place his feet in the water to wash off the poison. At the river, he sees a child drowning and saves him. Says the child to his rescuer, “Were it not for you I would already be dead.” He responds, “I did not save you, the viper that stung me, from whom I fled, he saved you!”

When the daughters of Jethro congratulated Moses for saving them from the hands of the shepherds, Moses responded, “It was not I. It was the Egyptian man whom I killed who saved you!” That is why the daughters said to their father, “Ish Mitzri” an Egyptian man, meaning: The only reason Moses wound up coming all the way to Midian and wound up near Jethro was because of the Egyptian man whom he killed!

Very often in life, we find salvation, or an inordinate amount of good, coming from the most unforeseen and unexpected sources. The well-known Jewish writer, Rabbi Hanoch Teller, tells of a truly generous and righteous person who volunteered to donate a kidney to a total stranger. When preparing for the removal of his kidney, the doctors found a cancerous growth that they removed, saving his life.

How often do we hear of Holocaust survivors, who survived against all odds, and went on to achieve great success in business and in life, in no small measure, due to the fortitude and resourcefulness they had developed in times of adversity?

Many of us never realize or acknowledge the role that the “Egyptian man” plays in each of our lives, the hardships, and challenges, the struggles that strengthen our inner core, bequeathing us the power to succeed and prevail.
That is why it is so important to view each of life’s challenges, as opportunities to strengthen ourselves, to develop new talents and new approaches to future obstacles we will inevitably encounter. Sometimes this is achieved by working with the challenges, rather than succumbing to them in frustration.

Many of life’s experiences can be resolved through greater diligence and personal growth. We all need to identify our own “Egyptian man,” to see our challenges, not as roadblocks, but as fresh opportunities and blessings, that will undoubtedly result in ever-greater accomplishments.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5777-2017

“The Passing of the Last of the Patriarchs”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is the final parasha of the book of Genesis. In this parasha, Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, passes away and the era of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs comes to an end.

The Torah notes that Jacob lived to age 147, 33 fewer years than his father, Isaac, who passed away at age 180. Some commentators attribute his shortened life to the fact that Jacob, upon first meeting Pharaoh (Genesis 47:8-9), somewhat selfishly complained about the suffering that he had endured throughout his life, failing to acknowledge the good that he had experienced. Others say that Jacob’s “premature” death is attributable to the fact that he had causelessly cursed Rachel, saying to Laban, Genesis 31:32, “With whomever you find your god, he shall not live.” As a result, Jacob’s own years were diminished by 33, the numerical value of the Hebrew word, יִחְיֶה–“yich’yeh,” to live.

In Genesis 48:1, the Torah reports, וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנָיו עִמּוֹ, אֶת מְנַשֶּׁה וְאֶת אֶפְרָיִם, and it came to pass after these things that it was said to Joseph, “Behold! Your father is ill.” So Joseph took his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe with him, to visit his ailing father.

The Oznaim L’Torah notes that the Torah’s introduction, “And it came to pass after these things,” indicates that Jacob took ill only after he had arranged to be buried in the land of Israel. The Midrash HaGadol explains that Jacob had been deeply concerned about coming to Egypt, lest his children fail to acknowledge the centrality of the Promised Land. He was fearful that his children would become too comfortable in Egypt and would assimilate among the Egyptian population, and that he himself would die and be buried in Egypt.

Despite the fact that in Genesis 46:4 G-d Himself assured Jacob that He would personally bring Jacob up from Egypt, and that his son, Joseph will place his hands over his eyes, Jacob was still concerned about going to Egypt. It was only after Joseph took an oath that he would bury his father in Canaan, that Jacob felt fully confident that the promise would be properly carried out, and that his children would eventually return to Canaan.

The commentators maintain that the language of the verse, which states “that it was said to Joseph, ‘Behold your father is ill,’” indicates strongly that Joseph was not in regular contact with his father and was not frequently present at his old father’s bedside. Some attribute this to the long estrangement between Joseph and Jacob. Others argue that, to the contrary, it underscores Joseph’s righteousness. Joseph, they claim, was afraid to be with his father, lest Jacob ask him about the details of his sale, forcing him to speak ill of his brothers, and causing his father additional grief. By keeping his distance, there was far less likelihood that Jacob would interrogate him about that embarrassing chapter of his life.

The Midrash suggests that it was Joseph’s son, Ephraim, who informed Joseph of Jacob’s illness. Apparently, Ephraim frequently studied with Jacob and it was he who broke the news to his father that his grandfather was ill.

It is fascinating to note that until this point, there is no mention in scriptures of illness. Now, for the first time, the Torah records, “Behold, your father is ill.”

The Talmud, in Baba Metziah 87a, claims that until the time of Jacob, there was no illness. The Midrash states that normally, a person would simply sneeze and die. Jacob, however, asked for Divine mercy, arguing with the Al-mighty that it is not appropriate for a person to die suddenly. He beseeched G-d to give him time and an opportunity to repent, to prepare a last will and testament for his household. The Al-mighty acceded to his prayers. Thus Jacob became the first man to die of illness, and was given the opportunity to speak with his children to share with them one last lesson. It is for this reason that when one sneezes, it is customary to say: “to life” or “to health,” since sneezing was once a moment of great mortal danger.

Rabbi Ch. Karlini, cited in Iturei Torah, questions whether Jacob was indeed the first to experience illness. Rabbi Karlini points to Genesis 18:1, and G-d’s visit Abram, whom Rashi maintains came to visit Abram who was ill, recovering from his painful circumcision. If that is so, how can the commentators possibly claim that Jacob was the first person to experience illness?

