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

    We were all given human traits to help us deal with people, situations, and life in general. This week’s Parsha contains a crucial element to understanding those traits. Parshat Tetzaveh describes a golden plate (Tzitz) that Aaron wore, which bore the words “holy unto G-d” (28:37). Doesn’t that seem like a brazen thing to be placing on one’s forehead? The appearance of such an ornament would seem anything BUT holy.

    As Living Each Week relates, the Baal Shem Tov taught that if a person has an undesirable trait, he/she should direct that trait toward constructive channels. Traits such as stubbornness, anger and even violence can be channeled correctly. How do we know this? Because the Tzitz was worn on the part of the face associated with brazenness (worn by the head Priest), yet served a holy purpose nonetheless. We must heed the same calling, recognize all those personal traits that need “channeling”, and convert all those seemingly negative qualities into positive triumphs.

  • 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 little effort to produce, 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 Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

    This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, starts “and these are the laws which you shall set before them (21:1).” Rashi points out that G-d told Moshe that it’s not enough to just teach the Torah, and that Moshe should present it to the Jews like a set table from which one is ready to eat, which is done by explaining the reasons for all the Mitzvot (commandments) as well. As Rabbi Zweig asks, why is this true and what does the analogy to a set table from which one could readily eat mean?

    Rabbi Zweig answers that the Torah is presenting one of the most important underlying principles of Judaism. There are two purposes in eating: nutrition and pleasure. When G-d tells Moshe to give the Torah to the Jews as a set table, He is referring to the presentation of the Mitzvot, which is a focus not to the nutritional aspect but rather to the pleasurable aspect. G-d is telling Moshe that it isn’t enough to just perform the Mitzvot; the people are also meant to enjoy them. The laws are to be presented in such a way that we should understand them, thereby deriving pleasure from them and have a desire to repeat them.

    The lesson is that the Torah must be transformative; For example. it isn’t enough to give charity, one must become a charitable person. A charitable person feels good and derives pleasure from helping others. It isn’t enough to keep Shabbos, one must connect to the spirit of Shabbos and take pleasure in everything it has to offer. One can only accomplish this by having an understanding of the reasons for the Mitzvot, something worth all of our efforts in improving.

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

    Parshat Yitro describes Yitro hearing of the travels and trials of the Jews, Yitro being moved to convert, coming to Moshe for the conversion, and then leaving Moshe. If Yitro was so moved, why would he ever leave a situation where he’s surrounded by G-d, clouds, heavenly food, and Moshe as a teacher? And how could Moshe, as a leader, allow Yitro to just leave the camp?  After all, he was the only Jew not to have witnessed the giving of the Torah.

    Rabbi Leibowitz, in Majesty of Man, explains that Yitro was so moved by G-d, the Torah and the Jews that he felt that he had to go back to his home to try to convert his family and friends. Yitro was willing to give up being surrounded by what he obviously believed in and wanted to be around, just for the sake of others. If this was the determination of someone that had no responsibilities toward the people he was trying to help (in terms of converting them), how much more determination should we demonstrate when we actually have a responsibility to help one another!? The Parsha is named after Yitro because he was willing to change his life for Judaism. He was so proud of Judaism that he didn’t hide it, but went out and told others how beautiful it is. If we expressed the Yitro that we undoubtedly have within us, those around us are bound to be moved.

  • 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 the verse “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 in the form of a metaphor by telling him that the horses were punished just like the soldiers on their 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 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, and is in fact following those laws. If we all try our best to follow the Torah’s laws, and help others do the same, we’ll all sing as one, 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 (10:8-11). 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. We each have 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 could 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 our way.

  • Dvar for Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

    When Yocheved and Miriam, the two 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 (Zichron Meir) 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. The Torah’s message is that the motives behind our actions are sometimes more important than the acts themselves, even if the act is life threatening. The Torah’s message is that when it comes to building a Jewish home, it truly is the thought that counts.

  • Dvar for Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

    In Parshat Vayechi, part of the blessing that Yaakov gives to his son Yehuda is that “His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk” (49:12), scion of the royal lineage of the Jewish people. While wine has always been associated with royalty, what does the color white and milk have to do with the future kings of the Jewish people?

    The Gemara (Kesuvos 111a) has a fascinating interpretation of this verse: “Better is the one who shows the white of his teeth (i.e. in a smile) to his friend, than the one who gives him milk to drink.” Rabbi Zweig explains that this is because one who provides milk to the poor provides a physical gift that sustains the person for a little while. However, the one who comforts others with a smile and encouraging words gives that person an everlasting feeling of self-worth. Perhaps this is the inspiration for all the great smile quotes, and could help inspire us to “give” more smiles.

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

    In this week’s Parsha, Vayigash, Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers, after making sure they didn’t harbor any resentment. As Rabbi Haber points out, what’s more amazing is that Yosef forgave his brothers, after being stuck in a dangerous pit crawling with poisonous snakes, screaming out for help while catching a glimpse of his brothers sitting down to break bread, ignoring his pleas for mercy. If one’s brothers sold them as a slave, would they ever be able to forgive them, kiss and embrace them, and adhere to all the families’ laws and customs after they caused you such profound pain? Yosef did all of these things. He didn’t assimilate; he didn’t become an anti-Semite. He defied every law of human nature. How?

    Rabbi Haber goes on to explain that Yosef was empowered by one sentence: “You didn’t send me here, G-d did” The fact is they did send him there, but from Yosef’s perspective that was something THEY had to deal with. As far as Yosef was concerned, it was all an act of G-d. He was not the judge, he was a brother and he was a Jew. He would act like a brother and he would act like a Jew.

    We can learn SO much from Yosef today, if we could just memorize and adapt one line into our lives – “it wasn’t you that sent me here; it was G-d” – we’d all be closer to all our “brothers”, and we’d all be better Jews.

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