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Emor 5779-2019

“The Gift of Celebration”
(Revised and updated from Emor 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The second half of this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, presents a review of most of the Biblical festivals of the Jewish calendar.

Leviticus 23:3, opens with a pronouncement concerning the sanctity of Shabbat. The chapter then continues with a description of the Biblical festivals. The Torah, in Leviticus 23:4 declares in G-d’s name: אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי השׁם, מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם בְּמוֹעֲדָם , These are the festivals of G-d, the holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appropriate time. This same verse is repeated, as a recurring theme line for each festival.

The Jewish calendar and the holidays are not only very special, they are extremely rational. They resonate! There’s something very natural about them, at least for those who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Celebrating the new year in the middle of the winter, as northerners who follow the secular calendar do, is somewhat dissonant (and cold). Frankly, of all the times of the year to begin a new year, the end of summer and the beginning of fall seems most natural. The new school term begins, heat waves are, for the most part, not a concern, and if ever there were an appropriate time for self-improvement resolutions, the two seasons with longer nights seem the most appropriate times for introspection and self-evaluation.

Imagine a calendar without a day of rest and without special holidays. How long could humans endure?

I recall, as a little boy, being told by my father, of blessed memory, a wonderful story (it was actually a story entitled Am HaYovlim, written by Yitzchak Katzanelenboigen) concerning a very ancient people that had lost its way, and its religion. The nation was extremely prosperous, and the king was deeply beloved by his subjects. But life was oh-so routine, nothing special, absolutely nothing exciting. Eat, work, sleep—eat, work, sleep. How boring! How mundane! How frustrating!

Suddenly, word reached the king concerning a wave of depression besetting the nation. One day, a report arrived at the palace that deeply shocked the monarchy and its leaders: a citizen had actually taken his own life due to depression and despair.

The king summoned his wise advisors for an emergency consultation, and concluded that the repetitive routine of life in the kingdom was simply overbearing, and that special events and celebrations were needed to add color and joy to the lives of the citizens.

Not long before the discovery of the national “emotional” emergency, there was an actual physical threat to the nation’s existence. Fierce enemies had attacked the empire, but a heroic warrior arose who saved the country from what would have been certain destruction. The advisors suggested: “Let’s celebrate the great military victory and our heroic leader!” With that, a wave of celebrations began throughout the empire.

To make a very, very long story short, celebrations became the rage of the day. Eventually, they got so out of hand, that celebrations were planned for every inconsequential and insignificant occasion. People had to be literally kidnapped and dragged to the celebrations!

Soon, a mob of discontented citizens gathered in front of an old dilapidated temple, the seat of their ancient neglected religion. The king was dismayed at the possibility that his people might be planning an insurrection. Gathering courage, he went to confront the people. Upon entering the temple, he encountered an old priest who told him that the people had lost their way because the empire had abandoned their ancient faith. The priest reminded the king of the wonderful celebrations of Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth that were observed in previous times.

Of course, they all lived happily ever after, as the empire reintroduced the ancient seasonal celebrations which were so logical and meaningful.

As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Clearly, things have a way of repeating themselves.

We who dwell in the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, enjoy many of the greatest comforts of life. But, are we a happy people? In order to keep us smiling, our entertainment industry must constantly push the envelope, producing more and more, so-called, “exciting” entertainment, often nothing more than more graphic, more violent and more sexual fare.

Contemporary society needs a profound change of direction, especially the Jewish people. We need to strive for a more meaningful existence-–to encounter the spiritual and the metaphysical forces that are naturally embedded in our souls. This transformation should start by looking for the very special essences that are to be found in each of our wonderful holidays. Our holidays must be celebrated wholeheartedly, with enthusiasm and earnestness. We must allow ourselves to feel the magic of the seasonal changes-–the mystique of the ingathering of the harvest. We must acknowledge how much we truly rely on G-d for our economic, agricultural and spiritual sustenance, by leaving our homes in the fall and dwelling in booths (Sukkot), entirely vulnerable to the elements. We must be certain to salute springtime, by celebrating Passover, the season that marked the dawn of our liberation from Egypt. We must rejoice with enthusiasm at the arrival of summer and the new crops, the wheat and the barley, and celebrate Shavuot, the occasion on which our people received its greatest intellectual and religious legacy, the Torah.

I’ve often said that, irrespective of whether one believes in G-d or not, Judaism and the Jewish way of life is a totally rational system. It’s normal and natural. The Jewish life cycle is in total sync with our bodies and minds. Unquestionably, life becomes much more meaningful when G-d is sincerely accepted into our lives.

May the future years be thoroughly enhanced, by many, many Divine celebrations.

May you be blessed.

Kedoshim 5779-2019

“The Revolutionary Idea of ‘Holiness’”
(Revised and updated from Kedoshim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, we encounter a revolutionary word and concept, which the Torah introduced to civilization. In Leviticus 19:1-2, we read: וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם , And G-d spoke to Moses saying: Speak unto the entire community of the Children of Israel, and say unto them: “You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d am holy.”

There is really no way to adequately translate the Hebrew word קָדוֹשׁkadosh. For those who truly seek to understand its profound inner meanings, learning Biblical Hebrew would be a wonderful first step–-since, as I have often pointed out, studying Torah in translation is like kissing the bride through the veil. The word kadosh may be translated as holy, sacred, ethically-exalted, separate, and even–balanced.

