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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.

Bereshith 5779-2018

“Who was Enoch?”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereishith, the Torah, in Genesis 5, lists the genealogy of humankind, enumerating the names of the ten generations of descendants from Adam to Noah. The list consists of only the descendants of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. Abel, of course, was murdered by Cain, while Cain’s descendants all perished in the Flood in the time of Noah.

Nachmanides, the Ramban, attributes to Adam the extraordinary longevity of the people who lived during these generations, many of whom reached age 800 and above. Since they were all directly descended from Adam, who was created physically perfect by G-d, these generations were also divinely endowed, enabling them to achieve great longevity. It was only after the Flood, that the life span of humans began to decline because of the degenerate moral atmosphere. Maimonides maintains that only the truly righteous people lived long lives, and that the life span of others already started to decline after Adam’s generation.

Genesis 5 devotes four verses, 21-24, to the life of one of Seth’s descendants, named Enoch, חֲנוֹךְ , Chanoch in Hebrew. Although we have previously encountered the name Enoch (Genesis 4:17) who was the son of Cain, this Enoch, is a descendant of Seth.

Ten generations from Adam to Noah are enumerated in the Torah: 1. Adam, 2. Seth, 3. Enosh, 4. Kenan, 5. Mahalalel, 6. Jared, 7. Enoch, 8. Methuselah, 9. Lamech, and 10. Noah.

Enoch, the seventh generation descendant of Adam, is considered by the Midrash, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 23, M, to be a person of special quality. Indeed, Moses was also the seventh of his generation.

Regarding Enoch, the Torah in Genesis 5:21-22 reports, וַיְחִי חֲנוֹךְ חָמֵשׁ וְשִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד אֶת מְתוּשָׁלַח. וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת מְתוּשֶׁלַח שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת , And Enoch lived 65 years and begat Methuselah. And Enoch walked with G-d for three hundred years after begetting Methuselah; and he begat sons and daughters. The Torah then concludes that all of the days of Enoch’s life were three hundred and sixty five years. And Enoch walked with G-d; then he was no more, for G-d had taken him.

According to most commentaries, Enoch died suddenly at a relatively young age. He clearly lived significantly fewer years than any of the other members of his family, from Adam to Noah. Ironically, his son, Methuselah, is renowned for living until age 969, longer than any other human being.

The fact that Enoch died when he was only 365 years old, begs elucidation. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear that Enoch really died. The Torah enigmatically notes that “he [Enoch] was no more.” Enoch seems to have disappeared. His premature death raises many questions that are explained in different ways by various commentators. Was Enoch righteous or a sinner? Could it be possible that he was an angel?

The Torah only records that Enoch was one of the first ten generations of humankind and that he died young, at age 365, which of course is itself a special number. Enoch lived less than half the life span of his contemporaries.

Why was Enoch taken prematurely by G-d? The Midrash Rabbah, 25:1 suggests that Enoch himself was not really a very good person, and therefore he died at a young age. An alternate opinion in the Midrash, cited by Rashi, is that Enoch was “rewarded” with a shortened life to prevent him from sinning. The commentators suggest that Enoch alternated between being righteous and wicked. The Al-mighty thus determined to take Enoch from the living while he was still righteous, before he could be corrupted by the truly wicked generation of the Flood. Rashi adds, that the Al-mighty hastened Enoch’s death because he was so easily impressionable and would undoubtedly become evil. On the other hand, both the Ralbag and Ibn Ezra  see Enoch as someone righteous who had simply completed his mission in the world, and there was no longer any reason to keep him alive.

The Torah describes Enoch as “walking with G-d” and “disappearing” because G-d took him. The Midrash in Derech Eretz Zuta, at the end of the first chapter, lists Enoch as one of only nine people who merited to enter the Garden of Eden while yet alive. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel says that Enoch did not die, his spirit merely left his body, and he was transformed into an angel, the famed Metatron.

During Enoch’s lifetime, the world had slowly begun to deteriorate morally, and sin became common. Enoch’s life’s mission was to purify the world through his good actions and noble deeds. Were it not for the righteousness of Enoch, the Flood would have arrived sooner. Some even attribute the salvation of Noah to the positive influence of Enoch.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Bible, suggests that the generations from Adam to Noah alternated between materialism and spiritualism. Some generations were noted for their giving, while others were entirely self-centered.

Rabbi Hirsch sees from the fact that Enoch is described as “walking with G-d,” that he lived an extreme monastic life, retiring from the world, avoiding the masses, either out of fear or out of disdain and contempt for his contemporaries. Says Rabbi Hirsch, monasticism is not an acceptable Jewish practice. Throughout Jewish history, righteous Jews always made a point of living together with the masses, and contributing to the masses–considering it their mission to raise the values and aspiration of the masses up to their own.

