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

    From Dan Lifshitz: At the beginning of the Parshat Tetzaveh, the Jews are commanded to bring the purest olive oil as fuel for the lamp in the Tabernacle. Rashi explains that the purest olive oil is required for the lamp, but not for the flour offerings brought in the Tabernacle.  What is the significance of this ritual detail?
    R’ Baruch Simon, quoting from the Chasam Sofer, explains that this rule runs contrary to how one would act at home.  A person would use the purest, best tasting olive oil in food, and use a lower grade of oil as fuel, where the taste doesn’t matter.  However, in the Tabernacle, the best grade was used for the lamp and a lesser grade for the equivalent of food.  The lamp symbolizes wisdom, Torah and the life of the spirit while the flour offering symbolizes material things. This detail regarding which oil should be used for which purpose in the Tabernacle is actually teaching a broad lesson about priorities in life. Often, the inclination is to seek out the best and to expend the most effort in material matters, while settling for “good enough” in the spiritual realm.  The olive oil is teaching us that the opposite outlook is the proper one.

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

    Parshat Terumah is the beginning of the building of the Mishkan, where G-d would dwell among the Jews as they traveled in the desert. To build the Mishkan materials had to be collected, and G-d commanded the Jews to collect several types. After listing the need for metals, wools, hairs, skins, and wood, the Torah tells us that they collected “oil for illumination” and “spices for the anointment oil and incense”. Why does the Torah suddenly need to tell us what the materials were to be used for, when it hadn’t discussed it thus far?

    One possible answer is that there are two differences between the characteristics of the other materials and those of the oil and spices. Firstly, while the other materials were important, they required no effort in producing, while the oil and spices had to be manufactured and maintained. Those people that didn’t have the precious stones to donate to the building of the Mishkan still had the opportunity to contribute with their efforts instead! Secondly, both the oil and the spices are of the most ‘giving’ materials used in the Mishkan; The oil was used to light the Menorah, which gives off light to everything around it, and the spices give off a beautiful smell to its surroundings. The message it clear…The most beautiful and giving things in life are those that require our active effort. Spices smell and oil illuminates BECAUSE someone took the time and effort to make them. The same can be said today…Being a good person and a good Jew is beautiful and rewarding to ourselves and to others, but only BECAUSE we take the time and effort to understand and cultivate it.

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

    The last sentence of this week’s Parsha states that ramps should lead to the altar. (Exodus 20:23)  Why are ramps used and not steps? Rashi says the issue is one of modesty.  In the ancient Near East nudity was associated with ritual activity, a link is rejected by Torah.  If there were steps, the robe of the priest would be upset while he climbed them, revealing the nakedness of his limbs.  With ramps, this would not occur.

    Rabbi Weiss offers another idea. The altar symbolizes a central place of spirituality, the ramps connecting the ground with the altar teach that in order to reach the higher world of the spirit one must be in constant motion.  Ramps imply perpetual movement, whereas steps can offer rest.  In the world of the spirit, one can either ascend or descend, never can one stand still.

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

    After the Jews made it across the sea, this week’s Parsha (Beshalach) introduces the Jews singing in joy. Moshe sang with the men (15:1), and then Miriam sang with the women (15:21). Both of them sang, while the people responded.  However, when Miriam sang, the Passuk (verse) says that she responded to “them” in masculine form. If she sang with the women, why is the word in masculine form? Also, of all the verses that Miriam chose to repeat of Moshe’s song, she chose this: “sing to G-d because He’s great; horse and wagon drowned in the sea”. Why did she choose this seemingly random verse?

    To understand this, we must ask ourselves why the horses drowned, if only their riders had sinned? Rav Chashin tells of a much deeper exchange between Moshe and Miriam: After Moshe sang with the men, Miriam responded to MOSHE by telling him that the horses were punished just like the soldiers on the backs because they facilitated those soldiers. By the same token, Miriam is telling Moshe that the women deserve just as much credit as the men, regardless of their potential difference in familial roles. Miriam’s message couldn’t be more true today: Helping someone follow the Torah’s laws is as important as personally following the Torah’s laws. If we all try our best to follow the Torah’s laws, and help others do the same, we’ll all sing together, in harmony.

