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Weekly Insight

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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

Shabbat Parshat Shemot 5778

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Nature of the Redemptive Process

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770 

How much does Moshe know about what is going to happen and how it is going to happen? Does he get a laid out plan of the how the redemption will take place or does he get his information piecemeal as the events unfold?

At the beginning of the third chapter of Shmot we read of the burning bush- Moshe’s first encounter with God. At that time he is informed that God is planning to redeem the Jews and he is commanded to appear before Pharaoh as God’s agent and deliver the most famous of messages- let my people go and worship for 3 days. The end of the chapter and the first half of chapter 4 detail the negotiations between Hashem and Moshe as to whether or not Moshe is the best person for the job. In those conversations Moshe learns that at first Pharaoh will refuse the request and God will have to “hit the Egyptians with wonders” and eventually they will let the Jews go. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayechi 5778

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Power Corrupts – Jewish Leadership

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

The latest scandal to hit the Jewish community involves a Rabbi named Leib Tropper. He just stepped down as the head of an organization called EJF, or Eternal Jewish family, a conversion center in the chareidi world. The organization has pushed internationally for Conversion standards that are well beyond what the Halacha dictates and has called into question numerous conversions that don’t meet their standards, causing great distress and heartaches to many sincere men and women who converted to Judaism.

Even worse is that the head of that organization Leib Tropper, who led the fight for extreme standards and actually revoked a woman’s conversion because she was seen wearing pants some time after her conversion traded conversions for sexual favors and has been accused of misusing over a million dollars. There are tapes of his conversations with a woman he was converting to that effect and he has resigned his post and offered a Tiger–esque kind of apology. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayigash 5778

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Why Does Joseph Reveal Himself To His Brothers?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

There are stories in the Torah that we think we understand. They are simple and powerful and clear. Until we actually take the time to look at them and realize that they are far from clear and simple.

With that being said I want to revisit of one the most famous scenes in all of the Torah, the moment when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers.

We assume that Joseph is now overcome with emotion and can no longer hold himself together. He just has to reveal himself to his brothers and he sends everyone out so that they should not be there for this moment.

That is a legitimate read but it faces two challenges. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Miketz 5778

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Maximizing Our Spirituality

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768

Last Tuesday I was at a Chaplaincy meeting with federation leaders and other community rabbis and one of the other rabbis shared with us the following anecdote. A family of his attending public school was dismayed that a Christmas tree was put up in the school but there was no menorah. When challenged, the principal responded that the school does not allowed religious symbols and that a Christmas tree is not a religious symbol, but the menorah is.  Leaving aside the rationale of the principal, at least I said to myself there is recognition that the menorah is indeed a religious symbol. Depressingly however it has come to resemble the Christmas tree. It reminds us that the holiday is here but asks very little of us if anything at all. This morning I want to share an important Chanukah idea with you. It is an idea that is based on a chapter that I recently read in a book of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings on Chanukah and Purim, and it speaks to what the menorah asks of us.  Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayeshev 5778

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Is the Sale of Joseph Justifiable?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

How do we view the conduct of the Brothers, the ten sons of Jacob?  On the one hand, they are the namesakes of the tribes of Israel. On the other hand, the plotted to kill their brother, threw him in a pit, sat and ate while he begged for mercy, sold him into slavery, and brutally tricked their father?

Do we try and justify their actions? Is that even possible? If not, should it bother us that the tribes’ namesakes could do something so terrible and heinous?

It is fascinating that the classical commentators, Rashi, Ramban, Eben Ezra, and Rashbam do not address the issue at all.

Many others do and they basically divide into two.

There is a group who begins with the assumption that the brothers are righteous and could not do something so despicable and perform intellectual gymnastics to try and justify the brothers’ actions.

There is a second group who disagrees, either by poking holes in the justifying theory or by explicitly labeling the brothers sinners.

The justification group also breaks down into two. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach 5778

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Was Dina to Blame

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772

The first thing that a rape victim is told is, at least on TV, it is not your fault. You did not ask for this to happen and the blame lies squarely with the rapist.

That is not however, the approach taken by Rashi in his commentary to the rape of Dina recorded in this morning’s parsha.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, argues that Dina is partly to blame because she was a yatzanit, “a person going out for lewd purposes”.

I could never completely understand why the Midrash, Rashi and others take this approach, and it always bothered me. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayetzei 5778

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How did Yaakov not know it was Leah?

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

This past Tuesday night I presented the religious Zionist worldview of Rabbi Shlomo Goren. He believed that our future in the state of Israel and our fate as a people in our land is dependent upon the spiritual and religious nature of the state and its people.

That is a frightening argument. It might well be right, but it is frightening. Therefore we come up with alternate strategies. 

One of the primary sources for such argument stems from a very puzzling episode in this morning’s parsha. Yaakov works seven years for his beloved Rachel. As we all know Lavan takes Leah and gives her to Yaakov in place of Rachel.

The Torah then tells us that

כה) ויהי בבקר והנה הוא לאה ויאמר אל לבן מה זאת עשית לי הלא ברחל עבדתי עמך ולמה רמיתני

25. And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah; and he said to Laban, What is this that you have done to me? did not I serve with you for Rachel? why then have you deceived me?

The Midrash and subsequent commentators read And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah to imply that until this point he did not know.

How in the world could Yaakov not know that it was Leah? There is a wedding; they go back to the tent, together as husband and wife. Are we really meant to believe that he did not see her face or recognize her voice? He loved her for seven years! Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Toldot 5778

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Isaac and Rebecca

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

Rivkah falls off  the camel as she encounters Yitzchak.

As with every verse in the Torah, we must ask ourselves “why is it recorded, what is it there to teach us? It certainly creates a memorable picture in our mind of the encounter but we must then ask, who cares? Why is this piece of information important enough to merit inclusion in the eternal Torah?

In order to answer that question, in the age old Jewish tradition, I will ask you another one.

At the end of our parsha we encounter the classic scene in which Yaakov and Rivkah trick Yitzchak and steal the blessings from Esav. That episode raises many questions: What was Yitzchak thinking? How does the blessing work? Were Yaakov and Rivkah right or wrong?

Of most interest to me this morning is the following powerful question:

Why doesn’t Rivkah simply tell Yitzchak that he is making a terrible mistake? Or at least question his decision and have a conversation about it. Continue reading

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