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Vayikra 5780-2020

“Moses, a Leader with a Calling”
(Revised and updated from Vayikra 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, G-d calls Moses from the Tent of Meeting–the Tabernacle, giving him instructions regarding the sacrificial rites and rituals. The actual language recorded in Leviticus 1:1 reads: וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה, וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר , And He [G-d] called to Moses, and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.

The word, וַיִּקְרָא“Va’yikra,” as it appears in the Torah scroll is written in an odd manner. A diminutive, tiny letter “aleph” appears at the end of the word. The  Ba’al HaTurim  explains that this little aleph is due to Moses’ great modesty. Because of Moses’ extreme humility he sought to describe his “conversations” with the Al-mighty in a manner that paralleled the exchange that G-d had with the wicked prophet, Balaam, in Numbers 23:16. The Torah there uses the expression, וַיִּקָּר השׁם אֶל בִּלְעָם . וַיִּקָּר“Va’yikar” means that G-d appeared to Balaam by chance, randomly, by accident. An alternative meaning of the word “Va’yikar” implies contamination. The word “Va’yikar” in Numbers indicates that G-d communicated with Balaam haphazardly, and not lovingly. The Midrash says that G-d refused to allow Moses to use the word “Va’yikar,” in the Torah, implying that Moses’ interchange with G-d happened randomly, and insisted that Moses include an aleph in the word to imply affection. The small aleph clearly teaches that the exchange between G-d and Moses was not at all like G-d’s communications with Balaam–to the contrary, it was a loving and deliberate revelation.

Others suggest that Moses, at the Al-mighty’s insistence, reduced the aleph himself out of humility, to underscore a distinction between himself and Balaam.

Rashi,cites the Midrash Tanchuma, Leviticus 1, which says that the voice that came out of G-d’s mouth was so powerful that it shattered the trees around, and was heard throughout the world. Yet, the Midrash maintains, that only Moses heard G-d’s voice, because the people were not worthy of hearing it. This too, is alluded to through the diminutive aleph.

As we have already noted, many commentators point out that the diminutive aleph is used for special emphasis to underscore that G-d’s speaking to Moses was not haphazard, but truly part of the Divine plan. While G-d conveys his profound messages to other prophets, even non-Jews, other prophets do not always hear the message properly or understand it fully. However, when Moses heard a message from G-d, he hung on to each word of the message, working on every word until he had mastered its full meaning.

To Moses, each word uttered by the Al-mighty was precious, every syllable pregnant with meaning. For Moses, it was not just G-d speaking to him; it was not simply a message sent to a prophet, it was a calling. This was so, due to the fact that Moses saw his role as prophet as the very essence of his being. Moses’ commitment to G-d and His word was total and uncompromised. Consequently, Moses’ commitment to serve as G-d’s messenger was total and complete. It was therefore no accident that G-d spoke to him, or through him. It was not just a “happening,” not simply a coincidence, as the word “Va’yikar” implies, it was the very essence of Moses’ life and the ultimate purpose of his being.

Often, people in leadership positions come to think of themselves as gifted leaders, and relish the fact that others defer to them with great reverence. Many of these so-called “leaders” are particularly fond of the pomp and ceremony, the honor and distinctions, that are often part of their leadership roles. But, few, very few, have the total sense of commitment, who see their role as leader as the embodiment of their life’s work, and regard their ultimate responsibility to those whom they represent.

To be sure, it is not easy to be a leader, and certainly no one can measure up to the high standard set by Moses our Leader. But, every one of us can look upon the model of Moses, and the message of the word “Va’yikra,” as a means of clarifying what is true and genuine leadership.

Simply stated, true leadership may be recognized through two essential ingredients. Does the would-be leader have a sense of “calling,” and does the would-be leader have a sense of “modesty”? Genuine leaders, who possess these wonderful qualities, deserve to be embraced, followed and emulated.

May you be blessed.


Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780-2020

“Judaism Sanctifies Time, Not Space
(Updated and revised from Vayakhel-Pekudei 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


On this coming Shabbat, two Torah portions are read, Vayakhel and Pekudei. With these two parashiot the reading of the Book of Shemot, Exodus, is completed. Whereas the previous three portions dealt with a description of the structure of the Tabernacle and its furnishings (blueprints, if you will), these two parashiot describe the actual construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, as well as the names of the craftsmen who fashioned the Tabernacle and its furnishings.

Parashat Vayakhel, provides the details of the manufacture of the curtains and the covers, the planks and the partition curtain–the parochet and the curtain that served as the gate to the Tabernacle. This is followed by a description of the construction of the actual structure of the Tabernacle and its furnishing, the construction of the Holy Ark, the Table of the Showbread, the Menorah, the Altar of Incense, the Sink, and the courtyard construction.

In parashat Pekudei there is an exact accounting of all the materials used in the construction. Even the great Moses had to account for every piece of gold, silver, and copper that was brought. The parasha continues with a description of the design and sewing of the vestments–the garments for the Kohanim, the priests. Parashat Pekudei concludes with the actual setting up of the Tabernacle and the spectacle of G-d’s glory filling the Tabernacle.

Unexpectedly, in the middle of the description of the Tabernacle plans and its construction, the Torah, in Exodus 35:1, declares: אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם, שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַהשׁם , These are the things that G-d commanded you to do. Six days shall you do your labor, but on the seventh day, it should be a day of sanctity, it shall be an ultimate Sabbath to G-d. As we say in Yiddish: In miten drinen, all of a sudden, an exhortation for the Sabbath appears in the text! Why?

One might have thought that the building of the Tabernacle–the ultimate dwelling place of the Divine presence, would take precedence over Shabbat. But, Rashi boldly proclaims: הִקְדִּים לָהֶם אַזְהָרַת שַׁבָּת לְצִוּוּי מְלֶאכֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, שֶׁאֵינוֹ דוֹחֶה אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת , G-d precedes the building of the Tabernacle with the warning for the Sabbath, to tell us, that the building of this prestigious building does not take precedence over Shabbat. To the contrary, on Shabbat, everything stops, even the building of G-d’s house.

In a world obsessed with aesthetics and material possessions, the Torah seems to be way out of sync with the times-–and it is! As opposed to contemporary values, the Torah declares that Jews sanctify time, not space, not land and not earth. Material possessions that are lost or forfeited can often be recovered. In fact, sometimes they are replaced with superior possessions, in both value and beauty. But, time that passes, can never be recovered. Time is truly sanctified. That is why the Sabbath and the lessons of Shabbat are very, very special.

