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Passover II 5776-2016

“The Final Days of Passover: Love and Hope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to tradition, on the seventh day of Passover the sea split and the ancient Israelites marched triumphantly through the waters on dry land to freedom.

The exodus from Egypt is universally regarded as a most momentous and unique occasion in Jewish history. So much so, that G-d is often simply identified, as He is in the Ten Commandments, as the G-d who took the People of Israel out of Egypt. It is as if the fact that G-d created the world is taken for granted, and that, the most important relationship that Israel has with the Al-mighty is that He took them out of Egypt.

Among the “Six Zechirot,” the six events that the Torah commands  to always remember and that is recited by some as part of the daily prayers, the first event to remember is the exodus from Egypt. As recorded in Deuteronomy 16:3, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.

Not only is the exodus regarded as a key historical component in the relationship between G-d and Israel, Jewish tradition even considers the exodus from Egypt as the beginning of the special love relationship between G-d and His people. The prophet Jeremiah exclaims 2:2, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, “I [G-d] remember favorably the devotion of your [Israel’s] youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” Despite the challenges and the vicissitudes that the “lovers” endured, the loyalty that the people exhibited during the exodus and the forty years of wandering in the wilderness was never to be forgotten. Consequently, the exodus is seen as the veritable betrothal of G-d to His people, Israel.

The custom of reading Shir Hashirim, the book of Song of Songs, on Passover is a reflection of the fervent love between the handsome shepherd (G-d Al-mighty) and the beautiful maiden (the People of Israel). The Passover holiday is thus, a de-facto celebration of Israel’s special relationship with the Divine.

On the final day of Passover, the Haftarah, the prophetic selection, is read from the Book of Isaiah 10:32-12:6. On the day that marks the great redemption of the People of Israel, the splitting of the sea and the liberation from Egypt, the Haftarah speaks of the ultimate redemption–the arrival of the Messiah.

Isaiah, who prophesied at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, offers one of scripture’s most stirring and defining prophecies concerning the “End of Days.” The Ten Tribes were already lost, and it seemed as if the remaining two tribes would also soon be vanquished. Rather than focusing on destruction, Isaiah looks favorably to the future, and declares, that “Out of the tree stump of Jesse” will grow a great monarchy that will, once again, reflect the spirit and wisdom of Jewish holiness. Peace will prevail, the lion and the lamb, and all mortal enemies, will dwell together in peace. The Al-mighty will gather His dispersed children from the far ends of the earth, hostility between Judah and Ephraim will cease, and love and brotherhood will prevail. The land of Israel will be reconquered from its enemies.

In his analysis of the holiday Haftarah, Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel  writes of the painful anguish of a broken heart, suggesting that G-d’s heart is broken whenever He sees that the Divine love between Himself and Israel has been rejected. Humanity failed G-d in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and Cain murdered Abel. This was followed by the sinful generation who were drowned in the flood during Noah’s time and those who were dispersed from the Tower of Babel. How painful the sight of the Golden Calf must have been for the Al-mighty, and the peoples’ constant attraction to idolatry and immorality, ultimately leading to the destruction of the Temple and the nation’s exile.

Rabbi Angel suggests that the Haftarah of Isaiah is read on the final day of Passover precisely because it predicts that, despite the ominous reality, the glorious harmony of nature will be restored. Israel will, once again, dwell in a new Garden of Eden, the people of Israel will live in tranquility with one another, and that despite the many setbacks, the peoples’ relationship with G-d will be restored and reaffirmed.

Rabbi Angel asks, “Is it possible to have a new love as great as the first love, when everything could have been perfect?” Quoting from the words of the prophet Jeremiah (16:14-15), Rabbi Angel maintains that when the redemption comes, it will eclipse the original exodus.

The prophet Jeremiah predicts that a time is coming when people will no longer refer to the Al-mighty as the G-d Who brought His people out of the land of Egypt, but rather the G-d Who restored the Ten Tribes of Israel who were lost.

This is the theme of the final days of Passover. The special relationship of love and hope that the Jewish people have with G-d, and that has survived through so many trials, will be renewed, strengthened and will continue forever.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 28th, and continue Friday and Saturday, April 29th and 30th. For more information see NJOP’s website

Passover I 5776-2016

“The Children, The Children!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have previously discussed (Passover 5760-2000), children play a central role in the Passover Seder and in the Haggadah.

The rituals of the seder seek to involve the children as much as possible. To maintain the children’s attention and encourage them to ask questions, the Matzahs are frequently covered and uncovered and the seder plate is removed from the table and returned to the table. Perhaps the best known part of the seder is the מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה–Mah Nishtanah, the four questions that the children ask. Another popular feature is the “Four Children”: the wise child, the prodigal child, the innocent child and the one who does not know to ask.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, who is known widely as the  Malbim is one of the preeminent Bible commentators of modern times. His insights are so penetrating, that his comments are often assumed to be of a scholar who lived a thousand years earlier, in the times of Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra.

The Malbim, who wrote a commentary on the Haggadah called Medrash Haggadah, raises many fundamental questions about the structure of the Haggadah and proceeds to elucidate the underlying principles that guided the authors of the Passover Haggadah.

Those of us who have sat through many Passover seders are convinced that the Haggadah brilliantly tells the story of the Egyptian slavery and the exodus from Egypt, melding both Talmudic exegesis and storytelling, to make a maximum impression on the participants. Meaningful rituals are added to create an enchanting atmosphere for all the Passover celebrants and to drive home the message of Divine salvation.

Because many are so familiar with the text of the Haggadah, it is barely noticeable that the structure of the Haggadah is complex and jumbled, often appearing to be in no meaningful order. Despite the confusing array of unconnected paragraphs, we have become so accustomed to the confusion that we take for granted that the compilers knew exactly what they were doing.

At the Passover seder, every Jew is required to fulfill five mitzvot. The Biblical mitzvot are to eat matzah (Exodus 12:18) and to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). The three rabbinical ordinances include, drinking four cups of wine, eating Maror and reciting הַלֵּל–Hallel, the psalms of praise.

