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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.

Metzorah 5779-2019

“The Ultimate Value and Sanctity of Human Life in Judaism”
(Revised and updated from Metzorah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, continues the Torah’s focus on the “intriguing” skin disease צָרַעַתtzaraat, discussed in last week’s parasha, Tazria. According to tradition, tzaraat, is an affliction that results from speaking לְשׁוֹן הָרָעLashon Hara, speaking evil against others (see Tazria 5763-2003). Parashat Metzorah, also describes the ritual purification necessary for a person who has recovered from tzaraat, and informs us how tzaraat, besides appearing on one’s body and clothes, may also appear on the walls of a person’s home.

The final chapter of parashat Metzorah, concerns menstrual and seminal flows. Since the early chapters of parashat Metzorah deal with the ritual of purification of a person who has recovered from tzaraat, it follows logically that the rules regulating the person contaminated by bodily flows be included in this parasha as well.

It is often maintained, that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life, and that the ultimate purpose of every single mitzvah and ritual in Judaism can probably be traced to Judaism’s high regard for the ultimate sanctity of human life.

This supreme regard for human life is reflected in many of the rituals and practices of Judaism. For instance, upon waking in the morning, one immediately recites מוֹדֶה אֲנִיModeh Ani, thanking G-d for restoring one’s soul, followed by vigorously washing one’s hands with water–the ultimate source of all life. Since sleep itself is a state of unconsciousness and the closest contact that a living human being has with death, the need to reaffirm life is vital.

Judaism’s value for human life is also reflected in the mundane practices that are often incorporated in daily life, such as tying one’s shoes “properly.” According to Jewish custom, one should put on their right shoe first, followed by their left shoe, tie the left shoe, and then return to tie the right shoe. This is done in order to underscore the need to show sensitivity toward the limbs of one’s body. How much more sensitive must one be toward fellow human beings by not showing undue favoritism to one person over another. Clearly, the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life.

Perhaps the most profound indication that Judaism values human life above all else, comes from a series of intriguing laws that are found in parashat Metzorah. These laws are not only challenging, but, at first blush, appear to be primitive and offsetting. In Leviticus 15:1-18, G-d admonishes Moses and Aaron to instruct the Jewish people and to tell all the men, that any man who has a discharge, specifically, a seminal flow from his body, is to be considered טָמֵאtamay (for lack of a better word we will translate this word as ritually impure). In order to be cleansed from that impurity, the person who has the discharge must wash his clothes and immerse in the mikveh at night. The more discharges a person experiences, the more impure one is, requiring a longer period of impurity and additional cleansing rituals.

A woman, too, is subject to the laws of ritual purity and impurity. The Torah states, Leviticus 15:19-30, that if a woman experiences bleeding at the time of her regular monthly period she is in a state of נִדָּהniddah, ritual impurity. Once the bleeding ceases, she is go to the Mikveh. The practice today, is for women to first count seven clean days and subsequently bathe in the mikveh.

The Torah also speaks of other blood flows that do not coincide with the normal period, known as זָבָה zavah, which renders the woman impure. After a single flow, she is impure for only a single day. If it continues to flow, she may, at times, be impure for seven full days. Today, because we are unable to distinguish between menstrual blood and non-menstrual blood, all women are required to keep a minimum of five days of menstrual flow, plus a seven day period of no bleeding before they visit the mikveh.

As uncomfortable as we may be when discussing these issues, the niddah laws are among the most enlightened in human culture, and ultimately reflect Judaism’s uncompromising belief in the sanctity of human life.

In Judaism, there is nothing more sanctified than human life, and nothing more defiling than death. Death, consequently, is regarded as the ultimate defiler. In ancient times, a person who came in contact with death would be defiled for seven days. To be purified, the impure person would need to be sprinkled with the waters of the red heifer, on the third and seventh day of impurity, and then bathe in a mikveh on the night of the eighth.

Although contact with death was not uncommon in ancient times, many of us, in contemporary times, have become rather inured to death. The constant reports, especially through modern technology, of vast numbers of deaths and disasters, have made it virtually impossible to feel a sincere sense of mourning or sadness for the losses. The most common reaction to death these days is often to ignore the discomfort and turn to the sports, fashion, or business reports.

Judaism is determined not to allow human beings to become indifferent to death, because those who are indifferent to death, inevitably become insensitive to life. That is why Judaism required that any time a person came in contact with death in any way, needed to reaffirm life. The ancients would reaffirm life by going to the mikveh, a pool containing “living waters,” the source of all life; after all, humans are composed of 90 percent water. Immersing in a mikveh is comparable to returning to the primordial state of creation, where there was only water (Genesis 1:2). Mikveh is, in effect, a rebirth experience, akin to returning to the womb.

Similarly, the Torah declares, that whoever comes in contact with potential life, such as semen, or an ovum that is not fertilized and has been instead ejected from the body and dies, also needs to reaffirm life by going to the mikveh. In ancient times, men as well as women were required to go to the mikveh to experience this reaffirmation.

Since we have no Beit HaMikdash, no Holy Temple, and no waters of the red heifer, we are unable to properly cleanse ourselves from death’s ultimate contamination. Thus, we are all today in a state of perpetual ritual impurity, since we all, at some point, come in contact with death. Consequently, the laws of mikveh and purification do not apply in contemporary times–with one exception: the requirement that women go to the mikveh at the conclusion of their menstrual period. The legal reason for continuing this regulation is because having relations with a woman who is a menstruant is a separate prohibition recorded in the Torah, in both Leviticus 18 and 20.

Although no reason is given why that particular element of these laws should be practiced even in non-Temple times, it has been speculated that it is because these laws serve a vital second function.

Clearly, the sexual desires are among the most powerful human drives. The power of the sexual drive is so great that it has the ability to obfuscate other types of relationships, especially spiritual relationships. One who is obsessed with sexuality rarely has the ability to properly or meaningfully express love or spiritual emotions—since the basic animalistic drives often take over. Consequently, we frequently lose the ability to declare to our loved ones, “I love you because of who you are, rather than because of what I can get from you.”

The Torah, therefore, mandates that during a period of each month, when the woman menstruates, sexual contact cease. During that time, husband and wife reaffirm their love for one another–reaffirming their spiritual love, rather than sexual attraction. The laws that regulate this behavior are known as the laws of טָהֳרַת הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה–Taharat Ha’mishapchah, Family Purity, and have had a powerful and meritorious impact on Jewish family life throughout Jewish history.