In Exodus 20:8-11, the fourth of the Ten Commandments records the concept of the Shabbat being “a sanctified day of rest.” The Torah tells us that the Sabbath day is to be both observed and sanctified, because G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

In 1883, Frederick Engels (1820-1895), who collaborated with Karl Marx on The Communist Manifesto (1848), published a fascinating study entitled the Dialectics of Nature. Engels presents a simple, but beautiful, theory arguing that everything in nature that breathes or moves has a “thesis” and an “antithesis,” an active and a passive stage. A flower blossoms and a flower dies; the sun rises, the sun sets; the moon waxes, the moon wanes; the tide goes in, the tide goes out; the heart beats and the heart rests; living creatures inhale and exhale. Virtually everything that breathes or moves has these active and passive stages that are built in to the world’s physical design. Humans, as creatures of nature, have these natural active and passive stages as well. Humans need to rest to regenerate their strength–they need to sleep at night. But, beyond the daily rest, the humans require a collective day of rest, a Shabbat. Shabbat–the day of rest, is an inviolate law of nature for humans.

Why do humans require this collective day of rest? A very interesting theory has been propounded by Rabbi Binyamin Efrati, a noted Israeli scholar and educator, relating the concept of a day of rest to the building of the Tabernacle. After all, the building of the Tabernacle was an attempt by mortals to construct the ultimate structure, to build the most perfect dwelling place for the Divine Presence.

Surprisingly, Rabbi Efrati suggests that the primary impetus for “creativity” is “frustration.” What does this mean? Because the horse-and-buggy mode of transportation moved very slowly, passengers were left frustrated. This “frustration” ultimately led inventors to develop the internal combustion engine, which led to the development of the automobile, the bullet train, and eventually to jet transportation. Creativity, in effect, results from frustration.

It was Israel’s desire to build the ultimate Dwelling Place for G-d, that provides the Jewish definition of “work,” based on the 39 creative labors that were employed in building the Tabernacle: weaving, planting, tanning, making fire and carrying. Engaging in any of these “creative labors” leaves the worker with a feeling of frustration. Six days we labor, six days we obsess with creativity, resulting in many creative and constructive ideas. But, at the same time, because of the creativity, a surfeit of frustration accumulates. That negative “waste” collects in our souls, in our very essence. The Sabbath removes those wastes. In the same manner that the respiratory and circulatory systems operate in the human body, the Shabbat cleanses the accumulated wastes of the past week, and provides fresh oxygen/energy for the coming week.

Besides the rest and spiritual regeneration that are the extraordinary byproducts of Shabbat, there are many other added benefits to the Day of Rest. Ironically, in our day and age, with so much emphasis placed on “communication,” people rarely properly communicate! Despite the advances in technology, internet, cable television, cell phones, social media, there’s significantly less true communication today than ever before. The average parent speaks to their child no more than 12 minutes a day, while the average family spends 49 hours a week watching television or surfing the internet! From my personal vantage point, overlooking Riverside Park in New York City, I see that everyone seems to be plugged in, and no one is talking to each other. It’s absurd! We no longer communicate! The Sabbath provides intimacy–intimacy without cell phones, without the internet, without texting. Shabbat is an invaluable opportunity to return to the primordial state, to communicate with one another in the most primitive and basic manner, face-to-face, eye to eye, word to word, without artificial interruptions.

And, that is why the Torah speaks of the Sabbath embodying two basic fundamental human needs: natural rest and freedom. Creativity ceases on the Sabbath day, and we rest, just as the Al-mighty did after six days of creation. But, Shabbat, as the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 states, is also a liberation from a slavery.

And that, perhaps, is why the verse in the opening of parashat Vayakhel, Exodus 35:2, concludes, כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת , anyone who performs creative labor on the Sabbath shall surely die. While no one today will be stoned for working on Shabbat, those who fail to benefit from that great island of tranquility, that oasis in time, the 25 hours of Sabbath, are killing themselves, missing out on one of the most meaningful treasures that G-d has given humankind.

Shabbat teaches that “You can’t have quality time unless you have quantity time.”

That is why the rabbis of the Talmud, Shabbat 10b, declare that

G-d announces: “I have a wonderful gift in My treasury, and

Shabbat is its name–go and tell the people about it!”

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Wednesday evening and Thursday, March 25-26, 2020.


Kee Tisah 5780-2020

“The Levites and the Golden Calf: Transcending One’s Own Nature”
(Updated and revised from Kee Tisah 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the tragic and calamitous rebellion of the Golden Calf.

According to tradition, the People of Israel miscalculated the time that Moses would be with G-d on Mt. Sinai. When Moses did not return at the expected time after 40 days, the people demanded from Aaron that he make a new leader for them.

Aaron tried to delay the people until Moses returned by asking the people to bring their jewelry, expecting that they would not be very eager to give up their valuables. Uncharacteristically, the people quickly brought their valuables. Aaron received their donations and fashioned the gold with a tool into a molten calf. Aaron tried to delay again announcing that there would be a celebration tomorrow. But, the people were so eager, that they arose early in the morning and began to joyously worship the Calf. When Moses descended from the mountain, he found the people not only worshiping the Golden Calf, he saw them enthusiastically celebrating with song and dance. Moses reacted angrily to this sight and smashed the tablets that he had brought down from Sinai.

The Torah, in Exodus 32:25-29, states that when Moses saw that the people (worshiping the Golden Calf) had gone mad… he stood at the gate of the camp and cried out: מִי לַהַשֵׁם אֵלָי , “Whoever is to G-d, come to me!” All the Levites gathered around him. He told them, “Thus says the Lord, G-d of Israel, each of you prepare your sword on your thigh, pass back and forth through the camp and kill your own brother or your own friend or your relative.”

The Levites did as Moses commanded, and on that day, there fell from the people about 3,000 men. Moses said to the Levites: “Dedicate yourselves to G-d today, for indeed each of you is dedicated through his son or his daughter and have brought on yourselves a blessing this day.”

Rabbi M. Miller in his Shabbath Shiurim, cites a series of questions raised by the Netziv, with regard to the Golden Calf. Clearly, asks the Netziv, since only 3,000 people were killed, these 3,000 (an approximate ratio of one of 200) must have been the guilty ones among the 600,000 people, who were actually involved in the sin. Why then did only the Levites respond to Moses’ call?

Furthermore, asks the Netziv, why was the call of Moses expressed in such a harsh manner? Moses did not say: Kill every person, even if he is your brother or your friend. Instead, he commands, “Kill your own brother, or your own friend.” What was the reason for his extreme harshness?

