Rabbi Brander

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

From Derision to Redemption: The Journey of Laughter

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Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24) 

From Derision to Redemption: The Journey of Laughter

Laughter: it can represent many things. It can be a response of pure joy, or amazement. It can be derisive and cynical, a response to a certain comment or an act. Laughter can be a response of surprise, of fear, of being scared, or something that is just unbelievable. Laughter can be a sign of optimism and of joy.

In this week’s parsha, we see laughter, “tzhok” being used in so many different ways – unprecedented in Tanach.

First, at the end of Lech Lecha, when Avraham is told that he will have a son through Sarah, he says the following: ויפול אברהם על פניו he falls on his face, ויצחק. (Genesis 17:17)

He bows down to God to acknowledge this amazing news. It creates a context for his laughter. It’s a response of joy and amazement.

In our parsha, when Sarah is informed by the angels, dressed as visiting strangers, that she will have a child, we’re told that “ותצחק שרה בקרבה” she has an inner laugh and she says, “How can I have a child? I’m old. My husband is old.” (Genesis 18:12)

There are no context clues. And therefore, some of the commentators define this laugh as incredulous, as cynical.


And therefore, Sarah is challenged about this response and she tries to explain: “No!” She laughed for a different reason. It was a laugh of joyful amazement.

When Lot tells his sons-in-law to escape with him from Sodom, because Sodom is going to be destroyed. “Leave this place because God will destroy it.”

They laugh at their father-in-law. This laughter is definitely one of derision, of cynicism, showing disdain of Lot and his comments. (Genesis 19:14)

And when Avraham and Sarah’s son, Yitzhak, is born, Sarah says “ותאמר שרה, צחוק עשה לי אלוקים”; God has made laughter for me “כל השומע”, all who will hear “יצחק לי” will laugh. (Genesis 21:6)

It’s unclear if Sarah is stating people are joyful, are amazed and all hear about my birth are happy for me, or she means people are mocking me.

They’re stating that I was most probably impregnated in Egypt, for how is it possible that Avraham, who is not given any more children to Hagar, now helps me have a child?

And that’s why the Torah goes out of its way to mention Avraham so many times when the birth of Yitzhak is announced in the Torah.

Then there is the situation with Yishmael, when we’re told in the Torah “ותרא שרה”, and Sarah sees that Yishmael “אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק”, who was born to Avraham, is laughing with Yitzhak. (Genesis 21:9)

Sarah sees that Yishmael is here fooling with Yitzhak, laughing at him, making sport of Yitzhak, causing Yitzhak problems.

With all of these meanings for the word “yitzhak”, why is it that Avraham and Sarah call their child by this name?

What message does Avraham and Sarah want to communicate to us, their children, about the name Yitzhak?

I believe that they’re trying to share with us something about the enterprise of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

After all, Sarah and Avraham introduced monotheism into the world, and now we’re transitioning from a couple, to a family, to a people, to a movement.

The Jewish people are here to share this ideal with society – our chosenness is our responsibility, and this child, Yitzhak, represents the first generation of the saga of introducing this ideal to society – a nation of monotheism, is now born.

He is called Yitzhak, laughter, to communicate to us the fact that sometimes Judaism will be Yitzhak, it will be met with cynicism.

It will be met with derision, incredulity, especially when we don’t live up to our responsibility. And sometimes “yitzhak”, the laughter, will be a dark laughter, a laughter of darkness.

And by calling him Yitzhak, Avraham and Sarah are also telling us: you know, this enterprise of Judaism really might work. It might really happen. It can happen.

This can be a laughter of surprising optimism. This can be an ideal that can become a reality.

“אז ימלא שחוק פינו”, people will have laughter, “ולשוננו רינה”, as the Jewish people return to their land with a mandate to matter, as the Jewish people move from the periphery of history to the center of history. (Psalms 126:2)

My father in law, Yitzhak, of blessed memory, was a single man in the DP camps, who had survived the Holocaust. He traded with someone to purchase the (Shabbat) candelabra, because he knew eventually he would get married and wanted his wife and his family to have the light of Shabbat. This was important to him.