The Tosefot, in Baba Batra 16b, states that Abram wore a precious stone around his neck that would heal people who were ill. Others point out that Abram was not sick, rather he was wounded. Whereas Jacob was the first person to experience illness and to die as a result.

There have been many discussions and debates regarding the merits of sudden death, compared to long, drawn out illnesses that result in death. The Midrash relates that Moses was jealous of his brother, Aaron, and when he saw that Aaron expired with a kiss of G-d, he longed to die in the same pleasant manner as his brother.

Jacob’s plea to G-d seems to indicate that it is better to know that life is coming to an end, to have time to prepare one’s papers, to put life’s issues in order, and to say farewell to one’s loved ones. In addition, there may also be merit to the fact that suffering experienced in this world, will result in less suffering endured in the World to Come.

In the final analysis, we must acknowledge that everything that G-d does is always for His children’s benefit. Whether one experiences a sudden, unexpected, death or a long, lingering demise with much suffering, the fate of G-d’s creatures is always in His hands.

May you be blessed.

Vayigash 5777-2017

“No ‘Man’ was with Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, the extraordinary story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its dramatic conclusion as Joseph reveals himself to his brethren.

As we have noted previously (Vayigash 5761-2001), Joseph is finally convinced that his brothers are completely remorseful for what they had done to him. When Judah selflessly offers himself to serve as a slave to Joseph and Pharaoh, in place of Benjamin, Joseph is finally convinced that his brothers are truly penitent.

Maimonides in his Laws of Teshuva 2:1, states that true Teshuva (repentance) can be confirmed only when a sinner is confronted with the same temptation or the same sin, and remains firm, resisting the temptation to sin. By refusing to abandon Benjamin, the brothers confirm that their Teshuva is wholehearted.

Remembering what Joseph was like in his youth, and their intense hatred for him, Joseph’s brothers could have easily concluded that Benjamin too was a rotten child like his older sibling. There was good reason, and more than sufficient evidence, to believe that Benjamin was guilty of stealing Joseph’s chalice. After all, negative traits run in families. Despite their abiding resentment for Joseph and the turmoil that he had created in their family, Joseph’s brothers stood up for their little brother Benjamin, refusing to leave him behind in Egypt, even though that would have been the easy thing to do. Their commitment to Benjamin was the true sign of Teshuvah.

In Genesis 45:1, Scripture describes the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, וְלֹא יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי, וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, Now Joseph could no longer restrain himself in front of all those who attended to him.  He called out: “Make every man go out from me!” And no man remained with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

The Abarbanel points out that on two previous occasions, Joseph had actually restrained himself and left the room to weep privately (See Genesis 42:24 and 43:30).  Apparently, now that he was surrounded by so many attendants, because of their presence he could not restrain himself, and ordered that the room be cleared.

Joseph demands that כָל אִישׁ, every man, leave the room. Scripture then says, וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, and no man stood with him when he made himself known to his brothers.

One would have expected Joseph to demand that all “Egyptians” who were present leave the room. Instead, Joseph insists that, כָל אִישׁ, every man, leave the room.  Joseph’s brothers, who are also men, remain in the room.

The word “Ish” in scriptures often has a very definite meaning. “Ish” generally implies a person of significant stature and importance, one whose actions could change destiny. So, for instance, when Joseph was wandering in Shechem looking for his brothers, Torah records (Genesis 37:15) וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, a man finds him and asks him, “What are you looking for?”  The rabbis say that this “man” was the angel Gabriel, who sends Joseph to Dotan, so that Jewish destiny would continue to play out.

When Moses sees an Egyptian man trying to kill a Jewish slave by striking him, Scripture (Exodus 2:12) states that Moses turned this way and that, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ, and he saw that there was no man. Our rabbis say that Moses saw that there was no person of stature who was prepared to stand up to protect the Jew.  Therefore, Moses himself intervened.

Similarly, Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, is referred to (Esther 2:5) as אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, there was a “man” of great stature, whose name was Mordechai, who lived in the capital city of Shushan.

When Joseph declares, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי, remove every man from me, scripture testifies, וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, that no man stood with him when he revealed himself to his brothers. That “no man stood with Joseph” must mean more than that there were no other people with him. It could very well mean that until this point, Joseph was not really himself and not in control.  Rather, Joseph was being dominated by an “Ish,” an alien spirit.  Apparently, a vengeful spirit took control of Joseph, overwhelming the natural loving and forgiving spirit of Joseph.

The Talmud (Chagiga 15A) recalls the great sage Elisha ben Abuya, who became a heretic, and, after he was ex-communicated, was known as אַחֵר“Acher,” the other one.  When his loving student, Rabbi Meir, told him to return, Elisha ben Abuya said, “I heard a heavenly voice declare that the gates of penitence are open for all חוּץ מֵאַחֵר–‘chutz may’acher,’ with the exception of Acher, ‘the other one.’”

The rabbis ask if it is possible that a human being can be denied repentance? They explain, that as long as Elisha ben Abuya allowed Acher, the other spirit, the negative and heretical spirit, to dominate his being, he could not repent.  But if he would allow himself to return to being Elisha ben Abuya, rather than Acher, he could certainly repent.

It was only after Joseph returned to being Joseph, the kind, righteous Joseph, rather than the vengeful and angry Joseph, that he was able to reveal himself.

