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Kee Tisah 5779-2019

“The ‘Vengeful’ G-d”
(Revised and updated from Kee Tisah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the infamous episode of the Golden Calf.

In preparation for the Revelation, Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights to study Torah with the Al-mighty. But, because of a miscalculation regarding the date of Moses’ return, the People of Israel thought that Moses had abandoned them, and demanded of Aaron to make for them a new leader. Aaron tried to delay the people, but eventually the Golden Calf is created. The crazed people cry out to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4) אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל , This is your God, O’ Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!

G-d is furious at the people’s actions and tells Moses to descend from the mountain, saying to Moses that the people that he (Moses) has brought up from Egypt have become corrupt. G-d, in anger, denounces the people, saying in Exodus 32:9, רָאִיתִי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא , “I have seen this people and behold, they are a stiff-necked people.” “And now Moses,” says G-d, “desist from Me, let My anger flare against them, and I will annihilate them, and shall make of you [Moses] a great nation.”

Moses pleads with G-d that the destruction of Israel will be seen by the other nations as G-d’s lack of omnipotence. G-d reconsiders, so to speak, and Moses comes down the mountain with the two tablets of testimony in his hands. When Moses (Exodus 32:19) sees the people dancing joyously around the Gold Calf, his own anger flares. He throws the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.

Moses then calls out (Exodus 32:26): “Whosoever is for G-d, join me!” All the Levites gather around him and exact vengeance on those who had led the rebellion of the Golden Calf. Three thousand men of Israel fall that day at the hands of the Levites. Despite Moses’ pleas to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people, G-d strikes the people with a plague.

Moses spends the next forty days praying that G-d restore Israel to its previous state of eminence. The second set of tablets is delivered to the Jewish people. The story concludes when G-d reveals to Moses His “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.”

Although the reading of the Book of Exodus (the second of the Five Books of Moses) has not yet been completed, one could already conclude that the G-d of Israel is a “vengeful G-d.” This is the G-d Who destroys the world by means of a Flood in the times of Noah; the G-d Who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son; the G-d Who enslaves the Jewish people in Egypt; the G-d Who kills Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, at the investiture of the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle; the G-d Who swallows up Korach and 250 of his men as the earth opens; the G-d Who decrees that an entire generation of Jews will never be allowed to enter the land of Israel because of the sin of the spies; the G-d Who refuses to allow Moses and Aaron to enter the land of Israel because Moses hit the rock, rather than speak to the rock. These seemingly unending instances of Divine anger and acts of retribution are perhaps why the nations of the world refer to the G-d of the Hebrew scriptures, the G-d of the so-called “Old Testament,” as the “G-d of Vengeance,” while the G-d of the Christian Bible is often called the “god of love” or the “god of mercy.”

The Torah in Leviticus 19:18, clearly forbids vengeance. לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ , You shall not wreak vengeance nor bear a grudge toward the people of your nation. The Talmud, in Yoma 23a, defines vengeance, by citing the following example: If one farmer asks to borrow a hoe from a second farmer and is refused, that first farmer is not permitted to be vengeful and refuse to lend a spade to the farmer who was unkind to him, should he ask to borrow one. Leviticus 19:18, however, goes even further, demanding, “Do not bear a grudge.” The Talmud explains that this means that one is not even permitted to say to the farmer who was unkind yesterday: “I’m not like you, I’m not a low-life. Here, take my spade and use it in good health!” And yet, the same G-d who prohibits vengeance and harboring a grudge, seems to be both a vengeful and grudge-bearing G-d. How could that be?

Of course, there is a profound difference between people being unnecessarily mean, and a G-d who demands accountability. One cannot equate a valid and deserving punishment meted out to a wicked person, with vengeance against an arrogant or mean neighbor.

As the story of the Golden Calf concludes, a second set of tablets are carved out. In Exodus 34:4, Moses rises early in the morning and ascends Mount Sinai. G-d descends in a cloud and stands with Moses. Moses calls out the name of G-d, as G-d proclaims: “Hashem, Hashem, G-d, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for Thousands of Generations, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses, but does not Cleanse Completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” These, so-called, “13 Attributes of G-d’s Mercy” represent the ultimate level of Divine forgiveness. By invoking the 13 attributes, G-d gives the Jewish people a second chance.

Let’s look at this again! There is an inconsistency, a blatant inconsistency in the thirteen attributes!! Exodus 34:7 reads,
וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה, פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת , stating clearly that G-d does not entirely cleanse the sinners. In fact, He recalls the iniquity of the parents on the children and the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations!

Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish, was asked a profound question: If we are required, as the Torah in Deuteronomy 11:22 states, לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו, וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ ,  to walk in all His [G-d’s] ways and cling to Him, and urged to constantly imitate G-d, then perhaps we, humans, should be vengeful as well, since the last of G-d’s “13 Attributes of Mercy” is vengeance, and not cleansing completely? He answered: If a human being’s act of vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps that person is truly entitled to be vengeful as well.

In real life, there is vengeance that is entirely legitimate. In fact, sometimes legitimate vengeance is not cruel at all, but may actually be a reflection of mercy. There comes a time when those in authority need to say, “Enough is enough!” Just as G-d also says: “Enough is enough, this cannot continue, this must stop!” And by stopping the undesirable actions, we perform an act of mercy, not vengeance. Stopping a cruel and wicked person is certainly an act of mercy for the victims. It may even be an act of mercy for those cruel and wicked people themselves.

Let’s face it, Judaism’s goals are radically different from conventional practices. Judaism sees the world differently and values the world differently. Our G-d, the G-d of the Hebrews, is surely a G-d of love, but also a G-d of accountability. In the Jewish religion, one doesn’t just walk away from one’s misdeeds. People are held accountable, responsible, and expected to mend their ways when they err; and if they don’t, there’s a price to be paid by all for improper actions.

Yes, our G-d holds His people to a strict account. But, by holding the Jewish people to a strict account, He performs for them a great act of mercy. As a result, His people, hopefully, become better people, stronger, more knowledgeable and even more merciful people, especially when we ultimately see the toll that sinfulness exacts on us and upon others.

Yes, as Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish said: If vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps vengeance is indeed justified!

May you be blessed.

Tetzaveh 5779-2019

“Clothes: A Reflection of the Divine Image
(Revised and updated from Tetzaveh 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Tetzaveh, we read of the בִּגְדֵי כְּהֻנָּה , bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments, and the many precise descriptions concerning the garments and their manufacture.

The priests could perform the service in the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle, and the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁBeit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, only when they were wearing the garments. The כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל –Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, usually wore eight garments, sometimes called בִּגְדֵי זָהָב –Bigdei Zahav, gold vestments, since some of the materials contained gold, whereas the ordinary kohanim wore only four, mostly linen, vestments.