Asceticism, says Rabbi Hirsch, was strongly opposed to by the Torah because it is based “on the erroneous idea that G-dliness is something pertaining to the next world, something that lies outside the sphere of ordinary life.”

As we see too often, even in our times, extremism is not healthy. Rather, the proper path to pursue is a path of balance and moderation that enables human beings to flourish, even under extremely challenging circumstances.

May you be blessed.

Haazinu-Sukkot 5779-2018

“The Challenges of Poverty and Wealth”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Haazinu, we read the beautiful song that Moses sang to the Jewish people on the final day of his life.

Moses calls both heaven and earth to serve as witnesses to the warnings and blessings that Moses proclaims in the final hours of his life. He cautions the people of the calamities that will befall them if they sin and fail to heed the Torah. He also strongly encourages the people with the promise of the great joy that will come with the Ultimate Redemption.

Emphasizing the special attachment that G-d has to His people, Israel, Moses reminds the people of G-d’s great love for them, how He found them wandering in the wilderness and turned them into the apple of His eye. Deuteronomy 32:10,יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן, יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ, יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ , He discovered them in a desert land, in desolation, in a howling wilderness; He encircled them, and granted them discernment, He preserved them like the pupil of His eye.

G-d spared no effort caring for His people, carrying them on the pinions of His wings and making them ride on the heights of the land. He gave the People to eat of the ripe fruits of the field, and drew for them honey from a stone and oil from a flinty rock. He fed them butter of cattle and milk of sheep with the fat of lambs. He served them wheat as broad as kidneys, and gave them to drink delicious wine from the blood of grapes.

Instead of showing gratitude, Israel rebelled (Deuteronomy 32:15), וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט, שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ, וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱ־לוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ, וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ Jeshurun [the People of Israel] became fat and kicked. You became fat, you became thick, and you became corpulent, and deserted G-d its Maker, and was contemptuous of the Rock of its salvation.

The wisest of all men, King Solomon, in Proverbs 30:8, declares, רֵאשׁ וָעֹשֶׁר, אַל תִּתֶּן לִי , “Do not give me poverty or wealth.” Great poverty can prevent a person from thinking properly, driving that person away from the Al-mighty. Whereas, great wealth can also lead to apostasy, allowing one to attribute one’s success to one’s own talents, rather than to Heaven.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, notes that this is the first time that the Torah describes Israel with the title, יְשֻׁרוּן –“Jeshurun,” derived from the word for upright, straight, and just. When the People of Israel entered the land of Israel, Israel was at the height of its calling, enjoying G-d’s loving gifts. Even though Israel (“Jeshurun”) stood at its highest level of spirituality, once they began to glory in their success and became haughty, they started to reject G-d, attributing all their success to themselves and to their own powers.

The Sforno suggests that when the nation’s leaders, its elite members, pursued the physical pleasures and grew fat, thick and corpulent, the nation as a whole deserted G-d and showed only contempt for Him. Says the Sforno, when the “greats” stray just a little, the commoners fall into a steep decline.

Again, it is no coincidence that the festival of Sukkot often occurs when parashat Haazinu is read. The theme of וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט , and Jeshurun became fat and kicked, melds directly with the message of Sukkot.

The crops that were planted in the rainy season, and were harvested in the spring, on Pesach and Shavuot, were left out in the field over the summer to ripen further.

It is during the fall season, within which the holiday of Sukkot is celebrated, that the ingathering of the crops took place. All the farmers could now breathe a collective sigh of relief that not only had the crops blossomed, and reached a stage of great beauty and quality, but, also, that the produce had actually been successfully harvested and gathered into the storehouses, ready for consumption and for sale. The treacherous planting, growing, and harvesting seasons have thankfully passed with minimal pain. The farmers now wholeheartedly celebrate the blessings of their produce and the blessing of production.

It is at this very moment, just as every farmer is finally ready to relax and bask in the success of his efforts, that G-d reminds the mortal tiller of the soil that while the farmer may plant the seed, it is G-d Who brought the rain and the sun, the bees and the myriad nutrients that enabled the agricultural success.

“You may be very proud of the work of your hands,” G-d says, “However, you must now leave your homes, your comfort and wealth, and go out to the Sukkah, to live in a shack for a week,” to demonstrate your faith in G-d and to acknowledge that every single step of your success was truly dependent upon the Al-mighty, and a gift of His blessings.

Although your success is before your eyes, you must not be prideful. Indeed, you must be humble, show gratitude and faith, and declare that despite your extraordinary efforts, it was the power of the blessings of G-d that brought you to this momentous occasion.

The hot summer winds are gone, and the cool fall breezes are now blowing through the slats of your Sukkah. As the Psalmist declares in chapter 127:1, אִם השׁם לֹא יִבְנֶה בַיִת, שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ, if G-d does not build a house, its builders have toiled in vain.

May you be blessed.

