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Rabbi Braun

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Shabbat Parshat Re’eh 5778

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The Prohibition of Eating Blood

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Thursday morning (in 5769) I went to the website of the Yeshiva that I attended in Israel, Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut and on the homepage I read the following:                                                                                                            

Yeshivat Har Etzion mourns the death of our dear student, Staff Sgt. Uriel Peretz Liverant z”l, who perished in an IDF training accident in the Golan. We extend our sympathy and condolences to his entire family. Ha-Makom yenachem etkhem be-tokh she’ar avelei Tzion vi-Yerushalayim.

It threw me for a loop. A yeshiva is a place of Torah learning, a place where you grapple in search of religious and spiritual peace and serenity and this reminder of the violence and the enemy seemed terribly out of place.

The following idea is dedicated to this soldier and to all of the soldiers defending our land as it is directly applicable to their lives and challenges.

We are all familiar with the prohibition of eating blood. A Jew is forbidden to eat or drink blood and the blood must even be extracted through salt or fire before we consume any meat or fowl. One would expect to find that prohibition simply listed – do not eat blood and that’s it.

One glance at the verses and prohibition make it very clear that there is more to it than that.

דברים פרק יב

כג) רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר

כד) לֹא תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶנּוּ כַּמָּיִם

כה) לֹא תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְקֹוָק

23. Only be sure that you eat not the blood; for the blood is the life; and you may not eat the life with the flesh.

  1. You shall not eat it; you shall pour it upon the earth as water.
  2. You shall not eat it; that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, when you shall do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.

A number of issues present themselves from this text:

  1. The command is repeated three times in three consecutive verses.
  2. We are not just commanded to refrain from eating blood, we are encouraged to strengthen ourselves in order to not violate this commandment.
  3. We are given the reason for the prohibition, which itself is rare.
  4. The reason itself is far from clear, is the dam really the nefesh?
  5. There is a general reward associated with the performance of this mitzvah and it relates not only to you but to your children after you as well.

After staring at the page for a while it seemed to me that these psukim and this command can only be understood with an appreciation of the context in which they are written. The parsha before speaks directly to the nature of our God worship. It details the command to wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel. That is a command that calls for violence and destruction at some level. But then we find an all important and critical contrast. Immediately following the command to destroy the other forms of worship we are told how to correctly worship our God. Seek out God in his sanctuary. Bring your sacrifices and your Terumah and your tithes to that place that God has chosen. And rejoice there before God with your family We worship God through sacrifice, service, sharing with those who don’t have (tithes) and in happiness. We seek peace and tranquility and joy before God. Yes there are times that we must resort to violence and fight, but be very clear says the Torah that we don’t turn violence into a form of worship to God. Violence is to be abhorred. Immediately after that the Torah tells us when and how we can eat meat. Originally it was only before God on an altar, and later when the people entered Israel and they spread out and it was not feasible to come to the temple every time a chicken or cow needed to be slaughtered we were given permission to shecht animals outside of the temple and then the Torah tells us strengthen yourself and do not eat the blood.

Why would we try to limit the place of slaughter to the temple and sacrifice? And why when the dispensation is given is it immediately followed by don’t eat the blood?

I would argue as follows: there is an obvious and critical distinction between animal and human life and thus we are forbidden to kill a person created in God’s image but allowed to kill an animal for constructive purposes as they are not created in the divine image. Nevertheless when an animal is killed we have spilled its blood. We have taken a life, in a certain sense and the Torah wants to ensure that we don’t ever become insensitive to the taking of life and is concerned with the effect and impact that is could have upon us.

Thus originally shechitah was only done in the temple, in the presence of God and the Kohanim, where the lessons taught were of proper service to God etc.

Once that was no longer possible we needed to emphasize and teach this lesson of non-violence and guard against a temptation to such activity. The animal of course it slaughtered in as painless a manner as possible and says the Torah, Do not eat the blood! In the words of Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, the Torah “sought to induce an aversion to blood”. 

