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Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim 5777

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Appreciating the Importance of “Bein Adam Lechaveiro”

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Every year, Parshat Mishpatim provides us with an opportunity to focus on the importance of being honest, ethical and appreciating the need to treat our fellow Jews and all human beings with the respect that they deserve.  Every year, I try to take advantage of the opportunity.  

That message could not be more relevant today – as Jewish Philanthropy reels in the wake of Madoff and Israeli politicians continue to disappoint on that score.  Natan Sharansky often reminds us that: he is the only Israeli politician who was in jail before he came to office.

This year, I would like to approach the topic by debunking a very common misconception regarding one of the most famous and quoted phrases in the Torah:  Naaseh Venishma. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Yitro 5777

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What Brings You to Judaism?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Any time that a potential convert comes into a Rabbi’s office one of the first things that you want to know is, what brought you here? Why are you interested in Judaism? What is it that you find appealing?

I have had that conversation numerous times and I think that it has helped me make sense of the first Midrash on this week’s parsha.

The first verse tells how Yitro heard about all of the things that Hashem did for the Jews. The second verse then describes how Yitro picks himself up and takes Moshe’s wife and children to join the Jewish people.

The Midrash asks a very famous question: “What did Yitro hear that made him come?” Although many answers are given to this question the classic Midrash offers 3 possibilities:

  • Yitro heard about the victory over Amalek, which is the story immediately preceding this in the Torah.
  • Yitro heard about the splitting of the sea.
  • Yitro heard about Matan torah.

I always assumed that this was an argument about what convinces people that Judaism is correct? Is it the fact that Jewish history has demonstrated that we have survived against all odds, Amalek or yam suf, or is it the beauty and depth of the Torah- or Matan torah. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Beshalach 5777

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Active Participation in Talmud Torah

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5767

Try and imagine this scene for a moment: you have just left Egypt and crossed the sea. The Egyptians almost killed you, but God prevails and saves you.  Then, there is no water to drink and just as you finally come across some water and are in the midst of quenching your unbearable thirst Moshe says “alright that is enough, take out your pens and notebooks and let’s do a little learning”.That, says the Midrash, is exactly what the Torah is describing when it says:

וַיִּצְעַק אֶל יְקֹוָק וַיּוֹרֵהוּ יְקֹוָק עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ:

Moshe cries out to God, and God shows him the branch to place in the water.  Moshe throws the branch into the water, the water is sweetened, and then Moshe placed before them statute and law and tested them. The first question that must be asked is: to what exactly does this refer?  The next question must be: why here?  After all, the Jews are not settled, nor have they even received the 10 commandments or the Torah. In the interest of full disclosure, the literal read of the text need not be that Moshe actually gave the Jews laws at this point.  Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, argues that it simply refers to the command in the next verse to listen to what God is going to tell them to do; and the Ramban argues that it might refer to how to act until the Torah is given. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Bo 5777

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Darkness (Plague)

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768

On August 24th 2003 much of the northeast was affected by a blackout. I was in the museum of Natural history at the time with Ariel in a room that had windows. As we moved toward the exit we had to pass through some of their great hall rooms in the middle of the building which were pitch black. The subways had stopped and so we walked home. At night things became more difficult without electricity. The fridge and freezer remained closed. We had no lights save a few flashlights and candles.

It was certainly inconvenient and in the summer uncomfortable without the air but not unmanageable. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Va’era 5777

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The Opressed, the Exodus, and MLK Day

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

The Great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 often used Exodus imagery and language to describe the battle to end racism and discrimination in America. This morning I will try and explain why that language is indeed appropriate.

At the very beginning of our Parsha God tells Moshe why he is going to redeem the Jews.

3.  And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name The Lord was I not known to them.

4.  And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, in which they sojourned.

5.  And I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in slavery; and I have remembered my covenant.

The crucial question to understanding God’s motivation is the relationship between verse 4 describing the covenant and verse 5 recording that God has heard the groaning of the Jews. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Shemot 5777

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Shifra & Puah & the Capacity for Regular People to do Great Things

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

There is a book entitled All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. I have never read it but if I were to write a Jewish version the title would be, everything I learned in Chumash in kindergarten needs to be relearned.

We are told things as truth and it skews our perspectives into adulthood and prevents us from fully appreciating the text of the Torah.

Take the identities of the two heroic midwives who disobeyed Pharoah’s direct request to kill the Jewish children on the birthing stools.

The Torah identifies them as Shifrah and Puah but every kindergartener knows that they are really Miriam and Yocheved, Moshe’s mother and sister. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayechi 5777

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Achieving Unity

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

We fasted last Thursday on the 10th of Tevet to commemorate the Roman’s laying siege to Jerusalem, the beginning of a sequence of events that led to the destruction of the temple and our exile from the land of Israel.

The Talmud tells us that one of the chief causes that led to the destruction was sinat chinam, baseless and unwarranted hatred. There was tremendous sectarianism during the time period in Israel; the Jewish people were fractured.

Nearly two thousand years later, we face the exact same issues. We have sectarianism and in Israel we have hatred between the religious and the secular and between the religious groups as well.

Is there any way to stop the cycle and introduce fellowship, love and peace amongst the Jews? Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayigash 5777

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The Ability to Forgive

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5766

Why is forgiveness so difficult for us to offer and receive?

It goes against every natural instinct in our lives. When we have been hurt, our natural reaction is to fight back – retaliate – hold a grudge – gain revenge. To let that go requires true bravery.

“Forgiveness is divine” because in God there is no ego, no desire of vengeance to quench, no hurt to alleviate.

For human beings to forgive they must overcome their ego and their desire for vengeance.

That ability is one of the signs of greatness that we see in Joseph, one of the reasons that he is labeled by our sages as Yosef Hatzadik, Joseph the righteous.

I think that it emerges from the Torah’s description of Yosef’s conduct towards his brother during the last section of text. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Miketz Chanuka 5777

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Jews and Money

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Unfortunately, Jews and money seems to be the hot topic the last few weeks in our communities and in the media.

Although Madoff was not a religious man, and there are certainly plenty of good honest and ethical Jews, it would nonetheless behoove us to take the opportunity for a little introspection.

At times we must ask ourselves, how much do we value our money and the lifestyle that we have become accustomed to living? Has this become more important to us than it should be? Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayeshev 5777

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The Three Sins That a Woman Dies for in Childbirth

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5776

Last Wednesday on the 25th I taught a Mishna via podcast that I simply did not do justice to. It is a Mishna that we recite every Friday night containing the sins for which a woman dies during childbirth.

משנה מסכת שבת פרק ב משנה ו

על שלש עבירות נשים מתות בשעת לידתן על שאינן זהירות בנדה ובחלה ובהדלקת הנר

Women die during childbirth because of three sins, because they are not careful regarding niddah, challah and lighting candles.

Niddah refers to a menstruant, Challah refers not to the challah on the Shabbat table but to the commandment of separating a piece of the dough from a large loaf to give to the kohen, and lighting of the candles refers to Shabbat candles. Continue reading

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