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Rosh Hashana-Ha’azinu 5778-2017

“The Blame Game”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

America, and the American media, in fact, the world and world media, are frequently consumed with what is known as the “Blame Game.” Is Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, a maniacal provocateur, or is President Trump falling into a trap that Jong-Un has set to spark a world conflagration? Can’t mention the “Blame Game,” without noting that the tabloids were absolutely obsessed with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, taking sides on who was responsible for the couple’s breakup after thirteen years of being together and six children.

The Bible is filled with stories of blame. In Genesis 3:12, when G-d asks Adam why he ate of the forbidden fruit, Adam responds by blaming G-d. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate it!” The woman also says to G-d that it’s His fault. “The serpent deceived me and I ate,” (Genesis 3:13).

An obvious case of blaming the other is found in the story of Cain and Abel. When G-d confronts Cain for killing his brother, G-d says to Cain, Genesis 4:9, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain replies by refusing to accept the blame, saying, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In Genesis 30:1-2, when Rachel saw that she had no children, she desperately beseeches Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob responds callously, that it is not his fault. “Am I in place of G-d, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” I am fertile, I have children. It’s your problem!

In Genesis 42, after Joseph demands that Benjamin remain as a slave in Egypt as punishment for stealing Joseph’s chalice, Joseph’s brothers say to one another that they are guilty for what they did to Joseph when he besought us and we would not hear. That is why this distress has come upon us. Reuben then laces in to them, saying (Genesis 42:21,22), “Did I not speak unto you, saying, do not sin against this child, and you would not hear? Therefore all this blood is required.”

There is even a reference in this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, in which G-d scolds the People of Israel for not acknowledging their own shortcomings. Instead, they accuse G-d of being corrupt and show no gratitude for all the good G-d has done for them. In Deuteronomy 32:6, G-d declares:הַלְהשׁם תִּגְמְלוּ זֹאת, עַם נָבָל וְלֹא חָכָם, הֲלוֹא הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ, הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ , Is it to the L-rd that you do this, O vile and unwise people?Has He not created you and established you?

Now we discover that Taylor Swift, America’s great pop singer, has issued a new record-breaking single entitled, “Look at what you made me do,” filled with rage and even hatred for others. But, the greatest anger is reserved for herself. She says, “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead.”

The ten day period of penitence between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is meant to be a time for intensive introspection. Each person is to look into their deepest inner selves, not to blame themselves or others, but to find the faults that are in themselves, and are oh so human.

The Bible, in Ecclesiastes 7:20, gives us an out by boldly proclaiming, כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא . There is no perfectly righteous person who does no evil. We are, after all, human. We fail, we sin. Rabbi Mark Wildes, in his dynamic “Eli Talks” (Jewish adaptation of the inspirational “Ted Talks”) speech, refers to failure as “falling back,” which is to be seen as one of the most powerful gifts that we have–to pick ourselves up and repair ourselves.

The most challenging first step of Teshuvah is recognizing that we’ve done something wrong, accepting that it is our fault no matter who might have provoked or seduced us. G-d has given each one of us the wisdom and the strength to recognize what is wrong and the ability to resist the temptations. An even greater gift is that once we have yielded to temptation, we can stand up, march on and even wipe our slates clean and start new and fresh.

Maimonides says that the Teshuvah process continues by resolving not to commit the sin again. Ultimately, the greatest test of Teshuvah is to be faced with the same temptations, to blow them away and to not yield. That person, Maimonides suggests, is a Ba’al Teshuvah Gemura, a person who has completely repented (Laws of Teshuvah 2:1).

Taylor Swift is wrong. We do not die from sin. In fact, we can grow as a result, if we strive to extirpate the sin from within us, to be reborn and cleansed again. Now that we are aware and know the bitter wages of sin, we can perform good, positive actions with fresh enthusiasm. This is healthy guilt, not destructive guilt, which comes to our salvation, encouraging us to be better than we were yesterday.

This is the message of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is not, “Look what you made me do,” it is “Look what I let happen to me, and I am determined never to let it happen again!”

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5778 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 20, 21 and 22, 2017.

The New Year holiday is immediately followed on Friday night, and Saturday, September 22-23, by Shabbat Shuva.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 24, 2017 from dawn until nightfall.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה –Shana Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

 

Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777-2017

“Inspiring the Next Generation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayeilech, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we read, what is to my mind, one of the most remarkable of all the Jewish observances in Jewish life, known as הַקְהֵל“Hak’hel.”

There are, for sure, many profoundly dramatic moments on the Jewish calendar.

As we stand before the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, facing the impending judgment of the Heavenly tribunal, we feel the profound majesty of Al-mighty G-d enveloping our very being.

On Passover, we recall, each year, the power and the grandeur of the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, as we reenact the redemption from Egypt at the seder.

Every week, the Jewish people joyously welcome the Sabbath, in order to better appreciate the Al-mighty’s acts of creation, and savor the benefits of G-d’s greatest gift to humankind, the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest.

And yet, despite these very special moments in Jewish life, it is impossible not to include the little-known ritual of “Hak’hel,” in the pantheon of G-d’s greatest gifts to His people.

In Deuteronomy 31:10, Moses commands the People of Israel to gather together for the special observance of “Hak’hel.” Every seven years, as they celebrate the festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem, the Children of Israel, led by the King of Israel, are to come together to read the Torah for all the people. Deuteronomy 31:12 states,הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ,  לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת , Gather together the people–-the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities, so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear the L-rd your G-d, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.