The concept of kadosh, which is a uniquely Jewish concept, is certainly one of the greatest ethical and moral contributions that the Jewish people have made to humankind. Its essence is reflected throughout the contents of parashat Kedoshim, which calls for just, humane and sensitive treatment of all people: the aged, the handicapped and the poor. The worker is to be promptly paid, and the stranger is to be loved and welcomed into the community’s midst. Vengeance and bearing a grudge are to be condemned. Significantly, when it comes to justice, no one, not even the most exalted or the most downtrodden, is to be favored.

There is, however, one aspect of holiness that is not easily recognizable or understood. In this week’s parasha, we read the challenging verse, Leviticus 19:29, אַל תְּחַלֵּל אֶת בִּתְּךָ לְהַזְנוֹתָהּ, וְלֹא תִזְנֶה הָאָרֶץ, וּמָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ זִמָּה , Do not profane your daughter, to make her a harlot, lest the land become lewd, and the land become filled with depravity. As we have often noted, the ancient land of Canaan and the surrounding lands, were lands whose inhabitants practiced lewdness and depravity. It was a mighty struggle for the Jewish people to maintain a sense of balance, a sense of fairness and a sense of justice, let alone a sense of kedushah—holiness.

It was in this environment, that the Jews were called upon to live an exalted life, not to allow themselves to be influenced, and, certainly not to follow the customs and practices of the local residents. Idolatry was not merely the senseless and innocent worship of sun, moon, stones or trees. It was, almost always, associated with unacceptable sexual perversions and even child sacrifice. In fact, the primary figures in the worship of the idolatrous cults at the temples were known as קְדֵשׁוֹתk’day’shoht, ironically, women dedicated to the cult of holy prostitution.

In this ancient milieu, the Torah called out against the sexual exploitation of women for harlotry. No man may degrade his daughter under the guise of spiritual elevation. In fact, according to Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Talmud Sanhedrin 76a, this verse also forbids a father to “violate” his daughter by giving her in marriage to a much older man. Rabbi Akiva argues that in order to protect daughters from untoward temptation, fathers are obligated to arrange suitable marriages for their daughters as soon as they reach marriageable age.

These regulations are not to be treated lightly! The Torah boldly warns the people that the land of Israel itself is defiled by these sins, and that immoral behavior leads to the destruction of the land. The Torah depicts the land as if it is human, and that because the land itself is holy, it has a visceral reaction to sin and corruption. The land itself has a heart that beats and a soul that feels–and is profoundly repulsed by decadent behavior.

There is one significant final point that this particular Torah portion underscores. In the early 1970s, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote an important book entitled “Whatever Became of Sin.” A popular song at that time, sung by Debbie Boone, was “You Light Up My Life,” in which one of the lines was, “How could it be wrong, if it feels so right?”

Let’s face it, we humans have a very highly developed set of defense mechanisms that are frequently employed to justify even our most outrageous behavior. Over the decades, “Do your own thing,” became the virtual mantra of contemporary life, provided there were no “innocent victims.” As a result, two consenting adults may do whatever they please. While the 1970s was a time when everything and anything was subject to rationalization and justification–despite the short-lived return to the so-called “family values,” a good part of those values remains with us today.

Unfortunately, contemporary social philosophers have labored assiduously to justify many undesirable practices. Two high profile contemporary rationalizations are the arguments used to justify pornography and prostitution-–after all, consenting adults should be permitted to do whatever they please. In fact, it is argued, pornography and prostitution very much fit in with contemporary capitalist economic theory and philosophy. If a woman chooses to use her own body to “work” the market, or if men and women choose to pose for pornographic pictures and others are happy to pay for their product, it’s really little more than another way for “laborers” to earn a living within the free enterprise system.

Truth be told, in the general marketplace of ideas, there are really no effective rational arguments against prostitution and pornography, except perhaps to say that it leads to crime. This is why proponents argue that it’s time to legalize prostitution and pornography, and eliminate all motives for criminality. Indeed, opponents are hard-put to rebut these arguments.

The Torah, however, rejects both these practices by introducing the startling and revolutionary concept called “holiness!” Unless society subscribes to the belief that a human being is “HOLY,” a reflection of the Divine, because the L-rd our G-d is Holy, there is really no limit to the extent of depravity and immorality to which a human being may sink. There is no rational or justifiable reason to deny a woman her right to earn a living through prostitution, except to say that she is a reflection of the Divine, that human beings are holy, that the human body is sanctified, and that sexuality is a sacred gift from G-d.

Clearly, absent the idea of holiness, of kedusha, we homo sapiens are, in effect, reduced to mere animals, to limbs, heads, arms, legs and genitalia. Within the context of holiness, as set forth in the Torah, humans are regarded to be as exalted as the angels, comparable to Divine emanations of G-d, majestic creatures whose Divine function is to promote goodness, kindness, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, charity and justice.

This is Judaism at its best. This is Torah in its most exalted. It is to reach this exalted state that must be our greatest aspiration.

May you be blessed.