These complex laws of bodily emissions and purifications, which seem so crude at first blush, are truly enlightened. Indeed, one need not believe in G-d in order to benefit from the brilliance and efficacy of Torah rituals, and these laws are the perfect example.

May you be blessed.

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

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 19th, and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 20th and 21st, 2019.

Tazria 5779-2019

“Death and Life are in the ‘Hands’ of the Tongue!”
(Revised and updated from Tazria 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, deals mostly with the issue of לְשׁוֹן הָרָע Lashon Hara, speaking evil of others.

The Torah cites two instances in which a person spoke ill of others and was stricken with the disease צָרַעַתTzaraat. In Exodus 4:1, Moses protests to G-d, arguing that he should not be appointed the leader of Israel, saying: וֽהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, The people of Israel will not believe me, they will not heed my voice! As one of the miraculous signs meant to reinforce Moses’ stature with the people, G-d instructs Moses to place his hand in his bosom. When he pulls it out, Moses’ hand is stricken with Tzaraat, seemingly a punishment for speaking against the people of Israel. Similarly, in Numbers 12:1-16, when Miriam speaks against Moses, she is stricken with Tzaraat, and is confined for seven days before she is healed and the people move on.

King Solomon, in the Book of Proverbs 18:21 writes: מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן – Death and life are in the “hands” of the tongue.

When I was a child, my father, of blessed memory, would tell a well-known tale of a king who was stricken with a rare illness. The doctors told him that only drinking the milk of a lioness could cure him. The king enlisted the assistance of the bravest hunter in the land to fetch the milk. Without hesitation or trepidation, the daring hunter entered the wilderness, captured a lioness, collected the milk, and laid down to rest before delivering the lifesaving remedy to the king.

As he lay resting, the various parts of the hunter’s body began to glory in their accomplishment. The legs bragged, “We legs deserve all the credit, for were it not for us, the hunter would never have reached the lioness.” The hands responded scornfully to the legs, pointing out that were it not for the hands the hunter would have never been able to milk the lioness. The eyes piped in saying that were it not for the eyes the hunter would have never been able to see the lioness. The ears then began to contend that they were the most important part of the hunter’s body, because the hunter would never have heard the king’s request in the first place. When the tongue attempted to make a case for its importance, all the other organs of the body began to mock the tongue dismissively. The tongue fell silent.

The return of the hunter from his vital mission with the requested medicine was announced with great fanfare at the king’s palace. “Your royal highness,” the hunter proudly announced, “I am honored to deliver the PIG’s milk as your majesty has requested.” The king burst out in anger and said, “PIG’s milk?! I asked for lioness’ milk! Take this man out and behead him!”

All the organs of the body began to tremble and shout at the tongue: “How could you have said PIG’s milk? You know it’s lioness’ milk! We are all going to die now,” they exclaimed. “Do you now acknowledge that I am the most important organ of the body?” the tongue demanded. “Yes! Yes!” they shouted. The tongue immediately corrected himself. “Of course I meant to say lioness’ milk. Just test it and you will see!” And the hunter, of course, was saved.

We tend to dismiss the power of the tongue–its power to give life, and to take life. Perhaps, if we pay attention to the reasons and causes which at times mislead us to speak evil, we would become more sensitive to this hurtful moral shortcoming.

The Torah, in parashat Tazria, describes in detail the symptoms of the Tzaraat disease. Tzaraat, at times, appears as a white patch on the skin, in various basic shades and secondary colors. The Torah identifies and names these different shades: שְׂאֵתs’eit and סַפַּחַתsapachat. A bit later, the Torah speaks of בַּהֶרֶתbaheret, a whitening.

The Chatam Sofer interprets these colors metaphorically. S’eit, he said, which literally means “a rising,” is an allusion to the fact that in speaking evil of another person one tends to build oneself up at the expense of the other. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin former rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, used to say that there are two ways for a person to show his greatness. One is to stand up big and tall, the other is to push the other person down.

The word Sapachat, says the Chatam Sofer, comes from the root of the word “to add” and “to increase.” The person who speaks lashon hara against another often tries to badmouth his competitors by saying that they are no good in business, as a means of enhancing their own business. Finally, says the Chatam Sofer, baheret comes from the word “light” or “clarity,” implying that a person who speaks lashon hara wants to show off how smart he is, how much clarity he has, how much light he brings into the world, while everyone else is inferior.

In Jeremiah 9:22, the prophet offers profound and enlightened words of advice to humankind: “Thus says the Lord,” says the prophet in the name of G-d. “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, not let the rich man glory in his riches. Let him that glory, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.”

Clearly, no one is entitled to glory in one’s intellectual endowment, or in one’s physical strength or health, or in one’s wealth–because there is always someone more brilliant, stronger, and wealthier, and, after all, these endowments are all gifts from G-d and are all transitory. The only thing that a person may glory in is piety and rectitude, because this is what G-d ultimately desires. So please, watch your tongue.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, April 5 and 6, 2019.

 

 

 

Shemini 5779-2019

“Substance Abuse in Judaism
(Revised and updated from Shemini 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, opens with the historic ceremony marking the consecration of Aaron and his sons as כֹּהֲנִים–Kohanim–priests. This ceremony, which took place on the first day of the Hebrew month Nissan, was the eighth and final day of the inauguration ceremony celebrating the newly erected Tabernacle.

This day was, particularly for Aaron, the day for which he eagerly awaited. Aaron had faced many challenges during his life. He had suffered through the travails of leadership in Egypt during the brutal enslavement period. And, despite helping Moses bring the ten plagues, resulting in the people’s exodus from Egypt, his efforts as well as Moses’, were not always appreciated by the people. Aaron also tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade the people from worshiping the Golden Calf. And now, finally, after all his efforts and much grief, Aaron was privileged with the great honor of being selected by the Al-mighty to serve as the High Priest of Israel. And even more, his four sons were going to serve at Aaron’s side.

The Torah, in Leviticus 10:1 records, וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת, וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השׁם אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם, And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, each took their firepan and placed fire on it, and they placed incense on the pan and sacrificed the incense before G-d with a strange fire which G-d had not commanded them. At that moment, in the middle of this resplendent consecration ceremony, a Divine fire comes and extinguishes the lives of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Abihu.

Moses tries to console his brother upon the death of his sons by saying, Leviticus 10:3, הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה׳ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד, this is what G-d meant when He said, “I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to Me,” as if to say that in their death, G-d had sanctified the boys. Aaron’s reaction to all this is: וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן , total silence!

