parsha

“Parsha and Purpose” – Tzav 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Purim and the Parsha: Making a Difference”

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Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 -8:36

“Purim and the Parsha: Making a Difference

We’re living in very complicated, perplexing, difficult times, where so many people – Jews and non-Jews – are being terrorized and being hurt simply because of the location they live in.

I’m so proud of my son and his friends for going to Ben Gurion Airport and welcoming in hundreds of refugees on a regular basis, to let them know that this is their home and they are welcome to be part of our “Medinat Yisrael”, the State of Israel, both Jews and non-Jews alike.

On a personal level, as someone who is now seeing children coming, not because they’re orphaned, but because their parents have given them up temporarily, in order to make sure they are saved, I’m reminded of the experiences that my father went through as a hidden child during the Holocaust – I’m not comparing the two experiences, because they’re incomparable – but this one is, indeed, still a tragic experience.

And I asked myself, “What am I to learn from the reading of the Megillah and from the parsha, Tzav? What messages does it share with me that I need to internalize into my essence, and the way I engage?”

Megillat Esther reminds us of the fact that God is not found in the Megillah, because the change that happens in the destiny of the Jewish people is because of the initiative of people like Mordechai and Esther.

The heroic activities of Esther and galvanizing energies of Mordecai transform the moment.

And while God is there somewhere, His name is not found in the Megillah – although it is hinted to – because ultimately what helps us bring the Mashiach is our energies; it’s our efforts.

It’s why the Rambam tells us [Mishneh Torah, Scroll of Esther and Hanukkah 2:18] that in the time of Mashiach, the books of the Bible that will be of consequence are the Five Books of Moses and Megillat Esther – not the rest of the Prophets and Writings.

Megillat Esther speaks to the fact that we can change the destiny of the world through our activities, through our essence, not through the miraculous activities that are discussed in the other books, but rather the human initiative that is discussed in the Megillah.

Parshat Tzav speaks about the fact that “אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח”; the need for there to be consistency: a fire must be lit on the altar at all times. [Leviticus 6:6]

Constant consistency. That’s also a message.

And I take away from Parshat Tzav and from the Megillah the responsibility that I have – indeed, I think that all of us have – to make a consistent and constant difference.

“אש תמיד”

We have to constantly understand that our responsibility as Jews, as human beings, is to be God’s partner and to right the wrongs in the world.

And our responsibility as we celebrate the experiences of Megillat Esther is to realize that human initiative can make the difference.

That’s why I’m so proud of institutions such as Hatzala and Chabad, which are doing amazing work. And indeed our own rabbis from the Straus-Amiel / Beren Amiel Institute of Ohr Torah Stone, who find themselves throughout Europe working on behalf of refugees; and the fact that so many of my colleagues have traveled to Poland during Purim to make a difference and to be involved in the humanitarian effort.

“אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח”

We can make a consistent difference, and we recognize from the story of the Megillah that it’s up to us to change the destiny of the world.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayikra 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Being a Priestly Nation During a Humanitarian Crisis”

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Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 -5:26

“Being a Priestly Nation During a Humanitarian Crisis

In 2002, Yossi and Chanah Dickstein and their nine-year-old son were murdered in an act of terror. Their younger son, Benaya, was married this past week to his bride, Neta.

The story of Amalek: Even though we know that the physical nation no longer exists (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 5:4-5) – its vicious, so to say, “spiritual progeny” – those whose agenda is to destroy the Jewish people through their horrific acts of antisemitism, as well as those who are committed to destroying other nations for reasons just to promote their own agenda.

The mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek is a Biblical commandment (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) which we are mandated to read to remind us that we need to speak out against antisemitism and we need to speak out against any attack against an innocent nation.

Indeed, this book of Vayikra is called Torat Kohanim, the Book of the Priests/Leviticus, not only because it focuses on the Temple service, but because it speaks about the responsibility of the Jewish people to be a priestly nation, to be a nation that promotes justice, that speaks out not just with words, but also with actions against injustice.

That’s our responsibility as Jews and as citizens of the world. It is a reminder on Shabbat Zachor, a reminder with the introduction of Sefer Vayikra, of our responsibilities to speak truth to power.