Yitzhak Tambor, when he bartered for the candelabra, was met with “צחוק”, was met with laughter of cynicism, of derision.

“Seriously? Yitzhak, survivor of the Holocaust, single, this is what you need?”

But that candelabra was used by my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, created light in their home, and it now creates light in our home, in Jerusalem, 40 minutes from the Kotel.
The “צחוק” of derision became a laughter of hope and optimism, and that’s what defines the Jewish people.

When we are able to transform the laughter into a world of hope, of optimism and joy. That’s our responsibility.

That’s what it means to be a “yitzhak”, to be able to create laughter of redemption, the responsibility of what it means to be the children of Avraham and Sarah.

Shabbat Shalom.


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

“Avraham and Sarah: The First Power Couple and Their Continued Impact Upon Us”

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Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) 

“Avraham and Sarah: The First Power Couple and Their Continued Impact Upon Us”

The past two weeks, we have focused on the creation story from the perspective of humanity’s role to continue the process: the mandate of God to Adam and Chava in Parshat Bereshiet, to be God’s junior partner in the creation saga. (Genesis 1:28)

The mandate that is found in Parshat Noach’s Haftarah, that if we are going to ensure that there’s never the destruction of the world, of society, it is our responsibility to be involved in Tikkun Olam, the perfection of the world. (Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5)

And in Parshat Lech Lecha, we are introduced to the most important couple to organized religion, to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And that is Avraham and Sarah. They are perhaps the most famous couple in human history.

What do we know about these two people before they ascend the world stage as leaders? The Torah tells us nothing about them, nothing.

Yes, Midrashic texts, rabbinical texts, and even pseudepigrapha try to fill in the gaps. So much has been proposed about their upbringing and their past, but the Torah tells us nothing.

We’re told that Avraham finds God through the cosmos, but the Torah tells us nothing. (Breishit Rabbah 39:1)

We’re told that Nimrod throws Avraham into a fiery furnace to perish because of Avraham’s rebellion against idol worship, but again, the Torah tells us nothing. (Breishit Rabbah 38:13)

The bottom line is that in the text of the Bible, in the text of the Torah, we learn nothing about Avraham and Sarah until they are 70, 75 years old, and become citizens of national importance.

Maybe the absence of a background is to communicate to all of us that what makes Avram, “Avraham”, and Sarai, “Sarah”, is not their pedigree, it’s not their wealth or their stature, but their willingness to “Lech Lecha”, to go and to make a difference in the world. (Genesis 12:1)

Despite their challenges of infertility, despite the issue of famine or kidnapping of family members, they are able to engage others: “And the souls they had acquired in Haran”. (Genesis 12:5)

Avraham faces his arch nemesis, Nimrod, in the battle of the four to five kings. It’s over the soul of society, and he is triumphant. He rescues his family. (Genesis 14:1-15)

He deals with kings with respect, yet with a commitment to ethics and allegiance to God: “The Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth”. (Genesis 14:22-24)

His relationship to God is so meaningful that he can even question God: “What will You give me, since I am childless.” (Genesis 15:2)

You want to know why we don’t know anything about their past? Because what defines them, indeed, what defines us, is not our past, but our capacity to “Lech Lecha” to get up and make a difference.

And in the process of “Lech”, of going. we learn “Lecha”, so much about ourselves. The message of Sefer Bereshit continues: it moves from a universal paradigm to a more particular one.

But it reminds us that what makes Avraham and Sarah, our patriarch and our matriarch, is not their past, but what they’re willing to do to change the world, and in the process, change themselves.

Shabbat Shalom

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

“After the Flood, Who is Responsible for What?”

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Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9- 11:32) 

“After the Flood, Who is Responsible for What?”

Every parsha has with it a reading from the prophets, a Haftarah. It was instituted at a time in which it was forbidden to read from the Five Books of Moses; and therefore it mirrors the messages of the parsha.

In fact, Rabbi Soloveitchik used to teach us, if you want to understand the central message of the parsha, look at what is stated in the selection from the prophets in the Haftarah.

In this week’s parsha of Noach, there is an argument between the Sephardic community and the Ashkenazic community about how much from the Book of Isaiah should be recited as our Haftarah, as our portion from the prophets.

