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Naso 5779-2019

“Traditional Judaism: Fundamentalist or Ascetic”
(Revised and updated from Naso 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we encounter the curious law of the Nazir, the Nazirite. In Numbers 6:2: G-d tells Moses to speak unto the Children of Israel and say unto them: אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה, כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר לְהַזִּיר לַהשׁם , Any man or woman who shall separate him or herself by taking a Nazirite vow for the sake of G-d.

What is a Nazirite vow? Subsequent verses explain that the Nazirite is a person who takes upon him or herself a vow requiring three personal restrictions:
1) not to eat anything that is a derivative of grapes: no wine, grape juice or even raisins, 2) not to cut one’s hair, 3) not to defile oneself by coming in contact with a dead body. As long as the Nazirite is under the authority of the vow, the Nazirite may not even attend the funeral of his or her own parents. According to tradition, the minimum length of the vow period is thirty days.

The Bible, in the books of Judges and Samuel, actually relates the personal history of two well-known Nazirites, Samson and Samuel, both of whom were designated as Nazirites before birth. It is interesting to note that the example of Samson is not very favorable, whereas the example of Samuel is extremely positive. That, in itself, should serve as an indication of the Torah’s ambivalence to the Nazirite.

Is the Nazirite a sinner or saint, evil or extraordinarily righteous?

The laws of the Nazirite appear in parashat Naso on the heels of the “Sotah” episode, that is, the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. The commentators explain that the Nazirite is so taken aback by the loose behavior that led to the suspicion of the Sotah, that he decides to separate himself from the temptations of life. Presumably, in order to appear unattractive to women, he does not cut his hair, he does not drink wine to avoid any compromising positions, and like a priest, he sanctifies himself to keep holy and not defile himself by coming in contact with the dead.

It is the oft-misunderstood rituals such as the Nazirite, that make the Torah challenging for contemporary Jews who are not well-versed in rabbinic literature. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of traditional Judaism as “fundamentalist” or “separatist,” sometimes “primitive and medieval.”

The surprising truth is that Jewish tradition is neither fundamentalist nor separatist. In fact, to the contrary, traditional Jews rarely take the Bible literally, because they believe in the Oral Code. While, of course, every verse has a literal meaning, according to tradition, the accepted meaning is the interpretation obtained by the exegesis of the Oral Code. Furthermore, as is clearly demonstrated in the case of the Nazir, while occasionally embracing of separatism, traditional Judaism certainly does not view separatism as a preferred way of life.

This ambivalence with respect to the Nazir’s behavior is reflected in the actual laws governing the Nazirite. When the Nazir completes the designated time of his vows to be a Nazir, he brings a sin offering as part of the ceremony. This is indeed perplexing. After all, why should a Nazirite, who seeks to elevate himself by being extra holy, be required to bring a sin offering?

Some suggest that the Nazir brings the sin offering because he may have unwittingly come in contact with impurity during the period that he was a Nazir. Others, like the Ramban, suggest that the sin offering is due to the fact that now that the Nazir’s vow period has concluded, the Nazir is giving up the exalted lifestyle required of the Nazirite. Consequently, at least according to Nachmanides, being a Nazirite is viewed as an exalted state, and living as a Nazir is indeed commendable.

Some commentators, such as Chatam Sofer, consider the Nazirite sinful, because, by depriving himself, he actually subjects himself continually to temptation, possibly provoking himself to sin.

The Meshech Chochmah, on the other hand, regards the Nazirite as a sinner, who must bring a sin offering because he unnecessarily deprives himself of many of the positive things of life. Because of his vows, the Nazirite is unable to make Kiddush or drink Havdallah wine, and fails to defile himself even in times when it would have been proper, like to honor the deaths of close family relatives or by attending the funerals of those without family.

The Kli Yakar maintains that while it is true that by accepting the Nazirite vow upon oneself, the Nazirite is rising above others, it also reflects a sense of hubris. After all, aren’t there enough restrictions in the Torah?