The terrifying account of the deaths of Aaron’s eldest sons is followed in the Torah by laws affirming the limitations of priestly mourning. These statutes are followed by the Torah’s instructions to Aaron and his sons that priests are forbidden to drink wine while performing the Temple service.

While the deaths of Nadav and Abihu were a tragedy for the Jewish people, their passing was truly heartbreaking for their father Aaron. He had longed for this very day, and at the highest moment of personal joy, he suffered this profound and wrenching loss from which he would likely never recover. Nevertheless, his reaction is silence, probably because there really is nothing meaningful that can be said by a parent, or to a parent, who loses a child.

The rabbis offer a host of speculative reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Abihu. Perhaps, suggest the rabbis, these boys were arrogant and irreverent at Mount Sinai, a time which demanded uncompromised reverence. Perhaps it was because they brought a strange fire, not from the altar. Could it be because they didn’t use the vessels of the Mishkan, the sanctuary, and instead (as is suggested by the language of the verse) brought their own firepans? There are even those who maintain that the reason Nadav and Abihu were punished is because they refused to marry and have children, feeling that no woman was good enough for them. Some rabbis suggest that Nadav and Abihu showed a lack of respect for Moses and Aaron, and would often be overheard saying: “When will these old fellows die so that we may take control of the community?”

On the other hand, there are commentators who insist that Nadav and Abihu were entirely righteous, in fact, bringing the foreign fire was their only offense. Despite the fact that they meant well, their actions were wrong, and they were punished for them. The fact that the Torah emphasizes אֵשׁ זָרָה , a strange fire, indicates that they were guilty of nothing else. Other commentators suggest that though they used the wrong means to bring down the Divine Presence, their motives were noble, inspired by love and joy. Their punishment, in fact, implies that they had attained an especially high spiritual level, which is why G-d slew them with a pure fire, leaving their clothing intact, and that G-d grieved over them even more than Aaron did.

Despite the wide range of possible reasons, the most widely accepted reason for the death of Nadav and Abihu is that they officiated while in a state of inebriation. This may explain the sudden juxtaposition of the prohibition cited in Leviticus 10:8-11, concerning the priests drinking intoxicants before or during the Temple service.

From the tragic account of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, we, today, should take a few moments to focus on the Jewish attitude toward intoxicants and drugs.

In Numbers 6, the Bible speaks of people called, נְזִירִים, Nazarites, who thoroughly dedicate themselves to G-d: they refuse to cut their hair, avoid contamination with the dead, and abstain from drinking wine. Mighty Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite.

With the exception of the Jewish fast days, and mourners during the most intense stage of mourning, the case of the Nazarite is the only instance where Jewish law prohibits drinking. Otherwise, drinking is considered normal and proper in Jewish life. After all, as the Psalmists says in Psalms 104:15, וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ , wine cheers the hearts of men.

Wine, of course, plays a key role in the rituals of Judaism. Wine is used for the Kiddush–the sanctification prayer on Shabbat and holidays, for Havdalah–the closing Shabbat and festival ritual, and of course, at Jewish weddings.

Extensive studies of Jewish intoxication, indicate that Jews drink about as much as non-Jews and are subject to the same vagaries as all drinkers of intoxicants in the United States. What is unusual, is that those who are involved in Jewish life from youth, and those who later on in life adopt traditional Jewish rituals, customs and the value system associated with Jewish tradition, are subject to alcohol abuse much less frequently than those who were raised without tradition or have abandoned tradition. For the traditionalists, a moderate amount of wine is drunk at Kiddush both on Friday night and Saturday morning. Wine, then, never becomes a forbidden substance, and is therefore, usually drunk in moderation in most Jewish homes that practice these rituals. Among secular Jews, however, who have given up the value system associated with traditional customs, the incidence of intoxication is far more frequent.

As regular readers know, I’ve suggested many times, that American Jews are highly subject to many of the same vagaries and blandishments of non-Jewish citizens of the United States of America, and that Jewish abuse of alcohol and drugs in America is certainly on the rise. The practice of traditional Jews who do not hide intoxicants from the little children, but rather teach them about the proper use of these substances in moderation, in a socially acceptable environment, has proven to be quite effective. Even on the festive holiday of Purim, which we recently celebrated, the Talmud, Megillah 7a,advises that a person is required to drink עַד דְּלָא יָדַע , until he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, underscoring that one may not drink beyond the point where we no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.

Alcoholism and drug abuse is serious business. It is not something to be ignored. When the issue is not properly addressed, the entire community is at risk. We need to make certain that our festivals and our celebrations, as well as our inaugurations, are not marred by dangerous practices involving liquor.

Wine is a Divine gift which plays a key role in Judaism. We must be certain that it is properly used as a gift, and not abused.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

Tzav 5779-2019

“Remembering Amalek: A Contemporary View”
(Revised and updated from Tzav 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rather than focus on this coming week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, I have decided to expound on the joyous, but complex, holiday of Purim that Jews all over the world (except those residing in ancient walled cities like Jerusalem) will be celebrating this Wednesday night. (Click here to read Tzav messages from previous years.)

The story of Purim, of course, concerns wicked Haman, who schemed to annihilate the Jews of Persia–men, women and children, on one day, the 13th of Adar, in the year 519 BCE (355 BCE, according to the traditional calculation). Fortunately, through the intervention of G-d, Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai (common misconception: uncle), the Jewish people were saved from this would-be mass genocide.

Jewish tradition looks upon those who seek to destroy the Jewish people as the spiritual heirs of Amalek, the fierce nation, who were the first to attack the People of Israel after the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:8), striking especially the stragglers and the weak. In our own times, it was the Nazis who are considered the contemporary Amalekites, and our pledge “Never Again,” parallels the words of the Torah (Deut. 25:17-19) which exhort us to never again forget what Amalek did to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, it is critical to provide a sense of balance to the Amalek-Nazi equation that we often draw, pointing out some important distinctions, and warning of some palpable dangers.

There is almost nothing more sacred or more sensitive for Jews living in the generation after the Holocaust, than the memory of the 6 million martyrs of the Nazi genocide. The poignant question, “Where was God?,” rather than being a theological provocation, is more likely a reflection of the abiding pain which still lingers from the staggering losses. After all, what could possibly be more important than sanctifying the memory of those who died–except ensuring a future for those who wish to live as Jews?

There is great justification for the continuing Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. It was numerically the greatest loss of Jews ever in Jewish history, and the wound is still raw. Survivors, who actually witnessed the horrors, while fewer in number today, can still be spoken to personally. And, now that “revisionists,” who seek to deny the Holocaust, have become even more brazen, sensitive Jews are reacting with even greater passion and resolve.