The Malbim knew very well that the Haggadah, one of the most important Jewish liturgical books, was designed to teach a profound lesson. He therefore sets out to elucidate the seemingly confusing structure and to clarify its message.

The Malbim explains that the word הַגָּדָה–Haggadah, comes from the Hebrew verb, לְהַגִּיד, which means “to tell.” The word, לְסַפֵּר–tsah’pehr, to relate or to recount, also appears in many places in the Passover story (e.g. “In order that you relate, tsah’pehr, in the ears of your children,” Exodus 10:2). The name of the volume, however, is “Haggadah,”–telling, and not סִיפּוּר—-“Sippur” recounting.

The Malbim points out that although there are several verses in which the Torah commands to recount the story of exodus they all relate to telling the story of Egypt in response to a child asking and questioning. Only the verse of Exodus 13:8, וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה השׁם לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם, and you shall tell your child on that day, saying: “It is because of that which the L-rd did for me when I came forth out of Egypt,” is not prompted by a child’s question. Since only this verse indicates that the commandment to tell the Exodus story applies whether or not a child asks, it serves as the definitive source of the Passover mitzvah for every Jew to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, and serves as the primary basis for the Haggadah.

The Malbim underscores this by clarifying the seeming disorder of the structure of the Haggadah.

The section of the Haggadah known as מַגִּיד–“Magid,” tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, and consists of sixteen separate sections. Beginning with הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא–“Ha lach’ma anya”– This is the bread of affliction, it is followed by the “Mah Nish’tah’nah”– Why is this night different?, עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ—“Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo”– We were slaves in the land of Egypt, the four sons and the declaration that the covenant with G-d has sustained Israel throughout the years and generations. This is followed by the requirement that every person see him/herself as if he/she went out of Egypt, and concludes with the beginning of “Hallel,” the psalms of praise.

Noting that the Haggadah does not follow chronological order, the Malbim asks why does the text of “Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo,” we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt precedes מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, that at first our fathers were idolaters? After all, that narrative speaks about Terach, Abraham’s father, who lived hundreds of years before Abraham’s children descended to Egypt. The Malbim in fact asks an entire series of challenging questions about the order of the sixteen sections of the Magid section.

The Malbim explains that only because we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt are we obligated to tell the story of the exodus. The experience of slavery is the fundamental reason why we have the seder in the first place and read from the Haggadah. Although, “Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo,” “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” is not the story itself, it is the basic reason why there is a mitzvah to tell the story. It is because we were slaves to Pharaoh that every Jew, even the wisest of sages, must tell the story each and every year, even though they know it well.

The Malbim declares that telling the story of the exodus is intended to serve as much more than a mere expression of gratitude to G-d or a basic acknowledgment of His role in our salvation. The greater purpose of the seder is not at all to serve our own spiritual benefit, but to serve the children’s benefit. Of course, we must be certain that we too not forget what G-d did for us, but more importantly, we must conclusively guarantee that our children and future generations will recall the exodus. Only in this way will the children understand that their lives too were fundamentally affected by that miraculous event, and it is their obligation as well to praise and thank G-d. For this reason, every Jew, in every generation, is commanded to tell the story and elaborate upon the events of the exodus. The sages and the wise people must not be exempted from this obligation. After all, the collective consciousness of the Jewish Peoples’ history needs to be regularly refreshed, so that the future generations will perpetuate this practice and do the same.

As we sit at our seder tables this year recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt, let us remember that the Haggadah’s primary message and concern is about “the children, the children!” We must spare no effort to effectively inspire the next generation to pass this vital message on to their children and to their children’s children, as well.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 22nd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 23rd and 24th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 28th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 29th and 30th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

Metzorah 5776-2016

“G-d Has Pity on the Property of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, opens with a detailed description of the purification ritual for the מְצוֹרָע–Metzorah, the person who had contracted the צָרַעַת–Tzara’at disease, and is now cured. According to tradition, this spiritual/dermatological disease resulted from, among other things, speaking לְשׁוֹן הָרָע –Lashon Harah, evil speech about others ( Tazria 5763-2003). The parasha also introduces an additional manifestation of the Tzara’at disease that appears in the houses of the Israelites.

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Biblical narrative is out of chronological order. Although mentioned last in the text, the first manifestation of the Tzara’at disease appears on a wall in the Jew’s home as a warning that he or she must mend their ways and stop speaking Lashon Harah. If they do not heed this admonition, the Tzara’at then appears on their clothes. If they still continue their evil speech, only then does the Tzara’at appear on their bodies. The final stage is reached when the person’s entire body is covered with Tzara’at.

If the affliction strikes the house of a Jew, the Kohen must come to inspect the apparently mildew-like blight on the house. If it is not clear whether the discoloration is the actual Tzara’at disease, the house is sealed for seven days and is reinspected at the end of this incubation period. If, the infected area is then declared טָמֵא–Tah’may, unclean, the infected stones must be removed and the walls of the home replastered. If, however, the infection recurs, the entire house must be destroyed.

Despite the loss of the house, the neighbors may still be unaware that the reason the house was demolished was due to the Tzara’at plague. As an alibi, the violator can always claim that his family is remodeling their home, and no one will know that the loss was because of the homeowner’s improper behavior.

The affliction on one’s wardrobe is similar. If the infection spreads throughout the clothing, then all the clothing must be destroyed. Still the victim can always say that he is in the process of buying a new wardrobe, and no one would know that all the clothing was burned due to evil speech.

The unrepentant violator, who, after all this, has still not learned his lesson, is then further stricken with symptoms that appear on the flesh of his body. If the spots on his skin are declared Tah’may (impure) by the priest, he is sent out of the camp for seven days. Yet, he can always claim that he is going on vacation. When he returns, he can cover over the infection and nobody will ever know that he was sent away because the Kohen declared that he is a בַּעַל לְשׁוֹן הָרָע, a “master of evil speech.”

Obviously, excuses can only hide the true reason for this malady for so long. If, after all this, he still does not repent, the violator’s entire body is covered with the disease and the Kohen declares him טָהוֹר–Tahor, pure, allowing him to remain in the camp. Despite being entirely covered with the Tzara’at symptoms, he is pure. The disease has now become public and he will be regarded by all as a destructive speaker of evil, who must be avoided.

