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Haazinu-Sukkot 5779-2018

“The Challenges of Poverty and Wealth.”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

 

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

 

Vayeilech-Yom Kippur 5779-2018

And Moses Went…”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Samayach.

May you be blessed.

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

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

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Nitzavim-Rosh Hashana 5779-2018

Whatever Became of Sin?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Angel writes,

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Kee Tavo 5778-2018

“A Wandering Aramean?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses, facing the final days of his life, informs the people what to expect will happen once they enter the Promised Land, conquer it, and allocate the land to the tribes.

In order to show their gratitude to G-d for His constant kindness, the Hebrew farmers are instructed to take בִּכּוּרִים , bikkurim, several samples of the first ripened fruits and crops of the seven special species for which Israel was known, bring them to the Temple and give them as a gift to the Kohanim, the priests, as thanks for all G-d’s kindness.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 47b, describes the colorful ceremony of dedicating the Bikkurim. The Kohen placed his hand under the hand of the owner, and together they lifted and waved the basket filled with new fruits. The farmer then took the basket back from the Kohen and recited a special declaration, underscoring the fact that none of the very special events, from the Exodus until the peoples’ arrival in the Land of Israel, could have happened without G-d’s gracious intervention.

The basket was then laid down before the altar and presented as a gift to the Kohen, to the Temple, and to G-d.

The farmer’s beautiful declaration is recorded in Deuteronomy, 26:3: הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַהשׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ, “I declare today to the L-rd your G-d, that I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.”

The owner of the Bikkurim basket calls out before G-d the following statement found in Deuteronomy 26:5, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב, An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation–-great, strong and numerous.

This declaration is followed by a description of the Egyptian mistreatment of the Israelite slaves and G-d’s response to the cries of their forefathers. The Al-mighty rescued the downtrodden slaves, bringing the people out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and bringing them to this place, the land flowing with milk and honey. The farmer then proclaims, Deuteronomy 26:10, וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי השׁם, And now, behold! I brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O L-rd!”

This dramatic declaration underscores the need to thank G-d, not only for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of the constant attempts to destroy them, but also for the extraordinary material success of the Jews. In every situation where Jews were given an opportunity to show their talents, they flourished.

Despite the beauty and intensity of the declaration, the rabbis are challenged by one phrase found in the opening declaration. In Deuteronomy 26:5, the farmer calls out, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father!” Who is the Aramean referred to in this verse? What is the meaning of the word “oved?” And why is the verb in the present tense, if it’s referring to the past?

The Rashbam suggests that אֲרַמִּי , Arami, clearly refers to our forefather Abraham, who hailed from Aram-Naharaim, Mesopotamia. The word אֹבֵד , oved, meaning “lost,” refers to the fact that Abraham was exiled from place to place, and even when he finally settled in the Holy Land, he moved from settlement to settlement like a lost sheep. However, the phrase, “and then there he became a nation–-great, strong, and innumerous,” is difficult to apply to Abraham, unless it refers to Abraham’s descendants.

In his early years, the great Abraham had to leave his homeland Aram, Mesopotamia, because of his hostility to idolatry. When he moved to Canaan, and began to prosper, he was subject to many challenges from the local inhabitants. He even had to buy a grave for his wife Sarah at a greatly inflated price. Who would ever believe that he would rise to such great heights?

The Sforno and Rabbeinu Bachya, suggest that Arami, alludes to our forefather Jacob, who is referred to in the Bible as an “Aramean” because of the many days he dwelt with his father-in-law, Laban, in Aram. He is called oved, lost, or poor, because he too was terribly impoverished.

Onkelos concludes that Arami, refers to Laban, the Armenean. Oved Avi, refers to the fact that Laban tried to destroy our forefather Jacob who is described as going down to Egypt. This statement appears in the declaration of Bikkurim to underscore the gratefulness that the People of Israel have to G-d for their survival, especially in light of wily enemies like Laban.

