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Vayigash 5779-2018

“The Innocent Victim”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, the Torah describes the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Prior to revealing himself, Joseph had accused his brothers of being spies, and arrested his brother, Simeon, holding him hostage, until the other brothers return from Canaan and bring along with them their now grown up “little brother” Benjamin.

After eating a meal with his brothers in Egypt, Joseph has his servant plant his valuable personal goblet in Benjamin’s sack, so that he can accuse Benjamin of theft. The brothers come back to Joseph’s palace to fight for Benjamin’s release.

The two potential leaders of the people of Israel, Joseph and Judah, have a major confrontation (Vayigash 5772-2011). The Midrash even says that Judah threatened to destroy all of Egypt if Benjamin were not released. Eventually, Judah’s selfless offer to remain as a hostage in place of Benjamin, touches Joseph, who demands that everyone, except for his brothers, leave his chamber.

Joseph cries in a loud voice, that all of Egypt hears. Finally, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and says, in Genesis 45:3, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי  “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers are so stunned, they can not answer him.

Joseph tries to reassure his brothers, telling them that it is all part of a Divine plan, and that they should not to be distressed. After all, he says, Genesis 45:5,כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ־לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם , “It was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you, to save humanity from famine.”

The rabbis wonder: Why did Joseph ask, “Is my father still alive?” when he revealed himself.

We have already explained in our previous Torah messages (Vayigash 5763-2002) that Joseph, of course, had been informed earlier (Genesis 43:28) that his father, Jacob, was still alive, at least he was at the time the brothers left Canaan. According to this interpretation, Joseph was really asking himself, “Is my father still alive in me? Do I still want to be part of this, until now, terribly dysfunctional family? Am I capable of forgiving everyone, so I can rejoin the family as one of Jacob’s sons?”

There may, however, be another important interpretation with a profound message.

Until now, the brothers of Joseph felt that whatever they had done to Joseph as a young lad was totally deserved and justified. They had concluded that Joseph was in the category of a רוֹדֵףRoh’dayph, a pursuer, who was trying to destroy their family and upend Jewish destiny–at least according to their understanding. Not only did Joseph bring evil reports home to their father Jacob about his brothers, he was trying to prevent Jewish history from advancing the way it was meant to. The only regret that they had previously expressed (Genesis 41:21), was that they had been unkind when they heard Joseph’s cries, and did not respond when he was in the pit. Otherwise, they were absolutely certain that what they had done had enabled G-d’s mission to be properly fulfilled.

What, then, was the meaning of Joseph’s question to his brothers, “Is my father still alive?”

Joseph was not, in fact, inquiring about his father’s physical well-being. Rather, he was questioning the brothers about the emotional toll that their actions had taken on their father, Jacob. “While you (my brothers) might have thought that I was guilty and deserving of this punishment of not only being sold as a slave to Egypt, but perhaps even of death, there was another innocent victim who suffered, even more than I, as a result of your actions. What about our father, Jacob? Why do you not express any remorse concerning him? Is he still alive, or did he bury himself in grief for the last 22 years because his son was missing, and thought to be dead? How could you be so blasé and indifferent about your father’s sufferings all these years? The Torah even testifies (Genesis 37:35) that Jacob could not be comforted.”

In life, there are few negative actions that do not have profound ramifications, bringing grief, disgrace or despair upon the innocent.

One who takes another person’s life, not only harms the victim, but also the victim’s family, children, parents, all of whom are unable to be comforted. A wife loses a husband, a child loses a parent, a community might lose a respected and valued leader.

One who speaks evil or talks negatively of another person, undoubtedly hurts innocent people as well. It is not only the person who speaks the evil and the person about whom the evil is spoken, but also those who hear the evil words, become victims. One who suffers the consequences of evil speech, might lose a job, or lose the respect of others, resulting in their families paying a price as well.

It is almost impossible to trespass one of the Torah’s statutes, without hurting a host of usually innocent people.

This is the message that Joseph was attempting to convey to his brothers. “You thought you were totally justified in trying to get rid of me, but how was it possible all these years for you to neglect to feel for our old father, who never recovered from the loss of a son, and is still grieving back in Canaan?”

“What were you thinking, brothers? How could you not be concerned about Jacob, your own flesh-and-blood, your elderly father?”

These lessons, of course, have broad implications in contemporary times as well. Innocent people pay the price for other people’s mistakes all the time. It is impossible to be too careful or overly concerned for the feelings of the innocent and the impact upon their lives.

Joseph’s brothers eventually learn their lesson, and express regret over what happened to their brother (Genesis 42:21). It is only because of their remorse, that the People of Israel were able to move on, and eventually capture the land of Israel and live there, at least for a period of time, in peace and tranquility.

May you be blessed.

Mikeitz 5779-2018

“Why Did You Treat Me So Badly?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is appointed Viceroy of all Egypt. The downtrodden slave boy rises from prison to the peak of power in the great land of Egypt.

Joseph’s meteoric ascent enables him to implement his advice to Pharaoh to save Egypt from the impending famine by storing food for the years of famine, during the years of plenty. As a result, only the land of Egypt had food, and Jacob, who dwells with his family in Canaan, is forced to send his sons to Egypt to purchase grain to keep their families alive.

When the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph recognizes them, but they fail to recognize him. He accuses them of being spies, holds Simeon as a hostage and insists that they bring their youngest brother to Egypt to prove their innocence.

When the food that they had purchased from their first journey was entirely consumed, Jacob urges his sons to go down to Egypt once again, to purchase more food. Judah reminds his father that Joseph had demanded that their younger brother be brought down with them this time, and that they cannot go down without Benjamin.

Jacob (scripture uses the name “Israel”) gets very upset and blurts out to them, in Genesis 43:6, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתֶם לִי, לְהַגִּיד לָאִישׁ, הַעוֹד לָכֶם אָח , “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man that you have another brother?” The brothers reply, (Genesis 43:7), הֲיָדוֹעַ נֵדַע כִּי יֹאמַר, הוֹרִידוּ אֶת אֲחִיכֶם , “Could we possibly have known that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down?’”

The commentators explain that whenever Jacob assumes the role of patriarch of the Jewish nation, scripture recognizes him as “Israel,” rather than “Jacob.” It is also common for scripture to use the name “Israel” when Jacob refers to something pertaining to the destiny of the Jewish people, rather than something that applies only to Jacob and his family.

