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Shabbat Parshat Shmini 5778

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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.

Most of our attention is drawn to the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two sons and to the section detailing the laws of kashruth.

In between those sections there is a brief exchange between Moshe and Aaron regarding the eating of a particular sacrifice. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Tzav 5778

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Where Did They Get Matzah From in the Desert for 40 Years?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

Listen to the following fantastic question: if all the Jews ate for 40 years in the desert was the manna, how did they fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach? Could they use the Manna, and if not where did they get it from?

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank records this question in his book Mikraei Kodesh in the name of his friend Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenthal.

Rabbi Rosenthal attempts to answer the question as follows. He quotes the famous opinion of the Gemara in Yoma (75a) that the Manna tasted like whatever you wanted it to. If you thought lamb chops you got lamb chops, if you thought spinach ravioli you got spinach ravioli. He acknowledges that this is not a unanimous opinion but argues that according to this opinion if you thought shmura matza that is what you got and that would allow you to fulfill the mitzvah. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Ki Tisa 5778

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Erase Me From This Book

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

In a month or so we will read the Megillah and notice that God’s name is not mentioned once in the Megillah. That is certainly significant.

A month after that we will read the Hagaddah and note Moshe’s near complete absence from our retelling of the story. 

Last week we read Parshat Tetzaveh and Moshe’s name was not mentioned once.

I grew up believing that was due to a specific verse in this week’s parsha. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh 5778

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The Why of Anti-Semitism

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

This past Thursday marked the beginning of Israel apartheid week 2012. It is the 8th annual event run by an organization whose goal in their words is:

Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an annual international series of events held in cities and campuses across the globe. The aim of IAW is to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.

Lectures, films, and actions will highlight some of the successes of the BDS movement and build / support ongoing campaigns. Speakers and full program for each city will be available on this website. Join us in making this a year of struggle against apartheid and for justice, equality, and peace.

 This series of events, the celebration of Purim and the reading of Parshat Zachor and Amalek are our annual reminder that Jew hatred is alive and well in the world. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Terumah 5778

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Tocho k-boro

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

Many of you know that I am not a big fan of Gematria, of trying to find value in the numerical value of the Hebrew letters.  Nevertheless there are a few that have caught my eye over the years. I believe that Torah is meant to be studied seriously, poured over and analyzed until it is understood and integrated. Numbers games don’t speak to me in that way.

Yet I was drawn to one this week. Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, the author or the code of law that preceded the Shulchan Aruch, also has a commentary to the Torah in which he primarily occupies himself with gematrias.

He notes that the phrase טהור מבית ומחוץ is numerically equal to הנה החכם יהיה תוכו כברו  . Pure from inside and out = behold the sage should be equal on the inside and outside.

These are not one word calculations so I pulled out my phone and added each one up. The first phrase equaled 822 and the second equaled 823 which is close enough in the world of Gematria.

My first thought after reading this was, God how long did it take him to think this up?  My second thought was – this gematria is a cute way to introduce and remember a critical lesson about the Torah and the rabbis.

Let me explain. When describing the Aron, the ark in the tabernacle that is to hold the Torah the Torah records: וצפית אתו זהב טהור מבית ומחוץ תצפנו You should cover it in pure gold, and you must cover the wood in gold from the inside and outside. Imagine an ark here with a golden outside and when you opened it up, it would be golden as well. That would be stunning but physical beauty is not why the sages thought this was commanded.

We learn in the Gemara in Yoma 72b

מבית ומחוץ תצפנו אמר רבא: כל תלמיד חכם שאין תוכו כברו – אינו תלמיד חכם

What do we learn from the fact that both the inside and outside must be coated in gold? That your inside and outside must be the same, they must be equal. Rava extends that principle to the Torah scholar- he argues that any Talmid Chacham who does not have this quality, whose interior and exterior don’t match, is not a Talmid Chacham.

This concern was taken so seriously that according to some this was reason to bar you from entry into a yeshiva.

He was eighteen years old that day, and a miracle was wrought for him and eighteen rows of hair [on his beard] turned white. That is why R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: Behold I am about seventy years old,2 and he did not say [simply] seventy years old. A Tanna taught: On that day the doorkeeper was removed and permission was given to the disciples to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had issued a proclamation [saying]. No disciple whose character does not correspond to his exterior3 may enter the Beth ha-Midrash. On that day many stools4 were added.

