Monday, July 26, 2010

Eikev 5770-2010

"The Great, Mighty and Awesome G-d"

In this week's parasha, parashat Eikev, we learn of G-d's unconditional love for His people. Notwithstanding Israel's grievous sins, G-d's love remains steadfast. The demands that He makes upon the people of Israel are only for their good, and despite their straying, G-d continues to shower His beneficence upon His beloved people, Israel. In one of the most memorable passages of the Torah, Moses asks rhetorically (Deuteronomy 10:12-13), "And now, O Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the L-rd your G-d, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul; to observe the commandments of the L-rd and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit."

Following this powerful pronouncement, Moses describes the greatness of G-d. In Deuteronomy 10:17, Moses says: "Kee Hashem Eh'loh'kay'chem, Hoo Eh'loh'kay ha'Eh'lo'kim, va'Ah'doh'nay ha'Ah'doh'nim, ha'Kayl ha'gah'dohl, ha'gee'bohr, v'ha'no'rah, ah'sher lo yee'sah fah'nim, v'lo yee'kach shoh'chahd," For the L-rd your G-d, He is the G-d of the powers, and the L-rd of L-rds, the great, mighty and awesome G-d, Who does not show favor, and Who does not accept bribes.

Unlike mortal rulers, G-d does not favor the prominent or the rich. Instead, with great compassion, He metes out judgment for the orphan and the widow. In fact, the greater a person's status and potential to do good, the more demanding is G-d of that person.

If parts of the aforementioned biblical citations sound somewhat familiar, it is because this well-known description of G-d constitutes the opening paragraph of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish life, that is recited every single day, "Ha'Kayl ha'gah'dohl, ha'gee'bohr, v'ha'no'rah," G-d the great, mighty, and awesome G-d.

In Talmud Yoma 69b, we find the following question:

Why were the "Anshei K'nesset Hagdolah," Men of the Great Assembly called by that grand name? [They answer], because they restored the crown of Divine attributes to its ancient completeness. For Moses had come and said (Deuteronomy 10:17), "G-d, the great, mighty and awesome G-d." Then Jeremiah came and said (Jeremiah 32:17), "Aliens are destroying His temple. Where are, then, His awesome deeds? Hence, he omitted the attribute of "awesome." Daniel came and said (Daniel 9:4): "Aliens are enslaving His sons. Where are His mighty deeds? Hence, he omitted the word, "mighty." But they [the Men of the Great Assembly] came and said, on the contrary, therein lie His mighty deeds, that He suppresses His wrath, that He extends long suffering to the wicked. Therein lie His awesome powers: For, but for the fear of Him, how could one single nation [Israel] persist among the many nations?

But [the Sages ask], how could the early rabbis [Jeremiah and Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Holy One, Blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to Him.

In his brilliant monograph entitled "Prayer," Dr. Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992, modern Orthodox theologian and educator) explains that there is no room for flattery in prayer. "Anything but strictest honesty of thought and sentiment is inconceivable before G-d... In the eyes of Jewish tradition, the dropping of a phrase of invocation that was used by Moses was an act of impiety toward the Master of all prophets, of which particularly, such outstanding personalities as Jeremiah and Daniel should not be counted. Yet, it was found justified, because one dare not stand before G-d with insincerity in one's heart. One must come to G-d in truth. We must mean what we say. How else can one approach G-d, Who knows the innermost recesses of the human heart?"

According to Professor Berkovits, the Talmudic discussion regarding changing or maintaining the original wording of Moses' description of G-d: "Ha'Kayl ha'gah'dohl, ha'gee'bohr, v'ha'noh'rah," the great, mighty, and awesome G-d, underscores the efficacy of obligatory prayer. It is often assumed that spontaneous prayer, praying out of intense feeling or due to personal crisis, is the most poignant and exalted form of prayer. But one who turns toward G-d only in times of distress is often selfish and lacking sincerity. Where were you when your world was perfect? Did you thank G-d, did you acknowledge G-d, when everyone was healthy and in good spirits?

It was precisely for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly were given their special honorific title. Certainly these sages appreciated the pain and travail of Jeremiah and Daniel, who felt that they could not bring themselves to say what they considered falsehood when they saw the terrible human suffering and the Temple in ruins before them. Nevertheless, the Men of the Great Assembly said, "No." We realize that G-d's goodness is with us even through the suffering, pain and hurt. To the contrary, they said, so great is the mightiness of G-d, that He controls His anger and is long-suffering even with the wicked. This, in fact, is G-d's awesomeness, for were it not for the fear of G-d, how could a single nation [Israel] survive among all the heathens? Therefore, they restored Moses' original phraseology to the Amidah.

It is, in truth, only when we see the full picture of G-d, that mortals are able to appreciate His greatness. Focusing on individual tragedies makes it impossible to see the overall and overwhelming goodness of the human condition, which is all due to Divine beneficence.

How fortunate are we, O Israel, that we are judged by a great, mighty, and awesome G-d--our Father in heaven!

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B'Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, July 25thth and 26th, 2010. Happy Tu B'Av (for more information, please click here)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Devarim 5770-2010

"On That Day the Lord Shall Be One and His Name One" --

The book of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as Devarim, opens with the people now standing at the border of Canaan. Having led the people of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years, Moses offers the first of a series of farewell messages. He recounts the many years of wandering, and warns the people against the temptations that await them in Canaan.

In chapter 2 of Deuteronomy, after dwelling on the people's abortive attempt to enter Canaan, Moses recalls the victories that were won in the final years of their wanderings. Noting that rebellion had brought shame and punishment upon the people, Moses underscores that their obedience was crowned by blessing and triumph.

Upon reviewing the travels and the encounters, Moses reiterates G-d's instructions to the people as they approached the borders of the children of Esau who dwell in Seir. Deuteronomy 2:5: "Ahl tit'gah'roo vahm, kee loh eh'tayn lah'chem may'ahr'tsahm, ahd mid'rahch kahf rah'gel, kee y'roo'shah l'Eisav, na'tah'tee eht har Seir," Do not contend with them [the children of Esau] for I will not give you their land, not so much as the sole of the foot to tread on, for I have given Mount Seir to Esau for possession.

Moses notes that even though the Israelites were not permitted to do battle with the children of Esau, they were permitted to purchase bread and water from them. The people, however, moved on in their travels without passing through the land of the children of Esau.

Moses then recalls the people's encounter with the Moabites on the border of Moab, how they crossed through the Brook of Zered, and faced down the Ammonites and the Amorites.

In Deuteronomy 2:19, Moses reminds the people of G-d's warning before their encounter with the Ammonites: "V'kah'rav'tah mool b'nei Ammon, ahl t'tzoo'raym, v'ahl tit'gahr bahm, kee loh eh'tayn may'eretz b'nei Ammon l'chah y'roo'shah, kee liv'nei Lot n'tah'tee'hah ye'roo'shah," And when you come close to the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you the land of the children of Ammon for possession because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession.

Although Moses' review of what happened to the Jewish people as they approached the land of Canaan seems to be pretty straightforward, this narrative is far more than a simple history lesson.

In Deuteronomy 2:5 and 2:19, we see that the people of Israel are specifically instructed not to touch the people of Edom (Esau) and Ammon, or to possess their lands, for those lands were given as inalienable possessions to their inhabitants. Perhaps the reason for allowing these nations to hold onto their lands was due to the special relationship between the people of Israel and the nations of Edom (the descendants of Esau) and Ammon (the offspring of Lot). Since they are related to the Jewish people, Israel is forbidden to make war with them, or to harass them. Even in later times when David fought against the descendants of Esau and they became subservient (Samuel II 8:14), we see that David did not dispossess them from their land. In fact, they later became independent again (Kings II 8:20).]

The rabbis note an interesting exception with regard to the Moabites. After all, they too were descended from Lot and were related to the people of Israel, yet, Israel was permitted to conquer their land. The commentators ascribe this to the fact that Moab hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people in an attempt to defeat them. Consequently, there is no prohibition to make war with Moab or to incite them. This explains why a portion of the land of Moab that was previously overrun by Sichon in his battle, was possessed by Israel. However, even the Moabites were rewarded for their part in sparing Abraham's life when Lot did not reveal that Sarah was really Abraham's wife and not his sister (Genesis 12:10-13:1)

The two verses that were previously cited regarding the prohibition of possessing the lands of Edom and Ammon are by no means a simple recounting of history. In fact, they confirm a fundamental principle that many take for granted. The fact that G-d plays an especially Providential role in the history of Israel is confirmed by the story of the Exodus, and by the wanderings in the wilderness. But does G-d also play a key role in the lives of other nations? Clearly, He does. It is the permanent allotment of the lands of Edom and Ammon to their native inhabitants that confirms the concept that G-d holds sway over all the nations, cares for them all and judges them. He is the one single G-d. He is G-d alone, and there is no power besides Him. Other gods are false, and their adoration futile.