Natan Sharansky spoke at one of the sheva brachot at the Dickstein wedding, where he mentioned that, growing up in Donetsk, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, everyone carried a government-issued ID card which said whether you were from Ukraine or Russia or Kazakhstan, or if you were Jewish.

If you were from Ukraine or from anywhere in Russia, that identity card was still an entry, grades permitting, into university. But even if grades permitted, your identity card said ‘Jew’ – even if you knew nothing about your Judaism – your ability to attend university was impossible.

And now, said Sharansky, as people are leaving Ukraine as refugees, and presenting their identity card stating their Jewish identity at neighboring countries’ borders, being Jewish is not something that deters you, but something that actually welcomes you into the embrace of others who are willing to help Jewish refugees.

The truth is that’s our responsibility, but it’s also our responsibility to help all people: Shabbat Zachor and Sefer Vayikra, reminding us of our responsibility to be a priestly nation in our engagement with society.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Pekudei 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“When We Put Service To God Over Concern For Others”

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Parshat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 -40:38

“When We Put Service To God Over Concern For Others

Parshat Pekudei: the final parsha in the Book of Shemot, and the last section to talk about the construction of the Tabernacle, and essentially the blueprint for the construction of the Temple.

Now, we have already discussed that the Tabernacle/Temple is really a place in which an individual can create sacred moments in time with God, a way in which we can find multiple portals of entry, to feel a connection with God, a romance with God.

Yet, even in this structure, which speaks about connection to God, there also must be a recognition of a sense of respect and dignity. The Gemara tells us that it used to be that the priests would run up the altar, ascend the ramp of the altar to be engaged in one of the first services in the morning “דישון המזבח” the cleaning off of the Ashes of the Mizbe’ach.

The Talmud tells us that once, as the Kohanim were running up the ramp, one Kohen saw that the other Kohen was going to get to the top first and therefore, he pushed him off the ramp so that he could get there first to perform the mitzvah. [Yoma 22a]

In effect, he was willing to ignore the dignity of the other in order to serve and have a relationship with God.

The Talmud then quotes an even more perplexing story: one Kohen saw another Kohen getting to the top of the Altar and took out a knife and stabbed him in order that he, instead, could ascend the altar and perform the service, again putting service to God over concern for the other. [Yoma 23a]

In fact, the story continues with an even more tragic consequence: the father of the child who had been stabbed, also obviously a Kohen, runs over to his son and sees that his son is still alive, and says to a Kohen: “Quick, quick, quick! Pull the knife out of my son while he’s still alive so the knife does not become ritually impure.”

The perplexing component to these stories is that often in our service to God, we forget derech eretz, respect for another person. And when we forget respect for the other person, even the service of God can be destructive. As the Talmud’s narratives we referenced demonstrate: even the service of God can cause a chasm in our relationship to God.

And so as we conclude the story of the building of the Tabernacle – an edifice that is there to empower us to create a relationship to God – let us remember that with all mitzvot, what is of paramount importance is not just the way we engage in the mitzvah, the zealousness and the service of the mitzvah. Rather, it is the derech eretz, the respect for the other, which must come before the observance of the mitzvah, because that in itself is a prerequisite for us to be able to engage with God.

Sadly, we look all over the Jewish world and we see that this message of treating others with respect has been lost. We look all over the world and we see that this message has been lost.

Please, God, as we conclude this section of Shemot, we will take a pause in order to remind ourselves of the responsibility to engage with God through the performance of mitzvot with the recognition that the first step in the performance of mitzvot is derech eretz, is the way we treat the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayakhel 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Redemption Begins With Chesed”

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Parshat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 -38:20

“Redemption Begins With Chesed

This week, we bless Rosh Chodesh as we usher in the second month of Adar, Adar Bet, in which we celebrate Purim. Now, logic dictates that Purim should be celebrated during the first Adar, to be consistent with the idea of “מצוה הבאה לידך אל תחמיצנה”, if you have the ability to do a mitzvah, do it right away. [Midrash Mechilta to Exodus 12:17]

So why don’t we celebrate Purim in the first Adar? The halakha is such because there is a need to celebrate Purim as close to Pesach as possible, to promote a juxtaposition between Purim and Pesach. [Talmud, Megillah 6b]

What is the idea behind this connection?