The ceremony of “Hak’hel,” takes place every seven years, immediately following the year of שְׁמִטָּהShemita, the year in which all the farmers allow their lands to lie fallow. During this entire year the land is given an opportunity to regenerate and the bodies and souls of the People of Israel are rejuvenated through physical rest and the study of Torah.

On the festival of Sukkot, during the year that immediately follows the sabbatical year, the king of Israel himself would rise to teach the people Torah. This very special occasion is intended to underscore the primacy of Torah study, by emphasizing that everyone, king, scholar, farmer, women and children, come together to experience this unprecedented educational celebration.

Rashi citing the Talmud Chagiga 3a, explains that the men come to the “Hak’hel” ceremony לִלְמוֹד –“lil’mod,” to study, the women, לִשְׁמֹעַ –“lish’moh’ah,” to hear, and the small children, לְתֵת שָׂכָר לִמֽבִיאֵיהֶם , to give reward to those who bring them.

This traditional interpretation raises questions about the efficacy of Torah education for women. After all, while the men come to “study,” women only come to “listen.”

This issue has been debated in the Talmud by the great scholars over the centuries. The majority of rabbinic opinions maintain that women must learn Torah too, so that they will know how to properly practice the mitzvot. The debate over the requirement to study is really regarding the Oral Code, the Talmudic exegesis of the written Torah. Obviously, without knowing the Oral Code, it would be impossible for the women to fulfill a good part of Jewish observance. Observant Jewish women must have at least an academic mastery of the Rabbinic interpretations of the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity and many other mitzvot, which comprise a major part of Jewish life.

The unresolved question is whether women must engage in the purely academic, scholarly side of Jewish learning, which does not impact on Jewish living and observance.

I would like to suggest that there is another way of interpreting the words of Rashi when citing the Talmudic tradition stating that the men come לִלְמוֹד , to study, and that the women come, לִשְׁמֹעַ , to listen or to hear.

A most profound educational insight, one that has bearing on the Talmudic citation in Rashi’s commentary, may be derived from the basic statement of faith that Jews recite daily: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ, השׁם אֶחָד , Listen, O Israel, the L-rd is your G-d, the L-rd is one.

The word, שְׁמַע –“Shemah,” cannot merely mean to “listen.” After all, the “Shemah” is a declaration of intense and deep faith in G-d, and cannot mean to only hear the words, to only mouth the words, or to allow the words to penetrate one ear and go out the other.

Shemah,” in this case, must mean that every Jew must strive to achieve a deep and profound understanding of G-d, as well as the nature of G-d, leading to total faith in Him.

While the men may come to the “Hak’hel” ceremony to study, to engage in the rigorous back-and-forth arguments about the meaning of the words and the lessons to be derived from the textual nuances, the women are there “lish’moh’ah,” to help derive the deep and profound spiritual messages that are hidden within the texts and the words of the Torah. While the men engage in analyzing the fine points of scholarship, the women discover and uncover the profound messages that lie within the text, and teach them to the men and children. While לִלְמוֹד means to learn, לִשְׁמֹעַ , means to understand, to absorb, to bring the message home and to allow it to penetrate one’s heart and mind, which is, of course, the most effective way of transmitting these teachings to future generations of family and young people.

And, finally, why does the Talmud state that the children are brought “in order to give reward to the parents who bring them”? Because a most profound lesson is conveyed to a child when parents, not caretakers, personally accompany their children to school, deeply affirming the value of education. The joint learning of child and parent has a most intense impact on the child, on the family and on Jewish future.

Like the celebration of “Hak’hel,” the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur afford Jews the world over a unique opportunity to study and to listen together as one united Jewish family. May the experiences of these High Holidays be a source of profound and positive impact on family and nation for the entire year to come, and may the year 5778 be a blessed one for all people.

May you be blessed.

Kee Tavo 5777-2017

“The Choice Parts to G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is best known for the second תּוֹכֵחָה , Tochacha, G-d’s second reproof of the People of Israel. The first is found in parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:8-26:44.

Aside from the Tochacha, this week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, also concludes the general clarification of the numerous mitzvot that are found in the Book of Deuteronomy. As the parasha opens, Moses emphasizes those mitzvot that specifically relate to the land of Israel, focusing on the fruits that the land brings forth. It also records the texts of the prayers recited by the farmers when the first ripened crops are brought to the Temple and which the farmers present to the Kohanim-the Priests, in Jerusalem. This ceremony serves to underscore the fundamental principle of Judaism, which recognizes every mortal accomplishment as a gift from G-d.

Parashat Kee Tavo opens with the verse in Deuteronomy 26:1, וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ , and it will come to pass when you enter the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you as an inheritance and you possess it and dwell in it. The Torah continues (Deuteronomy 26:2), you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the L-rd your G-d will choose to make His Name rest there.

It is in Jerusalem that the farmers come to the Priests who will be there in those days to proclaim that their every accomplishment is a gift from G-d, and that the beautiful fruits are a testimony to that fact.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in Tiferet Shimshon al HaTorah, Deuteronomy, explains why the Torah’s commandment to bring the first fruits to the Temple is relevant to contemporary times. In Temple times, every Jewish farmer brought the first fruits that grew in the gardens and fields, and transported them to Jerusalem in beautifully decorated baskets in a great public ceremony accompanied by music.