The book of Deuteronomy, often regarded as simply a rehash of Jewish history, is in fact a primary source for the concept of a "universal" G-d. It is here that monotheism is proclaimed in its full glory. Two little seemingly "throw-away" verses in Deuteronomy, 2:5 and 2:19, powerfully proclaim a singular all-embracing G-d of the world, Who cares for Israel as well as all the nations of the world.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of new month of Av, began on Sunday night, July 11 and continues through Monday, July 12. It marks the beginning of the "Nine Days," a period of intense mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av. This Shabbat is called "Shabbat Chazzon"--the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Va'etchanan 5770-2010

"Moses Blames the People for His Fate" --

As this week's parasha, parashat Va'etchanan, opens, Moses pleads with G-d to allow him to enter the land of Israel. In fact, the word "va'etchanan" literally means, “I [Moses] pleaded” with G-d.

At this point, Moses recalls G-d's rejection, as recorded in Deuteronomy 3:26, saying: “Vah’yit’ah’bayehr Hashem bee l’mah’ahn’chem, v’loh shah’mah ay’lai,” But G-d became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me. So angry is G-d with Moses that He insists that Moses stop speaking to Him further about this matter. Instead, G-d instructs Moses to go to the top of the mountain and look with his eyes westward, northward, southward and eastward, because he will not cross the Jordan.

This is not the first time that Moses holds the Jewish people accountable for his fate. In the opening chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the sin of the scouts, as well as G-d’s decree that none of the men of that generation would enter the land of Canaan. Moses says (Deuteronomy 1:37): “Gahm bee hit’ah’nahf Hashem big’lal’chem lay’mor: Gahm ah’tah loh tah’voh shahm,” G-d became angry with me as well, because of you, saying: You too shall not come there [to the land of Canaan].

The fact that Moses blames Israel for causing him to be ineligible to enter the land of Canaan is rather strange. After all, when G-d told Moses to bring forth water from the rock at May M’reeva, we are told, in Numbers 20:1-13, that G-d punished Moses for hitting the rock rather than speaking to it. In Numbers 20:12, G-d specifically says to Moses and Aaron: “Yah’ahn loh heh’eh’mahn’tehm bee, l’hahk’dee’shay’nee l’ay’nay B’nei Yisrael, lah’chayn, loh tah’vee’ooh eht hah’kah’hal hah’zeh ehl ha’ah’retz ah’sher nah’tah’tee lah’hem,” Because you did not believe Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them. Furthermore, Moses’ inability to enter Canaan because of his sin at May M’reeva is reiterated toward the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:51), immediately prior to Moses’ passing. These references clearly contradict placing the blame for Moses’ fate on the people of Israel.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) explains that when G-d proclaimed to the generation of the scouts that they could not enter the land of Israel, He decreed at that time that Moses, as well, would not enter the land. Since the people were no longer worthy of having Moses bring them into the land, Moses himself could not enter.

In a fascinating parenthetical note, the Malbim states that had Moses entered the land, he would have immediately built an everlasting Temple, the Canaanite nations would have all surrendered, and the Messianic period would have been ushered in.

All this, of course was dependent upon the behavior of the people of Israel, their loyalty to G-d, and their acting as a kingdom of priests and a holy people. But after they sinned with the scouts, their fate was sealed, and Moses could no longer bring them to the Promised Land. Instead, there would be a period of enslavement and exile, followed by the eventual destruction of the Temple.

That is why Moses says to the people that G-d was angry at him because of them, and could not enter the land. Nevertheless, explains the Malbim, the decree forbidding Moses to enter the land was not irreversible. The punishment could have been rescinded had it not been for Moses’ own sin of hitting the rock. Had Moses sanctified the name of G-d publicly by speaking to the rock, the faith of the people of Israel would have been restored, resulting in Moses being granted permission to bring the people into the land.

My good friend, Hilly Gross, suggests a rather intriguing alternate explanation. He asks, Why is Moses laying such a heavy “guilt trip” on the people of Israel, blaming them for his fate? After all, Moses had never lost an argument with the Al-mighty, and on several previous occasions had successfully persuaded the Al-mighty to forgive the people. Mr. Gross suggests that Moses blamed the people in the hope that they would now pray for him and ask that the decree against Moses be rescinded. After all, the power of public prayer is far greater than individual prayer. If Moses’ personal prayers could not persuade G-d, perhaps the people’s collective prayers could convince Him to annul the decree against Moses, enabling him to enter the land of Israel.

Unfortunately, at this point in his relationship with the people, Moses, the talented leader, Shepherd of Israel, was unable to persuade them to pray for him. Perhaps the people were too caught up with their own concerns to care about Moses. Perhaps, they felt that now that most of the older generation had already perished in the wilderness, Moses had utterly failed them.

Perhaps the real reason why Moses does not enter the land of Israel was because he had lost the people’s support, and could no longer rally them to his side. A new leader was necessary for a new generation of Jews, who would regain the people’s confidence, lead them to the Promised Land and vanquish their enemies.

Moses, the Egyptian prince, whose charisma was always able to win over his followers, and whose powerful personality was able to bring even the mighty Pharaoh to his knees, no longer possessed that special spirit. He was now ready to pass the scepter of leadership on to the next generation, to Joshua.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, July 19th and continues through Tuesday night, July 20th, 2010. Have a meaningful fast.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Matot-Masei 5770-2010

"Do Not Pollute the Land...Do Not Defile the Land" --

In the second of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, the Torah describes the contours of the Levite cities and deals at length with the special cities of refuge that were set aside for unintentional murderers.

As part of the related discussion regarding the taking of life, the Torah, in Numbers 35:31, warns not to accept ransom for the life of a murderer who is worthy of death or for an unintentional murderer who leaves the city of refuge before the death of the High Priest. In this manner, the Torah stresses the ultimate sanctity of life, underscoring that under no circumstances may murder be condoned or excused. Those who take life are not permitted to buy their freedom, lest the land itself [Canaan] in which G-d dwells, be contaminated.

The Torah then states (Numbers 35:33): “V’loh tah’chah’nee’foo eht hah’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tem bah, kee hah’dahm, hoo yah’chah’neef eht hah’ah’retz,” You should not pollute the land on which you are, for the blood pollutes the land. The verse then dramatically asserts that the land will have no atonement for the blood that was spilled in it, except by the blood of the one who spilled it. The very next verse then warns the people (Numbers 35:34): “V’loh t’tah’may eht hah’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tem yoh’shvim bah, ah’sher Ah’nee sho’chayn b’toh’chah,” And you shall not contaminate the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the L-rd dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) translates the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” as a warning to the people not to “make the land evil,” or as Targum Onkelos (Onkelos, c.35 C.E.-120 C.E., author of the definitive Aramaic translation of the bible) renders it, “You shall not bring the land into ill repute.”

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), quoting the Sifrei, translates the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” based on the root of the Hebrew verb that means to “flatter.” After warning that no ransom may be taken for the life of a murderer, the Torah adds a further admonition that a murderer may not be shown favor or discharged because of his powerful position or the influence of his family.

The commentators explain that the Torah warns not to defile the land, because the Divine presence cannot tolerate a place of impurity. Since the essence of the Divine presence dwells in the midst of the Jewish people, the people would need to be exiled from the defiled land so that the Divine presence could continue to be with them. We learn from this that the exile of the People of Israel is due to the exile of the Divine presence, and not the other way around.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) also explains the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” to mean “flattery,” which he defines as something “that is not as it appears to be”--a righteous person who is evil inside; a land that looks fertile, but yields poor quality fruit. Citing the Al-mighty’s warning, the Malbim explains that this is what the Torah in Deuteronomy 28 predicts will happen if the people fail to heed G-d’s words, “You will bring much seed out of the fields, but you will harvest little (v. 38). You will plant vineyards, and work them, but you will not drink wine (v. 39). You will have olive trees throughout your boundaries, but you will not anoint yourself with oil (v.40). All your trees and the fruit of the land, the locusts will inherit” (v. 42). This, the Malbim asserts, will be the quid pro quo, the punishment, for “flattering” a murderer by declaring him innocent in return for a bribe.

I would like to suggest a possible metaphorical interpretation to these verses. Perhaps, in these declamations, the Al-mighty warns His people to be faithful to the land of Israel and to be honest with themselves regarding the land of Israel. Supporters of Israel must not delude themselves into thinking that all is perfect in Israel and must not overly flatter Israel. Indeed Israel’s faults, shortcomings and blemishes must always be acknowledged. On the other hand, our people must not defile the land by focusing only on its shortcomings and blemishes, and fail to see its overwhelming goodness and merits.

Even in this day and age, when Israel is under unprecedented attack, accused of genocide and of war crimes, when every means of self-defense is denied Israel no matter how cautious and careful the government is, our credibility will be lost if we are not forthcoming regarding the shortcomings of Israel, the land and the people.

Of course, at a time when the whole world is critical of Israel, we have a right to fiercely defend it by focusing more on its unprecedented achievements than on its faults, which only provides further ammunition to our enemies. Deep in our hearts, we need to recognize and know that everyone and everything can always improve, and that striving for perfection will always remain the historic goal of our people and its Torah.

Therefore, let us neither flatter the land nor defile the land, but rather regard it with truth and honesty, to help it achieve perfection. Finally, let us pray that peace prevail in Zion and hope that Israel’s citizens shall soon merit to dwell in tranquility and security.

