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Re’eh 5776-2016

“Preserving the Sanctity of Sacred Objects and Sacred Ideas”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Very soon after the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 12, highlights the special sanctity of Eretz Israel, the Promised Land that the Children of Israel are about to enter.

Scripture, in Deuteronomy 12:1 declares, אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן השׁם אֱ־לֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ,  כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה, These are the decrees and the ordinances that you shall observe to perform in the Land that the L-rd, the G-d of your forefathers, has given you to possess it, all the days that you live on the Land.

The Torah then warns the people that because of the land’s exalted sanctity, they must utterly destroy the idols that may be found in the land and any vestiges of idol practice. Even the roots of idolatrous trees must be removed from the ground. The Torah cautions the people to shatter all idolatrous altars, smash the pagan pillars and burn their sacred trees in fire. All idolatrous images must be cut down and even the names of idolatrous places are to be obliterated.

As if to starkly contrast the negative impact of idolatry with the positive impact of Jewish sacred objects, the Torah cautions that Jewish objects that are sacred to G-d must be properly preserved and treated with utmost respect and dignity. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 12:4 declares: לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַהשׁם אֱ־לֹהֵיכֶם, You shall not behave in this manner with the L-rd, your G-d. The Torah insists that only in the place where G-d chooses to place His Divine Presence (meaning Jerusalem), may the people bring their sacrifices and offerings and eat of the sacred offerings.

Rashi explains that the declaration, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן, you shall not do so, is the source of important lessons: 1. Offering sacrifices for the sake of Heaven in any place, other than the place where G-d chooses(Jerusalem) is prohibited. 2. While one is permitted (indeed required) to smash the idolatrous altars and destroy their names, this may not be done to the sacred places of Judaism or do anything that may in any way desecrate G-d’s name. Erasing G-d’s name or destroying a stone of the Sacred Altar in Jerusalem is forbidden.

Offering a fascinating alternate interpretation of this verse, Rashi explains that the People of Israel are not only to cleanse the land from the defilement of the idolaters, they may also in no way defy G-d. Their sinful behavior would bring destruction upon the people, and bring defilement upon the holy altars and the sacred Temple of Jerusalem.

The commentators also warn against the fallacious reasoning that may lead the people to conclude that since the Temple and its altars were built by humans, it may be permissible to destroy the Temple furnishings that are the work of their own hands. They explain that once the stones become an integral part of the Temple, they are sacred, and no one may defile their sanctity.

Expanding the prohibition, the commentators explain that just as defiling sacred objects is forbidden, so is defacing sacred ideas.

Thus, sacred writings that have G-d’s name on them, may not be erased or destroyed, and must be carefully handled. Worn sacred objects and writings that can no longer be used must be respectfully buried, such as scrolls of Torah, prayer books, Bibles, Tefillin, Mezzuzot, etc.

The seven sacred names of G-d may not be erased or profaned by using them in vain. They are: 1. The Tetragrammaton, the four letter Hebrew name of G-d. 2. “Eh’lo’ah;” 3. “Shah’dai;” 4. “Ayl;” 5. “Ah’doh’nai;” 6. “Eh’lo’him;” 7. “Tz’vah’oht.”  The penalty for effacing the sacred names of G-d is very severe.

Other names by which G-d is known, such has חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם–compassionate and merciful, may be erased. Instances in the Torah where the names of G-d appear, but are not intended to be sacred, may be also be erased. Thus, when Lot says to the messengers who come to Sodom (Genesis 19:18), אַל נָא, אֲדֹנָי, “Please, my masters,” in this case אֲדֹנָי–“Ah’doh’nai” means, my masters, and is not sacred, even though the Hebrew word is the same as G-d’s name.

The Hebrew language is often referred to as לְשׁוֹן הַקֹּדֶשׁ–the Holy Tongue, and the holiness of the language is maintained to this day. Even in the contemporary State of Israel, modern day Hebrew contains very few expletives. Most of the local curse words are from Arabic.

Because of the sanctity of G-d’s names, it has been the Jewish custom for millennia for Jews to protect the names of G-d, never writing them for a non-sacred purpose, frequently inserting hyphens between letters, in order to make certain that they are not intended to be sacred. A good example of the lengths to which the Jewish people go to protect the holy names, is that, even in English, the word “G-d” is often written with a dash, even though it certainly is not a sacred name. In this way, the sanctity of name is preserved.

A holy book that falls to the ground, is lifted carefully and kissed, the way a child who falls might be kissed.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that the particularly sensitive treatment shown to holy writ creates a sense of awe and trepidation, not only for the names of G-d and the sacred objects, but for the entire concept of serving G-d with complete respect and reverence.

In sum, we see that the Jewish concept of “sanctity” is not only revolutionary, but also ubiquitous. Holy objects and holy ideas are treated with utmost reverence and love. In truth, sacred objects are often treated as if they were alive and breathing. Since the purpose of almost all of Judaism is the sanctity of all human life, it is quite understandable that Judaism may, at times, treat inanimate objects as if they were living. In this manner we are assured that the sanctity of holy objects and holy ideas are safeguarded and properly preserved.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5776-2016

“Caring for the Weak and the Vulnerable”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the important mitzvot found in this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah bids the Jew to be G-dlike by caring for the orphan and the widow, loving the proselytes and giving them bread to eat and clothes to wear.

In Deuteronomy 10:19, the Torah declares, וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, You shall love the stranger (proselyte/convert) for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 36 times, more than any other mitzvah, the Torah exhorts the People of Israel to care for and love the גֵּר–“Gehr,” the stranger.

As the great social philosophers often proclaim: a society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Judaism (Talmud Sotah 14a) demands that Jews strive to emulate G-d. This practice, known in philosophy as “Imitatio Dei,” demands that just as He [G-d] is kind, so must we be kind; just as He is filled with compassion, so must we be filled with compassion; just as He is long-suffering, so must we be long-suffering.

According to tradition, our Torah contains 613 mitzvot–365 negative mitzvot and 248 positive mitzvot. Many, if not most, of these mitzvot are revolutionary. Yet, perhaps none is more remarkable than the mitzvah to love the stranger. At a time when the entire world was dogmatically xenophobic, threatened by strangers and rejecting of outsiders, Judaism declared that loving the stranger would be the hallmark of its legal and social systems.

