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Weekly Insight

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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

Shabbat Parshat Pinchas 5778

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Pinchas, Eliyahu and Zealotry

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

In today’s world zealotry and fanaticism are dirty words. They do not conjure up images of wonderful people who are passionately committed to a cause. Instead they bring to mind homicidal maniacs who kill in the name of God. This past Tuesday there were 3 attacks in Mumbai, perpetrated by fanatics, by zealots. There were 3 explosions and 10 dead. Unfortunately that is the image that zealotry and fanaticism brings up in every corner of our world.

Every year as we read the story of Pinchas those that same image might come to mind. Pinchas sees that a prince in Israel and a woman from Midyan are publicly fornicating and desecrating God’s name, and without due process, he picks up his spear and impales the sinners together. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Balak 5778

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Our Behavior Controls Our Destiny

Segregation in Emmanuel

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

One of my favorite scenes in the Torah is the interaction between Bilam and his donkey. God is angry that Bilam is traveling to curse the Jews so he places an angel on the path “lesatan lo” to play with him as it were. The donkey sees the angel with a drawn sword and he veers off the path. So Bilam hits the donkey to get him back on track. The angel then narrows the path, the donkey tries to squeeze against the wall and again Bilam hits his animal. Finally, the angel blocks the path, and the donkey rears back and Bilam hits him again. The donkey is trying to protect him but Bilam doesn’t get it. The wise prophet doesn’t understand because he cannot see what is right in front of his eyes.

So often we think about all the different reasons why things happen and what we can do to fix them while we ignore the answer, which is staring us in the face. We just forget to look. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Chukat 5778

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Crisis of Leadership

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

Everybody knows that Moshe was punished because he hit the rock when he should have spoken to it. That is his sin and that is why he does not enter the land of Israel.

While that is certainly what we are taught from infancy, it is not necessarily true. The Torah does not state it explicitly and the majority of the commentators do not adopt that approach.

One fascinating new approach argues that Moshe is not necessarily punished for a particular sin, rather he simply is no longer able to lead the people and thus a new generation of leaders is needed to guide them, i.e. Joshua and Caleb.

For this approach the critical paragraph is not the one describing the hitting of the rock, it is the one immediately preceding it.

Miriam dies and there is no water. The people as they always do come to Moshe and Aaron and complain. “Vayirev ha’am im Moshe” the people fought with Moshe and said why did you bring us out to kill us in the desert? How do Moshe and Aaron’s respond? Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Korach 5778

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Attendance at the Israel Day Parade and the Plague that Killed 14700

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

This past Sunday a group from the shul and school marched down 5th avenue in the Israeli Day Parade. It is something that I look forward to doing every year. I certainly enjoying seeing old friends lined up along the route but that is simply a perk. I view the parade as a tangible way to demonstrate our support of the state of Israel to the world, and just as importantly to ourselves!

That is why I was extremely disappointed with the relatively small number of people who attended from our community.

What does it say about our commitment to Israel? What does it say about the place that Israel occupies in our hearts and ideology?

Most of the discussion in Parshat Korach is focused on the complaints of Korach and the incense square off and the ground opening. That is the fascinating and exciting stuff. It is also only half of the parsha. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Shelach 5778

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Positive Aspect of the Maapilim

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

They suddenly rouse themselves, the stalwart men of war,
lightning ablaze in their eyes, their faces aflame, hands on swords.
They raise a great shout with one voice, the voice of the six hundred thousand,
a voice that tears through the tumult, vies with the desert’s roar.
Encompassed by furious storm, resolute, unyielding, they cry:
“We are the brave !
Last of the enslaved !
First to be free !
With our own strong hand,
our hand alone,
we tore from our neck
the heavy yoke.

In the desert imprisoned,
to misery abandoned
by an avenging God,
a mere whispered song
of defiance and revolt
stirred us to rise.
To arms, comrades!
Seize sword and lance,
spear and javelin – advance!
Heaven’s rage defy
and in storm reply.
Since God denies us,
his ark refused us,
we will ascend alone,
outface his wrath,
the lightning’s path.

Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat B’haalotcha 5778

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The Value of Caring For Others

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

On Monday and Tuesday I spent some time watching video of the tornado in Oklahoma.

Of course of first thoughts of are of heartaches for the families of those who died and were injured and for all of those who were negatively impacted.

