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Pinchas 5775-2015

“Learning by Example”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, G-d rewards Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, for turning back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel by zealously avenging those who defied G-d and Moses by publicly committing immorality in front of the People of Israel.

At the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learned that two people, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, challenged Moses by committing this public act of lewdness. In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the Torah identifies the two prominent people as Zimri, the son of Salu, who was the prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, one of the leaders of the Midianite nation. By stabbing both perpetrators with a spear and ending their lives, Pinchas’ action also stopped a devastating plague that had taken the lives of 24,000 people who were part of the orgy of immorality.

In Numbers 25:11, the Al-mighty tells Moses to say to the people: פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. G-d rewards Pinchas with a בְּרִית שָׁלוֹם, Brit Shalom, the covenant of peace, and confirms that Pinchas and his progeny will be part of the eternal covenant of the priesthood, for having been zealous for G-d and for making atonement for the Children of Israel.

Rashi states that the Torah goes out of its way to identify Pinchas as the son of Elazar, and specifically the grandson of Aaron, the priest, as a response to the humiliation to which the tribes had been subjecting Pinchas. According to tradition, Pinchas was constantly teased and harassed that he was the descendant of פּוּטִי, “Puti,”–that his mother’s father (Jethro aka Putiel), fattened calves for idolatry. Therefore, says Rashi, scripture purposely and prominently traced Pinchas’s ancestry back to the noble lineage of his grandfather Aaron.

Many commentators are troubled by the actions of Pinchas. How could Pinchas take the law into his own hands, and execute these two people for their actions, without bringing them to formal judgment? Furthermore, what are the origins of Pinchas’ zealotry? He is, after all, the grandson of Aaron, a man who loved peace and who was a consummate pursuer of peace (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12).

Some of the commentators note that the act of harlotry was performed as a challenge to Moses, and when Moses berated Zimri for being with a Midianite woman, Zimri responded, “but after all, you also took a Midianite woman (Tzipporah) for a wife.”  When Moses did not respond, Pinchas took his mentor’s silence as a signal to step in. Through Pinchas’ zealous actions, the orgy ended, and the plague that had killed 24,000 people ceased.

Rashi, in parashat Balak, Numbers 25:7, providing more detail to the encounter, says that when Pinchas saw Zimri and Cozbi commit their vile act, he was reminded of the law and said to Moses, “I have learned from you, הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִּית קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, that one who has relations with a non-Jewish woman may be killed by zealots.” Moses said to Pinchas, “The one who proclaims the law in public, let him be the messenger.” Whereupon, Pinchas immediately took the spear in his hand and killed the perpetrators.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Pardes, in his studies on the weekly parasha entitled, Min Ha’mah’ah’yan ahl HaTorah, suggests that when Rashi explains Pinchas’ relationship to Aaron the priest, he refers to the actions of Aaron in Numbers 17:12-13. In parashat Shelach after the death of Korach and his cohorts, it records that Aaron took the incense pan and ran into the congregation after the plague had already begun. Presenting the incense and achieving atonement for the people, Aaron stood between the dead and the living and the plague stopped. Rashi emphasizes that Aaron risked his life by literally taking hold of the angel of death and forcing him to stop harming the people.

Pinchas, inspired by his grandfather’s brave actions, subjected himself to danger and struggled with the sinners in order to stop the anger of G-d. It was in this manner that Pinchas hoped, like Aaron his grandfather before him, to bring peace upon Israel and to confirm their sanctity. It is for this reason that scripture attributes the lineage of Pinchas to his grandfather, Aaron, who had a profound influence on Pinchas and served as a great role model for him to emulate.

Heroic acts often inspire others to perform heroic acts. It is therefore probably hardly a coincidence that scripture records in parashat Pinchas, Numbers 26:11, וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ, that the sons of Korach did not die.

According to tradition, the sons of Korach broke from the passionate rebellion of their father and instead chose to follow the directives of their great teacher, Moses. This decision, which saved their lives, enabled them to become the great poets who composed many psalms, including a special psalm that is read before the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. (Pinchas 5765-2005)

Where did the sons of Korach get the courage to swim against the tide of rebellion that had captured the imagination of so many followers and to break with their families? It may very well be that the reason that parashat Korach follows on the heels of parashat Shelach and the story of the scouts and spies, is because the actions of Joshua and Caleb served as the model for the sons of Korach. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to see the truth, despite the mass hysteria that had taken hold of the people.

This example served the sons of Korach well, and despite the close family bond, they were able to disassociate from Korach and do the right thing.

The Talmud often uses the expression, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, that the deeds of the fathers are often signposts for the children. Sometimes it works in a negative fashion, at other times it works in a most positive manner.

Pinchas, indeed, was a descendant of Aaron, both biologically and spiritually. That is why, despite his zealotry, his violent actions notwithstanding, G-d blesses Pinchas with the eternal blessing of peace.

May you be blessed.

Balak 5775-2015

“Uncovering the  ‘Layers’ in the Biblical Narrative”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, seem straightforward, the nuanced text contains several subtle messages.

The parasha opens with the rather innocuous statement that Balak, the son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites.

This refers to the battles reported in last week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, in which the Children of Israel vanquished the Emorites led by the great King Sichon, the most powerful regent at that time. At the same time, the Israelites defeated Og, the powerful king of Bashan, and his kingdom.

The fact that scripture in the opening verse of parashat Balak, identifies Balak simply as the son of Tzipor and not the king of Moab, implies that the Torah regards the hostile actions of Balak toward Israel as personal, rather than reflecting his duties as monarch or king.

The verses that follow reveal even more. The Torah states, in Numbers 22:3, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא, וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, Moab became very frightened of the people [of Israel], because they were numerous and Moab was seized with dread because of the Children of Israel. The commentators see this as an arrogant refusal on the part of Balak to acknowledge the miraculous conquests of Israel, or to attribute Israel’s success to G-d. In fact, it implies that Balak himself was so filled with hatred for the Jewish people that it led his judgment astray. Any clear-minded individual would have immediately recognized that the success of the Israelites was primarily due to Divine intervention. There was no way that a nation of recently-released slaves could so soundly defeat the two most powerful regents on the face of the earth.

Had Balak not been driven by his antipathy toward Israel, he would have quickly concluded that his nation was not at all endangered by Israel. After all, when Moses had previously approached the Moabites to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, and their overtures were rejected, the Israelites simply marched around the land of Moab and made no move to attack them (as reported by Jephthah in Judges 11:18).