But, preoccupation with the Holocaust is exacting a great price.

Going back almost 30 years, the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations National Jewish Population Survey concluded that record numbers of Jews were walking away from Judaism. They reported, at that time, that two million American Jews no longer acknowledged being Jewish. One million American Jewish children were being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion at all. And, 625,000 Jews or their children had converted out of Judaism. A contemporary Gallup organization survey of religions in America reported that in the final decade of the 20th millennium, while there seemed to be a resurgence among Protestants and Catholics, Jews as a group were drifting away from their religion. Sadly, the commitment of America’s Jews to their religion, has eroded even further during the last 30 years.

There are many reasons for this wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity. Our grandparents prayed that America would be a “melting pot” for future generations; instead it has become a “meltdown”! Jewish education is woefully inadequate. For many decades, intensive Jewish education was derided by many Jewish leaders as being “separatist.” So now, massive numbers of young uneducated Jews walk away from Judaism, not because of dissatisfaction with the faith, but out of ignorance. And, the ignorance is overwhelming. The average American Jew knows who was the mother of Jesus, but doesn’t have a clue as to who was the mother of Moses; probably knows the meaning of the word “Trinity,” but is unlikely to know what the word “Mitzvah” means. Similarly, the typical American Jewish child could probably sing parts of or the entire Christmas song, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but is unfamiliar with even the first line of “Ma’oz Tzur”–the joyous Hanukkah hymn.

We have no one to fault but ourselves. We have failed to properly educate our children, and when we did provide Hebrew education, the experiences were so negative that it’s been said, only half in jest, that if the Jews for Jesus were smart they would pay to send every Jewish child to an afternoon Hebrew school because, in most instances, it’s proven to be the greatest turn-off to Jewish life.

The American Jewish community stands now at a most formidable crossroads, a crossroads that will likely determine whether Jewish life in America continues, or ceases to exist altogether. America’s Jews, like the Israelites of old, are being asked to choose between “life and death,” between “the blessing and the curse.”

Unless we “choose life,” unless there will be within the very near future, a dramatic turnaround in the patterns of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, we are probably witnessing the last generation of Jewish life in America as we now know it. Our community will not be recognizable within 25 to 30 years.

If we are to stop the hemorrhaging of Jewish life in America, intensive, positive, joyous Jewish education and experiences must become a priority, rather than focus on Holocaust education and building Holocaust memorials.

To my mind it is criminal that the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history still has no mega fund ensuring a meaningful Jewish education for every child who desires one. There are presently thousands of children in North America who would be attending Jewish Day Schools, were the tuitions not so outrageously high.

We’ve reached the absurd point where the only feature of Judaism with which our young Jews identify is that of the Jew as victim–murdered, cremated or turned into a lampshade. As the prophet Jeremiah 8:22 asked, הַצֳּרִי אֵין בְּגִלְעָד? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no joy in Jewish life? No wonder our young Jews are turned off and walking away from their heritage.

It is hardly likely that we will be able to stop the proliferation of Holocaust centers in America, and the central role they now play. However, there is still time to make certain that these centers include a joyous and positive message for Jewish life. We must make certain that young Jews who enter these centers encounter a positive, upbeat message that will inspire them to live as Jews, and not be turned-off by the specter of endless victimization and suffering. If we fail to accomplish this, then these vaunted Holocaust centers will soon become the tombs of the present generation of American Jews.

There is a major destruction taking place in America right now. We can’t hear it, because there are, thank G-d, no barking dogs; we can’t see it because, thank G-d, there are no goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and no concentration camps; we can’t smell it because, thank G-d, there are no gas chambers. But the net result is exactly the same, the end of Jewish life.

I strongly agree with the late Chief Rabbi of the UK Lord Immanuel Jakobovits , that while remembering is important, rebuilding is far more important.

Rabbi David Hartman, said of Israel: In Tel Aviv, [secular Jews] walk with their puppies. In Jerusalem, [religious Jews] walk with their children. “American Jews,” he added, “build Holocaust memorials. Religious Jews have children. This way, religious Jews, have defeated Hitler. They have re-established every institution that existed in Eastern Europe before the war. That’s a powerful statement.”

I maintain, that 50 years from now, it is highly likely that only those Jews who fast on Tishah B’Av, who remember the destruction of the two Temples, who recall the Jewish victims of the Bar Kochbah rebellion that the Roman murderers refused to allow to be buried, who remember the hundreds of thousands of victims of the crusades, and read the Kinot poems bemoaning the destructions of kehillot Shum–Spire, Worms and Mayence, and are familiar with the brutal murders of Ukrainian Jewry at the hands of the “great” Ukrainian liberator, Bogdan Chmelnitsky in 1648-1649, will recall, or will care enough to remember, the victims of the European Holocaust.

And so, I say to you who read or hear these words, that if we fail to act now, if we fail to share with our young Jews the beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish life and Jewish heritage, there will be few Jews left in the next generation who will even know that there ever was a Holocaust of European Jews. The slogan “Never Again” will ring hollow, because the “silent Holocaust” will have done its job, and G-d forbid, Hitler will have emerged victorious.

May the joy of the special holiday of Purim permeate the hearts of all our people, especially the hearts of our young people, so that they will feel how good it is to be a Jew. Only then, will they have reason to remember Amalek.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Wednesday night and Thursday, March 20-21, 2019.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE (356-355 BCE, according to the traditional calculation). For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Vayikra 5779-2019

Thanking G-d for the Good”
(Revised and updated from Vayikra 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we read about the sacrificial rite. Toward the middle of the parasha, the Torah, in Leviticus 3:1, introduces the “Peace Offering,” the שְׁלָמִיםSh’lamim.

There are actually three kinds of Peace offerings: a תּוֹדָה–Todah, a thanksgiving offering; נֶדֶרNeder, a vow offering; and נְדָבָהN’davah, a freewill offering. Some of the commentaries suggest that the etymology of the word Sh’lamim, is from the word שָׁלֵם sha’laym, meaning “whole,” symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering in order to recognize that he is whole and complete. Another origin may be from the word shalom, symbolizing that a person brings a Sh’lamim offering to acknowledge being at peace with oneself.