As I watched video of the tornado itself the power of nature was certainly immense. My mind raced to the splitting of the Jordan which I spoke about at a class on Tuesday night and to the plagues which we read about on Pesach. Those episodes highlight the power of nature and despite all of our technological advances in the last few thousand years, we are just as awed and humbled by the power of nature today as they were then. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Naso 5778

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Birchat Kohanim, Who Does the Blessing?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

I mean no disrespect to our kohanim when I ask: who are you to bless us? Are you better, more special? Am I really meant to believe that you have the power to bless another human being? Isn’t that God’s domain? Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Bamidbar 5778

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Ayin Harah

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768

I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a Shiva home where an elderly person has passed away and someone inevitably asks, “How old was he or she?” And as soon as the avel responds, 93 or 95, inevitably someone responds, ken ayin hara! More often than not I bite my tongue and refrain from saying, no – not really, not anymore. 

Why do they respond that way? Because that is their instinctive response upon hearing an “older age” – Ken ayin hara.

And so we ask ourselves: What is an ayin hara? What does it mean? Can you give someone else an ayin hara? Can we just write it off and call it a day?

In terms of the last question, I would say two things:

  • Just writing is off, as much as the rationalists amongst us would like to, it seems too well imbedded in our texts and traditions to simply ignore.

The question was asked to Rabbi Meshulam Roth, in the early 20th century,  isn’t it wrong to believe in Ayin hara?

His answer is quite simple- he provides a full page of Mareh mekomot in the Talmud and Midrash dealing with the topic and lets the sources speak for themselves.

  • The source might be in the torah itself.

This morning we read of the counting of bnei yisrael and the counting of levites. In contrast to the count recorded in Exodus where the count is done via the half shekels, here God instructs Moshe to count them “kol zachar Legilgulotam” each male is to be counted by head. 

Both Rashi and Ramban note that here too the count is done through the collection of a half shekel, because counting people is out of the question. The Torah tells us in Shemot

שמותפרקל

(יב) כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַיקֹוָק בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם:

Rashi commenting on that verse explains:

ולא יהיה בהם נגף – שהמנין שולט בו עין הרע והדבר בא עליהם, כמו שמצינו בימי דוד:

When you count and number a group of people, they are subject to ayin hara and disease follows. According to Rashi and Ramban that is always the case and therefore the count in Bamidbar must also have been through the medium of the half shekel.

Abarbanel argues and reads the verses in Bamidbar literally. The count was done by head and was not subject to the concern in Shemot because this was a count commanded by God and those who are performing God’s command will encounter no harm. For as he obviously points out – only God has the power to harm and bring disease!

Yet Abarbanel agrees that for an unnecessary count like the one in Shemot, a head count would be unadvisable out of concern for ayin hara.

They argue only about the need for a medium in a God commanded count.

I will try and explain the argument in a moment, but to do so first a word on ayin hara in general.

 In nearly all of the Talmudic and Midrashic episodes in which ayin hara is a

factor, the prime concern is jealousy.

  • The Midrash tells us that Hagar miscarried before having Ishmael because Sarah gave her an ayin hara and that caused the miscarriage. Sarah as we could well imagine was terribly jealous of Hagar.
  • The Gemara in Baba Basra 2b instructs us not to gaze at our friend’s field when in is in full bloom or harvest. Rashi explains, lest the field be damaged via ayin hara. You stare at your friend’s field, see how much they have and become jealous.
  • The Torah records that as the brothers entered Egypt (Genesis 42/5) to get food during the famine they did so “amongst those going down to Egypt for food.” They blended into the crowd, we might say. According to the Midrash quoted by rashi, Yaakov instructs each of them to enter through a different gate to avoid receiving an ayin hara because they were all beautiful and strong.
    Why would that bring about the ayin hara? Because if they came as a group and drew attention to themselves people would see a group or family of able bodied handsome men and become jealous.

Now we ask so what, they are jealous, why should they have an affect on the object of their jealousy?

Many of the sources speak in terms of sparks of venom being sent out by that ayin hara, but I must admit that those are terms with which I am neither familiar nor particularly comfortable.

The best answer that I have come across is given by Rabbi Dessler in his Michtav Me’eliyahu.

  • He says, we are all connected spiritually and therefore can affect one another. If your existence or wealth or beauty bothers me, I can affect you.
  • And that is fair because all too often the person who is the object of the jealousy is also partially to blame for that jealousy. Just look at Hagar’s actions and her demeanor towards Sarah. Surely she is partly to blame for Sarah’s jealousy. Similarly each display of wealth, beauty or power can be a jealousy-causing act.