The Dubno Maggid presents a parable of a poor man who married off his daughter and gives her a sizable gift for her marriage. A thief approached the poor man to ask how such a poor person could afford such a grand dowry. The poor man explained: “I have a locked box that I have kept for many many years, where I put in small amounts of money from time to time.” The thief said to him: “What’s the point of the locked box? Is there any box that is totally secure, that cannot eventually be opened?” The Dubno Maggid explains that the same is true of the Nazirite who must face lust in this world. One who wishes to guard oneself from lust, doesn’t really need super human means such as Nazirite vows to protect oneself. On the other hand, one who does not wish to guard himself from lust, no amount of rituals and practices will protect such a person from succumbing.

Once again, Judaism certainly does not advocate asceticism; it promotes moderation and self-control. We see that the objective of a Torah way of life is a lifestyle that promotes and mandates a sense of balance.

In one of the most revealing statements cited in the Talmud, found toward the conclusion of Tractate Kiddushin of the Jerusalem Talmud, our Sages teach: “On the day of judgment, every human being will be held accountable for everything that he or she beheld and did not partake of.” In effect, the Talmud declares that G-d gave this world to His creations, and instructed them to enjoy what He has given. Those who fail to derive full pleasure from G-d’s world, are, in effect, sinners, denying G-d’s benevolence.

That surely does not sound like an ascetic, medieval or primitive religion to me. Rather, it’s a true, balanced religion, a balance based on Divine structure and Divine wisdom.

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5779-2019

“The Trials of Being a Public Figure”
(Revised and updated from Bamidbar 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, we encounter a particularly intriguing verse concerning Moses and his relatives.

Numbers 3:1 states: וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה, בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר השׁם אֶת מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינָי, And these are the offspring of Aaron and Moses on the day that G-d spoke with Moses at Mount Sinai. The following verse, Numbers 3:2, records the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadav, Abihu, Elazar and Itamar. The Torah then recalls that two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, died before G-d when they offered up a strange fire. Yet, even though the Torah clearly stated that “these are the offspring of Aaron and Moses,” nowhere is there any mention made of Moses’ own two children, Gershom and Eliezer.

Those who studied the book of Exodus carefully may have already sensed Moses’ apparent problematic relationship with his children.

At the Burning Bush, G-d tells the reluctant Moses that he must lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and shows Moses the signs and miracles that Moses was to perform before Pharaoh. Exodus 4:20, relates that Moses takes his wife and children, (notice it says “children”–plural), puts them on his donkey, and returns to Egypt with the staff of G-d in his hand.

Exodus 4:24 reports that a very strange thing occurred on that journey. וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ השׁם וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ , “and on his way to the inn, G-d encountered Moses, and He [G-d] wanted to kill Moses.” Moses’ wife, Tziporah, quickly takes a flint stone, cuts off her son’s foreskin and says to the child: חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת , “You [my son] caused my bridegroom bloodshed,” as if to say that the child had endangered her husband Moses, almost costing him his life.

This perplexing episode is elucidated by the commentaries, who explain that shortly before they left Midian to go to Egypt, a child was born to Moses and Tziporah. Moses felt that the mission to save the Jews was so urgent that he left Midian without circumcising his newborn child, Eliezer. G-d encounters Moses at the inn, and through a near-death experience, conveys a message to Moses, “You may not neglect your own family in the name of the salvation of all Israel. Your first responsibility is to circumcise your child. In fact, had it not been for Tziporah’s quick action, you, Moses, would have died!”

Does Moses learn from this experience?

According to tradition, unfortunately no. In Judges 17, we are told the story of Micha, a man from the hill country of Ephraim that underscores how corrupt Jewish life had become in the time of the Judges. “Everyone did what was correct in his own eyes.”

Micha receives a gift from his mother, which was actually money he had stolen from her, and, at her behest, as a means of atonement, starts an idolatrous cult. Micha finds a Levite who will serve as the priest for his cult, and develops a thriving business. On their way to do battle in the North, members of the tribe of Dan consult with Micha’s “priest,” who encourages them and promises them success in battle. The Danites are so impressed with the priest that on their way home from their successful war, they kidnap the priest and steal Micha’s entire sanctuary, and relocate him in their new home up north in the tribal territory of Dan. Poor Micha is left bereft of all, and penniless.