May you be blessed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pinchas 5770-2010

"The Colorful Biography of Pinchas" --

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

At the end of last week's parasha, we learned that a prominent couple performed a lewd act in public in order to directly challenge Moses' authority. Pinchas, the son of Elazar, arose suddenly from among the congregation and, in his zealotry, plunged his spear through the couple, stopping the plague that had struck the people of Israel.

As this week's parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens, G-d praises Pinchas for turning back His wrath from upon the children of Israel by zealously avenging G-d, so that He did not consume the children of Israel in His vengeance.

The parasha now reveals the names of the wanton couple. Zimri, the son of Salu, was a leader of the house of the tribe of Simeon, and the slain Midianite woman was Cozbi, whose father Zur was one of the leaders of Midian. In Numbers 25:12, G-d declares: "La'chayn eh'mor, hin'neh'nee no'tayn lo et b'ree'tee shalom," Therefore, says G-d to Moses, let it be said that I give Pinchas My covenant of peace, and that he and his offspring after him will be part of the eternal covenant of priesthood, because he exacted vengeance for his G-d, and atoned for the children of Israel.

Pinchas, a descendent of one of the most prominent families in Israel, was the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron, the High Priest. His grandmother was one of the daughters of Putiel (Exodus 6:25), a descendent of Jethro who had married into the family of Joseph. Apparently, Pinchas was an only child, and father of a son named Avishua (Chronicles 1, 6:35).

Although, Pinchas is widely known for his zealous action, during his lifetime he amassed an impressive record of achievement. Psalm 136:30, sings the praises of Pinchas for standing up and "praying" to stop the plague that had struck Israel. When Israel was instructed to avenge the Midianites for their treachery (Numbers 31:6), Moses chose Pinchas to head the forces that defeated the Midianites. In Joshua 22, we are told that Pinchas was sent along with 10 tribal leaders to reason with the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe, after these tribes built a large altar for themselves on the east side of the Jordan. Through his diplomatic negotiations with the prodigal tribes, Pinchas elicited an apology from them, acknowledging that they had no intention of offering sacrifices on the illegal altar, but rather hoped that the altar would serve as an affirmation of their commitment to the tribes of Israel and the unity of the nation. The book of Judges (20:28) also records that it was Pinchas who, in his function as priest, consulted with the Urim and Tumim in the treacherous incident of the concubine of Gibeah.

The Midrash and the Talmud tell us that Pinchas was subject to great ridicule throughout much of his life due to his mother's foreign origins. The Talmud, in Sotah 43a, suggests that the reason that Pinchas led the battle against the Midianites was in order to avenge the sale to Egypt of his great-grandfather, Joseph, by the Midianites.

Despite the fact that Pinchas killed the defiant couple without authority, he is nevertheless regarded as a national hero. Jewish tradition considers his act honorable because it stopped the Jewish men from engaging in wholesale lewdness. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, graphically describes the dramatic confrontation with Moses: Zimri grabbed Cozbi by her hair, stood her in front of Moses and began to scream: "Son of Amram! Is this woman forbidden to me or permitted? If you say she is forbidden, who gave you the permission to marry the daughter of Jethro?"

When Moses did not answer, all the people began to cry. At that moment, Pinchas remembered the law that it is permissible to take the life of someone who performs such a lewd act and acted accordingly.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82b, states that six miracles occurred for Pinchas, enabling him to punish the two sinners. Pinchas then argued with the Al-mighty regarding the justice of punishing so many: "Shall 24,000 [People of Israel] perish because of these [Zimri and Cozbi]?" he cried out. The ministering angels sought to repulse him. G-d, however, insisted that they let him be, referring to Pinchas as "a zealot, a descendant of a zealot, a turner-away of wrath, and the son of a turner-away of wrath." This, apparently, was an illusion to Levi, the first ancestor of his tribe who was zealous for his sister Dina's honor, and to Aaron, Pinchas' grandfather, who turned away G-d's wrath on the occasion of Korach's revolt.

The Talmud, in Sotah 22b, tells us that Pinchas' act eventually became a byword among the people of Israel, especially for the hypocrites who "perform deeds like Zimri, and seek a reward like Pinchas!"

According to Maimonides'(Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) introduction to his Mishnah Torah, it was Pinchas who received the oral tradition from Moses and transmitted it to Eli, the High Priest. The Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 16a, identifies the two spies who were sent to Jericho as Caleb and Pinchas. The fact that Scripture in Joshua 2:4 states, "and she [Rahab] hid him" (singular) was because Pinchas was transformed into an angel who was not seen, and there was no need to hide him.

Furthermore, there are even those who suggest that after his death, Pinchas eventually returned to the world of the living in the form of Elijah the Prophet. Others explain that because Elijah was a disciple of Pinchas in zealotry, he is therefore considered like him.

A further parallel between Pinchas and Elijah is that they both defended G-d's dignity. Pinchas did so when confronting the lewd offenders. Elijah did so when confronting the evil king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, who forbade the circumcision of Jewish children.

The Midrash Bereishith Rabbah 60:3 states that Pinchas lost his power of prophecy, because he failed to release Jephtah from his vow. Both Jephtah and Pinchas felt that it was beneath their dignity to be the first to approach the other to resolve the issue. As a result of their hubris, an innocent woman [Jephtah's daughter] was to suffer unnecessarily.

The Arizal (Isaac Luria,1534-1572, considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah) taught that Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who died for bringing an improper fire, had entered the body of Pinchas when he killed Zimri. The parallel being that all three acted without conferring with their elders. However, in contrast to the two sons of Aaron, Pinchas was not punished because he did the correct thing.

Obviously, we see that Pinchas was much more than simply a "zealot." He was a formidable leader of Israel who left a most impressive legacy of service to his people, who continue to benefit from his bold actions to this very day.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar b'Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, June 29, 2010, 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 Weeks" period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B'Av.Have a meaningful fast. Click here for more information.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Balak 5770-2010

"A Nation that Dwells Alone" --

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balak, the king of Moab, retains the services of the renowned gentile prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people. Due to G-d’s intervention, Bilaam is unable to curse Israel and, to Balak’s great chagrin, Bilaam instead blesses the Jewish people.

Even in his first prophecy, Bilaam acknowledges that he is powerless to curse Israel, declaring in Numbers 23:8: “Mah eh’kov, loh ka’boh Kayl; ooh’mah ehz’ohm, loh zah’ahm Hashem,” How can I curse, if G-d has not cursed? How can I be angry, if G-d is not angry? Bilaam then discloses that he is helpless against Israel. After all, from their very origins, due to their loyalty to their forebears, the people of Israel are as firmly established as the rocks and the hills. Bilaam then famously exclaims, Numbers 23:9: “Hen ahm l’vah’dahd yish’kohn, ooh’vah’goyim loh yit’chah’shav,” Behold, a nation that dwells alone, and is not reckoned among other nations.

There are those who interpret this verse to mean that the Jewish people are never counted among the traditional number of 70 nations. There are 70 nations and the nation of Israel. According to tradition, while each of the 70 nations has its own angelic guide, the Jewish people are under the exclusive dominion of G-d. Therefore, it is inconceivable that any curse can have impact upon them.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that the phrase, “Israel is not reckoned among the nations,” means that, in the final judgment, Israel will not be annihilated along with the other nations. The Netziv (R' Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha’amek Davar, 1817-1893) explains that when the Jewish people do not assimilate with the nations among whom they dwell, they will dwell in peace and with honor. However, if they do mix with the nations, they will lose all respect and dignity.

The prophecy of Bilaam declaring that the Jewish people are a breed apart, has proven to be a very accurate portrayal of the Jewish people throughout its history, for better or for worse. It is as if the world is divided in two factions: the Jewish people and the non-Jewish people. One, a tiny group--the other, the overwhelming numbers of humankind.

Although the Jewish people are overwhelmed quantitatively, they hold their own qualitatively. Certainly, the People of Israel have had much experience in living physically apart, in ghettos, in the Pale of Settlement, excluded from feudal trade unions, and subject to constant anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the Jewish people have also lived spiritually apart, attempting to live as a holy people, offering their submission to G-d and His Torah. Having focused on education, they have successfully taught the world a new social order. They created schools and nurtured students to pursue knowledge as a sacred calling.

Although the doctrine of the chosenness of Israel has come under attack, especially in the last 200-300 years, looking at the agenda of the world, it is hard to argue that the Jewish people are not chosen, for one reason or another, for good or for bad. It seems as if the vast majority of the world’s agenda is focused on Israel. Every day, another crisis seems to arise.

Many Jews feel that the emphasis on Jewish exceptionalism is far too overstated, and wish to assimilate out of its specialness. Even the State of Israel wants to be treated simply as a normal member of the community of nations. But, Bilaam’s doctrine apparently prevails. Israel remains apart from all the countries of the world.

There are those who argue that the concept of a nation that dwells alone is a very dangerous and harmful model. They maintain that it is unwise to inculcate Jewish youth with this paradigm, which implies that Jews are meant always to suffer. On the other hand, the nation that dwells alone is truly special, and that specialness is a great blessing and privilege.

When the nations of the world start judging Israel (the people and the nation), by the standards they expect of all other nations, then we are in trouble. The Jewish people should expect to be held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. We are a nation apart. We are intended to be different. We must be a more moral nation, more committed to good than any other people. If we lose that special status, we lose the magic of being Jewish.