In this instance, Jacob is teaching a profound lesson to the younger and the future generations, therefore, in keeping with his patriarchal role, Jacob is called “Israel.” The Ha’amek Davar says, that we learn from Jacob that whenever Jews are forced to appear before leaders who are not friendly to them, they should be circumspect in what information they offer, never revealing more than they have to. Since the seemingly unfriendly viceroy had not specifically asked them about any additional brothers, they should not have offered the information and instead, should have simply told Joseph that, “We, your servants, are 12 brothers.”

Both the Akeidat Yitzchak and the Abarbanel, say, that in this manner, the brothers defended themselves against Jacob’s claim that they had spoken out of turn.  And, that while Joseph had thoroughly questioned them, there was nothing in his manner that led them to believe they should be measured in their response.

The Midrash in Bereishith Rabbah 91, offers a remarkable interpretation for this verse. The Midrash says that, in his entire life, Jacob never uttered anything in vain–except in this particular instance. In response to Jacob’s outburst, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I [G-d] am working to make his son into the ruler of Egypt, and he says, ‘Why are you treating me badly?’”

Rabbi Nison Alpert, in his comments on the weekly portion, asked: What was it that Jacob said that deserved such a stinging reproach from G-d? How would Jacob know that Joseph was still alive? After all, he was led to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal? Nevertheless, the Midrash argues that Jacob’s words: “Why did you treat me badly?” were inappropriate.

Rabbi Alpert suggests that perhaps one reason why G-d rebukes Jacob is because more than two decades had already elapsed since Joseph vanished, and by this time, the Al-mighty assumed that Jacob had reconciled his grief over the loss of his child, and come to terms with G-d’s intentions. Perhaps when Jacob first saw the bloody coat that he thought belonged to his son, he would have been justified in his anger at his other children, and cry out, “Why did you treat me so badly?” But, not so many years later.

Jacob had already had sufficient time to work out his grief, but he did not, and that is why G-d was angry.

Perhaps acknowledging that parents never truly overcome their grief over a deceased or missing child, Rabbi Alpert suggests another way of looking at G-d’s rebuke. G-d is not really rebuking Jacob. In fact, the Midrash is actually praising Jacob, saying that throughout his entire life, Jacob had never spoken a single word in vain other than in this instance. Can you imagine never second-guessing G-d, except for one instance? Never wondering about why G-d overlooks certain actions and punishes other actions? Why G-d brings calamity upon the world?

Both of these messages are applicable to contemporary Jewish life today. We are well familiar with the rabbinic statement (Brachot 60b) that, כָּל דְּעָבִיד רַחְמָנָא לְטַב עָבִיד , that everything that G-d does, is always for the good.

The Jewish people from time immemorial have witnessed evil upon evil, yet they still survive. Not only survive, but thrive, like never before. There is 3,300 years of empirical evidence that G-d has watched over and protected His people. Yet, because of the intensity of the evil that Jews experience, it is hard to conclude that it is all for the good, even though we believe that ultimately it will all prove to be good.

A significant lesson to be gleaned from this parasha and others is the importance of being optimistic even in the face of extraordinary reasons to feel otherwise. Jews must look for, and aspire for daylight, even though it is now frighteningly dark outside. We must trust in G-d’s loving-kindness, even though we are in pain.

There is a wonderful statement of faith that is quite popular in Israel today, that states, מִי שֶׁמַּאֲמִין לֹא מְפַחֵד , one who has faith is never afraid. This powerful message is communicated to us through the story of father Jacob and his sons. Even when Jews think that we are being treated badly, we should know that the Al-mighty always has our back, and that ultimately a bright day will dawn. No matter the circumstance, we must boldly proclaim, that the sun will definitely shine again, and shower good and blessing upon all G-d’s children.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 2nd, 2018 and continues through nightfall on  Monday evening, December 10, 2018.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.


Vayeishev 5779-2018

The Mystical Aspects of the Sale of Joseph

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, which resulted in Joseph being sold to Egypt to serve as a slave in Potiphar’s house. This sale, of course, changed the course of Jewish history.

In his fascinating book, Outlooks and Insights on the Weekly Torah Portion, Rabbi Zev Leff, presents an intriguing, and somewhat mystical, interpretation of the sale of Joseph. While the full scheme of the sale of Joseph is quite complex, I will attempt to share with you some highlights of Rabbi Leff’s cogent analysis.

Jacob, whose name was changed to Yisrael, emerges as the father of the Children of Israel and the Jewish people. Each one of Jacob’s 12 talented sons embodied a specific quality that would be needed by their descendants, the 12 Tribes, to create the Jewish people. At that time, only one person, Jacob himself, embodied all 12 traits.

Since Jacob’s intent had been to marry Rachel, but was deceived by Laban into marrying Leah, Jacob’s true firstborn was his son Joseph. That is confirmed as well, when, at the end of his life, Jacob blesses his children (Genesis 48:5), and turns the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, Ephraim and Menasseh, giving Joseph the double portion that rightfully belongs to the firstborn child.

Tradition teaches that Joseph was a replica of his father, Jacob, both physically and spiritually, and actually possessed all of the traits that Jacob possessed that were needed to build the Jewish people.

Rabbi Leff maintains that Joseph’s role was to serve as a facilitator to the other tribes–to help them develop their own unique qualities, and enable them to make their contributions to further Jewish posterity.

For this to happen, it was necessary for Joseph to go down to Egypt to make preparations for his brothers’ eventual arrival there. In Egypt, under Joseph’s influence, the brothers began to develop their special skills. The next step was for the 12 Tribes to develop even further in the land of Canaan. It was Joseph’s descendant, Joshua, the son of Nun, who led the army that conquered the land, so that the tribes could evolve even further. Ultimately, it will be Mashiach, the son of Joseph, who will serve as the forerunner to prepare the way for Mashiach, the son of David, the ultimate Messiah.

The birth of the 12 sons of Jacob, served to mark a change of eras from that of the forefathers to the that of the tribes.

The fundamental question, notes Rabbi Leff, is whether the 12 brothers represent the start of incipient Klal Yisrael, the People of Israel, or do they represent an earlier incarnation. That question hinges on their spiritual status–were they full Jews or were they Noahides?