The Moabites and Ammonites in particular should have been eager to help Israel as the miserable former-slaves left Egypt and rushed toward the Promised Land, because the Moabites and Ammonites owe their very existence to the People of Israel. After all, it was through Abraham’s intervention that their ancestor, Lot, was saved from Sodom. Even though they turned a deaf ear and refused to help His people, the Al-mighty commanded (Deuteronomy 2:9 & 2:19) that Moab and Amon not be harmed. Balak who was blinded by his rabid hatred of Israel, was unable to see this at all, and was determined to defeat Israel by any means possible.

It was not only Balak who refused to acknowledge G-d’s Hand in Israel’s success. The Da’at Sofrim points out that scripture reports, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד , that the entire nation of Moab was terribly frightened of the People of Israel. Just like their king, Balak, the Moabite people were not frightened of G-d who went before Israel and defeated all their enemies. Instead, they saw Israel as a purely mortal nation who happened to be successful in battle. Had they been afraid of G-d, they never would have tried to undermine Israel by cursing them, seducing them or by hoping to defeat them militarily.

Scripture records that the Moabites were afraid of Israel and were seized with dread because of them. They therefore turned to the elders of Midian, to secure their help, and were particularly hopeful that their famous prophet, Balaam, the son of Beor, would agree to curse the People of Israel, and defeat them spiritually.

The Torah reports that Balak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, who resided in Pethor, to summon Balaam, saying: Numbers 22:5, הִנֵּה עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, הִנֵּה כִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ, וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב מִמֻּלִי, “Behold! The people has come out of Egypt; Behold! It has covered the surface of the earth and it sits opposite me.” The Torah, in Numbers 22:6, continues, וְעַתָּה לְכָה נָּא אָרָה לִּי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, So now–please come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me; perhaps I will be able to strike it and we will drive it away from the land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his brilliant exposition of this episode found in Chemdat Yamim, notes the unusual construction of the phrase, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ,–-which opens with the first person singular verb, אוּכַל–“oo’chal,” and ends with נַכֶּה–“nakeh” a first person plural verb. In effect, Balak says to Balaam, perhaps I will be able, together with you, to defeat Israel.

Rabbi Filber cites the Midrash HaGadol, in the name of Tanchum the son of Chanilay. The Midrash asks: What were Balaam and Balak likened to at this moment? In fact, they were like two butchers, one who knew how to slaughter, the other who was skilled in cutting meat and butchering it properly. The slaughterer said to the butcher, “I will slaughter the animal and you will butcher the meat and together we will prepare the meal.” Said Balak to Balaam, “You curse the people and I will attack them with the sword, and together we will eradicate them from the world,” as it says, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, I will chase them from the land.

Balak knew well that as long as Israel is the subject of Divine protection, he would never be able to defeat the Israelites by sword. He therefore devised a dual attack on Israel. First Balaam will strike Israel’s spiritual protection, by cursing them or by causing them to lapse ethically. Only then, will Moab and Midian together physically attack Israel and chase them from the land.

The textual nuances that are found in the opening verses of parashat Balak reveal many new insights about Balak that are not readily apparent to the superficial reader. Although this text seems particularly nuanced, the truth is that most of the Torah’s verses have many “layers” that can be analyzed in a similar fashion.

Students of the Bible need to be keenly aware of the different levels of study as they read the scriptural messages. Experienced students will soon discover that with the proper skill and effort, layers of a story can often be exposed and revealed, uncovering many underlying factors that are at play in the Biblical narrative.

The subtle messages revealed through the textual nuances of parashat Balak are particularly important because they uncover the true anti-Semitic character of Balak, and the true nature of the battles, both physical and spiritual, that Balak wished to wage against the Jewish people.

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 5th, 2015, 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, July 25th and 26th. Have a meaningful fast.

Chukat 5775-2015

“Accepting the Inscrutable”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the statute of the Red Cow, also known as the Red Heifer. The ashes of an unblemished, totally red heifer, that had never worked, were mixed with the holy waters, and the combined mixture was used to sprinkle on those Israelites who had become impure as a result of coming in contact with death. After being sprinkled on the third and seventh day, those who were impure immersed in a mikveh, and were rendered clean once again.

The law of the Red Heifer is known in Hebrew as a חוֹק, —  ”Chok,” a statute that is beyond human understanding. The Torah clearly states as much in Numbers 19:2, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם לֵאמֹר, This is the decree of the Torah which G-d has commanded.

Rashi quoting the Midrash Tanchuma 7-8, explains that the law of the Red Heifer is regarded as the quintessential Chok –-decree–of the Torah. Because of the law’s seeming irrationality, Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, by saying, “What is the purpose of this commandment?”

By categorizing the law as a “Chok,” the Torah declares that the law of the Red Heifer is the decree of One Who gave the Torah, and, therefore, it is not for anyone to question. In other words, no rationale is given for this mitzvah, and because it is inscrutable, one may not ever question its validity.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Red Heifer is that its waters purify those who are contaminated, and contaminate those who are pure.

The Red Heifer and its irrationality is but a paradigm of much of life. Despite the significant efforts that we invest in trying to find the reason and the rationale behind all that we do and everything that happens, there are many things in life that are simply beyond human comprehension.

One of the major issues in Jewish life is the irrational nature of the anti-Semitism that is constantly directed toward the Jews. This anti-Semitism has led to totally irrational attacks on Jews throughout the ages. To underscore how pervasive anti-Semitism has been in Jewish history, there was even a special fast day declared many centuries ago, that is indirectly related to parashat Chukat.

The major commentator on the Code of Jewish Law, the Magen Avraham commenting on Orach Chaim 580, states that in Paris, in the Hebrew year 5004, corresponding to the date of June 17, 1244, a decree was issued by a commission of Catholic theologians, to burn cartloads of the Hebrew Talmud. This tragic burning of 24 wagonloads of the precious and irreplaceable books of the Talmud took place on the Friday prior to the reading of parashat Chukat.

According to tradition, the great sages of that time were deeply troubled by this calamity, and in a dream received a Heavenly reply that pronounced three Aramaic words, דָּא גְּזֵרַת אוֹרַיְתָא. These words are the Aramaic translation of the second verse of parashat Chukat, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, which translates as, “This is a decree of the Torah.” This vision was taken to mean that it had already been predetermined that on the week prior to the reading of the Torah portion of Chukat, this tragedy would occur. Therefore, the sages decreed that the fast should not be observed on a particular day of the month, like other fasts, but instead every year, on the Friday prior to the reading of parashat Chukat.