According to tradition, the city of Sodom was known for its venal snobbery and elitism. Strangers were treated with disdain and often subjected to physical abuse and torture. When Lot told his sons-in-law that Sodom would soon be destroyed (Genesis 19:14), they laughed at him cynically saying, “You fool, a city filled with music and culture, and you say that Sodom will be destroyed!”

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch offers an extensive exposition on mitzvah number 431, entitled, “To love the stranger (the convert).” The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that because the convert forsook his family and his nation, to take shelter under the wings of a new, strange nation, the People of Israel must be particularly sensitive to his loneliness and vulnerability.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch warns to be especially careful when speaking with a convert, making certain not to be insensitive or to bring up unseemly behaviors from the past. The Chinuch further notes that the community must be particularly mindful to treat converts carefully, to show concern for their needs and to come to their aid, since as fragile strangers, they have no one to turn to for help.

In a remarkable and unexpected departure from his normal style, the Sefer Ha’Chinuch concludes his analysis of the mitzvah of loving the stranger by extending it, insisting on the need to show sensitivity to all people. The Sefer Ha’Chinuch declares that Jews must learn from this “precious mitzvah,” to have compassion on all people who are strangers, including those who come from other cities or foreign countries, and are now alone in new cities and countries. Later commentators have noted that particularly because they are alone, all strangers need to be embraced, including newcomers to a neighborhood, new students in school, and new employees.

The Kli Yakar comments on the verse (Genesis 47:21), וְאֶת הָעָם הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶעָרִים, that Joseph transferred the people of Egypt from one end of Egypt to the other. The Kli Yakar explains that Joseph did this in order to make the Egyptians aware of what it means to be strangers, since those who never experienced being a stranger cannot have full compassion on those who are.

My esteemed friend and famed author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, has an especially sensitive ear that is particularly attuned to human needs. Sensitivity is a theme that recurs in many of his writings. He discusses the prohibition of a would-be-customer entering a store to ask a salesperson the price of an item when he has no intention of buying. Rabbi Telushkin also suggests that when one hears the siren of a fire engine or a speeding ambulance, that instead of expressing annoyance with the shrill noise, he recommends that people utter a little prayer that the firefighters reach the scene of the fire in time to save lives, and that the ambulance successfully transport the sick safely so that they may be properly treated and hopefully healed.

When studied objectively, it is obvious that these sensitivities are beyond human sensitivities. Clearly, these superhuman sensitivities are ultimately Divine sensitivities, which have been transmitted to the world through the Al-mighty’s Torah.

The sensitivity that is found abundantly throughout this ancient document, the Torah, is truly breathtaking, and surely points to the Divine Hand in its authorship.

Those who are fortunate to have learned Torah, must embrace these wonderful values. Only in this manner is there hope that the world will be perfected, hastening the Ultimate Redemption in our own lifetimes.

May you be blessed.




Va’etchanan 5776-2016

“Blessing G-d for the Good and the Bad”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, includes the שְׁמַע–“Shemah,” the central Hebrew prayer in which Jews, twice daily, accept upon themselves the dominion of G-d.                     

 The opening verse of the Shemah, found in Deuteronomy 6:4, reads: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ השׁם אֶחָד, Hear O’ Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One! The Shemah is the “oldest and greatest of our prayers” and is generally regarded as the supreme declaration of faith in Judaism. It is often the first prayer taught to little children, the last words recited by Jews before they die, and uttered by would-be Jewish martyrs who face the prospect of death at the hands of their enemies.

 The second verse of the Shemah, וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, calls upon Jews to love the L-rd their G-d with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might.

Rashi notes that this verse comes to teach several basic elements of faith: Jews should always perform G-d’s words and commandments out of love.  Jews should fulfill G-d’s instructions with all their heart, utilizing both the inclination to do good and even the drive to evil. Never should there be any suspicion or doubt in a Jew’s heart regarding G-d, His actions, or His decisions.

Citing the Talmud in Brachot 54a, Rashi interprets the phrase וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ with all your soul, to mean that a Jew must love G-d even if G-d takes one’s soul away. Thus, Jews must be prepared to forfeit their lives for the sanctification of G-d’s name when the situation calls for it.

Rashi interprets the expression וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, sometimes translated as with all your might, to mean that one must love G-d with all one’s possessions and belongings. Citing the Talmud in Brachot 54a, Rashi notes that בְּכָל מְאֹדֶךָ can also mean that one must be prepared to accept G-d’s judgment with every measure (midah) that G-d metes out, whether good or bad.

In addition to the previously-mentioned interpretation of the words בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ“bechol nasfshecha,” to mean that one must love G-d even if He [G-d] takes your life away, the Talmud in Brachot 54a, further elaborates, stating that a Jew is expected to bless G-d for the evil that one experiences, just as G-d must be blessed for the good that one experiences.

An interesting aspect of this principle is the double blessing, one for evil and one for good, that one must make upon suffering the loss of a close relative who has left the bereaved mourner a significant legacy.

The Talmud (Berachot 61b) relates the tragic case of Rabbi Akiva (Talmudic sage c. 40-c. 137) who was martyred during the Roman Hadrianic period. As Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was scraped with steel combs, he continued to recite the Shemah. Beholding Rabbi Akiva’s incredible courage in face of torture and certain death, his students were astounded by their rabbi’s deep faith. They asked him, “Our master, how far must one bear one’s faith?” He responded, “My entire life, I was saddened that I never had the opportunity to fulfill the verse [of the Shemah], “bechol nasfshecha,” even if He [G-d] takes your soul. Now that I have that opportunity, should I not fulfill it?”

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva intoned the last word of the opening verse of the Shemah, אֶחָד, the L-rd is One, until his soul departed from his body. A voice then came forth from heaven and proclaimed, “Praised are you Akiva, you are destined to a life in the World to Come.”

One of the important principles of faith that is articulated by the rabbis (Brachot 60b) is the statement כָּל דְּעָבִיד רַחְמָנָא לְטַב עָבִיד, basically asserting that whatever the All-Merciful G-d does is always for the benefit of humankind. The Talmud (e.g., Taanit 21a and Sanhedrin 108b) abounds with stories of people who would often say גַּם זוֹ לְטוֹבָה, “this too is for the good”–even when terrible tragedies befell them.

