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Lech Lecha 5779-2018

“Why Did G-d Choose Abraham?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, G-d, seemingly arbitrarily, calls out to Abram (whose name had not yet been changed to Abraham) to leave his land, his relatives, and his father’s house and go to the land that G-d will show him.

After calling out to Abram, G-d continues to say to him (Genesis 12:2-3) that He will make Abram into a great nation, He will bless him, and make his name great. He will bless those who bless Abram, and those who curse Abram, G-d will curse, and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by Abram.

Why G-d specifically calls Abram, seems to be a mystery.

When Noah finds favor in G-d’s eyes, the Torah (Genesis 6:9), distinctly states that Noah was “a man, righteous and perfect in his generation,” who “walked with G-d.” When G-d chooses Moses at the Burning Bush to lead the people out of Egypt, we already know that Moses had earned a reputation as a champion of his persecuted brethren in Egypt (Exodus 2:12). He had intervened when two Jews were fighting (Exodus 2:13), and had rescued Jethro’s daughters from the shepherds who were harassing them (Exodus 2:17). But what qualifications did Abram have to be chosen?

Perhaps the reason lies with the fact that Abram’s father, Terach, was wise enough to see that Mesopotamia (Ur Kasdim) was not a land in which he could effectively raise his children. It was he, Terach, who set out to go to the land of Canaan, but halted on the way, and eventually settled in Haran, where Terach died. Maybe Terach was more of a positive influence on Abram than tradition lets on? However, traditional Biblical sources not only fail to give Terach credit for Abram’s chosenness, they cast Terach in a negative light, accusing Terach of attempting to kill his son Abram.

The Ramban,  Nachmanides, focuses in on those subtle allusions in the text of the Torah that point to the challenges that Abram faced in Ur Kasdim that underscore the qualities of Abram and why he was chosen.

Based on Genesis 11:31, which states, וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ , that Terach “took” Abram his son, the Midrash says that Abram’s father, Terach was an idolater and that his son Abram defied his father. Because of his rejection of idolatry, Terach had Abram thrown into a fiery furnace, from which he emerged unharmed. Therefore, the Ramban maintains, in light of this test and other tests that Abram was subjected to in Ur Kasdim, Abram was chosen for G-d’s very special mission.

There are those who suggest that G-d spoke to other individuals, contemporaries of Abram, and residents of the other lands, and told to leave their homeland and go to the new land, which He would show them. Only Abram heeded G-d’s call, and set out from Haran, at age 75, to go to an unknown land, which he later learned was the land of Canaan. For this singular bold action, Abram was chosen to be the father of the Chosen People.

Other scholars, like the The Maharal, argue that the Torah purposely says nothing about Abram’s special qualities, for which he is chosen. He is chosen simply because G-d chose him. It is very possible that G-d saw in Abram special talents that not only could be further developed, but could serve as a paradigm for all his contemporaries and future generations, of what faith and faithfulness should be. Clearly the choice was correct. As Abram was subjected to the ten great tests during his lifetime, he proved, time-after-time, to be a man of special faith.

The Maharal proceeds to build a powerful case for the chosenness of the Jewish people, based on the “arbitrary” chosenness of Abram. The Maharal insists that just as the Al-mighty needed no justification for choosing Abram, so the world needs no justification for the chosenness of the Jewish people. After all, it was G-d Who chose them, apparently because of their special spiritual qualities.

This “arbitrary” chosenness, says the Maharal, was not a result of good deeds or prior heroic actions. Abram was chosen simply because of G-d’s love for him–a chosenness that is beyond human comprehension. Despite the lack of “justification,” only Abram was chosen, along with his children and descendants for all future generations, even though they had not yet been born and had not performed any righteous deeds to deserve to be chosen. The Torah, argues the Maharal, doesn’t reveal what Abram’s deeds were specifically because he was chosen purely and simply because of G-d’s love for him and his children.

The power of Abram’s response to G-d’s summons of, לֶךְ לְךָ , “Lech Lecha,” “go for yourself,” reverberates throughout the world to this very day. Once Abram was chosen, it became his responsibility, and that of his children, to listen to the continuing Divine call of “Lech Lecha,” to go for yourself, for your benefit, and for the benefit of the humankind.

Despite the passage of millennia, G-d is still calling to all His children to go forward, to march onward, to perform good and noble deeds that will enlighten the world, enhancing the nature of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Noah 5779-2018

“Noah’s Birds– The Raven and the Dove”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, as the waters of the Flood subside, Noah sends out two birds from the Ark–a raven and a dove.

There are significant differences between the way Noah relates to, and treats, these two birds. The Torah in Genesis 8:7 states, וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעֹרֵב, וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב עַד יְבֹשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ , He [Noah] sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the waters dried from upon the earth.

In contrast, when Noah sends out the dove, the Torah, in Genesis 8:8-9, reports, וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מֵאִתּוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. וְלֹא מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה, כִּי מַיִם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ, וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה Then he [Noah] sent out the dove from him to see whether the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for the sole of its foot, and it returned to him to the Ark, for water was upon the surface of all the Earth. So he [Noah] put forth his hand and took it, and brought it to him to the Ark.

The difference between Noah dispatching the raven and sending the dove is stark. The raven is given no mission. It is not sent to see whether the waters have subsided over the face of the Earth, as the dove was. Because of that omission, there are commentators who maintain that Noah intended to banish the raven from the Ark because it had violated the decree to not procreate during the time of the Flood. The rabbis say that Noah later had mercy on the raven and allowed it back into the Ark because in the future, in the time of Elijah, the ravens would bring food to the famished prophet (I Kings 17:2-16).