The prohibition of eating blood becomes a safeguard against becoming cruel and insensitive to the spilling of blood!

With that I think we can answer some of the earlier questions:

  • It is repeated for emphasis, because it is that important. God wants us to have that aversion to bloodshed.
  • Strengthen yourself so that you won’t be affected by the act of killing and the spilling of animal blood.
  • That recognition is good for you.
  • In terms of the children, I am not sure how much to make of it but it is fascinating that the very next paragraph brings us full circle, by taking us back to other forms of worship and mentions that they worship God by burning their sons and daughter in fire. Maybe the peaceful blood abhorring worship is good for the children very literally as they don’t become pawns in the service. Lest we think this is something from 3000 years ago, the same thing happens today as Arab children are sent to their death in the service of God.

We strive to serve God in peace and happiness and without violence. We do not glorify violence and death, we abhor blood and bloodshed.  Yes we fight, but only when we have to and begrudgingly.

Those ideals are lived at some level by every soldier in the Israeli army. Staff Sgt. Uriel Peretz Liverant wanted to learn in Yeshiva and serve God through study. After yeshiva he would head to university and then to work and live in the land of Israel. But that was not to be. He was killed preparing for the fight that has to be fought. Not that fight that he wanted to fight, but the one that he had to.

 

 

 

Shabbat Parshat Ekev 5778

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Love the Convert

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

Living here in this area had made me particularly sensitive to passages in the Torah that detail our relationship to the Ger, to the convert.

What really stood out from this morning’s parsha was not simply the command to love the convert; it was the context in which the statement was found.

In 10/12 the Torah asks – what does God want from you? מה יקוק אלהיך שאל מעמך

The answer is – to fear God and walk in his ways, to love God and serve God with all of your heart and soul. Keep the mitzvoth etc.

That theme is repeated a few verses later.

In between the focus on loving God and keeping the mitzvoth we find –

יז) כי יקוק אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדני האדנים האל הגדל הגבר והנורא אשר לא ישא פנים ולא יקח שחד

יח) עשה משפט יתום ואלמנה ואהב גר לתת לו לחם ושמלה

יט) ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

17. For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God,mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes;

  1. He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and garment.
  2. Love you therefore the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

It struck me that in this section, which is all about loving and serving God, there is a lot of general instruction to serve etc. But there is only one direct command to the people, one mitzvah and that is to love the convert because we were converts in Egypt.

Why should that be? Why is this so important that it is the only one?

In order to answer that question we first have to look at the command and try to properly understand it. Why make our love for the convert contingent upon the fact that we were slaves in Egypt?

Rashi writes – מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך, it is not appropriate to attribute a flaw to others that you yourself possess. It sounds like a rabbinic version of people in glass houses should not throw stones.

The Ramban here directs us to his comments in Shmot where we find a similar command.

שמות פרק כב

כ) וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

Do not oppress the convert because you were slaves in Egypt.

Rashi there argues that you should not oppress the ger because they will respond to you – you came from converts as well.

The Ramban does not accept the Rashi’s approach.

It can’t be that all Geirim are protected because once upon a time we were strangers in Egypt. There does not make sense at all, writes the Ramban.

I would add this glass house approach certainly does not justify its inclusion in our parsha. It does not explain why it is the only mitzvah listed specifically. That mitzvah must be an inherently critical and important one.

Rather the Ramban argues that the connection between don’t oppress the convert and you were slaves in Egypt is as follows:

Don’t think that you can get away with oppressing the convert because there will be no one there to defend him or her. That is not the case, I God will always hear their cry and I will protect them. When you were strangers in Egypt I heard your cry, I felt your pain and I saved you. I will do the same for all geirim.

The Ramban works in context in Shmot but I am not sure if it works for us in Parshat Ekev. It goes without saying that we should not oppress the helpless but he does not explain why we must love them. The Ramban does not explain why this is so important.

