• Dvar for Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

    Parshat Behar includes the rare occasion of the Torah asking a question for us. When describing the laws of Shmita (leaving the land unattended every seventh year), the Torah says “and if you should say ‘What will we eat in the seventh year?'” (25:20). The answer given is that G-d will supply enough food in the sixth year to last three years, long enough for the land to start producing again. Why is the Torah asking the question for us, rather than just letting us know that food will be supplied?

    Rabbi Lazer Gurkow answers that if you read the Passuk carefully, it says “if you should SAY”, demonstrating that the question is less of a quarrel and more of a statement of submission. When asked with humility, G-d rewards our trust with plenty. The Torah is not only informing us of the Shmita plans, but also showing us that our attitude and disposition when asking tough questions is as important as the questions themselves.

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

    Among many things, Parshat Emor lays down instructions for the Kohanim (Priests) to remain holy. Instructions include not coming in contact with dead bodies, and growing their beards and hair (21:1-5). Recanati (13th Century) points out an interesting difference between the instructions for the Kohamin to remain “holy”, and those of the Levites to be “pure”. What is the difference, and why?

    Recanati goes on to explain that being pure is simply a result of avoiding anything unclean, while being holy is an active quality of setting yourself apart. The Levites had to shave their hair, while the Kohanim grew it because ridding yourself of impurity requires shedding the past, while being holy requires working on yourself for the future. As a people, we need to be both pure AND holy, and learn to merge the past with our future.

  • Dvar for Acharei Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

    Parshat Kedoshim is one of several that tries to instill “Jewish Values”, one of which is the commandment not to steal. In an effort to drive home the point, the Torah uses several terms that seem redundant, when it says “Do not steal, do not deny falsely, and do not lie to one another” (19:11). Other than making sure we get the point, what is the significance of these specific forms of honesty being listed?

    The Gemara in Makot (24a) sheds some light by saying that the Torah is telling us to speak the truth in our hearts, like Rav Safra did. The Gemara goes on to tell the story of Rav Safra who was davening (praying) when someone came to buy something from him. When Rav Safra didn’t respond because he was praying, the buyer raised his price several times, until finally Rav Safra finished praying and responded. Rav Safra insisted on selling the object at his original price, even though the man offered more because in his heart Rav Safra agreed to the first price.

    The Torah is driving home that we should not steal in actions or words. That means not manipulating people to get what you desire, not distorting words to fit your opinion, and not frivolously demanding from others. If we live by these Torah values, we’ll hopefully fully value them.

  • Dvar for Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

    Both Parshat Tazria and Metzora discuss skin ailments on one’s flesh, who to see about it (the Priest), how to treat it (isolate it), what to do if it spreads (isolate yourself), and so on. While we get caught up in the details of the treatments, we might fail to realize how strange all of this is. This is the first time the Torah discusses personal physical hygiene. Why would the Torah spend almost  two entire Parshiot (multiple Parshas) on personal hygiene?

    Rabbi Munk in The Call of The Torah explains that by giving these afflictions so much attention, the Torah points to them as examples of the spiritual causes at the root of many illnesses (in our case, Tzaraas – the affliction discussed in the Parsha – is caused by one of seven sins: Slander, murder, perjury, debauchery, pride, theft and jealousy (Talmud Arachim 16a)). As the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts, the best medication is based on ethical values, helping to re-establish harmonies between spiritual and physical forces (Guide to the Perplexed 3:27). That way, even if our physical ailments aren’t ultimately cured, at least we’re in harmony within ourselves. This discussion is meant to remind us that illness is sometimes spiritual, and that it’s connected to our physical well-being. As such, we should feed our bodies, so long as we nurture our souls.

  • Dvar for Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    As the Parsha relates the joyous time when the Jews finally started the long-awaited service in the Mishkan, Parshat Shemini abruptly interrupts that with the disturbing death of Aaron’s 2 oldest sons (Nadav and Avihu). Their sin was that they wanted to show their love for G-d so much that they took it upon themselves to take incense and burn it on their own. The Torah then relates that a fire “came out from before Hashem and consumed them.” It seems strange that the same fire that 2 Pessukim (verses) ago came down to burn the offerings was the same fire that came down to kill Aaron’s 2 sons. Why did they specifically die with fire, which is the very method they tried to use to serve G-d?

