“Parsha and Purpose” – Shoftim 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shoftim 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

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“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

We are living in the midst of a pandemic in which our leaders have the awesome responsibility for so much of our communities’ health and wellbeing.

In some countries, notably Israel and the United States, citizens are challenging those leaders – on the streets and in the courts.

Specifically in these times of crisis, the relationship between leaders,the courts and citizens is an important aspect of a healthy and robust society.

While I believe that leaders deserve respect, it is in this week’s parsha that a Biblical constant is framed

שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך

You shall appoint shoftim – judges – and “shotrim” in all of your communities

What are “shotrim”? In spoken Hebrew, they are police officers. And the most famous of Torah commentators, Rashi, also understands it that way.

In a modern context, it would speak to the fact that it is the responsibility of the judiciary (shoftim) to ensure the rule of law even on shotrim, law enforcement. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of law enforcement to help implement the laws. We see the vast majority of law enforcement doing so do even when it puts them in harm’s way. Yet the juxtaposition of Shoftim v’Shotrim obligates us to ensure that structures are in place that allow us to call out law enforcement that does not follow its own code of conduct. It is a sacred responsibility to maintain checks and balances between the Shoftim, judges, and Shotrim, law enforcement.

Yet many commentators and Midrashim translate “shotrim” not as police officers but rather as “leaders”. According to this interpretation, the verse reads: You shall appoint judges and leaders in all of your communities.

The Torah’s juxtaposition of  “judges” with “leaders” wishes to accentuate that it is in the best interest of any society even with the most regal of leaders to have checks and balances. That was the role of the Biblical prophet with the leader of the Sanhedrin and the King. 

Government requires structures that allow for a balance of power, if we are to  build a just and moral society.

In such a society, citizens have the right – and I believe even the responsibility – to respect their leaders, but, when necessary, to question them. The judiciary and government leaders are שלוחי דרחמנא – emissaries of God to help shape a more perfect society.   

The judiciary serves as a check on the power of leadership, ensuring that it remains responsive and accountable .

It is telling that the continuation of our verse continues with the words,

אשר ה’ א-להיך נותן לך

“…that Hashem your God is giving you.” 

Through these words, the Torah reminds us that as God gives us the Land, it is in the context of building a society in which no single branch of government holds all of the power. 

We have been given the responsibility of creating a just society. I applaud the work of hard working selfless civil servants. Without them we would destroy each other.  

But let us never forget that only by creating a civil society – embracing the concept of justice and compassion, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – we will truly be deserving of inheriting the land that God has given us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shoftim – Crony Capitalism and How to Be a King in Israel

Rav Avishai Milner

Parshat Shoftim- Crony Capitalism and How to Be a King in Israel  Rabbi Avishai Milner is the Rosh Yeshiva of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, named in memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman  The King of Israel – mission impossible? Well, nearly impossible… One of the main motifs of the Book of Deuteronomy is how the …

Read moreShoftim – Crony Capitalism and How to Be a King in Israel

“Shabbat Shalom” – Shoftim 5780

This week’s “Shabbat Shalom” is dedicated in celebration of Leia Elison’s 3th Birthday— 2 Elul by her loving grandparents Ian and Bernice Charif of Sydney, Australia Shabbat Shalom: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; the Lord’s …

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Reeh – ‘Choose Life’: A Privilege or a Duty?

Chana Asis

Parshat Reeh- ‘Choose Life’: A Privilege or a Duty?  In a world that sees relativism and absolutism as interchangeable, the Torah tells us, loud and clear: there is good, there is evil, there is wrong and right, and there is truth and falsehood. Chana Assis is the Principal of OTS’ Jennie Sapirstein High School for …

Read moreReeh – ‘Choose Life’: A Privilege or a Duty?

“Parsha and Purpose” – Reeh 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Reeh 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Transforming Adversity Into Opportunity

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“Transforming Adversity Into Opportunity

The year was 1969, and Shirley Chisholm had just made history as the first Black woman ever elected to Congress. She represented a heavily-urban district that included the neighborhood of Crown Heights, New York, where she resided.

Chisholm had high hopes of improving the lives of her constituents, many of whom were poor and uneducated, by serving on the House Education and Labor Committee.

But instead, powerful politicians  maneuvered to blunt her influence and popularity back home by forcing her to focus on issues irrelevant to her inner-city constituency: they relegated her to an obscure subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee.

Representative Chisholm was understandably frustrated. But one day, she received a phone call from the office of a rabbi who lived just one block away from her: none other than Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

At the Rebbe’s urging, Chisholm shared her feelings of hurt and anger at being sidelined from a position in which she could truly help her district.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s response surprised Chisholm – and changed the trajectory of her career. “What a blessing God has given you!” he said about her appointment to the Agriculture Committee. “This country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people. You can use this gift that God gave you to feed the hungry. Find a creative way to do it.”

