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

“Jerusalem: The Mandate to Redeem God, the Jewish People and the Holy City”

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Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

“Jerusalem: The Mandate to Redeem God, the Jewish People and the Holy City

Yerushalayim. Jerusalem.

A city that has inspired the Jewish People throughout the ages, including David HaMelech, King David, who described  Yerushalayim’s unique ability to bring the Jewish People together:

יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו

Yerushalayim built up, a city knit together (Psalms 122:3)

As we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, and the role the city plays in our people’s ultimate redemption, it is so important to focus on this unifying quality, particularly in a time in which division and polarization are so pervasive and toxic.

To re-appreciate the role of Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel in our national destiny, we need only to look to this week’s parsha, Behar-Bechukotai.

The Torah states:

 כִּי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ

If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding (Leviticus 25‎:25‎)

Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, the well known Talmudist and Kabbalist who made aliyah from Morocco to Yerushalayim in the 18th century explains that the word “achicha”, your kinsman, refers to the Jewish People, and “achuzato” refers to Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel.

He reads the verse like this: “When the Jewish People are in straits in exile and lose Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel…”

The same pasuk continues:

וּבָא גֹאֲלוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו

his nearest redeemer shall come (Leviticus 25‎:25‎)

Who is this “nearest redeemer”? 

According to the Ohr HaChayim – as Rabbi ben Attar is called – the nearest redeemer refers to the righteous people who are closest to God.

וְגָאַל אֵת מִמְכַּר אָחִיו

and redeem what his kinsman has sold (Leviticus 25‎:25‎)

It is the responsibility of the righteous to work to bring redemption to the people, to God, to the city of Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel.

וְאִישׁ כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה לּוֹ גֹּאֵל

If a man has no one to redeem for him (Leviticus 25‎:26)

But what happens when the righteous are not sufficiently focused on the mission and destiny of the Jewish People; when they lose grasp of the larger picture and everything seems lost?

וְאִם לֹא מָצְאָה יָדוֹ דֵּי הָשִׁיב לוֹ

If he lacks sufficient means to recover it (Leviticus 25‎:28)

וְיָצָא בַּיֹּבֵל וְשָׁב לַאֲחֻזָּתוֹ

and he shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25‎:28)

In such a situation, when God sees that the exile is just too much for the Jewish People to handle – the antisemitism, the assimilation and alienation – then He will bring about OUR redemption, because of the vital necessity of  the Jewish people for  all of humanity.

Yom Yerushalayim reminds us that we find ourselves in a moment of great challenge/opportunity in the process of our redemption.

That even as we express gratitude for the blessing of living in a reunited city, we must acknowledge that we also live in an era of deep polarization.

In a time of darkness.

In a time in which certain groups of Jews think that they have a monopoly on truth and do not see the goodness, the greatness of the other.  

We must remind ourselves and the next generation about the work still ahead of us: the responsibility to remain focused on the Jewish People’s larger narratives, our mission and destiny, for ourselves and the world.

To keep focus via the gift of Yerushalayim: שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו, the city that brings us all together (Psalms 122:3) – an eternal reminder of where we come from, and where we are going.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Martyrs or Haters? Why We Mourn the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Students”

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Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23)

“Martyrs or Haters? Why We Mourn the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Students

This really should be one of the most joyful periods of the year, a time when we are on the path to the ultimate redemption.

We recently celebrated our people’s physical redemption from Egyptian slavery, and we are now mere weeks away from celebrating our spiritual redemption – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a vital step on the way to the ultimate goal of living the Torah in the Promised Land.

And yet, as we know, this is a rather mournful period.

What derailed this process to redemption?

Every year, as we count these days between Pesach and Shavuot, we recall that 12,000 “pairs” of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a deadly plague during this same period (Yevamot 62b).

And I would like to suggest that why they died, and what lessons we take from their deaths, has a significant impact on how we look at the process of redemption that we are on.

According to Rabbinic sources, Rabbi Akiva’s students died from asakara, a plague known in rabbinic literature to be caused by malicious gossip.

We learn that they died because 

לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה

they did not treat each other with proper respect (Yevamot 62b).

Yet in writing the history of the Jewish people, the great 10th century scholar Rav Sherira Gaon lists “sh’mada” as the source of their deaths, meaning that the students were martyred by the Romans in their brutal crushing of the Jews’ rebellion during the Bar Kochva rebellion (Iggeret Rav Shreria Gaon).

Now, clearly Rav Sherira Gaon was familiar with the same Talmudic and rabbinic texts as we are, which clearly name the asakara plague, the lack of respect,  as the reason for their death.

So why did he attribute it to the Romans?

And who is right?

As part of the rebellion, Bar Kochva minted coins for use by the Jewish population, which was in and of itself a statement of open defiance to the Roman occupation, which had issued its own coins as a means of imposing its authority.

In looking at the first coin minted by the Jewish rebels, we find an insight into at least one element of truth behind the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

As you can see, on one side of the coin is Bar Kochva’s name, as well as a picture of the Beit HaMikdash, highlighting what Bar Kochva and his army were fighting for.

On the other side of the coin it states למען ירושלים – for the sake of Jerusalem – accompanied by the illustration of a mitzvah that we read about in this week’s parsha, Emor: the arba’at haminim, the four species that comprise the commandment of “Lulav and Etrog” (Leviticus 23:40).

The picture shows one lulav, complemented by one hadas, on one side; and one arava on the other side.

An etrog, a citrus fruit, appears to the lulav’s left. 

While these four species are the same ones we use when we fulfill the commandment on Sukkot, the halakha as we observe it today follows the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, that we use three hadasim and two aravot in our lulav and etrog sets (Sukkah 34b).

Why would the coin-makers of Bar Kochva’s era misrepresent the mitzvah?

Many have suggested that they simply wanted to show the lulav-etrog set as a symbol, as prominent ritual items associated with the Beit Hamikdash, the ultimate symbol of Jewish sovereignty.

But if we look at the message of Bar Kochva on a deeper level, we find I believe the deeper reason.

You see, Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kochva’s mentor, who supported his rebellion against the Romans, maintained that our lulavim should contain only one arava and one hadas.

Bar Kochva minted the coin according to the position of his Rebbe and ally, Rabbi Akiva. 

Another of Rabbi Akiva’s beliefs was that when it is necessary to go to war, Torah scholars must also participate.

In Rav Sherira Gaon’s account, Rabbi Akiva’s students died as martyrs, serving as soldiers in Bar Kochva’s army.

But when the Sages of the Talmud discuss the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, they don’t focus on the historical event because that is not the goal of the Talmud. 

Rather, Rabbinic literature is interested in the spiritual lesson that we can learn – why the rebellion failed. 

And their answer focuses on the toxic cultural environment of the time: the gestalt of לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה, the absence of mutual respect (Yevamot 62b).

In order for the Jewish people to remain on the journey to redemption, we must demonstrate mutual respect.

This is not a cliche; it’s the key to breaking the impasse of Jewish history.

It is why both Pesach and Purim the holidays that reflect redemption have mitzvot associated with them that require showing concern for the other.

It is not coincidental that during this period, we celebrate both Yom Ha-Atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, days on which we are especially mindful of issues of national sovereignty in ways that no  generation has had the privilege to consider since before the time of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochva.

We feel an exhilaration that comes with being alive in an era of Jewish history in which every day,we witness  the return of Jewish sovereignty in ways only dreamed of by our ancestors.

Ultimately, though, the long-view perspective of our Sages focusing on the underlying spiritual causes of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students – and our crushing defeat at the hands of the Romans – is what shapes our focus during this mournful time period.

So as we commemorate and mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s student-soldiers each year during Sefirat Ha’Omer, we re-affirm the need for Jewish armed defense of our sovereignty, while also recognizing that our complete, full redemption will only be possible when we’re willing to treat the “other” with respect.

Shabbat Shalom

“Parsha and Purpose” – Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Expanding the Orthodox Tent to Include Gay and Lesbian Jews “

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Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

“Expanding the Orthodox Tent to Include Gay and Lesbian Jews

Gay and lesbian people exist in every Orthodox community, in every shul, school, yeshiva, and seminary.

Some are ready to share their identities publicly, while others remain closeted, but each of these Jews, many in their teens or young adulthood, are searching for their place in the Torah-observant world.

They are looking to us, leaders of Orthodox institutions, as well as to their parents and fellow community members, to offer them guidance and protection, to denounce those who do them harm, and to welcome them as full, dignified members of the Torah-observant Jewish community.

One of the reasons that gay and lesbian individuals feel unwelcome by the religious world is rooted in a verse from this week’s portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim:

וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא (ויקרא י”ח:כ”ב) 

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.(Vayikra 18:22)

This is the starting point for Orthodox Jews: sexual intercourse between two men is strictly and uncompromisingly forbidden by the Torah.

However, even as we acknowledge this fact, we must recognize that simply being gay or lesbian is not a transgression! 

Moreover, there are other verses in the Torah which also govern our behavior toward the gay and lesbian community. 

One of them is found in the second of this week’s parshiyot:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (ויקרא י”ט:י”ח)

We are commanded to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves,’ (Vayikra 19:18), to relate to our peers with respect and love.

Another verse, mentioned later in the Book of Vayikra, also provides us with guidance on how to relate to the gay and lesbian community:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם (ויקרא כ”ה:י”ז)

“Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 25:17)

This is the absolute prohibition against bullying and verbal harassment, known as Ona’at Devarim, to which members of the gay and lesbian community are so often subjected.

Time and again, the conversations I have with LGBTQ Orthodox Jews come back to the hurtful language, whether intended or not, that makes them feel that they don’t belong. 

Halakha has high expectations of the way we speak about others, and we are called upon to reinforce those expectations.

Tragically, we have created a suffocating environment that not only prevents gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews from attaining spiritual fullness, but also one that fosters low self-esteem, loneliness, and fear, pushing a higher-than-average percentage to depression, self-harm, and most tragically, death by suicide.

Beyond all else, the most crucial step for us to take is to listen with sincerity and sensitivity, to open our arms wide and make sure they know that they remain part of our community. 

Already in the late 1800s, religious leaders including Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor welcomed those who have a fragmented relationship to Judaism to take part in Orthodox community life.  

Facing the question of whether to give aliyot to Jews who were nearly entirely non-observant, both of these poskim ruled of the overwhelming need to encourage these people to remain connected to Judaism, even those not fully engaged. Therefore they justified calling them to the Torah even on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Rav Hildesheimer stated that Jews who do not wish to abandon their commitment to be part of the covenant, even if they have abandoned certain aspects of religious practice, are still welcomed into the synagogue and into the community, and Rav Spektor went even further, welcoming those who had not even undergone circumcision.

If we are willing to include in our community those who foregoe brit mila or desecrating the Shabbat publicly, why should it be any different for those gay or lesbian Jews who would never dream of breaking Shabbat but who, through no fault of their own, own an identity that presents halakhic challenges?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein discusses the responsibility that we have to accept Jews as they are and recognize the contributions that each can bring to the community. Rav Lichtenstein explains that it is wrong both morally and halakhically to sever ties with individuals who are not fully engaged in the full complement of Jewish observance.

I would like to conclude by quoting from a letter written by Rav Aharon Feldman – Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel in the United States – to a man attempting to reconcile his homosexuality with his commitment to a life of Torah and mitzvot.

Rav Feldman wrote that homosexuals are, quote:

“…as beloved in God’s eyes as any other Jew, 

…obligated to achieve life’s goals by directing his life towards spiritual growth, sanctity and perfection of his character—no less than any other Jew.

He will merit the same share in the world to come which every Jew merits, minimally by being the descendant of Avraham Avinu and maximally by totally devoting his life toward service to God.

In the spirit of Rav Feldman’s words, may we always be mindful of the fact that all Jews, whether gay or straight, are beloved by Hashem, and that all deserve our love and our acceptance.

Shabbat Shalom.


“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

Parshat Tzav-Shabbat Hagadol  (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  “Behold, I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he [Elijah] will turn [back to God] the hearts of the parents through their children and the hearts of the children through …

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“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.

Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  “If the entire congregation of Israel commits an inadvertent violation as a result of (a mistaken legal decision of the Highest Court)….and they thereby violate one of the prohibitory commandments of God, they shall incur guilt” (Lev. 4:13) If the Jewish state …

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Shabbat Shalom: Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  Efrat, Israel –  “And you shall count for yourselves seven cycles of Sabbatical years, seven years, seven times… forty-nine years… you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-10) This …

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Shabbat Shalom: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  Efrat, Israel –  “And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel” (Lev. 22:32). The portion of Emor opens with a strange commandment to the kohanim-priests of Israel: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the priests children of Aaron, and …

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Shabbat Shalom: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)                                                           By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  Efrat, Israel –  “And you shall observe My decrees and My laws which a human being shall …

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