Around the year 1240, an apostate Parisian Jew, named Nicholas Donin, convinced King Louis IX of France that he would be able to prove the truth of Christianity through the Talmud. If Donin would successfully prove his contention, all the Jews would have to convert to Christianity.

The Chief Rabbi, and head of the Yeshiva of Paris, Rabbeinu Yechiel who is mentioned many times in the Talmudic commentary known as Tosafot, was charged to head the team of four rabbis who would debate Donin. Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against Rabbeinu Yechiel and his three cohorts, since without the ability to speak openly they were unable to say anything critical about the church or Christianity, rendering the debate futile.

Through their skillful debating and their brilliant defense of the Talmud, Rabbeinu Yechiel and the other Jewish scholars were still able to convince the king that it was impossible to prove the efficacy of Christianity through the Talmud. The king, however, felt that the contents of the Talmud were insulting to Christianity, and in 1242, he recommended to the commission of Catholic theologians, that all existing copies of the Talmud be collected and destroyed. It must be underscored that this was about two hundred years before the printing press and that the volumes of Talmud that were destroyed were handwritten on parchments using quill pens. It is estimated that the 24 cartloads contained about 12,000 volumes of priceless Hebrew manuscripts.

Despite the valiant defense of the Talmud by Rabbeinu Yechiel, the king proceeded to confiscate all the money and property of the Jewish community and expel the Jews from France. This same King Louis IX was canonized by the church as a saint in 1297. The American city, Saint Louis is named after him, as is the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball team.

There is a poignant and controversial postscript to the story. It is well-known that certain elements of the Jewish community in the 12th and 13th centuries were not happy with the works of Maimonides and were especially displeased with his מוֹרֵה נְבוּכִים, the Guide to the Perplexed, which was based on Aristotelean philosophy and considered by some to contain heresy.

The great sage, Rabbeinu Yona of Gerondi and his followers declared war on the Guide and even reported the “heretical works” to the Christian authorities who publicly collected and burnt all the confiscated copies of the Guide to the Perplexed.

There are those who theorize, although it is impossible to prove, that the payback for burning Maimonides’ works was the confiscation and destruction of all the books of the Talmud from the Jewish community.

Hence, the fast that was declared on the Friday before parashat Chukat is not only because of the great destruction and expulsion that took place among French Jewry, but is also a reflection of the unnecessary enmity and the unwarranted jealousy that abounded in the Jewish community in those days. These attitudes led to the tragic destruction and expulsion.

It is reported that as a result of the burning of the Talmud, Rabbeinu Yonah acknowledged his error, renounced his former opposition to the works of Maimonides, and begged forgiveness for his actions.

The Al-mighty’s ways are often inscrutable. Try as we may to understand them, we often fail to see the Divine logic. It is important to know when to yield and simply accept the limits of the mortal mind and human understanding.

May you be blessed.

Korach 5775-2015

“The Devastating Impact of Dispute”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the rebellion of Korach and his cohorts against Moses, Aaron and G-d.

In Numbers 16:3, the Torah records that Korach and his followers gathered together against Moses and Aaron and cried out to them: רַב לָכֶם, כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם, It is too much for you! For the entire assembly–all of them–are holy and G-d is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?

According to the commentaries, Korach’s complaint was that Moses had usurped all the power, making himself king and installing his brother as the High Priest, leaving the people emasculated and powerless.

When Moses heard this, scripture tells us (Numbers 16:4),וַיִּפֹּל עַל פָּנָיו, he, Moses, fell on his face. Moses then told Korach and his followers, Numbers 16:5,בֹּקֶר, וְיֹדַע השׁם אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בּוֹ יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו, in the morning G-d will make known the one who is His own and who is holy, and He will draw him close to Himself and whomever He will choose, He will draw close to Himself.

Rashi clearly states that Moses fell on his face because of the dispute. It is not that Moses was distressed that as a result of Korach’s charges against him, he would lose his own personal prestige. Moses was distressed because he realized that he would have little chance to gain forgiveness for the Israelites, since this was the fourth time that the people had corrupted their ways and had sinned against G-d.

The people first sinned with the incident of the Golden Calf. Then the מִתְאֹנְנִים Mit’oh’n’nim, the people who were looking for any excuse to fight, began to quarrel. This was followed by the scouts who came back with an evil report about the land of Canaan, and now the rebellion of Korach.

When Korach began his dispute, Moses’ hands became weak and he no longer had the strength to plead on behalf of Israel. Rashi cites the parable of the king’s son who acted disrespectfully toward his father, but each time the prince’s friend placated the king on the son’s behalf. When the son acted improperly the fourth time, the friend said, “How long can I bother the king? Perhaps he will no longer accept placation from me.”

Why is the dispute of Korach any worse than the other three rebellions of the people: the Golden Calf, the Murmurers and the spies? Each of these was a terrible affront to G-d’s dignity, yet the Al-mighty forgave the people.

One might assume that “dispute” is just one bad trait among many that are considered improper. However, dispute really is regarded as far worse and far more lethal and destructive, than other bad traits.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Pardes, author of Min Ha’Maayan ahl HaTorah, in his weekly analysis of the parasha, claims that there is a basic difference between the essential nature of the People of Israel and the nature of the other nations of the world. The nations of the world consist of groups of people who band together to become a single nation, and even after they join into a single nation they remain as individuals in the new collective.

The Jewish people are just the opposite. Because the People of Israel each draw their inspiration from a single collective communal soul, their unity is their most salient feature. Although they are also comprised of individuals, they continuously nurture from the same original collective soul of the People of Israel. We therefore find that the unity of Israel and the love of one Jew for another and drawing other Jews who are distant near, together constitute an essential quality of the Jewish people, without which, the Jewish people become disconnected.

