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

    Parshat Vayikra includes instructions “if a leader has sinned” (4:22). The Talmud interprets “if” to be derived from the word “fortunate” (asher and ashrei), which would make the verse read, “fortunate is the leader that has sinned”. How does that make sense?

    Rabbi Twerski explains that it’s referring to the generation being fortunate to have a leader that admits when they make a mistake. As Moshe exemplified, the Torah values truth over all else. Even though there might be ways to justify being less than truthful, Moshe resisted those temptations, and always spoke the truth, even to his possible detriment (Leviticus 10:20). If our leaders establish a precedent for truth, we would be fortunate to have them as our role models, and would not hesitate to admit when we’re wrong. Truth really does set you free (if it is to correct mistakes, that is).

  • Dvar for Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34)

    Parshat Bechukotai begins by Hashem (G-d) proclaiming, “if you will walk in My decrees and observe My commandments…” (26:3), then 1) the rains will come in their season, 2) trees will bear fruit, 3) you will have bread, 4) there will be peace in the land, and 5) a sword will not pass through the land. Rashi (noted commentary) explains that “walking with My decrees” means that we should toil in understanding the decrees of the Torah. Although Rashi addresses the seemingly incorrect syntax of “walking” in laws, Rashi doesn’t explain how walking/toiling in the Torah is accomplished, nor does it explain how the rewards correlate to the toiling or performance of the commandment (a common rule throughout the Torah).

    A possible explanation could be a metaphoric reference to walking, telling us that it’s not enough to sit back, read the Torah like a book, rather that we should pace and ponder every bit of the Torah, and never be satisfied with not knowing what, how, or why something is done. So why does the Torah list THESE specific rewards for making an effort to understand the Torah? Well, don’t just read this thought, ponder the questions (possible answer may include the educational benefits of others seeing you care enough to look for answers)…

  • Dvar for Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

    Parshat Behar includes the rare occasion of the Torah asking a question for us. When describing the laws of Shmita (leaving the land unattended every seventh year), the Torah says “and if you should say ‘What will we eat in the seventh year?'” (25:20). The answer given is that G-d will supply enough food in the sixth year to last three years, long enough for the land to start producing again. Why is the Torah asking the question for us, rather than just letting us know that food will be supplied?

    Rabbi Lazer Gurkow answers that if you read the Passuk carefully, it says “if you should SAY”, demonstrating that the question is less of a quarrel and more of a statement of submission. When asked with humility, G-d rewards our trust with plenty. The Torah is not only informing us of the Shmita plans, but also showing us that our attitude and disposition when asking tough questions is as important as the questions themselves.

  • Dvar for Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

    Among many things, Parshat Emor lays down instructions for the Kohanim (Priests) to remain holy. Instructions include not coming in contact with dead bodies, and growing their beards and hair (21:1-5). Recanati (13th Century) points out an interesting difference between the instructions for the Kohamin to remain “holy”, and those of the Levites to be “pure”. What is the difference, and why?

    Recanati goes on to explain that being pure is simply a result of avoiding anything unclean, while being holy is an active quality of setting yourself apart. The Levites had to shave their hair, while the Kohanim grew it because ridding yourself of impurity requires shedding the past, while being holy requires working on yourself for the future. As a people charged with the task of being holy, we need to be both pure AND holy, and learn to merge the past with our future.

  • Dvar for Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

    Parshat Kedoshim is one of several that imparts us with “Jewish Values”, one of which is the commandment not to steal. In an effort to drive home the point, the Torah uses several terms that seem redundant, when it says “Do not steal, do not deny falsely, and do not lie to one another” (19:11). Other than making sure we get the point, what is the significance of these specific forms of honesty being listed?

    The Gemara in Makot (24a) sheds some light by saying that the Torah is telling us to speak the truth in our hearts, like Rav Safra did. The Gemara goes on to tell the story of Rav Safra who was Davening (praying) when someone came to buy something from him. When Rav Safra didn’t respond because he was praying, the buyer raised his price several times, until finally Rav Safra finished praying and responded. Rav Safra insisted on selling the object at his original price, even though the man offered more because in his heart Rav Safra agreed to the first price.

    The Torah is driving home that we should not steal in actions or words. That means not manipulating people to get what you desire, not distorting words to fit your opinion, and not frivolously demanding from others. If we live by these Torah values, we’ll hopefully fully value them.

  • Dvar for Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)

    From a literal perspective, the names of Parshiot are nothing more than the first major word of the part of the Torah that is read during the week.  It can, however, be argued that deep meaning actually lies within the names themselves.  This week’s Parsha, Acharei Mot, literally means “after death”, and next week’s Parsha, Kedoshim that means “holiness”, are fine examples of this phenomenon.

