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Mishpatim 5780-2020

“The ‘Sophisticated’ and ‘Unsophisticated’ Criminal
(updated and revised from Mishpatim 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, is a lawyer’s dream and a layman’s nightmare. Parashat Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot, ranking it fifth among the parshiot in terms of the number of mitzvot.

This parasha is literally a cornucopia of diverse and fascinating laws. 3300 years ago, the Torah, in parashat Mishpatim, already introduced the concept of the inalienable rights of individuals. Parashat Mishpatim also expounds on a host of other laws: the laws of murder, crimes against parents, kidnaping, personal injuries, damages caused by animals, seduction, witchcraft, sodomy, oppression of the weak, offerings of the first fruits, truth and justice, love of enemy, the sabbatical year and the Sabbath day, and a vast array of other issues that are both challenging and enlightening.

On a number of occasions, the issue of thievery appears in our parasha. At the beginning of Exodus 22, the case of the burglar who breaks into a home is raised. The Torah even addresses the issue of whether and when the occupants of the home are permitted to defend themselves if their lives seem to be threatened.

In Exodus 22:6, the Torah records that if a thief is caught, he must pay double the value of the item he stole. The Hebrew term for theft is גְּנֵבָהg’neivah, which in Jewish legal terminology means “stealthy theft” or larceny–theft without confronting or physically intimidating the legal owner. G’neivah may take the form of breaking in to someone’s home when the owner is away, stealing someone’s parked car, or embezzlement. In effect, the Torah establishes that the penalty for a person who steals in this manner is for the thief to suffer the same personal loss that he attempted to inflict on the victim. Consequently, Jewish law says that the thief must not only restore the principal-–the original value of the stolen item, but must also pay a fine equal to the value of the principal. For example, if a car worth $5,000 was stolen, the thief must pay $10,000, thus suffering a loss equal to that which he wished the victim to suffer.

There is, however, another type of thief in Jewish law, known as a גַּזֽלָןgazlan. A gazlan is a brigand, a highwayman, a pirate, a mugger, who approaches a victim and demands: “Your money or your life!” Strangely, Jewish law states that the gazlan need only restore the value of the original theft and is not required to pay a penalty. If, however, the gazlan wishes to doתְּשׁוּבָהt’shuvah, if he truly wants to be fully repentant, then he must add a surcharge of 1/5 or 20%, and bring an offering to the Temple.

The rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Kama 79b, are hard-pressed to explain why a thief who extorts or steals, without physical intimidation, must pay more than one who threatens violence. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, offers a response that is rather discerning. He argues that the gazlan–-the mugger, the brigand, as contemptible as he may be, is at least theologically consistent. The gazlan is obviously not afraid of G-d, which is why he steals. But, he is also not afraid of man, and therefore confronts his victim brazenly–face to face. The גַּנָּבganav, on the other hand, is also not afraid of G-d, so he too steals. But, the ganav is in dread fear of man, so he avoids confronting his victim and acts stealthfully. If that is the case, say the rabbis, for his theological inconsistencies, the ganav, must pay more. As objectionable as the behavior of the gazlan–the mugger is, at least he is consistent, whereas the ganav is not only a thief, he is a hypocrite, as well.

It may be further argued that by meting out unexpected and unequal punishments to the ganav and the gazlan, the Torah and the rabbis proclaim to members of society that so-called “white-collar” crimes are at least as serious and can be as hurtful and devastating as those crimes we commonly call “blue collar.” The Torah declares that stealing someone’s possessions, his or her life savings, embezzling someone’s business can be as physically and emotionally destructive as hurting or threatening someone physically. Society should never falsely rationalize that a “sophisticated” thief should be excused with a lesser punishment.

Once again, we find our Torah enlightening society with remarkable new insights into life and living, constantly offering profound understandings of human nature.

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.

Yitro 5780-2019

“Can the Torah Forbid Feelings that are Part of Normal Human Emotions?”
(Updated and revised from Yitro 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, is one of the two places in the Torah where the Ten Commandments are recorded. The second text of the Ten Commandments is found in parashat Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 5:6-18.

The tenth commandment, that appears in Exodus 20:14, states: לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ, לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ, וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרו,ֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ , you shall not covet your fellow’s house, you shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.

The rabbis ask, how can the Torah forbid something which is, seemingly, so much a part of human nature–jealousy, and covetous desires of another’s possessions? In response, the Ibn Ezra presents the following parable. While a peasant farmer might covet his neighbor’s daughter, he would never conceive of coveting the Queen, because it is simply out of the realm of possibility.

This analogy could be made even stronger by saying that a person who is looking for romantic love and affection would not, under normal circumstances, covet his neighbor’s cow or dog, because it is simply out of the realm of reality. Under normal circumstances, romantic love and affection are not directed toward animals!

With the prohibition against covetous desires, Judaism introduces a bold and revolutionary concept. The Torah, in effect, declares that human beings are in control of, or can control, their intimate thoughts and desires.

An example of this principle can be found in the Jewish laws of mourning. Jewish law certainly acknowledges that those who experience the death of a close relative will naturally feel bereft, abandoned by G-d, and are consequently freed from the performance of mitzvot until the burial. Jewish law, however, requires that once the burial takes place, the bereaved mourner must work his or her way back to fulfillment of all mitzvot. We see, in this instance, that Jewish law arbitrarily demands a person, despite the terribly painful circumstance, to overcome great personal agony and begin to participate in a minyan, to say blessings, to thank G-d for health, even though his/her emotional mood is hardly inclined to recite these prayers or perform religious rituals. Jewish law even mandates that there be no public mourning on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, when mourning is cancelled. The implication is clear: Judaism maintains that people can control their emotions, and that they have the capacity to overcome their feelings even in tragic circumstances. Similarly, the Torah requires the person with covetous desires to overcome or suppress those prohibited thoughts.

Perhaps, the concept of prohibiting evil thoughts and emotions is hard to accept because much of contemporary thinking conveys the opposite message, that our improper behavior is often excusable because of rage, provocation or taunting. Jewish law, on the other hand, maintains, that even a person with a natural disposition toward forbidden actions, such as bloodlust or prohibited sexual behavior, must keep those emotions in check. If they are to be expressed at all, they must be done in a sublimated and socially-acceptable manner. In fact, the Talmud suggests (Tractate Shabbat 156a) that a person with an abundance of bloodlust may express those forbidden feelings by becoming a surgeon, a mohel, or a ritual slaughterer.

The Chassidic approach to the issue of not coveting is quite different, but no less fascinating. The Torah, in the portion of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 declares: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , and you shall love the L-rd your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Why does the verse speak of “loving” G-d in this portion where the Torah emphasizes the acceptance of belief in G-d? Would it not be more appropriate to say, “And you shall believe in the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”? Chassidic tradition maintains that love is entirely appropriate in the context of the Shema, since love opens vistas that would otherwise be sealed and inaccessible. A person who expresses intense love of G-d, will inevitably find belief.

