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Eikev 5779-2019

Eikev 5779-2019
“Feast or Famine–What Judaism Says About Food”
(Revised and updated from Eikev 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah dwells, in part, on the specialness of food.

In Deuteronomy 8:3, G-d recalls that, in the wilderness, He gave the Jewish people manna from heaven to eat: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי השׁם יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם All this, says G-d, was done in order to make you [Israel] aware that man does not live on bread alone, but by whatever G-d decrees.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 8:7-10, movingly describes G-d’s intention to bring the Jewish people to a good land–a land of streams of waters, springs, and deep wells flowing forth from the valleys and the mountains. The Torah goes on to say that the land where G-d promises to bring the people is a most fruitful land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and date nectar. In the new land in which the people will dwell, the people will not eat bread in poverty, nor will they lack anything…to the contrary, they will eat and be satisfied, and then shall bless G-d the L-rd, the eternal G-d, for the good land that He gave the people.

There is a rather amusing saying that has been circulating for years that declares: All of Jewish history can probably be subsumed in one simple statement: “Our enemies tried to destroy us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

There is a perception out there, true or false, that Jews like to eat. Yes, food does play a special role in Judaism. The Talmud in Brachot 58a, quotes Ben Zoma, who said: “Look how many labors Adam had to perform before he obtained bread to eat. He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound (sheaves), he threshed and winnowed, and selected the ears, he ground (them) and sifted the (flour), he kneaded, and baked, and then, at last, he ate. Whereas, I get up in the morning and find all these things done for me!”

As Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of England, has written, “Judaism spiritualized the act of eating as part of the process of hallowing daily life.” Furthermore, Rabbi Hertz points out, the laws of food are a major religious practice in Judaism and constitute an invaluable training in self-mastery. The ultimate reason for this emphasis, is so that Jews may sanctify themselves and be holy, for, says the Torah in Leviticus 11:44, I, G-d, am holy.”

Surely, the dietary laws of Israel have proven to be an important factor in the survival of the Jewish people. Jews abstain from forbidden foods, not because of personal aversions, but because our Father in Heaven ordained it. When Jews eat, they offer thanksgiving to G-d before and after every meal. This raises a meal from a mere gratification of a physical craving, to a spiritual experience and religious act. Since a meal is like a sacred offering brought on the altar, Jews, like the priests and Levites of old, always wash their hands before eating bread, the staple of the meal.

Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Kings, 6:10, speaks of the prohibition of בַּל תַּשְׁחִיתBal  Tash’chitwanton wastefulness, clearly stating that it is not only strictly forbidden to destroy fruit trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food in a destructive way, commits an offense against the Torah law of “Thou shall not destroy,” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

The Code of Jewish Law underscores the importance of food by declaring that feeding the hungry takes precedence over clothing the naked. When a naked person claims to need clothes, the truthfulness of the claim must first be verified. However, one doesn’t inspect the veracity of a person who comes and says, “feed me.” Those who claim hunger are fed instantly, says the Code of Jewish Law.

The Code continues,

A city with Jewish inhabitants must establish a charity fund of known and reliable people who will collect from all those [residents] capable of giving, to properly assess the amount they must give. Each week, from Shabbat to Shabbat the charity committee distributes the monies and give to each poor person enough to suffice for seven days. This is called kupah (charity fund).

Similarly, officials are appointed to collect daily from each courtyard and neighborhood, bread, assorted food stuffs, fruit, or cash, from those who donate spontaneously. At night the collection is distributed among the poor, and each poor person is given a single day’s sustenance. This is called תַּמְחוּי –Tamchui (soup kitchen). The Code even testifies that, “we have never seen or heard of a single Jewish community without a charity fund.”

There is a remarkable law, one that is not well known in Jewish life. The Code of Jewish Law, 169:1, records, that any food that has an aroma and arouses one’s appetite that is brought by a servant or waiter before a person, must be served to the servant immediately, and it is considered meritorious to serve the servant of all foods. The Mishnah Berurah  cites a gloss that says that latter authorities have ruled that even if a condition of the hiring was that the master be free of the requirement to feed the servant first, the clause has no efficacy.

Now we can truly see why food is so central in Jewish life and Jewish law. It is not only a staple of life, it is a staple of Jewish faith and a key element in developing sensitivity and proper moral and ethical behavior.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5779-2019

“The Torah’s Radical Approach to Parenting
(Revised and updated from Va’etchanan 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This past Saturday evening (August 10th) and Sunday (August 11th) we observed Tish’ah B’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. How fortuitous it is then, that in this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter a basic law of the Torah that, if properly observed, may actually result in the rebuilding of the Temple.

In parashat Va’etchanan, the Decalogue, the so-called “Ten Commandments,” are recorded in the Torah for a second time. The Ten Commandments first appear in Exodus 20, and are repeated in Deuteronomy 5.

The name, “Ten Commandments,” is a well-known misnomer, which is why traditional Jews refer to these verses as עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת “Aseret Ha’dibrot” or the Decalogue. Decalogue, which means “ten words” or “ten statements,” is more correct than “commandments,” since not all of the ten “statements” are actual “commandments.” In fact, according to some commentators, there may even be many more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments.

The fifth commandment, as it appears in Deuteronomy 5:16 reads: כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ , Honor thy father and thy mother, that your days may be lengthened. The fifth commandment is often referred to as the “swing commandment,” since it is the statement which relates both to the first set of five statements and the second set of five statements. The first five “commandments,” concern human relationships with G-d, while the second five “commandments” concern human relationships with their fellow human beings. However, the fifth commandment does not really fit with the first four commandments, since it deals with the inter-human relationship of parents and children. The rabbis, however, say that since parents are “Loco Deus”–G-d’s representatives in this world, it is entirely appropriate for the fifth commandment to bind or meld the first set of five statements with the second five, hence the appellation, “swing commandment.”