 

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 23rd, 24th and 25th, 2018. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, September 30th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 1st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 1st and continues through Tuesday, October 2nd.

 

Vayeilech-Yom Kippur 5779-2018

And Moses Went…”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeilech, the Torah describes Moses’ final actions before his passing.

On the last day of his life, Moses informs the people that he is soon to die. He tells the nation that Joshua will assume the leadership and that they will successfully enter into the land of Israel and inherit it. Then, standing before of all Israel, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor, whose appointment is corroborated publicly by G-d.

Parashat Vayeilech opens with the words, Deuteronomy 31:1, וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה, וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל , and Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. Moses tells the people that he is 120 years old today and can no longer go out and come in. Even though G-d has forbidden him to cross the Jordan, he assures the people that G-d will cross the Jordan with them and destroy their enemies so that they will take possession of the land.

The commentators are perplexed by the term,  וַיֵּלֶך —“Vayeilech,” that he [Moses] went. After all, the Abarbanel, notes, that just two chapters earlier in Deuteronomy 29:1, Moses called all the people of Israel to him to speak with them. Moses says, אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים -–“ah’tem nitzavim,”–you are standing here today before the Lord your G-d. Why then does the Torah now say “vayeilech Moshe,” that Moses went to talk to the people if they were already standing before him?

The Ramban suggests, that after Moses had completed what he had to say to the people, the people all returned to their tents. Now, just before he dies, Moses went to visit the people to say goodbye to them.

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra  maintains that Moses went to each tribe individually, comforting them, telling them not to fear, and assuring them that G-d would keep His word. According to the Ibn Ezra, it was then that Moses conferred on each tribe its blessing, even though the blessings are not recorded until later, in Deuteronomy 33, in parashat V’zot Habracha.

The Sforno submits that Moses was concerned that the Covenant that he had renewed with the people would not be accepted joyously because the people would be distracted by mourning for his death. He, therefore, went to visit the individual tents of Israel to personally inspire the people and to comfort them.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,  declares that by personally visiting the people rather than having them come to him, the entire parasha underscores the extraordinary humility of Moses.

Various Hassidic commentators read more deeply into the term “vayeilech,” ְ
that Moses went. What is implied here by the term “went,” say the Hassidic masters, is that Moses “went” and entered into the soul of each individual Jew. This is what is implied in Deuteronomy 31 by the phrase, אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל —“ehl kol Yisrael,” that Moses spoke these things “to all of Israel.” It teaches that Moses’ spirit entered into the soul of each Jew. The real reason that no one knows Moses’ burial place (Deuteronomy 34:6), is because the soul of Moses is “buried” deep in the recesses of every Jew.

It is fascinating to note that Yonatan ben Uziel   in his Aramaic translation of the Bible, explains the words “and Moses went,” to mean that Moses went to the Beit Hamidrash, to the House of Study.

What is the origin of this unusual interpretation? Rashi, in Deuteronomy 31:2, concludes that when Moses says, “I am no longer able to go out and come in,” he means that the well-springs of wisdom were shut off to Moses. He, therefore, went to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study, to be taught Torah by others.

The Ba’al HaTurim notes that before the words, “Vayeilech Moshe, “and Moses went,” the previous parasha, Nitzavim, concludes with the words, עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם, לָתֵת לָהֶם –the land that the Lord your G-d swore to give your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Ba’al HaTurim suggests that Moses actually went back in history to visit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in order to inform them that the Al-mighty was keeping His promise, and was going to give the land of Israel to the Jewish people through the hand of Joshua.

The confluence between the imminent death of Moses in parashat Vayeilech, and the observance of the holy day of Yom Kippur, is by no means coincidental. I have often noted that Yom Kippur is a day on which all the Children of Israel “experience” death: On Yom Kippur there is no eating, drinking, bathing, anointing in oil, or engaging in sexual activity. The reason for this is that only one who has been dead, and comes back to life, can truly appreciate the gift of being alive.

In parashat Vayeilech, Moses teaches the people how to prepare for death by leaving the world with a sense of hope and the assurance that life continues beyond the physical life of any particular individual, no matter how great, no matter how indispensable–-even Moses.

It is especially important to acknowledge on these High Holy Days that a little bit of Moses’ soul is implanted in each Jew. As long as we live and loyally practice the words of Torah that were transmitted to us by the great Moses, Moses continues to live, and so do the People of Israel.

It is imperative, especially during these Holy Days, for all Jews to focus on the holy spirit of Moses that is implanted in each and every one of us. It is that monumental spiritual gift that provides true and deeper meaning to our own lives, and guarantees the eternity of the People of Israel.

Chag Samayach.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah and a Chatima Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.  Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, September 18th through nightfall on September 19th, 2018. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 23rd, 24th and 25th, 2018. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, September 30th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 1st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 1st and continues through Tuesday, October 2nd.

