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Tzav–Passover 1 5778-2018

“Making Holiness Contagious”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, we are reintroduced to the laws of the Mincha, מִנְחָה , the meal offering, that were first recorded in Leviticus 2.

The Mincha, was a meal offering made of finely-ground wheat flour, oil, and frankincense, in most cases mixed with water.  There are a number of varieties of Mincha offerings. The plain Mincha consists of the uncooked mixture of the basic ingredients. Other forms of Mincha offerings are cooked, baked or fried into various consistencies.

Because the Mincha is the least expensive of the offerings that can be brought to the Temple, it was most often donated by poor people. Reflecting the extra effort involved in bringing this offering, it is assigned a special sanctity–-that of קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים , Holy of Holies, and may only be eaten by the priests themselves in the Temple environs.

Although other holy priestly foods may usually be eaten by all members of the priests’ household, the Torah declares in Leviticus 6:11 regarding the Mincha offering, כָּל זָכָר בִּבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן יֹאכְלֶנָּה חָק עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם מֵאִשֵּׁי השׁם, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יִגַּע בָּהֶם יִקְדָּשׁ , Every male of the children of Aaron shall eat it, an eternal portion for your generations from the fire offerings of the Lord; whatever touches them shall become holy.

Not only is consumption of the Mincha permitted only by male priests and must be eaten only in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting, but, the Torah additionally emphasizes that whatever touches them shall become holy.

It is interesting to note that one of the basic principles of kashruth is derived from this particular verse–the law of absorption. So, for instance, if a pareve, non-dairy non-meat food item is cooked in a recently used dairy pot, the food assumes the taste of the dairy that is absorbed in the walls of the pot. As a result, the entire contents of the pot are officially regarded as dairy.

The Mincha is considered so sacred that any other foods that come in contact with it automatically become sacred and can only be eaten in the courtyard of the sanctuary by the male priests.

The concept of transferring sacredness from one object or idea to another object or idea also plays a prominent part in the Passover Seder, especially in the Seder’s opening steps.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains that the middle matzah at the beginning of the seder is broken into two parts to symbolize two different ways of “Jewish eating.” The smaller part, which is consumed later in the seder when we make the blessing over the matzah, serves to satisfy our human hunger, our biological need for food.

But, says Rabbi Kook, there is also a need to uplift the human spirit and refine the human soul. Therefore, the larger piece of the matzah, known as the “Afikoman,” ( the larger part of middle matzah, which is broken in two during the early stages of the Passover Seder, and set aside to be eaten as a dessert at the end of the Passover meal) is eaten at the very end of the meal when we are completely satiated and our stomachs are full, as a symbol of spiritual sustenance.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik expressed this concept in the following manner, “The world has learned how to take the animalistic act of eating and make it into an aesthetic act.  However, we Jews have learned how to take an aesthetic act and raise it to an act of holiness.”

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach explains the reason why the matzah is broken at the beginning of the seder. He suggests that the broken matzah of the Afikoman represents the brokenness of the world, the many broken hearts, broken lives, and many tears. In fact, we live in a world of brokenness and that unless we recognize that brokenness, it is impossible to repair the world.

Asks Rabbi Carlebach, “How do we repair the world?  How do we bring wholeness to the world again?” He answers: “Our children.  Our children will bring back the broken piece and make the world whole again.”

Another powerful lesson of beauty and holiness is conveyed as the seder formally opens with the Maggid portion, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The matzah is raised and the participants declare, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.  All who are hungry, come and eat, all who are in need, join our Passover.”

Rabbi Kook explained that only when the Jews were freed from slavery could the essence of the Jewish people emerge. This essence is the expression of loving-kindness in which the sanctity of human life is acknowledged. Therefore, the seder begins with an act of kindness, inviting all those who are in need into our homes to partake of the seder and join with the joyous celebration of Passover.

The noble opening acts of our seder, the breaking of the matzah and inviting strangers into our homes, very much reflect what has been learned from the Mincha, the meal offering, which sanctifies anything it touches.

It is very much hoped that the lessons of restoring the broken hearts and the broken pieces, inviting those in need into our homes, will create a sense of “Holy of Holies,” in our lives that existed in ancient Temple times. We are also hopeful that those who come in contact with the symbols and rituals of the seder will be infected by the power of its message.

May the holiness reflected in the Passover symbols and rituals become contagious and spread throughout the planet, enlightening the world with good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed. Wishing you and yours a Happy and Kosher Passover.

The Passover insights were taken from The Night that Unites Passover Hagaddah by Aaron Goldscheider.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, March 30th and all day Saturday and Sunday, March 31st and April 1st. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 5th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 6th and 7th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

Vayikra 5778-2018

“The Sins of a Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra introduces the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus. The parasha deals with the sacred offerings that were brought in the Tabernacle and, in later generations, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The fourth and fifth chapters of Leviticus focus on the Korban Chatat, קָרְבַּן חַטָּאת , the sin offering. Sin offerings achieve atonement for only a very limited category of inadvertent sins. The sins that can be atoned for by the Chatat are those sins for which an intentional transgressor would have been liable to receive the penalty of karet, כָּרֵת , spiritual excision.(see Tzav 5767-2007)

Nachmanides points out that sins that are committed accidentally are generally the result of carelessness. Consequently, inadvertent transgressions blemish the soul, which needs to be purified by sacrifice. Had the transgressor truly valued the Sabbath it would not have been possible for him to have forgotten what day of the week it was. Had the transgressor truly appreciated the laws of kashruth he would not have accidentally eaten the non-kosher food.