Rabbi Miller explores and develops the comments of the Netziv, saying that the Levites’ response to Moses was much more than an ethical, moral or religious response. Rather, claims the Netziv, the Levites’ response emanated from an extraordinarily pure and unmitigated desire to perform G-d’s command. Through their selfless actions, the Levites, in utter self-negation, became an instrument of G-d’s justice, devoid of any human emotion. When Moses calls to the people, (Exodus 32:26), “Whoever is to G-d, come to me!”–he is really asking, who is holy and unreservedly for G-d? Who is capable of utter abnegation of the self in their zeal for G-d? He phrased the question in such a brazen manner specifically because he wanted only those to come who were up to that exalted level.

Only the Levites, among the People of Israel who did not worship the Golden Calf, reached that level of self-abnegation. Consequently, only the Levites were able to respond to Moses’ call to kill even their brothers, if necessary.

Perhaps, now we understand why the Levites were singled out to be the servants of G-d for all time and to serve as the ministers in the Tabernacle and ultimately in the Temple. The Levites, who were prepared to kill even their own brothers, and subjecting themselves to the possibility of being killed by their own brothers, actually went against human nature.

While few of us could ever hope to achieve that exalted state of transcendent spirituality reached by the Levites, all Jews must certainly strive to raise their own spiritual sights as high as possible, so that we too may serve as the ministers of G-d in our own modest way.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Purim  marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

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

Tetzaveh 5780-2020

“The True Story of Purim”
(updated and revised from Tetzaveh 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, speaks of the fashioning of the holy garments worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Since next Monday night marks the beginning of the joyous festival of Purim, this week’s message will focus on the Book of Esther, with a brief reference to parashat Tetzaveh.

Many are under the impression that the story of Purim is but a tale of a mad anti-Semite, Haman, who, together with the simple-minded King Ahasuerus and his nasty cohorts, wanted to destroy the Jewish people. It is never clearly established whether their hatred of the Jews was due to typical anti-Semitic resentment or because of the fact that Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to wicked Haman.

The true story of Purim is far more complex than a simple anti-Semitic tale. It begins in the year 604 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonian Empire gains control over the land and the people of Israel. Approximately seven years later, in the year 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar exiles the Jewish king of Judah, Jeconiah, and the Jewish elite, a group that included Mordechai. Finally, in the year 586 BCE the Beit Hamikdash, the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is destroyed by the Babylonians.

Despite its great prominence and power, the Babylonian dynasty of Nebuchadnezzar comes to an abrupt end in the year 535 BCE, with the assassination of Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar. The collapse of the Babylonian dynasty was actually prophesied by the prophet Daniel who interpreted the famed “writing on the wall” (Daniel 5:25). After the decline of the Babylonians, the Persians and Medes, under the monarchy of Darius the Mede, ascended to power.

The prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied at the time of the Temple’s destruction, was able to somewhat temper his ominous prophecies by offering consolation to the People of Israel, predicting (Jeremiah 29:10), that the Temple would be rebuilt seventy years after its destruction. ”For thus says the L-rd, that after seventy years of Babylon are completed I will remember you and perform my good word, concerning you, to make your return to this place.” The prophet Daniel, (Daniel 9:2), prophesied similarly.

In the year 534 BCE, seventy years after the rise of Nebuchadnezzar, the Persians and Medes took control of the Land of Israel. Cyrus, the Persian king, grants permission for the Jews to return to their homeland and build a new Beit Hamikdash. Unfortunately, under pressure from the enemies of Israel, King Cyrus orders a halt to the construction.

When Ahasuerus ascends to the throne, the new king maintains the ban on building the Temple during his entire reign. This has bearing on why, later on in the story of Purim, when King Ahasuerus makes the generous offer to Esther, he limits his gift to only “up to half the kingdom.” According to the Talmud, Megillah 15b, Ahasuerus says, “up to half the kingdom,” but never the whole, to prevent the rebuilding of the Temple, and to forever preclude the Jews’ return to Jerusalem.

The feast described at the beginning of the Book of Esther took place in the year 529 BCE, the third year of Ahasuerus’s reign. King Ahasuerus had mistakenly calculated that 70 years had passed since the “destruction,” which he regarded as, not the actual destruction of the Temple, but rather the exile of King Jeconiah and the Jewish elite. Ahasuerus now rejoiced because clearly, 70 years had passed, and the prediction of the prophet had not come to pass. Now there was no hope that the Temple would ever be rebuilt. The Jews were doomed forever.

This interpretation of the Purim story is further reinforced by the Midrashic insights concerning the grand party which Ahasuerus threw for 180 days. According to the Malbim one of the preeminent bible commentators of modern times, Ahasuerus who started out as a stable hand, according to the Midrash, was really a pretender to the throne, a mercenary who eventually accumulated much wealth, and bought himself into the monarchy. In an effort to lend legitimacy to his kingship, he marries Vashti, the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazzar. Finally, in the third year of his reign, when Ahasuerus feels secure, he tries to dispel the common perception that he bought his way into the kingship, and that he used Vashti as a means to legitimate himself.

The party Ahasuerus throws serves a double purpose: To prove his legitimacy as a monarch, and to celebrate the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people. In order to properly celebrate the destruction of the Jewish people, Ahasuerus dresses up in the vestments of the High Priest, those very garments that are described in such detail in parashat Tetzaveh. According to the Midrashic sources (Yalkut Shimoni), each day of the 180 day celebration, Ahasuerus took six of the 1,080 different treasures which had been looted from the Beit Hamikdash by Nebuchadnezzar, and showed them publicly as a symbol of the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people.

At the end of his 180-day party, Ahasuerus throws a second “bash” in Shushan the capital, for all the local inhabitants. He does this purposely in Shushan, in order to gain the sympathy and loyalty of those who reside in the capital, closest to the royal palace, to ensure his security in times of trouble. He invites everybody to his party, not distinguishing between nobility, officers, the usual elite guests and the common folks. Trying desperately to win the support of the masses, he breaks with the longstanding Babylonian tradition, and allows the commoners to enter the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He does away with all restrictions on drinking, allowing those who can drink and even those who cannot drink to celebrate with him. He passes a host of liberal decrees, allowing local languages and cultures to flourish.

The Book of Esther 1:11 reports that Ahasuerus summons Vashti, his Queen, to come to the celebration, בְּכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת , in her royal crown, לְהַרְאוֹת הָעַמִּים וְהַשָּׂרִים אֶת יָפְיָהּ, כִּי טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא , to show off to the people and the officials her beauty, for she was beautiful to look upon. From the particular language used in the text, the rabbis (Rashi) say that Ahasuerus commanded Vashti to come to the party only in the “Royal Crown,” and nothing else, totally unclothed, so that her true beauty could be seen by all, and appreciated, to prove that he did not marry her because of Vashti’s lineage. Now he could show the people that he married Vashti only because of her beauty, since Ahasuerus was now true royalty himself, no longer dependent upon his Queen’s lineage.

