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Tazria-Metzora

“Parsha and Purpose” – Tazria-Metzora 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Things We Should Not Learn From “Shtisel”: Fertility and Jewish Law”

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Parshat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

“Things We Should Not Learn From “Shtisel”: Fertility and Jewish Law”

The much-anticipated third season of “Shtisel” was finally released by Netflix a few weeks ago, and once again people around the world are glued to the screen, waiting to see what happens to this Israeli ultra-Orthodox family. One of the things that makes Shtisel such an appealing international phenomenon is that it offers a nuanced glimpse into an insular lifestyle and society that is usually obscured to outsiders, exposing the everyday dramas, romances, tragedies, and struggles with faith that resonate within us all.

And yet, I was disappointed by one of this season’s storylines, one that relates to the first verse in this week’s parsha, Tazria-Metzora: “when a woman conceives (tazria) and gives birth” (Vayikra 12:2).  

For five years, the young couple Ruchami and Hanina have been trying to have a baby. After a series of devastating disappointments they understand that another pregnancy would put the fetus and, more importantly, Ruchami at life-threatening risk.

Unlike the nuanced portrayal of other aspects of Haredi living, the show doesn’t incorporate the fact that halakha, Jewish law, has welcomed new technologies relating to surrogacy and egg donation. The very word ‘halakha’ comes from the root ‘lalechet,’ meaning ‘to go forward’, highlighting to us that it is not a collection of fossilized edicts but rather a way of life which is meant to address and incorporate new realities arising from contemporary living. 

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers for those of you who haven’t yet seen this season, but suffice it to say that Shtisel’s portrayal of the couple’s infertility is not reflective of the normative Orthodox approach. 

The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 31b) shares that after 120 years, when we arrive at the Heavenly Court, we will be asked a series of questions:

Among others, we will be asked, עסקת בפריה ורביה?

The expression pirya v’revaya refers to reproduction. But what is the verb עסקת referring to?

The writers of Shtisel interpret the word עסקת through a narrow lens: “Did you successfully fulfill the commandment of reproduction?” But the word עסקת literally means “to deal with” or “to work at” something. Jewish tradition interprets the Talmudic question as “Did you try to procreate?”

Heroic measures are not required to fulfill any positive Biblical commandment; in fact, when they threaten our physical or psychological well-being, they are even discouraged.

Already in the 11th-12th century R. Menachem ben Solomon Meiri acknowledged that when science will achieve the capacity to help produce human beings without the natural intimate act, the achievement should be embraced. 

Mainstream halakhic literature discusses artificial insemination, IVF, posthumous paternity, and even the idea of “four-parent” babies born from a gestational carrier, a mother who donates the genetic nucleus of the egg, a female who donates the healthy mitochondria of the egg, and a sperm donor.  And while there is not complete unanimity on these issues – as is true in so many areas – the great Torah scholars of this generation and of the past generation have embraced the advances of science and technology to enable couples to advance their dreams of having a family. 

It is unfortunate that in Shtisel’s effort to introduce us to the Haredi community, it missed an opportunity to communicate the insightful, wise and compassionate attempts of so many great Jewish leaders and thinkers to link contemporary medical advances to the eternal values of the Torah and rabbinic literature regarding childbirth. 

We should remember and reinforce that the strength of Jewish tradition is its  capacity to deal with contemporary realities, opportunities and challenges through the prism of Jewish values and rooted in Jewish laws such as the ones we will read this week. 

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shemini 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Silence and Sanctification: The Connection Between Parshat Shemini and Yom Hazikaron”

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Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

“Silence and Sanctification: The Connection Between Parshat Shemini and Yom Hazikaron”

In a few days, we will commemorate Yom Hazikaron – Israel’s memorial day, dedicated to recognizing the ultimate sacrifice of nearly 27,000 men, women and children who have fallen in battle or been murdered in acts of terror.

It’s no coincidence that this week’s Torah reading, Shemini, contains the story of the dramatic, sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the eldest sons of Aharon the High Priest, during the consecration of the Mishkan.

