Parshat Tzav On Moshe’s plea for his brother

Parshat Tzav On Moshe’s plea for his brother

There is an interesting midrash concerning this week’s parsha. Moshe, in writing down the Torah at G-d’s dictation, noticed something strange. Nowhere in the Book of Leviticus in the description of priestly functions up to now is his brother Aharon referred to directly. Repeatedly the instructions referred to “the children of Aharon.” Why is this?
According to the midrash, Moshe pleads to G-d on behalf of his brother in the following way; “L-rd, is it possible that you hate the well, but love the water that flows from it?” [Meaning; “How can You hate Aharon by refusing to refer to him, but still love his sons?”] G-d, according to the midrash does not say: “you’re being hypersensitive. I’m not annoyed at Aharon!” In fact, He responds: “very well, because of your plea, I shall relent.” In the very next verse which begins the parsha it says: “G-d spoke to Moshe saying, command Aharon and his sons thus…” (Levit. 6:1). G-d’s annoyance is over!
This is a strange midrash! What is the reason for G-d’s annoyance? We know Aharon was a righteous person. If it was the Sin of the Golden Calf, we know that Aharon had already repented for that. Further, G-d Himself had subsequently appointed him High Priest. Why should He so that with one He was annoyed with?
Rabbi Dovid Green, paraphrasing Rabbi Yaakov Haber, explains: “There is repentance, and there is repentance. One may repent for a sin according to all the rules, and there could still be something missing. That is that the cause of the sin is still intact in his personality, and has not been changed. Maimonides explains that the final step in repentance is to effect a change in one’s self that would make him like another person, and not the one who had previously sinned. It means that he has refined himself to such an extent that such behavior is beyond him now. Perhaps Moshe understood G-d’s displeasure with Aharon in the following way. Aharon had indeed gone through all the technicalities of repentance for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and was therefore qualified to be High Priest. Perhaps Aharon had not yet completed this final step, and that was responsible for G-d’s continued ire. How do Aharon’s sons compared to the water from the well come into this? Maimonides makes a fascinating comment regarding child-rearing. He says that a child is much more perceptive than we would give him credit for. A child can intuitively understand what his parent’s want from him. Even if the parent should say “I want such and such from you,” a child will realize if this is not in accordance with the parent’s deepest wishes, and act according to his intuitions. Moshe was saying, in effect: “see how wonderful Aharon’s sons are! It must be due to their carrying out the desires of Aharon’s deepest nature. That proves that Aharon has carried out the final step of repentance. Even though G-d knew of Aharon’s worthiness, He was not willing to consent to fully accept Aharon. There was still one detail left; Moshe’s prayer on Aharon’s behalf. Prayer is the bottom line for any endeavor to succeed. Even after everything had been accomplished humanly, there was still the need to pray to G-d on Aharon’s behalf. Moshe’s unselfish behavior is an example for us all. He was more concerned for his brother Aharon than even the status he himself was standing to lose. Let’s take his example to heart, and may we merit the blessing of “one who prays on another’s behalf, and he needs the same thing, is answered first.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Yitro on Jethro’s visit

Parshat Yitro on Jethro’s visit

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, of the JTS, relates the following: “If one were asked to identify the most central parashah to Israelite identity and to Judaism, one would certainly point to Parashat Yitro, which describes the moment of revelation at Sinai. This experience transforms a band of former slaves into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” For this reason, it is surprising that this is one of the few parashiyot carrying the name of a non-Israelite. Jethro (Yitro), the esteemed father-in-law of Moses, makes his substantive debut at the opening of this Torah reading. And while we often praise the advice he gives his son-in-law to delegate legal responsibilities, an earlier, more subtle comment often goes unnoticed: while Moses, in recounting the story of leaving Egypt, emphasizes the defeat of the Egyptians (Exod. 18:8), Jethro places his praise elsewhere—the deliverance of the Israelites (Exod. 18:1). How may we learn from Jethro’s words and wisdom?”

