• Dvar for Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

    Parshat Korach begins by describing Korach and his 250 people’s claims for more authority and power. The very first word used is “and he (Korach) took” (16:1), yet the Torah never explicitly explains what it is that Korach actually took. Two questions can be asked: Why start with a verb that’s never associated with what was taken, and how is being swallowed by the ground (16:31-33) an appropriate punishment? 

    Rabbi Riskin explains that there are two different types of disputes. One dispute is for the sake of learning and appreciating other perspectives, such as the disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Another type of dispute is done for the sake of standing out and to create a divide, such as the dispute of Korach. This could help us answer our questions: Korach took for the sake of taking and argued for the sake of argument. The punishment and cure for such behavior was to be swallowed by the earth beneath. Earth gives nutrients to what grows in it and supports all that is on top of it.

    The cure for taking is to be surrounded by giving. Just like arguing can be done in a constructive way, so could anything else we do. It all starts with understanding our own personal motives and surrounding ourselves and our families with positive, supportive and giving environments.

  • Dvar for Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

    While the stage was set for the tribal leaders to lead the Jews into the Promised Land after returning with their report, Parshat Shelach describes the tragic negative report that led to the Jews being kept in the desert for 40 years until the next generation was ready to claim their Promised Land. As the Lubavitch Rebbe asked; roughly a year after the miracles in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the giving of the Torah and many other miracles, how could the tribal leaders suddenly doubt G-d’s ability to help us occupy the land that was promised to us? The Jews’ doubts are even more difficult to understand if you take into account Rachav’s description of Yericho’s residents’ fear of the Jews as they neared (Joshua 2:9-11).

    The Rebbe answered his question by saying that the leaders didn’t fear failure, they feared success. While in the desert G-d was close and intimate with His people. The leaders knew that when we entered the land we’d need to fight battles, create an economy, farm, and have other distractions. However, the Torah was built to thrive within society, and is a moral guide which is to be used for engagement with the world. While being close to G-d alone in the desert is an amazing experience, using the Torah to guide us within our world is its true purpose.

  • Dvar for Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:17)

    Parshat Beha’alotcha details several by the Jews, and the resolution of those complaints, including flying in quails and introducing prophets. The Torah then 1) records Miriam speaking negatively about Moshe, 2) tells us the fact that Moshe was the most humble person on earth, and 3) G-d defends Moshe to Miriam and Aaron. Is there a connection between the complaints, Moshe’s humility and Miriam’s Lashon Hara (harmful words)?

    Rabbi David Fohrman explains that Moshe’s humility meant that his sole purpose was to benefit G-d, which is why Moshe was also able to assert himself when required, and relinquish some of his responsibility to prophets when asked to. When you’re willing to be anonymous and forego your ego, that’s when you can affect the most change. That’s what G-d was conveying to Miriam, to the Jews, and to us – it’s not about who gets to deliver a message, it’s about getting the message to where it needs to get to.

    Bonus: The name of the place where all this happened was changed from Paran (10:12) to Tab’erah (11:3) because of the fire caused by the complaints, to Kivrot Ha’taavah (11:34) because of the craving for meat, and then back to Paran (12:16). It could be that once the lesson was learned, the Jews were able to regroup where it all started, with their new understanding about complains and humility.

  • 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.

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