The rabbinic proclamation that one needs to bless G-d for the evil, just as He is to be blessed for the good, is both fascinating and perplexing.

This idea is predicated on the assumption, that in a real sense, the ethical world operates very much like the physical world. If there were no darkness, there would be no light. Were there no cold, there would be no heat. If there were no sadness, there would be no joy. If there were no death, there would be no life. If there were no illness, there would be no healing.

I recall a provocative discussion about good and evil. It was suggested that if every time a plane filled with travelers was about to crash, a Divine hand appeared to gently bring it down to earth, there would be little or no progress in the world. The world would cease to move forward. Humankind would be in its own spiritual/physical “Garden of Eden” leaving the Al-mighty to care about all threats and concerns. Of course, there would be no need for crews to maintain airplanes, and no reason to improve on the comfort, speed or safety of airliners. Progress would basically come to a total and absolute halt.

I recently came across a most enlightening tale of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. Feeling pity on the butterfly, the observer cut the butterfly loose from its cocoon, lifting the undeveloped butterfly out. Unfortunately, because the butterfly never struggled to emerge from its cocoon, it did not develop its muscles and was unable to fly or search for food. Its life ended shortly after it left its place of birth.

Going through life without obstacles is actually crippling. The obstacles we face in life are often blessings that strengthen us, leaving us with the ability to not only fly, but to actually soar.

May you be blessed.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 18th and 19th, 2016. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here).

Devarim 5776-2016

“Moses the Stammerer, Becomes a World-Class Orator”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With parashat Devarim, we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah. The book of Deuteronomy records the bold words of Moses, including not a few words of stinging rebuke directed at the People of Israel.

When we encounter Moses early in his “career” at the scene of the Burning Bush, we find a former prince of Egypt who has no desire to be a leader. So great is Moses’ reluctance to assume the responsibility of leading Israel, that he refuses to accept the task even when G-d informs Moses, in Exodus 3:16, that he has the unique opportunity to free the people from slavery in Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land of Israel. G-d says to Moses (Exodus 3:16), ”Go and gather the elders of Israel and tell them that G-d has remembered them, and that He is taking them up from the affliction of Egypt, and bringing them to the land flowing with milk and honey.”

Even when G-d specifically tells Moses in Exodus 3:18 that his mission will succeed, and that, וְשָׁמְעוּ לְקֹלֶךָ, “they will listen to you,” Moses, seemingly contradicts G-d (See Shemot 5769-2009), and responds, Exodus 4:1, , וְהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִיThey will not believe me and they will not listen to my voice!”

In order to instill confidence in Moses and win over the skeptics, G-d provides Moses with several wondrous signs: (Exodus 7:8-18) His staff turns into a serpent; Moses’ hand becomes leprous; and G-d shows Moses how to turn water into blood.

Moses continues to argue that he is absolutely unfit to lead. In Exodus 4:10, Moses plaintively cries, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם, גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ.  כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי , “Please, my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” G-d then responds, Exodus 4:11-12, “Who makes a mouth for man, or who makes one dumb or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd? So now, go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you should say.”

After all this, Moses has the audacity to say to the Al-mighty, as reported in Exodus 4:13, “Please my L-rd, send through whomever You will send,” in effect, saying to G-d, “Send anyone You’d like, just not me!”

G-d is angry and instructs Moses to speak to his brother, Aaron and put the words of G-d into Aaron’s mouth. G-d assures Moses that He will be with his [Moses’] mouth and with Aaron’s mouth. He [Aaron] will speak to the people for you. He will be your mouth and you will be his leader.

The rest is history!

The ArtScroll commentary quotes the Vilna Gaon, who comments on the differences in the spoken words of Moses:

“[The words spoken to Moses in] the first four books [of the Torah] are [words that came] directly from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, [spoken] through the throat of Moses. Not so is Deuteronomy. Israel heard the words of the book [of Deuteronomy] the same way that they heard the words of the prophets that came after Moses. The Holy One, blessed be He, would speak to the prophet today and on a later day he [the prophet] would go and make the vision known to Israel. Accordingly, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, the word of G-d had already been removed from him. So, too, the book of Deuteronomy was heard from the mouth of Moses himself.”

Throughout the Torah we find the constant refrain, וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, “the L-rd spoke to Moses, saying.” Whenever G-d spoke to Moses, Moses simply repeated the words that G-d, in effect, had dictated to him. However, only in the book of Deuteronomy, does Moses say nine times, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֵלַי, “The L-rd spoke to me.” (See Deuteronomy 1:42, 2:9, 3:2). Like the many prophets in later Jewish history whose messages were conveyed in their own words, the words spoken by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, were composed by Moses himself and delivered to the people.

To explain Moses’ newfound ability, the rabbis of the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 1) quote the Al-mighty saying, “Look how precious is the language of the Torah, for it heals the tongue. As stated in Proverbs 3:18, עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ, “The Torah is a tree of life to those who hold onto it.”

Rabbi Levi asks: Why do we need to go to the book of Proverbs for proof, we can learn directly from the Torah? After all, until Moses merited to receive the Torah, Moses says about himself that he is not a man of the spoken word. However, once he received the Torah, his tongue was healed and began to speak. As the Torah says in parashat Devarim, (Deuteronomy 1:1) אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, these are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel.

All the words that Moses, the stammerer and stutterer, spoke to Israel, which are recorded in the Torah before the book of Deuteronomy, were spoken haltingly by Moses. This was so, for it was preferable that no one suspect that the words were accepted by the people only because they were spoken by a great orator who had made up these words himself. However, now that Moses is conveying his own message to the people, and not G-d’s, his tongue was healed, so that his words would directly penetrate the hearts of those he was addressing.

Not only does Torah heal, Torah inspires. Those who teach Torah know that the give-and-take between teacher and student often clarifies the Torah’s message, revealing hidden secrets that normal reading or perusing may obscure. Learning Torah and teaching Torah transforms one from being merely a receptacle of Torah, into a font of wisdom that is capable of inspiring others.

