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Shavuot 5780-2020

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Bamidbar 5780-2020

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Behar-Bechukotai 5780-2020

Setting a New Standard of Ethical Behavior
(Updated and revised from Parashiot Behar-Bechukotai 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, we once again read two parashiot, Behar and Bechukotai.

In parashat Behar, in Leviticus 25:14, we find the expression, אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו, Do not aggrieve one another. Then, in Leviticus 25:17, we encounter what seems to be a repetition of the previous verse, וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ, Each of you shall not aggrieve one another.

The rabbis tell us that the first mention of אַל תּוֹנוּ teaches that it is forbidden to hurt people with words or misleading behavior in business. Whereas, the second mention of וְלֹא תוֹנוּ applies to personal conduct.

Contemporary society has so dramatically lowered the standards of proper behavior and comportment, that, unfortunately, hurtful words are hardly considered a bad thing. We’ve reached the absurd point where a children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me,” dictates much of adult behavior. In other words, hurtful words are routinely accepted, as long as no one is physically harmed.

During his tenure as Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, as part of his efforts to reduce crime in the city, developed, with his then police commissioner, what is now known as the “Broken Windows Theory” of criminology. They argued, that if the authorities could early on stop the petty crime, if they could nip the smaller problems in the bud, then there would be much less serious crime. It could be similarly argued, that if society and its educators would teach all citizens the finer essences of life, the so-called “little stuff,”–caring, concern and empathy, then a new tone could be set for our world, where noble aspirations and expectations would invariably increase.

We often hear the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”–which is true perhaps for victims. But, perpetrators should never think that it’s small stuff. Small stuff is really big stuff.

In fact, we’ve reached the point where an act of simple kindness or even an act of simple honesty, acts that should be expected as normal and routine, are now considered “extraordinary.” How sad that standards and expectations have been so reduced, because we surely know that small acts of kindness can often have profound impact on people’s lives.

I heard a moving story of a young religious man who found someone’s personal phone book in a phone booth (must have been a very long time ago!). Because of the Torah mitzvah of הֲשָׁבַת אֲבֵדָהhashavat aveida, of returning lost objects, he started calling the names in the book that he had found, to try to locate its rightful owner. His efforts were unsuccessful until he reached a woman in Florida who told him that she suspected that the phone book might very well be her daughter’s. Before getting off the phone, the woman asked the caller why he was so keen to find the rightful owner. He told her that as a religious Jew he felt obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of “hashavat aveida,” of returning lost objects.

It turned out that it was indeed the woman’s daughter’s phone book. The finder and the owner made a date to meet so the woman could retrieve her property. When the young man returned the book to the rightful owner, the woman was overwhelmed by his kindness, far more than would ordinarily be expected. She explained to the young man, “You not only returned my phone book, you returned my mother to me! You see, when I became religiously observant several years ago, my mother was so distraught, that she stopped speaking to me. She thought that I had joined a cult, and felt that everything that I was doing was crazy. My mother was so impressed by the extraordinary effort you made to return my phone book to its rightful owner, that, for the first time, she understood the validity of my lifestyle. As a result of your kindness, we’ve been reconciled.”

No one should be expected to tolerate “sticks and stones” and physical beatings. Judaism, however, goes much further, declaring that society can not tolerate physical violence or hurtful words and bad names.

Judaism, you see, sets a very high standard. It aims for Utopia. And, who knows, maybe because of its high expectations we will actually encounter much more exceptional behavior, and actually experience a taste of the “World to Come,” even in this world.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Monday Night, May 11th, and continue all day Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The Omer period extends for 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Emor 5780-2020

“Death, and the Kohanim–the Children of Aaron”
(updated and revised from Parashat Emor 5762-2002

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, the parasha opens with the laws regarding the special sanctity of the Kohanim, the priests, who are the male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses.

Leviticus 21:1 reads: וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו . G-d spoke to Moses: Speak unto the priests, the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron and say onto them: “None of you [priests] shall defile himself to a dead person among his people.” The Torah continues to explain that, despite this prohibition, a Kohain may contaminate himself in order to attend the funeral and burial of one of the Kohain’s seven closest relatives–mother, father, son, daughter, brother, virgin sister and wife.

