Rabbi Brander

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

“Unity without Uniformity: Merging Many Stones into One”

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“Unity without Uniformity: Merging Many Stones into One”

The book of Bereishiet is known as the book of Yetzira, the Book of Creation.

It begins with a focus on the physical creation of the world, and then continues with the creation of the Jewish people.

Avraham and Yitzchak both have a singular child that represents their Judaeo-legacy and contribution – moving to Yaakov, Rachel Leah, Bilah and Zilpah who gives birth to the family that becomes the Jewish people.  

A cursory reading of Bereishiet will find that disagreement, dissenting opinions between family members is part of our DNA emerging from this Sefer Yitzira. 

Before we lament this, we should remember that this is a genetic feature, an opportunity, not a flaw – as seen in this week’s portion.

Parshat Vayetze begins with a seminal moment in Yaakov’s life which has far-reaching implications:

“וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ”

“As darkness approaches Yaakov spent the night in the place

“וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם”

“And he gathered from the stones of the place”

“וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו”

“And he put the stone under his head”

“וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא”

“And he lay down in that place.”

Rashi asks: Yaakov gathered many stones, but rested his head upon just one. How did this happen?

Quoting the Gemara in Chulin, Rashi explains that the stones were quarrelling. One said – upon me let this righteous man rest his head – and the other said – upon me let him rest. Whereupon God made them all into one stone.  

What does this mean?

According to Rav Yehuda Amital, ztz”l, the stones represent the 12 tribes of the Jewish people.

It is significant that this merging of distinct stones into one occurs specifically in relation to Yaakov, highlighting his unique role amongst the Avot.

In contrast to Avraham and Yitzchak, each of whom have a particular individual focus: Avraham personifying chessed – loving-kindness – and Yitzchak exemplifying gevurah – inner spiritual strength…

….Yaakov, as the father of the twelve tribes, is the personification of tiferet – splendor – the result of the merging of various strengths together symbolizing the power  of healthy diversity in the patriarch who establishes  Jewish people.

In gathering those stones, Yaakov learns the lesson that his mission is to recognize that each of his children, each of the tribes each of the stones, has its own strengths, beauty and color. 

And his task is to maintain those unique individual qualities even while fusing them together as a whole.

What an important message for us in a world in which people are busy admiring JUST their own stone and its own unique color!

Looking ONLY at our own perspective, our own paradigm of Judaism. Thinking that our way is the only way.

The individuals who say, “upon me let this righteous man rest his head.” 

But if we are to realize the dream of Yaakov, we must address the opportunity of bringing all of Yaakov’s children together in harmony.

We must strive to embrace our differences and come together in such a way that allows us to rest our collective head on one, unified stone.

May we work tirelessly and ceaselessly to bring that vision to reality. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Matching Our Actions and Our Values”

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“Matching Our Actions and Our Values”

What kind of legacy will we leave for our loved ones?

Will they be able to say that we lived a life that matches the ideals that we regularly champion?

Or will our children, loved ones and community ultimately see the contradictions that might exist?

These very difficult questions come into sharp focus in our Torah portion, Toldot, when we encounter the complicated family dynamic of Yitzchak, Rivka, Yaakov and Esav.

As with all Biblical characters, we learn from their strengths and weaknesses. In this case, we learn a lesson of how not to behave, and what happens when one does not lead by example.

When Rivka wishes for Yaakov to inherit the birthright, she dresses Yaakov up to feel and look like his brother, Esav.

“וְאֵת עֹורֹות גְּדָיֵי הָעִזִּים הִלְבִּישָׁה עַל יָדָיו וְעַל חֶלְקַת צַוָּארָיו”

“And she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of a goat.”

Rivka orchestrates a plot to dupe her husband, Yitzchak, and demonstrates that deceit is a way of getting what you want.

And yet, although Yaakov receives the additional blessings through this act of trickery and deception, a close reading of the verses reveals that these brachot are never actualized.

Perhaps more tragically, the impact is multi-generational:

When in the story of the selling of Yosef, Yaakov’s children attempt to trick their father by suggesting that Yosef has been killed; they dip their brother’s coat of many colors into the blood of goats.

Just as Rivka used a goat to trick Yitzchak on behalf of her son, Yaakov, her grandchildren conspire to use a goat to trick her son, their father Yaakov, in a cruel act of deceit.