The Sephardim suggest it should just be the first ten verses from chapter 54 of Isaiah (Isaiah 54:1-10), and the Ashkenazim suggest that one should recite those ten verses, finish chapter 54 and continue through part of Chapter 55 (Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5).

This difference between the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic community is not just semantics, but speaks to the critical message of Parshat Noach and of all of Sefer Bereshiet.

You see, the first ten verses of the haftarah speak about God’s responsibility to humanity after the destruction of the flood, where God promises, through the prophet Isaiah to the Jewish people, that God will never leave humanity again.

God tells through the prophet Isaiah, ‘You should expand your tents because your families will grow; they will never be desolate, like after the flood.’ (Isaiah 54:2)

‘You won’t be embarrassed again that you will be totally destroyed.’ (Isaiah 54:4)

‘I forgot you for a moment, but I will bring you back together for long periods of time.’ (Isaiah 54:7)

The focus for the Sephardim, for the Sephardic community, of the Haftarah is God’s responsibility to humanity.

But the Ashkenazim suggested that you need to recite a larger Haftarah: one that focuses on the covenantal relationship – not just God to the community, not just God to the Jewish people and humanity, but humanity’s responsibility to God and its responsibility as agents of creation in continuing the saga of Bereshiet.

And therefore the Ashkenazim demand that these verses are mentioned: that our ability to live in this world has to be predicated by being righteous, and not being deceptive one from another, that we should engage in learning about having a relationship with God, that we have to learn about what it means to be citizens of humanity and what it means to be part of the Chosen People.

And so the difference between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition of this Haftarah is not random. It’s a response to the flood story: Is it just God’s responsibility to assure there’s no more floods? Or is it our responsibility to celebrate the message of all of Sefer Bereshiet?

And that is to continue creation through our engagement with society.

I believe, as an Ashkenazic Jew, that this is critically important, because a relationship with God cannot just be what He does for us, but what we do for Him and what we do for the world.

The responsibility to continue to engage and to guarantee that Sefer Bereshiet continues to live through our positive contributions in the continued creation of society and of the world.

Shabbat Shalom

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

“To Err is Divine: Re-Building and Growth”

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Parshat Bereishit (Genesis 1:1- 6:8) 

“To Err is Divine: Rebuilding and Growth”

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת כׇּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃

And God saw all that he had created and it was not just good; it was very good. And it was the end of the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)

“Everything was very good” – and the commentaries explain that this world was very good, but many worlds that God created earlier were not good, and so he destroyed them, made some mistakes and then recreated them.

This idea is found in the Kabbalah and it is found in the ancient Midrashim. (Genesis Rabba, 9:2  and elsewhere) 

And the question is: what does that mean that ‘God created many worlds’? God, who is infinite, who has all knowledge, He created worlds that weren’t good, and only after destroying many worlds and making some mistakes, he finally created our world, and it was “tov me’od”, it was very good.

What message is there in this for each and every one of us?

When I read these comments that are found in our ancient texts of the rabbinical world, I am inspired, because I think it reminds us that each and every one of us have a piece of God inside ourselves, and to be reminded that sometimes we begin an initiative and it doesn’t work out exactly the way we want, and sometimes we can get depressed.

We can sometimes get paralyzed or upset, but the answer is we can start over again.

We can do it again. We can try again.And there’s nothing wrong with trying again. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, as long as you have the courage to try again.

And how do we know that?

Because God himself says to us that He made mistakes and only this world was “tov me’od”, only this world was excellent, only this world was great.

And since there is a piece of God in each and every one of us, it’s a reminder to us: sometimes we mess up. It’s not the end of the world, because even the Creator of the Universe, the Master of the Universe, God, the Infinite Being, He also destroyed worlds and recreated them.

It’s a reminder to each and every one of us of the opportunities that we have, that even when we fail, even when we make mistakes, it only empowers us to do it the next time better.

In fact, when God makes the statement that he created the world, “Vehineh tov me’od,” he has one more commandment, to the being that he created on the sixth day – to humankind.