Acharei Mot 5779-2019

“The Forbidden Relationships Work Both Ways”
(Revised and updated from Acharei Mot 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Acharei Mot, we encounter, in a very forceful manner, the rules and regulations regarding immorality and forbidden sexual relationships.

In Leviticus 18:3, the Torah boldly declares, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ , You, the People of Israel, must not perform the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelt, or perform the practices of the land of Canaan to which I bring you. Do not follow their traditions. Rather, says G-d, (Leviticus 18:5) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם, וָחַי בָּהֶם, אֲנִי השׁם , And you shall observe My decrees and My laws which a person shall carry out and by which he shall live, I am the L-rd. The Torah (Leviticus 18:30), then proceeds to list many prohibited sexual relationships between relatives and concludes, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת מִשְׁמַרְתִּי , You shall safeguard My charge, אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם , I am the L-rd your G-d.

As we often note, the family structure is regarded by Judaism as the basic construct of society and civilization. Judaism cannot emphasize enough the centrality of family life, because all of morality depends upon it. Stronger family life, results in a stronger society, and a more beneficial communal lifestyle.

Imagine if you will, how extremely difficult it was for the Hebrews of old, to share the same lands with many ancient tribes, who, in the name of their religions, zealously practiced all sorts of sexual perversions. In the midst of the satyrs and holy prostitutes who served in their pagan temples, the Jews tried to lead a revolutionary life of morality.

Clearly, the Torah was the most radical document in its time. After all, what we today consider to be “sexual decadence,” was commonly practiced and entirely acceptable among the Canaanite nations and the neighbors among whom the Jews lived. It is not at all surprising, therefore, to learn that, according to Jewish tradition, the Israelites in Egypt had declined to the 49th level of impurity, and were just one level away from oblivion.

We often look upon the ancients as “primitives” with little or no education, few opportunities to appreciate the finer things in life and, consequently, thoroughly subject to the vile blandishments of their times and society. On the other hand, we view contemporary society as stronger, more sophisticated, more educated, and far more in control of our natures than the ancients. But, truth be told, the ethical and moral challenges which we face today are as great, perhaps even greater, than those faced in antiquity.

Frankly, it is very difficult to be a Yeshiva boy in Sodom. The impact of our modern day Sodom is constant, relentless and crushing. Many of us who have lived through the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair in the United States and have seen our vaunted legislators, the American Congress, vote to release to the general public, to even our little children, the most prurient information which was of little or no relevance to anyone, have much reason for concern. The revelations of the “Me Too” movement, and, of course, the vulgar contemporary entertainment, make the Clinton era shenanigans appear rather demure! Without doubt, we are living in an age where the challenge to remain moral is greater than ever.

That is why the admonition in next week’s parasha, (Leviticus 19:2) קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ , Be holy, be sacred, is particularly timely. This statement, as interpreted by the Ramban to mean be “separate,” is especially relevant. We need to separate ourselves from those things which rob us of our holiness.

In light of this, it should be quite clear why parashat Acharei Mot and the forbidden sexual relationships are read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Obviously, on the day of Yom Kippur, when we try to achieve forgiveness and atonement, the sexual trespasses are among the foremost to be emphasized.

It is therefore fascinating that the commentators suggest that one of the reasons for reading this portion dealing with עֲרָיוֹתArayot, forbidden relationships, on Yom Kippur afternoon is that by reading this portion on this holy day, we, the People of Israel, remind the Al-mighty, that He too must remain faithful to us–just as He has commanded us to remain faithful to our partners. “You, G-d, must be loyal to us. We beseech You to never exchange us for another people.”

Every portion of the Torah has dramatic and profound messages, and is filled with the most wonderful insights. For us, it is vital to search for, and uncover, those messages that are relevant to our times and lives.

Perhaps there is nothing more meaningful for us during these challenging times than to underscore the need for all human beings, and especially the People of Israel and G-d Almighty, to affirm our sacred loyalty to each other.

May you be blessed.

Passover II 5779-2019

“On the Seventh Day the Walls of Water Split”
(Revised and updated from Passover 5765-2005)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Passover holiday is divided chronologically into two parts, the first days and the last days. It was on the night of the 15th of Nisan, which we now celebrate as the first night of Passover, that the enslavement came to an end with the tenth plague and Pharaoh’s demand that the Jews leave Egypt. However, once the Children of Israel left, Pharaoh had a change of heart, and chased after the Israelites to bring them back to Egypt and return them to slavery.

Pursued by the Egyptians from behind, and facing the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) in front, the desperate Israelites cried out to G-d. The Al-mighty says to Moses (Exodus 14:15), מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ , Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth!

According to tradition, it was on the seventh day of Passover that the sea split. The Torah, in Exodus 14, provides the details. Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, G-d moved the sea with a strong east wind all night causing the waters to split, and providing a dry passageway for the people. In Exodus 14:22, the Torah informs us that the Children of Israel entered the sea on the dry land, וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חוֹמָה, מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם , and the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.

The Egyptians followed the Children of Israel into the sea. Moses, once again, stretched his hand out over the sea, and, toward morning, the waters returned, drowning Pharaoh and his entire army. Not one of them remained alive. In Exodus 14:29, the Torah repeats that the Children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה, מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם , and the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.