We dare not allow that to happen.

May you be blessed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chukat 5770-2010

"And from Mattanah to Nahaliel"

In this week's parasha, parashat Chukat, after a series of battles and confrontations with hostile nations, the Torah records a lyrical, but esoteric, poem concerning the well of Miriam.

Numbers 21:17 reads: "Ahz yah'sheer Yisrael, et hah'shee'rah ha'zoht: Ah'lee v'ayhr, eh'noo lah." Then Israel sang this song:

"Spring up, O well, sing to it.
The well which the princes dug;
which the nobles of Israel excavated with the scepter, and with their staffs;
and from the wilderness to Mattanah.
And from Mattanah, to Nahaliel;
and from Nahaliel, to Bamoth.
And from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, by the top of peak which looks down upon the wilderness."

According to our commentators, this poem is part of a series of verses describing famous battles that were recorded in "The Book of the Wars of G-d," a volume that some speculate originated with Abraham, and was lost along with other early historical documents.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) claims that the names of cities mentioned here are all places that Israel captured from Sichon, the king of Emor. They are recorded here to confirm Israel's right to possess these lands.

However, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) interprets these verses according to the Midrash, which claims that these places, as well as those mentioned in the preceding verses, are locations where great miracles occurred as Israel traveled through the wilderness.

So, for instance, when Numbers 21:15 states: "And the slope of the valleys that inclines toward the seat of Ar, and leans upon the border of Moab," Rashi cites the Midrash that states that the Emorites hid in the mountains in order to attack Israel after they passed through the valley. But once the people of Israel passed through the valley, the mountains began to tremble and moved closer to the mountains of Moab, crushing the Emorites who were hiding in the hills.

Rashi interprets the word "Mattanah" found in Numbers 21:18: "And from the wilderness to Mattanah," not as the name of a location, but rather that G-d gave the Jewish people the well of Miriam as a gift (mattanah) to supply the people with water during their 40 years in the wilderness.

The Talmud in Nedarim 55a-b, turns the phrase "Oo'me'midbar Mattanah," found in Numbers 21:18, into a lesson of ethics and educational philosophy.

Ravah [the Talmudic sage] was asked, What is meant by the verse "and from the wilderness, Mattanah"–-he replied: When one makes himself as the wilderness, which is free to all [meaning prepared to teach the Torah to all] the Torah is presented to him as a gift ["mattanah"], as it is written: "And from the wilderness, Mattanah." And once he has it as a gift, G-d gives it to him as an inheritance ["nahaliel"], as it is written, Numbers 21:19: "And from Mattanah, Nahaliel." And when G-d gives it to him as an inheritance, he ascends to greatness, as it is written: "And from Nahaliel, Bamot [heights]." But, if he exalts himself, the Holy One blessed be He casts him down, as it is written, Numbers 21:20: "And from Bamoth, to the valley." Moreover, he is made to sink into the earth, as it is written, Numbers 21:20: "Which looks down upon the wilderness." But should he repent, the Holy One blessed be He will raise him again, as it is written (Isaiah 40:4): "Every valley shall be exalted."

From a literary perspective, the Torah simply seems to be stating that the Jewish people traveled from the wilderness to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth. Nevertheless, our rabbis make a point of emphasizing that the Torah, within the process of recording the historical itinerary of the people's travels, is teaching much more than the names of places. Consequently, the great sage, Ravah, declares unequivocally, that Torah, like a wilderness, is not only the legacy of all Jews, but that Torah may not be taught through hubris. In fact, whoever exalts himself, the Holy One blessed be He casts him down. There is no room for arrogance on the part of the teacher, no matter how brilliant a Torah scholar they are. An instructor may not insist that because of his erudition that he can only teach students of superior intelligence. Neither may one turn away a foolish question, if asked sincerely. Sincerity must be the determining factor, not endowed intelligence, which is purely a Divine gift, completely unearned.

Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. Today there are yeshivot, schools established from kindergarten on, that are limited only to the children of clergy or scholars, so that these children will not be "contaminated" by the presence of children in the class whose parents may work for a living. One wonders, from how many yeshivot would Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir have been excluded. The same holds true for schools whose tuitions are so exorbitant that only the children of the most affluent can attend. The Talmud (Nedarim, 81a) warns to be careful with the children of the poor, for from them will Torah come.

The "mattanah," the gift of Torah, will indeed come from those who have traversed the wilderness, who appreciate what deprivation means, whether material or intellectual, and are prepared to share their Torah with all, to all sincere students.

That is the bold message of this seemingly innocuous poem. That is why it is so special, and so sacred.

May you be blessed.

Thoughts on Father's Day from Rabbi Buchwald

Monday, June 7, 2010

Korach 5770-2010

“And Behold the Staff of Aaron had Blossomed” --

The rebellion of Korach, about which we read in this coming week's parasha, parashat Korach, ends in great tragedy for Korach and his cohorts when the earth swallows them up. The 250 men who improperly offered incense also meet an untimely end when they are consumed by a heavenly fire.

Despite this intimidating display of Divine wrath, the very next day, the Children of Israel complain against Moses and Aaron, saying, Numbers 17:6: "Ah'tem hah'mee'tem et ahm Hashem," You have killed the people of G-d! A plague breaks out, killing 14,700 Israelites before Aaron runs into the midst of the plague with an incense filled fire-pan, forestalling further calamity.

At this point, G-d tells Moses that all tribal princes are to take their staffs, inscribe their names on the staff, inscribe the name of Aaron on the staff of Levi, and place the staffs inside the Tent of Meeting before the holy Ark. G-d tells Moses, Numbers 17:20: "V'hah'yah hah'eesh ah'sher ev'char bo–-mah'tay'hoo yif'rach," And it shall be that the man whom I shall choose, his staff shall blossom. This, says G-d, will stop the complaints of the Children of Israel against you and Aaron.

Moses places the twelve staffs in the Tabernacle. The very next day, when the staffs are removed, they discover that the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had blossomed, sprouting a bud with ripened almonds.

The Torah informs us that the staff of Aaron was returned to the Tabernacle for safekeeping, to serve as a sign to prevent future rebellion.

Yehudah Nachshoni (popular Israeli parasha commentator) in his reflections on the weekly Torah portions, notes that the commentators are troubled by the new sign that G-d employs to prove Aaron's leadership. What is the point of the staff that blossoms? After all, there have already been three very definitive proofs confirming the leadership of Moses and Aaron: 1) Korach and his cohorts were swallowed by the earth, 2) those who brought incense were consumed by a heavenly fire, 3) 14,700 men died in the plague. Who else was there left to convince by the blossoming of the staff? What will this sign prove that the previous signs have not? After all this, how can G-d say, Numbers 17:20: That [with the sign of the staffs] I will cause to subside from upon me the complaints of the children of Israel which they complained against you?

The Ohr HaChaim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R' Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743) suggests that even after the death of Korach, the people doubted Aaron's right to the priesthood. Although the people agreed that Korach deserved to die because he rebelled against Moses, his death did not in any way confirm that Aaron was entitled to be the High Priest.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), maintains that the issue was not the priesthood. In fact, the people had been convinced that Aaron was indeed entitled to be High Priest. They were, however, unconvinced that the Levites should serve as ministers in the Temple in place of the first-born. The blossoming staff of Aaron, representing the tribe of Levi, confirmed, once-and-for-all, that the Levites were to be the ministers, in place of the first-born.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer (of Nir Galim, Israel, renowned for his erudite homilies) suggests two lessons that are taught by the blossoming staff. Rabbi Firer maintains that open miracles such as a staff blossoming, in general, do not effectively address an issue such as jealousy. Those who are caught up in jealousy, like Korach and his followers, are so emotionally invested that no miracle and no logic can sway them from their position. The miracle of the staff could, however, address the issues of those who honestly complained about the role of Aaron. Since those who questioned Aaron's leadership did so sincerely, therefore, when the staff blossomed, their questions were addressed and they accepted Aaron's leadership.

Rabbi Firer further points out that the staff, in this instance, does not represent a scepter of authority over others, but serves rather as an example of service to others. The other miracles that the People of Israel witnessed were signs of power and punishment. In general, weak people are not convinced of the righteousness of the powerful because of the strength of the powerful. Indeed, it is often a cause for greater resentment and desire for vengeance. The staff of Aaron, on the other hand, represents pleasantness and conciliation, which effectively persuades those who disagree with Aaron's communal appointments to finally accept it.

It is important to note that, previously, in the time of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:12), the staff of Aaron had swallowed the staffs of his challengers. In this instance, however, Aaron does not wish to rule over the others. That is why the staff simply blossoms amidst the others, and gently convinces the others of its exceptionalness. It is a staff of peace, tranquility, and brotherhood. In this gentle way, the people are convinced of Aaron's suitability far more effectively than by power and punishment.

Rabbi Isaac Judah Trunk (d. 1939, Chief Rabbi of Kutno, Poland, author of Mikreh M'furash, a lively commentary on the Torah) points out that there are some candidates for leadership who, on the surface, seem to be appropriate and well qualified. But, as soon as they assume the reins of leadership, they rapidly lose their talents and their pleasantness. There are others, who, once they enter into the office of leadership, seem to blossom, and their talents, goodness and kindness grow. This is the symbolism that the blossoming staff is intended to convey. In order to lead the Al-mighty's flock, Aaron and the future leaders of Israel must always grow in stature, talent and kindness, striving to become more perfect and effective leaders.