He also seems to shift our focus to the “man- God” when our focus should be solely on our conduct in the human realm.

It is for that reason that I prefer the approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

In his commentary to our parsha he records one of the great lines in biblical commentary. “With the acceptance of the convert it will be revealed that purity in your humanity is the highest level and achievement in your eyes. Equality in law and the love that Israel has for the ger is what characterizes the people and the land as God’s people and God’s land. In other groups a person’s status is based on origin and wealth, but within God’s people on God’s land it is only the purity of our humanity that defines a person’s status.”

What is the connection to Egypt?

In Egypt the Jews were deprived of all rights and privileges because they were different. They could not own land and did not even have the right to exist. They did not appreciate that a person’s worth is not based on yichus, or birthplace or wealth. They did not understand that a person’s true value is based on their humanity and spirituality. That lack of understanding, argues Hirsch is the root cause of the abomination that was Egypt.

This is not “love the convert” because someone could throw it back in your face, or because God will exact their revenge. This is “love the convert” because it is a measure, a barometer of our humanity and our Judaism. How you treat the person who is different is an indicator of your value and belief system. Do we truly understand a person’s worth? That is the question that is answered with our conduct towards the Ger.

That is an unbelievable piece of commentary. It also explains why love the Ger is the only mitzvah specifically listed here. It is that important and it answers the question that the Torah asks, what does God want from us?!

 

 

Shabbat Parshat Va’etchanan 5778

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Shema

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

About a month ago I was visiting a congregant in Centre State Hospital. He was in the cardiac critical care unit. After spending some time I sat outside the room waiting for the nurse when I was approached by a woman who turned out to be the hospital chaplain. She came over with the following request. There was a family in the next room whose husband/father had just had an aneurysm. He was not going to recover but not yet clinically brain-dead and they had decided to pull the plug. And they were looking for a rabbi to do deathbed prayers. Would I mind doing that with them, as they would prefer a rabbi to a Christian chaplain?

After navigating the “he’s not brain-dead and this is murder issue” I did go to do vidui for this man. When speaking to the family I came to learn that they had no religious affiliation. They had no rabbi. They had no real connection to Judaism. Yet when I asked them to recite the Shema with me, they all joined in without skipping a beat.

When thinking about it – it really struck me; this family with literally no connection to speak of to Judaism knew the Shema. It rolled off their tongue.

You wonder – what is the secret and meaning of Shema? Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Devarim 5778

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Lessons for Redemption

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

Rav Abraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine at the time of the British Mandate, believed with all of his heart and in the depths of his soul that we were living in pre-messianic times and that the arrival of the Mashiach was imminent.

When Rabbi Yehuda Amital was asked why he did not feel as strongly about a definitive messianic era, seeing as he was a student of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, son of the former, he responded – Rav Kook died in 1935, he did not see the holocaust.

Rav Kook was so certain, yet history has proven him wrong. The redemption was not imminent.

On this morning, Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B’av we face a similar question. We have seen more than Rav Kook ever did. We have a sovereign Jewish government and a Jewish army and nearly the majority of the world’s Jews in Israel. Yet we have ceded parts of the land and might cede more in the near future. Does this mean that the religious Zionist dream is squashed, or simply on hold? What impact do these events have on our worldview?

I think that the beginning of our parsha holds a clue and a lesson for us as we contemplate our messianic ideals.

Devarim opens with a rehash of military history from the book of Bamidbar that we just read. Some of the stories are told with additional and contradictory details but the same stories nonetheless.

To appreciate the parsha and its message for Tisha B’av we need to do two things:

We need to understand the nature of the book of Devarim and analyze the structure of the parsha itself.

Very briefly Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s farewell speech in which he attempts to prepare the people for their entry into the land of Israel to live as God’s people. Understandably the bulk of the speech details the commandments given to the Jews in the desert. After all, living as a Jew means living a life committed to keeping the mitzvoth. That is the ABC’s of Judaism, the basics.