It is important to note that each of the four different categories of sinners who are required to bring the Chatat offerings, are introduced in the Torah using slightly different descriptions. In Leviticus 4:3, the Torah writes, אִם הַכֹּהֵן הַמָּשִׁיחַ יֶחֱטָא , If the anointed priest, meaning the Kohen Gadol, sins, bringing guilt upon the people for his sin that he has committed, he must bring a young bull, unblemished, to G-d as a sin offering.

When all the people sin, the Torah in Leviticus 4:13 states, וְאִם כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל , But if the entire assembly of Israel shall err, and a matter became obscured from the eyes of the congregation, and they commit one from among all the commandments of the L-rd that may not be done and they become guilty, they must then bring a young bull as a sin offering, etc.

If an individual alone sins, the Torah in Leviticus 4:2 declares נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה מִכֹּל מִצְוֺת השׁם אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה, וְעָשָׂה מֵאַחַת מֵהֵנָּה, When a person will sin (unintentionally) from among all the commandments of the L-rd that may not be done, and commits one of them.

When a ruler sins, the Torah in Leviticus 4:22, states אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל מִצְוֺת השׁם אֱ־לֹקָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵׁם When a ruler sins (unintentionally) and commits one from among all the commandments of the L-rd that may not be done and becomes guilty, once it (the sin) becomes known to him, he brings a male goat unblemished.

The rabbis point out the significant differences in the introductions to the different categories of sinners. When the high priest and when the entire community sin, the Torah uses the Hebrew expression “im,” אִם , which is translated to mean “if.” Thus, if the Kohen Hagadol, the High Priest, sins, and if the people of Israel err. After all, mistakes happen.

Regarding the individual, the Torah says, נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא , when a person will sin, the word “kee,” כִּי implying that it’s very likely that an individual will sin, as if to say, “when” the soul of an individual sins.

However, when it comes to the leader, a King or prince, the Torah uses the expression, אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא , when a ruler sins. The word “Ah’sher,” אֲשֶׁר , is translated in this instance “when,” but really implies that the leader/prince will definitely sin.

Rabbi Isaac Caro states that due to excessive honor and pride, it is virtually impossible for a ruler or a leader not to sin.

What does this have to do with us today? Sadly, a frequent refrain repeatedly heard in America and in American politics today is that highly-qualified people no longer seek to enter politics or run for public office. It seems to be widely accepted that the experience of being a public servant, and perhaps even the process of becoming a candidate, is one that subjects an individual to undue pressures, making it almost impossible for a good person to remain pure, innocent and incorruptible.

Candidates for public office need to collect huge amounts of money and at the same time avoid undue favoritism to the donors. All sorts of forces, often with nefarious intentions, try to get the ear of the politicians to change policies to favor them. The process itself seems to be corrupting.

The Talmud, in Yoma 22b, even goes so far as to say, אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו שאם תזוח דעתו עליו אומרין לו חזור לאחוריך , public servants are not appointed by the community unless they carry much negative familial baggage. Perhaps that is why the Talmud in Avot 1:10, says, “Keep far away from authority,” because it’s impossible to remain honest or uncorrupted.

Although democracy seems to be far better than any other system of government, it is far from perfect.

Is the Torah implying that all systems of government are corrupt? The Talmud, in Avot 3:2, urges us to pray for the welfare of the kingdom (government) because without civil order people would eat each other alive.

Perhaps the Torah is advising us, that if the family, the most fundamental building block of society, lacks internal order, then there’s no hope for communal order. Perhaps, the best we as individuals can do to assure that we succeed, is to strive to be as good as we ourselves can be, that our families be firm and solid and that we all live by the Divine values of the Torah. It is only by instilling good values in our families and communities that we can ever hope to have governments that abide by these values.

Unfortunately, the battle for goodness seems to be stacked against us. Much of contemporary life is saturated with sexual exploitation, corruption and violence. It is not at all surprising that children, whose basic entertainment is violent cartoons and violent video games, will eventually become violent.

3300 years ago, the Torah warned us that people in positions of authority and those in positions of leadership, often think that they are above the law and can take advantage of others. These leaders,  princes and kings will invariably sin. It is our responsibility to see that our own values and those of our families are properly communicated and transmitted. It is our hope that our children, the products of these families, will live by these noble values, and perhaps succeed in reshaping the course of human history.

May you be blessed.

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778-2018

“Bringing G-d Home”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s double parshiyot, Vayakhel-Pekudei, pose a significant challenge to all students of Torah.

In this week’s parshiyot, the Torah records, for the fifth time, in both a specific and a general way, the details of the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle and its furnishings, as well as the vestments of the priests.

Especially unusual, is that the Torah, in Exodus 35:4-9, once again, enumerates all the materials that the Israelites are to bring for the construction of the Tabernacle: gold, silver, copper, turquoise, scarlet wool, linen, goat hair, red-dyed ram skins, tachash skins, acacia wood, oil for illuminations, spices for the anointment oil, aromatic incense, precious stones, and stones for the setting of the Ephod in the breastplate. The lists not only seem endless, they are exceedingly repetitious.

In Exodus 35:10, Moses continues his instructions to the people and says, וְכָל חֲכַם לֵב, בָּכֶם, יָבֹאוּ וְיַעֲשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם , And every wise person among you shall come and make everything that the L-rd has commanded. Once again, the Torah enumerates the Tabernacle, the tent, its covers, hooks, planks, bars, pillars and sockets, etc., etc.

What would have been so terrible if Moses had just ended with a general statement, without repeating the details, as we find in Exodus 35:10? “And every wise-hearted person among you shall come and make everything that God has commanded!” What is the point of repeating again and again and again, five times, the “dramatic” details of the Tabernacle?