The Bible says that the Levite, who served as Micha’s priest and ultimately betrayed him, was named Y’honatan ben Gershom ben Menashe. The name Menashe is written in Hebrew with an elevated letter “nun,” as if to indicate that the letter doesn’t belong there. Tradition teaches that Y’honatan’s grandfather’s name should not be Menashe, but rather Moshe–Moses. This Midrashic tradition implies that, at least with one of his children, Moses failed as a father. This, of course, is reinforced by the story of Miriam who seemingly criticizes Moses (Numbers 12) for apparently abandoning his wife and taking a Cushite woman. When scripture in our parasha states, “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses,” and names only the offspring of Aaron, it is because, tragically, not all of Moses’ children remained loyal to the Jewish people.

On the other hand, there is a truly heartening message from this very same text. The commentators ask: Why does scripture state that these are the children of Aaron and Moses, and not just say these are the children of Aaron? How can the Torah list the children of Aaron as the offspring of Moses? In response, the commentator Rashi insists that the sons of Aaron are called the offspring of Moses because he taught them Torah. It is from this very verse that we learn the well-known principle (Tractate Sanhedrin 19b) that one who teaches his neighbor’s children Torah, scripture considers it as if he bore them. This fascinating principle implies that while the teacher may not necessarily be the biological parent of the student, a teacher is to be regarded as a spiritual parent. Therefore, Moses had, of course, many, many spiritual progeny.

This principle also serves to convey a very important fundamental lesson of Judaism. While there are those who, unfortunately, are not blessed with biological children of their own, they can still be parents–spiritual parents. Through this lesson, the Torah teaches that anyone who supports Jewish education, who supports the study of Torah, is considered a spiritual parent to all those who benefit from that support.

In this particularly rich parasha we see a full panoply of the vicissitudes of human life. On the one hand, the great leader, Moses, was not able, or perhaps not destined, to keep all his children in the fold. On the other hand, Moses was most fortunate to be a very great teacher to many, many others.

This parasha also teaches that a public person always has to live with the great challenge of balancing one’s own life with the needs of the public or community. Remarkably, the Torah doesn’t shy away from the fact that even our greatest teacher and leader may have been unsuccessful with his own child. The Torah forthrightly shares that uncomfortable information, so that we may learn from that unfortunate situation, and help us avoid repeating that mistake with our own families.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3331 years ago, is observed this year on Saturday evening, June 8th, and continues through Monday night, June 10, 2019.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Bechukotai 5779-2019

The Big ‘IF.’ The Gift of Free Choice”
(Revised and updated from Bechukotai 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, is one of the two parshiot in the Torah that are known as the Tochacha, the Al-mighty’s admonition and reproof of His people, recording the curses and punishments that will befall the people if they fail to fulfill their covenant with Him.

Bechukotai begins with both a promise and a blessing: (Leviticus 26:3), אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֶת מִצְוֺתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם , If you, the People of Israel, will follow G-d’s decrees and observe His commandments and perform them, then G-d will provide the rains in their proper time and the land will give its produce, and the trees will give forth their fruit.

As a reward for proper behavior, G-d promises abundance in food, and security to the dwellers of the land. He pledges to make the Jewish people fruitful and increase them, and to firmly establish His covenant with them. G-d will place His sanctuary among the Jewish people, and His spirit will not reject them. He will walk among them and will be a G-d to the People of Israel.

Soon after the blessings and the positive assurances, the entire tone of the narrative changes. In Leviticus 26:14, the Torah declares: וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי, וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוֺת הָאֵלֶּה , But, if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all these commandments… then the terrible and awesome punishments will strike.

Interestingly, both the portion of the blessing and the portion of the curse begin with the same key word, אִם“im” if,אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ , if you follow My decrees, וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי , but if you do not listen to Me. Dr. Yisrael (Shay) Eldad, in his book Hegyonot Mikra, writes that this little word, im, if, is the central hinge upon which all Jewish history hangs. Freedom to choose is G-d’s special gift to the Jewish people. Our Torah does not speak of predestination or predetermination, it speaks of choice. Even the Hebrew word for faith, אֱמוּנָה –emunah, begins with the same two letters as the word im, implying choice.

Rabbis and Jewish theologians speak of “belief” in G-d, אֲנִי מַאֲמִין“Ani ma’amin,” I believe. They do not generally speak of knowledge of G-d. In fact, Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his Sefer Ha’Ikarim (14th – 15th century Spain) wrote (Article 2, section 30): אִלוּ יְדַעְתִּיו הֲיִיתִיו , If I knew G-d, I would be G-d!