Because of the special nature of the Jewish people, we learn that dispute is not only a bad quality, it is destructive of Jewish unity and destructive of the soul of the people. In fact, it stands in stark contrast to the idea of the statement, attributed to G-d, “Who is like My people Israel, a singular nation on earth?” (Talmud Brachot 6a, Shabbat Mincha prayer)

That is why G-d punished Korach and his followers so severely and swiftly, creating a new form of death, when the earth opened up and swallowed the disputants. Those who cause dispute destroy the soul of the people, and lose all rights to exist, together with their wives, their children, and their students. Rashi, in Numbers 16:6 says that because Korach attempted to destroy the unity of Israel, Moses said to them, “Among the ways of others, there are many rites and many clergymen, and they do not all gather together in one house of worship. We have none but one G-d, the Al-mighty, one Ark, one Torah, one altar and one High Priest. Yet you 250 men seek the high priesthood?”

The sin of those who worshiped the Golden Calf, the Murmurers and the spies, constituted a direct rebellion against the link between the people and the Al-mighty. That was bad enough, but not nearly as bad as the dispute of Korach, which challenged the unity of the People of Israel, trying to disconnect them from the collective soul of Israel.

That is why Moses was able to defend the people in the first three instances and achieve forgiveness for them, reconnecting them with G-d. But at the rebellion of Korach, Moses lost his strength and was not capable of helping. So he fell on his face.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5775-2015

“The Sin of the Spies–Revisited”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read of the sin of the scouts whom Moses sent out, at G-d’s behest, to scout out the land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest of Canaan.

In Numbers 13:2, G-d says to Moses: שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, send forth men, if you please, and let them scout out the land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his father’s tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them.

These twelve men of stature set forth to Canaan to scout out the land. Ten of the twelve scouts return with a negative report, and convince all the Israelites that the land of Canaan is (Numbers 13:32) “a land that devours its inhabitants.” Upon seeing the huge samples of fruit that the scouts brought back and after hearing the reports of the giants who inhabit Canaan, the people were traumatized by fear.

After crying the entire night, the Israelites began to murmur against Moses and Aaron, saying, Numbers 14:2,לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לוּ מָתְנוּ “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in the wilderness. Why is G-d bringing us to the land [Canaan] to die by the sword, our wives and young children will be taken captive?! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Joshua and Caleb make one last effort to calm the people, begging them not to rebel against G-d, assuring them that the land of Canaan could be easily captured. The people, however, and the entire assembly would not listen, and were ready to pelt Joshua and Caleb with stones, when the glory of G-d suddenly appears in the Tent of Meeting.

The Al-mighty informs Moses that He is prepared to destroy all the people with a plague. Moses, however, convinces G-d to spare the people, but the Israelites will be severely punished. Rather than go forth to the land of Canaan, all the people are to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, one year for each day that the scouts were in Israel. All the men of Israel who are 20 years and older are to die in the wilderness, never reaching the Promised Land of Israel.

According to tradition, the peoples’ murmuring took place on the 9th day of the month of Av, a day that was to become a national day of mourning for all future generations. It is a day set aside as a day of mourning for the destructions of the two Temples in Jerusalem, and many other calamities that occurred on the 9th of Av.

The commentators struggle to understand how the people, who had witnessed so many great miracles, could go wrong. The Malbim famously suggests that the twelve tribal leaders began as scouts, looking for the best lands for their own individual tribes, but lost their courage when they beheld the fearsome inhabitants of Canaan. (See Shelach 5764-2004)

The Baal HaTanya in the Likkutei Torah, gives a radically different interpretation of the event. The founder of Chabad Chasidut suggests that the ten spies made a serious theological error, failing to appreciate the proper relationship between G-d and His people.

From the time that the People of Israel left Egypt until this very moment, the peoples’ care was entrusted into the hands of the Al-mighty. They drank water from a well that followed the Israelites through the wilderness in the merit of Miriam, and were given manna to eat that came down from heaven every day but Shabbat. The Midrash even states that the Children of Israel were surrounded by seven clouds that transported the people, washed their clothes and enabled their garments to expand as their bodies grew. The people were constantly and completely enveloped by the loving embrace of G-d.

When the scouts reached the land of Canaan and saw a land truly flowing with milk and honey, they knew that their previously coddled lifestyle would change radically in this new land, and understood that their food and water would no longer come easily. They would now have to plow the fields and sow seeds for the wheat to grow, tend to their flocks and bake their own bread. Their idyllic spiritual existence would come to a dramatic end. They would now have to earn bread by the sweat of their brow. They would no longer be a purely spiritual people, in fact, much of their lives would be defined by their need to earn a material livelihood.

Although the idyllic life in the embrace of the Al-mighty sounds utopian, it is hardly a real life. Real life requires working diligently to earn a living, supporting a family, nurturing children, teaching family members a trade and skills that are necessary for life. Real life involves performing the mitzvot of the Torah, and through the mitzvot, completing the work of creation started by the Al-mighty, and in this manner, perfecting the world under the Al-mighty’s rule.

A Jew is not meant to live a parasitic or robotic existence. A Jew is meant to be an active and thoroughly contributing participant in the world, engaged in creative work, healing the sick, and providing for those who are in need.

The compelling interpretation of the Baal HaTanya, however, raises a serious question: If the only reason the People of Israel were reluctant to enter Canaan was because they wanted a more spiritual life, why were they punished so harshly?

A story is told of a man who had amassed a great fortune and decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of Torah. He set himself up in a separate room of his house where he would not be disturbed, and began to study day and night. When the room grew dark, he would light a candle, so that he would not miss a moment of study. He left little time for anything else, not his children, nor his wife, nor did he respond to the pleas of the poor and to others in need.

When he realized that he would die soon, he called his children and told them that they will inherit all his wealth. All he asked of them was, that when he passes on, to please place a paraffin candle in his coffin so that when he arrives in the World to Come, he could immediately light the candle and resume the study of Torah.

When he passed on and arrived in the World to Come, he immediately took out his candle to enable him to study the Torah, but realized that he had forgotten matches.

He ran from place to place, but there was no one who could give him a match. Soon he encountered people with candles, the same poor people whom he had chased away from his door and others in need, but they could not help. Instead they explained to him that candles in the World to Come are lit with matches from the real world. Matches are the good deeds and the acts of compassion that one performs in the real world.

Despite the great value that Judaism places on Torah learning and spirituality, Torah study is meant to be a means to achieve perfection, and a way of teaching people what is right and wrong, and to influence others to do good deeds.

The ancient Israelite scouts had to learn that Utopia is achieved through one’s own efforts and not given on a silver platter by the Al-mighty. The scouts’ philosophical error was not only a mistake, it was an error that resulted from a dangerous, self-centered, attitude.