In Leviticus 19:3, we find another verse describing child-parent relationships: אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ , every person should fear his mother and his father. The Torah there introduces the concept of יִרְאָה“Yir’ah,” generally translated as “fear.” The rabbis explain that fear in this context does not really mean to be afraid in the conventional sense, but rather to express awe or reverence. Children are expected to be in awe of their parents and revere them, meaning that they should never do anything that will hurt them. This is what is meant by the Talmudic expression, יִרְאָה מִתּוֹך אַהֲבָה , reverence resulting from great love–not fear of punishment, but rather great love that results in a reluctance to do anything that might hurt a parent’s feelings.

Code of Jewish Law, in Yoreh De’ah 250, deals extensively with the laws of both honoring and fearing parents. “Honor” is interpreted to be the positive actions that children must perform on behalf of their parents, while “Yir’ah,” reverence, are negative behaviors to avoid.

According to Jewish law, every child has an obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and transport one’s parents. If parents have their own money, then children may use their parents’ funds to ensure that these services are properly provided. If the parents are impoverished, and the children have the wherewithal, the children are expected to support their parents from their own resources. If both the children and the parents are impoverished, then children are not required to collect for their parents, but should rather take care of their own needs first.

“Yir’ah,” reverence, according to Jewish law, means that a child must show utmost respect. Thus, children are not permitted to stand in the place where parents stand during prayer, or sit in the seat that is usually occupied by a parent. Children are prohibited from calling parents by their first names. They are not permitted to disagree with their parent’s words, or even say, “It appears to me that what you are saying leads to the following conclusion.”

The Code of Jewish Law offers a hypothetical Talmudic example, expressing the extent of a child’s obligation of “Yir’ah,” fear. Even if a child were a famous rabbi, sitting in his finest clothes, delivering a Torah lecture to a huge congregation, and his mother and father come, rip his garments, hit him on his head and spit in his face, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents, but must remain silent, because that is what the Al-mighty, King of Kings, has commanded. Another version has the parents taking the child’s life savings and throwing the savings into the sea. Once again, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents. However, the child does have the right to sue them for the losses.

Interestingly, the amount of money expended in service of a parent is often not the decisive factor in determining whether one has properly honored one’s parents. Often, “attitude” is the determining factor! Even if a child finds a menial job for one’s poor parent, but does it with the clear intent of benefitting the parent, then the act is considered favorable. However, if a child feeds one’s parents the finest foods every single day, but does it begrudgingly, it is not considered meritorious, and may even be deserving of punishment.

What emerges from this brief survey of the laws of honoring parents, is that according to the Jewish understanding, parents are G-d’s mortal representatives on earth, period! Parents have all the rights, while children seem to have no rights. Thus, there are very few instances cited from the Talmud, or in the Code of Jewish Law, which permit a child to disagree with a parent–one may choose a mate to marry or go to study in a particular yeshiva in a city, even over one’s parents’ objections. However, in almost all other instances, it seems as if the child has no rights, while parents have absolute authority.

This radical formula for parenting espoused by Judaism requires careful review and analysis. Apparently, the Torah wants to, first and foremost, set down the law, a priori, that father and mother, who biologically bore the child, deserve ultimate respect, simply because parents have “created” their children’s lives. They may be miscreants or scoundrels, but they are still entitled to the respect and honor of their children.

Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that in circumstances where parents are crazed and the child cannot possibly be respectful, the child may move away, making certain that the parents are cared for properly by hired help. However, under normal circumstances, since parents represent G-d in this world, children owe their parents total and unconditional allegiance and respect.

Sounds pretty harsh and unrealistic!

Now here comes the clincher!

While the Code of Jewish Law and the Talmud unequivocally record that parents have all the rights, the Code of Jewish Law clearly and strongly suggests that parents should not be too onerous or overly didactic in exercising those rights. In fact, there is a fundamental principle of Jewish Law that totally mitigates unilateral parental authority: parents who renounce respect due them, may do so! This means that although the positive obligations may never be canceled: feeding, clothing, sheltering, and transporting–children may indeed call their parents by their first names if the parent explicitly allows it. A child may sit in a parent’s place or stand in the parent’s place of prayer, and a child may even disagree with a parent, if the parent is so disposed.

We see here that Judaism attempts to create a very delicate balance. Initially, every child must know and learn, that without doubt, parents are the ultimate authority, and total respect is due to parents. Parents are to lay down the law, set up firm parameters, and let children know precisely the rules of the game. However, once a sense of respect and reverence is established, a parent may, in fact should, be lenient. Of course, the cards are always in the hands of the parents, and if things get out of hand, they may once again choose to enforce the stricter rules.

These radical regulations of parenting, that are set down in our Talmud and in our Code of Jewish Law, are based on the insights of our Torah. While they’re ancient, they are extremely insightful–and they work!

May we all merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple in our days, soon in our lifetime!

May you be blessed.

Postscript: It must be noted that the Code of Jewish Law strongly condemns any form of physical or emotional abuse. Hitting a child, while permitted in limited instances, is considered extremely counterproductive.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana.“Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.
Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 15th and 16th, 2019. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here)

Devarim 5779-2019

“Judaism’s Unique View of Justice and the Judicial System”
(Revised and updated from Devarim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week, we begin reading the Book of Devarim–Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah. Deuteronomy is also known as מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָהMishneh Torah, a repetition of the Torah, since much of the book reviews the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. However, the book also contains many new and novel laws and directives that were not included in the previous four books of the Torah.

In this week’s parasha, Moses delivers his valedictory admonition to the Jewish people, reviewing for them the events of the past forty years and strongly urging the people to remain loyal to G-d. Reminding the people how difficult it was for him to lead them, Moses recalls how he selected 70 elders to help him judge the nation, and how he established, on the basis of his father-in-law Jethro’s advice, a judicial system that would allow the Israelites to be judged fairly and equitably.

