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Chayei Sarah 5780-2019

“Rebecca and Isaac’s First Encounter: a Revealing Insight into the Future”
(updated and revised from Chayei Sarah 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the destiny-changing mission of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, to find a wife for Isaac.

Eliezer travels to Abraham’s homeland, אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִםAram Na’harayim (upper Mesopotamia), where he encounters Rebecca (Rivkah) at the well. By offering to give not only Eliezer water to drink, but also  provide water for his camels, Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a special person, filled with the quality of loving-kindness, who would be an appropriate mate for Isaac, his master’s son.

Rashi cites the Talmud (Niddah 44b), to justify the Midrash’s (60:5) radical claim that Rebecca was only three years old at the time of her betrothal to Isaac. The apparent intention of this Midrash is to underscore Rebecca’s purity, that she was too young to have been molested by the people of Aram Na’harayim who were well known for violating the local women.

Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is so taken by Rebecca and her extraordinary kindness, that even before he finds out about her family and who she really is, he immediately bedecks her with jewelry. When he learns that Rebecca is the daughter of Bethuel, a close relative of Abraham’s family, he regards this as a Divine omen, confirming the success of his mission.

Eliezer and his entourage are welcomed into Bethuel’s home, where Eliezer meets Laban, Rebecca’s cunning brother, and negotiations for the woman’s hand in marriage begin. Eliezer relates, in lengthy detail, of the miraculous birth of Isaac to his aged parents Sarah and Abraham, explains how he chose Rebecca through the test of kindness, and beseeches the family to allow Rebecca to quickly return with him to Canaan so that she may marry the princely Isaac.

After showering the girl’s family with gifts, Rebecca is asked whether she wishes to go with Eliezer. When she enthusiastically accedes, the betrothal is completed, and Rebecca is sent off to meet her husband-to-be.

Laban, who tried to delay Rebecca’s departure, offers a beautiful departing blessing to his sister (Genesis 24:60), אֲחֹתֵנוּ, אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה , Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads! In effect, Laban blesses his sister, Rebecca, to become the progenitor of many generations of worthy children. This same blessing is recited, to this day, by fathers at the Badekin–the traditional veiling ceremony of the bride, as their daughters are escorted to the marriage canopy.

The servant, the bride and the entire entourage arrive in Canaan, where the first encounter between Rebecca and her future husband, Isaac, takes place. It is this encounter which provides many insights into the future relationship between Rebecca and Isaac.

Rebecca has left her entire family behind in Aram Na’harayim, and has traveled many hundreds of kilometers to Canaan with Eliezer, a servant, whom she hardly knows, and his entourage. Only her nurse and a few of her own maidens accompany her on this extraordinary journey. Even if she were not a three-year-old girl, certainly such a journey, without friends or family, must have been exceedingly traumatic. It’s true, that according to many commentators, Rebecca couldn’t wait to get out of the house of wicked Bethuel and Laban, and into the holy environment of Abraham’s home, but, still, it must have been thoroughly frightening.

The Torah, in Genesis 24:62, describes the first meeting between Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac was coming from having gone to בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִיB’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the Well of the Living G-d. It seems that after the Akeidah, after almost being offered up for slaughter by his father Abraham, Isaac chooses not to dwell near his father, but rather to reside separately in the south country. Perhaps, because of the trauma of the near-death experience, Isaac frequently visits B’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the well, known as Ishmael’s well, where G-d appeared to Hagar and told her to return to Abraham and Sarah’s home, and suffer humiliation under the hands of Sarah, because she was to give birth to a child, Ishmael.

According to a Midrashic tradition cited in Rashi, Isaac had gone to B’er L’Chai Ro’ee to bring Hagar back to Abraham, now that his own mother Sarah was deceased, so that Abraham would not be left without a wife. Propitiously, G-d brings a wife to Isaac as a reward for his special kindness to his father, Abraham.

Isaac goes out to meditate in the field before evening, perhaps to pray. He lifts his eyes and sees camels coming. Genesis 24:64 is very revealing, וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא אֶת יִצְחָק, וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל , And Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac, and she fell off the camel. She asks the servant, Eliezer: “Who is that man coming before us in the field? Eliezer answers that the man is our master, Isaac. Rebecca promptly takes a veil, modestly covering her face. Eliezer proceeds to tell Isaac all the fascinating details that had occurred to him at the well and how he came to choose Rebecca. Scripture states that Isaac then brought Rebecca into the tent of Sarah his mother, takes Rebecca as a wife, loved her, and is comforted after his mother.

From this first encounter between Isaac and Rebecca, we behold a bride and groom who appear to be carrying much emotional baggage with them. It could be that Isaac has not yet fully recovered from the trauma of the Akeidah, the binding. He is constantly praying, trying to do good deeds, to justify the fact that he was spared from almost certain death. Isaac has climbed to unprecedented heights on the spiritual ladder, for being prepared to give up his life for the sake of heaven, without a word of protest. Rebecca, on the other hand, is but a young child who comes from Aram Na’harayim, a decadent and idolatrous background. Although she is related to Abraham’s family, her parents and siblings are idolaters of low ethical character. Given this background, and the stark contrast with Isaac’s noble spiritual background, Rebecca feels wholly unworthy and inadequate. Subsequently, when she encounters the exceedingly spiritual Isaac coming toward her from prayer before evening, she falls off the camel and covers her face. While Isaac loves Rebecca, it seems to be a relationship between polar opposites.

Perhaps this explains why Rebecca (Genesis 27), resorts to deceiving her husband and having Jacob dress up as Esau, when she fears that Isaac is prepared to give the blessings to Esau. Why does she not speak with her husband, Isaac? Why doesn’t she confront him directly? Perhaps because those same feelings of inadequacy, that she had when she first encountered this great spiritual man, have come back to haunt her. “How can I, Rebecca, the sister of Laban, the daughter of Bethuel, born in a den of iniquity and idolatrous decadence, confront my husband, Isaac, the son of the great spiritualist Abraham, who was prepared to give his life on the Akeidah for G-d?” Instead, she resorts to deception.

Oftentimes, we tend to idealize the stories of the Bible, as well as the characters of the patriarchs and matriarchs. But, the Torah is determined to teach us how human they were, and consequently underscores the daily human challenges that they too faced. Our patriarchs and matriarchs lived in a world that was in turmoil. There were many negative influences assaulting them from all sides. The challenges that they faced were daunting, certainly as great as those we face today, perhaps even greater, because they were alone in their struggle to live godly, ethical, and moral lives.

While we each face challenges, we can learn much from the challenges of our patriarchs and matriarchs. For, after all, despite all the many negative factors, the patriarch Jacob ultimately succeeds to nurture 12 disparate tribes and meld them into one great Nation of Israel, notwithstanding their radically different personalities and characters.

As is always the case, we can learn much from studying the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs and from the abundant invaluable insights that are to be found in the vital details of our Torah.

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5780-2019

“The Preciousness of Hospitality”
(Updated and Revised from Vayeira 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, opens, aged Abraham, 99 years old, is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, recovering from his recent circumcision. According to Rashi, G-d has taken the sun out of its cloud-cover, resulting in intense heat, in order to discourage guests from interrupting Abraham’s recuperation.

