• Dvar for Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

    When Yocheved and Miriam, the two midwives responsible for delivering the Jewish babies, were ordered by Paroh to kill all the newborn boys, they disobeyed a direct order, thereby risking their lives. In explaining this to us, the Torah says that G-d rewarded them, the nation prospered and multiplied, and G-d “built them houses” (1:20-21) –  not literal houses, but rather that their descendants would become great pillars of Jewish leadership and religion (Rashi). From the way the Passuk (verse) elucidates it, though, it seems that they were rewarded AND there were houses built for them. Were they rewarded twice? If so, why?

    Rabbi Rubman (Zichron Meir) points out that the Passuk says that it wasn’t because they risked their lives that they were rewarded with great descendants, but because they feared G-d that they deserved it. The reason for the double-language is because they were 1) rewarded for risking their lives, and 2) houses were built based on their fear and respect of G-d. What’s unique about these rewards is that their fear/respect of G-d is what warranted eternal reward, and NOT their life-risking actions. The Torah’s message is that the motives behind our actions are sometimes more important than the acts themselves, even if the act is life threatening. The Torah’s message is that when it comes to building a Jewish home, it truly is the thought that counts.

  • Dvar for Vayakhel/Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

    One of this week’s Parshiot, Pekudei, relates a very interesting story between Moshe and Betzalel, who built all the utensils for serving G-d in the desert. When Moshe told Betzalel to build the utensils before the actual housing (Mishkan) for them, Betzalel uncharacteristically spoke up, claiming that you couldn’t have the tools without first building the house because you’d have nowhere to put them. Moshe thought about it, agreed, and praised Betzalel for his insight. This seems very odd, being that Moshe got his orders from G-d, and there was never a valid reason to deviate until now. Why did Moshe suddenly change the way it was to be done?

    As Rashi helps us understand, Betzalel’s reasoning had a more global meaning: Jews can’t just perform the actions (Mitzvot) that are required without first having a ‘home’ for them. To some that home is a real home where they can share the learning and performance of Torah with their families. To others that home lies within their hearts, as they struggle to be Jews in an environment that’s not as supportive. But each of us has to perform Mitzvot and store them within our own “Mishkan” (housing). The point is not to just perform G-d’s commandments and hope that one day we’ll be inspired to grow from them, but to always have in mind that our goal is to realize their value. To appreciate and learn of the beauty of the Torah is to realize that we’ve always had a home for it in our hearts.

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

    Rav Aron Tendler explains that in this week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, Moshe confronted his greatest challenge as teacher and leader of the Jewish people. His nation and children were threatened with extinction for building a golden calf to worship, and all the evidence pointed to the Chosen People’s intentional betrayal of G-d. What possible defense could he have offered on behalf of his nation?

    The Gemara in Berachot 32a explains Moshe’s strategy in defense of the Jews. Rav Tendler explains that Moshe’s argument focused on the nature of the human and how it must modify G-d’s view of justice. Moshe argued that G-d Himself must accept partial blame for what had happened. It was G-d who had created a free willed creature that was inherently flawed. It was therefore inevitable that this creation would fail at some point. As it says, “There is no such thing as a Tzaddik (righteous person) who only does good and will never sin.” Therefore, Moshe argued, “If You created humans who inevitably will sin, You must have also established a system of justice that allows these flawed creatures to learn from their mistakes. There must be the possibility of Teshuva – repentance, or else Your entire system of justice does not make any sense. G-d agreed with Moshe because of the love that He had for his nation, and thus Moshe had established “unqualified love” as the foundation for our existence. However, unqualified love does not mean that actions do not have consequences – just the opposite. Moshe himself punished the 3,000 people who were directly involved in the sin of the Golden Calf. Unqualified love means that you always do what is in the best interest of those whom you love. Punishment, if it is truly warranted and properly executed, can be the greatest expression of love. Love, on the other hand, can only be true if it’s unwarranted and absolutely unqualified.

  • 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)

    The Aron (Tabernacle) contained the most precious gift the Jews got: the Tablets handed from G-d to Moshe. The receptacle had to be worthy of the insert, and therefore the Aron had to be intricately constructed with symbolism as meticulously configured as its beautiful  design. The Aron consisted of three contiguous boxes of gold, wood, and gold, each inserted into the other, and gold plated wooden staves with which to carry the Aron. The Torah goes on to state that “The staves shall remain in the ark; they shall not be removed” (Exodus 25:14). Rabbi Kamenetzky asked that if this is meant as a prohibition for anyone to remove the staves, why didn’t the Torah just command us not to remove them, instead of telling us that they won’t be removed?

    Rabbi Kamenetzky answers that perhaps the Torah is making a powerful prophecy in addition to a powerful regulation. The wooden staves represent the customs and the small nuances of the Torah (wood being the only element of the Tabernacle that was living and growing). They may not be as holy as the ark, but they will never leave its side. When the cherished handles of those staves are invoked into use, the entire Torah is raised with them. As the Torah is clearly demonstrating, the Torah is moved by the little actions that we do, the inconspicuous little  actions that impress no one, but mean the world to G-d.

  • Dvar for Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

    As the Torah puts it, “AND these are the laws you shall place before them…” Parshat Mishpatim starts by going right into the social justice code of the Torah, directly following the giving of the Torah itself. In fact, Rashi explains that we start with the word “And” to tell us that just like the last one, this Parsha was given at Sinai as well. Rabbi Yochanan Zweig wonders why there’s a separation between the Ten Commandments and the social laws. Also, isn’t it obvious that all the rules were given at Sinai, since the whole Torah was given then? Furthermore, why would the first rule described be the one about Jewish slaves, when that wouldn’t even be possible for at least 14 years after the Jews settle into their land? Wouldn’t it make more sense to start with more relevant laws?