In life, what counts most is the behavior that we model.

In other words, the legacy that we leave is the legacy that we live.

And so we return to the questions we asked at the beginning:

What kind of legacy will we leave for our loved ones?

Will they be able to say that we lived a life that matches the ideals that we regularly champion?

Or will our children, loved ones and community ultimately see the contradictions that might exist?

Do our actions reflect the example of trickery to expedite the moment?

Or do they celebrate a life of values and meaning?

We should ask ourselves, if we were writing our own eulogy, what would we want it to communicate about us and then ask ourselves are we living the lives that celebrate those ideas.

It is not a coincidence that the parsha that forces us to confront these difficult questions is called Toldot, which means “generations.”

Our actions reflect a legacy of meaning and purpose, something we should all be working to achieve – in creating our own toldot – a legacy for generations.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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

“Elevating Marriage During a Time of Crisis”

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“Elevating Marriage During a Time of Crisis”

During these months of the COVID crisis, many of our relationships have been tested – whether between parents and children, siblings, friends, neighbors, or co-workers; the list goes on and on.

But perhaps no relationship has been tested more than that of husband and wife. 

Unfortunately, domestic abuse is on a global rise; a pandemic within a pandemic.

What does the Torah think regarding nurturing and strengthening the most important relationship in our lives during times of high stress and anxiety?

Let’s go back to the roots of marriage in Jewish thought.

The Talmud in Massechet Kiddushin declares “קיחה קיחה משדה עפרון”, that one of the ways to formalize a relationship between bride and groom in the institution of marriage is derived from Avraham’s purchase of a burial plot for his beloved wife, Sarah – as we read in this week’s Parsha, Chayei Sarah.

This is based on the fact that the verb “לקח”, to take, is used in the context of that event: “נתתי כסף השדה קח ממני”, “I will give you money for the field, take it from me,” and is also used in the Torah’s description of the act of marriage in Parshat Ki Teitze: “כי יקח איש אשה”, “When a man formalizes a relationship with his wife.”

Why is the Talmud wedded to the verbal analogy between these two manifestations of the word “קיחה” – taking?

By choosing this verbal analogy, the Rabbis wish to share with us a deeper message.

The fact that Avraham goes above and beyond in order to purchase a prime location to bury his beloved wife highlights the intensity of the relationship between the two of them.

Their deeply intense connection is what we wish to emulate in marriage.

Marriage is a wonderous process that begins with a loving rendezvous underneath the chuppah.

But with time, these feelings can fade. It takes a tremendous effort and will to ensure that the love and connection between spouses grows and evolves in the years to come.

It is for that reason that the Rabbis never legislated a specific bracha on the institution of marriage.

Because a bracha is recited on an act that has an immediate beginning and an end. But the institution of marriage is an ongoing medium through which one can achieve sacred moments in time with loved ones and God.

So in this age of COVID, when our marital relationships may be challenged and pushed to new limits, let’s keep this idea in mind.

As we study the verses of Chayei Sarah, let us be reminded of humanity’s treasured gift of marriage and pledge to work at strengthening the relationship between ourselves and our spouses.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Yitzchak, Yishmael and the Roots of the Abraham Accords”

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“Yitzchak, Yishmael and the Roots of the Abraham Accords”

High-profile normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Serious reports about dramatic developments in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and Oman. 

What is going on in the Middle East?!

After years of underground contacts, relationships are emerging in full view of the entire world between the descendants of Yitzchak and descendants of Yishmael – all of us the grandchildren of Avraham, Av Hamon Goyim, the “father of many nations”

This breathtaking confluence of events certainly has far-reaching political ramifications, but I would like to highlight what I see as a much more significant aspect of it: the glimpse that this week’s parsha, Vayera, provides into this potential rapprochement between the children of Avraham after millennia of enmity.

The parsha contains some truly fascinating parallel narratives in the lives of Yitzchak and Yishmael as they relate to their father, Avraham.

Professor Uriel Simon, world renowned Torah scholar and former long-time head of the Bible Department at Bar Ilan University, reflects on the Torah’s juxtaposition of the two sons’ sacrificial experiences: Geirush Yishmael – the Expulsion of Ishmael – and Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac.

