• Dvar for Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

    Parshat Ki Tetzei contains the commandment of Shiluach Hakan (22:6,7), sending away the mother bird before taking her children/eggs. According to the Rambam (Maimonides) the idea is that making the mother watch as you take her children is cruel, even for animals, and one should be sensitive. The Ramban (Nachmonides) sees it differently, arguing that while the Torah gave humans the right to consume animals, taking two generations at once is an over-consumption of that species, and wrong. However, as Rabbi David Fohrman asks, why is this Mitzvah phrased in reference to birds? The reasons above would seem to apply to any animal. Further, the words in the Passuk (verse) don’t seem to fit with either explanation: “Don’t take the mother with her children there” (22:6) sounds like we shouldn’t take the mother, but according to the Rambam we’d be taking the children, and according to the Ramban we’d be taking both. How do we resolve these issues?

    Rabbi Fohrman explains that the answers lies in the reward for this commandment: Long life. Aside from this commandment, there is only one other commandment with the same reward – honoring one’s parents. The connection is the honoring of motherhood. He goes on to explain that it’s very difficult to capture a bird, unless it’s a mother bird protecting its young. The Torah tells us not to take advantage of a mother’s love and sacrifice for her offspring for your own benefit. This lesson is true for all of us – our parents will always love us, but we should not desecrate that love by taking advantage of it. Parental love is meant to help us grow, not to be used as a trap against them. If we honor our parents, appreciating everything that we have because of them, may our reward be a long and healthy life.

  • Dvar for Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

    This week we read the Parsha of Shoftim, which charges us to “Appoint for you judges and officers at all of your gates” (16:18). Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the word “lecha” (for you) seems superfluous. This commandment could have simply stated, “appoint judges and officers,” why did the Torah add the word “lecha”? The question is even stronger if you consider that the commandment is a society-based commandment, and the extra word is singular. It seems almost contradictory to address an individual while describing a community-based law.

    Rav Moshe explains that in addition to the need for society at large to have these judges and officers, individuals must be both a judge and officer over themselves. The Shlah extends this thought when he explains the continuation of the Passuk (verse), explaining that a person has seven “gates”: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. The way that these gates are used will either build or destroy the person, which means that one must control the flow through these gates. However, the Torah also tells us that to accomplish our goal of controlling what comes out of our ‘gates’, we need both judges AND officers. Judges make the rules, and officers enforce them. Not only do we have to make an extra effort to know the rules by which to live, but we also need to build safeguards to help us adhere to those rules (i.e. if the rule is not to speak negatively about others, maybe we should try not to hang around people that do, etc.). If we study the Torah’s guidelines, we’ll realize their value and appreciate our need to protect them.

  • Dvar for Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

    This week’s Parsha starts off with the word “Re’eh”, which means “See”. What are we seeing, and why do we need to see it? Rabbi Yehoshua Wender explains that in our lives we are all on a quest for truth. We are looking to find the real meaning behind everything in this world. However, we need to see everything in its proper light. In every thing in this world there is truth, and there could be falseness, and it is our job to not be tricked by the lies.  So how do we know what’s true and what’s not?

    G-d has given us a Torah that contains the ultimate truth, and that same protection from falseness. Living in this world is like being in a room of fun house mirrors. As you walk in, there are curvy mirrors that distort your image.  Some make you look fat, others make you tall, and yet others make you skinny.  The only way to get a true image of yourself is to look in a flat, uncurved mirror.  The Torah is such a mirror: You can look in the Torah and find the truth, untainted, uncurved, undistorted. But it’s also possible to get a true image from looking at a curvy mirror, if you stand in just the right spot, at just the right angle, where you can see your self the way you really are.  The catch is that you won’t know that it’s your real true image unless you’ve looked at yourself in a straight mirror and have that image to compare with.  The world is the same way: It is possible to see the world truthfully using other sources, but unless we have studied the Torah and know what truth looks like, we’ll never know that we’ve really found it.

  • Dvar for Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Parshat Ekev begins by exclaiming that should we listen to the laws, and follow up by keeping and following those same laws, G-d will in turn protect us and keep His end of the deal He made with our ancestors (7:12). The word “Shema” (listen) appears 92 times in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), and it appears in the most iconic and important declaration of “Shema Yisrael” (6:4), which qualifies it as a key directive. Rabbi David Cohen also points out (in his book Kol Hanevuah) that the Gemara (Talmud) is full of terms referencing hearing: “Ta Shma, Shema Mina, Mashma, etc. What’s most curious is that the word itself is not translatable, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize and to respond. How are we to understand such an obviously important mandate?