And the commandment is that God says, you know, I created this world, I created this world of “tov me’od”, of very good. But you, humankind, have to complete it because you, humankind, are my partners. (Genesis 1:28)

What an unbelievable opportunity for each and every one of us.

As the holidays have left us and as we have been inspired by these days, and as we get into the normal routine, let us remember that even God made mistakes and God recreated worlds. And we have that opportunity.

And even the world that God created, God reminds each and every one of us that it’s up to us to finish the process because we are truly then partners with God.

Let us begin this year with the inspiration that even when we make mistakes, it just inspires us to be able to build better the next time around.

Shabbat Shalom.

As synagogues and congregations grapple with how to conduct the upcoming High Holiday services during the coronavirus pandemic, KAN English news reporter Naomi Segal spoke to OTS President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, about the specially- condensed, machzorim (prayer books) OTS has created for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, to respond to the …

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

“When the Torah Challenges our Engagement with God”

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Parshat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

“When the Torah Challenges our Engagement with God”

Our sense of morality feels violated when we see or hear about the murder of innocents, particularly children.
So what are we to do when the Torah itself, to which we turn for moral guidance, calls for that very action?
While it is tempting to gloss over these difficult encounters and some will  question why I bring this up in this parsha talk, it’s important to address them head on, driven by a deep love of God and the belief in the eternal truth of the Torah.
In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, we find an example of this. In Chapter 13 of the Book of Devarim, we read of the punishment for a city in which idolatry takes place.
If it is established that the majority of the town’s residents have rebelled against God by worshipping idols, the Torah requires that the town’s population be executed, that their possessions be destroyed and that the town be burned to the ground, to remain in an eternal state of ruin, never to be rebuilt, as a reminder to the Jewish people.
We can understand why the Torah is so adamant about deterring idolatry, but in any Jewish town, there will be innocents, including spouses and children, who will be condemned to death for something they did not do. 
How can this be? How can the Torah of compassion and righteousness require such a terrible injustice?
Maimonides, the Rambam, based on sources from the Talmud, stresses the very limited scope in which these laws could be implemented. (Rambam [Maimonides], Hilchot Avodah Zara / Laws of Idolatry Chapter 4)
In fact, the requirements that must be met in order for the High court to carry out the punishment are so specific that in reality, it never actually happened.
1. First, all of the negative influencers involved in perpetrating this crime must be all residents of the city, and from the same tribe, not other Jewish tribes. 
2. The courts need to ascertain that the majority of the residents have been involved in idol worship. 
Each person in the city is judged as an individual, and there must be two kosher witnesses that testify that they witnessed each individual worship idols until you get to a majority who have worshiped foreign gods.
3. If anything less than the majority of the population has been found to have transgressed this crime, the city is not classified as an idolatrous town.
4. Even if it has been established that a majority of the town’s population is guilty, a team of positive influencers are to be brought in to see if they can change the attitude of the town to try to get the residents to change their behavior. If that effort succeeds, all is forgiven.
Essentially the focus of this Torah section is on the seriousness of the event – rebellion against God – more than any possible consequence in this world.
It is like the verse an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24), where such a consequence for this heinous crime of maiming someone is not possible but the Torah refuses to limit its description to the consequence of paying different forms of financial compensation for a bodily injury.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that according to Maimonides, the law could have theoretically been applied, allowing for the killing of innocent children.
One of Maimonides’ contemporaries, Rav Meir HaLevi Abulafia, a highly regarded Spanish halakhic decisor and author of the sefer, “Yad Ramah”, challenges Maimonides and asks why innocents should face collective 
Citing a verse from the Book of Job (34:10), Rav Abulafia writes: ‎“חָלִלָה לָאֵל מֵרֶשַׁע” – God forbid that He would demand such a wicked act.
According to Rav Abulafia, who also has sources from within the Talmudic tradition upon which to rely, the Torah never meant to include innocents among those to be punished.
Rav Abulafia knew in the Middle Ages that with no Sanhedrin, this commandment was no longer operative and perhaps could never be implemented.
Nevertheless, he debated it as a reminder that Torah scholars must challenge even halakhic giants such as Maimonides in order to ensure that interpretations of the Torah are consistent with the moral norms and values of the Torah.
And this is a call to each and every one of us that we, too, must engage with our understanding of Torah to make sure our understanding is consistent with certain deep values of human life.
While reason does not lay down the path along which the person of faith walk, when we feel that an ideal of Torah will affect our engagement with God, then we need to explore our tradition/mesorah carefully, speak to rabbis, Talmidei and talmidot chachamim/Torah scholars, and learn an approach within our tradition that speaks to us – for, ultimately,
‎דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי ‎נֹעַם וְכׇל ‎נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם
The ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peaceful.  (Proverbs 3:17)
Shabbat Shalom