Incredible as it may seem, the Midrash relates that the Jews participated with great enthusiasm in Ahasuerus’s party, despite the fact that the party was a celebration of the destruction of the Jewish people and a mockery of the Jewish G-d! Yet, the Jews of the time could not resist being part of this great “happening” in Shushan, and drank to inebriation from the holy vessels that had been defiled by Ahasuerus. The real reason for the sword hanging over the heads of the Jewish people, say the rabbis (Talmud, Megillah 12a), was that despite Mordechai’s insistence that they refrain from attending, they not only attended but also allowed themselves to enthusiastically enjoy the feast of Ahasuerus. A feast of this magnitude simply could not be resisted.

Once again, we see that the enemies of the Jews often serve as Divine instruments. Haman’s anti-Semitic actions were not simply arbitrary hateful deeds. They were a direct response to the Jews’ own improper actions. Haman’s decree now threatened the Jews’ very existence. For the Jews to be spared, it was necessary for someone to arise and publicly affirm G-d’s supremacy.

After five years of serving as Queen, Esther was not very eager to give up the comforts of her royal lifestyle, until Mordechai shook her to the core, by telling her that, if she refused to intervene on behalf of her people at that critical moment, salvation for the Jewish People would come through other avenues. Mordechai soon rallied the Jews to acknowledge G-d’s primary role in their lives, and His supremacy in the universe. Only then does salvation arrive from the wicked schemes of Haman and the anti-Semites.

It is not a simplistic story. In fact, it is a story that reoccurs throughout Jewish history.

Would that we pay close attention to the story of Purim, and to its critical message.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.

Please note: There is a discrepancy of 165 years between the secular dates used by the academic community and the rabbinic calendar. The rabbis date the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians as occurring in 423 BCE. The popular secular date is usually reckoned to be 586 BCE.

There are a number of attempts to resolve this discrepancy.  The dates used in this message follow the secular dates.

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

Please note: The The Fast of Esther is observed this year on Monday, March 9, 2020, from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Monday night, and Tuesday, March 9-10, 2020.

The festival of Purim  marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Terumah 5780-2020

“The Centrality of Torah”
(updated and revised from Terumah 5762-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, G-d speaks to Moses and instructs him to build for Him a sanctuary, so that He (G-d) may dwell among the People of Israel.

The details of the architecture of the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan–the Tabernacle, are quite specific and detailed. In fact, the building plans and the description of the construction actually cover four of the final five parashiot of the book of Exodus, and even play a minor role in the fifth parasha, Kee Tisah.

The most significant of the Tabernacle’s furnishings is the אָרוֹן –the Ah’ron, the Holy Ark, and the Ark cover. The Ark housed the Tablets of the Law, upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. The description of the Holy Ark is the most extensive and lengthy of all the descriptions of the Tabernacle furnishings, and its details are very precise. The Ark is to be constructed of acacia wood covered with gold. It is to have three wooden compartments, housed one within the other. Its exact length, height, and depth are specified. There is to be an Ark cover known as the כַפֹּרֶתKaporet,  כְרוּבִיםKeruvim, cherubs, made of one solid piece of gold, were to be hammered out as part of the Ark cover.

Like all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, the Holy Ark was transportable, since it needed to be taken from place to place during the forty years that the people wandered in the wilderness. When the Israelites stopped to encamp, the Tabernacle was erected, and the Ark was placed inside the Holy of Holies. Like most of the other sacred furnishings of the Tabernacle, in order to facilitate its transport, the Ark had staves, or poles attached to its sides to facilitate the carrying.

In Exodus 25:13 the Torah instructs the architects of the Tabernacle: וְעָשִׂיתָ בַדֵּי עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתָם זָהָב , to make two staves of acacia wood and cover them with gold. The staves, with which the Ark is to be carried, are to be inserted into rings, that were located on the sides of the Ark. Exodus 25:15 states explicitly, בְּטַבְּעֹת, הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַּדִּים,  לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ , The staves shall remain in the rings of the Ark, they may not be removed from it!

While all the sacred furnishings had staves, only the Holy Ark had non-removable staves. According to tradition, the staves themselves were designed to be wider at the ends so that once they were inserted, they could not be removed. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the eternal presence of the staves symbolized the concept that the Torah is not tied to any one place. Indeed, wherever Jews go, willingly or otherwise, their Torah is to go with them. That is why the staves, the means of its transport, are always attached to the Ark.

The Jerusalem Talmud, (Shekalim 6:1) reports that these staves played an important part, not only in the temporary portable Tabernacle, but also in the permanent Temple that Solomon built, as well. According to tradition, the Ark staves were positioned in such a manner in the sanctuary that the two ends of the staves rested against the פָּרֹכֶתparochet, the curtain dividing the front chamber of the Tabernacle—the Holy, from the Holy of Holies, causing two protrusions to be seen on the curtain. In fact, R. Shimon b. Lakish, refers to these protrusions as “breasts”–a symbol of nourishment and nurturing.

According to tradition, (Rambam Laws of the Temple 4:1) when he was building the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon saw in a prophecy that the Temple would ultimately be destroyed. In anticipation, he built an underground chamber to serve as a future hiding place for the holy furnishings.

Many centuries later, in the time of King Josiah, the priests reported to the King that the “breasts” had disappeared from the curtain. Josiah understood this to be a sign that the Temple would soon be destroyed, and that all the furnishings were in imminent danger. King Josiah had the furnishings removed and placed in the underground chambers, the secret tunnels under Mt. Moriah, where, according to one tradition, they remain to this day.

These accounts underscore the critical role that Torah plays in the delicate balance of our lives. Once the outline of the staves of the Ark disappear, the Temple can no longer stand. Once the Torah is compromised, the Temple can no longer endure.

It was this ancient portrayal of the Ark and Torah as the center of Jewish life, that fostered the Jewish people’s early commitment to study and education, and quite likely set the tone for generations that followed, leading our people to become known as the “People of the Book.” The central focus of Jewish living became Torah study, and Torah became the elixir of life for the Jewish people.

This led to many important developments in Jewish life–the primacy of the scholar, the teacher and the rabbi, which established their exalted stature, and created the passionate reverence for learning. Although Jewish law was always extraordinarily sensitive to unfair business practices, there was no such thing as unfair or ruthless competition in Torah education. Declares the Talmud in Tractate Baba Batra 21a, קִנְאַת סוֹפְרִים תַּרְבֶּה חָכְמָה the more competition, the better. In fact, Torah study is considered so essential that the Midrash, based on the verse in Isaiah 55:1, Rashi, often compares it to water, maintaining that, like water, without Torah learning, the Jewish people cannot endure.

