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Vayeitzei 5780-2019

“Who is the Real Enemy?
(Updated and revised from Vayeitzei 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we read of Jacob’s flight from Beersheba, to escape his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob runs, as per his mother’s instructions, to Haran, to be with his mother’s brother Laban, until Esau’s anger against him subsides and he will be able to return to Canaan.

It is intriguing that Rebecca specifically tells Jacob (Genesis 27:43) to harken to her voice, וְקוּם בְּרַח לְךָ אֶל לָבָן אָחִי, חָרָנָה , “Arise and flee to my brother Laban to Haran.” Rebecca doesn’t say, “Go to my homeland,” or “Go to my family,” but specifically instructs Jacob to “Go to Laban.” Furthermore, when Jacob departs from his father Isaac, scripture states (Genesis 28:5), that Jacob does not just go to Paddan Aram, but specifically to Laban, son of Bethuel, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.

Obviously, Laban, who has been in the wings until now, is moving to center stage in the saga of Jacob, and begins to play, what will turn out to be, a featured role in the destiny of the Jewish people. From the biblical text, until this point, it seems that Laban played an important, but subordinate, role as confronter and deceiver. He deceives Jacob at his marriage to his beloved Rachel, and then deceives Jacob of his well-earned compensation and flocks, and finally has the audacity to confront Jacob when he flees from Laban’s home, after 20 plus years of devoted labor.

Despite the limited textual role, Jewish history portrays Laban as a singularly significant character. In fact, ironically, in the Passover Haggadah, when the focus should be on Pharaoh and his attempts to destroy the Jewish people, Laban appears, unexpectedly, on the scene to steal the limelight.

During the telling of the Passover story the well-known hymn, וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה“V’hee sheh’amdah” is read, underscoring G-d’s promise to protect our forefathers and us. The Haggadah text then introduces Laban with the famous statement, צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ , Go out and learn what Laban, the Aramean, attempted to do to our father Jacob. What does Laban have to do with the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus? What business does Laban have with the celebration of Passover, and the recounting of Jewish history in this part of the Passover Haggadah?

However, soon after introducing Laban, the Haggadah makes it clear why there is an emphasis on Laban. Says the Haggadah: While Pharaoh decreed only against the males, ְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקוֹר אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי , Laban decided to uproot all [of Israel], for it is written, Deuteronomy 25:5: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there.”

The commentaries offer a number of fascinating explanations concerning Laban’s role in the Haggadah. The Targum Yerushalmi, 24:33 cites the Midrash that Laban attempted to poison Eliezer, Abraham’s servant. Had he succeeded in doing so, then the wedding of Rebecca and Isaac would never have taken place, and there would have been no Jewish people.

The Targum Yonatan (Numbers 22:5) says that Laban and Balaam were one and the same person, and that it was Laban, in the form of Balaam, who advised Pharaoh to have the Jewish male children thrown into the river and drowned.

The Alshich suggests that Joseph was supposed to be the firstborn child of Jacob, but because Laban switched Rachel and Leah, Joseph became the eleventh child of Jacob. Had he been the firstborn, there would have been no jealousy or enmity toward Joseph, despite being favored by his father. Since Joseph’s enslavement was a result of Laban’s trickery, the consequent descent of Jacob and the twelve tribes to Egypt, was entirely Laban’s fault.

The literal interpretation of the verse, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי –“Arami oved avi,” which is mentioned in the Passover Haggadah, is that my father was a wandering Aramean. “Aramean” is usually interpreted as referring to Jacob or perhaps Abraham, whose family stemmed from Aram, and eventually relocated to Canaan. In effect, the prototype of the wandering Jew. The Haggadah, based on the Midrash, however interprets this verse differently. “Arami oved avi“–אֹבֵד –“oved” does not mean wandering, but destroying –“An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” The Torah boldly pronounces that it is Laban, the Aramean, who is to be feared even more than Pharaoh. After all, we all know who Pharaoh is and what he wants to accomplish. He is our brazen enemy, who publicly declares that he wishes to destroy the Jews physically, and the one who openly ordered the midwives to kill Jewish children. When that fails, Pharaoh has the Jewish male children thrown into the river, and finally enslaves all the Jews with work so rigorous that they fall like flies. Pharaoh wears his hatred on his sleeve and declares publicly that the Jews are a fifth column who aspire to destroy Egypt. With such public pronouncements, we know that we have to beware of Pharaoh.