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

“Building the Jewish State with Human Initiative and Divine Guidance”

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Parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

“Building the Jewish State with Human Initiative and Divine Guidance”

At this point, we have all become used to explaining to others the necessity of a Jewish state – especially when we are confronted with threats of BDS, from those who seek to delegitimize and ultimately dismantle the Jewish state.

But there is an even more important audience and an even more basic question.

The more important audience is us. And the basic question that we need to be able to answer is, “What is our role in the Jewish state?”

I’d like to share an insight from this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, which offers a powerful answer.

In Chapter 8 of the Book of Devarim, the Torah describes the Land of Israel in the most beautiful of ways, noting its natural beauty, produce, resources and minerals.

However, beyond the poetic beauty of the description lies an important sequence which teaches us a crucial lesson about our relationship with God.

The first verse relates that God is bringing us to a good land with flowing streams and springs. (Deuteronomy 8:7)

These are things that exist independently from our involvement; we are passive recipients. 

In the next verse, our active partnership is required, as we must plant and reap wheat, barley, vines, figs and pomegranates. (Deuteronomy 8:8)

The verse continues, repeating the word “Eretz”, and speaks of things requiring even more human initiative, as it is not enough to simply harvest the olives or the dates; but rather, one must crush an olive to obtain its oil and squeeze a date to access its honey. 

Next, the Torah refers to the Jewish People in the land not lacking for food, using bread – the staple food – in this context. (Deuteronomy 8:9)

Making bread is an arduous process which requires a lot more human participation than any of the previously-mentioned items.  

And finally, the Torah discusses the natural resources and minerals found within the Land of Israel: copper and iron and gas and oil, all of which require an immense amount of work to mine before we can benefit from them. 

And then, immediately after this progression from passively receiving the Land’s bounty to becoming active partners in its acquisition, the Torah mentions the necessity of thanking God:

ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את ה’ אלוקיך

And you shall eat and be satiated and shall bless the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 8:10)

This is the verse where we learn about the mandate for Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, to be recited after eating bread.

Birkat Hamazon is longer and more comprehensive than the blessings “Bore Nefashot” and “Me’ein Shalosh”, which are recited after other foods.

Since a person doesn’t have to do much in order to benefit from grapes or other produce, and one can more clearly see God’s role in providing it, the blessing after consuming the product doesn’t need to be extensive.

However, the line from the wheat in the field to the bread on one’s table is less direct.

It’s not hard to start believing that the bread is the result of our own toil, rather than a gift from God.

It is human nature to forget about the central role that God plays in our lives when we invest so much into the initiative ourselves.

Therefore, the Grace after Meals after eating bread is more extensive.

And now, to answer our original question: What is our role in the Jewish state?

The messages of these verses are clear:

  1. The Land of Israel, given to us by God, requires human initiative in order to flourish; this is shown in the movement we see in the verses that describe the land. We must be actors in the ongoing drama known as Yishuv Eretz Yisrael.
  2. Whether it is the tilling of the soil, or the technological advances that so often emanate from this “Start Up Nation”, or the engagement of the hearts and minds of others who live in the land, it is our responsibility to grow the land, to actualize the potential of the land and to realize that while God is the Senior Partner in this process, we must also be active participants in the experience.
  3. God wants us in this land to be brothers and sisters, to engage and to use its gifts to better our lives. To never use His Torah, a Torah of peace, or the Land and its holy sites to divide people, but rather to transform this land of milk and honey into a place of harmony and a light to the nations of the world.

For these reasons and so many more, we need – and the world needs us – to help shape our Jewish state.

