• Dvar for Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    As the Parsha relates the joyous time when the Jews finally started the long-awaited service in the Mishkan, Parshat Shemini abruptly interrupts that with the disturbing death of Aaron’s 2 oldest sons (Nadav and Avihu). Their sin was that they wanted to show their love for G-d so much that they took it upon themselves to take incense and burn it on their own. The Torah then relates that a fire “came out from before Hashem and consumed them.” It seems strange that the same fire that 2 Pessukim (verses) ago came down to burn the offerings was the same fire that came down to kill Aaron’s 2 sons. Why did they specifically die with fire, which is the very method they tried to use to serve G-d?

    The Rashbam helps us understand the sons’ mistake by explaining that they weren’t authorized to bring the offering, and that their bringing it minimized the miracle of the fire coming down from the sky. However, although they died, the verse says they died “before G-d,” which commentaries explain to mean that they at least tried to do a good thing, and were worthy of dying before G-d. Trying to preempt G-d’s commandments by burning things themselves minimized the very essence of those commandments. We too have to follow the guidelines of the Torah, not because they make sense to us and we’d do them anyway, but because G-d wants us to do things a certain way. The point of the fire was to show us that G-d would use fire for us, unless we make Him use that very fire against us by altering the “recipe.” The critical take-away from all of this is to observe the commandments correctly, so that we may strengthen the fire within us.

  • Special Dvar for Pesach (Passover) 5778

    Among the many customs unique to Pesach (Passover) is the eating of Maror (bitter herbs), representing the bitter times endured by our ancestors as they were slaves in Egypt. Understandably, the custom of leaning, which represents royalty, is not observed in conjunction with eating of the Maror. However, when eating Korech, which is a Matzah sandwich with Maror in the middle, we do lean as royalty. Why are we suddenly reclining?

    Rabbi Shraga Simmons offers an explanation: The Korech sandwich consists of two broken pieces of Matzah with Maror in the middle, symbolizing the eternal hope for Jews to scrap together what is there to make something meaningful. That’s a cause worthy of royalty, not despite the inclusion of Maror, but because of it. May we merit to use all that we have for all that we can.

  • Dvar for Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

    Our Parsha, Tzav, informs us that the priests’ first task of the day was to remove the ashes from the offering sacrificed the previous day (Leviticus 6:3). Is there any significance to this being the priests’ first order of business with which to start the day?

    Rabbi Avi Weiss explains that the priest begins the day by removing the ashes to illustrate the importance of his remaining involved with the mundane. Too often, those who rise to important positions separate themselves from the people and abandon the everyday menial tasks. By starting the day with ash-cleaning, the Torah insists it shouldn’t be this way.

    A few years ago a couple appeared before Rabbi Gifter, asking him to rule on a family dispute. The husband, a member of Rabbi Gifter’s kollel (an all day Torah learning program) felt that, as one who studied Torah, it was beneath his dignity to take out the garbage. His wife felt otherwise. Rabbi Gifter concluded that while the husband should in fact help his wife he had no legal religious obligation to remove the trash. The next morning, before the early services, Rabbi Gifter knocked at the door of the young couple. Startled, the young man asked Rabbi Gifter in. No, responded Rabbi Gifter, I’ve not come to socialize but to take out your garbage. You may believe it’s beneath your dignity, but it’s not beneath mine. This message comes to us courtesy of the sacrificial ashes.

  • Dvar for Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

    The very first Passuk (verse) in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) describes G-d calling Moshe to tell him about all the different offerings that needed to be brought, and how they should be performed. The last letter in the word “Vayikra” (which means “called”) was written smaller then the rest (the Alef). Why is this letter shrunk? Furthermore, why is the whole book called Vayikra, “And He called”?