And so it was with Moses, the man who stuttered and stammered, and who could barely open his mouth, became an inspirer, a golden-throated preacher, a teacher and orator.

My father, of blessed memory, Moshe Aharon Buchwald, had a wicked sense of humor. He would often wonder out loud how some of his quiet, meek acquaintances from his Shtetl in Poland, were suddenly transformed into extremely verbal and outgoing personalities upon arriving to the shores of America, becoming big “machers.” Tongue-in-cheek, my father would point to Moses, who was a stutterer and a stammerer in Egypt. Yet, when he crossed the sea, אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה, Moses became a great singer, poet and orator.

Perhaps crossing the great Atlantic Ocean was enough to transform the “Greenhorns” from Poland. But, for Moses, the source of his speaking ability was the inspiration he received from the Torah, which contains power within it to transform all those who embrace it.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Thursday evening, August 4th and all day Friday, August 5th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.

The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon” –the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, August 13th and continues through Sunday night, August 14th, 2016. Although Tisha B’Av is normally observed on the 9th day of Av, since the 9th of Av, this year, falls on Shabbat, it is observed a day later, on Sunday, the 10th of Av. Have a meaningful fast.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמּי, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Matot-Masei 5776-2016

“Rosh Chodesh Av – Remembering the Passing of a Beloved Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Masei, the second of this week’s combined parashiot Matot-Masei, features a lengthy list of 42 locations where the Israelites encamped during their forty years of wandering in the Wilderness.

When read in the synagogue, the text of the travel itinerary is usually chanted by the Torah reader using a special singsong melody, underscoring the long and arduous journeys the Israelites endured in the Wilderness.

In Numbers 33:1, Rashi points out that of the 42 encampments, the first fourteen occurred before the mission of the scouts and the last eight stops were in the fortieth year after Aaron’s death. Thus, we learn that during the 38 intervening years, there were “only” twenty journeys, including 19 years that were spent encamped in a single location, Kadesh Barnea.

The listing of the journeys is pretty much routine. The first journey recorded in Numbers 33:5, reads, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּת, and the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses and encamped in Succot. We are then informed that the people journeyed from Succot and encamped in Ethan and turned back to Pi-Hahiroth. On rare occasion, does scripture pause after noting a location to add a brief comment.

So, in Numbers 33:9, we learn that in Eilim there were twelve springs of water and 70 date palms (B’shalach 5776-2016). Numbers 33:14, reports that in Rephidim there was no water for the people to drink.

In Numbers 33:37, we are told that the people journeyed from Kadesh and encamped in Mount Hor, at the edge of the land of Edom. The Torah, in Numbers 33:38-39, then devotes two verses to recount the death of Aaron, וַיַּעַל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אֶל הֹר הָהָר, עַל פִּי השׁם וַיָּמָת שָׁם: בִּשְׁנַת הָאַרְבָּעִים לְצֵאת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי, בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ. וְאַהֲרֹן בֶּן שָׁלֹשׁ וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה בְּמֹתוֹ בְּהֹר הָהָר, Then Aaron, the Kohen went up to Mount Hor, at the word of the L-rd, and died there, in the fortieth year after the Children of Israel went forth from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month. Aaron was 123 years old at his death on Mount Hor.

The details of Aaron’s death had already been reported in parashat Chukat, Numbers 20:22-29. Yet, they are repeated again here in parashat Masei. Despite the fact that there were several other significant events that were also previously reported, none are repeated in the travel itinerary: the sin of the Golden Calf; the negative report of the scouts; the rebellion of Korach; the death of Miriam; מֵי מְרִיבָהthe waters of rebellion, where Moses hit the rock, and lost his right to enter the Land of Israel. What can possibly be so significant about the death of Aaron that required recalling his passing?

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in Da’at Sofrim  always seems to uncover important messages that are found in seemingly insignificant words of the Biblical narratives. He points to some intriguing and novel information that is provided in the two verses. By stating that Aaron, the High Priest, ascended the mountain at the word of the L-rd, we are faced with the sad reality that from this point, Moses, leads the people alone. Additional details are also uncovered regarding the death of Aaron. While facing one’s mortality is never pleasant, we learn that Aaron ascended the mountain without hesitation, fully accepting the fact that his time had come to pass on and that the Children of Israel were now capable of reaching the Promised Land without him.

Rabbi Rabinowitz further notes, that in Numbers 20, where Aaron’s death is described at length, no date is mentioned and we are left with no idea when it occurred. In parashat Masei, the exact date of Aaron’s passing is recorded: the first day of the fifth month, which is the month of Av. Furthermore, we are told that Aaron lived to the ripe old age of 123. After the period of the Patriarchs and their children, the ages of leaders are rarely mentioned in the Bible. Rabbi Rabinowitz says that noting Aaron’s exact age comes to teach that G-d granted the Jewish people the privilege of Aaron’s extended life, so that he would be present throughout the forty years, enabling the beloved High Priest to remain with his people in the wilderness, until they reached the “gates” of the Holy Land.

The Midrash notes that Moses was jealous of Aaron’s noble and gentle death. Based on the Midrash, Rashi states in Numbers 33:38, that Aaron died with a gentle kiss from the Al-mighty, a fact that is derived from the Hebrew expression that recalls that Aaron went up to Mount Hor, עַל פִּי השׁם, at the word, literally, “at the lips” of the L-rd, and died there.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus emphasizes the singular importance of the fact that the date of Aaron’s passing, the first of Av, is recorded. No other great personage in scripture, at least no one in the Five Books of the Torah, has the date of his death recorded, or established as a would-be yahrtzeit to be observed on the anniversary of his death. In fact, the Tur notes that even though the first of Av is Rosh Chodesh, the righteous are permitted to fast in honor of Aaron.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that Aaron’s passing was unique, because Aaron, as we are told in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 1:12, was the great teacher of peace and pursuer of peace. His passing left future generations pained and bereft, because there is no greater loss than the passing of one who embodies peace and is the primary pursuer of peace in the world.