The famous 19th century commentator on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, defines the purpose of each of the various offerings. The Olah, the burnt offering, is brought by those who seek to draw closer to G-d, by raising the standard of the holiness of their activities. The מִנְחָהMincha, the meal offering, represents the joy and satisfaction that people feel in life when they realize how much good G-d gives to each of us. The Sh’lamim, the peace offering, is brought by those who are completely satisfied with life, and feel that nothing is lacking.

Rashi, the Biblical commentator, explains that the Todah, the thanksgiving offering, is brought whenever a miraculous salvation occurs to a person who had been subject to a grave danger: they crossed the sea, traveled through the wilderness, were released from prison, or recovered from an illness. In such instances, says Rashi, we are required to give thanks, as it says in Psalms 107:21, “Let them give thanks to the L-rd for His mercy and for His wonderful works to humankind.”

Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, emphasizes that life itself, the ordinary daily course of nature, is a great Divine miracle. The unusual deliverances and supernatural miracles occur merely to draw our attention to the miracle of existence. “Everything that befalls us in our public and private capacities, is a miracle, and pertains in no way to nature and the way of the world.”

For mere mortals, it is not easy to maintain a constant sense of gratitude for the ongoing miracles that are part of our everyday existence. To the contrary, we often blame the “powers that be” for every negative or uncomfortable occurrence that happens. The phrase, “Where was G-d?” was not coined after the Holocaust, it was already recorded 2500 years ago in the book of Malachi 2:17, where the prophet speaks of G-d’s reaction to the constant human complaints: הוֹגַעְתֶּם השׁם בְּדִבְרֵיכֶם, וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה הוֹגָעְנוּ You have wearied the L-rd with your words, yet you say: Wherein have we wearied Him? The prophet responds by saying that they have wearied G-d with their constant complaint: ?אַיֵּה, אֱ־לֹקֵי הַמִּשְׁפָּט, Where is the G-d of justice?

Whenever calamity strikes, large or small, we often look for someone to blame. More often than not, we blame G-d by saying: “Where was G-d when I needed Him? How could G-d allow this to happen?” While G-d is the First Cause, the Prime Mover, and certainly responsible for everything, much of misfortune and calamity that strikes us is of human origin. We have polluted the rivers and contaminated the lands. We’ve destroyed the ozone layer with our irresponsible behavior. We smoke, we drink, we misbehave, and when we are stricken, we cry out, “Where was G-d?”

The Talmud (Megillah 13b), tells us that G-d has created the cure for every malady and has provided the resources to heal every disease. But, instead, we’ve chosen to divert billions of dollars to develop nuclear arms, and many more billions on entertainment, violence and sex. There are people in our own backyards who are starving, our neighbors are dying of terminal diseases, but we fail to make the association with our profligate behavior. With the immense resources we possess, we have the capacity to eradicate those diseases, to eliminate hunger and heal many of the world’s sorrows. It is our choice, but we choose to negate our role and evade our responsibilities.

Over the last one hundred years, the life expectancy of the average person in developed countries has increased by more than 25 years. The average life expectancy for men and women is now over 75, approaching 80, and it is not unlikely that people will soon regularly live to 100 and beyond. Why is it that no one says, “Where is G-d? I’d like to thank Him! Where is G-d? He added an extra 25, 30, 40 years to my life; I’d like to express my gratitude. He gave the doctors the capacity to heal a disease that would have been terminal ten years ago, and I’m still here trucking and kicking! I’d like to thank Him!”

That’s what the Sh’lamim, the peace offering sacrifice, represents. We need to express our gratitude to G-d on a regular basis, not just cry out and denounce G-d when things go wrong or when we experience discomfort.

In 1992, a year after my mother passed away, I wrote an essay elaborating on the idea of expressing gratitude, entitled “Saying ‘Thank You’ for the Good.” I’d like to share this essay with you because I feel that it is just as relevant today as it was then, and, hopefully, will be tomorrow.

More than a year has passed since my mother, of blessed memory, passed away. Of course, it was not an easy year, but it flew by rapidly.

Many of the laws and customs of aveylut (mourning) had deep impact on me. But, the requirement to say Kaddish with a minyan every morning and evening had a particularly profound impact–throwing my daily schedule and already tumultuous life into even greater turmoil. There were times when I was delayed on trains and planes, and was certain that I would miss Kaddish. But, somehow, I never once missed reciting Kaddish during the entire year–which is quite a tribute, especially to the New York subway system! Often, it required something little short of a miracle, but I made it, and now I can finally take a deep breath, and plod on.

I must admit, that saying Kaddish for me was not a terrible inconvenience, since, even before I became a mourner, I regularly attended Shacharit and Mincha services daily, and tried as often as I could to attend Maariv services regularly. I can’t fathom how difficult this new routine must be for those who do not attend minyan regularly. The tensions I experienced, as someone who was used to going to services, were enormous. How overwhelming it must be for someone who is suddenly thrust into this awesome and demanding regimen.

What really amazed me was how casual my attitude toward synagogue attendance became immediately after the first Yahrtzeit. It took less than three weeks for me to miss minyan, and while I am sincerely trying not to miss too often, it is very likely that I am going to miss far more frequently than I did during my year of mourning.

Yes, I recognize the irony. Now, thank G-d, that everyone is OK, my 88 year-old father is doing well, my wife and children are healthy, my work is fulfilling–now that everything is hunky-dory–I somehow can’t manage to get to synagogue as regularly as I did during my period of mourning. When mother was ill, and after she passed away, I never missed. And, now, when I have so much for which to be grateful, I am back to being casual about it! And then, when, G-d forbid, tragedy strikes, as it will inevitably, we call out, “O L-rd, O L-rd, why have You forsaken me!”

“Where were you, Buchwald, when everything was OK?,” He may justifiably ask. “How is it that you couldn’t find the time to say ‘Thank you’?”

It’s easy to complain about the bad. It’s far more difficult to say “Thank You” for the good. But, to be complete, to be at peace with oneself, one needs to express those thanks much more often than we normally do. That’s the extraordinary concept represented by the offering known as “Sh’lamim.”

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Pekudei 5779-2019

Honesty and Integrity in Public Life”
(Revised and updated from Pekudei 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, the Torah portion begins with an accounting of the amounts of gold, silver and copper that were contributed to the construction of the מִּשְׁכָּןMishkan, the portable Tabernacle. Despite the fact that these communal gifts were deposited in the hands of Moses and Bezalel, people whose integrity were beyond reproach, a full and precise accounting was conducted.

Exodus 38:21 reads, אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל פִּי מֹשֶׁה, These are the reckonings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which were reckoned at Moses’ bidding. All the items are then listed, as if it were an accountant’s audited report: All the gold that was used…29 talents and 730 shekels; silver…1,775 shekels; copper…70 talents and 2,400 shekels. The precise use for these precious metals was then delineated.