I believe that there’s a message regarding the two different paradigms of redemption that are seen on Purim and Pesach.

There is redemption that is achieved simply by the grace of God, what the kabbalists call “אתערותא דלעילא”, an awakening by God to save and to aid His people. That is what Pesach is all about. Even when the people are so distant from God, there are times in which God feels the need to engage with the Jewish people.

There are times in which God feels that there is a time for salvation, and even when the redemption is directed and fully choreographed by God – of course, there is human initiative, as in the case of Pesach.

We see the role of Moshe, the role of the women ensuring Jewish continuity, the role of Miriam and Yocheved in saving Moshe and modeling how to save the male children.

Yet, there is this idea that the centerpiece of the redemptive experience is totally Divinely-driven. Human actors in the experience, including Moshe, are not really mentioned in the Haggadah.

And then there’s a second paradigm of redemption, “אתערותא דלתתא”, an awakening that comes from below, redemption that is driven by the enterprise of humankind, where the redemptive activity, as we see on Purim, are the actors of Mordechai and Esther. Their initiative is what is critical.

There are no plagues, there’s no splitting of the Sea. Yes, God plays a role. After all, the randomness of the coincidences in the story are too perfect for God not to be orchestrating it behind the scenes.

And, in fact, we hint to God in the Megillah with the words “HaMelech” on top of each column, but the emphasis is on humankind.

The Megillah celebrates human-driven redemption, and while God is hinted to, His name is not even mentioned.

Yet, there are similarities to the way we celebrate both of these holidays:

  • First of all, it is these days that we have a concern for the poor: Matanot L’evyonim and Kimcha D’Pischa; the responsibility of not eating the Paschal sacrifice alone, but rather consuming it with the other; and on Purim, the responsibility to send gifts of food to the other.

We commemorate our brush with annihilation with the reminder that redemption of any sort in Judaism starts with us being kind and concerned for the other.

  • Both holidays, the one celebrated in Adar Bet and the one celebrated in Nissan, at the core, recognize the fact that redemption isn’t possible when we are separate from the other.

The core of the celebrations of both of these holidays is the fact that irrespective of the person’s background, disposition, religious persuasion, redemption of the self and of the community is only possible when we’re willing to recognize the greatness of others.

So we wait for Adar Bet to celebrate Purim so that Purim and Pesach “dance together”.

They celebrate two paradigms of redemption which we honor when we understand that our redemption happens only when we are concerned with the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tisa 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Whatever Steps Necessary: On Mirrors, Preparation and Redemption”

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

“Whatever Steps Necessary: On Mirrors, Preparation and Redemption

Wherever you are in the world, I’m sure just like in Israel, there are signs all over the place encouraging one to wash one’s hands in order to stop the spread of COVID.

The truth is, that in the Temple, there was also a vessel that was used for the washing of one’s hands – albeit not for hygienic reasons, because that was required before one entered into the Tabernacle – but rather as a way to prepare for certain ritual activities. [Exodus 30:17-21]

In fact, this idea is also seen in our time: before the priest performs his priestly blessings (ברכת כהנים), he is involved in a ritual washing [Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 128:6].

In fact, we’re all involved in a ritual washing before we consume bread [ibid., 158:1], which highlights the significance of eating, in that it empowers us to make changes in the world; and which highlights the priest’s ability to be the conduit through which the blessings of God are given to His people.

With regard to every other device, we are told its specific size. But this laver (כיור) is the only device in the Tabernacle about whose dimensions the Torah does not specify. That is because the laver (כיור) was built with mirrors that were collected from the women, who used them in Egypt to beautify themselves, to entice their husbands, to have relationships with them, even though they were in servitude, even though they were exhausted, in order to perpetuate, to guarantee, the future of the Jewish people. [Rashi on Exodus 38:8]

And therefore this structure is not predicated on its specific size; rather, it is really the accumulation of all of the mirrors that were contributed in order to build this device that represents preparation for engagement with God.

