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Terumah 5776-2016

Charity–the Only True Possession

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we read of the Israelites’ overwhelmingly generous response to the appeal for materials and valuables to be used for building and erecting the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, that traveled with the people in the wilderness.

G-d speaks to Moses saying, Exodus 25:2, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה, מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי, “Speak unto the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take My portion.”

The Torah proceeds to list all the valuables that are to be donated: Gold, silver, copper, turquoise, purple, scarlet, wool, linen, goat hair, red-dyed ram skins, Tachash skins, acacia wood, oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and the aromatic incense, Shoham stones, and stones for the settings, for the Ephod and the Breastplate. The appeal was so successful that Moses had to call for the people to stop giving (Exodus 36:5-6).

When the Al-mighty proclaimed, “Let them take for Me a portion,” it is understood that the Tabernacle is not to serve for their own worship, but rather to serve as a center of holiness and sanctity throughout the world. Since the sanctuary was to be built as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence, the donations had to be given with total sincerity.

Even the Hebrew word תְּרוּמָה, “Terumah,” donation, is a term designated only for sacred gifts. Therefore, agricultural gifts that are given to the priests, are also called Terumah, and because of their sanctity, any stranger (non-priest) who eats of the Terumah shall surely die. That is why the appeal must be voluntary, and all donations must be given with a full heart and not due to feelings of obligation or coercion.

The Al-mighty wanted all the People of Israel to participate so that the Tabernacle would be a joint effort of all the people. Leaders may not tax the people to pay for the materials. Charitable donations must be given in front of at least two people, so that the collectors will not be suspected of taking the donations for themselves. Gifts given in this exalted manner, will be seen by G-d as תְּרוּמָתִי,“Terumati,” My (G-d’s) portion.

The commentators, however, are particularly perplexed by the unexpected language of the parasha’s opening verse. G-d says, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה, Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion. Since those who are donating will be giving, not taking, the verse should have stated, “Speak to the Children of Israel, so they will give Me a portion.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik wrote in his well-known writing, Beit HaLevi, that, a person only possesses the money that he gives to charity. Those who have great wealth must realize that the money that they possess is not really theirs, and that the wealth that they’ve amassed is only a deposit left with them by the Al-mighty. Only those portions that are given away for charity can truthfully be considered one’s real possession.

The Chofetz Chaim declared that many people mistakenly interpret the verse in Numbers 5:10, וְאִישׁ אֶת קֳדָשָׁיו, לוֹ יִהְיוּ, A man’s holies shall be his. Many conclude that what they give for tzedakah, charity, or out of kindness, is no longer theirs. To the contrary, declares the Chofetz Chaim, that which they designate for charity is what really belongs to them. Therefore, when our verse states, “and let them take for Me a portion” the portion that they actually give, they really take, because only that remains in their possession.

There is a fascinating story cited in the Talmud Baba Batra 11a, about a first century C.E, non-Jewish king, King Monobaz, who embraced Judaism. The Talmud relates that in years of scarcity, King Monobaz not only distributed to the needy all of his own wealth, but also all the wealth that he had inherited from his father. His brothers’ and his father’s household berated him bitterly, saying: “Your father saved money and added to the treasuries of his own fathers, and you squander them!”

King Monobaz famously replied, “My father stored up below, and I am storing above. My father stored in a place that can be tampered with, but I have stored in a place that cannot be tampered. My father stored things that produce no fruits, but I have stored things that produce many fruits. My father gathered treasures of money, but I have gathered treasures of souls. My father has gathered for others, and I have gathered for myself. My father has gathered for this world, but I have gathered for the World to Come.”

We now know that many of those people who were defrauded in the terrible Madoff scandal, will actually receive most of their original funds back. However, at the time of the great fraud it was said that the only funds that the Madoff victims really had in their possessions, were the funds that they had given away to charity.

There is a well-known story of Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna who came from Israel to America to collect funds for his yeshiva, Yeshivat Chevron. As part of the fund-raising efforts, he scheduled a reception for all the large donors to the Yeshiva.

Among the major donors of the yeshiva was a man who had given a huge amount of money to cover the costs of transferring the yeshiva from Slabodka in Europe to Israel. Unfortunately, the generous donor subsequently lost all his wealth and was left virtually destitute. The Rosh Yeshiva ultimately decided not to invite him to this special meeting, in order to spare the now-impoverished donor the embarrassment of being seen in his present desperate situation.

However, the donor surprised all the guests, arriving at the dinner without an invitation, and asked for permission to speak to those gathered.

He said: “My dear brothers, it is well known, that all of life can be seen as a rotating sphere. I was once enormously wealthy, but now my fate has changed and the wheel of fortune has taken a fateful turn for me in the other direction. Today, I struggle for even a morsel of bread. I have nothing to show of the great wealth that I once possessed. All that’s left of my once great fortune are the donations that I gave many years ago to help the yeshiva relocate to the land of Israel. Although I am in great need today, I am not prepared, for all the money in the world, to give up the merits that I accrued for helping the Yeshiva. It has been a bitter experience. I therefore, suggest to you that you give all that you are able to give to charity now, give quickly, because no one knows what will be tomorrow. However, that which you quickly give now, will remain yours forever.”

We see how correct the Torah was in stating that “giving” charity should really be considered “taking.” Giving charity in no way results in a loss to the donor. In fact, it is undoubtedly a reward for the donor, a reward that lasts forever and can never be confiscated.

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5776-2016

Jewish Women and Conjugal Rights

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, we learn the remarkable law of the Hebrew maidservant, known in Hebrew as, אָמָה עִבְרִיָה.

As we have explained previously (Mishpatim 5767-2007), the Hebrew maidservant is the young daughter (under the age of twelve) of a poor man who cannot afford a dowry to marry her off, so he “sells” her into “servitude.” The maiden works for several years, and when she reaches puberty or twelve (the age of majority), she is automatically betrothed to her master. Since she can only be betrothed with her consent, if she declines, she goes out free. But now the money that she earned for her years of work can serve as a dowry, enabling her to marry.

Despite the previous agreement that the master will marry the handmaiden, the Torah declares (Exodus 21:8), “If she is displeasing in his eyes, he shall not have the power to sell her to another man, for he has betrayed her.” However, says the Torah, in Exodus 21:9-10, וְאִם לִבְנוֹ יִיעָדֶנָּה, כְּמִשְׁפַּט הַבָּנוֹת יַעֲשֶׂה לָּהּ. אִם אַחֶרֶת יִקַּח לוֹ, שְׁאֵרָהּ כְּסוּתָהּ וְעֹנָתָהּ, לֹא יִגְרָע., If he [the master] had designated her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the rights of the young women. If he [her husband] shall take another [wife] in addition to her, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing or her marital relations.

