parsha

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

“From Devastation to Transformation: Owning Our Adversity”

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Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

“From Devastation to Transformation: Owning Our Adversity”

The horrific scenes from last month in the Israeli city of Lod – synagogues being set afire as Sifrei Torah and holy books lie strewn on the floor – have been forever etched into our collective memory.

And the wounds – psychological and physical – from altercations between Jewish and Arab neighbors in that city, will take time to heal.

But out of the pain in this fractured city has come some inspiring responses from our students at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s campus in Lod.

They entertained local children with carnivals and games so parents could go to work; they helped staff the community’s situation room during night shifts so other residents could sleep; they boxed up possessions salvaged from rubble in burnt apartments; they cleaned up apartments that had been vandalized; and they began to raise money to rebuild a burned Talmud Torah.

Perhaps the spirit driving these acts of love and compassion are best expressed in the words of Carmel Levi, an 18 year-old student at Midreshet Lindenbaum-Lod, who said:

“I chose to spend this year learning Torah specifically in the city of Lod because here, I can learn Torah in a family-like atmosphere and really be part of what’s happening in Israel – even in times of trouble. Despite everything that happened, we won’t give up on Lod.”

These inspiring words and actions, which demonstrate a deeply-rooted sense of Ahavat Yisrael and Ahavat HaBriot, also reflect the quintessentially Jewish tradition of transforming devastation into redemption, an example of which we find in our parsha, Korach.

250 leading figures among the Jewish people challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. (Numbers 16:2-3)

In the subsequent contest to authenticate if Moshe and Aharon are indeed the chosen leaders, Korach and his rebellious followers must take their firepans and place incense before God, as do Moshe and Aharon. (Numbers 16: 16-18)

The result is decisive:

וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת הֹ’ וַתֹּאכַל אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ מַקְרִיבֵי הַקְּטֹרֶת

And a fire went forth from God and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

What is most perplexing is what happens to these firepans, the very items that were used in their campaign to overthrow Moshe and Aharon, essentially a rebellion against God.

I would have assumed that these firepans would have been destroyed along with the people who participated in the rebellion.

After all, these items are spiritually radioactive, to be placed in a spiritual nuclear containment facility, decommissioned and destroyed.

However, the opposite occurs!

Here’s what God instructs Elazar, the son of Aharon and heir to the priestly leadership of the Jewish people:

וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ׃

…remove (literally, lift up) the firepansfor they have become sacred – from among the charred remains; and scatter the coals. (Numbers 17:2)

Elazar is then to take these firepans from the rebellious group and hammer them into sheets of bronze, to be used as plating for the mizbe’ach, the altar.

These firepans, which had been used in religious rebellion, are now considered sacred, to be used in service to God.

What a powerful message for each and every one of us.

When we face setbacks or difficult ordeals, we try hard to put them behind us, to discard them from our consciousness as much as possible.

But while that may help to temporarily ease our pain, there is another, exceedingly difficult but rewarding path that we can take, and that is transformation. 

Not only were the firepans not destroyed, they were transformed into a vessel that represents our capacity to sacrifice, engage with and find redemption from God.

As our inspiring students in Lod teach us, we are not to run away, but rather to transform darkness into light, in order to live more joyful, productive and more meaningful lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Overcoming the Challenge of Robotic Judaism”

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Parshat Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

“Overcoming the Challenge of Robotic Judaism”

In conversations with students, educators, parents and colleagues over the years, one of the recurring themes is the concern about going through the motions robotically when it comes to fulfilling mitzvot.

The reasons vary from person to person, but the fact is, it can be hard to connect meaningfully on an ongoing basis  to our rituals.

What can we do to create an environment where Jewish practices empower our spirit and ritual commandments speak to us in the here and now?

What can we do to be more active partners with God,with our Judaism – rather than simply doing the spiritual equivalent of painting by numbers?

I would like to suggest an answer based on a mitzvah that we encounter in this week’s parsha, Shelach: that of the tzitzit.

And perhaps this unique meta-mitzvah status is reflected in the way the Torah formulates the commandment:

“ועשו להם ציצית…”

“And they should make tzitzit, fringes, for themselves…” (Numbers 15:38)

The Talmud addresses one aspect of this, explaining that “ועשו להם ציצית” – “and they should make tzitzit for themselves” – means that in order for one to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, they must rightfully belong to me, and not be stolen. (Sukkah 9a)

As with any mitzvah, a stolen item cannot be used to achieve a sacred relationship with God.  