Nitzavim-Rosh Hashana 5779-2018

Whatever Became of Sin?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to Rabbi Hayyim Angel, this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, contains “one of the greatest expositions on repentance in the Torah.”

Rashi, in Deuteronomy 29:12, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, maintains that when the People of Israel heard the Tochacha (G-d’s reproof of the people) and the terrifying litany of 98 curses it contained, they were frightened and depressed by the prediction of what seemed to be a hopeless future.

Moses then comforted the people, telling them, Deuteronomy 29:9, אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, ”You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d.” In effect, Moses told the people that just as G-d had not abandoned them before, so will He be certain to embrace them in the future. Although the Tochacha was intended to prevent the people from future sinning, if they did stray, the punishments would bring them atonement, not destruction.

In parashat Nitzavim, Moses gathers all of the people together on the last day of his life, from the most exalted to the lowliest, and, for the last time, initiated them again into the Covenant of G-d.

A new concept was introduced– עֲרֵבוּת, ‘arayvut,’ the concept of mutual responsibility for one another. From now on, it was not enough for the people to just behave properly, they were expected to be responsible for all Jews and to help them to properly observe the Torah, and prevent them from violating its statutes. With the introduction of the revolutionary idea of arayvut, Moses declares, that no Jew may be indifferent to the shortcomings of their fellow Jews, and that public desecrations of the Torah must be the concern of every Jew.

The introduction of the revolutionary concept of mutual responsibility, fully justifies referring to chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, as “One of the greatest expositions on repentance in the Torah.”

In 1973, Karl Menninger published his renowned analysis of contemporary society, Whatever Became of Sin? In this volume, Menninger boldly questions what was wrong in his time with society’s ethics, values, and morality, and asserts that the answer lies within society itself.

Menninger wrote this volume at a time when the “new morality,” had emerged, when “Do your own thing” became the operating principle of many young people’s lives. It was a time when multitudes of young people felt that they must throw away all restraints on their behavior and sexual activity, and focus either on caring for themselves, promoting racial equality and the elimination of poverty. Some young people at the time abandoned any sense of responsibility and simply “dropped out.” They became “flower-children,” began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and joined ashrams and communes.

It was in this environment in which Menninger wrote his very impactful volume, Whatever Became of Sin?

Menninger and other sociologists specifically noted the contemporary practice of avoiding the word “sin” in conversation. A person who committed a crime did not “sin.” He was usually crazy, out of his mind, or on drugs.

The radio commentator, Dennis Prager, points to the dreadful error of calling mass-shooters “psychopaths,” rather than “evil people.” Attributing these nefarious actions to a malady, according to Prager, removes the responsibility from the perpetrator.

Judaism has long declared (Deuteronomy 24:16) לֹא יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא יוּמְתוּ עַל אָבוֹת, אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ , Parents may not be put to death because of children, and children may not be put to death because of parents. Every person shall be put to death for their own sin. A third innocent person may not be punished for the sin of another. Genesis 9:6, clearly states, “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did G-d make man.”

Contemporary Western society, says Rabbi Angel, acknowledges only “crimes,” not “sins.” Rabbi Angel explains that from the contemporary perspective,

Human beings have rights, including the right to life, body, and property. In addition, obligations do not have an independent existence; they stem from human rights. The right to one’s life and body implies the obligation not to injure others. The right to property implies the obligation not to steal. When we speak of crime, mainly we mean of a person’s rights.

In contrast, Judaism does not see every obligation as deriving from the rights of fellow human beings. Transgressions between individuals not only violate the rights of that individual, but also violate the Divine command. While both Western thought and the Torah attribute supreme value to human life, the Torah maintains that the prohibition of shedding human blood does not originate simply from a person’s right to life, but because that person was created in G-d’s image.

Rabbi Angel writes,

The Western world has no vocabulary for dealing with evil, and often refuses even to call it evil. One historian refers to Hitler and Stalin as having mental disorders. Many call terrorists madmen, rather than evil people. The idea that there is no sin also makes it easy to shift responsibility away from even the greatest of criminals.

The Torah, in parashat Nitzavim, calls upon each person to accept responsibility for their own transgressions, and not to simply wave them away by attributing them to evil inclinations, or environmental temptations.

That is what Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the Ten Days of Repentance are meant to represent: The High Holiday season is the time for every person to take a stand and assume responsibility for their past actions and commit themselves to transformational change. When this is done, when every Jew assumes that responsibility, Jews the world over will join our Jewish ancestors in the more than three millennia of Jewish history, in which Jews, starting from Moses on the last day of his life standing in front of all the people of Israel, have boldly declared their responsibility for their own actions, thus committing themselves to improving their own personal behavior and profoundly influencing the world with their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5779 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 9th, 10th and 11th, 2018. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, September 12th from dawn until nightfall.