According to the Code of Jewish Law, a גַּבַּאי צְדָקָהgabbai tzedakah, a person who collects for, and maintains, a public charity, should never attend to public funds alone, but must always be accompanied by two or three others, to ensure public accountability. This rule is most likely based on Moses’ reckoning of the Mishkan contributions as reported in our parasha.

Honesty and integrity, of course, play a major role in the Jewish religion. The probity of leaders, who serve as role models for the rest of the community, is especially expected to be beyond reproach. It is quite likely, that in all of Jewish history not a single great scholar was regarded as a scoundrel or dishonest person. This, was not true of the kings of Israel, and, of course, is not true in secular life today. A person can be considered a great expert or scholar in his/her field, and yet may be gravely lacking proper values in other aspects of life, even to the point of decadence or evil. In fact, in Judaism, it seems as if one’s scholarship is not at all regarded, unless the scholar is of truly upstanding character.

A person’s honesty and integrity can make a huge impression on other people’s lives. A Jew, especially an observant Jew, who is scrupulously honest, is regarded as a מְקַדֵּשׁ שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם M’ka’desh Shaym Shamayim, as sanctifying G-d’s name, because of the positive impact he/she may have on others.

Many years ago, I heard a story about a young woman who had become religiously observant. The young woman’s mother, highly critical of her daughter’s turn to religiosity, was so angry, that she stopped speaking to her daughter. On one occasion, the young woman made a phone call from a telephone booth (remember those?) and left her phone book behind. Shortly afterwards, a religious young man found the book and started calling some of the names listed in the book, hoping to find the owner and fulfil the mitzvah of הֲשָׁבַת אֲבֵדָהHa’shavat a’veidah, returning a lost article to its rightful owner.

Eventually, he dialed a number in Florida and spoke to a woman. The woman thought the owner of the diary might be her daughter, and gave the man her daughter’s number. When the woman asked the man why he went through so much trouble to return the phonebook, the young man explained that he was religiously observant and wished to fulfill the mitzvah of returning a lost object.

After calling the young woman and confirming that she indeed was the owner, the young man arranged to return the diary. When they met, the young woman began to cry, explaining that the young man had not only returned her address book, he had also returned her mother to her. She told him that her mother was so impressed that a religiously observant man like himself would expend so much effort to find the owner of the telephone book, that she decided that she had made a terrible mistake, and that the lifestyle that her daughter was leading was indeed appropriate. As a result, the relationship between mother and daughter was restored and even enhanced.

I remember reading an ad in the Jerusalem edition of the Jerusalem Post in the “Lost and Found” section, which touched me deeply. It read: FOUND–Sefer Ramban (Nachmanides) in English, Commentary on the Torah, Exodus. Cash reward given for help in finding owner. Apparently, someone had found this book on a bus or in the street, and was so eager to return it to its proper owner, to fulfill the mitzvah of Ha’shavat a’veidah, that he or she took out a newspaper ad, at their own expense, and offered a reward to anyone who would help find the rightful owner.

The Talmud, in Yoma 38a, cites many examples of ancient public servants who deprived themselves of certain luxuries and conveniences so that they would be above any suspicion of wrongdoing: The House of Garmu never allowed their children to eat bread of fine flour, lest the people say that it was taken from the Showbread that their family produced for the Tabernacle. The House of Avtimas never allowed the brides of their family to wear perfume, lest the people accuse them of using the perfumes of the incense which they were charged with producing. Similarly, any person who entered the “Shekel Chamber” in the Temple was not permitted to wear a sleeved cloak, shoes or sandals, lest they be accused of pilfering shekels from the Temple.

Moses gave a full reckoning of the Mishkan donations in order to be beyond reproach, a fulfillment of the Biblical statement (Numbers 32:22): וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִּם מֵהשׁם, וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל , And you shall be innocent [literally: clean] before G-d and the People of Israel.

This incredibly high level of probity that is expected of Jewish leaders and lay people is, in effect, a crown of majesty that the Torah bestows on the Jewish people, to rise far above the level of honesty and goodness that is commonly expected of society in general.

Although according to Jewish tradition, G-d created the human being a little less perfect than the angels, we often find excuses to justify our errors and transgressions. Because of the blandishments of contemporary society, we need to work diligently to rise up to the angelic level.

I believe it was Martin Buber who said in his comments on the Third Commandment–of not taking the name of G-d in vain–“Don’t turn G-d into what you’d like Him to be. Turn yourself into what G-d wants you to be.”

May you be blessed.

Vayakhel 5779-2019

“Jewish Women and Jewish Destiny”
(Revised and updated from Vayakhel 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The vast majority of this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, deals with erecting the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the portable Tabernacle–in almost excruciatingly painful detail.

In Exodus 35:21, the Torah describes the various donations that were brought by the people as a “free-willed offering.” וַיָּבֹאוּ כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ , Every man whose heart inspired him came, and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion of G-d, for the work of the Tabernacle for all its labor and for the sacred garments. Exodus 35:22 adds that not only the men came, but that the men came with the women. Everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose rings, rings, body ornaments, all sorts of gold ornaments. Emphasizing the people’s generosity, the Torah reiterates that everyone raised up an offering of gold to G-d.

The Hebrew expression, וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים עַל הַנָּשִׁים , that the Torah in Exodus 35:22 uses, is very unusual. Generally, these words would be translated as “the men came along with the women.” But according to the Ramban, this term implies that the men were secondary to the women’s special generosity. Apparently, since the jewelry enumerated in the verse was worn mainly by women, the Torah, in this manner, pays tribute to the women. For as soon as the women heard that precious metals were needed, they immediately removed their most precious possessions and rushed to bring them to the Tabernacle.

This verse, and the interpretation extolling the women for their devotion to G-d and commitment to the cause of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is only one of a broad series of verses and midrashim that appear throughout the Book of Exodus that underscore the selfless devotion of the women to G-d. Particularly, when compared to the men, the women show remarkable faith throughout the ordeal of servitude in Egypt, the rescue from the Exodus, and the entire 40 year period of wandering in the wilderness.