Moshe attempts to console his brother:

  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן  הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד (ויקרא י:ג)

Then Moshe said to Aharon: “This is what Hashem meant when He said ‘Through those near to Me I shall be sanctified, and will be honored before all the people.’” (Vayikra 10:3)

Many of our commentators, including Rashi and Ibn Ezra, view their action favorably, crediting them as righteous individuals who died performing a holy act.

Their comments are based on the words of the Sages in the Midrash:

“Moshe said to Aharon: My brother, I knew that this House was to be sanctified by those who are beloved of God, and I thought it would be either through me or through you; but now I see that it has been sanctified through Nadav and Avihu – they are greater than you and I.” (Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta d’Miluim 2:23)

Aharon’s response to Moshe’s words is telling:

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן (ויקרא י:ג)

This is generally translated as, “And Aharon was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3)

But the word דום does not merely connote silence – for if that’s what the Torah wished to communicate, the verse would state: וישתוק אהרון.

Rather, דום represents the peace that comes over Aharon with the acceptance and realization that his family has contributed and has paid for the concretizing God’s presence in this world.

In many ways, Moshe’s words, quoting God, “בקרובי אקדש” – “I shall be sanctified through those near to Me”, is the message of Yom Hazikaron.

All those who have sacrificed a promising future, giving their lives – in sanctification of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, which Rav Kook called 

 יסוד כסא ה’ בעולם (אורות, עמ’ קס)

the foundation for the throne of God in this world. (Orot, pg 160)

In every community, synagogue, school and workplace throughout Israel, there is an Aharon.

Mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters and children who stand דום for their fallen loved ones like Aharon, in silent recognition of the price they have paid for the safety and future of our people in Israel and throughout the world.

Like Aharon, their silence conveys inconsolable sadness alongside a fierce pride that their loved ones have helped guarantee the spiritual and physical redemption of our people.

Irrespective of the degree of their observance of the mitzvot, they and their fallen loved ones are the holiest.

Perhaps this is all best summed up by Rav Soloveitchik, whose yahrzeit was observed last week.

In the mid-1960’s, the Rav discussed whether or not there was halakhic holiness to the flag of the State of Israel.

Although he maintained that Judaism negates imbuing holiness into physical objects, he nonetheless pointed to a law in the Shulchan Aruch indicating that one who has been murdered by a non-Jew must be buried in his clothes, so that his blood may be seen and avenged – a law based on the verse in the Book of Yoel that says, “I will hold (the gentile) innocent, but not in regard to the blood which they have shed.” (Yoel 4:21)

This indicated to the Rav that physical clothing acquires sanctity when spattered with the blood of martyrdom. 

The Rav continued:

“How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence, defending the country and the population (religious and non-religious, because the enemy knows no difference).

It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice.

We are all enjoined to honor the flag and treat it with respect.”  (Five Addresses, page 139)

May the memories of our kedoshim, our holy soldiers who have given their lives while protecting ours, and the victims of terror, be a blessing to their families and to all of Am Yisrael. 

We miss them. We love them. And we will never forget them.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Tzav 5781 / Shabbat HaGadol
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Making the World and Ourselves Whole Again: Freedom’s Opportunity

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Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36)

“Making the World and Ourselves Whole Again: Freedom’s Opportunity”

 With Pesach starting right after Shabbat, I want to highlight two interconnected moments at the Seder that provide an extraordinary insight into ourselves and our responsibility to the world.
 
The first moment occurs early in the Seder, when we perform the ritual known as Yachatz: we take the middle matzah and break it into two, leaving the smaller piece with the other two, whole matzot.
 
What do we do with the larger piece of the broken middle matzah? Not surprisingly, there are several customs; some people give it to a child at the Seder to hold or to hide; while others have the custom that a child “steals” it and holds it “hostage” in exchange for the “ransom” known as the Afikoman present. 
 
Either way, the larger piece involves the participation of a child – if one is present at the Seder.