Abraham, however, is distressed by the lack of visitors, so the Al-mighty sends three people, really three angels, to Abraham’s home. According to tradition, each of the angels has been assigned an important mission. The first angel is sent to heal Abraham, and then to save Lot; the second, to inform Sarah that within the year she will bear a child; and the third, to destroy Sodom.

Despite his pain, when Abraham sees potential guests in the distance, he quickly runs toward them and, bowing before them, begs them not to pass by his tent without accepting his hospitality. “Wash your feet, rest against the tree, and I will bring you a little bread,” says Abraham (Genesis 18:4-5) to his guests, “Then you will continue on your journey.”

Instead of delivering modest refreshments as he had suggested, Abraham runs to the tent, tells Sarah to whip up a multi-course meal with special breads and cakes. He himself hurries to slaughter a calf, and together with his boy, probably his son Ishmael, prepares a sumptuous repast for the guests.

The rabbis of the Talmud, Shavuot 35b, ask how Abraham had the temerity to spontaneously bolt, and run to the arriving guests. After all, he was standing before the Divine Presence. The rabbis declare that a pivotal religious principle is learned from Abraham’s actions: that the mitzvah of welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence!

According to tradition, Abraham had multiple reasons for his avid pursuit of welcoming guests. Not only was he eager to provide wayfarers with lodging (since there were no hotels in those days), he also hoped to influence them religiously, convince them to abandon their idolatrous practices and embrace a monotheistic Deity. The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 49:4, indicates that Abraham would urge his guest to recite a blessing on the food he would give them. They would say, “What blessing shall we make?” Abraham would then respond: “Blessed be the G-d of the Universe, of Whose food we have eaten.”

Despite having many servants, both Abraham and Sarah were personally involved in serving the guests. Genesis 18:7-8, describes the family’s actions: וְאֶל הַבָּקָר רָץ אַבְרָהָם…וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם, וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם . And Abraham ran to the flock… and placed the food before them, and stood over them. Abraham had his entire family involved in the mitzvah. His boys serve alongside him, because, over the years, Abraham had made a special effort to provide them with meaningful and personal examples of hospitality.

The contrast between Abraham’s manner of welcoming guests and Lot’s welcoming of his guests in Sodom, is quite stark, even though Lot had learned the mitzvah of hospitality in Abraham’s house, and invited the guests into his home at great personal risk. As already noted, scripture describes Abraham as being personally involved in many of the preparations, scurrying around the house, and running to the flocks. Yet, when the strangers arrive in Sodom, there is no mention of Lot hurrying or exerting himself in any manner on behalf of his guests. And, of course, Lot serves alone, there is no one to help him, because no one has been nurtured to appreciate the importance of the mitzvah of hospitality.

The story is told of the famed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who, in his travels, came to the city of L’vov. Seeking lodging, he approached one of the wealthy townsmen, and, without identifying himself, asked for a place to stay. The wealthy man shouted at him angrily, “We don’t need wayfarers here. Go to a hotel.” Reb Levi Yitzchak then approached a poor melamed (teacher), who welcomed him graciously, offering him food to eat and a place to sleep.

On the way to the poor man’s house, someone recognized Reb Levi Yitzchak as the famed Rabbi of Berditchev. Soon all the townsfolk came out to greet and see the face of the venerable rabbi. Among them, of course, was the wealthy man, who proceeded to ask for forgiveness, and beseeched the rabbi to stay with him at his home.

In response, Reb Levi Yitzchak turned to the gathered people and said, “Do you know the difference between Abraham, our father of blessed memory, and Lot? Why does scripture go into such detail about the full meal Abraham served the angels? After all, Lot also baked matzot and prepared a feast for his guests? Why is Abraham’s hospitality considered special and not Lot’s?” Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev answered his own question by pointing out the fact that, when the guests came to Lot, scripture states (Genesis 19:1), וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הַמַּלְאָכִים סְדֹמָה , the two angels came to Sodom. Whereas with Abraham it says, אֲנָשִׁים , “And behold he saw three people standing upon him.” Lot saw angels! Who wouldn’t accept angels into his home? Whereas, Abraham saw poor wanderers, ragged, fatigued and covered with dust, in need of a place to rest and a little food. The message to the people of L’vov was stingingly clear.

It may very well be that the message of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is intended for us as well. It is rather ironic, that in the wealthiest land in all of human history, and in the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history, hospitality has become a somewhat forlorn and neglected mitzvah. Even when close friends and relatives come to be with us, they are often housed at local hotels, despite the fact that many homes have full-time maids and housekeepers who care for everything. Before the war, in Europe, in the most impoverished shtetls, even the poorest people, would go to the synagogue on Friday night, to vie for the privilege of taking home an “Oyrach far Shabbos,” a guest for the Sabbath, whom they would welcome into their homes with kindness, love and thoughtfulness, despite having perhaps, only a few slices of meager black bread and some herring to serve.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, in a eulogy for the Talne Rebbitzen, Rebecca Twersky, talks of the Rebbitzen’s zeal for hospitality. The “Rav” declares that in our day and age, what we consider hospitality, welcoming guests into our homes for Shabbat–prominent lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, the best and the brightest-–is really not hospitality. Rav Soloveitchik maintains that welcoming such guests, the so-called “beautiful people,” is more an honor for the host, than a service to the guests. הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִיםHachnassat Orchim–-hospitality, says Rav Soloveitchik, is when a poor person begs for a place to sleep, just overnight, and remains for a week, or two, or three, or for a month or longer. Hospitality is when it hurts, not when it’s an honor and a pleasure.

It is time to restore the mitzvah of “Hachnassat Orchim” to its ancient glory. We can learn much from Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. Welcoming guests is a precious mitzvah, whose preciousness, we dare not diminish.

May you be blessed.


Lech Lecha 5780-2019

“Understanding the Ritual of Circumcision”
(updated and revised from Lech Lecha 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


Toward the end of this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we read of the covenant of circumcision, Brit Milah. At the ripe old age of 99, when Sarah was 89 and Ishmael was 13, Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) is commanded to perform the mitzvah of circumcision on himself, on his son, and on all the males of his household. This commandment is considered one of the ten trials Ethics of Our Fathers 5:4 that “Abraham” endures.

Circumcision is an unusual mitzvah, one that is not only a private and personal mitzvah, but also one that is shrouded in uncertainty as to its meanings and symbolism. A host of explanations are offered by various commentators, but, somehow, the essential meaning of this quite radical mitzvah is elusive, never really fully comprehended.

In recent time, an increasing number of causes came under attack as “politically incorrect,” and the ritual of circumcision found itself on the defensive. Traditional Jews who circumcise their sons are at times accused of being primitive. More and more so-called “humanists,” argue that there is little difference between female clitoral circumcision and male circumcision, and both should be forbidden as acts of child molestation. How predictive it is then that the Michtav M’Eliyahu explains that Abram suffered great public calumny and shame because of his own circumcision and was shunned by his former friends and acquaintances! Since Abram’s entire life had been dedicated to bringing people closer to G-d, the test of circumcision–not only the dangerous surgical procedure, but the alienation of friends and associates as well, was an ultimate test for the Father of our religion.

