parsha

“Parsha and Purpose” – Yitro 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Yitro 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“And all the people saw the sounds– Accepting the Torah and finding our spiritual space

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“And all the people saw the sounds– Accepting the Torah and finding our spiritual space

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro provides us with so much material for discussion. Central to the Torah reading is Aseret haDibrot, often erroneously translated as “the Ten Commandments. ”

“Aseret haDibrot” are neither the sum total of all the Torah’s commandments, nor are they “Ten Suggestions”. They are “Ten Statements”.

How many commandments are iterated in the “Aseret haDibrot”? Is the first statement “I am the Lord your God” a commandment, or is it an introductory statement, a preamble for the rest? Can all the commandments be subsumed under these ten statements?

These are important conversations that, please God, we will have together over the course of many years of discussion.

I’d like to focus today just on one sentence that appears after receiving the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, or Ten-plus Commandments, or so.

The Torah describes the experience that the Jewish people had at Mount Sinai: “ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot ….” “And all of the people see the sounds.”

The commentaries point out that seeing sounds is a miracle. There were a lot of miracles that took place at Mount Sinai, in addition to the ability to see sounds. The Midrash tells us that that at Mount Sinai all those who had difficulty hearing, and others who had other handicaps were healed.  All these challenges were overcome on Mount Sinai; for that reason that hospitals throughout the world are called Mount Sinai, based upon these Midrashic statements.

The ancient commentary known as Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, expresses another beautiful idea in its reflection on the words, “ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot”.  Although this insight was written down in ancient times, it is so relevant to us in this day and age.

“Ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot,” according to the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, is that everyone found their own sound, saw their own path, and even though the Torah was given to all the Jewish people, “ke’ish echad, be’lev echad,” in one unified fashion, everyone found their own portal of entry.

What an important message! The best way to treat our children “the same” is to realize that they are different. That they hear different sounds, that different components of the Jewish experience speak to them.

The way that we relate to other Jews with respect is to realize that each of us looks at Judaism and connects to different aspects of Judaism.

“Ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot” – there is a symphony of voices that can complement each other to hear – if we listen. 

And that’s why it pains me when we hear leaders challenge the authenticity of other Jews. When leaders speak about Soviet Jews or Ethiopian Jews as not Jewish, they are missing an opportunity. Even if there are halachic challenges involved, “ro’im et ha’kolot,” these Jews are searching for their sounds, they are searching for their space – they seek their own way to relate to our Jewish heritage.

So many of us spent time protesting to let Soviet Jews leave the Soviet Union.  Now we have to “ro’im et ha’kolot.” We don’t have to “let our people go” – we have to “let our people know.” We have to find ways in which every Jew, and every human being, can “ro’im et ha’kolot,” can find their spiritual voice and space.

Please God, we will re-accept the luchot, the Aseret HaDibrot, this Shabbat. Each and every one of us will find our own space, will find our own music, and will allow others to find their own music, within the parameters of Jewish tradition, so that we can engage God in ways that allow us to create a symphony of conversations between us as a people and our beloved engagement with God.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Beshalach 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Beshalach 5780

“Moshe and Authentic Leadership: Feeling the Pain of Others”

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“Moshe and Authentic Leadership: Feeling the Pain of Others”

I would like to share something with you that speaks to me personally from the final portion of this week’s parsha.

Amalek is the first of the nations that attacks the Jewish people after they were freed from Egyptian slavery. In this battle, Moshe plays a singular role. The Torah tells us that when Moshe lifts his hands towards God, all the people raise their eyes to heaven and they are victorious, but when his hands fall, they are vanquished.

The Torah explains that Moshe’s hands became heavy, therefore he was seated upon a rock, and Aharon and Hur supported his hands.  

The Torah’s description is precise and detailed here- unusually so.  Rashi points out that a pillow or cushion would have been a more obvious choice. Why then did Moshe sit on a hard rock? 

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, answers that Moshe said:  If the Jewish people are in pain, I am also in pain. I have no right to sit comfortably while they suffer. 

This message really resonates for me. 

Sometimes people ask me (I had the privilege of spending many years living in the apartment of Rav Soloveitchik on the Yeshiva University campus): What is the most important D’var Torah that you learned from the Rav?

Perhaps I was too young to appreciate his intense scholarship, but what I really learned from Rav Soloveitchik was his profound empathy for the suffering of others, to the point that he internalized that pain. His doctors asked us to ensure that the personal meetings that Rav Soloveitchik held with individuals in crisis would not be scheduled back to back, since that would adversely affect his health. 

“Intersperse some meetings there about the Jewish community at large that do not focus on a particular individual’s personal pain. Schedule some time for other things. Space the meetings to help people with their traumas and challenges throughout the day.”

I remember one time when I woke up and saw that Rav Soloveitchik had gotten up at three in the morning. I walked out of the bedroom to see Rabbi Soloveitchik in the parlor area, and asked him, Rebbe, why are you up so early? 