It is the farmer who plants the seeds that yield the wheat and the baker who bakes the bread, and the shepherd who prepares the flocks, who make it possible for the students to study, enabling the Torah to be disseminated, and allowing human beings to become partners with G-d in the perfection of creation and the betterment of humankind.

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a'lot’cha 5775-2015

“Hubris Revisited”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, G-d tells Moses to instruct Aaron concerning the lighting of the Menorah, the seven branched candelabra, that provides light to the interior of the Tabernacle.

In Numbers 8:3, the Torah confirms that Aaron received the message and fulfilled G-d’s instructions. וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן אַהֲרֹן אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה הֶעֱלָה נֵרֹתֶיהָ,  כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השם אֶת מֹשֶׁה, and Aaron did so; toward the face of the Menorah, he kindled the lamp as the L-rd had commanded Moses.

Rashi notes that the verse emphasizing that “Aaron did so,” is intended to serve as praise of Aaron, “Sheh’loh shee’nah,” that he did not deviate in the slightest from the instructions that he received.

The commentators on Rashi are perplexed. Would Aaron, or for that matter anyone, deviate from the instructions that they had received directly from G-d? What kind of praise is this then for Aaron, and what is Rashi trying to teach?

B. Yeushon, in his highly-regarded compendium of commentators, Meotzarenu Hayashan, cites Rabbi Meir of Premishlan who suggests that the purpose of stating that Aaron did as G-d had instructed, serves to underscore that even though Aaron had reached the highest spiritual level by lighting the Menorah and entering into the Holy of Holies, he did not let success go to his head and remained the same modest person that he was before–a person who “loves peace and pursues peace.” (Avot 1:12)

The Sapirstein edition of Rashi cites the Maharik who states that even though the responsibility of lighting the Menorah involved menial tasks, including preparing the wicks that were covered with soot and oil, Aaron chose to fulfill this important task himself, rather than assign it to a lay priest.

The Chatam Sofer states that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, has the option of performing whatever procedures in the Temple service that he chooses. Although Aaron would be in charge of the lighting of the Menorah for the rest of his life, he might have assumed that on the first day following the passing of his two sons, Nadav and Abihu, someone else would be assigned that task. Instead, Aaron chose to do it himself, demonstrating to all that he accepted the Divine decree regarding the death of his sons, without question.

The Sefat Emet states that the phrase “and Aaron did so” underscores the fact that the lighting of the Menorah never became a matter of routine to Aaron. His fervor remained intense throughout his life, even though the same ritual was repeated every single day.

The Da’at Sofrim states that this was not the first time that Aaron was called on by G-d to perform an action that required great attention to detail. However, the lighting of the candelabra involved not only very specific physical tasks, but also highly intense thoughts and intentions. While the physical task of lighting the candles was relatively easy for Aaron to master, having the proper attitude, thoughts and intentions were much more challenging. Yet, he did so with full focus and total sincerity, enabling the lighting of the candelabra to achieve its utmost impact and efficacy.

There is a well-known story circulating in the Yeshiva world about a young, recently married, gifted scholar, who complained to his Rosh Yeshiva that his wife showed insufficient respect for Torah, because she had asked her husband to take out the garbage. The Rosh Yeshiva, feigning anger, told the student that the next time his wife has the “chutzpah” to ask him to do such a thing, he should immediately call the Rosh Yeshiva, and he will personally attend to the matter with dispatch.

The next time the wife asked her new husband, the young scholar, to take out the garbage, he immediately phoned his Rosh Yeshiva, who quickly arrived at the house to take out the garbage!

It is not uncommon for those who become successful in business and more elevated in stature and public esteem, to become filled with hubris.

As the Director of NJOP, I have been fortunate to meet many successful people, young and old. Not only are almost all those I have met fine and respectful, and, of course generous, they are, for the most part, exceedingly modest. Many even feel that giving charity is a privilege, and that NJOP is doing them a favor by giving them the opportunity to share in the many good deeds and good works that our organization performs.

I am often humbled by the young men and women who have studied with NJOP, who, though they began with very little, achieved unusual financial success. Yet, they feel strongly that the wealth is not theirs. Some spend hours each day dispensing charity when they could be vacationing on exotic islands or circling the world on luxury yachts.

I too learned an important lesson when my name was included several years ago on a list of the top 50 American rabbis. When I told my wife about the honor, she said to me, “Number 24, please take out the garbage.”

The fact that I have shared this story with you, shows that I still have not sufficiently mastered the fine art of modesty.

May we all learn from the example of Aaron, the High Priest, to walk humbly with G-d, and not take ourselves too seriously.

May you be blessed.

Naso 5775-2015

“The Fine Nuances of Jealousy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, includes the very challenging portion about the Sotah, the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband.

The laws of the Sotah are recorded in the Torah in Numbers 5:11-31, and raise many issues concerning the Torah’s regard for, and treatment of, women.

The Torah states that any man whose wife goes astray and commits “treachery” against him, must bring his suspected adulterous wife to the Kohen–the priest. Although the illicit couple acted in a compromising manner by being secluded together after being warned not to do so, since there were no actual witnesses, the husband does not know whether or not an adulterous act was committed.

To determine her guilt or innocence, the woman is subjected to a grueling ritual. The priest uncovers her hair and prepares a special sacrifice for her made of barley. The priest pours holy water into an earthen vessel, places dust from the floor of the Tabernacle in the water, writes an oath on parchment, scrapes the ink of the parchment into the water and makes the woman recite the oath. “If you are innocent, then the waters that you drink will not harm you. But, if you are guilty, your stomach will explode and your thigh will crumble and you will be an anathema to Israel!” The woman would then drink the water.

The rabbis assert that if she had actually committed adultery, the woman would die as a result of the Divine test. If she was innocent, however, she would become pregnant, bear a child and the woman’s name would be cleared.

Despite the fact that there were no witnesses and the woman was not caught in an adulterous act, the Torah states that her husband was consumed with jealousy. The Torah, in Numbers 5:14 states, וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהִוא נִטְמָאָה, אוֹ עָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהִיא לֹא נִטְמָאָה, the spirit of jealousy consumes her husband, and he is jealous of his wife and she had become defiled, or the spirit of jealousy passes over him, and she had not become defiled. In either case, the husband takes his wife to the priest to face the ordeal.