In Deuteronomy 1:16, Moses recalls: וָאֲצַוֶּה אֶת שֹׁפְטֵיכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר , I instructed the judges at that time, saying: Listen among your brethren and judge righteously between the man and his brother or a resident alien. You shall not show favoritism in judgment, small and great alike shall you hear; you shall not tremble before any man, for judgment is G-d’s; any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it.

In this first chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses lays out the foundations of Jewish jurisprudence, a legal system that was without parallel in the ancient world. It is a Jewish justice system established on the principle of צֶדֶקTzedek, a word that is related to the Hebrew word צַדִּיקTzadik–a righteous person. Clearly, the purpose of the Jewish justice system is to do the right thing, the correct thing.

The Hebrew legal system is significantly different from other secular and national systems. Western jurisprudence frequently invokes the well-known principle that a person is regarded as innocent until proven guilty. However, in Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (1:8) we learn that in Jewish courts of law litigants should be considered guilty before they are judged, but when they leave and accept the judge’s decision, they should be considered righteous.

Although these statements are often looked upon as mere metaphors, it does seem to underscore the fact that in Western civilization the purpose of the justice system is to prove a person guilty, whereas the purpose of Jewish jurisprudence is that even the guilty person shall eventually emerge innocent.

Moses’ admonition to the judges, Deuteronomy 1:16, begins with the words: שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין אֲחֵיכֶם וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק , Hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously between one another. In this verse, the Torah lays down a fundamental principle of Jewish law, positing that a judge may not listen to one side of the argument without the other litigant being present. Furthermore, שָׁמֹעַ“Shamoa” means not only to “listen,” but also to “understand”–to find out the truth, so that one may judge faithfully and truthfully. A judge might say, since I am so wise and so insightful I don’t need to listen. In fact, I am so wise, that I should be heard, and it is for the people over whom I am appointed to listen. Says the Torah, שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין אֲחֵיכֶם , it makes no difference whether large or small, important or insignificant, listen! You don’t necessarily have to believe what you hear from the people, or the voices of the significant or insignificant, but listen! Listen to what they say, so that you will know them and be in a position to assess their inner character. Even if their arguments are not truthful, listen!

Another instance that underscores Judaism’s remarkable insight in matters pertaining to justice is recorded in the verse in Deuteronomy 1:16, וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק, בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין אָחִיו וּבֵין גֵּרוֹ , And you should judge righteously between a person and his brother and the stranger that lives with him. There is to be no difference between an Israelite and a resident non-Jew in matters involving justice and equity. It is rather amazing that this highly progressive concept was pronounced thousands of years before any other judicial system granted equality to aliens or strangers.

Some legal systems argue that justice must be “blind.” Judaism sees it slightly differently. Our Torah declares, in Deuteronomy 1:17, לֹא תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט , Do not show favoritism in judgment, small and great alike shall you hear. Judaism also instructs a judge not to judge according to what he/she sees, since sight is often misleading. Visual deception is difficult to detect, making it easy for a litigant to change forms and change facts. Don’t be deaf. Listen, says the Torah! Focus on human voice, which emanates from the inner parts of a person’s soul, making it much more difficult to deceive. Remember, Jacob was able to visually deceive his father by putting on lamb skins, but his voice gave him away. Through the voice, a judge can often penetrate the inner recesses of the person who is standing before him/her.

The prescience of Torah law becomes especially apparent in the verse found in Deuteronomy 1:17, לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי אִישׁ, כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵא־לֹקִים הוּא , Do not be afraid of any person, for judgment is G-d’s. This verse is directed specifically to judges, warning them not to be afraid of any person, and is also intended to serve as an injunction against the corruption of judges. The verse “for judgment is G-d’s,” is intended to serve as an injunction against the hubris of judges. On the one hand, the fear of flesh and blood of other humans perverts the Divine image of the judge and lowers his/her stature. The fear of G-d, on the other hand, straightens the judge’s stature, and reinvigorates the image of G-d in the judge’s most inner being.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his popular Bible commentary, tells of the wife of a Hassidic Rabbi who had quarreled with her maid, and had set out to take the maid to court. As she was leaving the house, she noticed that her husband was apparently accompanying her, and asked him where he was going. “To the judge,” he said. The wife said that it was beneath her husband’s dignity for him to take any part in her quarrel with a servant, and that she could deal with the matter well enough herself. The holy man replied, “That may be, but I intend to represent your maid, who, when accused by you, will find no one willing to take her part.”

This is Jewish law! These very special legal insights reflect the remarkable heritage which G-d has given us. May we embrace it so that it strengthens us.

In these days of mourning for the Temple which was lost on account of corruption, let us scrupulously follow G-d’s will and wisdom. For if we do so, we shall surely merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple in our times.

May we soon see the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah as recorded in the final verse of this week’s Haftara, (Isaiah 1:27): צִיּוֹן, בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה , Zion shall be redeemed with justice, וְשָׁבֶיהָ, בִּצְדָקָה , and those who return to her shall be redeemed through righteousness.

May you be blessed.

The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, August 10 and continues through Sunday night, August 11, 2019. Have a meaningful fast.


Matot-Masei 5779-2019

“Jeremiah’s Prophecy: An Ancient Message for Contemporary Times”
(Revised and updated from Matot-Masei 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This Shabbat, when parashiot Matot and Masei will both be read in diaspora communities throughout the world, the diaspora communities will finally catch up to the Torah portion that is read in Israel. Both Israel and the diaspora will conclude the fourth book of the Torah—Bamidbar-Numbers. On Shabbat, when the final verse of parashat Masei is read, the Torah reader will call out: חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק , “Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us be strengthened!”

