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Eikev 5780-2020

“The Intermarriage Conundrum”
(updated and edited from parashat Eikev 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, conclude the theme that was the focus of the final part of last week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.

Deuteronomy 7 raised the issue of the religious problems that the People of Israel would face with the anticipated move into the land of Canaan. How is Israel to deal with the powerful influences of the idolaters and the idolatrous sects they will find in Canaan? After all, for the first time since the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites, whose own religious practice are not yet firmly established, will be exposed to alien cultures whose decadent lifestyles will be highly seductive.

The Torah’s rules for those entering the new land are therefore extreme in their directness: The Torah declares that all the native inhabitants who pose a danger to Israel’s spiritual survival are to be banished or destroyed. Marriage with them is strictly forbidden, and all pagan images and idolatrous sanctuaries are to be demolished. If Israel will follow these prescriptions, all will be well, and blessings will attend them. But, if not, the very devastating destructions that would otherwise befall their enemies, will be visited upon Israel itself.

In Deuteronomy 7:3, the Torah firmly tells the entire Jewish nation: וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם, בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ, וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ, You shall not intermarry with them [the Canaanites], do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods. And the L-rd’s anger will blaze forth against you, and He will promptly wipe you out.

In light of the critical problem of intermarriage, which hovers above 70% among the non-Orthodox in the United States today, I would like to share with you the following letter to a woman who is contemplating intermarriage.

Dear Jennifer (fictitious name),
I deeply appreciate your candid reply to my letter. As you know, I regard you highly and always consider your opinions very seriously. I am engaging in this exchange of letters not to badger you, but to help sharpen both your and my perception of the very vital issue of Jewish in-marriage, and the future of Jewish life in America.

I know you love “Paul” very dearly, and everything I have heard about him indicates that he is a wonderful person. I truly believe you when you write that you feel that you must marry him because you believe that he is your “soul mate,” and that his presence in your life leaves you greatly fulfilled. The fact that he happens to be a non-Jew is terribly disappointing to you as well, but you feel that your personal happiness must come first. I appreciate what you are saying. In fact, I am prepared to acknowledge that you and Paul can probably live together and be deliriously happy in marriage, despite your different faiths.

If my last sentence surprised you, allow me to explain.

The truth of the matter is, that most American Jews today are not very Jewish. In fact, they are very much like the average American non-Jew. That is because, while we hardly realize it, 99 44/100 percent of our daily lives are not very Jewish. In fact, much of our lives are pretty Christian! The average Jew in America knows who was the mother of Jesus, but has no clue as to who was the mother of Moses. No, it wasn’t Miriam (she was his sister). It was Jocheved! The average Jewish child in America can sing the words to “Deck the Halls” but doesn’t have an idea of what Maoz Tzur (the Chanukah hymn) is! In effect, the differences between Jew and gentile in America have really diminished to the point of them being inconsequential.

That is why I believe that there is really no truly compelling reason why both Jews and non-Jews shouldn’t seek out the most socially acceptable “soulmate” for themselves, irrespective of faith.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that the slightly higher rate of divorces that intermarried couples experience makes a big difference, after all, more than a third of all marriages in America end in divorce anyway. Neither do I feel that because six million Jews died in the Holocaust, you or anyone else has an obligation to marry Jewish in order to perpetuate the Jewish people. If one is positively moved to perpetuate the Jewish people in light of the Holocaust, fine. Otherwise, it’s important for every person to do what’s best for themselves.

Yes, it’s true that the “melting pot” that our grandparents prayed for in America has turned into a “meltdown” for Jewish life. But, those are cosmic issues of Jewish continuity and Jewish survival, and it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect that those issues should play a decisive role in our choice of individual mates. We have to live our lives as best we can, and let the “cosmic powers” work out the cosmic issues.

I do, however, believe that there is one compelling reason why a Jew might choose not to intermarry.

You see, throughout human history, the Jewish people have been at the forefront of working toward what we Jews call “Tikun Olam” (seeking to perfect the world). Our Torah (sometimes called the Old Testament) introduced many revolutionary ideas into the world, and we, the Jewish people, so to speak, are “chosen” to be a “light unto the nations,” “ambassadors” so to speak, to bring these ideas into the broad marketplace and to popularize them in the general society.

It was our Torah that first introduced the revolutionary concepts of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” care for the orphan, the widow, the infirm, the stranger. Our Torah mentions “love of the stranger” 36 times, more than any other mitzvah mentioned in the Torah! It was our Torah that first introduced to the world the concept of not causing undue pain to animals, and, yes, even the concept of conservation. It’s our Torah that says that a person must “work” the land and “guard” the land, that the land must lay fallow one year in seven to regenerate itself. It’s our Torah that says that even in times of war, one may not cut down a fruit-bearing tree, even when Jewish soldiers’ lives are at stake. It is also forbidden to divert the waterworks of the city under siege. It’s our Torah that, says that even in times of battle, soldiers must carry a spade with them in order to properly dispose of their bodily wastes. In effect, we Jews were the first members of the Sierra Club, we were the first movers-and-shakers to save the whales and preserve the Darter Snail.

Despite the enormous challenges, we Jews have successfully transmitted these beautiful and revolutionary ideas to the nations of the world, not by force or jihads, but through the power of intellectual persuasion and personal modeling. In fact, it was our Torah that proclaimed for the first time “Thou shalt not murder.” And, although Hammurabi recorded the exact same words 300 years earlier in his Babylonian code, its meaning for the ancient Babylonians was entirely different. According to Hammurabi’s code, if I killed my neighbor’s son, my neighbor had the right to kill my son. If I raped my neighbor’s daughter, my neighbor could rape my daughter, or take my daughter as a concubine. If I killed my neighbor’s slave, I could give my neighbor fifteen camels and we’d be even.

For Hammurabi, human life was regarded simply as chattel, property. Therefore, if I caused my neighbor to suffer a loss of his property, then I had to restore it, or suffer a similar loss myself.

Three hundred years after Hammurabi, the Torah also declared, “Thou shalt not murder”–the words were exactly the same, but the intention and implementation were light-years apart. Our Torah boldly maintains that every person is responsible for his/her own actions, for his/her own sin or crime. The Torah insists that a third person, such as an innocent son, cannot be punished for a crime that another person committed! In fact, our Torah enlightened the world with the idea of the concept of the “sanctity of human life”–that a murderer who takes a human life, has committed a crime against what the ancients called “G-d,” and what sociologists today call “society.” That’s why murder indictments today are usually in the form of the “State of California vs John Doe,” because the whole world has adopted our view of what “Thou shall not murder” means, and subscribes to the Jewish idea of the sanctity of human life.