The two events’ similarities are alluded to in their parallel language and potential consequences: 

  1. God specifically directs Avraham to carry out both acts.
  2. In both instances, Avraham wakes up early in the morning to escort them.
  3. There is a foreshadowing to the probable death of his sons.
  4. The rescue of the sons comes in the flash of a moment by an angel, an emissary of God.
  5. In the aftermath of these traumatic events, God promises Avraham that both Yishmael and Yitzchak will become great nations.
  6. And inevitably, the trauma that each son experienced deeply affected their respective relationships with their father.

But when Avraham passes away, both Yitzchak and Yishmael summon the inner strength to come together to bury him.

Similarly, in light of the recent happenings in the Middle East, we are now witnessing for the first time in this region a growing formal recognition of the relationship between descendants of Yishmael and the descendants of Yitzchak, aptly named the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement.

B’ezrat Hashem – Inshallah – may we merit to live in a time in which the sacrifices of Avraham’s children – the descendants of Yitzchak and the descendants of Yishmael – can be overcome, as their namesakes did.

Perhaps together, we can help usher in the final redemption process, a process that begins in Parshat Vayera.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

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“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

A quick look at the news can make even Pollyanna cynical.

Behaviors in the face of looming US elections, political mayhem in Israel, irresponsible actions of some communities in the face of the pandemic, refusing to take safety precautions or revering Jewish custom at the expense of Jewish law and values.

The easiest course of action is, of course, to give up on people instead of trying to engage them; to insulate ourselves and withdrawal while the world turns – and burns – around us.

The Torah provides us with two paradigms for approaching this issue in the different narratives of Noach and Avraham.

When Noach learns of the Divine plan for the destruction of humanity and the world at large, he dutifully follows the command of God and proceeds to construct the Ark.

Noach is unable or unwilling to convince even a single person to correct their ways and be saved from the flood.

He gives up.

This is one of the great tragedies of Noach. 

For this reason, the prophets call the flood מי נח – the flood of Noach. Because his unwillingness to improve society puts responsibility for the world’s destruction on his shoulders.

In stark contrast to Noach, this week we learn about Avraham, who argues passionately with God in order to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah.

Two nation-states whose residents the Torah describes as “very wicked sinners against God”. And yet, Avraham protests on their behalf anyway!

And this is what makes Sarah and Avraham the leaders of a movement that ultimately introduces the entire world to monotheism. It is why God changes their names to include his own – from Avram to Avraham; and Sarai to Sarah.

It is so easy to give up on people, especially in times of crisis. But we are the children of Avrahama and Sarah!

We do not give up on our people, or on humanity.

There is no shortage of inspirational examples.

The nursery school teachers, medical professionals and therapists who embrace the children in their care, even though they know by doing so – despite all the safety protocols – they are placing themselves at risk.

The madrichim and madrichot of our Darkaynu Programs for young adults with special needs who chose to enter quarantine so that their students arriving from abroad should not have to go through it alone.

Gerer Chasidim in the Israeli city of Arad who wished to protest a local issue – but did so while maintaining social distancing.

Soldiers in the midst of Corona who are still bringing refugees in the middle of the night to be treated in field hospitals.

These examples and so many more like them remind us that even with so much cynicism in the world, we must never give up on people.

The words “Lech Lecha” mean “Go to you”. Our parsha is about a journey. And for me, it is the journey to defy the infectious spread of cynicism.

A triumphant march from despair toward engagement; from a tendency to view others cynically, as Noach did, to a focus on never giving up on people, as modeled by Avraham.

When we work to help each other on our collective journey, we become a source of light to God, to ourselves and our families, and to the world around us.

The British philosopher William Blake wrote:  

“I sought my God and my God I couldn’t find;
I sought my soul and my soul eluded me;
I sought to serve my brother in his need, and I found all three; My God, my soul, and thee.”

Shabbat Shalom

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

“How Will the World Remember COVID?”

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“How Will the World Remember COVID?”

How many lines will COVID-19 take up in human history?

Will it be a line or two? A paragraph? A chapter? Or a full book?  

I think it depends on one crucial idea that we find in Parshat Noach.

In Chapter 9 of the Book of Bereshiet, we learn that in the aftermath of the flood, Noach planted a vineyard. 

He drank the wine of these grapes, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.