The brothers themselves identified as full Jews, at least in an early form, and felt that it was time for them to fulfill their individual roles to begin shaping the destiny of the People of Israel. Joseph, however, disagreed, viewing them as precursors to the nation, but not yet fully formed. Joseph saw himself as the person responsible for steering and leading his brothers, to help them become fully ready for their future roles.

Joseph watched his brothers vigilantly, to help guide them and enable them to fulfill their destined roles. The fact that the Torah (Genesis 37:2) describes Joseph as וְהוּא נַעַר , that he was “a youth,” suggests that his role was to “arouse” their talents and help them blossom.

The Torah, in Genesis 37:2, reports, וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה , that Joseph, as part of his role to guide his brothers and help them develop, would bring evil reports about them to their father. However, instead of just reporting his brother’s behavior to his father and allowing Jacob to decide whether there was guilt in his brothers’ actions, Joseph concluded that his brothers were sinners, which aroused great hatred on the part of his siblings.

When the Torah reports, in Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו , that Israel loved Joseph more than all of his sons, it literally means “from all his sons.” Jacob’s love for Joseph was an outgrowth of love of all his children, because he viewed Joseph as their embodiment, who would shepherd them into their roles in Jewish life.

Rabbi Leff writes,

The brothers viewed Joseph as a threat to the nation, which in their view had already come into being…They viewed their father’s love for Joseph as coming at their expense, and thus estranged themselves from him, and could not find the ability to speak of him in a friendly manner. In their view, Joseph was a threat to the ultimate harmonious perfection that had to be reached through the unity of each Tribe contributing its unique portion, and not usurping the role of another Tribe.

Joseph’s brothers eventually deemed Joseph to be a רוֹדֵףrodef, a pursuer, who presented a threat to them, both in terms of their physical being, and also in terms of their destiny as the founders of the People of Israel. They, therefore, concluded that Joseph was worthy of death. Eventually, they gave in to Reuben, who pleaded with them not to kill their brother, and agreed with Judah to sell Joseph as a slave.

Rabbi Leff maintains that the brothers felt certain that they acted with proper intentions, and therefore did not regret the sale. The only regret that they later expressed (Genesis 42:21), was that they felt that they could have demonstrated more mercy when they heard Joseph’s cries.

Our Rabbis say that while the brothers felt certain that they were innocent, and that their actions would save the Jewish people, they were nevertheless punished because their judgment was tinged by jealousy. As a result of their jealousy, they, and those who came after them, had to suffer dire consequences. The baseless hatred for which the Second Temple was destroyed, mirrors the hatred of Joseph’s brothers for Joseph.

The tragedy of Joseph and his brothers continues to haunt the Jewish people to this very day. Our failure to identify and comprehend our own true intentions, let alone the intentions of others, is a source of great misunderstanding within ourselves and interferes with our interpersonal relationships. We are, very often, quick to judge others, and even, at times, too quick to judge ourselves. We need to look inside ourselves to question our own motivations.

In the spiritual world, no deeds go unaccounted. Whether we must ultimately pay for them, or are rewarded for them immediately, is impossible to know. Yet, we can certainly learn from the story of Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers, that every deed needs to be carefully considered, because of its broad implications on Jewish posterity.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 2nd, 2018 and continues through Monday night, December 10, 2018.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.


Vayishlach 5779-2018

Jacob’s Challenging Life

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, opens, we find a fearful patriarch Jacob sending a huge tribute of flocks and farm animals to his brother Esau, from whom he had fled more than 20 years earlier.

Jacob, whom the Bible (Genesis 25:27) describes as אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, an innocent man who dwells in tents, seems to be anything but. Jacob’s life is clearly the life of a man who is carrying an extraordinary “pekl,” which in Yiddish means, a “burdensome life.” The traumatic encounter that was about to take place between Jacob and his vengeful brother is but a single example of Jacob’s challenges.

Even before he was born, we are told (Genesis 25:22), that Jacob and his brother Esau, were fighting in their mother’s womb. Early in his life, Jacob develops a hostile relationship with his older brother Esau, after Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in return for a bowl of lentil soup. Esau, however, remains forever resentful of Jacob for taking advantage of his hunger and weariness.

The calamities in Jacob’s life are legion, but many are a result of Jacob’s own actions. Jacob must flee from his parents’ home, because he has tricked his brother out of his blessings by masquerading as Esau.

When Jacob flees to Charan, to escape Esau’s wrath, he runs right into the arms of an equally dangerous character, Laban. Laban deceives Jacob out of marrying Rachel, the woman he truly loved, and Jacob has to work an additional seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

The Bible, (Genesis 31:7), testifies that Laban also cheats Jacob out of his wages multiple times. Eventually, Jacob has to run away from Laban’s house as well.

The trials and travails continue. As previously noted, parashat Vayishlach opens when Jacob is returning to Canaan, and is about to confront his brother Esau. But first he is met by Esau’s archangel who wishes to kill him. In that battle, the sinew of Jacob’s thigh is injured, and Jacob walks away limping.

After a challenging reunion with Esau, Jacob heads to Canaan. Soon after he enters the land of Canaan, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, whose barrenness was also a source of great pain to Jacob, gives birth to her second child and dies in childbirth. When Jacob finally seeks to dwell in peace in Canaan, jealousy and enmity break out between his children. His beloved son, Joseph, is sold into slavery by his brothers.

Jacob never gets to experience peace and tranquility in the land of Canaan. Before he passes away in Egypt, he tells Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9), יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי…מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, “the years of my life… have been few and bitter.” Only when he passes away and is buried in the Machpelah Cave, does Jacob finally “rest in peace.”

Unfortunately, Jacob’s challenging life was not unique. In fact, all of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs experienced much suffering. The entire book of Job features the life of a man who experiences great suffering.

As Jews, we are grateful that despite all the tests and trials, the Jewish people have survived. But, aside from “surviving,” there is little reason to rejoice. The history of our people is replete with the horrors of repeated Jewish suffering, long before the Holocaust. The list is never-ending: the destruction of the first and second Temples; the Bar Kochba rebellion; the exiles of Jews to Assyria, Babylon and Persia; the Spanish Inquisition; the decrees of 1648-1649.