It is from this particular verse that the rabbis learn that every Jewish husband has the fundamental obligation to provide his wife with food, clothing and sexual pleasure.

The Hebrew term for sexual pleasure is, עוֹנָה, “Oh’nah,” which literally means, “time” or “period.” It refers to the frequency of conjugal visits that a husband must “pay” his wife in order to make certain she is pleased. The Mishna in Ketubot 61b, lists the frequency of conjugal obligations prescribed by the rabbis: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass drivers, once a week; for camel drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of Rabbi Eliezer.

The Code of Jewish Law states clearly that not satisfying one’s wife sexually, is grounds for divorce.

The mitzvah of “Oh’nah,” of sexually gratifying one’s wife, is so great that it even overrides certain prohibitions and negative laws. So, for instance, the prohibition of “Onanism,” the wasteful spilling of the male seed, is considered a grave Torah violation. In fact, the Torah records (Genesis 38:7-11) that at least one, perhaps two, of Judah’s sons died because they spilled their seed to prevent their wives from becoming pregnant.

The question then arises whether one may have sexual relations with one’s pregnant or menopausal wife, since the seed cannot result in pregnancy. And yet, the rabbis conclude, that the positive mitzvah of providing sexual pleasure to one’s wife overrides the negative mitzvah of not wasting seed.

Contemporary poskim, decisors of Jewish law, like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, cite this Torah source regarding the mitzvah of “Oh’nah,” when elaborating on the husband’s obligation to please his wife.

Rabbi Kanievsky writes, that according to the law of the Torah, it is forbidden to have relations with one’s wife where she will not be pleased, and that husbands must make every effort to please their wives by embracing and kissing them affectionately so that they be aroused sexually. Husbands must be certain that their wives not be left feeling that they are being physically exploited.

Rabbi Kanievsky declares that it is virtually “criminal” to hold back what is the wife’s privilege, even if husbands do this out of a sense of piety and/or righteousness. One may not “steal” the rights of one’s wife in order to express one’s own righteousness. To do so is considered degrading, similar to treating one’s wife as a lowly handmaid and a prisoner.

Nachmanides goes so far as to regard the mitzvah of sexual pleasure as one of the essential definitions of marriage.

May you be blessed.

Yitro 5776-2016

“Apparently, Not All Converts are Created Equal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, arrives in the wilderness to join Moses and the People of Israel.

Scripture relates that when he heard that G-d had taken the Israelites out of Egypt and about all that G-d had done to Moses and to Israel, Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, took Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, to the wilderness near the Mountain of G-d where the Jewish people were encamped.

Moses gives his father-in-law a very warm welcome and tells Jethro all that G-d had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake, and of the peoples’ miraculous rescue at the hands of G-d.

Jethro then blesses G-d, making the following declaration, Exodus 18:11: עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל השׁם מִכָּל הָאֱ־לֹקִים, כִּי בַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם, “Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all the gods, for in the very matter in which the Egyptians had conspired against them… [by drowning them in the sea], they experienced their final downfall.”

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his wonderful collection of essays on the weekly Torah portion, Chemdat Yamim, cites Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who writes in his book, Derech Hashem, that after their fall in the Garden of Eden, humankind experienced difficulty reaching the highest levels of humanity and spirituality. But, according to Luzzatto, G-d provided the people a way of regaining their exalted spirituality, by offering the Torah to the world. Unfortunately, of all the nations who were offered the Torah, only the Jews accepted it. And, now, because the nations of the world rejected the Torah, they can only achieve the highest level of spirituality by formally converting to Judaism.

Although not all agree with Luzzatto’s theory of the downfall of humankind, almost all agree that the way to regain the highest level of spirituality, is by converting to Judaism and embracing Torah.

As we know, the ancient Israelites themselves had a difficult time maintaining a high level of spirituality. They continuously sinned, constantly complained and frequently rebelled against G-d and Moses. Soon after the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, two groups of people began to rebel. One group was called the עֵרֶב רַב (Exodus 12:38), the mixed multitude and the other, the אֲסַפְסֻף (Numbers 11:4) (מִתְאֹנְנִים Mitonehnim Numbers 11:1?). These rebellious acts were followed by the sin of the Golden Calf.

Rabbi Filber cites a series of midrashim that maintain that there was a major difference of opinion between G-d and Moses, regarding whether to accept Egyptian “converts” into the midst of the Jewish people. According to many opinions, both the עֵרֶב רַב and אֲסַפְסֻף were Egyptians who saw the Hand of G-d in the ten plagues, and sought to embrace G-d and join the Jewish people.

According to these midrashim, G-d was reluctant to accept these “reborn” Egyptians into Israel, because He felt that they were not sufficiently sincere. Moses insisted that they be given a chance, and cited the paradigm of Abraham and the souls that he had made in Haran (Genesis 12:5) to justify their joining the people.

G-d argued with Moses, saying that most of Abraham’s converts ultimately abandoned him. Moses responded that the contemporary Egyptian seekers were different, since the converts of Abraham were people who had responded to Abraham’s outreach overtures and his desire to welcome them into his open tent. The Egyptian mixed multitude, on the other hand, were self-motivated, seeking to embrace G-d, because they personally witnessed and experienced the miracles of the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Filber notes, that unfortunately, Moses was proven wrong. The sense of commitment of the mixed multitude and the אֲסַפְסֻף was indeed lacking. Their “faith” was not rooted in dedication or study, but rather a result of being overwhelmed by miracles.

Rabbi Filber also suggests that those who sinned with the Golden Calf were also Egyptian converts to Judaism. This opinion is based on the fact that when the rebellion begins, G-d says to Moses to go down from the mountain (Exodus 32:7), כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ, for your people have sinned. Meaning, that “it is the people that you [Moses], against My advice, allowed to join Israel!”

Jethro, on the other hand, is seen as the paradigm of the גֵּר צֶדֶק, the truly righteous convert. The midrash says that there was not a single pagan deity or idolatry that Jethro had not embraced or experimented with. It was only after Jethro studied all of the religions, that he came to the conclusion that Israel’s G-d was the one true G-d. As a result of his newly-adopted monotheistic beliefs, Jethro was declared a heretic by the Midianites, and deposed from the high priesthood of Midian. Banned, banished and isolated, the locals even refused to allow Jethro’s flocks to graze in the fields, and chased his daughters away from the well, as punishment for Jethro’s blasphemous actions.