Noach’s son, Cham, saw his father’s nakedness and shared the news with his two brothers, Shem and Yefet. 

Out of respect for their father, Shem and Yefet covered their father, walking backwards into his tent with the cloth draped from their backs so as not to shame him. 

Then, in verse 24, we read that when Noach woke up from his wine-induced sleep, he learned what his youngest son had done to him. 

This verse is SO critical. 

You see, Noach is unhappy. 

He is depressed because of the loneliness that he experiences all around him. 

The loss of family and friends, the loss of camaraderie and community, all casualties of the flood. 

His depression causes his drunkenness, which is an attempt to escape his sorrow. 

But at this point Noach realizes what his depression has caused. 

He wakes up from his drunkenness, from his depression over the flood – “and learns what has happened”.  

Will we learn from COVID-19?

Will we learn how to have a true relationship with God? 

One that is concerned not only with ritual but also with the larger messages of the Torah, such as the responsibility to make sure that our conduct allows for all of humankind to be safe and secure… 

Religious experiences where ritual does not become an end in itself, but is a means to an end to ensure sacred moments in time with God.

Will we spend our time frivolously searching for religious reasons to explain why COVID-19 is happening, 

Reasons that are predicated on our subjective suppositions on how society should be organized – using the pandemic to reinforce our pre-existing notions?

Or will we allow the pandemic to awaken us from our spiritually drunken stupor to recognize that we cannot take family and friends for granted?

To realize it is not about explaining why tragedy befalls society, 

When such challenges arise, focusing on how we can engage to make a difference in the lives of the people around us?

How we recover from this pandemic will define how transformational this challenge has been.

Noach’s righteousness is predicated not on the fact that he does not sin, but rather on his capacity to learn from his mistakes.

Similarly, the role that COVID-19 will play in human history depends on what we learn from it, and how those teachings inspire us to transform society and enhance our personal lives.

Shabbat Shalom

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

“God’s Social Contract with Humanity”

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“God’s Social Contract with Humanity”

Bereshiet: A new Torah-reading cycle begins this week, with the story of Creation. And as we get a blow-by-blow description of how God creates the world and everything in it, some very curious language is used, when the Torah describes the creation of humankind. 

Naaseh Adam b’Tzalmeinu k’Dmuteinu” — “Let Us create humankind in Our Image, and in Our Likeness.” 

Let Us create humankind? Who is God talking to? In Our Image? And in Our Likeness? Who is God referring to? 

Some of the commentators explain that God is asking permission from the angels. Others suggest that it’s a “royal We,” na’aseh, God is speaking to Himself in the majestic plural, a majestic plural giving honor to God and this final act of creation, the piece de resistance of all of creation. 

However, I’d like to share with you a third interpretation, found in the writings of the Zohar. “Let us,” in the plural, means that creation of humankind includes both male and female. “In our image” refers to the wealthy amongst us. And “after our likeness” refers to the poor in our midst. 

The Zohar continues and states the following: When the rich and the poor are united as one, when they show compassion to each other, share with each other, and are benefactors to each other, that is how humankind should behave. 

The rich and the poor, states the Zohar, must be united together as one. Support and benefit from each other. 

In other words, when creating humankind, God creates a social contract with us. When God says Na’aseh Adam, that We will create humankind, He is referring to us, men and women, as His partners. Because we are only truly, completely fashioned once we live up to our side of the social contract, and fulfill our potential. Our image and likeness only become divine when we do our part. It is when people of opposite views, men and women of different social, economic statuses, work together. When we are united and show compassion towards each other. Only then is our creation complete.

What a powerful message to begin this new year, with a reminder that each one of us has the capacity to be in the image of God. We are full partners with God in our own creation when we live up to this responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity and capacity to complete the process that God has begun.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

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“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

With all that is happening around the world, the prayer that continues to hold more meaning for me than any other is U’Netaneh Tokef, for the haunting questions that it poses, particularly in our reality this year:

מי יחיה ומי ימות?

Who shall live and who shall die?

מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו?

Who in his time, and who by an untimely death?

מי במים ומי באש?

Who by water and who by fire?

מי ברעש ומי במגפה?

Who by earthquake and who by plague?

