• 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.

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

    The very first Passuk (verse) in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) describes G-d calling Moshe to tell him about all the different offerings that needed to be brought, and how they should be performed. The last letter in the word “Vayikra” (which means “called”) was written smaller then the rest (the Alef). Why is this letter shrunk? Furthermore, why is the whole book called Vayikra, “And He called”?

    Most commentaries explain that Moshe didn’t want to make a big deal of the fact that G-d called him and no one else, and therefore wanted to use the same word without the last letter, which would still have the same meaning, but wouldn’t be as affectionate a greeting (it would mean “and G-d happened upon…”). This shows us the great sensitivity and humility that Moshe had. Rabeinu Yonah offers us an insight into humility and human nature by explaining that some people who feel that they are lacking in a quality or in knowledge sometimes compensate for it by lowering others, thereby making themselves seem like they’re better by comparison. Moshe was the greatest prophet, but he was also the humblest because he was confident in himself and in his abilities, and didn’t need to lower others, even indirectly.

    But there’s an even more powerful message Moshe could be teaching us: The one letter he chose to shrink was the Alef, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet…The very first step we have to glean is that even though Moshe was a great person, he sought to downplay it by shrinking that letter. But there’s yet another hidden hint for us in this word: The letter that’s  shrunk, Alef, actually has a meaning as a word: It means “to teach”. The message being taught to us is clear… The first and most important lesson in life is to recognize our egos, and work on not letting it control us (whenever we get angry, it’s because our ego is telling us that we deserve something.) The second lesson is that instead of lowering others to make us look better, we should raise our own standards, and become better. And finally, the last lesson is to take these lessons and teach and share them with someone else.

  • Dvar for Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

    One of this week’s Parshiot, Behar, relates that G-d spoke to Moshe (Moses) on Mount Sinai, saying that for six years you may plant your fields, but the seventh year is a Sabbath for the land. Why does the Torah specify that G-d is speaking on “Mount Sinai?”

    One possible explanation could be because the Sabbatical year is one mitzvah which proves that only G-d could be the Author who gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, because it is there that He promises that the year before the Sabbatical will provide enough crops for the next three years (25:20-21). No human being would ever write this law because it would be disproved within six years. The fact that G-d chose to display his control using this commandment also teaches us a lesson about our accomplishments. If G-d chooses to give us more (crops, money or otherwise), He can do so by having us win the lottery where it’s obvious that He intervened, or he can make our companies and crops suddenly produce better where we can be tempted to take the credit for the increase. It’s up to us to see the bigger picture, and recognize the value of G-d’s commitment to those that appreciate Him.

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

    Parshat Emor contains the commandment to count 49 days from the bringing of the omer barley offering on the day after Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. Although the Torah does not spell out the rationale for this mitzvah, the later Rabbinic literature identifies this 49 day period as a time for personal development; just as the Jews needed 49 days to rise from the level of impurity they reached in Egypt to the level of holiness required to receive the Torah on the first Shavuot, so too every individual should utilize the 49 days to ready themselves to commemorate the giving of the  Torah on each Shavuot.

    There is a famous legal dispute as to whether counting the omer is one mitzvah (commandment) with 49 parts or 49 separate mitzvot. Practically, both opinions are respected: If one forgot to count on a given day, they continue to count on the next day, in accord with the second view, but they no longer recite a blessing because according to the first view they have spoiled their fulfillment of the commandment.

    Perhaps each of these positions is relevant not just to the counting itself, but to the spiritual development for which we strive during this period of time.  On the one hand, spiritual accomplishments must be approached one step at a time. Each of the 49 days stands on its own and each step we take has great value.  On the other hand, individual steps that are intermittent are not enough to reach the goal.  For true success, continuity is needed as well, maintaining the effort for 49 days without fail.  May we merit to use the remaining days of this year’s counting of the omer to reach new heights.

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