• Dvar for Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

    Among many other topics, Parshat Naso discusses the concept of one setting himself apart from society as a Nazir. The self-imposed restrictions include wine, shaving or cutting hair, as well as having any contact with dead bodies. The purpose of the Nazir seem to be purity and self-denial, commendable goals for anyone to achieve. Yet when the Nazir is done serving his term, he must bring a Chatat, or sin-offering (6:16). Why would becoming a Nazir be considered a sin?

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that while self-denial may have positive results and is praiseworthy (Chassidut), it is by nature a self-indulgent practice, thus requiring repentance once complete. For example, a Nazir/saint may give away all their money to charity, which would help others but may hurt his family. The Rambam explains that the proper approach is avoid extreme denial and enjoy the pleasures granted and made available to us by G-d. However, enjoying all that our world has to offer requires a balance of societal obligations, as well as recognizing and honoring our responsibilities to our families, community and country. 

  • Dvar for Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Among many other housekeeping items, Parshat Bamidbar lists the grouping and order in which the people camped and traveled in the desert. Rabbi Frand points out two very curious names, for the tribes of Asher and Naftali (2:27-29). Asher’s prince was Pagiel the son of Ochran, where “ocher” implies one who perverts.” Naftali’s prince was Achira the son of Enan, and “Achi-ra” literally means “bad brother.” Why would parents name their children “pervert” or “bad brother”?

    Rabbeinu Ephraim (one of the authors of Tosfot) offers an explanation: The tribe of Dan was known to have worshipped idols, and the tribes of Asher and Naftali were grouped with Dan in the desert. To counter the possible effects of complacency, acceptance and possible influence of a bad neighbor, those tribal leaders assumed new names not given to them by their parents. These new names would serve as constant reminders that although they/we sometimes face situations we cannot control, we should always strive to preserve our high standards. 

  • Dvar for Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34)

    Parshat Bechukotai contains the unpleasant rebuke and punishment should people not follow the Torah’s laws. The topic that follows this rebuke is the laws of someone who vows to donate the value of a human, and what value to assign to those vows. Why would that follow the rebuke, when it belongs with the detailed laws listed in previous Parshiot?

    The Kotzker Rebbi explains that after harsh rebuke it’s easy for one to lose some self-esteem. To counter that, the Torah describes how everyone has intrinsic value, regardless of the degree to which they follow the guidelines of the Torah. I believe there is another positive message: the laws are specific to one who verbally commits the amount of another’s value. Not only does this show the value of the person being valued, it also shows the value of our words. The Torah is comforting us: not only are our words eminently important and significant, but also that we are worthy of what we have, earn and receive. 

  • Dvar for Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

    Parshat Behar discusses a scenario where a person has to sell their home for financial reasons. The Parsha differentiates between the sale of a home 1) in a walled city, which is deemed a permanent sale (25:30), 2) in a city without a wall which reverts back to its original owner at Yovel (Jubilee) (25:31), and 3) an open field which cannot be sold (25:34). Why does it matter where the home is located, why can’t one sell a field? Furthermore, why does a home in a wall-less city revert back to its original owner?

    Chizkuni and other commentaries explain that fields provide agricultural benefits and a means to sustain a family, which is why fields cannot be sold. Homes in walled cities, however, are simply dwellings and do not provide sustenance, which is why a sale of such property is deemed permanent. However, a home in a wall-less city could go either way: It could be developed as a source of income, or it could remain as a basic dwelling. Therefore, the Torah gives the seller their property back at Yovel, giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they will utilize their home to its fullest potential and extract its resources to live. The Torah is guiding us in two distinct ways: 1) Don’t take away a family’s ability to provide for themselves, and 2) Give people the benefit of the doubt that they will do what’s best for them, their family and their land.  

  • Dvar for Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

    This week’s Parsha, Emor, discusses all the major holidays of the Jewish calendar. Although these holidays are also mentioned elsewhere, our Parsha adds detail, such as Shofar on Rosh Hashana, abstention on Yom Kippur, lulav and Etrog on Sukkot. However, when discussing the holiday of Shavuot, the Torah briefly discusses a seemingly unrelated topic regarding leaving the corners of a field and droppings of one’s harvest for the poor (23:22). After this one Passuk, the Torah goes back to describe the rest of the holidays. Why was this seemingly random law of charity inserted into the discussion regarding the holidays?

    Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky explains that the Torah is declaring that the commandments to be kind, giving and loving of others is just as non-negotiable as the commandments to keep Shabbat, Pesach and Sukkot. We have a divine duty to be kind, even if we would have been kind anyway, and especially if we would have found justifications to the contrary. This obligation is not always easy to adhere to, but even more rewarding when we do.

  • Dvar for Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

    Parshat Kedoshim includes the famous Mitzvah (commandment) to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Rabbi Akiva exclaimed that this is a great principle of the Torah, but what does it really mean, and it is really possible to love someone as yourself?