Rashi  also concludes that Arami, refers to Laban. Laban was prepared to destroy everything when he chased after Jacob, which is the interpretation that is recorded in the Passover Hagaddah. Fortunately, because of Divine intervention, Laban did not succeed in destroying our father Jacob.

Even though Laban himself admits that G-d Al-mighty prevented him from destroying the Jewish people, his true nefarious intentions were obvious. It could very well be that Laban would not have physically harmed the family of Jacob. However, causing the family of Jacob to assimilate with Laban’s family would have meant the end of the Jewish people.

That is why Laban is considered even more dangerous than Pharaoh. Pharaoh is an open enemy, whereas Laban is a secret, hidden enemy, who pretends to love his family.

The Ohr HaChaim sees the entire portion regarding arriving in an “exalted land,” as an allusion to arriving in the “ultimate world” of G-d, meaning heaven, where every Jew will bring before G-d the first fruits of the labors he performed in this world.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh maintains that in addition to declaring before the Al-mighty the good deeds that were performed during one’s lifetime, every Jew will also have to apologize. The wily Aramean, is the יֵצֶר הָרָע , Yezter Hara, the evil inclination, who tries to constantly deceive every person. Because the evil spirits constantly try to destroy our souls, the word oved, is mentioned in the present tense, rather than the past.

To save us from the evil inclination, every Jew needs to regularly cry out to G-d. Without His help, we cannot survive.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5778-2018

“The Impact of Performing Mitzvot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, has more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah, featuring a total of 74 mitzvot, 47 negative and 27 positive.

In her always astute and penetrating analysis of the Torah portions, Nehama Leibowitz, remarks that since Kee Teitzei contains the most mitzvot, it is entirely appropriate to focus on the overall aim and purpose of the Divine commandments, the mitzvot.

The beautiful mitzvah of, שִׁלּוּחַ הַקֵּן, Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks or the eggs from the nest, that is contained in parashat Kee Teitzei, is a primary example of a most meaningful mitzvah.

The Midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:3, regards the role of mitzvoth, as serving as “good angels.” The good angels accompany those who perform mitzvot, gracing their daily acts and consecrating their earthly deeds.

Mitzvot elevate even a person’s most mundane daily actions, such as tilling the soil, earning a livelihood, acquiring clothing, grooming one’s hair and building one’s house.

The Midrash concludes by saying, “G-d said: Even if you are not engaged in any particular work, but are merely journeying on the road, the precepts [mitzvot] accompany you. From where do we learn this? For it is said: ‘If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way,’ etc.” That is why Scripture, in Proverbs 1:9, refers to the performance of mitzvot as לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ, that mitzvot are a crown of glory, a beautiful adornment, a decoration of honor for those who perform them.

Professor Leibowitz points to another approach to understanding the aim of the mitzvot that is found in the Midrash on parashat Shelach. The Torah in Numbers 15:38, declares וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת, that “they make for themselves tzitzit,” fringes on the corners of their garments.

The Midrash states that the Torah and the commandments were given to serve as an inheritance to Israel in the hereafter. Every earthly action and deed is somehow associated with a Torah commandment. An Israelite who goes out to plow, sow, knead dough, who sees a bird’s nest, plants a tree, buries a dead person, builds a house, or wraps himself in a cloak, will invariably encounter a mitzvah that directly pertains to that action.

The Midrash Rabbah in Numbers 17:77 compares it to a case of a person who falls into the water. The captain throws out a rope and shouts to the drowning person, “Take hold of the rope, do not let go, otherwise you’ll lose your life.” So, says the Midrash, G-d says to Israel, “Cleave to the commandments. Adhere to them, for they are your life.”

The first Midrash sees mitzvot as serving as ornaments, adding grace and beauty to a person’s life, as he or she walks through the garden of the Holy One blessed be He, in pursuit of his or her own personal advancement. The second Midrash sees the performance of mitzvot as far more crucial than an ornament. Mitzvot are an essential ingredient of life, saving those who are drowning in the stormy seas of their own selfish passions and pursuits.

