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Shabbat Parshat Korach 5777

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Shul Unity, Breaking Out of Our Comfort Groups

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

Our parsha opens with a technique used at times by the Torah where a verb is used but we are not given the object which that verb relates to. At times I believe that this is done to allow for the possibility of many interpretations that all might be correct. Let me give you an example to illustrate-

In the famous story of Cain and Abel, Genesis 4/8 the Torah tells us:

ח) ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי בהיותם בשדה ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו ויהרגהו

And Kayin said to Hevel, and they were in the field, and kayin arose towards hevel his brother and he killed him.

What did Kayin say to Hevel? What was their fight about? The commentators and Midrashim have many answers, there are many reasons that brothers fight and people in general fight and kill each other. There is no one answer, so the Torah leaves it open to allow for many correct interpretations. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Shelach 5777

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The Majority Are Not Always Right

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

Very often it is difficult to be in the minority. In the world of orthodox Jewry and the world of the rabbinate centrist orthodoxy is in the minority. Very often I sense among people and at times even amongst rabbis within our community a certain religious and spiritual inferiority complex regarding our place and positions within orthodoxy.

To that I would respond, stand firm in your principles and beliefs; being in the minority does not mean that you are wrong!

And I can prove that to you from today’s parsha!

The major episode in today’s parsha is the sin of the spies. Every year it becomes more difficult to find new meaning and new aspects of the story. I glanced through a couple of books on the parsha and numerous articles and we have been there and done that. Then it hit me – the greatest lesson was staring at me, literally jumping off the page of the text. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Beha’alotcha 5777

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The Complainers

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768

Sometimes you look at the Parsha and the sermon is staring you in the face. This week it jumped off the page at me and it was too good to pass up.

The Torah gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of the Jewish community- The people, their complaints and the reactions of the leader and of God.

Chapter 11 – begins contains two sets of complaints; after the first set we see God’s reaction and after the second we find Moshe’s reaction.

I believe that this chapter contains tremendous insight into the struggles of religious organizations and the frustrations that we face. In addition the text gives our commentators the opportunity to delve into why we complain.

The chapter begins Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Bamidbar 5777

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The Jewish Hero

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5767

Fish’s Eddy was a wonderful store on the corner of 77th and Broadway in Manhattan. It sold the oddest variety of plates, cups and dishes that seem to have been bought as hotels and other establishments have gone out of business. Every time that you went in you were sure to find something different.

My greatest find there was a set of four “Rebbe cups”. They are glass cups with the picture of a famous rabbi on them, the name of the rabbi and on top of the glass it simply says “Heroes of the Torah”.

Over the years we certainly have been trained to think that way. The great rabbis are our heroes and role models. They are the model of piety and religious performance. On the wall in the pizza store on Norwood Avenue the posters on the wall are of great rabbis, somewhat monolithic but great rabbis nonetheless.

The underlying assumption of this perception is that the be all and end all of Judaism is the learning of Torah and those who do it best are the best Jews. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Behar Bechukotai 5777

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Innovation and Voluntary Religious Participation

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

There are a number of themes that I found myself coming back to every so often. One of those that I will address again today is the question of religious innovation. How do we relate to religious innovation? Is there room for non-mandatory practices in the halachik system and if so, how do we view them?

My point of departure this morning is the very last chapter in the book of Vayikra. This chapter seems to be out of place both thematically and textually.  It begins

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,

  1. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, If a man shall make a special vow to give to the Lord the estimated value of persons,
  2. Then the estimation shall be: of a male from twenty years old to sixty years old, fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary.

This is a description of a unique way to give money to the temple- you don’t simply write a check- you make a vow to donate the worth of an individual. In Hebrew it is referred to as erchin- or valuations.

Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Emor 5777

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Talmud Torah

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5775

With all due respect to the Kohanim, whenever we encounter the psukim detailing the responsibilities and dress of the Kohen, the marital or corpse contact restrictions, I think that we read them as a vestige of a time long ago. Their primary job was in the temple and today they are simply a reminder of a distant past, an echo of their former glory.

Although that is partially true, there is another element of the kehuna which is very much relevant today, even if we don’t associate it with our kohanim, namely, the teaching and studying of Torah.