In Genesis 17:1, we read that G-d appears to Abram, and says to him: הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים . Walk before Me and be “perfect.” The rabbis say that if any other part of the Abram’s body had been severed, he would not have been perfect, or whole. Since the foreskin is the only part of the male that can be removed without mutilating the body, Abram would still be whole even after the foreskin was removed. Another reason proffered by the commentaries for the removal of the foreskin, is that some authorities believe that circumcision diminishes the sexual drive, allowing the male to better focus his thoughts on Torah study and loftier matters.

The covenant with Abram consisted not only of circumcision, but was also accompanied with the changing of the names. Abram’s name was changed to “Abraham,” which means father of many nations, and Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, signifying that she too would be a princess to all the nations of the world. In effect, what was happening now was that a new destiny was being forged for them. By the covenant of circumcision and the change of names, this elderly couple was now to become a prominent universal model, a model for all peoples, and for all times. The Jewish people would henceforth be a breed apart, whole, and sanctified, making them even more effective exemplars to the world.

There are those who say that the ritual of circumcision is more a reflection of the nature of Jewish history. A young child is welcomed into the Jewish nation in this manner to underscore the trials of Jewish life that the child will face. At the circumcision ceremony the verse from Ezekiel 16:6 is read (also mentioned in the Passover Hagadah), בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי ,–the Jewish people shall live in their blood. Surely, Jewish survival is always in the hands of G-d. Nevertheless, at the child’s brit we express the hope that the blood that is shed at that moment, at this ritual circumcision will be the last drop ever shed on behalf of a person’s commitment to Judaism. Unfortunately, Jewish history has not always worked out that way, but it is critical that it be understood from the very beginning of the child’s life how vital blood is to Jewish survival.

I have always been troubled by the fact that the covenant of G-d with the Jewish people was made through a medical procedure performed on the male sexual organ. Why was there no parallel covenant with Jewish women? Are they not part of the Jewish people? Ironically, the current Jewish reality reflects a new meaning which, I believe, resonates with contemporary times.

Most students of Jewish history will confirm the tragic, but incontrovertible, fact that we Jews have lost far more people to the blandishments of assimilation than to the swords of our enemies. As we see the continuing demographic diminution of the American Jewish community and the world Jewish community (with the exception of Israel), we realize, tragically, that what our enemies could not do with pogroms, gas chambers and inquisitions, we Jews are doing to ourselves through intermarriage and assimilation. Perhaps, what the covenant of circumcision is meant to communicate is that all of Jewish destiny depends upon the proper use of the Jewish male’s sexual organ. If Jewish men use their sexual organ in a sanctified manner, by marrying Jewish women and building strong Jewish families, then the covenant of G-d and the Jewish people will be affirmed. However, if Jewish males cannot control their passions, and, instead, allow themselves to be seduced to explore in foreign fields, then the covenant with G-d and the Jewish people is threatened, perhaps, even broken, forever.

The covenant of circumcision is not only the source of Jewish sanctity, it is the source of Jewish continuity. The choice lies before us. We Jews, (especially Jewish men), can choose to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People,” or we can walk away from our extraordinary covenant. This ancient ritual, which has been part of our heritage for more than 3000 years, is as relevant today as it has been over the past three millennia.

How absolutely stunning it is that the Torah clearly predicts what the future of the Jewish people will be, by underscoring how critical the act of sanctification and the ritual of circumcision is, and will be.

May you be blessed.

Noah 5780-2019

The Vital Importance of Truthful Judgment”
(Updated and Revised from Noah 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


There is a fascinating and enlightening narrative recorded in Genesis 11, of this week’s parasha, parashat Noah. It is generally known as the tale of the Tower of Babel, or the account of the dispersion of humankind.

The parasha relates that at that time, all of the people on Earth spoke one language and were of a common purpose. When they migrated from the East, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another (Genesis 11:3), “Come let us make bricks and burn them in fire.”

Clearly, this was a technologically precocious society that had developed a number of innovative technological developments. Unfortunately, the people were carried away by their talents and their hubris.

Until those recent discoveries, ancient homes were always built out of mud bricks. Because of the mud bricks’ instability, buildings could not be built very high. The technological innovation of the people of Shinar changed all this. They proceeded to burn and glaze the mud bricks, making them solid and firm. With the addition of clay that served as mortar, the people of Shinar could now proceed to build the world’s first skyscraper.

The Torah, in Genesis 11:4, records the people saying to one another: “Come let us build a city and tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.”

According to the Midrash, Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer  24:7, the people of Shinar literally worshiped their own technological innovations to such an extent that, during the construction of the tower, if a brick fell and was smashed, they would call a halt to building for seven days and “sit shiva.” They would weep and say: “Woe on us! Where will we get another brick to replace it?” But, if a construction worker fell off the tower and was killed, they would remain indifferent. Of course, in our own day and age, we see how very often technology takes precedence over human life as well.

We learn from the Biblical text that the Al-mighty was not happy with the tower. In fact, Genesis 11:5 records, וַיֵּרֶד השׁם לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל , And G-d descended to look at the tower which the sons of man had built. The text (Genesis 11:6-7) goes on to report that G-d said: “Behold they are one people with one language for all, and this is what they begin to do, and now should it not be withheld from them all they propose to do? Come let us descend and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language.”

Why was G-d unhappy? According to the Midrashic interpretation, Midrash Rabbah, (Genesis 38:6 and 10), the intention of the people of the Tower of Babel was to build a tower that would challenge G-d’s authority. In response to this challenge, G-d proceeds to confound the people’s language so they will no longer be capable of building. One person asked for a brick, and another responded by throwing a hammer at his head. Because of the confusion, the building had to stop. The people were dispersed over the face of the earth, which according to the Bible is the origin of diverse human languages.

Of all the books known to humankind, certainly the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, more than any other document, has revolutionized the human’s conception of G-d. Until the time of the Torah, human beings subscribed to a pagan and primitive perception of G-d, usually in the form of the sun, the moon, a tree, or a stone. The Torah revolutionized the world by teaching that the Al-mighty G-d is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, without form or shape. Nevertheless, in the Tower of Babel episode, the Torah does not hesitate to describe G-d in thoroughly anthropomorphic terms. וַיֵּרֶד השׁם לִרְאֹת , “and G-d came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man had built.” This statement contradicts everything the Torah presumes to teach. After all, an omniscient G-d doesn’t need to come down!

Could this statement possibly be the result of some sloppy editing which resulted in some unseemly references of some earlier editors? Surely, the Torah frequently uses anthropomorphic terms: G-d saw, G-d heard, G-d spoke. But, to state that “G-d came down” is inappropriate for a document that purports to teach the omniscience of G-d.