There is a quaint custom common among the Jewish people that has long been a source of fascination for me. When a sacred book or text falls to the ground, it is immediately lifted and kissed. Jews kiss their books, because they love their books. They love them as they love life itself. This is why Jews declare in the second blessing of the evening שְׁמַעSh’ma, כִּי הֵם חַיֵּינוּ וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֵינוּ וּבָהֶם נֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה , For they [the commandments of the Torah] are our life and the length of our days, and on them shall we meditate day and night.

May you be blessed.

Mishpatim 5780-2020

“The ‘Sophisticated’ and ‘Unsophisticated’ Criminal
(updated and revised from Mishpatim 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, is a lawyer’s dream and a layman’s nightmare. Parashat Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot, ranking it fifth among the parshiot in terms of the number of mitzvot.

This parasha is literally a cornucopia of diverse and fascinating laws. 3300 years ago, the Torah, in parashat Mishpatim, already introduced the concept of the inalienable rights of individuals. Parashat Mishpatim also expounds on a host of other laws: the laws of murder, crimes against parents, kidnaping, personal injuries, damages caused by animals, seduction, witchcraft, sodomy, oppression of the weak, offerings of the first fruits, truth and justice, love of enemy, the sabbatical year and the Sabbath day, and a vast array of other issues that are both challenging and enlightening.

On a number of occasions, the issue of thievery appears in our parasha. At the beginning of Exodus 22, the case of the burglar who breaks into a home is raised. The Torah even addresses the issue of whether and when the occupants of the home are permitted to defend themselves if their lives seem to be threatened.

In Exodus 22:6, the Torah records that if a thief is caught, he must pay double the value of the item he stole. The Hebrew term for theft is גְּנֵבָהg’neivah, which in Jewish legal terminology means “stealthy theft” or larceny–theft without confronting or physically intimidating the legal owner. G’neivah may take the form of breaking in to someone’s home when the owner is away, stealing someone’s parked car, or embezzlement. In effect, the Torah establishes that the penalty for a person who steals in this manner is for the thief to suffer the same personal loss that he attempted to inflict on the victim. Consequently, Jewish law says that the thief must not only restore the principal-–the original value of the stolen item, but must also pay a fine equal to the value of the principal. For example, if a car worth $5,000 was stolen, the thief must pay $10,000, thus suffering a loss equal to that which he wished the victim to suffer.

There is, however, another type of thief in Jewish law, known as a גַּזֽלָןgazlan. A gazlan is a brigand, a highwayman, a pirate, a mugger, who approaches a victim and demands: “Your money or your life!” Strangely, Jewish law states that the gazlan need only restore the value of the original theft and is not required to pay a penalty. If, however, the gazlan wishes to doתְּשׁוּבָהt’shuvah, if he truly wants to be fully repentant, then he must add a surcharge of 1/5 or 20%, and bring an offering to the Temple.

The rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Kama 79b, are hard-pressed to explain why a thief who extorts or steals, without physical intimidation, must pay more than one who threatens violence. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, offers a response that is rather discerning. He argues that the gazlan–-the mugger, the brigand, as contemptible as he may be, is at least theologically consistent. The gazlan is obviously not afraid of G-d, which is why he steals. But, he is also not afraid of man, and therefore confronts his victim brazenly–face to face. The גַּנָּבganav, on the other hand, is also not afraid of G-d, so he too steals. But, the ganav is in dread fear of man, so he avoids confronting his victim and acts stealthfully. If that is the case, say the rabbis, for his theological inconsistencies, the ganav, must pay more. As objectionable as the behavior of the gazlan–the mugger is, at least he is consistent, whereas the ganav is not only a thief, he is a hypocrite, as well.

It may be further argued that by meting out unexpected and unequal punishments to the ganav and the gazlan, the Torah and the rabbis proclaim to members of society that so-called “white-collar” crimes are at least as serious and can be as hurtful and devastating as those crimes we commonly call “blue collar.” The Torah declares that stealing someone’s possessions, his or her life savings, embezzling someone’s business can be as physically and emotionally destructive as hurting or threatening someone physically. Society should never falsely rationalize that a “sophisticated” thief should be excused with a lesser punishment.

Once again, we find our Torah enlightening society with remarkable new insights into life and living, constantly offering profound understandings of human nature.

May you be blessed.

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

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

Yitro 5780-2019

“Can the Torah Forbid Feelings that are Part of Normal Human Emotions?”
(Updated and revised from Yitro 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, is one of the two places in the Torah where the Ten Commandments are recorded. The second text of the Ten Commandments is found in parashat Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 5:6-18.

The tenth commandment, that appears in Exodus 20:14, states: לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ, לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ, וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרו,ֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ , you shall not covet your fellow’s house, you shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.

The rabbis ask, how can the Torah forbid something which is, seemingly, so much a part of human nature–jealousy, and covetous desires of another’s possessions? In response, the Ibn Ezra presents the following parable. While a peasant farmer might covet his neighbor’s daughter, he would never conceive of coveting the Queen, because it is simply out of the realm of possibility.

This analogy could be made even stronger by saying that a person who is looking for romantic love and affection would not, under normal circumstances, covet his neighbor’s cow or dog, because it is simply out of the realm of reality. Under normal circumstances, romantic love and affection are not directed toward animals!

With the prohibition against covetous desires, Judaism introduces a bold and revolutionary concept. The Torah, in effect, declares that human beings are in control of, or can control, their intimate thoughts and desires.

An example of this principle can be found in the Jewish laws of mourning. Jewish law certainly acknowledges that those who experience the death of a close relative will naturally feel bereft, abandoned by G-d, and are consequently freed from the performance of mitzvot until the burial. Jewish law, however, requires that once the burial takes place, the bereaved mourner must work his or her way back to fulfillment of all mitzvot. We see, in this instance, that Jewish law arbitrarily demands a person, despite the terribly painful circumstance, to overcome great personal agony and begin to participate in a minyan, to say blessings, to thank G-d for health, even though his/her emotional mood is hardly inclined to recite these prayers or perform religious rituals. Jewish law even mandates that there be no public mourning on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, when mourning is cancelled. The implication is clear: Judaism maintains that people can control their emotions, and that they have the capacity to overcome their feelings even in tragic circumstances. Similarly, the Torah requires the person with covetous desires to overcome or suppress those prohibited thoughts.

Perhaps, the concept of prohibiting evil thoughts and emotions is hard to accept because much of contemporary thinking conveys the opposite message, that our improper behavior is often excusable because of rage, provocation or taunting. Jewish law, on the other hand, maintains, that even a person with a natural disposition toward forbidden actions, such as bloodlust or prohibited sexual behavior, must keep those emotions in check. If they are to be expressed at all, they must be done in a sublimated and socially-acceptable manner. In fact, the Talmud suggests (Tractate Shabbat 156a) that a person with an abundance of bloodlust may express those forbidden feelings by becoming a surgeon, a mohel, or a ritual slaughterer.