The lay priest’s four garments consisted of: (1) The כְּתֹנֶת —k’tonet, a robe made of white linen with a checkerboard design. The white, of course, represented purity, and stood for the priest’s opposition to social transgressions and murder. (2) A second garment worn by the kohain was the אַבְנֵטavnet, which was a belt, made of multi-colored woven threads. The belt was worn to separate between the upper part of the kohain‘s body and the lower part of his body, to place a “barrier” between the heart and the mind and the sexual organs, and stood for opposition to alien thoughts, especially during prayer. (3) Both the lay priest and the High Priest wore a head covering, made of a long linen ribbon. The High Priest’s hat, known as a מִצְנֶפֶתmitznefet, was designed to be a little more elaborate than the lay priest’s hat, מִגְבַּעַתmig’baat. According to the commentators, the hat represented opposition to conceit. (4) Mentioned briefly are the pants, the מִכְנָסַיִם –michnasayim, which the priests wore. They were very much like britches, covering the torso and reaching to the knees, and represented sexual modesty.

The Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, wore four additional garments: (1) On top of the robe, he wore a מֽעִילmeh’eel, a poncho-like garment, made of תְּכֵלֶתt’cheilet, sky blue thread. On the bottom of the meh’eel was a series of alternating pomegranates and bells, both woven and made of metal. The meh’eel represented the mantle of duty for those who serve the Holy Nation. The bells would tinkle as the High Priest walked, representing the Kohain Gadol’s opposition to gossip and לְשׁוֹן הָרָעLashon Harah, evil speech(2) On top of the meh’eel, the Kohain Gadol wore an אֵפוֹדay’fod, an apron-like garment with shoulder straps onto which was attached the חֹשֶׁןcho’shen, the breastplate. The ay’fod was similar in appearance to a garment which was commonly used by idolaters, but in this instance it represented the priest’s fierce opposition to idolatry, and the Jewish people’s dedication to holiness. (3) The cho’shen, the breastplate, woven of threads of many colors, had four rows of three precious stones set into it, one stone representing each of the twelve tribes. Letters were etched on the stones, and, according to tradition, the High Priest was able to receive messages from G-d concerning the People of Israel by having the letters light up. Tradition maintains that inside the cho’shen, was the אוּרִים וְתֻמִּיםUrim V’tumim, the sacred name of G-d, which gave the breastplate its spiritual power. The breastplate is generally considered to represent the firm commitment to law and legalism in Judaism. (4) The final, eighth garment that the High Priest wore was the צִיץ tzitz, a rectangular gold plate that the priest affixed to his forehead. This gold plate had the words קֹדֶשׁ לְהשׁם –Kodesh la’Shem, Holy unto G-d, inscribed on it. The tzitz represented the priest’s opposition to עַזּוּת פָּנִיםazut panim, obstinacy, and firm commitment to the service of G-d.

The materials with which the garments were manufactured were also unusually symbolic. The colored garments were manufactured of four threads, each of which had six strands. The white linen represented purity. The wool dyed purple, אַרְגָּמָן –argaman represented royalty. The תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִיtola’at shani, the wool dyed crimson, represented the animal world since the color came from the blood of a worm. The wool dyed blue, t’cheilet, represented the heavens. So we see that we have both the animal and vegetable worlds represented. To each of the four colored threads was added a single thread of gold, a substance which is found pure in nature, and represented the mineral world.

The rabbis tell us (Talmud, Z’vachim 17b) that בִּזְמָן שֶׁבִּגְדֵיהֶם עֲלֵיהֶם – כְּהוּנָתָם עֲלֵיהֶם , as long as the garments were on the priests, their priesthood was on them. If they were not in their garments, however, then their priesthood was not on them and they were rendered ineligible to serve. Just as representatives of royalty wear royal garments, so do these garments, in effect, represent the royalty of the priesthood, and serve to enhance the dignity and prestige of the priests in the eyes of the people.

Clothes have played an important role in Judaism and in Jewish history. Recall how important clothes were in the life of Joseph: the coat of many colors, the cloak that Mrs. Potiphar tried to remove from him, and the royal garments that he eventually wore.

Attentive students of the Bible realize that clothes are extraordinarily important. The commentator Benno Jacob, points out that all the accessories of the early human beings were self-discovered–-fire, the wheel, but not clothes. We are told, Genesis 3:21: וַיַּעַשׂ השׁם אֱ־לֹקִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר, וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם , And the Lord G-d made for the human being and his wife leather robes and He dressed them. Clothes distinguished the human being from the beasts. The human being, created in the image of G-d, cannot suffice in his natural created state. Humans must raise themselves above the other creatures, and it is with clothes that the human being is ordained as the priest in the “Sanctuary of Nature.”

We know that in society today clothes reflect the person. The chef, the butcher, and the baker all have unique uniforms. The student in school, the plumber, the taxi driver, the basketball player, each dress in their own particular manner. Often priests, rabbis and Moslem clerics have special dress or uniforms. Formal clothes consist of the tuxedo and the elegant evening gown, while the informal, so-called “dress-down” garments are often sweaters and slacks. We quickly recognize the hat of the police officer, the firefighter and the naval captain, the shoes of the marathon runner, the boots of the fisherman, and the footwear of the construction worker. We have less-revealing turtleneck sweaters and saris, and more-revealing strapless gowns and bikinis. All these fashions reflect the personality, the function of, and, at times, the values of the wearer.

As Benno Jacob writes so insightfully in his commentary on Genesis:

Clothing is not merely against cold or ornamentative. It constitutes the primary and necessary distinguishing mark of human society. In the moral consciousness of the human being, it serves to set that the human being higher than the beast… Clothing is a symbol of human dignity, nakedness the essence of the beast. The nakedness of the human being symbolizes immorality.

The fact that the L-rd Himself gave Adam and Eve garments and clothed them, indicates that clothing is not just a societal convention, but an extension of the work of creation, a kind of “second skin” given to the human being, a nobler material encasement.

In her commentary, Nehama Leibowitz, summarizes Benno Jacobs’ position, arguing that G-d clothed the man and the woman as if, through that act, He consecrated them as the “parents” of human society. The human being, argues Leibowitz, who was created in the Divine image, must strive to raise himself/herself higher and higher and not be content with what nature has endowed. By donning the garments, the human being, who serves as the priest in the “Temple of Nature,” shows that those garments symbolize that the human being is investing him/herself with good moral qualities.

Who would ever imagine that a few pieces of clothing could have such profound meaning?

May you be blessed.

Terumah 5779-2019

“The Mishkan: Underscoring the Centrality of the Home in Jewish Life”

(Revised and updated from Terumah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we begin a series of four parashiot that deal with the building of the מִשְׁכָּן , Mishkan, the temporary Tabernacle, which traveled with the Jews during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

Because this Hebrew calendar year is a leap year, none of the four parashiot, Terumah, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel, or Pekudei, are combined as they often are in a normal year. Together with parashat Kee Tisah, we will be reading five consecutive parashiot devoted to the building of the Tabernacle. These parashiot often go into excruciating detail concerning erecting the Tabernacle and the manufacture of the priestly garments. For those of us who are faced with the daunting task of teaching these parashiot, we can really say that these next five weeks are, in effect, an architect’s dream and a rabbi’s nightmare.