Regarding the raven, we do not see that Noah had any personal or emotional relationship, as we do with the dove. When describing the departure of the dove, the Torah pointedly states that Noah sent out the dove, מֵאִתּוֹ , “may’ee’toh,” from himself, indicating that Noah had a special relationship with the dove, justifying his trust in the dove to bring back valuable information. We also see Noah’s caring relationship with the dove when Noah “puts forth his hand and took” the dove to welcome the dove back to the Ark. The commentators further underscore the closeness of this relationship by noting that the word וַיִּקָּחֶהָ , “Va’yee’ka’cheh’ha,” he took her, is the word often used for marriage between a man and a woman.

There are those who maintain that even though the words are not found in the raven’s narrative, both the raven and the dove were charged with the mission to check on the levels of water. Since pigeons/doves are often used to transmit messages over long distances, the dove was sent to report on conditions at distant locations, whereas the raven remained local. It is also likely that the raven remained near the Ark, since the raven feeds on carrion, and there were undoubtedly the remains of many dead animals and humans for the raven to consume.

While the raven is sent out only once and brings back no information to Noah, the dove is sent out three times. The first time, the dove returns because water still covered the entire face of the earth. The Ha’amek Davar indicates that Noah welcomes the dove back with compassion by extending his hand to take him, even though the dove was unsuccessful in its first mission. The second time, the dove brings back an olive leaf, indicating that the waters had now subsided. Again, underscoring their close relationship, the Torah also specifies that the dove came back “to him,” meaning Noah, and to the Ark. When the dove does not return a third time, Noah concludes that the earth is dry and that he may now remove the cover from the Ark.

It is interesting to note that each time the dove departs, the Torah insinuates a growing distance between Noah and the dove. Thus, we see, in Genesis 8:10, וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מִן הַתֵּבָה , that after waiting another seven days, Noah again sends out the dove from the Ark. This time, however, there’s no indication of a relationship between the dove and Noah, and when the dove returns that evening with the fresh olive leaf, Noah does not extend his hand to welcome her back.

After another seven days, the Torah, in Genesis 8:12, states וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא יָסְפָה שׁוּב אֵלָיו עוֹד , He sent the dove forth, and it did not return to him anymore. There is now a complete break between the dove and Noah–the dove is never to return. Underscoring the distance that had been developed between them, on the third mission, the Torah does not state that the dove is sent out from Noah or from the Ark, just sent out.

Rashi claims that the olive leaf that the dove brought back was bitter. Citing the Midrash, Rashi concludes that the dove symbolically declared: “Better that my food be bitter but from G-d’s hands, than sweet as honey, but dependent upon mortal man.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that after a full year of relying on Noah’s kindness because it could not earn its own food, the dove carried a bitter olive leaf back to Noah. Says Rabbi Hirsch, this teaches that even the bitterest food eaten in freedom is better than the sweetest food given in servitude.

As usual, there is much to learn, not only from the text of the Torah, but also from “between-the-lines” of the Torah narratives.

May you be blessed.

Bereshith 5779-2018

“Who was Enoch?”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereishith, the Torah, in Genesis 5, lists the genealogy of humankind, enumerating the names of the ten generations of descendants from Adam to Noah. The list consists of only the descendants of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. Abel, of course, was murdered by Cain, while Cain’s descendants all perished in the Flood in the time of Noah.

Nachmanides, the Ramban, attributes to Adam the extraordinary longevity of the people who lived during these generations, many of whom reached age 800 and above. Since they were all directly descended from Adam, who was created physically perfect by G-d, these generations were also divinely endowed, enabling them to achieve great longevity. It was only after the Flood, that the life span of humans began to decline because of the degenerate moral atmosphere. Maimonides maintains that only the truly righteous people lived long lives, and that the life span of others already started to decline after Adam’s generation.

Genesis 5 devotes four verses, 21-24, to the life of one of Seth’s descendants, named Enoch, חֲנוֹךְ , Chanoch in Hebrew. Although we have previously encountered the name Enoch (Genesis 4:17) who was the son of Cain, this Enoch, is a descendant of Seth.

Ten generations from Adam to Noah are enumerated in the Torah: 1. Adam, 2. Seth, 3. Enosh, 4. Kenan, 5. Mahalalel, 6. Jared, 7. Enoch, 8. Methuselah, 9. Lamech, and 10. Noah.

Enoch, the seventh generation descendant of Adam, is considered by the Midrash, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 23, M, to be a person of special quality. Indeed, Moses was also the seventh of his generation.

Regarding Enoch, the Torah in Genesis 5:21-22 reports, וַיְחִי חֲנוֹךְ חָמֵשׁ וְשִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד אֶת מְתוּשָׁלַח. וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת מְתוּשֶׁלַח שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת , And Enoch lived 65 years and begat Methuselah. And Enoch walked with G-d for three hundred years after begetting Methuselah; and he begat sons and daughters. The Torah then concludes that all of the days of Enoch’s life were three hundred and sixty five years. And Enoch walked with G-d; then he was no more, for G-d had taken him.

According to most commentaries, Enoch died suddenly at a relatively young age. He clearly lived significantly fewer years than any of the other members of his family, from Adam to Noah. Ironically, his son, Methuselah, is renowned for living until age 969, longer than any other human being.

The fact that Enoch died when he was only 365 years old, begs elucidation. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear that Enoch really died. The Torah enigmatically notes that “he [Enoch] was no more.” Enoch seems to have disappeared. His premature death raises many questions that are explained in different ways by various commentators. Was Enoch righteous or a sinner? Could it be possible that he was an angel?