The piece, once returned to the table, is eaten at the end of the meal in the section of the Seder known as “Tzafun”.

I have a few questions:

1) Why do we have a ceremony to break the middle matzah? There are plenty of broken pieces of matzah in every one of our matza packages, why don’t we just use them to begin with, rather than actively break a complete matzah in two?

2) What is the meaning of the childrens’ role in this particular ritual?

3) The eating of this broken piece of the matzah has its own “billing” in the Seder: the uncommon word “Tzafun”, which means “hidden”. What is the significance of this ritual and its name?

I would like to suggest that the breaking of the matzah into two pieces is a statement. 

That even as we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we must be mindful of the fact that there are so many people with broken hearts, broken lives; things that are still broken in our world; and so much opportunity for us as free people to galvanize and transform the world around us.

And it is no coincidence that at this profound moment of acknowledgement of our reality, we purposely bring in the next generation, demonstrating to them that we can’t defeat the challenges that we face alone. 

By engaging our children we signal to them that it must be a multi-generational effort.

We teach them that just as we inherited a broken world from the previous generation and are doing our best to fix it, they, too, are still inheriting a broken world unique to their generation, and it is incumbent upon them to make it better.

While this symbolism is happening on a macro level, on the micro level, it’s even deeper, because it’s not only the world that’s broken. Each and every one of us is fractured in one way or another.

Each of us has talents, significant pieces of ourselves, like the larger section of the broken matzah, which are hidden. Potential that we haven’t yet actualized.

The matzah that has been hidden or stolen from us represents the fact that there are pieces of our potential that haven’t even been revealed to us yet. 

And this is why the peak of the matza-breaking ritual – which began earlier with Yachatz – is consumed at “Tzafun”, meaning “hidden”.

Because when we eat the Afikoman, we are not simply eating a broken piece of matzah, we are internalizing the reality of the hidden potential in the world around us… and the hidden potential in the world within us.

At this year’s Seder, let’s be conscious of the messages we’re conveying through our rituals, reminding ourselves that we are part of a multi-generational effort to make our world – and ourselves – whole.

The true responsibility that comes with the gift of freedom.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher V’Sameach

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayikra 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Obsession, Alienation and Finding a Spiritual Balance

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Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 )

Obsession, Alienation and Finding a Spiritual Balance”

What happens when spirituality becomes suffocating? When we act by rote rather than by creative engagement? Is there only one way to connect with God? Or are there multiple paths to spirituality?
 
Welcome to the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus, which is all about spirituality and kedusha – holiness – whether in relation to spaces imbued with holiness such as the Mishkan; people imbued with holiness such as Kohanim; times imbued with holiness such as Shabbat and holidays; or everyday interactions between people, which are also imbued with holiness.
 
Vayikra delineates the laws that the Jewish People must follow in order to live up to our responsibility of being a Holy Nation.
 
In fact, the book is so focused on these laws that, unlike the other four books of the Torah which are filled with narratives, here in the Book of Vayikra, there are only two stories.

The first and more prominent story involves the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu – two sons of Aaron, the High Priest who, at the moment of the consecration of the Tabernacle take their own fire pans and offer a strange fire to God.

We’re told that when they bring foreign offerings of incense:

 ותצא אש מלפני ה  

 and a fire went out from God

 ותאכל אותם 

and consumed them

וימותו לפני ה

 and they died before God. (Leviticus 10:2)

Then there is the second, less well-known story.

וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית וְהוּא בֶּן אִישׁ מִצְרִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the People of Israel

And following an altercation with an Israelite man, the Torah states:

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל

And the son of the Israelite woman (and Egyptian father) cursed the Name of God. (Leviticus 24:10)

This act of blasphemy is a capital offense for which he is executed.

Why are these the only two stories placed in the Book of Vayikra? What message do they hold for us regarding the theme of spirituality?

I believe that both these stories are included to alert us to the potential dangers that can arise in our quest for spirituality.

The story of Nadav and Avihu shows us that even if one’s intent is pure, there are surely limits to what is permitted in the effort to attain higher levels of spirituality.