    Most commentaries explain that Moshe didn’t want to make a big deal of the fact that G-d called him and no one else, and therefore wanted to use the same word without the last letter, which would still have the same meaning, but wouldn’t be as affectionate a greeting (it would mean “and G-d happened upon…”). This shows us the great sensitivity and humility that Moshe had. Rabeinu Yonah offers us an insight into humility and human nature by explaining that some people who feel that they are lacking in a quality or in knowledge sometimes compensate for it by lowering others, thereby making themselves seem like they’re better by comparison. Moshe was the greatest prophet, but he was also the humblest because he was confident in himself and in his abilities, and didn’t need to lower others, even indirectly.

    But there’s an even more powerful message Moshe could be teaching us: The one letter he chose to shrink was the Alef, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet…The very first lesson is that even though Moshe was a great person, he sought to downplay it by shrinking that letter. But there’s yet another hidden hint for us in this word: The letter that’s shrunk, Alef, actually has a meaning as a word: It means “to teach”. The message being taught to us is clear… The first and most important discipline in life is to recognize our egos, and work on not letting it control us (whenever we get angry, it’s because our ego is telling us that we deserve something.) The second lesson is that instead of lowering others to make us look better, we should raise our own standards, and become better. And finally, the last lesson is to take these lessons and teach and share them with someone else.

  • Dvar for Vayakhel/Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

    In Parshat Vayakhel, it describes that the frame of the Tabernacle was constructed of “shittim wood, standing.” The talmud offers several explanations of this phrase. The first and simplest is that it refers to the orientation of the planks used in the construction; they should be vertical rather than horizontal. Another interpretation is that “standing” means that they are standing to this very day – the Tabernacle has been hidden away, but has not been destroyed. R’ Baruch Simon cites a number of sources who contrast this to the Temple, which was burned to the ground. Why will the Tabernacle stand forever while the Temple has been destroyed?

    He explains that the Temple was largely constructed by the hired labor of Tyrean craftsmen who were working for money, not for the sake of the task itself. Their hearts weren’t truly in it. However, the Tabernacle was built by Jews themselves, out of commitment and love of G-d. Our accomplishments are most likely to endure when they are done in this fashion, with dedication and for their own sake.

  • Dvar for Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

    This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, includes the unfortunate sin of the Golden calf, and includes Moshe’s negotiations on the Jews’ behalf. While there are many things one can learn about the art of negotiations, what seems out of place is that after things are smoothed over and G-d is appeased, Moshe asks to see G-d’s presence (and was denied) (33:18). While there are varying explanations as to what Moshe really wanted to see (from G-d’s attributes to His essence), why would Moshe ask such a question right after G-d had gotten so angry that he threatened to destroy the world?

    One possible answer lies in the very nature of struggle and challenge. When we are faced with a challenge, whether we overcome it or succumb to it, the most valuable aspect of the challenge is the “we”. Not if, but when a couple, a family, a community, a people is faced with a challenge, they naturally become more attached to each other, and grow more cohesive. This is often the point of life’s challenges, although this is frequently overlooked. Moshe worked out a reprieve for the Jews with G-d, and as a result they became close enough that Moshe thought he had a chance to see G-d’s essence, and although he was denied his request, Moshe was granted other insight. We too can gain insight into one another, as long as we focus on each other when faced with life’s challenges.

  • Dvar for Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

    We were all given human traits to help us deal with people, situations, and life in general. This week’s Parsha contains a crucial element to understanding those traits. Parshat Tetzaveh describes a golden plate (Tzitz) that Aaron wore, which bore the words “holy unto G-d” (28:37). Doesn’t that seem like a brazen thing to be placing on one’s forehead? The appearance of such an ornament would seem anything BUT holy.

    As Living Each Week relates, the Baal Shem Tov taught that if a person has an undesirable trait, he/she should direct that trait toward constructive channels. Traits such as stubbornness, anger and even violence can be channeled correctly. How do we know this? Because the Tzitz was worn on the part of the face associated with brazenness (worn by the head Priest), yet served a holy purpose nonetheless. We must heed the same calling, recognize all those personal traits that need “channeling”, and convert all those seemingly negative qualities into positive triumphs.