In Leviticus 21:6, the Torah explains the reason for these severe restrictions: קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵא־לֹקֵיהֶם, וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיהֶם . They [the priests] shall be holy to their G-d, and they shall not desecrate the name of their G-d. This verse explains that because priests conduct the sacred services in the Temple, they must remain holy, and not ritually defile themselves.

As I have frequently argued, I strongly believe that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the “sanctity of human life,” and that virtually every single mitzvah of the Torah can be traced back to that principle. Since life is the great sanctifier, death is the great defiler. One reason that death is the great defiler is because frequent contact with death often renders those who survive, inured to human life. It is especially true in today’s era, with the constant proliferation of news regarding massive numbers of casualties and deaths, that the constant exposure leads to great indifference to both death and to human life. That is why the menstruant woman, who experiences the death of the ovum in her body, must regularly reaffirm life by going to the primordial source of life, the waters of the Mikveh, to purify herself.

Let us try to understand the source of the special sanctity of the priests. The Kohanim–the priests, represent a utopian dream, a world in which there is no death, no divorce, no mentally or physically-challenged people, a world bereft of pain. Consequently, the priest is not permitted to be involved with death, because death does not “apply” to his world.

Of course, in reality, death certainly impacts the priest’s world. Consequently, for his seven closest relatives the priest may attend the funeral and the burial. A high priest, on the other hand, because of his exalted status of sanctity, is not even permitted to attend the funeral of his seven closest relatives. However, because of the extraordinary ideal of the sanctity of human life, if there is a Jew suffering from a terminal illness who has no one else to care for him, or attend to his burial, the High Priest, even in the week before Yom Kippur, or on Yom Kippur itself, must defile himself and care for this person in need. The High Priest must do this even if it means, that as a result of his contamination, he may be unable to perform the Yom Kippur service for the People of Israel on the holiest day of the year.

There is, however, perhaps another reason why priests are not permitted to be involved with death and burial. The ancient priests, of course, were, in some way, the equivalent to the contemporary clergymen. According to a view expressed by Rabbi Saul Berman, the priests, who act as clergy, are not permitted to be involved with death, so that they not be in a position to exploit the vulnerability of their flock at the time of death. The priest is permitted to counsel, console, and advise, but is forbidden to attend the funeral or burial of the deceased.

Perhaps, because these vulnerable moments are often a time that people turn to spirituality, priests and/or religious leaders must not exploit this vulnerability to advance their own personal causes, no matter how noble, by seeking donations, contributions or memorial buildings, but should rather distance themselves from the mourners.

Perhaps, by distancing the clergy, the Torah may also be saying to all other Jews, that one need not be a member of the clergy in order to show sensitivity, and to care for the mourners. Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of encouraging lay people to be there for the sick and the infirm. In that sense, all the Jewish people become “priests.” No one is free from the obligation of comforting, encouraging, and attending to the needs of the mourner or the family of one who is gravely ill. It is during that most vulnerable time of need, that every Jew is expected to act like a rabbi or clergy person.

What a sensitive and fascinating idea!

May you be blessed.

This Thursday evening, May 7th through Friday , May 8th is Pesach Shay’nee, the “Second Passover.” Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5780-2020

“Who is Truly Religious?
(Updated and revised from Parashiot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761-2001)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

This week’s parashiot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, are again double parashiot. Both of these parashiot are chock full of novel Jewish laws and insights. Acharei Mot contains two positive commandments and twenty-six negative commandments, while Kedoshim has thirteen positive and thirty-eight negative commandments.

The aspiration to live as קְדֹשִׁים , “kedoshim”–to live as a holy people,is a major objective of the Jewish religion and of Jewish life. Unfortunately, because of our people’s countless enemies and persecutors, Jews have really not had much opportunity to live עַל קִדּוּשׁ השׁםal kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-d’s name. Lamentably, for many millennia, a far-too-common experience of the Jewish People has been to die al kiddush Hashem, to give up one’s life in sanctification of G-d’s name. This week’s parashiot, especially parashat Kedoshim, underscore the importance of living al kiddush Hashem, in a manner that sanctifies G-d’s name.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with G-d’s directive to Moses to speak to all the people of Israel and to say to them: (Leviticus 19:2), קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם , You shall be holy for I, G-d, your L-rd, am holy. This commandment to be holy, harkens back to the essential charge that G-d gave the people at Sinai, Exodus 19:6, to be a מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ , a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It was a clarion call from the Al-mighty that every Jew is to serve as a role model to the world of ethical and moral living.

