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Matot-Masei 5780-2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Pinchas 5780-2020

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

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sensitivity is our sacred tradition.

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

May you be blessed.

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

Have a meaningful fast.

Chukat-Balak 5780-2020

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

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Korach 5780-2020

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

 

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5780-2020

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.                             

B’ha’a’lot’cha 5780-2020

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

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

 

Naso 5780-2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Shavuot 5780-2020

“The Anonymous Holiday”
(updated and revised from Shavuot 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This Thursday night, Friday and Shabbat, the joyous festival of Shavuot will be celebrated, marking the giving of the Torah at Sinai (in Israel it is celebrated only on Thursday and Friday). On the Hebrew calendar, it is the sixth and seventh days of Sivan.

According to traditional calculation, the Torah was given at Sinai 3332 years ago, in the year 2448 on the Jewish calendar, corresponding to the year 1313 BCE. Because this Shabbat is Shavuot, the normal Torah portion for the week is postponed until next Shabbat, and instead, this Friday we will read from Exodus 19:1-20:23, and on Shabbat day from Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17–readings which concern the festival of Shavuot.

Despite the tradition that the Torah was given on the holiday of Shavuot, many of the commentators are astounded that nowhere in the Torah is there any mention that the Torah was given on that day.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in his observations on the weekly parasha, cites a number of traditional commentaries and their remarks regarding this peculiar omission.

Rabbi Nachshoni notes the writings of the Akeidat Yitzchak, who suggests two reasons for the seeming omission. In his counting of the mitzvot, says the Baal Akeida, the Bahag did not count the existence of G-d among the 613 mitzvot, simply because the existence of G-d is a given, and the most fundamental principle of all the mitzvot. If there is no Commander, there can be no commands. So, obviously, there is no need to count the existence of G-d among the 613 commandments. Similarly, with Shavuot, says the Akeida, the giving of the Torah is such a primary philosophical principle, and so self-evident, that for the Torah to mention it would be extraneous.

A second reason recounted by the Akeida, is that most of the holiday mitzvot depend upon time, but the giving of the Torah can never be constrained by time. As it says in the book of Joshua 1:8: לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה , This Torah shall not depart from your mouth, and you should contemplate upon it both day and night. The words of the Torah need to be fresh and beloved in our eyes at all times as if they were newly given. Consequently, Scripture did not fix a time for the giving of the Torah, and only mentions the mitzvah of bringing bikurim, the first fruits, that are observed on the festival of Shavuot.

The Abarbanel, goes even further, arguing that the relationship between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is merely coincidental. Shavuot is a holiday of thanksgiving to thank G-d for the harvest and the first fruits. While it is true that on the sixth of Sivan the Torah was given to the Jewish people, that is not really what necessitates the celebration. Rather, the first fruits and the harvesting of the wheat are the reasons to rejoice. The Abarbanel suggests that while there is no specific mention in the Torah to celebrate the Revelation, there are certain symbolic allusions in the celebration of the festival of Shavuot that relate to the giving of the Torah. The Abarbanel notes that on Passover an offering of the first barley is brought, which is a coarse food for animals, whereas on Shavuot the Shtei ha’Lechem, the two loaves of bread and the first offering of the very fine wheat are brought. The implication, clearly, is that the Exodus was the coarse liberation, while Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is the refined elevation. Similarly, the fact that we count the Omer from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, shows how much we long for Shavuot and yearn for the Torah.

As published in Shiurei Ha’Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, delivered some impromptu remarks concerning the study of Torah to his class at Yeshiva University, that put the centrality of Torah and the festival of Shavuot into proper perspective. Rabbi Soloveitchik commented on the ceremonial blessings that are recited at the completion of the learning of a Talmudic tractate. Jews, he noted, yearn for both kedusha, sanctity, and Torah. Just as Jews always refer to Shabbat in their prayers as the day to which they long, by referring to the other days of the week as, today is the first, or the second, or the third day in the Shabbat cycle, so does the counting of the Omer reflect the Jews’ awareness that the ultimate goal of the exodus from Egypt was really receiving the Torah.

So it is with the Jews yearning for mastery of Torah. Torah is not only to be studied, it must be an all-encompassing involvement. That is why the blessing that Jews recite every morning is, לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה , Blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, לַעֲסוֹק , to be involved in, to make our business, our careers, in the words of Torah.

Usually, when a Jew makes a blessing and departs from an activity, such as leaving a Sukkah after eating and drinking, and then re-enters the Sukkah to again eat or drink, the Sukkah blessing must be recited again. But, the blessing for Torah is recited only once in the morning, and never again, even though a Jew may open the Torah to study many times a day. The reason for this is that the obligation of Talmud Torah, of studying Torah, never ends. This is what is meant by the verse from Joshua that was cited above, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה , You should be aware and conscious of the mitzvah of Torah study all day and all night.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that there are two kinds of awareness. The first is acute awareness, while the second is latent awareness. Acute awareness is obviously lacking when one thinks about other matters, but latent awareness is always present, even though one may be engaged in other matters. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes insightfully, that when a mother plays with her child, there is acute awareness of the child. But, even when the mother is at work at a job, or distracted by some other activity, there is always a latent awareness of the child, and so it remains throughout the mother’s lifetime. This is an awareness that typical parents have that can never be extinguished. The infant is the center of gravity of the parents’ lives. That is why parents often feel that they cannot live without their child.

Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the same is true with regard to Torah. A Jew may not be acutely aware of Torah at every moment during each 24 hour period, but the latent awareness never ceases. לַעֲסוֹק בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה , to engage in the words of Torah, implies that even when Jews are mentally involved in something else, they are always aware of Torah. This awareness of Torah becomes part of a Jew’s innate consciousness. Just as one is always aware of one’s existence without having to confirm it by constantly repeating: “I exit, I exist,” so must a Jew be aware of the Torah.