Scripture (Exodus 14:31), records that on the day that G-d saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, the people revered G-d, had faith in Him and in Moses, His servant.

As we know, the Torah is never long-winded. In fact, it almost always economizes on words. And yet, we see that the Torah repeats the exact same description of the waters in both Exodus 14:22 and in Exodus 14:29, וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה, מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם , stating again that the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left.

Our rabbis are fond of saying that such repetition “begs elucidation.” They note, however, that there is indeed one minor difference between the two phrases–that the word חוֹמָה –“cho’mah”–wall, is spelled slightly differently in verse 29, where it is written without the Hebrew letter “vov.” Although the missing letter doesn’t change the pronunciation, every tiny change in the Torah conveys a message. The rabbis in the Midrash Mechiltah D’Rabbi Ishmael, Exodus 6, declare: Don’t read this word as “cho’mah,” meaning “wall,” but rather חֵמָה“chay’mah” which means “anger.”

It has been suggested that perhaps the first depiction of the walls of water is a literal description of what the Children of Israel actually experienced at the time of the exodus. The repetition of this phrase in Exodus 14:29, on the other hand, is meant to serve as a message for the Jews for future generations. After all, the Torah doesn’t say לִימִינָם וְלִישְׂמֹאלָם , to their right and to their left, but rather, מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם , from their right and from their left.

A number of contemporary interpreters have taken the liberty of saying that this textual change should be seen as a warning for future Jewish generations, that the “waters”–-the flood of anti-Semitism, can come from both the right and the left–from the conservatives and/or from the liberals, from the fascists and/or from the communists, and that Jews need always be vigilant.

Perhaps there is another meaning to the terms “right” and “left” that applies to contemporary Jewish life and the Jewish community’s religiosity, or lack of it. Jews today are frequently faced with a challenge of religious commitment. Maimonides advocates seeking the “golden mean,” the middle path of not being too extreme or too casual.

Jews who are looking for a proper philosophical-religious orientation are frequently perplexed, wary of being accused of being overly zealous or of lacking commitment. Perhaps the message of the seventh day of Passover and of the Splitting of the Reed [or Red] Sea is that Jews ought to seek religious balance. After all, that is exactly what G-d said to Moses and to the ancient Israelites (Exodus 14:15), דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִסָּעוּ , speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth! Stop worrying about who’s on the right, or who’s on the left. Stop worrying about the critics, about the naysayers, forge ahead, grow in your Judaism, try not to be overly zealous or overly casual, just keep moving ahead!

The rabbis in the Mechilta D’Rabbi Ishmael ask, “And what caused them [the Israelites] to be saved from the right and from the left? They answer that it was the merit of Torah and prayer that saved them. From the right–was Torah; from the left–was prayer.

When Jews cling to the Torah through consistent study, when they pour out their hearts with impassioned prayer to G-d, they indeed move ahead.

Let us pray that as we, once again, experience the exodus from Egypt on this Passover, that we resolve to forge ahead, to recommit ourselves to religious growth through Torah, and to connect ourselves securely to G-d through fervent prayer.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 25th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 26th and 27th.  Chag Kasher V’samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

Passover 1 5779-2019

“The Passover Seder–Focus on the Children”
(Revised and updated from Passover 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As is the usual practice on all Shabbatot that coincide with Jewish holidays, the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat will be replaced with a specially selected Torah portion concerning the upcoming holiday. Consequently, this week’s message will focus on the festival of Passover.

The Passover סֵדֶר–“Seder,” which literally means “order,” is certainly an “orderly” event, but it surely has some very unusual customs: We cover the מַצּוֹתmatzot, uncover the matzot; we put the seder plate on the table, then we remove it; we dip parsley, greens or some other vegetable into salt water and we dip מָרוֹרmarror (bitter herb) in חֲרֹסֶתcharoset (a mixture of wine, apples, cinnamon, etc.); we hide the אֲפִיקוֹמָןafikomen, encouraging our children to steal it, and reward them for returning it; מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּהMah Nishtana is sung by the youngest child; we also read about the four children; we open the door for Elijah the Prophet; we sing all sorts of fun songs that are all quite child-oriented. Clearly, the Passover Seder, with all its historical and intellectual content, is an evening that places unusual emphasis on children.

What is the origin of this child-centered focus? Let us review the Passover story itself. Even before the enslavement of the Jews began, Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21) instructed the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all the newborn Jewish male babies. According to tradition, these midwives were actually Jochebed and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. They claimed that they were unable to fulfill Pharaoh’s order because Jewish women were healthy–they took all sorts of birthing classes, Lamaze, and natural child birth lessons. Therefore, even before the midwives arrived, the Jewish babies were born, too late for them to be killed.

When that attempt to harm the Jews didn’t work, Pharaoh’s ensuing decree was even more radical. He commanded that all newborn male children were to be thrown into the river. In Exodus 1:22, Pharaoh declares, כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד, הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ , which literally means all male children, whether Egyptian or not, should be cast into the river. Pharaoh’s words are truly predictive of how future anti-Semites would behave. Pharaoh’s hatred of the Jewish people was so rabid, that he was prepared to have all the Egyptian male children cast into the Nile, as long as he could make certain that the Jewish male children were drowned as well. Hitler did the same when he diverted the trains to transport Jews to the extermination camps, at a time when they were desperately needed to fight the war on the front lines.