Professor Leibowitz cites two mitzvot in the parasha to demonstrate the powerful impact of mitzvot. The first, is the mitzvah of Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird, as an example of extraordinary compassion, the compassion shown to a mother bird when taking her chicks. Much more however, does this mitzvah serve as an example of the compassion that human beings are expected to show their fellow human beings, far beyond what might be normally expected.

A second example is the return of lost property. This mitzvah is first mentioned in Exodus 23:4, כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ, When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. The mitzvah of returning lost property is repeated again in Deuteronomy 22:1, לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים, וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, You shall not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them; you shall, in any case, bring them again to your brother.

Ramban points out that there’s a subtle, but critical, difference between the two verses. The verses in Exodus uses the expression טוֹעֶה, to’eh, lost, whereas the verse in Deuteronomy uses the expression נִדָּחִים, Nidachim, if they were pushed away, implying that they had wandered far afield, requiring much time and effort to recover them.

Nevertheless, no matter how great the effort, the Torah insists on the obligation to restore the lost property to its rightful owner.

The expression in Deuteronomy 22:1, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם, You shall surely return them, is interpreted in the Talmud to teach that even if the finder brought the lost animal back, and it ran away again, even four or five times, the finder is obligated to bring it back again, and again, until it is restored to its owner.

Rashi says that the phrase, “You shall surely restore them,” teaches that the finder must make certain that there is something to restore to the original owner. While waiting in the finder’s home for the rightful owner to claim his lost property, the lost animal must not be allowed to eat the equivalent of its entire value. Therefore, the finder should rather sell the animal, after a short while, so that there will still be value left to return to the proper owner.

The story is told in the Midrash Rabbah Deuteronomy 3:5, that on one occasion several men came to the city where Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair lived, and deposited with him two measures of barley. Unfortunately, they forgot about their deposit and went away.

Concerned about restoring the value of the barley to the original owners, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair proceeded to sow the barley every year, harvested the crops and stored them. After seven years, when the original owners returned to claim their lost measures of barley, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair called them, and instructed them to take several granaries full of grain, that was harvested from their original two measures of barley.

These exceptional stories vividly demonstrate that the mitzvot can surely be a diadem, a crown, on the human head. Mitzvot help Jews behave in a manner that goes way beyond the call of duty.

As extraordinary as that seems, tradition seems to say that these actions should not be considered extraordinary. Rather, they are to be the Jewish way of life, and without them, we will surely drown.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5778-2018

“Identifying the True Prophet”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we, once again, encounter the difficult challenge of identifying the true prophet who speaks faithfully in the name of the Al-mighty.

In Deuteronomy 18:15, we read, נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ השׁם  אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ  אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן, A prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me [Moses] shall the L-rd your G-d establish for you–-to him you shall hearken.

A few verses later, in Deuteronomy 18:20, the Torah warns of the dangers of a false prophet, אַךְ הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יָזִיד לְדַבֵּר דָּבָר בִּשְׁמִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִיו לְדַבֵּר, וַאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בְּשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וּמֵת הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא,  But the prophet who will willfully speak a word in My name, that which I have not commanded him to speak, or shall speak in the names of the gods of others–-that prophet shall die.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 18:21, then asks: How can we know for sure that the false prophet is speaking the word that G-d has not spoken? The Torah responds, Deuteronomy 18:22, if the prophet predicts that something will happen, and it does not occur, that prophet has spoken falsely and you shall not fear him.

The general consensus regarding the vetting of prophets is that once a person has gained recognition as a genuine prophet and directs the people to obey the dictates of the Torah, it is required for every Jew to respect and obey that prophet.

The Talmud and the rabbinic codes, clarify the true prophet’s qualifications as well as the false prophet’s deficiencies. A prophet, who insists that a mitzvah of the Torah is forever cancelled, is a false prophet.

While a true prophet may declare that a particular Torah mitzvah is suspended, it may only be suspended temporarily, as a one-time measure. However, if that temporary measure incites people to worship idolatry, that prophet is clearly false.

