• Dvar for Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

    This week’s Parsha, Beshalach, is filled with miracles, transitions and complaints. The inaugural complaint by the Jewish people involves their fear of being overrun by the pursuing Egyptian army, to which Moshe responds “stand firm and watch…” how G-d will save us (14:13). The word used to instruct the Jews to stand firm is “hit-yatzvu”, a word seldom used by the Torah. Why would it be important for us to stand firm while G-d fights our battle, and what’s the significance of that special word?

    Rabbi Fohrman (www.alephbeta.org) explains that the word hit-yatzvu was used when Miriam stood to see what would happen to Moshe when watching him by the river. Her actions demonstrated her belief that things will work out, despite the perilous risk to Moshe’s life. There’s a difference between observing something and having conviction of a certain outcome. Moshe’s message was not only to have faith in Hashem but to teach them to have steadfast conviction in the result. When we encounter struggles in life,  through one word G-d reminds us to not only have faith but conviction that G-d will also help us through them. Just watch.

  • Dvar for Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

    Parshat Bo describes the final 3 plagues before Paroh kicks out the Hebrews. The first plague in this Parsha is “Arbeh”, or locust (10:12). Ironically, the same word “arbeh” is used after the Akeida, when G-d promises Araham that his offspring will be many (Gen. 22:17). There, “arbeh” means that G-d will multiply Avraham’s descendants. Why would the same word be used to describe a plague and a promise of a great future? Also, when this plague started, the locusts were brought in by an east wind (10:13). Why is that important for us to know?

    The plague of locusts also included darkness caused by the quantity of locusts in the air, because this also describes Paroh’s distorted vision of what the Hebrews represented. In fact, the entire plague could be a metaphor: People that came from the east (Canaan is east of Egypt), multiplied, and Paroh perceived to be a threat, when in fact they were just doing what G-d had promised their ancestors would happen. The only difference between reality and Paroh’s perception of reality is his perspective, which explains why the same word can describe both.

    Sometimes we need to reorient our perspective, make sure our goals aren’t misguided, and recommit ourselves to reaching those goals.

  • Dvar for Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

    Parshat Vaera relates G-d introducing the name Kel Shakkai (spelling was modified, out of respect for the actual name) to Moshe (6:2-3), and tells him that the forefathers all knew Him as Kel Shakkai, but that now I am YHVH (we don’t know how to pronounce that, so we say Hashem). What is G-d telling Moshe? What is the difference between G-d’s different names, and what will now change?

    Beth Lesch of AlephBeta pieces together several clues that can combine as an answer to our question. She points out that the first time Kel Shakkai is introduced is when G-d appeared to Avraham (17:1). There, Avraham is instructed to walk before G-d. How does one walk before G-d? Skip to Yakov, who on his deathbed says “The G-d before whom my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak walked, the G-d who has been my shepherd.” (Gen. 48:15) G-d led as a shepherd leads, from the rear. You see, to herd sheep, you don’t lead from the front, for they will not follow. You lead from behind, the flock senses movements from behind them and moves as a group. It’s the perfect metaphor for how G-d guides us, as Kel Shakkai, and asks us to be his sheep, under His protection. The change in our Parsha is from G-d replacing His typical position of guiding us silently and subtly to guiding the Jews out of Egypt with miracles and spender. G-d’s attributes are used as needed, both in the times of the exodus, and in our current lives. Whether we’re being gently guided or boldly led, guidance is always there when we need it.

  • Dvar for Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

    In Parshat Shemot, the Torah delineates the story of Moshe’s origins, and how he became to be the leader that eventually guided the Jews out of Egypt. In his initial exchange with G-d, at one point Moshe asks “who am I that I should go to Paroh…” (3:11), to which G-d responds “Eheye imach” – for I will be with you (3:12). How is that a response to Moshe’s concern? If G-d being with Moshe is the only qualification, then anyone G-d chooses to accompany to Paroh would be qualified for the job. Further, in the very next Passuk Moshe asks G-d for His name, should the people ask, to which G-d responds “Eheye asher Eheye” – I will be what I will be, and then tells Moshe to tell the people that Eheye sent Moshe (3:14). How are we to understand the name/term Eheye in all these contexts?

    One possibility is that the term/name Eheye is a future presence. G-d was saying that He will be with the Jews in this crisis, as he will be in all future crises (Rashi). What defines G-d is His looking ahead rather than dwelling on the past. It’s why repentance is all about future actions, not dwelling on previous sins. In this context, G-d was responding to Moshe’s initial qualification argument by conveying that it’s not about where Moshe’s been or even how he is now, but what he will end up accomplishing, with G-d’s help. That’s also what the name is meant to represent to an enslaved nation, or to anyone facing a crisis – it’s not about the past or even the present, it’s about our future being bright, with G-d’s guidance.

  • 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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