As is true in many instances, the Torah conveys subtle lessons through seemingly innocuous verses. The Torah’s description of the visit of the Kohen who is assigned to diagnose the affliction found in the house, is one such an instance.

The Torah states, in Leviticus 14:36, that even before the Kohen enters the house, וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וּפִנּוּ אֶת הַבַּיִת בְּטֶרֶם יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַנֶּגַע, וְלֹא יִטְמָא כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת, וְאַחַר כֵּן יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַבָּיִת, he [the Kohen] shall command, and they shall clear the house when the Kohen has not yet come to look at the affliction, so that everything in the house should not become impure; and afterward shall the Kohen come to look at the house.

Rashi explains that everything in the house will automatically become impure if the house is not emptied before the Kohen sees the affliction and pronounces it impure.

Everything declared impure in the house then has to be purified by taking it to the mikveh. The only two items in the house that cannot be made pure again are food and earthen vessels. However, food that is impure may be still eaten as long as the person who eats the food is also in a state of ritual impurity. Earthenware dishes can also be used in a state of impurity, as long as the person who uses them is in a state of impurity.

Rashi explains that the reason for removing all the belongings from the stricken home is that the Torah has pity on property that belongs to Israel. But, after all, as has already been noted, very little is actually lost, since all the furnishings and the vessels in the house, with the exception of earthenware, can be immersed in the mikveh, and even the food can be eaten in a state of ritual impurity. The only real loss is the earthenware vessels, which can only be used in a state of ritual impurity, or else they have to be destroyed. But earthenware vessels are relatively inexpensive, resulting in only a negligible loss to the homeowner.

Citing the Sifra and Rashi, the ArtScroll commentary explains that beyond the Al-mighty’s intention to spare Israel from even trivial financial losses, this particular Torah portion comes to teach an important lesson. “If G-d is so sympathetic toward wicked people, whom he afflicts with Tzara’at, surely He has compassion for the righteous. And if G-d is so concerned about their property, surely He is concerned for the lives of their sons and daughters.”

How often do we say to ourselves that we cannot be bothered with trivial things? How often do we say to ourselves that our time is much too valuable to stop for a moment to help a person who is sad or crying? How often do we allow ourselves to get distracted and fail to hold the door open for the next person, or too preoccupied to say “Thank you” to someone who has done us a favor?

Fortunately, for the Al-mighty, nothing is too trivial. Otherwise, not only His people, Israel, but all of humankind, would be in big trouble.

As we enter the month of Nissan, the month of Passover and the acknowledged month of redemption, we must realize how fortunate we are that the Al-mighty surely graced us when He heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and did not decide that it was too trivial for Him to address their needs and redeem the people.

As we, once again, annually re-experience the exodus from exile, enslavement and persecution to freedom, we need to express our profound gratitude to the Al-mighty for His constant kindness, for always watching over His People Israel, and for redeeming them.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 22nd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 23rd and 24th.

Tazria 5776-2016

“Heavenly Reminders”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, focuses on the Biblical malady known as צָרַעַת–Tzara’at, often incorrectly identified as leprosy.

Although Tzara’at had physical, dermatological symptoms, according to tradition, Tzara’at, is a spiritual disease resulting from לְשׁוֹן הָרָע–Lashon Harah, speaking evil (Tazria 5763-2003). Tzara’at manifests itself on the human body, on clothing and appears on the walls of homes as well.

In order to properly identify the malady, the inspection must be performed by an expert, usually a Kohen, priest. As we noted previously (Tazria 5763-2003), if the Kohen is not sufficiently knowledgeable, a physician or one who is well-versed in identifying the disease could do so, but the sick person could not be quarantined or sent out of the camp until the priest himself pronounced him either טָהוֹר (Tahor)– pure or טָמֵא (Tameh)- impure, or determined if an incubation period was required, and ordered a seven-day quarantine.

One of the symptoms of Tzara’at as recorded in Leviticus 13:38, was בֶּהָרֹת לְבָנֹת, white spots. There are four shades of white spots that are associated with Tzara’at, which the Kohen must identify in order to render the stricken person impure. However, the Torah notes, Leviticus 13:39, וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן, וְהִנֵּה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרָם בֶּהָרֹת, כֵּהוֹת לְבָנֹת, בֹּהַק הוּא פָּרַח בָּעוֹר, טָהוֹר הוּא, the Kohen shall look and behold!–on the skin on the flesh are dim white spots, it is a בֹּהַק (Bohak, a simple skin discoloration) that has erupted on the skin, it is pure.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his collection of insights on the weekly parasha known as “Darash Moshe,” questions why it is necessary for a person who has a simple skin discoloration to go to the Kohen for a diagnosis. Even if the person is himself a knowledgeable Torah scholar or a dermatologist and can easily diagnose the discoloration as a non-defiling Bohak, the Kohen must be called in for his opinion.

Rabbi Feinstein suggests that any person who suffers a skin discoloration, especially one that is easily mistaken for Tzara’at, must seek to determine the cause of the discoloration. Even a benign discoloration must be investigated. (This should serve as a reminder for everybody to schedule their annual body scan at a doctor or dermatologist). The Talmud in Brachot 5a, records that those visited by suffering, must always check their deeds, to make certain that their suffering is not a result of Divine punishment for possible incorrect actions.

Rabbi Feinstein explains why even a victim afflicted with a Bohak that is definitely pure, must go to the Kohen. The Kohanim, who serve not only as clergy but also serve as the educational officers of Israel, are in a position to help identify the improper action that might have caused the discoloration, and help the victim improve his/her ways.

Rabbi Feinstein cites a fascinating Talmudic statement found in Erchin 16b, where the Rabbis teach that any frustrating experience, even misplacing something of insignificant value momentarily, is considered suffering. These upsetting experiences may very well be a message from the Al-mighty. If the message is not taken seriously, greater suffering will soon come.

In the summer of 1985, I was sent to Israel by the Avi Chai Foundation to do research on various Israeli outreach organizations.