  • Dvar for Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

    Parshat Terumah is the beginning of the building of the Mishkan, where G-d would dwell among the Jews as they traveled in the desert. To build the Mishkan materials had to be collected, and G-d commanded the Jews to collect several types. After listing the need for metals, wools, hairs, skins, and wood, the Torah tells us that they collected “oil for illumination” and “spices for the anointment oil and incense”. Why does the Torah suddenly need to tell us what the materials were to be used for, when it hadn’t discussed it thus far?

    One possible answer is that there are two differences between the characteristics of the other materials and those of the oil and spices. Firstly, while the other materials were important, they required little effort to produce, while the oil and spices had to be manufactured and maintained. Those people that didn’t have the precious stones to donate to the building of the Mishkan still had the opportunity to contribute with their efforts instead. Secondly, both the oil and the spices are of the most ‘giving’ materials used in the Mishkan; The oil was used to light the Menorah, which gives off light to everything around it, and the spices give off a beautiful smell to its surroundings. The message it clear…The most beautiful and giving things in life are those that require our active effort. Spices smell and oil illuminates because someone took the time and effort to make them. The same can be said today…Being a good person and a good Jew is beautiful and rewarding to ourselves and to others, but only because we take the time and effort to understand and cultivate it.

  • Dvar for Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

    This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, starts “and these are the laws which you shall set before them (21:1).” Rashi points out that G-d told Moshe that it’s not enough to just teach the Torah, and that Moshe should present it to the Jews like a set table from which one is ready to eat, which is done by explaining the reasons for all the Mitzvot (commandments) as well. As Rabbi Zweig asks, why is this true and what does the analogy to a set table from which one could readily eat mean?

    Rabbi Zweig answers that the Torah is presenting one of the most important underlying principles of Judaism. There are two purposes in eating: nutrition and pleasure. When G-d tells Moshe to give the Torah to the Jews as a set table, He is referring to the presentation of the Mitzvot, which is a focus not to the nutritional aspect but rather to the pleasurable aspect. G-d is telling Moshe that it isn’t enough to just perform the Mitzvot; the people are also meant to enjoy them. The laws are to be presented in such a way that we should understand them, thereby deriving pleasure from them and have a desire to repeat them.

    The lesson is that the Torah must be transformative; For example. it isn’t enough to give charity, one must become a charitable person. A charitable person feels good and derives pleasure from helping others. It isn’t enough to keep Shabbos, one must connect to the spirit of Shabbos and take pleasure in everything it has to offer. One can only accomplish this by having an understanding of the reasons for the Mitzvot, something worth all of our efforts in improving.

  • Dvar for Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

    Parshat Yitro describes Yitro hearing of the travels and trials of the Jews, Yitro being moved to convert, coming to Moshe for the conversion, and then leaving Moshe. If Yitro was so moved, why would he ever leave a situation where he’s surrounded by G-d, clouds, heavenly food, and Moshe as a teacher? And how could Moshe, as a leader, allow Yitro to just leave the camp?  After all, he was the only Jew not to have witnessed the giving of the Torah.

    Rabbi Leibowitz, in Majesty of Man, explains that Yitro was so moved by G-d, the Torah and the Jews that he felt that he had to go back to his home to try to convert his family and friends. Yitro was willing to give up being surrounded by what he obviously believed in and wanted to be around, just for the sake of others. If this was the determination of someone that had no responsibilities toward the people he was trying to help (in terms of converting them), how much more determination should we demonstrate when we actually have a responsibility to help one another!? The Parsha is named after Yitro because he was willing to change his life for Judaism. He was so proud of Judaism that he didn’t hide it, but went out and told others how beautiful it is. If we expressed the Yitro that we undoubtedly have within us, those around us are bound to be moved.

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