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

“Becoming the People We Want to Be”

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“Becoming the People We Want to Be”

We all want to be more consistent, and to live the values that we espouse. But sadly, we occasionally fall short.

What can we do to erase the gap between the person we want to be and the person we often are?

An answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, where we read about the revelation at Sinai, one of the seminal events in world history. 

At the conclusion of that critical moment, God tells Moshe, “Lech, Emor Lahem“, go and tell the Jewish people, “Shuvu Lachem L’ohaleichem,” go back to your tents.

What does this mean?

Where else would they have possibly gone?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z’t”l, extrapolated from this verse that our challenge as members of the Jewish people is to take the values of Sinai –  not stealing, not cheating, not coveting, concern for the vulnerable in our society – and to incorporate them into our “tents”: our homes, schools, communities and society. 

This sounds simple enough, yet often any of us, even great people, even rabbis and leaders, can find it difficult.

And this difficulty is alluded to in the Torah itself, where we find a prohibition on the Jewish people ascending Mount Sinai at the time of the revelation.

Why would this be?

What better opportunity to bask in holiness than at the moment and place in which Torah was revealed?

But embedded in the question is the answer.

Finding holiness in the ethereal on God’s mountain is easy. There were no distractions from connecting with God.

Instead, God challenges us: “Shuvu Lachem L’ohaleichem”, “Go back to your tents”, which the Emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, explains to mean:

לחיי בשרים ותענוגות בני האדם כטבע האנושי

To a life of temporal human pleasures, as is the nature of humanity.

That is to say, take the holiness and the values from your experience at Sinai and incorporate it into your day-to-day physical lives.

We are not to bifurcate between the holy and the mundane. Rather, our complicated challenge is to elevate the mundane and infuse the holy with real purpose.

We recite Kiddush when Shabbat begins, to sanctify the day.

But we also recite Kiddush, in the form of Havdalah, at Shabbat’s conclusion – to sanctify the days ahead – reminding us to take the spiritual refreshment of Shabbat to infuse our actions during the entirety of the coming week.

May we successfully meet God’s challenge, elevating our everyday lives and become the people we want to be.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “You are a holy nation to the Lord your God… a treasured nation from amongst all the nations…. It was not because you were more numerous than all the nations… that God chose you since you are the smallest of all nations. It …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Vaetchanan 5780

Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum

Parshat Va’etchanan: The Ten Commandments as a model for a healthy relationship The Ten Commandments infuse our relationships with meaning, and provide the infrastructure for building a better home. Some food for thought on the internal code of the nation that gives meaning to marital relationships as well. Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum is the Director of …

Read moreVaetchanan: The Ten Commandments as a model for a healthy relationship

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

“What does the Torah say about #JewishPrivilege”

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“What does the Torah say about #JewishPrivilege”

What is #JewishPrivilege?

Without getting into the online battles involving this loaded phrase, I would like to suggest an additional understanding of #JewishPrivilege, one that is rooted in the essence of Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, that we will begin reading this Shabbat.

Although #JewishPrivilege – is often bound up with our often painful history of persecution, something we are even more attuned to in the days leading up to Tisha b’Av, for me it is not its primary meaning.

Rather, #JewishPrivilege is our responsibility as a people to always strive toward bettering the world, in the face of any challenges.

This message is uniquely expressed by the Book of Devarim, in the very opening verse: “Eileh HaDevarim asher diber Moshe...”. “These are the words that Moshe stated.”

We immediately discover that in contrast to the other books of the Torah, the Talmud relates in Megillah and Bava Batra that Sefer Devarim is ”authored” by Moshe.

This is also highlighted in the mystical work, the Zohar, which calls Devarim “Mishneh Torah”, literally meaning “The Second Torah”, as Moshe plays a more significant role stating it himself.

This concept of Mishneh Torah, alludes to the fact that there are two paradigms of “Godspeak”, or how God communicates with the Jewish People.

The first paradigm of Godspeak dominates the first four books of the Torah, in which the narratives are written in the third person and Moshe is simply the vehicle through which God communicates.

In contrast, the second paradigm of Godspeak, as seen in Devarim, comes from the introduction of human initiative: Moshe writes the text, God edits and approves it, and then Moshe narrates.

What do we learn from this second paradigm? 

That if the covenantal commitment between God and the Jewish People is to continue, then both partners must be meaningfully involved in sustaining the relationship.

This is #JewishPrivilege. It empowers us and obligates us, the guarantors of the future of the Jewish People, to write the next chapters of the Jewish People & Humanity.

#JewishPrivilege is Jewish responsibility.

So the question we MUST ask ourselves is: How do we approach our own “Mishneh Torah” ?  