The Chassidim argue even further. They maintain that if a person’s heart is “full” of love of G-d, there is simply no “room” for alien thoughts and feelings. That, they explain, is the way the temptation expressed in the Torah’s prohibition of Lo tach’mod, thou shall not covet, can be overcome. Fill your heart with love of G-d, argue the Chassidim–and there will be no room for alien covetous desires.

While this Chassidic rationale is but a metaphor, the implications are very real. “Thou shall not covet.” Love G-d, and there will be no covetous desires!

May you be blessed.

On Sunday night and Monday, February 9th and 10th, 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 5780-2020

“Where is Nachshon the Son of Aminadov When We Need Him?”
(Updated and revised from B’shalach 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, describes G-d’s miraculous salvation of the Jewish People by splitting the Red (Reed) Sea.

Scripture dramatically describes the Egyptian forces as they close in on the Israelites. The people, consumed with dread and fear, cry out to Moses and say (Exodus 14:11): הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us?… It is better that we should serve Egypt, than perish in the wilderness!”

G-d tells Moses to do what he must do. The Torah, Exodus 14:21 reports, וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַיָּם , that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea. G-d made the sea move with a strong East wind all that night… and the water split. The Children of Israel enter the sea on dry land, the water serving as a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians persist in chasing the Israelites into the sea, and there G-d confounds the Egyptians. G-d tells Moses to stretch his hand out once again over the sea, and the water returns to the sea, covering the chariots and the horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh who were chasing after the Israelites. Scripture, Exodus 14:28 records, that not one of the Egyptians remained alive.

When the people of Israel see the great hand of G-d, they express reverence for G-d, and declare their faith in G-d and Moses, his servant. In joy and ecstasy, the people begin to sing the great song, אָז יָשִׁיר , the song of Israel crossing the Red Sea.

The Talmud, in Sotah 36b and 37a, recounts an interesting dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Meir maintains that when the 12 tribes stood at the edge of the sea, they strove with one another, each vying to be the first tribe to enter the sea. Rabbi Judah disagrees, and says that that’s not the way it was at all. Rather, each tribe was unwilling to go in first. As they were standing disputing who would not go first, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, the Prince of the tribe of Judah, entered the water. He continued to walk forth with great faith, and only when the water reached his neck, did the sea begin to split.

One of the most remarkable things about the physical world in which we live and its nature is its orderliness. From the structure of the tiniest atomic particle, to the behavior of the raging sea, even the winds in the sky, there is always logic, constancy and orderliness. This orderliness allows the experts to predict the weather and to reckon the half-life of a radioactive element. Nature implies predictability. Obviously, G-d purposefully created the world in this predictable manner. Today, scientists maintain that even those things that appear to be unpredictable will eventually be shown to be entirely predictable, as we gain a deeper understanding of the incredible variety of factors that impact on the behavior of these seemingly unpredictable elements and processes.

A “miracle” then may be defined as an instance in which nature ceases to be predictable, departs from its natural order and behaves in an unexpected manner. The splitting of the Red Sea is certainly a prime example of such behavior.

The controversial scientist, Immanuel Velikovsky in his Worlds in Collision argues that the Ten Plagues were basically predictable natural occurrences. He theorizes that, at the time of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, a great comet broke off from the planet Venus. The comet’s tail, containing red dust, caused the waters of the Nile River to turn red. Hence, the plague of blood. As the planet Earth went deeper in to the comet’s tail, the dust turned into small stones, and a hail of gravel pelted the earth. Each one of the plagues, Velikovsky argues, was predictable. However unlikely Velikovsky’s theories may be, they do not really controvert the possibility of a Divine miracle. After all, even if the event was not a miracle, the timing was certainly miraculous! The fact that it happened at the particular time that Moses had predicted that it would happen, renders the event a miracle. Velikovsky also argues that the so-called splitting of the Red Sea was caused by a great hurricane and unusual tides that caused the seabed to dry up and the waters to suddenly return. Thus, according to Velikovsky, the poor Egyptians had the great misfortune of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In light of this, the Midrash of Nachshon the son of Aminadav is revealing. The Midrash implies that Nachshon was able to affect G-d’s hand, and make the sea split at a particular point in time.

I have previously argued (Bereshith 5762-2001) that the Torah maintains that G-d created the world entirely good, and that it was the human who, by defying G-d, introduced evil into the world, by eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of good and evil. By defying G-d, Adam and Eve introduce death, sickness, and pain into the world. But, G-d has given humankind the antidotes to cure all illness. In fact, all that is necessary to find these cures to end all sickness, illness, pain and travail is for the human species to resolve to do so.

I would argue even further, that even those things that seem most unpredictable, those occurrences that insurance companies often call “Acts of G-d,” are indeed predictable, and are, in fact, controllable.

It is already well known and widely accepted that it is folly to build homes on geologic faults where the likelihood of earthquakes is well established, or, to erect mansions on edges of cliffs that are prone to erosion and mudslides. And yet, scientific knowledge is unable to convince our human emotions to act responsibly. And so, we continue today to build homes in dangerous locations.

Eventually, science will most likely gain a much fuller understanding of the geothermal and seismic factors that cause volcanoes to erupt and earthquakes to occur. Not only will inhabitants be entirely forewarned, but, it may very well be possible for Earth dwellers to actually change the course of nature by developing technologies that will release the explosive pressures in a safe and secure manner before eruptions and prior to quakes. None of this is really that farfetched.

But, for all this to happen, we need a Nachshon the son of Aminadav, who is prepared to jump into the water up to his neck and declare, “I am going to cause the water to split. My profound faith will change the course of nature. My profound faith will inspire scientists to find the factors that cause nature to change. My profound faith will convince G-d that He must be my partner to help me find the answers to these seemingly impenetrable questions.”

This Shabbat when you listen to the Song of the People of Israel crossing the Red Sea sung in your synagogues, think of Nachshon. He may very well be sitting next to you, perhaps he is already inside of you, waiting, for a little encouragement to emerge and do his thing.

May you be blessed.

Bo 5780-2020

“Rational Love and Emotional Love: A Lesson from Tefillin”
(revised and updated from Bo 5760-2000)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read about the last three plagues of the Ten Plagues: locusts, darkness, and the Death of the Firstborn. It is after the final plague strikes that the story of the Exodus comes to a dramatic conclusion as Pharaoh personally dashes through the streets of Egypt to seek out Moses and Aaron and urge them to take the Hebrew slaves and leave the land of Egypt as soon as possible.

Parashat Bo is also the parasha in which the Jewish people receive their first commandment as a nation–the commandment of observing Rosh Chodesh, of setting up a Jewish calendar. The Jewish people are also instructed to prepare for the Pascal Sacrifice and the first seder, which will take place in Egypt.