May you be blessed.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Shelach 5770-2010

"Was the Sin of the Scouts Greater than the Sin of the Golden Calf?"

In last week's parasha, parashat B'ha'alot'cha, we learned of the murmurers who complained about the arduous trip from Egypt to Canaan. We were also told of the complainers who were dissatisfied with the manna and lusted for meat. It seems that wherever we turn, the ungrateful people of Israel are ready to rebel.

But perhaps the greatest of all the perfidious acts of the people of Israel is the sin of the Golden Calf. According to tradition it takes place on the 17th day of Tammuz, approximately three months to the day of the exodus from Egypt. The Torah was revealed at Sinai on the 6th of Sivan, where G-d Himself spoke to the people. Moses ascended the mountain for 40 days, and with their leader away, the people become impatient. When, according to the people's calculation, Moses was late in returning, they are convinced that he had died and feel compelled to find a substitute leader–-a Golden Calf.

Could there be a greater affront to the Al-mighty than for the people to joyously worship the Golden Calf, especially in light of the many miracles that G-d had performed for them when He took them out of Egypt? How could a people be so ungrateful and so callous? Nevertheless, when Moses pleads for the people with all his might, G-d forgives them!

And yet, in this week's parasha, parashat Shelach, when Moses sends out 12 leaders to scout out the land of Canaan, and 10 scouts return with an evil report, G-d does not forgive the people.

In Numbers 14:11, in response to the treachery of the scouts, G-d says to Moses: "Ahd ah'nah y'nah'ah'tzoo'nee hah'ahm hah'zeh, v'ahd ah'nah lo yah'ah'mee'noo vee, b'chol hah'oh'toht ah'sher ah'see'tee b'kir'boh?" How long will this people provoke Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?

G-d wishes to smite the people and annihilate them and make a greater, more powerful nation of Moses. Moses begs the Al-mighty, once again, to forgive the people, but the best he can do this time, is to forestall an immediate wholesale slaughter of the sinful people.

In Numbers 14:20, G-d declares to Moses: I have forgiven them as you have requested. But, He says, Numbers 14:21: "V'ooh'lahm, chai Ah'nee, v'yee'mah'lay ch'vohd Hashem et kol ha'ah'retz," as I live, and the glory of G-d shall fill the entire world, that all the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and that have tested Me these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they will not see the land. Except for Joshua and Caleb, all men who are of adult age will die in the wilderness as they wander for 40 years, waiting to enter the land of Canaan.

How is it possible that G-d forgives the people for the sin of the Golden Calf, but not when the scouts return with an evil report about the land of Canaan?

It could be that the report of the scouts is the "straw that breaks the camel's back." After all, G-d wants to destroy the people after the sin of the Golden Calf, but Moses successfully petitions for mercy on their behalf. Now that they sin again, G-d cannot be persuaded.

The great Biblical writer and political theoretician, Dr. Yisrael Eldad (1910-1996, noted Israeli freedom fighter and Revisionist Zionist philosopher), in his penetrating volume on the weekly Torah portions, Hegyonot Mikrah, suggests that the reason for the different outcomes is as follows: When Abraham was told to leave his land and the land of his fathers, and to go to a land that G-d will show him–-G-d did not even identify the land to which Abraham would be sent. Yet, Abraham went as a man of pure faith, as an idealist. He went because he believed that in this new land, wherever it was to be, a new reality awaited him, one that represented great hope and opportunity.

When the people of Israel left Egypt and were directed to go to the land of Canaan, they, in contrast to Abraham, did not go as idealists, but as former slaves, as refugees. They went as people who had been expelled from the only land they had ever known, that had been their home for hundreds of years. This was not a trip of fervent pioneers looking for a new land, it was an escape.

For the generation of slaves that had been expelled from Egypt, to stand at Mount Sinai and hear G-d speak was indeed a revelation. It made a deep impact on them and they were grateful to their G-d, their Redeemer. But when Moses disappeared for 40 days, there was no one to lead. Without Moses, there was no G-d. Worshiping the Golden Calf was simply a misapplication of their longing for G-d. This is confirmed by the people's shouts when they beheld the Golden Calf, Exodus 32:4: "This is your G-d, oh Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!" This clearly indicates that the people were looking for a spiritual leader, for the One who had redeemed them from Egypt, and they acknowledge with gratitude what He had done for them.

On the other hand, the scouts brazenly announce, Numbers 14:4: "Nit'nah rosh, v'nah'shoo'vah Mitzraima," Let us appoint for ourselves a new leader and go back to Egypt!

In the very first statement of the Ten Commandments, G-d identifies Himself as the G-d who took the people out of Egypt. Yet, the scouts declare that they wish to return to Egypt, to slavery. They deny the very essence of Sinai. The sin of "let us go back to Egypt" is greater than the sin of the Golden Calf. Consequently, their punishment is much harsher.

The Al-mighty was able to forgive the people for the impetuous sin of building a Golden Calf. After all, they remained loyal to G-d, they just could not get along without a leader. But, G-d could not forgive the people who had themselves been redeemed, and then announced that they wish to return to Egypt, clearly denying that the L-rd was the one who took them out of bondage.

With the people no longer physically or spiritually loyal, they were destined to wander for 40 years, until a new generation, a faithful generation, would arise, who would be allowed to enter the Promised Land, to hopefully become a kingdom of priests and a holy people.

A theological error may be forgiven, but a lack of faith and loyalty can not. How tragic!

May you be blessed.

Monday, May 24, 2010

B'ha'alot'cha 5770-2010

"The Murmurers"

This coming week's parasha, parashat B'ha'alot'cha, is a complex and fascinating parasha. The first three chapters of the parasha contain many themes including the lighting of the Menorah, the consecration of the Levites, the celebration of Passover in the wilderness, the role of the fiery cloud upon the Tabernacle, the trumpets of silver, the people's departure from Sinai, the encounter with Jethro, the experiences of the people on the first journey, and Moses' prayers when the Ark began to move and when the Ark came to rest.

The trouble starts in chapter 11 of Numbers. This chapter, and the following three chapters, deal with a series of rebellions that begin soon after the people's departure from Sinai. These rebellions ultimately result in the people being prohibited from entering the Promised Land.

As chapter 11 of Numbers opens, we encounter the "Mit'oh'n'nim." Numbers 11:1 reads: "Vah'y'hee ha'ahm k'mit'oh'n'nim rah b'ahz'nay Hashem; vah'yish'mah Hashem, vah'yee'char ah'poh; vah'tiv'ahr bahm aish Hashem, va'toh'chahl bik'tzay ha'mah'chah'neh." And the people began to murmur, speaking evil in the ears of the L-rd. And when the L-rd heard, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the L-rd burned among them, and it consumed at the edge of the camp. As the fire continued to wreak destruction, the people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to G-d, and the fire subsided. Moses called the place "Taverah," to commemorate the fire of G-d that had burned against the people.

Our commentators have difficulty identifying who the Mit'oh'n'nim–-the murmurers, were, or if there were murmurers at all. Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) explains that when the people left the Sinai region, which was near inhabited land, and penetrated deeper into the great wilderness, they became restless and began to complain, because the wilderness appeared to them as a death trap.

Ibn Ezra (R' Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) connects the word "Mit'oh'n'nim" with the Hebrew word "ah'ven," meaning sin or wickedness. He, therefore, says that their sin was uttering evil words.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that the Torah's use of the word "ha'ahm" to describe the people, indicates that the people were wicked. He further explains the word "mit'oh'n'nim" to mean that these were people who were looking for a pretext to rebel. The people intentionally wanted G-d to hear their complaints, so that He would become angry. Citing the Midrash Sifrei, Rashi states that the people cried out, "Woe is to us! How much have we struggled on this journey! It has been three days that we have not had respite from the suffering of the way."

The commentaries on Rashi indicate that, at least on the surface, the Israelites had a perfectly justified complaint. After all, the people had been traveling for several days without rest. G-d was angry at the people, because a faithful nation would not have complained. The Israelites should have realized that the difficult three day journey was intended to hasten their arrival in the Promised Land, which, of course, would be to their benefit. But the people of little faith failed to realize that.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) offers a novel interpretation of the word "mit'oh'n'nim," asserting that it comes from the root of the Hebrew word "oh'nayn"–-mourning. Says Rabbi Hirsch, "The people were as if mourning over themselves."

Rabbi Hirsch explains that instead of perceiving the cloud of G-d that hovered over the nation and the holy Ark as miracles, the murmurers felt cut off from the rest of the world. They perceived themselves as being already dead, and mourned over themselves, unable to appreciate their closeness to G-d. Instead of feeling elated by G-d's constant presence, they felt distanced and worthless.

That is why the verse states that they were evil in G-d's "ears," rather than in G-d's "eyes." They specifically knew that their complaining would anger G-d, and that was exactly their intention. The whole point of fire burning "bik'tzay ha'mah'chah'neh,"–-at the far end of the camp, rather than in the midst of the camp, was to serve as a wake-up call for the remaining people, allowing them to appreciate and value their lives.