It is Jethro, the prototypical convert, who shares his wisdom to the great benefit of the Jewish people. It is he who advises Moses to set up an effective judicial court system, that would benefit the entire nation.

It is due to the outstanding nature and commitment of Jethro, that he merits to have an entire parasha of the Torah named for him. It is in the merit of righteous converts, such as Jethro, that the Jewish people are enriched and elevated to an even higher level than they were before. It is for the sake of righteous converts, like Jethro, that we pray daily, that G-d’s blessing and mercy be bestowed upon them.

May you be blessed.

Please note: On Sunday night and Monday, January 24th and 25th, we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel, it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu B’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat the special species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.

B’shalach 5776-2016

“The Small ‘Stuff’ is not Always Small”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, features the majestic story of the People of Israel crossing the Red Sea, and the great salvation of Israel from the Egyptians at the hands of the Al-mighty.

The ancient Israelites, who were on a spiritual high as they crossed through the sea on dry land, cry out to G-d (Exodus 15:11), מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם השׁם, Who is like You, L-rd, among the mighty? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, inspiring in praises, doer of wonders?

The women, too, led by Miriam and accompanied by drums, timbrels and dance, burst out in song (Exodus 15:21): “Sing to the L-rd for He is exalted above the arrogant, hurling horse and rider into the sea.”

And yet, as soon as they leave the Red Sea and enter the wilderness of Shur, the people, who moments earlier ecstatically praised G-d, start complaining. Traveling for a three day period in the wilderness, the people could find no water. When they arrive at a place called Marah, they find the waters there too bitter to drink. The desperate Israelites cry out to Moses, Exodus 15:24, מַה נִּשְׁתֶּה? “What shall we drink?”

The beleaguered leader beseeches the Al-mighty for help, and G-d shows Moses a tree, which he throws into the water, turning the waters sweet. The Torah testifies that, Exodus 15:25, שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ, there [in Marah] G-d established for the nation the creed and ordinance, and there He tested it.

Soon after, the people journey to a place called Elim, where they remain for twenty days.

On the fifteenth day of the second month from their departure from the land of Egypt, the Children of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Sin and again begin to complain. They cry out to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 16:3), “If only we had died by the hand of the L-rd in the land of Egypt, as we sat by the pot of meat, when we ate bread to satiety, for you have taken us out of this wilderness to kill this entire congregation by famine.”

G-d responds, delivering manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that sustains the people for the next forty years in the wilderness.

Apparently, the former slaves, who were miraculously liberated from Egypt, have, in short order, become hardened ingrates, and people of meager faith. Despite Moses and Aaron’s untiring efforts on their behalf, the people constantly complain. They are indeed a people possessed with a slave mentality, who do not seem deserving to enter the Promised Land.

Except for the brief sojourn in Elim, there appears to be no respite to the peoples’ antipathy and complaints. What exactly happened in Elim?

A single, somewhat cryptic, verse describes their arrival and stay at that location, Exodus 15:27, וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה, וְשָׁם שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עֵינֹת מַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים תְּמָרִים, וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם עַל הַמָּיִם, And they [the People of Israel], arrived at Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date-palms; and they camped there by the water.

What is the point of announcing that the people arrived in Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date-palms? It all seems rather extraneous and irrelevant.

One of the most fascinating statements in rabbinic literature is found in Maimonides‘ introduction to the commentary on the Mishneh, Chelek, the eleventh chapter of tractate Sanhedrin.

Writing about faith in G-d and Torah, Maimonides forcefully declares that every single verse of the Torah is of infinite value. He insists that there is no difference in importance between any of the verses of the Torah. As proof, Maimonides cites three seemingly insignificant verses, Genesis 10:6, “And the children of Ham, Cush, Mizrayim, Put, and Canaan,” Genesis 36:39, “And his wife’s name was Mehetabel, the daughter of Matred,” Geneses 36:12, “And Timna was the concubine of Eliphaz.” These apparently inconsequential verses are no less important, declares Maimonides, than the presumed “momentous” declarations, “I am the L-rd, your G-d,” (Deuteronomy 5:6) or, “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is your G-d, the L-rd is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). All of these verses, insists Maimonides, were uttered by G-d, and are an essential part of the pure and sacred Torah of the Al-mighty.

If that is the case, then surely the seemingly “trivial” verse about Israel’s sojourn in Elim must come to teach something of significance. The Torah is not simply reporting to those who study the Torah today (thirty-three hundred years later), the number of springs and date-palms in Elim, and that the People of Israel had encamped by the water.

What is the message that the Torah is communicating through this cryptic verse?

Some commentators maintain that the feeling of depravation that the Israelites experienced at that time, and the lack of water, was hardly a physical thirst, but rather a thirst resulting from the peoples’ low spiritual condition. And, as soon as the Israelites accepted upon themselves, in Marah, to observe some of the basic Jewish rituals, despite the sometimes “bitter waters” of observance, they were rewarded by being transported to a place of great abundance, with sweet waters and savory fruit.

Rashi citing the Mechilta, says that the twelve springs of water represent the twelve tribes, and the seventy date-palms correspond to the seventy elders.

Rabbeinu Bachya also cites the Mechilta, that says that these twelve springs and seventy trees were specifically prepared for Israel from the moment of creation. They symbolically anticipate the emergence of the twelve tribes and the seventy elders, and the important role that the tribes and the elders would play in future Jewish history.

The May’am Lo’ez states that before Israel reached Elim, the location was entirely barren. The moment that Israel arrived, date trees suddenly started to bloom and yield their delicious fruit. G-d had built into the creation plan that these fruits would appear when Israel arrived at this location. And even though there were only twelve wells, which would normally barely provide sufficient water to irrigate seventy palm trees, the wells miraculously provided enough water to sustain two million people for twenty days.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum, in Peninim on the Torah, suggests that the twelve springs of water and the seventy date-palms represent the paradigm of life. Human beings, who are entirely self-centered, begin to complain the moment that things do not go exactly as they planned. They find fault and criticize everything, because of their impatience and lack of sufficient faith to believe that G-d, who runs the universe, will fulfill His promises.

Maimonides is surely correct when he declares that every verse in the Torah is of ultimate importance, because the messages that flow from even the most insignificant and seemingly irrelevant verses are powerful, reflecting the infinite wisdom of G-d. Even though the people remained in Marah with its bitter waters for only a single day, and encamped in Elim with abundant food and water for twenty days, they failed to have faith that G-d would provide for them. And even when G-d provided them with water for a long period of time, it took only a very few days for them to again complain about the lack of food.

