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Tzav 5779-2019

“Remembering Amalek: A Contemporary View”
(Revised and updated from Tzav 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rather than focus on this coming week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, I have decided to expound on the joyous, but complex, holiday of Purim that Jews all over the world (except those residing in ancient walled cities like Jerusalem) will be celebrating this Wednesday night. (Click here to read Tzav messages from previous years.)

The story of Purim, of course, concerns wicked Haman, who schemed to annihilate the Jews of Persia–men, women and children, on one day, the 13th of Adar, in the year 519 BCE (355 BCE, according to the traditional calculation). Fortunately, through the intervention of G-d, Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai (common misconception: uncle), the Jewish people were saved from this would-be mass genocide.

Jewish tradition looks upon those who seek to destroy the Jewish people as the spiritual heirs of Amalek, the fierce nation, who were the first to attack the People of Israel after the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:8), striking especially the stragglers and the weak. In our own times, it was the Nazis who are considered the contemporary Amalekites, and our pledge “Never Again,” parallels the words of the Torah (Deut. 25:17-19) which exhort us to never again forget what Amalek did to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, it is critical to provide a sense of balance to the Amalek-Nazi equation that we often draw, pointing out some important distinctions, and warning of some palpable dangers.

There is almost nothing more sacred or more sensitive for Jews living in the generation after the Holocaust, than the memory of the 6 million martyrs of the Nazi genocide. The poignant question, “Where was God?,” rather than being a theological provocation, is more likely a reflection of the abiding pain which still lingers from the staggering losses. After all, what could possibly be more important than sanctifying the memory of those who died–except ensuring a future for those who wish to live as Jews?

There is great justification for the continuing Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. It was numerically the greatest loss of Jews ever in Jewish history, and the wound is still raw. Survivors, who actually witnessed the horrors, while fewer in number today, can still be spoken to personally. And, now that “revisionists,” who seek to deny the Holocaust, have become even more brazen, sensitive Jews are reacting with even greater passion and resolve.

But, preoccupation with the Holocaust is exacting a great price.

Going back almost 30 years, the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations National Jewish Population Survey concluded that record numbers of Jews were walking away from Judaism. They reported, at that time, that two million American Jews no longer acknowledged being Jewish. One million American Jewish children were being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion at all. And, 625,000 Jews or their children had converted out of Judaism. A contemporary Gallup organization survey of religions in America reported that in the final decade of the 20th millennium, while there seemed to be a resurgence among Protestants and Catholics, Jews as a group were drifting away from their religion. Sadly, the commitment of America’s Jews to their religion, has eroded even further during the last 30 years.

There are many reasons for this wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity. Our grandparents prayed that America would be a “melting pot” for future generations; instead it has become a “meltdown”! Jewish education is woefully inadequate. For many decades, intensive Jewish education was derided by many Jewish leaders as being “separatist.” So now, massive numbers of young uneducated Jews walk away from Judaism, not because of dissatisfaction with the faith, but out of ignorance. And, the ignorance is overwhelming. The average American Jew knows who was the mother of Jesus, but doesn’t have a clue as to who was the mother of Moses; probably knows the meaning of the word “Trinity,” but is unlikely to know what the word “Mitzvah” means. Similarly, the typical American Jewish child could probably sing parts of or the entire Christmas song, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but is unfamiliar with even the first line of “Ma’oz Tzur”–the joyous Hanukkah hymn.

We have no one to fault but ourselves. We have failed to properly educate our children, and when we did provide Hebrew education, the experiences were so negative that it’s been said, only half in jest, that if the Jews for Jesus were smart they would pay to send every Jewish child to an afternoon Hebrew school because, in most instances, it’s proven to be the greatest turn-off to Jewish life.

The American Jewish community stands now at a most formidable crossroads, a crossroads that will likely determine whether Jewish life in America continues, or ceases to exist altogether. America’s Jews, like the Israelites of old, are being asked to choose between “life and death,” between “the blessing and the curse.”

Unless we “choose life,” unless there will be within the very near future, a dramatic turnaround in the patterns of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, we are probably witnessing the last generation of Jewish life in America as we now know it. Our community will not be recognizable within 25 to 30 years.