One of the most popular Israeli outreach organizations, “Arachim,” was holding a weekend seminar for non-religious Jews in Jerusalem. I arrived at the hotel where the seminar was being conducted on Saturday night.

I found it odd that the person whom the organization assigned to serve as my guide was a rather overweight, frumpy religious looking fellow, whose shirt was hanging out of his pants, and walked with a limp. When he told me that he was going to be one of the featured speakers later in the program, I was even more puzzled.

It was probably around midnight when this fellow, with his black hat and beard, his tzitzit hanging out, began to address the non-religious attendees, mesmerizing them with his personal story.

He identified himself as a former Israeli Air Force jet pilot, who was shot down on a mission over Syria. One of his feet was terribly mangled in the crash and had to be amputated, if I recall correctly, without anesthesia.

He was thrown into a prison dungeon where he had to change the bandages himself, because the prison guards who were revolted by the wound that was infected and oozing pus, refused to touch him. Apparently, other Israeli soldiers were also captured at this time and he was imprisoned in a cell together with 3 or 4 other Israeli P.O.W.s.

None of the Israelis were religious, but they knew that the Passover Holiday was rapidly approaching. Somehow, they managed to get some wine, and I believe some matzah, and on Passover eve they sat around at a makeshift seder attempting to recall from memory whatever they remembered from their family seders. It was at that time that the Air Force pilot vowed to himself that if he were ever released from prison and returned home, he would begin to take his faith more seriously.

Eventually, he was released, but soon forgot about his personal vow. He was simply too overjoyed to be back with his family, his wife and his children, to remember, and he continued to live a very secular life.

I do not recall the exact details, but soon after disturbing things began to occur. It might have been a minor car accident or a child who fell and broke an arm, or a small fire that started in his home, whatever it was, it was enough to cause him to begin questioning why these bad things were happening to him. He then remembered the vow that he had taken while he was in the Syrian prison.

His story was truly captivating, not only to me, but to all the secular Jews who were listening, enraptured by his fascinating story about how he became religious.

It is from parashat Tazria that we learn that we dare not disregard even a simple Bohak, a non-defiling discoloration of the skin. G-d continuously sends us messages. We must keep our eyes and ears open constantly to recognize them, hear them, and properly respond to them.

Please note: This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, April 8th and 9th, 2016.

Shemini 5776-2016

“Good Intentions Gone Awry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we learn of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, who were punished for bringing a strange fire upon the altar.

Ironically, the first day of Nissan was intended to be the greatest day of Aaron’s life. The newly built Tabernacle was to be consecrated and the priests (Aaron and his four sons), were to be invested into the service of the Priesthood with great fanfare.

The entire nation was summoned to congregate at the Tent of Meeting in anticipation of this great day. Moses calls out to the people, Leviticus 9:6, saying, זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם תַּעֲשׂוּ, וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד השׁם, “This is the thing that the L-rd has commanded you to do; then the glory of the L-rd will appear to you.” Moses reassures the people that once the formal dedication ritual is concluded by Aaron and his sons, the glory of G-d will appear before them on this very day.

The Midrash, Sifra 9:6 states, that Moses advised the People of Israel that they must remove the “evil inclination” from their hearts in order to unite in reverence and in faith, to properly serve G-d. Just as G-d represents unity, so must the peoples’ service be united before G-d, so that the glory of the L-rd may appear.

The Ha’amek Davar says that these Midrashim indicate that different groups of people saw the worship of G-d from differing perspectives. Among these diverse groups was one that felt a zealous urge to cling as closely as possible to G-d. The Netziv suggests that such zealous behavior occurred several times in Jewish history. The 250 people, who offered the forbidden incense together with Korach and his cohorts, were actually of pure hearts and acted with pure intentions. Despite their good intentions, what they did was wrong in G-d’s eyes.

Therefore, Moses advised the people, before the consecration of the Tabernacle, that if they intend to demonstrate their love of G-d they must first remove the evil inclination from their hearts, and must seek to draw closer to G-d through holiness, and not in a forbidden fashion. In addition, only through a united effort will their good intentions be rewarded.

In his comments on parashat Shemini explaining the actions of Nadav and Abihu, Rabbi Shimon Schwab invoked the well-known aphorism cited in Bereishit Rabbah 55, which states, אַהֲבָה מְקַלְקֶלֶת אֶת הַשּׁוּרָה, love is blind and corrupts clear thinking. Although the commentaries have identified many reasons for Nadav and Abihu’s punishment, Rabbi Schwab suggests that they may have been punished despite their noble intentions. Apparently, Nadav and Abihu were swept away by their ardent zeal, and offered forbidden incense on the altar that had not been commanded by G-d. The Sifra 10:1 maintains that, “they [Nadav and Abihu] rejoiced when they saw the new fire come down upon the altar, and decided to add love to love,” leading them to sin.

Early in my outreach career, I had a Talmud teacher who was upset that my outreach friends and I were spending so much time reaching out to the so-called “non-committed” Jews. He said, “Some people are מְבַטֵּל תּוֹרָה, waste time from Torah study, in order to commit sins. Others, waste time from Torah study for the sake of mitzvot.” After all these years, I have still not resolved that issue in my mind.

Rabbi Schwab apparently would often advise people to be careful not to, “let their יֵצֶר הַטּוֹב [good intentions] run away with themselves.” He suggested that people must constantly examine their goals, to see that, despite their noble intentions, their passion and their zeal, that they not wind up destroying instead of building.

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.

Tzav 5776-2016

“Dressing Properly for Special Occasions”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, opens with detailed instructions to the Kohanim, the priests, regarding taking the ashes from the sacrificial altar and attending to the fires on the altar.

The very first service of the day for the Kohanim was to scoop up a shovelful of ashes from the sacrificial altar and place the ashes on the floor of the Tabernacle courtyard near the side of the altar. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that by taking a portion of the ashes that were created from the sacrifices of the previous day and placing them at the side of the altar before beginning the new day’s service, the priests symbolically declare that they will continue serving G-d today, as they had yesterday and be certain to conduct themselves according to the dictates of the Al-mighty’s will.