Professor Ze’ev Falk of Hebrew University elaborates: “Parashat Yitro expresses a striking alternative to that which appears in the Song of the Sea: “The nations hear, they tremble” (Exodus 15:14). Here, in this parashah, is described a positive relationship from the angle of non-Israelite nations toward ‘choosing’ Israel . . . Jethro emphasizes “all that God has done for Moses and the Israelites,” while Moses, in his telling of the narrative, underscores what “God has done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.” For Jethro, the priority is that the Israelites were saved; for Moses, his emphasis is on the defeat of the enemy. This response is typical of one that has been saved from a life-threatening situation, delivered out of the hands of the enemy. It is out of his personal suffering that Moses narrates his story . . . even though Jethro’s question is simply with regard to their rescue. (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 155).

Mr Berkowitz concludes: “While Professor Falk is psychologically astute in acknowledging Moses’s response, he is also exceedingly sensitive in underscoring the import of Jethro’s words and behavior. Defeat of the enemy is crucial, but more important is saving a nation entrusted with a sacred mission. Not only does Jethro bless the Israelite God for having rescued these lives, but he also offers sacrifices (Falk notes, too, that this is tantamount to making a covenant with the Israelites). Simple, wise actions and words by a non-Israelite compel Moses and us to eschew celebrating the destruction of another people and to look forward—affirming life and building (prefiguring the teaching that “one should not rejoice at the downfall of one’s enemy” (Prov. 24:17). Perhaps naming the parashah after a non-Israelite is a deliberate message from the Rabbis. Juxtaposed to the oppressive Egyptians, Jethro presents us with a caring and inspiring model, reminding us that relationships among Jews and non-Jews are a blessing to us and to the world.”

 

In the third month . . . that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai (19:1)

A most puzzling thing in the Talmud’s account is the fact that on the first day of Sivan—the day on which the people of Israel arrived at the place where they would receive the Torah—“Moses did not say anything at all to them, on account of their exhaustion from the journey.” For six weeks the children of Israel had been eagerly awaiting the most important event in their history—their receiving of the Torah from G‑d. Our sages tell us that they literally counted the days (hence our annual practice of “counting the Omer” during the weeks that connect Passover to Shavuot). Does it make sense that on the very day they arrived at Mount Sinai they would do nothing at all in preparation for the great day? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains: “At Sinai, the divine wisdom was revealed to man. Obviously, the human mind cannot attain the divine wisdom on its own—that must be given to it by G‑d Himself. So although G‑d instructed us to study His Torah, desiring that human intellect should serve as the vehicle by which we apprehend His truth, a crucial prerequisite to Torah study is the mind’s total abnegation of its ego. Only after it has voided itself of all pretension that it is capable of attaining the truth of truths on its own, can the mind become a “fit vessel” to receive it. In the words of the sages, “An empty vessel can receive; a full vessel cannot receive.” So the day on which “Moses did not say anything at all to them” was an integral part of their preparations for receiving the Torah. This was the day on which they undertook the most “exhausting journey” of emptying their souls of intellectual vanity and making themselves fit receptacles for the divine truth.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Beshalach on Uncertainty

Parshat Beshalach on Uncertainty

The notion of doubt as a key element of faith is hinted at in this week’s parashah and in the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. In this week’s portion, Moses and the people of Israel are paralyzed by uncertainty. The parashah opens with God promising Moses that the people will be redeemed. Moses speaks to the Israelites, but they pay no heed. Why can’t they believe? What bars them from faith in God? The Torah explains that “their spirits [were] crushed by cruel bondage”(Exodus 6:9).

Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz explains: ” Jewish tradition has never shied from the expression of doubt. The Psalmist often laments the absence of God, but always with the reassuring hope that God’s comforting presence will return. Job rails against the capriciousness of life, yet is grounded in a belief that God is just. Even the methodology of the rationalist philosophers of the medieval period, which sought to explain God through reason, hints that faith alone may not be enough to ensure belief. Nachman of Bratzlav was a Chasidic master wracked by self-doubt, cynicism, and bouts of depression, yet he told powerful stories that used these emotions as a way to reach toward meaning. There is something strange about the way Jewish months begin. Rather than emerging in something we can see, a Hebrew month begins with what is unseen—the new moon. While, in ancient days, the new month was affirmed by the sighting of the sliver of the moon in the western sky at sunset, a new month actually begins when the moon is, from our perspective, absent. Perhaps the rationale is to teach us that even in what seems to be the end is there also a beginning.

