Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying:  ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the Priest…And they shall maintain all the furniture of the tent of meeting and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the Sanctuary.   And you shall give the Levites onto Aaron and his sons:  They are wholly given over [netunim, netunim] unto him from the children of Israel.’ (Num. 3:5-9)

A later passage employs a similar phrase:

 And afterwards the Levites will come to do the service of the Tent of Meeting.  And you shall purify them and offer them as a wave offering because they are wholly given over [netunim, netunim] onto Me from the midst of the children of Israel.Instead of all the first born of the children of Israel have I taken them onto Me. (Num. 8:15-16).

The contexts of the two passages are different. The first text relates to the assembly, disassembly, transportation and responsibility for the care of the portable sanctuary and its furnishings.  The subject of second is the consecration of the Levites for their role in the celebration of the sacred sanctuary rituals.   

Although the two texts deal with entirely different aspects of levitical service, they are connected by the doubled words, netunim, netunim.

The Torah is generally characterized by its strict economy of language; it rarely employs superfluous terms.  For this reason there is abundant exegesis on the repetition of the word netunim.

Rashbam suggests that the repetition is for added emphasis.  The standard English translation follows this line of interpretation by rendering netunim netunim as wholly given.

 Ibn Ezra writes that the doubling of the word conveyed to the Levites the notion that not only they but also all their descendents were to be charged with the two fold burden of service. 

Seforno suggests that the repeated word netunim conveys two distinct but related types of devotion.  The first reflects the selfless devotion of the tribe of Levi to God.  When Moses returned from Mount Sinai, he found the Israelites celebrating the golden calf in a frenzy of pagan abandon.  It was a time for drastic action.  And Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said:  Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come onto me.  And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. (Ex. 32:26).  The devotion of the Levites, in this instance, was high risk and total.  They were to lead the armed struggle against the thousands of instigators of the collective apostasy. Their devotion is conveyed by the initial netunim.  The second netunim reflects the appreciation of the children of Israel for the devotion of the Levites to the service of the sanctuary.  The allocation of this burden to one tribe allowed the remaining tribes to devote most of their time to the agricultural and economic needs of their families and the community.  In reciprocation, they granted the Levites a tithe of their produce, permitting them to devote themselves fully to the service of the sanctuary, free of distracting financial responsibility.  This reciprocal devotion is conveyed by the second netunim.

Rashi’s interpretation of the apparently redundant netunim netunim is striking in its simplicity.  The first netunim refers to the initial charge of the Levites--the transportation and care of the sacred structures and their furnishings; they were devoted to this burden [netunim le-masa].  The second netunim refers to their role in the sanctuary ritual; they were devoted to the musical element of the ritual [netunim le-shirah].  

The sages who inspired Rashi’s comment offer us a profound insight into the nature of authentic devotion, which completely transcends the context of the ancient sanctuary and its service.  The acid test of true devotion is commitment even in the absence of pleasurable reinforcement. 

It is easy to love in the absence of pain and suffering.  The test of real love is that it endures in bad times as well as good.  Life is punctuated both by celebration and suffering, by happiness and by sadness.  When a young couple makes a life long commitment, the bride and groom are aware that their love will be tested by crisis.  Debilitating disease often challenges families. The security of the presence of a caring partner is itself a joy. But some spouses are unable to endure the unrelenting demands of care giving, and seek happiness elsewhere.   They counted on being netunim le-shirah--ready for celebration, but prove to be unable to deal with masa.

What is true of spousal relationships is all too true of parental responsibility. The presence of children in the home is a usually the source of unspeakable joy.  Parents look forward to celebrating their children’s important milestones, delighting in their growth and development and taking great pride in their accomplishments; they are netunim le-shirah.  But children can be enormously challenging.   Some have serious behavioral and other psychological issues, challenging their parents’ patience.  Some become ill, requiring their parents to be netunim le-masa as well as netunim le –shirah.  Most frequently, the shirah and the masa are interwoven, together defining the relationship of loving parents to their children.

 The same characteristic defines the attitude of loving children to their aging parents, particularly with extended longevity.  These children have been called the “sandwich generation”.   They have children and grandchildren of their own for whom to care, and are privileged accept the added responsibility of taking care of their parents’ special needs.  Most do so lovingly, demonstrating that just as they were netunim le-shirah when their parents were responsible for them, they are now privileged to be netunim le-masa, as roles are somewhat reversed. But some members of the “sandwich generation” cannot accept the double netunim and choose to employ others for the masa.