What are the ideals that illuminate our quill?

What vision softens our hearts and sharpens our minds so that we can work the parchment?

As we begin Sefer Devarim, with this second paradigm of Godspeak, incorporating human initiative, we think of the responsibility that is #JewishPrivilege.

And in doing so, we redouble our focus and efforts on fulfilling our obligation to do everything in our power to meet this challenge and better the world.

Together, we can scribe the destiny of the Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Riskin

This week’s parsha commentary has been sponsored  by the Charif family of Sydney, Australia in memory of Hymie Charif (Refael Chaim Yishayahu ben Yitzchak) whose 24th yahrzeit is on 2 Av Shabbat Shalom: Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – There are two important issues which must be studied when approaching this …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Devarim 5780

Neveh Shmuel Principal Chezi Zecharia

Parshat Devarim: A Rebuke That Brings Blessings to the World Despite failed attempts at dialogue, Moshe doesn’t back down. He attacks the nation’s inappropriate behavior, respecfully yet assertively. Some thoughts on inter-generational accountability, which holds the secret to the Jewish people’s existence. Chezi Zecharia is the Principal of Yeshivat Neveh Shmuel, in Memory of Samuel …

Read moreDevarim: A Rebuke That Brings Blessings to the World

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

“Learning From Our Mistakes; Defeating a Pandemic”

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“Learning From Our Mistakes; Defeating a Pandemic”

We really thought we had done it. In Israel at least, we thought we had gotten control over the coronavirus, as the government announced a relaxation of restrictions. 

We had just begun to deal with the economic and psychological impacts of the lockdown, only to find ourselves now being thrust backwards.

Given the feelings of uncertainty, confusion, fear and even anger that have come to dominate our consciousness, wherever we may be, our parsha, Matot-Mas’ei, contains an insight that speaks to our lives in a very meaningful way:

אלה מסעי בני ישראל…

“These are journeys of the Jewish people”

ויכתב משה…  

“and Moshe wrote them down…”

על פי ה׳ 

“according to the command of God.”

The painstaking recording of all of these journeys, 42 in all, seems to be superfluous. 

Why do we need this exhaustive list of every single encampment of the Jewish People in the desert?

I’d like to share with you an insight based on halakhic rulings of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch that will shed a light on a possible answer that truly speaks to us. 

The Shulchan Aruch rules that the number of lines in each parchment of a Torah scroll should be 42, equal to the number of the Jewish People’s journeys.

After all, if the Torah is to be our roadmap for life, it should celebrate the idea that life is about the journeys that we take, and therefore each piece of parchment should correspond to the number of journeys we took.

In contrast, the Rambam rules that each parchment should be no less than 48 lines.


His view is that each parchment must highlight not only the 42 stops going forward, but also the six occasions on which they retreated in their desert travels. Toward the end of the desert journey, they actually revisit six of their previous encampments, and confront the  mistakes they made there.

While we usually think that life is all about moving forward, often, we need to retreat from the progress that we’ve made: to take a step back, and have the humility to learn from our mistakes and re-evaluate our decisions. 

It is through this process that we grow and truly move forward.

As millions of people across the globe are experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – or an intensification of the first wave – we have had to retreat to previous stops on this surreal journey. 

Maybe we have to return because we have still not internalized the lesson from the first wave. 

We forgot about our responsibility to each other. 

We stopped wearing masks and we made them into chin guards, or we wore masks but they didn’t cover our noses.

We became “so religious” that we still felt mandated to go to shul even when not feeling well, though it meant potentially infecting others.

We figured out clever ways to get around the law … we called gyms “shuls” so we could have 19 people, and counted 50 couples at a wedding as 50 people…  instead of abiding by the health regulations out of an understanding that they exist in order to protect others – as much as ourselves.

Our actions have now brought us to the point of retreat. 

As we enter this phase of the pandemic, we must remember the lesson of the Rambam: learning from our retreats and our mistakes is an integral part of humanity’s zig-zagging journey forward. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dr. Mikhael Ben Admon

Parshat Matot: On Militarism and Pacifism A Zionist dispute between Yitzhak Tabenkin and Moshe Unna encourages us to shatter social norms and allows for a more sophisticated way of thinking about the status of war and the need for war nowadays. Rabbi Dr. Michael Ben Admon is the Director of the Maarava Program for Rabbinical …

Read moreMatot-Masei: On Militarism and Pacifism

Rabbi Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –   What unites Jews throughout the world as one nation and one people? What is the most critical factor responsible for our amazing persistence as a unique historical entity, despite our having been scattered throughout the globe and subject to persecution and pogrom, despite …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Matot-Masei 5780

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