Some of the commentators conclude that Aaron’s death on Rosh Chodesh Av is the reason for the Talmudic dictum (Taanit 26b), which states:מִשֶּנִּכְנַס אָב מְמַעֲטִין בְּשִׂמְחָה , with the arrival of the month of Av there is a reduction in joy. The beginning of the month of Av marks the beginning of the “Three Week” mourning period for the Temples and the exile. Rav Pincus even suggests that the passing of Aaron, the man of peace, was so profound that it resulted in the loss of the Temples. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) states that the second Temple was destroyed because of “wanton hatred,” שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם. In the absence of a bold leader like Aaron, the people were unable to control their wanton behavior, leading to the destruction.

Rabbi Pincus notes that the statement found in the Mishna in Avot encouraging all to become students of Aaron, to love peace and pursue peace, comes to underscore that everyone needs a mentor who will teach them to love peace. Rav Pincus points out, ironically, that despite giving abundant lip service to the primacy of peace and the value of peace, most people prefer discord far more than peace, because when all is peaceful, life is boring. But when a juicy dispute ignites, life suddenly becomes colorful and exciting.

Many people, says Rabbi Pincus, who seem on the surface to be quiet and passive, veritable wallflowers, are suddenly transformed, during times of dispute and enmity, into harsh and judgmental misanthropes.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that we be truthful with ourselves. Dispute is surely as sweet as honey and as tasty as nectar. Only a man of great stature, such as Aaron, could impact so profoundly on the world’s inhabitants, encouraging all to love peace, even before taking a single practical step to pursue peace.

Aaron, says Rabbi Pincus, taught the people to love the “boring” peace, and to abhor the “thrill” of dispute. That is why the day that Aaron left this world is a day of pain and mourning for all generations.

It is vital to constantly recall the Torah of Aaron, to fully understand, that even though dispute and hatred may seem tempting and intriguing, the outcome is always tragic, resulting in great loss and pain, travail and turmoil. True peace, however, yields genuine pleasure, bountiful success and untold blessings for those who pursue peace.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Thursday evening, August 4th and all day Friday, August 5th. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av. The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon“–-the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction

Pinchas 5776-2016

“Pinchas the Zealot, and King David”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, contain the conclusion of the dramatic narrative concerning Pinchas, the son of Elazar, who turns back G-d’s wrath from the Children of Israel by killing two prominent individuals who had committed an act of public harlotry, and challenged Moses’ authority.

In last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read in Numbers 25:7-8, that Pinchas stood up from amidst the assembly with a spear in his hand, followed the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced both the man and woman through their stomachs. His brazen act halted the plague from the Children of Israel, but only after 24,000 people had already died.

The identities of the two prominent people are then revealed in Numbers 25:14-15: The man was Zimri the son of Salu, the leader of the house of the Simeonites, and the Midianite woman was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur, who was a distinguished leader of Midian.

For his “heroic” actions, the Torah states, Numbers 25:12, that G-d gave Pinchas בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם, G-d’s Covenant of Peace. Furthermore, says the Torah, Numbers 25:13, וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם, because he took the vengeance for his G-d and achieved atonement for the Children of Israel, Pinchas and his offspring after him shall be given a covenant of eternal priesthood.

Rabbi David Holzer, in his valuable transcription of lectures delivered by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, raises the following issue:

The reward of Pinchas is very puzzling. Pinchas does an act of killing in Hashem’s Name and is rewarded by being elevated to the Kehuna [Priesthood] and allowed to serve in the Beis HaMikdash [Temple/Tabernacle]. However, Dovid HaMelech [King David] fought many wars on behalf of Hashem, but was told that because he had spilled so much blood, he would not be able to build the Beis HaMikdash, and instead it would be left to his son, Shlomo [Solomon].

Rabbi Holzer asks the profound question: Why was Pinchas rewarded with an eternal covenant of peace and the office of priesthood, while King David was prohibited from building the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? After all, both killings were justified and intended to sanctify G-d’s name? What then was the reason that King David was prevented from building the Temple in Jerusalem?

Although Rabbi Soloveitchik does not directly address this question, Rabbi Holzer refers to a lesson on “War and Peace” that Rabbi Soloveitchik had delivered in 1975, whichhas bearing on this issue.

Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that the fact that King David had fought so many wars, should have been considered an asset and not a liability with regard to his qualification to build the Jerusalem Temple. After all, the wars that King David fought were intended to sanctify G-d’s name and rid the People of Israel of their mortal enemies! Furthermore, of all the leaders, King David should have been the most appropriate to build the Temple, because he united the people and the kingdom, which resulted in an extended period of peace for the nation.

Furthermore, while it is true that King Solomon did not engage in battle, his kingdom was far from tranquil, and by the end of his life, Jeroboam the son of Nebat, began to criticize Solomon and rebel against him, eventually tearing away the ten tribes of Israel, and establishing the prodigal northern Kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s death.

Citing the example of Moses, Rabbi Soloveitchik attempts to explain David’s disqualification. He suggests that one of the reasons why Moses was not permitted to enter into the Holy Land is because, had Moses entered the land of Israel, the land would have become eternally sanctified. Had that happened, no power in the world could have driven the Jews out of the land of Israel. But G-d, in His infinite wisdom, had other plans. Apparently, the long exile was necessary to prepare the people for the ultimate redemption.

Rabbi Soloveitchik also suggests that had King David built the Temple, the Temple too would have been everlasting, again, foiling the Divine plans for its destruction, rebuilding, destruction and rebuilding.

Only the Messiah has the power to build the eternal structure for G-d in Jerusalem. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that King David, as the potential Messiah, did have the ability to do that, but the Al-mighty wanted the Temple to be erected by David’s progeny, and the Messiah, who will be a direct descendent of King David.

Pinchas, however, was not disqualified from receiving the eternal covenant of peace and the covenant of eternal priesthood, because the priesthood did not interfere with G-d’s ultimate plans for Israel. In fact, the covenant of peace and the eternal covenant of priesthood were necessary to help pave the way for heralding the Messiah. The priests, too, are intended to guide the people on the path leading to the arrival of that special era.

While the building of the third Temple has not yet occurred, all signs point to the fact that the ultimate redemption is not far off. Indeed, it appears to be very much at hand.

May we soon see the redemption of all our people!

May you be blessed.


Balak 5776-2016

“Balaam Sees the Kenites”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balaam, the gentile prophet, offers three remarkable prophecies/blessings concerning the Jewish people. In his fourth and final prophecy, Balaam delivers a series of prophecies regarding the future of the People of Israel, the nation of Moab and their neighbors.