Parashat Bo concludes with chapter 13 of Exodus, in which G-d proclaims the holiness of the firstborn male children, and the need to redeem the firstborn at a פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּןPidyon Haben ceremony, 30 days after birth. This final chapter of parashat Bo also features two portions, which speak of the obligation to teach future generations of the miracle of the Exodus. Both these portions, Exodus 13:2, קַדֶּשׁ לִי כָל בְּכוֹר , sanctify for Me every first born, and Exodus 13:11, וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִאֲךָ , when the L-rd G-d brings you into the land of Israel, speak of the mitzvah of Tefillin. Tefillin, of course, are the phylacteries (the leather boxes and straps) that are to be worn daily by Jewish men as a sign on the hand and as frontlets between the eyes, so that all should know that the Al-mighty took the People of Israel out from Egypt with a mighty hand.

The mitzvah of Tefillin is indeed a strange mitzvah. Jewish men are instructed to place a leather box containing sacred parchment scrolls with texts of the Torah, on their weak arm, encircle the arm seven times with a leather strap, and to place a second little leather box on the head, also containing sacred scrolls, and leather straps. What could possibly be the meaning of this ritual?

Conventional wisdom has it that Tefillin represent the bonding of the human being with G-d. Winding the straps around one’s arm seven times is reminiscent of the bride who marches around the groom seven times in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, as an act of betrothal. The winding of the straps around the fingers represents the wedding ring. Placing Tefillin on the head represents giving one’s mind, one’s consciousness, and one’s intelligence to the service of G-d. The binding of the leather box on the arm, next to the heart, represents giving one’s strength to G-d, and devoting one’s heart to G-d. So in effect, it is an act which represents total sublimation of one’s self to the Divine Creator, giving over strength, intelligence and heart to G-d.

Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, in a seminal essay entitled, “Jew and Jew, Jew and Non-Jew” develops the idea of the Tefillin in a most profound way. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that the Tefillin of the head are worn exposed on the head, where they may be seen by everyone. The Tefillin of the head contain four separate compartments in which parchments concerning the Torah writings regarding Tefillin are placed. On the other hand, the Tefillin of the hand are always worn covered. A sleeve is usually pulled over the Tefillin, or a cover is worn over the actual Tefillin box, to hide them. The Tefillin of the hand represent emotion–not like Tefillin of the head which are open, rational, given to scientific and empirical investigation for all to analyze.

The parchment contained in the Tefillin of the hand, just like the Tefillin of the head, contain the four sections of the Torah, which mention the Mitzvah of Tefillin. However, they are written on one long parchment, and are seemingly melded together, not separate, but uniform and unified. While the Tefillin of the head sit on the brain, the source of rational, empirical understanding, the Tefillin of the arm sit next to the heart, the source of the esoteric emotions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Judaism recognizes two forms of “love”–“rational love” and “emotional love.” When a person evokes “rational love,” someone or something is preferred because they are rationally superior and empirically deserving. They are worthy, because they are good. It is possible to rationally, and, in many cases, scientifically assess the goodness empirically and to make a decision to like or dislike something. However, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, there is also a love of the heart, that is not based on rational or empirical evidence. It is an emotional favoring that only a person in love can comprehend and appreciate. In fact, it can, at times, be shown that it makes no sense rationally, and deserves to be abandoned. That is why it is always next to the heart, covered and hidden. No amount of convincing or cajoling can affect these emotional feelings.

Rabbi Soloveitchik insists that there is a difference between a Jew’s love for a fellow Jew and a Jew’s love for a non-Jew. The Torah instructs everyone, (Leviticus 19:18) וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ , Love your neighbor as thyself. That is the love that a Jew should have for all of humankind. Jews are bidden to love and respect all people. However, the objects of this love must be worthy of our love, they must be good, decent, principled and moral people. When, however, it comes to the love of our brother, love for our family members becomes irrational. Goodness, or worthiness, is not a factor, after all–it’s my brother.

Can it be explained? Two people are drowning, one, a world-famous scientist, the other, my child!! Despite the fact that the scientist can probably accomplish so much good for humanity, I’ll choose to save my child anyway. Can it be explained? It’s irrational, because it’s based on emotional love! There is a rationality to the heart, that the mind cannot comprehend or fathom. And, so says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is the emotional love that a Jew has for another Jew. They may not be the most worthy of people, they may not be the kindest, they may not be the most moral, but they are, after all, my brother, my sister and I love them, despite their deficiencies.

People make irrational decisions all the time. People often buy a new suit of clothes, even though they may be of inferior quality, because they are in style. It’s irrational. Few people will buy an out-of-style suit even though the quality of the material and sewing is far superior. No one is going to buy an old flip model phone, even though the flip phones were far more durable and cheaper than the current smartphones.

And, so it is when expressing love for our fellow Jews. While it often makes no sense to the mind, it makes perfect sense to the heart. So go argue with the heart! That is why, says Rav Soloveitchik, the primary blessing that we make on Tefillin, is made on the Tefillin of the arm. In fact, if a blessing is made on the Tefillin of the head, it is a questionable blessing, and the phrase בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד , Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever, is immediately recited in order to make certain that it is not a “wasted blessing.”

There are many things in life that cannot be explained rationally, they can only be felt. Such are the concepts of love of the mind and love of the heart–another revolutionary idea that stems from Judaism.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5780-2020

Shemot 5780-2020

“Developing Commitment to Judaism: A Lesson from an Egyptian Prince”
(updated and revised from Shemot 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we encounter one of the most formidable issues facing contemporary Jewish life: How to raise Jewishly-identified children in a rigorously challenging environment.

At first blush, the issue of Jewish identity would hardly be a theme likely to be found in this week’s parasha. But, clearly, Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in an intensive Egyptian environment. Nevertheless, scripture says, Exodus: 2:11, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם, and it came to pass in those days, and Moses grew up, and he went out to his brethren, and he saw their burdens.

Not only does Moses see the Hebrews’ burdens, but when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Jewish slave, מֵאֶחָיו , of his brothers, he looks this way and that–-sees that there is no one who will stand up to defend the Hebrew slave, and Moses then strikes the Egyptian dead, and buries him in the sand.

This clearly begs the question: How did this Egyptian prince, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, not only develop a Jewish identity, but also a profound sense of caring for his fellow Jew?

The Biblical narrative and the elaborate Midrashim concerning the birth of Moses are well known. Pharaoh had instructed the midwives (Exodus 1:16) to kill all the Jewish male children. The midwives kept a careful record of the pregnant Jewish women so that they could come at the appropriate time and murder the babies. According to tradition, (Rashi, Exodus 2:2) Moses was born, miraculously, after only six months, and survived. That is why his mother was able to hide him for three months.

Every day, the Egyptians would come to the house of Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, to look for the child. When Jochebed could no longer hide the child, she constructed an ark of bulrush, covered it with pitch outside, and placed it on the river, leaving Moses’ sister, Miriam, to watch the child.