Shortly afterward, Congresswoman Chisholm met with Bob Dole, then a first-term senator from Kansas, who told her that Midwestern farmers were producing more food than they could sell and losing money on their crops.

Chisholm immediately recalled her conversation with the Rebbe, and knew what to do. Together with Senator Dole, she led the way in ensuring that those most in need would have access to food through what became the Food Stamp Program and WIC.

In other words, the infrastructure of welfare in the United States changed forever as a result of a meeting between Congresswoman Chisholm and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

When Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983, she credited the Rebbe: “A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you may think is a challenge is a gift from God. And if poor babies have milk, and poor children have food, it’s because this Rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

This week’s parsha opens with the words,


“ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה”

“Behold I set in front of you today, blessing and curse.”

Nachmanides comments that deciding whether something is a blessing or a curse is up to us. As Representative Chisholm learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we can decide whether to view things as a challenge or as an opportunity.

Whether it involves our physical health, our mental health, our economic health, or any aspect of our lives; whether in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic or anytime, we always have the power to choose whether we see the glass half empty or half full.

May we always be blessed with the ability to transform what may seem to be a curse into a blessing and to turn challenges into opportunities.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Shabbat Shalom” – Reeh 5780

This week’s “Shabbat Shalom” is dedicated in celebration ofYakira Bryna Elison’s 6th Birthday— 28 Avby her loving grandparentsIan and Bernice Charif of Sydney, Australia Shabbat Shalom: Reeh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “If there will arise in your midst a prophet or a dreamer of dreams and he gives you a sign …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Ekev 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ekev 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“How Jewish should the ‘Jewish State’ Be?

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“How Jewish Should the ‘Jewish State’ Be?

What does it mean to be a “Jewish state”? A state whose laws are based on halacha – Jewish law? Or a state that serves as a homeland for the Jewish People, but which is more “kosher style” regarding halacha?

We are confronted with variations of these questions all the time, such as, for example, the perennial debate about whether or not public transportation should be permitted on Shabbat.

These questions are not just for the philosophers of Facebook and Twitter to debate.

How these and other questions are answered have a real impact on the lives of everyday people, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Israel and all over the world.

Our parsha, Parshat Ekev, provides guidance on how we might view this very sensitive issue.

Two arks accompanied the Jewish People, the second of which we learn about for the first time in this week’s Torah portion:

“V’Asita Lecha Aron Eitz,” “Make a wooden ark.”

Moshe reports that in bringing down the second set of tablets from Sinai, God commands him to make a wooden ark to house the shattered first set of tablets.

Why do we need this additional ark, made of wood? Was not the beautiful one, built by Betzalel from wood and overlaid with gold, sufficient?

Rashi and Tosafot explain that in fact each ark had a distinct role.

The golden ark, containing the fully whole second set of tablets, remained permanently within the private domain of the Tabernacle and the Temple.

In contrast, the wooden ark was brought into the public domain – specifically in times of war and challenge.

The golden ark in the private domain represents uncompromising permanence; the responsibility of ensuring that the Jewish spiritual experience remains complete and whole – much like the second set of tablets housed within.

But we ALSO have a responsibility, particularly in the State of Israel, to bring the ark into the public domain, to engage Judaism with society.

This is symbolized by the wooden ark, housing the broken luchot, that was brought into the public domain at challenging times to serve as a unifying symbol of hope and purpose. 

The Shattered Luchot symbolize that there are challenges and sometimes even setbacks, when Torah engages in the public domain.

But it was never used as a coercive symbol to divide the camp of the Jewish people. 

People are looking for meaning and purpose in Judaism, but they are not interested in being told HOW to do IT or HOW TO believe.

And we’ve seen this at Ohr Torah Stone. Our engagement with 400,000 secular Israelis every year at dozens of local community centers and parks where we share the beauty of our [Jewish] heritage and tradition, we do so in a spirit of acceptance, without any attempt to coerce.

Our engagement with Jews in the larger society must be based on love and shared destiny, without preconceived notions of where their journey will take them.

Ultimately, this is perhaps the most constructive way of helping shape the conversation of what it means to be a “Jewish state.”

May we succeed in this sacred responsibility.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ekev – Moments Before Entering the Land: You Haven’t Come Here Alone

Ekev – Moments Before Entering the Land: You Haven’t Come Here Alone Moshe Rabbeinu wanted the Jewish people to understand that God would look after them even when they were at war, during the conquest of the land, and during times of concern, but they needed to pray a great deal, and keep their hopes …

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“Shabbat Shalom” – Ekev 5780

Shabbat Shalom: Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – The biblical source for thanking the Almighty for the our worldly gifts is to be found in this week’s portion, Ekev. And if preparation of our meals takes a great deal of time and effort, if our tradition mandates so many laws about …

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