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

“Are We Managing Our Time or is Time Managing Us?”

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“Are We Managing Our Time or is Time Managing Us?”

Recently, our collective optimism about emerging from COVID has been tempered by super-contagious mutations of the virus and a worldwide spike in infections. 

Many of us are once again in lockdown mode, apprehensive and cautious about what the coming months will hold.

Our schedules are uncertain and our time depends upon factors that are beyond our control. We juggle our work obligations and personal responsibilities around our kids’ zoom classes or the needs of our elderly parents. 

Are we managing our time, or is our time managing us? 

We have watched in horror as some people have used this time of instability and insecurity to foment disturbance and violence.

Yet so many others have used this period to grow and blossom as human beings.

Among my own family and circle of friends, I have witnessed so many who have used this period of time to reach out to others less fortunate, intensify loving relationships and develop and explore new skills and talents.

These people are embodying the spirit of the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish People in this week’s parsha, Bo. 

“HaChodesh haZeh lachem” – “This month – each month – is yours.” It belongs to you. (Exodus 12:2)

Through this mitzvah sanctifying each Rosh Chodesh, each new month, God is giving us our first gift as a nation: control over our calendar. What a revolutionary message for a People who were enslaved, whose time was NEVER their own!

God grants us mastery of our own time and emphasizes its sanctity for a reason. He wants us to use it well, in order to achieve important goals and ideals. 

Time is a gift for the free person!  

We can “kill” time. We can allow the needs foisted upon us to subsume our time, becoming slaves to the pressures of the moment.

Or, we can spend time wisely to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. We can sanctify and manage our calendar to strive toward what we value, what we deem to be important and transformational. 

As we read Parshat Bo this week, let’s reflect on that. Let’s remember that even when so many things have been taken from us, the precious commodity of time is still in our hands and we have the ability to sanctify it. 

It is up to us to determine whether it empowers us, or, God forbid, enslaves us. May we choose wisely.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Shabbat Shalom: Bo (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin            Efrat, Israel – “May the renewal of the moon be for you [the Festival of] the first day of eac ” h month; this month being for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2) This interpretation of …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Bo 5781

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

Our Role in this World: Creating Light and Magnifying God

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Our Role in this World: Creating Light and Magnifying God

What is the role of the Jewish People in the world? What is the significance of our existence as a people?

This week’s Torah portion, Va’era, begins with a perplexing conversation between God and Moshe that I believe will help us understand our role and our relationship as a People with God.

“וידבר אלוקים אל משה ויאמר אליו אני ה’ וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב בקל שקי ושמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם” (שמות ו, ג)

“And אלוקים, the God of power, spoke to Moshe and He says to him I’m not just the God of אלוקים, of power, I’m also YKVK, an intimate God and I have appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with the name קל שקי but the name of YKVK I have not made known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)  

What does this mean that he has not made the name YKVK known to them? It was written no fewer than 144 times in the Book of Bereishiet, and is actually used several times by God in communicating with our Patriarchs!

What is the message that God is communicating to Moshe?  

I’d like to offer the following approach.  

Throughout the first book of the Torah, the Book of Bereishiet, the focus of God’s relationship is with individuals; Adam and Chava, Noach, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Yaakov and Yosef.  

These individuals all have a personal relationship with God.

However, in this week’s Torah portion, we find a transition to God having a relationship with the Jewish people.

When God states ושמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם, I have not made the name YKVK known to them, He means, “Until now I have never revealed Myself to a nation. Until now, I’ve only had an intimate relationship with individuals.  

Now, the paradigm is now changing, as we see in the continuation of the verse:  

“וְגַם הֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם”

“And I also established My covenant with them,” I want to engage with the nation, to set up My covenant with them. 

It is in this week’s parsha that God informs Moshe that His own presence is linked with the actions and destiny of the Jewish people.  

The Talmud tells us when the Jewish people are in exile, when the Jewish people are suffering, that God imposes suffering also upon Himself – the concept of “שכינתא בגלותא” – that when the Jewish people are in exile, God is in exile as well. 

But the flip side is also true: when the Jewish People create light in this world through the observance of the mitzvot, then God’s presence is magnified! 

Rav Kook ztz”l commented on the fact that God is already whole and is therefore unable to grow. He explained that God exists simultaneously in two paradigms: He is, on the one hand, whole and complete. But at the same time, when the Jewish People develop and actualize their potential, His presence is more profoundly seen in the world.