One week ago, on Sunday, the Fast of שִׁבְעָה־עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז , the 17th of Tammuz was observed by Jews worldwide to commemorate the day when the besieged walls of Jerusalem were first breached by the Babylonians and the Romans. This fast marks the beginning of the 21 day period known as the “Three Weeks,” the tragic days which precede תִּשְׁעָה בְּאָב , the Fast of the Ninth of Av, that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples. During these three weeks, it is customary for synagogues throughout the world to read what has come to be known as תְּלָת דְפֻרְעָנוּתָא , the three Haftarot (prophetic messages) of destruction, from the Books of Jeremiah and Isaiah.

Since this will be the second Shabbat of the Three Weeks, selections from Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4 and 4:1-2 are read. The prophet Jeremiah lived both before and after the destruction of the Temple. Approximately two thirds of his prophecies concern destruction, while one third contain words of consolation.

The ringing messages of Jeremiah contain many contemporary implications. Jeremiah is distraught over the fact that the people have forsaken G-d and gone after “nothingness.” In Jeremiah 2, the prophet, in the name of G-d, calls out to the Jewish people, saying: “What unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me that they have gone far from Me, and have walked after things of naught, and are become naught?”

As a result of abandoning G-d, the prophet declares, the people themselves have become nothingness, and their lives have been rendered meaningless. Furthermore, continues Jeremiah, “Neither said they: Where is the L-rd Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought, and the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man has dwelt?” How, the prophet asks, can the Jews have forgotten so quickly the miraculous exodus from Egypt, and the unprecedented survival of the Jewish people during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness?

“And I [G-d] brought you into the land of fruitful fields, to eat the fruit thereof and of the good thereof.” G-d says, I gave you this wonderful land, and what did you do to it? “When you entered,” says the prophet, “you defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.” The Jews quickly forgot G-d, says Jeremiah. “The priest said not: ‘Where is the L-rd?’ and those who handle the Torah, knew Me not.” Even those involved in Torah learning, says the prophet, only held on to the Torah, they didn’t truly imbibe it, and allow the message of the Torah to penetrate and impact on them.

“And the shepherds transgressed against Me, the prophets also prophesied in the name of Baal, and walked after things that do not profit.” When the shepherds are lost, asks the prophet, what can we expect of the flock? When the leaders, who lead the people, go astray, can there be any hope?

G-d therefore implores, “Wherefore will I yet plead with you, and with your children’s children will I plead. For pass over to the isles of the Kittites, and see, and send to Kedar, and consider diligently, and see if there has been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, which are yet no G-ds? But My people have changed its glory, for that which does not profit.”

The prophet is dismayed by the fact that, in the entire history of humankind, nations have been praying to the most senseless and meaningless “gods,” and yet the people remain loyal to them, but Israel, who worships the true G-d, switches its G-d.

The prophet continues, “Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be exceedingly amazed, says the L-rd. For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Says G-d, I know that you have switched Me. But, if you’re going to switch, at least switch Me for something that appears to be useful. Instead, you have switched quality cisterns that hold water, for broken cisterns that leak and hold no water. You Jewish people, when you stray from G-d, you pick the most irrational, most senseless, most distant ideas to replace G-d.

Asks the prophet, “Is Israel a servant? Is he a home-born slave? Why is he become a prey?” How could the Jewish people have strayed so far? Do they come from an ignoble background that has led them astray?

Declares the Al-mighty, “For from old time have I broken your yoke, and burst your bands, and you [Israel] said: ‘I will not transgress.’ Yet, upon every high hill and under every leafy tree you did recline, playing the harlot.” I was always there for you, says G-d. I was always there to rescue you. You promised to be loyal to Me, but I always find you unfaithful.

How can it be? says G-d. “Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a wholly righteous seed. How then did you turn into a degenerate plant of a strange vine to Me?” You come from the most noble of origins. You are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the offspring of King David and Elijah the Prophet, a kingdom of Priests and a Holy People, how could you have gone so far astray, how could you forsake Me?

Continues the prophet: “Who says to a tree: ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone: ‘You have brought us forth.’ For they have turned their backs unto Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they return to Me and say: ‘Arise, and save us!’ But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise, if they can, and save you in the time of trouble. For according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah.” Since you have so many substitute gods, why not just call on them to help you in your time of need? Suddenly, in the foxhole, you rediscover G-d? It doesn’t work that way!

These are the words that G-d conveyed to the great prophet Jeremiah over 2500 years ago. Could these prophesies possibly have relevance to our generation as well? Could Jeremiah be directing his words to us, the most successful and most highly educated generation of Jews in history? To us, the generation of opportunity, the Jews of the Golden Era, of the 20th and 21st centuries…and, yet, a generation that has perhaps become the generation of the greatest Jewish apostasy in all of Jewish history, one of the most illiterate generations in all of Jewish history. How could this be?

The message of Jeremiah is loud and clear. The words may have been spoken yesterday, but they resonate directly with us today. We must heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah, and take his message to heart. Let us give G-d a chance.

In Jeremiah 4, Jeremiah concludes his message to the Jewish people on an upbeat note, pleading with them, beseeching them: “If you will return O Israel says the L-rd, return unto Me, and if you will put your detestable things out of My sight, and will not waver, and will swear as the L-rd lives in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then shall the nations bless themselves by Him and in Him shall they glory.” If only the Jewish people recognize G-d as their Father and Guide, then all humanity will recognize G-d, and this recognition will bring about the ultimate spiritual redemption for all.

It is in our hands now. Let us, during these special and propitious times, the “Three Weeks,” reaffirm our commitment to G-d. Let us spare the world and ourselves the experiences of sorrow and mourning. Let us embrace Jeremiah’s message, and bring much happiness to the world.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed from Thursday evening, August 1st,  until Friday night, August 2nd. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.

Pinchas 5779-2019

“The Daughters of Zelophehad: Legitimate Feminist Claims”
(Revised and updated from Pinchas 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn of the precedent-shattering request of the daughters of Zelophehad.

