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.