This week we learn that we are an extension of God, created in His image with the capacity – and responsibility – to create light that empowers both ourselves and God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel -“But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 9:12) One of the more difficult theological problems raised in the book of Exodus is precisely this verse, in which the Bible declares that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart to be impervious …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Va’era 5781

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

“Facing Down a World Power: Spiritual Resistance and Fighting Evil”

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“Facing Down a World Power: Spiritual Resistance and Fighting Evil”

One Shabbat morning, my wife and I were walking outside our apartment in the neighborhood of Katamon in Yerushalayim, a man was pushing a stroller down the street.

It’s a common sight in that neighborhood, so I didn’t think twice – until I noticed the man’s small green cap and suddenly realized that it was Natan Sharansky pushing one of his grandchildren! THE Natan Sharansky.

Personally, it was a thrill. A symbol of leadership that resisted the cruel Soviet regime and from whom we all drew endless amounts of inspiration.

In this week’s parsha, Shemot, we read of an earlier Jewish leader who protested a repressive, tyrannical dictatorship: Moshe Rabbeinu. 

In all the books of Tanach, we find only two instances of the use of the word “teivah”, or ark: Teivat Noach and Teivat Moshe.

Rabbi Amnon Bazak notes many similarities between these two teivot: both are constructed from vegetation and are covered with tar pitch to protect the contents inside; both are built to float in water; and both save the person (or persons) inside from certain death.

But there are also stark differences between the two arks. 

In the case of Teivat Noach God is the architect and watches over the ark during its operational activity, whereas Teivat Moshe it is built by his mother, Yocheved, and supervised during operations by his sister, Miriam.

Teivat Noach was necessary because humanity failed to confront evil and tyranny in their midst, and thus a reset button had to be pushed . 

In contrast, Teivat Moshe represents humanity’s capacity to challenge evil 

Rebel against the tyrannical regime of Pharaoh, 

The bravery of the righteous women who rose up in protest. 

Spared by their heroic efforts, Moshe grows up in the comfortable surroundings of that regime, but that does not dull his sense of justice. 

He confronts the Egyptian taskmaster; the two Jews fighting with each other; and the men at the well treating Yitro’s daughters unfairly.

And that is why Moshe becomes our leader, our teacher and ultimately the individual who has the most intimate communication with God.

The contrast with Noach is dramatic, and contains a vital lesson for us. Noach begins as a righteous man with potential, he starts off with God walking with him but ends up a drunkard. 

Moshe begins as an adopted  member of a family that promotes tyranny and darkness.

Goes out to his brothers sees the darkness confronts it and ends his life as the only person who walks in front of God.

Natan Shransky once wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “My KGB interrogators had dismissed this movement as ‘a bunch of students and housewives.’ But this bunch—coming by the thousands to the Soviet Union as tourists from the United States, Canada and Europe—formed a living bridge between the Free World and Soviet activists. The same students and housewives who rescued us from isolation succeeded in isolating the Soviet regime instead.”

The power of Teivat Moshe – Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter Batya, Moshe Rabbeinu, students and housewives in the 70’s & 80’s  and a Soviet Jew with a green cap named Sharansky .

Each of them marshalled their inner strength, stood up to evil and combatted tyranny. 

In doing so, they build their Teivat Moshe.

May we strive to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  The Book of Exodus begins the story of the people of Israel, the nation that developed from the household, or the family, of Jacob. Many are the differences between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus, but perhaps the …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Shemot 5781

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

“A Bracha for the COVID Vaccine: A Celebration of Life Over Death”

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“A Bracha for the COVID Vaccine: A Celebration of Life Over Death”

Watching the incredible images of our heroic healthcare professionals and in Israel those over 60 receiving the COVID-19 vaccine stirs strong emotions within us. 

After nearly a year of crises, deep loss, anxiety and fear, we can now begin to allow ourselves to believe that – thanks to the extraordinary, tireless efforts of researchers, scientists and leaders from around the world – this global nightmare will soon be over.

The mandate to value life is central to Judaism and is expressed in numerous laws and sources – including the very name of this week’s parsha. In spite of the parsha’s actual content, which relates to the deaths of both Yaakov and Yosef, the name of the parsha is “Vayechi,” meaning “and he lived!”

