• 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)

    Moshe was instructed to make the garments for “honor and glory” (28:2). The very next Passuk (verse) says that the wise-hearted people should make the garments to “sanctify him” so that the Kohen can serve G-d (28:3). What is the actual purpose of the priestly clothing? Is it for honor, glory, or sanctification? Additionally, how would honor, an internal characteristic, be associated with glory, an external characteristic?

    Rabbi Eliyahu Safran explains that the Kohen’s clothes themselves were modest and simple, while the Kohen provided the honor by behaving modestly and appropriately. A Kohen acting modestly helps associate all Kohanim with appropriate and modest behavior, thus glorifying the role and sanctifying G-d’s name in the process.

    We all have a responsibility to act honorably, which will lead to celebrating G-d’s greatness, which will lead to greater sanctity, spirituality, and purpose. When our actions are honorable, it reflects well on ourselves, our family, our community, and G-d.

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

    Parshat Terumah begins the detailed account of how the Jews were to construct the Mishkan, the temporary structure that was to house G-d’s presence throughout their travels. The details span five Parshiot (Torah readings), with only the story of the golden calf interrupting this narrative. In contrast to the story of creation, which only required 34 Pessukim (verses) to communicate, why would the Torah interrupt the many stories in Sefer Shemot (Exodus) dealing with the birth of a nation to convey such minute details about the construction of a temporary home for G-d’s presence?

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that what united the Jews as a people was their collective past as well as their struggle to be freed from slavery. However, once they were free, they were lost because they lacked a common goal, which led them to bicker, complain, and even build a golden calf. What solved all this was asking everyone to donate and to give together. The project doesn’t have to be prominent or even permanent, but the fact that people were able to give generously and as one brought them together and generated harmony.

    Amazingly, working together and allowing for individual contributions were more effective in uniting people than the earlier grand miracles. While the Mishkan did not last forever, the lesson it taught us did: Encouraging individual contributions enhances the group even more than it enhances the individual.

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

    This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, details many of the laws that the Jews are to follow. This is followed by the famous declaration by the people that they will “do and listen” (24:7) to all these laws. What’s less well-known is the fact that they had already accepted to follow these laws twice before and in this very Parsha. The differences between the first declarations and this third famous one are that 1) the people in unison declared the first two. In contrast, the third was not, and 2) the first two declarations only involved following the laws and not hearing them. What is the reason for these differences?

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a beautiful explanation. While the first two declarations involved strict adherence to a unified code of conduct and behavior, there was no room for individuality or divergence. That’s why the Jews’ confirmation was in unison. However, understanding of those edicts is very personal and varied, as everyone connects, appreciates, and understands them at their level. While everyone affirmed that they would listen to the laws, they did so at their level because Judaism leaves room for such individuality, and that is what makes us unique, as people and as a nation. While our actions unite us, embracing our uniqueness makes us stronger.

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

    Parshat Yitro chronicles Moshe’s father-in-law’s visit. As Yitro observed Moshe sitting and rending judgments for the people all day, he realized that the process was bad for the people and Moshe and that a more sustainable system must be installed. Yitro suggested a hierarchal judicial system that will allow people to “reach their place in peace” (18:23). Why would this delegation increase peace? If anything, being more removed from Moshe’s direct teachings would seem worse.

    The Netziv (19th-century scholar) asked this question and explains by quoting a Gemara (tractate) in Sanhedrin (6a). The Gemara there says that the preferred mode of conflict resolution is mediation because then both sides get at least some of what they want, thereby increasing overall peace while having a judge decide by definition means that one side loses. The one caveat is that if the judge has already analyzed the case and knows who is wrong and who is right, mediation is no longer allowed. With this, we can now understand that Moshe preferred justice, and his actions promoted true justice. However, for the good of the people and overall peace, Yitro argued that compromise was preferable, an argument that Moshe agreed with and implemented.

    What’s fascinating about this conclusion is that because Moshe was essentially a judge, he was unable to mediate. This necessitated a delegation that enabled others to thrive and contribute to their new Jewish brotherhood. We all have our strengths and limitations, and when we recognize each of those, we are able to rely on others to maximize our individual and collective potential.