If we look carefully, we will discover that despite the many tragedies and hardships, Jewish history has really been one unending series of ethical and moral triumphs. In fact, Jewish education has proven to be the most effective means of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time in ethical and moral living!

The Jewish people, through their Torah, have introduced untold numbers of revolutionary ideas to the world, ranging from loving one’s neighbor as oneself, to the revolutionary concepts of charity, caring for the poor, the infirm and the widow, the concept of not causing undue pain to animals, the concept of the Sabbath–a day of rest for people and for land, the idea of honesty in judgment, and on and on.

However, over the recent past, and it’s difficult to define what the recent past is–whether it’s the past 100 years, 1,000 years or 1,500 years, somewhat of a redefinition of Jewish terminology has taken place. So, for instance, if one were to ask whether a particular individual is a “religious” or “observant” Jew or not, the general criteria that is used today to make such an assessment is to determine whether the person is observant of three major mitzvot: Shabbat, kashrut and the laws of family purity-–three ritual mitzvot that are, of course, of essential importance. But, there’s something wrong, very wrong, with that definition. It’s incomplete. As important as the “big three” mitzvot are, in order to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” there must be an ethical component included in that definition.

The need for an ethical component in defining who is “religious” is clearly conveyed in parashat Kedoshim. One cannot really be considered to be an “observant” or “religious” Jew if one is very careful about the food one eats, but careless about dealing honestly with others, especially in business. One cannot really be considered a good Jew if one prays with great fervor in the morning, yet speaks evil about others with equal fervor in the afternoon. One cannot really be regarded as a righteous Jew if one observes the Sabbath meticulously, but withholds the wages of a hired worker, or fails to pay debts in a timely manner.

This “redefinition” of what it means to be a good and righteous Jew has led the traditionally observant Jewish community to lose much of its ethical edge over the last fifty years. As traditional Judaism has gained in strength and numbers over this period of time, its leaders have become rather outspoken on many issues, both, theological and political, but have been mostly mute regarding the increasing instances of ethical lapses in the traditional community.

Surely, if any traditional Jew or group of traditional Jews were publicly disdainful of any one of the “big three”–Shabbat, Kashrut and laws of family purity, that individual or group of individuals would be roundly and loudly condemned by their Jewish leaders. Imagine encountering five or six great rabbis eating pork in a restaurant. All hell would break lose!! But, when significant numbers of traditionalists and their leaders are accused and convicted of misusing government funds, or laundering improper charitable donations, the lack of public outcry is truly embarrassing.

Because of the absent or insufficient response to ethical violations from the traditional community, the problem has grown worse. Hardly a week or month now goes by without some new violation featured in newspaper headlines, and the frequent indictment and conviction of so-called “religious Jews.” And, if significant numbers are now being publicly charged with such crimes, imagine how many are never caught. Certainly, there is a problem of ethics in the religious Jewish community, because after all, even a single violation is cause for significant concern.

These remarks should not be misconstrued to be a general indictment of traditional or “religious” Jews, leaving the impression that these communities are any worse than the less observant community or the non-Jewish community. I believe, and I hope that I am right, that, thank G-d, the traditional Jewish community still measures up exceptionally well when compared to others. But, these violations must not be tolerated or countenanced. They must be strongly and roundly condemned by the religious Jewish leaders, and the highest standards must be demanded and expected of all.

And, so, the message of this week’s double Torah portion is bold and clear. Buy your strictly glatt kosher meat, but make certain that your business dealings are also glatt, smooth, flawless, meticulously honest. Remember to observe the Sabbath punctiliously, but make certain to pay your bills punctiliously, as well. Of course, conduct your intimate life in a sanctified manner, but make certain that your speech and comportment are also sanctified.

May you be blessed.
Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, which begins Monday night, April 27th) is observed this year on the 5h of Iyar, Tuesday evening, April 28th, and all day Wednesday April 29th.

Tazria-Metzorah 5780-2020

“Challenging the Stereotypes: Purity and Impurity in Childbirth”
(edited and revised from Parashiot Tazria-Metzorah 5761-2001)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In the first of this week’s double parashiot, Tazria-Mezorah, we encounter one of the most perplexing laws found in the Torah.