Although we are no longer able to practice this commandment, and the first fruits are no longer brought to the Temple, the basic premise of the ceremony is still relevant and applicable today.

In general, the first fruits are always the most beloved by the farmer. It was for these fruits that the farmer longed for an entire year, labored in the fields during the harsh winters and the hot summers, looked with hope for the spring to come to behold the rewards of his efforts. Obviously, when the farmer finally goes to the field and sees the beautiful, first-ripened fruits, the farmer is eager to bring them home as quickly as possible to share them with his family. The Torah, however, says that the first and most beloved fruits are the portion of G-d.

Like the farmer, we too must remember that the source of all the blessings is the Al-mighty Who has given us these fruits with abundant grace and love.  As we look upon the colorful and beautiful basket of fruits, or their modern equivalents, in our homes, every fruit so unique and tasteful, we must recognize the abundant love that G-d showers upon us. It is He, Who provides food for the entire world with grace, loving-kindness and mercy.

The sparkle emitted from the basket of the first fruits is very much like a kiss from G-d, that is to be reciprocated to G-d Al-mighty with abundant love. The first fruits that are brought to the priest at the holy Temple, are therefore sanctified to G-d.

Rabbi Pincus points out that the idea of gratitude that’s expressed in the ceremony of the firstborn fruits, applies to the entire Torah, and to all of life.

Maimonides in the Laws of Forbidden Offerings 7:11, writes:

The same principle applies to everything that is done for the sake of the good G-d; namely, that it be of the finest and the best. If one builds a house of prayer, it should be finer than his private dwelling. If he feeds the hungry, he should give him of the best and sweetest of his table. If he clothes the naked, he should give him of the finest of his garments. Hence, if he consecrated something to G-d, he ought to give the best of his possessions. Thus, scripture says: “All the fat is the L-rd’s,” Leviticus 3:16.

Rabbi Pincus provides a stark example of this principle from contemporary times. A person comes to the door to collect for Hachnassat Kallah-funds for a poor bride. In most instances, people start rummaging through their closets for some old garment to get rid of that they never wore, that they received long ago from an aunt. While they mistakenly think that they profit from the mitzvah, that is wrong. After all, Maimonides says, “Give the best garment.”

Rabbi Pincus concludes by emphasizing, that everything that is done for the sake of Heaven and for the good of G-d, needs to be done in the most beautiful and elegant manner.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5777-2017

“Lessons from the Wayward Son”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn of the law of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh,”  בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , the wayward and rebellious son.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 21:18, describes the wayward and rebellious son as one who refuses to hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם , and they discipline him, but he does not listen to them.

The parents then take the child out to the elders of the city and proclaim: “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” The Torah then concludes (Deuteronomy 21:21), that all the men of the city are to pelt him [the boy] with stones, and he shall die; and you shall remove the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear and they shall fear.

The law of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh” is surely one of the most complex laws in the Torah. According to many of the sages of the Talmud, it was virtually impossible to fulfil all the conditions necessary to execute the boy. In order to do so, the child had to be a particular age (between 13 and one day and 13 and 3 months), he must have consumed a very specific amount of meat and wine, not more or less. His parents had to “speak with one voice,” which is very unlikely, given the differences between male and female voices. The regulations were so specific, that the sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) declare that there was never a case of a בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , a wayward and rebellious child. The only reason that the law is recorded in the Torah is to teach fathers and mothers the art of good parenting.

The case of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh” is not only meant to teach good parenting, but may also serve as an important source of information to all who seek to achieve a good life. Of particular relevance to our generation, are the issues of gluttony and intoxication which have become common in our times. The relative tranquility and peace of contemporary times and the abundance of wealth and resources may be unparalleled in human history, certainly for the Jews, but these blessings have become a breeding grounds for excess.

According to Maimonides, Book of Knowledge 1:7, the laws and rituals of Judaism are intended to promote a “golden mean.” Judaism does not encourage excess, nor does it endorse asceticism. It strives to strike a balance in life that leads to true fulfillment and happiness.

That the excesses of contemporary society are so great, can be easily confirmed by the ubiquitous self-help groups that have sprung up for an untold variety of behaviors, the most popular being addiction to alcohol and drugs, gambling, sex and overeating. In reality, the issues are limitless.

Rashi citing the Sifre and the Talmud Sanhedrin 71a, describes the procedures of the “Ben soh’rayr oo’moh’reh.”  The parents discipline the child and warn him before a court of three judges. If the child transgresses despite the warning, he is flogged. If he continues his prodigal ways, the wayward and rebellious son is still not liable to punishment until he steals and eats a specific amount of meat and drinks a specific amount of wine.

Rashi explains that the wayward and rebellious child is not punished because of his actions, but rather because of what he might do later if he is not controlled. The Torah, which attempts to presume the child’s way of thinking, assumes that if the defiant behavior continues, the child will exhaust his father’s resources. Seeking to maintain his habits, the boy will then stand at the crossroads and rob people. The Torah therefore says: “Let him die now as an innocent person and not die as a guilty person.”