If we are to stop the hemorrhaging of Jewish life in America, intensive, positive, joyous Jewish education and experiences must become a priority, rather than focus on Holocaust education and building Holocaust memorials.

To my mind it is criminal that the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history still has no mega fund ensuring a meaningful Jewish education for every child who desires one. There are presently thousands of children in North America who would be attending Jewish Day Schools, were the tuitions not so outrageously high.

We’ve reached the absurd point where the only feature of Judaism with which our young Jews identify is that of the Jew as victim–murdered, cremated or turned into a lampshade. As the prophet Jeremiah 8:22 asked, הַצֳּרִי אֵין בְּגִלְעָד? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no joy in Jewish life? No wonder our young Jews are turned off and walking away from their heritage.

It is hardly likely that we will be able to stop the proliferation of Holocaust centers in America, and the central role they now play. However, there is still time to make certain that these centers include a joyous and positive message for Jewish life. We must make certain that young Jews who enter these centers encounter a positive, upbeat message that will inspire them to live as Jews, and not be turned-off by the specter of endless victimization and suffering. If we fail to accomplish this, then these vaunted Holocaust centers will soon become the tombs of the present generation of American Jews.

There is a major destruction taking place in America right now. We can’t hear it, because there are, thank G-d, no barking dogs; we can’t see it because, thank G-d, there are no goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and no concentration camps; we can’t smell it because, thank G-d, there are no gas chambers. But the net result is exactly the same, the end of Jewish life.

I strongly agree with the late Chief Rabbi of the UK Lord Immanuel Jakobovits , that while remembering is important, rebuilding is far more important.

Rabbi David Hartman, said of Israel: In Tel Aviv, [secular Jews] walk with their puppies. In Jerusalem, [religious Jews] walk with their children. “American Jews,” he added, “build Holocaust memorials. Religious Jews have children. This way, religious Jews, have defeated Hitler. They have re-established every institution that existed in Eastern Europe before the war. That’s a powerful statement.”

I maintain, that 50 years from now, it is highly likely that only those Jews who fast on Tishah B’Av, who remember the destruction of the two Temples, who recall the Jewish victims of the Bar Kochbah rebellion that the Roman murderers refused to allow to be buried, who remember the hundreds of thousands of victims of the crusades, and read the Kinot poems bemoaning the destructions of kehillot Shum–Spire, Worms and Mayence, and are familiar with the brutal murders of Ukrainian Jewry at the hands of the “great” Ukrainian liberator, Bogdan Chmelnitsky in 1648-1649, will recall, or will care enough to remember, the victims of the European Holocaust.

And so, I say to you who read or hear these words, that if we fail to act now, if we fail to share with our young Jews the beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish life and Jewish heritage, there will be few Jews left in the next generation who will even know that there ever was a Holocaust of European Jews. The slogan “Never Again” will ring hollow, because the “silent Holocaust” will have done its job, and G-d forbid, Hitler will have emerged victorious.

May the joy of the special holiday of Purim permeate the hearts of all our people, especially the hearts of our young people, so that they will feel how good it is to be a Jew. Only then, will they have reason to remember Amalek.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night and Thursday, March 20-21, 2019.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE (356-355 BCE, according to the traditional calculation). For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Vayikra 5779-2019

Thanking G-d for the Good”
(Revised and updated from Vayikra 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we read about the sacrificial rite. Toward the middle of the parasha, the Torah, in Leviticus 3:1, introduces the “Peace Offering,” the שְׁלָמִיםSh’lamim.

There are actually three kinds of Peace offerings: a תּוֹדָה–Todah, a thanksgiving offering; נֶדֶרNeder, a vow offering; and נְדָבָהN’davah, a freewill offering. Some of the commentaries suggest that the etymology of the word Sh’lamim, is from the word שָׁלֵם sha’laym, meaning “whole,” symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering in order to recognize that he is whole and complete. Another origin may be from the word shalom, symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering to acknowledge being at peace with oneself.