Despite what seems to be the Jewish “destiny” of suffering, few of us today can truly conceive of a life of constant pain and suffering. For most of us, encounters with people with debilitating lifelong illnesses, or those who survive traumatic accidents with little “quality of life,” are infrequent. Of course, we often hear of abused children of drug-addicted parents, born and raised in poverty, but we rarely personally encounter such people. It’s hard for most Jewish people to relate to persistent suffering, and because of our own blessings, we rarely dwell on the lives of the many millions of people throughout the world who suffer daily.

Jacob could have easily said to the Al-mighty, “G-d, why did you choose me? Why must I suffer these many afflictions? What did I do to deserve this?” Jacob’s complaints would be legitimate, even if he did, at times, cause, or contribute to, his own pain.

Despite his many travails, despite his need to flee from his parents’ home, and his experiences of being constantly cheated by Laban, Jacob never despaired. He was determined to make things work. He kept moving forward, confronting his every challenge. He may have been sad, but he never became bitter. In fact, toward the end of his life, when Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, he proclaims (Genesis 48:16), הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע ,  “May the Angel who saved me from all evil, bless these children.” It’s an amazing statement from the man who suffered so greatly.

While on the topic of despair and bitterness, I’d like to offer words of tribute to an amazing couple, Eydl and Chaim Reznik. I have had the good fortune to meet Eydl and Chaim Reznik in the early years of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. They have lived in the holy city of Tzfat, Israel for over 20 years. Eydl and Chaim Reznik are parents of six children, some of whom are already married. Six years ago, Chaim was diagnosed with ALS. Today, he can only move his eyes, and communicates through a special computer. Yet, he, together with his family, continues to forge ahead heroically.

A few weeks ago on Erev Shabbat, I had the privilege of speaking with Chaim through his computer. He asked me to share with him a Dvar Torah, which I did. He was overjoyed to hear the words of Torah. He is truly heroic.

Presumably, we can all learn from adversity. However, some degrees of adversity are on an entirely different level. May the Al-mighty not test us the way he tested Chaim Reznik and father Jacob.

Our Forefather, Jacob, teaches us the important lesson of perseverance. So do Chaim Reznik and his family. May he have
רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה , Refuah Sh’laima — a speedy recovery.

May you be blessed.

Vayeitzei 5779-2018

“The Deceivers are Deceived”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we find Jacob fleeing for his life from his brother Esau’s wrath, because Jacob had deceived Esau of his birthright and stolen his brother’s blessing.

Both Isaac and Rebecca urge Jacob to run to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, Rebecca’s father, and to take a wife from there of the daughters of Laban, Rebecca’s brother.

What was the possible purpose of sending Jacob, whom the Torah (Genesis 25:27) calls an אִישׁ תָּם ,“ish tam,” an innocent man, to dwell in the house of Laban, the most ruthless con-man of the ancient Middle East? (see Vayeitzei 5763-2002)

It could very well be that both Rebecca and Isaac are determined to wean their son, Jacob, from his propensity of deceiving others, by sending him to live with his exceedingly unprincipled uncle. The would-be “innocent” Jacob is no match for his wily Uncle Laban, who literally “fleeces” poor Jacob.

Immediately upon his arrival at his uncle’s home, Laban exploits Jacob, making him work for several weeks before offering him the possibility of compensation. Jacob then offers to work for Laban for seven years for the hand of Laban’s beautiful daughter, Rachel. Ruthless Laban, however, at the last moment, switches his daughters and gives Jacob his daughter Leah instead. In this manner, Laban forces Jacob to work an extra seven years for Rachel.

Finally, when Laban attempts to spell out what Jacob’s compensation will be as a married man, Laban deceives Jacob by removing all the healthy, white sheep and the strong goats, so that Jacob’s compensation would be only the weak and spotted animals.

G-d is with Jacob, and the weak animals give birth to the healthy animals while the inferior ones go to Laban.

After 20 years of abuse, a desperate Jacob finally calls both his wives, Rachel and Leah, into the field for a consultation and says (Genesis 31:5-6): רֹאֶה אָנֹכִי אֶת פְּנֵי אֲבִיכֶן כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ אֵלַי כִּתְמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי הָיָה עִמָּדִי. וְאַתֵּנָה יְדַעְתֶּן, כִּי בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן “I have noticed that your father’s disposition is not toward me as in earlier days; but the G-d of my father was with me. Now you have known that it was with all my might that I served your father, yet your father mocked me and changed my wage a hundred times. But G-d did not permit him to harm me.”

Both Rachel and Leah agree that Laban has not treated their husband or their family fairly. In fact, they accuse their father, Laban, of treating his own daughters and grandchildren as strangers, and of stealing all their wherewithal.

It was then, that Jacob arose, took his wives and children, and led them away from Laban to begin the long trek to his father Isaac’s house, in the land of Canaan.

Eventually, Laban hears of Jacob’s departure, chases after him, and a major confrontation takes place. Laban wants to harm Jacob, but G-d prevents him from doing so. Eventually, they separate, each going to their own land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber looks at this portion from the point of view of Jewish business law and doctrine. Rabbi Filber notes that the Torah was the first legal document to champion the rights of the worker. The Torah, in Leviticus 19:13, writes, לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר , A worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning. In Deuteronomy 24:15, the Torah explains that one must pay a hired person on the same day,כִּי עָנִי הוּא, וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ , for he is poor and his life depends on it.

Rabbi Filber cites the Ohr HaChaim, who states that failing to pay a salary on time is not only sinful for failing to fulfill a financial obligation, but is actually an issue of life and death. Workers are not slaves. The Torah in Leviticus 25:55 states, כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים , the People of Israel cannot be servants to other servants, only to G-d. That is why workers have the prerogative to leave their employers even in the middle of the working day (Bava Metzia 10a).

Rabbi Filber cogently points out that employer-employee issues are not one-sided. Just as an employer may not exploit an employee, an employee may not take unfair advantage of his employer as well. When he works, a laborer must work with total commitment. If he has to say בִּרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן , birkat hamazon (Grace After Meals), he should say the shortened version so he doesn’t steal time from his employer. This is what Jacob meant when he said to his wives, בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן,With all my strength, I worked for your father.”

Maimonides states that an employee must behave in an ethical manner. A worker who was hired to work during the day, is not permitted to do the work at night and rent himself out during the day to perform another job. He may not starve himself and give his food to his children, because he will not be sufficiently strong to do the work that he was hired to do.