And, if this were not enough, in parashat Vayeira, which will be read in two weeks, we find a similar reference. We learn of the wicked people of Sodom, the worst people on the face of the earth, and clearly deserving of destruction. Genesis 18:20-21 reads: וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה . Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become so great, and because their sin has been very grave, אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא, אֵדָעָה . “I,” says G-d, “will descend and see if they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me–then destruction! And if not, I will know.” According to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, the people of Sodom were not just evil–they had institutionalized wickedness: vice was virtue, and virtue had become vice. Because of the city’s immense wealth, the residents passed a law that no impoverished people could reside in Sodom. In fact, one of the popular sports was to watch as the poor died of starvation.

The Midrash, Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer, 25, records that the Sodom “Federal Bureau of Investigation” was keeping an eye on a particular emaciated man who was dying of hunger. When they suddenly noticed that he was no longer dying, they suspected that someone was feeding him. They soon discovered that Pelotit, the daughter of Lot, was secreting food to him. After she was apprehended, she was sentenced to be burned alive at the stake. According to the Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 83, the Hebrew word found in Genesis 18:21, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ“ha’k’tza’ah’ka’ta,” her cry–-refers to the girl screaming for her life. G-d says, “I will hear the cries of this woman, and if they are legitimate, then I will destroy Sodom, and if not I will know.”

As in the story of the Tower of Babel, once again we encounter the same troubling concept of G-d “coming down.” Is G-d hard of hearing? Is He so near-sighted that He does not know what is going on without coming down?! An omniscient G-d would surely know.

From both of these troublesome references we learn a basic lesson about Torah. While the Torah is certainly a history book, and certainly a philosophical tome, it is primarily meant to serve as a guide to ethical and moral living. Hence, whenever there is a conflict between an ethical truth and a philosophical truth, the ethical truth prevails!

Consequently, the Torah is not so concerned that skeptics may say, “What’s going on here, I thought that the Hebrew G-d was omniscient? How then could the Torah say that G-d comes down?” The reason for this unusual description is that by describing Himself as having to come down, G-d is able to teach an ethical lesson that is even more important than the philosophical/theological concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. Of course, G-d does not have to come down, He knows exactly who is sinful and who is innocent. But, by depicting Himself as coming down, G-d shows His uncompromising concern for truthfulness and correctness in judgment. If G-d, so to speak, has to come down, to check the guilt of the people of Babel or the people of Sodom–the most wicked people on the face of the earth, then mortal judges of flesh and blood, when they sit in judgment of their brothers and sisters, must make absolutely certain that no effort is spared to uncover the absolute truth!

Unbelievable as it might seem, more important than teaching the lessons of G-d’s omniscience and omnipotence, is the lesson of proper judgment! That is the primary lesson of the Torah. That is the purpose of all of G-d’s teachings.

How fortunate are we, the people of Israel, to be designated with the honor of being the emissaries of the Al-mighty’s extraordinary teachings and messages!

May you be blessed.


Sukkot 5780-2019

“A Sukkot Story: Devotion to a Festival”
(Updated and revised from Sukkot 5761-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The famed Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin records the unusual story concerning Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev,  the legendary O’heiv Yisrael, the Hassidic leader who could never find fault with another Jew.

It was only a short time before Sukkot and, in all of Berditchev, there could not be found a single etrog. The Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, and the entire congregation, were concerned how they would be able to fulfill the very special mitzvah of lulav and etrog. They waited, but no etrog arrived in Berditchev. Finally, the Tzaddik instructed his followers to go to the closest main highway-–perhaps there they would find some Jew who had an etrog. And, so they found a Jew, on his way home after a long journey, who had in his possession a very beautiful etrog. But his home was not Berditchev. He lived in another city, far from Berditchev; he was only passing through on his way home.

The followers of Reb Levi Yitzchak persuaded the traveling Jew to meet with the great Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak. The Tzaddik tried to convince the Jew to spend Sukkot in Berditchev availing so many Jews to have the merit of properly performing the mitzvah of lulav and etrog. Of course, Reb Levi Yitzchak too would have the privilege of performing the mitzvah. The Jew would not agree. After all, he was traveling home to his family, whom he hadn’t seen for quite some while. How could he deprive them and himself of the simcha of Yom Tov, the joy of the Sukkot holiday?

In order to further persuade the traveler, the Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, promised the Jew wealth and great nachat (pleasure) from his children. The Jew responded that he had, thank G-d, both wealth and wonderful children, and was not in need of anything more. Finally, in desperation, Reb Levi Yitzchak told the Jew that if he would fulfill the rabbi’s request, the rabbi would promise him that after 120 years, the traveler would spend eternity together with the rabbi, in the rabbi’s four cubits in the World to Come.

When the Jew who owned the etrog heard this incredible offer from the great Tzaddik, he immediately acceded to the Tzaddik’s request and agreed to remain in Berditchev for the duration of the Sukkot holiday. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and the entire community were delighted, and the Jew with the etrog was ecstatic.

Unbeknownst to the Jewish traveler, a secret command had been issued by the Tzaddik to all the people of Berditchev, that under no circumstances should they allow this Jew who brought the etrog to Berditchev to enter any of their sukkot during the holiday. No one knew why, but the decree of the Tzaddik was an unalterable decree.

On the first night of Sukkot, after services, the traveling Jew returned from synagogue to the inn where he was staying, and found in his room wine for kiddush, candles, challahs, and a table covered with food. The guest was perplexed…Doesn’t the innkeeper have a sukkah? A righteous Jew like he, no sukkah? He went out to the yard, where he found a sukkah, beautifully built and arrayed, and the owner and all the members of his household sitting around the table. The guest sought to enter, but he was not permitted. Why, why? How could this be? No response. So he went to the neighbors on the street and found them, each one in their own sukkah. He begged them to allow him to enter, to sit in their sukkah–for just a moment. No one answered. Finally, he learned that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had decreed that he should not be allowed into a single sukkah in the entire city of Berditchev.

In panic, he ran to the Tzaddik’s home. “What is this?” he cried. “What is my trespass? What is my sin?” Said the Tzaddik: “If you will nullify the promise I made to you that you would sit with me in the World to Come, I will immediately instruct my followers to allow you to enter their sukkot. The guest was astonished–outraged–but was silent. “What can I do?” he thought to himself. “After all, is it an insignificant thing to sit together with this great Tzaddik in the World to Come? On the other hand, in my entire life I have never missed performing the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. How can I fail now, on the first night of the holiday, to fulfill this wonderful mitzvah?”

Finally, the guest came to a conclusion–in favor of the sukkah. He said to himself: “Is it possible that all of Israel will sit in a sukkah and I will eat in a house, like a non-Jew? G-d forbid!” He then renounced the promise that the Tzaddik had made to him, and at the demand of Reb Levi Yitzchak, extended his hand to confirm the agreement, and proceeded to sit in a sukkah.

When the festival concluded, Reb Levi Yitzchak summoned the Jew to his home. “Now,” said the Tzaddik: “I am returning to you my promise. You see, I did this to teach you, to inform you, that I didn’t want you to merit the World to Come for no reason, as if it were a business deal or a menial bargain. I wanted you to truly earn a place in the World to Come because you were deserving, because of your deeds, and so I caused you to be tested in the mitzvah of sukkah. Now that you have passed the test, and have shown true devotion to the sukkah, you truly deserve to be my partner in the World to Come.”