    The Rashbam helps us understand the sons’ mistake by explaining that they weren’t authorized to bring the offering, and that their bringing it minimized the miracle of the fire coming down from the sky. However, although they died, the verse says they died “before G-d,” which commentaries explain to mean that they at least tried to do a good thing, and were worthy of dying before G-d. Trying to preempt G-d’s commandments by burning things themselves minimized the very essence of those commandments. We too have to follow the guidelines of the Torah, not because they make sense to us and we’d do them anyway, but because G-d wants us to do things a certain way. The point of the fire was to show us that G-d would use fire for us, unless we make Him use that very fire against us by altering the “recipe.” The critical take-away from all of this is to observe the commandments correctly, so that we may strengthen the fire within us.

  • Special Dvar for Pesach (Passover) 5778

    Among the many customs unique to Pesach (Passover) is the eating of Maror (bitter herbs), representing the bitter times endured by our ancestors as they were slaves in Egypt. Understandably, the custom of leaning, which represents royalty, is not observed in conjunction with eating of the Maror. However, when eating Korech, which is a Matzah sandwich with Maror in the middle, we do lean as royalty. Why are we suddenly reclining?

    Rabbi Shraga Simmons offers an explanation: The Korech sandwich consists of two broken pieces of Matzah with Maror in the middle, symbolizing the eternal hope for Jews to scrap together what is there to make something meaningful. That’s a cause worthy of royalty, not despite the inclusion of Maror, but because of it. May we merit to use all that we have for all that we can.

  • Dvar for Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

    Our Parsha, Tzav, informs us that the priests’ first task of the day was to remove the ashes from the offering sacrificed the previous day (Leviticus 6:3). Is there any significance to this being the priests’ first order of business with which to start the day?

    Rabbi Avi Weiss explains that the priest begins the day by removing the ashes to illustrate the importance of his remaining involved with the mundane. Too often, those who rise to important positions separate themselves from the people and abandon the everyday menial tasks. By starting the day with ash-cleaning, the Torah insists it shouldn’t be this way.

    A few years ago a couple appeared before Rabbi Gifter, asking him to rule on a family dispute. The husband, a member of Rabbi Gifter’s kollel (an all day Torah learning program) felt that, as one who studied Torah, it was beneath his dignity to take out the garbage. His wife felt otherwise. Rabbi Gifter concluded that while the husband should in fact help his wife he had no legal religious obligation to remove the trash. The next morning, before the early services, Rabbi Gifter knocked at the door of the young couple. Startled, the young man asked Rabbi Gifter in. No, responded Rabbi Gifter, I’ve not come to socialize but to take out your garbage. You may believe it’s beneath your dignity, but it’s not beneath mine. This message comes to us courtesy of the sacrificial ashes.

  • 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 could be teaching us: The one letter he chose to shrink was the Alef, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet…The very first lesson 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 discipline 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 Vayakhel/Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

    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)

    This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, includes the unfortunate sin of the Golden calf, and includes Moshe’s negotiations on the Jews’ behalf. While there are many things one can learn about the art of negotiations, what seems out of place is that after things are smoothed over and G-d is appeased, Moshe asks to see G-d’s presence (and was denied) (33:18). While there are varying explanations as to what Moshe really wanted to see (from G-d’s attributes to His essence), why would Moshe ask such a question right after G-d had gotten so angry that he threatened to destroy the world?

    One possible answer lies in the very nature of struggle and challenge. When we are faced with a challenge, whether we overcome it or succumb to it, the most valuable aspect of the challenge is the “we”. Not if, but when a couple, a family, a community, a people is faced with a challenge, they naturally become more attached to each other, and grow more cohesive. This is often the point of life’s challenges, although this is frequently overlooked. Moshe worked out a reprieve for the Jews with G-d, and as a result they became close enough that Moshe thought he had a chance to see G-d’s essence, and although he was denied his request, Moshe was granted other insight. We too can gain insight into one another, as long as we focus on each other when faced with life’s challenges.

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