The famous 19th century commentator on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, defines the purpose of each of the various offerings. The Olah, the burnt offering, is brought by those who seek to draw closer to G-d, by raising the standard of the holiness of their activities. The מִנְחָהMincha, the meal offering, represents the joy and satisfaction that people feel in life when they realize how much good G-d gives to each of us. The Sh’lamim, the peace offering, is brought by those who are completely satisfied with life, and feel that nothing is lacking.

Rashi, the Biblical commentator, explains that the Todah, the thanksgiving offering, is brought whenever a miraculous salvation occurs to a person who had been subject to a grave danger: they crossed the sea, traveled through the wilderness, were released from prison, or recovered from an illness. In such instances, says Rashi, we are required to give thanks, as it says in Psalms 107:21, “Let them give thanks to the L-rd for His mercy and for His wonderful works to humankind.”

Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, emphasizes that life itself, the ordinary daily course of nature, is a great Divine miracle. The unusual deliverances and supernatural miracles occur merely to draw our attention to the miracle of existence. “Everything that befalls us in our public and private capacities, is a miracle, and pertains in no way to nature and the way of the world.”

For mere mortals, it is not easy to maintain a constant sense of gratitude for the ongoing miracles that are part of our everyday existence. To the contrary, we often blame the “powers that be” for every negative or uncomfortable occurrence that happens. The phrase, “Where was G-d?” was not coined after the Holocaust, it was already recorded 2500 years ago in the book of Malachi 2:17, where the prophet speaks of G-d’s reaction to the constant human complaints: הוֹגַעְתֶּם השׁם בְּדִבְרֵיכֶם, וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה הוֹגָעְנוּ You have wearied the L-rd with your words, yet you say: Wherein have we wearied Him? The prophet responds by saying that they have wearied G-d with their constant complaint: ?אַיֵּה, אֱ־לֹקֵי הַמִּשְׁפָּט, Where is the G-d of justice?

Whenever calamity strikes, large or small, we often look for someone to blame. More often than not, we blame G-d by saying: “Where was G-d when I needed Him? How could G-d allow this to happen?” While G-d is the First Cause, the Prime Mover, and certainly responsible for everything, much of misfortune and calamity that strikes us is of human origin. We have polluted the rivers and contaminated the lands. We’ve destroyed the ozone layer with our irresponsible behavior. We smoke, we drink, we misbehave, and when we are stricken, we cry out, “Where was G-d?”

The Talmud (Megillah 13b), tells us that G-d has created the cure for every malady and has provided the resources to heal every disease. But, instead, we’ve chosen to divert billions of dollars to develop nuclear arms, and many more billions on entertainment, violence and sex. There are people in our own backyards who are starving, our neighbors are dying of terminal diseases, but we fail to make the association with our profligate behavior. With the immense resources we possess, we have the capacity to eradicate those diseases, to eliminate hunger and heal many of the world’s sorrows. It is our choice, but we choose to negate our role and evade our responsibilities.

Over the last one hundred years, the life expectancy of the average person in developed countries has increased by more than 25 years. The average life expectancy for men and women is now over 75, approaching 80, and it is not unlikely that people will soon regularly live to 100 and beyond. Why is it that no one says, “Where is G-d? I’d like to thank Him! Where is G-d? He added an extra 25, 30, 40 years to my life; I’d like to express my gratitude. He gave the doctors the capacity to heal a disease that would have been terminal ten years ago, and I’m still here trucking and kicking! I’d like to thank Him!”

That’s what the Sh’lamim, the peace offering sacrifice, represents. We need to express our gratitude to G-d on a regular basis, not just cry out and denounce G-d when things go wrong or when we experience discomfort.

In 1992, a year after my mother passed away, I wrote an essay elaborating on the idea of expressing gratitude, entitled “Saying ‘Thank You’ for the Good.” I’d like to share this essay with you because I feel that it is just as relevant today as it was then, and, hopefully, will be tomorrow.

More than a year has passed since my mother, of blessed memory, passed away. Of course, it was not an easy year, but it flew by rapidly.