May you be blessed.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 13,14 and 15, 2019. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, October 20th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 21st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 21st and continues through Tuesday, October 22nd.

Rosh Hashana 5780-2019

“The Judgment of Ishmael, and its Contemporary Implications for all of G-d’s Creatures”
(Updated and revised from Rosh Hashana 5761-2000)


Because of Rosh Hashana, instead of commenting on the scheduled Shabbat parasha, Nitzavim, we will comment on the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana, found in Genesis 21, which focuses on the birth of Isaac.

The Torah commentators offer a host of interesting reasons explaining the relevance of this particular portion to Rosh Hashana. The Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 10b, states: “On the new year, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were remembered,” meaning that G-d remembered them, and these barren women became pregnant. Genesis 21:1, reads, וַהשׁם פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר , And G-d remembered Sarah as He had said. Sarah conceives and bears a son for Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time about which G-d had spoken.

The Hebrew word פָּקַדpa’kad comes from the root of the Hebrew word to count or to remember. In effect, Sarah was taken into account and remembered. Similarly, on Rosh Hashana all of G-d’s creatures pass before G-d to be examined, setting their fate in accordance with the Divine plan.

The child who was born, Isaac, who was named in Hebrew Yitzchak, becomes a paradigm for the Jewish people. Remember, that Sarah had been menopausal and Abraham too was well on in years. Biologically, there really was no hope that they would be capable of bearing a child! But, just as Isaac’s birth was an act of Divine providence, so too is the continued existence of the Jewish people an act of Divine providence. As we say in the Passover Haggadah, שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ ,–“In every generation they [our enemies] rise up to destroy us, but the Al-mighty rescues us from their hands.” The great nations of history–the Greeks, the Romans, are gone, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Chinese have vanished, but the Jews survive. Realistically, the Jewish people should have ceased to exist long ago. After all, in every generation, the Jews have been at the virtual precipice of destruction, yet we survive-––only because of the Al-mighty’s intervention; just as G-d had intervened to ensure the existence of our forefather Yitzchak.

Abraham and Sarah’s child is called Yitzchak, which literally means to laugh. It is an odd and challenging name to give a child. It is as if a father would name his child “Big Joke.” But Abraham understood that while the world would regard Isaac’s birth and continued existence with great skepticism, Abraham and Isaac will prove them all wrong––and the “big joke” will be on them!

In Genesis 21:9, Sarah sees the son of Hagar, Ishmael, מְצַחֵקmitzachek–mocking or “making sport” of her son Yitzchak. She demands that Abraham expel the handmaiden Hagar and her son, so that Ishmael will not inherit with her son Isaac.

According to the famed commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sarah had hoped that because he was fathered by Abraham, Ishmael would be able to overcome the Hamitic nature that he had inherited from his mother Hagar, but she was mistaken. In fact, our commentators say that the word mitzachek, mocking or making sport, actually implies that Ishmael indeed acted out on that base nature, and attempted to sexually molest Isaac.

Therefore, it was not just a benign case of two little boys who could not play nicely together that drove Sarah to insist that Ishmael be expelled. Nevertheless, Abraham, the great, open-hearted, and generous “welcomer” of guests, was heartbroken at the thought of sending away his wife and child. Only the direct dictate of G-d, compelled him to heed the instructions of his wife, Sarah.

Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael to the barren desert of Beersheba, giving Hagar only a few pieces of bread and a small vessel of water-––the equivalent of a death sentence by thirst and starvation. When there is no more water, Hagar casts the lad (who, according to tradition was either 17 or 27 years old), under one of the shrubs. Based on scriptures’ description, Hagar set herself apart from Ishmael so she would not see the death of her child. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary takes Hagar to task for distancing herself from her stricken son. The Torah tells us that as Hagar sat opposite, but quite a distance away from Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept. Asks Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: How could a mother cast away a child who is dying of thirst? Should she not have held him in her arms, and kept him cool, even if it was painful for her to witness his pain? With great insight, Rabbi Hirsch notes that, “In truly humane people the feelings of duty master the strongest emotions, make one forget one’s own painful feelings and give helpful assistance even if one can do no more than give comfort of one’s participating presence.”

Miraculously, Hagar and Ishmael are saved by an angel, who shows Hagar that there is an oasis of water nearby. Apparently, Hagar was so overwhelmed by grief that she didn’t even make the slightest effort to try to find nourishment for herself or the child, even though it was clearly within reach.

In Genesis 21:17, G-d hears the cry of the child. The Angel of G-d calls out to Hagar and says to her: “What is the matter Hagar, do not be afraid, for G-d has heard the voice of the lad there where he is.”

Let us pay particular attention to the phrase, בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם “there where he is.”

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in his wonderfully enlightening and engaging manual, The Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, states that it was clear and apparent as Ishmael grew older he would be fated for doing evil. Even as a young boy, Ishmael was already an assaulter–a potential cold-blooded murderer. Of course, G-d knew that Ishmael and his descendants would be bitter oppressors of the Jewish people in the future. So, if G-d knew Ishmael’s evil past and his potential evil future, why did G-d save Ishmael? The reason, says Rabbi Apisdorf, lies in the phrase: “Ba’asher hu sham,”–there where he is. At that very moment that Ishmael was being judged, he was not yet guilty. He might become guilty in the future, but at that very moment he could not be considered culpable.

Rabbi Apisdorf points out that the favorable judgment of Ishmael, which is read on Rosh Hashana, should be a source of great encouragement and promise for every Jew. Yes, G-d surely knows our future, but He chooses not to take it into account. In fact, G-d doesn’t even take our past into account when one seeks forgiveness. Therefore, writes Rabbi Apisdorf, to merit a favorable decree, all we need to do, is to simply get our act together for one single day…. What a bargain: the future doesn’t count, the past is irrelevant, we will only be judged according to who we are, and how we act on the day of Rosh Hashana itself!

Surely, this is a most hopeful and optimistic message. On Rosh Hashana, G-d judges us-––sounds ominous doesn’t it? But, at the same time, G-d does “somersaults” to find every possible reason to judge us favorably.

Consequently, it is absolutely vital, that when G-d looks at us on Rosh Hashana, “Ba’asher hu sham“––-to see where we are at that very moment, we must be certain that we merit His favorable judgment and that we deserve to be blessed and inscribed in the Book of Life.

SHANAH TOVAH. May you and all of your loved ones be inscribed for a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5780 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 29th, 30th and October 1st, 2019. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, October 2nd from dawn until nightfall.

Kee Tavo 5779-2019

“Welcoming the Stranger”
(Revised and updated from Kee Tavo 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo,opens with the ritual of bringing בִּכּוּרִיםBikkurim, the first fruits of the season, to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy 26:1 records the following declaration: וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ , It shall be, that when you enter the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you as an inheritance, when you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and go to the place that the L-rd your G-d will choose, to make His name rest there.

By bringing the Bikkurim to the Temple and delivering them to the Kohen–the priest, Jews symbolically acknowledge that all their material assets are a gift of G-d. The Jew, therefore, brings this symbolic portion to G-d, as a sign of gratitude for G-d’s goodness.