Rabbi Filber cites the beautiful Midrash Talpiot concerning Enoch, the descendant of Seth. The Torah (Genesis 5:24) says, וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים, וְאֵינֶנּוּ, כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱ־לֹקִים, And Enoch walked with G-d; then he was no more, for G-d had taken him. What did Enoch do to deserve to be taken?

Says the Midrash: Enoch, who was a shoemaker, would offer up a special prayer before every stitch, to dedicate his spiritual intentions to the Creator. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great ethicist, comments on this Midrash saying that one may not conclude that Enoch’s spiritual musings were intended to bring him closer to G-d at the expense of the owner of the shoes, since that is forbidden. Rather, Enoch’s intentions were to focus his attention on making certain that every single stitch was properly sewn and sufficiently strong so that the shoes he produced would be the best quality for their owners.

There is not a single story in the Torah, or even a single line or word, that doesn’t have a cogent eternal message. We are fortunate, to not only learn from the good deeds of our ancestors, but also from their mistakes. It is virtually impossible to turn a page in our Scriptures or any of our holy books, without learning a life lesson that has ultimate and eternal value.

May you be blessed.


Toledot 5779-2018

NJOP stands in solidarity with the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh and expresses its profound condolences to the members and families of the Tree of Life Congregation who lost their lives in the horrific Shabbat attack.

It is our hope that the outpouring of love and support from the broader Jewish community and from people of good will across the length and breadth of America, may serve as some small comfort as the community mourns the loss of precious lives and face the pain and suffering experienced by others at the synagogue.  Profound thanks to the members of the Pittsburgh Police Department who risked life and limb to save other potential victims from death and harm. May God grant comfort to the families who lost loved ones and a Refuah Shelayma, a speedy and full recovery, to all those who were injured in this terrible attack.


“The Dangers of Assimilation

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, more of the personality of the highly “enigmatic” patriarch, Isaac, emerges.

Until now, much of Isaac’s life has been one of extraordinary challenge. Early in his life he was caught in the crossfire of the jealousies between his mother, Sarah, and her handmaiden, Hagar. It could also be that he was subjected to abuse (מְצַחֵק , M’tza’chek) by his older brother Ishmael (Genesis 21:9). As a young man, his father nearly sacrificed him.

Now, as a young married person, when faced with famine in the land of Israel, Isaac does what his father Abraham before him had done. Isaac goes down to Gerar, where he and his wife, Rebecca, are subjected to extreme scrutiny by the Philistine king, Abimelech.

After an uncomfortable encounter with Abimelech, Isaac settles in Gerar, where he meets unprecedented success as a farmer. His success enables him to acquire flocks and herds and many enterprises, raising the envy of the Philistines.

As a result of the resentment, all the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug were stopped up by the local Philistines and filled with earth. Eventually, Abimelech advises Isaac (Genesis 26:16): לֵךְ מֵעִמָּנוּ, כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ מְאֹד, “Go away from us, for you have become much mightier than we.” The commentaries interpret this to mean that Abimelech was saying that “You [Isaac] have become prosperous at our expense.”

Isaac moves to the valley of Gerar. There he digs new wells, calling them by the same names that his father, Abraham, had called them. But the herdsmen of Gerar are not happy, and claim that the water is theirs. Isaac keeps moving further away from the local people, eventually relocating in Rehovot, where his workers dig a new well that was not quarreled over.

When King Abimelech sees the unusual success of Isaac, whom he had earlier exiled from Gerar, he travels with Phicol, his general, to Isaac, to make a peace treaty with him in Beer-Sheba–ostensibly assuring the security of Isaac and his family. Scripture attests to this fact when it states (Genesis 26:31): וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר, וַיִּשָּׁבְעוּ אִישׁ לְאָחִיו, וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם יִצְחָק, וַיֵּלְכוּ מֵאִתּוֹ בְּשָׁלוֹם , They awoke early in the morning and swore to one another; then Isaac saw them off, and they departed from him in peace.

The contemporary Bible commentator, Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, asks the question: Why did Isaac move away from Abimelech just when conditions were favorable for staying, and after concluding a security covenant with the Philistine king? Rabbi HaCohen suggests that when Isaac was subject to harassment, he felt that he was in no danger of adopting the Philistinian ways and customs. But, now that he was secure and peace had come, he said to himself: “Who knows whether I can preserve my spiritual identity?”

Assimilation and intermarriage have long been a fixture of Jewish life. Tragically, millions of Jews have been killed by sword and other nefarious methods throughout the millennia. However, knowledgeable estimates suggest that many more Jews were lost due to assimilation and intermarriage than to persecution and murder. The well-known estimate of famed historian Paul Johnson, is that Jews constituted about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire in the time of Augustus, about eight million souls. According to natural birth rates, notwithstanding the pogroms and the murders, Jews today should number in the hundreds of millions, but do not, because of assimilation.

It is terribly painful to acknowledge the tragic truth that when Jews are persecuted, there are fewer losses. It is generally in the more open and enlightened societies that countless numbers of Jews are lost. The sword and the ghettoes, ironically, kept Jewish life intact, with the exception of eras of mass murder.

History records that, between the years 1812 and 1848, fully 85% of the Jewish community of Berlin formally underwent conversion to Christianity. Some scholars even suggest that had Hitler allowed the Jews of Germany to live in peace, they would have disappeared within a generation or two. That’s how profoundly assimilated they were.

With the intermarriage rates of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States today above 70%, we see that Jews are being lost not because they are hated. To the contrary, they are loved, and non-Jews are often delighted to have Jewish sons and daughters-in-law.

This is the challenge that we face today. If there would be peace between Israel and the Arabs, there will be significant assimilation. Even now, at a time of great enmity, Jewish-Muslim marriages, while rare, are not uncommon.

In most instances, it is more likely that those who live in tight-knit and highly-sheltered religious Jewish communities, even in large metropolitan areas, will be able to repel the tide of assimilation that prevails throughout the world today. But, even in those highly-sheltered communities, the rates of assimilation are climbing significantly.

When peace was made between him and the king of Gerar, Isaac realized that it was time to move away, to distance himself, so that he could maintain his strong Jewish identity and live a full Jewish life with intensity and passion. Contemporary Jews, may need to do the same to ensure their own continuity.