The Torah only records that Enoch was one of the first ten generations of humankind and that he died young, at age 365, which of course is itself a special number. Enoch lived less than half the life span of his contemporaries.

Why was Enoch taken prematurely by G-d? The Midrash Rabbah, 25:1 suggests that Enoch himself was not really a very good person, and therefore he died at a young age. An alternate opinion in the Midrash, cited by Rashi, is that Enoch was “rewarded” with a shortened life to prevent him from sinning. The commentators suggest that Enoch alternated between being righteous and wicked. The Al-mighty thus determined to take Enoch from the living while he was still righteous, before he could be corrupted by the truly wicked generation of the Flood. Rashi adds, that the Al-mighty hastened Enoch’s death because he was so easily impressionable and would undoubtedly become evil. On the other hand, both the Ralbag and Ibn Ezra  see Enoch as someone righteous who had simply completed his mission in the world, and there was no longer any reason to keep him alive.

The Torah describes Enoch as “walking with G-d” and “disappearing” because G-d took him. The Midrash in Derech Eretz Zuta, at the end of the first chapter, lists Enoch as one of only nine people who merited to enter the Garden of Eden while yet alive. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel says that Enoch did not die, his spirit merely left his body, and he was transformed into an angel, the famed Metatron.

During Enoch’s lifetime, the world had slowly begun to deteriorate morally, and sin became common. Enoch’s life’s mission was to purify the world through his good actions and noble deeds. Were it not for the righteousness of Enoch, the Flood would have arrived sooner. Some even attribute the salvation of Noah to the positive influence of Enoch.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Bible, suggests that the generations from Adam to Noah alternated between materialism and spiritualism. Some generations were noted for their giving, while others were entirely self-centered.

Rabbi Hirsch sees from the fact that Enoch is described as “walking with G-d,” that he lived an extreme monastic life, retiring from the world, avoiding the masses, either out of fear or out of disdain and contempt for his contemporaries. Says Rabbi Hirsch, monasticism is not an acceptable Jewish practice. Throughout Jewish history, righteous Jews always made a point of living together with the masses, and contributing to the masses–considering it their mission to raise the values and aspiration of the masses up to their own.

Asceticism, says Rabbi Hirsch, was strongly opposed to by the Torah because it is based “on the erroneous idea that G-dliness is something pertaining to the next world, something that lies outside the sphere of ordinary life.”

As we see too often, even in our times, extremism is not healthy. Rather, the proper path to pursue is a path of balance and moderation that enables human beings to flourish, even under extremely challenging circumstances.

May you be blessed.

Haazinu-Sukkot 5779-2018

“The Challenges of Poverty and Wealth.”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Haazinu, we read the beautiful song that Moses sang to the Jewish people on the final day of his life.

Moses calls both heaven and earth to serve as witnesses to the warnings and blessings that Moses proclaims in the final hours of his life. He cautions the people of the calamities that will befall them if they sin and fail to heed the Torah. He also strongly encourages the people with the promise of the great joy that will come with the Ultimate Redemption.

Emphasizing the special attachment that G-d has to His people, Israel, Moses reminds the people of G-d’s great love for them, how He found them wandering in the wilderness and turned them into the apple of His eye. Deuteronomy 32:10,יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן, יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ, יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ , He discovered them in a desert land, in desolation, in a howling wilderness; He encircled them, and granted them discernment, He preserved them like the pupil of His eye.

G-d spared no effort caring for His people, carrying them on the pinions of His wings and making them ride on the heights of the land. He gave the People to eat of the ripe fruits of the field, and drew for them honey from a stone and oil from a flinty rock. He fed them butter of cattle and milk of sheep with the fat of lambs. He served them wheat as broad as kidneys, and gave them to drink delicious wine from the blood of grapes.

Instead of showing gratitude, Israel rebelled (Deuteronomy 32:15), וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט, שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ, וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱ־לוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ, וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ Jeshurun [the People of Israel] became fat and kicked. You became fat, you became thick, and you became corpulent, and deserted G-d its Maker, and was contemptuous of the Rock of its salvation.

The wisest of all men, King Solomon, in Proverbs 30:8, declares, רֵאשׁ וָעֹשֶׁר, אַל תִּתֶּן לִי , “Do not give me poverty or wealth.” Great poverty can prevent a person from thinking properly, driving that person away from the Al-mighty. Whereas, great wealth can also lead to apostasy, allowing one to attribute one’s success to one’s own talents, rather than to Heaven.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, notes that this is the first time that the Torah describes Israel with the title, יְשֻׁרוּן –“Jeshurun,” derived from the word for upright, straight, and just. When the People of Israel entered the land of Israel, Israel was at the height of its calling, enjoying G-d’s loving gifts. Even though Israel (“Jeshurun”) stood at its highest level of spirituality, once they began to glory in their success and became haughty, they started to reject G-d, attributing all their success to themselves and to their own powers.

The Sforno suggests that when the nation’s leaders, its elite members, pursued the physical pleasures and grew fat, thick and corpulent, the nation as a whole deserted G-d and showed only contempt for Him. Says the Sforno, when the “greats” stray just a little, the commoners fall into a steep decline.

Again, it is no coincidence that the festival of Sukkot often occurs when parashat Haazinu is read. The theme of וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט , and Jeshurun became fat and kicked, melds directly with the message of Sukkot.

The crops that were planted in the rainy season, and were harvested in the spring, on Pesach and Shavuot, were left out in the field over the summer to ripen further.