I could go on citing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of revolutionary ideas that Jewish tradition has introduced into this world that Western society has adopted. The Jewish people have worked assiduously to perfect the world, and while the world is not yet perfect, we can proudly look upon Jewish history as one unending series of ethical and moral triumphs and accomplishments. And, perhaps even more remarkably, the Jews did not enlighten the world by forcing their beliefs on others through crusades and holy wars. Jews did not say “Kiss the Jewish star or we’ll chop off your head!” We did it by modeling. And, while we still have a long way to go, we can be extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished.

Yes, Jennifer you can live happily-ever-after with Paul. But, if you choose to marry him, you will no longer be part of this incredible legacy which has worked so effectively to spiritually purify and enlighten the world.

You might say “big deal,” that is your choice. Well, truthfully, I and many of my fellow Jews feel that it is indeed a “big deal.” In fact, it’s the most important thing that we can do with our lives–“to enlighten the world under the rule of the Al-mighty.”

We know that even when Jews marry other Jews, it is very difficult to live the kind of committed life which will bring honor to the Jewish people and to G-d. There are “zillions” of in-married Jews who have no idea of what the Divine mission is for the Jewish people. They might remain nominal Jews, but their impact on the world will be negligible. It is very likely that only a small number of Jewish “fanatics” – those who devote their lives passionately to preserve and transmit this Divine message, are going to continue to make a difference in this world. Unfortunately, for those who are not married to Jews, the chances of promoting those ideas and ideals, no matter how noble their intentions, are virtually nil.

And, so, in the final analysis, you need to realize that the choice you are making is not only a decision to live your life with a particular wonderful man, who happens not to be Jewish. The choice you are making now is the choice of being part of one of the greatest legacies, an unbroken legacy, of, perhaps, 150 generations of Jews who preceded you, who fought to preserve their values and ideals, and, in many instances, put their lives on the line to keep the chain of this Divine mission alive. It is this determination that has allowed us today the privilege of living in an enlightened environment that has adopted so many of those ancient Jewish traditions and incorporated them into their own value system.

Jennifer, I want you to know that I will always respect you and value our very special friendship. But, if you choose to marry Paul and he does not convert, know that you will have effectively cut yourself off from 3,300 years of the most glorious and enlightened tradition, a tradition which has been single-mindedly dedicated to the sacred mission of teaching the world the idea of the sanctity of human life and “perfecting the world under the rule of the Al-mighty.”

All I can ask now, is that you consider these words and thoughts and make an informed decision.

Dear Reader,
There are hundreds of thousands of intermarried Jews in the US, and many more Jews who are presently contemplating intermarriage, who need to hear this message. Help us share it with them. But, do it pleasantly and gently.

May you be blessed.

This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Tuesday night and Wednesday, August 4th and 5th, 2020. Happy Tu b’Av.

Va’etchanan 5780-2020

“The Mandate for Parental Involvement in Jewish Education”
(updated and revised from Va’etchanan 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter two fundamental declarations of the Jewish faith: the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18), and the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one.”

The first paragraph of the Shema prayer begins with the words: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ. This verse calls on every Jew to love G-d with all one’s heart, all one’s soul and all one’s might.

The Sh’ma prayer continues:  וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ and these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם, and you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak to them diligently,  בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ, וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ, when you sit in your home, and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.

Let us focus on the phrase, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, which serves as the Torah’s mandate requiring Jews to educate their children. (It is fascinating that there is no direct Mitzvah in the Torah for a Jew to study Torah, other than studying Torah in order to be able to teach one’s children!)

Of all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, perhaps the most vital for the continuity and continuation of the Jewish people is the mitzvah of וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, and you shall teach your children. Jewish education is the lifeline and the lifeblood of Jewish life. After all, it is Jewish education that has proven, throughout Jewish history, to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people, over long periods of time, to ethical and moral living. Furthermore, more than 3300 years of Jewish history confirm that there is absolutely no chance of Jews surviving as Jews for the next generation, without our people’s intense and passionate commitment to Jewish education.

An analysis of the words וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ reveals a host of profound insights. The root of the word, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם, can be traced to the word שִׁנָּה,  which, like the Hebrew word שְׁנֵיִם–two, means to repeat, over and over, implying that Jewish learning and rituals must become habitual and constant in a Jew’s life, and become ingrained into the very essence of the Jew. This statement underscores, that for continuity, real continuity, there needs to be a sincere commitment to the practices and rituals of Jewish life.

An alternate root of the word וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם may be the root-word שִׁנַּן, shin nun nun, which means sharp. Jewish education must be intense, sharp, meaningful, exciting, and cutting edge.

But, perhaps most of all, the verse boldly declares: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, you shall teach your children! Most parents today pass off their children’s education to professionals–professional teachers, tutors, schools, yeshivot, day schools. With this verse, the Torah underscores that the fundamental, bottom line, obligation of the parent is וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, you shall teach your children. Even though parents may rely on professional teachers, the buck ultimately stops with the parent. In fact, the Hebrew term for parent, הוֹרֶה–“horeh,” is derived from the Hebrew word מוֹרֶה–“moreh”–to teach. A parent is a teacher–the primary teacher!

Consequently, if a school fails to properly educate, the school is not at fault, the parent is at fault. If the teacher fails to teach properly, the responsibility lies with the parent, not the teacher. It is the parent’s responsibility to be on top of the educational services provided by the school, to be well informed about the effectiveness of their children’s teachers, and to correct the “miseducation” that often takes place in school settings. While it is certainly true that children spend many hours in formal educational settings, the “quality time” spent at home with parents is of far greater value in terms of “real” education.

The Midrash Rabbah  has a fascinating comment on Genesis 27:22, that recalls the story of Jacob deceiving his father to receive the blessing.

All the idolaters gathered about Avnemus of Gadara (a first century non Jewish philosopher) and asked him: Can we defeat the nation of Israel in battle? Avnemus replied: Go out and make the rounds of all their synagogues and houses of study. If you find children in them, chirping away (while studying Torah) you will be unable to defeat them. For this is what their father [Isaac] promised them (Genesis 27:22): “The voice is the voice of Jacob”–as long as the voice of Jacob is found in the synagogues (and houses of study), the hands will not be the hands of Esau. But if not, “The hands are the hands of Esau,” and you will be able to defeat them.

There’s no such thing as overdosing on Jewish education. There’s no such thing as being too passionate or too extreme concerning the value and importance of Jewish education. I have often said regarding the challenges of raising Jewishly-committed children in today’s environment, that if parents aspire for their children to be “passionate” about Judaism–due to the blandishments and distractions of secular society, they will be fortunate to wind up with moderate children. If parents aim for their children to be moderate about their Judaism, they’ll wind up casual. And, if the parents themselves are casual, they might wind up with, G-d forbid, Episcopalian grandchildren! One never outgrows the need for Jewish education, it must be perpetually enhanced. Jews must always be in the “Growth mode.”

