• Dvar for Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

    Among the questions about the land of Canaan that Moshe commanded the twelve spies to investigate was “does it have trees or not?” and then added “you should take from the fruit of the land.”  Rashi cites a midrash explaining that this question was not literally about trees, but rather whether there were upright people in the land whose merit might protect the inhabitants. The Satmar Rav (quoted in Talelei Orot) asks a question on the Midrash:  How were the spies to determine if there were upright individuals in the land?  We all know that there are plenty of phonies around and sometimes the person with the most pious exterior is disguising a rotten core.

    The Rav explains that “you should take from the fruit of the land” was Moshe’s advice on how to investigate the true character of the Canaanites.  Look at their “fruit,” their children and their students.  A person can easily fool the casual observer, but children and students are acutely sensitive to hypocrisy.  If there were truly upright and righteous people among the Canaanites, the spies would find upright and righteous children and students; but if there was no proper “fruit” to be found, then the “trees” were absent as well.  May we merit to have the sincerity and integrity to be “trees” that produce the proper fruit.
  • Special Dvar for Shavuot 5771

    On Shavuot we received the Torah, where the Rabbis recount the Jews’ proclamation that “we will do and we will hear” the laws of the Torah. The Rabbis explain that the other nations of the world were offered the Torah, and rejected it because they claimed that it was in their nature to steal and kill. But we know that both social and Noachide Laws both prohibit killing and stealing, so what was the reason for them to reject a law that they must already follow?

    As Rabbi Zweig explains, to answer this question we must ask another: On the third day of creation, the earth was commanded to produce all trees, and that the branches should all taste like the fruits of that tree (1:11). The earth did create the trees, but not all branches tasted like the fruits. How is this possible? If G-d commanded the earth to produce something, how can it not? The answer is that G-d also created the ability to disconnect from G-d and nature, and that’s what the earth did in that instance. By extension, anything that came from the earth, such as man, also contains the ability to disconnect from G-d (this was essential to give Man free choice­­­).

    With this perspective, it makes sense that when presenting the Torah, G-d was telling the nations that their true nature was not to want to kill or steal, but the nations were blinded by their disconnect, rejected this notion, and therefore couldn’t accept the Torah (they still had to abide by the laws, but they rejected the notion that it was their nature to adhere to them). On the other hand, the Jews embraced this connection to G-d, and understood that doing G-d’s will reinforces the connection that they already have, which is why they committed to doing before even hearing of all the laws. That’s why doing good things makes us feel good, why we feel guilty when we act improperly, and that’s why Shavuot is so important to reconnect to the source of our being, and the purpose of our being here.

  • Dvar for Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Parshat Bamidbar begins with the third official count of the Jewish nation. The term used in the Torah is that we should “count the heads” (1:2) of all the households, but the Hebrew word “Se-u” could also mean, “lift the heads”. Why would the Torah use such ambiguous language? Also, why were they to be counted according to their households, which had never been done in the past? Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage?

    Rabbi Zweig explains that surpassing the expectations that have been defined by one’s social upbringing is what gives a person a sense of accomplishment. If a person is able to identify their lineage, they might learn that their ancestors were people who took responsibility for themselves and had honorable standards. For the rest of the world, the very act of taking responsibility is in itself an elevating sense of accomplishment. However, behaving responsibly is not considered an accomplishment for G-d’s chosen nation. Jews are EXPECTED to behave differently than animals, to act responsibly, for our forefathers have set a standard that makes anything less unacceptable. This explains why households were important enough to be counted. The Ramban (Nachmanides) enforces the lesson of our Parsha by explaining the use of the Torah’s language: The alternative meaning of “lifting” of the heads can also be a positive, but only if the body and its actions are lifted with it. Our heads and minds can lift us to greatness, so long as we have our actions to take us there.

  • 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 sit back and read this Email, ponder the question…

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

    From Daniel Lifshitz: 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.
  • Special Dvar for Pesach (Passover) 5771

    From Rabbi Avi Weiss: The literal approach to the Haggadah’s four children is straightforward. On four different occasions, the Torah describes questions asked by children about Passover. Based on the language of the question, the author of the Haggadah labels each of them. One questioner is described as wise, the second rebellious, the third simple, and the fourth not even knowing how to ask. And the Haggadah, basing itself on the Torah text, offers answers to suit the specific educational needs of each child. But if we go beyond the literal approach, hidden messages emerge.

    While this section of the Haggadah is associated with youngsters, is it not possible that the children referred to here include adults of all ages? After all, no matter how old we are, we are all children-children of our parents and children of God. From this perspective, the message of the four children is that every Jew has his or her place in Judaism. The challenge is to have different types of Jews seated around the Seder table in open respectful dialogue, each contributing to the Seder discussion, each exhibiting love for the other. It also reminds us that we have much to learn from everyone – this realization is what truly makes us wise. In the words of Ben Zoma, who is mentioned just before this section in the Hagaddah, “eizehu hakham? Halomed mikol Adam. Who is wise? One who learns from each person.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

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

    From Rabbi Avi Weiss: 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 (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)

    From Dan Lifshitz: 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 like 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.
  • From Dan Lifshitz: 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 Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

    Parshat Tzav includes a Passuk (verse) scarcely commented on, describing how the Kohen (Priest) needs to remove the clothes he wore when he gathered the ashes of the Olah offering, put on “other clothing” (6:4) and remove the ashes. Why would a change of clothing be required for simply walking ashes?

    Rashi explains that it’s not proper to mix a cup of wine for one’s superior in the same clothing in which one cooked a pot. Rav Moshe Feinstein points out how the Torah considers the rules of proper decency and etiquette so important that it included laws to that effect in the Torah. Being decent and acting properly isn’t just a good idea, it’s the (Jewish) law!

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