• 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.

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

    Parshat Ki Tisa recounts the Jews’ creation of the Golden Calf, one of the worst sins we’ve ever committed, as well as Moshe’s negotiations with G-d in seeking atonement. The Torah describes G-d’s complaints to Moshe in 4 Pessukim (32:7-10), and then Moshe’s response in three Pessukim (32:11-13), which proved effective. Moshe’s response to G-d started with “why are you angry at your nation?” (32:11). Didn’t Moshe know why G-d was angry? How was this an effective defense?

    Rabbi David Fohrman explains that there are two elements to Moshe’s response that were effective. The first is the word he used for “why” is “Le-ma” (literally means “for what purpose”), which is a forward-looking question. Rather than using the alternate term “madua”, which is more focused on the past. Moshe also made a subtle adjustment to G-d’s complaint. While G-d initially said “go down because your nation acted corruptly”, Moshe’s response was “why are you angry at your nation?” Same word, but Moshe shifts the ownership. Moshe understood that getting over something upsetting requires taking ownership of what’s yours, and requires looking ahead. Once focus is on the future, moving past difficult situations becomes possible, and may even end up strengthening relationships, as this incident did for those that survived it. When we focus on our future rather than the past, we give ourselves a chance to live the life we choose.

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

    Parshat Tetzaveh famously lacks any mention of Moshe’s name, the first time that happens since his birth. Some commentators explain that this is in direct response to Moshe’s argument that if G-d doesn’t forgive the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf, He should “erase me from your book” (32:32). Although G-d did forgive the Jews, the punishment for suggesting a total erasure was borne out in our Parsha. However, although Moshe is not mentioned by name, he is certainly referred to many times, as the one given the many instructions for the priestly clothing. First, what sort of punishment is it, if he’s still mentioned? Second, why the punishment in the first place?

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests an alternate approach that bears a practical lesson for us. He first points out that the relationship between Moshe and Aaron was different because they actually got along, and even supported and complemented each other. Aaron represented kindness and peace while Moshe represented truth and humility. Truth is critical in inspiring a nation, while there wouldn’t be a nation to inspire without peace. They recognized each other’s role and respected their difference. That’s why Moshe left this entire Parsha to focus on Aaron and his sons. It wasn’t a punishment, but a lesson of honor and respect.

    The focus of this week’s Parsha on Aaron spotlights a brotherhood that finally worked, and laid a blueprint for us to emulate by respecting our differences and supporting the roles we each can play in creating the people we all can be.

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

    This week’s Parsha, Terumah, details the intricate instructions of building the Mishkan, a sanctuary for G-d, complete with utensils used for His service. Of all the items, however, only two were to be sculpted of one piece of gold: The Keruvim (the golden angels that rest on top of the ark cover), and the Menorah (the candelabra to be lit daily, with its six branches), complete with upside down goblets, knobs and flowers along its many stems (25:31-37). What was so special about the Menorah that required it be made of one piece of gold, when even the Ark itself didn’t have that same requirement (25:10-11)?

    Rabbi Israel Greenberg suggests that the branches represent different segments of the Jewish nation, and the ornaments on each stem represent diverse approaches of understanding the Torah, and that all people and all approaches contribute to a single goal of illuminating the world. Moreover, the upside down goblets represent not receiving liquid, but supporting the flame of our Torah. The knobs resembled apples, representing the sweetness found from within, and the flowers symbolize the novel insights that we discover hidden within the Torah text. All these factors represent all that the Torah has to offer, but only when they function as one unit, one segment of people inspiring another, and one form of study celebrating the other. We are all different, and those differences make each of us unique and golden, if we act as a cohesive group of people.

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