Of course, it is crucial for parents to serve as educational role models for their children. Even parents who have personally had a limited Jewish education, it is never too late to learn. Nothing can be more impactful than for a child to see his/her parents eagerly attending Torah classes.  With the abundance of classes available today, both online and in actual class settings, there is simply no excuse not to participate.  “Do as I say,” is not nearly as powerful as “Do as I do.”

For those who are not fortunate enough to be in a position to send their children to an intensive Jewish educational setting, which is absolutely basic today, keep in mind the Torah’s admonition: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ. Take ten, fifteen minutes, out of your busy schedule, twice or three times a week, to discuss Jewish issues and Torah issues with your children. Even if your child is away at college, call and discuss Jewish or Torah-related issues, so your child will clearly recognize how important these values are to his/her parents. This practice, of course, can enhance the commitment of those children who obtain strong Jewish educations as well.

Please, do not compromise on Jewish education. The alternative is very much Jewish oblivion.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of both the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, July 29th and continues through Thursday night, July 30, 2020. Have a meaningful fast.

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

This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Tuesday night and Wednesday, August 4th and 5th, 2020. Happy Tu b’Av.

Devarim 5780-2020

“Eichah, The Annual Search for Meaning and Introspection
(updated and revised from Parashat Devarim 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, is always read on the Shabbat that precedes Tisha b’Av, the fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples. This year, the fast will begin on Wednesday evening, July 29th and continue through Thursday night, July 30th.

According to the commentators, there is an allusion to the observance of Tisha b’Av in this week’s parasha. In Deuteronomy 1:12 we encounter the verse: ?אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם, Moses asks, “How can I alone, carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?” Unable to bear the responsibility of caring for the People of Israel alone, Moses recommends that the people appoint for themselves men who are wise, understanding and well known, who can serve as leaders of the tribes, to at least partially relieve the burden from him.

Because of the use in this verse of the Hebrew word אֵיכָה–“Eichah” how, and the confluence of the observance of Tisha b’Av, when the above verse is read by the Torah reader on Shabbat, the verse is read with the mournful melody of Lamentations, of Eichah.

The Book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, is also known in Hebrew as “Eichah,” because of the opening word of the first verse: ? אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד, הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם, הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה “How is it possible,” asks the prophet, “that she, the city of Jerusalem, sits in solitude–the city that was once great with people has become like a widow?”

The Shabbat which precedes Tisha b’Av is known in the Jewish calendar as Shabbat Chazon. “Chazon” which means vision, alludes to the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah that is read as the Haftarah, the prophetic message, paralleling the Shabbat Torah portion. In the first chapter of Isaiah, which is the third and final of the Shalosh d’Puranuta, the three Haftarot of calamity, the prophet Isaiah laments the underlying causes of destruction, which he attributes to the lack of sincerity in the Jews’ devotion to G-d.

Once again, in the Book of Isaiah 1:21, we encounter the significant word, “Eichah.” Isaiah cries out: ?אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה, קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה “How is it possible that the faithful city [Jerusalem],has become a harlot?” מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט, צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ, וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים , G-d says, “I filled Jerusalem with justice, righteousness dwelt in her, but now she is filled with murderers.”

It is no coincidence that on the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av, the word Eichah is invoked repeatedly, as if it were a refrain or theme of this mournful calendar period.

Eichah?”-asks G-d, “How is it possible? How did this all come about? Why do these resounding tragedies strike the Jewish people again and again?”

The rabbis of the Talmud tell us in Berachot 5a, that when tragedy strikes, יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו, a person should examine his/her deeds, look for what might be the underlying cause of the misfortune. It is this introspection and search that is the precise theme of Tisha b’Av. It’s not so much the fasting, not so much the mourning, it’s really the introspection, the self-evaluation that is essential. It is critical that, in times of crises, the Jewish people examine their deeds, and see what they might have done to deserve the calamities that befall them, so they can learn to do better in the future.

In the book of Genesis, after the story of the creation and after eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hear the sound of the Al-mighty in the garden as they try to hide among the trees. The Torah in Genesis 3:9 states, וַיִּקְרָא השׁם אֱ־לֹקִים, אֶל הָאָדָם. G-d calls out to the human being: וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, And He says to him: אַיֶּכָּה–“Ah’yeka?” ‘Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard your voice in the Garden, and I was afraid because I am naked, and I hid.” Obviously, G-d is not asking Adam and Eve where they are. He knows precisely where they are! G-d is asking them, Adam and Eve: “Ah’yeka?” “Where are you existentially? I endowed you with the gift of intelligence, that no other creatures possess. I gave you everything, and forbade just one little tree. How did you allow this to happen?”

The word Ah’yeka is the exact same word, composed with the exact same letters, as the word Eichah. How could this have possibly happened? Eichah and Ahy’eka are the themes of Tisha b’Av. G-d asks the Jews: Where are you? What have you done with your lives? How could this destruction have possibly happened? What can you do to improve yourselves?

By focusing on this message, we can make certain that the fast of the Ninth of Av will indeed be meaningful. If not, we will find that we’ve unfortunately frittered away another great opportunity for self-improvement that G-d has given us–the great gift of Teshuva.

Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed from Tuesday evening, July 21st, until Wednesday night, July 22nd. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av. The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, July 29th and continues through Thursday night, July 30, 2020. Have a meaningful fast.

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Chazon,” the Sabbath of the Vision (prophecy), is named after the opening word of the Book of Isaiah. The first 27 verses of Isaiah 1 are read as the haftarah (prophetic reading) on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av).

Much of the haftarah is recited in the mournful tune of Eichah (Book of Lamentations) that is read on the night of Tisha b’Av. Deuteronomy 1:12 of the Shabbat Torah reading that begins with the word “Eichah,” is also recited to the tune of Eichah. In addition, many synagogues have the custom to sing the “L’cha Dodi” hymn on the Friday night of Shabbat Chazon to the tune of Eli Tzion, a mournful tune sung at the end of Kinot (Tisha b’Av poems) on the morning of Tisha b’Av.

 

Matot-Masei 5780-2020

“Setting Our Priorities Straight
(updated and revised from Parashiot Matot-Masei 5761-2001)

This coming Shabbat, the double parashiot, Matot and Masei, will be read in synagogues throughout the world.

