Structure of the Parsha and the Ketoret (incense) Altar
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5768
I was not until relatively recently in the world of Biblical Exegesis that one might hear the words “literary structure” and “Torah study” uttered in the same sentence. Yet that is not uncommon to hear today, articles and books have been written about the sequence and order of verse, chapters and even entire books. The results from such study usually yield new insight and profound ideas.
My bet is that many people would object in the orthodox world might object to studying the literary structure of the Bible, which is curious because although not as often as we do today and not as a field of study, the general idea and method has been used by rabbis for over two thousand years.
Continuing from last week on the theme of doing things a little bit differently I want to analyze the structure of Terumah and Tetzaveh with you and highlight how an appreciation and study of it will help us understand the role of one of the instruments in the mishkan. Continue reading
How Important is the Temple? Messages from the Haftarah
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774
Did you ever open up to the haftarah and see “Sephardim conclude here” only to realize that you are going to keep reading another 20 verses or so?
We all have and at that point I know that you are thinking – let’s adopt that custom! I can’t believe we have to sit through more when there is a shorter option available!
What we should be thinking is – the portion for the haftarah is carefully selected from the prophets. Two different selections or two cutoff points implies as argument as to what the focus of the Haftarah is or should be! I would love to know what lies behind this argument; I want to understand the rationale for why this particular section is chosen!
As you would expect the haftarah for Parshat Terumah which begins to detail the command to build the Mishkan (tabernacle), deals with the command to build the temple in the times of king Solomon. There is no question at all as to the thematic connection – tabernacle to temple, and there could be no more appropriate section to choose. Continue reading
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 and ethical and properly appreciating the need to treat our fellow Jews and human beings with the respect that they deserve.
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.
We are taught from a very early age that the Jews accepted all of the Mitzvoth and told Hashem, we will do and we will listen. Or, as it is generally taught, we will do without question and only then will we try to understand. Continue reading
Do Not Murder! A Return to Basics!
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5775
There were times when I used to look at the 10 commandments and wonder: That is it? This is the great revelation! This is supposed to blow me away. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not kidnap!
I want to focus today on don’t murder. It seems too basic to impress anybody! So basic that many of the commentators don’t offer a word of commentary. And I would wonder – why is this one of the 10 commandments?
It might be this very question that leads the Eben Ezra to offer the following explanation. He writes that “do not murder includes via hand and speech. If you testify falsely and that leads to the death penalty or you encourage someone to commit murder, or you don’t share information that will save someone from death – if you do any of these you are like a murderer- אתה כמו רוצח Continue reading
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
The Spiritual, the National & the Conversion Crisis in Israel
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771
There was a wonderful oped in the Jerusalem Post last week regarding the conversion crisis in the state of Israel today. It was written by Rabbi Seth Farber who is the head of an organization named ITIM which helps people navigate the Israeli rabbinate when dealing with conversion and lifecycle events.
He pointed out that nearly half of the recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union do not meet the rabbinate’s criteria for Jewishness. That includes people whose father is Jewish but not the mother or cases where there is simply not enough evidence to determine Jewish status definitively. The numbers are now in the hundreds of thousands. A few thousand convert a year but the rest cannot meet the demands of the rabbinate and do not, or are completely secular and do not. The question is – what do we do about it? Do we simply let throw up our hands and give up, or do we work to find a halachick solution to this dilemma? Continue reading
Quiet During Kaddish & Our Relationship With God
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773
Three weeks ago at the Kiddush someone came over to me and said: “I am glad that you finally got the decorum down for adon olam, how about getting the people quiet during kaddish. It is just wildly disrespectful.”
On one hand, I was glad that I am not the only one who feels that way, yet on the other hand, it was depressing that many others do not get it.
A large part of the problem is the nature of our relationship with God. That issue is highlighted by a problematic verse/declaration in this morning’s Parsha.
שמות פרשת שמות – וארא פרק ו
ב) וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְיָ
ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְיָ לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם
2. And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord; Continue reading
Jewish Attitudes Towards Cremation
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5777
About five years ago a woman called the shul to discuss her burial plans. She was an out of town member and her health was failing rapidly. Her husband had predeceased her and was buried in our cemetery.