If, after separating the ashes, there was still a significant accumulation, the priest would clean the excess ashes from the altar, and proceed with the offerings of the new day.

Before beginning the task of cleaning the altar, the Torah, in Leviticus 6:4, states that the Kohen must change his clothes, וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהוֹצִיא אֶת הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל מָקוֹם טָהוֹר, and he [the priest] shall remove his garments, and don other garments, and he shall remove the ash from outside the camp, to a pure place.

The parasha begins with the word צַו, (“Tzav”) indicating that G-d told Moses to “command” Aaron and his sons regarding the duties they must perform with respect to the burnt offering. Nevertheless, Rashi maintains that despite the Torah’s declarative tone, the words, וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו, and he [the priest] shall remove his garments, is not a command, but rather a recommendation of proper conduct, so that the priest not dirty his good clothes. Rashi cites Tractate Yoma 23b, arguing that the garments in which a person is dressed when he cooks a pot of food for his master, must not be worn when pouring a cup of wine for him. The sacred duties, with which the priest is charged, must be performed in a dignified manner. However, the cleaning should be done while wearing inferior garments, and not the fine clothes he had been wearing.

The commentators note that this suggestion to the priest for “proper conduct” may very well be the source of the Jewish custom to wear one’s best clothes in honor of Shabbat. However, when performing menial tasks on Shabbat one should wear inferior clothes and change into one’s finest clothes for celebrating the Shabbat meals or going to synagogue.

I have often written and spoken about how much contemporary society takes for granted having clean, well-tailored, clothes to wear, and what a special gift clothes are. Clothes in Jewish tradition are regarded as a reflection of the Divine, since they were the only gift that G-d personally gave the human beings in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21).

Not long ago, perhaps, in some instances less than a hundred years ago, if one wanted clean clothes in the middle of the winter, it was necessary to go out to the river or the lake and break the ice to wash a shirt or a blouse in the freezing cold water. Today, we take all that for granted. A good shirt that may have a slight ring-around-the-collar is often thrown into the rag bag.

There are today still people in certain parts of the world who have barely a loincloth with which to cover themselves and others who shiver at night because they do not possess warm coats or blankets. When a religious Jew puts on a significant new garment it is customary to say the blessing, מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרֻמִּים, thanking G-d for clothing the naked, followed by the blessing שֶׁהֶחֱיָנו, thanking G-d for being kept alive, and experience this wonderful occasion.

In many “chareidi” or “chasidish” circles it is still customary to wish a person who dons a new garment for the first time: “titchadeish,” “May you wear it in good health.”.

This brings to mind a rather haunting story that my father would tell me when I was young. It was written by the Haskalah writer, David Frishman (1859-1922, a Polish poet, essayist, storyteller, critic and journalist, one of the first major writers of literature in modern Hebrew) and is actually entitled, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ “Titchadeish.”

The story is about a little boy, the son of a very poor tailor. Frishman, anticipating a strong reaction to this story by the reader, even warns readers not to take the story too much to heart or become depressed, because it is, after all, only a story about the son of a poor tailor.

The story opens on the eve of Passover. The impoverished tailor has been working nonstop, for three days and three nights, trying desperately to finish tailoring the new clothes for the wealthiest man in town and his family. At the last minute, just before sundown, the tailor delivers the new clothes to his clients, has a few minutes to wash his and his son’s hands and face, before running off to the synagogue.

At the synagogue, all the congregants are dressed in their new holiday clothes and wishing each other  “titchadeish,” “May you wear it in good health,” except for the tailor and his son.

Despite his best efforts to involve his son in the seder ritual, the only question the boy wants to ask is why no one wished him, “titchadeish.” His father explained that only those who are wearing new clothes are greeted in this manner. When his mother saw the pained face of her child, she tried to encourage him by saying that hopefully next year he will receive new clothes for Passover.

But he did not receive new clothes for the next Passover, or the next, or the next.

At age twelve, the young boy was sent to apprentice at another tailor in town, where he was treated harshly. On one occasion, when he was instructed to deliver new clothes to a client, he stopped at his own home first to try on the new garments. When it was discovered, he was punished harshly by the tailor’s wife.

Never jealous of those who had new clothes, the young boy was only hurt that he could never have his own new garments, and spent many hours dreaming about being dressed in new clothes.

Unfortunately, he never did obtain a new set of clothes. When he was about eighteen, he started coughing and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was hoped that he would recover, but instead he became weaker, developing a high fever. When he closed his eyes, he saw an incredible sight of thousands of angels descending upon him. In their hands they carried pure white clothes and sang together, repeatedly: “titchadeish, titchadeish, titchadeish”. And then, the dark angel appeared…

He was buried in his new white clothes, the shrouds, but no one wished him, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ.

It is hard to relate to such intense poverty, or even conceive of any teenager who never had a single new set of clothes! This sad story drives home, in a most tragic way, how important are the gifts of good health and the garments we are fortunate to possess.

As we celebrate the joyous month of Adar II, and start preparing for the wonderful Passover holiday, may we all be blessed with good health, and be privileged to acquire new clothes for the holiday, so that we be in a position to be wished, “titchadeish,” and have the opportunity to wish others “titchadeish,” May we all wear our new garments in good health!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night, and Thursday, March 23rd-24th, 2016.

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.

Vayikra 5776 -2016

“The Gifts of the Kohanim-the Priests”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, focuses on the animal sacrifices that were brought in both the Tabernacle and, in later years, in the Great Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the meal offerings that accompanied certain animal sacrifices.

The parasha describes the four main animal sacrifices: the עֹלָה, (Olah) known as the Burnt offering or the Elevation offering, the שְׁלָמִים, (Sh’lamim) the Peace offering, the חַטָּאת, (Chatat) the Sin offering and the אָשָׁם, (Asham) the Guilt offering. Of all the offerings, only the עֹלָה, the Burnt/Elevation offering, is entirely consumed by fire, representing giving oneself over totally to the Al-mighty.