The Torah informs us, in Leviticus 12:2, that G-d spoke to Moses saying: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּוֺתָהּ תִּטְמָא . Speak to the Children of Israel and say: When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she shall be impure for a seven day period, as during the days of her menstrual separation, shall she be impure. The Torah then states that on the eighth day, the child should be circumcised. For a subsequent thirty-three day period, (even if she has a discharge of blood), the mother of the male child will be pure. However, if she gives birth to a female child, she’ll be impure for two weeks, and for sixty-six days she shall remain pure.

In effect, the Torah tells us that everything is doubled for the mother upon the birth of a female child. The period of impurity upon the birth of a male is one week, and upon the birth of a female two weeks. The period of purity for the male child is thirty-three days, yet sixty-six days for the female child.

Nowhere does the Torah clarify why there is a difference in the mother’s status after bearing a male child, as opposed to a female child.

Some contemporary commentators see the doubling of the woman’s period of impurity simply due to the fact that the ancient world placed a much greater emphasis and value on the birth of a male child. There are however, a host of commentators who offer a variety of additional answers. Perhaps the aggregate of these opinions will provide us with a clue on how to best understand this most perplexing issue.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch maintains that women lose their spirituality during childbirth, since because of the intense pain of childbirth, mothers often pray that she or her child should die, and be put out of misery. Since of course, death is the greatest contaminator, the mother experiences a period of impurity, followed by a recovery period of purity.

A later German commentator, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman , claims almost the opposite, arguing that the entire ritual of birth is a reaffirmation of life, since birth ensures continuity and prosperity.

Ramban, the great classical commentator who was also a physician, suggests that the natural recovery time for the mother is different after the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child. This is interesting, because it might reflect on what contemporary researchers call “postpartum depression,” suggesting that there are perhaps hormonal differences in a mother after the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child.

Some would argue that women are naturally more spiritual than men, resulting in a higher sense of spirituality when bearing a female child. Hence, a longer period of impurity and purity.

Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotopsky, in his book A Night of Watching suggests that the ritual purity and impurity is related to a woman’s need to establish relationships with herself (that is her body), with her newborn child and with her husband. The period of impurity assures that after childbirth there is to be no sexual relationship between husband and wife, allowing the mother to come to terms with the trauma she has experienced, and allowing her to bond exclusively with the child, which is most vital.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has suggested that everything is doubled for the birth of a female child because the process of life and death will be repeated physiologically in the newly born female’s own lifetime and within her own body. Also, perhaps because the mother has a greater responsibility to serve as the role model for the female child, everything is doubled, reflecting twice the necessary effort.

Although I personally do not find any of the explanations fully satisfying, we do see, whatever the answer, great wisdom and insight on the part of the Torah, reflecting a depth of understanding of the essence of human relationships that is rather extraordinary.

Shemini 5780-2020

“The Responsibilities of Leadership”
(Revised and updated from Parashat Shemini 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In the opening chapters of this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, Moses summons Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the elders of Israel to participate in one of the most exalted ceremonies in Jewish history, the inauguration of the Tabernacle and the consecration of Aaron and his sons to serve as the priests of the People of Israel.

According to tradition, the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle, had been built and completed on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, coinciding with the future date of the celebration of Chanukah. Starting from the twenty-third of Adar, Moses, serving as the temporary High Priest, practiced each day, for seven days, erecting and taking down the Tabernacle. Moses also served as the interim High Priest during the sanctification of the new priests and the dedication of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was finally erected permanently on the first day of the month of Nisan, at which time the Kohanim (priests) assumed their new roles.

The inauguration day was the day for which Aaron had longed, for his entire life. After enduring the travails of slavery in Egypt as well as the momentous revelation at Sinai, Aaron could finally feel proud of what he had accomplished.

Leviticus 10:1 describes the initial ceremony: וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת, וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השׁם אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם , And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire-pan, put fire on them and placed incense on it, and they brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them.

Scripture (Leviticus 10: 2-3) goes on to describe: And a fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them [Nadav and Abihu], and they died before G-d. Moses said to Aaron: “Of this did G-d speak saying: ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me, thus will I be honored before the entire people.’” And Aaron was silent.

On the greatest day of Aaron’s life, tragedy strikes. Aaron’s two oldest sons are dead and Aaron remains silent.

Many theories are proposed by our commentaries as to why Nadav and Abihu met this tragic fate. There are those who say that Nadav and Abihu were arrogant, and truly sinful, and deserving of death. Others say that they were so pure and holy, that they needed to be taken away from a world polluted with evil.