What was is it that Pogo said? “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

There is so much of the wayward and rebellious child in each of us that is frequently reflected in contemporary society. So many communities and individuals find themselves constantly fighting and wrestling with the limits of pleasure. Contemporary society is faced with unlimited pleasure, unlimited sport, unlimited gaming, unlimited internet, which on the surface does not seem very harmful, but in the long run, is quite perilous. America is faced with a very serious problem of obesity, especially among young children whose rate of obesity has tripled since the 1970s. Others struggle with bulimia, anorexia and binge eating disorders.

Jewish mothers are often subject to the accusation of being overly protective and always warning their children, “Ess ess mein kind,” “Eat, eat my child, they are starving in Africa!” The Code of Jewish Law Orach Chaim 180:2, suggests the opposite, warning that one must not be a glutton when eating. In fact, it is proper to leave something over on a plate, as a reminder that there are others who are without food, starving while we are stuffing our faces.

The disparity between the rich and the poor today is so great that what is thrown out from a single Shabbat meal could feed a family of five who are hungry, who live, not in India, but in New York City, quite possibly, on the next block!

With Jerusalem in ruins, the psalmist (Psalm 137) asks: “How can we sing?”

With so many starving, how can we possibly eat and drink, laugh and smile?

If we are truly our brothers’ keepers, we must learn well the lesson of the בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , the wayward and gluttonous child. We must learn to control our appetites and master our temptations. We must not look away from those who are following us with their ravenous eyes and gazing with hunger at our food. We must strive to achieve far more equitable treatment for the poor, for the infirm, the disabled, and for all those who languish for a morsel of bread.

The wayward and rebellious son may be a philosophical construct that may have never occurred. But, every one of us must learn from this important Torah portion that every bite that we eat, every morsel of food that passes through our lips, has moral consequences on our lives, our children, our homes, our environments and impacts on the entire world and, ultimately, on all of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5777-2017

“Judaism and the Principle of the Sanctity of Human Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, focuses, for the most part, on the principle of the sanctity of human life.

Parashat Shoftim’s themes include many laws that relate to this important principle: the establishment of courts of law and security forces to enforce the judgments, the punishments for idol worshipers and the rebellious elder, anointing a king in Israel who will lead the people in battle, the fate of false prophets, establishing cities of refuge for those who kill by accident, the punishment for false witnesses and conspiring witnesses, preparing the Jewish army for battle and confronting the enemies of Israel when settling the land of Israel. The parasha concludes with the ritual prescribed for an unsolved murder.

I have long and often argued that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life, not only Jewish life–but all human life. Even a superficial review of parashat Shoftim underscores how strenuously the Torah emphasizes the need to preserve human life and to protect its sanctity.

Among the many revolutionary laws included in the parasha is the prohibition (Deuteronomy 20:19) to cut down fruit-bearing trees, even in times of war, even in instances where Jewish soldiers lives are at stake. In parashat Shoftim, the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:10) also teaches specifically that before an enemy may be attacked, the Jewish leaders must sue for peace with the enemy, providing an opportunity for former enemies to live in peace if they agree to live under Jewish authority. Even when the enemy refuses to accept peace, and war is declared, according to Maimonides, in Laws of Kings and Wars 6:7, the Jewish army may besiege the enemy on only three sides, allowing the enemy at least one avenue of escape.

Despite the frequent themes of war and battle found in the Hebrew scriptures, even a cursory examination of Jewish sources shows that Judaism has a significant strain of pacifism, even though exercising restraint during ancient times, might, at times, prove to be extremely costly.

In parashat Kee Tisah (Exodus 30:13), we learn that all potential Jewish soldiers were required to donate a half shekel, called in Exodus 30:12, “Koh’fer nefesh”, כֹּפֶר נֶפֶשׁ , to serve as a redemption for the soldier’s soul. The only time that a similar expression is used elsewhere in the Bible is in parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:30) which concerns the owner of a violent (murderous) ox, who had previously killed, and whose owner did not guard the dangerous animal properly. The Torah declares the owner responsible for the victim’s death, and pronounces him subject to the death penalty. But, since it was not through the owner’s actual power that the human being was killed, the owner may pay, “Koh’fer…pidyon nafsho”, כֹּפֶר…פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ , a redemption for his soul.

This unusual parallel, teaches that every Jewish soldier is, theoretically, a potential killer. Thus, even before a Jewish solider goes out to war, he must pay the half shekel, a ransom for his soul, lest he take another human being’s life, violating the principle of the sanctity of human life.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in a brilliant essay concerning the ethics of war, points out that humanism is a philosophy with many positive values. Citing the Midrash, however, Rabbi Filber notes, humanists must be careful, for those who have compassion for the cruel, will ultimately be cruel to those for whom they should have compassion (based on I Samuel 15:9 and Midrash). While the Torah endorses the right of self defense, a Jew is obligated to make certain that innocent blood is not shed.

Maimonides, in the Laws of Murderers, 4:9, states, that even though there are crimes and sins that are worse than murder, it [murder] corrupts the human community, and that all murderers are to be regarded as absolute evil people. No matter what mitzvot murderers may do during their remaining years, their good actions will never outweigh the sin of murder.

Rabbi Filber points out that our patriarch Abraham was the first humanist. Abraham respected human life so passionately, that he offered prayers to save even the Sodomites, the worst people on the face of earth. But when he heard that his nephew, Lot, had been taken captive, he ran after the army that had kidnapped Lot, and beat them severely.