That one may not pursue a relationship with God at all costs, without boundaries. That the end does not justify the means.

I find the second story even more interesting.

A troubled, marginalized young man denounces his community and blasphemes God, and ultimately pays for it with his life.

Where did this man come from? What drove him to this rebellion?

This story shows us what happens when overbearing limits are placed on the range of acceptable religious expression based on the comfort levels of our community – rather than on actual Jewish law.

Perhaps the story of the Megadef, the one who curses God, is about a young man for whom the religious environment is suffocating.

The Torah tells us that this man is the child of an intermarriage. He was the child on the block who we told our kids not to talk to or play with.

He was the child we preferred not to talk about in our community.

We dismissed him by saying he is not like us. And by excluding him, we stifled his spiritual development.

We didn’t help him find the proper vehicles of connection and made his religious environment toxic. So when he curses God, we are also responsible! Because we are the ones who alienated him from his community and his God.

We will be reading a lot about the lofty ideals of holiness and spirituality in Leviticus.

But let’s also consider what we can do to make it accessible to everyone, especially those who might not fit neatly into the box of our norms and expectations.

Welcome to the Book of Leviticus, where holiness and spirituality must be accessible through multiple portals of entry and celebrated by all of the Jewish People together each in their own way.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“The Cloud of Clarity in a World of Doubt

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20)

“The Cloud of Clarity in a World of Doubt”

One of the most challenging events, even for the most experienced of pilots is flying in fog, in cloud cover. For pilots that are not skilled, cloud cover, fog is an extremely dangerous and a potentially deadly hazard.

Tragically, each year people are killed due to fog/cloud related aviation accidents. Low visibility, low ceilings and instrumentation failure is caused due to clouds/fog. 

And so it is very curious that throughout the Torah, the word “Anan” – cloud / fog – confusion and a lag of clarity, is used to represent the very real imminence of God’s Presence.

In Parshat Noach, after the flood a cloud signifies the renewal of the relationship between God and His creation:

וְהָיְתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת בֶּעָנָן וּרְאִיתִיהָ לִזְכּור בְּרִית עוֹלָם
בֵּין אֱלֹקים וּבֵין כָּל נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה בְּכָל בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֶץ׃
 

When the rainbow is in the cloud,
I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant
between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. (Genesis 9:16)

At Mount Sinai, clouds represent the Presence of God. 

…וַיְהִי קולות וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר..

…and there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain…

(Exodus 19:16)
We also find this symbolism at the end of this week’s Torah portions of Vayakhel/ Pekudei, at the moment of the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle:
וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אוהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן
And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting,
and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.
 
וְלֹא יָכול מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Moshe could not enter into the Mishkan/Tabernacle
 
כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן 
because the cloud covering was there
and as the verse continues:
וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן  
and the Presence of God therefore filled the Tabernacle.  
(Exodus 40:34-35)

Why is it that cloud cover represents God’s Presence?

What is it about the Anan that symbolizes an engagement between God and humankind?

I’d love to hear your answer to this. It has always bothered me.  

I’d like to suggest that it’s because our relationship with God can sometimes be clouded, complicated.  

For you and I to have a relationship with God, it doesn’t mean that there is complete clarity in the relationship.

Like flying within the fog, our spiritual instrumentation can be disturbed; can lack balance or clarity of navigation.

And that’s okay.

So if our relationship with God, or belief in Him, is not perfect, that’s okay.

If a lack of clarity leads to doubts, that’s understandable.

If we question, that’s fine.

If we don’t understand, that’s to be expected.

There are moments in our lives when we may feel clarity in our relationship with God, but there are also many moments when we have questions, when we’re not so sure about things.

God appearing in cloud cover is telling us: “Its alright. I will be with you even when you are experiencing a lack of clarity.”

Lack of clarity can sometimes be unnerving and frightening.

Yet even this type of relationship with God can still be transformational and spiritually uplifting.

Shabbat Shalom.

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