parsha

“Parsha and Purpose” – Balak 5780

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

“When the Tents of Jacob Aren’t Beautiful: Fighting Domestic Abuse”

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“When the Tents of Jacob Aren’t Beautiful: Fighting Domestic Abuse”

What can we do to help a loved one, a friend, or a neighbor for whom venturing outside during this pandemic can mean risking their life, but for whom being at home presents an even more imminent danger?

Tragically, over the past few months of COVID-19, even those homes which were not infected with the coronavirus have become threatened by a different kind of pandemic: domestic abuse.

How heartbreakingly sad. What can WE do about this?

In our Torah portion, Balak, we find the famous blessing from the prophet Bil’am to the Jewish people :

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel

And the Midrash, cited by Rashi in his commentary on the Torah, explains that Bil’am is referring to the beautiful atmosphere of the Jewish home.

But what about when that reality is far from the ideal, and the atmosphere in the home is toxic and dangerous?

It’s true that the Midrash states that the Israelites’ tents in the desert encampment were arranged in such a way that one could not see into the entrance of one’s neighbor.

This may lead us to think that what happens behind closed doors is none of our business.

And maybe that’s true. 

However, in an instance when you know that domestic violence is taking place in that discrete tent, it is our halachic obligation to speak up for those inside who cannot.

First, let’s find a way to meet with the person who we suspect is being abused and let them know that there are professional organizations that can help them.

Share with them the best ways to get help, and make sure to follow up.

There are websites, on the screen, that can be used to help those. 

Don’t suggest that “It’ll all be OK”, or, “Perhaps the person had a bad day”.

Instead, be their friend and help them connect with qualified professionals and organizations that do work on behalf of abused spouses and children.

I would like to also address the person feeling rage.

If you are feeling rage during this very trying time that could lead to actions inconsistent with the ideal of “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov”, please, for your sake, for the sake of your loved ones, seek the help that you and your family deserve!

Even if it is on Shabbat and you are feeling uncontrollable rage, Jewish Law demands that you immediately seek whatever help you can – including calling a hotline, or seeking help online.

Again, on the screen are two organizations that can be helpful.

Mark Twain once wrote about the Jew comparing him to all other peoples of the world, and I quote:

“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

We have always known the answer to Twain’s question – it is the Jewish home.

We pray that the atmosphere in our homes is safe and healthy for everyone inside.

But prayer is not enough – when it is unhealthy and dangerous, we must work to make it right.

With God’s help, we will summon the strength and the courage to actualize the blessing of

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael”

Shabbat Shalom, and have a wonderful and healthy Shabbat. 

“Parsha and Purpose” – Korach/Chukat 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Korach/Chukat 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Lifting Every Voice: Leadership in a Time of Unrest”

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“Lifting Every Voice: Leadership in a Time of Unrest”

The minute that Moshe is challenged by Korach as the leader of the Jewish people, God swallows up Korach and his entire rebellious cohort.

But then God says, “I want each tribe to take a staff, and the staff that blossoms will truly represent who should be the leader of the Jewish people.”

Why is there a need for another miracle?

Imagine a board meeting. The members begin to discuss the rabbi and immediately, those who are against the rabbi get swallowed up. Is there really still a need for a follow-up vote on whether or not to support the rabbi?

And yet, in our parsha, even after God makes it clear that Moshe is the leader and not Korach, He still demands that there be a blossoming of a staff to appoint the leader.

In the next parsha, Chukat, there’s the tragic episode in which Moshe is told by God, ve’dibartem el ha’sela. which really means, “and they [the Jewish people] should speak to the rock.” But what Moshe does is to hit the rock, and because of that, he cannot lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel. 

In both of these cases, there’s a common denominator. Our goal as leaders, whether it is in our families, in other areas of our lives, in the community or greater society, is to inspire change – not to compel it. Our goal is to create a collaborative environment, not to compel a vision.

What God is saying after Korach and his cohort is swallowed up is, I want people to realize that Moshe is the leader – not because his opposition has been swallowed up, but because his staff blossoms, and that is what defines leadership. 

And that’s the challenge that Moshe has in Parshat Chukat. God is telling Moshe, the people need water. They have to learn that they don’t just have to go through you, they can send their own email, their own WhatsApp, their own letter to Me, to God.

The Jewish people have to grow up. They have to realize that they have a powerful voice. 

VeDibartem el ha’sela – “speak to the rock.” Teach them they can also pray, teach them they can also engage. 