He said, “I know there’s a young couple that’s going to meet with me and they asked me a difficult halakhic question. I know what I need to tell them, but I know that my answer will pain them.”

People sometimes speak about Rav Soloveitchik and note that he had multiple answers to a similar question. He marshaled his entire arsenal of halakhic knowledge to help people out, and was able to focus on a particular approach within the limits of halacha in order to arrive at a p’sak that would best suit their situation and needs. He understood this message of true leadership: the responsibility to feel the pain of others. 

And when I read this part of the parsha, I am reminded of the fact that I had the privilege of witnessing somebody who was able to internalize the pain of other Jews. 
I think we have to ask ourselves this question. We see events all around us- we cannot let them paralyze us, just as they did not paralyze Rabbi Soloveitchik- but do they impact us? 

When we hear about the pain of another Jew who lives in a totally different area, how do we feel? When we see the suffering of another human being, does it affect us?

Does it change our day?

Are we still reclining on that same soft, comfortable couch, or do we feel a certain degree of discomfort in our day because of the distress of others?

This week’s Torah portion has a unique message. It’s not just about the miracle of crossing the sea. Nor is it only about freedom for the Jewish people, but about a true leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. 

This is the type of leadership that we have to find in ourselves: to feel the pain of others. 

Shabbat Shalom

“Parsha and Purpose” – Bo 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Bo 5780

The Fall of a Scholar: The importance of remaining in the communal dialogue”

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The Fall of a Scholar: The importance of remaining in the communal dialogue

In Pirkei Avot we are introduced to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader of the Jewish people in Judea after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century of the Common Era, and his five students.  The Mishna goes on to describe the unique characteristics of each of those disciples, and mentions that Rabbi Eliezer ben Arach was the greatest of all. He is described as maayan hamitgaber, an ever-flowing spring of Torah knowledge and inspiration.

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach and his wife thought that he would be the natural successor of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai – but he was not chosen.  Disappointed, he moved to a different location and started his own academy.

His students failed to follow him and the yeshiva did not flourish.

We are told in Tractate Shabbat that when Rabbi Elazar ben Arach returned to the Beit Midrash, after his time away, was called to read from the Torah. Reading from this week’s Torah portion, he came to the verse:   “hachodesh hazeh lachem” – this is the way you consecrate the new month, instead he read, “hacheresh haya libam”- their heart has become deaf.

The Maharsha, , Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631) in his commentary on the Talmud, asks: “why is this story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach scripted and choreographed around our Torah portion, and the first mitzva of the Torah, the mitzva of consecrating the new moon?”

The Maharsha explains that this incident serves to highlight that when you walk away from the Torah conversation, the Beit Midrash, even if you are as great a scholar as Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, you can even forget how to read the first mitzva in the Torah. 

I’d like to suggest a different answer.

How is the new moon consecrated?

It’s consecrated by two Jews going to a Beit Din, a court, and announcing that they saw the new moon.

These two Jews do not have to be great Torah scholars, they don’t even have to know how to read from the Torah, but if they can testify on what they’ve seen. That is sufficient.

The three members of the court are appointed by Beit Din HaGadol – and that is also sufficient.

A conversation takes place. Testimony is given, questions are asked and answered. And this conversation establishes the new moon. The entire Jewish calendar, the date that the festivals take place, is established through this conversation.

Even a great personality who has expertise in astronomy and in the orbit of the moon cannot contradict the outcome of that conversation on the new moon.

We follow the conversation, the dialogue that takes place between these two witnesses and the court.

 

What a powerful message! Even an astronomer or a professor of mathematics cannot contradict the consecration of the moon, the consecration of the new month that is established by these two individuals in their dialogue with the Beit Din, the Jewish court.

I think the message that the Gemara is trying to highlight is that no man, even a great scholar like Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, can work in a vacuum.

He made a mistake when he read the parsha, this week’s Torah portion, that speaks about the need for a dialogue, a conversation. The Jewish calendar is can only be established when Jews are in conversation with each other.

 

This is what allows us to orchestrate the holidays. And the question we need to ask ourselves, as individuals, is have we lost the ability to have a conversation? Have our hearts become deaf?  Do we actively listen to others? Do we sanctify the calendar and time by actively listening? 

Do we listen to our children, or do we have an automatic response?

Do we find time to listen to our spouses? Do we find time to listen to Jews who celebrate their Judaism differently than we do, or perhaps don’t even celebrate their Judaism at all?

Are we willing to listen to them? Are we willing to give them credence? 

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach thought that he could be an island unto himself. That simply doesn’t work.

You need to have a conversation. The first mitzva in the Torah highlights the responsibility for us to celebrate the calendar, the freedom to be able to control our time through the establishment of a new month, through a conversation between people. 

Parshat Bo. The first mitzva in the Torah reminds us of the sacred opportunity to actively listen and maintain a dialogue.