As a new month begins, therefore, we offer a blessing—seeing the Holy One in the darkness of the heavens as in their light. Just as each new month brings something different, a cycle of darkness and light, so do we move through different seasons of faith and uncertainty. The power of faith is in seeing the joy in each stage—and accepting that our doubts are as natural to us as the waxing and waning of the moon in the sky…How, then, do we move from a despair brought about by doubt to a mature faith rooted in uncertainty? Perhaps the way our ancestors observed the moon can guide us. In ancient days the Sages did not declare a Rosh Chodesh until two witnesses came to say they saw the sliver of the moon. There are two important aspects of this teaching: first, that something new only occurs when the hint of light is seen; and second, that no single witness alone is sufficient.

So it is in our lives. We all have doubts. It is the willingness to hope—even against all odds—that light will come that opens for us the possibility of something new. And we cannot ever really do it alone. Only by relying on others do we find our way toward the light.

In the Torah portion, when Moses says no one will listen to him, God answers that his brother, Aaron, will go with him to Pharaoh (Rashi to Exodus 6:13). Aaron has never been mentioned before. Why now? It is to teach Moses that he cannot be strong and of certain faith alone. Faith is not, for the Jew, the lonely search for meaning. It is fostered, instead, in the connections we make and in the support we receive from others.If God responded to Moses’s doubts, can God not respond to ours? Let us not, therefore, stifle our doubts or those in others.  Let us not feel we must defend God against the slings and arrows unleashed by those in pain. May we, to the contrary, open ourselves to our doubts and the questions of others; and let us use those doubts to nurture a different kind of faith—a mature, steadfast assurance that life has meaning only when we use the dark emptiness of uncertainty to open us to the light of belief.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

 

Parshat Bo on the universality and equality of Jewish observance

Parshat Bo on the universality and equality of Jewish observance

Last week we read about Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh, asking for permission to take their people into the wilderness to make offerings to Adonai. Pharaoh, not surprisingly, said no. God’s response was the first several plagues.

In this week’s Torah portion, the plagues continue. And for a moment, Pharaoh relents. “Go worship your God,” he snaps to Moses and Aaron. “Who’s going with you?”

Moses replies, “We will all go, with our youths and elders; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds.” The phrase “youths and elders” is a rhetorical figure of speech which uses two extremes to convey a totality. The text says “young and old,” and we’re meant to fill in “and everyone in between.”