It is intriguing to note that the Torah states that the husband is “jealous” of his wife, rather than angry at his wife or vengeful concerning what she had done. The use of the word jealous, suggests that perhaps he is jealous of his wife because she had a secret admirer on the side and he did not.

What exactly does the term, “jealous” mean in this context?

Jealousy is often the result of a rivalry or a suspicion of unfaithfulness. In the Bible, we find that Rachel was jealous of her sister, Leah (Genesis 30:1), who bore several children while Rachel was barren. We also learn that Joseph’s brothers not only hated him (Genesis 37:4), but were jealous of him (Genesis 37:11). When Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp (Numbers 11:26-29), Joshua ran to Moses to demand that they be imprisoned. Moses cried out, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the people of Israel would be prophets.”

The Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, 4:28, sums it up pithily by declaring, הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם, jealousy, lust and desire for honor remove a person from the world. It seems as if jealousy is clearly a bad character trait, which has an extremely corrosive and destructive impact on all involved.

And yet, we find instances where jealousy is regarded as meritorious and positive. The prophet, Isaiah 9:6 speaks of קִנְאַת השם צְבָ־אוֹת, the jealousy for the L-rd of hosts, who detests the idolaters who desecrate the honor of G-d. The very heartening Talmudic statement (Sanhedrin 105b) provides further insight into jealousy: בַּכֹּל אָדָם מִתְקַנֵּא חוּץ מִבְּנוֹ וְתַלְמִידוֹ, a person is jealous of everyone, except of his son and his student. The Talmud statement in Tractate Babba Batra 22a, states that we are not concerned about placing a less advanced student next to a more advanced student, for fear that he (the weaker student) will give up, because קִנְאַת סוֹפְרִים תַּרְבֶּה חָכְמָה, jealousy (competition) between scholars increases wisdom.

The different aspects and applications of jealousy are quite instructive. Character traits are often regarded as either all good or all bad. Love and hostility, generosity and mean-spiritedness, pleasantness and anger, seem to be opposite extremes. We, too often, conclude that only positive traits should be embraced. Nevertheless, we find that even negative traits have their redeeming moments. King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, reminds us that there is a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to make war and a time to make peace. Even when it comes to speaking ill of others, there are redeeming allowances. Consequently, Jewish law allows, indeed, even requires, that לְשׁוֹן הָרָע, L’shon Harah, evil speech, be spoken in instances where the negative information can save a person from a social or financial loss.

Judaism, very much advocates following the שְׁבִיל הַזָּהָב “Shveel ha’zah’hav,” the golden path or the golden mean. Life is rarely perfectly balanced. In most instances, jealousy and hatred are bad, and are to be eschewed. However, there are times when even these perceived negative characteristics need to be invoked.

It should be understood, that had there been no strong feelings between Joseph and his brothers, there would have been no jealousy. Similarly, with respect to the Sotah, were there no positive feelings between the accuser and his wife, there would be no jealousy.

The Talmud in Sotah 3a and 5b concludes that because of his jealous feelings, the husband had legally warned his wife (Naso 5761-2001) in front of witnesses to stay away from her paramour.

Ironically, jealousy, when “properly applied,” can be redeeming, cathartic and redemptive. If the husband of the Sotah did not love or care for his wife, he would have summarily rejected and divorced her. By subjecting his wife to the Divine ordeal that she willingly endures, both husband and wife hope to redeem their marriage that is being challenged. The jealousy actually revealed that there were true feelings on the part of the husband for his wife that motivated both husband and wife to endure the cleansing ritual of the Sotah, no matter how distasteful and embarrassing. Although, at first, it may have appeared otherwise, the husband was determined to prove his wife’s innocence beyond a shadow of doubt, in order to rehabilitate a relationship that had gone awry.

This is the Torah’s way of teaching that even so-called “negative” attributes and behaviors, such as jealousy can be redeeming and beneficial.

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5775-2015

“Finding Value in Every Task”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the Torah describes the structure and layout of the camp of Israel in the wilderness. The locations of the encampments of each of the 12 tribes are delineated, the roles of the three Levitic families are assigned, and their tasks and responsibilities in the Tabernacle are recorded.

In Numbers 4, the Torah assigns the role of the first of the three Levitic families, the Kohathites, who are responsible for the most sanctified furnishings in the Tabernacle.

G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron saying, Numbers 4:18-20,אַל תַּכְרִיתוּ אֶת שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי מִתּוֹךְ הַלְוִיִּם. וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת קֹדֶשׁ  הַקֳּדָשִׁים: אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְאֶל מַשָּׂאוֹ. וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ, Do not cause the tribe of the Kohathite families to be cut off from among the Levites. Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die: When they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden. But they shall not come and look as the Holy things are being covered, lest they die.

The more than 22,000 Levites who were charged with caring for the Tabernacle faced a rather daunting task. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of separate parts to the Tabernacle. Each part had to be properly marked and labeled, so that when the Tabernacle would be taken down and erected, reassembled and rebuilt, each of the thousands of parts would be in its proper location.

The three Levitic families, Gershon, Kohath and Merari, who cared for the Tabernacle, were each assigned separate functions and responsibilities. Merari was responsible for the heaviest items in the Tabernacle, the wooden planks that were used for the walls of the Tabernacle, the columns for the curtains and for the courtyard walls, the bases and the sockets. To assist in the transportation of their assignment, they were given four wagons and eight oxen. The Gershonites, who were in charge of the curtains that covered the wooden structure, the divider curtain, the entrance curtains of the Tabernacle and the courtyard, were given two wagons and four oxen. The Kohathites were in charge of all the holy furnishings, the Ark, the Table of Showbread, the Menorah-candelabra, the Golden Altar, the earthen sacrificial Altar and the Laver. The holy furnishings in their charge were to be transported on the Kohathites’ shoulders.

The role of the Kohathites was the most honored role, but also the most dangerous, since improper handling of the holy furnishings could be lethal. The Torah, therefore, warned the Kohathites that they not enter the Tabernacle until the priests had completely covered each of the furnishings with their specially prepared covers. This prevented actual viewing of the furnishings while they were being transported.

The Sforno takes the words, (Numbers 4:19) אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, to mean that every man must do the specific task assigned to him. For this reason, each Levite, and especially members of the family of Kohath, was assigned a specific task in an organized fashion, together with the other Levite members. This assured that the Levites would not compete with one another, or rush to enter the Tabernacle, lest they jostle one another and desecrate the Temple, thereby bringing death upon themselves.