It’s been said that “G-d is in the details.” Perhaps because of this perception, rather than be intimidated by the details concerning the measurements and contents of the Tabernacle–the lengths and the widths, the cubits and the handbreadths, the gold, the silver, the purple and skins dyed red–it behooves us to try to look at and understand these details. As we know, every single word and nuance of the description of the Tabernacle reflects a most valuable lesson from G-d concerning life and the way the Torah wishes us to live our lives.

The most well-known verse concerning the Tabernacle is found in Exodus 25:8, וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָםּ , G-d says, “They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” Clearly, G-d cannot be circumscribed or limited to any particular space or location. Notice how careful scripture is to underscore that G-d does not actually dwell in the sanctuary, but among “them”–the people–and that the sanctuary is to serve as the location where the people are to go to focus their attention on G-d.

As we know from our studies concerning Shabbat, Judaism sanctifies “time” not “space.” While the sanctuaries and the Temples that were built throughout the ages are indeed very holy and valuable places for the Jewish people, the Jewish people were able to survive for millennia without a Temple or a sanctuary. In fact, the secret of Jewish survival is not to be found in the in the coverings or columns of the Tabernacle, but rather in the architectural description of the holy furnishings, particularly the Holy Ark which housed the Torah.

The Torah tells us that there should be handles or staves as an integral part of the Ark, so that the Ark can be carried and transported by the priests. Most of the furnishings of the Tabernacle also had staves so that they too would be portable. But, only the staves of the Ark were never to be removed. The Torah declares, Exodus 25:15: לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ , They [the staves] may not be removed from it.

Clearly, the Torah instructs that the Ark must be fashioned in such a manner so as to be constantly portable. Jews can live without a candelabra, can survive without a Table of Showbread, and can even live without the Altar, but the אָרוֹן , the Aron, the Ark which houses the Torah, the legacy of our life, must always be with us. Perhaps that is why, the blessing over Torah study is constructed in the present tense, נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה , “Blessed are you, G-d, who continually gives us the Torah,” as if the Torah were given just a moment ago.

When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 after the Common Era, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai allowed for various rituals that had always been performed exclusively in the Temple to be replicated in local synagogues. For example, during Temple times it was permitted only in the Temple itself to sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashana and to use the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot. After the destruction of the Temple, it now became permissible to perform these ritual practices in the local synagogue, which became, in effect, a מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט , a Mikdash Me’at, a Temple in miniature.

It’s important to understand the role of the synagogue. In fact, its name is most revealing. We speak of the synagogue as a בֵּית־כְּנֶסֶת , a Beit Knesset, a house of coming together. Even the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was called the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ , Beit HaMikdash, the house of the Sanctuary. It is also important to note that the house of study, the בֵּית־מִדְרָשׁ , Beit Midrash, was also referred to as bayit, בַּיִת , a home. 

Unquestionably, Jewish tradition is trying to powerfully convey the message, that when we go to worship or when we go to study, it should not be as if we are going to some sacred shrine, some Taj Mahal, but rather that we are, in effect, going home to our bayit. Perhaps Judaism is teaching something even more profound: that unless our homes become dwelling places for G-d, there will be little chance that our religion will be effectively communicated in our synagogues or in our temples.

There is an old Yiddish saying, a truism, “Vee es kriselt sach, yiddlt sach,” as the Christian world goes, so goes the Jewish world! This aphorism underscores the impact of the secular and non-Jewish environment on Jewish consciousness and values, and even practices.

We know, for instance, that in Jewish history Jewish religious leadership did not have the same organizational structure or extensive hierarchy as the Christian church. A shtetl or small city was lucky if it had a local rabbi. Larger cities had, in addition to a chief rabbi, a בֵּית־דִּין , a Beit Din, a court of Jewish law. Very large Jewish neighborhoods at times had a rabbi for their particular quarter. But, there was no such thing as a local pastor or priest for every place of worship. The fact that today most synagogues have resident rabbis is undoubtedly due to the influence of the Christian model.

Similarly, it was unheard of that a community or city rabbi gave a weekly speech or sermon. The rabbi might give a shiur, a Torah class, every day or even several times a day, but public lectures or drashas, were rare occasions indeed, reserved for two special days on the calendar, Shabbat Teshuva, the Sabbath of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and Shabbat Ha’Gadol, the Great Sabbath, prior to Passover when rabbis would call the people together to address them regarding the forthcoming holidays.

It is only quite recently, under the influence of the Christian world, that it became fashionable for rabbis to give weekly lectures or sermons. That is no doubt, why, over the last two hundred years, the synagogue and the temple have become, for many Jews, the focal point of Jewish life, just as the parish or the church serves as the focal point for Christian life.

Unfortunately, the growing centrality of the synagogue, as opposed to the home, is taking its toll on contemporary Jewish life. The transformation from home-centered religious practice to communal religious practice has also taken place in many aspects of everyday Jewish life. We have become, by choice, a people of increasingly incompetent practitioners, habitually relegating even simple religious responsibilities to experts and consultants. Tasks, that were previously performed personally, such as koshering meat, caring for mourners, even burying the dead, are often relegated to “professionals.”

This similar transformation is also taking place in general society, as many aspects of life become increasingly more technically challenging. Most household members no longer possess the simple skills to care for even the most basic needs. Whether it’s a faucet that leaks, or a lamp that needs repair, a hem that needs to be sewn, or nails that need to be cut, we farm it out to experts. This reliance on others, who are presumably more skilled, has left us quite diminished, quite pathetic, and primitive in our lack of basic skills and abilities to even bang a nail in a wall to hang a picture.

Never mind this “inconsequential” stuff. We’ve relegated even some of our most important and vital responsibilities to care-takers. Children are sent off for their care and education earlier and earlier in their lives, often to strangers, who frequently don’t share the parents’ values or traditions.

Today, much of the Jewish world is wrestling with the issues of women’s roles in Jewish life. I personally, fully support expanding women’s roles in education and broadly enhancing women’s educational opportunities. As Educational Director at Lincoln Square Synagogue for 15 years, I was part of the team that led the revolution in adult Jewish education for women in America. But, I believe that our parasha and the nature of the Mishkan, is conveying a very different message concerning the centrality of synagogue. If I had my druthers, I would decrease the role of men in the synagogue, not increase the role of women in the synagogue. What we desperately need today is an increase of the role of parents in the bayit, in the home. Men, especially men (who too often use the synagogue and the Bet Midrash as an excuse to be absent from home), but women as well, must see their home as the central sanctuary of Jewish life.

The Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash were never the central address for Jewish nurturing. At best, Jewish families visited the Beit Hamikdash three or four times a year. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 127:1, אִם השׁם לֹא יִבְנֶה בַיִת, שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ , If the Al-mighty does not build the house, they who build it, labor in vain.

The beautiful folk song, attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, בִּלְבָבִי מִשְׁכָּן אֶבְנֶה , “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh,” perhaps expresses it most poignantly. The composer reflects on the tragic absence of a sanctuary:


Let us build a sanctuary in our hearts to glorify G-d’s honor; and to enhance G-d’s splendor, let us place in that sanctuary an altar. And, for the eternal light, let us take the fire of the akeidah, the binding of Isaac; and for the ultimate sacrifice, let us offer up our souls, our unique souls.