A true prophet will never speak in the name of other gods. A prophet who encourages people to observe a particular mitzvah of the Torah, but does so in the name of an idolatrous god, such as Ba’al Pe’or, is a false prophet.

According to Maimonides, (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 10:4) a prophet who prophecies that evil shall befall a particular nation or people, such as the people of Nineveh in the time of Jonah, and that prophecy is not fulfilled, may not necessarily be a false prophet. After all, repentance by sinners can forestall the impending evil, as occurred in the time of Jonah. However, according to many commentators, if a prophet prophecies that a good thing will happen, and it does not happen, that prophet is false. Others say that the failure of a positive prediction to be fulfilled is not necessarily an indication of false prophecy since once-deserving people can lose their reward due to recent improper behavior.

According to tradition, there were 55 prophets–48 male and 7 female. The Talmud (Megilah 14a) records that there might have been thousands of true prophets who were recognized by the authorities–the members of the Sanhedrin. However, only those prophecies that were relevant to all times were recorded for posterity, otherwise neither the prophecies nor the prophets’ names were recorded.

What is the status of prophecy today?

The general assumption is that because of the decline of the generations, the power of prophecy was lost sometime during the time of the Second Temple.

However, others suggest that the absence of prophecy today could very well indicate that prophets are no longer needed because the world is so much more sophisticated than it was in ancient times. In fact, because of science and the expansion of knowledge, humankind has a much more accurate ability to predict the future.

It is not only the ability to forecast the weather, eclipses of the sun, high tides and low tides that we possess today. The explosion of knowledge could also indicate that rather than communicating His messages from the higher abodes of heaven, G-d has brought the power of prophecy down to earth. It may very well be, that there are people among us today, who, though not identified as prophets, have extraordinarily sophisticated senses of spirituality. Through their enhanced spirituality and advanced knowledge of Torah, they have the ability to advise others properly in times of emergency and challenge, and to communicate the essential “Divine” information that is necessary for our survival.

The test that we face today, is to identify those true contemporary “prophets” who carry the special messages of G-d in their very mortal and non-supernatural manner.

 

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5778-2018

“The Torah’s Definition of True Wealth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we read some of the most exalted statements ever recorded in human literature concerning caring for the poor and the downtrodden.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:7, states, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, If there be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in the Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. The Torah then concludes, Deuteronomy 15:8, כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

When reading these verses, we must bear in mind that they were written over 3,000 years ago, at a time when, aside from the Jews, charity and caring for the widow, orphan and poor were not at all a cause for concern among any other people or nation.

Especially in the seventh year of the shemita cycle, when the farmland lay fallow and unworked, the Torah warns that the Hebrew farmer not look malevolently upon their destitute brothers and refuse to support them as the seventh year, shemita, approaches.

The Torah truly set a new standard of concern for the needy and the poor by proclaiming in Deuteronomy 15:10, נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ, כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ, You shall surely give him [the needy and the poor], and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this matter the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all your deeds, and in your every undertaking.

What is the operating rationale behind these exalted statements and noble sentiments that are unparalleled in human and religious literature or culture?

The psalmist, in Psalms 24:1, declares, “The earth and its fullness belong to the L-rd, the world, and all its inhabitants.” Judaism rejects the notion of “personal” property. Everything belongs to G-d! Humans are merely caretakers of G-d’s property that is placed temporarily in our possession.

As if to underscore the idea of caretaking, it has become a popular Jewish custom to inscribe the books in one’s personal home library with the verse from Psalms 24:1, and then writing, בִּרְשׁוּת , Birshut,  this volume, is only in my possession, as if the volume is borrowed from G-d.

The rabbis declare, in Beitza 16a, that on Rosh Hashanah, a person’s income is allotted from one new year to the next, with the exception of expenses for Shabbat and holiday meals, and the cost of Jewish education. According to Rabbeinu Bachya (click here for full bio) even those who work harder will not earn more, and those who work less will still earn the same. One cannot increase or decrease what has been ordained in Heaven.