The ancient Levites had the formula for authentic devotion. We can still benefit from their double netunim strategy.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



  And they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against me, and also that they have related to me with indifference. I also will relate to them with indifference, and shall bring them to the land of their enemies; if then perchance their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then make right their iniquity; then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land…    and yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them and shall not abhor them to destroy them by abrogating my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God.  I shall remember the covenant of their ancestors for their sake.  (Lev.  26: 40-45).

This text concludes the first of the two great rebukes [tokhechot] in the Torah.  The first occupies the greater part of this parashah.  Moses delivers the second in his final speech to a new generation of Israelites on the eve of his passing.  That tokhechah is recorded in parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 28:15-68). 

There are at least five striking differences between the two tokhechot.  The first is their authorship.  In our parashah, Moses transmits God’s own words of rebuke.  The author is God.  The second rebuke is Moses’ own version of that rebuke that he shares with a different generation four decades later. 

The tokhechot are of unequal length.  God’s rebuke is recorded in a mere thirty-two verses whereas Moses’ rebuke is recorded in fifty-four verses.

 Furthermore, God’s rebuke is addressed collectively to the Jewish people and is expressed in the plural.  Moses’ tokhechah is formulated in the singular and is addressed separately, as it were, to each of his listeners.  If you will, Moses’ is personal and direct whereas God’s is more general.

God’s tokhechah repeatedly highlights the unacceptable attitude of the sinners.  He refers several times to the fatal flaw in their relationship with Him, declaring:  “You have behaved toward me with indifference [halakhtem imi be-keri].” God rebukes them for their uncaring, unfocussed and almost accidental connection with Him.  In contrast, Moses does not refer to flawed relationships but merely to non-compliance.  It would seem that whereas God’s concern is attitudinal, experiential and spiritual and relates to the inner emotional processes of His people, Moses’ concern is behavioral, relating exclusively to the performance and non-performance of commandments.

The final distinction between the two tokhechot is their conclusion.  God’s tokhechah concludes with our text.  Having specified the horrifying consequences of spiritual indifference, God ends with the optimistic promise of ultimate redemption.  Moses’ tokhechah offers no hope.  It is an extensive, vividly portrayed catalog of terrible suffering, and must have left his listeners feeling hopeless.  Moses’ rebuke reflects a posture of strict, uncompromising justice.  Human freedom implies acceptance of responsibility.  The wages of disobedience are therefore inevitable.  In contrast, God’s tokhechah reflects divine mercy.  Human failures and errors are redeemable through appropriate contrition and spiritual transformation.

The promise of forgiveness and redemption with which our tokhechah concludes is the basis for the central Jewish notion of teshuvah [repentance].   We are indeed responsible for our attitudes, decisions and actions, but their dire consequences are not inevitable.   We can redeem ourselves and wipe the slate clean if we genuinely repent our shortcomings and reprehensible behaviors.   This is the message of our text. It contains the basis elements of the process of repentance: “ And they shall confess their inequity.   And I shall bring them to the land of their enemies. If then their uncircumcised heart will be humbled, then will their inequity be atoned”. 

Maimonides codified the substance of our text:  “And what is teshuvah?  It is that the sinner forsakes his sin, removes it from his thoughts and resolves in his heart not to do it again. …Likewise, he should regret his past behavior. And the One who knows secret things must testify that he shall never again repeat that sin.  And he must confess aloud and mention those things that he had resolved in his heart.  Anybody who makes verbal confession and does not resolve in his heart to leave off sinning is no different from one who attempts [purifying] ritual immersion while grasping a source of defilement.  (Hil. Teshuvah 2:2-3).

But Rambam’s codification of the process of teshuvah carries the risk of its reduction to mere robot-like performance.  It may lead to self-deception.  One might think that following the delineated steps of regret,
discontinuation of transgression, confession and resolution to change  together suffice to avoid retribution and to achieve transformation.  The danger of such a reductionist attitude to teshuvah is recidivism. 

It is clear from the wording of our text that God was aware of this possibility.  The order of its verses is deliberate.  The process commences with confession of sin.  But saying sorry is simply not enough.  After enduring the terrible consequences of inequity, it is likely that many might confess simply to stop the pain.  In a sense, their confession is coerced by their suffering and is not a genuine expression of contrition.  For this reason, the next verse refers to the need for genuine inner transformation, which it calls the circumcision of the heart--the removal of its many covers of spiritual insensitivity.  The purpose of the consequences of inequity is not retribution, but rehabilitation.  The process of teshuvah defines the human responsibility for rehabilitation, change and transformation. 