The focus of this week’s parsha is not on the fact that Yaakov and Yosef died, but rather on the eternal narrative that lives on after their deaths, communicated through the blessings of their children: the 12 tribes of Israel which comprise the Jewish people. 

The “Vayechi” approach of celebrating life even as we deal with the tragedy of death resonates today, as we move toward – b’ezrat Hashem – to world immunity. We must remember that preserving our own health is nothing less than a Biblical directive.

Furthermore  according to the Torah, we are also forbidden from standing idly by while the blood of another is being spilt.

There is, therefore, a halakhic obligation to get vaccinated; to protect ourselves as well as to contribute to creating the herd immunity necessary to save the world.

How can we sanctify this statement we’re making about the victory of life over death?

What bracha should we recite over the vaccination and inoculation? 

Based on the Talmud Brachot page 59b, the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim, Chapter 230, halakha 4, rules: 

“הנכנס להקיז דם”

Someone who enters into a medical facility in order to perform an ancient medical ritual called blood letting, should say: 

יהר”מ ה’ אלהי”

“May it be your will, God, 

שיהא עסק זה לי לרפואה  

that this procedure that I’m undergoing should be for healing,

“כי רופא חנם אתה

for You are a loving and faithful healer.”

And after the procedure: 

 “ברוך רופא חולים”

“Blessed is God who heals the sick”

This formula is found on your screen. 

I believe that when a vaccine of this historic nature comes along that indeed has the potential to save humanity, we too should recite a bracha, either when we hear that the vaccine has reached our community, state, or country, or when we are are inoculated: 

“ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם הטוב והמטיב”

“Blessed is the Lord King of the universe Who is good and Who does good”

This blessing is appropriate for the COVID vaccine because, as the Talmud explains, it is recited when something good happens to me – הטוב והמטיב – and when that good concurrently happens to another, which is certainly true with this vaccine.

Please God, as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel – may it come speedily over the next few months – may we once again be able to hug and play with our children and grandchildren, welcome friends and family around our Shabbat and holiday tables, and celebrate many happy occasions with loved ones and friends. 

May we always remember to learn from the priorities that we were forced to set during Covid, and never forget what is truly important and what is trivial.

And may we be able to celebrate the message of this week’s parsha of Vayechi: the victory of life over death.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “Gather together and I shall tell you what is to happen at the end of the days” (Genesis 49:1) The portion of Vayehi, and the entire Book of Genesis, concludes with Jacob’s deathbed scene in which he “reveals to his sons what will …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Vayechi 5781

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

“Secret Signs: Passing on Judaism’s Code of Conduct”

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“Secret Signs: Passing on Judaism’s Code of Conduct”

Is there a mandated moral course of action to take in situations where there is no explicit ruling in the Torah?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayigash, we find assurances of how this responsibility is part of the Jewish halakhic mandate.

When Yosef reconciles with his brothers, he sends them back home with gifts and food for his father and family – including something which, on the surface, is puzzling:

‎וַיִּתֵּ֨ן לָהֶ֥ם ‎יוֹסֵ֛ף עֲגָל֖וֹת ‎עַל־פִּ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה

Yosef gave them agalot – wagons, or cows, depending on the translation – with the permission of Pharaoh.

And when Yaakov sees these agalot and is told that his son, Yosef, is alive, his spirit is revived because of the message these agalot convey. Immediately, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains the connection between this gift of agalot and Yaakov’s spirit.

Yosef knew that his father might not believe his brothers when they inform him that he is still alive.

He therefore sent the agalot as a sign, a secret code indicating to his father that he has not forgotten the last topic they studied together before they were separated: the halakhic concept of the “eglah arufah.”

According to the laws of the eglah arufah, residents of a own are supposed to escort visiting guests to the outskirts of the town in order to protect them.

If a traveler is murdered in the area between one town and the next, the town leaders must take responsibility for not keeping him/her safe.

This happens through the medium of the eglah arufah ritual.

On the one hand, sending the agalot to Yaakov is Yosef’s way of telling him that he is, in fact, alive.

But at the same time, it is also Yosef’s way of sending his father an underlying message: perhaps Yaakov is not completely free of responsibility for Yosef’s life of tragedy. After all, Yaakov sent Yosef alone from Hebron to his brothers.