Despite the virtuous deed of saving his nephew’s life, Abraham was afraid that he might have harmed innocent people in battle. To calm Abraham, it was necessary for G-d to reassure him by saying, Genesis 15:1, אַל תִּירָא אַבְרָם , do not be afraid. Jacob too was afraid, when he confronted his long-estranged brother Esau. As the Torah relates, Genesis 32:8, וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ , Jacob was afraid that he would be killed, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ , he was fearful that he would have to kill his brother.

Rabbi Filber cites a fascinating statement from the Tanna Dabai Eliyahu Rabba, 28 which proclaims that the Torah was given for the purpose of sanctifying G-d’s great name. Therefore, it teaches that a person must never put himself in a position where he might steal, whether from a Jew or a non-Jew, because one who steals from a non-Jew, will ultimately steal from a Jew. Similarly, one who spills the blood of a non-Jew, will eventually spill the blood of a Jew as well.

To prove the point, the Midrash cites the case of the two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, (Genesis 34:25) who killed the non-Jewish residents of Shechem. It is they who are identified by the commentaries as the ones who conspired against Joseph to kill him. As recorded in Genesis 37:20, the brothers say: וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת, וְאָמַרְנוּ, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ, וְנִרְאֶה מַה יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו , “And now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, and we will say that ‘an evil beast ate him,’ and we will see what will be with his dreams.”

Even in our own times, concludes Rabbi Filber, where we stand in defense of our lives against those who wish to eradicate and destroy us, even though we are fighting a pure and just battle, we must spare no effort to ensure that no innocent blood is shed.

May you be blessed.

 

 

Re’eh 5777-2017

“Coming to Jerusalem–-The Festival Pilgrimages”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we learn of the commandment for the Children of Israel to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrim festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

The Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16 states, שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל זְכוּרְךָ אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר, בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת, וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת, וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם רֵיקָם , Three times a year all your males should appear before the L-rd your G-d, in a place that He will choose: on the Festival of Matzot, the Festival of Shavuot, and the Festival of Sukkot; and he [the Jewish visitor] shall not appear before the L-rd empty-handed.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:17, further states that the Jewish visitor should bring, אִישׁ כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ , Everyone, according to what he can give, according to the blessing that the L-rd your G-d gives you.

Among the three gifts the Jewish visitors were required to bring were, שַׁלְמֵי חֲגִיגָה –“Shalmei Chagiga,” the festival peace offerings which were brought in honor of celebrating the particular holiday. The עוֹלַת רְאִיָּה“Olat R’iyah,” the elevation offering, intended to mark the pilgrim’s visit to the Temple. The third offering was שַׁלְמֵי שִׂמְחָה“Shalmei Simcha,” a peace offering that was eaten to enhance the joy and happiness of the occasion. The value of all these sacrifices is to be commensurate with the prosperity which G-d has blessed the donor.

In order to truly enhance the joy of the holiday, it was not sufficient for the head of the family to only gather with family and friends to participate in the festival offerings. It was most important to invite the poor, the destitute, and especially the Levite to join the family in the festivities. After all, a Jew can only be truly joyous when bringing gladness to the hearts of others as well.

Since the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are aligned with the agricultural festivals, it is important to make a distinction that each of these festivals is much more than a celebration of nature. In Exodus 23:14, the Torah states, “You shall celebrate unto Me,” meaning G-d, in a way that will ensure that Jewish celebrations are not pagan celebrations or celebrations of nature or season.

The Abarbanel records five reasons for visiting the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the three major holidays:

1. G-d gave the Jewish people three extraordinary gifts: Freedom, Torah, and the land of Israel. On Passover, Jews thank G-d for their freedom, on Shavuot they thank G-d for the gift of the Torah, and on Sukkot they thank G-d for the gift of the land of Israel.

2. By visiting Jerusalem on the festivals, Jews confirm the fundamental belief that with G-d’s help, nothing is impossible.

3. By gathering as a community in Jerusalem, the people will be spiritually inspired by the pageantry and public presentations of the rituals performed by the priests and the Levites.

4. Sharing the joyous festivals together with the rest of the People of Israel will affect the way they live together in peace and harmony throughout the rest of the year.

5. The people who live far away from Jerusalem will have the unique opportunity to be in Jerusalem, to meet the great sages and the members of the high courts in order to discuss religious issues with them. They will also have a chance to visit the great academies of learning in Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin, enhancing their education and knowledge.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his Daat Sofrim , notes that the verse in Deuteronomy 16:16, speaks about שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה , that Jews should appear in Jerusalem three times, whereas in Exodus 23:14, the verse uses the language שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים , three feet, three occasions, or three steps. While they both mean three times, the fact that the Torah in Deuteronomy uses the word פַּעַם“pa’am” and in Exodus רֶגֶל“regel”, underscores the difficulty of leaving one’s home and making the challenging trek to Jerusalem.

Through the exegesis, the rabbis learn that only healthy people who are able to go on their own two feet are required to fulfill this mitzvah. Those who need to be driven on a cart or require a stick to walk are exempt.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his book, “The Mitzvot,” concludes that Jews today are also expected to celebrate festivals with great fervor and enthusiasm, with meat and drink, and, just as in Temple days, be joined by the less fortunate.

The absence of sacrifices today can be fulfilled vicariously by giving donations to charities that support Torah learning and help the destitute, which are recognized as being equal to the sacrifices that were given in ancient times.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5777-2017

“Stages of Religious Growth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Eikev, Moses continues his exhortation of the People of Israel, in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land.