Many of the laws and customs of aveylut (mourning) had deep impact on me. But, the requirement to say Kaddish with a minyan every morning and evening had a particularly profound impact–throwing my daily schedule and already tumultuous life into even greater turmoil. There were times when I was delayed on trains and planes, and was certain that I would miss Kaddish. But, somehow, I never once missed reciting Kaddish during the entire year–which is quite a tribute, especially to the New York subway system! Often, it required something little short of a miracle, but I made it, and now I can finally take a deep breath, and plod on.

I must admit, that saying Kaddish for me was not a terrible inconvenience, since, even before I became a mourner, I regularly attended Shacharit and Mincha services daily, and tried as often as I could to attend Maariv services regularly. I can’t fathom how difficult this new routine must be for those who do not attend minyan regularly. The tensions I experienced, as someone who was used to going to services, were enormous. How overwhelming it must be for someone who is suddenly thrust into this awesome and demanding regimen.

What really amazed me was how casual my attitude toward synagogue attendance became immediately after the first Yahrtzeit. It took less than three weeks for me to miss minyan, and while I am sincerely trying not to miss too often, it is very likely that I am going to miss far more frequently than I did during my year of mourning.

Yes, I recognize the irony. Now, thank G-d, that everyone is OK, my 88 year-old father is doing well, my wife and children are healthy, my work is fulfilling–now that everything is hunky-dory–I somehow can’t manage to get to synagogue as regularly as I did during my period of mourning. When mother was ill, and after she passed away, I never missed. And, now, when I have so much for which to be grateful, I am back to being casual about it! And then, when, G-d forbid, tragedy strikes, as it will inevitably, we call out, “O L-rd, O L-rd, why have You forsaken me!”

“Where were you, Buchwald, when everything was OK?,” He may justifiably ask. “How is it that you couldn’t find the time to say ‘Thank you’?”

It’s easy to complain about the bad. It’s far more difficult to say “Thank You” for the good. But, to be complete, to be at peace with oneself, one needs to express those thanks much more often than we normally do. That’s the extraordinary concept represented by the offering known as “Sh’lamim.”

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Pekudei 5779-2019

Honesty and Integrity in Public Life”
(Revised and updated from Pekudei 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, the Torah portion begins with an accounting of the amounts of gold, silver and copper that were contributed to the construction of the מִּשְׁכָּןMishkan, the portable Tabernacle. Despite the fact that these communal gifts were deposited in the hands of Moses and Bezalel, people whose integrity were beyond reproach, a full and precise accounting was conducted.

Exodus 38:21 reads, אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל פִּי מֹשֶׁה, These are the reckonings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which were reckoned at Moses’ bidding. All the items are then listed, as if it were an accountant’s audited report: All the gold that was used…29 talents and 730 shekels; silver…1,775 shekels; copper…70 talents and 2,400 shekels. The precise use for these precious metals was then delineated.

According to the Code of Jewish Law, a גַּבַּאי צְדָקָהgabbai tzedakah, a person who collects for, and maintains, a public charity, should never attend to public funds alone, but must always be accompanied by two or three others, to ensure public accountability. This rule is most likely based on Moses’ reckoning of the Mishkan contributions as reported in our parasha.

Honesty and integrity, of course, play a major role in the Jewish religion. The probity of leaders, who serve as role models for the rest of the community, is especially expected to be beyond reproach. It is quite likely, that in all of Jewish history not a single great scholar was regarded as a scoundrel or dishonest person. This, was not true of the kings of Israel, and, of course, is not true in secular life today. A person can be considered a great expert or scholar in his/her field, and yet may be gravely lacking proper values in other aspects of life, even to the point of decadence or evil. In fact, in Judaism, it seems as if one’s scholarship is not at all regarded, unless the scholar is of truly upstanding character.

A person’s honesty and integrity can make a huge impression on other people’s lives. A Jew, especially an observant Jew, who is scrupulously honest, is regarded as a מְקַדֵּשׁ שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם M’ka’desh Shaym Shamayim, as sanctifying G-d’s name, because of the positive impact he/she may have on others.

