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Shabbat Nitzavim Vayelech 5778

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Teshuva, to God

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

When the Sfas Emes was young, he once came late to a shiur given by his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim. After the shiur, the Chiddushei HaRim lectured him on the importance of coming on time and the Sfas Emes accepted his tochachah (rebuke). A friend of the Sfas Emes witnessed the tochachah and asked him: Why didn’t you tell your grandfather that you up very late learning last night and you dozed off? Surely that’s a legitimate excuse to come late!. The Sfas Emes answered that while his lateness was justified, he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to receive tochachah from the great Chiddushei HaRim.

That is a story from a bygone era. We don’t like being told that we are wrong. We don’t react well to it and we certainly don’t look forward to it.

Our Teshuva model must be a little different.

The Gemara in the end of Megillah (31b) writes that we read the rebuke section in the book of Leviticus on the Shabbat before Shavuot and the Rebuke section in the book of Deuteronomy on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

Why? כדי שתכלה השנה וקללותיה – so that the year and its curses will end, and we can begin anew with the New Year looking ahead to blessing and prosperity. The Gemara deals with the question of Shavuos being the end of the year which we will leave for now.

It is a very nice idea. Out with the old, new beginnings, fresh starts etc.

Except that it is not what we do. The rebuke section in Devarim is found in Ki Tavo which we read quietly last week. According to the Gemara we should have read Ki Tavo this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. Yes it is coming.

Tosafot explain that out custom is to distance each rebuke section by a week to create a buffer between the curses and the New Year. We want the curses removed at least a tad from the New Year.

This sounds like an emotional argument or a mystical one – it just doesn’t feel right to have curses so close to the new year. Neither argument appealed to me all that much.

I found what I was looking for in the Maharsha, the commentary to the Talmud of R. Samuel Eliezer ben R. Judah HaLevi Edels – the Maharsha – was born in Cracow in 1555.

He writes that it wasn’t that we simply wanted to move the curses and Ki Tavo away from Rosh Hashanah, rather we wanted to move it so that we could insert Nitzavim in between the two. In his language:  The curses of Ki Tavo which came true during the second temple period will be reversed and the redemption will come about via the Teshuva, the repentance that is described in Parshat Nitzavim.

In other words – this isn’t a feel bad or good thing; the custom to read Nitzavim is instructive. It is a charge for us to repent and return to God. We read Nitzvaim before Rosh Hashanah because it contains that Mitzvah of Teshuva!

Reformulated to 2014 I would argue that we don’t respond all that well to the rebuke of Ki Tavo and thus we move it slightly from Rosh Hashanah and place the Teshuva of Nitzvaim there in its place.

I want to share with you two thoughts from the pesukim that describe Teshuva in our parsha.

In chapter 30 verses 2&3 we read:

ב) וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ

ג) וְשָׁ֨ב יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה

2. And shall return to the Lord your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul;

  1. That then the Lord your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the nations, where the Lord your God has scattered you.

Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century Romania, the Malbim notes that the word וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ is not conditional. It implies, he writes, both a mitzvah that we must repent and a promise that we will!

That certainly is comforting.

How do we get there?

וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ – And you will listen to his voice. HaKetav Vehakabalah, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (19th century Germany and Prussia) notes that it does not mention performing the mitzvoth, simply listening to the voice.

What voice is that?

The Netziv writes that it is the voice of Talmudic discourse as the Halacha is debated and hashed out. That is exactly what you would expect from the Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhyn, but not enticing for too many.

The Malbim writes that there is a voice that is telling you to keep the mitzvoth, to do what God wants. Many of you know that voice, not as a voice but as a gut feeling that you know what is right and know what to do. You simply have trouble getting there – getting to blessings and daily prayer and kosher in and out of the house.

That is the voice where is begins. That is the beginning of the repentance process.

Since we don’t like other people telling us that we are wrong, listen to that voice, YOUR voice, as Rosh Hashanah approaches and allow it to serve as a redemptive guide for the coming year.

 

 

Shabbat Parshat Ki Tavo 5778

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Vidui Maasroth – The last Mitzvah of the Torah

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

Every so often I like to play the “if I was God, is this really how I would have written the Torah- game.” I know that sounds slightly heretical but asked properly I think of it more of an exercise in understanding why the Torah is written as it is, and not a real suggestion that it should be otherwise.