The prophet Malachi 3:10, declares, וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת אָמַר השׁם צְבָאוֹת, Test me herewith, says the L-rd of Hosts, if I will not open to you the windows of Heaven and pour out a blessing that shall be more than sufficiency. The prophet assures those generous people who bring tithes and give charity with an open heart that G-d will provide for them. Despite the general prohibition of testing G-d, when it comes to charity, G-d implores the people to test Him by giving charity and expecting to be rewarded.

A similar theme is found in parashat Re’eh. In Deuteronomy 14:22, the Torah proclaims, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, You must surely tithe all the produce of your planting that your field yields on a daily basis. The Talmud, in Shabbat 119a, in a play on words, declares, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְעַשֵּׁר, Tithe, so that you will become wealthy.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, says that this rabbinic statement is not a promise of riches for giving tithes. Rather, it is a formula for self-education. After all, when a person gives, he actually decreases his material wealth. Yet, by sharing his material blessings with others, he is cultivating in himself true wealth: that of being שָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, sa’may’ach b’chel’ko, of being satisfied with what he has.

Rabbi Schwab explains that only a person who gives charity to others can fully realize that his wealth is indeed sufficient, so much so, that he has enough to share with others. Now that he is truly happy with his lot and with what he has, this realization automatically makes him rich.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5778-2018

“Contemporary Idolatry”

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, Moses, just days before his demise, continues his final oration to the People of Israel, and conveys his message of encouragement to the nation as they stand ready to enter the Promised Land.

The formula for success for the people is unambiguous. In return for observing and performing all the commandments of the Torah, the covenant and the kindness that G-d swore to bestow upon the forefathers, will be conferred upon the present and future generations.

Not only will the people achieve material success, G-d will also bless the fruit of their wombs and the fruit of the land. By following this formula, Israel will be the most blessed of all people. G-d will remove all illness from His people, and devour all their enemies. If the people only abide by the directives of the Torah, G-d promises to deliver the enemy kings into Israel’s hands. No man will be able to stand up against G-d’s people.

However, there is a quid pro quo. In Deuteronomy 7:16, G-d sternly warns, וְלֹא תַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, כִּי מוֹקֵשׁ הוּא לָךְ, You shall not worship their [alien] gods, for they are a snare for you.

For added security, Moses reminds the people to burn all the carved images of the Canaanite gods. The Israelites are forbidden to covet or to take for themselves the silver and gold that adorns the idols, lest they be ensnared by it. It is an abomination of the L-rd your G-d (Deuteronomy 7:24-25).

In Deuteronomy 7:26, Moses continues his admonition by boldly demanding in G-d’s name, וְלֹא תָבִיא תוֹעֵבָה אֶל בֵּיתֶךָ וְהָיִיתָ חֵרֶם כָּמֹהוּ, שַׁקֵּץ תְּשַׁקְּצֶנּוּ וְתַעֵב תְּתַעֲבֶנּוּ, כִּי חֵרֶם הוּא, And you shall not bring an idolatrous abomination into your home, lest you become cursed like them; you shall surely loathe them and you shall surely abominate them, for it is a cursed thing.

The commentators explain, that only the idols themselves are forbidden, but not the ornaments. However the Torah admonishes that any benefits from the idols whatsoever, are strictly forbidden.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that because of greed, Jews would not easily part with the silver, gold and jewels that adorn the idols. The warning must be reiterated because the people would not otherwise have the spiritual strength to cast the precious jewels aside and would eventually be ensnared in the practice of idolatry itself.

Maimonides explains that a person who takes an idol home may suddenly experience good fortune, and attribute the success to the idol. That coincidence may very well lead to idolatry and idol-worship.

I have frequently noted, that although we Jews reside in a most benevolent country, it is important to recognize that the United States is a Christian country. The average Jew knows well the words to the popular Christmas song, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but has no clue of the words of the Chanukah hymn, “Ma’oz Tzur.” Most Jews know who was the mother of Jesus, but have no idea who was the mother of Moses. For many Jewish people, the so-called “melting-pot of America,” has become a virtual “melt-down.” Secular and Christian values permeate the lives of all Americans without our even recognizing it.