Maimonides, in Laws of the Temple Vessels 3:10-11, derives from this verse that the priest must not only appoint the Kohathite family members to perform specific tasks, he must also personally supervise them, making certain that they not overstep their bounds and die.

Recognizing the immense sanctity of the Tabernacle furnishings and the respect that must be shown to them, the Midrash, in Bamidbar Rabbah 5:1, describes the possible impact of the fear of death upon the Kohathies. Rabbi Elazar ben P’dat is of the opinion that because of the dangers associated with the Ark, the Kohathites were not eager to carry the Ark. That is why the priests had to appoint specific Levites from the family of Kohath to bear the Ark.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani argues otherwise, stating that the Levites were so eager to be assigned the honor of bearing the Ark, that there needed to be designated carriers for the Ark, in order to make certain that the other furnishings of the Tabernacle were not neglected.

This Midrash suggests that there were two classes of Temple attendants, those who were afraid to fulfill the task because of the intense holiness of the furnishings, and another group who was eager to only do the most prestigious work, but not the less prestigious work.

It might also be assumed that there were workers with other attitudes. There were probably those who were slovenly and not eager to work at all, who would rather be back on their farms, tending to their sheep or their fields. There were probably also those who felt themselves unworthy of fulfilling the sacred task of carrying the holy furnishings of the Tabernacle.

By stating אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, the Torah teaches, that not only must every man do his work and recognize the specialness of the task at hand, but that every task, whether in the Tabernacle, at home or in the office, must be seen as a sacred and vital task. Menial tasks must also be regarded as important, because without them, the major tasks could not be completed.

While many aspire to be leaders, unfortunately, few appreciate the contributions of the followers and the support teams. Regretfully, it is very common for people to frequently place values on what they perceive as “important” tasks. But, in the eyes of the Al-mighty, a task that is fulfilled with a full heart, whether large or small, is what is most valued and most significant.

This discussion brings to mind an elderly widow, Mrs. Chernick, whom I first met in the early years of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Mrs. Chernick, who had no children, marched to the beat of her own drummer. She would often tell all who would listen that her greatest aspiration was to serve as the cleaning woman in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Although, being a “cleaning woman” does not really rank as a particularly prestigious job for a nice Jewish boy or girl, I have a distinct feeling that there may be many who would quickly volunteer to assist Mrs. Chernick in her cleaning duties, should the opportunity arise.

With the upcoming festival of Shavuot, זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ, the time of the giving of our Torah, we have a unique opportunity to display our full-hearted devotion to Torah. May the Al-mighty witness our exceptional devotion during the coming holiday, and in its merit reward us with the opportunity to start cleaning the rebuilt Temple very soon.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3328 years ago, is observed this year on Saturday evening, May 23rd, and continues through Monday night, May 25th, 2015.

Behar-Bechukotai 5775-2015

“The Odd Conclusion to the Book of Leviticus”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Bechukotai, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we find two major themes, the תּוֹכָחָה Tochacha–G-d’s admonition and reproof of the Jewish people, and the laws regarding the redemption of vows and tithes.

The Tochacha, G-d’s fearsome reproof of the Jewish people, found in Leviticus 26, is an intimidating document. While the Torah portion opens on a positive note, promising blessings in the wake of obedience, much of the parasha deals with the wages of Israel’s disobedience. The Torah predicts that the defiant Children of Israel will experience sickness, defeat, famine and wild beasts, and proceeds to describe the horrors of siege, and to vividly convey the calamity of national destruction and exile. It does, however, conclude with the promise that repentance shall bring restoration.

The final chapter of the book of Leviticus, chapter 27, instructs the People of Israel concerning the redemption of vows and tithes. It encourages the people to make voluntary contributions toward the upkeep of the Sanctuary, representing the true expression of devotion to the house of G-d.

The Torah then delineates various vows that may be made on behalf of the Temple. One may donate the value of a person (oneself) to the Sanctuary, or redeem an animal and donate the value of that animal to the Temple. The value of a home, or of land or a firstling animal may also be donated to the Temple. Finally, the Torah provides instruction for the redemption of the various tithes–the first tithe, the second tithe and tithes of the herd.

One may wonder what the Tochacha, G-d’s ominous admonition to the Jewish people, has in common with the redemption of vows and tithes, and why these themes specifically appear together at the end of the book of Leviticus. What could possibly be the connection, and what message is the Torah trying to convey?

The noted young scholar, Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his recent volume, A Synagogue Companion, offers an insightful explanation of the structure of the book of Leviticus and its unusual conclusion.

Raising the question of this seemingly odd conclusion to the book of Leviticus, Rabbi Angel asks why, after the climactic blessings and curses in chapter 26, does the Torah conclude with chapter 27 that focuses on those who wish to dedicate their “value” to the Temple, by contributing money equal to their monetary value on the slave market?

Rabbi Angel insightfully suggests that the final two chapters of the book of Leviticus represent two unique models of Israel’s relationship with G-d. The Tochacha, found in chapter 26, represents the covenantal relationship between G-d and the People of Israel that was forged at Mount Sinai. This covenant reflects the relationship of mutual obligation between the Al-mighty and His people.

The final chapter of Leviticus, chapter 27, however, describes a relationship that is not borne of obligation but rather of love, given voluntarily. This special sense of dedication is underscored by members of the Jewish community who choose to donate their value, or the value of their property, to G-d. In this manner do Jews symbolically dedicate their lives to G-d.

This particularly profound message applies to many aspects of contemporary life as well. In business and in the professional world, commitments are made between employer and employee in order for both to benefit economically and achieve material success. This success allows both parties to earn a living and put bread on their tables. While the work and fiscal relationship between employer and employee and their mutual commitment is significant, the most effective professional commitments are those that are made because both boss and worker truly enjoy making meaningful contributions, not only to the business, but to society and to humankind, as well.

In marriage, both husband and wife take upon themselves the obligation to support one another in truth, and together share a hope to raise a family that will enlighten the world with their good and noble deeds. This relationship of responsibility and accountability is most profoundly enhanced by feelings of mutual love and respect.

These two unique models of Israel’s relationship with G-d that are found in this unusual conclusion to parashat Bechukotai, serve as a most fitting conclusion to the book of Leviticus, a book that is dedicated to bringing sanctity into the world. In order to do so effectively, the Jewish people must first sanctify themselves, then sanctify the nation, all the while serving G-d with a full heart.

