• 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. 

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

    Parshat Tzav lists the various types of sacrifices one would bring. The first one described is the Olah, which is completely sacrificed, with no opportunities for the priests to partake, and he brought twice a day, every day (6:2). This is followed by the Micha, Chatat and Asham offerings. The last one described is the Shlamim, given as an expression of gratitude (not related to any sin), and that is shared with the Kohen and the donor as well (7:11-15). Is there a reason for this particular order?

    It could be that the sequence is a practical lesson for us: Relationships need to start with constant selfless giving. Parents are introduced to this form of giving early on, even before the child is born, but it’s true for all our relationships, with friends, spouses and G-d. If you follow that with devoting a portion of your efforts to others (Mincha offerings), followed by apologizing when we do something wrong (Chatat and Asham offerings), we’ll hopefully get to the point of thankfulness (Shlamim offering) and those around us for all that we have been blessed with.

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

    Among the intricate laws presented in Parshat Vayikra is that “If a soul touches something impure… and the fact escapes him, he is unclean, and guilty” (5:2). From the text alone it is unclear if he is guilty of touching something impure or of forgetting that he’s unclean and subsequently touching something holy that he wasn’t allowed to touch. Commentaries differ in their interpretation. The Ramban points out that becoming pure is not a sin, and touching something holy while one is impure is not a sin. If that’s so, what is this person actually guilty of?

    The answer may lie in the ambiguity of this law. Guilt is not borne of the specific act of accidentally becoming impure, nor of unintentionally touching a holy object. Rather, the guilt stems from an overall carelessness for one’s actions. That may also be why our Passuk describes a soul rather than a person, because our actions affect our souls, whether intentional or not. The Torah could be teaching us that both our actions and their consequences impact our soul, and require care and thoughtful diligence. 

  • Dvar for Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38)

    The very last Passuk (verse) of this week’s Parsha, Pekudei, tells us that “a cloud rested over the Mishkan by day, fire will appear in it at night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (40:38). Why is fire the only object described in future tense? What does “throughout their journeys” add, especially considering the fact that they didn’t travel at night, which means that roughly half the time they weren’t really traveling?

    One possible answer these questions is that “journeys” refers to our everyday life, and that G-d is with us day and night, helping us with our struggles. So why use future tense? Knowing that G-d will be with us in future challenges comforts us now, and prepares us for whatever the future holds. Perhaps that is also why the flame isn’t separate from the cloud, but burns within it. Our support system is always there, from within, coming in the form of family and friends, but starting with G-d Himself.

  • Dvar for Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)

    After the disappointing event of the golden calf, Parshat Vayakhel recounts some of the Jews’ positive traits, including their eagerness to contribute materials needed to erect the Mishkan. The Passuk states that “the work was enough for the work that was needed, and there was extra” (36:7). Rashi explains that the first “work” refers to the act of bringing the materials to the craftsmen, but if that’s what the Torah meant, why not be clear about it? Also, if they were stopped after bringing what was needed why would there also be extra?

    The Or HaChaim answers both questions by suggesting that G-d was so pleased with the people’s eagerness to contribute that He found a way to make use of the excess donated, such that no one’s contributions were wasted. G-d was pleased with the effort of the people’s delivery of the materials as much as the donation of the materials themselves. This could be why the Passuk uses the same word to describe the bringing of the material and the material itself. The Passuk would then be conveying that the effort and eagerness of the people was so appreciated that it was as important as the material itself. What’s clear is that we don’t need to be experts in what we do – effort and enthusiasm is fundamental in how we interact with G-d as well as each other.

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