It would seem that the often-repeated motif of indifference to the Divine [halakhtem imi be-keri], the almost accidental connection of the Jewish people with God, is the background of this process of rehabilitation.  The effect of human indifference to God is Divine indifference to human beings.  Mindfulness of the Divine and reestablishment of genuine connection opens us to the protection of Providence.  The Torah articulates this as God’s turning his face to his creatures [u-faniti aleikhem]. On the other hand, absence of human connection to God results in the hiddenness of the Divine [hester Panim] and disconnection from the protective Providence.  The sages famously declare:  “One who comes to engender purity is assisted [by Providence].  One who comes to defile, has his way open to him. This means that when we sever our connection with God we are on our own, adrift in the world like a leaf floating in the wind, and as vulnerable to raging storms. This is the consequence of a life of indifference and unconnectedness. The act of teshuvah is the reestablishment of the connection, the redirection of the open, contrite heart to the Divine Presence.   

Our text contains an additional redemptive motif.  Not all individuals are capable of this sort of rehabilitative spiritual transformation.  Many will continue along the path of disconnection and suffer the consequences. Therefore God addresses his people collectively, assuring them that in the absence of genuine teshuvah by all the individual members of the community, the collective as a whole need not despair.  Redemption is a function not only of individual spiritual effort, but, ultimately, of God’s fulfillment of His Covenant with His people.   And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them and shall not abhor them to destroy them by abrogating my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God.  I shall remember the covenant of their ancestors for their sake. This is the closing consolation of God’s tokhechah.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT BEHAR:  2011/5771


And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom in the land [ba-aretz] for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha]. It shall be a Jubilee for you [lakhem]. (Lev. 25:10).

At first glance, the meaning of the text is obvious.  It simply states: “You shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha].  But most of the inhabitants of the land were not enslaved. Yet the verse states:  “You will proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants.”  In his rabbinic classic, the Penei Yehoshu’a, the great Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk (1680-1756) explained this linguistic and logical discrepancy: “The Torah did not say ‘you shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its slaves [le-khol avadeha].  Instead, it said for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha].  This is because a country in which even a small minority of the population does not enjoy freedom is one in which all its inhabitants are enslaved.  One [feels] free only when there is no deprivation whatsoever of freedom in one’s country.  Slavery is a plague that strikes both the slave and his master.  Accordingly, the statement: ‘You shall proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants [le-khol yosheveha],’ is appropriate.  [Only] when its slaves are freed, are all the inhabitants of the country [really] free.” 

Rabbi Falk has drawn attention to an important nuance of our text.  Everybody in a given society is ultimately adversely affected by the indignity suffered by some of its inhabitants.  The cancer of disaffection necessarily infects a society that rests on fundamental inequalities. It is unnoticed and undiagnosed at first, but is eventually crippling and even lethal.  It affects the moral makeup of the privileged.elite Over time many of them become insensitive to and eventually exploit the disadvantaged and disempowered sectors of their societies.  Gradually the patience of the disadvantaged wears thin.   When they have reached the limits of their tolerance, they arel motivated by their leaders to rebel against the status quo.

I witnessed this process in my native South Africa during the era of Apartheid.  The non-white majority bore the indignity and dehumanization of their subservient status until their patience and tolerance were exhausted.  When peaceful protests were violently suppressed, new leaders arose who urged them to fight the inequalities.  Happily, the then leader of the regime saw the coming conflagration and the likelihood that the entire population would suffer the agony of civil strife.  Wisely, he dismantled the ugly system and reconciled with the great Nelson Mandela. He had finally understood the biblical principle that freedom cannot be bifurcated, that none can be truly free when the freedom of others is compromised.

We are currently witnessing the so-called Arab Spring.  It began in Tunisia.  The disadvantaged, exploited and largely impoverished majority took to the streets.  Initially the privileged and despotic dictatorial political establishment attempted to crush the protests, but eventually realized that the freedom of the many could not be permanently denied, and surrendered their authority. 

The disadvantaged majority of Egyptians followed the Tunisian example.  The process was similar and Mubarak, too, was compelled to resign.  In Libya, the leadership has refused to concede that its policies of repression have been misguided and intolerable, and has begun to wage a bloody war on its own citizens.  Rabbi Falk was right in stating that freedom can’t be bifurcated. When some citizens do not enjoy the same rights as others, all eventually become the victims of the consequences of the inequalities.

 It still remains to be seen how the bloody repression in Syria will play itself out.  However, recent events recall a chilling biblical prophecy:  “Therefore, thus says the Lord:  You did not listen to my [injunction] to proclaim freedom each to his brother,  neighbor to neighbor.  Therefore, I proclaim freedom unto you, says the Lord--freedom [to fall victim to] the sword and pestilence and hunger… And I have delivered them unto the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek to take their lives.” (Jeremiah 34:17-20).