The Torah, in Numbers 27, records that the five daughters of Zelophehad presented their request before Moses, Elazar the Priest, the Princes of the Israelite tribes, and the entire congregation of Israel at the door of the Tabernacle. The women claimed that their father had died in the wilderness and had left no sons. They said to the distinguished leaders, Numbers 27:4, תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ , “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Since prior to the women’s request, only sons had inherited their father’s possessions, Moses was confounded. The Torah relates that Moses did not know the immediate answer, and brought the question before G-d. G-d told Moses (Numbers 27:7), that the claim of the daughters of Zelophehad was justified, and instructed Moses to arrange for the transfer of their father’s inheritance to them.

As further clarification for the future, G-d states that if a man dies and leaves no sons, his property shall first transfer to his daughters, and only if there are no male or female heirs, should the property be transferred to other close relatives.

This scriptural portion is indeed remarkable. After all, why didn’t the Torah simply include this law as part of the regular legal portions of the Torah? Why was it necessary to record that the daughters approached Moses, and that Moses was incapable of responding? Furthermore, why was it necessary for Moses to receive the answer directly from G-d?

We live in an age where many legitimate disenfranchised individuals, communities and countries make claims about historic injustices. They demand that the discriminatory practices cease and, at times, demand compensation for the previous injustices. Lately, the practice of discriminatory claims has become so widespread, and, in certain instances, has gotten so out of hand, that it’s been quipped, only half in jest, that soon left-handed people will start class-action suits against public accommodations that have staircase handrails only on the right side.

Distinguishing between a legitimate claim and a non-legitimate claim has become increasingly difficult. And, with the factor of “political correctness” often added to the mix, woe unto the person who does not show proper respect to those claims–legitimate or otherwise!

It is fascinating that the Torah has included the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad as a featured parasha, rather than learn it from textual exegesis, as are many other important laws. It underscores that Judaism is extremely sensitive to women’s needs and eager to establish fair and equitable parameters for them. But, it’s not so surprising, after all, since, already in Genesis (2:27), the Torah declared that both husband and wife should become one flesh, and just as one would not hurt or mistreat oneself, so one must not hurt or mistreat one’s spouse.

It is the Torah that was the first universal document to declare that a man must provide for, and adequately support, his wife. The verse in Exodus 21:10 declares, שְׁאֵרָהּ כְּסוּתָהּ וְעֹנָתָהּ, לֹא יִגְרָע , husbands must provide their wives with food, clothing and sexual pleasure.

Furthermore, the entire narrative of the book of Exodus indicates that were it not for the women, the Jewish people would never have been redeemed from Egypt. Not only are the women the heroes, in each case, the Torah cites the errant behavior of the men, and the faithful behavior of the women. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 24:1, is also the first document in human history to provide the right for divorce for those in unsuccessful marriages. Similarly, the Torah, Deuteronomy 21:16, insists that if a man has multiple wives, he may not favor one woman’s children over the other’s. In fact, the Torah clearly discourages multiple wives. Not coincidentally, each case of polygamy cited in the Bible is unsuccessful, riddled with pain and unhappiness. The Bible, in Samuel I 1:6, calls the second wife a צָרָה“tzara,” literally a “pain” to the first wife–which is the origin of the venerable Yiddish word צָרוֹת“tsuris,” travail!

The Talmud, Sanhedrin 76b, declares boldly that a man must love his wife as much as himself, and honor her, more than himself. It is indeed fascinating to note that the male-dominated rabbinic hierarchy has worked assiduously over the millennia to expand the rights and privileges of women, particularly remarkable since this was done at the time when other civilizations had severely limited the rights of women. It was not so long ago that women in some countries of the Orient were expected to jump into the grave and be buried alive after their husbands died. Jewish tradition, Talmud, Arkhin 19a, teaches that in contrast to older men, who are regarded as a burden, older women in the house are considered a treasure and a blessing.

Now, back to the earlier question. Why indeed was the law of inheritance of daughters not included in the general legal portions of the Bible? Why was it necessary to ask G-d Himself to render a decision? Rashi (Deuteronomy 27:5) cites the statement in Talmud Sanhedrin 8a, that the righteous daughters of Zelophehad merited to have this law promulgated in their name. It may also be that this law receives special attention because Halakha, Jewish law, is an ever-evolving legal system. Clearly, the social status and positions of both men and women change as society evolves. Could it be that the Al-mighty was signaling that as the role of women changes in society, the role of women needs to be reevaluated in the religious society? But, of course, there is a caveat–if the laws and practices of the secular society controvert any of the values and laws of the Torah, they must not be followed. To the contrary, they must be rejected. However, when the laws and customs of society do not clash with Jewish law then, by all means, Jews must assume a leading role in the efforts to expand women’s rights and privileges.

It is certainly fair to say in retrospect, that women, for the most part, truly want to advance the stations of women, and resent being disenfranchised from rights and privileges that should legitimately be theirs. Women are entitled to have the opportunity to properly nurture their children, to be granted maternity leave, and paternity leave for fathers, and, of course, women are entitled to equal education, and equal opportunities in the job market.

The ancient laws that we learn from the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad, were, in their time, a revolutionary breakthrough in society and family. They are included in the Torah narrative to help us understand the nature of Torah and the nature of the Torah’s perspective on women. The fact that Moses had to seek G-d’s opinion, clearly indicates that the Al-mighty Himself is concerned for women. More than anything, the Al-mighty wants for all His children to constantly explore His Torah, to find new insights, to discover new interpretations, and for Jewish life to expand and evolve.

It is G-d’s fervent wish that this continuing search, will enable all of G-d’s creations to develop in a healthful and constructive manner, for the betterment of all of humanity.

May you be blessed.