Moses speaks of them as a stiff-necked people, reminding the people of their frequent trespasses. He recalls in particular, the sin of the Golden Calf, which he describes in a very personal and emotional tone, in contrast to the Torah’s original telling of the story in Exodus 32, which is more detached and dispassionate. He reminds the people (Deuteronomy 9:5-6), that they were sinful, wicked and defiant and that “G-d’s favor has been bestowed upon them not because of their merits, but rather despite their moral failures.”

Moses recalls (Deuteronomy 9:25-29, 10:10), that had it not been for him, there would have been no way to stop G-d’s anger and vengeance. It was Moses who served as the intermediary between G-d and the people, and who, time and again, rescued them from certain destruction.

It is in this context of exhortation and appeal that Moses teaches the people how to grow close to G-d.

The Chofetz Chaim points out that three times in parashat Eikev, we encounter the expression of לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו , to go in His [G-d’s] ways.

In Deuteronomy 8:6, Moses tells the people, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת מִצְוֹת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וּלְיִרְאָה אֹתוֹ , You shall observe the commandments of the L-rd your G-d to go in His ways and to fear Him. Once again, in Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses says, וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל, מָה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ, כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ , Now, O’ Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the L-rd your G-d to go in all His ways and to love Him.

The Chofetz Chaim points to a third verse in which G-d promises to reward the people for their loyalty, Deuteronomy 11:22, כִּי אִם שָׁמֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשֹׂתָהּ, לְאַהֲבָה אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְדָבְקָה בו , For if you will observe this entire commandment that I command you, to perform it, to love the L-rd your G-d, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him, then G-d will drive out all your enemies.

The Chofetz Chaim notes that while the phrase לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו , to walk in G-d’s ways, is repeated three times, in each instance it is intended to serve a different purpose.

The Chofetz Chaim maintains that there are three stations or degrees of serving G-d. In the first instance it says, לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , to revere the L-rd your G-d. The second level, which is higher than the first, it states, וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ , to love the L-rd your G-d. The third and final level, which is higher than all, is וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ , to cling to G-d.

The Chofetz Chaim maintains that every Jew must strive to rise higher and higher, from one level to the next, from one degree to the next. One must first strive to reach the level of יִרְאָה reverence. When the level of reverence is reached, one must continue climbing to the level of אַהֲבָה – of loving the L-rd. And finally, when reaching the level of loving the L-rd, one must not stand stationary, but must continue to climb, to reach the exalted level of וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ , to cling to G-d.

The root of the Hebrew word דְּבֵקוּת, (d’vekut) is דֶבֶק , glue, meaning to cling or unite. D’vekut represents a spiritual union between the human being and the Al-mighty G-d. It is attainable, by not only following G-d’s dictates due to reverence, and imitating G-d’s ways out of love, but actually attempting to meld with the Al-mighty, to become spiritually united with G-d through acts of goodness, mercy and compassion.

Moses is aware that the People of Israel have a long journey ahead of them, not only to the Promised Land, but a journey that will lead the people through millennia of Jewish history. It is this educational and spiritual “journey” that Moses presents to the people. It is a journey of spiritual growth, from reverence, to loving and, ultimately, to uniting one’s soul with the sanctity of the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.

This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, August 6th and 7th, 2017. Happy Tu B’Av.

Va’etchanan 5777-2017

“The Power of Prayer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we read of Moses’ powerful prayers to be allowed to enter into the land of Israel, and G-d’s refusal to accede to his request.

The rabbis, in Midrash Rabbah in Deuteronomy 1:1, speak of the extraordinary powers of Moses’ prayers to be allowed to enter the land of Israel. Say the rabbis: At that moment, what did Moses do? He dressed himself in sackcloth and sprinkled himself with ashes and stood in prayer, beseeching the Al-mighty G-d, until the heavens and earth and the orders of creation began to quake.

In response, the Al-mighty decreed that the gates to all the seven firmaments be sealed and that all courts of law refuse to accept Moses’ prayers, because the Divine decree was final.

The angels of heaven hastened to lock all the gates of the firmaments of heaven because Moses’ prayers had already risen so high they were like a sharp sword, and as powerful as uttering the Divine name, ripping through everything in its way.

At that moment, Moses’ prayers matched the description found in Ezekiel 3:12, “Then a wind lifted me up and I heard behind me the sound of a great noise, ‘Blessed is the L-rd’s glory from His abode,’” There can be no greater sound than that uttered by Moses.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his collection of insights into the weekly parasha, entitled Tiferet Shimshon on Deuteronomy, notes that the power of Moses’ prayer recalls a discussion in the Zohar.

The Zohar on parashat Balak states that scriptures mention three actual instances of “prayer,” the prayer of Moses, the prayer of King David and the prayer of the עָנִי , the poor man.

In Psalms 90:1 we find, תְּפִלָּה לְמֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱ־לֹקִים , the prayer of Moses, the man of G-d. This prayer is incomparable amongst human beings. In Psalms 17:1, we find the prayer of King David, תְּפִלָּה לְדָוִד . This prayer has no equal amongst kings. Psalms 102:1, תְּפִלָּה לְעָנִי כִי יַעֲטֹף , speaks of the prayer of the poor person when he faints and collapses.

The Zohar asks which of these three prayers is the most significant, and declares that the prayer of the poor person is even greater than the prayer of Moses and the prayer of King David, and precedes all prayers in the world. Why? Because the prayer of the poor person comes from a broken heart.

As Psalm 34:19 states, קָרוֹב השׁם לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי לֵב , the Al-mighty is close to those who have a broken heart. G-d listens to their words and it is the poor person’s prayers that has the power to open the windows of the firmaments.

Despite the overwhelming power of Moses’ prayer, אִישׁ הָאֱ־לֹקִים , the man of G-d, whose prayer was like the utterance of the Divine name, and was able to rip and slice like a sword, it is still unable to compare to the powerful prayer of the poor person with a broken heart.

Rabbi Pincus urges every person to appreciate the importance of the petitions of the poor, and to never ignore them.

In addition, he advises that the most effective method to achieve a good and happy life is that every person should always see themselves as standing before the Al-mighty like a person with a broken heart. These prayers have the power to open up the windows of heaven and bring out the Al-mighty’s abundant blessings of salvation and success.

Moses’ prayers were able to make the heavens tremble, but there is nothing more powerful than the prayers that emanate from a broken heart.

Especially during the “Nine Days,” the period of intense mourning that precedes Tisha B’Av, we have a unique opportunity to seize the mood of the time, to offer truly meaningful prayers with our broken hearts.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, July 31st and continues through Tuesday night, August 1st, 2017. Have a meaningful fast.

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

This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, August 6th and 7th, 2017. Happy Tu B’Av.

 

Devarim 5777-2017

“The Transformation of Moses is Completed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, known as דְּבָרִים , Devarim–Deuteronomy.

The entire book of Deuteronomy takes place during the final weeks of Moses’ life. In Devarim, Moses reviews and teaches many of the laws of the Torah and much of the history of Israel, stressing those laws and teachings that the people of Israel will need to know in their future life in the Promised Land.

Parashat Devarim opens with the well-known verse, Deuteronomy 1:1, אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן , These are the words (דְּבָרִיםDevarim) that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan… The Torah, in Deuteronomy 1:3, states that it was on the first day of Shevat that Moses began to review the Torah with the people of Israel. According to tradition, he continued until the day before he died, on the seventh of Adar.

The book of Deuteronomy is significantly different from the first four books of the Torah, whose contents are attributed directly to G-d. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people in G-d’s name.

It is quite significant that the final book of the Torah opens with the words, אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה , and these are the words-
דְּבָרִים , (devarim) that Moses spoke, דִּבֵּר ,(dee’ber) to all of Israel.

It is impossible not to be struck by these words. After all, when G-d first revealed Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush, and tried to convince Moses to serve as His agent to redeem the Jewish people, Moses fought bitterly not to be appointed. Even after G-d gave Moses a series of Divine signs, Moses demurs, saying to G-d, Exodus 4:10, בִּי השׁם, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ, כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי , Please my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech. G-d responds to Moses movingly, in Exodus 4:11, “Who makes a mouth for man? Or who makes one mute or deaf or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd? So now go. I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.” Despite G-d’s assurance, Moses responds, Exodus 4:13, “Please, my L-rd, send through whomever You will send.” Send anyone, just not me!

The commentators differ over the meaning of the Hebrew expression, כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן. Rashi says that Moses said of himself that he was a stammerer and a stutterer. Other commentators disagree. The Rashbam says that Moses, who is now 80 years old, meant that he was not fluent in Egyptian, because he was young when he was forced to flee Egypt. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra says that Moses felt inadequate because he was not a polished or gifted speaker. Shadal seems to indicate that because he spoke bluntly and forcefully, Moses felt that he would not be an effective communicator.

Moses not only felt inadequate as a speaker, but also as a leader. When the people were in the wilderness and complained about the Manna, Moses cried out to G-d, Numbers 11:11, “Why have You done evil to Your servant? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?” Moses offers a most dramatic and plaintive plea, Numbers 11:12, הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי אֵת כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה אִם אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ, כִּי תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת הַיֹּנֵק עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו , Did I [Moses] conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You [G-d] say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling, to the land that You swore to its forefathers?”

My father, Moshe Aharon Buchwald, of blessed memory, used to joke about some of the people who came from his shtetl in Poland, Biala. Growing up in great poverty, many Jewish children never had a chance to receive even a basic education, and were functionally illiterate. However, when they arrived in America, they immediately enrolled in public schools and, lo and behold, they soon became quite educated, serving as public leaders, at times, delivering eloquent public addresses. My father compared this to Moses, who, when he first started out, was a stammerer and a stutterer, unable to speak a word. After crossing the sea, the Torah tells us (Exodus 15:1), אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה , that Moses became the “Poet Laureate” of Israel, composing the most beautiful songs and poetry. So it was with his fellow Biala landsman, who crossed the sea in steerage, arrived at Ellis Island, and after focusing on education, became eloquent “singers.”