I cannot cheat on my taxes or have corrupt business practices and think that the accumulated funds can be spiritually laundered via tzedakah.

But beyond that, perhaps the words of ועשו להם, “and they should make for themselves”, also means that we must be personally, proactively invested in what we are doing.

ועשו להם – we must take action; we must invest ourselves in the mitzvot that we perform in order for them to speak to us.

It won’t happen by waiting for inspiration to come.

ועשו להם – we must work on our relationship with God to the point where our fulfillment of His mitzvot, the expression of His will in this world, affects every part of us, emotionally,  in our kishkes, and cerebrally, in shaping our weltanschauung.

We need to ask ourselves: 

ועשו להם ציצית – How can/must the rituals communicate & speak to us?

What must we do to better invest ourselves in understanding the rituals and making them relevant, not robotic.

How can they affect the way we interact as professionals, the way we engage with our spouse, children and grandchildren?

As we read about and engage with this mitzvah of tzitzit this week, let us internalize the command of ועשו להם and take upon ourselves to actively invest ourselves in the meaningful fulfillment of mitzvot, helping us reconnect to our mission of shaping the destiny of ourselves, our people and humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Terror, Civil Unrest and Antisemitism: What the Parsha’s Trumpets Reveal About Our Current Crises”

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Parshat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

“Terror, Civil Unrest and Antisemitism: What the Parsha’s Trumpets Reveal About Our Current Crises”

The past few weeks of terrorist rocket-fire, civil unrest in Israel and a spike in antisemitic acts in the United States and Europe have put the Jewish world on edge.

How do we react to these multiple existential issues?

The answer to this question will tell us a lot about who we are as inidividuals, as a community and as a nation. 

I’d like to share with you an important  lesson for this moment that is found in our Torah portion, Beha’alot’cha.

In the parsha, we are introduced to the mitzvah of crafting trumpets – chatzotzrot – which are to be sounded on various occasions. (Numbers 10:1-10)

Amongst the occasions, times of community challenge: war, famine or distress, in which the blowing of the trumpets is a clarion call to the Jewish people to galvanize and respond to the crisis.

In contrast, other occasions include times of communal joy; on our holidays, Rosh Chodesh, or specific occasions to call the Jewish people in celebration.

As we are all aware, there is also another instrument mandated by the Torah that is still used today to galvanize the Jewish people together and with which we are all familiar: the shofar.

As we know, the shofar is sounded on Rosh HaShanah (Numbers 29:1), and, according to widespread custom, during the month of Elul to call us to re-engage with God, to do teshuva, in advance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (Rema, Orach Chayyim, 581:1).

Why are two different instruments needed?

Why are we commanded to use the chatzotzrot, the trumpets, in certain contexts, but the shofar, the ram’s horn, in the context of teshuva?

The answer can be found in the crucial difference between how each instrument is made.

The shofar, the ram’s horn, comes entirely from the world of nature, with minimal human involvement.

Conversely, the chatzotzrot, the trumpets, are painstakingly-fashioned out of silver by people.

Why is it that the instrument that is used to call us do teshuva must be found in nature? Why must the instrument that is used to call us together in times of joy or challenge be fashioned by human beings?

It is because when it comes to teshuva, what is critically important is for us to recognize the all-encompassing aspect of our relationship with God.

That God’s presence can be found in every aspect of our lives and everywhere in the world around us.

So in our effort to renew our relationship to God, we use an instrument that represents the notion that God visits blessings upon us, his creations, every moment of every day.

In contrast, the instruments used to gather us in times of joy and in times of challenge must be fashioned by people because, ultimately, how we react to the crises and joys that we experience, is largely dependent upon people: ourselves and others.

The Torah commands us to sound the human-crafted trumpets in times of crisis because it is human behavior, intelligence and initiative – with God’s help – that can transform crises into redemptive and uplifting moments.

As we face the crises of terror and civil unrest in Israel, and a threatening resurgence of acts of antisemitism throughout the world, we can hear both the shofar AND the trumpets being sounded from Above.

This is a time to do teshuva and to gather together as a people to respond, together, to the common threats we face.

Please God, may we succeed in taking the steps needed to repair our relationship with God and to transform these crises to celebrations in our lives, in the lives of our people and in society at large.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Civil Unrest in Israel and the Blessing of Peace”

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Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

“Civil Unrest in Israel and the Blessing of Peace

We find ourselves in very turbulent times. So many of us in Israel are worried about our families, children and grandchildren as well as our colleagues and students – including those in the army – all of whom face challenging situations and are in harm’s way.