The bulk of the book of Devarim is a recording of numerous mitzvoth that were taught during the sojourn in the desert. This year the question that presented itself was – If I was God and I was writing the Torah, what is the last mitzvah that I would record at the end of the last section of mitzvoth? How would I end the last major legal section of the Torah? I am not sure that I would have come up with Vidui Maasroth, the confession of the tithes.

The Torah works on a 50-year agricultural cycle, there are seven cycles of seven years and the final year is the Jubilee or Yovel. Each of the seven year cycles break down further as well.

It is well known that the end of each seven year cycle is the Shemittah- the sabbatical year when the land lays fallow and unworked.

In addition to that there is a cycle for annual tithes and other gifts. Each year a small percentage of the produce is given to the kohen because the kohanim do not own land.

In addition to that there is an annual tithe, i.e. 10% that is given to the Levi who also gets no land and does not get meat from the temple.

In addition to that there are two other additional tithes that are given. Maaser Sheni, the second Maaser is another 10% of your produce that is either brought to Jerusalem and eaten there by you or the produce is redeemed for one and a quarter of its value and then the money is taken to Jerusalem and spent there.

Maaser Ani, is a tithe that is given to the poor.

Another 10% of your produce would have been prohibitive, and so the last two, the Maaser Sheni and the Maaser Ani are not given in the same year. Maaser Sheni is given in years 1,2,4,and 5 while Maaser Ani is given in years 3 and 6.

What emerges then is a further breakdown of the 7 year cycle into 2 units of 3 years and then the sabbatical year. You have one unit of maaser shi, sheni and then ani, and then another.

The very last mitzvah of the legal section is the Vidui Maasroth, a confession/verbal declaration that takes place after each mini three year cycle in the 4th and 7th years.

Chapter 26 Deuteronomy

12. When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce the third year, which is the year of tithing, and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat inside your gates, and be filled;

  1. Then you shall say before the Lord your God, I have brought away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them to the Levite, and to the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to all your commandments which you have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments, nor have I forgotten them;
  2. I have not eaten of it in my mourning, neither have I taken away any of it for any unclean use, nor given any of it for the dead; but I have listened to the voice of the Lord my God, and have done according to all that you have commanded me.
  3. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel, and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land that flows with milk and honey.

This verbal announcement is the end, and you have to wonder why?

The first idea that should come to mind is that the underlying principle is giving from your produce to others is you must control your money; it should not control you. Sharing with and giving to the less fortunate is certainly a good reminder and that we must use our money productively and for spiritual purposes. That in conjunction with the Bikkurim, the first fruits brought to Hashem, the paragraph that immediately precedes the Vidui Maasroth teach us to recognize God’s role in our sustenance, our obligation to others and to use our financial resources accordingly.

That was the idea that was apparently in my head 3 years ago in 5769. On Tuesday morning I was looking through my old sermons and found the same question. The answer that I gave then was along the lines of that I just mentioned.

I continued with this sermon idea for two reasons:

  • If I did not remember then there is a good chance that you did not either.
  • This year a very different idea ran through my mind that I wanted to share with you.

The mitzvoth in general and Bikkurim/ Vidui Maaser in particular teach us that performing the mitzvoth is not only about obeying God as individuals. Certainly performing the mitzvoth is primarily about God’s will and obeisance etc. But there is more.

I think that these two mitzvoth teach us that the performance of mitzvoth is also what connects to our fellow Jews and to our history /ancestors.

When a Jew brings the Bikkurim, there is also a declaration. That declaration is familiar to us from the Pesach Seder, we begin with the wandering Aramean and move through the Exodus. We acknowledge that we have a history and an involvement with God and our ancestors. We perform the mitzvoth not in a vacuum but in the context of that history and it serves to connect us to our glorious past.

The vidui maasroth serves to connect us not to the past but to the Jewish people in the present. It does so in two ways.

  • The actual giving of the Maaser forces you to connect to other Jews and to give to other Jews.
  • The Maaser confession actually connects you to other people doing the same actions. The Vidui took place on Chol Hamoed Pesach at the Temple. There you had thousands and thousands of Jews all proclaiming their dedication to God and the mitzvoth and proclaiming that they have properly taken care of their fellow Jews. Imagine the scene: the performance of the mitzvoth themselves serves to unite us.

Sure the question might always be better than the answer and maybe there are other mitzvoth that could accomplish the same goal, but two mitzvoth that remind us of our dedication to God and place the performance of the mitzvoth in the context of our history and connection to the present Jewish community are certainly a good way to end.