Yechezkel in today’s haftarah details the responsibilities of the kohen. Much of it is very similar to the description in today’s parsha. But nestled gently in between we find: Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777

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Judging the Judges

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

One of the greatest problems with Batei Din is the total lack of any oversight. Each Beit Din is a world unto itself. There is no community monitoring of any kind. The rabbis make decisions that affect the people’s lives in major ways, by deciding division of assets and more seriously custody and visitation without answering to anyone. Even worse there is no court of appeals, no possible way to challenge a decision and no address for complaints. All of this takes place in a system where the judges are often self-appointed or appointed by organizations. The religious community has no say as to who can be a judge. There are no elections and there is no input from the very communities which they serve.

This is a quote from an article in a Jofa journal in 2005 entitled Judging the Judges, a call for Beit Din reform especially in the area of women seeking their get.

I would imagine that while many would agree partially or fully with these sentiments, others would have a rather visceral reaction to them. After all, who are we to judge the judges? We don’t know as much as them? How can we judge them? And isn’t this reversing the relationship- they are supposed to be looking at us and judging us and helping us get better not the other way around.

For many such a reaction is persuasive but I don’t believe that it is correct. I partially agree with the writer of the article and believe that the Torah does as well.

I am always drawn to the verses that command us to be just and ethical and to have and regulate just courts and judicial systems. Their simplicity and clarity speak to me and contain a message that it vital for Jews to hear in today’s world.

In chapter 19 verse 15 we read:

טו) לא תעשו עול במשפט לא תשא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול בצדק תשפט עמיתך

15. You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Tazria 5777

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The Need for Reminders

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5767

On Wednesday after paying a shiva call on the upper west side of Manhattan I hopped on the train to meet a friend for lunch in midtown. As I came up the stairs at the Times Square station I experienced the magnitude of the lights and activity there as I do each and every time that I emerge from that station. The word impressed is not the correct word but one is certainly aware of the enormity of it all. What always draws my attention the most is the billboards; some are 2-3 stories in height while others are well over 20 stories in height.

The same thought runs through my mind every time I see the ads- that must cost a fortune of money! Why would a company spend that much money on a sign? And the realization that always sets in is- it must be worth it. Research is done before the money is spent and that research must conclude that heavy and pricey advertising affects consumers’ choices. That research must show that putting an item in front of you and forcing you to look at it and think about it will have an impact on your choice and action. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Shmini 5777

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Not Enough Questions

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

Every year I notice that I receive more questions in in the 3 weeks or so leading up to Pesach than I do during the rest of the year combined. It is a good news bad news scenario. It is very good that we care about Pesach and pay extra careful attention to the details of the mitzvoth of the holiday. It is relatively bad news for the rest of the year but more on that in a moment.

The other pattern that I noticed and this was more interesting was that nearly everyone apologized before they asked their question. I am sorry to bother you but can I ask you a question?

Only a handful of people prefaced their question with “I hope this is not a stupid question”. There is a small and underappreciated section of our parsha that contains an important message for us regarding asking questions. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Tzav 5777

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Evaluating Mitzvoth Bein Adam L’chaveiro

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

One of the most important lessons for every married couple can learn, young and old, is that you are not always right. You need to be able to reflect and re-evaluate and if necessary admit that you are wrong and change positions.

In the spirit, I would like to re-evaluate a position that I took at shalosh seudot a number of months ago. The question that I raised then was as follows. You take out a loan for $1,000.00. There is a mitzvah in the torah to repay a loan that you owe.  When you go to repay that loan do you simply return the money and the mitzvah is done or do you have to have specific intention to fulfill a mitzvah as you return the money.  There is an argument in the Talmud as to whether or not mitzvoth require Kavanah, or intention. The Gemara wants to know – when you perform a mitzvah must you specifically intend to do it for the sake of performing a mitzvah or is it enough to simply perform the act. If you blow shofar for practice- have you fulfilled the mitzvah? You did not intend to perform a mitzvah but you did perform the activity. The codified position is that mitzvoth require kavanah- you must intend to fulfill your obligation when performing the activity. Continue reading

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