In parashat Matot, we are told that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, were successful herdsmen with large numbers of sheep and cattle. The Torah reports that the tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad saw the luscious lands of Yaazer and Gilead, located on the Eastern side of the Jordan, and determined that these lands would serve as ideal pasture and grazing locations for their cattle. The leaders of Gad and Reuben, (later joined by half of Menashe), approached Moses and Elazar, the high priest, and the princes of the 12 tribes, and asked for permission to settle in that portion of the land. Moses was distressed by the request, thinking that Reuben and Gad were trying to shirk their obligations to help in the battles to capture the land of Canaan.

In Numbers 32:6, Moses excoriates the tribes of Reuben and Gad saying: ? הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה,  “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you remain here?” Moses further accuses the tribes of Reuben and Gad of trying to cause the other tribes to lose faith in the land of Israel, comparing them to the scouts, who in the previous generation had caused the People of Israel to lose the right to enter the land of Israel.

In response, the leaders of Reuben and Gad say, Numbers 32:16: גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה, וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ, “We will build pens for our livestock and cities for our small children. Furthermore, they promise to send troops to join the other tribes of Israel, until the battle for the land is complete. They vow not to return to their homes until all the people of Israel are settled on their patrimony.

Moses is delighted by their forthcomingness, and invites Reuben and Gad to serve in the vanguard of the Israeli army that will drive the Canaanite inhabitants out of the land.

Moses however, makes a subtle correction to their original response. In Numbers 32:24, Moses says to the tribes of Reuben and Gad: בְּנוּ לָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם, Yes, do whatever you must, but first build cities for yourselves and for your small children, and then erect pens for your flocks. Rashi on Numbers 32:16, citing the Midrash Tanchuma , says that Moses firmly corrected the two tribes for saying that they would first build pens for their cattle, and only then erect cities for their children, implying that they were more concerned with their property (their sheep) than they were for their children. Moses strongly asserts that care for the children must be their first concern and priority.

In the ritual of the Pidyon Haben, the Redemption of the First-born son, the Cohen asks the child’s father, “Do you prefer to give me your first born, the first born of his mother, or would you rather redeem him for the five shekels required by the Torah?” In effect, the Cohen asks the parent, do you want your child or your money? Do you intend to put career ahead of family, or will you set your life’s primary focus to be your children and your family?

In our era of overwhelming materialism, most people already define themselves by their careers–I’m a lawyer, a doctor, a baker, a candlestick maker. Judaism, to the contrary, sees career not as an end, but as a means of putting bread on the table, enabling parents to properly care for their families. The Torah encourages Jews to define themselves as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Careers, while important, must remain secondary.

Dennis Prager, the well-known Los Angeles radio personality, has said that he’s never heard of a person lying on his death bed, say to his rabbi, “What a mistake I made with my life. Why didn’t I spend more time at the office?”

In a very stirring Holocaust survivor’s poem, entitled Star Eternal written by the poet Ka-tzetnik 135633, the author deals with the question of “Wiedergutmacheng”–accepting reparations from the Germans to compensate for the losses. The child in the poem says:

“Mother, now they want to give me money to make up for you.
I still can’t figure out how many German marks a burnt mother comes to.”

The value of life is infinite, whether a mother’s life, a father’s life, a son’s life or a daughter’s life. Moses was correct in setting the priorities of the tribes of Reuben and Gad straight. As he says in Numbers 32:24: בְּנוּ לָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם, “First build for yourselves cities for your children, and only then build the pens for your flocks.”

May you be blessed.

Pinchas 5780-2020

“The Pain of Giving Reproof”
(Updated and revised from Parashat Pinchas 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On Thursday, July 9th, Jews the world over will observe the fast of Shivah Asar b’Tammuz, the Seventeenth day of Tammuz. The fast marks the day on the Hebrew calendar, in the year 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonian forces made its first breach in the walls of Jerusalem during the siege that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple, on Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av.

The period between Shivah Asar b’Tammuz and Tisha b’Av is known as the “Three Weeks.” During these three weeks, rejoicing is limited and the mourning period begins. The communal mourning becomes amplified during the nine days that precede Tisha b’av, and becomes most intense on the fast of Tisha b’Av, which this year will be observed from Wednesday night, July 29th through Thursday night, July 30th.

In order to create the appropriate mournful atmosphere in anticipation of the Temples’ destruction, the sages ordained that the haftarot, the prophetic messages read on the three Shabbatot between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, are prophecies that predict the destruction of the first Temple. These three haftarot that come from the opening chapters of the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah are known as Shalosh d’Puranuta, the three prophecies of calamity. Each prophecy predicts the coming great destruction, and the punishments that would be visited upon the People of Israel due to their sinfulness.

The haftarah for parashat Pinchas consists of the entire first chapter of Jeremiah and continues through the first three verses of Jeremiah 2. The Book of Jeremiah opens with a description of G-d’s selection of Jeremiah as a prophet. The youthful Jeremiah is reluctant to prophesy, claiming that he is unqualified because he is but a lad. G-d touches his mouth, and tells Jeremiah to have no fear, after all, G-d will put His words in to the prophet’s mouth.

The first prophecy of Jeremiah concerns a vision of an almond-wood staff that G-d shows him. The second prophecy is a vision of a boiling caldron that is bubbling over from its northern side. G-d explains that the boiling caldron represents the evil that will burst forth from the north, symbolizing the Babylonian nation, who will emerge from the north, bringing great destruction in their wake.

While the meaning of the prophecy of the burning caldron is quite straightforward, the opening prophecy of the almond-wood staff is opaque and confounding. In Jeremiah 1:11, G-d asks the prophet, ?מָה אַתָּה רֹאֶה יִרְמְיָהוּ   “What do you see, Jeremiah?” The prophet responds, מַקֵּל שָׁקֵד אֲנִי רֹאֶה, “I see a staff made of almond-wood.” Continuing his prophecy, Jeremiah says, (Jeremiah 1:12): וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֵלַי, G-d said to me, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת כִּי שֹׁקֵד אֲנִי עַל דְּבָרִי לַעֲשֹׂתו, “You have seen very well, for I will hasten to fulfill My word!“

The representational message of the almond-wood staff is clearly the message of “speed.” Since the almond is the first tree to blossom in Israel, it symbolizes speed and alacrity–that G-d will hasten to bring the ominous fulfillment of His prophecy of destruction upon the Jewish people. (See the reference to almonds blossoming on Aaron’s staff in Numbers 17:23).

But, the question remains, why does G-d say, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת, “Jeremiah you have seen very well,” after all, what was so special about Jeremiah being able to identify an almond-wood staff?