Some commentators suggest that the strange fire that Nadav and Abihu offered was intended to fulfill a personal urge they had for their own self-expression. After all, every person has a right to self-expression, but apparently not when serving as a Kohain. Those serving as Kohanim, dressed in the priestly garments, are limited by the rules of the Priesthood, and all their actions must be directed to serve purely on behalf of the People of Israel. Personal needs and desires for self-expression have no place here.

The tragic story of Nadav and Abihu teaches that despite the privileges and glory that come with leadership, responsibility is a basic part of leadership as well, and responsibility, perforce, results in limitations.

Over the past fifty years, America has seen a significant diminution of confidence in its leaders. Support for, and confidence in, both the presidency and the Congress has reached new lows. Many attribute the loss of respect and confidence to the leaders’ own actions and behaviors. They have ceased to act as leaders, and have been increasingly acting as “regular guys.” That sad reality has resulted in the demeaning and “defining down” of the Office of President and the role of Congress.

Many contemporary social philosophers see validity in separating the questionable personal lives and actions of public officials, from their public lives. Judaism does not see it that way. Those who serve in leadership roles have responsibilities. If they do not wish to abide by those responsibilities and high moral standards, let them not assume leadership roles.

There’s wisdom in parashat Shemini. Wisdom not only for the ancients, but for all generations, past, present and future. Leadership requires responsibility. Leadership results in limitations. Face it, or flee from it!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Tuesday night, April 14th, and continue through Wednesday and Thursday, April 15 and 16, 2020.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

 

Passover 5780-2020

“The Essential lessons of Chametz and Matzah
(Updated and Revised from Passover 5763-2003)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, the normal weekly Torah portion is preempted by the upcoming holiday of Passover which begins on Wednesday evening, April 8, 2020. A major theme of the Passover holiday is, of course, the elimination of Chametz (leaven) and the substitution of matzah in its stead.

Oddly enough, both chametz and matzah are made of the exact same ingredients: flour and water. However, chametz is flour and water that has been allowed to ferment. By permitting the mixture of flour and water to remain undisturbed for more than 18 minutes, the mixture ferments, becomes leavened–chametz, and is forbidden for the duration of Passover.

Matzah, on the other hand, contains the same ingredients, flour and water, but as long as the mixture–the dough, is constantly kneaded, it does not become chametz. Even though the dough may be kneaded for more than 18 minutes, because of the constant action, no fermentation takes place. Once the kneading of the matzah dough is completed, the raw dough is quickly shaped into matzah and baked, so that it never becomes chametz.

The process by which dough becomes chametz underscores that by inaction, by simply doing nothing–by allowing the flour and water to remain dormant, the mixture begins to ferment. The dough rises and expands, as if by itself.

Our rabbis suggest that there is a profound message to be elicited from the manufacturing process of chametz and matzah. All too often, people seek the easy way out, in the expectation that things will come their way with little or no effort or exertion. Wealth will accrue spontaneously. Knowledge will suddenly materialize. Health and strength will maintain themselves automatically. But, we know that such assumptions are fallacious. These assumptions are, in fact, predicated on totally false hopes and expectations.

Indeed, we learn from the matzah that truly meaningful life experiences come not spontaneously, but only through significant effort and labor.

More than a simple “pleasurable” life, Judaism promotes a life of “fulfillment.” Fulfillment, as opposed to pleasure, always involves significant amounts of hard work. While the task may be difficult, it nevertheless leaves us with a far more permanent sense of satisfaction, rather than a transitory, often illusory, moment of joy or pleasure.

So, in effect, the message of Passover is: Don’t be a “half-baked matzah!” Invest the effort, and reap the ineffable and lasting benefits that fulfilling life experiences provide.

חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ . We wish all our friends a wonderfully joyous, meaningful and healthy Passover.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Wednesday night, April 8th and all day Thursday and Friday, April 9th and 10th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Tuesday night, April 14th, and continue through Wednesday and Thursday, April 15th and 16th.

May you be blessed.

Tzav 5780-2020

“Behold, I am Sending You Elijah the Prophet”
(Revised and update from Tzav 5761-2001)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

On this coming Shabbat, the Shabbat of Erev Pesach, we read parashat Tzav. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath.