With that we come back to Rashi and Ramban vs. Abarbanel. At first I sided with Abarbanel (no need for a medium in a God’s commanded count), when we are doing God’s will why should we worry about ayin hara. But that was probably because I was not comfortable with the idea. Now less uncomfortable with the idea, I think that Rashi and Ramban are onto something.

The problem with counting is that it is a show of strength – look how many and mighty we are. Thus we try and count in the most inconspicuous and unpretentious way in order not to cause jealousy and in order not to inflate our ego and cause arrogance (that aspect should not be lost on us either).

If that is the point, say Rashi and Rambam, then it is well taken no matter what we are doing. You always need to be careful regarding your appearance and its affect upon you and others even and maybe especially when doing Gods will.

That is what ayin hara is all about.

Red bendels and other superstitions, those are another story!

 

Shabbat Parshat Behar Bechukotai 5778

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Disgust of Mitzvoth – Problems Within Modern Orthodoxy

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy communities take pride in being intellectually committed Jews. We think about what we are doing; we strive to understand what we are doing etc.

That is true and that is commendable but that also comes at a price. And that price is Arrogance! We are so smart and so capable that if a certain law in the Torah does not make sense – there must be something wrong with it. I have often had people say to me, that law is stupid! It doesn’t make sense. We have become the arbiters of the Torah, we are the judges of our tradition and we are the ones who judge God’s word.

I have and will readily admit that there are things in the Torah that I don’t understand and things that are difficult for my modern ears to hear etc. I am extremely thankful that wiping out Amalek is no longer a practical mitzvah.

That being said there is a tremendous difference between “that is difficult to understand” and “that does not make sense”.  The former indicates a deficiency in us, the latter a deficiency in God and the Torah.

I believe that this lesson and warning is taught by one word in the second parsha that we read this morning.

Parshat Bechukotia contains a tochacha, a rebuke section of the Torah. This is the first of two and each begins with the blessings that come when we keep God’s commandments and then continue with a longer section describing the punishment and suffering that awaits us if we don’t keep God’s commandments.

That however is not exactly accurate; the Torah does not say that if you don’t fulfill the commandments that these punishments will come. Rather it says:

ויקרא פרק כו פסוק טו

ואם בחקתי תמאסו ואם את משפטי תגעל נפשכם לבלתי עשות את כל מצותי להפרכם את בריתי

15. And if you shall despise my statutes, or if your soul loathes my judgments, so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant;

That is the Soncino translation and it might not be far enough. תמאסו is usually translated as disgust. The better translation is “If you show disgust for the commandments.”

Who is this talking about?

Rashi argues that this phrase and the others in the Parsha describe one’s attitude towards those who do perform the mitzvoth. The text then means: “If you are disgusting towards those who keep the commandments etc.”

That is both textually and theologically difficult. Textually it is difficult because the Torah seems to be referring to disgust of the laws and not disgust for the law adherers.  Theologically I could come up with some positives according to Rashi.

Very often people bash the law adherers because it makes them feel guilty that they are not doing what they should be doing. That is not all bad.

Nearly everyone else reads this literally. And if you shall despise my statutes refers to one who has disgust for the commandments.

The Ramban reads it this way and provides a spot on explanation. Why would one come to disgust the mitzvoth? Because the commandments that we are talking about here are chukim- the commandments whose reasons are hidden from the masses. The fools will become disgusted for they will say: Why would God care if I wear wool and linen together? Why in the world would God want me to burn a red heifer and sprinkle the ashes upon ourselves for purification?

The Mishaptim, the logical societal laws, however these people would initially accept as there is no society without law!

I think that the Ramban is making my point. That which we understand is ok. We might not observe these commandments for other reasons but there is not an inherent disgust. For that which we don’t understand or worse that which we think is foolish we come to disgust.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, 16th century Italy, and Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (18th century Poland) add another dimension that will really bring the point home to the 21st century; they each in different ways connect this disgust to the Torah’s laws that separate us from the rest of society. Why do I have to be different? Why must I keep this law and submit to the yoke of Torah when  I would like to be like everyone else.

In the 21st century I would ask it as follows: how can I not find disgust in a law that run counters to what I know to be true from my life experience and study in today’s society? When the Torah contradicts MY MORALITY and SENSE of WHAT IS RIGHT, how can I not be disgusted?

Unfortunately, we have become the arbiters of the Torah, we are the judges of our tradition and we are the ones who judge God’s word.

We must relearn and remember that while questioning is good and struggling is ok, we must not cross the line from “I don’t understand” to “that is stupid!”

 

 

 

 

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