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

    Parshat Beshalach records the song that the Jews sang as they escaped the final Egyptian threat and walked across the sea to safety. The second line of the song says that “this is my G-d ‘Ve’anvehu’” (15:2). Rashi (commentator) says ‘Ve’anvehu’ could mean “I will dwell with Him,” or “I will beautify him.” Yet another translation from the Gemara (Shabbos 133) is that it combines two words, “ani” and “ve’hu.” meaning that we are one with G-d by imitating Him. So which is the correct meaning of the word? Also, being that this is the beginning of the song as well as a reasonably famous phrase that we repeat in davening (prayers) regularly, shouldn’t the translation of the words be clear?

    Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explains that healthy relationships require respect and appreciation. Deeming something beautiful creates a healthy reverence, and works to preserve that affinity. Our question now becomes its answer, as all these elements of the word are vital in protecting not only our relationship with G-d but is a framework for maintaining relationships between people. To imitate and admire the qualities of a loved one is to be as one with them, allowing their beauty to shine, and appreciating our proximity to their greatest attributes.

  • Dvar for Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

    Our Parsha, Bo, starts with the eighth plague, as G-d informs Moshe that the last of the plagues are signs of G-d’s dominance (10:1). The next Passuk (verse) starts with a unique word “ulema’an,” (“and in order”) that you tell your children about the signs and miracles that G-d performed on our behalf (10:2). The only other time the word “ulema’an” is used is in reference to honoring your parents, proclaiming that the reward of honoring one’s parents is long life, “and in order” that things go well with us (Deut. 5:16). Wouldn’t the first seven plagues convey G-d’s dominance and greatness? What makes the last few plagues different? Also, what is the connection to honoring one’s parents? 

    Rabbi Yochanan Zweig offers a fascinating insight. He explains that the purpose of the last plagues wasn’t to show the Egyptians of G-d’s dominance, because that was already obvious. It was to show the Jewish people how much they mean to G-d and what He was willing to do for them. Similarly, the requirement to honor our parents is intended to benefit both them and ourselves by expressing how important they are to us.

    Love and honor benefit everyone, but only when they’re expressed. “And in order” that our children know that they are loved, “and in order” that our parents know that they are loved and appreciated for everything that they have done for us. Only by expressing affection to our loved ones can we perpetuate that love and hope to merit its growth.  

  • Dvar for Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

    Reading the story of how the Jews became enslaved to Egypt in Parshat Vaera and having the benefit of knowing how the story ends, one 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 Egyptians’ intent, which became clear when it was time to let the Jews go. Had the Egyptians done it with the intention of merely doing G-d’s will, they would have immediately let them go when the situation warranted it, and yet they did not. 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 or resources. The truth is revealed, 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.

  • Dvar for Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

    Parshat Shemot documents all the Jews that ended up in Egypt by their names. As the name of the Sefer (“Shemot,” or “names”) suggests, names recorded in the Torah serve the function of defining the essence of that person, place, or object. That’s why we begin with a counting, not of people, but names of people. With this introduction, it’s curious to find that the names of the midwives that helped keep the male newborns alive were recorded as Shifra and Puah. Rashi explains that these women were really Yocheved and Miriam, but that they were called Shifra and Puah because they beautified and cooed to the babies as they were born. Why would those actions warrant a name change, when their more virtuous action was saving these babies’ lives?

    Rav Ruderman explains that the greatness of a person is represented not in their grand actions, but in the little things they do. Yes, the women saved babies and were rewarded for that, but their true greatness was in the way they cared for the children when no one noticed. Their private actions are what truly defined them, and it’s what defines us.

  • Dvar for Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

    In this week’s Parsha, Vayechi, Yakov blesses his children and grandchildren, including the famous bracha (blessing) for protection for Yosef’s two children, Ephraim and Menashe (48:15-16). Curiously, Yakov’s bracha starts by acknowledging the G-d of his father and grandfather, but the blessing itself is for the angel that protected Yakov to protect the children. Why would Yakov’s bracha be for an angel to protect the children when G-d’s direct protection would presumably be preferable?

    The Limudei Nissan (Rav Nissan Alpert) explains that while G-d’s intervention previously involved open miracles, Yakov and his children headed to exile would benefit from the more subtle influence of a messenger of G-d. Throughout Yakov’s life, he had trouble with Eisav, Lavan, Dena, Yosef, and others. The resolution of each circumstance was positive, but the process of achieving that productive result was often stressful and traumatic.

    Seeing G-d’s indirect influence in our lives requires our focus on the hidden silver lining in every difficult situation. If we choose to see the sometimes hidden positives in our lives, we’ll be blessed to live a life filled with personal redemption. Yakov’s blessing is for us to not only recognize extraordinary miracles, but to appreciate the miracles of the ordinary.

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