The mortal, a human being of flesh and blood, cannot possibly comprehend the immortal, the finite cannot fathom the infinite. Furthermore, the word “belief” itself, in fact, implies doubt. When I say, “I believe there is someone in the next room,” it implies that I am not absolutely certain. There may be many indications, but there is no conclusive proof. I hear footsteps, I hear noises, I hear speaking, but since I do not actually see the source of the sounds, I cannot be absolutely certain.

Similarly, there is no conclusive proof of G-d’s existence. For thousands of years, believers and scholars have been trying to prove G-d’s existence. Saint Anselm (1033-1109), Thomas Aquinas (13th-century Dominican friar and theologian), Maimonides-–all presented their arguments and “proofs” of G-d’s existence. Despite the highly persuasive arguments from many different disciplines, there are only powerful indications, but no conclusive proofs for G-d’s existence.

In fact, Judaism looks upon doubt as a healthy and constructive value. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 31a, records three cases of gentiles who come to the sages Shammai and Hillel to convert. The most famous case is the non-Jew who first comes to Shammai stating that he wishes to convert while standing on one foot. Shammai throws him out, but Hillel teaches him: דַעֲלָךְ סְנֵי, לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבִיד , What is hated unto you, do not do unto others. “That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Zil g’mor, go study.”

There is a second case in which a prospective proselyte wishes to convert only on the condition that he can become the High Priest.

In the third case, the prospective proselyte comes first to Shammai and states that he wishes to convert even though he doesn’t believe in the Torah Sheh’ba’al Peh, the Oral Code. Shammai, as expected, rejects him. Hillel, however, welcomes him and begins to teach him the Hebrew alphabet: “Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet…” When he comes back the next day, Hillel tests him on what he had previously learned. He repeats the alphabet perfectly. But, Hillel replies, “No, it’s dalet, gimmel, bet, aleph.” Very upset, the proselyte says, “It’s just the alphabet, I know the alphabet!” But, Hillel responds, “When you came to me, you didn’t know anything. I could have taught you the alphabet incorrectly, and you would not have known the difference. So let’s study together, and at the end of our studies, you’ll decide whether you believe in the Oral Code or not. Right now, you don’t know very much, but when you gain some knowledge, you’ll be able to make an intelligent decision.”

From this we conclude, that Shammai regarded “doubt” as equivalent to “denial.” Hillel, however, felt that doubt was not at all a manifestation of denial, but rather an indication of ignorance.

There’s an old Yiddish expression: “Fuhn ah kasha shtarbt men nisht,” You don’t die from a question! Doubt, in Judaism, is looked upon favorably, since it frequently leads to growth.

The Kotzker Rebbe, one of the great Chassidic masters, was once asked: Who is higher on a ladder, the person on the top or the person on the bottom? He knew it was a trick question, so he responded wisely that it depends on which direction the people on the ladder are going. If the person on top is on his or her way down, and the person on bottom is on his or her way up, then the person on the bottom of the ladder may, theoretically, be higher than the person on top. If one would ask me, “Who is a good Jew?” I would not respond Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular, Zionist, Cultural. I would rather say that a good Jew is one who is in a “growth mode,” one who desires to grow in Judaism, through study and practice.

G-d has given us a special gift, the gift of choice. אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ , “If” you choose to follow in My decrees and statutes, then you will be blessed. Freedom of choice is the most valuable of the many gifts that G-d has given us. Let us choose wisely. Let us choose G-d, choose growth, and in this manner ensure Jewish posterity and a bright Jewish future.

May you be blessed.

 

Behar 5779-2019

“Wronging One Another, the Torah’s Unique Viewpoint”
(Revised and updated from Behar 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Behar, we twice encounter the mitzvah of אוֹנָאָהo’na’ah, the prohibition against wronging others.

The first reference to this prohibition is found in Leviticus 25:14, in which the Torah declares: אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו , Do not hurt or grieve one another. Three verses later, in Leviticus 25:17, the Torah seemingly reiterates: וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ־לֹקֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי השׁם, אֱלֹקֵיכֶם , Do not wrong one another, fear your G-d, for I am the L-rd your G-d.