Balak 5779-2019

“History Repeats Itself! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
(Revised and updated from Chukat-Balak 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Balak, is one of the many Torah portions that reflect the rabbinic dictum: מַעֲשֵׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים . Or, as the French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose–the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or, as we, in America, often declare: History repeats itself!

Having heard of the routing defeats by Israel of Sichon and Og (the two most powerful kings of their time), Balak, king of Moab, is in dread fear of Israel. He commissions Balaam, a Midianite prophet, to curse the Jewish people.

How could Balak recruit Balaam, after all, Midian and Moab were long-time mortal enemies? As usual, there is one thing that unites our enemies–their hatred for Israel, which is far greater than their hatred of each other. As we frequently see today as enemy countries gang up on Israel, Plus ça change.

So, Balak befriends Balaam (his old enemy), in order to persuade Balaam to curse Israel.

Why curse? Why not unite in battle? Because Balak saw the battles that Israel had waged, and concluded that these Jews had not defeated their enemies by conventional methods, but rather in a supernatural manner. He suspected that the secret weapon of Israel must be the prayers of Moses, who had lived in Midian for many years. So, he hired Balaam, a Midianate soothsayer and prophet. Surely, he’d be able to counteract the prayers of Moses!

We’ll return to Balaam and Balak’s strategy in a moment.

Balaam attempts to curse Israel. But, his efforts are of no avail, as G-d turns Balaam’s curses into blessings!

Despite his wicked intentions, Balaam’s historic words are important to us and have become immortal. In fact, it is rather odd, that of all the magnificent verses in the Bible, Jews open their daily prayers with the words of Balaam (Numbers 24:5): מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב . How goodly are your tents O’ Jacob.

What was it that caused Balaam, who hated Israel to its core, to sing the praises of the Jewish dwelling places? Says Rashi: עַל שֶׁרָאָה פִּתְחֵיהֶם שֶׁאֵינָן מְכֻוָּונִין זֶה מוּל זֶה . Balaam saw that the openings of the Israelites tents were not facing one another.

What Balaam saw was profound respect for privacy among the Jews. He beheld the sanctity of the domicile. Jewish history repeatedly teaches that when the families and the homes of Israel are properly arrayed–-then the Jewish people are indomitable, undefeatable, and indestructible.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, the author of a commentary on the Siddur entitled בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר –“Baruch Sheh’amar” asks: Why was the verse Mah Tovu–מַה טֹּבוּ chosen to open our daily prayers? He suggests that it was chosen specifically because it was said by Balaam. If Balaam, whose hatred for the Jewish people was so profound, was able to utter these beautiful words about the Jewish people, imagine what the truth really was! These praises of Israel are clearly an understatement. The truth is beyond description.

Now, back to the strategy. While Balaam’s curses were not effective, Balaam did eventually bring about the defeat of Israel.

In Numbers 25:1, the Torah relates: וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב , the men of Israel began to commit harlotry with the Moabite women. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 106a, states that this harlotry was all Balaam’s idea. When Balaam saw that military might and curses could not defeat Israel, he resorted to the one foolproof method to defeat Israel–seduction by alien women, in this case, Midiante women. As a result, 24,000 Israelites die in the plague.

If that isn’t a thumbnail summary of all Jewish history, then what is? Our enemies, who are unable to defeat us physically, spare no effort to destroy us spiritually. Intermarriage, assimilation, the blandishments of contemporary culture are our worst enemies and our greatest weakness.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “Ma’aseh Avot, Siman L’vanim.” History indeed–Jewish history, repeats itself over and over, and we had better take heed.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 21, 2019, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, August 10th and 11th. Have a meaningful fast.


Chukat 5779-2019

“Can Death Be Sweet?”
(Revised and updated from Chukat 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Chukat, we learn of the death of Aaron at Mt. Hor.

G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron at the border of Edom and says, Numbers 20:24, יֵאָסֵף אַהֲרֹן אֶל עַמָּיו , Aaron shall be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land of Israel because of the rebellion at מֵי מְרִיבָהMay Meh’riva, the Waters of Strife. G-d then instructs Moses to go, together with Aaron and his son Elazar, to the top of the mountain where Aaron will die.

The text itself is stark, but moving. Perhaps because Aaron was such a beloved figure in Israel, the Yalkut Shimoni embellishes Aaron’s demise even further.

The Midrash records that Moses was reluctant to tell Aaron that he would die, so he, indirectly, engaged him in conversation regarding a scriptural passage that Moses said he found difficult and distressing. Together, Moses and Aaron read the selection in the book of Genesis regarding the sin of Adam, and the introduction of death to the world. Moses gently informed Aaron that both he and Aaron must pass on. Immediately, Aaron felt the imminence of his own demise.

The Midrash relates that the People of Israel were unaware of the reason why Aaron, Elazar and Moses had gone up the mountain. Had they known the real reason, they would have strongly protested, or at least prayed that the decree be rescinded. When Moses, Aaron and Elazar reached the top of the mountain, a cave opened for them, in which they found a burning lamp and a couch. The Midrash dramatically describes that Aaron proceeded to remove each of his priestly garments, one by one, and placed them on Elazar. At that point, Moses said poignantly to Aaron, “Just think Aaron, my brother, when Miriam died, you and I attended to her. Now that you are about to die, I and Elazar are attending to you. But, when I die, who will attend to me?” The Al-mighty said to Moses, “As you live, I will attend to you.”

As we shall soon see, Moses’ concern was entirely warranted.

Moses then said to Aaron, “My brother, go up and lie on this couch,” and he went up. “Stretch out your arms,” and he stretched them out. “Shut your eyes,” and he shut them. “Close your mouth,” and he closed it. At once, the Divine Presence came down, kissed Aaron, and his soul departed. Then, as Moses and Elazar kissed Aaron on his cheeks, the Cloud of Glory rose up and covered Aaron. The Holy One commanded Moses and Elazar to go. They departed, and the cave was sealed.

