Parshat Bamidbar | Shavuot – Unity Despite Individuality

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It has been one year and one month since the exodus from Egypt.  The Jewish people, divided by tribe into clusters Har Sinaiaround a central point, have just completed erecting the Tabernacle as the nucleus of the encampment. Each tribe is now assigned a flag that highlights that tribe’s unique abilities and strengths.

The timing of the designation of the flags begs a question. Why did God wait until now to instruct the various tribes to carry flags?  The Jews had been separated and organized by tribe as soon as they left Egypt, over a year ago. It would seem fitting for them to display their tribal flags from the very start! Continue reading Parshat Bamidbar | Shavuot – Unity Despite Individuality

Parshat Bechukotai – Traveling with the Torah

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In this week’s parshah, we discover what we will receive if we fulfill tpathwayhe mitzvot properly and the consequences if we do not.  The Torah delineates all of the blessings that will be showered down upon us for following the directions of God and all of the terrible curses that await us if we don’t fulfill our responsibilities.

The Torah uses an interesting terminology when it introduces the potential blessings.  It states, “Im bechukotai teleichu” – if you travel with my laws, then you will receive these blessings.  Why does the Torah use such an unusual phrase to express the idea of fulfilling the laws of God?  Why doesn’t it simply say, “if you follow my laws?”  What message is the Torah trying to convey? Continue reading Parshat Bechukotai – Traveling with the Torah

Parshat Tazriah – Partnering with the Creator

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mikvahIn the beginning of this week’s Parshah, the Torah states that after a woman gives birth she becomes tamei, ritually impure. If she gave birth to a son, she waits for seven days, at which point she immerses in a mikvah, a ritual pool. Thirty-three days later – a total of forty days after the birth – she brings an offering in the Temple and fully regains her spiritually-pure status. If a woman gives birth to a baby girl, however, the first period lasts for fourteen days and the second period lasts for sixty-six – a total of eighty days after the birth. One might think that there is something ‘wrong’ with an infant girl that causes her mother to become ritually impure for forty days longer than a baby boy would! Continue reading Parshat Tazriah – Partnering with the Creator

Passover – Matzah: Celebrating our Dependence on God

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Matzah clearly plays a central role in the Passover holiday.  On Seder night, there is a specific mitzvah to eat matzah.  In addition, the Torah prohibits the consumption of matzahchametz, the antithesis of matzah, for all eight days of Passover.  What do matzah and chametz symbolize, and why are they so central to our celebration of Passover?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888; Frankfurt, Germany), explains that as we know, matzah is bread that is made from dough that was not given time to rise.  This type of bread would generally be eaten by one who is pressed for time.  As a matter of fact, the Talmud nicknames matzah, lechem oni – poor man’s bread.  A poor man is always in a flurry trying to survive and therefore has no time to allow his dough to rise.  Throughout our slavery in Egypt, our Egyptian masters did not allow us the time needed for our dough to rise.  Hence, we usually ended up eating matzah.  Upon our long awaited departure from Egypt, we still ate matzah, as the Egyptians were driving us out, again not giving our dough time to rise.[1]  Matzah, therefore, symbolizes servitude.  Chametz, on the other hand, is the bread of one who is his own master.  He can allot however much time he desires to make sure his bread rises appropriately.  Chametz symbolizes independence. Continue reading Passover – Matzah: Celebrating our Dependence on God

Parshat Tzav – The Persistence of the Altar’s Fire

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 alterDuring the days of the ancient Jewish kingdom in Israel, the focal point of the nation was the Temple.  The Temple was a place where the glory of God was revealed on a daily basis; our Rabbis teach us that ten ongoing miracles took place there.  One of those miracles was that regardless of how much it may have rained, the rain was never successful in extinguishing the fire that was always present on the altar.

Rabbi Chaim Ickovits (Volozhin, 1749 –1821) points out that this miracle is puzzling, since God is omnipotent.  Why would He choose to cause rain to fall on the altar and then prevent the rain from extinguishing the fire, instead of not allowing it to rain in the area of the altar in the first place? Continue reading Parshat Tzav – The Persistence of the Altar’s Fire

Parshat Tzav – In the Wake of the Brooklyn Tragedy: Hugging our Children

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One of the karbanot, offerings, brought in the Temple was the Korban Todah – the Thanksgiving Offering.  If a person was in a dangerous situation and managed to survive, he would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem and bring such an offering.  Nowadays, when one survives a situation in which his life was in danger, he or she resassoon funeral 1cites a special blessing called Birchat HaGomel in place of the Thanksgiving Offering.

