Torah from around the world #117

by Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation

Beth El

, Berkeley, CA, USA, and Founding Rabbi, Congregation

Bet Orim

, Budapest, Hungary

This week’s parasha,


, the longest weekly portion in the entire Torah, consists of 176 verses. One of its chapters, chapter 7, has the distinction of being the longest chapter in the five books of Moses. Nevertheless, because of the importance of the other celebrated passages, such as the Priestly Benediction and the Laws of the Nazirites (who vowed to avoid ritual uncleanliness, not to drink liquor, nor have their hair cut), chapter seven of the Book of Numbers has been less discussed in rabbinical sermons and discourses.

The text is tediously repetitious, listing individually the offerings brought by each


, or Prince, for the dedication of the Tabernacle, even though they are word for word the same. Dr. Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University, in his erudite essay about


, reminds us that “one of the basic laws of Divine draftsmanship” is that every paragraph, verse or even letter in the Torah does have a purpose and nothing is wasted. Thus, the multifold inclusion of the very same offering is deliberate and significant.

The Hebrew word


or Prince, as well as the very title of our Torah portion


, are derived from the three consonant (“


”, “


”, “


”) verbal root, which in English means: to lift high, carry or take in, in a physical, emotional or spiritual sense. In Biblical usage, it could also refer to the carrying or bearing of burdens, with the connotation of empathy or concern. These actions and qualities are indeed the responsibility of a real


or Prince.

The Midrash or Jewish legend in

Bamidbar Rabbah

(15:20) identifies the princes listed in Chapter 7, as the Israelite officers of the enslaved people in Egypt who risked their lives and took the beating of the Egyptian taskmasters, in order to protect their kinsmen.


the officers were beaten on account of the rest of the people, but did not nevertheless inform the taskmasters (on those who had failed to make up the necessary tale of bricks). These officers were wont to say: It is better for us to be beaten rather than that the rest of the people should suffer


Because of the selfless empathy and concern of the princes for their brothers and sisters, the Torah includes the repetitious text, listing each prince with his offerings. God wanted to honor each compassionate and caring Nasi in an equal manner, granting each leader equal time. As the great twentieth century Torah scholar Nehama Leibowitz stated: “Good deeds are not forgotten, but remain to bear fruit and reap reward sooner or later.”

In subsequent generations, especially in difficult and dark times, we have been blessed with the rise of new


(princes) who have stood up for those who were enslaved and whose lives were endangered.

This Shabbat, when Jews all over the world read and study the Torah portion


, Congregation Beth El of Berkeley will remember the upcoming 100th anniversary of the birth of a modern day


, a prince of a man, Raoul Wallenberg, who I believe, was also one of the

lamed-vav tzadikim

, one of the thirty-six legendary righteous people. Jewish tradition relates that God would have long ago destroyed the earth because of human cruelty and callousness were it not for the good deeds of the

lamed-vav tzadikim

, the thirty-six righteous people, who by their martyrdom and self-sacrifice save the world from utter chaos and destruction.

I believe that Raoul Wallenberg, who during the Holocaust saved my family, including me, and tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from certain death, was surely one of the thirty-six

lamed-vav tzadikim

. Wallenberg’s family belonged to the Swedish elite, a family of bankers, politicians, and diplomats. Since his father had died before he was born, his grandfather, a loving and sensible man, raised him. Raoul, who was not forced to follow family traditions, was allowed to study architecture in the United States.  He later traveled to South Africa and to Haifa, then British Palestine, in order to learn about trade and banking.  In Haifa, Wallenberg became acquainted with German refugees and acquired firsthand knowledge of Nazi persecution. It was years later, in July 1944, that the American War Refugee Board, with the knowledge and cooperation of the Swedish government, sent Wallenberg to Budapest to start a rescue operation for the Jews. Like Switzerland, Sweden also issued protective papers or temporary passports to Hungarian Jews.  While the Hungarian authorities did not always respect them, at least they saved the lives of many.

The historian David Cesarani reports: “…

more people were saved by Swiss papers, than by Swedish papers produced at the behest of Raoul Wallenberg.  But it was Wallenberg, the dashing and courageous Swede, who captured people’s imagination and rightly so, because he went out himself and intervened personally on many occasions to save Jews


As the family story goes, though I do not remember since I was just a two year old toddler, I met Raoul Wallenberg several times. One day, quite unexpectedly, a band of young Hungarian Nazi hoodlums entered our “Swedish” building. Hundreds of us lived there, elderly people, young mothers and children crowded together in a small area. Randomly, the intruders took my mother and three other young women as hostages. Wallenberg was immediately notified and he himself drove and rescued them from their Nazi captors. How true are the words of the poet who praised this Swedish hero and called him God’s Angel:

Brightly shines

Over shrines,

Giving signs

Of relief and liberation


After Hungary’s liberation, allegedly because of his American connections, Wallenberg was trapped by the Soviets and apparently perished in Siberia. He was indeed one of the holy thirty-six.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth, let us remember for a blessing, not only this righteous prince of a man, but emulating God’s recognition of each prince separately, let us also remember all the “

chassidei umot ha-olam

”, all the righteous of all the nations of all generations.

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