According to tradition, these separate statements represent two different types of o’na’ah, of hurting another person. The first, אוֹנָאַת מָמוֹןona’at mamon, is a statute against taking unfair advantage of others in business, while אוֹנָאַת דְּבָרִים ona’at d’varim, prohibits hurting others with words in interpersonal relationships.

Both these laws are quite remarkable, and underscore the Torah’s exceptional sensitivity, particularly during common human interactions.

According to Jewish law, business people are forbidden to deceive others by offering merchandise of inferior quality or insufficient quantity. The Torah, in fact, declares such sales invalid.

Clearly, widespread dishonesty in business can undermine a nation’s economic system. But, when compared to other systems, the Torah’s perception of honesty is radically different and dramatically expansive. The Torah understandably, not only condemns and prohibits outright cheating and dishonesty, but also declares exacting excessive profit illegal.

Furthermore, the Torah not only sets limits on profits, but, remarkably, sets limits on losses as well. The Torah, in fact, sets rates on both profits and losses. Thus, if a storekeeper overcharges a buyer by more than one sixth the value of an object, or 16 2/3%, the sale is invalid and the article may be returned by the buyer. If the price is one sixth less than the object’s actual value, then the seller may invalidate the sale, because merchants, as well, need not lose more than a sixth of the object’s value. This law not only applies when buying and selling merchandise, it also prohibits excessive profiteering when hiring a worker or renting an animal or equipment. While the Roman law, known as “Laesio Major,” also prohibits profiteering, it allows huge profits of up to one half the object’s value.

Business practices and values in Judaism are quite unique and significantly different from the general secular business values that are practiced today. The attitude in much of the contemporary western world is “Caveat Emptor,” “Let the buyer beware.” In effect, we cynically declare, “Tough luck, buddy! Next time be more careful. In the future, do some comparison shopping to make sure that you know the true value of what you purchased!”

Jewish law, on the other hand, is based on honesty and justice, values that must be practiced by all–both the buyer and the seller. However, if, before the transaction, the buyer had the opportunity to discern the true value of the object and much time has elapsed without any complaint, then the buyer may not return the item. Also, if the seller clearly declares that he or she intends to profit more than one sixth, and the buyer knows this and nevertheless proceeds with the purchase, the transaction cannot be reversed.

As one would expect, the rabbis declare that o’na’at devarim, hurting people with words in interpersonal relationships, is worse than o’na’at ma’mon, taking advantage of others in business, because money can be replaced, but shame can never be undone. The Talmud, in Baba Metzia 58b, therefore boldly declares that one who embarrasses a fellow human being in public is regarded as a murderer.

The Talmudic discussion continues to record a long list of actions, many of which are astonishingly revolutionary, that are forbidden because they may result in the embarrassment of another person. For instance, a person may not inquire the price of an article from a storekeeper if he or she has no intention of buying the article. Once the transaction has been completed, one may not “comparison shop” at other venues to determine whether they had gotten a good price, unless they will be using that information to evaluate whether that particular store might have better prices, and will use that information in determining whether to buy there in the future. The reason for this is that when simply inquiring for a price, the seller is often misled into thinking that the inquirer is genuinely interested in making a purchase, and the letdown causes unwarranted pain to the store owner by having created a false sense of anticipation.

The laws of o’na’ah, of not wronging others, are indeed compelling and comprehensive. They also include special sensitivity toward a penitent, a בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָהBa’al T’shuva. One may not hurt a penitent by saying: “Remember your previous deeds when you weren’t religious.” There is a particularly strong prohibition against reminding a convert of his/her non-Jewish ancestry. In fact, one who wrongs a convert in business or in speech actually violates three Torah prohibitions.

We see that Jewish law maintains that those who are especially vulnerable must be particularly protected from abuse. That is why the Talmud states that while people should always check their deeds when evil befalls them, it is forbidden to even suggest to those whose lives are filled with suffering and misfortune, that they should check their deeds, as the possible cause of the evil. The rabbis learned that while it may be difficult for someone who is suffering to pray, the cries of one who is pained from being unjustly wronged are listened to with particular attention by G-d, and will definitely provoke a response from heaven.