It is during the fall season, within which the holiday of Sukkot is celebrated, that the ingathering of the crops took place. All the farmers could now breathe a collective sigh of relief that not only had the crops blossomed, and reached a stage of great beauty and quality, but, also, that the produce had actually been successfully harvested and gathered into the storehouses, ready for consumption and for sale. The treacherous planting, growing, and harvesting seasons have thankfully passed with minimal pain. The farmers now wholeheartedly celebrate the blessings of their produce and the blessing of production.

It is at this very moment, just as every farmer is finally ready to relax and bask in the success of his efforts, that G-d reminds the mortal tiller of the soil that while the farmer may plant the seed, it is G-d Who brought the rain and the sun, the bees and the myriad nutrients that enabled the agricultural success.

“You may be very proud of the work of your hands,” G-d says, “However, you must now leave your homes, your comfort and wealth, and go out to the Sukkah, to live in a shack for a week,” to demonstrate your faith in G-d and to acknowledge that every single step of your success was truly dependent upon the Al-mighty, and a gift of His blessings.

Although your success is before your eyes, you must not be prideful. Indeed, you must be humble, show gratitude and faith, and declare that despite your extraordinary efforts, it was the power of the blessings of G-d that brought you to this momentous occasion.

The hot summer winds are gone, and the cool fall breezes are now blowing through the slats of your Sukkah. As the Psalmist declares in chapter 127:1, אִם השׁם לֹא יִבְנֶה בַיִת, שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ, if G-d does not build a house, its builders have toiled in vain.

May you be blessed.

 

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 23rd, 24th and 25th, 2018. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, September 30th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 1st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 1st and continues through Tuesday, October 2nd.

 

Vayeilech-Yom Kippur 5779-2018

And Moses Went…”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeilech, the Torah describes Moses’ final actions before his passing.

On the last day of his life, Moses informs the people that he is soon to die. He tells the nation that Joshua will assume the leadership and that they will successfully enter into the land of Israel and inherit it. Then, standing before of all Israel, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor, whose appointment is corroborated publicly by G-d.

Parashat Vayeilech opens with the words, Deuteronomy 31:1, וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה, וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל , and Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. Moses tells the people that he is 120 years old today and can no longer go out and come in. Even though G-d has forbidden him to cross the Jordan, he assures the people that G-d will cross the Jordan with them and destroy their enemies so that they will take possession of the land.

The commentators are perplexed by the term,  וַיֵּלֶך —“Vayeilech,” that he [Moses] went. After all, the Abarbanel, notes, that just two chapters earlier in Deuteronomy 29:1, Moses called all the people of Israel to him to speak with them. Moses says, אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים -–“ah’tem nitzavim,”–you are standing here today before the Lord your G-d. Why then does the Torah now say “vayeilech Moshe,” that Moses went to talk to the people if they were already standing before him?

The Ramban suggests, that after Moses had completed what he had to say to the people, the people all returned to their tents. Now, just before he dies, Moses went to visit the people to say goodbye to them.

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra  maintains that Moses went to each tribe individually, comforting them, telling them not to fear, and assuring them that G-d would keep His word. According to the Ibn Ezra, it was then that Moses conferred on each tribe its blessing, even though the blessings are not recorded until later, in Deuteronomy 33, in parashat V’zot Habracha.

The Sforno submits that Moses was concerned that the Covenant that he had renewed with the people would not be accepted joyously because the people would be distracted by mourning for his death. He, therefore, went to visit the individual tents of Israel to personally inspire the people and to comfort them.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,  declares that by personally visiting the people rather than having them come to him, the entire parasha underscores the extraordinary humility of Moses.

Various Hassidic commentators read more deeply into the term “vayeilech,” ְ
that Moses went. What is implied here by the term “went,” say the Hassidic masters, is that Moses “went” and entered into the soul of each individual Jew. This is what is implied in Deuteronomy 31 by the phrase, אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל —“ehl kol Yisrael,” that Moses spoke these things “to all of Israel.” It teaches that Moses’ spirit entered into the soul of each Jew. The real reason that no one knows Moses’ burial place (Deuteronomy 34:6), is because the soul of Moses is “buried” deep in the recesses of every Jew.

It is fascinating to note that Yonatan ben Uziel   in his Aramaic translation of the Bible, explains the words “and Moses went,” to mean that Moses went to the Beit Hamidrash, to the House of Study.

What is the origin of this unusual interpretation? Rashi, in Deuteronomy 31:2, concludes that when Moses says, “I am no longer able to go out and come in,” he means that the well-springs of wisdom were shut off to Moses. He, therefore, went to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study, to be taught Torah by others.

The Ba’al HaTurim notes that before the words, “Vayeilech Moshe, “and Moses went,” the previous parasha, Nitzavim, concludes with the words, עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם, לָתֵת לָהֶם –the land that the Lord your G-d swore to give your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Ba’al HaTurim suggests that Moses actually went back in history to visit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in order to inform them that the Al-mighty was keeping His promise, and was going to give the land of Israel to the Jewish people through the hand of Joshua.

The confluence between the imminent death of Moses in parashat Vayeilech, and the observance of the holy day of Yom Kippur, is by no means coincidental. I have often noted that Yom Kippur is a day on which all the Children of Israel “experience” death: On Yom Kippur there is no eating, drinking, bathing, anointing in oil, or engaging in sexual activity. The reason for this is that only one who has been dead, and comes back to life, can truly appreciate the gift of being alive.

In parashat Vayeilech, Moses teaches the people how to prepare for death by leaving the world with a sense of hope and the assurance that life continues beyond the physical life of any particular individual, no matter how great, no matter how indispensable–-even Moses.