For nearly a millennium, authorship of U’Netaneh Tokef has been attributed to Rav Amnon of Mainz, the leader of his German Jewish community, which experienced horrific destruction during the First Crusade. 

Yet evidence suggests that the words were most likely written by the great poet Yannai, who lived in the Land of Israel sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries.

If so, why do we generally identify Rav Amnon as the author? Especially when research shows that even those who related the story probably had knowledge of the prayer’s actual author and origin?

The answer is because Rav Amnon of Mainz and indeed his entire community personified the deeds and actions attributed to him in U’Netaneh Tokef. Bearing a name that derives from the word emunah, faith, Rav Amnon has been immortalized in the ancient prayer as a tribute to the countless souls who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the horrific years of the bloody Crusades.

So even if Rav Amnon did not compose U’Netaneh Tokef, he most assuredly “established” the text through his deeds and actions.

In the past and present, the words of U’Netaneh Tokef have captured the pathos and the promise of the Jews – an ancient people that has often paid the ultimate sacrifice for our commitment to the higher ideals of our faith and our peoplehood.

This year, its haunting words call us together not just as Jews, but as members of a global society searching for stability in a time of fragility.

Like Amnon of Mainz – who did not pen the prayer, but lived it and therefore became its author – we, too, have the opportunity to become the “authors” of the prayers we read and the Torah we study. This occurs when we internalize their messages, and their ideals to become true representatives of the vision of Judaism that we wish to study and celebrate.

In a world of so much uncertainty, we still have the capacity to be ambassadors of ideas and ideals that can transform the society around us. May we merit to author a path of purposefulness in life and good health throughout the coming year.

Wishing you and your loved ones a G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

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

“The Sounds of the Shofar: The Difference Between Listening and Hearing”

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“The Sounds of the Shofar: The Difference Between Listening and Hearing”

“קול השופר: ההבדל בין להקשיב ולשמוע”

The questions we ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah are some of the most difficult, piercing ones that we raise all year: What kind of person am I? What kind of spouse? What kind of parent? What kind of friend? What kind of Jew? What kind of human being?

Answering these questions honestly is difficult, and recognizing the need to make changes and improvement is even more challenging.

Fortunately, Judaism provides a spiritual navigation system that can help us on our journey to become the people we want to be: the progression of the sounds of the shofar, which represent the ongoing process of teshuvah.

These shofar blasts begin with an ordinary sound, the tekiyah; representing the daily routine and the humdrum reality that we all become accustomed to. 

This leads us to the next sound: Shevarim, whose broken blasts ask us to break the routine- the need for reflection and cheshbon hanefesh – soul-searching.

The Shevarim then give way to the staccato urgency of the Teruah, confronting us with the pressing need to shatter the barriers that separate us from our true self and from truly positive interaction with our family, our community and the world around us.

The progression of the shofar sounds simply – yet poignantly – mark the phases of the teshuvah process, awakening us from a spiritual slumber to an active re-engagement in a relationship with God.

This idea is reflected in a ruling in the Rambam & Shulchan Arukh:

לא נתכוון השומע לצאת, לא יצא ידי חובתו

If one hears the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah without having kavanah – intent to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – then he or she has not fulfilled the mitzvah.

Why would this be? After all, the unmistakable sounds were heard whether or not there was intent.

The answer is that a person may have physically heard it, but when it comes to the mitzvah of shofar, more than just hearing is required. The crux of the mitzvah is to consciously internalize the sounds..

The process of introspection may not be perfect which is why the halakha states that EVEN if one hears the blasts from a stolen shofar one fulfills their obligation. It may be that the reconciliation with GOD is not completely personally authentic. It may be that we are borrowing sounds or actions to engage with God that are artificial for us – “stolen”; a sound that is not me is not completely authentic.

But that’s OK: we don’t expect that the sound will be completely authentic and perfect. The crux of the mitzvah is about the intent to consciously hear and respond to the sounds being emitted, asking us to break the barriers and ponder the hard questions that we mentioned in the beginning:

What kind of person am I? What kind of spouse? What kind of parent? What kind of friend? What kind of Jew? What kind of human being?

Yes, honestly answering these questions is difficult, and recognizing the need to make changes and improvement is even more challenging.

This is why we must remember that the sounds of the shofar are part of a progression, a spiritual navigation system that symbolizes our ongoing commitment to working towards a renewed relationship with God.