But, Laban, Laban is our brother. Laban kisses, hugs, embraces us, and welcomes us warmly (Genesis 29:13-14) as we enter Haran. “Are you not my flesh and blood?” exclaims Laban to Jacob. Laban provides a month of hospitality to Jacob and then, seemingly out of full brotherly concern for Jacob, Laban asks, “Just because you are my relative, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me what are your wages?”

Laban’s embrace, however, is a false embrace, and his kiss is the “poison of death.” Although Laban is our family, our flesh-and-blood, and appears to be our friend, his real intention is to destroy all the Jewish men, women and children. Moreover, because he feigns love and throw us off guard, he is far more dangerous than Pharaoh, especially since it is so difficult to recognize his subtle desire to destroy us. The enemy within is often the more dangerous and formidable foe.

Ironically, Laban never attacks us frontally or physically. How then does Laban intend to destroy us? It is the craftiness and subtlety of Laban that we must fear!

When Jacob leaves Beersheba (Genesis 28:12) he dreams the well-known dream of the ladder, of angels going up and coming down. It is a thoroughly spiritual dream. It’s a dream of a Yeshiva Bachur, the dream of a Jew committed to his Judaism. For he says, Genesis 28:17: אָכֵן, יֵשׁ השׁם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה , G-d is truly present in this place and I did not know it, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱ־לֹקִים, וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם , This is nothing but the house of G-d, and this is the gateway to Heaven. After this inspiring vision, Jacob swears that he will always be faithful to G-d, and will come back to worship at that holy place.

But, after 22 years under the corrupting and assimilating influence of Laban, Jacob’s dreams change dramatically. In Genesis 31:10, Jacob tells his wives that he had a dream, a dream of he-goats mounting the flocks, which were striped, speckled and checked. Due to Laban’s influence, Jacob is no longer the spiritual man of G-d. He has become a “Material Man.” His only concern now is to make a killing in the stock market. That is why the angels of G-d must say to him, “Arise, leave this land, and return to your native land!” Get out from under the influence of Laban. Don’t you realize that the blandishments of Laban and his household have subtly turned you away from G-d and away from your Judaism?

Jacob must make a choice, a critical choice that will affect all of Jewish history. Laban plays his final card, a heart-wrenching plea that Jacob not separate him from his children: “Your children are my children!” cries Laban (Genesis 31:43). But Jacob stands fast. Jacob (with help from his wives) does not allow himself to be swayed by Laban’s melodramatic plea. The danger of Laban looms too large, and Jacob and his family must leave Haran and distance himself before it is too late.

Thank G-d, Jacob has the fortitude to make this bold decision, and save all future generations of Jews. Thank you, for our lives, Father Jacob.

May you be blessed.

 

Toledot 5780-2019

“A Lesson from Jacob and Esau: Understanding and Accepting Differences”
(Updated and revised from Toledot 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we encounter a fascinating narrative that touches upon the essence of parent-parent and parent-child relationships. It may very well be one of the greatest treasure-troves of wisdom regarding child development, education and parental relationships, anywhere in human literature.

The Torah pulls no punches when describing the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca, and their children Esau and Jacob. As with all the matriarchs, Rebecca has difficulty bearing children. According to tradition, cited by the famed commentator Rashi, on Genesis 25:26, Isaac and Rebecca pray for 20 long years before G-d finally responds, and Rebecca conceives.

Scripture (Genesis 25:22), describes Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy: וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ , and the children contended in her. This verse seems to indicate that the struggle for dominance between Jacob and Esau began already in utero. Rebecca inquires of G-d to know why she is experiencing so much pain. She is told (Genesis 25:23), שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ ,–two nations are in your womb and two peoples shall be separated from your inwards; and one people shall be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says, that the reason for Rebecca’s pain was because whenever Rebecca passed a house of Torah study, Jacob wanted to jump out of his mother’s womb, and whenever Rebecca passed a sports arena or gym, Esau wanted to jump out. Clearly, the scriptural text and the commentaries underscore that these two children were very, very different by nature–-confirmed by the Torah’s description of Rebecca’s pregnancy.

When the twin boys are born, the first comes out completely red and hairy, and is called Esau. The second child comes out with his hand grasping the heel of his brother, and is named Jacob. Scripture (Genesis 25:27) states: וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים , and the boys grew up.

The verse then immediately proceeds to describe, again, how different the boys were from one another. Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field, while Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. Then, in a most revealing verse, the Torah states (Genesis 25:28), וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו, וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב , and Isaac loved (past tense) Esau, because he provided hunt for him to eat, and Rebecca loves (continuous, present tense) Jacob. This verse clearly indicates that Isaac’s love for Esau (past tense), was utilitarian–-Esau fed Isaac food. Rebecca’s love for Jacob, however, was unconditional, no reason is given, and no reason needs to be given. She loves him because of who he is–-Jacob!