And when even the greatest of Torah scholars forgot that, he loses his Torah knowledge, because without the conversation, our Torah knowledge in many ways lacks intellectual honesty and remains incomplete.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vaera 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Va’era 5780

“Pharaoh, Frankl & Maimonides:
Choose Your Way”

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“Pharaoh, Frankl & Maimonides: Choose Your Way”

Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and therapist, wrote books that are considered to be among the most powerful works of the twentieth century. He lived from March 26, 1905, to September 2, 1997, and survived at least four concentration camps.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp 65–66 he wrote:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”

Frankl is talking about what our rabbis called bechira chofshit: free will.

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Va’era, God tells Moshe something extraordinary. “VeChizakti et lev Par’o,” “I am going to harden Pharaoh’s heart.”  He is not going to allow you to leave Egypt of his own free will.

Maimonides, in his eight-chapter introduction to the six chapters of Pirkei Avot asks this very question.  “How can Pharaoh be held accountable if he lacks free choice? How can a person be punished if he cannot determine his own actions? “

His answer: Pharaoh was not punished for refusing to free the Jewish people once God hardened his heart. All of his punishment, including the hardening of his heart, is due to his criminal acts. He lost his ability to choose because of the way he interacted with the Jewish people prior to that point. The loss of free will, the loss of his humanity, was the first stage of his punishment.

Free will is what makes us uniquely human. If we act inhumanely, we lose our ability to make moral choices. Our humanity becomes eroded.

Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, reminds us that whatever challenges we face in life, unlike Pharaoh, God does not harden our heart.

Even if we have health challenges, financial challenges, familial challenges, we can decide how we respond to the crises and the opportunities in our lives.

Parshat Va’era reminds us that the greatest gift that God has given us is free will. Not even God can intervene with that. Viktor Frankl realized that, while the circumstances of our lives may sometimes be beyond our control, our response to them is our own choice, and, please God, let us engage and face our challenges in a way that will truly celebrate the greatest gift that humankind has, the gift of free will.

 Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shemot 5780

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Shemot 5780

“Living the Ideals of Chesed and Social Justice – A Necessary Requirement for Leaders”

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Parshat Shemot: Living the Ideals of Chesed and Social Justice – A Necessary Requirement for Leaders

Rav Chaim of Brisk (1853-1918) revolutionized the study of Talmud through his novel “Brisker” approach, and added new dimensions to our ability to understand that magnum opus of Jewish scholarship.  Talmud studies in any midrasha or yeshiva are greatly impacted by Rav Chaim’s textual analysis.

Rav Chaim lived in the Lithuanian town of Brisk and served as rabbi of the town, but was buried in Warsaw (that in itself is a story, but we won’t elaborate on it now). Rav Chaim requested that on his tombstone (not the one that marks his grave today, which was replaced after the original was destroyed by the Nazis) only the words “Av Beit Din d’Brisk” – Rabbi of Brisk – and “Ish Hesed” – a man of lovingkindness – be inscribed.

Rav Chaim did not want anything written about the books he composed, or the unbelievable advances in the study of Talmud be written.  He felt that the most important job he had as a Rav was not delivering amazing sermons or coming up with incomparable chiddushei Torah, but rather to be a “Rav Chesed” – a man who performed acts of lovingkindness.

In the middle of his tenure as a rabbi, almost all of Brisk was destroyed in a fire. While the homes of the wealthy were soon rebuilt, those of the poor were not; Rav Chaim went and slept on the front yards of those homes, until they were rebuilt.

When there were babies that were born out of wedlock, the parents knew that they could be placed in the home of Rav Chaim, this great Torah scholar, and he would make sure that the mamzerim and mamzerot of the Jewish people would be taken care of.

When he was given a shed full of wood to heat his home, his condition was that there was to be no lock on that shed, so that the poor could also use the wood as needed.

That was Rav Chaim.

Nechama Leibowitz so correctly tells us that before you are introduced to the quintessential leader of the Jewish people, before he can stand on the stage of leadership, we have to be introduced to his CV, those acts and traits which make him truly unique.

What makes Moshe unique is that he is a man of chessed. When he sees something that is wrong, whether it is social injustice between a master and a slave, social injustice between two oppressed people, or social injustice between two strangers, Moshe needs to get involved.

That is what makes Moshe a leader. This is the quality of genuine leadership.

And subsequently, when Moshe sees the burning bush, he says, “Asura Na, v’er’eh,” I’m going to go over and look, “madua lo yiv’ar ha’sneh?”- Why isn’t the bush being consumed by the fire?

That was Moshe’s greatness. When something was not right, out of character; when someone was being oppressed, Moshe expressed concern.

This is the message that Rav Chaim of Brisk highlights to us. When he is buried, he requests that his matzeva, his tombstone, not focus on his scholarly Torah contributions, but rather on his contributions in the realm of chessed.

Parshat Shemot reminds us that if we want to be redeemers in our lives – like Rav Chaim of Brisk, like Moshe Rabbeinu – we have to speak truth to power, not only through the study of Torah, but by taking those values and implementing them every day of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayechi 5780

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