    As Rabbi Zweig answers, there are two understandings of our relationship between man and G-d. We undertake to accept G-d’s Laws, but we also accept a responsibility for the welfare of our fellow Jew. This week’s Parsha is the focus on that second responsibility, that of caring for each other: We don’t steal because the rule in society is that we shouldn’t steal. What makes Jews unique is that we also don’t steal because we need to insure that our fellow Jew has/keeps what’s rightfully theirs. If we don’t care for the welfare of the other, then we’ve failed to maintain our own social justice. We see this difference in laws like our requirements to help another Jew load their animals, even if we happen to hate that person. We also see this difference in laws like our requirement to not ignore any lost objects we find.

    With that understanding, if there’s one person who hasn’t realized their responsibility to their fellow Jew… it’s the slave, who stole from another Jew, and gave themselves up to slavery to repay their debt. Not only did they ignore their charge to be only G-d’s servant, but they also ignored the boundaries of their fellow Jew. The Torah is clearly telling us that we have a responsibility to include into society even a Jew that we’d have a reason to exclude, and that’s why it’s the first law described. Last Parsha contained the concept of being G-d’s people, and doing what G-d needs. This Parsha focuses on the concept of being one people, and bringing us all together. A team is greater than its parts, but only if we each do our part for the team.

  • Dvar for Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

    The last sentence of this week’s Parsha states that ramps should lead to the altar (Exodus 20:23). Why are ramps used and not steps? Rashi says the issue is one of modesty. If there were steps, the robe of the priest would be upset while he climbed them, revealing the nakedness of his limbs. With ramps, this would not occur.

    Rabbi Avi Weiss offers another idea. The altar symbolizes a central place of spirituality, the ramps connecting the ground with the altar teach that in order to reach the higher world of the spirit one must be in constant motion.  Ramps imply perpetual movement, whereas steps can offer rest. In the world of the spirit, one can either ascend or descend, never can one stand still.

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

    After the Jews made it across the sea, this week’s Parsha (Beshalach) introduces the Jews singing in joy. Moshe sang with the men (15:1), and then Miriam sang with the women (15:21). Both of them sang, while the people responded.  However, when Miriam sang, the Passuk (verse) says that she responded to “them” in masculine form. If she sang with the women, why is the word in masculine form? Also, of all the verses that Miriam chose to repeat of Moshe’s song, she chose the verse “sing to G-d because He’s great; horse and wagon drowned in the sea.” Why did she choose this seemingly random verse?

    To understand this, we must ask ourselves why the horses drowned, if only their riders had sinned? Rav Chashin tells of a much deeper exchange between Moshe and Miriam: After Moshe sang with the men, Miriam responded to Moshe in the form of a metaphor by telling him that the horses were punished just like the soldiers on their backs because they facilitated those soldiers. By the same token, Miriam is telling Moshe that the women deserve just as much credit as the men, regardless of their difference in familial roles. Miriam’s message couldn’t be more true today: Helping someone follow the Torah’s laws is as important as personally following the Torah’s laws, and is in fact following those laws. If we all try our best to follow the Torah’s laws, and help others do the same, we’ll all sing together, in harmony.

  • Dvar for Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

    Parshat Bo contains the very first commandment the Jews received as a nation; the Mitzvah to have a Rosh Chodesh (new month), and to mark the beginning of every month thereafter (Exodus 12:2). What makes this commandment so important for it to be the very first commandment for the Jews as a people? Also, when describing the first month that the Jews need to acknowledge, the Torah fails to name that month. If the Torah values the months, wouldn’t it be important for the Torah to name those months, just like the Torah names important places the Jews had traveled through?

    The Ramban explains that the Torah referred to the months as “first”, “second” and so on, because the numbers refer to how many months the Jews were removed from the moment when we were established as a people. This helps focus our attention to the most important moment we had as a nation. It also focuses us on something else; The months we now controlled (both in name and in timing) dictate when holidays occur, when customs are performed, and even when G-d judges us. The very first commandment is the one that empowers us the most. The first commandment as a nation makes us partners with G-d, because although we didn’t determine the holidays to celebrate, we do determine when they are celebrated. So every time we celebrate Rosh Chodesh (like today), we should celebrate our partnership with G-d, and our being empowered to individually “name” the month as we, as a people, see fit.

  • Dvar for Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

    Reading the story of how the Jews became enslaved to Egypt in Parshat Vaeira, and having the benefit of knowing how the story ends, we can wonder why the Egyptians were punished for enslaving the Jews, when we know that the Jews needed to be enslaved, either as part of the decree, or as the process of becoming a cohesive nation?

    The Ramchal explains that the answer lies in the Egyptian’s intent, which became clear when it was time to let the Jews go. Had the Egyptians done it with the intentions of merely doing G-d’s will, they would have immediately let them go when the situation warranted it. The same is true of our lives: We can sometimes justify not giving as much, not volunteering enough, or not learning enough Torah by claiming not to have time. The truth comes out, though, when we do have time, on weekends, vacations, or between jobs/school. If we do what we can when we can, we will prove our appreciation for the Torah, and improve our appreciation OF the Torah in the process.

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