The Chassidic approach to the issue of not coveting is quite different, but no less fascinating. The Torah, in the portion of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 declares: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , and you shall love the L-rd your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Why does the verse speak of “loving” G-d in this portion where the Torah emphasizes the acceptance of belief in G-d? Would it not be more appropriate to say, “And you shall believe in the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”? Chassidic tradition maintains that love is entirely appropriate in the context of the Shema, since love opens vistas that would otherwise be sealed and inaccessible. A person who expresses intense love of G-d, will inevitably find belief.

The Chassidim argue even further. They maintain that if a person’s heart is “full” of love of G-d, there is simply no “room” for alien thoughts and feelings. That, they explain, is the way the temptation expressed in the Torah’s prohibition of Lo tach’mod, thou shall not covet, can be overcome. Fill your heart with love of G-d, argue the Chassidim–and there will be no room for alien covetous desires.

While this Chassidic rationale is but a metaphor, the implications are very real. “Thou shall not covet.” Love G-d, and there will be no covetous desires!

May you be blessed.

On Sunday night and Monday, February 9th and 10th, we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu B’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.

B’shalach 5780-2020

“Where is Nachshon the Son of Aminadov When We Need Him?”
(Updated and revised from B’shalach 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, describes G-d’s miraculous salvation of the Jewish People by splitting the Red (Reed) Sea.

Scripture dramatically describes the Egyptian forces as they close in on the Israelites. The people, consumed with dread and fear, cry out to Moses and say (Exodus 14:11): הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us?… It is better that we should serve Egypt, than perish in the wilderness!”

G-d tells Moses to do what he must do. The Torah, Exodus 14:21 reports, וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַיָּם , that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea. G-d made the sea move with a strong East wind all that night… and the water split. The Children of Israel enter the sea on dry land, the water serving as a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians persist in chasing the Israelites into the sea, and there G-d confounds the Egyptians. G-d tells Moses to stretch his hand out once again over the sea, and the water returns to the sea, covering the chariots and the horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh who were chasing after the Israelites. Scripture, Exodus 14:28 records, that not one of the Egyptians remained alive.

When the people of Israel see the great hand of G-d, they express reverence for G-d, and declare their faith in G-d and Moses, his servant. In joy and ecstasy, the people begin to sing the great song, אָז יָשִׁיר , the song of Israel crossing the Red Sea.

The Talmud, in Sotah 36b and 37a, recounts an interesting dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Meir maintains that when the 12 tribes stood at the edge of the sea, they strove with one another, each vying to be the first tribe to enter the sea. Rabbi Judah disagrees, and says that that’s not the way it was at all. Rather, each tribe was unwilling to go in first. As they were standing disputing who would not go first, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, the Prince of the tribe of Judah, entered the water. He continued to walk forth with great faith, and only when the water reached his neck, did the sea begin to split.

One of the most remarkable things about the physical world in which we live and its nature is its orderliness. From the structure of the tiniest atomic particle, to the behavior of the raging sea, even the winds in the sky, there is always logic, constancy and orderliness. This orderliness allows the experts to predict the weather and to reckon the half-life of a radioactive element. Nature implies predictability. Obviously, G-d purposefully created the world in this predictable manner. Today, scientists maintain that even those things that appear to be unpredictable will eventually be shown to be entirely predictable, as we gain a deeper understanding of the incredible variety of factors that impact on the behavior of these seemingly unpredictable elements and processes.

A “miracle” then may be defined as an instance in which nature ceases to be predictable, departs from its natural order and behaves in an unexpected manner. The splitting of the Red Sea is certainly a prime example of such behavior.

The controversial scientist, Immanuel Velikovsky in his Worlds in Collision argues that the Ten Plagues were basically predictable natural occurrences. He theorizes that, at the time of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, a great comet broke off from the planet Venus. The comet’s tail, containing red dust, caused the waters of the Nile River to turn red. Hence, the plague of blood. As the planet Earth went deeper in to the comet’s tail, the dust turned into small stones, and a hail of gravel pelted the earth. Each one of the plagues, Velikovsky argues, was predictable. However unlikely Velikovsky’s theories may be, they do not really controvert the possibility of a Divine miracle. After all, even if the event was not a miracle, the timing was certainly miraculous! The fact that it happened at the particular time that Moses had predicted that it would happen, renders the event a miracle. Velikovsky also argues that the so-called splitting of the Red Sea was caused by a great hurricane and unusual tides that caused the seabed to dry up and the waters to suddenly return. Thus, according to Velikovsky, the poor Egyptians had the great misfortune of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In light of this, the Midrash of Nachshon the son of Aminadav is revealing. The Midrash implies that Nachshon was able to affect G-d’s hand, and make the sea split at a particular point in time.

I have previously argued (Bereshith 5762-2001) that the Torah maintains that G-d created the world entirely good, and that it was the human who, by defying G-d, introduced evil into the world, by eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of good and evil. By defying G-d, Adam and Eve introduce death, sickness, and pain into the world. But, G-d has given humankind the antidotes to cure all illness. In fact, all that is necessary to find these cures to end all sickness, illness, pain and travail is for the human species to resolve to do so.

I would argue even further, that even those things that seem most unpredictable, those occurrences that insurance companies often call “Acts of G-d,” are indeed predictable, and are, in fact, controllable.

It is already well known and widely accepted that it is folly to build homes on geologic faults where the likelihood of earthquakes is well established, or, to erect mansions on edges of cliffs that are prone to erosion and mudslides. And yet, scientific knowledge is unable to convince our human emotions to act responsibly. And so, we continue today to build homes in dangerous locations.

Eventually, science will most likely gain a much fuller understanding of the geothermal and seismic factors that cause volcanoes to erupt and earthquakes to occur. Not only will inhabitants be entirely forewarned, but, it may very well be possible for Earth dwellers to actually change the course of nature by developing technologies that will release the explosive pressures in a safe and secure manner before eruptions and prior to quakes. None of this is really that farfetched.

But, for all this to happen, we need a Nachshon the son of Aminadav, who is prepared to jump into the water up to his neck and declare, “I am going to cause the water to split. My profound faith will change the course of nature. My profound faith will inspire scientists to find the factors that cause nature to change. My profound faith will convince G-d that He must be my partner to help me find the answers to these seemingly impenetrable questions.”

This Shabbat when you listen to the Song of the People of Israel crossing the Red Sea sung in your synagogues, think of Nachshon. He may very well be sitting next to you, perhaps he is already inside of you, waiting, for a little encouragement to emerge and do his thing.