That is why, as a derivative of the laws of o’na’ah, the Rabbis declared that one must be particularly careful not to wrong one’s wife, or cause undo pain to young children, who are also extremely vulnerable. One is not permitted to say even truthful things that are hurtful, not only because of the laws of לְשׁוֹן הָרָעloshon ha’ra, speaking evil, but also because of wronging the next person.

The Torah maintains, for instance, that anyone who curses another person, not only violates the prohibition of cursing, but also violates the prohibition of o’na’ah. Sending an invitation to a potential guest to attend a שִׂמְחָהsimcha, when it is known that the invitee is scheduled to be out of town, and will be unable to attend the celebration, also falls under the category of o’na’ah, since it is done in the hope of obtaining a gift without having to host the person for the celebratory party. One is prohibited to give advice that one knows is bad or incorrect. That is why Leviticus 25:17 concludes with the words, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , You shall fear G-d.

Once again, we witness the Torah’s remarkable and insightful directives that transform lives and societies. Two little words, לֹא תוֹנוּLo to’nu, thou shall not wrong your fellow person, just two little words, go a long way to redefine proper behavior in a G-dly society.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 22nd, and continue all day Thursday, May 23rd, 2019. The Omer period, starts from the second night of Passover and continues for 49 days through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer, is considered a special day of rejoicing 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 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Kedoshim 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

B’ha’a’lot’cha 5779-2019

“Giving Our Disciples A Firm Grounding”
(Revised and updated from B’ha’a’lot’cha 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, G-d speaks to Moses and says to him (Numbers 8:2): דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו, בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ אֶת הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת , Speak to Aaron and say unto him: When you kindle {literally, “when you raise up,”) the lamps of the Menorah in the Temple, make certain that the lights of the candelabra face toward the central lamp.

Many commentators ask why the Torah specifically employs the word בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ“b’ha’a’lot’cha,” when you “raise up” the candles, rather than the more conventional word, בְּהַדְלָקָתְךָ“b’had’lakatcha,” when you “light” or kindle the candles. Rashi, cites the Midrash, the legendary interpretation, indicating that the use of the term to “raise up” implies that there was a step in front of the Menorah upon which the Kohen, the priest, would stand to set the candles in order.

However, an earlier Talmudic interpretation, from Shabbat 21a, cited by Rashi, emphasizes that the word “b’ha’a’lot’cha” indicates that the priest was to ignite the new candle until the flame of the new candle rises on its own.

The metaphor of kindling the light is often used in Judaism to represent Jewish education. In Numbers 11:17, when Moses empowers the 70 elders of Israel to serve as leaders, the rabbis again employ the metaphor. Rashi, citing the Midrash, asks: To what can Moses be compared at that moment? Answer: To a lit candle in a candlestick that was used to light other candles, but the candle itself was not diminished.

The particular Talmudic statement quoted by Rashi indicating that the priest had to ignite the candle in the Menorah until it remained lit on its own, serves as a rich source of insights about Judaism’s views and attitudes regarding educators and education.

In the many decades that I’ve been working with Jews with little or no Jewish educational background, and seeking to help them to become more literate and knowledgeable in Judaism, the metaphor of the candle has served me well. Furthermore, the traditional Jewish principles that we utilize in our engagement efforts also apply to the mainstream Jewish education of the already committed community and to much of general education, as well.

Over the years, I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that “reaching out,” is easy. What is most difficult is the “follow-up.” It may, in fact, be immoral to reach out to those with little or no background without a strategy for follow-up. Students who are excited by the dramatic and persuasive presentations on Torah and Jewish life, need to be gently guided and helped to understand the often radical implications of this new knowledge. If the “epiphany” of Jewish discovery is not followed-up with solid, one-on-one, counseling and study, the effects of even the most effective and impressive engagement programs are often ephemeral. After such letdowns, it is not uncommon for students to feel lost and betrayed, and attempts to win them back for a second chance are slim.