I recall being invited to a UJA meeting that was held in a fancy private Manhattan home. The topic of discussion was announced as, “The Dangers to the Jewish Community of Assimilation and Intermarriage.” For highly identified and involved Jews, the hosts of that evening had a most unusual hobby: they collected little statues of Buddha. Hundreds of Buddhas in glass cases adorned the room and surrounded the guests. To this day, I still wonder if I was the only one present who felt odd and uncomfortable. The verse about not bringing an abomination into one’s home immediately flashed in my mind.

While the biblical verse may be referring to ancient idols of Ba’al Pe’or and Ba’al Zevuv, the same ancient text resounds loudly and clearly today. It is not that much of a stretch to say that the ancient abominations have their counterparts in contemporary society. Not only do we bring abominations into our homes regularly by subscribing to cable TV and the internet, we even invite the providers to drop off their garbage in our home, for which we reward them quite handsomely.

Unfortunately, very often, we pay a much larger “price” than just the monthly costs of these services: The impact on our families and our values, is profound.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev suggested that this verse may also refer to the types of people whom we allow in our homes. Welcoming haughty and nasty people into our home is similar to bringing an abomination into our home.

As the Bible says (Deuteronomy 23:15), וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ, May your encampments be holy.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5778-2018

“Never Despair!”

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, Moses pleads with the Al-mighty to display His greatness and to forgive Moses’ sin, and allow him to cross into the land of Israel.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 3:25, records Moses’ intense plea, אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנֹן, “Please let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon!”

Unfortunately, G-d is angry with Moses on account of the people of Israel (see Va’etchanan 5770-2010), and demands that Moses not speak any further with G-d about the matter. He instructs Moses (Deuteronomy 3:27), to ascend to the highest point of mount Abarim, and raise his eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward and see the land, for he will not be permitted to cross the Jordan.

Rashi explains that the term, וָאֶתְחַנַּן, Va’etchanan (to implore), means that Moses begged G-d to grant him a request that is entirely undeserving or a gift for free. Even though the righteous could easily justify their request based upon their merits, they do not ask G-d to compensate them for their good deeds, but rather ask for a favor, as if they were not at all deserving.

The Midrash’s description of Moses’ pleas is extraordinarily extensive. In fact, the rabbis say that Moses offered 515 prayers and petitions before G-d, which is equal to the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word, Va’etchanan. Yet, after his 515 petitions, Moses was still not permitted to enter the Promised Land, and was only allowed to climb the mountain to see the Promised Land from a distance.

The rabbis expound on the seemingly extraneous word in the verse, לֵאמֹר, lay’mor — that Moses implored G-d at the time “saying.” They explain, that the use of the word “lay’mor,” indicates that the message is directed to Jewish future and Jewish posterity. Through his relentless pleas, Moses taught future Jewish generations to never despair. And just as Moses continued to pray, even though he had been told definitively by G-d that the land was off limits to him, so must the Jews in future generations never give up hope for G-d’s merciful intervention. The gates of tears are always open.

The description in the Midrash of Moses pleading for Divine reconsideration is extensive. According to the Midrash, after offering his prayers, Moses drew a circle around himself and stood in the center and declared that he would not move from the spot unless the judgment was suspended. Heaven and earth began to tremble because they thought that Moses’ demands would lead to the destruction of the world.

G-d then proclaimed throughout all of heaven and in all the celestial courts of justice, that Moses’ prayers should not be accepted. G-d directed the angels to descend and lock every single gate in heaven so that Moses’ prayers not be accepted.

Nevertheless, Moses continued to plead with G-d to suspend His judgment, arguing that G-d must take into consideration how long and hard Moses had pleaded for the sake of Israel and had always gained forgiveness for the People.