Joseph’s transformation, was a defining moment not only in Joseph’s life, but for all of Jewish history and Jewish destiny.  Once the “Ish,” the negative personality of Joseph, was extirpated, removed and banished, kindness and forgiveness was allowed to dominate, and the family of Jacob once again became whole.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this Sunday, January 8th, 2017 from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.

Mikeitz/Chanukah 5777-2016

“Pharaoh Was Agitated”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Pharaoh dreams two well-known dreams, the dream of seven fat cows that emerge from the Nile River and are eaten by seven emaciated cows, and the dream of the seven fat stalks of wheat that are devoured by seven thin stalks. The Torah reports, in Genesis 41:7, וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה, וְהִנֵּה חֲלוֹם, and Pharaoh awoke and behold it had been a dream.

Most people have dreams. Some dreams are so compelling that the dreamer cannot fall back to sleep, either because the dreams are so exciting or because they are so frightening. Concerning the dreams of Pharaoh, the Torah notes, in Genesis 41:8, וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר, וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ, and it was in the morning and Pharaoh’s spirit was agitated, so he sent and summoned for the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men.

Although Pharaoh related the dreams to his advisors, none could interpret them for him. Rashi maintains that there were indeed many interpretations, but Pharaoh did not find any of them satisfactory. Some interpreters told Pharaoh that he would have seven daughters who would die; Pharaoh refused to accept this interpretation.

There are commentators who maintain that dreamers often learn the meaning of their dream in their dream, but when they awaken they cannot recall the meaning. However, when they later hear the interpretation, they recognized it as the proper interpretation. This explains why Pharaoh would not accept the interpretations of the wise men.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab asks, why should Pharaoh find a dream to be so disconcerting, “certainly Pharaoh knew that most dreams are mere fantasy and the stuff of daytime musings.”

Rabbi Schwab explains that Pharaoh, like many monarchs, believed in resolving all disputes using might. The strong and numerous win out over the weak and the few. Pharaoh was certain that his subjects would not rise up against him because he was, by nature, always bold and confident. After all, he was Pharaoh.

These dreams, however, were different, representing a major departure from normative Egyptian elitist thinking. Emaciated cows cannot eat fat cows, and withered stalks cannot consume full, fat ones. Something is terribly amiss!

That is why the Torah states, וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ, Pharaoh was not only agitated, he was consumed by anxiety that such thoughts, even in the form of dreams, would ever cross his mind. He understood that the message of the dream must be coming from an external, rather than an internal source. Maybe the gods were communicating with him, warning him of an impending successful rebellion. Despite the fact that the rebels were weak, and small in number, this time they would overwhelm the strong majority. This is why Pharaoh convened a meeting of his wise men and advisors. This was not an ordinary dream that an Egyptian Pharaoh dreams.

Writing on, Rabbi Assi Gastfreund of St. Louis, suggests that non-believers, who believe in the ultimate power of strength, could not ever accept the defeat of the mighty at the hands of the weak. However, people of faith could actually believe that, under certain circumstances, G-d could cause the defeat of the mighty at the hands of the weak and the many at the hands of the few.

The source of Pharaoh’s agitation is directly related to the story of Chanukah, where the few defeat the many and the weak defeat the powerful. Pharaoh is terribly agitated by the possibility that the power of Egypt was not absolute, and that the might of Pharaoh had been diminished, implying that he could somehow be defeated.

A committed Jew, on the other hand, is filled with confidence. Such a Jew recognizes that even the laws of history and the rules of nature do not apply to one who is committed to G-d and protected by the Al-mighty.

How futile are those who declare (Deuteronomy 8:17), כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה, My power and the might of my hand has brought me this great success. The annals of history are littered with victims who subscribed to this terribly mistaken belief, including Jews and Jewish leaders who adopted this false philosophy.

As we light our Chanukah candles, increasing the number of lights every night, we pray that this beautiful ritual serves as a confirmation of our faith in the Al-mighty, and in His protective presence that watches over His people and keeps them strong.

As opposed to Pharaoh, an “agitated” Jew is not one who is concerned with power or might. An agitated Jew is one who strives, through faith and good works, to become worthy of G-d’s protection.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Saturday night, December 24th, 2016 and continues through Sunday night, January 1st, 2017.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.

Vayeishev 5777-2016

“The Voice Within Us”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife.

Scripture, in Genesis 39:10, describes the relentless efforts of Mrs. Potiphar to seduce Joseph. וַיְהִי כְּדַבְּרָהּ אֶל יוֹסֵף יוֹם יוֹם, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ לִשְׁכַּב אֶצְלָהּ לִהְיוֹת עִמָּהּ, And so it was, just as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he would hearken not to her or lay beside her or be with her.

And then, on that fateful day when he was alone in the house, Potiphar’s wife caught hold of Joseph by his garment and demanded that he lay with her. The Torah in Genesis 39:12 describes Joseph’s reaction, וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה, He [Joseph] left his garment in her hand, and he fled and went outside.

When Mrs. Potiphar saw that she had Joseph’s garment in her hand and that he had fled, she called out to the men of her household accusing the Hebrew servant of trying to force himself on her.

Although, under normal circumstances, an Egyptian slave master would have summarily killed the Hebrew slave boy, for various reasons, Potiphar trusted Joseph more than he did his wife. Instead, Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison, where Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and the baker, and is eventually called to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh himself.