According to the Midrash, the Al-mighty caused a great heat wave to strike Egypt, and all the people went down to bathe in the river. When the daughter of Pharaoh, who had also gone to the river, beheld the ark floating in the water, she instructed her maidens to bring the floating vessel to her, adding, that perhaps, there is a child who can be saved.

The Midrash maintains that the handmaidens were loath to go against Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish male children should be drowned into the river.

The rabbis, cited by Rashi, on Exodus 2:5, employ a homiletical interpretation on the text, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ , which literally means, that Pharaoh’s daughter sent her handmaiden to take the child. Rather than translate אַמָה –“ama” as handmaiden, they interpret the Hebrew word “ama” to mean “hand”–that Pharaoh’s daughter’s hand was miraculously lengthened, and that she herself was able to reach the diminutive ark to save the child.

To add a little intrigue to the story,  Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer 48, records that Pharaoh’s daughter had long been stricken with a dreaded dermatological disease, and that when she touched the ark she was suddenly healed. When she opened the ark and saw the child’s shining face, she had compassion on him and said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “this is surely one of the Hebrew children.” The Midrash maintains that when G-d saw how compassionate Pharaoh’s daughter was, He gave her a special name, בתי-ה –“Bitya,” which, in Hebrew, means “Bat Y-ah,” daughter to G-d, and promised that death would have no dominion over her, that she would be rewarded with Eternal life in the Garden of Eden, the Garden of G-d.

The Midrash continues, stating that Bitya tried in vain to have the child nurse from an Egyptian woman, but he refused. Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was watching him from her hiding place in the bulrushes, emerged and said (Exodus 2:7) הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת , Shall I go call a nursemaid for you from the Jewish women?” Miriam called Jochebed, Moses’ mother, and Bitya charged her with nursing the child. Jochebed took the child and raised him for two years. After he was weaned, Moses was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter. How painful it must have been for Jochebed to give up her child.

From that day on, Moses remained in Pharaoh’s house. He was raised there, educated there, and nurtured in Egyptian culture. According to tradition, Moses was 20 years old when he went out and acknowledged his Jewish brethren.

Why is the Midrash so impressed with Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, to the extent that G-d Himself gives her a new name and bestows upon her a promise of eternal life? Clearly, there is a secret heroine in this story, and Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, is that heroine! Bitya, Midrash or not, defies her father, by saving Moses who is clearly a Jewish child. Bitya’s actions indicate that she is made of different stuff than the cruel Egyptians who relished persecuting Jews.

No doubt, the rabbis of the Midrash were also perplexed as to how a child, who was raised for 18 years as an Egyptian, could feel so powerfully connected to the Jewish people. That is the likely reason why they attributed all of this to Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter.

The Communist leader, V.I. Lenin, had a motto: “Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.” The implication being that the formative education of a child is the most significant and most enduring.

Citizens of contemporary times know how true this message rings as we see so many children who are being raised with indifferent or absentee parents, and yet we wonder why so many young people are so unsettled and frequently turn against the parents’ values. Clearly, the formative years are invaluable. Those who trade away those precious early years for a few extra shekels, are making a fateful error. Judaism has long maintained that “quality time” without “quantity time,” simply doesn’t work.

The experience of Moses in Pharaoh’s palace also underscores the value of intensive Jewish education. For many years, the Jewish establishment in America derided intensive Jewish education, feeling that Jewish parochial school education was divisive and un-American. In retrospect, we now see, with the tragic statistics on assimilation, how misguided those leaders were.

I have long maintained that one cannot really “overdose” on Judaism or on Jewish education. Parents who are passionate in their Judaism, given the impact of assimilation, will hopefully end up with children who are moderate. Parents who are moderate about their Judaism, are likely to wind up with children who are casual. And, those who are casual in their Jewish practice, may wind up, G-d forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren!

Children who are given a firm basic Jewish education, even if they choose later in life to forsake tradition, will always have an opportunity to choose later in life to rejoin that tradition. The tragedy regarding the large numbers of young Jews who are walking away from their Judaism today, is that they are walking away, not because they are disenchanted with Judaism, but because they never had a choice–they were never given a basic Jewish education and never had positive, joyous, Jewish experiences.

Positive values are skills that need to be nurtured. A child who has never been encouraged to put a nickel, a dime, a quarter into a pushka (charity box) on a regular basis is unlikely to feel anything special for the poor or the homeless. A child who has never felt the warm embrace of parents on Shabbat or heard beautiful zemirot sung at their Shabbat tables are likely to be far more attracted to contemporary pop music and the haunting  Christmas songs. A child who has never felt the excitement of Purim or Simchat Torah, will be easily swept away by the drinking and ribaldry of the annual secular New Year’s Eve celebration. This is the tragedy that we face today; and the tragedy is compounded, because it did not have to happen!

What role does Midrash play in Torah study? Midrashim are, after all, only legendary interpretation of the Biblical verses, yet they almost always come to teach powerful and profound pedagogic, often moral, messages. In this instance, the Midrash teaches that there was a secret to Moses’ proud and powerful Jewish identity. His identity was a reflection of the commitment he developed during those two important years that he spent with his mother, and the extraordinary commitment that Bitya conveyed to him during his sojourn in Pharaoh’s palace.

The philosopher, the late Eliezer Berkovits, was once asked, “Who is a Jew?” He responded insightfully, “A Jew is one who has Jewish grandchildren.”

May the story of Moses and his remarkable religious inspiration and commitment serve as a source for all, of inspiration and commitment to Jewish learning, inspiration and commitment to Jewish growth, inspiration and commitment to Jewish life.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5780-2020

“The Critical Importance of Timing”
(updated and revised from Vayechi 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, includes almost a full chapter (Genesis 49) with 28 verses of extraordinarily powerful poetry.

In this parasha, Jacob blesses his children. Clearly, it is much more than a blessing. In fact, it is Jacob’s prophetic assessment of the unique natures of his children–the tribes of Israel and, in certain instances, the future missions that the tribes will fulfill.

Through these wondrous words of poetry, Jacob, in effect, designates the leadership roles that certain of his children will play. These designations will ultimately have a major impact on Jewish history.

Jacob determines which of his first-born children will be regarded as the legal firstborn, entitled to the birthright. After all, Jacob has four sons, each of whom is the firstborn to his mother. Joseph ultimately emerges as the firstborn, who receives the double portion in the land of Israel. Jacob then chooses Levi to be the religious leader of Israel. Finally, the temporal leader, the King, is chosen, the most exalted of all the brothers, and that is Yehudah, Judah.

Of all the sons of Jacob, Reuben, the eldest, is perhaps the most tragic. Listen to the beautiful poetic words of Genesis 49:3 concerning Reuben. Jacob says, רְאוּבֵן, בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה , Reuben, you are my firstborn, כֹּחִי, וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז , you are the first of my strength and the first of my power, you are foremost in rank, and foremost in power. You Reuben, have all the natural advantages of the firstborn, says Jacob.