Rabbi R.  Barenblat comments: ” The Hebrew word עבודה (avodah) means service, as in the service of sacrifices we once offered, now replaced by the service of the heart which is prayer. We will read soon in Torah about how the priestly system of sacrifice began in the wilderness, and then about the priestly apparatus which existed once the Temple is built. But here in this moment before the Exodus, Moses offers a glimpse of a radically egalitarian future in which all of us are called to be servants of the Most High. Not just the priests. Not just the men. Not just those with social standing. All of us. Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh balks. “May God be with you the same as I mean to let your descendants go with you,” he sneers. He knows that it’s not possible to serve two masters, and that if he lets us be in relationship with God, we will no longer be completely under his thumb. The Hebrew words for slavery and for service come from the same root, ע / ב/ ד. This root is a recurring motif in this week’s Torah portion; it appears, in various forms, 21 times (an average of once every three verses!)* In the haggadah we read avadim hayyinu, “we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt…” And once we enter into covenant with God at Sinai we become avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High. The word denoting service is the same…but who or what are we serving? That’s what makes all the difference. In the Jewish understanding, we don’t shrug off Pharaoh’s chains in order to be completely unfettered, free of responsibility to anyone or anything. The truest freedom comes in choosing to serve: to serve the greater good, to serve creation, to serve the source of love in the universe. Either our lives belong to Pharaoh — to overwork, to empire, to power-over, to that force which seeks to dominate and to own us — or they belong to the Source of all, the Wellspring of creation, the One Who speaks and the world comes into being.  The gift of Shabbat is that it removes us from Pharaoh’s domain every week. No matter what our obligations — to our jobs, to the bank which holds the mortgage, to social pressures or unrealistic expectations — on one day each week, we let all of that go. We stop serving our bosses and instead remember that we are truly servants of God, blessed and enlivened by that enduring relationship with something greater than ourselves. And that is true no matter who we are. Young and old, righteous and wicked, rich and poor, all of these binarisms and everyone in between — all of us are called to offer our hearts and our hands. After two more plagues, Pharaoh changes his mind again. “Fine,” he says, “all of your people can go, but leave behind your flocks and herds.” And Moses says no, we need to take everyone and everything. “We shall not know with what we are to worship God until we get there.” The simplest understanding of that line is that he’s talking about animals for sacrificing. In those days we offered praise and thanksgiving through animal sacrifice; the Hebrews needed all of their livestock in case God asked for more sheep or goats. But I think this line from Torah has a deeper truth which is clear to us today in our post-sacrificial world: when it comes to divine service, we have to bring all that we are…If we leave any person behind — if we leave any part of ourselves behind — we won’t be able to serve wholly (or to serve the Holy.) When it comes to serving God, all of us have to bring our all.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Vaeira On the rewards from hospitality

Parshat Vaeira On the rewards from hospitality

Parashat Vaera begins with a series of promises that G-d tells Moshe to communicate to B’nai Yisrael in Egypt. One of these promises is “Ve’lakahti Etchem Li Le’am” – “I shall take you for Myself as a nation” (6:7).

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, Parashat Naso) comments that this promise was made in reward for Abraham Avinu’s hospitality to his three guests. When Abraham welcomed these guests, who were actually angels, he invited them to “take a bit of water” to wash their legs (Bereshit 18:4). In reward for this offer to “take” water, G-d promised that He would “take” Abraham’s descendants as His special nation.

The Rebbe of Bobov explained the deep significance of the connection that the Midrash draws between Abraham’s offer to his guests and G-d’s promise to B’nai Yisrael before the Exodus. Water, the Rebbe noted, symbolizes repentance, as in the verse in Eicha, “Pour forth your heart like water in the presence of Hashem.” Abraham’s offer to bring the guests “a bit of water” thus represents the value that G-d ascribes to even “a bit” of repentance. While we of course ought to strive to achieve complete repentance, we must recognize that personal change and growth is a long, gradual process that we should be undergoing throughout our lifetime. We cannot make a fundamental change overnight. Change must happen incrementally, one step followed by another. And this is the message G-d was conveying to B’nai Yisrael on the eve of the Exodus. Tradition teaches that during the period of bondage in Egypt B’nai Yisrael fell to the “forty-ninth level of impurity,” and found themselves on the brink of the fiftieth level, from which they would have been unable to recover. G-d wanted to redeem them despite their dire spiritual state, and so He gave them just two Mitzvot – circumcision and the paschal sacrifice – through which they could earn redemption. Even this relatively minor move upwards was very significant – significant enough for a nation on the brink of eternal spiritual destruction to suddenly be deemed worthy of a miraculous salvation. In the merit of “a bit of water,” a small move towards repentance, they were taken as G-d’s beloved nation.

 