The rabbis of the Talmud consider Joseph’s resistance to Mrs. Potiphar’s temptations so great that he is called יוֹסֵף הַצַּדִּיק-“Yosef HaTzaddik,” Joseph, the righteous one.

The Talmud in Yomah 35b even states that Joseph’s unparalleled righteousness serves as a “prosecutor” to all the wicked people.

In the World to Come, the wicked man is asked why he has not occupied himself with the study of Torah. If he replies that he was good looking, and therefore continually exposed to temptations, then the retort is: “Were you really more good looking than Joseph the righteous? Every single day he was approached by Potiphar’s wife who tried to seduce him, changing her clothes from morning to evening. When she begged him to consent to her, he refused. When she threatened to imprison him, he replied, “G-d loosens the bound,” (Psalms 146:7). When she threatened to torture him, he replied, “G-d straightens those who are bent down,” (Psalm 146:8). When she threatened to pluck out his eyes, he replied, “G-d gives sight to the blind,” (Psalm 146:8). She tried to bribe him with a thousand talons of silver, but he would still not come to her…Thus, Joseph in his moral strength serves as a prosecutor to the wicked; by his life he invalidates their excuses.

The standard that Joseph set, is so high, there really is no hope for those who are weak. After all, if the handsome Joseph, estranged from his family and in a foreign land, was able to resist the temptations of Potiphar’s wife, how can anyone who succumbs to temptation be absolved? Joseph truly is the prosecutor to all who give in to temptation and desire.

On the other hand, Rashi, commenting on Genesis 39:11 maintains that Joseph was at the point of giving in to the wife of Potiphar. Suddenly, the image of his father, Jacob, appeared to him, giving him strength to resist.

Rabbi Menachem of Vitebsk in his book, Pri HaEtz, is troubled by the role played by the image of Jacob in Joseph’s successful resistance. If Joseph was restrained from sin only by the powerful manifestation of the vision of his father, how then is it fair to condemn the wicked, who are not favored with such a vision? Why should there be any special merit in Joseph’s purity if he was supernaturally helped?

Although the commentators offer many suggested responses, perhaps the real answer lies in the fact that every person has the ability to invoke such “supernatural” help to resist sin and temptation. Each person has the ability to call upon their own personal collective lessons about right and wrong, about good and evil, that they were taught. Whether it is a lesson taught by a father, a mother, a teacher, a rabbi or a friend, all people have that potential דְּמוּת דְּיוֹקְנוֹ שֶׁל אָבִיו, the image of our fathers, our mothers, our teachers, whose messages forever resound in our minds and hearts, whether or not we were able to hear those messages at the time they were given. Although they may be considered “supernatural,” these teachings usually come from a very natural source; they are the teachings that almost all human beings are exposed to.

While it is true that the teachings of some parents may be, at times, negative and harmful, at some point in life almost everyone is exposed to the constructive and positive messages of life–from a book, from the Bible, from a role model.

And though Joseph was fortunate to have the image of his father appear to him, to aid him to resist Mrs. Potiphar’s temptations, Joseph could just as well have chosen to disregard his father’s message. After all, his father’s actions had caused Joseph much grief in his life. When Jacob’s image appeared to him when Joseph was about to succumb, Joseph could have easily said, “Father, where were you when I needed you? You and your faulty child-rearing philosophy caused my brothers’ jealousy, and resulted in my great suffering. Leave me alone, you’ve done enough damage, I’ll do my own thing now!”

It was Joseph’s stunning decision to follow his father’s instructions that renders him a Tzaddik–a truly righteous person. Joseph’s remarkable righteousness, challenges each and every one of us when we are faced with temptations and need to make difficult decisions. The righteous Joseph serves as an ultimate role model.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah begins Saturday night, December 24th, 2016, and continues for eight days, through Sunday evening, January 1st, 2017.


Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!

Vayishlach 5777-2016

“Esau and Jacob Embrace and Kiss: Sincere or Insincere?”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob and Esau are reunited after twenty years (according to conventional counting methods), of bitter estrangement.

The parasha comes to a dramatic crescendo when the two brothers meet without knowing whether this meeting will be a true reconciliation or will result in an ongoing battle for the ages.

The Torah, in Genesis 33:4 describes their encounter, וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ, וַיִּבְכּוּ, And Esau ran to meet him [Jacob] and embraced him, and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

From the further descriptions in the Torah, the encounter seems to have resulted in a rather successful reconciliation. Esau is impressed by the great retinue with which Jacob is traveling. Things seem to be going smoothly as Esau is introduced to Jacob’s large family. Jacob then implores Esau to keep the gift of flocks that he had sent Esau prior to their meeting, saying, Genesis 33:10,כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ, כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱ־לֹקִים וַתִּרְצֵנִי, “In as much as I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of a Divine being, and you were appeased by me.”

Although Esau takes the gift, the reconciliation, apparently, is not entirely complete. Consequently, when Esau offers to travel with Jacob, Jacob declines, giving, what seems to be, a lame excuse that he has too many flocks and too many children to travel at the pace that Esau needs to travel. Esau then makes his way to Seir and Jacob goes to Succot, eventually returning to the land of Canaan.

The Biblical commentators offer diverse interpretations regarding the dramatic reunion between Esau and Jacob. Was the embrace, a true embrace? Was the kiss, a genuine kiss and why did they both weep?