Many years ago, I heard a story about a young woman who had become religiously observant. The young woman’s mother, highly critical of her daughter’s turn to religiosity, was so angry, that she stopped speaking to her daughter. On one occasion, the young woman made a phone call from a telephone booth (remember those?) and left her phone book behind. Shortly afterwards, a religious young man found the book and started calling some of the names listed in the book, hoping to find the owner and fulfil the mitzvah of הֲשָׁבַת אֲבֵדָהHa’shavat a’veidah, returning a lost article to its rightful owner.

Eventually, he dialed a number in Florida and spoke to a woman. The woman thought the owner of the diary might be her daughter, and gave the man her daughter’s number. When the woman asked the man why he went through so much trouble to return the phonebook, the young man explained that he was religiously observant and wished to fulfill the mitzvah of returning a lost object.

After calling the young woman and confirming that she indeed was the owner, the young man arranged to return the diary. When they met, the young woman began to cry, explaining that the young man had not only returned her address book, he had also returned her mother to her. She told him that her mother was so impressed that a religiously observant man like himself would expend so much effort to find the owner of the telephone book, that she decided that she had made a terrible mistake, and that the lifestyle that her daughter was leading was indeed appropriate. As a result, the relationship between mother and daughter was restored and even enhanced.

I remember reading an ad in the Jerusalem edition of the Jerusalem Post in the “Lost and Found” section, which touched me deeply. It read: FOUND–Sefer Ramban (Nachmanides) in English, Commentary on the Torah, Exodus. Cash reward given for help in finding owner. Apparently, someone had found this book on a bus or in the street, and was so eager to return it to its proper owner, to fulfill the mitzvah of Ha’shavat a’veidah, that he or she took out a newspaper ad, at their own expense, and offered a reward to anyone who would help find the rightful owner.

The Talmud, in Yoma 38a, cites many examples of ancient public servants who deprived themselves of certain luxuries and conveniences so that they would be above any suspicion of wrongdoing: The House of Garmu never allowed their children to eat bread of fine flour, lest the people say that it was taken from the Showbread that their family produced for the Tabernacle. The House of Avtimas never allowed the brides of their family to wear perfume, lest the people accuse them of using the perfumes of the incense which they were charged with producing. Similarly, any person who entered the “Shekel Chamber” in the Temple was not permitted to wear a sleeved cloak, shoes or sandals, lest they be accused of pilfering shekels from the Temple.

Moses gave a full reckoning of the Mishkan donations in order to be beyond reproach, a fulfillment of the Biblical statement (Numbers 32:22): וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִּם מֵהשׁם, וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל , And you shall be innocent [literally: clean] before G-d and the People of Israel.

This incredibly high level of probity that is expected of Jewish leaders and lay people is, in effect, a crown of majesty that the Torah bestows on the Jewish people, to rise far above the level of honesty and goodness that is commonly expected of society in general.

Although according to Jewish tradition, G-d created the human being a little less perfect than the angels, we often find excuses to justify our errors and transgressions. Because of the blandishments of contemporary society, we need to work diligently to rise up to the angelic level.

I believe it was Martin Buber who said in his comments on the Third Commandment–of not taking the name of G-d in vain–“Don’t turn G-d into what you’d like Him to be. Turn yourself into what G-d wants you to be.”

May you be blessed.

Vayakhel 5779-2019

“Jewish Women and Jewish Destiny”
(Revised and updated from Vayakhel 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The vast majority of this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, deals with erecting the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the portable Tabernacle–in almost excruciatingly painful detail.

In Exodus 35:21, the Torah describes the various donations that were brought by the people as a “free-willed offering.” וַיָּבֹאוּ כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ , Every man whose heart inspired him came, and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion of G-d, for the work of the Tabernacle for all its labor and for the sacred garments. Exodus 35:22 adds that not only the men came, but that the men came with the women. Everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose rings, rings, body ornaments, all sorts of gold ornaments. Emphasizing the people’s generosity, the Torah reiterates that everyone raised up an offering of gold to G-d.