  • Dvar for Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

    Parshat Bo continues with the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, and the exodus that followed. We find one interesting event that happened when Paroh called in Moshe and Aaron to bargain with them, right after being warned of the upcoming locust plague. After offering to allow only the men to go, and being rejected, Paroh kicked Moshe and Aaron out of the palace. The “Riva” wonders why they waited until they were kicked out of the palace, when they could have left before it got to that point. The Riva answers that had Moshe and Aaron left before being told to leave, they would have shown a lack of respect for Paroh, thereby embarrassing him. Since it was Paroh that had originally invited them, and since he was the ruler of the land they were in, they showed him respect by not leaving until he told them to, despite their embarrassment.

    This amazing lesson in humility is even backed up by the events surrounding it. Locust, the plague directly following the story, was started by Moshe stretching his hands on the ground, symbolizing humility. Each and every single one of us has a common, ongoing struggle throughout our lives – our ego. If we simply stopped, thought, and realized about EVERY time we felt cheated or angry, we’d realize that it’s our own ego that’s letting us get angry or feel cheated, and if we learned to set that ego aside, we would accomplish SO much more, comparable to the accomplishments of Moshe and Aaron! Our ego will control our action and reactions, unless we learn to control it!

  • Dvar for Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-9:34)

    The Hebrew language has so many hidden lessons, and one such lesson lies within this week’s Parsha (portion), Vaeira, where G-d promises to take the Jews from under the ‘burdens’ of Egypt (6:6). But as the Rebbi of Gur explains, the Hebrew word that means ‘burden’ also means ‘tolerant’, which would make the Passuk (verse) read…”I will deliver you from being tolerant of Egypt”. We find proof for this tolerance when even after the Jews were released from Egypt, when the situation looked bleak, they wanted to go back to slavery. Had their slavery been such a burden, why would they ever consider going back?

    The answer is that the problem was not that they were overworked, but that they were too tolerant of their surroundings! Hashem therefore told them, and is telling us, that the first step Jews have to take is to realize when we are ‘slaves’ to our society. If we tolerate our surroundings, not only will we not appreciate how LUCKY we are to be different, but also we’ll forget that we even ARE different! In a society where some people hide their religious identity, the Torah is telling us to always keep in mind our ultimate differences as Jews, to never settle for being just like everyone else, and to love it, show it, and prove it in constructive ways every chance we get! In response to this Parsha, we should all pick one way to show the world, and OURSELVES what it means to be a Jew, whether it’s by volunteering to visit the sick, to give charity, or to say one Perek (paragraph) of Tehillim (Psalm) every day. Find a way to find your way!

  • Dvar for Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

    The most repetitive phrase you hear when you get engaged/married is “you should build a Bayit Ne’eman (sturdy home), and it just so happens that this week’s Parsha is the very first time in the Torah that this concept is mentioned, so it might be nice to try and understand it:

    When Yocheved and Miriam, the 2 midwives responsible for delivering the Jewish babies, were ordered by Paroh to kill all the newborn boys, they disobeyed a direct order, thereby risking their lives. In explaining this to us, the Torah says that G-d rewarded them, the nation prospered and multiplied, and G-d “built them houses” (1:20-21) –  not literal houses, but rather that their descendants would become great pillars of Jewish leadership and religion (Rashi). From the way the Passuk (verse) elucidates it, though, it seems that they were rewarded AND there were houses built for them. Were they rewarded twice? If so, why?
    Rabbi Rubman points out that the Passuk says that it wasn’t because they risked their lives that they were rewarded with great descendants, but because they feared G-d that they deserved it. The reason for the double-language is because they were 1) rewarded for risking their lives, and 2) houses were built based on their fear and respect of G-d. What’s unique about these rewards is that their fear/respect of G-d is what warranted eternal reward, and NOT their life- risking actions. If the motives behind our actions are sometimes more important than the acts themselves, even if the act is life threatening, then the Torah’s message is that it truly is the thought that counts.

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

    From Midgal Ohr: When Yosef sent his brothers to bring his father, Yaakov, the Sifornu implies that Yosef urged them to hurry and bring Yaakov down “so he could be happy to see.” What should Yaakov be happy to see? Some commentaries explain that Yosef stressed his position of power because he wanted to reassure his father that he could care for him and provide for his needs. But that doesn’t explain why Yaakov would be “happy” with what he would see in Egypt.