 

 

Shabbat Parshat Ki Tetzeh 5778

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It is What God Wants

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

This past Monday I went to Queens to pay a shiva visit to an old friend who had just lost her mother. At one point while I was there she did something which she perceived to be a violation of the laws of shiva and then turned to everyone in the room and said – it is ok, that is what my mother would have wanted me to do.

I am not so sure that she was actually in violation of the halacha and the particulars don’t interest me as much as the attitude does. There is a justification for violating the halacha because we perceive it as something that is good or something that person “x” would have wanted. It is not the first time that I have heard the sentiment uttered and I am sure that it won’t be the last, but that does not mean that it is right. With that introduction I turn to an interesting 3 verse section of this morning’s parsha. (ch. 21)

15. If a man has two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son is hers who was hated;

  1. Then it shall be, when he makes his sons inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, who is indeed the firstborn;
  2. But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he has; for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.

From here we learn two things. First we learn that the firstborn male receive a double portion in the inheritance of his father. Secondly, we are told that a father cannot decide who gets what based on whom he likes better, he must give the oldest according to this law of birthright. I want to ask two questions:

  • Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us the law, a firstborn gets double? Why do we need the case of the two wives etc? In other words, once you know the law, why would you think that you can skirt it or violate simply because you like one better?
  • What is this doing here? How is it connected to what comes before, the captive wife, and what comes after, the rebellious son?

It is the latter question that is dealt with by the commentators and that is one that I think holds the key to answering both questions.

The Eben Ezra and the Chizkuni both argue that the connection between the captive wife and our section with the inheritance of children from different wives are connected based the on common theme of like/dislike of women.

In the captive wife the soldier has to decide if he desires her or not and in our case there is one wife you desire and one that you don’t. In the first case it is the same woman and in our case it is two but in each case that idea is present.

In addition to that inherent difficulty this is what I would call a technical connection, and not an intrinsic one. There is simply a similarity in the cases that link them.

Trying to explain the connection of our case to the rebellious son that comes after it, the Chizkuni offers the following:

The juxtaposition comes to teach us that you must kill the rebellious son and not make him the bechor.

That too is difficult. Firstly because it is relatively obvious.

Secondly, what emerges according to the Chizkuni, is a reading where a is connected to b and b is connected to c but there is nothing that links or groups a, b and c together. When you look at the text and see 3 parshiot to open the parsha that open with the same word, כי  כי תצא, כי תהיין, כי יהיה  it seems to link them together. That is what motivates the Midrash that is quoted by some of the mefarshim. This Midrash argues that not only are the 3 linked but they are a chain reaction of sorts.

It all starts with taking the captive wife. That creates a less than desirable situation in the house where there is competition between the wives and one becomes beloved and one not. That situation is not an ideal one in which to raise children and that union with the captive wife that led to strife will also produce a child who will become rebellious.

I have a suggestion to add to the mix that also ties all three together. I would argue that the 2 and possibly 3 paragraphs that follow the captive wife are actually an attempt to limit the justification used in that case to only that case and not allow it to be extended further.

Taking a captive gentile wife in war is understood by nearly everyone as a concession to the evil inclination. A soldier at a time of war is out of his regular environment and in an atmosphere of heightened emotions and energy and simply can’t control himself. Thus the Torah in recognition of this makes a concession.

But lest you think that this is a model that you can build on, that at times your desires and wishes can trump a Torah violation the Torah gives us the following cases where you might be tempted to follow your heart but are instructed not to.

You have two wives and they each have kids. You would very much like to give the beloved wife’s children more but YOU may NOT because the halacha is that the first born gets double. A concession is not made.

Then we move onto the next case, the rebellious child. Your child is a glutton and destined for certain disaster and the child must be put to death. Your heart tells you not to do this; this is after all your child. Your wishes and desires are to ignore the Torah but that is not an option.

Yes the Torah made the exception once but it was only once and cannot be extended even in the case of the rebellious son.

The general rule of thumb is that a Jew is obligated to follow the rules of the Torah no matter what the personal cost or sentiment.

And when one exception is made the Torah makes it clear immediately that this is a one-time exception and that is it. And thus the torah gives us 2 examples where we must follow the law despite our feelings to the contrary to hammer home that point.

I think that this is an important message for our community in general and in particular as we approach RH and YK.