The Mishnah in Bikkurim 3:1 describes the ritual of selecting the first fruits, recalling how the farmer tied a cord to the stems of the selected offerings and declared: “This is the Bikurim.”

Once the first fruits are harvested, they are brought with great fanfare to Jerusalem for dedication. The farmer would bring his Bikurim in a basket to the Kohen, then take it back temporarily, as he recited a brief summary of Jewish history underscoring how the land of Israel is a gift of G-d. At the conclusion of this declaration, the farmer would place his basket down before the altar, delivering it as a permanent gift to G-d.

Focus for a moment on one practical portion of the farmer’s declaration to the Kohen of those days: Deuteronomy 26:3,הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַהַשׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ , I declare today to the L-rd, your G-d, that I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.

The rabbis ask the fundamental question: How can later generations of Jews say: “I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us”? Wouldn’t it be more precise to say: “Our forefathers came to the land”? A response to this question can be found in the Passover Haggadah where we declare בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, In every single generation each person must see themselves as if they themselves went out of Egypt. In effect, all Jews have an obligation to see themselves as an inseparable part of the Jewish nation, and everything that occurred to our forefathers in Egypt, happened not only to the ancient Israelites, but to us as well. Thus, the claim of Jewish tradition is that the Land of Israel was given personally to each Jew. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for contemporary Jews to declare: כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ ,-–I personally came to the land.

A fascinating aspect of this question is the issue of whether a ger–a convert to Judaism, is entitled to say this declaration for the Bikkurim. After all, G-d did not give his/her ancestors the land. The Mishnah in Bikkurim (1:4) records this dispute. “The proselyte brings [first fruits], but does not recite [the declaration], since he cannot say: Which the L-rd swore unto our fathers to give to us…(Deuteronomy 26:3), and when he prays in private he says: ‘The G-d of the forefathers of Israel.’ When he prays in the synagogue he says: ‘The G-d of our fathers.’”

This opinion, cited in an anonymous Mishnah, which is usually attributed to Rabbi Meir, indicates that when making a declaration before G-d, one must be absolutely truthful. Therefore, a convert to Judaism may not say “G-d of my fathers,” since it is not true.

However, this practice is not the accepted ruling. In fact, it is explained entirely differently in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 1:4): “It was learned in the name of Rabbi Judah–A proselyte himself brings the first fruits and recites the [regular] formula. Why so? ‘For a father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.’” Originally, he [Abraham] was the father of Aram [the country of his birth], from now on he is the father of all humanity. Rabbi Joshua ben Levy said: “The laws are in accordance with Rabbi Judah.”

Maimonides, in his epistle to Obadiah, the proselyte, concurs: “Behold that has made clear to you that you should say, ‘Which the L-rd swore to our forefathers.’ And that Abraham is your father, and that of all the righteous who follow his ways. This applies to all benedictions and prayers. You should not alter anything.”

Maimonides, as the rabbis before him, proves clearly that Judaism is not a biological or racial tradition, it is rather a spiritual inheritance. Consequently, anyone who adopts the spiritual teachings of Judaism is entitled to say that he/she is the disciple of Abraham, who introduced monotheism to the world.

It is no coincidence that parashat Kee Tavo is read in the month of Elul, prior to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Repentance and introspection. Parashat Kee Tavo includes the terribly ominous תּוֹכֵחָה To’chay’cha, the warning of the retribution that G-d will visit upon those who do not follow G-d’s words. This shrill message, shakes us to the core, reminding us that it is time for self-evaluation and repentance. But, how does the ritual of bringing of Bikkurim, the first fruits, dovetail with the theme of the Days of Awe and Repentance? Perhaps the question that was previously raised serves as the connection. After all, each of us is a גֵרger, each of us is in some way a stranger to Judaism.

During the month of Elul and the High Holidays, it is incumbent upon all Jews, whether man or woman, to look inside themselves, to check their deeds, to find the “stranger,” the “alien” in themselves that has allowed them to succumb to forbidden actions. We are not Canaanites, we are not Jebusites–we are all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We have boldly and proudly declared that the L-rd is our G-d. There is no room for the alien in us, because there is no alien. The stranger within us needs to be welcomed, and become an integral part of ourselves, dominated by good deeds and superior morality.

It is in this spirit that we enter the month of Elul, the time of Teshuvah, and the Days of Repentance.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5779-2019

“Polygamy, Illegitimacy and Punishing the Innocent”
(Revised and updated from Kee Teitzei 5760-2000)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, is the parasha that contains more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah. Kee Teitzei contains a total of 74 mitzvot, 27 positive, and 47 negative commandments, outranking Emor, the second most numerous parasha, that contains 63 mitzvot.

Parashat Kee Teitzei contains a broad array of laws: family laws, laws of kindness, laws dealing with proper clothing, kindness to animals, parapets for roofs, the prohibition against mixing various seeds and materials, laws regarding the holiness of marriage, the holiness of the Israelite camp, laws concerning vows, divorce, equity, and humanity.

The laws of the family play a particularly prominent role in parashat Kee Teitzei, and they are broad and quite varied in scope.

As most know, the practice of polygamy was quite widespread in ancient times. While the Torah legally countenanced polygamy for men, the Torah was not inherently sympathetic to its practice. In fact, parashat Kee Teitzei underscores the Torah’s not-too-subtle antipathy toward polygamy.

We read in parashat Kee Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:15, כִּי תִהְיֶיןָ לְאִישׁ שְׁתֵּי נָשִׁים, הָאַחַת אֲהוּבָה וְהָאַחַת שְׂנוּאָה, וְיָלְדוּ לוֹ בָנִים הָאֲהוּבָה וְהַשְּׂנוּאָה , When a man has two wives, one beloved and one hated, and they have children, one may not favor the beloved wife’s children over the other wife’s children. Aside from the issue of favoritism, the Torah clearly implies that when a man has more than one wife, one wife is bound to be more favored than the other. In fact, upon review of every single case of polygamy in the Bible, we will find that in each case there is competition which leads to considerable turmoil in the home: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Elkanah’s wives, P’ninah and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. In fact, as we have mentioned previously, the Hebrew word for the second, competitive wife, is צָרָהTz’ara, (Samuel I,1) which is the origin of the Hebrew/Yiddish word צָרוֹתTzuris, meaning pain and travail. While the Torah does permit a king to have multiple wives for apparent political reasons, even in such circumstances, the Biblical narratives in each case is filled with intrigue, turmoil, and Tzuris in the royal palace, leading, in many instances, to total corruption and even murder.

Why then does the Torah allow polygamy? Moreover, why does the Torah forbid women from having multiple husbands, while permitting men to have multiple wives?

Even in antiquity, the practice of polygamy in Jewish society was quite rare, and was clearly frowned upon. While practiced infrequently, polygamy was formally forbidden in Ashkenazic Jewish communities by Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1040 AC), with the issuance of his חֵרֶםcherem, a special prohibiting decree. Sephardic Jewry never accepted that decree, and consequently, in 1948, Yemenite Jews arrived with their multiple wives to the newly-formed State of Israel. The State permitted them to keep their wives, but forbade any future polygamist relationships. Oh yes, the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom was intended to be in force until the Hebrew year 5000–1240 AC. When it expired, it was immediately renewed.