Concludes Rabbi Soloveitchik, it is for this reason that we make a special siyum, conclusion ceremony, at the end of learning a Talmudic tractate, by saying the words, הַדְרָן עֲלָךְ , Hadran alach, “We shall return to you.” As far as acute awareness is concerned, we are through with the tractate, we are leaving this chapter, but the latent awareness remains, and for that reason, we still return again to learn. It is similar to the mother who leaves her child and says, “I’ll be back.” She does not say this merely to encourage the infant, she is expressing a basic truth. A mother leaves only to return, otherwise, she would never leave.

We pray that this Shavuot will be an all-embracing celebration of Torah, not only of holding it, but making it an intimate part of our lives. With Torah as our guide, we will surely be blessed.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3332 years ago is observed this year on Thursday evening, May 28th, and continues through Saturday night, May 30, 2020.

Devarim 5780-2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5780-2020

“Jewish Continuity through Family Structure
(Updated and revised from Bamidbar 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, G-d instructs Moses to count the Jewish people.

Rashi, explains that G-d’s profound love for the Jewish people impelled Him to continually count His beloved nation, like one counts a prized possession or money.

The parasha continues with the description of the encampment of the Jewish people in the wilderness. In addition to counting the soldiers from twenty years old and upward, the parasha describes how the camp was arrayed and precisely where the various tribes of Israel encamped. The מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle, was at the center of the camp, surrounded on all four sides by the three families of Levi as well as Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons. Around the perimeter of Levi’s camp the twelve tribes of Israel were arranged in four groups of three. Each group of three tribes formed a דֶּגֶלdegel, a “standard,” that was named after the group’s leading tribe, the standards of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim and Dan.

In Numbers 1:18, the Torah records, וַיִּתְיַלְדוּ עַל מִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם , the People of Israel confirmed their pedigrees and genealogies according to their families, and their fathers’ households. The careful census was followed by a strict encampment structure. Every tribe confirmed its members, and where it was to dwell—on the north, south, east or west side of the Tabernacle, as well as whether it was to be positioned to the right, left or center of its degel, its tribal standard.

The Midrash Rabbah in Numbers 2:4, declares that it was the precise structure and encampment of Israel that officially rendered the Jewish people holy and elevated.

In fact, the Midrash claims, that all the nations of the world gazed in astonishment and awe at the remarkable structure of the people, and asked, (Song of Songs 6:10), מִי זֹאת הַנִּשְׁקָפָה כְּמוֹ שָׁחַר ? Who is this who appears like the dawn? יָפָה כַלְּבָנָה , as beautiful as the moon, בָּרָה כַּחַמָּה , as bright as the sun, אֲיֻמָּה כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת ? awesome as the most elevated things? Then the nations of the world beckoned to the People of Israel, calling out to them, (Song of Songs 7:1), שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי הַשּׁוּלַמִּית , Return, return O Shulamit, (a name of endearment for Israel) שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי וְנֶחֱזֶה בָּךְ , Return, return, let us look you over!

The rabbis say that the statements made by the nations were calls of seduction, “Cling to us, join us, intermarry with us,” they said to the people. “We’ll make you leaders, we’ll make you influential consultants, we’ll make you senators, we’ll nominate you for Vice President!”

The Jewish people however refused. They instead responded, (Song of Songs 7:1), מַה תֶּחֱזוּ בַּשּׁוּלַמִּית ,Why are you gazing at the Shulamit?” כִּמְחֹלַת הַמַּחֲנָיִם ? The rabbi’s first interpretation of this verse is: Can you nations in any way add to the stature of the Jewish people? Can you top what G-d has done for us in the wilderness? Like the dance—מָחוֹל , of machanaim-מַּחֲנָיִם , the standards of the camps of Judah or of Reuben. Can you improve on that?

An alternate interpretation: Can you nations, in any way, add to our stature? כִּמְחֹלַת הַמַּחֲנָיִם , Are you able to improve upon the great stature that G-d gave us in the wilderness? After all, we were sinful and He forgave us—מָחַל לָנוּ , and declared, Deuteronomy 23:15, וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ , despite your worship of the Golden Calf, your camp can be holy!

That is why, says the Midrash, later in Jewish history, when Balaam saw the Jewish people encamped together, he could not bear it. Unable to touch or harm Israel, Numbers 24:2 reports, וַיִּשָּׂא בִלְעָם אֶת עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֹׁכֵן לִשְׁבָטָיו , and, Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw the Jewish people resting by its tribes. When Balaam saw the standards (flags) and the orderliness of the tribes, he said, “Who can harm these creatures, who recognize their fathers and their families?”

Clearly, it is the familial structure of the Jewish people that is the source of their shelter and their strength. It is this sacred family structure that is vital for Jewish continuity.

In stark contrast to the firm familial structure of Israel, contemporary sociologists report that fewer than one quarter of the people in the United States live in traditional nuclear families–father, mother, son, daughter. It’s the family that is the glue, the cement of society. And, as the nuclear family erodes, including many Jewish families, the devastating breakdown of society is not far behind.

We pray that G-d will soon restore all people to their proper tents, and especially contemporary Jews to their tribes and their familial orderliness, so that the Balaams of the world will, once again, be forced to acknowledge and declare (Numbers 24:5), מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב , How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

The continuity of the Jewish people is predicated on the strength of their families. May G-d give us the wisdom to protect our families, so that we, and all of humankind, may be strengthened and soon redeemed.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed this Thursday night, May 21st and Friday May 22nd. This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the reunification of the city.