May you be blessed.

Bo 5780-2020

“Rational Love and Emotional Love: A Lesson from Tefillin”
(revised and updated from Bo 5760-2000)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read about the last three plagues of the Ten Plagues: locusts, darkness, and the Death of the Firstborn. It is after the final plague strikes that the story of the Exodus comes to a dramatic conclusion as Pharaoh personally dashes through the streets of Egypt to seek out Moses and Aaron and urge them to take the Hebrew slaves and leave the land of Egypt as soon as possible.

Parashat Bo is also the parasha in which the Jewish people receive their first commandment as a nation–the commandment of observing Rosh Chodesh, of setting up a Jewish calendar. The Jewish people are also instructed to prepare for the Pascal Sacrifice and the first seder, which will take place in Egypt.

Parashat Bo concludes with chapter 13 of Exodus, in which G-d proclaims the holiness of the firstborn male children, and the need to redeem the firstborn at a פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּןPidyon Haben ceremony, 30 days after birth. This final chapter of parashat Bo also features two portions, which speak of the obligation to teach future generations of the miracle of the Exodus. Both these portions, Exodus 13:2, קַדֶּשׁ לִי כָל בְּכוֹר , sanctify for Me every first born, and Exodus 13:11, וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִאֲךָ , when the L-rd G-d brings you into the land of Israel, speak of the mitzvah of Tefillin. Tefillin, of course, are the phylacteries (the leather boxes and straps) that are to be worn daily by Jewish men as a sign on the hand and as frontlets between the eyes, so that all should know that the Al-mighty took the People of Israel out from Egypt with a mighty hand.

The mitzvah of Tefillin is indeed a strange mitzvah. Jewish men are instructed to place a leather box containing sacred parchment scrolls with texts of the Torah, on their weak arm, encircle the arm seven times with a leather strap, and to place a second little leather box on the head, also containing sacred scrolls, and leather straps. What could possibly be the meaning of this ritual?

Conventional wisdom has it that Tefillin represent the bonding of the human being with G-d. Winding the straps around one’s arm seven times is reminiscent of the bride who marches around the groom seven times in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, as an act of betrothal. The winding of the straps around the fingers represents the wedding ring. Placing Tefillin on the head represents giving one’s mind, one’s consciousness, and one’s intelligence to the service of G-d. The binding of the leather box on the arm, next to the heart, represents giving one’s strength to G-d, and devoting one’s heart to G-d. So in effect, it is an act which represents total sublimation of one’s self to the Divine Creator, giving over strength, intelligence and heart to G-d.

Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, in a seminal essay entitled, “Jew and Jew, Jew and Non-Jew” develops the idea of the Tefillin in a most profound way. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that the Tefillin of the head are worn exposed on the head, where they may be seen by everyone. The Tefillin of the head contain four separate compartments in which parchments concerning the Torah writings regarding Tefillin are placed. On the other hand, the Tefillin of the hand are always worn covered. A sleeve is usually pulled over the Tefillin, or a cover is worn over the actual Tefillin box, to hide them. The Tefillin of the hand represent emotion–not like Tefillin of the head which are open, rational, given to scientific and empirical investigation for all to analyze.

The parchment contained in the Tefillin of the hand, just like the Tefillin of the head, contain the four sections of the Torah, which mention the Mitzvah of Tefillin. However, they are written on one long parchment, and are seemingly melded together, not separate, but uniform and unified. While the Tefillin of the head sit on the brain, the source of rational, empirical understanding, the Tefillin of the arm sit next to the heart, the source of the esoteric emotions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Judaism recognizes two forms of “love”–“rational love” and “emotional love.” When a person evokes “rational love,” someone or something is preferred because they are rationally superior and empirically deserving. They are worthy, because they are good. It is possible to rationally, and, in many cases, scientifically assess the goodness empirically and to make a decision to like or dislike something. However, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, there is also a love of the heart, that is not based on rational or empirical evidence. It is an emotional favoring that only a person in love can comprehend and appreciate. In fact, it can, at times, be shown that it makes no sense rationally, and deserves to be abandoned. That is why it is always next to the heart, covered and hidden. No amount of convincing or cajoling can affect these emotional feelings.

Rabbi Soloveitchik insists that there is a difference between a Jew’s love for a fellow Jew and a Jew’s love for a non-Jew. The Torah instructs everyone, (Leviticus 19:18) וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ , Love your neighbor as thyself. That is the love that a Jew should have for all of humankind. Jews are bidden to love and respect all people. However, the objects of this love must be worthy of our love, they must be good, decent, principled and moral people. When, however, it comes to the love of our brother, love for our family members becomes irrational. Goodness, or worthiness, is not a factor, after all–it’s my brother.

Can it be explained? Two people are drowning, one, a world-famous scientist, the other, my child!! Despite the fact that the scientist can probably accomplish so much good for humanity, I’ll choose to save my child anyway. Can it be explained? It’s irrational, because it’s based on emotional love! There is a rationality to the heart, that the mind cannot comprehend or fathom. And, so says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is the emotional love that a Jew has for another Jew. They may not be the most worthy of people, they may not be the kindest, they may not be the most moral, but they are, after all, my brother, my sister and I love them, despite their deficiencies.

People make irrational decisions all the time. People often buy a new suit of clothes, even though they may be of inferior quality, because they are in style. It’s irrational. Few people will buy an out-of-style suit even though the quality of the material and sewing is far superior. No one is going to buy an old flip model phone, even though the flip phones were far more durable and cheaper than the current smartphones.

And, so it is when expressing love for our fellow Jews. While it often makes no sense to the mind, it makes perfect sense to the heart. So go argue with the heart! That is why, says Rav Soloveitchik, the primary blessing that we make on Tefillin, is made on the Tefillin of the arm. In fact, if a blessing is made on the Tefillin of the head, it is a questionable blessing, and the phrase בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד , Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever, is immediately recited in order to make certain that it is not a “wasted blessing.”

There are many things in life that cannot be explained rationally, they can only be felt. Such are the concepts of love of the mind and love of the heart–another revolutionary idea that stems from Judaism.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5780-2020

Shemot 5780-2020

“Developing Commitment to Judaism: A Lesson from an Egyptian Prince”
(updated and revised from Shemot 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we encounter one of the most formidable issues facing contemporary Jewish life: How to raise Jewishly-identified children in a rigorously challenging environment.

At first blush, the issue of Jewish identity would hardly be a theme likely to be found in this week’s parasha. But, clearly, Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in an intensive Egyptian environment. Nevertheless, scripture says, Exodus: 2:11, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם, and it came to pass in those days, and Moses grew up, and he went out to his brethren, and he saw their burdens.

