• 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!

  • 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 is sending 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 gleen 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 Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38)

    Parshat Pekudei, relates a very interesting exchange between Moshe and Betzalel, who built all the utensils for serving G-d in the desert. When Moshe told Betzalel to build the utensils before the actual housing (Mishkan) for them, Betzalel uncharacteristically spoke up, claiming that you couldn’t have the tools without first building the house because you’d have nowhere to put them. Moshe thought about it, agreed, and praised Betzalel for his insight. This seems very odd, being that Moshe got his orders from G-d, and there was never a valid reason to deviate until now. Why did Moshe suddenly change the way it was to be done?

    As Rashi helps us understand, Betzalel’s reasoning had a more global meaning: Jews can’t just perform the actions (Mitzvot) that are required, without first having a ‘home’ for them. To some that home is a real home where they can share the learning and performance of Torah with their families. To others that home lies within their hearts, as they struggle to be Jews in an environment that’s not as supportive. But each of us has to perform Mitzvot and store them within our own “Mishkan” (housing). The point is not to just perform G-d’s commandments and hope that one day we’ll be inspired to grow from them, but to always have in mind that our goal is to realize their value. To appreciate and learn of the beauty of the Torah is to realize that we’ve always had a home for it in our hearts.

  • Dvar for Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)

    In Parshat Vayakhel, it describes that the frame of the Tabernacle was constructed of “shittim wood, standing.” The talmud offers several explanations of this phrase. The first and simplest is that it refers to the orientation of the planks used in the construction; they should be vertical rather than horizontal. Another interpretation is that “standing” means that they are standing to this very day – the Tabernacle has been hidden away, but has not been destroyed. R’ Baruch Simon cites a number of sources who contrast this to the Temple, which was burned to the ground. Why will the Tabernacle stand forever while the Temple has been destroyed?
    He explains that the Temple was largely constructed by the hired labor of Tyrean craftsmen who were working for money, not for the sake of the task itself. Their hearts weren’t truly in it. However, the Tabernacle was built by Jews themselves, out of commitment and love of G-d. Our accomplishments are most likely to endure when they are done in this fashion, with dedication and for their own sake.

  • 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.

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