And we can play a role in this process whether we live within its borders or anywhere else in the world.

May we merit to continue working to fulfill Israel’s potential and its promise. 

Shabbat Shalom.

New educational initiative aims to bridge gaps between Jewish denominations Ohr Torah Stone launches educational initiative to expose educators and students to breadth of viewpoints in Jewish practice. Arutz Sheva Staff , July 26 , 2021 In light of continuing signs of tension between Orthodox elements in Israel and representatives of the Conservative and Reform …

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

“Are We Meeting the Challenge of Inspiring our Children?”

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Parshat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11 )

“Are We Meeting the Challenge of Inspiring our Children?”

Raising a Jewish family is a tremendous privilege, and with it comes an enormous responsibility to pass Jewish traditions to the next generation.

It is easier said than done.

We are all aware, whether in our own family, or even among Torah scholars, of children who have grown up and chosen a path that differs from that of their parents.

How do we do our absolute best to give our children the kinds of experiences and emotional support that we hope will lead them to remaining on the path of Jewish tradition?

I’d like to share an insight into this issue from the most famous and often-recited paragraph in the Torah, the first paragraph of Shema which begins with “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” and which is introduced to us in this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan.

In the Shema, the Torah speaks about our love, awareness and commitment to a relationship with God. 

There it states:

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם
Repeat these things to your children

בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשׇׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ

when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you wake up. (Devarim 6:7)

This is the basis for our twice-daily obligation to recite the Shema: in the darkness of night, representing times in our lives when things are challenging, when because – or perhaps despite – the fact that we don’t have clarity, we wish to connect with God. And also in the light of day, when things are going well, when we are prone to feel that we are responsible for our successes; reciting the Shema is a “pledge of allegiance”; a recognition of the role that God plays in our lives. 

“Shema Yisrael” is also the utterance of those who have performed the ultimate act of sacrifice – martyrdom – for the sake of ensuring the eternality of the Jewish people.

So important, in fact, is the recitation of the Shema that the first Mishnah in the first tractate in the oral tradition, Berachot, begins with the Shema:

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבית?

When can one recite the evening-time Shema? (Berachot 1a)

And after offering several opinions regarding the question of “until when can the evening Shema be recited?”

The final opinion comes from Rabban Gamliel, who states that one may recite the Shema until dawn. 

The Mishna then continues with an anecdote involving Rabban Gamliel’s sons returning very late from a party.

The sons told Rabban Gamliel that they were preoccupied at a party and had not yet recited the evening Shema. 

Could they still recite it?

His response to them was – since the dawn had not yet arrived, they were still obligated and permitted to recite the evening Shema.

Why does the Mishna need this anecdote involving Rabban Gamliel’s sons? It seems extraneous. 

Rav Shlomo Vilk, Rosh Yehshiva of Ohr Torah Stone’s Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, points out the Mishna is focusing on the challenge and ideal of Jewish spiritual continuity and finding it in the everyday. To be able to speak about the challenges of being out at a late-night party engaged in activity which may seem antithetical to a transcendent life, yet it is the job of the parent to find ways to help the next generation to connect with the ideals of the Shema. 

The fact that this story is inserted in the first Mishnah of our Oral tradition highlights the need to promote dialogue regarding spirituality between parent and child.  For such dialogue helps to ensure that spirituality is found in our children’s and grandchildren’s lives. 

What an important message this first Mishna of the oral tradition teaches us: the responsibility, indeed the mandate, that an essential component of our relationship with God of our Judaism is to find God while engaging in the everyday and even in the joys of the everyday. 

This is our opportunity and our challenge!  

Inserting this story into the Mishnaic conversation implores us to work to create an environment of spirituality that is meaningful and relevant to our children and grandchildren as they engage in the wondrous opportunities and challenges of everyday life experiences.

The first Mishna of our oral tradition reminds us that if we are to guarantee our Jewish future, we must create a religious language that speaks to the everyday experiences of our children and grandchildren.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“‘Where Are You?’ The Most Important Question of Tisha B’Av

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Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)

“‘Where Are You?’ The Most Important Question of Tisha B’Av”

When a loved one dies, God forbid, the intensity of our mourning is seen in its most dramatic form on the day of burial and then gradually diminishes from the first through the seventh day of shiva, through the next 30 days – the shloshim – and in the case of a beloved parent, throughout the year of mourning.