Jewish tradition has a rather unflattering perception of Jacob’s older brother. Throughout much of classical Biblical commentary and Talmudic interpretation, as well as within Jewish history, Esau has a rather loathsome reputation. Esau, who is the progenitor of the nation of Edom, is often regarded as the archenemy of Israel. In fact, a famous statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, found in the Sifre on parashat B’ha’ah’lot’cha, states: הֲלָכָה הִיא בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁעֵשָׂו שׂוֹנֵא לְיַעֲקֹב, It is a well-known tradition that Esau hates Jacob! The centuries of Roman oppression of Jews and the millennia of hostilities of the Catholic Church, are often seen as extensions of the innate hatred of Esau for Jacob. Therefore, it is not at all surprising to find Rabbi Yanai quoted in Bereshit Rabba 78:12 saying, that Esau’s true intention was not to kiss Jacob, לְנַשְּׁקוֹ (“l’nash’ko”) but to bite him לְנַשְּׁכוֹ (“l’nash’choh”). However, at that moment, Jacob’s neck turned to marble, breaking the wicked man’s teeth. Both Jacob and Esau wept, because Jacob was discomforted when his neck turned to marble and Esau was crying over his broken teeth.

Although Rashi cites both the favorable and negative opinions regarding Esau’s intentions, he notes that despite Esau’s negative disposition toward Jacob, at that moment, Esau’s mercy was aroused and he kissed Jacob with all his heart. Rashi maintains that when Esau saw his brother Jacob bowing down to him so profusely, his anger was softened and his compassion was aroused.

The RaLBag suggests that Esau was so moved by the many kind gestures of Jacob, his gifts and his prostrations, that he flung himself upon Jacob’s neck, in warm embrace, as is usual for brothers who had not seen one another for many years.

The Ha’amek Davar suggests, quite remarkably, that when the Torah says that they both wept, it implies that Jacob’s love, as well, was aroused toward Esau. This, says the Netziv, is a pattern that repeats throughout the ages. Whenever the seed of Esau is prompted by sincere motives to acknowledge and respect the seed of Israel, then Israel too is moved to acknowledge Esau, for he is our brother.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch goes even further and explains that the fact that both brothers wept, illustrates that even a notoriously wicked person can, at times, be overcome by pure human feelings. Kisses can be false, but not tears. One cannot cry unless one is genuinely moved, for tears flow from the innermost feelings. Esau’s kiss, accompanied by tears, proved that he, too, was a descendant of Abraham. Rabbi Hirsch proclaims that weeping is a sure sign that what we have in this case, reveals a genuine humanity that is found in Esau.

The Jewish people today, who are constantly tormented by truly bitter and brutal enemies, need to remember that these enemies too have human hearts beating within their breasts. Hopefully, it will not be long before they show that they too harbor feelings of love, compassion and forgiveness.

May you be blessed.

Vayeitzei 5777-2016

“The Great Deception”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we learn how Laban deceived Jacob by giving him Leah, his older daughter, to be Jacob’s wife, instead of Rachel, whom Jacob truly loved and wished to marry.

It is a well-known axiom that the Torah operates on the basis of מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה, measure for measure. G-d metes out equal and proportional punishment to fit the evil deed that was perpetrated. Jacob, of course, had deceived his own father by disguising himself as Esau and stealing his older brother’s blessing. Now, the greatest con-man of the ancient Near East, Jacob’s future father-in-law, Laban, deceives Jacob by switching brides on him on the very night of his betrothal.

The principle of “measure for measure” retribution is found in the book of Genesis on numerous occasions. As was mentioned previously, Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, by masquerading as Esau, placing goat skin on his hands to make him appear hairy like his brother. Joseph’s brothers deceive their father Jacob by dipping Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of a goat and presenting it to Jacob, who identifies it as his son’s coat, and deems Joseph dead.

Judah, who suggests that Joseph be sold to the Egyptians, sends Joseph’s coat of many colors, dipped in the blood of a goat, to his father Jacob, to deceive Jacob into thinking that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal. Judah himself is deceived when he arranges to pay the harlot (in reality, his daughter-in-law, Tamar) with a goat, but she is nowhere to be found. Judah is eventually forced to admit that he is the father of the twin sons that Tamar bears.

Back to the story. After working seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Jacob demands that Laban fulfill the agreement, and that Laban deliver his wife to him.

The Torah reports, in Genesis 29:22, וַיֶּאֱסֹף לָבָן אֶת כָּל אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיַּעַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּה, Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. The Malbim maintains that Laban assembled all the people as a way of reassuring Jacob that he is acting honestly, since there could be no trickery in the presence of so many people.

The Midrash maintains that the reason Laban assembled all the people is because Laban knew that Jacob’s presence among them was the reason that the economy of Haran had improved so remarkably. As soon as Jacob arrived, the drought ended and the wells were now brimming over, due to the merit of Jacob.

Laban therefore gathered all the people together to tell them of his plan to substitute Leah for Rachel, and, in this way, force Jacob to spend another seven years in Haran before he could marry his beloved Rachel.

Laban, the master con-man, devised a clever ruse to trick Jacob into thinking that he was really marrying Rachel. He switched the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, giving Zilpah, who was really Rachel’s handmaiden to Leah, in order to deceive Jacob into thinking that he was marrying Rachel that night.

The actual moment of deception, is described by scripture, in Genesis 29:23, וַיְהִי בָעֶרֶב, וַיִּקַּח אֶת לֵאָה בִתּוֹ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו, וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ, It was in the evening that he [Laban] took Leah his daughter and brought her to him [Jacob] and he came in onto her.