I want to wish each and every one of us a meaningful Rosh Hashana – a new year, of new beginnings.

To find a few moments of personal reflection … especially in these turbulent times, may we truly have the power to internalize the sounds of the shofar so that we can succeed in becoming the people we have the God-given potential to be.

Shana Tova.

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

“Getting Dressed Up for Rosh HaShanah – Physically and Spiritually”

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“Getting Dressed Up for Rosh HaShanah – Physically and Spiritually”

“לבוש חגיגי – פיזי ורוחני – לראש השנה”

Rosh HaShana is next week!

Next week.

And the imminent arrival of Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, provides us the opportunity to examine our values, our spiritual priorities, and evaluate if we are fulfilling the God-given potential that we each have. 

In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the issue of our clothes. Yes, our clothes.

In this week’s Haftara, the culmination of God’s comforting the Jewish People following the exile of our people, the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, the prophet Yeshayahu utilizes the imagery of clothing to portray a redemptive and purposeful life:

“My soul shall be joyful in God for He has clothed me with the garments of salvationHe has covered me with the robes of righteousness…”

How can clothing, a symbol of physical protective gear, a medium that often communicates a person’s stature, his or her mindset, something so superficial, convey a spiritual idea?

After Adam and Chava [Eve] commit their transgression in the Garden of Eden, the Torah states, “and the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.”

The Midrash states, in the name of Rabbi Meir, that the word ‘ohr’ should begin not with the letter ‘ayin,’ but rather with the letter ‘aleph’, which radically changes the meaning of the verse, to read the following: Not that God made them garments of skin, but rather, God made them garments of light.

You see, when Adam and Chava sin, they do not require a physical cover-up; they need a spiritual one! 

It was their soul that was in danger of “catching a cold” and it was their soul that needed protection.

Rabbi [Yosef Dov Halevi] Soloveitchik, ztz”l, explains how fitting it is that this teaching comes from Rabbi Meir, because Rabbi Meir had two teachers, Elisha ben Avuya (known as “The Other”) and Rabbi Akiva.

More than most, Rabbi Meir understood the difference between physical and spiritual clothing.

The Romans took good care of Elisha ben Avuya, the “Other,” who had collaborated with them in their occupation of Judea. When Elisha ben Avuya passed, it was in the midst of material luxury; he was in his own warm bed, in protective clothing. And yet, because he committed treason against his people, he dies without a legacy. His soul comes before God totally unclothed.

In contrast, Rabbi Akiva’s final days were spent as a fugitive, hiding every night in a different location to elude capture by the Romans. His body lacked the comfort of warm clothing. And when he was captured, and certainly when he was murdered, he did not die in the comfort of his own bed but rather, he was martyred in the most cruel fashion, dying in total nakedness.

But Rabbi Akiva’s essence is immortal. He lives in the psyche and the literature of his people. He may have departed this world unclothed, but he was adorned with the finest of spiritual clothing.

So what is the state of our spiritual clothing? 

What can we do to repair its tatters, and what can we do to enhance its regalness?

Let us devote this time before Rosh HaShana for this introspection, to contemplate and address these questions. In the process, we will discover our capacity to dress ourselves in the finest of spiritual clothing, and to truly celebrate what these High Holidays are all about.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Recognizing the Righteous and Stopping the Bullies: Shining a Light on Anonymity”

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“Recognizing the Righteous and Stopping the Bullies: Shining a Light on Anonymity”

What does our Torah have to say about the modern scourge of cyberbullying? How could its ancient words possibly be relevant to our digital age of social media?

The words of the Torah are, perhaps, ancient, but they are timely in every generation. We can always find new insights that are relevant to our modern lives. 

In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, we read 

“ארור מכה רעהו בסתר”

“Cursed is the person who damages his friend in secret”

Commentaries have struggled with this verse. Why is the word ‘בסתר’, ‘in secret’, necessary? Isn’t it just as wrong to hurt someone in public?

Let’s look at this verse through the prism of today’s social media shaming culture, in which any individual can be damaged, defamed, even destroyed by nameless, faceless bullies. 

Whereas traditional bullying used to be face-to-face, today’s weapon of choice is the keyboard, with camouflage offered by a screen.