We have all heard of the tragedy this past week in Brooklyn, in which a fire broke out in the middle of the night, leaving seven children from the Sassoon family dead and their mother and the eighth child in critical condition.  It is beyond belief and the pain is tremendous.  Losing one child is a colossal tragedy in and of itself; losing seven in one shot?  Unimaginable. Continue reading Parshat Tzav – In the Wake of the Brooklyn Tragedy: Hugging our Children

Parshat Pekudei – Our Moral Compass

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tabernacleWe have spent the past few weeks following the conversation between God and Moses as to how to build the Tabernacle, its vessels, and the priestly clothing.  This week, the Torah tells us that Moses appointed Betzalel to lead the building project.  Throughout the parshah, as the Torah describes the actual construction of the Tabernacle, it continually states, “such and such was done as God commanded Moses.”  Why, while discussing the topic of the Tabernacle, does the Torah stress that everything was done, “as God commanded Moses,” more than any other part of the Torah? Continue reading Parshat Pekudei – Our Moral Compass

From Esther to Netanyahu: A Lesson Stretching 2.5 Millennia

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Netanyahu Congress 2015There have been many comparisons drawn between the Purim story that we are in the midst of celebrating and the historical events that are currently playing out on the world stage.  In the Purim story, the Jewish nation was faced with an existential threat emanating from the ancient Persian Empire.  Today, the Jewish nation is once more facing an existential threat from the modern day Persian Empire, Iran, this time in the form of potential nuclear weapons.  In the Purim story, a Jewish leader, Esther, accepted upon herself to break protocol and appear before the King, unsummoned, in order to plead on behalf of her people.  Today, a Jewish leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, broke protocol and appeared in the chambers of the US Congress to plead on behalf of his people.

But there is a glaring contrast between the Purim story that happened long ago and the current events.  Benjamin Netanyahu argued that we should not really be sitting down with Iran at the negotiating table at all.  Esther, on the other hand, invited the enemy of the Jewish people, Haman, to sit down with her at the same table at a party with Achashveirosh.  Why did Esther invite Haman to the party?  What was she trying to accomplish? Continue reading From Esther to Netanyahu: A Lesson Stretching 2.5 Millennia

Parshat Terumah – The Duality of the Ark

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In reading through the verses describing the aron, the Ark, we find a running theme of duality.  The Ark was comprised of a box made from cedar wood, sandwiched between and inner and outer gold box – arktwo layers of gold.  There were two cherubs attached to the cover of the Ark.  There were two tablets placed within the Ark.  What is the meaning of this theme?

Throughout Jewish writings, the Ark clearly is symbolic of the Torah.  The lesson of the duality is that Torah observance requires joining with others.  Judaism is not meant to be practiced in isolation.  We are supposed to be part of a community. Continue reading Parshat Terumah – The Duality of the Ark

Parshat Yitro – Catalyst for Conversion

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splitting of the red seaThe very first conversion to Judaism takes place in this week’s parshah.  The Torah relates that Yitro (Jethro), the father-in-law of Moses, traveled from Midyan to join the Jewish people.  The Talmud explains that there were two events that prompted him to convert.  The first catalyst was hearing of the miraculous splitting of the Yam Suf, the Red Sea.  The second was hearing about the war with the nation of Amalek that took place at the end of last week’s parshah.

It is understandable that the account of the escape of the Jews from the pursuing Egyptians through the splitting of the Red Sea would aid in one’s decision to join the Jewish people.  Why, however, would hearing about the war with Amalek convince Yitro that he should convert to Judaism?  If the Talmud would identify the miraculous Jewish victory over Amalek that occurred at that time as the impetus, it would be understandable; however, the Talmud states clearly that it was the war itself, not the victory, which was the second catalyst. Continue reading Parshat Yitro – Catalyst for Conversion