• Dvar for Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

    Parshat Bamidbar begins with the third official count of the Jewish nation. The term used in the Torah is that we should “count the heads” (1:2) of all the households, but the Hebrew word “Se-u” could also mean “lift” the heads. Why would the Torah use such ambiguous language? Also, why were they to be counted according to their households, which had never been done in the past? Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage?

    Rabbi Zweig explains that surpassing the expectations that have been defined by one’s social upbringing is what gives a person a sense of accomplishment. If a person is able to identify their lineage, they might learn that their ancestors were people who took responsibility for themselves and had honorable standards. For the rest of the world, the very act of taking responsibility is in itself an elevating sense of accomplishment. However, behaving responsibly is not considered an accomplishment for G-d’s chosen nation. Jews are expected to behave differently than animals, to act responsibly, for our forefathers have set a standard that makes anything less unacceptable. This explains why households were important enough to be counted. The Ramban (Nachmanides) enforces the lesson of our Parsha by explaining the use of the Torah’s language: The alternative meaning of “lifting” of the heads can also be a positive, but only if the body and its actions are lifted with it. Our heads and minds can lift us to greatness, so long as we have our actions to take us there.

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

    Parshat Bechukotai begins by Hashem (G-d) proclaiming, “if you will walk in My decrees and observe My commandments…,” (26:3) then 1) the rains will come in their season, 2) trees will bear fruit, 3) you will have bread, 4) there will be peace in the land, and 5) a sword will not pass through the land. Rashi (noted commentary) explains that “walking with My decrees” means that we should toil in understanding the rules of the Torah. Although Rashi addresses the seemingly incorrect syntax of “walking” in laws, Rashi doesn’t explain how walking/toiling in the Torah is accomplished, nor does it explain how the rewards correlate to the toiling or performance of the commandment (a common rule throughout the Torah).

    A possible explanation could be a metaphoric reference to walking, telling us that it’s not enough to sit back, read the Torah like a book, rather that we should pace and ponder every bit of the Torah, and never be satisfied with not knowing what, how, or why something is done. So why does the Torah list these specific rewards for making an effort to understand the Torah? Well, don’t just sit back and read this, ponder the question…

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

    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 (and beyond) to reach new heights.

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

    Did you know that the airline safety announcements were (possibly) taken from one of this week’s Parshiot, Acharei Mot? When the Torah says that the Kohen Gadol (high priest) worked for forgiveness of himself, his family and of the nation as a whole (16:17), one should wonder why he couldn’t just work on forgiveness for everyone, which would clearly also include himself and his family.

    The answer is that before we can think about fixing the world, we need to fix ourselves and our immediate surroundings. As the airlines say, “secure your mask before assisting others.” What’s  even more interesting in the wording is that the word “forgiveness” is only mentioned once, and yet it affects himself, his family and the entire nation. It seems that a single positive action can have the affect of improving ourselves, our families AND the nation. It’s clear from this that finding ways to improve ourselves has a cumulative affect far greater than the improvements themselves, an important concept which should motivate us to find us a mask to secure.

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

    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 Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

    The Gemara (Tractate) in Pesachim (3a) quotes: “A person should not speak in a negative way, as we see the Torah itself” went out of its way to speak nicely regarding the animals entering the Ark, describing the non-kosher animals as specifically that – non-kosher. It doesn’t call them Tamei (Impure). The Torah “wastes” words in order to teach us the importance of speaking nicely. From this week’s Parsha, Shemini, we have a problem with this Gemara.  The Torah continually refers to non-kosher animals as Tamei (11:4 and others). What happened to speaking nicely?

    R’ Mordechai Kamenetzky answers that the difference is that the story of the Ark is a narrative, which is when people should be careful to tell it over in a nice way, refraining from Lashon Hara (slander) or negativity of any sort. In our Parsha, however, the Torah describes the nitty-gritty laws of what one may eat. In our case, it’s important to give a resounding “TAMEI!” when discussing these matters, as the consequences are much graver. It should be the same when dealing with children and others around us who may not know better. We speak softly in order to get them to understand history, reasons and customs of Judaism. However, as the metaphor of food may hint at, if they are in imminent danger of internalizing negative influences, it’s time to fearlessly admonish them. When dealing with clear right and wrong, the Torah tells us that sometimes it’s necessary to boldly speak where no one has spoken before.

  • 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)

    Parshat Vayikra includes instructions “if a leader has sinned” (4:22). The Talmud interprets “if” to be derived from the word “fortunate” (asher and ashrei), which would make the verse read, “fortunate is the leader that has sinned”. How does that make sense?

    Rabbi Twerski explains that it’s referring to the generation being fortunate to have a leader that admits when they make a mistake. As Moshe exemplified, the Torah values truth over all else. Even though there might be ways to justify being less than truthful, Moshe resisted those temptations, and always spoke the truth, even to his possible detriment (Leviticus 10:20). If our leaders establish a precedent for truth, we would be fortunate to have them as our role models, and would not hesitate to admit when we’re wrong. Truth really does set you free (if it is to correct mistakes, that is).

  • Dvar for Vayakhel/Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

    One of this week’s Parshiot, Pekudei, relates a very interesting story 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 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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