It is especially important to acknowledge on these High Holy Days that a little bit of Moses’ soul is implanted in each Jew. As long as we live and loyally practice the words of Torah that were transmitted to us by the great Moses, Moses continues to live, and so do the People of Israel.

It is imperative, especially during these Holy Days, for all Jews to focus on the holy spirit of Moses that is implanted in each and every one of us. It is that monumental spiritual gift that provides true and deeper meaning to our own lives, and guarantees the eternity of the People of Israel.

Chag Samayach.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah and a Chatima Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.  Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, September 18th through nightfall on September 19th, 2018. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 23rd, 24th and 25th, 2018. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, September 30th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 1st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 1st and continues through Tuesday, October 2nd.

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Nitzavim-Rosh Hashana 5779-2018

Whatever Became of Sin?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to Rabbi Hayyim Angel, this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, contains “one of the greatest expositions on repentance in the Torah.”

Rashi, in Deuteronomy 29:12, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, maintains that when the People of Israel heard the Tochacha (G-d’s reproof of the people) and the terrifying litany of 98 curses it contained, they were frightened and depressed by the prediction of what seemed to be a hopeless future.

Moses then comforted the people, telling them, Deuteronomy 29:9, אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, ”You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d.” In effect, Moses told the people that just as G-d had not abandoned them before, so will He be certain to embrace them in the future. Although the Tochacha was intended to prevent the people from future sinning, if they did stray, the punishments would bring them atonement, not destruction.

In parashat Nitzavim, Moses gathers all of the people together on the last day of his life, from the most exalted to the lowliest, and, for the last time, initiated them again into the Covenant of G-d.

A new concept was introduced– עֲרֵבוּת, ‘arayvut,’ the concept of mutual responsibility for one another. From now on, it was not enough for the people to just behave properly, they were expected to be responsible for all Jews and to help them to properly observe the Torah, and prevent them from violating its statutes. With the introduction of the revolutionary idea of arayvut, Moses declares, that no Jew may be indifferent to the shortcomings of their fellow Jews, and that public desecrations of the Torah must be the concern of every Jew.

The introduction of the revolutionary concept of mutual responsibility, fully justifies referring to chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, as “One of the greatest expositions on repentance in the Torah.”

In 1973, Karl Menninger published his renowned analysis of contemporary society, Whatever Became of Sin? In this volume, Menninger boldly questions what was wrong in his time with society’s ethics, values, and morality, and asserts that the answer lies within society itself.

Menninger wrote this volume at a time when the “new morality,” had emerged, when “Do your own thing” became the operating principle of many young people’s lives. It was a time when multitudes of young people felt that they must throw away all restraints on their behavior and sexual activity, and focus either on caring for themselves, promoting racial equality and the elimination of poverty. Some young people at the time abandoned any sense of responsibility and simply “dropped out.” They became “flower-children,” began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and joined ashrams and communes.

It was in this environment in which Menninger wrote his very impactful volume, Whatever Became of Sin?

Menninger and other sociologists specifically noted the contemporary practice of avoiding the word “sin” in conversation. A person who committed a crime did not “sin.” He was usually crazy, out of his mind, or on drugs.

The radio commentator, Dennis Prager, points to the dreadful error of calling mass-shooters “psychopaths,” rather than “evil people.” Attributing these nefarious actions to a malady, according to Prager, removes the responsibility from the perpetrator.

Judaism has long declared (Deuteronomy 24:16) לֹא יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא יוּמְתוּ עַל אָבוֹת, אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ , Parents may not be put to death because of children, and children may not be put to death because of parents. Every person shall be put to death for their own sin. A third innocent person may not be punished for the sin of another. Genesis 9:6, clearly states, “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did G-d make man.”

Contemporary Western society, says Rabbi Angel, acknowledges only “crimes,” not “sins.” Rabbi Angel explains that from the contemporary perspective,

Human beings have rights, including the right to life, body, and property. In addition, obligations do not have an independent existence; they stem from human rights. The right to one’s life and body implies the obligation not to injure others. The right to property implies the obligation not to steal. When we speak of crime, mainly we mean of a person’s rights.

In contrast, Judaism does not see every obligation as deriving from the rights of fellow human beings. Transgressions between individuals not only violate the rights of that individual, but also violate the Divine command. While both Western thought and the Torah attribute supreme value to human life, the Torah maintains that the prohibition of shedding human blood does not originate simply from a person’s right to life, but because that person was created in G-d’s image.

Rabbi Angel writes,

The Western world has no vocabulary for dealing with evil, and often refuses even to call it evil. One historian refers to Hitler and Stalin as having mental disorders. Many call terrorists madmen, rather than evil people. The idea that there is no sin also makes it easy to shift responsibility away from even the greatest of criminals.

The Torah, in parashat Nitzavim, calls upon each person to accept responsibility for their own transgressions, and not to simply wave them away by attributing them to evil inclinations, or environmental temptations.

That is what Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the Ten Days of Repentance are meant to represent: The High Holiday season is the time for every person to take a stand and assume responsibility for their past actions and commit themselves to transformational change. When this is done, when every Jew assumes that responsibility, Jews the world over will join our Jewish ancestors in the more than three millennia of Jewish history, in which Jews, starting from Moses on the last day of his life standing in front of all the people of Israel, have boldly declared their responsibility for their own actions, thus committing themselves to improving their own personal behavior and profoundly influencing the world with their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5779 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 9th, 10th and 11th, 2018. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, September 12th from dawn until nightfall.