Could it be that the sudden appearance of the twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees is the Torah’s way of communicating that the weakened spiritual condition of the People of Israel was perhaps due to the inadequacy of the tribal leaders, or that the seventy elders were not sufficiently inspirational?

Although G-d had cured the bitter waters of Marah, and the people were thoroughly refreshed and sated from drinking the waters of the wells and eating the succulent dates of Elim, still the gifts of food and drink did not stop the complaints.

Perhaps the lesson of Elim is that while G-d always provides, different people react differently. For those who have no faith, nothing will ever suffice. For those who have faith, nothing will ever be lacking.

As Maimonides affirms, we learn as much from the verse regarding the twelve wells and seventy palms of Elim as we do from the verse declaring that the Al-mighty G-d brought the people out of Egypt.

Ours is to always search for the profound lessons that G-d seeks to communicate.

May you be blessed.

Please note: In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, features the “Shira,” the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.  Click here for more information.

Please note: On Sunday night and Monday, January 24th and 25th, we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu B’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat the special species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.

Bo 5776-2016

“How Impactful was the Plague of Locusts?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the Al-mighty visits the plague of locusts on Pharaoh and on the land of Egypt.

As Pharaoh has already, multiple times, broken his promise to let the People of Israel go, it was essential at this point to keep the pressure on Pharaoh.

In Exodus 10:1, G-d instructs Moses, בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה, כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn, so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.”

G-d’s instructions to Moses seem to imply that the Al-mighty hopes to transmit two important messages through the plague of locusts: 1)It is He who is responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and that 2) He intends to place His “signs” in Pharaoh’s midst.

It could very well be that Moses had not yet recognized that Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened by G-d, and still holds out hope that Pharaoh would keep his word and allow the Israelites to leave. Consequently, the Al-mighty was eager to disabuse Moses of that false hope. He, therefore, definitively informs Moses that it is He who has been hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and that to accomplish His ultimate goal it would be necessary for Him to harden the hearts of the Egyptian people as well.

If G-d’s purpose of visiting the plagues on the Egyptians was only to bring about the release of the Jewish People, the Israelites would have been redeemed long ago. But, there is an additional motive behind the Al-mighty’s actions, and that is to hold Pharaoh up to all as an example of the inability of a human being to defy G-d, even a powerful and mighty human being such as Pharaoh.

G-d also needs to harden the hearts of the Egyptian people so that they not rebel against Pharaoh and force the premature release of the Israelites. Without a display of the full ten plagues, G-d’s vital message that He is the Ultimate power on earth would not be definitively communicated.

Clearly, until this point, the plagues do not appear to have been particularly effective. After all, until the sixth plague Pharaoh had continuously hardened his own heart and stubbornly refused to release the Israelites. Had the redemption come as a result of a single extended plague rather than ten great plagues, it would not have had the powerful impact for all future generations. Since each of the ten plagues displays a particular feature of G-d’s omnipotence, the full ten plagues convey a host of powerful lessons for all humankind.

In Exodus 10:2, the Torah states that there is an additional purpose served by the ten plagues: וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם, וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי השׁם, it is particularly important that the Jewish people know what G-d has done, so that they may relate in the ears of their children and grandchildren that G-d has made a mockery of Egypt, and that through His signs that He placed among them, you [the People of Israel] may know that He is the L-rd, G-d.

The plague of locusts thus introduces a new element–G-d’s intention to “mock” Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Pharaoh and his people, who have been arrogant and contemptuous, were about to experience a great come-down, as G-d intends to show the world how powerless they really are.

The lesson of G-d’s omnipotence is not only for Egypt and for the world to see, but also for the Jews to understand as well. Upon witnessing the plague of locusts, not only will Egypt know that G-d is the L-rd, the Israelites themselves will also see how powerless the Egyptians are and gain a greater appreciation that the Al-mighty is truly the Ultimate Power.

And yet, the plague of locusts does not seem to have a transformational effect on the Israelites. It is not at all surprising that Pharaoh had resisted recognizing G-d as the source of the plagues. But, apparently, the faith of the Jews was significantly lacking as well. As the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt unfolds, we see that, even after the locusts plague, the Children of Israel continue to frequently rebel and defy G-d.

Is it possible that the Children of Israel, who saw these great miracles before their very eyes, are unable to develop greater faith?

The attempt to “indoctrinate” the Israelites with the spirit of G-d through the impact of the locusts plague, raises a fundamental question of whether the Jews in Egypt were at all spiritually receptive at this point. It is very likely that the Israelites, who were subject to constant inhuman suffering, had little time or emotional disposition to philosophize about the existence of G-d or the proofs of G-d’s involvement in their lives. Despite the many physical miracles that they beheld, it is far more likely that they were single-mindedly focused on subsisting–getting through a day’s work without being beaten to death by an Egyptian taskmaster. It is indeed difficult to imagine that these tortured people had any inclination to consider whether the frogs, the lice or the locusts came from G-d, at a time that they were always a small step away from death, laboring under the brutal Egyptian regimen.

Surely, in the long and bitter history of Israel there have been exceptional cases of people showing fierce faith in the face of brutal torture and suffering. But such behavior cannot be expected of most. Even though scripture states that the message of the plague of locusts is directed not only to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but to the Israelites as well, we do not find that the message actually penetrates.

Faith cannot be manufactured, especially when it is expected of people who are living under severe duress.

Apparently, the eighth plague failed to impact fully upon the Israelites. In fact, it is not until their miraculous salvation at the Red Sea, when the people actually saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore that scripture informs us (Exodus 14:31) that the people believed in G-d and had faith in Moses, His servant.

The plague of locusts confirms that the road to faith is almost always a process, one that cannot be achieved by fiat or even through omens and natural miracles. This lesson is not only for the ancient Egyptians and Israelites. It is a lesson for our times as well.

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5776-2016

“The Lessons of Genealogy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we learn of the noble family background of Moses and Aaron, who would soon emerge to lead the People of Israel to freedom, from the desperate bondage of Egypt.

Until this point, we literally know nothing of the origins of these great men. In fact, the information related thus far is entirely anonymous. In Exodus 2:1 the Torah states: וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי, וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי, an (anonymous) man from the house of Levi went and took the (anonymous) daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son, whom she hid for three months. To save the child from certain death at the hands of the Egyptians, the mother had the child placed in a little ark in the river, only to be recovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. The child, who is named Moses, is nursed by his biological mother, but grows up in the palace of Pharaoh. Aside from his rescue, we know nothing of his family background.

Even after G-d reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush, and informs him that his sacred mission is to bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, little is known about the man.

