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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.

Naso 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

Bamidbar 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Moses learn from this experience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

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

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Bechukotai 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.


Behar 5779-2019

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

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 22nd, and continue all day Thursday, May 23rd, 2019. The Omer period, starts from the second night of Passover and continues for 49 days through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer, is considered a special day of rejoicing because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.