As previously noted, this first group of murmurers, the naysaying "nabobs of negativism," opened a Pandora's box for future rebellions. Due to the brazenness of the "mit'oh'n''nim," rebellion against G-d and rejection of Him was now to become a pattern of the people.

The syndrome that Rabbi Hirsch describes, of people mourning their own lives, is hardly an ancient manifestation. It is very much part of today's reality. Many are aware of the intense debate that took place on the campus of Brandeis University, regarding the appropriateness of inviting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to speak at the Brandeis commencement exercises this year.

Given the broad condemnation of Israel for improper conduct in Gaza, a significant and vocal group of Jewish students on campus demanded that the president of Brandeis rescind the invitation to Oren. (The graduation took place this past Sunday, 5/23/10, with the Ambassador as the speaker. Click here for the article from the Boston Globe,)

Among those commenting on the controversy was one of the bright, young stars and polemicists on the Israeli scene, Dr. Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Institute. In an article for the Jerusalem Post entitled, "If this is our future...," he writes,

For many young American Jews, the only association they have with Israel is the conflict of the Palestinians. Israel is the country that oppresses Palestinians, and nothing more. No longer is Israel the country that managed to forge a future for the Jewish people when it was left in tatters after the Holocaust. Israel is not, in their minds, the country that gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from North Africa when they had nowhere else to go, granting them all citizenship, in a policy dramatically different from the cynical decisions of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to turn their Palestinian refugees into pawns in what they (correctly) assumed would be a lengthy battle with Israel. Israel is not proof that one can create an impressively functioning democracy even when an enormous portion of its citizens hail from countries in which they had no experience with democratic institutions. Israel is not the country in which, despite all its imperfections, Beduin women train to become physicians, and Arab citizens are routinely awarded PhDs from the country's top universities...For many young American Jews, it is only the country of roadblocks and genocide, of a relentless war waged against the Palestinians for no apparent reason.

How strikingly similar are these two episodes. Both the Mit'oh'n''nim and the Jewish university students are people who appear to be distanced from G-d, or who have little or no connection with G-d and limited Jewish education. For them, everything is bleak, whether it is the clouds of the Al-mighty that hover over the Tabernacle, or a nation with its back against the wall in pitched battle against hundreds of millions of Muslims who wish to destroy the Jewish state. There is little optimism, there is little hope. They wish to yield to the enemy's perfidious demands in the hope that peace will finally be achieved.

It is this pessimistic outlook that leads to greater depression, a pessimism that blocks all avenues of hope for the people and renders them paralyzed, helpless, and forsaken.

The ancient Mit'oh'n''nim, who had triumphantly marched out of Egypt with their brothers and crossed through the split waters of the Red Sea, lost all hope. Similarly, Jews, who not long ago rejoiced over the swamps that had been cleared and the deserts that now bloom, who swelled with pride over the constant flow of revolutionary technological and medical developments that flow daily from the Promised Land, see only darkness today.

As the Psalmist says, a Jew must declare (Psalms 118:17): "Lo ah'moot kee ech'yeh,"–-I shall not die, but I shall live, and relate the praises of the L-rd. It takes faith and leadership.

The murmurers were people of little faith whose lack of confidence led only to greater tragedy. The rebelliousness ended only when Joshua and Caleb stood up and declared (Numbers 14:6-9), "We can prevail."

Let us hope and pray that there shall be found among our young people, some would-be Joshuas and Calebs, who will inspire our young people to, once again, shout for joy in their pride for the accomplishments of the Jewish state.

May peace prevail in the Holy Land. Amen.

May you be blessed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Shavuot 5770-2010

"The Gift that Keeps on Giving" --

Because of the holiday, the theme of this Torah message concerns the festival of Shavuot, rather than the weekly Torah portion, parashat Naso. For an analysis of Naso, please see our previous messages by clicking here.

As we have noted in the past, the Torah does not formally acknowledge the date of the festival of Shavuot. In parashat Emor, Leviticus 23, where the Torah lists all the holidays, Shavuot is not designated as a separate holiday but rather identified as the culmination of the counting of the Omer, the 49 days that are counted from the 2nd day of Passover until the day before Shavuot.

Leviticus 23:17 and the verses that follow, record the ritual of the two loaves of pure flour that are brought as a gift to G-d on Shavuot and of the animal sacrifices that are offered on that day. Leviticus 23:21 tells us that this day is to be a holy convocation, on which no work is permitted. No mention, however, is made about the giving of the Torah or what the day is intended to commemorate.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) suggests that the Torah calls the holiday “Shavuot,” which literally means weeks, because it is a culmination of counting seven weeks. Consequently, there is no reference to the giving of the Torah or the Ten Commandments.

We have suggested in our previous studies (Shavuot 5760-2000) that the reason that Shavuot is an “anonymous holiday” is because the giving of the Torah cannot be relegated to a single day. It is the holiday that keeps on giving. In effect, every single day of the year is a day for celebrating the giving of the Torah.

The Bible states in Exodus 19:1: “Ba’cho’desh ha’shlee’shee, l’tzayt B’nai Yisrael may’eretz Mitzrayim, bah’yom ha’zeh, bah’ooh midbar See’nai.” In the third month after the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai. Citing the old Midrash Tanchuma 7:13 and the Talmud, Berachot 63b, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) asserts that the Torah should not have written “on this day,” but “on that day” because the Torah is relating to an event that had already occurred. What then is meant by “on this day”? Rashi suggests that “on this day” is written so that the words of Torah should be regarded by every Jew as new, as if they were given today!

The Me’or Ay’na’yim (a major Chassidic commentary on the weekly Torah portions and the holidays by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, 1730-1797) asks: How is it possible that the words of Torah should be new and fresh in one’s eyes? After all, the Torah was given so long ago. How could these words possibly be fresh as on the day they were given? He suggests that every Jew is expected to be as enthusiastic as the ancient Israelites were at the time of the Torah’s giving, and declare daily, Exodus 24:7: “Nah’ah’seh v’nish’mah,”–-We will do, and we will understand! This is the essence of the Torah! This is what is meant in Deuteronomy 4:4: “But you who cling to the L-rd your G-d–-you are all alive today.” Clinging to the Al-mighty daily through His Torah is the core of Jewish life.

The Me’or Ay’na’yim further states that the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572, of Safed, considered the father of contemporary Jewish mysticism) stated that every single Jewish holiday, whether Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot, is, in effect, reenacted each year as part of the holiday ritual. On Passover, we, like the ancient Hebrews, re-experience the exodus from Egypt. On Sukkot we, like the Israelites of old, dwell in booths, and so it is with all holidays. But how do we reenact receiving the Torah on Shavuot? After all, it was already given. This, therefore, is what the rabbis mean when they say that the words of Torah should be new to the Jewish people as if it were given today. And this is what we must accept upon ourselves, not only on every Shavuot, but every single day.

It is interesting to note that there are two divergent records of Rashi’s statement. One version states that the words of Torah should be “cha’da’shim,” new, to you, as if they were given today. Another version asserts that they should be “chah’vee’vin,” beloved, upon you, as if they were given today. Although both versions sound quite similar, the differences are not insignificant. “New,” of course, implies an aura of excitement, of discovery. We have no idea what is in the gift box that we have received. It may be something that we greatly desire or something that we could easily live without. “Chah’vee’vin,” however, implies that we have already opened the package, or that we know that gifts that we receive from a particular trusted friend are always thoughtful and deeply appreciated.

Of course, there is an upside and a downside to both. On the one hand, the fact that it is “new” means that there is an element of freshness, newness and excitement. But, we may not like the gift. Similarly, even receiving a gift from a trusted source may not be sufficiently appreciated if the giver has already showered so many gifts upon us that we take them for granted.

The great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (contemporary Israeli rabbi, b. 1937, known for his popular commentaries and translations of the Talmud and his prolific religious writings) once visited the Beginners Service that I conduct at Lincoln Square Synagogue, and addressed a few words to the participants. Rabbi Steinsaltz concluded his brief remarks with a most appropriate and meaningful blessing. The rabbi said to them, “I hope that you always remain “Beginners,” that you never become jaded, and that you always seek to explore more, and learn more, and find out more about our beautiful heritage.”

A similar message is implied by the name of the holiday Shavuot, when it is referred to as “Z’man Matan Torah’tay’nu,” the time of the giving of our Torah. The expression, “giving of our Torah” is not in the past tense, but rather the present. In fact, it is the continuous present tense. This unusual holiday appellation comes to teach that it is important to look upon the festival of Shavuot as if the clouds on Mount Sinai gather for us today and the Divine Presence is actually with us, dwelling alongside of us. We must perceive that at this very moment, the Al-mighty embraces us and speaks to us directly.

There are no people on earth who are more devoted to learning than the Jewish people. That is why Shavuot is one of the most exciting and meaningful times in a Jew’s life.

How fortunate are we, Israel, to have received the gift of Torah from the Al-mighty. Let us go and embrace it, as if we are receiving it for the very first time.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Shavuot is observed this year on Tuesday evening, May 18, and continues through Thursday night, May 20, 2010. “Chag Shavuot Samayach.” Have a happy and festive Shavuot.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bamidbar 5770-2010

"The Meaning of the Wilderness" --

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, opens with the following words: Numbers 1:1: “Vah’y’dah’bayr Hashem el Moshe b’midbar See’nai...lay’mohr,” And G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai...saying....