Interrupting the story of Moses, the Torah, quite unexpectedly, in Exodus 6:14, proclaims, אֵלֶּה רָאשֵׁי בֵית אֲבֹתָם, these are the heads of their fathers’ houses. Scripture then begins to present the genealogy of Jacob’s family, starting with a rather routine genealogy of Jacob’s eldest sons, Reuben and Simeon.

However, when the Torah reaches the genealogy of the children of Levi, the listings become more detailed and specific. In Exodus 6:16, the Torah states, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְתֹלְדֹתָם גֵּרְשׁוֹן וּקְהָת וּמְרָרִי, וּשְׁנֵי חַיֵּי לֵוִי שֶׁבַע וּשְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, these are the names of the sons of Levi in order of their birth; Gershon, Kohath and Merari; the years of Levi’s life were 137 years. This is followed by a detailed listing of the grandchildren of Levi. Only then does the Torah state that Amram and Jocheved were the parents of Aaron and Moses. As part of this detailed genealogy, mention is made of the great-grandson of Levi, whose name is Phinehas.

Although we might expect that all twelve tribes of Israel and their genealogies would be recorded, the Torah abruptly stops at Levi. In Exodus 6:26, the Torah states the apparent reason for recording this genealogy, הוּא אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר אָמַר השׁם לָהֶם, הוֹצִיאוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם, this is Aaron and Moses to whom G-d said, “Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt according to their legions.” In other words, this lengthy family history is recorded only to introduce Moses and Aaron, and to feature to all their noble background.

The Malbim explains this unusual introduction by citing a lovely parable. The Malbim teaches that it is the practice of scripture to quickly record what is not essential, and then focus with greater detail on what is truly important. The Malbim compares this to a person who, after losing a precious pearl in the sand, quickly sifts through the sand, throwing the discarded sand aside until he finds the pearl. Similarly, the Torah quickly disposes of Reuben and Simeon, recording only their most direct descendants–their children. When the Torah reaches the family of Levi, where the “pearl” is to be found, the Torah then goes into greater familial detail.

Rashi notes that the 137 years of the life of Levi are recorded, but not the years of the life of Reuben and Simeon, to teach that not only did Levi live longer than any of the other sons of Jacob (Exodus 6:16), but that as long as Levi was alive, the enslavement did not begin.

The May’am Lo’ez notes that Moses and Aaron came from a very special family, descended from the noble stock of Levi. Levi himself was a special person whose greatest attribute was concern for others. The May’am Lo’ez notes that even though the tribe of Levi was exempt from working as slaves (Midrash Tanchuma, Exodus 6), they nevertheless felt compelled to participate in the suffering of the other tribes. This, says the May’am Lo’ez, is evident from the names that Levi gives his sons, reminding them that although they were not enslaved like the others, they too are part of a bitter exile. The name “Gershon” recalls the fact that they are strangers in a strange land. “Kohath” reflects the fact that the tribe of Levi felt the travail of the people of Israel, making their teeth stand on edge. “Merari” expresses the fact that even though they were exempt from slavery, their lives are very much embittered.

The May’am Lo’ez emphasizes that this lesson is a lesson for all to learn, and that even though, at times, one may personally feel free and secure, one must always participate in the pain of the collective community. When others are in distress, one must not say that “I will be secure,” since all of Israel are brothers. Even though one has ample resources, one must never personally delight at a time when large numbers of community members are suffering from depravation.

It is interesting to note that Moses learned the lesson of participating in communal pain very well from his noble ancestors. Even though young Moses grew up in the palace of Pharaoh, he soon went out to see the travail of his people, Israel.

In his later years, Moses displayed that same quality of feeling communal pain. When the Israelites were battling the wicked Amalekites (Exodus 17:12), the Torah notes that Moses’ hands became heavy. To relieve Moses from his discomfort, his attendants took a stone and put it under him for him to sit on. Is it possible that Moses did not have a single pillow on which to sit? Rather, we learn from this, that Moses said, “As long as the People of Israel are in distress, I will also place myself in distress.” It is a well-known principle, recorded in Taanit 11a, that those who share in the distress of the community will merit to see the consolation of the community.

As the Ultimate Source of compassion, the Al-mighty Himself makes certain to participate in the pain of the People of Israel. The famed concept of שְׁכִינְתָּא בְּגָלוּתָא, (Megillah 29a) the Divine Presence is in exile, expresses the notion that when the People of Israel are exiled and dispersed, the Divine Presence of G-d Al-mighty Himself joins in the exile, and suffers together in the dispersion with His beloved people, Israel.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5776-2016

“By What Right Does Moses Kill The Egyptian?

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we learn that Moses, who was raised in the royal house of Pharaoh, regards the Jewish people, rather than the Egyptians, as his brethren. His concern for his people is so great that when Moses grows up, he goes out to observe his brethren and to see their burdens.

The Torah, in Exodus 2:11-12 relates, וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו. וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ,  וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי, וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל, And he [Moses] saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

The intensity of Moses’ Jewish identity is instantly apparent. After all, why should Moses, the noble “Egyptian prince,” regard the Hebrews as his brethren, and not be satisfied with the comfort and security of Pharaoh’s court? His interest in the Israelites’ suffering is absolutely baffling. While some sensitive people might set aside funds to aid those whose lives are in danger, few would personally intervene, and surely not at the risk of one’s own life.

The emphasis on אֶחָיו “eh’chav,” his brothers, is not coincidental. First, the Torah states, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, that Moses went out to his brothers. When Moses sees an Egyptian man striking another, the victim is described not only as a Hebrew but as, אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו, a Hebrew man of his brothers. Moses clearly feels a very special kinship for the Israelites.

The commentators, however, are perplexed by Moses’ extremely aggressive response to the confrontation, and ask: Upon what authority does Moses take the life of the Egyptian? One might assume that since the Egyptian is trying to kill the Hebrew, he falls into the legal category of רוֹדֵף, a pursuer. However, the text only says, מַכֶּה, that the Egyptian was “striking” the Israelite. Can it be known for certain that the Egyptian sought to kill the Israelite, and that the blows were intended to be lethal?

Rashi, explains Moses’ intense reaction to the confrontation by adding context to the scene. He cites the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah, which relates that the Egyptian taskmaster was beating the husband of Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri.

The Midrash maintains that the Egyptian taskmaster had cast his eye upon the Hebrew woman because of her beauty, and wanted to seduce her. The taskmaster therefore awakened her husband in the middle of the night to remove him from the house. With her husband now out, the Egyptian soon returned and had relations with Shlomit bat Dibri, she thinking that he was her husband.