But instead Moshe takes a direction which does not allow the Jewish people to have a voice. And because of that God determines the need for a new leader to replace Moshe. The leader will be Moshe’s student, but his style of leadership will be much different. The Jewish people will engage with him. It won’t be a top-down model; it will be much more collaborative. 

What powerful messages for us, and the type of lives we lead, especially during this time in which we’re seeing so much unrest throughout the world.

Imagine if we realize that we have a voice to make a difference, to inspire change in safe and creative and constructive ways. 

We can do that, and that’s what we’re seeing all over the world.

It’s not about striking the rock. It’s about speaking truth to power.

It’s about allowing our voices to blossom. 

And through that, we create leadership that is eternal, and make changes that will better society for ourselves, for our children and for our grandchildren.

Shabbat Shalom.  

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shelach/Korach 5780

This week’s “Parsha and Purpose” is dedicated
in memory of Milton Eisner z”l 
beloved father of David Eisner
former President of OTS’ North American Board

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shelach/Korach 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“The five? No, the SEVEN books of the Bible”

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“The five? No, the SEVEN books of the Bible”

The Book of BaMidbar is compelling and perplexing. There are three different components: the introduction – the movement of the Jewish people towards the final stage of redemption, entering the land of Israel. Moshe tells his father-in-law, Yitro, “join us.” 

We are introduced to laws, like Pesach Sheni – the second Paschal.

And we are also introduced to a formula that the Jewish people will use to decimate their enemies. 

Vayehi binsoa haAron, vayomer Moshe. Kumu Ado’shem veyafutzu oyvecha. We’re introduced to this language that will be recited and which will help the Jewish people capture the land. And then what happens is, this language, this mantra, is placed in between two upside-down, Hebrew letter nuns; frozen – as Rashi says, it becomes like a book out of place.

In fact, the Talmud tells us that the few verses of vayehi binsoa haAronare considered its own book. That essentially, the book of Bamidbar is actually three books. One book is pre-vayehi binsoa haAron; a second book is this small unit of text, and a third book is everything that follows.

The post-vayehi binsoa haAron book is the reason why the entire piece of vayehi binsoa haAron is put inside of upside-down nuns. Primarily what happens in the parshiot of Shlach and Korach. Because in these parshiot, the Jewish people failed to understand the singular quality of various components of our life. They failed to understand the singular component of the land of Israel. They failed to understand the unique qualities of Moshe and Aharon as leaders. 

In earlier post-vayehi binsoa haAron, such as Parshat Behaalotcha, Miriam and Aharon failed to understand the relationship between Moshe and God, and the Jewish people failed to understand the importance of food as sustenance in the whole story of the quail. 

So the book of Bamidbar is essentially three sections. Section one, the movement of the Jewish people to redemption; section three, their failure to understand the unique qualities of various spiritual and physical aspects of life. And the middle section, the vayehi binsoa haAron section, that is frozen by upside-down nuns and is out of place.

We have the power to remove those upside-down nuns. We can move the text from being suspended when we recognize the unique gifts that God has given us and that we can change the world. The Jewish people has forgotten our singularly important, God-given gifts. 

Each and every one of us has our own gifts. Let’s evaluate them. Let’s decide how to use them in a purposeful fashion, and through that, we can indeed redeem ourselves, and the Jewish people, and society. 

Vayehi binsoa haaron will then be removed from being frozen in time and will become a piece of our prayers that we will be able to actualize through our practices.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Behaalotcha 5780

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

“The Song Doesn’t Remain the Same: How Each Generation Connects with God Differently”

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The Song Doesn’t Remain the Same: How Each Generation Connects with God Differently

One of the vessels that we’re introduced to in this week’s parsha is the trumpets. 

The trumpets have a unique quality to them. You see, every other vessel that Moshe forges, with the help of others, can be used for all generations: the candelabra, the menora, the aron, the ark. However, the chatzotzrot, the trumpets – which call the Jewish people together in times of joy and in times of challenge, such as warfare – the law is that those trumpets have to be fashioned anew in every single generation. 

Why is that? Why is it that all the other vessels in the Tabernacle, in the Temple, were for generations, but the trumpets were only for one generation, and then they had to be remade, refashioned, redone? 

I believe that there’s an important message in this for us: that every generation has its own music, its own connection to God.

My music is not the same music as my children’s, and is not the same music as my parents’. 

My connection to God is also different, and therefore the chatzotzrot – the trumpets that call the Jewish people together, and symbolize this ‘music of the moment’ – cannot be fossilized. It has to be relevant. It has to speak to us in our generation. 