We see here, of course, not only the differences in the children, but also the different attitudes of the parents regarding their children. Regrettably, we have no way of knowing which came first.

How do we even begin to understand these complicated family dynamics? It is possible to suggest that everything was preordained, and that Jacob was destined to be Jacob, and Esau was destined to be Esau. After all, that is what G-d told Rebecca (Genesis 25:23): “There will be a struggle, and the older child will serve the younger one.”

Nevertheless, one of the great contemporary commentators on the Bible, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, seems to indicate that despite the heavenly prophecy, and the children’s genetic differences in temperament, it is always the parents’ primary responsibility to address those differences. Had Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch not stated this explicitly in his commentary, I certainly would not have the temerity to suggest this. Listen to his forceful language:

Our sages…never objected to draw attention to the small and great mistakes and weaknesses in the history of our great forefathers, and thereby make them just the more instructive for us. Here too, on [the verse] ‘When the boys grew up,’ [the sages] make a remark which is indeed a signpost for all of us. They point out that the striking contrast in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due, not so much the difference in their temperaments, as to mistakes in the way that they were brought up.

Rabbi Hirsch goes on to point out that as long as the boys were little, there was no attention paid to the innate differences in their natures. Both were given the exact same teaching and educational treatment. The great law of education, pronounced in Proverbs 22:6, חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ , bring up each child according to its own way, was violated by Isaac and Rebecca!

Rabbi Hirsch then proceeds to highlight the striking difference between Isaac and Jacob in dealing with, and educating, children. In contrast to Isaac, when, Jacob, in his old age saw the 12 tribes, 12 different sons standing around his bed, he saw each of them for who they each were (Genesis 49:28), אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם , each according to his blessing and his specialty, with his different path of life did he bless them.

Says Rabbi Hirsch, “To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same college, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious, sedate, meditative life, is the surest way to court disaster.”

Moreover, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, that despite “their totally different natures, Jacob and Esau could still have remained twin brothers, in spirit and life; quite early in life, ‘Esau’s sword’ and ‘Jacob’s spirit’ could have worked hand-in-hand. And who can say what a different aspect the whole history of the ages might have presented.” But, by the time the children had grown up, it was too late to address the differences.

The Jewish people have paid a stiff price for this educational misstep on the part of the patriarchs. Esau, eventually becomes the progenitor of Amalek, the most determined foe of the Jewish people. Oh, if we had only allowed for the differences in education, Jewish history would have been so different. There would have been no archenemy in the form of Esau, and no Amalek!

The theme of missteps made by the ancients, repeats itself often in biblical literature. The Torah (Genesis 36:12), states that the grandmother of Amalek, is a woman named Timnah. According to tradition, Timnah desperately wanted to marry into the family of Abraham, but she was rejected because of some question of whether her birth was honorable or not. Eventually, because of her great desire to cling to the descendants of Abraham, she becomes a concubine to Esau’s son, and bears Amalek. Is scripture telling us that Amalek is a result of her rejection?

In a second instance, the commentators (Rashi, citing the Midrash, Genesis 32:23), seem to suggest that Dina, Jacob’s daughter, could have saved Esau from his evil ways, but Jacob was too afraid to expose her to him.

Similarly, in Ruth 1:14, we encounter Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, who is sent home by Naomi to her Moabite family. According to tradition (Talmud Sotah 42b), the great enemy of the Jewish people, Goliath, descends from Orpah.

What a frightening thought. Have Jews brought on their own calamities by rejecting legitimate seekers who wish to embrace our people? Do the Jewish people feel that they are just too holy, too pure, or too good to be “contaminated” by the likes of outsiders? Is it because Jews have not been prepared to share the beauty of our tradition with those who sincerely come to embrace us, that we ultimately suffer great tragedy and destruction?

It is difficult to draw a definitive answer from these examples, but there seems to be a very strong case arguing toward that conclusion. Certainly, we need to carefully investigate this issue and become far more sensitive and alert, so that in the future we will be certain to embrace those who are truly sincere. G-d forbid that we reject those who are worthy of becoming part of the Jewish people. If they are different than us, then we need to educate them differently, but we dare not reject them.

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.

Chayei Sarah 5780-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5780-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

 

Lech Lecha 5780-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Noah 5780-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

 

Sukkot 5780-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Rosh Hashana 5780-2019

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Kee Tavo 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.