Not only does Moses see the Hebrews’ burdens, but when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Jewish slave, מֵאֶחָיו , of his brothers, he looks this way and that–-sees that there is no one who will stand up to defend the Hebrew slave, and Moses then strikes the Egyptian dead, and buries him in the sand.

This clearly begs the question: How did this Egyptian prince, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, not only develop a Jewish identity, but also a profound sense of caring for his fellow Jew?

The Biblical narrative and the elaborate Midrashim concerning the birth of Moses are well known. Pharaoh had instructed the midwives (Exodus 1:16) to kill all the Jewish male children. The midwives kept a careful record of the pregnant Jewish women so that they could come at the appropriate time and murder the babies. According to tradition, (Rashi, Exodus 2:2) Moses was born, miraculously, after only six months, and survived. That is why his mother was able to hide him for three months.

Every day, the Egyptians would come to the house of Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, to look for the child. When Jochebed could no longer hide the child, she constructed an ark of bulrush, covered it with pitch outside, and placed it on the river, leaving Moses’ sister, Miriam, to watch the child.

According to the Midrash, the Al-mighty caused a great heat wave to strike Egypt, and all the people went down to bathe in the river. When the daughter of Pharaoh, who had also gone to the river, beheld the ark floating in the water, she instructed her maidens to bring the floating vessel to her, adding, that perhaps, there is a child who can be saved.

The Midrash maintains that the handmaidens were loath to go against Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish male children should be drowned into the river.

The rabbis, cited by Rashi, on Exodus 2:5, employ a homiletical interpretation on the text, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ , which literally means, that Pharaoh’s daughter sent her handmaiden to take the child. Rather than translate אַמָה –“ama” as handmaiden, they interpret the Hebrew word “ama” to mean “hand”–that Pharaoh’s daughter’s hand was miraculously lengthened, and that she herself was able to reach the diminutive ark to save the child.

To add a little intrigue to the story,  Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer 48, records that Pharaoh’s daughter had long been stricken with a dreaded dermatological disease, and that when she touched the ark she was suddenly healed. When she opened the ark and saw the child’s shining face, she had compassion on him and said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “this is surely one of the Hebrew children.” The Midrash maintains that when G-d saw how compassionate Pharaoh’s daughter was, He gave her a special name, בתי-ה –“Bitya,” which, in Hebrew, means “Bat Y-ah,” daughter to G-d, and promised that death would have no dominion over her, that she would be rewarded with Eternal life in the Garden of Eden, the Garden of G-d.

The Midrash continues, stating that Bitya tried in vain to have the child nurse from an Egyptian woman, but he refused. Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was watching him from her hiding place in the bulrushes, emerged and said (Exodus 2:7) הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת , Shall I go call a nursemaid for you from the Jewish women?” Miriam called Jochebed, Moses’ mother, and Bitya charged her with nursing the child. Jochebed took the child and raised him for two years. After he was weaned, Moses was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter. How painful it must have been for Jochebed to give up her child.

From that day on, Moses remained in Pharaoh’s house. He was raised there, educated there, and nurtured in Egyptian culture. According to tradition, Moses was 20 years old when he went out and acknowledged his Jewish brethren.

Why is the Midrash so impressed with Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, to the extent that G-d Himself gives her a new name and bestows upon her a promise of eternal life? Clearly, there is a secret heroine in this story, and Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, is that heroine! Bitya, Midrash or not, defies her father, by saving Moses who is clearly a Jewish child. Bitya’s actions indicate that she is made of different stuff than the cruel Egyptians who relished persecuting Jews.

No doubt, the rabbis of the Midrash were also perplexed as to how a child, who was raised for 18 years as an Egyptian, could feel so powerfully connected to the Jewish people. That is the likely reason why they attributed all of this to Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter.

The Communist leader, V.I. Lenin, had a motto: “Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.” The implication being that the formative education of a child is the most significant and most enduring.

Citizens of contemporary times know how true this message rings as we see so many children who are being raised with indifferent or absentee parents, and yet we wonder why so many young people are so unsettled and frequently turn against the parents’ values. Clearly, the formative years are invaluable. Those who trade away those precious early years for a few extra shekels, are making a fateful error. Judaism has long maintained that “quality time” without “quantity time,” simply doesn’t work.

The experience of Moses in Pharaoh’s palace also underscores the value of intensive Jewish education. For many years, the Jewish establishment in America derided intensive Jewish education, feeling that Jewish parochial school education was divisive and un-American. In retrospect, we now see, with the tragic statistics on assimilation, how misguided those leaders were.

I have long maintained that one cannot really “overdose” on Judaism or on Jewish education. Parents who are passionate in their Judaism, given the impact of assimilation, will hopefully end up with children who are moderate. Parents who are moderate about their Judaism, are likely to wind up with children who are casual. And, those who are casual in their Jewish practice, may wind up, G-d forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren!

Children who are given a firm basic Jewish education, even if they choose later in life to forsake tradition, will always have an opportunity to choose later in life to rejoin that tradition. The tragedy regarding the large numbers of young Jews who are walking away from their Judaism today, is that they are walking away, not because they are disenchanted with Judaism, but because they never had a choice–they were never given a basic Jewish education and never had positive, joyous, Jewish experiences.

Positive values are skills that need to be nurtured. A child who has never been encouraged to put a nickel, a dime, a quarter into a pushka (charity box) on a regular basis is unlikely to feel anything special for the poor or the homeless. A child who has never felt the warm embrace of parents on Shabbat or heard beautiful zemirot sung at their Shabbat tables are likely to be far more attracted to contemporary pop music and the haunting  Christmas songs. A child who has never felt the excitement of Purim or Simchat Torah, will be easily swept away by the drinking and ribaldry of the annual secular New Year’s Eve celebration. This is the tragedy that we face today; and the tragedy is compounded, because it did not have to happen!

What role does Midrash play in Torah study? Midrashim are, after all, only legendary interpretation of the Biblical verses, yet they almost always come to teach powerful and profound pedagogic, often moral, messages. In this instance, the Midrash teaches that there was a secret to Moses’ proud and powerful Jewish identity. His identity was a reflection of the commitment he developed during those two important years that he spent with his mother, and the extraordinary commitment that Bitya conveyed to him during his sojourn in Pharaoh’s palace.

The philosopher, the late Eliezer Berkovits, was once asked, “Who is a Jew?” He responded insightfully, “A Jew is one who has Jewish grandchildren.”

May the story of Moses and his remarkable religious inspiration and commitment serve as a source for all, of inspiration and commitment to Jewish learning, inspiration and commitment to Jewish growth, inspiration and commitment to Jewish life.

May you be blessed.