Related to the need for follow-up, and perhaps the basic principle for all follow-up, is that an engagement “professional” or teacher must be concerned with the entire person, and not just a particular aspect or objective. Those involved in Jewish engagement must never look at a person as simply another “neshama to chap”–-another soul to capture, in order to put another notch on their engagement belt. Secular teachers, as well, should not consider it their mission to produce another literary or scientific prodigy, but should rather aim to produce a mensch-–a thoughtful and moral human being. One way to judge whether the engagement/educational effort is properly focused, is to see whether the mentor is prepared to follow-up with those students who fail to make a religious commitment.

Although this may sound incongruous, the primary objective of engagement efforts should not necessarily be to ensure the religious commitment of unaffiliated Jews. Allow me to explain. I have often stated that for those involved in Jewish engagement, there is no such thing as losing or defeat. Even those students and participants who fail to make religious commitments, have, hopefully, had their lives enriched. The positive, joyous Jewish experiences and the meaningful educational opportunities that they have shared, will last a lifetime. It’s important to acknowledge that many who go through the “Teshuva process” are unable to, ultimately, make the commitment to practice Jewish rituals. Nevertheless, they leave with positive feelings, and, who knows, perhaps because of those good feelings will send their children to Jewish schools where the children may develop a greater commitment to rituals and mitzvoth, in turn, influencing the parents. The fact that after their positive experiences they identify Jewishly and remain within the community, even if only on the periphery, means that there will be other opportunities to successfully engage them.

Sensitive teachers are well aware that education is always a “process.” There is no such thing as instant conversions. The quicker the conversion in, the faster the conversion out! Teachers must realize that no one person is G-d’s gift to everyone. There must be “chemistry” between student and teacher. Some students prefer a more cerebral intellectual approach, while others respond to dynamic experiences. Teachers need to be able to detect when there is a lack of symbiosis between student and teacher, and be prepared to direct non-responsive students to other teachers who might connect more effectively with those students.

I have often felt that Western education is really off target, because teachers are not held sufficiently responsible and accountable for students’ lack of success. In our parasha, the description of the candle standing on its own, underscores the fact that Jewish tradition maintains that teachers have a clear responsibility to successfully transmit the information to the students. In Judaism, students don’t fail, only teachers fail!

Perhaps the most profound implication of the candle lighting imagery, is that, once the candles–the students, are “lit,” they must be able to ultimately stand on their own two feet. This means that a healthy Ba’al Teshuva and a healthy student is one who, although respectful of, and grateful to, their teachers and mentors, is not unduly dependent upon them. For this to be so, every Jew who seeks to connect to Judaism must be afforded multiple religious exposures and experiences. Students must be given the opportunity to study with a variety of teachers who present divergent points of view and different approaches, rather than there being one, and only one, teacher.

Unfortunately, we today are witnessing much greater restrictiveness in the Jewish community and in Jewish pedagogical circles. Doctrinaire approaches seem to be becoming more popular. Teachers today are more likely to proclaim that only their methodology is “valid,” and that unless the student strictly adheres to that particular approach to Judaism, be it left or right, chassidic or mitnagdish, Kabbalistic or mainstream, emotional or experiential, their education will prove meaningless. Divergent approaches are frequently invalidated.

This very sad state of affairs has led to a great reduction in the effectiveness of the movement of Jewish engagement. Doctrinaire approaches almost always scare away prospective neophytes and make it more difficult to attract independent thinkers and better-educated students. Unfortunately, the so-called “committed” community is also seeing an increase in dropouts due to its “cookie cutter” approach for all students.

While Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, is known in our traditions as Moshe Rabbeinu–our ultimate teacher and master, Moses still had seventy elders assisting him to lead and teach. In addition to Moses, Aaron and his sons, and Joshua as well, served as teachers and mentors, so that the people of Israel received multiple religious exposures, resulting in a healthier and more balanced religious education.

If we genuinely hope to reach the masses of unaffiliated Jews, we need dramatic changes in the educational approaches that are currently popular in our community. It is critical that we offer a greater diversity of methodologies to reach larger numbers of neophytes who respond differently to the different approaches. This, of course, applies, with at least equal merit, to mainstream Jewish education that is offered to the already committed community.

If we remember well the message of the lighting of the Menorah–-the need for each candle to stand on its own, we will more effectively nurture a world more imbued with light, specifically the light of Torah, and undoubtedly hasten the redemption of all our people, Israel.

May you be blessed.

Acharei Mot 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Passover II 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Passover 1 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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