The word, וַיְהִי,Vah’y’hee,” (and it came to pass), as in many instances in scripture, indicates that there is trouble ahead. The fact that the verse states,  וַיִּקַּח אֶת לֵאָה, that he, Laban, took Leah his daughter, suggests that Laban forced Leah to go through with the deception against her will. The rabbis explain that when Jacob consummated the marriage with Leah, it was in the darkness of the night, as the laws of modesty require, so he did not recognize that it was Leah and not Rachel.

When Jacob awakens in the morning, and discovers that he had been with Leah, he cries out to Laban (Genesis 29:25), “What have you done to me?! Is it not for Rachel that I worked for you? Why have you deceived me?!”

Laban’s response is blunt and powerful, Genesis 29:26, וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן, לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה כֵן בִּמְקוֹמֵנוּ, לָתֵת הַצְּעִירָה לִפְנֵי הַבְּכִירָה, in our place [Haran] it is not done to give the younger before the firstborn!

The Ma’ah’say Hashem, suggests that Laban uses the Hebrew word בְּכִירָה, meaning “firstborn,” rather than “elder,” as a way of belittling Jacob for deceiving his own brother Esau. “Perhaps in your place such things are done, that the younger takes precedence over the firstborn; that his portion is taken away and given to another, and that the younger is given the status of firstborn. But such things are not done in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn!”

It is fascinating to note that in many instances, deceptions ultimately lead to salvation. Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Perez becomes the progenitor of King David and ultimately, the Messiah. Joseph is sold by his brothers to Egypt. That deception eventually results in great salvation when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and advises Pharaoh how to save millions of people from starvation. While the sale of Joseph leads to the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, it also leads to the redemption from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai.

But what silver lining is there to Laban’s deception of Jacob, by giving him Leah instead of Rachel?

The rabbis in the Midrash ask how was it possible for Jacob not to recognize that the two sisters had been switched and that Jacob was with Leah instead of Rachel?

The Midrash in Eicha Rabba suggests that Rachel had become aware of Laban’s plan to switch her with her sister, and informed Jacob of the planned deception. She gave Jacob a sign by which Jacob would be able, in the darkness of the night, to distinguish between her and her sister, Leah. However, when Rachel saw that Leah had been substituted, she had pity on her sister, and disclosed the secret signal to Leah, so that Jacob would think that Leah was really Rachel. Rachel even hid in the bridal chamber and answered whenever Jacob spoke to her, so that Jacob would not recognize Leah’s voice.

What then is the saving grace of this painful chapter in Rachel’s life? The Midrash Eicha says that when the Temple was destroyed, many hundreds of years later, and the People of Israel were exiled, each of the Patriarchs and Moses begged G-d for forgiveness for their sinful descendants for their sake. Each of the noble ancestors related the suffering that they had personally endured without questioning G-d’s justice, but they failed to sway G-d’s mercy.

When the Matriarch Rachel approached the Al-mighty, she reminded Him that on the night of her long-awaited wedding, she disclosed her secret signal to her sister to spare Leah from humiliation. Begging for G-d’s mercy, she concluded: “And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King Who lives eternally and is Merciful, be jealous of vain idolatry, and exile my children? You have let them be slain by the sword, and their enemies have done with them as they please!”

Rachel’s words stirred G-d’s mercy. G-d then called out to Rachel, “Withhold your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; your deeds shall be rewarded…for there is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their own border!” (Jeremiah 31:15).

May you be blessed.

Toledot 5777-2016

“The Exceptional Power of Prayer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, opens, we find Isaac in the process of entreating G-d that his wife, Rebecca, should give birth to a child.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:21 states, וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַהשׁם לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא, וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ השׁם, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, And Isaac entreated G-d, opposite his wife, because she was barren. The L-rd allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rebecca conceived.

There are many subtle nuances embedded in this particular verse and many lessons that can be derived upon closer inspection.

The commentators note Scripture’s strange description of Isaac entreating G-d, ”l’noh’chach,” לְנֹכַח, opposite his wife, rather than on behalf of his wife. The Rashbam maintains that it actually means, on behalf of his wife.

The Meshech Chochmah  notes that Isaac was certain that he would have children since, long ago, when the Al-mighty promised Abraham that he should name his new child Isaac (Genesis 17:19) G-d added: “and I [G-d] will fulfill My covenant with him…for his offspring after him.” Therefore, Isaac was not concerned about not having children, but rather by the possibility that another woman other than Rebecca might bear his children. He therefore prayed, “L-rd Almighty, may all the children that You give me be from the womb of this righteous woman.”

The Sforno similarly notes that even though Isaac was promised children who would inherit him, Isaac entreated G-d, that his children be born from the exceptional woman who is before him.

The Talmud, in Yevamot 64a, claims that not only was Rebecca barren but that Isaac, too, was sterile. They derive this from the fact that the verse states that Isaac prayed “opposite” his wife, rather than for his wife, indicating that they were both unable to bear children. Why then does the verse conclude, “G-d allowed Himself to be entreated by him,” rather than say that G-d responded to them both? From this we learn (see Rashi Genesis 25:21) that the prayers of a righteous person [Rebecca], the descendant of a non-righteous person [Laban], cannot be compared to the prayers of a righteous person [Isaac], the descendant of a righteous person [Abraham].