G-d wants our hearts–-not pageantry or lip service, not a good show or performance each week from a talented orator or showman. A sanctuary can only be built from what is sacred. Sanctity emanates from the inner spirit–-and that sense of sanctity is best nurtured at home.

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5779-2019

“From Seemingly Obscure Laws, the Torah Teaches the Ultimate Value of the Sanctity of Human Life(Revised and updated from Mishpatim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, which means “laws,” the Al-mighty instructs Moses to set before the People of Israel the entire structure of civil jurisprudence. Parashat Mishpatim contains a total of 53 of the 613 commandments in the Torah–-23 positive and 30 negative commandments.

Given the Torah’s antiquity, the extent and breadth of these laws and its contemporary relevance, is quite remarkable.

The parasha opens with laws concerning the rights of persons, the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, and continues with laws concerning murder, kidnaping, personal injuries, injuries by beasts, offenses against property, theft, damage by cattle, fire, laws of safe-keeping, moral offenses, seduction, witchcraft, sodomy, polytheism, oppression of the weak, loans and pledges, truth and impartiality in justice, love of enemy–quite an impressive list for a very ancient people. While some of these laws seem to be well ahead of their time, like oppression of the weak and impartiality in justice, others seem to be quite primitive, which of course raises the question of the “eternal” relevance of the Torah.

In this discussion, I focus on only a single law found in this week’s parasha–death caused by an animal, a pretty rare occurrence in contemporary life–and attempt to explain its profound modern day relevance.

In Exodus 21:28, we read, וְכִי יִגַּח שׁוֹר אֶת אִישׁ אוֹ אֶת אִשָּׁה וָמֵת, סָקוֹל יִסָּקֵל הַשּׁוֹר וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ, וּבַעַל הַשּׁוֹר נָקִי If an ox shall gore a man or a woman, and that person shall die, the ox shall surely be stoned, its flesh may not be eaten and the owner of the ox shall be innocent. The Torah, in this instance, is referring to a case of a domesticated animal that kills. Being that the animal has no prior history of violence, the owner could not be expected to be particularly vigilant. Nevertheless, the Torah maintains, that because there is a very distinct hierarchy in life, the animal must be put to death even if the death of the human being was accidental.

I recall reading, many years ago, an editorial in the New York Times that condemned the owner of an alligator farm in Florida who shot an alligator that had mauled and killed a child. The editorial argued that the alligator did what was expected of an alligator. The child’s parents, on the other hand, were negligent for not keeping the child away from the alligator pit. From the Torah’s perspective, as articulated in our case of the ox that gored and killed, since a human life was lost, the owner of the alligator farm had taken the correct action, even if the parents were negligent.

I didn’t always fully appreciate this law, until many years later. My aunt and uncle had retired to Miami. One day, while crossing a street, my aunt was run over by a laundry truck. She was in a coma for six months before she succumbed. Every time my uncle saw a laundry truck, he would say: “That’s the truck that killed my wife!”

The rabbis suggest that an animal that kills a human being be put to death to spare the sensitivities of the deceased’s family, so they would not be able to point to an animal on the street and say: “That is the ox that trampled my child.” Perhaps a contemporary implementation of this law would be that any vehicle involved in a lethal accident be junked and removed from the road, or left on the roadside as a warning to others that this vehicle killed a human being or was involved in a lethal accident. All this goes to underscore the sanctity of human life, which is, after all, the bottom line of all of Judaism, and to heighten our sensitivity towards negligent behavior that may result in injury or death.

The above-cited law regarding injuries by animals continues with Exodus 21:29, וְאִם שׁוֹר נַגָּח הוּא מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וְהוּעַד בִּבְעָלָיו, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְרֶנּוּ, וְהֵמִית אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה, הַשּׁוֹר יִסָּקֵל, וְגַם בְּעָלָיו יוּמָת , But if it was an ox that gores habitually from yesterday and the day before, and its owners had been warned but did not guard it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and even its owner shall die. The Torah equates a vicious animal to a lethal weapon. In addition, the owner of such an animal who is negligent, may be regarded as a potential murderer.

The very next verse, however, Exodus 21:30, includes an unusual clause which allows for the exoneration of the violent animal’s owner. אִם כֹּפֶר יוּשַׁת עָלָיו, וְנָתַן פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוּשַׁת עָלָיו , When an atonement payment shall be assessed against him, [the owner of the animal] shall pay as redemption for his life, whatever shall be assessed against him.

Perhaps, because the Torah realized that the death occurred indirectly, through an ox, and not as a result of the owner’s personal actions, this death cannot be considered premeditated and deserving of the death penalty, even though the owner’s negligence resulted in a human’s tragic death. Rather, Jewish law allows the owner of the vicious animal to pay a fine, imposed by the court, freeing him from the death penalty.

The expressions brought down in Exodus 20:30, of כֹּפֶר kofer, an atonement, and פִּדְיֹן נַפְשׁוֹ pid’yon nafsho, redemption of his soul, appear again a few chapters later in parashat Ki TisahThe army of Israel is counted through donations of a half shekel.The Torah, in Exodus 30:12, states: כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם , When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַהשׁם בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם , And every man shall give to G-d an atonement for his soul when counting them.

Why is a soldier required to give an atonement for his soul? Perhaps we can learn why from the laws of the vicious animal. Just as the owner of a vicious animal that kills deserves to die, but may redeem his soul through paying a so-called “ransom,” so perhaps the Torah is teaching, that a soldier, no matter how justified the cause for which he battles, whether in self-defense or not, is a potential killer, and therefore needs to pay a “redemption for his soul” before he goes out to war.

3,300 years ago, the Torah taught the world about the ultimate value of the sanctity of human life. No document before the Torah, nor any document since, expresses such profound reverence for the ultimate value of human life, and demands unstinting respect for human life–-the greatest of G-d’s gifts.
While Judaism absolutely justifies both soldiers and battles, the Torah clearly reflects, at least in this instance, a palpable sentiment toward pacifism. “You may go out to war,” says the Torah to the Jewish soldier, “However, beware never to exult in war; always recognize the tremendous cost of battle to both the aggressor and defender.”

Judaism mandates that every soldier who goes out to battle must do so with a profound sense of humility, knowing that he is a potential killer who deserves to be punished, and must pay a ransom for his soul to G-d.

Our Torah, though very ancient, contains many very modern, indeed, avant-garde insights into life and living.

May you be blessed.

Yitro 5779-2019

“An Encounter with Jethro and the Non-Jewish World”

(Revised and updated from Yitro 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the end of last week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach (Exodus 17:8-16), the Jewish people have a profound encounter with the non-Jewish world–a ferocious and devastating encounter, that leaves a lasting impression on the Jewish nation.