As the story of the Exodus unfolds, the Torah, in Exodus 2:1 records, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי, וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי , that a man went from the House of Levy and took for his wife a daughter of Levy. This, of course, is referring to Amram (the father of Moses, Aaron and Miriam), who marries his aunt Yocheved. Why does the Torah use the unusual expressions וַיֵּלֶךva’yei’lech and וַיִּקַּח –va’yee’kach, he went and he took? Rashi cites the Midrash that maintains that Amram had separated from Yocheved, and lived apart from his wife. Now, the Torah informs us that there was a reconciliation, and Amram reunited with Yocheved his wife and entered into a second marriage with her.

Elaborating on the reason for the marital separation, the Midrash informs us that when Pharaoh decreed that all the male children who were born would be drowned, Amram, who was the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court of Law, and the highest ranking leader of Israel at that time, separated from his wife, so that no children would be born who would be destined to be drowned.

Because of Amram’s position and prestige, most of the Jewish husbands did likewise and separated from their spouses. According to the Midrash, Amram’s young daughter, Miriam, then only 6 years old, approached him and said, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh only decreed that the male children should die, and you have decreed that both male and female children will never be born. Pharaoh only decreed that the children die in this world, and you have decreed that they will not have both this world or the next. Pharaoh is wicked, and it is doubtful whether his decree will be fulfilled. But you, Amram, are a righteous person and there is no question that your decree will be fulfilled.”

When Amram heard Miriam’s rebuke, he was filled with remorse. He brought Miriam to the Sanhedrin, where she repeated the arguments that she had presented earlier to her father. The Elders of the Sanhedrin said, “You Amram, were the one who discouraged us from being together with our wives, now you must go and publically announce that the men must return to their wives.” Amram contritely rejoined his wife. Little Miriam, of course, is depicted as having played a singular heroic role.

A second instance of heroic women is recorded in Exodus 15. After the Jews crossed the Red Sea, Moses led the people in the famous song, אָז יָשִׁיר –Az Ya’shir. After the men concluded their song, Exodus 15:20 describes that the women also burst out in song: וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת . And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrels in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.

And Miriam answered them:

Sing to the Eternal for He is gloriously sublime,
the horse and his rider hath He hurled into the sea!

Rashi, once again citing the Midrash, notes that the righteous women in that generation were so confident that G-d would perform miracles for them, that they brought timbrels with them from Egypt, so they would be prepared to sing to G-d once the great salvation had taken place! In stark contrast, the men were fearful every step of the way and complained to Moses, arrogantly demanding why he had brought them out of the “wonderful” land of Egypt only to be drowned in the sea, or destroyed by the Egyptians.

In Exodus 32, the Torah once again describes a contemptible rebellion against G-d–the sin of the Golden Calf.

When the people mistakenly concluded that Moses’ return from Mount Sinai had been delayed, they assembled before Aaron and demanded that he make a “new god” for them. Scripture, in Exodus 32:2, relates that Aaron tried to delay the people and divert them from their nefarious intentions by instructing them: פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, וְהָבִיאוּ אֵלָי . “Pull off the golden pendants which are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters and bring them unto me.”

The Midrash indicates that Aaron calculated that, through this action, he would be able to stall the people. Had he instructed the men to bring their own gold and silver, they would have brought their valuables immediately. But, by telling them to bring their wives’ jewelry and that of their sons and daughters, he knew that this would cause delay.

When the women heard the demands of their husbands, they refused to take part in the outrage! The commentators note that the expression וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּva’yit’par’koo–and they removed their jewelry–implies breaking off, indicating that when the women refused to give their jewelry, the men broke off their own jewelry from their own ears, and in their passion to defy G-d ripped their ear lobes in the process.

Toward the conclusion of this week’s parasha, Vayakhel, Exodus 38:8, the Torah describes the manufacture of the כִּיּוֹרkee’yor, the Laver, the washing basin found in the Tabernacle. וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת, וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת, בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד , And he [Moses] made the laver, the sink, of copper, and the frame of it of copper, of the mirrors of the women who crowded at the entrance of the Miskhan, the Tabernacle.

Rashi, once again citing the Midrash, says that the Jewish women possessed mirrors of copper, which they would use to check their appearance as they adorned themselves. And, when they offered these mirrors of copper for the building of the Mishkan, Moses’ initial reaction was to reject them, since they were objects of vanity. But, the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed Moses: “Accept them! These [copper mirrors] are dearer to me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts in Egypt.”

Rashi explains, that when the Israelite husbands would tire due to the crushing labor imposed on them by Egypt, the women would bring them food or drink to the fields where the men worked, and induce them to eat. The women would then take the mirrors, and each one would gaze at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am more handsome than you!” Thus they awakened their husband’s affection, and subsequently became the mothers of many people. As it says in Song of Songs (8:5), “Under the apple tree I awakened thy love.” This is what is referred to when it says, Exodus 38:8, “The mirrors of the women who reared the hosts.”

Clearly, had it been up to the men, the Israelites would probably, to this very day, still be enslaved in the land of Egypt, unworthy of redemption.

In Numbers 26:64, scripture relates, וּבְאֵלֶּה, לֹא הָיָה אִישׁ, מִפְּקוּדֵי מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן that when they counted the Jewish people after 40 years in the wilderness, except for Caleb and Joshua, not a single male of the previous generation survived, because they had all died as punishment for the sin of the spies.

Rashi notes the emphasis in the verse that “No man of them that Moses and Aaron numbered survived,” but that the women of that generation did survive, because they held the Promised Land dear. The men, in Numbers 14:4 cried out, “Let us appoint a chief and return to Egypt,” while the women declared, Numbers 27:4, “Give us a possession in the land.” The women loved the land of Israel; the men were ready to return to Egypt.

The key role of women in the redemption, may be summed up by the remarkable statement of the Talmud, found in Sotah 11b, בִּשְׂכַר נָשִׁים צִדְקָנִיּוֹת שֶׁהָיוּ בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר, נִגְאֲלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם , In the merit of those righteous women who were in that generation, the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.

There are those who argue even further and maintain that not only was the generation of Egypt redeemed in their merit, but that each subsequent generation has been redeemed because of the righteous women of that generation. And, if we ourselves are to be redeemed in our generation, much of it will depend upon the commitment of the women in our generation to keep the faith, to keep the men faithful, to inspire the children with faith, and to create a generation devoted to G-d and His Torah.

This wonderful testament to women is even more remarkable because it was authored long ago by men! The Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, that is at least 2,000 years old, represents the feelings and values of the exclusively male hierarchy of Jewish leaders who did not shrink from depicting the men of the generation of the Exodus as being unworthy of redemption. And yet this “chauvinistic” male hierarchy was not at all reluctant to hail and praise the role of the ancient Israelite women, not only in the salvation of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, but also promoting the crucial role that women would play in future redemptions, such as Chanukah and Purim, and in the times of the “Ultimate Redemption.”