The message of the Torah and of the prophet is abundantly clear.  There is no freedom by halves. Unless all are free, none eventually will be completely free of the awful consequences of their discriminatory policies.

The sages examine a further implication of our text.  The Torah declares: “It will be a Jubilee for [all of] you [lakhem].”  This implies that the laws of the fiftieth year apply to all Jews at all times and in all places.  Accordingly, the Talmud asks:  “Does this mean even beyond the borders of the land [of Israel]?  But the same text also says:  “You shall proclaim freedom in the land [ba-aretz].”  This tells you that when freedom obtains in the land [of Israel] it obtains beyond its borders.  But when freedom does not obtain in the land [of Israel] it does not obtain beyond its borders. (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 9b).  

Commenting on this Talmudic dictum, Rabbi Benzion Zaks writes that the principle of non-bifurcation of freedom applies not only to the relationship of masters to slaves, but also to the relationship of all the other nations of the world to Israel.  As long as the inhabitants of Israel suffer a diminution of their experience of freedom, all other nations will experience diminished freedom. To the extent that the inhabitants of Israel do not experience freedom from fear, the compromised sense of freedom in Israel undermines the unconditional experience of freedom of other nations. 

 At first, when Israeli passenger planes and airliners carrying passengers to Israel were hijacked, there was scant international reaction. This new phenomenon was seen to be purely and exclusively an Israeli problem. But the disquiet of passengers flying to Israel soon became an international problem, and air travelers have not felt completely secure ever since. The first suicide bombings of civilian targets were in Israel.  There was a time when Israelis were afraid to eat in restaurants and to travel on public buses. Tragically, the terrorists learned rapidly, and suicidal killers destroyed the Twin Towers, murdering 3,000 innocents and striking fear in the hearts of millions. It began as an assault on the freedom of Israelis. Now suicide bombers terrorize country after country, and nobody anywhere enjoys complete freedom from fear.

If only the implications of our text had been more universally recognized, if only the nations of the world had taken the threat to the security of Israeli citizens more seriously, perhaps the  fundamental freedom to be of so many thousands of people in so many other places would not have been compromised. Freedom cannot be bifurcated.  When the freedom from fear of the inhabitants of Israel is compromised, everybody’s freedom to congregate, worship, and work in peace is also compromised.            

Friday, May 6, 2011



The nineteen blessing silent Amidah is Jewish prayer per excellence. Twelve of its thirteen paragraphs of petition reflect the general, collective needs of the Jewish community rather than the individual, personal needs of some of its members. Thus, one prays for healing even when one is not ill. One prays for justice even when one is not suffering personal injustice. Indeed, one of these collective petitions, the prayer for rain during the autumn and winter season [birkat ha-shanim], relates to the specific agricultural needs of the population of   Israel rather than to the agricultural needs of Jewish communities elsewhere in the world, whose climate differs from that of Israel. Only the last of the paragraphs of petition, the blessing that concludes with the phrase Who hears prayer [Shome’a tefillah], is the appropriate place for the insertion of individual, personal supplications.

This is the background of an interesting Talmudic passage (B.T. Ta’anit 14b). The Talmud records a question addressed to Rabbi [Judah the Prince] by the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh:

“People like us who require rain even in the Tammuz (i.e. summer) season, how should we conduct ourselves?  Are we halakhically like a mere group of individuals-yechidim- or are we to be halakhically compared to a cohesive community-rabim? If we were to be considered to be like [many unconnected] individuals- yechidim- [we should have to pray for rain in the last of the intermediate blessings of the Amidah—Shome’a tefillah-‘Who hears prayer’- [as is the case with all personal supplications]. Or do we have the halakhic status of a community [rabim], whose need for rain is expressed in the blessing of the years- birkat ha-shanim,?”

 Rabbi sent them the following answer:  “You are comparable to individuals- yechidim-[and should therefore pray for rain in the blessing ] Shome’a tefillah-Who hears prayer.”

The question of the people of Nineveh makes perfect sense.  Their city was located in an area that required rain even in the summer months.  They simply wanted to know whether it was appropriate for them to make their request in birkat ha-shanim, the blessing specifically designed to meet collective agricultural needs.  However, they framed their question in an interesting way, by asking Rabbi Judah the Prince whether they were to be regarded as a mere collection of individuals or as a collective multitude of the Jewish people.  

His answer was astonishing.  He ruled that the vast Jewish community of Nineveh was nothing more than a loose collection of individuals [yechidim], and that its members should pray for their communal requirements as individuals.