Serious students of the Torah know that the Torah is hardly ever repetitive, and is particularly precise with its wording. When it is expansive, it is usually to communicate a special message. The reason that the Torah elaborates on Eliezer’s mission to find a wife for Issac is not only because of the nuances that we learn from the textual differences, but also because of the importance of learning the precise details of Eliezer’s efforts to find a proper wife for the young patriarch Isaac. The repetitions reflect G-d’s respect for Eliezer’s loyalty in fulfilling the mission of finding the proper wife for Isaac.

Clearly, the Torah’s frequent repetition regarding the intricacies of building the Tabernacle are a reflection of G-d’s love of Israel and G-d’s personal admiration for the efforts that the people of Israel invested in building a “dwelling place” for the Divine Presence.

But wouldn’t a single repetition or a double repetition or a triple repetition be sufficient? Why five times? What could all this possibly mean?

Apparently, there is a profound reason for the repetition, one that becomes more obvious as we recall the general contents of the book of Exodus, which concludes with this week’s Torah portions.

The book of Exodus records three major events: the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Sinai, and erecting the Tabernacle. Each one of these events plays a profound role in establishing the spiritual identity of the People of Israel.

God’s greatest desire is for His Divine Presence to dwell among the Jewish people. In Exodus 25:8 God declares: וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם , Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst!

Despite the miraculous rescue of the Israelites as the sea waters covered their enemies, despite the unequaled spiritual visions that the handmaidens saw as the sea waters split (visions that even the greatest prophets of the future were unable to envision) despite the ecstatic spiritual songs that were sung by the men and the women after the people’s rescue, the Divine Presence did not come to rest on Israel at that time.

This is also true of the revelation at Sinai, where the Israelites actually “saw” G-d’s voice pronounce the commandments. With all the pyrotechnics, the thunder and lightning, the sounds of the shofar, the Divine Presence still did not rest on the Jewish people. In fact, in Exodus 20:16, the people insist that Moses speak to them, fearful that they would die from the power of G-d’s voice.

It is only when the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, is complete that the Torah, Exodus 29:46, states: וְיָדְעוּ, כִּי אֲנִי השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיהֶם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם, אֲנִי, השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיהֶם , I will sanctify the Tabernacle and the altar as well as Aaron and his sons, and I will dwell amongst the People of Israel and be their G-d. They shall know that I am the Lord your G-d who took them out of the land of Egypt to rest My presence among them. I am the L-rd their G-d.

The Midrash Rabbah, on Numbers 12, states, “From the time of the creation of the world until the Tabernacle was completed, the Divine Presence did not dwell on terrestrial beings. Only when the Tabernacle was erected did the Divine Presence dwell on the people.”

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his cogent analysis, points to significant differences between the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the erecting of the Tabernacle.

Why hadn’t G-d previously caused his Divine Presence to dwell on the people? Both the splitting of the sea and the revelation at Sinai, says Rabbi Filber, were acts performed by the Al-mighty G-d alone, while the people were passive recipients. Since there was no participation of the Israelites or any of G-d’s other creatures, there was no manifestation of the Divine Presence.

That is why it was so important from the very start of the “Tabernacle project” (Exodus 25:2) that the people donate, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה, מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ , Every man must be passionate about donating to the Tabernacle from beginning to end.

The Midrash HaGadol on Exodus 39:32 spells it out clearly, “And all the work was finished in the Tabernacle and the children of Israel did what needed to be done.” Resh Lakish says, the Tabernacle is more beloved by G-d than even the creation of the world itself. During the creation of the world, there was no effort on the part of any of God’s creatures; it all happened through the word of G-d. G-d spoke and the heavens were created. At the building of the Tabernacle, Moses, and Israel participated in every single facet. As the Torah states in Exodus 39:32, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם אֶת מֹשֶׁה, כֵּן עָשׂוּ , And Israel did all that G-d commanded Moses, so did they do.

No matter how great the occasion, only the participation of the people succeeds in bringing the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, to dwell in Israel.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1‑22.

Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this Friday night, March 9, 2018. We expect over 50,000 participants throughout North America. Please call 1(888) SHABBAT, or  click here to find a local Shabbat Across America and Canada location, and sign up for “a Taste of Shabbat,” a taste of the World to Come!



Kee Tisah 5778-2018

Safeguarding the Covenant

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, focuses primarily on the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ successful invocation of G-d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy to achieve forgiveness for the People of Israel.

Despite the Al-mighty’s decision to forgive the Jewish people, He warns them that if they backslide they will again stir up G-d’s anger and be subject to great punishment. G-d, therefore, informs Moses of those sins that are particularly grievous, and emphasizes the positive deeds that can help Israel remain true to the Al-mighty G-d and maintain their spiritual greatness.

It is in this context, that Moses warns the people in G-d’s name of the particular dangers of idolatry. Seeing the Canaanite nations who presently occupy the land of Israel as a snare who would seduce His people away from G-d, G-d reiterates His promise to Moses to drive out those nations from the land. He emphasizes that the Israelites must be extremely careful about avoiding the temptations that await them in their new homeland.

In Exodus 34:12, G-d tells Moses to say to Israel,הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תִּכְרֹת בְּרִית לְיוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָּא עָלֶיהָ,  פֶּן יִהְיֶה לְמוֹקֵשׁ בְּקִרְבֶּךָ , Be vigilant, lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you come, lest it be a snare among you.

G-d bids the People of Israel to destroy the altars of the heathens, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred trees, and not to prostrate themselves to any alien god. He also warns Israel to make no covenants with the inhabitants of the land and not to stray after their gods or offer sacrifices to them.

In addition, He cautions the people not to consort with the local inhabitants who will invite them to eat from their sacrifices. In Exodus 34:16, the Torah warns that this fraternization will result in , וְלָקַחְתָּ מִבְּנֹתָיו לְבָנֶיךָ, וְזָנוּ בְנֹתָיו אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן, וְהִזְנוּ אֶת בָּנֶיךָ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן , and you will take their daughters for your sons and their daughters will stray after their gods and entice your sons to stray after their gods!

Clearly, the bottom line of the Torah’s message is to avoid social contact with the pagans. This principle is further amplified upon in Deuteronomy 32:38, in Moses’ final admonition to the Jewish people. In poetic form, Moses says, אֲשֶׁר חֵלֶב זְבָחֵימוֹ יֹאכֵלוּ, יִשְׁתּוּ יֵין נְסִיכָם, יָקוּמוּ וְיַעְזְרֻכֶם, יְהִי עֲלֵיכֶם סִתְרָה , “when Israel abandons G-d, the Al-mighty will say, Where is the god in whom you sought refuge, the fat of whose offerings they would eat, they would drink the wine of their libations, let them stand and help you, let them be a shelter for you?”

The rabbis deduce from this that Jews are forbidden to eat the food or drink the wine that is offered to the idols of the heathen world in pagan temples. The purpose of these prohibitions is to entirely avoid any social contact that might lead to intermarriage between Jews and pagans.

The Ohr HaChaim claims that even if the pagans were to sign a covenant and vow not to worship idols and even if they are prepared to observe all the Noahide laws (see Noah 5766-2005), they should not be trusted because they will eventually return to idol worship.

Similarly, the Sforno argues that those who bond with idol worshipers even as a gesture of friendship will eventually come to worship idols themselves. Social contact will invariably lead to intimate relations and result in intermarriage, leading to the decline of Jewish religious observance.

It is from these verses that we learn the laws of Yayin Nesech, יֵיּן נֶסֶךְ and Stam Yaynam, סְתָם יֵינָם , the prohibition against using sacramental wine that has been used in idol worship, and even non-Jewish manufactured wine in general.

When the Torah declared (Leviticus 19:2), קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ , you shall be holy, which the rabbis interpreted to mean, You shall be separate, they knew what they were talking about. The recent studies by the famed sociologist Steven H. Cohen not only confirm the over 70% rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox young Jews, but also their extraordinary attitudinal changes, the precipitous decline in belonging to synagogues and Jewish organizations and their lack of support for the State of Israel.

The story of Purim stands as a bold confirmation of the Torah’s warning. Our rabbis say that the parties that King Ahasuerus hosted for 180 days and for an additional seven days were meant to celebrate the fact that 70 years had passed and the prophecy that the Temple would be rebuilt had not been fulfilled. The King’s parties celebrated the demise of the Jews, yet all the Jews of Persia and Media attended.

It all starts over a glass of wine in Shushan, the capital of Persia, or with a bottle of beer at a football game. A simple gesture of friendship can result, and too often does result, in a total loss to the Jewish community, even among those who grew up religiously observant and had the benefit of an intensive Jewish education.

These words, and the Torah’s warning, which were written and delivered 3,300 years ago, are as relevant today as they were when they were first pronounced.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, February 28-March 1, 2018.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.



Tetzaveh 5778-2018

“The Brothers: Moses and Aaron”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


Parashat Tetzaveh deals almost exclusively with the Kehuna, the office of the priesthood. It focuses on the priests’ duties, their vestments, their selection to serve and minister in the Tabernacle, and their inauguration.

It is fascinating to note that from the time that the name of Moses is first mentioned in Exodus 2, through the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the name of Moses appears in every single Torah portion with the exception of parashat Tetzaveh.

In parashat Tetzaveh 5772-2012 we previously dealt with the question of “Where is Moses?” Among the answers offered for the absent leader is that parashat Tetzaveh is entirely focused on Aaron and the functions of the priests. Moses, therefore, removed himself from center stage to allow his brother Aaron to have his moment to shine, and assume his central role as the chief spiritual and religious minister of the People of Israel.

Following the opening verses of parashat Tetzaveh, G-d speaks to Moses [of course not by name] saying in Exodus 28:1: וְאַתָּה הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ אֶת אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ, מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי , You [Moses] should bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the Children of Israel, to minister to Me. The Torah then lists Aaron’s sons: Nadav, Abihu, Elazar and Itamar.

The Chassidic Rabbi,  Reb Naphtali of Ropshitz commented on this verse by noting that Moses was by nature a very private person, who would often seek solitude and engage in meditation. The Bible (Exodus 33:7) even records that Moses took his tent and pitched it outside the camp. Aaron, on the other hand, had a warm and welcoming personality. The Talmud (Avot 1:12) describes Aaron as, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם , that he [Aaron] was a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace. Commenting on the seemingly extra word, אֵלֶיךָ , bring Aaron near to you, Reb Naphtali of Rophshitz suggests that G-d says to Moses, “Bring Aaron your brother near to you, so that you can learn from him how to come close to the people. A leader cannot be standoffish.”

While the words “near to you,” may mean to learn from Aaron how to become more of a “people person,” it may also imply, “come close, so that you and Aaron can bond together as brothers.”

From the beginning of the Torah, until the book of Exodus, the relationship between brothers is notoriously unsuccessful. Cain kills his brother, Abel. Issac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, are in relationships that can best be described as dysfunctional, if not worse.

Even though it takes place during the most trying times of enslavement in Egypt, with the book of Exodus, a new chapter of brotherhood dawns.

According to the Biblical account, it is very likely that Aaron never really had a chance to bond with his younger brother, Moses. Because of Pharaoh’s decree to kill all of the male children by throwing them into the river, Moses was hidden as an infant. Once he was brought to his mother, Yocheved, at the behest of Pharaoh’s daughter, to serve as his nursemaid, we have no idea how long she was able to keep Moses at home. Apparently, not very long, because shortly after Moses was weaned, he went to live in Pharaoh’s palace. According to the Midrash, at age twenty, Moses had to flee for his life from Pharaoh, and remained in Midian for sixty years.

After G-d appears to Moses at the Burning Bush and designates him to be the redeemer of Israel, G-d encourages Moses by assuring him that despite this long separation from his family, he will be warmly welcomed when he returns to Egypt. In Exodus 4:14, the Almighty reassures Moses הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא, וְגַם הִנֵּה הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ, וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ , Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite? I know that he will surely speak; moreover behold he is going out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.

The toxic relationship that characterized Joseph and his brothers, the envy, the jealousy and murderous thoughts, is nowhere to be found in the relationship between Moses and Aaron. Despite being the older brother, Aaron does not appear to be at all threatened or jealous of Moses, who has been chosen by G-d to serve as the primary leader of Israel. Aaron could have justifiably said to himself, “Not only am I older, I have been with the people and have observed the travails of the people for the last sixty years, while he [Moses] was away, writing poetry and shepherding in Midian. My brother Moses never even lived as a Jew among the Jews, how can he possibly lead the people? I am far more appropriate to lead, and more worthy. Besides, I have a much more suitable personality for leadership. People love me and trust me. Moses is an unknown.”

This then is the meaning of the verse, “Bring near to yourself Aaron, your brother and his sons with him.” Step aside from the limelight, Moses; let your brother Aaron take center stage. Allow him to emphasize the talents that he has, and that you lack. Do not feel threatened.

Of course, there are some “hiccups” in the relationship along the way. Moses lashes out at Aaron (Exodus 32:21) when he suspects that he was not firm enough with the people, allowing them to create a Golden Calf. Apparently, Aaron is forgiven for that, by both Moses and G-d. Aaron speaks out against Moses (Numbers 12:1) for taking a Cushite woman, and although Aaron is not personally punished, he sees his beloved sister, Miriam, suffer, which may be more painful than his own physical suffering.

At the end of their lives, the brothers are once again united. The two great leaders are punished together and forbidden to enter the Promised Land because of their momentary anger when they hit the rock, instead of speaking to the rock to bring forth water.

Even in death they are joined. Both Moses and Aaron die with a Divine kiss. It is a most appropriate kiss for two brothers who showed such profound affection and respect for one another. This is a true model of brotherhood!

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Terumah 5778-2018

“The Cherubs”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we read of the many and varied materials that were donated by the people to build the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary, that was used by the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

As previously noted (Terumah 5762-2002), the most important of all the furnishings in the Mishkan/Tabernacle was the Aaron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, which housed the Torah and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The Holy Ark itself was made of acacia wood covered with gold, and had a golden crown around the top. The Ark was transported by two poles affixed to the sides of the ark with rings. These staves were never to be removed, to serve as a sign that the Torah must be readily transportable and with the People of Israel at all times.

In Exodus 25:17-18, the Torah states: וְעָשִׂיתָ כַפֹּרֶת זָהָב טָהוֹר, אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכָּהּ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבָּהּ. וְעָשִׂיתָ שְׁנַיִם כְּרֻבִים זָהָב, מִקְשָׁה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם, מִשְּׁנֵי קְצוֹת הַכַּפֹּרֶת , You shall make an ark cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits length and a cubit and a half its width. You shall make two cherubs of gold, hammered out shall you make them, from both ends of the ark cover.

The כַּפֹּרֶתkaporet, ark cover, is so sacred that the Torah in Exodus 25:22, states that, it will be from the top of the ark cover that G-d will speak with Moses, from in between the two cherubs.

It is fascinating and perplexing that the Torah, which is so resolutely against icons and idolatry, in this instance commands Moses and the architects of the Tabernacle to erect cherubic figures, and attach them to the very top of the Holy Ark.

Because of the supreme sacredness of the Holy Ark, only the High Priest was allowed to enter the sacred chamber of the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, where the ark was kept, and was the only one who ever saw the exposed ark with the cherubs.

Despite its enigmatic presence, the message of the cherubs is extremely important.

The fact that G-d instructs the builders of the Tabernacle to design the cherubs, shows that Judaism is not just warmed-over Ethical Humanism. Even though idolatry is deeply abhorred in Judaism, the fact that G-d tells the leaders to make this “idol,” shows that these images have value when used properly, but when abused they must be absolutely rejected.

The cherubs indeed come to teach a particularly cogent life lesson.

Rashi citing the Talmud, Sukkah 5b, defines the cherubs as דְּמוּת פַּרְצוּף תִּינוֹק לָהֶם , they have angelic faces of children.

The word cherub appears in the Torah in only one other place aside from the Tabernacle, in the story of the Garden of Eden found in Genesis 3.

When the first human beings, Adam and Eve, defied G-d and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, G-d banished them from the Garden of Eden.

The Torah, in Genesis 3:24 relates, וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֶת-הָאָדָם, וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן עֵדֶן אֶת הַכְּרֻבִים, וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת, לִשְׁמֹר אֶת דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים , and G-d drove out the man, and stationed at the east of the Garden of Eden, the cherubs and the flame of the ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.

Rashi, citing Shemot Rabbah 9:11, describes the כְּרֻבִים –“kruvim” in that context as מַלְאֲכֵי חַבָּלָה , angels of destruction. How could cherubs, kruvim, be described in one instance as “children with angelic faces” and “angels of destruction” in another?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the context. If cherubs are connected to Torah, affixed to the top of the Holy Ark, hovering over the Torah, and are manufactured of one solid chunk of beaten gold together with the ark cover, those cherubs become children with angelic faces.