May I suggest a possible explanation. A “staff”–מַקֵּל, differs from a “branch” since it is a finished piece of wood. Once the wood is finished, sanded and planed, it is very difficult to distinguish between almond, pine or other varieties of wood. G-d therefore compliments Jeremiah, saying, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת, “You have seen very well.” By being able to distinguish that the staff is specifically almond, you have enabled Me [G-d] to clarify my message of speed. This was no easy task. You, Jeremiah, are quite talented!

Good and well, but this raises another question, Why didn’t G-d show Jeremiah an  עֵץ שָׁקֵד, an almond wood branch with leaves and bark? That would have made it much easier for Jeremiah to identify the wood’s origin?

Perhaps, that is exactly the point. The message that Jeremiah will deliver to the people is a message of destruction and despair, a message of pain and suffering. Such a bitter message must be difficult for the prophet to deliver. G-d purposely made it difficult for the prophet to identify the almond-tree staff, to teach the prophet that delivering words of calamity must be difficult. As much as G-d needs to bring the punishment upon the Jewish people, He cannot do it with ease. Neither can the prophet who conveys G-d’s message rejoice in being the messenger of G-d delivering the message of calamity. While Jeremiah is destined to be a prophet of doom, he may not be a joyful prophet of doom. Evil will eventually befall the people, but Jeremiah must share their pain. If he does not share their pain, then he is hardly a legitimate prophet.

For us, this is a most profound lesson of life. Whether the issues concern Jews or non-Jews, the land of Israel or other lands and other people in various parts of the world, the message of Israel prevailing over its enemies must be conveyed with care and consideration. Even when we speak of those who seemingly deserve to be punished, for the Jew, the message of suffering can never be a joyous message. Says the book of Proverbs–Mishlei (24:17), בִּנְפֹל אוֹיִבְךָ, אַל תִּשְׂמָח, When your enemy falters, do not rejoice. As much as we would like to rejoice, (and perhaps, even deserve to rejoice), it is never proper to rejoice. It must be difficult for Jews to see even our most deserving enemies suffer.

This attitude of extreme sensitivity to the pain of others is an embodiment of the so-called “bottom line” of Judaism—the unqualified reverence for the sanctity of human life. It is for this same reason that G-d had to stop the ancient Israelites from singing the Hallel, the Songs of Praise of G-d, as the Egyptians drowned at the sea.

This sensitivity is our sacred tradition.

Fortunate are we to be the possessors of these remarkable traditions. The alternative, would be unthinkable.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Thursday, July 9, 2020, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction on Tisha b’Av. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av, that will be observed on Wednesday night and Thursday, July 29th and 30th.

Have a meaningful fast.

Chukat-Balak 5780-2020

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose–History Repeats Itself!”
(Updated and revised from Parashiot Chukat-Balak 5760-2000)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

This week’s Torah portions are doubled. We read both parashiot Chukat and Balak.

Parashat Balak is one of the many Torah portions that reflect the popular traditional Jewish dictum: מַעַשֶׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָנִים –the experiences of the forefathers are a sign for future generations. Other cultures have their own way of expressing this theme: The French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Americans commonly declare: History repeats itself!

Having heard of the incredible defeats by the Israelite army of Sichon and Og (the two most powerful kings of that time), Balak, king of Moab, is in dread fear of Israel. He commissions Balaam, a Midianite prophet, to curse the Jewish people.

How could Balak recruit Balaam, after all, Midian and Moab were mortal enemies of old? As usual, there is one thing that unites the enemies of Israel–their common enmity for the Jewish people, which is often greater than their hatred of each other. As we see today, Iran used to hate Iraq and Syria. What unites them all now? Their common hatred for Israel. Plus ça change.

So, Balak befriends Balaam (his old enemy), in order to persuade Balaam to curse Israel.

Why curse? Why not unite in battle? Because after studying the battles that Israel had waged, Balak concluded that the Jews did not defeat their enemies in a conventional military manner, but rather in a supernatural manner. He suspected that the secret weapon of Israel was the prayers of Moses, who spent much time in Midian. So, Balak hired Balaam, a Midianate soothsayer and prophet. Surely, he’d be able to counteract and nullify the prayers of Moses!

We’ll return to Balaam and Balak’s strategy in a moment.

Balaam attempts to curse Israel. His efforts, however, are of no avail, as G-d turns Balaam’s curses into blessings!

Despite his wicked intentions, Balaam’s words are of great value to the Jewish people. In fact, it is strange, that of all the magnificent verses in the Bible, Jews open their daily prayers with the words of Balaam (Numbers 24:5): מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב –How goodly are thy tents O’ Jacob. What was it that caused Balaam to sing the praises of the Jewish dwelling places? Says Rashi: עַל שֶׁרָאָה פִתְחֵיהֶם שֶׁאֵינָן מְכֻוָּנִין זֶה מוּל זֶה .He [Balaam] saw that the openings of the Israelites tents were not facing one another.

What Balaam saw was the profound respect for privacy among the Jews. He beheld Jews respecting the sanctity of each other’s domicile. Jewish history teaches that when the families and the homes of Israel are properly arrayed–-then the Jewish people are indomitable, undefeatable, and indestructible.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, the author of a commentary on the Siddur entitled “Baruch Sheh’amar” asks: Why was the verse מַה טֹּבוּ –“How Goodly…” chosen to open our daily prayers? He suggests that it was chosen specifically because it was said by Balaam. If Balaam, whose hatred for the Jewish people was so profound, uttered these lovely words about the Jewish people, imagine what the truth really was. If anything, these praises of Israel are a profound understatement. The truth is beyond mortal description.

Now, back to the strategy. While Balaam’s curses were not effective, he did eventually succeed in causing serious harm to Israel.

Numbers 25:1 relates: וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב ,the men of Israel began to commit harlotry with the Moabite women. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 106a, states that this harlotry was all Balaam’s idea. When Balaam saw that military might and curses could not defeat Israel, he returned to the one foolproof method to defeat Israel –seduction by alien woman, in this case, Midiante women. 24,000 Israelites die in the subsequent plague.

The biblical narrative of Balaam and the seduction of Israel, is practically a thumbnail summary of all Jewish history. Our enemies are unable to defeat us physically, but they can vanquish us spiritually. Today, intermarriage, assimilation and the blandishments of contemporary culture are our worst enemies and our greatest weakness.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. מַעַשֶׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָנִים . History indeed–Jewish history, repeats itself over and over again, and, if we are to survive,  we had better take heed.

May you be blessed.

Korach 5780-2020

“Achieving the Good Life by Picking the Right Mate”
(updated and revised from parashat Korach 5761-2001)

 

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of Korach’s great rebellion against Moses. Korach, who is a first cousin to Moses and Aaron, and a fellow Levite, accuses Moses and Aaron of usurping authority that does not belong to them, and of not sharing the power of leadership with other members of the People of Israel.

In Numbers 16:1, the Torah records the start of the rebellion: וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח…וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. Korach, gathered together with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, the descendants of Reuben, and stood before Moses with 250 men of the children of Israel, leaders of the assembly…men of renown.

Confronting Moses and Aaron, they said to them (Numbers 16:3): רַב לָכֶם, כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם ? It is too much for you (Moses and Aaron)! After all, the entire assembly is holy, and G-d is among them. So, why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?

Moses tries to reason with Korach, to no avail. He challenges Korach and his supporters to a Divine test, instructing them to bring censors full of קְטוֹרֶת–k’toret, incense, and that tomorrow G-d will show the People of Israel whom He chooses.ooses. Moses tries to forestall the rebellion by approaching Dathan and Abiram for reconciliation, but they refuse even to meet with him. Numbers 16:14, records the response of Dathan and Abiram: הַעֵינֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵם תְּנַקֵּר “Do you expect to gouge out the eyes of those men?” There’s nothing to talk about!

Eventually, the earth opens and swallows Korach, Dathan and Abiram, and fire comes out of heaven and devours the 250 men who brought the improper incense offering.

When reviewing the narrative concerning the deaths of Korach and his cohorts, the rabbis ask, “What happened to On, the son of Pelet? Why is his name not mentioned among the rebellious victims who were killed?

The rabbis of the Midrash point out that two women played key roles in the rebellion of Korach—one played a destructive role, the other a constructive role. The Midrash maintains that Mrs. Korach egged her husband on, saying to him: “How long are you going to allow your cousin Moses to ridicule you, and remain silent? He’s consolidating all the power and wealth for himself, and you’re a nothing!” After hearing her laments over and over, Korach resolves to do something. He eventually confronts Moses, which leads to the terrible rebellion, and concludes with Korach’s horrifying demise.

To balance this not very “politically correct” description of Mrs. Korach, the rabbis maintain that On the son of Pelet is saved by his wife. Apparently, Mrs. On had overheard Korach cajoling her husband into rebelling and trying to persuade On to join the ranks of the disenchanted. After all, said Korach, “You On, are a member of the tribe of Reuben, the first born of Jacob. You are entitled to power and glory as well.” According to the Midrash, when Mrs. On hears this, she tells her husband: “On, darling, what will you gain from this rebellion against Moses? Should Moses emerge victorious, you’ll still be a nothing. If Korach emerges victorious you’ll be subservient to Korach. You’re in a Catch 22. Stay out of it!”

On eventually agrees with his wife, but was concerned that Korach and his cohorts would come to drag him to the rebellion. Mrs. On tells hers husband not to fear; she would handle the matter.

When Mrs. On saw the emissaries of Korach approaching her home to collect her husband, she quickly gave On some wine to drink, and he fell asleep. Mrs. On positioned herself at the door of the tent, her hair immodestly uncovered, coiffing herself in public. When Korach and his assembly saw Mrs. On in her immodest state, they turned away, leaving On alone.

According to a further Midrashic tradition, when the earth opened to swallow Korach’s cohorts, the bed on which On slept began to tremble, and the earth began to open to swallow On. On’s wife pleaded with G-d saying, “O Lord of the Universe, my husband made a solemn vow to never again take part in dissensions. You Who lives and endures for all eternity can punish him hereafter if ever he proves false to his vow.” G-d heeds her plea, and On is saved. Eventually, On receives personal forgiveness from Moses. From then on the Midrash tells us that On is called “On the Penitent, the son of Pelet” which means miracle. An interesting tradition has it that On was actually the brother of Dathan and Abiram.

How fascinating that the Torah underscores that a person’s fate is often determined by the mate he or she chooses.

The parasha also warns how the friends one chooses can also determine a person’s fate. Rashi notes on Numbers 16:1 how Dathan and Abiram were pulled in to Korach’s rebellion because they were Korach’s neighbors. The noteworthy words of the Midrash Rabbah bear repetition: אוֹי לָרָשָׁע אוֹי לִשְׁכֵנו–Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor.

In the early stages of courting, it’s so difficult to predict the ultimate ideals and the intimate perspectives a potential spouse may have. Try as we may to determine what those intimate values are, it is often impossible to confirm. Even after marriage, husbands and wives, at times, find themselves pulling in different directions. One may be more spiritual, while the other more material. One may be more cerebral, while the other more athletic. One may be more outgoing, the other more shy. But, it is inevitable that after years of living together, husbands and wives influence one another. The ultimate question is, which of the traits and values will dominate? Sometimes only the negative traits dominate, while at other times the positive values prevail.

Obviously, marriages need סִיַּעְתָּא דִשְׁמַיָּא, much Divine intervention and blessings from Above.

The verse in the Book of Psalms, 34:15 made famous by the Chofetz Chaim is instructive: סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב, Turn from evil and do good. Some people lack the strength or the fortitude to confront evil. Perhaps that’s what happened to On the son of Pelet and his wife. Instead, they chose subterfuge merely to avoid evil, with favorable results–salvation for them and their progeny.

Clearly, much of life depends on mazal, (good luck and fortune). Nevertheless, people are often in a position to determine and insure their own good fortune. Choose friends and mates carefully. Avoid situations that are going to result in ethical compromise. Have faith in G-d, and always strive to be the best you can be.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5780-2020

“The Torah’s Definition of ‘Power’”
(Revised and Updated from Parashat Shelach 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald.

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, recounts the story of the twelve spies or, more accurately, the twelve “scouts,” who were sent by Moses to survey the land of Israel. Upon returning, ten of the scouts spoke badly of Israel, but two of the scouts–Joshua the son of Nun and Kaleb the son of Jefuna, returned with a positive report.

No matter how Joshua and Kaleb tried to persuade the People of Israel that the land of Israel was a good land, the people, who were bent on evil, accepted only the negative accounts of the other ten scouts–and were intimidated by their report that Canaan is a land that “devours its inhabitants!”

In response to the people, G-d says to Moses, Numbers 14:11-12: עַד אָנָה יְנַאֲצֻנִי הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְעַד אָנָה לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ בִי, בְּכֹל הָאֹתוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ, “How long will this people provoke me? How long will they [the people] not have faith in me, despite all the miracles that I have performed in their midst?” אַכֶּנּוּ בַדֶּבֶר וְאוֹרִשֶׁנּוּ, וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ, “I will smite them with the plague, and annihilate them, and I shall make you [Moses] into a greater and more powerful nation than they.”

Speaking to G-d like a clever “public relations” expert who is concerned with G-d’s “Divine image,” Moses responds to G-d saying that when the Egyptians and the other nations will hear what You [G-d] have done, they will say that You were just incapable of fulfilling Your promise of bringing Your people to the land of Canaan. The nations will say, argues Moses, Numbers 14:16: מִבִּלְתִּי יְכֹלֶת השׁם, לְהָבִיא אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם, G-d simply lacked the ability to bring the people to the land that He had sworn to give them, וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם בַּמִּדְבָּר, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.

In Numbers 14:17, Moses pleads with G-d, saying: וְעַתָּה, יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ השׁם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר, “And now, may the strength of G-d be magnified, as You Yourself have spoken saying,” Numbers 14:18: השׁם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד, נֹשֵׂא עָוֺן וָפָשַׁע, וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה, פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים, עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים, “G-d, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, forgiving iniquity and willful sin, who cleanses, but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”

In Numbers 14:19, Moses continues to plead, סְלַח נָא, לַעֲוֺן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ, וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הֵנָּה, “Forgive now the inequity of these people according to the greatness of Your kindness and as You have forgiven this people from Egypt until now.” To all this G-d finally responds, Numbers 14:20: וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ, and G-d said, “I forgive, because of your words!”

Despite the fact that Jewish people are nominally forgiven, all the men who were 20 years old and upward, with the exception of Joshua and Kaleb, are condemned to ultimately perish in the wilderness over the next 40 years.

A question remains. Why in Numbers 14:17 does Moses say, וְעַתָּה, יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ השׁם, “and now, may the strength of G-d be magnified?” Moses had previously warned that the nations will say, מִבְּלִי יְכֹלֶת השׁם, that G-d ran out of steam. G-d, and the concept of Divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence will undoubtedly be seen as a fraud by the nations. Perhaps, Moses is arguing that if G-d slaughters the people at this time, then the entire value of the Exodus from Egypt will be forfeited.

I would like to suggest, that, in effect, what G-d and Moses are really conveying in this dialogue, is a new definition of “power.”

Generally, “power” is the means used to overwhelm others by brute force, to destroy, to uproot and to shatter. But, at this moment, G-d and Moses and Jewish tradition ascribe a new meaning to the concept of power.

This new meaning is alluded to in our Talmudic tradition. The Mishne in Pirkei Avot 4:1 asks, ?אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, Who is mighty? הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, those who able to conquer their tempers and control their anger. In Avot d’Rabeinu Natan, 23, Jewish tradition goes even further, asking, ?אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר שֶׁבַּגִבּוֹרִים, Who is the most mighty of the mighty? מִי שֶׁעוֹשֶׂה שׂוֹנְאוֹ אוֹהֲבוֹ, those who are able to convert their enemies into friends.

Moses argues that “true power” is the ability to exercise restraint and not destroy. To the contrary, power is the ability to forgive, to convert and to transfer from one strongly held attitude to another. “G-d,” says Moses, “You are אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם–long to anger. You now have the opportunity to demonstrate to the nations of the world how incredibly powerful You are by giving the Jews a second chance.”

And, in effect, that is what really happened. After all, the ultimate paradigm of G-d’s power is the resilience of the Jewish people, and the ultimate vehicle that has successfully conveyed the idea of G-d’s power is the longevity of the Jewish people. The fact that we Jews still exist, despite all odds, is living testimony of G-d’s ultimate power—His power to forgive.

It is easy to beat someone up, or to beat someone down. It is far more difficult to forgive a person, and to turn that person into a friend.

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a’lot’cha 5780-2020

The Torah’s Attitude toward Converts
(Revised and Updated from Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha 5761-2001)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald.

This coming week’s Torah portion, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, continues the narrative concerning the Jews’ wanderings in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land.

The Torah records (Numbers 9:1-5), that in the first month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt, G-d spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai to tell the people to prepare for the celebration of Passover.

Scripture relates (Numbers 9:6-8), that among the Israelites, were men who had been contaminated by coming in contact with a human corpse, rendering them ineligible by their defilement to offer the Pascal sacrifice on the Passover holiday together with the rest of the nation.

The men approached Moses and informed him how disappointed they were to have to miss the celebration of Pesach. Moses responded (Numbers 9:10-12), by informing them that once they are purified, they can observe a “make-up date” for Passover. On the second month of the year, the month of Iyar, on the fourteenth day at dusk, they should celebrate a “quasi” Passover, together with matzah and marror (bitter herbs).

The Torah, in Numbers 9:14, continues with additional instructions concerning the Second Passover: וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַהשׁם , and if a convert, a stranger, shall sojourn with you, that stranger shall make a Pascal offering to G-d, כְּחֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח וּכְמִשְׁפָּטוֹ, כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה , he shall make the Pascal offering to G-d according to the appropriate laws of the Passover offering. חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ , there shall be only one law for you, for the stranger and for the citizen of the land.

Nachmanides points out in his commentary, that we might have thought that “strangers” (which, in this context, mean proselytes) who’ve converted to Judaism and whose ancestors did not share in the Exodus, should not bring a Pascal offering to commemorate the event. The fact that the Torah specifically underscores here that converts do participate in this Passover ritual, teaches us that converts participate equally in the performance not only the Passover rituals, but in all of the Torah’s commandments.

In a similar context, the rabbis have asked Teshuvot haRambam: How is it possible for a convert to Judaism to pray every day and say in the Amidah, אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ וֵא־לֹקֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ , our G-d, and G-d of our fathers, אֱ־לֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱ־לֹקֵי יצְחָק, וֵא־לֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב , the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob. After all, converts are not descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

Clearly, Jewish tradition reflects an ambivalence toward converts—גֵרִים , gayrim. On the one hand, the Talmud comments on the verse, Exodus 18:9, וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ , explaining that Jethro (considered to be the first convert to Judaism), broke out with gooseflesh when he heard about the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians. This teaches us, say the rabbis, that one should not remind converts of their background, since they may be embarrassed of their ancestry.

On the other hand, the Talmud (Yebamot 47b) declares: קָשִׁים גֵרִים לְיִשְרָאֵל כְּסַפַחַת , converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as scurvy. Very literally, it probably meant that converting non- Jews to Judaism endangered the Jewish communities, since the non-Jewish authorities where the Jews lived forbade Jews to convert anyone to Judaism, and violation would result in wholesale punishment (perhaps even death). This caused a turnabout in the Jewish attitude toward conversion, which was originally evangelical–seeking out converts. Now normative Jewish practice became anti-evangelical.