    Rabbi Sacks explains that Judaism is not about obeying laws, but about hearing them. G-d wants us not just to hear with our ears, but to listen with our minds. The bridge between ourselves and others is conversation: both speaking and listening, as Rabbi Sacks explains. Hence the double emphasis in the second paragraph in Shema of “Shamoa Tishma”, beseeching us to really listen, not just to His laws, but to others as well. Listening to G-d is easy, it’s listening to another human being that takes courage, a comfort in our self and defying our own vulnerabilities. Rabbi Sacks concludes that listening is the greatest gift we can give to another human being, but it’s also the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

  • Dvar for Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

    Perhaps the most famous sentence in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Interestingly, the last letter of the Hebrew word for “Hear” (Shema) is enlarged in the Torah scroll (Ayin), as is the last letter of the Hebrew word for “One” (the Daled in Echad). Among the many possible explanations, one understanding of the combination of these two letters (Ayin and Daled) may reveal why the text calls specific attention to them: The letters Ayin Daled can be read “ade” which means “to bear witness.” In reading the “Hear O Israel” one is in effect testifying that God exists.

    This Shabbat being the first of the seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one more thought comes to mind: Maybe the letters are large to teach us that even the smallest of changes could pervert the meaning of the text. For example, if one would read the Shema as having an Aleph as its last letter instead of the Ayin (after all the Aleph and Ayin are both silent letters) the word Shema would mean “perhaps” (sheh-mah). This would change this firm declaration of belief into an _expression of doubt. And if the Daled would be mistaken for a Reish (after all, there is only a slight difference in the writing of a Daled and Reish) – the word echad (One) would be read acher (other). This would change the critical Jewish belief in One God into a belief in two gods. If baseball is a game of inches, the Torah is a guide of millimeters – sometimes the smallest thing makes all the difference. As we move towards Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, all of us ought be careful with every word, every gesture and every action, because you never know where the smallest changes may lead you.

  • Dvar for Devarim (1:1-3:22)

    The best part about books is that you can always look back at parts that are either unclear, or parts that you’ve missed or liked, and the Torah is no exception. With that in mind, though, why do we need a whole Sefer (Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy) dedicated to review the first 4 books, when all we’d have to do is look back and examine them? Separately, why would you start a book of review with words of rebuke, as our Parsha does?

    As Rabbi Twerski points out, the answer lies in a quote by Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), who said: “A conceited fool has no desire for understanding, but only wants to express his own views (18:2).” What’s the point of a past if we don’t learn from it? And what’s the point of learning from our mistakes if we don’t keep what we’ve learned and integrate it into our future? As we get closer to Tisha B’av, when both Beit Hamikdashim (Temples) were destroyed on the same day, the question applies even more.. Didn’t the Jews learn from the destruction of the first Temple merely a few hundred years prior? Do we learn from the destruction of both Temples so many years later? There’s a whole Sefer in front of us pointing its finger at itself and the four volumes before it, begging us to read it, and read it again, until we find the meaning intended for us, and use it to enforce what we WILL do. It’s the thirst of knowledge of our past that will lead to the accomplishments of our future.

  • Dvar for Matot-Maasei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

    After Moshe lost an entire generation of Jews because they resisted entering the land of Israel, in Parshat Matot they seem to be doing the exact same thing. As they prepare to enter the land, the shevatim (tribes) of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe with a similar request. This time they claim to want to “build for their flocks and cities for the small children” (32:16). After warning them not to make the same mistake as the previous generation, Moshe agrees to let them live outside of the Promised Land, but appears to bargain with them by getting them to agree to help the others fight for the land first. Why did Moshe agree to let them live outside of the promised land, and what did he bargain for?

    A closer inspection of the dialogue helps us answer these questions, and can help us understand the importance of setting priorities. When Moshe responds to them (32:24), he tells them to “build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flocks”, exactly the opposite order in which they asked. What Moshe was really telling them was that if they’re really looking out for the well-being of their children, then look after them (i.e. their perspectives) before building yourselves cities and buildings. This can also be why he allowed them to settle outside the Land altogether: Moshe understood that it wasn’t that the tribes lacked faith in their destiny, because they were willing to fight for it with everyone else, but rather that from their perspective living right outside the Land would be better for them logistically. Being able to accept other perspectives, despite initial fears and uncertainties, is the true test of being a thoughtful Jew, a positive parent and an understanding person.

  • Dvar for Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

    After Bila’am’s failed efforts to curse the Jewish people, he devised another ploy. He advised the nations of Midian and Moav to lure the Jews to sin through salacious activities. Midian complied wholeheartedly, offering its daughters as conspirators in the profanity. The scheme worked, and the wrath of Hashem was aroused. A plague ensued and thousands of Jews died. In this week’s Parsha, Pinchas, G-d commands his people to administer justice. “Make the Midianites your enemies and attack them!” The issue that may confront the modern thinker is simple. War? Over what? They were not fighting over land or oil. Why such vehemence to the point of physical attack over the incident at Peor?

    Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin related the following story: In November 1938, before the onset of World War II, some Jewish children had the opportunity to escape from Nazi Germany and resettle in England through what became known as kindertransport. Unfortunately, there were not enough religious families able to accept these children and other families who were willing to take them were not willing to raise the children with Jewish traditions. The Chief Rabbi of London, Rabbi Yechezkel Abramski, embarked on a frantic campaign to secure funding to ensure that every child would be placed in a proper Jewish environment. Rabbi Abramski called one wealthy Jewish industrialist and begged him for a donation sizable enough to ensure that the children would be raised in proper Jewish environment. “It is pikuach nefesh” cried Rabbi Abramski.

    At that point, the tycoon became incensed. “Rabbi,” he said, “Please do not use that term flippantly. I know what pikuach nefesh is. Pikuach nefesh means a matter of life and death! When I was young, my parents were very observant. When my baby sister was young, she was very sick. We had to call the doctor, but it was on Shabbos. My father was very conscientious of the sanctity of Shabbos, but our rabbi told us that since this is a matter of life and death, we were allowed to desecrate the Shabbos. Rabbi Abramski,” the man implored, “with all due respect. The children are already here in England. They are safe from the Nazis. The only issue is where to place them. How they are raised is not pikuach nefesh!” With that, the man politely bade farewell and hung up the phone.

    That Friday evening, the wealthy man was sitting at dinner, when the telephone rang incessantly. Finally, the man got up from his meal and answered the phone. As he listened to the voice on the other end of the line, his face went pallid. “This is Abramski. Please. I would not call on the Sabbath if I did not think this was pikuach nefesh. Again, I implore you. We need the funds to ensure that these children will be raised as Jews.” Needless to say, the man responded immediately to the appeal.

    We understand matters of life and death, justice and injustice, war and peace, in corporeal terms. It is difficult to view spirituality in those terms as well, but the Torah teaches us that our enemies are not merely those who threaten our physical existence, but those who threaten our spiritual existence as well. What our enemies were unable to do to the Jewish people with bullets and gas, they have succeeded in doing with assimilation and spiritual attrition. The Torah teaches us that the physical world and the spiritual world are inseparable. An attack on spirituality breaches the borders of our very essence, and our response must be in kind. It is essential to know that when we do some serious soul-searching there is really something out there waiting to be found.

  • Dvar for Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

    This week’s Parsha tells us a story about Balak, who commissioned Bilam to curse the Jews, since he was known to have abilities equal to those of Moshe. The twist in the story is that G-d tells Bilam that he shouldn’t travel to curse the Jews, and even if he decides to go, he mustn’t curse them, but must instead repeat whatever he’s told. On the way to curse the Jews (yes, he decided to proceed anyway), Bilam’s donkey was confronted by an angel who was sent to remind him that he shouldn’t be going, and that even once he arrived at his destination his words would be limited. Several times the donkey saw the angel and moved out of the way, only to be hit by Bilam for straying. Finally, the donkey miraculously spoke, rebuking Bilam for hitting him.

    In this story there are several glaring difficulties: 1) If Bilam wanted to curse the Jews, why was he asking G-d for permission? Further, once he was told that he shouldn’t and couldn’t curse, why did he go? 2) Why was it necessary for Bilam’s donkey to begin speaking? If G-d had a message to give Bilam, why couldn’t He just tell it to him, as He had done in the past?

    As the Birchat Peretz helps to explain, the answer lies in the way we interpret things, and our motives behind them. On one hand, Bilam really wanted the power and wealth that would have come with cursing the Jews, so that when G-d gave him permission to travel to the Jews, he was hoping it would grant him permission to curse them too. On the other hand, the donkey which didn’t have personal desires influencing him, was able to rebuke Bilam with honest, straightforward arguments, not tainted with personal agendas. Bilam justified what he wanted to do based on things he thought he heard or understood. It’s frightening to consider that one of the wisest people in that generation could let his heart dictate what he hears, and confuse what he knows is right.

    So the next time we find ourselves trying to justify our position when we know we’re probably stretching the truth, all we have to do is ask: Would an honest donkey agree with the way we’re thinking? And if we feel a tinge of doubt, consider ourselves rebuked, and think again.

  • Dvar for Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

    Nature dictates that children look somewhat like their parents, fruits look like other similar fruits, and animals act in predictable ways. But if that were always true, then how do the laws of the Red cow, brought in Parshat Chukat, make sense? How could the impure be purified, while the pure become impure? How do these things make sense, if there is to be order in nature and creation?

    The Mofet Hador explains that we too were all given opposing forces. We were given the Torah, which tells us of these and other ‘contradictions’, and we were given the brain that wonders about all of it. The Parsha starts by helping us deal with these, and other issues. ‘This is the law of the Torah” …our laws make sense, even if we don’t understand them. We’re limited in our wisdom. In fact, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), who was given all the knowledge, couldn’t understand the laws of the Red Cow, and said, “It is far from me”. The logic is there, but none can discern it, and that too is part of nature. So when we come to a fork in our lives, and we’re deciding whether to do what we know we should or what we think we could, we should remember this lesson: Our minds might be limited in understanding, but the Torah’s wisdom is eternal.

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