However, if parents, who were given only one simple mitzvah, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, defy G-d, those children will become angels of destruction and will prevent their parents from entering in to the Garden of Eden, and stop them from achieving their Nirvana, fulfillment.

Raising children connected to Torah is not easy, it must be done in purity, just like gold which appears in nature in a pure state. They also must be מִקְשָׁה זָהָב , beaten gold, during which much effort and energy is invested in their nurturing and education. It doesn’t just happen by osmosis!

Most important of all is the example and model provided by parents. Children are profoundly influenced by the models they see. The secret of successful parenting is the effort that parents invest to serve as a favorable model for their children.

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5778-2018

“Heaven Made Me Do It!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, serves as the basis of the Hebrew system of jurisprudence. It is the fourth most numerous parasha in terms of mitzvot, containing 53 commandments, 23 positive and 30 negative.

In this week’s parasha we find several fascinating and complex statutes governing the crimes of murder and manslaughter.

In Exodus 21:12 the Torah boldly declares, מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת, מוֹת יוּמָת , One who strikes a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death. Although the Torah was not the first ancient source to declare this absolute rule, the Torah’s application of this law underscoring the sanctity of human life, was revolutionary.

Other legal systems, such as the Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylonia treated both perpetrators and victims of different social status differently. Wealthy perpetrators and those of the noble class were treated far better than women, poor men, children and slaves, and were subject to lesser penalties for many crimes and accidents.

The Torah, on the other hand, makes no distinction regarding the status of the perpetrator or the victim. In fact, if the perpetrator were a High Priest, the Torah states (Exodus 21:14), מֵעִם מִזְבְּחִי תִּקָּחֶנּוּ לָמוּת , the High Priest can be dragged from within the Sanctuary and the Altar to be put to death.

In Hammurabi’s Code, if one killed the daughter of one’s neighbor, the perpetrator’s daughter would be put to death. The punishment for killing a neighbor’s slave was simply a fine. Hammurabi’s laws were based on the concept of “chattel,” meaning the primacy of possessions and ownership. The Torah, boldly rejected that understanding. It revolutionized the concept of murder by introducing the idea of the sanctity of human life. Since every human is created in the image of G-d, taking a human’s life is equivalent to destroying part of G-d. Hence, there is no difference between one human being and the next or between one perpetrator and the next. The punishment is the same for all murderers and all thieves.

The Torah also takes into consideration the circumstances of homicide. The Torah in Exodus 21:13 declares, וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱ-לֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ, וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה , But, for one who has not lain in ambush and G-d had caused it to come to His hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee.

Therefore, in the instance of accidental homicide, where the taking of life was not premeditated, the killer may run to a city of refuge.

In ancient Israel there were six official cities of refuge– three in the lands east of the Jordan and three on the lands west of the Jordan. According to Maimonides (Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 8:8), all 48 Levitical cities served as cities of refuge where perpetrators could run to escape the wrath of the next of kin who wished to kill them.

Rashi cites a fascinating and perplexing answer to what the meaning of וְהָאֱ-לֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ , that G-d made the accidental death happen.

Rashi cites the example of two people, one who had killed intentionally and the other who had killed unintentionally, but because of the lack of witnesses, the one who killed intentionally was not put to death, and the one who killed unintentionally was not exiled to a city of refuge. In order to make certain that both receive their proper punishments, G-d causes both of these people to be together in the same inn. The one who killed unintentionally ascends a ladder and falls on the one who killed intentionally, who is sitting under the ladder, killing him. Since there are now witnesses, the one who killed unintentionally goes to exile and the one who killed intentionally is now dead. It is in this manner that the Al-mighty holds those who had previously escaped justice accountable.

The commentators look at this passage as confirmation that nothing in this world happens accidentally, affirming that G-d truly controls everything. The Talmud (Ketuvot 30a) states that everything is in the hands of G-d, with the exception of colds and traps (animal traps). Others say, Brachot 33b, all is in Heaven’s control with the exception of fear of G-d. G-d cannot cause a person to believe in Him, since that would be coercion, not belief. The Talmud (Hulin 7b) states that a person cannot stub a finger (or toe) in this world unless it is decreed to happen by Heaven.

Where then is free will? Clearly, there is free will since every human being has the ability to defy G-d. Contrary to popular opinion, camels do not smoke, only humans are “intelligent” enough to smoke and have the free will to do things that are harmful to themselves.

On the other hand, free will is clearly limited by fate of birth and environment.

Even those endowed with great musical talents cannot become great musicians if they have no access to musical instruments or musical training. Obviously, there are things that are beyond human free will. One cannot be short of stature or small-boned and expect to become a professional basketball or football player–even those who are endowed with superior natural talents for these sports.

Clearly, much of human life is predestined and fated by our genetic makeup. Similarly, our natural endowments, our intelligence, our height, our strength, our country and continent of origin, the century in which we were born, are all factors that are predetermined for every human being. No matter our aspirations, little can be changed. Yet, there is free will, though it is limited to those areas where free will is granted by the Ultimate Power, by G-d.

While it is true that many things in life are predetermined, every human being is still blessed with abundant free will to make correct choices and to perform meritorious deeds that will enrich the world and bring great blessing to others.

G-d surely rules the world, but we humans still have the ability to steer to the left or to the right, and accomplish great things.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.



Yitro 5778-2018

“Striving as a Jewish Ideal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law advises Moses to delegate authority when he sits in judgment of the people. As a result, the hierarchal system of the Jewish judiciary was established.