May you be blessed.

Chayei Sarah 5779-2018

“Abraham’s Eulogy for His Beloved Sarah”


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we learn of the passing of the Matriarch, Sarah, at age 127.

In Genesis 23:2, the Torah states וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע, הִוא חֶבְרוֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן, וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ,, Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.

The Torah proceeds to share the fascinating details of the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, and Abraham’s efforts to secure a proper burial place for Sarah, his beloved wife.

Abraham successfully purchases the Cave of Machpelah, which, of course, became the fabled burial place of not only Sarah, but of all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel.

The famed Torah luminary, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau questions the reason for the apparent redundancy of the term לְשָׂרָה “l’Sarah,” for Sarah. Scripture, in Genesis 23:2, had already noted, וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה , “va’tah’maht Sarah,” that Sarah had died in Kiriath-Arba. It would have been sufficient for the Torah to have stated that Abraham came to eulogize “her” and to cry for “her.” What is the reason for the repetition of the word, “l’Sarah”?

The Nodah b’Yehudah suggests that Abraham’s eulogy was presented only after the eulogies delivered by several of Abraham’s contemporaries, who all spoke of Sarah’s legendary stature and accomplishments. Although there is no textual source for this, perhaps the Noda b’Yehuda felt that the term וַיָּבֹא , “va’yah’vo,” and he came, implied that Abraham spoke after previous eulogies had already been delivered.

When the locals spoke of Sarah, they apparently spoke primarily of her role as the wife of the great Abraham. Abraham, however, wished to extol Sarah in her own right, not merely regarding her role as a facilitator for his accomplishments.

Abraham, better than anyone, recognized Sarah’s special innate virtues, and therefore felt compelled to offer her the praise that she rightfully deserved, extolling Sarah as a spiritual giant in her own right. The fact that the Torah chooses to repeat the word “l’Sarah,” for Sarah, implies that Abraham cried specifically for the loss of Sarah, a truly righteous individual, rather than weeping over the impact of her death on him.

This particular interpretation, shows the very special relationship between the first Patriarch and the first Matriarch, both in life and in death. Clearly, Sarah lived her life to advance and enhance her husband’s deeds, and Abraham lived his life to advance and enhance Sarah’s unique achievements.

Not for a moment to compare myself or my wife to Abraham and Sarah, but, this Torah portion and the Nodah b’Yehudah’s sensitive interpretation, compels me to share a few words of praise for my own wife, Aidel.

Aidel and I will soon, with G-d’s help, celebrate 43 years of marriage. Now that we are “empty nesters,” we frequently recall the early years. As newlyweds and as communal leaders in a dynamic and growing community, our early years of marriage paralleled not only the historic development and growth of the Lincoln Square Synagogue and its Adult Education Program, which I headed for 15 years (attracting over 1,000 students each week), but also the founding and growth of the remarkable LSS Beginners Service.

As many of you know, the Beginners Service was the brainchild of the world-famous composer, Steve Reich. Steve threw out a challenge to me and said that if I would conduct a service for people with little or no synagogue background, he and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Beryl Korot, would attend.

In December 1975, two weeks after our wedding, the Beginners Service began in the cavernous ballroom of the old Lincoln Square Synagogue building with only four attendees: myself, Steve Reich, Beryl Korot, and another fellow, a tall accountant, also named Steve Reich.

Every other week, some strange guy would come in on roller skates, with a tennis racket in hand, and ask, “How do you know that there’s a G-d?”

Who would ever believe that such a service would ever succeed? After all, we were competing with, at that time, the most popular Shabbat synagogue service in New York City, conducted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Cantor Sherwood Goffin.

Slowly but surely, people started coming, and then, on Saturday March 18, 1981, The New York Times published a front page, second section story on the Beginners Service. The rest is history. It was standing room only, from then on.

Over the past 42 years, approximately 15-20,000 people have attended the Beginners Service, and through the efforts of NJOP, Beginners Services are now offered all over the country and throughout the world. Every week, I still marvel at the privilege of being able to conduct the service. At the end of June, each year, I ask myself, if the next year can top the previous year’s extraordinary experiences. And, each year, an exciting group of new “Beginners” join the service, and, invariably, serve as a great source of inspiration to both myself and Aidel. The Beginners Service has proven to be one of the most effective methods of bringing people to religious observance. The success rate is truly remarkable.

As we reminisce, Aidel and I think of the 15-20,000 guests whom we’ve hosted over the last 42 years. It’s hard to believe that in the first 10 years, when we had four little children afoot, and had little help in the kitchen, we hosted guests for meals on both Friday nights and for Shabbat lunch every week, with the exception of lunch, once a month, when there was a Beginners luncheon at the synagogue.

When Aidel, in her wisdom, realized that it was important for us to have private family time for the children, we stopped hosting on Friday night and usually invited guests only for Shabbat lunch. We did not have a personal cook, or even much kitchen help. I did most of the shopping and Aidel did all of the cooking. With no previous cooking experience, Aidel proved to be an outstanding cook, in addition to working part-time as an exceptionally talented clinical therapist and taking extraordinary care of our children.

Many people perceive the Beginners rabbi’s wife as simply an extension of the rabbi himself, but she is much more than that. Aidel has been my partner in everything that I’ve accomplished, first as Educational Director, and later as the Founder and Director of NJOP. She has been at my side providing astute guidance, wise counsel, and unconditional support for everything that I do. It would be fair for me to say, as Rabbi Akiva said of his wife (Nedarim 50a), שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלָּכֶם, שֶׁלָּהּ הוּא , what I have accomplished and what others have benefitted, are really due to her. While others may see Aidel as an extension of my success, I see my success, due primarily to my wife, Aidel.

We look back and wonder how we did it without a sleep-in nanny, without much kitchen help? I did the shopping, she cooked the food, we set the table, and after Shabbat we washed the dishes and immediately started preparing for the next Shabbat. As the children grew older, they helped, and now we miss them as we set the Shabbat table ourselves.

I can’t speak for Aidel, but from this husband, there are no regrets, just intense gratitude.

These words of tribute are not intended to serve as a living eulogy. Parashat Chayei Sarah was just a propitious opportunity that I couldn’t pass up to express some well-deserved words of thanks.