Kee Tavo 5778-2018

“A Wandering Aramean?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses, facing the final days of his life, informs the people what to expect will happen once they enter the Promised Land, conquer it, and allocate the land to the tribes.

In order to show their gratitude to G-d for His constant kindness, the Hebrew farmers are instructed to take בִּכּוּרִים , bikkurim, several samples of the first ripened fruits and crops of the seven special species for which Israel was known, bring them to the Temple and give them as a gift to the Kohanim, the priests, as thanks for all G-d’s kindness.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 47b, describes the colorful ceremony of dedicating the Bikkurim. The Kohen placed his hand under the hand of the owner, and together they lifted and waved the basket filled with new fruits. The farmer then took the basket back from the Kohen and recited a special declaration, underscoring the fact that none of the very special events, from the Exodus until the peoples’ arrival in the Land of Israel, could have happened without G-d’s gracious intervention.

The basket was then laid down before the altar and presented as a gift to the Kohen, to the Temple, and to G-d.

The farmer’s beautiful declaration is recorded in Deuteronomy, 26:3: הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַהשׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ, “I declare today to the L-rd your G-d, that I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.”

The owner of the Bikkurim basket calls out before G-d the following statement found in Deuteronomy 26:5, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב, An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation–-great, strong and numerous.

This declaration is followed by a description of the Egyptian mistreatment of the Israelite slaves and G-d’s response to the cries of their forefathers. The Al-mighty rescued the downtrodden slaves, bringing the people out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and bringing them to this place, the land flowing with milk and honey. The farmer then proclaims, Deuteronomy 26:10, וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי השׁם, And now, behold! I brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O L-rd!”

This dramatic declaration underscores the need to thank G-d, not only for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of the constant attempts to destroy them, but also for the extraordinary material success of the Jews. In every situation where Jews were given an opportunity to show their talents, they flourished.

Despite the beauty and intensity of the declaration, the rabbis are challenged by one phrase found in the opening declaration. In Deuteronomy 26:5, the farmer calls out, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father!” Who is the Aramean referred to in this verse? What is the meaning of the word “oved?” And why is the verb in the present tense, if it’s referring to the past?

The Rashbam suggests that אֲרַמִּי , Arami, clearly refers to our forefather Abraham, who hailed from Aram-Naharaim, Mesopotamia. The word אֹבֵד , oved, meaning “lost,” refers to the fact that Abraham was exiled from place to place, and even when he finally settled in the Holy Land, he moved from settlement to settlement like a lost sheep. However, the phrase, “and then there he became a nation–-great, strong, and innumerous,” is difficult to apply to Abraham, unless it refers to Abraham’s descendants.

In his early years, the great Abraham had to leave his homeland Aram, Mesopotamia, because of his hostility to idolatry. When he moved to Canaan, and began to prosper, he was subject to many challenges from the local inhabitants. He even had to buy a grave for his wife Sarah at a greatly inflated price. Who would ever believe that he would rise to such great heights?

The Sforno and Rabbeinu Bachya, suggest that Arami, alludes to our forefather Jacob, who is referred to in the Bible as an “Aramean” because of the many days he dwelt with his father-in-law, Laban, in Aram. He is called oved, lost, or poor, because he too was terribly impoverished.

Onkelos concludes that Arami, refers to Laban, the Armenean. Oved Avi, refers to the fact that Laban tried to destroy our forefather Jacob who is described as going down to Egypt. This statement appears in the declaration of Bikkurim to underscore the gratefulness that the People of Israel have to G-d for their survival, especially in light of wily enemies like Laban.

Rashi  also concludes that Arami, refers to Laban. Laban was prepared to destroy everything when he chased after Jacob, which is the interpretation that is recorded in the Passover Hagaddah. Fortunately, because of Divine intervention, Laban did not succeed in destroying our father Jacob.

Even though Laban himself admits that G-d Al-mighty prevented him from destroying the Jewish people, his true nefarious intentions were obvious. It could very well be that Laban would not have physically harmed the family of Jacob. However, causing the family of Jacob to assimilate with Laban’s family would have meant the end of the Jewish people.

That is why Laban is considered even more dangerous than Pharaoh. Pharaoh is an open enemy, whereas Laban is a secret, hidden enemy, who pretends to love his family.

The Ohr HaChaim sees the entire portion regarding arriving in an “exalted land,” as an allusion to arriving in the “ultimate world” of G-d, meaning heaven, where every Jew will bring before G-d the first fruits of the labors he performed in this world.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh maintains that in addition to declaring before the Al-mighty the good deeds that were performed during one’s lifetime, every Jew will also have to apologize. The wily Aramean, is the יֵצֶר הָרָע , Yezter Hara, the evil inclination, who tries to constantly deceive every person. Because the evil spirits constantly try to destroy our souls, the word oved, is mentioned in the present tense, rather than the past.

To save us from the evil inclination, every Jew needs to regularly cry out to G-d. Without His help, we cannot survive.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5778-2018

“The Impact of Performing Mitzvot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, has more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah, featuring a total of 74 mitzvot, 47 negative and 27 positive.

In her always astute and penetrating analysis of the Torah portions, Nehama Leibowitz, remarks that since Kee Teitzei contains the most mitzvot, it is entirely appropriate to focus on the overall aim and purpose of the Divine commandments, the mitzvot.

The beautiful mitzvah of, שִׁלּוּחַ הַקֵּן, Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks or the eggs from the nest, that is contained in parashat Kee Teitzei, is a primary example of a most meaningful mitzvah.

The Midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:3, regards the role of mitzvoth, as serving as “good angels.” The good angels accompany those who perform mitzvot, gracing their daily acts and consecrating their earthly deeds.