You see, preparation for engagement with God, or for that matter, preparation for engagement with our spouses, with our children, with anything important requires preparation (הכנה), and therefore this device, this laver (כיור) was built with the mirrors from the women.

It was built as a means to remind us that to engage in something important requires a proper mindset, requires proper preparation, something that we should be asking ourselves in anything important that we do:

Are we walking into it with the proper preparation? Do we have an understanding of the true role of the laver (כיור), that was in the Tabernacle?

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Tetzaveh 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Will We Accept God’s ‘Friend Request’?”

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Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 -30:10

“Will We Accept God’s ‘Friend Request’?

The Temple, the Tabernacle: these are structures that were created in order for us to visit and feel the presence of God. But, as Shlomo HaMelech clearly points out in his dedication speech for the Temple [I Kings 8:27], it is not because only in the Tabernacle or the Temple is God’s presence revealed – God’s presence is felt all over the world – it’s just the intensity of the experiences in the Temple and the Tabernacle that allows us to feel the presence of God in a greater sense of engagement.

It is for the same reason that we see in this week’s Torah portion the introduction of priestly vestments. [Exodus, Chapter 28]

A Kohen is a Kohen even without the vestments, but essentially, the vestments of the Kohen highlight for the Kohen and for all that visit, the unique experience that is being created within the Tabernacle/Temple.

This idea that sometimes clothing makes the experience is why the Torah in very precise ways highlights what vestments the High Priest and the Priest must wear in order to serve within the Tabernacle/Temple.

What is interesting about clothing, although really clothing is really a device of human beings, is that often in God’s search to have a relationship with us, God is spoken about as also being adorned in clothing:

“ה’ מלך גאות לבש” – “Hashem malach ge’ut lavesh” – The Lord is our King, but the Lord is robed in grandeur; “לבש ה” – “Lavesh Hashem” – The Lord is robed in clothing. [Psalms 93:1]

In a song that many of us recite, on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we speak about our relationship with God, Anim Zemirot, The Shir HaKavod, The Song of Magnificence, of respect, of engagement between God and the Jewish people and humanity.

And we recite in that prayer: “יתפאר בי כי חפץ בי” – “Yitpa’er bi ki chafetz bi” – God beautifies himself, through us, through the Jewish people, because he desires us, and therefore, “והוא יהיה לי לעטרת צבי” – “Vehu yihiye li le’ateret tzvi” – and therefore, God shall become a crown of beauty for me.

Immediately afterwards, the sentence continues: “כתם טהור פז דמות ראשו” – “Ketem tehor paz demut rosho” – God’s “head” is like pure gold; “וחק על מצח כבוד שם קדשו” – “Vechak al metzach kevod shem kodsho” – and on God’s “forehead” is the priestly golden head plate.

In other words, God “wears” the same clothing as the Kohen Gadol, because God is searching for a relationship with us. God wants and needs a relationship with us.

We have this unbelievable opportunity. It’s what the Beit HaMikdash and the Mishkan represent; it’s what we need to search for even without a Beit HaMikdash and Mishkan.

Immediately afterwards, we’re told: “פארו עלי ופארי עליו” – “Pe’ero elai u’fe’eri alav”

that God’s splendor is on me when I wear tefillin, and my splendor is on God when He “wears tefillin”.

The prayer continues: “וקרוב אלי בקראי אליו” – “Vekarov elai bekor’i elav” – And He is close to me when I wish to call Him.

Mishkan, the Mikdash, the priestly vestments: they’re there to teach us a message,

and that message is that God is searching for a relationship with us. And even though we’re going through difficult times during COVID, and we may have family and professional challenges, the bottom line is that God needs us and we need God.

And there’s an opportunity as God “wears our clothing”, and we wish to wear His; there’s opportunity to create a relationship.

These chapters, these parshiot, are reminding us of that opportunity. Will we create a relationship with God?

The answer to that question is not found in the Torah portions. The answer to that question is found in our hearts and minds.

Shabbat Shalom.