The book of Bamidbar records how the Israelites were organized in tribal camps and began their 40 year trek in the wilderness. We also learn of the battles and the many miracles that occurred to the people during those years, the spies who returned from Canaan with an evil report, causing the generation that left Egypt never to enter the land of Israel, and of the civil uprising led by Korach that almost tore the nation asunder. We are also informed of the attempts of Bilaam and Balak to curse the Jewish people in order to defeat them. Many additional laws are introduced in this book, as well.

It is interesting to note that the anglicized names, derived from the original Greek, that were given to the Five Books of Moses generally reflect the essential themes of each book. Genesis–-the story of creation, Exodus–-the enslavement in Egypt and the liberation, Leviticus–-the laws of the Priests and Levites, Numbers–-counting the people, and Deuteronomy–-a recapitulation of previous themes and laws found in the earlier books.

The Hebrew names of the five books are selected from the primary Hebrew word that appears in the first verse of each book. Hence, Bereishit–-“In the Beginning,” Shemot–-“the names,” Vayikra–-“And He called,” Bamidbar–-“in the wilderness,” Devarim–-“the words.”

Since the anglicized names of the books were chosen to specifically describe the contents of the book, they invariably reflect the contents of the books more closely than the Hebrew names. And, yet, the messages contained in the Hebrew names must not be dismissed. To the contrary, each one of the Hebrew names reflects an important message about the theme of the specific book.

The name of the fourth book, Bamidbar–-“in the Wilderness,” is no exception, and teaches us much about G-d’s message to His people, Israel. The Midrash Rabbah (1:7) raises the following question and provides an interesting answer: Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Because the Torah is compared to the desert that is open and accessible to all humankind, as it is said (Isaiah 55:1): Let everyone who is thirsty, come for water [Torah].

Again the Midrash asks and responds (Midrash Rabbah 19:26): Why was the Torah not given in the Promised Land? So that no one tribe would have a preferred claim. Moreover, just as the Torah came from a land neither sown nor tilled, so too, should Torah scholars live without sowing or tilling, that is, they should be relieved of the yoke of earning a living.

The Midrash presents a further question and answer (Midrash Rabbah 19:26): Who preserves the Torah? He who makes himself like the desert–-set apart from the world.

We see that each of these three midrashic selections focus upon different features of the midbar--wilderness, and relate them all to the study of Torah. Torah must be open and accessible to all. Torah scholars should be relieved of the yoke of earning a living. In order to be able to concentrate fully on Torah study, Torah scholars should be separated from the mundane world.

It was not by accident that the young nation of Israel spent its formative years wandering in the wilderness. Indeed, the midbar–-the wilderness and the wilderness experience impacted profoundly on the Jews of that generation, and the many lessons it taught have continued to impact on Jews throughout the ages. The fact that G-d communicates with Israel so frequently in the wilderness underscores the omnipresence of G-d. How ironic it is that in the barren wilderness, a place seemingly bereft of both man and G-d, the Divine spirit is ever-present. It is here, in this dismal and lonely environment, that G-d regularly communicates with His people and performs miracles for them on a daily basis. How often do we hear it said, especially in the face of seeming abandonment and aloneness, “G-d does not listen to me!” And yet, the wilderness experience teaches that G-d’s presence is always there. Not only there, but extremely accessible.

Many often invoke the excuse of the “wilderness,” claiming that in unfavorable and challenging conditions and situations, it is difficult to hear G-d. And, yet, it is precisely in these circumstances that G-d draws close to His people, Israel.

It was, after all, in the desert, with its overwhelming bleakness, that the Torah, our proudest possession, was given to the Jewish people. It is the Torah that fashioned the character of the Jewish people, making it possible for the Jewish people to carry its message to all humanity. Yes, it was the voice of G-d that spoke to us in the wilderness, and it is His message that we are expected to broadcast to the entire world.

Finally, the fact that the events recorded in this book take place in the midbar, in the wilderness, reminds us that there are no conditions and no circumstances, no matter how hard or how challenging, in which the Jewish people cannot hear the voice of G-d–-if they are only determined to hear it!

May you be blessed.

Please note:

This year Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed this Tuesday evening, May 11th through Wednesday night, May 12th. This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of the city.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Behar-Bechukotai 5770-2010

"Making a Reckoning" --

In parashat Behar, the first of this week’s double parashiot-– Behar-Bechukotai, the Torah teaches a remarkable law intended to protect the rights of non-Jews who live among Jews.

In Leviticus 25, we find a series of laws that apply to a resident-alien. The resident-alien, a non-Jew who resides in Israel, is known in rabbinic literature as a “Ger To’shav.” The Torah, in Leviticus 25:35, states: “Ger v’to’shav, v’chai ee’mahch”, a proselyte or a resident–-so that he can live with you. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that whether a non-Jew fully converts to Judaism or is of the status of a Ger To’shav, it is necessary to treat non-Jews properly.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), defines the “Ger To’shav,” as someone who has accepted upon himself to abide by the seven Noahide principles. Given the special status of the Ger To’shav, the resident-alien must abide by some Torah laws even though he is not Jewish. Consequently, Jews may give the non-kosher food that they may not eat to resident-aliens who live within their gates (Deuteronomy 14:21), but the Ger To’shav is forbidden to eat blood (Leviticus 17:13).

With regard to Shabbat observance, Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) teaches in Hilchot Shabbat 20:14, that a resident-alien is permitted to work for himself on Shabbat, even publicly. However, if his services are retained by a Jew, he may not work on Shabbat. Remarkably, a Ger To’shav has many of the rights and privileges of a full citizen of Israel.

In Leviticus 25:47, we learn of the fascinating case of a Jewish citizen who has become so impoverished that he must sell himself to a Ger To’shav as a worker/slave. The Torah insists that the Jew’s family redeem him. If his immediate family fails to do so, then his uncles or his cousins must redeem their impoverished family member.

In Leviticus 25:50, the Torah explains the rules governing redemption of the indentured Jew. Given the fact that the transaction takes place in the land of Israel where the laws of the Jubilee and the Sabbatical cycles obtain, the maximum period for which a person may be sold is 50 years. The same applies to real estate transactions--land could only be transferred for a maximum of 50 years. The amount of compensation depends upon in which year of the Jubilee the person or land was sold. If there are many years left until the Jubilee, then the compensation must be greater. If there are fewer years, then a lesser amount is paid. In Leviticus 25:50, we read, “V’chee’shav im ko’nay’hoo, mish’naht hee’mach’ro lo, ahd sh’naht ha’yo’vayl,” He shall calculate with his purchaser from the year that he was sold to him until the Jubilee year.

The commentary of the Artscroll Chumash on this verse offers a cogent summary of the treatment due non-Jews:

“He shall make a reckoning with his purchaser.” From this requirement, that the owner must be paid fair value, the sages prove that it is forbidden to steal from a non-Jew (Bava Kamma 113b). The Tosefta teaches that it is worse to steal from a non-Jew than from a Jew, because if the Jew is victimized by his fellow, he will not condemn all Jews or lose his faith in G-d. [He will say that the individual who cheated him is dishonest, but not that he is a reflection on the Torah or its Giver.] But if a Jew cheats a non-Jew, the victim will rail against the Torah and G-d. Such dishonesty will result in the cardinal sin of desecration of the Name [see Leviticus 22:32]. For this reason, Jacob instructed his sons to return the money that he found in their sacks when they returned from Egypt (Genesis 43:12); he wanted to sanctify G-d’s name by demonstrating the integrity of his people (R’ Bachya).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry), explains that even if the poor Jew has sold himself, not just to a Ger To’shav, but to a non-Jewish idolater, or even if the impoverished Jew sold himself directly to the service of the idol or to serve as a temple slave, to chop wood or draw water for the idolatrous temple, his family has an obligation to redeem him. Since redeeming the enslaved Jew may be regarded as a matter of saving a Jewish life and the non-Jewish master is an avowed idolater living in the Jewish land, one might think that we need not be particularly scrupulous with regard to compensating the non-Jew. Nevertheless, the Torah declares it incumbent upon Jews to behave in the most truthful and upright manner by paying the full, fair price to the non-Jew, and dealing properly with them, even to the last penny.

It is rather amazing, you must admit, that in the xenophobic environment of biblical times, the Torah expresses its concern for non-Jews and their property in such a dramatic manner.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

This year Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed on Tuesday evening, May 11th through Wednesday night, May 12th. This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of the city.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Emor 5770-2010

"Striving For Perfection"

Much of parashat Emor speaks of holiness, faultlessness, striving for perfection and the proper observance of the holy days. In fact, the entire introductory portion of the parasha deals with the purity of the priesthood and the holiness of the sacrifices. Consequently, all gifts that are brought to G-d are expected to be faultless and specifically set apart for sacred purposes. Whether the gift is to be a religious gift or a gift of charity, the donor must seek to ensure its perfection.