And therefore, etched within the laws of the trumpets is the recognition of the fact that the Holy Ark is eternal, the candelabra, the menora, is eternal, the lechem hapanim where the showbread is put is eternal. 

But the trumpets, the music that allows a generation to march to a relationship with God, is renewed, recast, in every generation. 

What’s our music?

What’s the way we connect?

It can’t be the same way our parents connected, and it’s different from the way our children connect. We have to find a space for our children to create their own music. We have to give them that space, and we have to make sure that we’re always searching for our own music to connect with God. 

B’ezrat Hashem, we’ll understand the message, “utekatem bachatzotzrot”, to blast those trumpets, to create our own music, to find a way in which we truly can connect in this generation to God, and to make sure Judaism is meaningful and purposeful; not just a relic of the past but rather something that leads us to the future.

Shabbat Shalom

“Parsha and Purpose” – Naso 5780

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

“Renewing our Vows” with God

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Renewing our Vows” with God

We’re on the balcony of my Ohr Torah Stone office in Gush Etzion, overlooking Highway 60, the road which the Jewish people would take, as they were oleh regel – as they ascended to the Beit haMikdash – three times a year; the road from which the Romans conquered and pillaged Jerusalem; the road on which we, the Jewish people, reconquered Jerusalem, as well as the environs of Gush Etzion all around us.

It’s the road of Jewish history, right outside my office, and you’re all welcome to come and visit it in person.

“Vayehi bayom kalot Moshe lehakim et haMishkan.” It is the day on which Moshe finishes the construction of the Mishkan, after seven days of taking it apart and putting it back together again. 

Rashi comments on this verse, Kalat ktiv, that it’s written as “kalat.” You see, Rashi’s version of this verse is different than ours; we have a vav in the word Kalot, but Rashi has it without a vav. For Rashi, the word means, “kalat ktiv” – it’s like a bride and groom.  Rashi is trying to explain why it is that Moshe, a man, a leader north of 100 years old, needs to deconstruct and reconstruct the Mishkan for a week. After all, he’s not the moving company, responsible for moving the Mishkan from place to place. There’s a message that Rashi is trying to communicate, in his very cryptic language, and that is that the Mishkan is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: to create sacred moments in time with God.

And therefore, what Rashi is highlighting is that Moshe has to take it apart and put it back together again to signify to the Jewish people that the structure is only important when we imbue it with relevance and holiness.

This is exactly the message that the prophets give to the priests when they say “be careful,” when the Temple was being abused and becoming not a place of holiness, but rather of idol worship, as happened at various points in history.

And Rashi is trying to highlight the fact that the Mishkan represents the relationship between the bride and groom. It’s for this same reason that every bride and groom has Sheva Brachot. What is Sheva Brachot? Sheva Brachot is the ma’ase nisu’in – it’s the act of marriage. It’s the responsibility for seven days to take apart the marriage and renew it, to highlight that the institution of marriage itself is not the mitzva. There’s no special bracha on the marriage; it’s what you do with the marriage. That’s what’s critical, that’s what’s important. 

And therefore Rashi says, Moshe takes apart the Mishkan and puts it back together again, like a Chatan and Kallah, as a Chatan and Kallah “renew their vows” for seven days, to highlight that what’s important in a marriage is not the institution, but what we do with the institution, how we infuse it with relevance. 

What an important message for all of us. It’s important for us on two levels. Because of corona, our weddings are looking so different now than they did not so long ago. It’s no longer about the pomp and circumstance, it’s about understanding the meaning and the beauty. It doesn’t matter if the wedding is in a hall with 500 people, or in a backyard with 50 people. What counts is the message of “kalat,” the message of consecrating a relationship between a bride and groom. 

What counts, as we read this parsha, is how we re-consecrate our relationship with God. It’s about taking it apart, evaluating, where are the weaknesses, and where are the strengths, and rebuilding our relationship to God. Or, as we journey through this age of corona, to remind ourselves of the opportunity even during tragedy to renew our relationship with God, to create a renewed bond, a renewed relationship, a new face. Because ultimately, our commitment to a relationship is what imbues the structure with holiness and purpose.