In response to the question as to why the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were so often barren, the Talmud further states that, “G-d desires the prayers of the righteous and longs for their petitions.” And just as the prayers of the righteous are compared to an “eh’tehr,” עֶתֶר, a pitchfork or a shovel that churns the wheat from one place to another, so do the prayers of the righteous turn G-d’s attributes from anger to compassion.

The Midrash Rabba in Nitzavim 88 speaks of the intense power of prayer before the Al-mighty. Citing the example of Cain who slew his brother, Abel, Rabbi Eliezer states that the power of prayer is so great that even when it does not achieve its full effect, it is at least partially effective. Even though Cain received a heavenly punishment (Genesis 4:12) of, נָע וָנָד תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, that he would be a vagrant and a wanderer on earth, when Cain stood up before the Al-mighty and declared that his sin is too great for him to bear and said, “Al-mighty G-d, You were able to bear all the sins but mine You cannot?” Cain immediately found grace in G-d’s eyes. G-d cancelled half of the decree, and granted that Cain no longer be a vagrant, only a wanderer. Therefore, the Torah says (Genesis 4:16), וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֶרֶץ נוֹד, that Cain dwelled in the land of Nod, which means movement. The reduced punishment for the murderer underscores the great power of prayer.

Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky, asks why the rabbis of the Midrash could not find a better example other than cite the power of Cain’s prayer. After all, in response to Isaac’s prayer, a child was born, demonstrating the great power of prayer that was answered in its entirety. Rabbi Povarsky explains that Cain was punished by G-d to be a vagrant and a wanderer because of his despicable act of murder, an act so vile, that it could not be nullified in its entirety.

On the other hand, the reason for Isaac and Rebecca’s barrenness was not because of any sin on their part, but because G-d desired the prayers of these righteous people. Therefore, the fulfillment of their prayers was something they truly deserved. The fulfillment of the wicked Cain’s prayers was not at all deserved. Nevertheless, the power of prayer of even the wicked Cain had the power to achieve partial forgiveness.

What a wonderful lesson to learn concerning the power of prayer. And the power of prayer when praying for one other than one’s self is even greater.

May you be blessed.

Chayei Sarah 5777-2016

“Sarah Dies at Age 127”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, opens with the grim news of the passing of the great Matriarch, Sarah, at age 127.

The opening chapter of parashat Chayei Sarah concerns the burial of Sarah in the Machpelah Cave that Abraham purchases from the Hitites (a fascinating story in and of itself) (Chayei Sarah 5772-2011). However, the commentators are particularly intrigued by, not only, the age of Sarah when she dies, but also the way that the age is formulated in the Hebrew text.

The Patriarch Abraham lived until age 175, Isaac until age 180 and Jacob reached age 147.

The fact that Sarah dies at the relatively young age of 127 is attributed by the Midrash, to Sarah being informed of the near-death of Isaac at the Akeida. The Midrash states that Satan came to Sarah and described how Abraham had gone to slaughter Isaac on Mount Moriah. Before she had a chance to hear that Isaac was miraculously saved, her soul flew out from her and she died of shock.

As already noted, the rabbis focus on the strange way the Hebrew text phrases the years of Sarah’s life. The verse, in Genesis 23:1, reads, וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.

Rashi, citing the Midrash Rabba 58:4 explains that the Hebrew word, שָׁנָה-“year” appears after every whole number in Sarah’s age, to teach that every “year” is to be expounded on its own. Just as Sarah was regarded as sinless at age twenty, so too, was Sarah without sin at one hundred years old. Similarly, when Sarah was twenty years old, she possessed the natural beauty of a seven year old. The apparent superfluous phrase, “the years of Sarah’s life,” teaches that Sarah maintained her saintliness throughout her life, even beyond the age of one hundred.

The Midrash Rabba on Esther 1:8 asks, in the name of Rabbi Akiva, why Queen Esther merited to rule over 127 states? The Midrash responds that it comes to teach that Esther, the great great-great-granddaughter of the Matriarch Sarah merited to reign over 127 states because of Sarah’s 127 years of righteous living.

The Midrash Rabba on parashat Noah 3, relates a similar teaching with an added anecdote. The Midrash states that Rabbi Akiva noticed that his students were very tired and inattentive. He decided to spark their interest by telling them that Esther merited to rule over 127 provinces because she descended from Sarah who lived 127 righteous years.

Rabbi Nison Alpert, in his writings on the weekly portion, further explains the connection between Esther’s meriting to rule over 127 countries and the righteousness of Sarah. Citing the Talmud in Brachot 13a, he explains that Sarah’s original name, שָׂרַי-“Sarai,” meant that she was a minister over her own (single) nation, but in the end, she became שָׂרָה-“Sarah,” a minister over the entire world (many nations).

It could very well be that at that time of Ahasuerus and Esther, the 127 states that they ruled over were considered the whole world, justifying the claim of ministering over “the entire world.”

Rabbi Alpert argues that we never really see that Sarah rules over the entire world. To the contrary, we know that Sarah was abducted twice, once by Pharaoh and then by Avimelech. Sarah did not even own a grave for burial, and the great Abraham had to pay “full price” for it.

Rabbi Alpert suggests that the Hebrew word, “Sarah,” which generally means to rule, could also mean to prevail, to maintain, to rest and to dwell.

Rabbi Alpert, therefore, suggests that the Torah does not mean that Sarah was a temporal monarch who ruled over the entire world. Rather, explains Rabbi Alpert, no matter what happened to Sarah, her spiritual essence always remained the same, “unscathed and unaffected.”