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that we read in Leviticus 22:21, "V'eesh kee yahk'reev zeh'vahch sh'lah'meem la'Hashem," Anyone who brings a sacrifice of peace-offerings to G-d in fulfillment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a free-will offering of the herd or of the flock, "Ta'meem yee'yeh l'rah'tzohn, kol moom lo yee'yeh bo," It must be perfect to be accepted, there shall be no blemish upon it.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) points out that even those sacrifices that are of a lesser degree of holiness there must not be blemished.

The fact that sacrifices must be of the most select stock was taught cogently in Genesis 4:4, where the Torah relates that both Cain and Abel brought offerings to G-d. In acknowledgment of the bountiful crop, Cain brought "of the fruit of the ground," while Abel brought "the firstlings of his flock and their choicest." The Al-mighty accepted Abel and his offering, but not the offering of Cain. From this, our rabbis deduced that Cain's offering was of the inferior portions of the crop, while Abel chose only the finest of his flock. Hence, the well-known rabbinic aphorism (Berachot 5b), stating that it makes no difference whether one gives more or less, as long as it is done with full devotion of the heart.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), in his Yad Ha'chazaka, Mishne Torah, Issurei Mizbe'ah, (Laws of things that are Prohibited for the Altar) 7:11, writes as follows:

The same principle applies to everything done for the sake of G-d: It must be of the finest and best. If one builds a house of prayer it should be finer than his private dwelling. If he feeds the hungry, he should give them the best and sweetest of his table. If he clothes the naked, he should give him the finest of his garments.

In their book, Maimonides and His Heritage, the authors, Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, Lenn Evan Goodman and James Allen Grady point to a fascinating contrast of the Jewish attitude regarding munificence, with those of Aristotle (384–322 BCE). They note that according to the ancient Greek philosophers one must seek out the best when it comes to public buildings, temples, and the like, but not when it comes to charity. Apparently, the ancients were of the opinion that the valuing of charitable acts by others is based on the erroneous assumption on the part of the "free-riders." The poor obviously believed that there will always be generous persons who will want to help them, who will have the means to do so, and the will to provide for their care. In fact, the ancient philosophers felt that such behavior is destructive of both the means of those who had the ability to give and their will to support them.

One disconcerting outcome of the attitudes fostered by the burgeoning "service economy" that has gained traction in the United States recently, is the notion that if one wants something done properly it is always advisable to call an expert. Many have forsaken all aspiration of becoming proficient in so many important areas of their lives. Instead, they rely more and more on others to do those tasks, since money has been relatively abundant and such efforts are often energy depleting. So while many Americans increasingly search for the path of least resistance and least effort, they have, at the same time, become much less skilled people.

It's not only that many of us no longer know how to iron, sew or polish silver properly, we have even lost such fundamental skills as cutting our own nails and our hair, and even cleaning our face and skin. All of these roles have been farmed out to professionals. Often, when confronted with basic medical and emotional issues, we feel compelled to run straight to the doctor, at the slightest sign of a sniffle.

This lesson was driven home to me recently as I witness the increasing takeover of the "shiva home" by professionals who deliver luxurious shiva seats, extra folding chairs for visitors, prayer books, even water coolers, which of course make the shiva experience much more pleasant and easier to manage. But, we must ask ourselves, at what cost? Does it mean that our Chevra Kadisha, burial society members composed of community volunteers, have been relieved of the "burden" of caring for the mourners? Isn't there great satisfaction, not to mention a great mitzvah, that one gets when caring for mourners? But now the professionals have moved in, obviating the need for the community to be there for those in mourning.

It seems as if the citizens of our country are rapidly becoming a nation of would-be deadbeats. They are losing the passion and the will to seek perfection, to be wholehearted, and ultimately to be compassionate. How often do we now rationalize by saying that professionals can do it better, so why not let them take care of things? Is it perhaps a smokescreen, because we have become too lazy or no longer care?

Striving for perfection should not become a lost art, not only in our relationship with G-d, but also in our relationships with other human beings. The Bible reminds us that we should do things wholeheartedly, so that it may find favor in G-d's eyes and in human eyes.

If we follow that advice, how can we go wrong?

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Lag Ba'Omer (literally the 33 rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start Saturday night, May 1, and continue all day Sunday, May 2, 2010. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before Shavuot. The 33 rd day is considered a festival because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770-2010

"Loving Thy Neighbor" --

In parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot -- Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we read the famous, indeed, revolutionary verse from Leviticus 19:18: “V’ah’havta l’ray’ah’cha kah’mocha, ah’nee Hashem,” You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.

This statement is universally regarded as one of the greatest pronouncements of human morality. In fact, Rabbi Akiva (Talmudic sage, 50-135 CE), is cited in the Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4, as saying that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is one of the greatest principles, if not the greatest, in the entire Torah.

It is fascinating to note that the earlier Talmudic sage, Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE), also regarded this verse as a fundamental principle. However, when he was asked by a potential proselyte to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he chose to restructure the statement in the negative. In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat 31a, Hillel told the candidate for conversion, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor--that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go study.”

Apparently, Rabbi Akiva agreed with Hillel’s sentiment, which is based on the assumption that it is virtually impossible for anyone to love another person as much as one loves oneself, and certainly not more than one loves oneself. Furthermore, Rabbi Akiva in Baba Metziah 62a, determines, in the case of two people who are in the desert with a single flask of water, that if there is only enough water for a single person to survive, the owner of the flask may drink the water. He does not have to share the water with his traveling companion, because who is to say that the companion’s life is more valuable than his own.

Many regard this verse as the basic pillar upon which the entire Torah is based. It is from this verse of loving one’s neighbor that Jewish law derives the performance of good deeds, such as visiting the sick, arranging for the burial of the dead, comforting the bereaved, providing dowries for poor brides and protecting the possessions of others as if they were their own.

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator)learns from this verse that there should be no difference between what a person wishes for himself and the benefit that he wishes for his fellow human being. After all, every human being was created by G-d. Maimonidies (the Rambam, 1135-1204, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) posits that this is the reason that a person who assumes the responsibility of protecting the possessions of others is to think and feel as if he is guarding his own property.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) and the Hizzekuni (Hezkiah ben Manoah, French exegete of the 13th century) suggest that the best way to observe this commandment is to put oneself in the next person’s position. When thinking of a friend who is ill, one must say, “If I were ill myself, what would be the greatest blessing I could seek from G-d?”, and then must pray for the ill person to receive that exact blessing.

The Ba’al HaTurim (c.1275-1340, Jacob ben Asher, Germany and Spain, famed halakhist and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah) suggests that this verse teaches that one must always be sensitive to the feelings of others. For example, he states that when one is intimate with one’s wife, one should not think of another woman. One of my teachers in high school advised his “hormone-challenged” teenage male students to treat their girlfriends as they would like others to treat their sisters. (Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’m not sure that this advice would work very well today!)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Kopitchinitz (1888-1967, prominent Hassidic rabbi in Europe and New York) concluded that loving one’s neighbor is not intended to apply to saintly and righteous people, since it is almost impossible not to love them. To the contrary, this verse bids all to especially love those people whom it is hard to love. The Alter of Slabodka (Nosson Zvi Finkel, 1849-1927, famed Rosh Yeshiva in Europe and Israel and one of the leaders of the Mussar movement) used to say that the commandment to love others as oneself implies that just as a person loves himself instinctively, without the need to justify that love, one should love others as well without looking for reasons, but simply because they are fellow human beings.

There is an age-old debate regarding the so-called “parochial” nature of the Hebrew bible’s statement of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There are those who maintain that the words “V’ah’havtah l’ray’acha”, love your neighbor, limit a Jew’s love only to other Jews, as opposed to the Christian bible, which seems to expand this love to apply to all humanity.

Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire) takes strong exception to this Christian assertion. He points to the verse in Exodus 11:2, where the Jews in Egypt are instructed to ask their neighbors for jewels of gold and silver. Clearly the word “ray’ah” in that context cannot possibly mean a fellow Israelite, but must refer to Egyptians. Bernard J. Bamberger, in his commentary on the book of Leviticus, astutely points out that in ancient times few people had the opportunity to express their love to neighbors beyond those in their immediate vicinity. “Only in recent centuries, has the average person had the knowledge, or the opportunity and the obligation to apply the ‘Golden Rule’ on a global scale” (p. 893).

Rabbi Hertz argues further, that even those who do interpret “ray’ah” to refer exclusively to Jews, could not possibly deny the universal application for caring for all people that is found in Leviticus 19:34. The verse there teaches that the stranger who sojourns with you shall be unto you as a homeborn, and you shall love him as yourself. Rabbi Hertz argues that the word for stranger, “ger,” applies to all humanity, and that there is no question that every Jew is obligated to love all human beings.

The Rebbe of Sadigor (Sadagora), (Rabbi Abraham Jacob Friedman, son of the Hassidic Rebbe of Rizhin, 1819-1883), explains that the verse of loving one’s neighbor concludes with the words “Ah’nee Hashem”–-I am the L-rd, to teach that the way we treat our neighbors will be the way that we will ultimately be treated by the Al-mighty!

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Israel’s Memorial Day, April 19th) is observed this year on the 6th of Iyar, Monday evening, April 19th, and all day Tuesday, April 20th. (In the diaspora, some observe it one day earlier).