Now back to the basic questions. Apparently, the reason that the Torah allowed a man to have multiple wives while forbidding a woman to have multiple husbands, was rather straightforward and logical. Every child is entitled to know the identity of both his/her biological parents. When a man has multiple wives, both the biological mother and father are known. However, until the recent advent of DNA testing, it was impossible for the child of a woman who has multiple husbands to know who was his/her biological father.

An additional aspect of this issue arises in our Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 23, where the Torah lists certain forbidden marriages. The Torah states that Amonite and Moabite men may not marry into the Jewish people. Egyptians may not marry into the Jewish people for three generations. Deuteronomy 23:3 reads, לֹא יָבֹא מַמְזֵר בִּקְהַל השׁם , a bastard–an illegitimate child, may not enter into the Assembly of the L-rd. גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׁירִי לֹא יָבֹא לוֹ בִּקְהַל השׁם , even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the Assembly of the L-rd. In Jewish law, children born out of wedlock are not illegitimate, only those who are born of an adulterous or an incestuous relationship are considered bastards, מַמְזְרִים“mam’z’rim” and are forbidden to marry a “legitimate” Jewish person.

This, of course, is quite problematic. After all, the Torah boldly declares, (Deuteronomy 24:16) אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ , Every person is responsible for his/her own sin. Yet the Torah visits the sins of the parents on the unfortunate illegitimate child. This innocent child, through no fault of his/her own, is unable to marry a Jewish person because his/her parents committed a grievous sin. How is this justified?

There are numerous laws in the Torah (36), the violation of which are punishable by death. In accordance with Jewish law pertaining to capital crimes, witnesses were required to approach the perpetrator, let’s say the murderer, and warn the would-be perpetrator that murder is prohibited. The witnesses had to inform the perpetrator of the penalty, and the exact form of execution that applied to the crime. This too must be acknowledged by the would-be murderer. Then, they, or two other witnesses, had to see the perpetrator commit the actual murder. While this scenario is indeed unlikely, it is possible that despite these rigorous requirements, in a moment of passion and anger, all these conditions will be met, and the murderer will be convicted, and sentenced to death. In such cases, the act of execution is seen as an effective deterrent to these crimes.

However, the nature of adultery and incest is entirely different. One does not commit adultery or incest in front of witnesses, even in a moment of passion. Consequently, the likelihood of the death penalty acting as a deterrent for adultery is extremely remote, infinitesimal, in fact non-existent. Since the threat of punishment is not effective, the Torah declares that a child born of this incestuous or adulterous relationship will be subject to a grievous disability, in the hope that this will stop the perpetrators from committing this violation.

One may say, “I will commit adultery, they will never catch me! And if they do, so they’ll kill me!” But, few would be callous enough to risk an act that has such serious consequences for a third innocent party–the child born of this forbidden relationship. Whereas threat of death would not serve as a deterrent since there are no public witnesses, fear of bastardy might, for their innocent child.

According to Jewish law, if a Jewish child is born of such a relationship, the child is declared a mamzer and is technically prohibited from marrying a Jewish person. While this is the letter of the law, the rabbis have tried desperately to mitigate this frightening disability. So, for instance if a husband were imprisoned for many years, or lived across the sea in another land, and his wife is seen to be pregnant, we do not declare the woman an adulteress. Rather, Tosafot, commenting on the Talmud Kiddushin 73a, suggests that perhaps the husband flew in on a magic carpet so that he could impregnate his wife. This, of course, is done in order to prevent an innocent child from being declared a mamzer, illegitimate!

The concept of מַמְזְרוּתmam’z’rut, illegitimacy, is a very painful topic in Jewish life, but underscores the intense sanctity with which Judaism views the family. Once the sanctity of the family is compromised, Jewish society is compromised.

So we see, that even from the most challenging, and at least on the surface, seemingly “primitive” statutes, the Torah has much to teach regarding conduct and compassion in the face of difficult societal issues.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5779-2019

War, the Jewish Community and Jewish Family Life
(Revised and updated from Shoftim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn, in great detail, about the extensive preparations required of the Jewish army before going out to war. While the Torah shares the utopian vision where total peace prevails throughout the world, the reality for the Jewish people 3300 years ago was that there was virtual certainty that upon entering the land of Canaan the people of Israel would encounter war as they confronted the local residents.

For the Jewish people, even today, success in battle is never primarily a factor of military preparedness or talent, but more a factor of proper spiritual preparedness. The Torah in Deuteronomy 20:1, reads: כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ, לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם , When you go out to battle against your enemy and see horse and chariot–a people more numerous than you–you shall not fear them. כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם , because the L-rd your G-d is with you Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. While soldiers do the actual fighting, it is G-d who wages the war. That is why in Jewish tradition it is not the Chief of Staff or the Four Star General who speaks to the troops before battle, but rather a Cohen, a priest, who is especially anointed for the task to encourage the soldiers not to fear their enemies. As Deuteronomy 20:4 clearly declares: כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם עִם אֹיְבֵיכֶם לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם , for the L-rd your G-d is the one Who goes with you to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.

In our parasha, we read that in preparation for battle, the officers of the people gather the prospective soldiers together and declare: “Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will inaugurate it. Who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die and another man will redeem it. Who is the man who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her.” Finally, the officers say, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, so that he not melt the heart of his fellows.”

The Talmud, in Sotah 44a, records two rationales for this procedure: According to Rabbi Akiva, these soldiers were sent home in order to eliminate cowardly people from the battlefield, because if the army included those who lacked faith, the people would be unworthy to merit victory. According to Rabbi Yose Ha’Gelili, those who are fearful and fainthearted were sinners who knew they were unworthy of G-d’s help, and therefore needed to leave the battlefield. In order to protect the dignity of the sinners, the Torah also dismissed those with new homes and new brides so that when the sinners left, the sinners would not be identified since they were sent home with the others.

The commentators note that while these people were excused from battle, they were required to perform non-combatant military duties, such as providing water and food and working to repair the roads for the army. According to Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings 7, these exemptions applied only in optional wars, but in a war that is required by the Torah, such as wars to conquer the land, everyone must remain and serve.

After what appear to be these clear instructions in parashat Shoftim, it is quite surprising to find in next week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, in Deuteronomy 24:5, a verse that seems to contradict the verses in parashat Shoftim. כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה חֲדָשָׁה, לֹא יֵצֵא בַּצָּבָא, וְלֹא יַעֲבֹר עָלָיו לְכָל דָּבָר, נָקִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵיתוֹ שָׁנָה אֶחָת, וְשִׂמַּח אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר לָקָח , When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it obligate him in any manner. He shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall gladden his wife whom he has married. The rabbis resolve this contradiction by pointing out the difference between the betrothed man and the newlywed. In an optional war, the newlywed is completely free of any responsibilities, and must remain with his newly wed wife. However, the betrothed man (he who is not yet married), must perform non-combatant military duty.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 24:5, writes:

The Torah looks upon this duty of husband for the happiness of marriage as being such a high one, and lays such importance to it, not only for its individual happiness but also for the national well-being that, for a whole year after marrying a wife, it frees him from all public services and duties, yet actually forbids him to undertake any of them so that he can give himself up entirely to his home life and to laying the foundation of his wife’s happiness.