But then, in a sudden change, Jacob, in Genesis 49:4, says, פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר , You, Reuben, are impetuous like water, you cannot be the foremost, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ, יְצוּעִי עָלָה , because you mounted the bed of your father, you violated the couch upon which you rose up!

How could such a good person, a good-hearted and well-intentioned person like Reuben, finish last? He’s always ready to do the right thing.

When we first encounter Reuben as an adult, it is at the time of the wheat harvest. Reuben goes out to the fields, and scripture, in Genesis 30:14, says, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה , he finds mandrakes. The mandrakes were a fertility drug that Reuben brings to his mother Leah, so that she would have more children. Reuben is always prepared to help.

Reuben’s intentions are always noble, even in the instance where Jacob condemns Reuben for violating his bed. As described in Genesis 35:22, the Torah states, וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו , Reuben goes out, sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife dies, because of Jacob’s special affection for Rachel, he moves his bed into Bilhah’s tent, because after all, Bilhah was Rachel’s handmaiden. Reuben considered this an affront to his mother Leah, and took upon himself to move Jacob’s bed into Leah’s tent. Although Reuben did nothing more than tamper with the location of his father’s bed, scripture considers it as if he had committed adultery, because he interfered with his father’s right to conduct his marital life as he saw fit.

Only because of Reuben’s exalted stature would such a deed be described as immoral. But, all along, Reuben’s intentions are entirely  noble.

In Genesis 37:12, scripture reports that the brothers go to Shechem to tend the sheep. It could very well be that the brothers wanted to escape the turmoil of Jacob’s home, and Shechem was the last place that they truly felt unified when they rose up to defend their sister Dina. Previously, Joseph had dreamed two dreams, the interpretations of which were clearly that his brothers would bow down to Joseph. Adding salt to the wound, Joseph was wearing the hated multi-colored coat of colors. The brothers’ hatred for Joseph is so great, that when they see Joseph coming toward them from afar, they conspire to murder him.

Reuben recognizes his brother’s intentions and rises to the occasion to save Joseph. Reuben says to his siblings (Genesis 37:21), לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ , “Let’s not commit murder. How can we kill our brother?” He suggests, instead, that they throw Joseph into a pit. Scripture actually testifies that Reuben’s true intentions were entirely noble. He planned to return to the pit and save Joseph. But, the plans go awry.

Apparently, without Reuben’s knowledge, the brothers sell Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites and Midianites on their way to Egypt. When Reuben returns to the pit and sees that Joseph is gone, he rends his garments, and desperately cries that without the lad, he cannot face his poor father. The rabbis say that the reason that Reuben was unaware that the brothers had sold Joseph, was because he had returned to Hebron to minister to old Jacob, since it was his turn to do so. Reuben had good intentions, but his timing was very off! How could he leave without being certain that Joseph was safe?

The final encounter with Reuben is found toward the end of the Joseph saga, in Genesis 42:37. The brothers have returned from their first visit to Egypt. Joseph has accused them of being spies, and Simeon was held captive. To prove their innocence, the brothers could only return to Egypt if Benjamin was with them.

Back in Canaan, in order to convince Jacob to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt, Reuben promises to protect Benjamin. “If I fail to bring Benjamin back safely,” Reuben says to his father,(Genesis 42:37),  אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית , “You can kill my two sons.” תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל יָדִי וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ , “Give him to me, I promise to bring him back.” Jacob, however, rejects the offer.

It’s interesting how Rashi describes this rejection. When the elderly Jacob hears Reuben’s offer, he says to Reuben: !בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה “You may be the oldest, but you’re a fool! What do I gain by having my two grandchildren killed if you don’t return Benjamin? What kind of offer is that?”

And yet, a few verses later (Genesis 43:8-9), Judah makes a similar offer, that Jacob accepts. Judah says: “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, so that both we and our children will not die.” אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ , “I will be surety for him, you’ll demand him of me. If I don’t bring him back to you, then I will be sinful to you all the days of my life.”

Jacob was undoubtedly repulsed by the immorality of Reuben’s suggestion that he kill his own grandsons. But, Reuben’s offer was also rejected because of the timing.

Judah’s offer was made after the family’s food in Canaan was completely depleted, and the starving children were crying. The situation was desperate. Reuben’s offer was made soon after the brothers had returned to Canaan from Egypt with their donkeys laden with food. You might have the best intentions, but if your timing is off, the offer is ineffective.

This emphasis on timing is a frequently repeated theme in Jewish tradition. In Pirkei Avot 4:18, there are three germane statements. It states, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִּשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ , Do not try to calm a person at the moment of his great anger. אַל תְנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו , Do not try to console a friend when the body of the deceased is still warm, when the dead is still in front of him. And, finally, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשַׁר לִשְׁמֽוֹעַ , Try not to say something that cannot be understood, even though eventually it will be understood. Timing is critical!

In closing, I share a cogent essay written by Charles Swindoll about “attitude.” He writes:

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do, is play on the one string that we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And, so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.

Attitudes may be critical, but timing can validate or invalidate even the most vaunted and best intentions and attitudes. And, so we learn from Reuben to not only say the right thing, but to say the right thing at the right time.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Vayigash 5780-2019

“The Reunion of Jacob & Joseph: An Immortal Lesson about Love”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, we read of the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his father, Jacob, after 22 years of separation.

After a long, rather torturous confrontation with his brothers, in which Joseph tests his brothers’ loyalty, Joseph reveals himself.  A full reconciliation must wait for their father’s arrival in Egypt.

According to the Midrash (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 45), Joseph’s brothers were fearful that a sudden announcement that Joseph was alive might profoundly shock Jacob and cause him harm. They decided to send one of Jacob’s granddaughters, Serach, the daughter of Asher to subtly prepare Jacob for the incredible news. Serach begins by playing her harp, singing a song that Joseph was still alive and was the ruler of all of Egypt. Upon hearing the song, Jacob scolds Serach and insists that she cease taunting him. She, nevertheless, continues to sing. Eventually, she succeeds in lifting Jacob’s spirits from the long sadness that had enveloped him during the 22 preceding years.

The Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 94:3, 95:3, says that despite his emotional improvement, Jacob still refused to accept the information as true. It was only when he saw the wagons that were sent by Joseph from Egypt, laden with all the good of Egypt, that he accepted that Joseph was alive. The commentators even say that the wagons were an allusion to the last Torah lesson that Jacob and Joseph had studied together, which was something that only Joseph could have known. Only then does Israel say (Genesis 45:28): רַב עוֹד יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי, אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת  “How great that my son Joseph still lives. I shall go and see him before I die!”

Jacob, however, is afraid to go down to Egypt. Reassuring Jacob, G-d tells him not to fear, because this journey is a fulfillment of the Divine prophecy of the “Covenant Between the Pieces” (Genesis 15:13) in which G-d informs Abraham that the Jews will be enslaved for 400 years, and that they will eventually leave Egypt with great wealth. Jewish destiny will not be denied, and Jacob goes down to Egypt with 70 souls!

The dramatic reunion that takes place between father and son is described vividly in Genesis 46:29: וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה , and Joseph harnessed his chariot, and went up to meet Israel, his father, in Goshen. Despite the fact that Joseph had numerous aides and servants, he himself hastens to personally harness his chariot, to greet his father in Goshen. This act of honoring his father on the part of Joseph, serves to counterbalance the treacherous and murderous act of Pharaoh that occurred later in the Exodus story. Because of Pharaoh’s unmitigated hatred of the Jewish people, Pharaoh also personally harnesses his chariot (Exodus 14:6) to chase after the children of Israel when they flee Egypt. The act of love and respect on Joseph’s part, ultimately nullifies Pharaoh’s action, and results in the salvation of the Jewish people.

The description of the reunion of Jacob and Joseph as delineated in the biblical text is complicated and ambiguous. Genesis 46:29 records the encounter, וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל צַוָּארָיו עוֹד , and he appeared before him, and he fell on his neck, and he wept even more (or excneckessively) on his neck. Israel [Jacob] then dramatically says, “Now I can die, after my having seen your face, because you are still alive.”

The verse raises many questions. Who fell on whose neck? Why does the Hebrew word צַוָּארָיו , “neck,” appear in the singular? Didn’t they fall on each other’s necks? And, who wept on the other’s neck excessively? And, why is the word וַיֵּבְךְּ , “he cried,” also in the singular? Shouldn’t they each have cried on each other’s necks?

Ramban argues that it was father Jacob who fell on the neck of his son Joseph, and cried more, alluding to the fact, that for the past 22 years Jacob had been in a constant state of mourning and weeping for Joseph.

Ramban also argues that since Jacob’s eyes were dim with age, and Joseph appeared to him in a chariot with his face covered by an Egyptian turban, he was not recognized by his father. The text, therefore, informs us that as Joseph came closer to Jacob, Jacob recognized Joseph and fell on his neck and wept more. Moreover, Nachmanides argues, it is not befitting for a son to fall on his father’s neck. A son normally, respectfully bows down to his father, or kisses his hand.

Rashi, however, disagrees. In one of his most cryptic comments, Rashi states, “It was Joseph who appeared to his father, and wept on his neck….but Jacob did not fall on Joseph’s neck and did not kiss him. Our rabbis state that he was reciting the Shema.”

Is it possible that after 22 years of mourning for his son, Jacob would not even cry? Could Jacob be so indifferent that at this very moment he chooses to pray the Shema prayer? Couldn’t Jacob wait just a few more moments?

The Code of Jewish Law, in its explication of appropriate behavior during times of prayer, speaks of having proper awareness during prayer. The gloss on the Code of Jewish Law (Chapter 98) by the Rama, says that while praying, a person should think of the greatness of G-d and of the meekness of the human being, and should remove all thoughts of mortal pleasure from his heart. Consequently, writes the Rama, it is prohibited for a person to kiss his young children in the synagogue, “in order to establish in his heart that there is no love as great as the love for the Al-mighty.”

Why did Jacob decide to pray at that particularly dramatic moment? Why couldn’t he wait a few more moments to say the Shema?

One of the recent supercommentaries on Rashi, Beer Yitzchak, cited by Nehama Leibowitz, in Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), provides us with the following insight:

Love, however intense, must never make one forget the supreme object of all love–-the Creator, Blessed be He. Absolute love must be reserved for G-d alone. The ecstatic love and joy experienced by Jacob at his reunion with his long-lost favorite son Joseph, almost enveloped him, to the exclusion of all else. From this, Jacob recoiled, realizing that such overriding love must be reserved for the Creator and Cause of all.

He [Jacob] therefore diverted the wellsprings of love to their true source. This is what our sages meant when they observed that, at the moment of their reunion, Jacob recited the Shema. By a deliberate effort of mind, he directed his intense love to the Creator.

Perhaps the Midrash, which depicts Jacob saying the Shema at that dramatic moment after 22 years of bereavement, is trying to teach a truly profound lesson about love. Life is a gift, a Divine gift. Should we not therefore express our thanks and love to the giver of life at the moment of our highest joy?

This is the profound lesson from Father Jacob. Even as his life was transformed from one of constant, profound mourning, to utter joy, “My love for my son,” says Jacob, “can only have meaning within the context of my love for G-d.” That is why Jacob felt it necessary to recite the Shema particularly at that moment.

It was a surprising, seemingly insignificant, nuance in the text, a singular form rather than plural, that teaches this most profound and immortal lesson.

May you be blessed.

Vayishlach 5780-2019

“The Massacre of Shechem, Can it be Justified?”
(Updated and revised from Vayishlach 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, commences, Jacob (Yaakov) prepares for the fateful confrontation with his brother Esau (Esav). The confrontation ends peacefully, each goes his own way, and Jacob begins the trek back to the land of Canaan.

Jacob, however, does not go directly to Canaan, but first stops in Sukkot, where he builds Sukkot (booths), to provide protection for his family and the flocks. Say the rabbis, after 20 years of being in close proximity with Laban, and now, after the recent confrontation with Esau, Jacob needs some time to “deprogram” himself and his family, and provide them with some “normal” time.

Eventually, Jacob arrives in the city of Shechem (Nablus), (Genesis 33:18), where he purchases a parcel of land outside the city, upon which he pitches his tent and builds an altar proclaiming the name of G-d.

So the “Jews come to town,” and begin to contribute handsomely to the local economy. Although Jacob and his family are encamped on the periphery of the city, the Talmud (Shabbat 33a) depicts them as being deeply involved in Shechem’s culture and economy. They promote public cleanliness and hygiene in the baths, open banks and stock exchanges, boutiques, and exotic food emporiums. Clearly, once the Jews arrive, Shechem becomes a far more exciting place to live. And perhaps as a result of that new and lively environment, Dina, Jacob’s daughter (who was born to his wife Leah), “goes out” to see the daughters of the land, to check out the action, so to speak.

Shechem, the son of Chamor (yes, the son has the same name as the city), the Hivite prince of the region, sees the lovely Dina, abducts and violates her. After the rape, he claims to be deeply in love with her, and sends his father, Chamor, to negotiate with the Israelites, so that he may take Dina as his wife.

Jacob’s sons, who eventually learn about what Shechem had done to their sister, respond to the negotiations deceitfully, and demand that all the men of the city undergo circumcision, before they would give their sister to Shechem in marriage. Because of Shechem’s lust for Dina, he agrees to the terms. But, on the third day after the circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, come upon the city with their swords and kill every male in Shechem. They rescue their sister Dina from Shechem’s house, while the other sons of Jacob plunder the city, take the local people’s wealth, their wives, children, flocks and cattle.

When Jacob hears what Simeon and Levi have done, he summarily denounces them. Genesis 34:30: עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ , “You have discomforted me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.” Jacob is fearful that the local inhabitants will band together and attack him, and that he and his household will be outnumbered and easily defeated. The brothers simply respond (Genesis 34:31): הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ “Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?!”

This distressing story ends here, or so it seems. But, it really continues for much longer. The classical commentators, Rashi and Radak, suggest that the assault on Dina may have been Divine punishment for Jacob’s delay in fulfilling the vow he had made at Bethel. Remember, on his way out of Canaan, Jacob had promised to return to Bethel and worship in G-d’s name, but he delayed in doing so. Certainly, G-d did not make Dina suffer for Jacob’s neglect. But, because of Jacob’s slovenliness, the protection of G-d was absent for Dina. Previously we had noted, that when Laban tried to injure Jacob and his children, Jacob was protected because of his merits. But, now, Jacob no longer had merits upon entering Canaan, because of his failure to return to Bethel in a timely manner to offer gifts to the Al-mighty and to bring sacrifices.

Even more difficult to fathom is how two great Jewish men, Simeon and Levi, could wreak vengeance on an entire city for the deeds of one man, Shechem? Does the Jewish faith countenance this? Furthermore, is massacre ever justified under these, or any, circumstances? Jacob certainly doesn’t think so. That is why he condemns Simeon and Levi, and does not forgive them to his dying day. Even when he offers his “last will and testament,” Jacob curses these two sons, Genesis 49:7, אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל , “Cursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh. I will separate them within Jacob, and disperse them in Israel.”

Fortunately, because of the “G-dly fear on the cities which were around them,” (Genesis 35:5), Jacob’s concern that the local nations will attack him for the treachery, never materializes. The rabbis say that G-d’s intervention was perhaps due to the fact that Jacob had gone to Bethel and had paid up his debt to G-d. The Al-mighty, subsequently, casts fear upon all the cities, and they were no longer a danger to Jacob, but this in no way indicates G-d’s approval of the massacre.

The story of the massacre of Shechem brings to mind another massacre of much more recent vintage, the so-called “massacre” in southern Lebanon of Sabra and Shatila, in 1982. The Phalangists, who were a Lebanese Christian brigade, operating under the authority of the Israeli army, entered into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacred many men, women, and children. The United Nations and the nations of the world condemned this act, and held Israel responsible. Eventually Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defense Minister at that time, was forced to resign, and the internal Israeli Kahan Commission found Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, “morally responsible” for the massacre.

Unfortunately, murders of this kind and magnitude are rather common in today’s world, and yet, no United Nations panels meet. In fact, massacres today are barely new–no one is condemned, and certainly no country ever conducts an internal review to find and punish those who are responsible for these perfidious acts. Who can recall a Defense Minister removed for the improper acts of his soldiers? Moreover, these deaths, after all, were not due to the actions of Israeli soldiers, but rather the Lebanese Phalangists. Yet, the Israelis were held responsible and condemned broadly for the actions of others.

How unusual!

While it is true that Israel, and the people of Israel, are often judged by a different yardstick by the nations of the world, a judgment that is often uncomfortable and singularly unfair, I would argue, that this “different yardstick” is necessary and even, ultimately, beneficial to the Jewish people. I dread the day when the nations of the world cease to judge the Jewish people by a different yardstick. They expect more of us, and they should expect more of us!! After all, we are the Children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For our people, even a marginal association with treachery may be considered treachery. If not, we would cease to be the special “Children of G-d.”

Shechem’s rape of Dina, of course, can in no way be excused or countenanced. It was entirely perfidious. But, killing, massacring, an entire city in response to the vile act of one man, is also not justified. As noble as the intentions of the brothers were, at least to Jacob, the ends did not justify the means, and Jacob condemns them, even curses them, at the end of his life.

There is a fascinating conclusion to the story. After all, is zealotry ever countenanced? In general, zealotry is almost always looked down upon with disfavor in Judaism. In their passion, Simeon and Levi acted as zealots, and when Jacob in his old age condemns them, he says (Genesis 49:7): אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל , “I will separate them [Levi and Simeon] within Jacob and disperse them in Israel.”

How intriguing that the Levites, the religious leaders of our people, are dispersed throughout Israel. Jacob is, in effect, saying that “passion” is good–in spiritual matters. Zealotry, however, is bad–indeed, very bad, in temporal matters. “Levi,” says G-d through Jacob: “You want to be passionate? Be passionate in spreading the word of G-d! A temporal leader, however, must be deliberate, well thought out, never out-of-control. Levi, go ahead, fulfill your role with passion, bring the word of G-d to Israel, but stay out of politics!”

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5780-2019

“G-d Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart:
Reconciling Omniscience with Free Will”
(revised and updated from Va’eira 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we encounter one of the fundamental problems of theology, the conflict between G-d’s omniscience and human free will, or as it is articulated in Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15, הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה , G-d is All-knowing, yet each person has free will.

Even before the actual struggle with Pharaoh begins, long before the Al-mighty visits the 10 plagues upon Egypt, G-d tells Moses, in Exodus 7:3, וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה , “and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” How can that be? Does this not imply that Pharaoh has no free will?

The truth is that, at least during the first five plagues, scripture tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It was only after the sixth plague, the plague of boils, that we find, Exodus 9:12, the fulfillment of the Divine promise: וַיְחַזֵּק השׁם אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה , then the L-rd hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he [Pharaoh] would not listen to them, as the L-rd had spoken to Moses.

In their attempts to resolve this challenging issue, the rabbis offer a host of explanations.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known universally as Maimonides suggests that G-d is the ultimate cause of everything, and that saying that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, is scripture’s way of expressing that G-d is the “First Cause and Prime Mover!” Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto suggests that this is scripture’s way of describing, not that G-d is the “Ultimate Cause,” but rather, a way of expressing Pharaoh’s own stubbornness. Umberto Cassuto proffers that this is not scripture’s way, but rather the way of the ancient Hebrews, to attribute every phenomenon to G-d.

Employing a different approach, Rabbi Joseph Albo suggests that G-d wanted to test the sincerity of Pharaoh’s repentance, to determine that it was freely motivated. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh imagined that the plagues were accidental rather than providential. Ovadia ben Yosef S’forno offers a unique interpretation by saying that G-d had to harden Pharaoh’s heart, because otherwise Pharaoh’s actions would have been motivated by suffering rather than by pure repentance.

None of these explanations, however ingenious, are entirely satisfying. Nevertheless, it behooves us to attempt to further explore the great quandary of G-d’s omniscience and the human ability to have free will. One of the solutions offered that has long impressed me, was another one cited by Rabbi Yosef Albo, who attributes it to his teacher, the great philosopher, Chasdai Ibn Crescas. Rabbi Albo, in the name of Crescas, suggests that every person has a destiny that is obviously known to G-d, because of G-d’s omniscience. So, for instance, person “X” has destiny “Y,” to live 60-70 years. However, suggests Albo, while a person cannot change his or her destiny, a person can change himself or herself, by performing mitzvot and ma’asim tovim, doing good deeds. Through these positive actions, person “X” can change and become person “X prime,” and destiny “Y” consequently becomes destiny “Y prime,” which may be a longer life of perhaps 75-80 years.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we never know when our destiny will change or how far person “X” has to be transformed in order to gain a new destiny. That, of course, is part of the Divine secret and the Al-mighty’s inscrutable Divine plan. So, while G-d is omniscient, and we can change ourselves, we can never definitively know if our destiny has changed.

The problem with this approach is that a G-d Who knows the future, knows how far we are going to change. He will therefore also know our new destiny. So how do people have true free will?

There is another approach, a Chasidic approach, which may be more fulfilling. It is less didactic and less scientific, but, perhaps, more convincing.

Kabbalistic and Chasidic philosophy speak of the notion of tzimtzum, which means contraction, reduction or limitation. Kabbalists and Chasidim maintain that G-d, Who is omniscient, of His own volition, has the ability to reduce Himself, limit Himself, restrict Himself, and restrict His omniscience in order to give human beings a gift–the gift of free will. So, while G-d certainly has the ability to know our destiny, He chooses not to, in order to give the human beings this gift of free will.

Pharaoh certainly had free will. But, as a result of tzimtzum, G-d chose not to know what Pharaoh’s destiny will be. But, because he hardened his heart of his own volition five times, G-d in turn, hardened Pharaoh’s heart five times, to punish him for each time that the Egyptian monarch hardened his own heart.

Freedom of choice is surely one of the greatest gifts of G-d to humankind. But, in order to give us that gift, G-d had to reduce Himself–an expression of ultimate Divine love.

Let us then commit ourselves to use that gift of free will for the ultimate Divine purpose of perfecting this world under the rule of the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.

Terumah 5780-2020

“The Centrality of Torah”
(updated and revised from Terumah 5762-2002

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, G-d speaks to Moses and instructs him to build for Him a sanctuary, so that He (G-d) may dwell among the People of Israel.

The details of the architecture of the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan–the Tabernacle, are quite specific and detailed. In fact, the building plans and the description of the construction actually cover four of the final five parashiot of the book of Exodus, and even play a minor role in the fifth parasha, Kee Tisah.

The most significant of the Tabernacle’s furnishings is the אָרוֹן –the Ah’ron, the Holy Ark, and the Ark cover. The Ark housed the Tablets of the Law, upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. The description of the Holy Ark is the most extensive and lengthy of all the descriptions of the Tabernacle furnishings, and its details are very precise. The Ark is to be constructed of acacia wood covered with gold. It is to have three wooden compartments, housed one within the other. Its exact length, height, and depth are specified. There is to be an Ark cover known as the כַפֹּרֶתKaporet,  כְרוּבִיםKeruvim, cherubs, made of one solid piece of gold, were to be hammered out as part of the Ark cover.

Like all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, the Holy Ark was transportable, since it needed to be taken from place to place during the forty years that the people wandered in the wilderness. When the Israelites stopped to encamp, the Tabernacle was erected, and the Ark was placed inside the Holy of Holies. Like most of the other sacred furnishings of the Tabernacle, in order to facilitate its transport, the Ark had staves, or poles attached to its sides to facilitate the carrying.

In Exodus 25:13 the Torah instructs the architects of the Tabernacle: וְעָשִׂיתָ בַדֵּי עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתָם זָהָב , to make two staves of acacia wood and cover them with gold. The staves, with which the Ark is to be carried, are to be inserted into rings, that were located on the sides of the Ark. Exodus 25:15 states explicitly, בְּטַבְּעֹת, הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַּדִּים,  לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ , The staves shall remain in the rings of the Ark, they may not be removed from it!

While all the sacred furnishings had staves, only the Holy Ark had non-removable staves. According to tradition, the staves themselves were designed to be wider at the ends so that once they were inserted, they could not be removed. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the eternal presence of the staves symbolized the concept that the Torah is not tied to any one place. Indeed, wherever Jews go, willingly or otherwise, their Torah is to go with them. That is why the staves, the means of its transport, are always attached to the Ark.

The Jerusalem Talmud, (Shekalim 6:1) reports that these staves played an important part, not only in the temporary portable Tabernacle, but also in the permanent Temple that Solomon built, as well. According to tradition, the Ark staves were positioned in such a manner in the sanctuary that the two ends of the staves rested against the פָּרֹכֶתparochet, the curtain dividing the front chamber of the Tabernacle—the Holy, from the Holy of Holies, causing two protrusions to be seen on the curtain. In fact, R. Shimon b. Lakish, refers to these protrusions as “breasts”–a symbol of nourishment and nurturing.

According to tradition, (Rambam Laws of the Temple 4:1) when he was building the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon saw in a prophecy that the Temple would ultimately be destroyed. In anticipation, he built an underground chamber to serve as a future hiding place for the holy furnishings.

Many centuries later, in the time of King Josiah, the priests reported to the King that the “breasts” had disappeared from the curtain. Josiah understood this to be a sign that the Temple would soon be destroyed, and that all the furnishings were in imminent danger. King Josiah had the furnishings removed and placed in the underground chambers, the secret tunnels under Mt. Moriah, where, according to one tradition, they remain to this day.

These accounts underscore the critical role that Torah plays in the delicate balance of our lives. Once the outline of the staves of the Ark disappear, the Temple can no longer stand. Once the Torah is compromised, the Temple can no longer endure.

It was this ancient portrayal of the Ark and Torah as the center of Jewish life, that fostered the Jewish people’s early commitment to study and education, and quite likely set the tone for generations that followed, leading our people to become known as the “People of the Book.” The central focus of Jewish living became Torah study, and Torah became the elixir of life for the Jewish people.

This led to many important developments in Jewish life–the primacy of the scholar, the teacher and the rabbi, which established their exalted stature, and created the passionate reverence for learning. Although Jewish law was always extraordinarily sensitive to unfair business practices, there was no such thing as unfair or ruthless competition in Torah education. Declares the Talmud in Tractate Baba Batra 21a, קִנְאַת סוֹפְרִים תַּרְבֶּה חָכְמָה the more competition, the better. In fact, Torah study is considered so essential that the Midrash, based on the verse in Isaiah 55:1, Rashi, often compares it to water, maintaining that, like water, without Torah learning, the Jewish people cannot endure.

There is a quaint custom common among the Jewish people that has long been a source of fascination for me. When a sacred book or text falls to the ground, it is immediately lifted and kissed. Jews kiss their books, because they love their books. They love them as they love life itself. This is why Jews declare in the second blessing of the evening שְׁמַעSh’ma, כִּי הֵם חַיֵּינוּ וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֵינוּ וּבָהֶם נֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה , For they [the commandments of the Torah] are our life and the length of our days, and on them shall we meditate day and night.

May you be blessed.