She called because she wanted to be cremated. After a short discussion I asked her if she would like to be buried in our cemetery next to her husband. She replied in the affirmative. I proceeded as delicately as I could to explain to her that would not be possible if she chose cremation. She did not and she received a kosher burial on North Linden Ave. Continue reading
The Fear of Being in Galus
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5779
Every time I read this parsha I feel as if we gloss over a critical moment in Jewish history, one with critical lessons for us as Diaspora Jews in general and specifically regarding our relationship to the land of Israel.
We read the dramatic story of Yaakov finding out that Joseph is alive and we look forward to their reunion. We gloss over the fact that this reunion is in fact the beginning of Galus Mitzrayim, the beginning of our exodus which will include enslavement. That fact is now lost upon Yaakov. We read:
בראשית פרק מו
ג) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָנֹכִ֥י הָאֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם
ד) אָנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ
3. And he said, I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation;
4. I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.
Yaakov appreciates the moment, is afraid and Hashem tries to console him.
What exactly is he afraid of? Formulated differently, what is the fear of being in galus?
Midrash Sechel Tov and the Ohr Hachaim suggest that Yaakov was afraid that he himself would be enslaved and persecuted.
That seems tough to accept as this is a personal fear, and not a national one. I think we assume that Yaakov would be more concerned with the people etc than with his own personal fate.
Rashi writes that Yaakov was pained at the thought of leaving the land of Israel. While that is certainly true, many note that this is probably not what the verse is referring to. Pain and fear are two very different emotions.
Even if you could get past those issues there is one major challenge in adopting either of these two answers. They ignore the rest of the text!
I saw two beautiful pieces of commentary who make this point, one authored by Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and the other by the first Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, the Beis Halevi.
Hashem tries to reassure Yaakov by promising him that they will be a great nation and that He will be with them in Egypt and bring them back up!
If Yaakov is afraid of leaving eretz Yisrael or of his enslavement, these promises will do little to allay his fears.
What then was the fear? What was Yaakov so concerned with?
I think that the text itself, Hashem’s promises tell you exactly what he was afraid of. He was nervous that the house if Israel would not grow, that it would shrink and he was afraid that they might not ever make it back to the land of Israel!
Why would cause that to happen?
Rav Yisraeli believes that we will have it too good there. He contrasts this fear of Yaakov with an earlier fear of Yaakov.
When Esav and his 400 men are approaching we read that Vayira Yaakov, that he was afraid. There the fear was clear. His brother is strapping and looking for revenge. Yaakov is a shepherd with his family. He is afraid of a physical attack.
In our chapter that is clearly not the fear. His son is the viceroy. That will afford them both protection and the best that Egypt has to offer.
And that argues RSY is exactly the problem; that is what Yaakov is afraid of. With all of Egypt and its culture open to them, won’t assimilation follow?! We know that challenge well!
I would add that an additional fear is that the more comfortable that we get in galus, the weaker our connection to the land of Israel is and our desire to return is not as strong as it should be.
The Beis Halevi is even more specific.
He suggests that Yaakov realizes that this is the beginning of the process of enslavement foretold to Avraham. He is afraid because he now learns that the galus and servitude will take place in Mitzrayim, in Egypt. That piece of information was not given to Avraham. He was told that
בראשית פרק טו
יג) וַיֹּא֣מֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה
13. And he said to Abram, Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
It is now clear that the place where this will happen is Egypt, the place that is rampant with idolatry and sexuality. And Yaakov is afraid!
בית הלוי בראשית פרשת ויגש פרק מו פסוק ג
נתיירא שמא לא יוכלו בניו להיות במצרים כל כך שנים בשיעבוד וישארו בקדושתן ואולי חלילה ישתקעו בטומאתן של מצריים עד ששוב לא יהיו ראוים להגאל כלל לעולם
He was afraid that his children would not be able to last the many years of exile while maintaining any state of holiness. God forbid, they might get mired in the impurity of Egypt and not be worthy of being redeemed.
We know this challenge as well!
To allay those fears Hashem promises Yaakov that the people will not dwindle, rather they will become a great nation and that he will take them out as well, Hashem will not let them descend to the point of no return. And He will bring them back to the land of Israel!
Rabbi Yisraeli and Soloveitzchik have captured the challenge of Galus Mitrayim and Galus America. The openness and wealth are not without their downsides and the assimilation rates in America testify to that! The pervasiveness of vulgarity, violence and sexuality has its effects as well.
Our connection to Israel while strong is not what it should be. We are still here in NJ!