When Sarah was abducted by Avimelech and Pharaoh, she remained steadfast, maintaining her exalted spiritual level. As a woman who was childless, she showed inspiring faith that she would eventually conceive and bear a child. Sarah, says Rabbi Alpert, ruled over the entire world by always staying above the world and never allowing the world to rule over her. That is why she was called “Sarah.”

The Matriarch Sarah thus blazed a trail for Esther, who was to become queen over 127 provinces. Even though Esther, like Sarah, was taken against her will from a place of righteousness (Mordecai’s home) to the palace of the nefarious Ahasuerus, she remained unscathed and untarnished, maintaining the same faith and fear of G-d that she had in her youth.

Sarah’s commitment to goodness and righteousness sets the standard for future generations of Jewish men and women. It is in the merit of the righteous Matriarch Sarah, that Jews have committed themselves throughout the centuries and millennia to practice and teach the ethics and morality of G-d and His Torah to the entire world. It is due to the commitment of the Matriarch Sarah that we hope that those teachings will soon rule and dominate the world, heralding the redemption of all humanity, with the coming of the Messiah (Mashiach).

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5777-2016

“There is But No Fear of G-d in this Place”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, Abraham relives the trauma of his wife’s abduction in Egypt when he travels to Gerar.

In parashat Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:10-20, we learn of Sarai’s first abduction. Because of the famine in the land of Canaan, Abram, Sarai and Lot (Abram and Sarai’s names had not yet been changed to Abraham and Sarah) descend to Egypt. When the Egyptians see Sarai’s beauty, they praise her to Pharaoh, who abducts her. When Pharaoh and his household members are stricken with severe plagues, Pharaoh releases Sarai, and proceeds to expel Abram and his family from the land of Egypt.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeira, we learn of Sarah’s second abduction. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham journeys from that destroyed region, and settles between Kaddesh and Shur, eventually sojourning in Gerar. Once again, in order to protect his wife, he tells Sarah to say that she is his sister rather than his wife (Toledot 5763-2002). Avimelech, the king of Gerar, sends for Sarah and takes her, with the apparent intent to marry her and crown her as his queen.

G-d, however, comes to Avimelech in a dream and warns him that Sarah is a married woman, ordering him to return Sarah to her husband, who is a prophet. Avimelech and his household, who were also stricken with plagues, are assured by G-d that Abraham will pray for their full recovery. However, if he does not release Sarah, he and his household will all die.

Avimelech angrily summons Abraham and demands of him (Genesis 20:9), מֶה עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ וּמֶה חָטָאתִי לָךְ כִּי הֵבֵאתָ עָלַי וְעַל מַמְלַכְתִּי חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you that you brought upon me and my kingdom such great sin?”

Seeking to know what prompted Abraham to say that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife, Avimelech again demands, Genesis 20:10, מָה רָאִיתָ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, “What did you see that you did such a thing?”

Abraham responds, Genesis 20:11, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱ־לֹקִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי, “Because I said, ‘There is but no fear of G-d in this place, and they will slay me because of my wife.’”

Rashi basing his observation on the Talmud in Makot 9b, explains that as soon as he entered Gerar, Abraham realized that the Philistines did not fear G-d. Customarily, townsmen would ask a newcomer whether they need food and drink. Since the people of Gerar were concerned only with Sarah’s marital status, Abraham immediately concluded that there was no fear of G-d in Gerar, and that with no moral restraint, he must fear for his family’s lives.

The Malbim understands Abraham’s reply to Avimelech as containing a powerful warning concerning communal morality. Even the most sophisticated and educated people, who generally behave decently and honorably, are only able to restrain their actions as long as their lusts and temptations are not aroused. However, if they are tested by the powerful desire for wealth, of if they lust for physical gratification, they will quickly disregard behavioral norms, and begin to act improperly. Without a powerful fear of G-d, based on knowledge that G-d is aware of even their minutest actions, they lose control, and give in to their basest and most immoral desires.

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman points out that there appears to be a superfluous word in Abraham’s statement. Abraham says, רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱ־לֹקִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי, “Only, there is no fear of G-d in this place and they will slay me because of my wife.”

Rabbi Wasserman suggests that the Hebrew word, רַק, only or but, comes to teach that even in a society that is advanced and seemingly gentle, like Avimelech’s community in Gerar, one needs to fear for one’s life, if the fear of G-d is missing.

Tragically, Rabbi Wasserman was to learn the truth of that insight only too well. Although he was out of the country when World War II started, he chose to return to Europe to be with his students, and was murdered in the Holocaust. Despite the fact that Germany was regarded as one of the most advanced nations of the world, and its citizens were acclaimed as leaders in philosophy, science and culture, they were without fear of G-d. Bereft of fear of Heaven, the Germans proved to be most proficient in committing the most heinous acts in the history of humankind.

In the Book of Psalms (Psalms 111:10), King David writes רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה, יִרְאַת השׁם, The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. Without the fear of G-d–without a basic and fundamental moral conscience based on a Divinely transmitted set of morality and ethics, one cannot truly be properly informed or be considered wise. All knowledge, even the presumed wisdom contained in science, literature and philosophy, must be used in a moral manner and dedicated to the service and benefit of furthering humankind. If not, it will soon become a source of great immorality and many destructive deeds.

May you be blessed.