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Weekly Insight

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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

Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah 5778

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Wishes for Our Children/Reflections on Our Values

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768

I do not doubt that every parent wishes the best for their children. I would say, however, that what we wish for them might not always be the best for them, and that what we wish for them is often a very good reflection of our values and what we deem to be most important.

We wish and hope that our children be financially successful, and maybe even a part of mainstream America. There is nothing wrong with that perse.

That being said, we might value the dollar and social acceptance over personal happiness and spirituality. That, of course, is a problem!

Not that it is any consolation, but the issue is not a new one. Our patriarch Abraham addressed the same issues when looking for a spouse for his son Yitzchak.

The opening chapter of our parsha deals with the acquisition of the cave of Machpela which is to serve as the first purchase of land in Israel and of course a burial plot for Sarah. The next chapter, 24, details the search for Isaac’s wife. We read of Abraham commanding Eliezer to go to his family, find a suitable wife and bring her back to him. This is an absolute condition. We then read of Eliezer’s devised character test to find a suitable shidduch for his master’s son. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Vayera 5778

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The Danger of Unchecked Perception

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768

Chana, a self-appointed monitor of the Shul’s morals (Yenta), kept sticking her nose in to other people’s business. Several members did not approve of her extra curricular activities, but feared her enough to maintain their silence. 

She made a mistake, however, when she accused Moishe, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his car parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She emphatically told Moishe (and several others) that everyone seeing it there would know what he was doing. 

 Moishe, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just turned and walked away. He didn’t explain, defend, or deny…he said nothing. 

 Later that evening, Moshe quietly parked his car in front of Chana’s house…walked home…and left it there all night!!! 

 You gotta love Moshe!  Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Lech Lecha 5778

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What Causes Jews to Divide and Separate, Lot & Avraham

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

For more than 2000 years Jews have been divided and separated for two primary reasons. At times an external enemy causes Jews to have to flee and separation ensues. Sometimes the enemy is directly responsible for the separation.

Other times our divide and separation has nothing to do with anyone or anything external. We do it to ourselves, we are our own worst enemy and usually it revolves around religion. That which is supposed to unite and bind us is actually what causes the divide.

It is always fascinating to see commentators read these historical realities into the text. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim Vayelech 5777

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Belief in Miracle and an Omnipotent God

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

I had two conversations with some of the young members of our shul over the Yom Tov season, one in high school and one in college regarding what stories we must believe to be literal and which we do not. Must we believe that all of the stories in the Talmud happened or do we assume that they are just good stories meant to illustrate a message. What about the stories in the Torah, or the rest of the Bible?

Those are certainly fair questions and they are questions that I think about every time I encounter such a story. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim Vayelech 5777

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Deciding What Parts of the Torah We Like

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5769

In inducting Israel into the brit or covenant with G-d, a covenant which consists of Torah and Mitzvoth, Moses warns his people against one kind of sinner whom he regards as particularly noxious.

In chapter 29 verse 17 we read:

יז) פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה אוֹ מִשְׁפָּחָה אוֹ שֵׁבֶט אֲשֶׁר לְבָבוֹ פֹנֶה הַיּוֹם מֵעִם יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ לָלֶכֶת לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם שֹׁרֶשׁ פֹּרֶה רֹאשׁ וְלַעֲנָה

17. Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood;

There is a description of two different people, first the idolater and then the poison root.

Regarding the latter category the Torah is particularly harsh in terms of punishment for this ideology.

19. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.

20. And the Lord shall mark him off for evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the Torah;

What could be so terrible? What do you have to do or believe to deserve this? Continue reading

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