The Midrash relates that the People of Israel refused to believe that Aaron had died. After all, in last week’s parasha it had been reported that Aaron had been able to stop the Angel of Death and stop the plague in which 14,700 people died. When the people became rambunctious, G-d beckoned some of His angels to open the cave and bring forth Aaron’s bier which then floated in the air, while other angels sang praise before it. Thus, all of Israel saw Aaron, as it is written in Numbers 20:29: וַיִּרְאוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן , And all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead.

In Numbers 20:26  Rashi informs us: מִיַּד חָמַד מֹשֶׁה לְאוֹתָה מִיתָה . When Moses saw Aaron’s death by the kiss of G-d, he too coveted that death, and eventually, when Moses’s time came, he also passes on with the kiss of the Al-mighty. But there, the parallel ends.

While Moses also died with the kiss of G-d, there was no one to attend to Moses. But for G-d’s presence, he died alone. Moses, the teacher of all of Israel, the inspiring pedagogue of Aaron’s surviving sons, had no one to attend to him. Not one of his children are reputed to have been present at his death. In fact, in Judges 18:13, which tells of the infamous idol of Michah, we are told that Michah sought out a descendent of Levi to serve as a priest for his idolatry. The Levite that Michah found to fulfill the priestly functions was none other than Yonaton ben Gershom ben Menashe. The Rabbis say that the name Menashe is really a disguise for the name “Moshe” – Moses. It is hard to believe, but rabbinic tradition has it that Moses’ grandson, became an idolatrous priest!

How powerful a contrast of the two leaders, Moses and Aaron. Moses dies alone, and is buried in an anonymous grave. Aaron dies in his full glory. He truly has a “sweet death.” For what could be sweeter than for a person who leaves the physical world, and knows that his children are following in his own footsteps, committed to serve the Jewish People, and will be donning the same priestly garments that Aaron himself wore during his own lifetime. Because they love him so much, all of Israel mourns for Aaron for thirty days. Not so Moses, who was left alone and bereft. Is this the price of leadership?

May you be blessed.

Korach 5779-2019

“Controversy Versus Conflict”
(Revised and updated from Korach 5760-2000)

by  Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Korach, tells of the ill-fated controversy between Korach and Moses, that concludes with the earth swallowing Korach and his followers.

The Mishna in Avot 5:20, prominently mentions Korach’s rebellion: “Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end, and every one which is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not endure. Which is the controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shammai. Which is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.”

From a superficial perspective, one might easily conclude that all controversies are bad. What difference is there between the controversy of rabbis or the controversy of rebels? The Mishna in Avot argues that there is a profound difference. Although the controversies between Hillel and Shammai were significant and, undoubtedly, heated, both Hillel and Shammai, ultimately, submitted to the majority opinion, even if they were totally opposed to those conclusions. Despite the fact that Hillel was known to be lenient and Shammai more severe, both Hillel and Shammai had one objective–to help the People of Israel grow in their observance of Torah. They only differed in the details.

As we all know, controversy has been part of Jewish life from time immemorial. In fact, most of the rabbis of the Talmud had would-be “sparring partners,” who would frequently provide opposing opinions to their own. These opposing opinions, even though they were rejected, are considered so valuable, that they are recorded in the Talmud, and are studied to this very day.

In the 2nd half of the 16th century, Rama/Rema had begun to write, what he hoped would be, a definitive legal code for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. When he learned that Rabbi Joseph Caro was just about to complete his Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, rather than publish his own magnum opus, Rabbi Isserles chose instead to author an Ashkenazic gloss/commentary to Rabbi Caro’s Shulchan Aruch.

The name that Rabbi Caro gave to his code of law was Shulchan Aruch, which means a fully arrayed table. It was Rabbi Caro’s hope to prepare an easy way for all Jews to learn Jewish law, with everything openly arranged on a table. Rabbi Isserles’ commentary is cleverly called HaMapa, “The Tablecloth,” and although it is only a gloss on the Code of Jewish Law for Ashkenazic Jews, Rabbi Isserles’ stature did not suffer, but rather increased as a result of his decision to forgo his own self-aggrandizement. This is, perhaps, what the Mishna means when it says: סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵם“Sofa l’hit’kayaim,” controversial opinions which are for the sake of Heaven will endure.

Those familiar with Jewish law know that Jews rigorously maintain and study not only the mainstream Jewish legal opinions, but the minority opinions as well. These so-called “minority opinions,” often form the basis of new and novel legal decisions that are introduced by scholars in later generations. They do not die, but rather endure, as if their authors were still alive and arguing with one another.

And, yet, we know that Korach had his gripes, some of which appear to be quite legitimate. Korach was a Levite, who felt that he did not receive adequate recognition. But, was his motivation to rebel for the sake of the betterment of the community, or for his own self-aggrandizement?

The Midrash relates that it was Korach’s wife, who incited her husband to rebel. Apparently, after Korach underwent the ritual of purification required of all the 22,272 Levites, Korach’s wife wouldn’t let him live down, what she considered, a demeaning ritual—-shaving off all the hair of his body and being carried around as a dedication to G-d. Although the Midrash cites Korach as saying that Moses had performed the same ritual on his own sons, Mrs. Korach responded: “Who cares about that! He demeaned you, didn’t he?”

The famed Chasidic master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, points out, insightfully, that there is a way to determine whether an argument is for the sake of Heaven or not. Examine the group that is stirring up controversy, he suggests. Are they harmonious? Are they bound to one another in an unselfish manner?

It is regarding this particular point that the Mishna in Avot is most revealing. When the Mishna talks of the conflict between Hillel and Shammai, it simply mentions the names of the two sages who argued with each other. However, when the Mishna mentions the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven, it cites: the conflict of “Korach and his entire assemblage.” The Mishna should have stated: Such was the controversy of Korach and his assemblage with Moses. This subtlety of language indicates that there was no harmony between Korach and the men who joined him in rebellion. They were all out for themselves; they were all on their own personal ego trips. They were not even minutely concerned with the betterment of the community.