After seeing the multitudes of people descending on Moses for advice and judgment, Jethro warns his son-in-law, Moses, that he has taken too much upon himself. Jethro, therefore, suggests: Exodus 18:21, וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל, יִרְאֵי אֱ־לֹקִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת, שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע, וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים, שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת , And you [Moses] shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, men of truth, who hate unjust gain, and you shall appoint them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens. As a result, 78,600 leaders were later chosen to assist Moses in the judicial system.

Jethro’s contributions to the Jewish people are highly regarded. Rabbinic literature abounds with praise for the former High Priest of Midian, who influenced the Jewish judicial process so profoundly.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus presents many important insights in his erudite commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, regarding the contributions that Jethro made.

At first blush, says Rabbi Pincus, the idea of a judicial hierarchy does not seem so revolutionary. In fact, it seems rather obvious that a judge, or any person who is charged with significant responsibilities, should seek help.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that the reason Jethro’s recommendations are considered so important is because the man, Moses, could not be compared to other mortals. Given his very special talents, it surely would have been possible for him to bear the burden of judging all the people. The Torah even calls Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1), אִישׁ הָאֱ־לֹקִים , a man of G-d. Furthermore, the people certainly would have preferred to be judged by Moses rather than anyone else. But, had Moses judged alone, suggests Rabbi Pincus, the special talents of Moses could not have been replicated in future generations. Not only would all subsequent leaders be of lesser stature, it would have discouraged all non-exceptional people from aspiring to be great in Torah and personal sanctity, fear of Heaven or to become a leader in Israel.

Jethro’s proposal taught that leaders do not have to be perfect, in fact everyone can be a leader according to his ability– officers of thousands, officers of hundreds, officers of fifty and officers of tens. Jethro’s teaching gave hope to every mother and father that their child could grow to be great in Torah, fear of Heaven and a leader in Israel.

Rabbi Pincus points out that Moses himself did not strictly follow Jethro’s plan to appoint, “men of accomplishment, G-d-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise unjust gain.” Rather, the Torah reports, in Exodus 18:25, וַיִּבְחַר מֹשֶׁה אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם רָאשִׁים עַל הָעָם שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים, שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת , Moses chose men of accomplishment from among all Israel and appointed them heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of ten. Apparently, Moses was either unable to find, or unwilling to appoint, only those people who possessed the exceptional qualities that Jethro suggested. Rather, he chose honest people who were devoted to Torah study and were G-d-fearing, so that future judges would be regarded in their generation to be as great as Moses, even though they certainly did not measure up to the qualities or talents of Moses.

The Al-mighty G-d, suggests Rabbi Pincus, went even further to universalize the call to public service when He said to all the People of Israel, Exodus 19:6, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ , And you shall be onto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people. While Jethro’s judicial plan suggests that among every ten Jews there must be at least one exceptional Jew who can serve as a judge, G-d declared that every Jew has the potential to be exceptional.

From parashat Yitro, and from the modifications of Jethro’s judicial plan by both Moses and G-d, we see that it must be the aspiration of every Jew to become a person of accomplishment, G-d-fearing and a person of truth, and for the People of Israel as a whole to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It is only by striving for perfection that we qualify to be, Exodus 19:5, סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים , G-d’s Chosen People.

May you be blessed.

B’shalach 5778-2018

“The Exalted Spirituality of Miriam the Prophetess”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, the long-awaited redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery takes place in all its resounding glory.

The Egyptians, who relentlessly pursue the Israelites, ultimately drown in the sea and the inspired Moses, leads the people in majestic song, praising G-d for redeeming His people.

As soon as Moses concludes his song of tribute to the Al-mighty G-d, the Torah, in Exodus 15:20, reports, וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת , Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. Miriam’s immortal words of song are recorded in Exodus 15:21, וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם,  שִׁירוּ לַהשׁם כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם , Miriam spoke up to them saying, “Sing to the L-rd for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled a horse with its rider into the sea.”

While the song that Moses sang at the sea is 19 verses in length, Miriam’s song consists of only a single verse.

Our rabbis regard the brevity of Miriam’s song as a sign that the women were far more spiritual than the men.

The Talmud, in Sotah 11b, teaches, “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, were the Children of Israel redeemed from Egypt.” The women never lost their faith during the challenging years of slavery and oppression. Throughout the years of hardship, the women had much greater faith than the men that there would be an eventual redemption.

Rashi in his comments on Exodus 15:20, cites the Mechilta that teaches that the righteous women of that generation were so confident that G-d would perform miracles and that He would redeem His people, that they prepared drums to take out of Egypt with them to use when singing G-d’s praises.

The Shelah HaKadosh cites the Torah’s use in Exodus 15:21, of the masculine form, לָהֶםla’hem (and Miriam answered them) as proof that the level of the women’s spirituality was “at least” equal to the level of men’s.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (Sichos, Shabbos parshas Beshalach 5741) suggests that the fact that every single Jewish woman had a tambourine, even though there might have only been one to a household, emphasizes the women’s great faith. Similarly, the fact that the women did not rely only on Miriam their leader to lead them with a tambourine, confirms their deep faith even more. Very often members of a faith community rely on their religious leaders to show the great passion, thinking that the leaders’ passion would represent the rest of them. The women at the time of the exodus would have none of that. They made certain to obtain drums and tambourines themselves, not relying on Miriam.

