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Shabbat Parshat Vayakhel 5777

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Fire on Shabbat and Rationalizing Sin

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

“I eat out dairy.”  Well, I don’t; but that is something I hear all the time. I don’t mean to pick on that particular issue, but it seems to be a very good example of Jews illogically rationalizing things that they should not do. Allow me to explain.

The commandment to observe Shabbat and not perform prohibited activity on Shabbat is repeated numerous times throughout the Torah and at times it is specifically connected to the building of the Mishkan.

The connection between the prohibitions of Shabbat and the Mishkan is made in last week’s parsha, at the conclusion of the command to build the Mishkan (31:12-17), and again at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel.

Moshe calls the people together to tell them about not working on Shabbat and then about the construction of the Mishkan. There is, however, one major difference between this time and the prior mention. Here, in addition to the general prohibition of working on Shabbat, the Torah adds a specific prohibition.

שמות פרק לה – ג) לא תבערו אש בכל משבתיכם ביום השבת:

Do not transfer fire on Shabbat.

Why add anything here; and, more interestingly, why does the Torah choose this specific activity to prohibit?  The Mishna in the seventh chapter of Talmud Shabbat lists 39 prohibited activities, yet there are only 2 mentioned explicitly in the Torah.

Most of the primary medieval commentators argue that this specific instruction is coming to contrast Shabbat with Yom Tov. On Yom Tov we are allowed to cook and transfer fire. One might then think that is ok on Shabbat as well; and so, the Torah comes to remind us that this is forbidden on Shabbat. Don’t think that: because it is ok on Yom Tov, it is ok on Shabbat as well. This approach can be found in the commentary of Rashbam and others.

There is one main problem with this approach. It has nothing to do with the Mishkan. This detail, the transfer of fire, is given specifically in the context of the Mishkan (and also through different language).

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, the great Italian commentator, offers another approach. He argues that: even though very often fire is destructive, it is involved in all (or, at least most) of the melachot and is therefore prohibited.  In other words- fire is singled out because it is the most common and important melacha.

This approach is subject to the same criticism as the last one. It has nothing to do with the Mishkan. It is also unclear if his argument is even true. Many melachat do not involve fire at all.

To gain a better understanding of the why fire is referenced here, I think that we first have to figure out the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbat.

In general, the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbat is explained as follows: you might think that something as important as building the Mishkan would allow you to override Shabbat. The Torah then comes to remind us that Shabbat takes precedence over the Mishkan. We don’t violate Shabbat in order to build the Mishkan.

What does this have to do with fire?

The commentary of Tosafot to the Torah offers a wonderful explanation that speaks to the heart of one of the real religious issues of our time.

They write that God specifically warns us about transferring fire more than the other melachot because it does not appear to be so much of a melacha; and maybe people will say: “we are not really doing anything” and, thus come to violate Shabbat.

God understands that we Jews rationalize: “this is not really so bad”; and, if we can convince ourselves of it, then we allow ourselves to violate the halacha.

 Thus the message of the Torah here is twofold:

  1. When an activity is prohibited, don’t argue that it doesn’t apply because we have a greater and nobler ideal that is driving us. The Mishkan does not override Shabbat. Building God’s house is not a good reason to violate Shabbat.
  2. Do not fall into the trap of violating a clear halacha, because you think that it is not a big deal.

You are not the judge of what is serious and what is not.

I must admit, and lament, that these are arguments and sentiments that I hear often in modern orthodox communities.

Who hasn’t heard “but I don’t want to offend my friend or relative etc.  They won’t understand why I have to do ‘x’ or why I can’t do ‘y’.”  We take a value, consideration to others feelings, which are a real value, and use it as an excuse not to keep halacha. We forget that the Mishkan does not override Shabbat. Yes, we should try our best not to offend anyone, but that is not an excuse to violate halacha.

We are also experts at convincing ourselves that “we don’t really have to do that, because it is not a big deal” or “that is just a crazy stringency for the right wing communities, but is not really the law and thus we don’t have to do that.”  What often ends up resulting is: we violate clear halachot, because we feel that they are not real, and convince ourselves that we don’t have to do it.  Instead of starting with the halacha and allowing it to determine our actions, we let our intuition determine what is real halacha and what is not.

I have heard these arguments in one form or another regarding hair covering, eating out dairy, not immersing dishes, and the list goes on.

I want to return to “eating out dairy” to show how easy it is for us to rationalize illogically. In our homes we keep separate meat and dairy pots, because we understand that a pot can become milchig or fleishig; and that if you heat up milk in a fleishig pot, the milk becomes forbidden. That same principle applies to the pots that cook kosher and non-kosher fish, and the same pots that heat pasta sauce after heating bacon for carbonara.

That very same principle, which we accept in our homes, we can rationalize away in a restaurant. We convince ourselves it is not a big deal so easily – even though if we stopped to think about it for a moment- the rationalization would fall away.

The clear message from our parsha is – that is not your call to make. You may not rationalize halacha away.  The Mishkan does not override Shabbat!




Shabbat Parshat Ki Tisa 5777

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Appreciating Others’ Work on Behalf of the Shul

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5767

It is amazing that when you look through the Torah and its descriptions of the 40 years in the desert there are two words that you never hear the Jews utter towards God, and those are two very important words and they are: THANK YOU!

Rather every time that God does something positive for the Jews it seems that it is not enough and that it could have been done better.

God takes the Jews out of Egypt and there are no thanks, just a complaint – why did you take us out to have us killed here. The implicit suggestion is that it would have been better had god killed the Egyptians in Egypt; that would have been better.

God provides water for the Jews and sustenance in the form of the Manah and again, the Jews complained. They wanted meat and quail. God forbid that they should say thank you for the miraculous food; no- God you should have done better and provided us with real meat. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh5777

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Vashti’s Tail

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

There are certain lasting images that we have from the story of Purim: For many it is Vashti as a leper or Vashti with a tail.

I was asked this past week, what are we to make of this Midrash? Why would we say such a thing? What is it there to teach us? I know you have heard this before but to answer that question we must do two things:

  1. We have to return to the text and figure out what questions must be answered.
  2. We must look at this piece of commentary in its full context.

In the text we Achashverosh filled with wine after seven days of drinking asks for Vashti to be brought before him wearing a royal crown in order to show the nation and his ministers how beautiful she was.

In the next verse she refuses to come and the king becomes furious and ends up sending her away with instructions never to appear before him again. Continue reading

Shabbat Parshat Terumah 5777

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Tocha 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) 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 equations 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 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 or Beit Midrash.

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, 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 exterior may enter the Beit Midrash. On that day many stools 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; rather, 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 Talmidei Chachamim.

Think of Rav Moshe Feinstein 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 also of Rav Kook and Rabbi Soloveitchik.
These are our giants!




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

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