In Exodus 17:8, the Torah reports, וַיָּבֹא עֲמָלֵק, וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּרְפִידִם , and Amalek came and did battle with Israel in Rephidim. Joshua leads the battle against Amalek, and, with the intervention of Moses, who raises his hands to direct the Jewish People’s focus toward Heaven, the armies of Israel vanquish their archenemy, Amalek. G-d instructs Moses to write this battle down in a book as a memorial, and to tell Joshua to place this in the ears of the Jewish people (Exodus 17:14), כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם . I [G-d] shall surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens. G-d further promises that the battle with Amalek will be an eternal battle to the end of generations.

This week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, opens with a most memorable encounter with a non-Jew, the High Priest of Midian – Yitro, or Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, Zippora’s father. The encounter with Jethro is in striking contrast to the encounter with Amalek–-the non-Jewish world that wishes to destroy the Jewish people. After learning of the Exodus and the miraculous splitting of the sea, Jethro comes to the camp of Israel in the wilderness, to embrace the Jewish people.

Rashi, on Exodus 18:2, cites the Midrash Mechilta 4 that when Moses arrived in Egypt together with his family, to begin the rescue of the Jewish people, Aaron told Moses to send Zippora and the children away. According to the Midrash, Aaron asks Moses, “We are pained by the people who are already enslaved. Why are you bringing more slaves to Egypt?” Zippora and her children then return to Midian. Now, in this week’s parasha, Jethro arrives together with Zippora and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to join the People of Israel.

Rabbinic tradition has it that Jethro came to the camp of Israel because he heard the reports of the spectacular splitting of the sea and of the incredible military victory over Amalek. Although Jethro was, or had been, a pagan priest, he was deeply moved by these miraculous events and was drawn to the Jewish people.
On the other hand, the Torah and the commentaries also suggest Jethro’s ambivalence about the violence perpetrated upon the Egyptians. Scripture in Exodus 18:9 records, וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ עַל כָּל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה השׁם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל , and Jethro “rejoiced” over all the good that G-d had done to Israel. The rabbis note that the expression וַיִּחַדְּ –“Va’yichad,” rejoice, could also mean to react in a prickly manner. They consequently interpret that Jethro developed goosebumps when he heard about the destruction of the Egyptians by drowning. From this, the rabbis posit an important principle cited in Tractate Sanhedrin 94a, that, for ten generations, one should never say anything negative about gentiles to a convert, because of the lingering identification with their former community.

Jethro expresses his great respect for G-d, and says (Exodus 18:11), עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי גָדוֹל השׁם מִכָּל הָאֱ־לֹקִים , “Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all gods,” and Jethro brings sacrifices, and celebrates together with Moses, Aaron and the Jewish people.

On the next day, the Torah relates that Moses sat in judgment of the Jewish people. Because of the huge throngs, the people stood from morning to evening waiting to consult with, or be judged by, Moses. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, sees this painful scene and rebukes Moses, saying, (Exodus 18: 14), מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב לְבַדֶּךָ, וְכָל הָעָם נִצָּב עָלֶיךָ מִן בֹּקֶר עַד עָרֶב ? “What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing from morning to evening?” Jethro adds: “It is not a good thing that you do. You will wither, you will burn out, both you and the people, for it is too much for one person!”

Jethro then suggests to Moses: “Listen to my voice, hearken to my advice: Establish a hierarchy of tribunals and courts. Find men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, people of truth who despise unjust gain, and appoint them as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. And they shall bear with you the responsibility of judgment. You will be the representative to G-d. All the matters that they cannot adjudicate will ultimately be brought to you. Only thus will the people be able to endure, and arrive at their destination in peace.” The Torah then reports (Exodus 18:24), that Moses takes his father-in-law’s advice and establishes a hierarchical judicial system.

In light of these two events, the battle with Amalek and the encounter with Jethro, what can we learn regarding the Jewish view of the gentile world? How does Judaism look upon incorporating ideas and advice from non-Jewish sources?

One could conclude that the gentile world is all like Amalek, inspirited with a venal hatred of Israel, and longing for the opportunity to destroy the Jewish people. Jethro proves otherwise.

A well-known statement on this matter is recorded in the Midrash on Eicha 2:13 (Lamentations), which reads: אִם יֹאמַר לֽךָ אָדָם יֵשׁ חָכְמָה בַּגּוֹיִם, תַּאֲמִין , If a person says to you there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe him. יֵשׁ תּוֹרָה בַּגּוֹיִם, אַל תַּאֲמִין , However, if someone claims that there is Torah among the nations, do not believe him. This midrashic statement clearly defines the Jewish attitude toward receiving wisdom and advice from the gentile world. Torah is the proprietary endowment of the Jewish people. It is G-d’s instruction to the Jewish people on how Jews should conduct their lives. If a gentile were to come and say I have a better way for you to live your lives, Jews must reject those suggestions. However, wisdom, general advice on how to improve one’s everyday experiences, to ease the burdens of life, to better our environment, ideas that are not in conflict with the Torah, are acceptable, indeed welcomed, even from non-Jewish sources.

It is quite amazing that 3,300 years ago, when xenophobia ruled the ancient world, the Torah admonished the Jewish people not to automatically reject advice simply because it emanated from a non-Jewish source. The gentile world is not to be rejected solely because it is not Jewish. In fact, Jews are encouraged to look for good, constructive ideas from anywhere in the world, non-Jewish and secular as well, and embrace those helpful ideas with open arms.

In our lifetimes, we see how the instruments of modernity can advance the cause of Torah: people scheduling Torah lessons over the telephone, obtaining information on the weekly Torah portions from the internet, and listening to online broadcasts or recordings of the Daf Ha’Yomi, the daily study of the Talmud page. In the early years of NJOP, the use of radio jingles and cutting-edge advertising effectively encouraged thousands of people to study Hebrew or Basic Judaism or to observe Shabbat. Since then, the internet and social media have enabled NJOP to reach hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Jews the world over. Of course, we need to make certain that this encounter will enhance and not “defile” our Jewish values. But, when used properly, technology, modern scientific knowledge, and general insights into the nature of humankind can be of great benefit to our faith and its practices.

And, who knows whether we are not correct in thinking that perhaps all these technological advances came into being only to enhance the Torah and its message? Jethro, whose name means “to add,” surely enhanced our people and its Torah with his sage advice, and for this we are profoundly thankful.

May you be blessed.

On Sunday night and Monday, January 20th and 21st, we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu B’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.

B’shalach 5779-2019

“The שִׁירָהShira: The Source of All Song”

(Revised and updated from B’shalach 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

Until Moses and the People of Israel sang this song, no one in history had ever expressed gratitude to G-d through the medium of song. The Midrash Rabbah, on Exodus 23:4, states, that when Adam was created, he did not sing to G-d. When Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace, he did not sing to G-d. When Isaac was rescued from the sword of the Akeidah, he did not sing to G-d. When Jacob was saved when wrestling with the angel of Esau, he did not sing to G-d. But when Israel came to the seashore and the waters were split, they burst into song. As we read in Exodus 15:1, אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַהשׁם וַיֹּאמְרו, לֵאמֹר , Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to G-d, and they said: אָשִׁירָה לַהשׁם כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם , I shall sing to G-d for he is exalted above all, horse and rider have been hurled into the sea.