The Midrash further develops Pharaoh’s obsessive hatred of Jewish children by declaring that Pharaoh had been stricken with leprosy, and in order to heal himself, he bathed in the blood of Jewish children. A complementary Midrash says that if the Israelite slaves failed to produce the declared quota of bricks, Jewish children were plastered into the walls, to make up for the shortcoming.

According to the Talmud, Sotah 12a, the net result of all this hatred directed toward Jewish children, was that the Jewish men, led by Amram, Moses’ father, felt that they could no longer continue to bring Jewish children into the world. Amram, who was the leader of the Jewish people at the time, therefore separated from his wife, Jochebed, and all of the Jewish men followed suit.

Miriam, who was then six years old, said to Amram, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed that the male children not live. You are decreeing that both male and female children never be born. Pharaoh is a wicked man, his decree will not be fulfilled, but you are a righteous person; your decree will be fulfilled. And not only that, but Pharaoh’s decree is that the children shouldn’t live in this world. You are decreeing that the children shouldn’t have a life in this world or the World to Come!”

When Amram heard this, he regretted his decision and told Miriam to inform the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish law, that he changed his mind and would reunite with his wife. Miriam said, “The mouth that prohibited should be the mouth that permits.” Amram then went to the court of Jewish law and publicly proclaimed his reunion with his wife.

Even when Pharaoh eventually allows the Jewish people to worship for three days, he insists, (Exodus 10:11), that the people may only do so without their children.

We see that Pharaoh’s focus on the children was really an attempt to undo Jewish continuity. He knew that without “little Jews,” there would be no future for the Jewish people. That is why the central focus of our Passover seder are the Jewish children. Not only must the children be fully involved, they are to be encouraged to lead at least parts of the seder so that everyone can appreciate the important role they play in the Passover story.

On Passover night, every Jew is a child, and every Jew is a parent. Every Jew is a student, and every Jew is a teacher. We actually switch roles, back and forth in order to nurture and ensure the continuity of the next generation.

Our Torah, in the first paragraph of the Shema prayer, clearly states (Deut. 6:7) וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ–parents have a direct responsibility to educate their children. The primary and fundamental obligation devolves upon the parent, not a substitute, not a hired teacher to serve as the model for the child. That is why it is vital that the parental model be a deeply involved and positive model.

The first paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5), speaks of וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ ,-–that love of G-d can really only be transmitted in a loving household–in a household where G-d is loved. Only after that, does the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11:13-21), speak of accountability and responsibility. However, if only accountability is underscored, then our children will be left with strong negative feelings about G-d, and we will surely have to face the consequences. As the Psalmist says (100:2), עִבְדוּ אֶת השׁם בְּשִׂמְחָה , Worship G-d through happiness!

There is no more appropriate time or place for happiness, full, unrestrained happiness, than at the Passover seder.

May you and your loved ones be favored with a חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ , a kosher and joyous Passover, and may your happiness overflow like the waters of the Red Sea!

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 19th and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 20th and 21st. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 25th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 26th and 27th.

Metzorah 5779-2019

“The Ultimate Value and Sanctity of Human Life in Judaism”
(Revised and updated from Metzorah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, continues the Torah’s focus on the “intriguing” skin disease צָרַעַתtzaraat, discussed in last week’s parasha, Tazria. According to tradition, tzaraat, is an affliction that results from speaking לְשׁוֹן הָרָעLashon Hara, speaking evil against others (see Tazria 5763-2003). Parashat Metzorah, also describes the ritual purification necessary for a person who has recovered from tzaraat, and informs us how tzaraat, besides appearing on one’s body and clothes, may also appear on the walls of a person’s home.

The final chapter of parashat Metzorah, concerns menstrual and seminal flows. Since the early chapters of parashat Metzorah deal with the ritual of purification of a person who has recovered from tzaraat, it follows logically that the rules regulating the person contaminated by bodily flows be included in this parasha as well.

It is often maintained, that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life, and that the ultimate purpose of every single mitzvah and ritual in Judaism can probably be traced to Judaism’s high regard for the ultimate sanctity of human life.

This supreme regard for human life is reflected in many of the rituals and practices of Judaism. For instance, upon waking in the morning, one immediately recites מוֹדֶה אֲנִיModeh Ani, thanking G-d for restoring one’s soul, followed by vigorously washing one’s hands with water–the ultimate source of all life. Since sleep itself is a state of unconsciousness and the closest contact that a living human being has with death, the need to reaffirm life is vital.

Judaism’s value for human life is also reflected in the mundane practices that are often incorporated in daily life, such as tying one’s shoes “properly.” According to Jewish custom, one should put on their right shoe first, followed by their left shoe, tie the left shoe, and then return to tie the right shoe. This is done in order to underscore the need to show sensitivity toward the limbs of one’s body. How much more sensitive must one be toward fellow human beings by not showing undue favoritism to one person over another. Clearly, the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life.