When the husband returned and realized what had occurred, the Egyptian began striking and intimidating the poor Hebrew throughout the day. Rashi’s commentators note that the use of the present tense, מַכֶּה, hitting, rather than the past tense, הִכָּה, indicates that Moses witnessed a series of events that took place over a period of time, and not just a single blow.

If we assume that the Midrash is correct and that the Egyptian had violated the Hebrew woman, that act alone would constitute as a violation of one of the seven Noahide principles, justifying the Egyptian’s death.

The Malbim offers several justifications for Moses’ actions. The Malbim points out that this was not a precipitous act on the part of the Egyptian, but rather a well thought-out and premeditated act. He cites the Talmud in Sanhedrin 58a, which states that a gentile who strikes an Israelite has committed a capital crime. The Malbim also quotes Maimonides who states (Laws of Kings, 10:6) that although the Egyptian was deserving of death, he was put to death at the hands of G-d. This opinion is supported by another Midrash maintaining that Moses killed the Egyptian not with his hands, but with the pronouncement of the Divine Name, confirming that the Al-mighty agreed with the punishment. The Midrash also states that when Moses looked around and saw, כִּי אֵין אִישׁ, that there were no men, it means no “men” literally, implying that the angels had been consulted and had declared the Egyptian guilty.

B.S. Jacobson quotes Netziv, who derives from the context that the Egyptian was deserving of death because the Israelite was not being beaten for laziness or any deficiency with his work, but merely for the fact of being a Hebrew. That is why the verse in Exodus 2:12, states, “One of his own brethren.”

The Netziv therefore understands this verse as confirming that Moses turned this way and that in order to complain to the proper Egyptian authorities about the corrupt taskmaster and to appeal for justice. But, when Moses saw that there was “no man who was man enough to consider basic and inalienable human rights, and that all the Egyptians conspired against his brethren only to torture them, he smote the Egyptian, as he saw no other means to dispense justice like a man.”

Rabbi Jacobson also quotes Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, who maintained that Moses was not looking for Egyptian authorities to stop the attack, but was rather waiting for a Jew to come to his brother’s rescue. Rabbi Mecklenburg insists, “Seeing great injustice done to a defenseless slave, Moses thought that surely one of the Hebrew brethren would rise and fall upon the Egyptian taskmaster to rescue his beaten brother–-and he saw that there was no man–-he understood that none of his brethren was man enough, all were so demoralized and callous as to not care what happened to others or wanting to protect them.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov suggests that Moses expected all the Jews to resist. After all, for every Egyptian taskmaster there were ten Hebrew officers and for every Jewish officer, there were ten Israelites. Given the sheer numbers, the Israelites could have successfully resisted.

Alas, there was no resistance, and Moses had to take matters into his own hands.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5776-2015

“Jacob Maintains a Bitter Grudge Against Simeon and Levi”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob blesses his twelve sons prior to his death.

Even though not all the statements expressed by Jacob in his last testament to his sons appear to be blessings, scripture regards them as blessings. The Torah, in Genesis 49:28, clearly states, כָּל אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר, וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם, אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם, All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them when he blessed them. He blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.

Rashi as well, confirms the words of Jacob as a blessing. Rashi notes, that Jacob’s words to Reuben, Simeon and Levi seem not to be blessings at all, but, in fact, appear to be words of reproach. However, the verse definitively states, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם, he [Jacob] blessed them, implying that no matter what the words seem to mean, Jacob blessed all his sons.

There is, however, a significant difference between Jacob’s words to Reuben and those to Simeon and Levi. To Reuben, Jacob says, Genesis 49:3, רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי, יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז, Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. However, unstable as water, you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed, then you defiled it–he ascended my couch.

Jacob’s words to Reuben appear to be expressions of disappointment, rather than words of reproach. Although Reuben has all the right intentions, his timing is horrible (Vayechi 5763-2002), and thus he is inappropriate for leadership.

On the other hand, Jacob’s words to Simeon and Levi are significantly harsher. In Jacob’s final testament to his children, Jacob says, Genesis 49:5-7,שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים, כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז, וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.. Simeon and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence are their tools. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter! With their congregation do not unite, O my honor! For in their rage they killed a man and in their wrath they injured an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is mighty, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.

Fifty years have passed since the rape of Dinah took place in the city of Shechem. After attacking Dinah, the mayor of the city, whose name was also Shechem, held Dinah hostage and came to beg Jacob for Dinah’s hand in marriage. The brothers, who would have nothing to do with this scandalous proposal, schemed in order to rescue Dinah.

The brothers informed Shechem and his father that they could intermarry with Jacob’s family only if all the men of Shechem would be circumcised. On the third day following their circumcision, when the men of Shechem were in deep pain, two of Dinah’s brothers (“Ah’chay Dinah,” Genesis 34:25), attacked the defenseless city, killing all the males. The other brothers later joined in to plunder the city.

Jacob, who was terribly distressed by his sons’ actions, cried out to Simeon and Levi, Genesis 34:30,וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי, עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי, וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי, “You have troubled me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites; I am few in number, and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated–-I and my household.” The brothers plaintively responded, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?”

It should be carefully noted that Jacob’s condemnation of the two sons, Simeon and Levi, and only these two sons, is not a condemnation of their actions. It is, rather, a condemnation of the fact that they had compromised the security of Jacob and his family, who are now subject to a Canaanite attack–-a rather mild condemnation for murdering all the men of the city.

Why, then, is Jacob so much more unforgiving fifty years later, at the end of his life, denouncing Simeon and Levi as murderers, and demanding that his name not be mentioned in their congregation?

The May’am Loez also points out that, in his final moments, Jacob did not curse his sons, but specifically cursed their anger. Both the May’am Loez and Rashi (Genesis 49:5) suggest that Jacob was particularly upset at Simeon and Levi because they behaved like Esau and stole the “weapons” of Esau, who was destined to live and die by the sword (Genesis 27:40). The May’am Lo’ez surprisingly suggests that perhaps Jacob felt that the actions of the sons might have been justified because of the perfidious crime the people of Shechem had committed, as well as the fact that the perpetrators were idolaters. However, suggests the May’am Lo’ez, Jacob felt that the brothers had gone too far. Since the men of Shechem were disabled, killing the entire city was unjustified. After all, the brothers could have just rescued their sister and left. This, according to the May’am Lo’ez, is the reason why Jacob is so angry, even fifty years later.