If one were to look at the actual Torah text of the Shira one would note immediately that something profound is taking place in the narrative. The text of the Shira is structured “short brick over long brick, long brick over short brick,” as if a building is being built. And surely, with the recitation of the Shira, a structure of song and poetry was laid for all future generations. The Mechilta  B’shalach 3, states that even a simple maidservant at the sea perceived a higher degree of revelation than did the great prophet Ezekiel in his heavenly vision. It was there, at the sea, that Moses and the Jewish people understood their purpose in life as never before. Why were they exiled? Why were they enslaved? Why were they persecuted? Why the hopelessness they felt as they were surrounded by Pharaoh with the sea looming ahead of them? Just a few moments before it seemed that they were surely correct when they said that Moses and Aaron’s intervention in Egypt had only made things worse! And suddenly, at the sea, the Jewish people realized that all of G-d’s handiwork, all of their life experiences, all that they had endured, was really a Divine song, a Divine symphony; that every heretofore incomprehensible event, was, as the commentary in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash so beautifully remarks, a “part of a harmonious score,” composed by G-d Al-mighty, that led up to the greatest of all miracles.

In his masterpiece work, The Book of Our Heritage, Eliyahu Kitov writes about the Shira:

In addition to the ‘Song of the Sea,’ this portion [B’shalach] contains many other themes: the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the statutes and judgments given in Mara, the manna, the well, and the war with Amalek. Nevertheless, Israel selected only the theme of Shira as the name to be given to this Shabbat. For whenever Israel utters this song throughout the generations, it is as new for them. When they first sang it, G-d and His Hosts harkened, as it were, to the utterance of their mouths. At that hour, the souls of Israel attained the highest state of exaltation; their hearts became wellsprings overflowing with Torah, and the sound of their words was like the voice of the Al-mighty. Further, this Torah, which welled up from within them, preceded the Torah, which they heard from the Al-mighty on Mount Sinai.

Kitov continues, with emphasis,

With the strength of this song they ‘implanted’ song and rejoicing in the heart of Israel until the end of the generations. Whenever Israel would hence be delivered from their enemies and saved from distress, their hearts would then sing in praise to the G-d who had delivered them, and their thanksgiving would be not only on behalf of themselves, but for all G-d’s loving-kindness.

The Shira begins with the introduction: (Exodus 15:1) וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֵאמֹר , and they spoke, saying. That is to say, the song which they spoke then, caused them to continue uttering song in all generations.

After all, why was this song so powerful? Perhaps because it was uttered in perfect faith. It was not sung because of the impact or the impression of the miracles that had taken place. Because the impact of miracles is only momentary, whereas true faith is endures forever. Finally, after much reluctance, Israel came to the realization at the seashore that all the bondage and affliction that they had endured until then was a form of test and method of purification, an act of G-d’s eternal loving-kindness. In all the Torah, G-d speaks and the people of Israel listen. In this portion, the people of Israel speak, and all the Hosts of Heaven listened because of its power, its sensitivity, and its purity of faith.

Have you ever stopped for a moment to ponder the nature of poetry or the miracle of music? Why should the combination of random sounds or random words, especially sounds without words, have such a profound impact on the human soul? Why should rhythm and rhyme be any different from any other combination of noises that are uttered by the human throat? Why should music, which is after all, only an organized or disorganized series of sounds (noises) of different lengths and different pitches, speak to us so profoundly? There really is no rhyme or reason, except to say that song is a singular gift of G-d. Song can make us laugh. Song can make us cry. Song can make us grieve, and song can make us overcome grief.

According to Jewish tradition, all song emanates from the purity and devotion of the song that the People of Israel sang more than 3300 years ago (2448 from creation/1313 BCE) at the crossing of the Red Sea.

May your lives be filled with joy, and may song burst forth from every human throat to declare that G-d is the source of all goodness. May His blessings prevail over all.

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Shira

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

Bo 5779-2019

“Nothing Stands in the Way of Teshuva!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As the parasha opens, G-d says to Moses, Exodus 10:1, בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה:  כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ , “Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn, so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.”

Rashi explains that G-d told Moses to go to Pharaoh to warn him that if he does not allow the people of Israel to leave, another plague, the plague of locust, would soon strike Egypt.

In Exodus 10:3, we see that Moses does exactly as instructed. Moses and Aaron both go to Pharaoh, and tell him, כֹּה אָמַר השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵי  הָעִבְרִים, עַד מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵעָנֹת מִפָּנָי; שַׁלַּח עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי , “So said the L-rd, G-d of the Hebrews: ‘Until when would you refuse to be humbled before Me? Send out My people so that they may serve Me.’”

G-d further declares, “For if you refuse to send My people forth, tomorrow I shall bring the locust swarm into your borders and cover the surface of the earth, so that no one will be able to see the earth, and it [the locust] will consume the remaining residue that was left to you by the hail. It will consume all the trees that will grow for you from the field. They [the locust] will fill your houses, the houses of your servants and the houses of all of Egypt, such as your fathers and your grandfathers have not seen from the day they came onto the earth until this day.”

At that point, Pharaoh’s servants, who are desperately frightened, beg him to let the people go so that Egypt would not be destroyed. Pharaoh, however, refuses to allow the Israelite children to leave with their parents, and proceeds to chase Moses and Aaron away. G-d then strikes Egypt with the eighth plague, the locust.

The issue that has long confounded the commentators is the question of Pharaoh’s free-will and his ability to repent.

In his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Teshuva/Repentance, Maimonides lists 24 people who will not receive a share in the World to Come. However, if even these most wicked people repent before they die, they too will gain entry into the World to Come, since “Nothing can stand in the way of Teshuva.”

According to the great Maimonides, (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:14), even a person who denies G-d’s existence his entire life and repents only in his final moments can earn a share in the World to Come. Any wicked person or apostate who repents, whether privately or publicly, will be accepted. And even if that person is still somewhat rebellious, and repents in private rather than in public, their Teshuva will be accepted.

The Talmud in Brachot 10a, tells the story of King Hezekiah, who, when he took critically ill, was visited by the prophet Isaiah, who told him that not only would he die, but that he would also have no portion in the World to Come because he (Hezekiah) failed to participate in the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiply.

Hezekiah explained to Isaiah that he refrained from bearing children because he had received a vision that his children would be wicked. Isaiah told the king that he should not try to discern the secrets of G-d, but rather fulfill the mitzvah that G-d commanded him, since G-d will do as He pleases. Eventually, King Hezekiah takes Isaiah’s daughter for a wife, who bears two sons, Manasseh and Rabshakeh.

The righteous King Hezekiah did all he could to change the fate of his children by giving them a proper education, to no avail. Rabshakeh dies and Manasseh becomes one of the most evil kings in the history of the Jewish people.

The Midrash Sifre on Deuteronomy 6:5, cites the verses is Chronicles II 33:10-13, describing how the Assyrian king took Manasseh in chains, exiling him to Babylon.

The Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 10:2, describes the extent of Manasseh’s wickedness, that even when he was tortured, he refused to abandon his worship of idols. When he no longer could endure the torture, he remembered that his righteous father, Hezekiah, had taught him the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 4:30), “When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you shall return to the L-rd, your G-d, and hearken to His voice. For the L-rd your G-d is a merciful G-d, He will not abandon you, nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.”

The Talmud relates that the angels in Heaven tried to seal off all the avenues of repentance for Manasseh. Yet, G-d dug a channel under the heavenly throne, allowing Manasseh to repent and return to Jerusalem and to his kingship.

If even the wicked King Manasseh could repent, how then could the doors of repentance be sealed for Pharaoh?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, explains that Pharaoh too could repent, and achieve forgiveness, but only if he underwent a total transformation.

This is the message that G-d sent through Moses to Pharaoh, when Moses said to Pharaoh in G-d’s name: “Until when will you refuse to be humble before Me?”

G-d had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, yet He continued to give Pharaoh the option to repent by humbling himself before G-d. However, if Pharaoh preferred to remain on his throne so he could be worshiped as the god of Egypt, G-d would continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart, and repentance for him impossible.

G-d knew that Pharaoh had the ability to humble himself. The only question was, how long it would take Pharaoh to finally do so. True Teshuva is not remorse for a specific transgression. It is much more, as is indicated in the High Holiday prayer in which we declare, “Behold, I am before You like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation” (Talmud Brachot 17a, the prayer of Rabbah). It is only when we humble ourselves, entirely and completely, that G-d enables the truly penitent to do Teshuva, even for the sins about which we are told atonement is impossible.

A fascinating Midrash in Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer maintains that Pharaoh eventually did do Teshuva. The Book of Jonah 3:6, reports that Jonah’s appeal to the king of Nineveh and the people of Nineveh to repent, was met by the king’s total contrition, “He rose from his throne removed his robe from upon himself, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes.” The Midrash states that the king of Nineveh was none other than Pharaoh (some say a reincarnation of Pharaoh).

Nothing stands in the way of Teshuva. The choice to repent is never taken away from anyone.

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5779-2019

The Cups of Redemption

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, contains the Torah’s source for the custom of drinking four cups of wine at the Passover Seder. The four cups, represent the “four languages of redemption” that are mentioned in this week’s parasha.

In the opening verses of parashat Va’eira, the Al-mighty informed Moses that He had established a covenant with the patriarchs to give them the land of Canaan. Furthermore, G-d states that He has heard the groans of the Children of Israel who are enslaved in Egypt, and that He has remembered His covenant.

It is clear that G-d is about to intervene on behalf of His people.

In Exodus 6:6-7, G-d declares, “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, I am the L-rd: וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם, וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים. וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵא־לֹקִים, וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם , I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am Hashem, the L-rd your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”

These four languages of redemption: 1. “I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” 2. “I shall rescue you.” 3. “I shall redeem you.” and 4. “I shall take you to Me for a people,” are represented at the Passover Seder by the four cups of wine.

There is also a fifth language of redemption, found in Exodus 6:8, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי, לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב , “and I shall bring you to the land about which I raised my hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This fifth language of redemption, in which G-d promises to bring His people to the land of Israel, has not been entirely fulfilled–-hence the fifth cup of wine, that is designated as the Cup of Elijah. This cup is filled, but not drunk.

In the Talmud, Elijah the prophet is the ultimate resolver of all unresolved questions, including whether there should be four or five cups of wine at the Passover Seder. As a compromise, the fifth cup is designated as the Cup of Elijah, in acknowledgment of the not-yet fulfilled Divine promise to bring all of the People of Israel to the land of Israel.

Rabbi Asher Weiss in his erudite volume, Rav Asher on the Parasha, offers a profound insight into the Torah’s four languages of liberation. Rabbi Weiss suggests that these languages of liberation reflect the different levels of oppression and suffering that slaves are generally subjected to.

There are slaves, suggests Rabbi Weiss, who suffer unceasingly under the hands of cruel and tyrannical masters, who mercilessly abuse their slaves, both physically and mentally. There are, however, says Rabbi Weiss, more fortunate slaves who have more merciful masters, who may not suffer from the physical and mental abuse at the hands of the master, but suffer from the backbreaking labors imposed upon them. Even more fortunate are those slaves who are only required to perform menial tasks, such as light household work. These slaves also suffer, perhaps not physically, but emotionally, since they are subject to the will of another human being and do not have the freedom to lead their lives according to their own will.

According to Rabbi Weiss, when it describes the liberation of our ancestors from Egypt, the Torah addresses all these aspects of slavery:

Pharaoh held B’nei Yisrael in an iron grasp of horrific wickedness. He subjected them to death, torture and grueling labors. From all these harsh decrees, Hashem rescued us. He “removed us” from beneath the burden of cruel abuse. He “rescued us” from the difficult labors they imposed upon us. He “redeemed us” from the degradation of slavery. Yet paramount in significance, was the great kindness that He showed us, by “bringing us” to Him, and making us into His nation.

While we, who live in freedom, may not be physically enslaved, we are, nevertheless, often subject to great rigors and challenges in our lives. Some of us are greatly oppressed by other members of society, by parents, spouses, children, bosses, and teachers, figures of authority and individuals who have significant control over our lives or our environment. The emotional punishments that we may actually be subjected to may be as severe as the pain from brutal blows, broken bones and broken spirits.

Others are spared the emotional “torture,” but find the day-to-day responsibilities terribly burdensome, making it virtually impossible to find personal fulfillment, joy in life and reason to smile. The responsibilities we often face, are simply overwhelming and never let up.

Others, have it easier, born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they never seem to have to worry about money or finances, and never have to work too hard. But, even these blessed individuals, often do not feel free or independent, because even those with minimal responsibilities, find that achieving personal satisfaction is a most difficult challenge.

It is only when we feel embraced by the Divine that we are truly liberated. As rabbinic tradition teaches in Ethics of the Fathers, 6:2, אֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד בַּתּוֹרָה , there is no one who is truly free, except one who engages in Torah.

It’s only when G-d takes us to Him, or more likely when we bring ourselves to G-d, that we feel truly free and liberated. It is only then, that we can fully celebrate the Festival of Freedom, our own personal Passover, our own personal exodus, and our own personal splitting of the Red Sea.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5779-2018

Getting the Jews Out of Egypt-–Two Views

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt by Pharaoh, as well as the birth of Moses and G-d’s selection of Moses to lead the people out of Egyptian bondage.

The story seems straightforward, although there are a few bumps along the way. G-d tells Moses at the Burning Bush that he will lead the people out of Egypt, and that Pharaoh will not let the people go until the Al-mighty performs a series of wonders. After that, Pharaoh and the Egyptians will expel the Israelites and even chase them out of Egypt.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, through a subtle textual analysis, shows that Moses and G-d had different approaches regarding the process of redeeming the Jews.

Because of his special relationship with Pharaoh, Moses had hoped that he, as an adopted Egyptian, would be able to convince the Egyptian sovereign to let the Hebrew people go. G-d, however, felt that it must not be Moses the Egyptian, but Moses the strong and proud Jew, who would lead His children out of bondage.