Moses at first pleaded that he be allowed to enter and live in the Promised Land for only two or three years and then die. He then petitioned G-d to allow him to enter Israel as a common citizen rather than a leader, and if not, then at least allow his bones to be carried to the other side of the Jordan. Moses then beseeched heaven and the earth to intercede on his behalf. He pleaded for the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, the hills and the mountains, Mount Sinai, the rivers, the deserts, and to all the elements of nature and finally to the great sea, to speak up in his behalf, all for naught. Moses even begged his disciple, Joshua, to implore G-d for his sake, that perhaps the Al-mighty will take pity upon him and allow him to enter the land. When that too failed, Moses turned to Aaron’s son, Elazar, and to Caleb, all to no avail.

G-d then presented Moses with an offer that would allow him to enter the land–if Israel were to perish. Moses however, rejected the offer, saying sternly: “Rather shall Moses and a thousand of his kind perish, than a single soul of Israel be harmed.”

Although it seems that at that point Moses finally accepted his tragic fate, when the time came for him to pass from the world, Moses pleaded one last time: “L-rd of the world! Let me at least, by the power of the Ineffable Name, fly like a bird in the air; or make me like a fish, transform my two arms into fins and my hair into scales, that like a fish I may leap over the Jordan and see the land of Israel.” G-d still refused, because it would have meant that He would have to break His vow and harm Israel.

As we know, despite all his pleas, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. 515 prayers and all the permutations  of prayers were rejected. All the legal arguments that Moses had mustered, all the emotional pleas, the fact that Moses had sacrificed so much for Israel and that they were forgiven, went unheeded. But still, Moses continued to plead.

What may we learn from this?

Never give up hope. Never despair. As long as there is life, there is hope. It could be the 516th prayer that is finally heeded. The Gates of Heaven are never sealed. While mortals may not be able to change our fate, we can change ourselves, and be given a new fate.

Just as the sun always rises and sets, and there is always a tomorrow, there is unimpeachable knowledge that the mercy of the L-rd endures forever.

May you be blessed.

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 Ami,” 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, July 26th and 27th, 2018. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here.)

Devarim 5778-2018

“The Final Rebuke”

 

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin to read the fifth and final book of the Torah.

The book of Deuteronomy is known in rabbinic literature as מִשְׁנֶה תוֹרָה, Mishneh Torah, which means, a repetition or review of the Torah. During the last five weeks of Moses’ life, the fortieth year after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses conveys his final teachings to the People of Israel.

Moses was concerned that once the people enter the “Promised Land,” the new generation would succumb to the powerful influences and temptations of the local Canaanite inhabitants. He reasoned that if the previous generation of Israelites, the parents, could continually sin even though they were surrounded by constant miracles, what would happen to the new generation who were confronted by the blandishments of the idolatrous Canaanite nations?

Moses therefore, gently rebuked the new generation to prepare the people for the new reality. According to Rashi, Moses offered his rebuke in an indirect and mild manner, rather than forcefully.

The book of Deuteronomy opens with the following prologue (Deuteronomy 1:1): אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בַּמִּדְבָּר, בָּעֲרָבָה, מוֹל סוּף, בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב, These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the opposite side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.

Rather than forcefully reprove the people for the terrible sins they had committed as they wandered in the wilderness, Moses alludes to the sins obliquely by referring to the various places where these sins were committed: בַּמִּדְבָּר, in the Wilderness, where the people complained that they had been led into a desert to starve (Exodus 16:1-3); בָּעֲרָבָה, in the Arabah. Rashi and Onkelos  explain that this refers to the plain where many Israelites were seduced by the Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-9); מוֹל סוּף, opposite the Sea of Reeds, where the Israelites, who were being chased by the Egyptians at the sea, sarcastically complained: “Were there no graves in Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). Even when they emerged from the sea, the people cried because they were certain that the Egyptians had escaped drowning and were waiting for them on the other side of the sea; בֵּין פָּארָן, between Paran, which is where the spies were sent from in the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 13:1-15); וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן, between Tophel and Laban. Rashi claims that these places are not mentioned anywhere in Scripture, rather they are allusions to complaints about the manna (Numbers 21:5). Tophel also refers to the tasteless bread–-the manna (Numbers 11:6); וַחֲצֵרֹת, Hazeroth is either the location where Korach’s rebellion took place or where Miriam was stricken for slandering Moses (Numbers 12:1-16); and finally, דִי זָהָב, the Jews were blessed with an abundance of gold (Zahav) when they left Egypt, but instead used this gift to fashion the Golden Calf.