Because of this physical disconnect from their victims, studies show that cyberbullies exhibit less remorse than physical bullies. 

But the victims’ shame can be far greater, as with each ‘share’ and ‘like’ by people all over the world, their damage grows exponentially. Youth who endure cyberbullying can experience a decline in academic performance and difficulties at home, and they are also at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. 

With this in mind, let’s return to our verse and translate it through the lens of contemporary life: “Cursed is the person who uses the cloak of social media to destroy the identity, the humanity of another”. 

The word בסתר – in secret – takes on an entirely new, contemporary meaning. 

I’d like to add an additional perspective to this verse.  This week we sat shiva for yet another victim of terror: Rabbi Shai Ohayon; father of 4, beloved husband and son who dedicated his life to Torah study after serving in the IDF.  

Rabbi Ohayon was a man who lived ‘בסתר’, “in secret” — an anonymous man dedicated to performing good deeds about which we are only learning now, after his murder. 

On the one hand, we live in a time in which all one has to do is Google someone’s name to find out everything about them. 

But at the same time, we  know so little about who they really, truly are.

Perhaps in a socially-distanced, safe way, it is time for us to reach out and learn about the people around us, so that no one lives ‘בסתר’-  alone and in darkness. 

We need to break down digital barriers and re-establish human contact, bringing the cyberbullying phenomenon out of the shadows.  

We should find out which of our neighbors need help and companionship, especially during this pandemic when so many elderly people and individuals in quarantine are being found dead, alone in their homes. 

And we should allow ourselves to get to know the stories of the anonymous heroes like Rabbi Ohayon that live amongst us, so that we can be illuminated and inspired by them. 

Shabbat Shalom

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

“A Tragedy We Can Prevent: The Case for Halakhic Pre-Nups”

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“A Tragedy We Can Prevent: The Case for Halakhic Pre-Nups”

Not all marriages can be saved – nor should they be. 

While the Torah celebrates the joining of a couple in marriage and all that it represents; the Torah also commands the protection of couples from unloving, unhappy or abusive relationships. 

The  formal procedure to end a marriage is based on a verse in our parsha, Ki Tetze: 

וכתב לה ספר כריתות ונתן בידה…

The husband writes and presents a writ of divorce – a get – to his wife…

The word “גט” – gimmel+tet – are never found together in Tanach, highlighting the fact that sometimes severance is best – when it is no longer in the best interest of the couple to remain together.

3,000 years ago, the idea of a formal get was a novel approach; the first concept in human history to ensure that a divorced woman would remain economically protected and not simply discarded.

But today this tool, created to protect, has been corrupted and turned into a weapon. Thousands of Jewish women around the world have become “agunot” – chained to marriages by recalcitrant husbands who hold them hostage by withholding their rightful get

Sometimes the price he asks for the get is custody of the children, huge sums of money or giving up on joint property. Other times, his motive is punishment, and no amount of concession will change his mind.

This ugly phenomenon of get-refusal creates misery for the aguna and devastates the family.

Get-refusal is nothing less than a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and it is inconceivable that such pain be inflicted under the guise of halakha.

You and I can change this.

We can and must insist that every couple get married with a halakhic prenuptial agreement – a document first conceived in the 17th century halakhic work, Nachlas Shiva. 

A contemporary version, established by the Beit Din of America and Rav Mordechai Willig, with the strong support of Rav Herschel Schacter and the approval of poskim such as Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, zt”l, and libadel may’chayyim l’chayyim, Rav Asher Weiss and others, has been in use for more than 25 years, during which time tens of thousands of North American couples have signed it without one single case of aguna!

Here in Israel, similar documents have been created, but much work needs to be done to increase awareness of the issue in Israeli society.

By using the links that appear on the screen, you can download the halakhic prenup from the Beit Din of America; an Israeli version of it from Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha: Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for agunot; or a slightly different Israeli version promoted by the Tzohar rabbinical organization.

What better way can a couple demonstrate how much they care for one another, how much they truly love one another, than to promise to never hurt one another? 

Just as it is a mitzvah to end an unhappy marriage, let us recommit to ensuring that this sad process includes this important and common sense step in protecting our daughters, granddaughters and all Jewish women from avoidable agony and suffering.

We have the ability to end this chilul Hashem. Let’s do our part.

Shabbat Shalom.

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