Because of the rapidly increasing Jewish birthrate, the new king of Egypt, who did not know Joseph, thought that the Children of Israel were growing too numerous and too strong and had become a security threat to his people. Rabbi Firer suggests that Pharaoh’s strategy was to make life so miserable for the Hebrews, that they would willingly flee Egypt. Pharaoh therefore says to his nation, Exodus 1:10, הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ,  פֶּן יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ , “Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they become numerous, and it may be, that if war will occur, they too may join our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land.”

The literal meaning of this verse seems to be that Pharaoh was fearful that if a foreign army would invade, the increasingly numerous Israelites would help the enemy army defeat Egypt and then leave the country.

Rabbi Firer offers a fascinating alternative interpretation. Pharaoh said, “Let us deal with them wisely, so that the Israelites will go up from the land, and leave and not be a threat to Egypt.” However, when Moses approached Pharaoh in G-d’s name and said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh had a sudden change of heart, which is the typical experience of Jewish history. When Jews wish to live in peace in a non-Jewish land, the local non-Jewish residents make life so difficult for them, hoping that they will leave. But when Jews want to leave a country, suddenly they are locked in ghettos, and are not permitted to leave.

When the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the river, she opened up the ark and saw a little boy crying, and had compassion for him. She immediately identified the child as one of the Jewish children. She said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “This is one of the Hebrew boys.”

These words played a decisive role in Jewish destiny. Had Moses not been identified as a Jew, but rather as a child found in the river, he would have grown up as an Egyptian and could have easily convinced Pharaoh that it was in Pharaoh’s own interest and to Egypt’s benefit to rid the country of the Israelites. It would not have been necessary for Pharaoh to “deal with them wisely.” But, now that Moses has been identified as a Jew, the Egyptians will pay no heed to his suggestion.

Moses grows up and goes out to his brothers and sees their suffering. He sees an Egyptian beating one of his brothers, a Hebrew. He turns one way and the other, to make certain that no one is watching, kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. Moses was concerned that no one would witness his deed, because he still hoped to pass as an Egyptian. But, once he kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, he could never get away with pretending that he was Egyptian.

That is exactly what happens the next day. When Moses sees two Jews fighting, he intervenes, condemning the fighters. One of them said, Exodus 2:14, “Who made you an officer and judge over us? Do you want to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses knew that the thing was now known, and was afraid.

If Moses was fearful, why didn’t he run at that moment?

Only afterward, when Pharaoh heard of the incident, and sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15), did Moses flee, because now, he was certain that the jig was up, and that he could never again pass as an Egyptian.

According to Rabbi Firer, after all this, Moses still hoped that he could pass as an Egyptian. He flees to Midian and meets Jethro’s daughters at the well. When they return, the daughters tell their father, Exodus 2:19, אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים , “an Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds.” It seems likely that even in Midian, Moses sought to maintain his Egyptian identity, because he hoped that, as an Egyptian, he would one day be in a position to save the Jewish people back in Egypt.

That is why, according to Rabbi Firer, Moses refused, again and again, to accept the mission of G-d, to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. His notion was to save the Jewish people as an Egyptian. He hoped to one day return to Egypt, where he would advise Pharaoh to expel the Jews from Egypt.

When Moses says to G-d, in Exodus 3:11, מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה, וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם , “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Rabbi Firer interprets this as if Moses is asking G-d, whether he should go as an Egyptian or as a Jew? G-d tells him that even though it will cause additional hardship for the Jewish people, and Pharaoh will refuse, he must go as a Jew.

Why didn’t G-d allow Moses to approach Pharaoh as an Egyptian, which might perhaps result in accelerating the exodus?

Apparently, G-d felt that it was necessary to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would experience the ten plagues. It was necessary for G-d to punish the Egyptians, because they had gone beyond the “call of duty,” of enslaving and oppressing the Jewish people. Once they started murdering the Jewish children by throwing them into the river, it was necessary for G-d to exact full retribution. That could not have happened had Moses petitioned Pharaoh to let the people go, and Pharaoh would have responded, “You are welcome to leave.”

As the Psalmist says (Psalms 33:11), עֲצַת השׁם, לְעוֹלָם תַּעֲמֹד , G-d’s scheme always prevails.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5779-2018

Jacob Blesses His Grandchildren

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is a parasha that contains an abundance of blessings. In the early part of the parasha, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. The parasha concludes with Jacob blessing his twelve sons.

In Genesis 48:15-16, the Torah records Jacob’s blessings to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמַר, הָאֱ־לֹקִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק, הָאֱ־לֹקִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי מֵעוֹדִי עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק, וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ , And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, and he said, “Oh G-d before Whom my forefather Abraham and Isaac walked–-G-d Who shepherds me from my inception until this day: May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land.”

Although the verse states that Jacob blessed “Joseph,” the blessing is actually directed at Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe. After all, what could be a greater blessing for a parent, than to have children who are blessed.

In Genesis 48:20, Jacob concludes his blessing to his grandchildren, saying, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ־לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה , “By you shall Israel bless saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menashe’”–-and he put Ephraim before Menashe.

The Yalkut Yehuda notes that Jacob blesses the Jewish people to be like Ephraim and like Menashe, and not like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, or the twelve tribes. Clearly, Jacob saw that the period of the exile in Egypt was about to begin for the Children of Israel. Jacob knew that during an exile, the identity of the people of Israel would be in jeopardy, so he blessed them to be like Ephraim and Menashe, who were the first Jews born, raised and educated outside of Israel. Despite the fact that they grew up in the cauldron of assimilation of Egypt, they remained loyal to the House of Israel.

The Yalkut Yehuda also notes that a child at his circumcision is also blessed to be like Ephraim and Menashe. The blessing effectively declares that this new child should remain strong in his convictions like Ephraim and Menashe, and not break the Brit, the covenant, between him and the G-d of Israel.

Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, the words, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe” have become the powerful standard blessing for male Jewish children. It is customary for parents to bless their sons on Friday night with these words, which express the hope that every Jewish son will follow the path of Joseph’s two sons.

What was it that distinguished Ephraim and Menashe from all the others?

Rabbi Meir Bergman cited in Peninim on the Torah says that unfortunately, it is very common for members of each generation to decline in spirituality from the previous generation as they become increasingly distant from the source of spirituality. Because of the powerful blandishments of assimilation and the environment, it is difficult for children to maintain the level of spirituality of their parents and grandparents. However, this was not the case with Ephraim and Menashe. Even though they were born in an environment that was extremely seductive and entirely inimical to the values of their fathers and forefathers, Ephraim and Menashe remained loyal to the faith of their ancestors. In fact, they were of such great stature that they were accorded the honor and distinction of being blessed by their grandfather as if they were his own sons. In Genesis 48:5,Jacob confirms their special status by declaring,אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה, כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי , Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.

The monumental achievement of Ephraim and Menashe was that not only did they not decline in their commitment and spirituality, they maintained the stature of the greats of the previous generation.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Tuesday, December 18, 2018, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.