The Hebrew expression, וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים עַל הַנָּשִׁים , that the Torah in Exodus 35:22 uses, is very unusual. Generally, these words would be translated as “the men came along with the women.” But according to the Ramban, this term implies that the men were secondary to the women’s special generosity. Apparently, since the jewelry enumerated in the verse was worn mainly by women, the Torah, in this manner, pays tribute to the women. For as soon as the women heard that precious metals were needed, they immediately removed their most precious possessions and rushed to bring them to the Tabernacle.

This verse, and the interpretation extolling the women for their devotion to G-d and commitment to the cause of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is only one of a broad series of verses and midrashim that appear throughout the Book of Exodus that underscore the selfless devotion of the women to G-d. Particularly, when compared to the men, the women show remarkable faith throughout the ordeal of servitude in Egypt, the rescue from the Exodus, and the entire 40 year period of wandering in the wilderness.

As the story of the Exodus unfolds, the Torah, in Exodus 2:1 records, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי, וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי , that a man went from the House of Levy and took for his wife a daughter of Levy. This, of course, is referring to Amram (the father of Moses, Aaron and Miriam), who marries his aunt Yocheved. Why does the Torah use the unusual expressions וַיֵּלֶךva’yei’lech and וַיִּקַּח –va’yee’kach, he went and he took? Rashi cites the Midrash that maintains that Amram had separated from Yocheved, and lived apart from his wife. Now, the Torah informs us that there was a reconciliation, and Amram reunited with Yocheved his wife and entered into a second marriage with her.

Elaborating on the reason for the marital separation, the Midrash informs us that when Pharaoh decreed that all the male children who were born would be drowned, Amram, who was the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court of Law, and the highest ranking leader of Israel at that time, separated from his wife, so that no children would be born who would be destined to be drowned.

Because of Amram’s position and prestige, most of the Jewish husbands did likewise and separated from their spouses. According to the Midrash, Amram’s young daughter, Miriam, then only 6 years old, approached him and said, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh only decreed that the male children should die, and you have decreed that both male and female children will never be born. Pharaoh only decreed that the children die in this world, and you have decreed that they will not have both this world or the next. Pharaoh is wicked, and it is doubtful whether his decree will be fulfilled. But you, Amram, are a righteous person and there is no question that your decree will be fulfilled.”

When Amram heard Miriam’s rebuke, he was filled with remorse. He brought Miriam to the Sanhedrin, where she repeated the arguments that she had presented earlier to her father. The Elders of the Sanhedrin said, “You Amram, were the one who discouraged us from being together with our wives, now you must go and publically announce that the men must return to their wives.” Amram contritely rejoined his wife. Little Miriam, of course, is depicted as having played a singular heroic role.

A second instance of heroic women is recorded in Exodus 15. After the Jews crossed the Red Sea, Moses led the people in the famous song, אָז יָשִׁיר –Az Ya’shir. After the men concluded their song, Exodus 15:20 describes that the women also burst out in song: וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת . And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrels in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.

And Miriam answered them:

Sing to the Eternal for He is gloriously sublime,
the horse and his rider hath He hurled into the sea!

Rashi, once again citing the Midrash, notes that the righteous women in that generation were so confident that G-d would perform miracles for them, that they brought timbrels with them from Egypt, so they would be prepared to sing to G-d once the great salvation had taken place! In stark contrast, the men were fearful every step of the way and complained to Moses, arrogantly demanding why he had brought them out of the “wonderful” land of Egypt only to be drowned in the sea, or destroyed by the Egyptians.

In Exodus 32, the Torah once again describes a contemptible rebellion against G-d–the sin of the Golden Calf.

When the people mistakenly concluded that Moses’ return from Mount Sinai had been delayed, they assembled before Aaron and demanded that he make a “new god” for them. Scripture, in Exodus 32:2, relates that Aaron tried to delay the people and divert them from their nefarious intentions by instructing them: פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, וְהָבִיאוּ אֵלָי . “Pull off the golden pendants which are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters and bring them unto me.”

The Midrash indicates that Aaron calculated that, through this action, he would be able to stall the people. Had he instructed the men to bring their own gold and silver, they would have brought their valuables immediately. But, by telling them to bring their wives’ jewelry and that of their sons and daughters, he knew that this would cause delay.