Particularly in the MO communities where we place real value on what we believe are positive developments in the world at large, and at some level those developments help shape our outlook on the world, there is always the danger that it becomes about what we want and not what God wants. What do you do when a particular halacha seems to be at odds with what we feel should be?

We need to remind ourselves that at the end of the day it is ultimately about what God wants.

 

 

 

Shabbat Parshat Shoftim 5778

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Witchcraft and Sorcery

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

When I was dating my wife I thought it would fun to have our palms read. I did not believe in it then and I don’t believe in it now, but I thought that it would be a fun and entertaining date. But I wasn’t sure if this was a halachically permissible date so I asked Rabbi Herschel Schachter who was my Rosh Kollel at the time and I think that I am lucky that he didn’t throw me out of the Kollel. Needless to say, we did not have our palms read.

The source for the prohibition is found in this morning’s Parsha and is the subject of both a fascinating discussion relating to the effectiveness witchcraft, divination and sorcery and I believe contains a very important message for how Jews are to live their lives.

Chapter 18

10. There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch,

  1. Or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
  2. For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you.
  3. You shall be perfect with the Lord your God.

 There are two questions that we have to address

  • Why are these activities prohibited?
  • Why is the prohibition listed here in Parshat Shoftim? Two of these categories are already prohibited in Parshat Kedoshim (19/26). Why not just fill in the details there and be done with it?

The first issue, the reason for the prohibition is the subject of a very famous dispute between Maimonidies and Nachmanides.

The Rambam, at the end of the 11th chapter of his “Laws of Idolatry” writes that “these are all things of lying and falsehood and Jewish sages should not be drawn after these things that have no value and are not productive at all.”

And then for emphasis he adds, “it is not befitting of the sages of Israel to follow such nonsense and stupidity.

For the Rambam it is very clear and simple- we believe God and God alone runs this world and it is silly and prohibited to ascribe those powers to anything else.

His is a good, intuitive, logical and rationale position.

Now listen to the Ramban- and this is a wild Ramban:

He writes, “Hear and understand the issue of sorcery etc. When God created the world, he put the upper sphere in charge of the lower sphere and placed the power of the world in with the stars and constellations etc. Later he writes: there are those who will tell you that these people have no power at all and there is nothing to it (an obvious reference to the Rambam) but do not believe them for                                     

WE CANNOT CONTRADICT WHAT WE HAVE SEEN WITH OUR OWN EYES!

It gets even better. Why then are these activities prohibited? Because you can never be sure if they are right and if you really want the truth seek out God’s prophet and that is the next topic in the Torah following our verses.

I will readily admit to you that Ramban’s answer and approach are bewildering and unsatisfying. Even if you were to believe at some level in some of it I would have liked to have seen the following answers as to why it is nevertheless prohibited, both beautifully expressed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

  1. A real belief in the power of stars and sorcerers etc involves a denial of God’s free will government of the world. If our actions are really governed by some other forces then we have, in essence, lost our free will and therefore even if God did invest some power in these heavenly bodies, they are not absolute and are subject to change. (Lev. 19/26)
  2. Once you put your fate in the hands of theses forces you have essentially rendered your activities and moral choices worthless and of no consequence. And with that all of morality goes out the window. You are no longer responsible for your actions.

While to be fair to the Ramban, he does not actually believe that our actions are of no consequence and how the world is run is certainly more complicated than that, I would love to have seen him say that these actions are prohibited because they will lead to this notion among men. We need to understand that there are no shortcuts, no easy way outs and that we are responsible for our actions and thus determine our fate.

I believe that this idea contains the answer to our second question as well. Why are these laws placed in Shoftim?

Shoftim is actually a well structured parsha and its main theme is leadership, judicial, political, halachick and spiritual. Our prohibitions are included in the category of spiritual leadership, I believe, because it is the spiritual leaders’ role and responsibility to teach this message to the people. At times people will come to the kohen or the prophet and want to know the future or get the quick answer or be told what to do and while there are rare times that the Urim and Tumim were used to get answers from God, it was not often and not for individuals. These leaders needed to teach the people that this is not what God wants from you. They may dispense moral or spiritual advice, but they should not make your decisions for you.

God wants you to understand that you are responsible for your actions and choices and those actions will ultimately determine your fate. You can ask for advice or daven to God, but no one else can make your choices for you. That is why sorcery and necromancy and all other sorts of witchcraft are prohibited.

 

 

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

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

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