During periods of uncertainty like these, we seek perspective and guidance. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik taught us that when you want insights into a current situation, you needn’t look any further than that week’s parsha.

And in fact this week, in Parshat Naso, we are introduced to Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, through which Aharon and his children will convey God’s blessing to the Jewish People. 

The Torah specifies the precise language that the Kohanim are to use:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

May Hashem bless you and protect you.

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May Hashem deal kindly and graciously with you.

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (במדבר ו:כב-כז)

May Hashem bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:22-27)

 

The prayer concludes with peace – the most important blessing we could receive.

For me, at this moment – as I witness families sleeping in safe rooms, students being rushed into army service, colleagues in Lod whose possessions have been torched and lives are potentially at risk – I am reminded that peace comes at a price and that true peace must ensure that Jewish blood is no longer cheap.

My father, a Holocaust survivor, was thrown out of Poland. We will not be thrown out of Lod!

The Gemara in Tractate Sotah resolves that there must be a synergy between the Kohanim, who are the conduits of God’s  blessing, and the congregation, which must actively accept the blessings — whether by saying ‘Amen’, or reflecting with intent upon each utterance.

Our active response to the words  וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ – God’s protecting us; and וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ – God sharing his countenance with us, is the creation and participation in a strong IDF.

But our responsibility towards שָׁלֽוֹם – peace must also include our commitment to never take the law into our own hands. 

I am referring to a small group of Jews attacking innocent Arabs.

They are created, as we are, in the image of God.

Our responsibility to peace, towards our Torah values, requires a commitment to the rule of law.

As Prime Minister Netanyahu said in recent days: “Tolerating vigilantism and violence paves the way to anarchy”.

It is a total rejection of the priestly blessings that are to rest upon the Jewish people.

Please understand: there is no equivalence between isolated acts of vigilantism committed by a small number of misguided Jews and the full-blown acts of terror by Hamas and other terror organizations.

Nevertheless, as Yaakov Avinu reminds his sons Shimon and Levi, vigilantism is not acceptable. It is not part of the Jewish gestalt.

And so, as we read this parsha, we pray that these acts of violence by Jews have already ended.

I know from my colleagues at Ohr Torah Stone whose lives have been turned upside down that replacing their destroyed physical belongings will be far easier than repairing the shattered coexistence between them and their Israeli Arab neighbors.

So we pray for their shalom, both physical and inner peace. 

We pray for shalom for everyone in the State of Israel, especially the residents of Israel’s embattled south, where an entire generation of children has grown up under rocket fire. 

And we pray that we all merit Jews and Arbas alike in the State of Israel – God’s Priestly Blessing and the ultimate blessing of Shalom.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar”

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Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar

Not one, not two, not three…”

This is a traditional way of counting people in Judaism. We don’t count Jews conventionally, using numbers, but rather look for other ways of reaching the final sum. 

Because in Judaism, every individual is important – every person is an entire world. If we count them as part of a larger whole, we limit their uniqueness and reduce them to being merely part of a group.

This dialectic of the prominence of the individual vs.the priority of the cmmty plays out throughout the entire book of Bamidbar, which our Sages accurately called “Sefer HaPekudim”, the English translation of which, the “Book of Numbers” –  how the cmmty is counted and the individual adds up.

For example, the daughters of Tzelafchad, women who challenge Moshe and ask how it is possible that they are not counted for inheritance simply because they did not have any male siblings.

Why should our family, they asked, which differs from the communal norm, be excluded from inheritance in the Land of Israel?

Ultimately, the perspective of this individual family triumphs over the communal norm.

Another example is the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, in which individuals who for various reasons were unable to bring the Pascal Sacrifice  on the 14th of Nissan when the community is commanded to, are offered a “do over” one month later, when they are able to offer the Korban.

And in a third example, the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe request of Moshe that due to their particular individual needs they cannot dwell in a geographic area known as Israel, and ask that the definition of the Land of Israel be expanded to accommodate their particular needs.

Sefer Bamidbar – the Book of Numbers – highlights for us the challenge and the responsibility that we have to be committed to the larger narrative of community on the one hand, while at the same time remembering that the goal of the community is to create an environment which inspires each person’s creativity and ability to contribute their own unique talents to the world.

It reminds us that yes, our relationship to God needs to include the reality that we are part of a community, but it must not be limited to that paradigm: each of us needs to find our own individual rendezvous with God.

And it asks of us to be counted and to be willing to accept this duality: to celebrate our individuality while concurrently being part of our community.

Shabbat Shalom.

“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.