When the women heard the demands of their husbands, they refused to take part in the outrage! The commentators note that the expression וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּva’yit’par’koo–and they removed their jewelry–implies breaking off, indicating that when the women refused to give their jewelry, the men broke off their own jewelry from their own ears, and in their passion to defy G-d ripped their ear lobes in the process.

Toward the conclusion of this week’s parasha, Vayakhel, Exodus 38:8, the Torah describes the manufacture of the כִּיּוֹרkee’yor, the Laver, the washing basin found in the Tabernacle. וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת, וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת, בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד , And he [Moses] made the laver, the sink, of copper, and the frame of it of copper, of the mirrors of the women who crowded at the entrance of the Miskhan, the Tabernacle.

Rashi, once again citing the Midrash, says that the Jewish women possessed mirrors of copper, which they would use to check their appearance as they adorned themselves. And, when they offered these mirrors of copper for the building of the Mishkan, Moses’ initial reaction was to reject them, since they were objects of vanity. But, the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed Moses: “Accept them! These [copper mirrors] are dearer to me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts in Egypt.”

Rashi explains, that when the Israelite husbands would tire due to the crushing labor imposed on them by Egypt, the women would bring them food or drink to the fields where the men worked, and induce them to eat. The women would then take the mirrors, and each one would gaze at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am more handsome than you!” Thus they awakened their husband’s affection, and subsequently became the mothers of many people. As it says in Song of Songs (8:5), “Under the apple tree I awakened thy love.” This is what is referred to when it says, Exodus 38:8, “The mirrors of the women who reared the hosts.”

Clearly, had it been up to the men, the Israelites would probably, to this very day, still be enslaved in the land of Egypt, unworthy of redemption.

In Numbers 26:64, scripture relates, וּבְאֵלֶּה, לֹא הָיָה אִישׁ, מִפְּקוּדֵי מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן that when they counted the Jewish people after 40 years in the wilderness, except for Caleb and Joshua, not a single male of the previous generation survived, because they had all died as punishment for the sin of the spies.

Rashi notes the emphasis in the verse that “No man of them that Moses and Aaron numbered survived,” but that the women of that generation did survive, because they held the Promised Land dear. The men, in Numbers 14:4 cried out, “Let us appoint a chief and return to Egypt,” while the women declared, Numbers 27:4, “Give us a possession in the land.” The women loved the land of Israel; the men were ready to return to Egypt.

The key role of women in the redemption, may be summed up by the remarkable statement of the Talmud, found in Sotah 11b, בִּשְׂכַר נָשִׁים צִדְקָנִיּוֹת שֶׁהָיוּ בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר, נִגְאֲלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם , In the merit of those righteous women who were in that generation, the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.

There are those who argue even further and maintain that not only was the generation of Egypt redeemed in their merit, but that each subsequent generation has been redeemed because of the righteous women of that generation. And, if we ourselves are to be redeemed in our generation, much of it will depend upon the commitment of the women in our generation to keep the faith, to keep the men faithful, to inspire the children with faith, and to create a generation devoted to G-d and His Torah.

This wonderful testament to women is even more remarkable because it was authored long ago by men! The Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, that is at least 2,000 years old, represents the feelings and values of the exclusively male hierarchy of Jewish leaders who did not shrink from depicting the men of the generation of the Exodus as being unworthy of redemption. And yet this “chauvinistic” male hierarchy was not at all reluctant to hail and praise the role of the ancient Israelite women, not only in the salvation of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, but also promoting the crucial role that women would play in future redemptions, such as Chanukah and Purim, and in the times of the “Ultimate Redemption.”

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.

 

 

 

 

Kee Tisah 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Tetzaveh 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Terumah 5779-2019

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

(Revised and updated from Terumah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Yitro 5779-2019

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

(Revised and updated from Yitro 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

B’shalach 5779-2019

“The שִׁירָהShira: The Source of All Song”

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

Kitov continues, with emphasis,

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Shira

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