Shabbat Shalom: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel — “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, and from your homeland, and from your father’s home, to the land that I will show you.’” (Gen. 12:1) Abraham’s father, Terah, is often perceived as a primitive symbol of …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Lech Lecha 5781

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

“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

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“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

A quick look at the news can make even Pollyanna cynical.

Behaviors in the face of looming US elections, political mayhem in Israel, irresponsible actions of some communities in the face of the pandemic, refusing to take safety precautions or revering Jewish custom at the expense of Jewish law and values.

The easiest course of action is, of course, to give up on people instead of trying to engage them; to insulate ourselves and withdrawal while the world turns – and burns – around us.

The Torah provides us with two paradigms for approaching this issue in the different narratives of Noach and Avraham.

When Noach learns of the Divine plan for the destruction of humanity and the world at large, he dutifully follows the command of God and proceeds to construct the Ark.

Noach is unable or unwilling to convince even a single person to correct their ways and be saved from the flood.

He gives up.

This is one of the great tragedies of Noach. 

For this reason, the prophets call the flood מי נח – the flood of Noach. Because his unwillingness to improve society puts responsibility for the world’s destruction on his shoulders.

In stark contrast to Noach, this week we learn about Avraham, who argues passionately with God in order to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah.

Two nation-states whose residents the Torah describes as “very wicked sinners against God”. And yet, Avraham protests on their behalf anyway!

And this is what makes Sarah and Avraham the leaders of a movement that ultimately introduces the entire world to monotheism. It is why God changes their names to include his own – from Avram to Avraham; and Sarai to Sarah.

It is so easy to give up on people, especially in times of crisis. But we are the children of Avrahama and Sarah!

We do not give up on our people, or on humanity.

There is no shortage of inspirational examples.

The nursery school teachers, medical professionals and therapists who embrace the children in their care, even though they know by doing so – despite all the safety protocols – they are placing themselves at risk.

The madrichim and madrichot of our Darkaynu Programs for young adults with special needs who chose to enter quarantine so that their students arriving from abroad should not have to go through it alone.

Gerer Chasidim in the Israeli city of Arad who wished to protest a local issue – but did so while maintaining social distancing.

Soldiers in the midst of Corona who are still bringing refugees in the middle of the night to be treated in field hospitals.

These examples and so many more like them remind us that even with so much cynicism in the world, we must never give up on people.

The words “Lech Lecha” mean “Go to you”. Our parsha is about a journey. And for me, it is the journey to defy the infectious spread of cynicism.

A triumphant march from despair toward engagement; from a tendency to view others cynically, as Noach did, to a focus on never giving up on people, as modeled by Avraham.

When we work to help each other on our collective journey, we become a source of light to God, to ourselves and our families, and to the world around us.

The British philosopher William Blake wrote:  

“I sought my God and my God I couldn’t find;
I sought my soul and my soul eluded me;
I sought to serve my brother in his need, and I found all three; My God, my soul, and thee.”

Shabbat Shalom

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

“How Will the World Remember COVID?”

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“How Will the World Remember COVID?”

How many lines will COVID-19 take up in human history?

Will it be a line or two? A paragraph? A chapter? Or a full book?  

I think it depends on one crucial idea that we find in Parshat Noach.

In Chapter 9 of the Book of Bereshiet, we learn that in the aftermath of the flood, Noach planted a vineyard. 

He drank the wine of these grapes, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.

Noach’s son, Cham, saw his father’s nakedness and shared the news with his two brothers, Shem and Yefet. 

Out of respect for their father, Shem and Yefet covered their father, walking backwards into his tent with the cloth draped from their backs so as not to shame him. 

Then, in verse 24, we read that when Noach woke up from his wine-induced sleep, he learned what his youngest son had done to him. 

This verse is SO critical. 

You see, Noach is unhappy. 

He is depressed because of the loneliness that he experiences all around him. 

The loss of family and friends, the loss of camaraderie and community, all casualties of the flood. 

His depression causes his drunkenness, which is an attempt to escape his sorrow. 

But at this point Noach realizes what his depression has caused. 