    Imagine walking into a dark room for the first time.  Not knowing one’s way or one’s place, one trips over the furniture, unaware of which way to turn.  However, after days and weeks and months and years, when one walks into that very same dark room, although the darkness still exists, with time we learn how to negotiate the furniture and we can make our way. This week’s Parsha reminds us that after life ends (Acharei Mot), there can always be Kedoshim – a sense of continuum that is expressed through holiness.  How so?  The challenge of death is to keep the person who has died alive in spirit.  Indeed the Talmud says, there are some people who are actually living yet are not really alive – they’re only going through the motions.  On the flip side, there are others who, although physically dead, continue to live through the teachings they left behind and through those whom they have touched in life. The goal is to live a life of character, purpose and meaning, and let those that have passed live through our actions.
  • Dvar for Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

    Parshat Metzora discusses the subject of a supernatural discoloration of the walls of a house that renders the house and its contents ritually impure. An individual who suspects such a problem in his house must go to a kohen and say “it appears that I have a nega in the house.” They must go themselves, and cannot send an agent. The Ktav Sofer points out that the phrase “the house” is somewhat inappropriate in this context, especially given the fact that the owner must go himself.
    We would have expected the phrase to read “in MY house” not “THE house.”

    The Ktav Sofer explains the choice of words:  The Sages teach that house discolorations is a punishment intended to help make stingy people more generous.  Many details of its laws serve this purpose.  Even the choice of words reinforces this message. To a stingy person, it is MY house, MY car, MY money.  The Torah requires this person to say “in THE house” to begin teaching them that their possessions are not truly theirs, but rather gifts from G-d with which to do good.

  • Dvar for Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

    The primary subject of Parshat Tazria is tzara’at, a supernatural skin disease that, according to the Sages, was a punishment for speaking ill about other people.  A person who habitually spoke ill about others would be struck with tzara’at and would then be quarantined outside the city as a divine warning to improve their behavior and make themselves more worthy of dwelling within the community.  Although the symptoms of tzara’at were fairly straightforward, the official diagnosis could only be made by a kohen, who would declare whether a given patch of skin contained tzara’at or not.  The Torah describes one type of skin lesion called a “bohak” that is not tzara’at, but is required to be shown to a kohen as well.  R’ Moshe Feinstein asks about the purpose of this – if it is not tzara’at, why does the Torah trouble people to show it to the kohen?

    R’ Moshe Feinstein explains based on the insight mentioned earlier.  The purpose of tzara’at is to cause a person to evaluate their behavior and to make improvements.  The trauma of being quarantined outside the city for a week or more is clearly a strong catalyst for such self-examination, similar to the way serious illness or loss of a job triggers self-examination in our day.  But we must not wait for such dramatic events to examine our actions.  The law of the bohak teaches us that even smaller events in our lives should be seen as catalysts for introspection and self-improvement.  We can never know for certain what messages G-d is trying to send us, but we should always be listening, whether the message is loud or not.

  • Dvar for Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    The Gemara (Tractate) in Pesachim (3a) quotes: “A person should not speak in a negative way, as we see the Torah itself” went out of its way to speak nicely regarding the animals entering the Ark, describing the non-kosher animals as specifically that – non-kosher. It doesn’t call them Tamei (Impure). The Torah “wastes” words in order to teach us the importance of speaking nicely. From this week’s Parsha, Shemini, we have a problem with this Gemara.  The Torah continually refers to non-kosher animals as Tamei (11:4 and others). What happened to speaking nicely?

    R’ Mordechai Kamenetzky answers that the difference is that the story of the Ark is a narrative, which is when people should be careful to tell it over in a nice way, refraining from Lashon Hara (slander) or negativity of any sort. In our Parsha, however, the Torah describes the nitty-gritty laws of what one may eat. In our case, it’s important to give a resounding “TAMEI!” when discussing these matters, as the consequences are much graver. It should be the same when dealing with children and others around us who may not know better. We speak softly in order to get them to understand history, reasons and customs of Judaism. However, as the metaphor of food may hint at, if they are in imminent danger of internalizing negative influences, it’s time to fearlessly admonish them. When dealing with clear right and wrong, the Torah tells us that sometimes it’s necessary to boldly speak where no one has spoken before.

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

    Our Parsha, Tzav, informs us that the priests’ first task of the day was to remove the ashes from the offering sacrificed the previous day (Leviticus 6:3). Is there any significance to this being the priests’ first order of business with which to start the day?

    Rabbi Avi Weiss explains that the priest begins the day by removing the ashes to illustrate the importance of his remaining involved with the mundane. Too often, those who rise to important positions separate themselves from the people and abandon the everyday menial tasks. By starting the day with ash-cleaning, the Torah insists it shouldn’t be this way.

    A few years ago a couple appeared before Rabbi Gifter, asking him to rule on a family dispute. The husband, a member of Rabbi Gifter’s kollel (an all day Torah learning program) felt that, as one who studied Torah, it was beneath his dignity to take out the garbage. His wife felt otherwise. Rabbi Gifter concluded that while the husband should in fact help his wife he had no legal religious obligation to remove the trash. The next morning, before the early services, Rabbi Gifter knocked at the door of the young couple. Startled, the young man asked Rabbi Gifter in. No, responded Rabbi Gifter, I’ve not come to socialize but to take out your garbage. You may believe it’s beneath your dignity, but it’s not beneath mine. This message comes to us courtesy of the sacrificial ashes.

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