May Aidel and our family be blessed with good health and happiness for many years to come. May we continue to merit to help our brothers and sisters, who have enhanced our lives so profoundly, grow in their Judaism and enrich our people with their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5779-2018

The Tension Between Human Love and Divine Will


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we find two important stories that reflect on the tension between human love and Divine will. This clash is found in the biblical account of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s home, as well as in the dramatic account of the עֲקֵדָה , Akeida, Abraham’s binding of his son, Isaac, in preparation for offering Isaac up as a sacrifice to G-d.

The story of expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael takes place soon after the weaning of Isaac. In Genesis 21:8, the Torah reports, וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל, וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת יִצְחָק , The child [Isaac] grew and was weaned. Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned.

But things are never simple in patriarchal families. In the very next verse, Genesis 21:9, we are informed, וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת בֶּן הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם, מְצַחֵק, , And Sarah saw [Ishmael] the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom [Hagar] had borne to Abraham, mocking. Sarah immediately demands of Abraham: “The son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!” and insists that Abraham drive out both the slave woman and her son.

The Torah reports that Abraham was extremely distressed by Sarah’s demand to expel his son, Ishmael (but is silent regarding Hagar’s expulsion). G-d tells Abraham not to agonize over the youth or the slave woman, Genesis 21:12, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ, כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע, , Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours. Furthermore, G-d assures Abraham that Ishmael will become a nation, “for he is your offspring.”

Scripture reports that Abraham awakened early in the morning, and sent Hagar and her son off with only a bit of bread and a skin of water. Hagar, however, loses her way in the wilderness of Beersheba and when the water in the skin was entirely consumed, in desperation, Hagar throws Ishmael beneath one of the trees so that she would not see the death of the child. She then sat down at a distance, lifted her voice and cried.

An angel calls to Hagar from Heaven to tell her (Genesis 21:17), אַל תִּירְאִי, כִּי שָׁמַע אֱ־לֹקִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר, בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם Do not be afraid, for G-d has heard the cry of the youth in his present state.

The angel instructs Hagar (Genesis 21:18-19), to rise and lift the child, and to place her hand on Ishmael, “for G-d will make him into a great nation.” Hagar’s eyes are then opened, whereupon she sees a well of water and gives the child to drink.

Scripture then notes that G-d was with Ishmael, and that he grew up in the wilderness where he became an accomplished archer. Hagar made certain that Ishmael married a woman from her native land of Egypt, further estranging him from the Abrahamic roots and traditions.

Sarah’s demand to banish Hagar and Ishmael appears to be entirely incomprehensible and unreasonably harsh. While it could be attributed to Sarah’s long barrenness and overprotective mothering, it must certainly be part of the Al-mighty’s Divine plan. Sarah seems to understand better than Abraham that all of the extraordinary events that are transpiring are part of a Divine scheme. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that her actions find approval with G-d, while Abraham’s do not.

In order to fulfill the Divine mission that G-d has chartered for Abraham, and later for both Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s natural feelings of compassion for both Hagar and Ishmael must yield to the Divine plan.

The same is true of the story of the Akeida–the Binding of Isaac. Perhaps that is why the rabbis arranged that both stories are read on Rosh Hashana, the day on which Jews the world over are encouraged to realize that the only way to live a meaningful and fulfilling life is to sublimate one’s own feelings and desires, and follow the dictates of G-d as recorded in His Torah.

Without an appreciation of the great Divine plan, it is impossible to understand how the exceedingly compassionate Abraham could have expelled both his child and his wife from his home. Without the realization that G-d has a cosmic plan for His People that will revolutionize civilization and the world, most, if not all, of Jewish history remains incomprehensible. After all, who could fathom that the great matriarch, Sarah, would demand that her own loyal handmaiden, whom she insisted that Abraham take as a wife, be cast into the wilderness with only a morsel of bread and an inadequate skin of water?

That is why Abraham’s descendants need to always bear in mind that the Divine plan and scheme is constantly at play, in every generation and at every moment.

May you be blessed.

Lech Lecha 5779-2018

“Why Did G-d Choose Abraham?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, G-d, seemingly arbitrarily, calls out to Abram (whose name had not yet been changed to Abraham) to leave his land, his relatives, and his father’s house and go to the land that G-d will show him.

After calling out to Abram, G-d continues to say to him (Genesis 12:2-3) that He will make Abram into a great nation, He will bless him, and make his name great. He will bless those who bless Abram, and those who curse Abram, G-d will curse, and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by Abram.

Why G-d specifically calls Abram, seems to be a mystery.

When Noah finds favor in G-d’s eyes, the Torah (Genesis 6:9), distinctly states that Noah was “a man, righteous and perfect in his generation,” who “walked with G-d.” When G-d chooses Moses at the Burning Bush to lead the people out of Egypt, we already know that Moses had earned a reputation as a champion of his persecuted brethren in Egypt (Exodus 2:12). He had intervened when two Jews were fighting (Exodus 2:13), and had rescued Jethro’s daughters from the shepherds who were harassing them (Exodus 2:17). But what qualifications did Abram have to be chosen?

Perhaps the reason lies with the fact that Abram’s father, Terach, was wise enough to see that Mesopotamia (Ur Kasdim) was not a land in which he could effectively raise his children. It was he, Terach, who set out to go to the land of Canaan, but halted on the way, and eventually settled in Haran, where Terach died. Maybe Terach was more of a positive influence on Abram than tradition lets on? However, traditional Biblical sources not only fail to give Terach credit for Abram’s chosenness, they cast Terach in a negative light, accusing Terach of attempting to kill his son Abram.

The Ramban,  Nachmanides, focuses in on those subtle allusions in the text of the Torah that point to the challenges that Abram faced in Ur Kasdim that underscore the qualities of Abram and why he was chosen.

Based on Genesis 11:31, which states, וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ , that Terach “took” Abram his son, the Midrash says that Abram’s father, Terach was an idolater and that his son Abram defied his father. Because of his rejection of idolatry, Terach had Abram thrown into a fiery furnace, from which he emerged unharmed. Therefore, the Ramban maintains, in light of this test and other tests that Abram was subjected to in Ur Kasdim, Abram was chosen for G-d’s very special mission.