    Rabbi David Fohrman explores the context of this commandment and provides practical insight. The commandment starts the Passuk (verse) before, when we are instructed to 1) not hate our brothers in our heart, 2) admonish your fellow, 3) don’t take revenge or hold a grudge, and finally 4) love your neighbor as yourself. There is clearly a process that ends in love, and it ironically begins with hate. If someone does something wrong, the Torah is saying that it’s ok to hate it, but it’s not appropriate to keep that hate in your heart. Rather, privately tell them about it in, communicate for their sake as well as yours. That way you won’t hold a grudge or end up doing something to retaliate. Being open and honest with those around us in a constructive way will allow us to at worst understand them, and at best to love and respect them.

  • Dvar for Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)

    Parshat Acharei Mot contains the broad instructions to “keep my laws and rules (those that can be understood along with those that can’t) that we should perform and live by them…” (18:5). Rashi explains that living with the laws and rules brings eternal reward, and the Mishna (Makot 23:2) adds that “performing” includes avoiding negative actions in addition to performing positive ones. In one Passuk we are asked to 1) keep, 2) perform and 3) live by the laws of the Torah, but how are we to understand these three different directives? 

    The Lekach Tov offers a unique reading of the Passuk: Performing the laws and rules is a level of observance that is required to maintain our relationship with G-d. However, to gain eternal benefit from those laws and rules requires that we not only perform them, but also keep them safe. But what does it mean to keep laws and rules safe, and how do we do it? One answer lies not only in adhering to Rabbinic restrictions designed to prevent missteps, but by increasing mindfulness. The Torah is filled with laws and rules that involve sensitivities toward others, from appreciating G-d’s gifts to appreciating the plight of the convert. This all-encompassing Passuk highlights not only the basic (2) performance of commandments, but the benefits of (1) being mindful of others’ situations, which will lead us to (3) live a life full of purpose and perpetual giving, which is its own eternal reward.

  • Special Dvar for Pesach (Passover) 5779

    The very first of the Ten Commandments proclaims “I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). Would it not have made more sense to reference the creation of the world? Why reference an event that G-d put us in to begin with?

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the answer lies in the epic difference between Paroh and Moshe’s approaches to building an enduring nation that defeats mortality. While Paroh built monuments that stood the test of time, Moshe’s approach was reflected in his first address to his people, the night before the last plague, the night of Pesach: On no less than 3 occasions, Moshe spoke about children, and our duty to pass on memory to generations to come. The Jews were told that they were to become a nation of educators. As Rabbi Sacks beautifully explains, “to defend a land you need an army, but to defend freedom you need education.”

    The exodus is mentioned in the very first commandment because it gave us the perspective of having once been weak. While G-d is served by protecting the dignity of the orphan, the stranger and the neglected, that perspective comes from having once been an underdog. Egypt was a reminder of what society can become when people worship human constructs rather than caring for their fellow man. This is a crucial lesson every parent imparts to their child as we “build” their empathy through Torah values, and transmit the tradition of those before us by encouraging thoughtful questions and responsive answers. 

  • Dvar for Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

    Parshat Metzora describes the prescribed treatment for the “nega” (malady) of Tzara’at, which includes 2 birds (one is killed, the other is freed), cedar wood, a scarlet thread, an ezov branch and a 7-day wait (14:4). Rabbi David Fohrman points out the only other time a “nega” is mentioned in the Torah is when G-d describes preparation for the 10th plague with the Korban Pesach (Exodus 11:1). Similar to Tzara’at, it includes an ezov branch, wood (door frames), and two birds/nations, one going free, while the other perishes. Why is the processing of purifying the metzora mirror that of the Pesach offering?

    Rabbi Fohrman suggests that the Pesach offering was the first time that the Jewish family entity was created, a cohesive family unit as a part of a nation. The person afflicted with Tzara’at distanced themselves from the community by speaking slander, and must be quarantined until they learn to appreciate both the family and community that we are all a part of.

    As we head into Pesach, we reconnect with family, with our heritage and past, and teach our children about our history. Just like all the ingredients in purifying the metzora and those of the korban Pesach are items with life (wood/trees, branches, birds, etc) so must our family experience be filled with life, hope and lessons from the past in order to inspire a better tomorrow. 

  • Dvar for Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

    One of the maladies discussed in Parshat Tazria is the tzara’at/nega (lesion) that affects clothing (13:45-59), which the Gemara (Eruchin) explains that although it is often caused by speaking negatively about others (Lashon hara), it can also be induced by “stinginess”, a derivation of the word “Tzara’at” being “tzar,” or narrow. A strange rule is introduced when the Kohen observes that the lesion doesn’t change its “ayin” after being washed (13:55). Typically an “ayin” is an eye, but what does an eye have to do with a lesion found on clothing?

    The Chidushai HaRim explains that there is a double meaning for the word “ayin”. It means “eye”, but it’s also the letter ayin used in the word “nega”. It turns out that if you move the ayin in the word “nega” to the beginning of the word, it forms the word “oneg”, which means “joy.” The Torah is telling us that if the person doesn’t shift their perspective, they and their clothes remain unclean. Luckily, turning stinginess to joy only requires a slight adjustment to our perspective, and has the effect of reorienting us entirely.

    People often associate stinginess and joy with finances, but the truth is that happiness has little to do with money, and a lot to do with our attitude. Our Parsha is highlighting that focusing on others’ happiness has the benefit of increasing their happiness, and the fringe benefit of adding to ours as well. 

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