Turning to Amalek, whom Balaam calls “the first among the nations,” he predicts their end, and assures the eternal destruction of that nation, the archenemy of Israel.

Balaam then contrasts the detested nation of Amalek to the blessed Kenite people, who are descendants of Jethro. Speaking of the Kenites, Balaam lifts his voice in parable, saying, Numbers 24:21-22, אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ וְשִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ. כִּי אִם יִהְיֶה לְבָעֵר קָיִן, עַד מָה אַשּׁוּר תִּשְׁבֶּךָּ, “Strong is your dwelling, and set in a rock is your nest. For if the Kenite should be laid waste, til where can Assyria take you captive?”

Most commentators understand Balaam’s esoteric message to be words of praise for the Kenites for choosing to align themselves with Israel by following them into the harsh wilderness, rather than joining with Amalek, their powerful neighbor. Because of that loyalty, says the Sforno, they will have the honor of placing their “nest” with the Jewish people–Israel will protect the Kenites, and the Kenites will protect Israel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Kenites descended from the original Cain, hence the name, “Kenites.” Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding of Balaam’s mystical words differs in part from the Sforno. According to Rabbi Hirsch, Balaam warns the Kenites to cling to Israel rather than the more powerful Amalek, and urges them to build their nest, as in a rock, next to Israel. If they fail to do so, the Kenites will be exiled by the Assyrians and led away forever in captivity.

Rashi cites the Midrash in Sanhedrin 106a, which maintains that Balaam had a long term relationship with Jethro and the Kenites, having served with Jethro as one of the three members of the tribunal who advised Pharaoh in Egypt (Shemot 5771-2010). Balaam urged Pharaoh to destroy the Jews. Job was silent. Jethro warned Pharaoh not to harm the Jews, and as a result, had to flee for his life.

Eliyahu Kitov notes the stark distinction between the nature of the Amalekite nation and the Kenites. Amalek who is called by Balaam “the first nation,” was the first nation to express hate for Israel and was determined to destroy it. The Kenites were the first to express love for Israel. Soon after the Exodus, the Amalekites followed the escaped Israelites and attacked the elderly and the weak. In distinction, Jethro was most helpful providing sage advice to Moses on how to strengthen the people by building an effective judicial system. When Balaam saw Amalek, he immediately identified with them and their obsession to destroy Israel. Balaam, however, is forced to predict Amalek’s eternal destruction. When he sees the Kenites, he praises them saying, אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ–“Ay’tahn moh’shah’veh’chah,” rather than choose to share your fate with your powerful ally, Amalek, you have chosen instead to embrace the People of Israel.

The Midrash says that Balaam saw in the future that the sons of Yonadav, the son of Rechev (Kings II 10:15), the descendants of Jethro, would sit in a special chamber in the Temple, where the Sanhedrin, the members of the Supreme Court of Israel, meet. He could not understand how they could qualify, since they came from non-Jewish stock. But G-d had other plans. Not only did the descendants of Jethro embrace the Jewish faith by converting to Judaism, G-d gave them a special reward because of the kindness that their ancestor Jethro had shown to Moses. When Moses fled for his life from Egypt to Midian, Jethro warmly welcomed Moses by insisting that his daughters invite the stranger to eat bread with them (Exodus 2:20). As a result, his descendants merited to sit in the special office, in the powerful chamber of the Sanhedrin.

The history of the Kenites and their association with Israel is rather intriguing. Because Balaam advises the Kenites to set their nest in a rock, שִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ–“Sim b’seh’lah kee’neh’cha,” the Kenites never really achieve a permanent dwelling place. At first they dwell in Jericho. During the time of Jeremiah, they are found dwelling in tents, since they deemed it better to dwell in a secure nest (tent), rather than reside in a permanent home that is vulnerable.

The Kenites play an important role in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. In the book of Joshua 4:21, during the battle against the Canaanites led by Deborah and Barak, Yael, the Kenite woman welcomes Sisra, the Canaanite general who has fled from defeat on the battlefield, into her tent and smashes his head with a tent peg. She is then praised by Deborah and immortalized in Deborah’s great song, Joshua 5:24, תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי, מִנָּשִׁים בָּאֹהֶל תְּבֹרָךְ, “May you, Yael, the wife of Chehver, the Kenite, be blessed. May you be blessed above all women in the tents.”

Throughout the early history of Israel, the Kenites play important roles in the destiny of Israel, as friends, compatriots, protectors, judges and scholars in Israel. It is fascinating to see how one small nation, who seems to play a rather insignificant role, has a profound impact on Jewish destiny and on the stage of world history.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 24th, 2016, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, August 13th and 14th. Have a meaningful fast.

Chukat 5776-2016

“The Bronze Serpent”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn that the People of Israel are at it again! Only a short distance remains for them to complete their journey of forty years in the wilderness before they enter the Promised Land. But, again they begin to complain, this time, about the lack of food and water.

This is the last recorded of Israel’s complaints in the wilderness, but it is considered a most grievous one. Their previous complaints were all directed at Moses, the Al-mighty’s faithful servant, but this time it is also defiantly directed at G-d Himself!

The entire episode is recorded in the Torah in only six verses, Number 21:4-9.

The people travel from Mount Hor where Aaron, the High Priest, died and was buried. They were then directed to go by way of the Red Sea and to avoid the land of Edom, whose citizens had refused them passage through their land. Fearing that they, like their ancestors, were moving away from the land of Israel and would die in the wilderness, the Israelites speak up against G-d and Moses saying, Numbers 21:5, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי אֵין ?לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל “Why did You bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the miserable food?”

The great Nehama Leibowitz, points out that when compared with the people’s complaints on previous occasions, there is a significant change in the wording found this time. When they stood in panic at the Red Sea, surrounded by the Egyptians who were pursuing them, they cried out (Exodus 14:11): “What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?”  When Datan and Abiram, who were followers of Korach, confronted Moses, they said, Numbers 16:13, “Is it not enough that you had brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey.” In both instances, the complaints were directed at Moses alone. Here, however, they speak against both Moses and against G-d.