That extension requires clarification. I understand that in the holiest of holies, the ark that holds our most treasured possessions… (Talmud Berachot 28a)

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah thought that a student without that quality can enter the Beit Midrash but according to Rabban Gamliel that student should be and was barred from entry.

One certainly has to wonder:

Why does Rava believe that a sage without this quality is not a sage? How does he learn that from the requirement of the ark? What’s the connection?

Why would Rabban Gamiel not allow a student without that quality in the Beit Midrash?  Why keep so many students from learning Torah? Don’t they deserve to learn too?

Recent events and encounters have helped me to understand the following.

The Ark and Torah must be pure and consistent because they are the heart and soul of Judaism.

We extend that to the sage because like it or not the Talmid Chacham and Rabbi represent Judaism to Jews and to the world. How they act or don’t act is a reflection upon God and the Torah. If they act in a certain manner, externally to the world but internally do not reflect True Torah values people will sense the discrepancy and come to disrespect the religion and Torah because of it. 

That is why Rava says – any person like that is not a Talmid Chacham- don’t be fooled, don’t let that person stand for Judaism.

That is why Rabban Gamliel did not allow such a person into the Beit Midrash. It wasn’t because they should not learn, it was because Rabban Gamliel was afraid that they would go out and misrepresent Torah Judaism to the world.

Unfortunately not all rabbis represent us well. But I will leave you with one positive thought that gives me solace.

History seems to be on our side. The rabbis who are remembered as giants, the great ones, the true Gedolim all seem to have this quality. It seems that history judges those who don’t have the quality as Rava did- they are not true Talmidei Chachamim.

Think of Rav Moshe Feinsten and Rav Shlomo zalman Auerbach, arguably the two greatest Jews of the 20th century here and in Israel. They were Genuine Torah scholars who embodied  the torah and lived its ideals in every fiber of their being. Think of Rav Kook and Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Those are our giants!




Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim-Shekalim 5778

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The Spiritual Value of Eating!

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5775

Many of you are aware that I am somewhat of a carnivore. I have an appetite for meat and maybe a little bit of a yetzer hara for food in general. Maybe a lot.

Between that and the ongoing cholent contest I want to see if we can find some spiritual value in the act of eating. Can a gastronomical experience be a religious one as well?

Our parsha at face value seems to say – yes. At the end of the parsha we read of Moses descending from heaven, and recording Torah from God. They build an altar, offer sacrifices and then we read:

שמות פרק כד

י) וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר

יא) וְאֶל־אֲצִילֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֖ח יָד֑וֹ וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ: ס

10. And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.

11. And upon the nobles of the people of Israel he laid not his hand; also they saw God, and ate and drank.

The nobles of Israel see a vision of God…. And in the midst of that they ate and drank. Maybe there is a place for food in the religious realm!

Some of the commentators and Midrashim do not read it this way.

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah – (20/10) writes:

“And they beheld God.” As a man looks upon his neighbour while in the act of eating and drinking. R. Yochanan said: They derived actual nourishment; as is proved by the citation: “In the light of the king’s countenance is life” (Mishlei 16:15). R. Tanchuma said: The text teaches us that they uncovered their heads, became presumptuous and fed their eyes on the Shekhina.

The Midrash believes that the nobles acted incorrectly. There is no place for eating and drinking amidst revelation of the divine. It is presumptuous, a chutzpah, if you will to eat at a time like this!

The Eben Ezra, in his long commentary, writes that Torah records their eating to distinguish them from Moshe. Moshe did not need to eat or drink for 40 days when in the splendor of the divine presence. These nobles did. Although it is not a critique to not be at the level of Moses, it is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the spiritual value of eating.

Onkelos in his Aramaic translation appears to be so bothered by the possibility of eating at a time like this that he reads it out of the verse. He explains that כאלו אכלין ושתן – it is as if they ate and drank. They were so engrossed with the divine presence that it filled them!

According to Onkelos, it is so inappropriate to see eating as a religious ideal that it is better to adapt a non-literal read than to accept the text at face value.