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים , these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel. The “inarticulate” Moses, who insisted that, “I am not a man of Devarim, I am not a man of words,” not only became a man of words, but an entire book of the Torah records his final days as the ultimate “Man of Words.” Not only has Moses been transformed into a passionate and an articulate orator and speaker, he has also become a tireless leader. The man who cried, “Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it?” has become a gifted leader, who has enabled an enslaved people to be taken out of Egypt and brought to the very doorstep of the Promised Land. Through his leadership and his cajoling, he succeeded in breaking the resistence and indifference of these difficult people, persuading them to leave the land of their enslavement, and they all left. And when they stood before their first challenge, and began to complain about the Manna and begged to be taken back to Egypt, Moses was able to transform the mixed multitude of former slaves into a powerful people, who are now free to conquer and settle in the Holy Land.

The task of transforming the rebellious people was far more difficult than taking them out of Egypt. For forty years Moses educated the people, taught them the statutes and laws of G-d, and gave them the Torah. He organized a judicial system and stood up to their every complaint, rebellion and challenge. With a soft hand and a loving heart, he served as the shepherd of the people of Israel, answering all their requests and responding to all their complaints with infinite patience and with fatherly love–despite all the great disappointments and the lack of gratitude displayed by the stiff-necked People of Israel. And when it was necessary for him to reprove them and even punish them, he did so with great humility, never asking for anything in return, only longing to see the fulfillment of the holy task of redeeming G-d’s people.

The man who said, ”I am not a man of words,” the man who asked, “Did I conceive this entire people, did I give birth to it?,” eventually became the great orator and the thoroughly devoted nursemaid of his people.

The book of Deuteronomy confirms that the transformation of Moses is now complete.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Sunday evening, July 23rd and all day Monday, July 24th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.

Matot-Masei 5777-2017

“Vows and Oaths”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashiot Matot and Masei are the last two parashiot of the book of Bamidbar–Numbers. The focus of these two final parashiot shifts from Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness to the settlement in the land of Israel. In preparation for the peoples’ entry into the land of Israel, the Torah presents the rules and regulations regarding oaths and vows that underscore the holiness of the Promised Land, and the new, elevated lifestyle that the people will experience there.

Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel and says to them, Numbers 30:3, אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַהשׁם אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ, לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ, כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה , If a man takes a vow to the L-rd or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word, according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in his Da’at Sofrim, explains the juxtaposition between parashat Matot and the previous parasha, Pinchas, which lists the daily, Shabbat and holiday sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle/Temple. He explains that since many offerings in the Temple were brought to fulfill vows and oaths that people had made, it is necessary to emphasize how careful one must be with words that are uttered from one’s mouth. These rules and regulations are particularly directed to the heads of the people, the princes and the tribal leaders, so that they could teach them to the people of Israel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz points out that vows enable mere mortals to spiritually elevate G-d’s creations and make them holy. Therefore, invoking vows and oaths must be done with extreme care. Because vows are often motivated by a desire to do something extraordinary, those who make the vows may not be able to fulfill them. Consequently, the leaders of Israel must teach the people about the proper use of vows as well as the ability to nullify them.

Rabbi Abraham Chill in his wonderful work, The Mitzvot, the Commandments and Their Rationale, underscores that the human being, who is blessed with superior intelligence, must recognize the importance of not making statements indiscreetly or rashly. This, of course, applies to all human speech, but especially to vows and oaths.

Citing the Mishna Nedarim 3:1, Rabbi Chill notes that there are certain vows that are uttered that are automatically invalid: 1. נִדְרֵי זֵרוּזִיןNidrei Zairuzim, oaths, often made to spur business, that are uttered for the purpose of convenience, but are never meant seriously. 2. נִדְרֵי הֲבַאיNidrei Havai, exaggerated oaths, in which someone promises to do something on the condition that he beholds something unusual or impossible, such as if he sees a million people at once or encounters a flying camel. 3. נִדְרֵי שְׁגָגוֹתNidrei Shegagot, unintentional vows, in which a person mistakenly takes an oath based on something that he thought he had done, such as eat or drink, but he did not. 4. נִדְרֵי אֳנָסִיםNidrei Anasim, a person who takes a vow but is unable to fulfill the vow because of health reasons, or in the case of sudden, unexpected circumstances that require that person to leave the city.

There is a legal difference between what is known as a נֶדֶרNeder (vow) and a שְׁבוּעָהShevuah (oath). The person who makes a Neder, vows, “I will not drink this wine.” The person making a Shevuah says, “I swear not to drink wine.” In the instance of the Neder, the object is forbidden, while in the Shevuah the person is forbidden from engaging in that act.

The holy scriptures strongly advocate against taking vows. The Book of Ecclesiastes 5:4 advises, better not to vow, than to vow and not fulfill.

Judaism in general, and in the scriptures specifically, strongly underscores the sanctity of words. The opening words of the Torah already describe how important and powerful words are, as G-d creates the world through words. The Torah frequently commands one to distance oneself from falsehood, and repeatedly emphasizes against insulting the stranger, the convert or the physically disabled. Words are real and have the power to heal and hurt, to elevate and to denigrate.

The extraordinary power of speech is the Al-mighty’s unique gift to the human being, shared with no other creature. Only humans have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy through vows and oaths.

The Chatam Sofer points out that the laws of vows and oaths are directed primarily to the heads of the tribes and the princes, because people in high public office are more frequently tempted to make promises that they cannot keep.

As a unique gift from G-d to humankind, the endowment of speech must be fiercely guarded and used correctly. It is perhaps the most powerful tool in the human repository to bring goodness and blessing to the world. It must be used with the utmost care and discretion.

May you be blessed.