Mitzvot elevate even a person’s most mundane daily actions, such as tilling the soil, earning a livelihood, acquiring clothing, grooming one’s hair and building one’s house.

The Midrash concludes by saying, “G-d said: Even if you are not engaged in any particular work, but are merely journeying on the road, the precepts [mitzvot] accompany you. From where do we learn this? For it is said: ‘If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way,’ etc.” That is why Scripture, in Proverbs 1:9, refers to the performance of mitzvot as לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ, that mitzvot are a crown of glory, a beautiful adornment, a decoration of honor for those who perform them.

Professor Leibowitz points to another approach to understanding the aim of the mitzvot that is found in the Midrash on parashat Shelach. The Torah in Numbers 15:38, declares וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת, that “they make for themselves tzitzit,” fringes on the corners of their garments.

The Midrash states that the Torah and the commandments were given to serve as an inheritance to Israel in the hereafter. Every earthly action and deed is somehow associated with a Torah commandment. An Israelite who goes out to plow, sow, knead dough, who sees a bird’s nest, plants a tree, buries a dead person, builds a house, or wraps himself in a cloak, will invariably encounter a mitzvah that directly pertains to that action.

The Midrash Rabbah in Numbers 17:77 compares it to a case of a person who falls into the water. The captain throws out a rope and shouts to the drowning person, “Take hold of the rope, do not let go, otherwise you’ll lose your life.” So, says the Midrash, G-d says to Israel, “Cleave to the commandments. Adhere to them, for they are your life.”

The first Midrash sees mitzvot as serving as ornaments, adding grace and beauty to a person’s life, as he or she walks through the garden of the Holy One blessed be He, in pursuit of his or her own personal advancement. The second Midrash sees the performance of mitzvot as far more crucial than an ornament. Mitzvot are an essential ingredient of life, saving those who are drowning in the stormy seas of their own selfish passions and pursuits.

Professor Leibowitz cites two mitzvot in the parasha to demonstrate the powerful impact of mitzvot. The first, is the mitzvah of Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird, as an example of extraordinary compassion, the compassion shown to a mother bird when taking her chicks. Much more however, does this mitzvah serve as an example of the compassion that human beings are expected to show their fellow human beings, far beyond what might be normally expected.

A second example is the return of lost property. This mitzvah is first mentioned in Exodus 23:4, כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ, When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. The mitzvah of returning lost property is repeated again in Deuteronomy 22:1, לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים, וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, You shall not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them; you shall, in any case, bring them again to your brother.

Ramban points out that there’s a subtle, but critical, difference between the two verses. The verses in Exodus uses the expression טוֹעֶה, to’eh, lost, whereas the verse in Deuteronomy uses the expression נִדָּחִים, Nidachim, if they were pushed away, implying that they had wandered far afield, requiring much time and effort to recover them.

Nevertheless, no matter how great the effort, the Torah insists on the obligation to restore the lost property to its rightful owner.

The expression in Deuteronomy 22:1, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם, You shall surely return them, is interpreted in the Talmud to teach that even if the finder brought the lost animal back, and it ran away again, even four or five times, the finder is obligated to bring it back again, and again, until it is restored to its owner.

Rashi says that the phrase, “You shall surely restore them,” teaches that the finder must make certain that there is something to restore to the original owner. While waiting in the finder’s home for the rightful owner to claim his lost property, the lost animal must not be allowed to eat the equivalent of its entire value. Therefore, the finder should rather sell the animal, after a short while, so that there will still be value left to return to the proper owner.

The story is told in the Midrash Rabbah Deuteronomy 3:5, that on one occasion several men came to the city where Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair lived, and deposited with him two measures of barley. Unfortunately, they forgot about their deposit and went away.

Concerned about restoring the value of the barley to the original owners, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair proceeded to sow the barley every year, harvested the crops and stored them. After seven years, when the original owners returned to claim their lost measures of barley, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair called them, and instructed them to take several granaries full of grain, that was harvested from their original two measures of barley.

These exceptional stories vividly demonstrate that the mitzvot can surely be a diadem, a crown, on the human head. Mitzvot help Jews behave in a manner that goes way beyond the call of duty.

As extraordinary as that seems, tradition seems to say that these actions should not be considered extraordinary. Rather, they are to be the Jewish way of life, and without them, we will surely drown.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5778-2018

“Identifying the True Prophet”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we, once again, encounter the difficult challenge of identifying the true prophet who speaks faithfully in the name of the Al-mighty.

In Deuteronomy 18:15, we read, נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ השׁם  אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ  אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן, A prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me [Moses] shall the L-rd your G-d establish for you–-to him you shall hearken.

A few verses later, in Deuteronomy 18:20, the Torah warns of the dangers of a false prophet, אַךְ הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יָזִיד לְדַבֵּר דָּבָר בִּשְׁמִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִיו לְדַבֵּר, וַאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בְּשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וּמֵת הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא,  But the prophet who will willfully speak a word in My name, that which I have not commanded him to speak, or shall speak in the names of the gods of others–-that prophet shall die.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 18:21, then asks: How can we know for sure that the false prophet is speaking the word that G-d has not spoken? The Torah responds, Deuteronomy 18:22, if the prophet predicts that something will happen, and it does not occur, that prophet has spoken falsely and you shall not fear him.

The general consensus regarding the vetting of prophets is that once a person has gained recognition as a genuine prophet and directs the people to obey the dictates of the Torah, it is required for every Jew to respect and obey that prophet.