I was starting to get depressed. Is there no religious value in the joy I get from eating??

No worries, I did find two approaches that will allow us to really enjoy our cholent today.

According to an opinion in the Eben Ezra and the Ramban – they did eat and drink and that should be viewed in a positive light.

The Eben Ezra compares it to the Kohen Gadol eating after the Yom Kippur service has concluded and the Ramban to eating at a siyyum or a wedding.

I think they mean that we are created as beings that need to eat and enjoy food. At times of great spiritual joy, post Yom Kippur , weddings etc we are meant to express that joy in all realms, spiritual and physical and thus we have festive meals at these occasions. The joy of eating not only reflects the spiritual joy but contributes to it as well at some level by making us happy.

Eating a good hot cholent or two on Shabbat brings us joy and allows us and helps us to spiritually enjoy the day as well.

Of course that only helps on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

That brings us to a second approach which attempts to spiritualize the act of everyday eating as well.

R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha writes:

In the name of our holy Rabbi, my father Rabbi Bunim of Przysucha, of blessed memory: The main purpose of eating is chewing well. This seems to mean that a person should grind [his food] well before swallowing, when he reaches the primary pleasure of eating, in order to clarify the root of the taste which issues forth from the mouth of God.

I am not exactly sure what he means as my knowledge of Chassidus is not spectacular but I think from here and other mystical writings that I have perused on our verse that it goes like this.

God created vegetation and animal life to sustain us and God ensured that it would be tasty. If while eating we recognize that, and use the taste to remember that God put this in our world, we can actually connect to God through food and taste. R. Simcha Bunim clearly writes that the value of food is not the nourishment perse, rather the taste which comes from God.

We then can read our verse as follows:

There are two ways to see the splendor of God. One is to actually feel it, and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.  Most of us will never achieve that. So the verse gives us a second way to sense God, also they saw God, and ate and drank.

I will admit that eating cholent to sense God seems like a tall order, but I for one am willing to give it a shot!




Shabbat Parshat Yitro 5778

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Intermediaries to God

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

I have had the following conversation more times than I care to remember.

Me- why do you think that having someone else pray for “X” instead of you is a good idea?

Other – well they have a better connection to God and they can somehow deliver the goods better than I can.

Me – did you ever consider that God wants a connection with you and that is the point of prayer, your connection to God? It follows that no one else can do that for you.

Other – inevitably says- yeah ok but it can’t hurt.

My sermon today is what I would call “reflections on that conversation.” Continue reading

Shabbat Chanukah Beshalach 5778

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Kindness Decency and Respect

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

I spent a part of my vacation at a ranch in the Catskills with my family. One of the afternoons as I was walking down the hall from our room to the main cabin I walked past a teenage girl sitting on the floor reading a book. I figured that she was someone’s kid who either had a fight with her parents or had a baby sibling sleeping outside and didn’t give her a second thought.

As we made our way back and forth she was still there, sitting in the hall for a couple of hours.

My sister who is obviously more astute than I am, or at least pays more attention to what people are wearing, realized that she was not one of the Jews who was there on vacation and went to see who she was. It turns out that she was a local teenager who was hired to babysit one of the vacationer’s children.  They did not require her services when they were in the room so they had her sit outside. They didn’t offer you a chair, my sister asked? No, said the girl, almost embarrassed. Can I get you some coffee or soda, my sister asked? They have coffee here?! That would be great. Thank you. Continue reading

Shabbat Chanukah Parshat Bo 5778

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God and His Beit Din

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

How could God kill all of the Egyptian firstborns?

What kind of God does that?

How do I believe in such a God?

I have heard that question from many having issues of belief. I have an aunt whose friend exhibited a bible in the Jewish museum in NY with highlights striking out all of the verses that she found offensive. Any time it referred to God as he, it got a highlight. Any time it referred to God as a warrior or killer it got a highlight. I am not sure how much was left.

I do have an approach to share with you more than a specific answer, but I raise the question because that question helped me understand a Midrash that has been perplexing me for a while. Continue reading

Shabbat Chanukah Parshat Vaera 5778

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The Oppressed, the Exodus, and Martin Luther King 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.

  1. 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.
  2. And I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in slavery; and I have remembered my covenant.

Continue reading

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