There can be no more meaningful or effective relationship than one in which there is a melding of the sense of obligation, together with the feelings of deep love and devotion.

It is this special relationship that serves as a most fitting conclusion to the book of holiness, the book of Leviticus.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed this Saturday night, May 15th through Sunday night, May 16th. This year marks the 48th anniversary of the reunification of the city.

Emor 5775-2015

“Distractions, Distractions!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Emor, opens with an extensive series of laws regarding the conduct of the Kohanim, the priests of the Jewish nation, who minister and serve in the Tabernacle and the Temple.

Because of the elevated status of the Kohanim and the sanctity of the Tabernacle and Temple, priests are required to follow a strict physical and spiritual regimen. Due to the serious responsibilities conferred upon them, the Kohanim are expected to live up to a sacred ideal, and be adequately prepared to properly perform their Temple and Tabernacle duties.

As we have previously noted (Emor 5765-2005), members of the priestly class are not permitted to come into contact with death. A lay priest may only attend the funerals of his seven closest relatives Relatives . The High Priest may not even attend the funeral of his own mother and father. The Torah declares, in Leviticus 21:10-11, that the Kohen who is exalted above his brethren (the High Priest), shall not, because of mourning, let his hair grow long or rend his garments. He may not contaminate himself [by coming in contact] with any dead person, even his mother or father. Leviticus 21:12 further states, וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא, וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֵת מִקְדַּשׁ אֱ-לֹהָיו,  כִּי נֵזֶר שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת אֱ-לֹהָיו עָלָיו, אֲנִי השׁם  He [the High Priest] shall not leave the Sanctuary [because of a death in his family] and he shall not desecrate the Sanctuary of his G-d; for a crown–-G-d’s oil of anointment–-is upon him; I am the L-rd.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 18a, records the debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah the Prince regarding the meaning of this verse. Rabbi Meir maintains that although the High Priest may not take part in his parents’ funerals, he may follow the funeral procession at a distance. Rabbi Judah takes the words, “He shall not leave the Mikdash (Sanctuary),” literally, and maintains that the Kohen Gadol may not leave the Temple at all during the funeral of a parent. Rashi, notes that the rabbis learn from this verse that a High Priest who has suffered the loss of a close relative is permitted to perform the Temple service even while he is an אוֹנֵן “Oh’nayn,” in deep mourning, prior to the burial of the deceased. An ordinary Kohen, however, who performs the Temple service while he is an Oh’nayn, is considered to have defiled the sanctuary.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum in Peninim on the Torah suggests that a profound homiletical message may be derived from this verse. Rabbi Scheinbaum writes: “The Kohen Gadol, and for that matter anyone who makes the Sanctuary/Bais HaMedrash his home his place of study, should see to it that when he leaves, it should be only for a matter of great urgency or necessity. His spiritual sustenance is provided in the Sanctuary and every interruption diminishes the spiritual flow.”

This metaphorical interpretation has important contemporary implications. While history is generally looked upon as a record of the many great human accomplishments, at the same time, in important respects, civilization has significantly regressed. While contemporary science has mastered the ability to fly at much faster speeds than ever before, has landed men on the moon, and has enabled voices to be instantly transmitted from one end of the globe to the other, in other significant respects, humankind has retrogressed.

Because of the industrial revolution and its many scientific and mechanical advances, fewer people today are involved in farming or engaged in rigorous manual labor. The physical skills possessed by the ancient agricultural and hunting societies are rarely to be found among today’s workers. Despite many great contemporary medical discoveries, because of our modern habits and lifestyle, our eyesight and hearing are no longer as acute as they were among the ancients. As a result of the development of the printed book, our memories have also been compromised, and our abilities to concentrate have sharply diminished. Many young people today communicate orally only infrequently, responding instead only to texting and Facebook messages. In the “soundbite generation,” voice communication among young people has become much less common.

Attention spans among (not limited to young) people today have also become progressively shorter. “Tweeting,” which is a method of sending electronic messages composed of no more than 140 characters, has created a new standard of communication. While it has eliminated many unnecessarily long-winded notes, it has also eclipsed well-thought-out and seriously researched messages. The ability to sit through long, intricate lectures is rapidly vanishing. Ours is an age where almost everyone is easily distracted.

The message of Leviticus 21:12, וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא, He [the High Priest] shall not leave the sanctuary, is of great importance. This verse not only restricts the priestly class from leaving the “Sanctuary,” but calls on all to recognize and acknowledge the importance of remaining in the “Sanctuary.” Because of the growing inability to focus, and the constant distractions, significant life-moments are often interrupted or neglected. One may be deeply engaged in a most intense and important discussion with a child or a spouse, yet feel compelled to respond to the beckoning call of email or the buzzing of the Twitter or Facebook account. In such instances the message to the child or the spouse is eminently clear: “Whoever is texting or calling is much more important than you. That is why I must interrupt our conversation and respond to them.”

The Torah’s directive to the High Priest calls, not only on him, but on each of us to recognize that while our careers and places of business may be important, they must not be regarded as our “Sanctuary.” Unquestionably, our synagogues and houses of learning are of great value, but even they should not be considered “ultimate sanctuaries.” In the absence of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the only “ultimate sanctuary” for the Jewish people today is the Jewish home and family. The sanctuary of the Jewish home should be our primary focus, and spouses and children must be regarded as the foremost priority.

The message of the Torah to the ancient priests is a vitally important universal message, to establish proper priorities in life! Business and profession must be seen as a means, not an end. Work is necessary in order to provide for the essential needs of the family: shelter, food, transportation, etc.. Even Torah study has its purpose, to convey to our children the importance of Torah values.

This message of parashat Emor is a universal call to focus on priorities and diminish distractions. Surely, the distraction for the priest is a serious one, the death of the High Priest’s parents. What could be more important than attending the funeral of one’s parent? The answer provided by this message of parashat Emor is that serving G-d and nation by prioritizing family, is of even greater import.

Distractions that are around us at all times, need to be overcome and defeated. Priorities must be properly set. While one cannot always remain in the sanctuary, the sanctuary can often be taken with us. It is for this reason that scripture declares that the People of Israel shall be, Exodus 19:6, מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ, We are all, in essence, a kingdom of priests–and a people who must always strive to become a holy nation.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 6th and continue all day Thursday, May 7th, 2015. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

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