• Dvar for Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

    Parshat Tetzaveh famously lacks any mention of Moshe’s name, the first time that happens since his birth. Some commentators explain that this is in direct response to Moshe’s argument that if G-d doesn’t forgive the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf, He should “erase me from your book” (32:32). Although G-d did forgive the Jews, the punishment for suggesting a total erasure was borne out in our Parsha. However, although Moshe is not mentioned by name, he is certainly referred to many times, as the one given the many instructions for the priestly clothing. First, what sort of punishment is it, if he’s still mentioned? Second, why the punishment in the first place?

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests an alternate approach that bears a practical lesson for us. He first points out that the relationship between Moshe and Aaron was different because they actually got along, and even supported and complemented each other. Aaron represented kindness and peace while Moshe represented truth and humility. Truth is critical in inspiring a nation, while there wouldn’t be a nation to inspire without peace. They recognized each other’s role and respected their difference. That’s why Moshe left this entire Parsha to focus on Aaron and his sons. It wasn’t a punishment, but a lesson of honor and respect.

    The focus of this week’s Parsha on Aaron spotlights a brotherhood that finally worked, and laid a blueprint for us to emulate by respecting our differences and supporting the roles we each can play in creating the people we all can be.

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

    This week’s Parsha, Terumah, details the intricate instructions of building the Mishkan, a sanctuary for G-d, complete with utensils used for His service. Of all the items, however, only two were to be sculpted of one piece of gold: The Keruvim (the golden angels that rest on top of the ark cover), and the Menorah (the candelabra to be lit daily, with its six branches), complete with upside down goblets, knobs and flowers along its many stems (25:31-37). What was so special about the Menorah that required it be made of one piece of gold, when even the Ark itself didn’t have that same requirement (25:10-11)?

    Rabbi Israel Greenberg suggests that the branches represent different segments of the Jewish nation, and the ornaments on each stem represent diverse approaches of understanding the Torah, and that all people and all approaches contribute to a single goal of illuminating the world. Moreover, the upside down goblets represent not receiving liquid, but supporting the flame of our Torah. The knobs resembled apples, representing the sweetness found from within, and the flowers symbolize the novel insights that we discover hidden within the Torah text. All these factors represent all that the Torah has to offer, but only when they function as one unit, one segment of people inspiring another, and one form of study celebrating the other. We are all different, and those differences make each of us unique and golden, if we act as a cohesive group of people.

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

    Parshat Mishpatim lists many of the laws that govern Jewish living and also contains hidden treasures. One example can be found when the Torah describes the punishment for killing another person. Passuk (verse) 12 (21:12) says that when a person kills another he shall be put to death. The next Passuk offers an exception to that rule: When someone accidentally kills, they flee to a safe haven city which was established for those circumstances (21:13). The next Passuk (21:14) seems to go back to explain the first scenario of killing with intent. Why does the Torah restate the same law, seemingly out of order, adding the instruction to “take him” to die for his actions.

    One possible explanation could be that the 3 Pessukim (verses) discuss 3 different scenarios. The first scenario is when someone kills another with intent, the second scenario is when intent is not there, and the third is where intent is there but no action is taken. What do you do with someone that tries to hurt another but doesn’t? You take them out to punish them, but taking them out to punishment is their actual and full punishment, possibly invoking fear, or helping them visualize the punishment to dissuade future actions.

    This set of laws highlights intent as an integral aspect of not only our behavior, but in evaluating others’ actions. And when intent is unclear, don’t judge.

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

    Parshat Yitro contains the first time we are introduced to the ten commandments, often overshadowing other important messages conveyed in our Parsha. One such message can be found when the Torah describes the Jews leaving Rephidim and leading to Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), where they would end up accepting the Torah. Why does the Torah tell us that they left Rephidim, when it seems rather obvious that they left where they were to get to Sinai?

    Rephidim was not only where the Jews were attacked by Amalek, but was also known to be the only oasis in the region, a fact Amalek used to their advantage when planning the attack on the Jews. Once the battle was over, the Jews were able to enjoy the comforts of that oasis. It is therefore important for us to know that the people were not only willing but excited to leave the comforts of their environment to accept a Torah with many unfamiliar and sometimes difficult rules and attributes. Comfort sometimes breeds complacency, a lesson easily overlooked but also a key to personal change and growth.

  • 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 Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

    Parshat Vayechi contains many blessings that Yakov bestowed on his family, a few of which are widely used today. One of the popular ones is “May G-d make you like Efrayim and Menashe” (48:20), ironically given to Efrayim and Menashe. What makes Efrayim and Menashe special? Furthermore, Yakov crossed his arms when blessing them, such that the younger one (Efrayim) got Yakov’s right hand, while his left hand rested on the older one (Menashe). After having experienced sibling jealousy with his own brother Esav, as well as the brothers’ jealousy of Yosef, one would think that Yakov would be sensitive about showing favoritism towards a younger sibling. Why would he risk more sibling resentment?

    The answer lies in the timing of this blessing. Yakov places his crossed hands on Efrayim and Menashe (48:14), blesses them (48:15-16), Yosef tries to correct Yakov (48:18), Yakov refuses (48:19), and then Yakov blesses his grandchildren. As the Bnei Yissoschhar explains, the fact that the two brothers accepted their fate, without complaining during this whole ordeal, or harboring any ill feelings in the future is what made them great, and is the very blessing that we bestow on our children today. Accepting our roles without letting jealousy or ego get in the way of personal contentment is a true blessing, not just for our own well-being, but for our family and community as well.

  • Dvar for Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

    After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers in Parshat Vayigash, the brothers travel back to Yakov (Jacob) to relay the good news. After momentary disbelief, Yakov’s spirits are lifted (45:27) and the next Passuk relates that Yisrael immediately informed everyone that he will go see Yosef before he dies (45:28).  Why did the Torah call him Yakov in one Passuk and Yisrael in the very next verse? Furthermore, in Pessukim (verses) 46:2, 46:5 and 46:8 the names Yisrael and Yakov are both used. Which is it, and why the variance?

    Rabbi Shimon Klein (etzion.org.il) suggests that the name Yakov reflects a human perspective dealing with natural human and grounded interactions, while Yisrael expresses a higher destiny, meaning and perspective, a name declared by G-d Himself. Once Yakov realizes that Yosef was alive, he realized that there was a higher purpose that was now set in motion, and that a nation was being formed, as “Bnei Yisrael.” G-d then address’s Yakov’s mortal fears of leaving a land he was told not to leave (46:2), reassuring him that a great nation will emerge. Then the newly minted nation carried Yakov to Egypt for the next stage of their journey (46:5).

    The whole is always bigger than its parts, and a group functions better than individuals. Our Parsha takes it a step further: A higher purpose not only transforms us when we’re together, it transforms us as individuals as well. G-d told Yakov (46:2) that he, as Yakov, should not be afraid of the challenges that lie ahead. We as individuals should not be afraid of life’s challenges, for a higher purpose not only unites us as a people, but empowers us as individuals.

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