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.

 

 

 

 

Kee Tisah 5779-2019

“The ‘Vengeful’ G-d”
(Revised and updated from Kee Tisah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the infamous episode of the Golden Calf.

In preparation for the Revelation, Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights to study Torah with the Al-mighty. But, because of a miscalculation regarding the date of Moses’ return, the People of Israel thought that Moses had abandoned them, and demanded of Aaron to make for them a new leader. Aaron tried to delay the people, but eventually the Golden Calf is created. The crazed people cry out to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4) אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל , This is your God, O’ Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!

G-d is furious at the people’s actions and tells Moses to descend from the mountain, saying to Moses that the people that he (Moses) has brought up from Egypt have become corrupt. G-d, in anger, denounces the people, saying in Exodus 32:9, רָאִיתִי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא , “I have seen this people and behold, they are a stiff-necked people.” “And now Moses,” says G-d, “desist from Me, let My anger flare against them, and I will annihilate them, and shall make of you [Moses] a great nation.”

Moses pleads with G-d that the destruction of Israel will be seen by the other nations as G-d’s lack of omnipotence. G-d reconsiders, so to speak, and Moses comes down the mountain with the two tablets of testimony in his hands. When Moses (Exodus 32:19) sees the people dancing joyously around the Gold Calf, his own anger flares. He throws the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.

Moses then calls out (Exodus 32:26): “Whosoever is for G-d, join me!” All the Levites gather around him and exact vengeance on those who had led the rebellion of the Golden Calf. Three thousand men of Israel fall that day at the hands of the Levites. Despite Moses’ pleas to G-d on behalf of the Jewish people, G-d strikes the people with a plague.

Moses spends the next forty days praying that G-d restore Israel to its previous state of eminence. The second set of tablets is delivered to the Jewish people. The story concludes when G-d reveals to Moses His “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.”

Although the reading of the Book of Exodus (the second of the Five Books of Moses) has not yet been completed, one could already conclude that the G-d of Israel is a “vengeful G-d.” This is the G-d Who destroys the world by means of a Flood in the times of Noah; the G-d Who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son; the G-d Who enslaves the Jewish people in Egypt; the G-d Who kills Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, at the investiture of the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle; the G-d Who swallows up Korach and 250 of his men as the earth opens; the G-d Who decrees that an entire generation of Jews will never be allowed to enter the land of Israel because of the sin of the spies; the G-d Who refuses to allow Moses and Aaron to enter the land of Israel because Moses hit the rock, rather than speak to the rock. These seemingly unending instances of Divine anger and acts of retribution are perhaps why the nations of the world refer to the G-d of the Hebrew scriptures, the G-d of the so-called “Old Testament,” as the “G-d of Vengeance,” while the G-d of the Christian Bible is often called the “god of love” or the “god of mercy.”

The Torah in Leviticus 19:18, clearly forbids vengeance. לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ , You shall not wreak vengeance nor bear a grudge toward the people of your nation. The Talmud, in Yoma 23a, defines vengeance, by citing the following example: If one farmer asks to borrow a hoe from a second farmer and is refused, that first farmer is not permitted to be vengeful and refuse to lend a spade to the farmer who was unkind to him, should he ask to borrow one. Leviticus 19:18, however, goes even further, demanding, “Do not bear a grudge.” The Talmud explains that this means that one is not even permitted to say to the farmer who was unkind yesterday: “I’m not like you, I’m not a low-life. Here, take my spade and use it in good health!” And yet, the same G-d who prohibits vengeance and harboring a grudge, seems to be both a vengeful and grudge-bearing G-d. How could that be?

Of course, there is a profound difference between people being unnecessarily mean, and a G-d who demands accountability. One cannot equate a valid and deserving punishment meted out to a wicked person, with vengeance against an arrogant or mean neighbor.

As the story of the Golden Calf concludes, a second set of tablets are carved out. In Exodus 34:4, Moses rises early in the morning and ascends Mount Sinai. G-d descends in a cloud and stands with Moses. Moses calls out the name of G-d, as G-d proclaims: “Hashem, Hashem, G-d, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for Thousands of Generations, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses, but does not Cleanse Completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” These, so-called, “13 Attributes of G-d’s Mercy” represent the ultimate level of Divine forgiveness. By invoking the 13 attributes, G-d gives the Jewish people a second chance.

Let’s look at this again! There is an inconsistency, a blatant inconsistency in the thirteen attributes!! Exodus 34:7 reads,
וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה, פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת , stating clearly that G-d does not entirely cleanse the sinners. In fact, He recalls the iniquity of the parents on the children and the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations!

Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish, was asked a profound question: If we are required, as the Torah in Deuteronomy 11:22 states, לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו, וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ ,  to walk in all His [G-d’s] ways and cling to Him, and urged to constantly imitate G-d, then perhaps we, humans, should be vengeful as well, since the last of G-d’s “13 Attributes of Mercy” is vengeance, and not cleansing completely? He answered: If a human being’s act of vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps that person is truly entitled to be vengeful as well.

In real life, there is vengeance that is entirely legitimate. In fact, sometimes legitimate vengeance is not cruel at all, but may actually be a reflection of mercy. There comes a time when those in authority need to say, “Enough is enough!” Just as G-d also says: “Enough is enough, this cannot continue, this must stop!” And by stopping the undesirable actions, we perform an act of mercy, not vengeance. Stopping a cruel and wicked person is certainly an act of mercy for the victims. It may even be an act of mercy for those cruel and wicked people themselves.

Let’s face it, Judaism’s goals are radically different from conventional practices. Judaism sees the world differently and values the world differently. Our G-d, the G-d of the Hebrews, is surely a G-d of love, but also a G-d of accountability. In the Jewish religion, one doesn’t just walk away from one’s misdeeds. People are held accountable, responsible, and expected to mend their ways when they err; and if they don’t, there’s a price to be paid by all for improper actions.

Yes, our G-d holds His people to a strict account. But, by holding the Jewish people to a strict account, He performs for them a great act of mercy. As a result, His people, hopefully, become better people, stronger, more knowledgeable and even more merciful people, especially when we ultimately see the toll that sinfulness exacts on us and upon others.

Yes, as Meir Karelitz, the brother of the Chazon Ish said: If vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps vengeance is indeed justified!

May you be blessed.