Both Rashi and the Malbim pick up on an important nuance in Jacob’s words to Simeon and Levi. In his final words to his sons, Jacob says, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר, in their rage they [Simeon and Levi] killed a man and in their wrath they injured an ox (uprooted an ox). Rashi notes that Jacob’s reference to the killing of a “man” clearly refers to the killing of the men of Shechem, who, since they were disabled and defenseless, were like a single “man.” However, “in their wrath, they injured an ox,” refers to Joseph, who is called an ox by Moses in Deuteronomy 33:17, “The chief ox, glory is his.” The Malbim, therefore, explains that, at this point, Jacob is much angrier at Simeon and Levi than he was at the time of the massacre of Shechem, because he now holds Simeon and Levi responsible not only for their unjustified actions in Shechem, but also for scheming to kill Joseph.

Although the Bible never clearly states that Simeon and Levi were the chief schemers against Joseph, Rashi deduces that it only could have been them. (See Rashi, Genesis 49:5)

While it is true that Jacob was devastated by the actions of Simeon and Levi in Shechem, as already noted, it was more because they had compromised the security of Jacob’s entire family, opening them up to a possible Canaanite attack. Even though the brothers’ attempt to take Joseph’s life never materialized, and in fact, turned into a blessing not only for Jacob and his family but for the entire world, Jacob was deeply disappointed with his two sons, Simeon and Levi, and felt the need to express that publicly before his death.

The prophecy of Jacob regarding his two sons, Simeon and Levi, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, I will separate them within Jacob and disperse them within Israel, actually came true. Of all the tribes of Israel, only Simeon and Levi did not receive a designated portion of land in Canaan. The Levites, of course, repented and became the ministers, the clergy of Israel. They re-channeled their passion to the service of G-d (Matot-Masei 5775-2015).

The tribe of Simeon, however, never received their own portion of land and was dispersed within the tribal lands of Judah and the other tribes. According to tradition, most of the poor people of Israel, the scribes and elementary grade teachers, were of the tribe of Simeon. The Simeonites were therefore required by their professions to seek out a livelihood among others, dwelling and dispersed among the other tribes.

The Netziv suggests that the different fates of Simeon and Levi was due to their personal motivations. Simeon was motivated by family pride, while Levi was motivated by the desire to maintain the sanctity of the family of Jacob.

These are the fascinating aspects of the story of Simeon and Levi, and the gems that are derived from the scriptural nuances of the Biblical text.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this Tuesday, December 22, 2015 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.

Vayigash 5776-2015

“Joseph’s Intense Economic Policies”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Judah’s appeal to Joseph to release his brother Benjamin has a powerful impact, causing Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers.

After learning that Joseph is now the viceroy to Pharaoh in Egypt, Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his family journey to Egypt to reunite with their long-lost son and brother.

Parashat Vayigash closes with details of the famine in Egypt and Joseph’s handling of the national crisis.

Soon after their arrival in Egypt, Jacob and his sons are invited to an audience with Pharaoh. At the audience, the Egyptian monarch warmly welcomes Jacob and his sons to Egypt, offering them the best parts of the land. Pharaoh even proposes that the brothers serve as the monarch’s personal shepherds. At the behest of Pharaoh, Joseph settles his family in the best of the land, in the region of Rameses, and sustains them with adequate food.

As the famine intensifies, the Egyptian people became “weary” from hunger. Joseph opens the storehouses of grain that had been collected during the seven years of plenty and sells the food to the hungry Egyptians, undoubtedly, dramatically enriching the royal coffers. However, when the people could no longer pay and again plead for food, Joseph insists that they give up their flocks as payment for food. In return for the bread that Joseph gives the people, he collects all the horses, the flocks of sheep, the herds of cattle and donkeys and all of the peoples’ livestock, nationalizing them as the property of Pharaoh and Royal government.

In the third year, with no money and with no flocks, the people offer all their personal real estate as payment for food, and pledge to serve as Pharaoh’s slaves.

The Torah, in Genesis 47:20 states, וַיִּקֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת כָּל אַדְמַת מִצְרַיִם לְפַרְעֹה, כִּי מָכְרוּ מִצְרַיִם אִישׁ שָׂדֵהוּ, כִּי חָזַק עֲלֵהֶם הָרָעָב, וַתְּהִי הָאָרֶץ לְפַרְעֹה, Thus Joseph acquired all of the land of Egypt for Pharaoh–for every Egyptian sold his field because the famine had overwhelmed them; and the land became Pharaoh’s.

Joseph also resettled the people by cities, from one end of Egypt’s borders to the other. The only citizens exempted from these decrees were the priests, who, in addition, received a special monetary stipend from Pharaoh and retained personal ownership of their lands.

Joseph heightened political instincts are on display as he offers the Egyptians both honey and sting. He first reminds the citizens that he has acquired them and their lands for Pharaoh. He then offers the people seed to plant, a gesture that was considered truly magnanimous by the people. While the Egyptians may keep four parts of the produce they harvest for themselves, they will be required to give a fifth of the harvest to Pharaoh.

The Torah, in Genesis 47:25 records the heartfelt expression of gratitude of the Egyptian people to Joseph, וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֶחֱיִתָנוּ, נִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי וְהָיִינוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה, And they said, “You have saved our lives; may we find favor in your eyes, my lord, and we will be servants to Pharaoh.”

The Torah’s description of Joseph’s edicts regarding the land of Egypt and all the property of its citizens, underscores Joseph’s incredible talents as a leader and administrator. Slowly and subtly he dispossesses the people of Egypt from everything they own–their money, their land, their animal stock. He cleverly takes everything from them. Despite their plea to become slaves to Pharaoh, Joseph wisely determines that it is best for them to remain free, in this manner, convincing the people that he is benevolent and truly concerned for their well being! The people shout out with great enthusiasm, הֶחֱיִתָנוּ, “You have given us life!” Despite the fact that Joseph has cleaned them out of everything they possess, they are so grateful to him for keeping them alive.

Some of the commentators suggest that Joseph collected the wealth of Egypt in order to make possible the fulfillment of G-d’s prophecy that when the Israelites will leave Egypt, they will take all of the wealth of Egypt with them. Apparently not only the private wealth will transfer to Jewish ownership, but public wealth as well.

Joseph’s political astuteness is particularly apparent when he avoids upsetting the clergy. Joseph recognizes that if the clergy are kept happy, the people will not rebel. (This is something that the Shah of Iran should have learned from Joseph. Never start with the clergy!)

It is interesting to note how Joseph’s policies play out in future generations. While Joseph is publicly acknowledged as the savior of Egypt by the people because they were grateful to be alive, they were, apparently, inwardly resentful of losing all their possessions. Could it be that they were only too eager to later enslave the Jews because it was the Jewish leader, representing Pharaoh of course, who confiscated all of their wealth? It was the Jew who impoverished them!