Shabbat shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shavuot/Naso 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shavuot/Naso 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Shavuot, God and Creating Eternal Holiness”

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“Shavuot, God and Creating Eternal Holiness”

Did you ever wonder why, when it comes to the holiday of Pesach, Sukkot, or Rosh haShana or Yom Kippur, there are specific mitzvot to do- whether it’s eating matza and maror, sitting in the sukka or shaking lulav and etrog, hearing the shofar, or fasting. But when it comes to the holiday of Shavuot, which concretizes our relationship with God, there are no particular commandments! Eating cheesecake is not a biblical commandment. Why are there no particular commandments for the holiday of Shavuot?

I believe there is a deep message here for us. First, the acknowledgement of the fact that our relationship with God, which is fully celebrated on Shavuot, cannot be limited to a particular basket of commandments. It’s the way we engage with God every single day that’s important.

We take out 25 hours – or outside of Israel we take out two days – to reflect upon that perspective: that Shavuot is about the way we talk to our neighbors, how we fill out our tax forms, how we interact with our spouses, our children, our grandchildren, our parents. 

And that’s why it’s not limited to specific commandments. To highlight the fact that Shavuot requires us to realize that our engagement with God is based on our entire weltanschauung on life.

It is God who creates the holiness on Mount Sinai, and therefore when God leaves, the holiness dissipates. But in  the Temple, it wasn’t God alone that created the holiness; the holiness was created by the partnership with the Jewish people. Likewise our synagogues: the holiness may emanate from God, but that holiness is created because the energy of the community, the energy of the people. And when holiness is created in partnership, between God and the Jewish people, that holiness is eternal.

What an important message for us! We are the ones who guarantee the eternality of the holiness. We guarantee that holiness lasts forever. We play a role in the future of the Jewish people, in the future of society, and even – according to Rav Kook – in the future of God, in the future of God’s role within this world. 

And therefore Shavuot is not limited to a particular commandment. Holiness created in partnership with God lasts forever, and holiness that is created by God alone just lasts for a moment. 

What a power we have, the capacity to change the world! Let’s recognize that as we celebrate this holiday of Matan Torah, this holiday in which we also – in Israel at least – read on Shabbat the Parsha of Naso, of rising and playing a leadership role in our relationship with God, and let us understand that we need to take a moment back on Shavuot and ask ourselves how each and every one of us can change the world around us, can transform ourselves, and in the process, transform society around us. 

Chag Matan Torah Sameach, Chag Shavuot Sameach.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Bamidbar 5780

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

“Redemption in the Air: Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot”

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“Redemption in the Air: Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot”

Chodesh haZiv. The name that this month of Iyyar is given by the Tanakh and Talmud. It means the sprouting of new light, because we are now blessed in Israel with the blossoming of all the flowers and of the trees. The beginning of the spring. 

We start to hear the birds in the air. It’s Chodesh haZiv because it is the complete month, the month of Iyyar. From Pesach to Shavuot, where we count up from the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people, to the final component of the redemption of the Jewish people. 

It is the beginning of the spiritual light. It is Chodesh haZiv because it is also the month that the Gemara, in Rosh Hashana, on page 11A, tells us that the patriarchs were born. 

The sprouting and the beginning of the nation. 

But for us in this generation it is also called Chodesh haZiv, the beginning of the sprouting of new light, because in this month we have been fortunate to have Yom haAtzmaut on the fifth of Iyyar – Israel Independence Day – and Yom Yerushalayim, the reunification of Jerusalem, on the 28th of Iyyar, this Friday. 

After all, what better way to celebrate Ziv, the beginning of the flourishing of the new light, when we have been blessed in this generation with these two new holidays. 

Purim and Pesach; our paradigms of redemption. Purim represents redemption that comes from humankind, from Mordechai and Esther, who galvanize the Jewish people, with God operating behind the scenes. Pesach is a miracle that is orchestrated by God. He is the primary conductor, with the Jewish people playing a secondary role. 

On Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, you have the themes of Pesach and Purim together: an initiative by humankind, Jews throughout the world, human beings throughout the world, that move to help the Jewish people have its homeland. It is the celebration of the Purim experience in modern-day time. 

But you also have the initiative of God, who uses His powerful hand to empower the army of the Jewish people to defy all the military odds, to guarantee the immortality of the Jewish people. 

In this generation, we have been blessed with the full blossoming of Chodesh haZiv, the full blossoming of a radiant light in this month. 

It focuses on our movement towards Shavuot. It focuses on finding God in nature, the beginning of the Jewish people through our patriarchs, and the continuation of the story, through Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. 

The message that we have for this week, to be blessed, to be zoche, to merit to be part of this generation, where we see the beginning of the final redemption of the Jewish people. 

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Yerushalayim Sameach!

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