He wakes up from his drunkenness, from his depression over the flood – “and learns what has happened”.  

Will we learn from COVID-19?

Will we learn how to have a true relationship with God? 

One that is concerned not only with ritual but also with the larger messages of the Torah, such as the responsibility to make sure that our conduct allows for all of humankind to be safe and secure… 

Religious experiences where ritual does not become an end in itself, but is a means to an end to ensure sacred moments in time with God.

Will we spend our time frivolously searching for religious reasons to explain why COVID-19 is happening, 

Reasons that are predicated on our subjective suppositions on how society should be organized – using the pandemic to reinforce our pre-existing notions?

Or will we allow the pandemic to awaken us from our spiritually drunken stupor to recognize that we cannot take family and friends for granted?

To realize it is not about explaining why tragedy befalls society, 

When such challenges arise, focusing on how we can engage to make a difference in the lives of the people around us?

How we recover from this pandemic will define how transformational this challenge has been.

Noach’s righteousness is predicated not on the fact that he does not sin, but rather on his capacity to learn from his mistakes.

Similarly, the role that COVID-19 will play in human history depends on what we learn from it, and how those teachings inspire us to transform society and enhance our personal lives.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom: Noach (Genesis 6:9 – 11:32) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel — “And Haran died before his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim.” (Gen. 11:28) When it comes to questions of belief, the agnostic is the loneliest of all. On one side of the fence stands the atheist, confident …

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

“God’s Social Contract with Humanity”

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“God’s Social Contract with Humanity”

Bereshiet: A new Torah-reading cycle begins this week, with the story of Creation. And as we get a blow-by-blow description of how God creates the world and everything in it, some very curious language is used, when the Torah describes the creation of humankind. 

Naaseh Adam b’Tzalmeinu k’Dmuteinu” — “Let Us create humankind in Our Image, and in Our Likeness.” 

Let Us create humankind? Who is God talking to? In Our Image? And in Our Likeness? Who is God referring to? 

Some of the commentators explain that God is asking permission from the angels. Others suggest that it’s a “royal We,” na’aseh, God is speaking to Himself in the majestic plural, a majestic plural giving honor to God and this final act of creation, the piece de resistance of all of creation. 

However, I’d like to share with you a third interpretation, found in the writings of the Zohar. “Let us,” in the plural, means that creation of humankind includes both male and female. “In our image” refers to the wealthy amongst us. And “after our likeness” refers to the poor in our midst. 

The Zohar continues and states the following: When the rich and the poor are united as one, when they show compassion to each other, share with each other, and are benefactors to each other, that is how humankind should behave. 

The rich and the poor, states the Zohar, must be united together as one. Support and benefit from each other. 

In other words, when creating humankind, God creates a social contract with us. When God says Na’aseh Adam, that We will create humankind, He is referring to us, men and women, as His partners. Because we are only truly, completely fashioned once we live up to our side of the social contract, and fulfill our potential. Our image and likeness only become divine when we do our part. It is when people of opposite views, men and women of different social, economic statuses, work together. When we are united and show compassion towards each other. Only then is our creation complete.

What a powerful message to begin this new year, with a reminder that each one of us has the capacity to be in the image of God. We are full partners with God in our own creation when we live up to this responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity and capacity to complete the process that God has begun.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Bereishit (Genesis 1:1 – 6:8) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – The beginning of our communal Torah readings once again with the Book of Genesis on the first Shabbat following the intensive festival period from Rosh Hashanah through to Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah is much more than a calendrical accident; the first chapters of …

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Shabbat Shalom: Simchat Torah By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  “And no human knows of burial place even to this day.“ (Deut. 34:6) Amid the great joy of Shemini Atzeret-Simĥat Torah, emanating from the biblical commandment “and you shall thoroughly rejoice” (Deut. 16:15), a curious dialectic between celebration and solemnity nevertheless exists. This is …

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Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Sukkot By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –   One of the most picturesque and creative festivals of the year is the Festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) – when the entire family is involved in building and decorating a special “nature home” which will be lived in for an entire week. But …

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