Rashi notes that the sin of the people was particularly galling because they had the temerity to compare the servant, Moses, with the Al-mighty G-d, as if they were equals. This open defiance of G-d Himself, could not go unpunished. The Torah records, in Numbers 21:6, that G-d immediately sends the fiery serpents to the people to bite them.

Dr. Yisrael (Shay) Eldad, in Hegyonot Mikra, points out that serpents appear in three separate narratives of the Torah. In the book of Genesis 3:1-15, the serpent seduces Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. In Exodus 4:2-5, G-d gives Moses the sign to prove his legitimacy, showing him that his staff turns into a serpent. This same staff, later, (Exodus 7:8-13) turns into a serpent, and devours the Egyptian serpents. The fiery serpents who appear in our parasha and attack the Israelites who were complaining, is the third instance.

Eldad points to the continuing decline in the powers of the serpents from when they first appear in Genesis. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is an initiator, who has dominion over the human being and whose words control the human’s actions. In Exodus, Moses controls the serpent through his staff. When the fiery serpents appear in the wilderness, they are no longer in control. The serpent’s power is now a result of the weaknesses of the people. The serpent has, in effect, been transformed into an emissary of G-d.

When he first appears in scripture, the serpent would stealthfully sneak up on the human and attack him from behind. Now the serpent is no longer in control. In fact, Moses holds the serpent up high on a staff to show that both his poison and his ability to seduce has been extinguished, and that G-d Al-mighty is now in charge. The serpent has been transformed into a vehicle serving G-d, directing the people’s attention upward to the Master of the Universe. The defanged serpent no longer has dominion over mankind.

In Numbers 21:6, the Torah states, וַיְשַׁלַּח השׁם בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת הָעָם, וַיָּמָת עַם רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, G-d sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people, and a large multitude of Israel died.

Nehama Leibowitz notes that the Torah here uses the verb וַיְשַׁלַּח–“Va’yeshalach” and the L-rd “let [the fiery serpents] go,” rather than saying that He sent them. Professor Leibowitz notes that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) maintains that the wilderness is a place where fiery serpents, scorpions and drought are common. Only due to Divine intervention have the Israelites never been attacked by these dangerous creatures until now. Similarly, by miraculously providing water, G-d did not allow the people to be overcome by thirst. G-d also sent the manna to provide the people with food in a place where there was none to be found. This certainly should have been a clear sign to the people to recognize that it was only due to the Al-mighty’s supernatural intervention that the people had survived the 40 years in the wilderness.

Instead, the people were indifferent, taking G-d’s loving protection for granted. G-d, consequently, decided to allow nature to resume its ordinary course, permitting the serpents to bite anyone who crossed their path. It was the sin of ingratitude that brought the great punishment upon them.

In an interesting postscript, the Midrash, based on sources in the Bible, notes that the copper serpent that Moses created to direct the people’s attention to G-d, remained with the people as a symbol of admiration for 700 years until the generation of King Hezekiah, chronicled in Kings II 18:14. The Bible reports that when Hezekiah saw that the people began to stray after the copper serpent and using it as an object of worship, rather than an object to increase reverence for G-d, King Hezekiah had the copper serpent destroyed.

The lesson of the serpent is clear. Always beware of the serpent, whose preoccupation is to seduce weak mortals and bite them with his poisonous fangs. Even the serpent who has become an object of admiration and who is intended to remind the people of heaven, can lead them astray. Only in G-d can we trust completely. Beware of any imitations or substitutes.

May you be blessed.

Korach 5776-2016

“Givers and Takers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of Korach’s rebellion against G-d and Moses, and the devastating end that Korach meets when the earth opens and swallows him together with his cohorts.

Parashat Korach opens with a most revealing verse. Numbers 16:1 states, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן, Korach, the son Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, took himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.

The opening words in parashat Korach, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח–“Vah’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach took, are problematic, since there is no object of the verb, “to take.” Recognizing this problem, Rashi explains that the expression, “Vah’yee’kach Korach” means that “Korach took himself,”– he separated himself off to one side to be apart from the assembly of Israel, in order to raise objections regarding the priesthood.

Alternatively, Rashi explains that “Vah’yee’kach Korach,” Korach took, means that through his passionate words of persuasion Korach drew to himself the heads of the courts who were among the people, to support him in his rebellion.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his essay, “Leaders who Give and Leaders who Take,” brilliantly highlights the profound differences between Moses, the leader who gives, and Korach, the leader who takes.

Although Moses was chosen by G-d to be the leader of Israel, he himself was most reluctant to assume the assignment. In fact, Moses pleads with G-d (Exodus 4:13), שְׁלַח נָא בְּיַד תִּשְׁלָח, send anyone but me! G-d, however, refuses to take no for an answer.

It was definitely not because Moses was afraid of challenges that he declined to be the leader of Israel. To the contrary, we see that when Moses was a young prince in the house of Pharaoh surrounded with many luxuries and great opportunities that could have been his as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he refused to adopt for himself this opulent lifestyle. Instead of thinking only of himself, Moses goes out to his brothers, to help them in their travails. There he stands up for his brethren, endangering his life in the process.

The Midrash paints an entirely different picture of Korach. Because he was a Levite, Korach was freed from serving as a slave and instead assumed a rather soft job in Pharaoh’s palace. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15 relates that Korach served in Pharaoh’s house and was in charge of the keys to Pharaoh’s treasury.

In contrast, we see later, at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the true giving character of Moses. Of all the Israelites in Egypt it was Moses who personally assumed responsibility for the removal of Joseph’s bones from Egypt, as Joseph had made the people promise (Genesis 50:25), “You shall take my bones up from this place.”

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 110a states that Korach was also busy, searching for the reputed treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt. Apparently, the great wealth that Korach amassed did not come from his own labors, but from the monies that belonged to others.

While Moses fulfilled the wish of the deceased Joseph, who could not even thank him, let alone reward him, Korach was busy searching for money, gold and silver. Korach indeed was a man on the take (“Vah’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach took).

Not only was Korach on the take for money, which apparently did not sufficiently satisfy him, he was also on the take for honor, and sought desperately to garner authority for himself.