Many commentators claim that it is known as Shabbat HaGadol because the Jews in Egypt took sheep, the Egyptian God, on the tenth of Nisan, held them for four days, and on the fourteenth day of Nisan slaughtered the sheep for the Pascal sacrifice. So, according to tradition, since on the Sabbath before the first redemption the Jews in Egypt showed extraordinary faith in defying their Egyptian taskmasters, they were rewarded with G-d’s protection. On Shabbat HaGadol, we acknowledge the awesome faith of our ancestors.

On Shabbat HaGadol we read a special Haftarah, the prophetic passage paralleling the Torah portion, from the final Book of the Prophets, Malachi 3:4-24. Malachi 3:23 reads, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּ־ה הַנָּבִיא, לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם השׁם, הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא , Behold, I am sending you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d. Verse 24 continues: וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם , and he will restore the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. Because of the reference in verse 23 to יוֹם השׁם, הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא , the “great” and awesome day of G-d, it is appropriate for this prophetic portion to be read on Shabbat HaGadol.

In effect, the prophet Malachi predicts that toward the end of days, when Elijah comes, there will be a major return to religious observance, where parents and children will interact with each other, and will be attracted to each other through the word of G-d.

The Talmud, in Berachot 3a, cites the following passage in the name of Rabbi Eliezer:

The night is divided into three watches, and at every watch G-d sits and roars like a lion…. The signal (for the commencement of each watch, is as follows): At the first watch, a donkey brays; at the second watch, dogs bark; at the third watch [near dawn], an infant suckles from its mother and a wife chats with her husband.

The Artscroll overview of Tishah B’Av cites the Maharal, who explains in his book Netzach Yisrael, that the allegory of night represents the bleak, gloomy exile, foreshadowing the great darkness and despair in which Israel will sink before the arrival of the Messiah.

Says the Maharal, just as the night proceeds to get darker, so our exile gets progressively worse. The beginning of the exile is portrayed as a donkey braying in the night, symbolizing that our oppressors will initially treat us like beasts of burden, confining us in ghettos and assessing discriminatory taxes upon us.

The second stage of exile is symbolized by barking dogs, recalling the dogs madly barking at the sight of death, as our enemies seek to kill us through pogroms, blood libels, inquisitions, genocides and holocausts.

The third, and most terrible stage, is represented by the wife who chats with her husband. It predicts that when our enemies fail to destroy us physically, they will attempt to destroy us spiritually. A silent “Holocaust of Love” can be far more pernicious than the “Holocaust of Hate.” Assimilation and intermarriage will decimate the ranks of the Jewish people like no other scourge.

But, while the wife chats with her husband and intermarriage becomes rampant, and Jewish life hemorrhages as a result of assimilation, an infant suckles from its mother. Just when it seems that all hope for a Jewish future has faded, a faint glimmer of light appears, and a small number of Jews, even among the most assimilated and alienated Jews, will be touched by Torah, and will be drawn back to traditional Jewish life. This return movement will bring an end to the darkness of exile, and serve to herald in the dawn of redemption.

Could this possibly be referring to our times? Let us hope so. In fact, I have some “good news from aNew York Times obituary for Sylvia Weiss who died on Sunday, November 22, 1992. I want to share it with you:

WEISS-Sylvia. Adored mother of Lauren and Marshall Fuld, Diedre Weiss and Edimilson Monteiro, Hillary and Joseph Kaufman, companion to Vincent J. Tufariello…Devoted grandmother of Shmuel Dovid.

Look at this, the deceased, Sylvia Weiss left three daughters: Lauren, Diedra and Hillary. It is extremely likely that at least one of her daughters, Diedra, is intermarried–her husband’s name is Edimilson Monteiro. He may be a Spanish Jew; but highly unlikely. Sylvia herself, had a boyfriend, a “companion” they call it. His name is Vincent J. Tufariello. He may be a Jew from Milan or Venice, but more likely, he lives in Bay Ridge on 86th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway, and eats pasta and meatballs in Mama Leones. Yes, Sylvia herself was living with a non-Jew, but Sylvia Weiss left a grandson, Shmuel Dovid, not Samuel David, but Shmuel Dovid.

This is certainly a fulfillment of the Torah’s prophecy in Deuteronomy 30:4: אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם, מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ , Even though your dispersed shall be at the far ends of the heavens, from there the L-rd will gather you in, and from there shall He take you.” The power of Teshuva is irresistible; the power of Teshuva is inexorable.