In the biblical Book of Ruth (Ruth 1:8-12), in order to ascertain whether Ruth is sincere in her intentions, Naomi tries three times to dissuade Ruth from converting to Judaism. Based on this narrative, rabbinic authorities have consistently discouraged non-Jews from converting to Judaism. One of the reasons proposed for this practice is that Jews, who have an obligation to abide by many more Mitzvot (613), are more liable to heavenly punishment than a non-Jew, who is obligated to keep only the seven Noahide Principles.

Some of the commentators on the Talmud’s seemingly anti- conversion statement found in Yebamot 47b, point out that prospective converts are considered to be like a “scurvy” upon the Jewish people because they are so sincere, compared to biologically-born Jews. Because of their sincerity and their commitment, the converts make “born Jews” look insincere and far less committed.

There is, of course, an illustrious history of converts to Judaism. In fact, some of the foremost leaders of Israel were descended from converts. Rabbi Meir, the author of all the anonymous Mishnahaic statements, Rabbi Akiva –the great sage of the Talmud, Onkelos –the foremost translator of the Bible into Aramaic, who, even now, is commonly referred to with pride as Onkelos Ha’ger, Onkelos the Convert.

The bottom line, as is amply demonstrated from the verses in parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, is that Jews have to treat “strangers” (that is, converts) with great respect and sensitivity. There is also, of course, a special mitzvah to love strangers.

Perhaps, the most defining statement about converts comes from the Talmud, Shavuot 39a. Based on Deuteronomy 29:14, the rabbis declare that the souls of all Jews, past, present and future, including the souls of converts, were present at Sinai.

Truth is, that often, when one meets a גֵּר צֶדֶק , Ger Tzedek, a truly righteous proselyte, one can quickly sense, that no matter the convert’s racial or religious background, they were there at Sinai and are indeed the spiritual children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! It may very likely be that most of today’s converts are descendants of Jews who were assimilated over the millennia, and whose souls are now being welcomed back to the Jewish fold.

As it says in the Torah, Deuteronomy 10:19, וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר , Love the stranger.

May you be blessed.

 

Naso 5780-2020

The Ordeal of the Sotah — Barbaric or Enlightened?
(Revised and Updated from Parashat Naso 5761-2001)
by Rabbi Ephraim Z.  Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, with 176 verses, is the longest parasha of the Torah, and always follows the festival of Shavout. Coincidentally, the longest chapter in the Book of Psalms, chapter 119, also contains 176 verses, and the longest tractate of the Talmud, Baba Batra, consists of 176 folios (2-sided pages), as well. On this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after celebrating Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah, the Jewish people show their great love and passion for Torah by extending their Torah reading, demonstrating their unwillingness to bring the study of Torah to an end.

Parashat Naso has many interesting and important themes, but certainly one of the most controversial topics in the entire Torah is the topic of the סוֹטָהSotah,” the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband.

At first blush, this portion seems quite similar to the parallel laws found in the Code of Hammurabi, which read:

If the finger is pointed at the wife of a citizen on account of another man, but she has not been caught lying with another man, for her husband’s sake–she shall throw herself into the river.

In our Torah portion, if a woman is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, but hasn’t been caught in the act, the woman doesn’t drown herself, but, instead, is brought by her jealous husband to the Kohain, the priest, to the Tabernacle. A special sacrifice, symbolic of her straying, is brought for her, and she is forced to drink holy water from an earthen bowl, containing dust from the Tabernacle floor and the scrapings of ink that have been scraped from the writings on a parchment scroll containing a terrible curse. If the woman were guilty of adultery, she would die from the drink. If innocent, she would live and become pregnant. All this seems very similar to the barbaric trials and ordeals of medieval times, to which women were subjected to prove their guilt or innocence.

But, truth is, that the test of the Sotah, when properly understood, is hardly barbaric at all. To the contrary, it is quite enlightened when studied in the light of the Talmudic commentaries and the Jewish legal codes, and is intended to greatly benefit the suspected adulteress.

The Talmud points out that the Torah verses indicate that the husband’s accusations of his wife’s infidelity are not groundless or contrived. The verses imply, and the Talmud amplifies, that the woman had been seen by witnesses in a compromising position (secluding herself with another man behind closed doors) even after her husband had taken legal action to warn his wife not to be associated with the suspected paramour. What this implies, is not necessarily the woman’s guilt, but that the marriage was already in trouble, and that the woman had definitely given her husband ample and legitimate reason for suspicion. The real question is, can this marriage be saved?

In light of modern psychology, we know that suspicion of infidelity is one of the most corrosive, and destructive elements in a marriage. In fact, once suspicion has entered into the marital relationship, it is so pernicious that it can hardly ever be eliminated. While some husbands or wives might forgive a spouse’s indiscretions, the suspicion usually lingers, and often festers, and, in most instances, a meaningful subsequent relationship becomes virtually impossible.

The Torah, through the ritual of Sotah, provides a Heavenly mandated method to heal the suspicion, and to provide the couple that wishes to repair their relationship the ability to start afresh without the taint of suspicion, since G-d Himself testifies that the woman is guiltless.

In fact, argue the rabbis, only a guiltless woman who wishes to save her marriage, would go through the ritual, either because of her love for her children, or because she realizes that she had, indeed, misled her husband. On the other hand, a woman, guilty or not, even after she had been accused, could choose not to subject herself to the ordeal, by opting out of the marriage and declaring that she wants a divorce. Since there is no concrete evidence that she has ever committed adultery, even a guilty woman is not punished. That is why a guilty woman would never go through the ritual, even though the whole test might very well be a Divine “psychosomatic” examination, resulting in true physical manifestations.

The Talmud tells us that, remarkably, the innocent woman who was subjected to the ordeal will not emerge from the trial tainted or degraded. In fact, she will emerge blessed, and will become a source of pride for the community, since her chastity has been confirmed by G-d.

What about the man? The Talmud tells us that if the accusing husband had been guilty of any infidelity, this ritual would not work on his wife. And, if the woman were guilty, and would die from the Sotah drink, her paramour, her lover, would somehow die as well. But, on the other hand, there is no comparable test for men suspected of being unfaithful since men are not given the benefit of the doubt, as are woman.

We today, live in a very complex and confused environment, with much too much improper and immoral behavior. Almost 50% of American marriages terminate in divorce, for one reason or another, and an even higher percentage of second marriages fail. Once suspicion sets in, there is little recourse to rebuild the trust that has been shattered. Once faithfulness has been questioned, in most cases, it is, almost always, downhill.

Should we pray for the restoration of the Sotah ritual? Well, I don’t know, since it only functioned in a chaste society, and ours is certainly not worthy. But, I do believe that the many fascinating truths and insights that are to be found in the complex ritual of Sotah are worthy of examination and consideration. Surely, we should not be quick to ridicule, condemn, and dismiss the lessons to be gleaned from the ritual of the Sotah.

May you be blessed.