There is also a larger narrative highlighted by Yosef’s gift of the agalot that we MUST extrapolate from the text.

Mentioning the study session between Yaakov and Yosef reminds us that our patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ lives were consumed with discussing ideals that would eventually make up the moral and thical fiber of the Jewish people.

We see this throughout Bereishit.  Another example is in the famous debate between Avraham and God over Sodom and Amorah; Avraham reminds God, “Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” – would not the Creator of the universe want ethics and righteousness to be part of His conduct with Sodom and Amorah?

This ethical and moral foundation is emphasized several times within the Book of Bereishit and it is why our Sages call it ספר הישר – “The Book of Righteousness,” for it animates an ethos that will shape Judaism and its worldview. 

Baked into the Jewish tradition is an elastic clause that demands from us to do good and right in all times and in all situations. 

A responsibility to be a moral and ethical people.

When we read the story of the agalot through this prism, we learn that Yosef is sending his father Yaakov an important message. He is saying, “Abba, your lessons were not lost on me. I acted ethically and morally even in Egypt.”

May we merit to successfully pass on our spiritual genetic makeup to future generations and conduct ourselves according to the ethics embedded in Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  “And Joseph could not hold himself back in front of all who were standing around him… And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph; Is my father still alive?’”(Genesis 45:1-3) Why does Joseph suddenly wake up to his familial ties and reveal …

Read more“Shabbat Shalom” – Vayigash 5781

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

“The Power of Words to Build and Destroy”

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The Power of Words to Build and Destroy

On a beautiful January evening in Florida many years ago, we took our visiting “snowbird” guests from New York to a local kosher restaurant. 

I’ll never forget the excitement at a nearby table, where a group of parents and their children were proudly celebrating their success at getting Disneyworld tickets at a discount.

You see, some of the theme parks charge less money for children under 10. And even though some of the kids at the table had already celebrated their Bar Mitzvah, they looked younger than their age. These parents were literally bragging about how they passed their 13-year-olds off as under ten, saving a bundle of money. 

I remember wondering to myself: day school education at that time was about $15-20,000 a year per child. 

And in those schools, their kids were learning that our words matter. That we must be truthful. And that lying is wrong.

How did they not see that saving a few dollars at the ticket booth risked their $20,000 education investment a year they were giving their children? 

It seemed to me that those tickets were perhaps the most expensive Disney tickets that anyone had ever purchased.

How did their children feel at the ticket booth, seeing their parents – their role models – lying and stealing? 

Can you put a price on the cost of losing your child’s belief that your word is credible?

Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the power of words.

In Pirkei Avot, we learn that God used words to create the world:

בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם – With ten utterances was the world created

And the Zohar asserts that words build worlds and can destroy worlds.

These are not slogans or cliches. The impact of our words have real consequences. 

Look no further than our parsha, Parshat Miketz, for a startling example.

Yosef subjects his brothers to a harsh test, framing Binyamin by planting his royal goblet in Binyamin’s bag, to see how his other brothers will react when Binyamin is accused of theft.

The brothers’ initial response reflects total confidence that none of them had committed the crime:

אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִמָּצֵ֥א אִתּ֛וֹ מֵעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ וָמֵ֑ת – Whichever of your servants the goblet is found with shall die

Wait a minute! Those words sound familiar. 

It’s because we heard a similar declaration in Parshat Vayishlach, when Yaakov – certain that no one in his caravan had stolen Lavan’s idols – declared:

עִ֠ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֣א אֶת־אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לֹ֣א יִֽחְיֶה֒ – 

But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive

As we learned then, the results were tragic, ending with Rachel’s death.

And yet, Yaakov’s sons now make a strikingly similar declaration!

Often children when they are in same circumstance as their parents – repeat the same words – the same actions. 

Yaakov is confronted – Shall not remain alive, 

His children are confronted – they use the same language. 

When the goblet is found in Binyamin’s sack, the brothers are shattered, for they realize that with their own words, they have sentenced their youngest brother to death.

To the brother’s credit – and to Yosef’s pleasant surprise, they don’t let words doom Binyamin – and that begins the healing process between Yosef and his brothers. 

The words we use with anyone, anywhere, have repercussions!

Words matter! What we say carries a life longer than we remember.

So let us choose our words carefully, and let us use them to build ourselves, our families, our communities and the world at large.

Shabbat Shalom.

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