The infant is suckling from its mother. Open the door, Elijah the prophet is knocking. In these times of turmoil and anxiety, Elijah cannot come soon enough.

Have a wonderfully joyous and healthy Pesach.

May you be blessed.

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

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Wednesday night, April 8th, and all day Thursday and Friday, April 9 and 10, 2020.

 

 

Vayikra 5780-2020

“Moses, a Leader with a Calling”
(Revised and updated from Vayikra 5761-2001)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, G-d calls Moses from the Tent of Meeting–the Tabernacle, giving him instructions regarding the sacrificial rites and rituals. The actual language recorded in Leviticus 1:1 reads: וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה, וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר , And He [G-d] called to Moses, and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.

The word, וַיִּקְרָא“Va’yikra,” as it appears in the Torah scroll is written in an odd manner. A diminutive, tiny letter “aleph” appears at the end of the word. The  Ba’al HaTurim  explains that this little aleph is due to Moses’ great modesty. Because of Moses’ extreme humility he sought to describe his “conversations” with the Al-mighty in a manner that paralleled the exchange that G-d had with the wicked prophet, Balaam, in Numbers 23:16. The Torah there uses the expression, וַיִּקָּר השׁם אֶל בִּלְעָם . וַיִּקָּר“Va’yikar” means that G-d appeared to Balaam by chance, randomly, by accident. An alternative meaning of the word “Va’yikar” implies contamination. The word “Va’yikar” in Numbers indicates that G-d communicated with Balaam haphazardly, and not lovingly. The Midrash says that G-d refused to allow Moses to use the word “Va’yikar,” in the Torah, implying that Moses’ interchange with G-d happened randomly, and insisted that Moses include an aleph in the word to imply affection. The small aleph clearly teaches that the exchange between G-d and Moses was not at all like G-d’s communications with Balaam–to the contrary, it was a loving and deliberate revelation.

Others suggest that Moses, at the Al-mighty’s insistence, reduced the aleph himself out of humility, to underscore a distinction between himself and Balaam.

Rashi,cites the Midrash Tanchuma, Leviticus 1, which says that the voice that came out of G-d’s mouth was so powerful that it shattered the trees around, and was heard throughout the world. Yet, the Midrash maintains, that only Moses heard G-d’s voice, because the people were not worthy of hearing it. This too, is alluded to through the diminutive aleph.

As we have already noted, many commentators point out that the diminutive aleph is used for special emphasis to underscore that G-d’s speaking to Moses was not haphazard, but truly part of the Divine plan. While G-d conveys his profound messages to other prophets, even non-Jews, other prophets do not always hear the message properly or understand it fully. However, when Moses heard a message from G-d, he hung on to each word of the message, working on every word until he had mastered its full meaning.

To Moses, each word uttered by the Al-mighty was precious, every syllable pregnant with meaning. For Moses, it was not just G-d speaking to him; it was not simply a message sent to a prophet, it was a calling. This was so, due to the fact that Moses saw his role as prophet as the very essence of his being. Moses’ commitment to G-d and His word was total and uncompromised. Consequently, Moses’ commitment to serve as G-d’s messenger was total and complete. It was therefore no accident that G-d spoke to him, or through him. It was not just a “happening,” not simply a coincidence, as the word “Va’yikar” implies, it was the very essence of Moses’ life and the ultimate purpose of his being.

Often, people in leadership positions come to think of themselves as gifted leaders, and relish the fact that others defer to them with great reverence. Many of these so-called “leaders” are particularly fond of the pomp and ceremony, the honor and distinctions, that are often part of their leadership roles. But, few, very few, have the total sense of commitment, who see their role as leader as the embodiment of their life’s work, and regard their ultimate responsibility to those whom they represent.

To be sure, it is not easy to be a leader, and certainly no one can measure up to the high standard set by Moses our Leader. But, every one of us can look upon the model of Moses, and the message of the word “Va’yikra,” as a means of clarifying what is true and genuine leadership.

Simply stated, true leadership may be recognized through two essential ingredients. Does the would-be leader have a sense of “calling,” and does the would-be leader have a sense of “modesty”? Genuine leaders, who possess these wonderful qualities, deserve to be embraced, followed and emulated.

May you be blessed.