 The question was addressed to him during a period of a dramatic decline in the population in Israel.  That community was facing increasing persecution.  The very survival of its teachers was in grave doubt.  So great was Rabbi Judah’s concern for their survival that he broke with a hallowed ancient tradition and edited the Mishnah.  The Mishnah is the written record of the oral Jewish legal tradition that had been handed from generation to generation by great teachers. The oral law was not to be written down, lest its essential dynamic be paralyzed by the authoritative written word.  Nevertheless, Rabbi Judah the Prince decided to break with precedent. He feared the imminent demise of the teachers of the oral tradition. He therefore anticipated the potential loss of the entire body of that tradition, since it was preserved in the memories of its transmitters. Accordingly, he authorized and oversaw its publication in written form.   Indeed, anticipating further decline of the dwindling community in Israel, he sent his brightest disciples to Babylon to establish new centers of Torah learning in a more hospitable and less threatening environment.

 The population of Israel was diminishing, its former glory rapidly fading.  In contrast, the communities of the Diaspora were growing and thriving.  Nineveh was a striking example of this phenomenon.  How could Rabbi Judah the Prince have been so out of touch with reality as to designate the declining community of the land of Israel as the collective multitude [rabim] and the growing Diaspora centers as mere collections of individuals [yechidim]?   What was he thinking?

Rabbi Judah’s answer reflected an abiding Jewish concept.  There is a fundamental difference between individuals and collectives.  Individuals are ephemeral. They are here today and gone tomorrow.  All individual things come and go.  The collective, on the other hand, survives the arrival and departure of its individual members.  People are born and people die, but the authentic collective remains. Rabbi ruled that its size is not the determining factor.  To be sure, the Jewish community in the land of Israel was small and declining.  Indeed, the Jewish community of Nineveh was larger, and growing.  Nevertheless, it was Rabbi Judah’s conviction that the community of Israel was destined to be permanent and therefore met the definition of the collective multitude [rabim], whereas the community of Nineveh was ephemeral and destined to disappear [yechidim].

Rabbi Judah’s judgment was subsequently enshrined in halakhah.  Maimonides ruled that the sanctification of the new moon was the function of the Jewish community of Israel, even were it reduced to a mere minyan of ten men and other populations were to be numbered in the myriads. Only the Jewish community of Israel was to be considered permanent.  Only the population of the land of Israel was a true eternal Jewish collective [rabim].

Jewish history bears testimony to the truth of Rabbi Judah the Prince’s judgment.  There have been many singularly successful and prosperous centers of Jewish life.  The Jewish community of Spain enjoyed unprecedented prominence for seven hundred years, producing scholars, poets, philosophers, financiers and national and international leaders.  Who would have predicted the sudden demise of that great community?    The community of Poland was grated political independence by Boleslav the Pious in the tenth century. It had its own Parliament and the full range of governmental, judicial and civic institutions.  It, too, produced great scholars.  Yet in 1648 this thriving community was decimated and ultimately almost entirely annihilated during the holocaust.

Yet the tiny community of the Holy Land survived and eventually grew.  Its renaissance and the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state within its borders is the great miracle of our times.  It will soon be home to the majority of the world’s Jewish population. Communities come and go.  Great cities flourish, decline and disappear.  Israel alone has proved to be the enduring Jewish collective. 

This week we shall celebrate the sixty-third anniversary of the independence of the third Jewish Commonwealth.  Its achievements are astonishing. .  It is in the forefront of medical and scientific innovation. It is a center of high tech of the very first rank.  It has imported most of its population, acculturated and educated that population in great universities, and established centers of Jewish learning, with greater numbers engaged with Torah than in any other period of Jewish history

But the Jewish State faces unprecedented challenges as it celebrates the inception of the sixty-fourth year of its existence as a modern democracy.  The Palestinian Authority has made common cause with Hamas, which has stubbornly refused to recognize the State of Israel and has rocketed and murdered its citizens.  The so-called peace process has been abandoned and there is a strong likelihood that a hostile Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority will be granted national independence by the anti-Israel United Nations majority.   The new regime in Egypt has resumed ties with Iran, the world’s chief exporter of terrorism and the mortal enemy of Israel.  The Gaza border with Egypt has opened, allowing the free flow of lethal weapons to the hands of Hamas. 

Confronted with this terrifying reality, there may be a tendency to despair.    But, on this sixty-third anniversary of the birth of the new Jewish State, we should be comforted by Rabbi Judah’s answer to the citizens of Nineveh.  Teheran will disappear as Nineveh did, but Israel will endure, because it alone is the collective multitude [rabim], transcending and surviving the comings and goings of other civilizations, capitals and once powerful populations.

Happy birthday Israel!