    Perhaps, it is true that Yaakov would be unimpressed by honor and power, and the ability to “care for” Yaakov wasn’t an enticing thought because G-d always provided for him. It may be, though, that this message was exactly what Yaakov needed to hear. Yosef’s brothers had been jealous of him all those years ago. They were insulted by his visions of grandeur and this strife led to his sale into slavery. If Yaakov were to go down to Egypt to see Yosef, he might fear suffering a continuation of this animosity. That is why Yosef sent the message he did. When the brothers would tell their father that Yoseph had in fact ascended the throne, and when they recounted all that had transpired, Yaakov would be able to see from their expressions and tones of voice that they had repented of their jealousy and would now be able to live in peace. To see his twelve sons living together in harmony was something that would undoubtedly give him great joy, and he would rush to see it.

    Additionally, it was important for the brothers themselves to be able to get past their earlier pettiness by proving to themselves that they could speak of Yosef’s prestige and not feel bitter, just as they were happy when they didn’t feel jealous when Binyamin received more than they did. Yosef knew that they might still suspect themselves of jealousy in regard to him, and this way he enabled them to see that they had indeed overcome the obstacle and were better people than before.

  • Dvar for Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40.23)

    Rav Kaminetsky explains that Yaakov had taught Yosef all that he’d learned in the Yeshiva (school) of Shem and Eiver where he studied, and where Yitzchok AND Avraham studied as well. The main strength of that school was that they taught Torah that could survive in negative environments. Avraham used it to deal with the rest of the world, Yitzchok used it to deal with Yishmael, and Yaakov used it to deal with Lavan and Esav. Now Yaakov was teaching it to Yosef, and the brothers were worried. Were they as bad as Esav or Lavan? Why would Yaakov have to teach Yosef that Torah? Little did they know that Yosef would need it to deal with Egypt, and all the trials he would face there. Yaakov loved Yosef more because he learned more, and WANTED the other brothers to be jealous (that’s why he made him the shirt), so that they’d want to learn it too! But instead they became jealous for the wrong reasons. It was THEN that Yosef tried to tell them that they shouldn’t be jealous, because he had to learn for his OWN sake, because he’d have to be a leader in a foreign land (as the dreams with stocks suggested, since there were no stalks where they lived). But the brothers had let themselves be blinded by hate, and couldn’t see the truth, as obvious as it may have been.

    There’s an important lesson in all of this, and that is that jealousy can be used in a good way, as Yaakov TRIED to do. But if we’re not careful, we could miss the whole point, and end up doing things we shouldn’t. The first test is to ask ourselves if we want something because we need it, or simply because someone else has it. We should be jealous of things we can learn and grow from, like Torah knowledge, good character traits, and even courage and persistence. Everyone has qualities we can and SHOULD be jealous of, as long as we use it NOT to prove ourselves, but to improve ourselves.

  • Dvar for Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

    In this week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, we find Yaakov crossing the Jordan River with his family, and going back for some small earthenware jugs that he forgot (Talmud: Chulin 91). Why would a wealthy man such as Yaakov have to go back for a few jugs? The answer, according to Rabbi Shraga Simmons, is that Yaakov lived with the understanding that whatever possessions G-d gave him were for a purpose. As such, the jugs were as precious as jewels. To Yaakov, the fact that they were inexpensive didn’t matter. Rabbi Ezriel Tauber explains this with the following metaphor: If we were thirsty and asked a friend to bring us water, if they bring a paper cup filled with water, we would drink the water and throw out the cup. But now let’s say we were wandering in the desert dying of thirst. If we were to lift our eyes to Heaven and say, “G-d, I’m dying, please make a miracle and send water!!” and behold, a hand reaches down from Heaven and gives us water in a paper cup. We would certainly drink the water… But what about the cup? We wouldn’t throw it away – a cup from Heaven is a great souvenir! Because G-d could have sent us the water any way He wanted, like making it rain, or created a well, or simply opened our mouth and pouring the water in. The fact that G-d handed us a paper cup tells us that He not only wanted us to have the water, He wanted us to have the cup too.

    We’re only expected to work with the tools G-d provides, and whatever He provides is precisely what we need. Whether or not the eventual goal is completed is only in G-d’s hands. This idea of having everything we need is emphasized again in our Parsha, when after 20 years apart, Yaakov is reunited with his twin brother Esav. In describing their state of affairs, Esav says, “I have a lot;” and Yaakov says, “I have everything”. (33:9-11) The difference is subtle, but in fact speaks volumes. Esav is saying “I have a lot…” but I sure could use more, whereas Yaakov is saying, “According to my part in G-d’s grand eternal plan, I have everything – exactly what I need.” If we look at every possession (even little jugs) and situation as a special gift from G-d, the puzzle of life becomes truly meaningful, and more importantly, complete.

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