With the exception of the Sin offering of Yom Kippur and the inner חַטָּאת, Sin offerings, all other animal sacrifices are eaten to some degree by the priests, their families and/or the donors. The חַטָּאת, the Sin offering, is eaten by the priests and their families, while the אָשָׁם, the guilt offering is eaten by only the male priests. The communal Peace offerings are also eaten by the priests themselves. The personal Peace offerings are eaten both by the priests and the donor of the sacrifice, as is the תּוֹדָה, (Todah) the Thanksgiving offering. The priests and their households receive the breast and the thigh, while the remainder of the animal may be eaten by all. Firstborn offerings are also eaten by the priests and members of their household.

One of the reasons that the Peace offering is called שְׁלָמִים (Shlamim), is because everyone gets a piece of the sacrifice, which increases peace (שָׁלוֹם) by virtue of it being shared with everybody.

Bringing animal sacrifices involved great expense. Oxen, bulls or cows, were particularly expensive, while sacrifices of sheep, lambs or goats were less costly. The least expensive were bird offerings, of doves or pigeons. But, all the animal sacrifices involved considerable expense.

Although animal sacrifices are not generally looked upon as a form of charity, or of charitable giving, to a great extent that is exactly what they were. The fact that almost all the animal sacrifices were eaten by the priests, underscores the fact that the ritual of קָרְבָּנוֹת, of bringing sacrifices, was a way of supporting the clergy and the institution of Priesthood.

Those who donated sacrifices were not entirely averse to undertaking the expense of bringing an animal sacrifice especially when they were allowed to get a piece of the animal to eat for themselves and their families, as happened with the Peace offerings and the Pascal offering. But, what of the Sin and Guilt offerings that were eaten exclusively by the priests, and the burnt offering which was not eaten at all, but was “given” entirely to G-d?

Donors of Burnt offerings who wished to devote their own lives symbolically to G-d, were likely to justify the expense. One truly has to be entirely committed to bring a Burnt offering with a full heart.

But what of those sacrifices where the donor receives nothing and only the priest and their families eat? Can one be expected to make such a donation with a full heart?

Perhaps by taking a deeper look at the broader purpose of animal sacrifice, some of the issues will be clarified. On the one hand, the ritual of animal sacrifice underscores the fact that Jews must support the institution of the Priesthood. Since ancient priests acted not only as clergy, but also served as the educators of Israel, the donation becomes more palatable, as great benefit accrues to the nation that has a class of devoted clergy and educators.

Another important lesson that is taught by these rituals is the need to recognize that not only the beneficiaries of charity but that even the charity collectors themselves serve an important function and contribute positively to the welfare of the people. Donors are often resentful that a certain percentage of donations to worthy causes is often allocated to fundraising, that covers the salaries of not only the “development department,” but is also used to pay for advertising, mailing and other soliciting expenses. Contributors may feel particularly resentful about these expenses, especially when they are not properly monitored and seem to be overly costly.

Perhaps the Torah is teaching that there must be fair limits to fundraising expenses by declaring that the priest, in many instances, receives only the breast and the thigh. But clearly, there are other sacrifices where the Kohen and his household receive the entire animal.

Tradition maintains that the Children of Israel are known as רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים, merciful people who are the children of merciful people. The sacrificial ritual and the allocation of the flesh of the sacrifices are meant to teach not only a preparedness to give charity with a full heart, but also to realize that ancillary expenses involved must be seen as acts of compassion and generosity as well.

It is in this manner that the sacrifices and charitable contributions of Israel may be seen as (Leviticus 1:9), אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ להשׁם, going up in fire on the altar to provide a sweet savor to the Al-mighty G-d.

May you be blessed.

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

Pekudei 5776-2016

“The Mishkan–the Tabernacle, as Collateral”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, opens with a reckoning and accounting of all the precious materials that were donated by the Israelites for the building and erecting of the Tabernacle.

The Torah, in Exodus 38:21, states, אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל פִּי מֹשֶׁה, these are the accounts of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which were counted at Moses’ bidding. The Torah then notes that Itamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, supervised all the Levites who cared for, and maintained, the Tabernacle.

Although this opening verse of parashat Pekudei seems rather straightforward, as we shall soon see, it actually reveals a fundamental insight into the nature of the Tabernacle.

One of the well-known principles of Torah study is that there are no redundancies in the Torah, no extra words and no repetitions. Any repetition or redundancy has significant meaning and purpose, and invariably imparts an important lesson.

Rashi, citing Tanchuma, who is always quick to point out redundancies and repetitions, does exactly that when commenting on Exodus 38:21. Noting that the word מִשְׁכָּן, tabernacle, is stated twice, Rashi cites Tanchumah 5, where the Midrash maintains that the repetition alludes to the Beit Hamikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which served as “collateral,” and was destroyed twice for the sins of the people of Israel.

While Rashi notes that the repetition of the word מִשְׁכָּן, tabernacle, alludes to the two destructions of the Temple, the true novel insight of Rashi’s interpretation is noting the relationship between the word מִשְׁכָּן, tabernacle, and the word מַשְׁכּוֹן, collateral.

Rashi’s commentators point to a similar interpretation found in Rashi in Numbers 24:5. Commenting on the well-known verse, מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב, How goodly are your tents O’ Jacob, your dwelling places O’ Israel, Rashi maintains that the word מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, your dwelling places, refers to the Tabernacle and to the Beit Hamikdash. Rashi then notes that even when the Tabernacle and the Temple are in a state of ruin, they are still considered dwelling places and sanctuaries because they serve as “security”–and that their destruction serves as atonement for Israel. As the prophet declared in Lamentations 4:11, “G-d expended His anger, and the fire went forth in Zion.” G-d expended His anger on the stones and mortar, rather than on the People of Israel.

A wonderful collection of the Torah insights of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, citing Tanchuma has recently been published, entitled, “Chumash Mesoros Harav.”

In this new publication, Rabbi Soloveitchik asks the question: Why should the Tabernacle be destroyed if Israel sins, after all the Tabernacle and the Temples were not involved in sinning? Citing the Talmud in Gittin 56b, Rabbi Soloveitchik asks: Furthermore, was it necessary to profane the dwelling of G-d with the behavior of Titus who seized a harlot in his hand and entered the chamber of the Holy of Holies, engaging in impurity and promiscuity?