To overcome those challenges we must:
Continually work on growing spiritually, avoid exposure to the vulgarity, violence and sexuality as best we can, and find ways to actively support the State of Israel!
Assimilation and the Desire for Acceptance
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770
There is one unbelievable verse in our parsha that we generally don’t pay attention to because it is overshadowed by the drama that is playing out between Joseph and his brothers.
Joseph has succeeded in getting Benjamin to Egypt. He lays his eyes upon his brothers for the first time in over 20 years, his emotions are stirred and he can barely hold back from revealing himself to his brothers. Yet he does, escapes to a private room and cries. We are so taken with the drama that we gloss over the next few psukim that detail their meal together.
בראשית פרק מג
(לב) וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ לְבַדָּם כִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת הָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם
32. And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
There were 3 different “sittings” in the room. Joseph sat alone as did the brothers and the Egyptians who were dining with them.
And the verse tells us that this is so because the Egyptians considered it an abomination to break bread with the Hebrews.
We need to ask three questions before the meaning of the verse becomes relevant for us and for Chanukah.
- Why is it an abomination for an Egyptian to eat with a Hebrew?
- Which Hebrews are we talking about?
- Who are the other Egyptians in the room?
Onkelos writes in his Aramiac translation of the Torah that Jews ate meat which the Egyptians worshipped and that is the source of their disgust with the Hebrews.
Rashbam and others argue that it has nothing to do with the meat and everything to do with the Hebrews. The Egyptians saw them as an inferior people would not lower themselves to break bread with a Jew- very much along the lines of segregation.
Now we address the more interesting question? Which Hebrews are we talking about, the brothers or is Joseph also included in this category? Could it be that they would not eat with their viceroy because he was a Hebrew?
Radak, 12th century Spain and many others argue that it would be inconceivable to think that Egyptians would not eat with Joseph who they feared and respected. Rather they argue that Joseph ate alone because he was royalty and it would be improper and undignified to eat with his servants. Many centuries later the Netziv suggests that eating alone was a way to keep any servants with knives away from the people in power.
Yet the Rashbam and others do not make such a distinction. They believe that the Egyptians would not eat with Joseph because he was a Hebrew.
I will come back to that in a minute but first let us answer the third question. Who were the Egyptians in the room? According to the Radak it was the servants. According to a striking piece in the Meshech Chochmah- the commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (19th to 20th century), the Egyptians in the room was Joseph’s own family. Even they would not eat with him for he was a Hebrew.
If we put that together with the approach of the Rashbam, which I think is the more literal read, we have the following: Joseph has ascended the halls of power in Egypt. He has risen to the position of viceroy and commands nearly all of the wealth in Egypt. Despite all of that he is not accepted as an equal in Egyptian society. That is astounding! Despite the power and success Joseph remains a Hebrew, a Jew!
On this Shabbat in 1955 Rabbi Norman Lamm raised the following fascinating question: How did Joseph feel about this state of affairs? A related question one might ask would be- why doesn’t Joseph force the issue? He had tremendous power; surely, he could have forced the Egyptians to eat with him?
I could not find any commentator that addresses the issue. Rabbi Lamm suggests that Joseph was ok with it. He was happy to be the alien and to have a degree of separation between himself and the Egyptians. He did not mind being the other and even saw some value in it. He recognized and appreciated that his traditions and beliefs set him apart and did not feel the need to be an Egyptian.
There is no way for us to know if that is actually true but the sentiment behind such an approach is clearly true and is as applicable today in America as it was 3500 years ago in Egypt.
The American Jew can and has achieved great financial success and political power. The challenge for that Jew is – is he happy as a financially and politically successful Jew or does he want to be seen as fully American with no difference between the America Jew and other Americans. Are we okay begin different because of our religion and traditions? I am not talking about begin ok with persecution or the like because of that difference. I am talking only about being perceived as different.
So many Jews in America so badly wanted to shirk the difference and the best way they knew to do that was to get rid of that which made them different, their religious practices and beliefs and so many of those Jews have been lost to assimilation.
The same was true for the Hellenists at the time of Chanukah- some so badly wanted to fit in the bath houses that they attempted to reverse their circumcisions, which I would imagine is pretty painful without an anesthetic. They tried to get rid of that which made them Jewish to fit into the world at large.
That might have been the challenge for Joseph; it certainly is the challenge for us. Can we participate in the world and yet be comfortable with being different and with the religion which makes us different?