The Iturei Torah cites Rabbi Y.L. Graubart saying that Miriam was the first woman to raise the standard of women’s rights. She was the first to lead the women out of the tent, publicly express their feelings of happiness and joy together with the men, at this momentous occasion of redemption. That is why, says Rabbi Graubart, Miriam is identified in the Torah as the “Prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” rather than the sister of Moses, because it is Aaron who sacrificed offerings, representing both men and women, without distinguishing between males and females.

The Chatam Sofer points out that regarding the men, the Torah states (Exodus 14:31), וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּהשׁם וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ , that the Israelites believed in G-d and in Moses His servant. The men saw Moses as a representative of G-d, who performed miracles for them. That is why, when Moses’ return from Mount Sinai was perceived as delayed (Exodus 32:1), the men immediately ran to find a replacement in the form of the Golden Calf.

In stark contrast, the women always had faith in Miriam, the prophetess, even though she did not perform miracles like Moses. That is why the women were not seduced by the Golden Calf, knowing that even without Miriam, other leaders and prophets could emerge to effectively lead the people. In fact, Miriam is identified here as the sister of Aaron rather than the sister of Moses to underscore that her power of prophecy preceded Moses. According to tradition it was Miriam who prophesied that a redeemer would come to Israel and it was she who encouraged her father, Amram to reunite with her mother, Yocheved. It was due to her intervention that Moses was born.

The Torah clearly states (Deuteronomy 34:10), וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה , that no prophet has ever risen or will ever arise, who will be as great as Moses. But, it cannot be denied that the special wisdom with which G-d endowed Miriam had a more profound impact on the women, than the impact that Moses had on the men.

If we truly hope to maintain our exalted spiritual status, it is the intuitive spirituality reflected in Miriam that our people must learn to value, and attempt to replicate in our own lives.

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Shira

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the Shira, the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

Bo 5778-2018

“Deceptions at the Behest of G-d”


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read of the final three plagues that strike the Egyptians and ultimately lead to the exodus of the Children of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt.

In Exodus 12:51, toward the conclusion of parashat Bo, we read the “official” announcement of the exodus: וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  הוֹצִיא ה׳ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם , It happened on that very day: the L-rd took the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their legions.

The exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt serves as a universal paradigm for the battle for freedom, not only for the Jewish people, but for all the nations of the world. Unjustly forced into servitude, the helpless and downtrodden Hebrews were redeemed from their backbreaking slavery by the intervention of G-d Al-mighty, and His chosen representatives, Moses and Aaron.

This Divine redemption was hardly an accident or coincidence. In fact, it was a fulfillment of a prophecy made 400 years earlier at the Brit Bayn HaB’tarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, where G-d promised Abram, Genesis 15:13-14, וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי, וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל , And G-d said to Abram, “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in the land not their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress them for 400 years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth.”

Despite the primacy of the Exodus story, something seems to be awry. Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel in his masterful collection of essays entitled A Synagogue Companion, points out that deception plays a significant role in this historic redemption.

Rabbi Angel lists the following deceptions:

1. Moses and Aaron repeatedly ask Pharaoh for a three day leave, when in fact they [the Israelites] intend to leave permanently.
2. The Israelites are instructed to ‘borrow’ the Egyptians’ vessels as they leave Egypt [but have no intention of returning them].
3. G-d tells Moses to take a circuitous route so that the Egyptians would think that the Israelites were lost and pursue them, resulting in the Egyptians drowning at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:2-4).

Responding specifically to the charge that the Israelites stole the Egyptians’ vessels, Nehama Leibowitz points out that had the “theft” been a spontaneous action on the part of the downtrodden Israelites, who were enslaved and exploited for two centuries, no explanation of their actions would have been needed. After all, the Torah describes the generation of the wilderness as lacking faith, having a slave mentality and longing for the fleshpots. But, says Nehama Leibowitz, that is not what is related here.

The fact that the Israelites took the Egyptians’ vessels was not because of their frustration or their desire to get back at the Egyptians, but was in response to an explicit Divine command, transmitted through Moses. The Torah, in Exodus 11:2 says, דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם, וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב , Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.

How could G-d order the Israelites to deceive the Egyptians and take their personal property?

Rabbi Angel points out that several commentators, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama the Abarbanel, as well as Nehama Leibowitz, adapt an apologetic approach.

Moses asks for a three day leave to test Pharaoh. If Pharaoh refuses to let them go, it would prove that he is truly hard- hearted. If he would let them go, the Israelites would have returned to Egypt and would have continued to negotiate until they achieved their total freedom.

While this might have been a test, it is obvious from the text that the Israelites were planning on leaving for good, never to return to Egypt.

Rabbi Angel therefore adopts an entirely different approach that is supported by both medieval and contemporary commentaries. The Ibn Ezra and The Ran, as well as contemporary scholar Rabbi Elhanan Samet adopt an unapologetic approach.

As demonstrated by the Midrash cited in Talmud Sanhedrin 91a, the Israelites deserved these vessels as payment for their more than 200 years of slavery. Furthermore, had the Israelites not asked for a three day leave, the Egyptians would never have given them the vessels. An additional purpose of taking the wealth out of Egypt was to lure the Egyptians to the Red Sea where Pharaoh and his hosts would drown. Rabbi Angel says, “They [the Egyptians] deserved to be punished for their enslavement and [the] murder of the Israelites.”

Rabbi Angel explains further that the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh were contentious, and more indicative of war than diplomacy. As a result, it was considered entirely acceptable to deceive the enemy in order to defeat them, not unlike a military sneak attack or ambush.

The events in Egypt leading up to the Exodus were truly extreme, punctuated by the immorality of the Egyptians’ enslavement and murder of the Israelites. This was war, a war of self-defense, and as such, the Israelites were not only entitled to use deception, but required to do so. There was no need to apologize for their actions.

May you be blessed.