Expanding on Rashi’s interpretation of the relationship between the word מִשְׁכָּן, tabernacle, and מַשְׁכּוֹן, collateral, Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that the sinfulness of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction was so great that the entire nation of Israel deserved to be exterminated. Instead, the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, served as the scapegoat and was destroyed, rather than the people.  Furthermore, had the humiliation by Titus not occurred, the destruction of the Temple would not have been enough to atone for the grave sins of the people, and the nation would have been destroyed as well.

Thus, we see the paradox of the destruction of the Temple. The destruction was not so much a punishment, as it was an act of Divine mercy for the Jewish people. Rav Soloveitchik graphically notes that it is more important for the people to survive, than for the Temple to remain intact. Despite its extraordinary sanctity, the Temple is just a structure of wood and stone, whereas a simple scholar is more valued than 500 temples. The fact that Jews throughout the world observe Tisha B’Av as a day of mourning, demonstrates that the people of Israel live, and as long as the people survive and there are Torah scholars, the Temple will perforce be rebuilt.

Rabbi Soloveitchik further cites the Talmud Ta’anit 29a, stating that only in the late afternoon of Tisha B’Av did the evil Titus enter to the Temple and set fire to it, destroying the structure. Throughout the 10th day of Av the flames consumed the building. Apparently, during the night and morning of Tisha B’Av the Al-mighty had not yet decided whether to destroy the people or destroy the Temple. It was only in the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, after Minchah, that G-d decided to take the Temple as a מַשְׁכּוֹן, as collateral. He decided that the Temple would be destroyed and that the Jewish people would survive, “the wood would burn, but the human soul would remain.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that the entire character of Tisha B’Av changes after Minchah (the afternoon prayers), during the second half of Tisha B’Av day. One would expect that because the Beit Hamikdash was set on fire and consumed during the second half of the day, there would be more intense mourning during those hours. Instead, the level of mourning actually diminishes. Once the Beit Hamikdash was set on fire, there was no longer any threat to the existence of the People of Israel.  Destruction of the Temple is seen as a יְשׁוּעָה, a salvation, demonstrating that the Jewish people would indeed survive.

The fact that the Al-mighty, at times, chooses to expend His wrath on sticks and stones, rather than on the Jewish people, is a fundamental principle of Jewish theology and, to some extent, explains the irrational survival of the Jewish people.

Contemporary Jewish history is often difficult to fathom. Many religionists think that we are presently in the period of the אַתְחַלְתָּא דִגְאֻלָּה, the dawn of the Messianic period of salvation and redemption. Obviously, the return of the Jewish people to their homeland after almost 2000 years of exile, underscores that these are extraordinary times. And yet, the march to redemption is not smooth, and is often pocked with profound setbacks that come at the great cost of Jewish life.

It is at these times, that we must invoke the concept of מַשְׁכּוֹן. For some reason, the Al-mighty does not feel that His people are ready or worthy of redemption, and is exacting collateral from His people who are on the road to redemption. The intifadas, the great increase of anti-Semitism around the world, the stabbings that are now common in the Holy Land, and the innocent victims who are being laid to rest almost daily in the graveyards of Israel, are an indication that the time for redemption is still not at hand and is being delayed.

Let us hope and pray that the Al-mighty will soon find His people Israel worthy of full redemption, and will cease exacting payment of collateral because of our unworthiness. Let us pray that the Temple will soon be rebuilt and that the Divine Presence will dwell there in peace and tranquility, amongst G-d’s people, who will have, at last, earned the right to usher in the Golden Age of the Messiah.

May you be blessed.

Vayakhel 5776-2016

“The Wise-Hearted Person”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the dominant terms found in this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, is the expression חֲכַם לֵב, a wise-hearted person.  This expression appears at least half a dozen times in chapter 36 of Exodus.

The expression חֲכַם לֵב, appears first in this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, in Exodus 35:10. Describing the building of the Tabernacle, the Torah declares, וְכָל חֲכַם לֵב בָּכֶם, יָבֹאוּ וְיַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם, every wise-hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the L-rd has commanded.

However, the first time the expression appears in general with respect to the Tabernacle, is in last week’s parasha, Kee Tisah. There, in Exodus 31:6, the Torah states, with respect to the architects of the Tabernacle, וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אִתּוֹ אֵת אָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה דָן, וּבְלֵב כָּל חֲכַם לֵב נָתַתִּי חָכְמָה, וְעָשׂוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ, and I behold have assigned with him [Betzalel], Oholiav the son of Achisamach, of the tribe of Dan, and I have endowed the heart of every wise-hearted person with wisdom, and they shall make all that I have commanded you.

Within the context of the Tabernacle, the Torah utilized the expression “wise-hearted” to specifically describe the artisans who are expert and knowledgeable in the various skills that are necessary to design and to build the Tabernacle.

The term חֲכַם, generally means a wise, knowledgeable person, or someone who knows how to research, study and gain knowledge. The word לֵב, on the other hand, represents internal feelings, often underscoring sensitivity and compassion.

There are people for whom learning and education always remain theoretical. However, there are others who are capable of internalizing what they learn until the knowledge becomes part- and-parcel of their very personalities. These people are known by the biblical idiom as “Chachmei Lev,” wise-hearted people who not only learn, but internalize that learning until the learning and the feelings become united.

The Tabernacle is far more than a mere external, physical structure.  It represents the focal point where the Presence of G-d dwells in the hearts of Israel. That is why the builders of the Tabernacle must be endowed with exceptionally wise hearts.

The desire for wisdom is one of the human’s greatest natural cravings.  Although the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden came from the tree known as the “Tree of Knowledge, of Good and Evil,” that tree, together with the “Tree of Life” represented two of humankind’s greatest natural desires and fantasies: the quest for immortality and the desire for omniscience.

The Torah clearly seeks to balance the gift of cerebral endowment, tempered by a sensitive heart and caring feelings. Contemporary life looks upon intelligence almost mechanically and artificially, often defined simply by what we call today intelligence quotient (IQ).  Not only is intelligence often divorced from caring and values, it has become almost impossible to distinguish between what we might call “culture” and “civilization.”