On the other hand, the Pharaohs, who should have been most grateful to Joseph because of the wealth Joseph had amassed for them, express no gratitude. Rather than praise Joseph for not only saving the land and the people, and adding untold wealth to their royal coffers, the Torah soon tells us, in Exodus 1:8, וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף, A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Joseph. He saw the Jewish people as a threat, as a fifth column.

What impact do Joseph’s economic policies have on the people?

The Biblical scholar, W. Gunther Plaut, cites in his notes,

Because of the careful and unemotional accounting of the disenfranchisement of the Egyptian people and its apparent approval of Joseph’s role in it, this section [describing Joseph’s harsh edicts] has been made “a showpiece of anti-Semitic polemic.” Here is the Bible, it has been said, Jewry’s sacred book, and look at the immorality, by its exaltation of Joseph, it obviously endorses.

Plaut responds to these charges by stating that it is incorrect to harshly judge Joseph’s actions by imposing contemporary standards of social and political morality on this story. Joseph’s actions indeed save the multitudes from starvation, which was apparently worth any price to the people, including mortgaging their freedom. People in those days, suggests Plaut, did not really value freedom. And that is perhaps why the land of Egypt was known as “the house of bondage,” not only by Jews, but because the Egyptians failed to appreciate their freedom, or saw their own bondage as a normal condition of life.

Be that as it may, Joseph’s actions on behalf of Pharaoh, apparently, created significant pent-up resentment among the Egyptian people, who later participated in the enslavement of the Hebrews. His contributions to the enrichment of the monarchs were also unappreciated, and his harsh decrees provided much fodder (although unjustified) to many future generations of anti-Semites.

May you be blessed.

Mikeitz 5776-2015

“Joseph’s Bold Advice to Pharaoh-–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph, the Hebrew slave boy, is hurried from the dungeon to stand before Pharaoh, to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.

After masterfully interpreting the king’s dreams, and predicting seven years of feast followed by seven years of famine, the audacious Joseph suggests to Pharaoh how to deal with the impending crisis. In Genesis 41:33, Joseph says to Pharaoh, וְעַתָּה יֵרֶא פַרְעֹה אִישׁ נָבוֹן וְחָכָם, וִישִׁיתֵהוּ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.” Joseph then lays out his plan of storing food during the years of plenty so that it can be distributed during the years of famine.

The commentators are surprised that the Hebrew slave has the chutzpa to tell Pharaoh what to do. After all, this does not seem to be part of the Divine message.

Apparently, it is very much part of the Divine message, communicated in a subtle way, through Pharaoh’s dream. The classical commentators (see parashat Mikeitz 5771-2010) suggest several explanations.

There are, however, other approaches recorded in the Iturei Torah.  Drawing from the wide-ranging sources of Hassidut and Mussar, the Iturei Torah cites several commentators who offer various novel insights into this issue.

The classical commentator, the Alshich notes that the dream itself points to the solution that Joseph suggests. Referring to Pharaoh’s second dream of the stalks that grew from a single stem, the Alshich recalls the statement in Brachot 56b, where the idea of a stalk in a dream is regarded in the Talmud as wisdom. Joseph, therefore, concludes that the dream indicates the need for a wise man to deal with this issue.

The Nachal Kidumim asserts that the fact that Pharaoh awoke during his dream, went back to sleep and dreamed a second dream (Genesis 41:4-7), means that the second dream is a direct continuation of the first dream. Therefore, Joseph is required to interpret the conclusion of the dream differently from the first dream of the fat and lean cows. Joseph begins his new interpretation by pronouncing the word וְעַתָּה “V’ah’tah,” meaning, “And now.” Says Joseph, “And now, Pharaoh, the reason that you awoke, is because you need to wake up from your stupor, and recognize the urgency of the moment. You, Pharaoh, must do everything in your power to find a wise and discerning person who will save Egypt from the destruction of the famine.”

The Iturei Torah cites an unidentified Rabbi D.D.S., who, according to Kol Omer Kra, maintains that Joseph needed to prove to Pharaoh that every detail of his dream was true. Until this point, all the details fell into place with Joseph’s prediction of the years of feast and famine, except for the specific description of Pharaoh seeing himself standing on the Nile.

Joseph now explains to Pharaoh that the image of him standing on the Nile is an allusion to the fact that Pharaoh must now take upon himself to play the role of the Nile. Pharaoh must transform himself into the Nile, and become the provider and the supporter of Egypt during the years of famine. This role will become a reality when Pharaoh seeks out a discerning and wise man and appoints him over the land of Egypt.

The Ma’ayana Shel Torah suggests that normally it would have been sufficient to show Pharaoh only the dream of the years of plenty. However, the Al-mighty revealed to Pharaoh that a famine would also strike Egypt, in order to allow Pharaoh to prepare for the famine. Pharaoh must address the issue of the famine by seeking out a discerning and wise man to set over Egypt.

Peninim on the Torah explains Joseph’s temerity by citing a clever parable, attributed to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber. Rabbi Ferber tells the story of two military officers who were thoroughly absorbed with their own glory. They once arrived at a train station and found a band playing. Because of their extreme hubris, each one thought that the band was playing in his honor. Seeking to resolve their dispute, they decided to consult a local Jew who was known for his wisdom.

It was around Passover time and the impoverished Jew was distraught that he would have no wine and matzahs for himself and his family for the holiday. When the two officers approached him for mediation, he agreed to do so on the condition that they pay him fifty rubles. After they had paid, he said to them, “The band was not there for either one of you. It was there for me, so that I would have money to purchase provisions for Passover.”

Similarly, says Rabbi Ferber, Pharaoh’s dreams were not for Pharaoh or for the wise men of Egypt. After all, G-d can bring about a famine without resorting to dreams. The purpose of the dreams was for Joseph’s sake, so that he could be released from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and become the viceroy to Pharaoh. Therefore, Joseph has no compunction about offering advice to Pharaoh, and instructing Pharaoh to seek out an astute and wise person, whom Pharaoh should set over the land of Egypt.

When Pharaoh heard this, he immediately recognized Joseph’s special talents, and declared, “There is no one more wise than you. Therefore you will be in charge of my palace.”

The Peninim Al HaTorah concludes by saying that we are frequently unaware that G-d is sending us a message. We, too, often think that the message is for someone else and not us. We need to open our eyes and ears, to listen for, and perceive, the continuous messages that G-d sends us.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah began Sunday night, December 6th, 2015, and continues for eight days, through nightfall on Monday, December 14th, 2015.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!