Rabbi Eli Mansour relates the following: “It is told that Rav Haim Vital, the most illustrious student of the Arizal, asked his great Rabbi how their generation of Jews could possibly earn the final redemption. After all, if Mashiach did not come during the times of the Tanna’im or the times of the Amora’im, who were far, far greater in knowledge and piety than later generations, then why would Mashiach come during the times of the Arizal and Rav Haim Vital? The Arizal answered that to the contrary, Mashiach was far more likely to come in his time than during the time of the Talmudic Sages. In periods when society is overrun by sin and impurity, making it exceedingly difficult to remain faithful to the Torah and to live lives of holiness, Misvot are especially valuable and significant. A Misva performed under such conditions, when the atmosphere and culture draw a person away from Kedushah, is worth far more than a Mitzvah performed under spiritually pristine conditions. And thus, the Arizal taught, the Jews of his time actually had a better chance of bringing the final redemption, as their Mitzvot were especially valuable. Society has, unfortunately, deteriorated to much lower and frightening depths of depravity since the times of the Arizal – and this makes his message all the more poignant and relevant in our times. We must not despair over the dismal spiritual level of our generation, and figure that our Mitzvot are worth so little considering our low stature. To the contrary – our low spiritual level makes our Mitzvot especially precious before G-d. As in the case of our ancestors in Egypt, when even “a bit” of Teshuvah sufficed to render them worthy of salvation, we can earn G-d’s compassion and His miraculous redemption by working hard to do the best we can. Every drop of Teshuvah, of Torah, and of Mitzvot is immensely powerful and significant, and makes a great impact. We should never minimize the significance of any small Mitzvah act, of any extra bit of effort invested in prayer, of any small amount of charity we give, of any small amount of Torah that we study, or of any wrongful act that we decide to avoid, because each and every one brings us and our nation one step closer to our final redemption. ”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Shemot on the new king of Egypt

Parshat Shemot on the new king of Egypt

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Yosef. (Shemot1:8) : [means that] he acted as if he did not know about him. (Rashi) And Pharaoh said, “Who is HASHEM that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know HASHEM, neither will I let Israel out.” (Shemos 5:2) According to one opinion in the Talmud, when it says that “a new king arose over Egypt” it does not mean an actual new king but rather the king changed and acted in a new way. If that is so then then how do we reconcile the second half of the verse that says the king did not know Yosef? How could the Egyptian Pharaoh who stretched back to the days of Yosef not know Yosef? Yosef saved his country and the entire world from famine, both by interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh and by managing the collection of funds for the years of famine. Yosef singlehandedly made Pharaoh the most wealthy and powerful personality on the planet. How can he not know who Yosef is?

Rashi answers that he made himself as if he did not know Yosef. His behavior to the Jewish people could only have been as brutal as it was if the king willfully blinded himself. He was able to deny the good that Yosef had done in order to permit himself to be cruel to his family. This is the trick Pharaoh played on himself. That self-deception brought him to an even greater delusion. In the end he makes the outrageous remark, “Who is HASHEM that I should heed His voice?”

Rabbi Label Lam explains: Our sages were sensitive to this. Based on the two postures adopted by Pharaoh they inform us of a spiritual fact of the universe; “If a one denies the good done to him by his friend he will deny HASHEM in the end!” Consider the following scenario:  Abe is a very successful businessman running a large operation. He’s making big money and living large. His friend Shimon however is struggling to put food on his table. Shimon works but his wages are meager. One day Shimon loses his job and his family is suffering. In desperation he approaches his old friend Abe and asks him for help. Gladly Abe makes a phone call to one of his big connections, and he secures a job interview. Shimon gets the job and grows ever more successful at his new position. He eventually climbs to the very top and courageously spins off his own business. His business becomes a major success and now Shimon becomes a wealthy man. In the meantime, Abe’s business begins to crumble he is left destitute. In desperation he knocks on the door of his old friend Shimon who is now a big success. He reminds Shimon of the time and the opportunity he had afforded him years earlier and makes a request if he could help him with a phone call. Shimon, sitting in his leather chair, behind a giant oak desk, nods his head in agreement and fumbles around in his pocket. He says, “I believe the cost of the phone call you made for me years ago was one quarter, back then. So here!” He hands him a quarter! Abe is stunned! What do you think of such a story? Shimon is a good guy or not a good guy? Of course Shimon’s behavior is disgraceful! He minimized the good done to him!

Why would someone do such a thing? When the Chasam Sofer was told that someone in the community was speaking scandalously about him, he immediately sat down in deep contemplation. His students asked him what he was thinking about. He said, “I’m trying to remember what great favor I ever did for this person that now he treats me so!” Nobody likes to feel indebted. At his worse man has an even greater tendency to deny the good of He Who helps the most!

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim