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

“Hope that Emerges from Tragedy

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Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

Hope that Emerges from Tragedy

History teaches that out of tragedy rises strength and opportunity. 

A prime example is World War II, one of the worst disasters in history. As a son and son-in-law of survivors, our families were decimated, as well as 75 million people who were killed during that time.

Yet in the post-World War II era, new technologies that had been developed during wartime – in addition to the improvement of existing ones – flourished in various industries across the United States and the world, helping make that time period one of the best on record for productivity and economic growth. 

Another example comes from nature. 

After a fire sweeps through a forest and consumes the area’s vegetation, the forest regenerates with a high degree of regrowth. Fascinatingly, studies show that second-growth forests can look very different from what they replaced.

The common narrative is that in the aftermath of tragedy, whether man-made or natural, there is a change, often positive, within the reality of life as we’ve known it.

So there will definitely be changes as we exit this pandemic. 

There will be changes in the way we communicate, in the way that our communities and government are organized, and so much more.

It may be too early to predict with precision what those changes will be, but changes are on the way.

This idea that out of tragedy comes opportunity and hope is also seen in our Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa, where we read about the tragic sin of the golden calf.

The Jewish people, at the height of revelation, fall into an idolatrous stupor and fashion a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6).

But out of the chaos and tragedy of this moment arises a new reality, one containing new opportunities for the Jewish people.

Out of the tragedy of the golden calf incident, the institution of the Mishkan and the Mikdash are born (Rashi to Exodus 31:18); the physical structure through which the Jewish people are able to communicate and engage with God in the way that they need.

And also born out of the tragedy of the golden calf is a new paradigm for the role of the Jewish people in the development of the Torah.

As a result of this change, the Torah is no longer just a written law. The Torah now also contains an oral tradition, one in which the Jewish people play an active role (Talmud, Gittin 60b on Exodus 34:27).

The Jewish people are no longer just the guardians of the Torah; they are empowered to become its parchment by becoming its living interpreters, developers  and teachers.

Parshat Ki Tisa teaches us that there is a horizon of hope for when this pandemic ends.

It reminds us that from forest fires comes new natural growth, and even from the deepest tragedy or war or pandemic comes renewed – and perhaps even improved – existence.

So, what will our post-pandemic world look like?

Much of it depends on us.

The challenge that the Jewish people faced after the golden calf – and the challenge that we face now – is to seize new opportunities and lessons we have learned in order to help improve society, better ourselves and to become more invested in the world around us.

Please God, may we succeed in this test of history.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“There’s No Such Thing As Standing Still”

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Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 25:1- 27:19)

“There’s No Such Thing As Standing Still”

We’re in the middle of several Torah readings that discuss the details of things which, at first glance to many people, appear to be disconnected from our contemporary lives.

We may ask, “What is the relevance of the detailed description of the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle?

“Why do we need to know about the intricate design of its vessels, or about how the clothing was fashioned for the Kohen – the priest – and the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest? 

One example is the vessel that is mentioned both in last week’s parsha, and in this week’s parsha – the altar. 

The מִזְבֵּחַ הַנְּחוֹשֶׁת  – the Bronze Altar – measured 13 feet or nearly 4 meters high, and we learn from it a message relevant for everyone, especially in these challenging times.

The Kohen clearly needed to ascend to the top somehow, in order to prepare the offering and the libations on the site.

But how was he to get there?

“וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלות עַל מִזְבְּחִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ עָלָיו”

“Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Exodus 20:26)

The Torah specifically forbids the Kohen from using steps. Instead, he must ascend using a ramp.

What is the difference between a ramp and steps?

And how does a ramp solve the problem raised in the verse about exposing his nakedness?

Why is one mandated and one prohibited?  

In using steps one has three choices: to go up, to go down or to stay in the same place.

Yet when using a ramp, one has only two options: either go up or go down.

On a ramp, there is no plateau on which to remain comfortably in place.

On the contrary, if you try to stand in place on a ramp, momentum leads you to slide backward.

The Altar, which symbolizes our commitment to sacrifice for our relationship with God, reminds us that in all relationships in our lives, we are either going up or going down.

There is no such thing as plateau-ing in our closest relationships, whether with God, our spouse, our children, or any other relationship, we are either in a state of growth or decline.

If we really wish to treat our most important relationships with the attention they deserve to ensure that they are always in a state of growth and vitality – we must ascend the ramp!

Continuously working on our relationships, investing our most precious resources, time and emotions in them.This is the timeless message that the Torah shares with us through depicting the construction of this one vessel. Messages can be found in the analysis of all the Temple structures

May we find the strength to be engaged in the ongoing process of growth and ascension in our closest relationships, both with God and with others in our family, cmmty and society.

Shabbat Shalom.


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

“The Dialectic of Purim: Fighting Amalek and Valuing Every Human Life”

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Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1- 27:19)

“The Dialectic of Purim: Fighting Amalek and Valuing Every Human Life”

Next month, students from Ohr Torah Stone’s two hesder yeshivot and three seminaries for women will be starting their service in the IDF.

Until that time, they will continue to study day and night in their batei midrash. Some are studying the complicated  chapter of חזקת הבתים , the third chapter of Baba Batra which deals with presumptive ownership; rights of possession and privacy; and respect for public spaces.

What a remarkable phenomenon! A group of 250 young men and women who will be serving in Israel’s elite IDF units prepare for their military service by studying the laws that govern how to create a productive, civil society and a spiritual connection with God. 

There is a larger message here: Judaism never celebrates wars and their victories. Rather, we focus on perpetuating life and human rights.

On Chanukah when the land of Israel was freed from the Greek Hellenists, our holiday focuses not on the Maccabees military victory rather on the religious freedoms achieved and our reentry into the Temple.

On Pesach, on the day in which the Jewish people cross the Yam Suf, we do not recite a complete Hallel liturgy, because in that redemptive moment our Egyptian taskmasters were drowned. 

In the upcoming holiday of Purim that we clearly see this dialectic, starting with the pre-Purim Torah reading, Parshat Zachor, that we read this week. 

Parshat Zachor reminds us of the Biblical mandate to wipe out the nation of Amalek.  

Who is this nation, and why must we remember to destroy them?

Maimonides writes that since the Seven Canaanite nations no longer exist, the commandment to remove them is no longer applicable. But, he says, the mitzvah to obliterate the nation of Amalek remains operative. 

How is it possible that we remain commanded to destroy something that no longer exists?

Rav Soloveitchik explains in the name of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, that Amalek is more than an extinct nation lost to history. Rather, Amalek represents an eternal ideology bent on destroying the Jewish people.

This is why it remains a Biblical requirement for us, as a nation, to wipe out anyone who adopts that Amalek ideology.

I am sharing this message with you at the precise spot where Dvir Sorek, ז”ל – a student at our Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, a young man who wholeheartedly pursued Jewish-Arab co-existence as a core value – was murdered in cold blood, in an act of Amalek – an act of terrorism.

We will lovingly remember Dvir his life and legacy forever. 

But at the same time that we commit to the necessity of destroying the ideology of Amalek, on Purim we simultaneously exhibit a commitment to the sanctity of life. 

On Taanit Esther, the day before Purim, we fast. Because it was on that day that we engaged in battle in order to defend ourselves, and even though we triumphed, we remember in sadness that we were forced to take the lives of others – even our enemies. 

Purim focuses on the unity necessary within our people to guarantee redemption. 

The unity that is found in giving mishloach manot gifts to our neighbors, matanot l’evyonim to help those facing challenging times.

B’ezrat Hashem, the time will soon come when all Israeli young adults will no longer need to train for war.

In the meantime, we will continue to prepare them with the tools they will need to survive while giving them the spiritual wings to thrive and build meaningful lives.We will work to celebrate the dual identity of Purim.  For the sake of the Jewish people and all of humanity, may we succeed in this crucial endeavor.

Shabbat Shalom.The Dialectic of Purim: Fighting Amalek and Valuing Every Human Lif

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

“And these are the laws”: Connecting Sinai with Everyday Living


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“And these are the laws”: Connecting Sinai with Everyday Living

This year I am reading Parshat Mishpatim with sadness.

I ask myself in front of all of you are we fulfilling the mandate of this parsha, which focuses on our responsibility to create a just and civil society?

We who set ourselves to be the most committed to Judaism continue to flout safety measures that were enacted to save lives.

We see images of hundreds of people attending weddings in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, where many people become infected and unwittingly act as super spreaders to elderly members of their family, their children and everyone they are in contact with.

We see thousands gathering for the funerals of great rabbinical leaders. Is this how we honor the lives and legacies of these tzaddikim? By knowingly flouting the law and spreading a devastating virus?

Yeshiva break is celebrated by thousands making a pilgrimage to Orlando & South Florida only to be found crowded and unmasked in restaurants and other public venues.

Our hospitals are flooded with so many people who are ill and in need of care.

So, no, I do not think that we are fulfilling the mandate of this week’s parsha. 

The very first words of Mishpatim give us a clue to how important it is to be kind, thoughtful careful and just:

 “ואלה המשפטים” – “And these are the laws”.

The parsha that speaks about detailed laws begins with the letter Vav, the word “and”, indicating that the laws of our parsha do not stand alone. 

No, the laws are a continuation of last week’s parsha, Yitro, in which we received  the Torah. 

The laws of mundane living are part of the Divine revelation. It is about imbuing the ideals of the Torah in the everyday. 

The Talmud tells us in the name of Rav Yehuda, “One who wishes to be pious should study the laws of נזיקין, the laws of torts, the laws of a civil society.”

That is why so many begin their study of the vast sea of Talmud with the tractates of Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra, tractates which are based on the laws discussed in this week’s Torah portion.

Laws relating to the vulnerable members of society with kindness; laws of financial ethics; property management and capital punishment. Laws regarding our responsibility to heal the sick; to behave ethically in business, and so much more.

Ultimately, the Torah obligates us to transform ourselves into a ממלכת כהנים – a priestly nation – וגוי קדוש, a holy society. This can only happen when we create the kind of society that is careful about how we treat one another.

When will we finally learn that the true manifestation of serving God is found in the details of  laws like “ורפא ירפא”, of making sure that we and those around us are healthy?

When will we finally heed the directives of respected medical professionals with the same mandated responsibility of “נעשה ונשמע, of dutifully obeying and only questioning later?

I am sad as I read Parshat Mishpatim this year because while in so many ways our service to God has increased and become more committed, it is clear that we have forgotten the message of the juxtaposition between receiving the Torah with our responsibility to create a civil society that looks after the needs and well-being of others.

Parshat Mishpatim ends with another revelation of God 

Nachmanides points out that this revelation is different from the one found in Yitro prior to receiving the Torah. 

Unlike the prior this revelation has no barriers between God and the Jewish people.

For the revelation of Misphatim is not rooted in the theoretical, it is anchored in the holiness found in the mundane – in the every day.

May we merit to experience that pristine engagement with God internalizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim, fully engaging in our responsibility in building a holy society once again. 

Shabbat Shalom.


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

“Tom Brady, Yitro and the Decision to Make a Difference”

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“Tom Brady, Yitro and the Decision to Make a Difference”

In the spirit of the Super Bowl, a football trivia question: what do quarterbacks Tom Brady and Kurt Warner have in common?

Most famously, they have both been Super Bowl winners – and maybe again – and recipients of the league’s MVP player award several times.

But what they also have in common is that  they were given very low chances of ever making it on to an NFL team roster, let alone becoming all-time league greats.

Brady was drafted by the Patriots as the 199th pick in the draft and only took over as starting quarterback after an injury to Drew Bledsoe. This year he switched coaches, cities and conferences and, at 43, is back in the Superbowl.

Warner was not selected at all!

He tried out for the Packers in 1994, and was released before the regular season. No team wanted to give him a chance. 

He stocked shelves in a grocery store for $6.50 an hour and played in the Arena Football League. 

He was supposed to try out with the Chicago Bears but was bitten by a spider during his honeymoon. Played in NFL Europe. 

He signed with the St. Louis Rams in 1998 and after an injury to the starting quarterback, took over and in 1999, had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in NFL history.   

Given what we now know about their careers, this is almost impossible to imagine.

They are actually part of a legendary group of quarterbacks who according to current NFL draft rules would never have been selected, either, including Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach.

Each of these players are great examples of outsiders who made a game-changing impact.

But it could easily have gone differently.

Any of them could have allowed the lack of interest from teams or the public impact on their self-confidence and resolve to play the game.

In our parsha, we encounter Yitro, someone who could have looked at reality and turned the other way, but chose to make a difference, instead.

Yitro saw a group of nomads forming into a people of purpose and recognized a problem that if solved, could dramatically improve their lives.

But he knew that his advice might be ignored, not only because he was an outsider but because he was trying to give advice to his son-in-law…

Yitro had passion; he wanted to make a difference.

He saw the entirety of the field, the big picture, and the adjustments that would be necessary in order to make Moshe into the most effective quarterback for the Jewish People.

He saw that in order for that to happen, Moshe must learn to share the burden with a team.

Yitro overcame any self-doubt and societal opposition, and ended up radically reshaping the Jewish People’s judicial system, which freed up Moshe to focus on leading the people on the important issues facing them.

How many times in our lives do we have the opportunity to make a difference?

An opportunity to grow in ways that requires us to stretch ourselves to our limits.

It is almost always easier to simply ignore the opportunity.

We convince ourselves that “it’s too difficult” or “I might fail”.

Worse, others may think I am not capable.

But imagine pro football without Unitas, Starr, Staubach, Warner or Brady, any of whom could have easily chosen the simpler path of accepting the poor assessments of others about them.

Imagine the destiny of the Jewish People and societal jurisprudence without the brilliant guidance of Yitro.

We all have the opportunity to make difference:

Let us resolve to do something more to make our lives, the lives of our families, communities and society even just a little more meaningful.

Our position on life’s playing field is not decided by only a draft, or by coaches, or by popular opinion.

It is decided by our resolve to fully actualize our God-given potential.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Adding Harmony to the Song: One People, Multiple Chords”

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“Adding Harmony to the Song: One People, Multiple Chords”

Parshat Beshalach, the parsha of the crossing of Yam Suf – the transformation of the Jewish people from a slave  nation to a people of destiny – a Torah section that has been made into several big picture feature films.

It is a Parsha of joy – Shabbat Shira of song.

And in one of the first verses of the Parsha, we’re told the following:

וַיַּסֵּב אלוקים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף
And God led the people in a roundabout way through the wilderness, by Yam Suf 

וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
And the Israelites went up from the land of Egypt “chamushim”

The straightforward interpretation of the word חמושים is that the Israelites were armed with weapons.

But our Sages derive something else from the fact that the word “chamushim” has the same root as the word “chamesh”, meaning “five”.

They learn from this that only one out of every five Jews left Egypt –  just 20%.

Then the Midrash goes even further, teaching that it was actually just one of every 50 that left – only 2%!

Another opinion offers a third, even more distressing interpretation, that only one out of every 500 Jews, just .02%, opted to leave Egypt.

These numbers are as interesting as they are depressing.

Not every Jew was willing to leave the Egyptian exile. Indeed, not every Jew viewed life in Egypt as an exile. Exile is, as Rabbi Soloveitchik states, a subjective concept.  

What an important message for us today, in a world where so many Jews do not share the same outlook regarding the destiny of the Jewish people.

We must not accept a reality like the one in Egypt, where so many Jews were prepared to opt out of their Judaism.

We have a sacred responsibility to engage all Jews and to make sure that every Jew realizes that they are part of the destiny of the Jewish people, regardless of where they live or the degree of their religious expereince.

As Jews, we may all approach our Judaism differently.However – Unity does not require uniformity.

Our rabbis tell us that when the Jewish people crossed the Yam Suf, they crossed through 12 different paths/lanes.

Even when we’re all on the same journey,

we must all find our own path.

As we celebrate Shabbat Shira this week, recalling in our Torah reading the joyous song sung by the Jewish people as they stood on the riverbank victorious and safe from harm, we mourn the thousands of Jews who never joined us on our freedom march from Egypt.

We take this opportunity to remember our challenge and obligation to reach out to the Jews in our time who no longer personally identify with our destiny as a people, and to engage with them with love and respect.

Let this parsha be a reminder that we are all part of a symphony, each of us with our own unique set of instruments and abilities, working together to contribute to a collective composition.

Shabbat Shalom.

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