Parshat Devarim contains three basic components:

  • Moshe‘s inability to deal with all of those Jews himself and the establishment of a fair and just judicial system.
  • The sin of the spies and its repercussions for that generation, and the failed attempt to enter the land of Israel then.
  • The more recent military episodes, which countries to avoid armed conflict with and the victories of Sichon and Og and their people.

The question I would then pose is not “why rehash old events in the beginning of Parshat Devarim” rather I would ask- why is the rehashing of those events the proper introduction to Moshe’s main “mitzvah focused” speech, as the Jews are about to enter the land of Israel?

The key for me to discovering the message of the parsha was the relatively untold and unknown attempt to enter the land of Israel immediately following the episode with the spies.

Imagine the scene- you are taken out of Egypt to receive the Torah and enter the Promised Land. You avoid death and thirst and hunger and can’t wait to enter the land of milk and honey and BAM- Moshe relays God’s message, you sinned and you are never going to make it in. You children will, but you will never reach the ultimate goal. So a group of Jews decided to take matters into their own hands and go anyways. Moshe warns them- don’t do it, you are not going to make it, God is not with you, but they go anyways and all die in battle.

This is a story, and it is the key to the Parsha’s message, about the process of redemption. This group of people wanted a smooth and quick redemption- they could not wait, they did not understand that the redemptive process is not straightforward and simple and thus they failed.

I think that the message is as follows: Yes the Mitzvoth are critical and form the building blocks of Jewish life, but they alone will not get you through a process of redemption. You need to have a perspective on the process. Thus as the Jews are about to embark on their journey they are given the mitzvoth but, additionally, as an intro they are given perspective on redemption.

Thus our parsha, the intro, contains a critical lesson for the people as they prepare to fulfill their destiny and complete that process.

The road to redemption is not a smooth and simple one. There are setbacks, some even taking years. There are battles won and battles lost. There are places to attack and places to avoid. That is why our parsha details the sin of the spies, the first setback that cost them 38 years and details places to avoid and reminds us of battles won. This is a lesson about salvation. Moshe reminds the people standing on the threshold of seeing their dreams fulfilled that even as you move forward things you might run into more bumps in the road and even a roadblock or two. And this historical recap says to them, don’t be discouraged. Know and understand that this is to be expected. Look at where you came from and where you are now. When you look at the larger picture you will appreciate just how far you have come and how redemption works. That is the purpose of this speech.

That very same message should resonate as loudly for us as it did for the generation entering Israel with Joshua. We too stand in the midst of a redemptive process. And we stand before Tisha B’av – that fast that serves as a continual reminder that that process is not yet complete. We too need to understand that redemption is a slow and grueling process. We win some battles and we lose some battles. There are for the moment places that are off-limits and places that are not. And we need to appreciate all of that with an eye to the larger picture, and an awareness of where we have come from and where we are today.

If we can get all of that and keep the mitzvoth than we will finally realize the prophets promise that Tisha B’av will become a holiday celebrating our final redemption.

At your Shabbat table – think about what the establishment of the judicial system is doing here. What lesson does that teach us?

 

 

Shabbat Parshat Matot Masei 5778

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Death of Rav Elyashiv and Distrust Amongst Jews

(Moshe and 2½ Tribes)

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

This past Wednesday the Jewish people lost a giant with the passing of Rabbi Joseph Sholom Elyashiv, the recognized leader of the Lithuanian Orthodox community in Jerusalem. 

The question that I thought about immediately after I learned of his passing and the question that I pose to you this morning is how our community relates to his life and death.

Clearly there were things that he believed that our community does not espouse and the direction for his community was not necessarily the direction that we have taken.

Given that do we simply say, yes this is a loss for THAT community and in a general but not terribly significant way, it is a loss for the Jewish people, or can we move past the dividing lines and fully appreciate the loss of a tremendous Talmid Chacham and Posek. Continue reading

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