Perhaps the most profound indication that Judaism values human life above all else, comes from a series of intriguing laws that are found in parashat Metzorah. These laws are not only challenging, but, at first blush, appear to be primitive and offsetting. In Leviticus 15:1-18, G-d admonishes Moses and Aaron to instruct the Jewish people and to tell all the men, that any man who has a discharge, specifically, a seminal flow from his body, is to be considered טָמֵאtamay (for lack of a better word we will translate this word as ritually impure). In order to be cleansed from that impurity, the person who has the discharge must wash his clothes and immerse in the mikveh at night. The more discharges a person experiences, the more impure one is, requiring a longer period of impurity and additional cleansing rituals.

A woman, too, is subject to the laws of ritual purity and impurity. The Torah states, Leviticus 15:19-30, that if a woman experiences bleeding at the time of her regular monthly period she is in a state of נִדָּהniddah, ritual impurity. Once the bleeding ceases, she is go to the Mikveh. The practice today, is for women to first count seven clean days and subsequently bathe in the mikveh.

The Torah also speaks of other blood flows that do not coincide with the normal period, known as זָבָה zavah, which renders the woman impure. After a single flow, she is impure for only a single day. If it continues to flow, she may, at times, be impure for seven full days. Today, because we are unable to distinguish between menstrual blood and non-menstrual blood, all women are required to keep a minimum of five days of menstrual flow, plus a seven day period of no bleeding before they visit the mikveh.

As uncomfortable as we may be when discussing these issues, the niddah laws are among the most enlightened in human culture, and ultimately reflect Judaism’s uncompromising belief in the sanctity of human life.

In Judaism, there is nothing more sanctified than human life, and nothing more defiling than death. Death, consequently, is regarded as the ultimate defiler. In ancient times, a person who came in contact with death would be defiled for seven days. To be purified, the impure person would need to be sprinkled with the waters of the red heifer, on the third and seventh day of impurity, and then bathe in a mikveh on the night of the eighth.

Although contact with death was not uncommon in ancient times, many of us, in contemporary times, have become rather inured to death. The constant reports, especially through modern technology, of vast numbers of deaths and disasters, have made it virtually impossible to feel a sincere sense of mourning or sadness for the losses. The most common reaction to death these days is often to ignore the discomfort and turn to the sports, fashion, or business reports.

Judaism is determined not to allow human beings to become indifferent to death, because those who are indifferent to death, inevitably become insensitive to life. That is why Judaism required that any time a person came in contact with death in any way, needed to reaffirm life. The ancients would reaffirm life by going to the mikveh, a pool containing “living waters,” the source of all life; after all, humans are composed of 90 percent water. Immersing in a mikveh is comparable to returning to the primordial state of creation, where there was only water (Genesis 1:2). Mikveh is, in effect, a rebirth experience, akin to returning to the womb.

Similarly, the Torah declares, that whoever comes in contact with potential life, such as semen, or an ovum that is not fertilized and has been instead ejected from the body and dies, also needs to reaffirm life by going to the mikveh. In ancient times, men as well as women were required to go to the mikveh to experience this reaffirmation.

Since we have no Beit HaMikdash, no Holy Temple, and no waters of the red heifer, we are unable to properly cleanse ourselves from death’s ultimate contamination. Thus, we are all today in a state of perpetual ritual impurity, since we all, at some point, come in contact with death. Consequently, the laws of mikveh and purification do not apply in contemporary times–with one exception: the requirement that women go to the mikveh at the conclusion of their menstrual period. The legal reason for continuing this regulation is because having relations with a woman who is a menstruant is a separate prohibition recorded in the Torah, in both Leviticus 18 and 20.

Although no reason is given why that particular element of these laws should be practiced even in non-Temple times, it has been speculated that it is because these laws serve a vital second function.

Clearly, the sexual desires are among the most powerful human drives. The power of the sexual drive is so great that it has the ability to obfuscate other types of relationships, especially spiritual relationships. One who is obsessed with sexuality rarely has the ability to properly or meaningfully express love or spiritual emotions—since the basic animalistic drives often take over. Consequently, we frequently lose the ability to declare to our loved ones, “I love you because of who you are, rather than because of what I can get from you.”

The Torah, therefore, mandates that during a period of each month, when the woman menstruates, sexual contact cease. During that time, husband and wife reaffirm their love for one another–reaffirming their spiritual love, rather than sexual attraction. The laws that regulate this behavior are known as the laws of טָהֳרַת הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה–Taharat Ha’mishapchah, Family Purity, and have had a powerful and meritorious impact on Jewish family life throughout Jewish history.

These complex laws of bodily emissions and purifications, which seem so crude at first blush, are truly enlightened. Indeed, one need not believe in G-d in order to benefit from the brilliance and efficacy of Torah rituals, and these laws are the perfect example.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah taken from the words of the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 19th, and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 20th and 21st, 2019.

Tazria 5779-2019

“Death and Life are in the ‘Hands’ of the Tongue!”
(Revised and updated from Tazria 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, deals mostly with the issue of לְשׁוֹן הָרָע Lashon Hara, speaking evil of others.

The Torah cites two instances in which a person spoke ill of others and was stricken with the disease צָרַעַתTzaraat. In Exodus 4:1, Moses protests to G-d, arguing that he should not be appointed the leader of Israel, saying: וֽהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, The people of Israel will not believe me, they will not heed my voice! As one of the miraculous signs meant to reinforce Moses’ stature with the people, G-d instructs Moses to place his hand in his bosom. When he pulls it out, Moses’ hand is stricken with Tzaraat, seemingly a punishment for speaking against the people of Israel. Similarly, in Numbers 12:1-16, when Miriam speaks against Moses, she is stricken with Tzaraat, and is confined for seven days before she is healed and the people move on.

King Solomon, in the Book of Proverbs 18:21 writes: מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן – Death and life are in the “hands” of the tongue.

When I was a child, my father, of blessed memory, would tell a well-known tale of a king who was stricken with a rare illness. The doctors told him that only drinking the milk of a lioness could cure him. The king enlisted the assistance of the bravest hunter in the land to fetch the milk. Without hesitation or trepidation, the daring hunter entered the wilderness, captured a lioness, collected the milk, and laid down to rest before delivering the lifesaving remedy to the king.

As he lay resting, the various parts of the hunter’s body began to glory in their accomplishment. The legs bragged, “We legs deserve all the credit, for were it not for us, the hunter would never have reached the lioness.” The hands responded scornfully to the legs, pointing out that were it not for the hands the hunter would have never been able to milk the lioness. The eyes piped in saying that were it not for the eyes the hunter would have never been able to see the lioness. The ears then began to contend that they were the most important part of the hunter’s body, because the hunter would never have heard the king’s request in the first place. When the tongue attempted to make a case for its importance, all the other organs of the body began to mock the tongue dismissively. The tongue fell silent.

The return of the hunter from his vital mission with the requested medicine was announced with great fanfare at the king’s palace. “Your royal highness,” the hunter proudly announced, “I am honored to deliver the PIG’s milk as your majesty has requested.” The king burst out in anger and said, “PIG’s milk?! I asked for lioness’ milk! Take this man out and behead him!”

All the organs of the body began to tremble and shout at the tongue: “How could you have said PIG’s milk? You know it’s lioness’ milk! We are all going to die now,” they exclaimed. “Do you now acknowledge that I am the most important organ of the body?” the tongue demanded. “Yes! Yes!” they shouted. The tongue immediately corrected himself. “Of course I meant to say lioness’ milk. Just test it and you will see!” And the hunter, of course, was saved.

We tend to dismiss the power of the tongue–its power to give life, and to take life. Perhaps, if we pay attention to the reasons and causes which at times mislead us to speak evil, we would become more sensitive to this hurtful moral shortcoming.

The Torah, in parashat Tazria, describes in detail the symptoms of the Tzaraat disease. Tzaraat, at times, appears as a white patch on the skin, in various basic shades and secondary colors. The Torah identifies and names these different shades: שְׂאֵתs’eit and סַפַּחַתsapachat. A bit later, the Torah speaks of בַּהֶרֶתbaheret, a whitening.

The Chatam Sofer interprets these colors metaphorically. S’eit, he said, which literally means “a rising,” is an allusion to the fact that in speaking evil of another person one tends to build oneself up at the expense of the other. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin former rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, used to say that there are two ways for a person to show his greatness. One is to stand up big and tall, the other is to push the other person down.

The word Sapachat, says the Chatam Sofer, comes from the root of the word “to add” and “to increase.” The person who speaks lashon hara against another often tries to badmouth his competitors by saying that they are no good in business, as a means of enhancing their own business. Finally, says the Chatam Sofer, baheret comes from the word “light” or “clarity,” implying that a person who speaks lashon hara wants to show off how smart he is, how much clarity he has, how much light he brings into the world, while everyone else is inferior.

In Jeremiah 9:22, the prophet offers profound and enlightened words of advice to humankind: “Thus says the Lord,” says the prophet in the name of G-d. “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, not let the rich man glory in his riches. Let him that glory, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.”

Clearly, no one is entitled to glory in one’s intellectual endowment, or in one’s physical strength or health, or in one’s wealth–because there is always someone more brilliant, stronger, and wealthier, and, after all, these endowments are all gifts from G-d and are all transitory. The only thing that a person may glory in is piety and rectitude, because this is what G-d ultimately desires. So please, watch your tongue.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, April 5 and 6, 2019.

 

 

 

Shemini 5779-2019

“Substance Abuse in Judaism
(Revised and updated from Shemini 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, opens with the historic ceremony marking the consecration of Aaron and his sons as כֹּהֲנִים–Kohanim–priests. This ceremony, which took place on the first day of the Hebrew month Nissan, was the eighth and final day of the inauguration ceremony celebrating the newly erected Tabernacle.

This day was, particularly for Aaron, the day for which he eagerly awaited. Aaron had faced many challenges during his life. He had suffered through the travails of leadership in Egypt during the brutal enslavement period. And, despite helping Moses bring the ten plagues, resulting in the people’s exodus from Egypt, his efforts as well as Moses’, were not always appreciated by the people. Aaron also tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade the people from worshiping the Golden Calf. And now, finally, after all his efforts and much grief, Aaron was privileged with the great honor of being selected by the Al-mighty to serve as the High Priest of Israel. And even more, his four sons were going to serve at Aaron’s side.

The Torah, in Leviticus 10:1 records, וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת, וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השׁם אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם, And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took their firepan and placed fire on it, and they placed incense on the pan and sacrificed the incense before G-d with a strange fire which G-d had not commanded them. At that moment, in the middle of this resplendent consecration ceremony, a Divine fire comes and extinguishes the lives of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Abihu.

Moses tries to console his brother upon the death of his sons by saying, Leviticus 10:3, הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה׳ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד, this is what G-d meant when He said, “I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to Me,” as if to say that in their death, G-d had sanctified the boys. Aaron’s reaction to all this is: וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן , total silence!

The terrifying account of the deaths of Aaron’s eldest sons is followed in the Torah by laws affirming the limitations of priestly mourning. These statutes are followed by the Torah’s instructions to Aaron and his sons that priests are forbidden to drink wine while performing the Temple service.

While the deaths of Nadav and Abihu were a tragedy for the Jewish people, their passing was truly heartbreaking for their father Aaron. He had longed for this very day, and at the highest moment of personal joy, he suffered this profound and wrenching loss from which he would likely never recover. Nevertheless, his reaction is silence, probably because there really is nothing meaningful that can be said by a parent, or to a parent, who loses a child.

The rabbis offer a host of speculative reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Abihu. Perhaps, suggest the rabbis, these boys were arrogant and irreverent at Mount Sinai, a time which demanded uncompromised reverence. Perhaps it was because they brought a strange fire, not from the altar. Could it be because they didn’t use the vessels of the Mishkan, the sanctuary, and instead (as is suggested by the language of the verse) brought their own firepans? There are even those who maintain that the reason Nadav and Abihu were punished is because they refused to marry and have children, feeling that no woman was good enough for them. Some rabbis suggest that Nadav and Abihu showed a lack of respect for Moses and Aaron, and would often be overheard saying: “When will these old fellows die so that we may take control of the community?”

On the other hand, there are commentators who insist that Nadav and Abihu were entirely righteous, in fact, bringing the foreign fire was their only offense. Despite the fact that they meant well, their actions were wrong, and they were punished for them. The fact that the Torah emphasizes אֵשׁ זָרָה , a strange fire, indicates that they were guilty of nothing else. Other commentators suggest that though they used the wrong means to bring down the Divine Presence, their motives were noble, inspired by love and joy. Their punishment, in fact, implies that they had attained an especially high spiritual level, which is why G-d slew them with a pure fire, leaving their clothing intact, and that G-d grieved over them even more than Aaron did.

Despite the wide range of possible reasons, the most widely accepted reason for the death of Nadav and Abihu is that they officiated while in a state of inebriation. This may explain the sudden juxtaposition of the prohibition cited in Leviticus 10:8-11, concerning the priests drinking intoxicants before or during the Temple service.

From the tragic account of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, we, today, should take a few moments to focus on the Jewish attitude toward intoxicants and drugs.

In Numbers 6, the Bible speaks of people called, נְזִירִים, Nazarites, who thoroughly dedicate themselves to G-d: they refuse to cut their hair, avoid contamination with the dead, and abstain from drinking wine. Mighty Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite.

With the exception of the Jewish fast days, and mourners during the most intense stage of mourning, the case of the Nazarite is the only instance where Jewish law prohibits drinking. Otherwise, drinking is considered normal and proper in Jewish life. After all, as the Psalmists says in Psalms 104:15, וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ , wine cheers the hearts of men.

Wine, of course, plays a key role in the rituals of Judaism. Wine is used for the Kiddush–the sanctification prayer on Shabbat and holidays, for Havdalah–the closing Shabbat and festival ritual, and of course, at Jewish weddings.

Extensive studies of Jewish intoxication, indicate that Jews drink about as much as non-Jews and are subject to the same vagaries as all drinkers of intoxicants in the United States. What is unusual, is that those who are involved in Jewish life from youth, and those who later on in life adopt traditional Jewish rituals, customs and the value system associated with Jewish tradition, are subject to alcohol abuse much less frequently than those who were raised without tradition or have abandoned tradition. For the traditionalists, a moderate amount of wine is drunk at Kiddush both on Friday night and Saturday morning. Wine, then, never becomes a forbidden substance, and is therefore, usually drunk in moderation in most Jewish homes that practice these rituals. Among secular Jews, however, who have given up the value system associated with traditional customs, the incidence of intoxication is far more frequent.

As regular readers know, I’ve suggested many times, that American Jews are highly subject to many of the same vagaries and blandishments of non-Jewish citizens of the United States of America, and that Jewish abuse of alcohol and drugs in America is certainly on the rise. The practice of traditional Jews who do not hide intoxicants from the little children, but rather teach them about the proper use of these substances in moderation, in a socially acceptable environment, has proven to be quite effective. Even on the festive holiday of Purim, which we recently celebrated, the Talmud, Megillah 7a,advises that a person is required to drink עַד דְּלָא יָדַע , until he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, underscoring that one may not drink beyond the point where we no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.

Alcoholism and drug abuse is serious business. It is not something to be ignored. When the issue is not properly addressed, the entire community is at risk. We need to make certain that our festivals and our celebrations, as well as our inaugurations, are not marred by dangerous practices involving liquor.

Wine is a Divine gift which plays a key role in Judaism. We must be certain that it is properly used as a gift, and not abused.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

Tzav 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.

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

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

Vayikra 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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