The rabbis in the Talmud, Sotah 44a, point out that the exemption from service for the newly married in the first year also applies to one who has already dedicated a new house or a new vineyard.

Rabbi Hirsch brilliantly concludes:

Clearly at the root of these laws lies the point of view that a state, the concept of the state as a whole, has only reality in the actual numbers of all its individual members, but apart from them, or next to them, one cannot consider the existence of a state as a concept in itself. So that the national welfare can only be sought in the well-being and happiness of all the single individuals, hence every flourishing and happy home is a contribution to the realization of the goal set for the nation, hence has to be met by the nation with careful and encouraging and promoting consideration.

What a wonderful insight! Only when individual citizens feel that the state is concerned with their personal well-being, are individual citizens happy. This then leads to a community as a whole that is healthy and happy. With all due respect to the social philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the Torah was right on the money 3300 years ago!

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5779-2019

“Charity! The Investment That Keeps Giving
(Revised and updated from Re’eh 5760-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, is a truly edifying Torah portion, filled with many interesting themes. Among them are: the prohibition of idolatrous worship, Jewish dietary laws, false prophets, religious seducers, laws of holiness, and the fundamentals of Jewish holidays. The opening verse of parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26, sums up the Al-mighty’s message to His Jewish people, רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה, Behold I set before you this day, blessing and curse. G-d declares that all blessing derives from following His law.

A major theme of this week’s parasha concerns the issue of poverty, how to deal with caring for the poor, who are an essential part of the community. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, the Torah declares: כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, If there be among you a poor person, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in your land which the L-rd thy G-d gives thee, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, You shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother. Deuteronomy 15:8, continues כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, You shall surely open your hand wide to him, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, You shall certainly lend him that which is sufficient for his needs.

The Torah is very big on צְדָקָה–tzedakah, charity, a word which derives from the root of the Hebrew word צֶדֶק–tzedek -“righteousness.” The Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 5:9, declares, that, contrary to popular beliefs, it’s not the generous person who does a kindness to the poor person, but rather the poor person who does kindness to the donor. In fact, in Jewish tradition, those who give are not benefactors, but rather the recipients! Since everything belongs to G-d, G-d has the right to tell those whom He has benefitted how to use His wherewithal. So critical is this responsibility, that the Torah tells us in Exodus 22:21-23, that those who oppress the widow or the orphan, G-d will hear their anguished cry and be angry, and those who are not responsive will suffer a fate similar to the widows and orphans.

The Torah expects the Jew to respond immediately to the needs of the poor without hesitation. The Talmud, in Ta’anit 21a, recalls the story of Nachum Ish Gamzu, who was blind in both eyes, had lost both his hands and his feet, and his entire body was covered with boils. His students asked him, “How could it be that such a righteous person as you suffers so?” “I brought it upon myself,” he explained. Once, while traveling on the road to his father-in-law’s house with a large caravan of three donkeys laden with all sorts of wonderful foods and appetizers, a poor person came, stood on the road, and said, “My master, give me something.” “I responded,” said Nachum Ish Gamzu, “Wait a moment until I unload the donkey.” Before Nachum had a chance to do anything, the man expired. Nachum fell on his face and prayed. “May my eyes that had no compassion on your eyes, be blinded. May my hands that had no mercy on your hands, and my feet that had no compassion on your feet, let them loose their cunning.” Nachum still was not satisfied until he said, “Let all my body be covered with boils.”

This is the message of the very meaningful and subtle verse that Jews read every Friday night in the Ode to the Woman of Valor, אֵשֶׁת חַיִל–Ayshet Chayil, from Proverbs 31:20: כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי, וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן, The Woman of Valor opens her palm to the poor and sends forth her hand to the needy. When a poor person approaches the Woman of Valor, she opens her pocket and her pocketbook. But when she beholds a truly needy person, one who is languishing, she does not wait, she extends her hand.

As already noted, our Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:8, states: וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Be sure to give the poor person sufficiently, according to his or her needs. The Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, reports that Hillel the Elder, felt particularly obliged to care for a formerly wealthy person who had lost his fortune and was now poor. In order to fulfil the biblical obligation of caring for his brother “according to his need,” Rabbi Hillel made certain that the former wealthy person was properly cared for, even to the extent that he had a horse on which to ride and a servant to run before him. Once, when Hillel could not find a servant, Hillel the Elder himself, ran before the poor man for three miles.

Our Torah has a highly developed sense of propriety, and a heightened sensitivity to ensure for the proper distribution of charitable funds. Deuteronomy 15:10, says: נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ, You shall surely give the poor person.Rashi emphasizes the word “lo”–to him, interpreting the words בֵּינוֹ וּבֵנֶיךָ, to teach that charity must be given privately and sensitively in order not to embarrass the recipient.

The Mishnah in Shekalim 5:4, reports that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had two offices. One was known as לִשְׁכַּת הַכֵּלִים, the office of utensils, and the other was known as לִשְׁכַּת חֲשָׁאִים, the secret office. The office of utensils was used for people to dedicate their used utensils, and once a month the monies would be gathered to be used to make repairs in the Temple. The secret office was a place where G-d-fearing people who wanted to give charity secretly would make their deposits, and the poor who might be embarrassed to take from public funds, would enter and discreetly remove money necessary for their needs.

Similarly, the Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, relates the story of Mar Uk’ba who used to throw four coins each day into the living space of a poor person who lived nearby. Once, the poor person decided to find out who was his generous benefactor. In order to do so, he hid behind the door. Once he heard the money being left, he flung open the door and ran after his anonymous benefactor. When Mar Uk’ba and his wife saw the poor man coming after them, they ran to hide and jumped into an oven whose coals had recently been removed, and in the process burned their feet. The Talmud explains that they acted in such an extreme manner, in order to fulfill the dictum that, “It is preferable to cast oneself into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass a person publicly.

One of the many great contributions of Maimonides, was listing the sequential degrees of charity in his Code of Jewish Law, the Mishnah Torah, in the 10th chapter of the section dealing with gifts to the poor. The lowest level of giving, says Maimonides, is to give to the poor begrudgingly. The second level is to give insufficiently to the needy, but at least pleasantly. The third level is to give to the needy upon request. The fourth level is to voluntarily give to the needy before they even ask. The fifth level is when the donor is aware of the recipient, but the recipient, the poor person, is unaware of the donor. The sixth level is that the recipient, the poor person, is aware of the donor, but the donor is unaware of the recipient. In the seventh level neither the donor nor the recipient are aware of each other’s identity. The highest level, says Maimonides, is to give a gift or loan or establish a business partnership with the poor person so that the poor will no longer be dependent upon charity.

As is often the case, the Torah, once again, revolutionizes our understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and morality. Now it is our duty to convey these precepts to the rest of the world.

May you be blessed.