When Albert Einstein was deported by the Nazis from Germany, in addition to being expelled, his ideas were derided. One hundred Nazi “experts” published a book denying the value of any of his discoveries. One great scientist responded to this insult by saying: “If my theories were wrong, it would take only one professor to prove them wrong. If you require one hundred, it’s a sign that it’s truthful.”

Had Korach approached Moses and debated the issues that troubled him in pursuit of the truth, he might have been remembered forever as a great sage, an innovator, and one who sought to improve Jewish life, even if his views were not accepted. How sad it is that he is remembered instead as a destroyer, who sought to undermine Jewish life.

May you be blessed.

Shelach 5779-2019

“Finding Meaning in the Rituals”
(Revised and updated from Shelach 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, concludes with the well-known third paragraph of the שְׁמַעShema prayer concerning the mitzvah of צִיצִיתTzitzit, fringes.

The first paragraph of the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, speaks of the love relationship between G-d and the People of Israel and the People of Israel and G-d. The second paragraph of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 11:13-21, speaks of the relationship of responsibility and accountability of the People of Israel toward G-d. The third paragraph of the Shema is found in our current parasha, Numbers 15:37-41, and focuses on the mitzvah of Tzitzit as a way of reminding the people of the exodus from Egypt. It also represents the actual implementation of the first two relationships, that by the observance of the ritual mitzvot, in this instance the example given is the Tzitzit, we indicate that the first two relationships are indeed valid.

It’s one thing to profess love for another person, and accept responsibility and accountability. But, the bottom line, as they say in Yiddish, is תַּכְלִיתtachlis, how we behave, how we perform, how we act toward the one whom we profess to love. That is why this third paragraph of the Shema is so crucial in our relationship with G-d.

One of the truly memorable Talmudic stories appears in Menachoth 44a. The rabbis there discuss the nature of the reward for the performance of mitzvot. Rabbi Nathan says that there is not a single precept in the Torah, even the most minor mitzvah, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world. Besides the reward in this world, Rabbi Nathan adds, there is no way of knowing how great the reward will be in the future, in the World to Come. As an example, Rabbi Nathan cites the precept of Tzitzit, and tells the following unusual story:

Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of Tzitzit, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who charged 400 gold dinars for her hire. He sent her 400 gold dinars and made an appointment. When the day arrived, he came and waited at her door. The maid announced his arrival and informed the matron: “That man who sent you 400 gold dinars is here and is waiting at the door.”

She replied: “Let him in.”

When he entered, she prepared for him seven beds–six of silver and one of gold, and between one bed and another were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then climbed up to the top bed and laid down upon it, removing her clothes. In his desire, he too went up after her, disrobed, and sat with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes, the Tzitzit of his garment, struck him across his face.

The young man slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. The woman too slipped off the bed, sat on the ground and said: “I swear by the Emperor of Rome, that I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me!”

“I swear by the Temple,” the young man replied, “that never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you. But, there is one precept which the L-rd our G-d has commanded us–it is called Tzitzit. And with regard to it, the expression ‘I am the lord your G-d’ is written twice, signifying that I am He Who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He Who will give reward in the future. Now the Tzitzit appear to me as four witnesses testifying against me.”

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, and the name of the school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her.

Thereupon, she arose and divided her estate into three parts, one third for the government (so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand. The bedclothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Bet Midrash of Reb Chiyah and said to him: “Master, give instructions about me that they may convert me to Judaism.”

“My daughter,” he replied, “Perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the students?” She thereupon took out the script (upon which the young man had written his name and house of study) and handed it to him.

“Go,” said he, “Enjoy your acquisition!”

Those very bedclothes which she had spread for him in an illicit manner, she now spread out for him lawfully. “This,” said Rabbi Nathan, “is the reward for the performance of precepts in this world. As for its rewards in the future world, I know not how great it is.”

This Talmudic story is not only intriguing, it also underscores the preciousness of the performance of mitzvot. We really do not know what value that G-d ascribes to our actions, good or bad, and what implications these actions have for our ultimate destiny in the World to Come. Surely, we face temptations daily, attempting to ensnare us. Yet, those who choose to do battle with the temptations and defeat them are certain to be rewarded handsomely.

Perhaps, there is also something to be said about Jewish garb, and how a Jew dresses, that played such an important role in the story: The yarmulka is supposed to create a sense of humility, reminding a man that G-d is hovering above him at all times. A woman dresses demurely, not only to project physical modesty, but also to reflect modesty of thought and attitude. Furthermore, a Jew is expected to avoid committing a חִלּוּל הַשֵּׁםChillul Hashem, of disgracing G-d’s name through the violation of מַרְאִית עַיִןMar’it Ayin—not to even appear to be doing something improper, let alone really do something improper!

Clothes do indeed reflect the human being. The fireman, the policeman, and the lady-of-the-night all wear garments which reflect their professions and their objectives. The ritual of Tzitzit, like the ritual of מְזוּזָהmezuzah, reminds us of G-d’s presence, which, hopefully, dwells with us at all times. The Tefillin underscore our desire to give our strength, our minds and our hearts to G-d. Eating kosher food recalls the preciousness of animal life and the sacredness of food.

Rituals work! Rituals really do work! And each of the rituals of Judaism have profound lessons to teach us. That’s why it is important to master the meanings of the rituals, rather than to simply perform them by rote. Only, once we master their meanings, can we truly appreciate the profundity of their messages. Tzitzit are not just strings for G-d, they actually bind us to G-d, help us communicate with G-d, help us remember G-d, especially during the challenging moments of temptation and potential compromise.

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.