There are those who suggest that G-d spoke to other individuals, contemporaries of Abram, and residents of the other lands, and told to leave their homeland and go to the new land, which He would show them. Only Abram heeded G-d’s call, and set out from Haran, at age 75, to go to an unknown land, which he later learned was the land of Canaan. For this singular bold action, Abram was chosen to be the father of the Chosen People.

Other scholars, like the The Maharal, argue that the Torah purposely says nothing about Abram’s special qualities, for which he is chosen. He is chosen simply because G-d chose him. It is very possible that G-d saw in Abram special talents that not only could be further developed, but could serve as a paradigm for all his contemporaries and future generations, of what faith and faithfulness should be. Clearly the choice was correct. As Abram was subjected to the ten great tests during his lifetime, he proved, time-after-time, to be a man of special faith.

The Maharal proceeds to build a powerful case for the chosenness of the Jewish people, based on the “arbitrary” chosenness of Abram. The Maharal insists that just as the Al-mighty needed no justification for choosing Abram, so the world needs no justification for the chosenness of the Jewish people. After all, it was G-d Who chose them, apparently because of their special spiritual qualities.

This “arbitrary” chosenness, says the Maharal, was not a result of good deeds or prior heroic actions. Abram was chosen simply because of G-d’s love for him–a chosenness that is beyond human comprehension. Despite the lack of “justification,” only Abram was chosen, along with his children and descendants for all future generations, even though they had not yet been born and had not performed any righteous deeds to deserve to be chosen. The Torah, argues the Maharal, doesn’t reveal what Abram’s deeds were specifically because he was chosen purely and simply because of G-d’s love for him and his children.

The power of Abram’s response to G-d’s summons of, לֶךְ לְךָ , “Lech Lecha,” “go for yourself,” reverberates throughout the world to this very day. Once Abram was chosen, it became his responsibility, and that of his children, to listen to the continuing Divine call of “Lech Lecha,” to go for yourself, for your benefit, and for the benefit of the humankind.

Despite the passage of millennia, G-d is still calling to all His children to go forward, to march onward, to perform good and noble deeds that will enlighten the world, enhancing the nature of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Noah 5779-2018

“Noah’s Birds– The Raven and the Dove”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, as the waters of the Flood subside, Noah sends out two birds from the Ark–a raven and a dove.

There are significant differences between the way Noah relates to, and treats, these two birds. The Torah in Genesis 8:7 states, וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעֹרֵב, וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב עַד יְבֹשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ , He [Noah] sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the waters dried from upon the earth.

In contrast, when Noah sends out the dove, the Torah, in Genesis 8:8-9, reports, וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מֵאִתּוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. וְלֹא מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה, כִּי מַיִם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ, וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה Then he [Noah] sent out the dove from him to see whether the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for the sole of its foot, and it returned to him to the Ark, for water was upon the surface of all the Earth. So he [Noah] put forth his hand and took it, and brought it to him to the Ark.

The difference between Noah dispatching the raven and sending the dove is stark. The raven is given no mission. It is not sent to see whether the waters have subsided over the face of the Earth, as the dove was. Because of that omission, there are commentators who maintain that Noah intended to banish the raven from the Ark because it had violated the decree to not procreate during the time of the Flood. The rabbis say that Noah later had mercy on the raven and allowed it back into the Ark because in the future, in the time of Elijah, the ravens would bring food to the famished prophet (I Kings 17:2-16).

Regarding the raven, we do not see that Noah had any personal or emotional relationship, as we do with the dove. When describing the departure of the dove, the Torah pointedly states that Noah sent out the dove, מֵאִתּוֹ , “may’ee’toh,” from himself, indicating that Noah had a special relationship with the dove, justifying his trust in the dove to bring back valuable information. We also see Noah’s caring relationship with the dove when Noah “puts forth his hand and took” the dove to welcome the dove back to the Ark. The commentators further underscore the closeness of this relationship by noting that the word וַיִּקָּחֶהָ , “Va’yee’ka’cheh’ha,” he took her, is the word often used for marriage between a man and a woman.

There are those who maintain that even though the words are not found in the raven’s narrative, both the raven and the dove were charged with the mission to check on the levels of water. Since pigeons/doves are often used to transmit messages over long distances, the dove was sent to report on conditions at distant locations, whereas the raven remained local. It is also likely that the raven remained near the Ark, since the raven feeds on carrion, and there were undoubtedly the remains of many dead animals and humans for the raven to consume.

While the raven is sent out only once and brings back no information to Noah, the dove is sent out three times. The first time, the dove returns because water still covered the entire face of the earth. The Ha’amek Davar indicates that Noah welcomes the dove back with compassion by extending his hand to take him, even though the dove was unsuccessful in its first mission. The second time, the dove brings back an olive leaf, indicating that the waters had now subsided. Again, underscoring their close relationship, the Torah also specifies that the dove came back “to him,” meaning Noah, and to the Ark. When the dove does not return a third time, Noah concludes that the earth is dry and that he may now remove the cover from the Ark.

It is interesting to note that each time the dove departs, the Torah insinuates a growing distance between Noah and the dove. Thus, we see, in Genesis 8:10, וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מִן הַתֵּבָה , that after waiting another seven days, Noah again sends out the dove from the Ark. This time, however, there’s no indication of a relationship between the dove and Noah, and when the dove returns that evening with the fresh olive leaf, Noah does not extend his hand to welcome her back.

After another seven days, the Torah, in Genesis 8:12, states וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא יָסְפָה שׁוּב אֵלָיו עוֹד , He sent the dove forth, and it did not return to him anymore. There is now a complete break between the dove and Noah–the dove is never to return. Underscoring the distance that had been developed between them, on the third mission, the Torah does not state that the dove is sent out from Noah or from the Ark, just sent out.

Rashi claims that the olive leaf that the dove brought back was bitter. Citing the Midrash, Rashi concludes that the dove symbolically declared: “Better that my food be bitter but from G-d’s hands, than sweet as honey, but dependent upon mortal man.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that after a full year of relying on Noah’s kindness because it could not earn its own food, the dove carried a bitter olive leaf back to Noah. Says Rabbi Hirsch, this teaches that even the bitterest food eaten in freedom is better than the sweetest food given in servitude.

As usual, there is much to learn, not only from the text of the Torah, but also from “between-the-lines” of the Torah narratives.

May you be blessed.