The Torah, in Leviticus 19:17, declares, הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ, you shall surely rebuke your brother. The Talmud, in Baba Metzia 31a, explains that the repetition in the verse is intended to underscore that one should rebuke his brother repeatedly until he repents. The verse concludes with, וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא, and you shall not bear sin because of him. The sages declare that this implies that those who have an opportunity to prevent their friends and neighbors from sinning and fail to do so, commit an unfortunate sin of omission, and must assume at least partial responsibility for the misdeeds they could have prevented. As an example, the Talmud in Shabbat 54b reports that a cow, belonging to Rab Elazar ben Azaria’s neighbor, used to go out on Shabbat wearing a forbidden type of strap. Because he never tried to correct his neighbor’s improper behavior, the cow was known as “Reb Elazar’s cow.”

The regulations regarding rebuke require that one who rebukes a neighbor/friend must do so in a kind and gentle manner with no ulterior motive, and with only the clear intention to help the transgressors mend their ways.

One must not shame a sinner in public without first having tried to rebuke the sinner in private. One who unnecessarily shames or humiliates another person in public, forfeits his share in the World to Come. That is why the rabbis say that Moses did not mention the sinful acts themselves, but rather alluded to them obliquely by mentioning the locations where the sins occurred.

The Kedushat Levi notes that the above-cited verse, contains a seemingly extra phrase, אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, to underscore that Moses spoke to all of Israel. He says that this comes to teach that Moses offered the words of reproof only when all the people were united, so that no one could blame their friend or neighbor and say that Moses was speaking only to certain individuals and not to all of them. It is interesting to note, says the Kedushat Levi, that when Moses speaks to the people, he offers words of rebuke. However, when Moses speaks to G-d, he always tries to defend the Jewish people, and speak favorably about his beloved nation.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni says that the phrase, “all of Israel,” teaches that all of the People of Israel were not only worthy of receiving rebuke, but were also capable of hearing the rebuke and taking it to heart.

The Talmud, in Yevamot 65b, states that just as it is a mitzvah for a person to speak only words that can be understood, so is it a mitzvah for a person to refrain from saying things that cannot be heard or understood. This is what the Yalkut Shimoni means when it said that the people were able to “tolerate” the reproof–that they heard it, accepted it, and used it to mend their ways and attitudes.

The medieval commentator, Recanati cites the dictum found in Talmud Sanhedrin 27b, כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה, that all of Israel is responsible, and acts as surety, for one another. It was this deep concern for one another, declares the Recanati, which has enabled the Jews to survive throughout the ages.

A Jew who sins becomes a weak link in the chain of Jewish posterity. Giving rebuke to sinners can often help repair that link. It may also help to strengthen the commitment of those who give rebuke, because they must now live up to the ideal of what they expect of others.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, July 21st and continues through Sunday night, July 22nd, 2018. Have a meaningful fast.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision (prophecy), named after the opening word of the Book of Isaiah, the first 27 verses of which are read as the haftarah (prophetic reading) on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av).  Much of the haftarah is recited in the mournful tune of Eicha (Book of Lamentations) that is recited on the night of Tisha B’av. The 12th verse of parashat Devarim begins with the word “Eicha” and that verse is also recited to the tune of Eicha. In addition, many synagogues have the custom to sing the  L’cha Dodi hymn on the Friday night of Shabbat Chazon to the tune of Eli Tzion, a mournful tune sung at the end of Kinot (Tisha B’Av poems) on the morning of Tisha B’av.