The Talmud and the rabbinic codes, clarify the true prophet’s qualifications as well as the false prophet’s deficiencies. A prophet, who insists that a mitzvah of the Torah is forever cancelled, is a false prophet.

While a true prophet may declare that a particular Torah mitzvah is suspended, it may only be suspended temporarily, as a one-time measure. However, if that temporary measure incites people to worship idolatry, that prophet is clearly false.

A true prophet will never speak in the name of other gods. A prophet who encourages people to observe a particular mitzvah of the Torah, but does so in the name of an idolatrous god, such as Ba’al Pe’or, is a false prophet.

According to Maimonides, (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 10:4) a prophet who prophecies that evil shall befall a particular nation or people, such as the people of Nineveh in the time of Jonah, and that prophecy is not fulfilled, may not necessarily be a false prophet. After all, repentance by sinners can forestall the impending evil, as occurred in the time of Jonah. However, according to many commentators, if a prophet prophecies that a good thing will happen, and it does not happen, that prophet is false. Others say that the failure of a positive prediction to be fulfilled is not necessarily an indication of false prophecy since once-deserving people can lose their reward due to recent improper behavior.

According to tradition, there were 55 prophets–48 male and 7 female. The Talmud (Megilah 14a) records that there might have been thousands of true prophets who were recognized by the authorities–the members of the Sanhedrin. However, only those prophecies that were relevant to all times were recorded for posterity, otherwise neither the prophecies nor the prophets’ names were recorded.

What is the status of prophecy today?

The general assumption is that because of the decline of the generations, the power of prophecy was lost sometime during the time of the Second Temple.

However, others suggest that the absence of prophecy today could very well indicate that prophets are no longer needed because the world is so much more sophisticated than it was in ancient times. In fact, because of science and the expansion of knowledge, humankind has a much more accurate ability to predict the future.

It is not only the ability to forecast the weather, eclipses of the sun, high tides and low tides that we possess today. The explosion of knowledge could also indicate that rather than communicating His messages from the higher abodes of heaven, G-d has brought the power of prophecy down to earth. It may very well be, that there are people among us today, who, though not identified as prophets, have extraordinarily sophisticated senses of spirituality. Through their enhanced spirituality and advanced knowledge of Torah, they have the ability to advise others properly in times of emergency and challenge, and to communicate the essential “Divine” information that is necessary for our survival.

The test that we face today, is to identify those true contemporary “prophets” who carry the special messages of G-d in their very mortal and non-supernatural manner.

 

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5778-2018

“The Torah’s Definition of True Wealth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we read some of the most exalted statements ever recorded in human literature concerning caring for the poor and the downtrodden.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:7, states, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, If there be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in the Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. The Torah then concludes, Deuteronomy 15:8, כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

When reading these verses, we must bear in mind that they were written over 3,000 years ago, at a time when, aside from the Jews, charity and caring for the widow, orphan and poor were not at all a cause for concern among any other people or nation.

Especially in the seventh year of the shemita cycle, when the farmland lay fallow and unworked, the Torah warns that the Hebrew farmer not look malevolently upon their destitute brothers and refuse to support them as the seventh year, shemita, approaches.

The Torah truly set a new standard of concern for the needy and the poor by proclaiming in Deuteronomy 15:10, נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ, כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ, You shall surely give him [the needy and the poor], and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this matter the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all your deeds, and in your every undertaking.

What is the operating rationale behind these exalted statements and noble sentiments that are unparalleled in human and religious literature or culture?

The psalmist, in Psalms 24:1, declares, “The earth and its fullness belong to the L-rd, the world, and all its inhabitants.” Judaism rejects the notion of “personal” property. Everything belongs to G-d! Humans are merely caretakers of G-d’s property that is placed temporarily in our possession.

As if to underscore the idea of caretaking, it has become a popular Jewish custom to inscribe the books in one’s personal home library with the verse from Psalms 24:1, and then writing, בִּרְשׁוּת , Birshut,  this volume, is only in my possession, as if the volume is borrowed from G-d.

The rabbis declare, in Beitza 16a, that on Rosh Hashanah, a person’s income is allotted from one new year to the next, with the exception of expenses for Shabbat and holiday meals, and the cost of Jewish education. According to Rabbeinu Bachya (click here for full bio) even those who work harder will not earn more, and those who work less will still earn the same. One cannot increase or decrease what has been ordained in Heaven.

The prophet Malachi 3:10, declares, וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת אָמַר השׁם צְבָאוֹת, Test me herewith, says the L-rd of Hosts, if I will not open to you the windows of Heaven and pour out a blessing that shall be more than sufficiency. The prophet assures those generous people who bring tithes and give charity with an open heart that G-d will provide for them. Despite the general prohibition of testing G-d, when it comes to charity, G-d implores the people to test Him by giving charity and expecting to be rewarded.

A similar theme is found in parashat Re’eh. In Deuteronomy 14:22, the Torah proclaims, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, You must surely tithe all the produce of your planting that your field yields on a daily basis. The Talmud, in Shabbat 119a, in a play on words, declares, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְעַשֵּׁר, Tithe, so that you will become wealthy.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, says that this rabbinic statement is not a promise of riches for giving tithes. Rather, it is a formula for self-education. After all, when a person gives, he actually decreases his material wealth. Yet, by sharing his material blessings with others, he is cultivating in himself true wealth: that of being שָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, sa’may’ach b’chel’ko, of being satisfied with what he has.

Rabbi Schwab explains that only a person who gives charity to others can fully realize that his wealth is indeed sufficient, so much so, that he has enough to share with others. Now that he is truly happy with his lot and with what he has, this realization automatically makes him rich.

May you be blessed.