Society today often reveres those who have advanced degrees, like PhDs, after their names, irrespective of their ethical and moral qualities and behaviors. Like the race for money and worldly possessions in much of the Western world, there is a race for being recognized for superior intelligence. Failure to achieve this recognition is often looked upon as living a meaningless or inferior life.

The architects and builders of the מִשְׁכָּן, the holy Tabernacle, the dwelling place for G-d’s Divine Presence, needed to be, not only, skilled craft persons, but also people who were kindhearted and thoughtful, who had open hearts, and were prepared to do acts of loving-kindness. The workmen in the Tabernacle, not only needed to be skilled in metal work, working with precious stones, carpentry, weaving and sewing, but also needed to invest the Tabernacle with the best human qualities possible, representing, the greatest Divine qualities, since humankind is created in the image of G-d.

This understanding of wisdom is a far cry from the contemporary understanding of wisdom and the measurement of Intelligence Quotients. The Al-mighty did not want His “house” to be built by the most skilled workmen or the most intelligent workmen. The house of G-d needed to be built by “Chachmei lev,” by wise-hearted people who are warm-hearted and prepared to invest their very hearts and souls into the dwelling place which would be the focus of the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this Friday night, March 4, 2016. 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!
Shabbat Parashat Shekalim

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.

Kee Tisah 5776-2016

“Moses Pleads on Behalf of the People of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, features the infamous sin of the Golden Calf.

The Al-mighty is so angry with the People of Israel that He wishes to destroy them and make a new nation out of Moses. Moses, however, pleads with G-d on behalf of the Jewish people, eventually convincing G-d not to destroy them.

In Exodus 32:11-13, the Torah records Moses’ extremely moving appeal:

וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת פְּנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקָיו, and Moses pleaded before the Lord his G-d, and said, “Why, Lord, should Your anger flare up against Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? Why should Egypt say: ‘With evil intent did He [G-d] take them out, to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from the face of the earth?’ Relent from Your flaring anger and reconsider regarding the evil against Your people. Remember, for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Yourself, and You told them, ‘I shall increase your offspring like the stars of heaven, and this entire land of which I spoke, I shall give to your offspring and it shall be their heritage forever.’”

At this point, the Torah in Exodus 32:14, reports that the Al-mighty reconsidered the evil and the punishment that He intended to visit upon His people.

Rashi, citing Tanchuma 24 and Shemot Rabba 44:4, elucidates the finer points of the argument that Moses presented to the Al-mighty, and explains why Moses invoked the merits of each of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses says, “If You, G-d, are angry because the people have transgressed the Ten Commandments, remember that their forefather Abraham was tested with ten trials and he has not yet received his reward for passing them. Give Abraham his reward by allowing these ‘ten’ to cancel out those ‘ten.’”

Furthermore, says Rashi, Moses argued that if the Children of Israel are doomed to burning because of their sin, remember that Abraham gave himself over to be burned for Your sake in the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim.

Moses persisted and said to G-d, “If the People of Israel are fated to be killed by the sword, remember that Isaac stretched out his neck to be slaughtered at the Akeidah. And, if the people of Israel are condemned to exile, remember that Jacob went into exile to Haran.”

Unwilling to concede, Moses continued arguing, saying that if the Israelites cannot be saved by recalling the patriarchs’ merit, how then can You [G-d] say to me, ‘and I will make you (Moses) into a great nation’? If a chair with three legs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] cannot stand before You at the time of Your anger, how will a chair with one leg [Moses] be able to stand?

In this manner, Moses invokes זְכוּת אָבוֹת, the great merits of the patriarchs, asking G-d to consider those merits and save his brothers and sisters who had sinned.

Moses’ defense of the People of Israel won the day for the Israelites who were taken out of Egypt. More importantly, his plea to G-d on behalf of the people has served as a paradigm for many righteous leaders of Israel who have intervened on behalf of the People of Israel throughout the generations in the hope of assuaging G-d’s wrath.

Perhaps no Jewish leader since the time of Moses has been more identified as an אוֹהֵב יִשְׂרָאֵל, a great lover of the People of Israel, than the famed Chassidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809, one of the most influential Chassidic leaders in central Poland and the Ukraine).

It is said that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev actually summoned G-d to a “Din Torah” (a religious trial) on numerous occasions, demanding that the Al-mighty forgive His people. On one occasion, on Yom Kippur, Reb Levi Yitzchak announced that he was prepared to conduct a public accounting, comparing the trespasses of the People of Israel with the trespasses of the Al-mighty Himself.

Admitting that the people of his community had indeed sinned, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak took out his notebook to enumerate the sins: evil speech, sins of coveting, dishonesty in business, being disrespectful to parents, to rabbis, to the Torah. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, ashamed by the peoples’ actions, nevertheless pronounced a lengthy list of the sins that the people had committed.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak then began to recall the terrible tragedies that had befallen members of his community. He cited Meir, the farmer whose crop had withered because of drought, and Yossele’s cow that had died from disease. Shlomo, the wagon driver’s horse, had gone lame. Miriam, a mother of eight, had been widowed of her husband, and little Shmulek who had been beaten unconscious in a pogrom, and never fully recovered.

Reb Levi Yitzchak then declared that he was prepared to forgive the Al-mighty if He would agree to forgive the sins of the people.

Ultimately, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev expressed his absolute faith in G-d and pronounced G-d’s glory. His exalted expressions of faith are articulated in what is known as “Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Kaddish.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Kaddish

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”
And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”
And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.”
Father, sweet Father in Heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
“Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
“From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this.

Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.”

Moses’ plea on behalf of the People of Israel was a “game-changer.” Had it not been for Moses’ appeal to forgive the Children of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf, there would have been no appeals to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people from Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev or from any of the hundreds, indeed thousands, of rabbis and petitioners throughout the generations.

It is very likely, that it is due only to the merit of Moses, that the Jewish people have been consistently graced with G-d’s forgiveness.

May you be blessed.