The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, Numbers 16:19 states that Korach gathered all the people to the door of the Tabernacle, seducing them to follow his rebellion with bribes from his wealth that he had improperly taken from two of the treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt.

The Targum Yonatan maintains that Korach, with his massive fortune, sought to have Moses and Aaron and their influence removed from this world. The Talmud, in Eruvin 54b documents that Moses and Aaron, the greatest educators and teachers of Torah, expended great effort to personally teach Torah to their entire generation. This, however, meant little to Korach, who was obsessed with power and authority. By challenging and scheming to defeat Moses, Korach was prepared to destroy all the Torah and education of the generation.

The great Moses was the complete opposite. When Moses’ authority as leader was challenged by Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:27-28), who prophesied that “Moses will die and Joshua will lead the people into the land,” Moses was not threatened by the challenge. Instead, he responds, Numbers 11:29, וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל עַם השׁם נְבִיאִים, “I wish that all the nation of G-d were prophets.” Similarly, when he insisted that G-d forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:32), Moses was prepared to have his name erased from the Torah if G-d would not agree.

Rabbi Filber cites the Netziv who says that the entire world is divided up between givers and takers. The Netziv explains that the verse, Deuteronomy 10:12, מָה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ, כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם, What does the L-rd your G-d ask of you but to fear G-d, is a specific directive to leaders who deal with communal issues and are likely to do things that may favor themselves materially, and lead them to look for honor. A great communal leader, says the Netziv, is not only valued for the good deeds he performs and the meaningful Torah that he transmits, but specifically for how he relates to those who oppose him and those who refuse to fawn before him. A leader must always recognize, says the Netziv, that G-d Who looks at the paths of all human beings is constantly watching from above.

The great leader is a giver not a taker. Unfortunately, Korach never seemed to appreciate that vital message or absorb that critical value. As a result, Korach wound up seducing hundreds and thousands of his followers, leading them into the earth and to ultimate destruction.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5776-2016

“A Name Change Becomes a Game Changer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read the well-known story of the scouts who are sent into the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the Children of Israel’s arrival in the land.

As previously noted (Shelach 5764-2004), the leaders who were sent into Canaan were not intended to be spies, but were meant to serve as scouts who represented their individual tribe’s interests. The tribe of Zebulun, for instance, needed to make certain that their land was located by the sea because of the sea-faring interests of the tribe’s members. Judah needed to make certain that their territory included fertile lands, which were located in a proper climate for the vineyards they were to plant, which would enable them to produce quality grapes and vintage wine.

When Moses sends out the scouts, G-d tells him (Number 13:2), that, אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, you [Moses] shall send one man each from his father’s tribe, every one a leader among them. These select representatives were all men of great stature, who were obviously trusted by their tribal members to serve as their loyal representatives.

The very next verse states that Moses sent them into the wilderness of Paran at the command of G-d. Scripture (Numbers 13:3) testifies, כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים, רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה, they were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel were they.

The Torah then proceeds to list each of the twelve tribal leaders by their personal names and their fathers’ names. Oddly, when the list concludes, the Torah notes (Numbers 13:16), אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ, וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, these are the names of the men whom Moses sent to tour the land. Moses called Hoshea, son of Nun, “Joshua.”

Rashi famously comments that Moses renamed Hoshea, Joshua, explaining that the name change represented a prayer for Joshua. Moses beseeched G-d: יָ־הּ יושִׁיעֲךָ מֵעֲצַת מְרַגְּלִים, May G-d save you [Joshua] from the conspiracy of the spies.

This comment seems to indicate that Moses did not have great confidence in the representatives who were being sent to Canaan. Therefore, he felt it necessary to provide additional support for Joshua with a special blessing. By adding the Hebrew letter י–“Yud” to Joshua’s name, together with the letter ה–“Hay,” the new name formed the first part of the Tetragrammaton, the sacred four letter name of G-d. This not only symbolized Joshua’s future role as the leader of Israel, but also invoked G-d to be ever-present with Joshua and to protect him from the evil intrigues of the inhabitants of the land and of his unreliable colleagues.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the change of name was intended to not only impact on Joshua, but also upon his companions. The other scouts would now have to call Joshua by his new name, which would impress upon them that they were engaged in a sacred Divine mission. They would now know that G-d, who in the past had always helped Joshua and the Jewish people, would be their salvation in the future as well. Additionally, by adding the single letter “Yud” to the name Hoshea, it now becomes a future name, rather than a name of the past.

Some would argue that Moses changed only the name of Joshua, and not the names of any of the other scouts, because anything improper that Joshua, Moses’ primary disciple, might do would reflect poorly on his mentor, Moses.

The Targum Yonatan suggests that Moses blessed only Joshua because of Joshua’s extreme humility. Moses felt that Joshua’s exceptional modesty would make him susceptible to the evil persuasions of his fellow spies.

Not everyone agrees that Joshua was meek and impressionable. The Chofetz Chaim suggests that there were significant personality differences between Joshua and Caleb. Joshua, who was naturally forceful, would have no compunctions about speaking out strongly against the spies. Caleb, on the other hand, who was more retiring, usually kept his opinions to himself. Because Joshua was so outspoken he was more likely to be harmed by the other spies, and was in need of an extra blessing.

What about Caleb? Where did he find the strength to resist the evil influences of the other scouts?

Scripture, in Numbers 13:22, reports, that as the scouts traversed the land of Canaan, וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב, וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן, the scouts ascended in the south and “he” arrived in Hebron. Noting the change from the plural to the singular, Rashi comments that only Caleb alone went to Hebron, where he prostrated himself in prayer on the graves of the Patriarchs, praying that he not be enticed by his companions or be party to their evil schemes.

This narrative, perhaps, displays a philosophical difference of opinion between Joshua and Caleb regarding the benefits and blessings of past generations. Caleb felt that by going to the ancestral graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and offering intensive prayer, he would gain strength and inspiration.

Moses felt, and perhaps Joshua did as well, that contemporary leaders possess a power within themselves to invoke a strength equal to the strength of the great Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which will enable them to resist evil.

While scripture does not determine which of these two methods is stronger or more effective, it is good to know that even an average Jew can choose either of these venues, or both, and hopefully be spared from the evil influences, and emerge blessed as well.

May you be blessed.