Our communal mourning for the destruction of our holy Temple, on the other hand, progresses in the exact opposite direction.

For three weeks, catalyzed by the fast of the 17 of Tammuz, we refrain from joyous activity. 

Then, during the final nine days of those three weeks, beginning on Rosh Chodesh Av (or, for Sephardic Jews, during the final week preceding the ninth of Av,) we progress to an even more heightened state of mourning. 

Ultimately, the pinnacle of mourning occurs on Tisha B’Av – the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.  

The reason for this opposite pattern is because unlike mourning a family member, it is so hard to sincerely mourn a 2000-year-old tragedy.

It’s true that the loss of our holy Temple led to the loss of our sovereignty and, even more significantly, the loss of our connection to God. 

But still it’s hard to immediately and emotionally connect to it. 

We need time to enter into the necessary mindset. 

The build up from 17 Tammuz to Tisha B’Av gives us the opportunity to think beyond the “what” of this period’s mourning practices and focus on the “why”.

One idea for getting into this “why” comes from the teachings of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, ztz”l, based on the central text read on Tisha b’Av: Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations.

Rav Soloveitchik teaches that Megillat Eicha also known as the Book of Kinot provides us with prophetic license to ask the ultimate question: “Eicha?!” – how God could this have happened?

How God can you have abandoned us the Jewish people to our enemies?

How God can you have allowed the Temple, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel to become desolate?

We begin Tisha B’Av by reading this book of Eicha, this book of Kinot, which gives us permission to question, and then spend the next 24 hours engaged in seeking the answers.

Rav Soloveitchik explained that when we read the word “Eicha,” we must also read it the first way that it is pronounced in the Bible, when God asks Adam and Chava: “Ayeka”? Where are you? (Genesis 3:9)

Eicha – how did this happen? – and Ayeka – where are you? – are intertwined. Because in order to repair the devastation , we must investigate where we are? 

Where are we in the treatment of other Jews and other human beings?

Where are we in our support of Israel?

Where are we in pursuit of unity?

Do we still not recognize that ultimately it was the judgmental hatred and the disrespect between us that caused famine, torture and the final destruction of the second Temple and all of its ramifications? (Yoma 9b)

Where are we in the process of trying to perfect the world, and help bring about the ultimate redemption?

This approach enables us to also mourn things taking place in our lives and in our generation, which are actually extensions of the tragedies that occurred two millennia ago, making the tragedy more relatable.

In the merit of heartfelt mourning over what we have lost and a resolution to prioritize fixing that which we have broken, may we witness the words of our Sages:

 כל המתאבל על ירושלים זוכה ורואה בשמחתה

Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit and see her future joy. (Taanit 30b)

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and then a meaningful and easy fast.

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

“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders

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Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders”

After wandering for 40 years in the desert, the Jewish People will soon be led into the Promised Land. 

But their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, will not be accompanying them. 

This was made painfully clear to  Moshe in the Torah portion two weeks ago, when he famously struck a rock in order to draw water from it, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. 

God explains to Moshe that he will not merit to cross the threshold of the desert into Israel:

כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר צִן בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם

For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water. (Numbers 27:14)

And now, in this week’s portion of Pinchas, God reiterates the punishment, figuratively pouring salt in Moshe’s wound.

In fact, the narrative that Moshe will be replaced by another leader and not merit to enter the Land of Israel will be repeated no fewer than five more times between now and the account of Moshe Rabbeinu’s death. 

Surely Moshe comprehended this news the first time. What is the lesson we learn from its repetition? 

A careful look at the events preceding each time the message is given to Moshe hints at a possible answer: Moshe is not being punished merely for striking the rock. Moshe is being replaced because he is unable to engage the next generation.  

When the first generation of Israelites  leave Egypt were involved in the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe shows amazingly strong leadership qualities.

He is willing to sacrifice his own life for his people:

וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ

Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32)

In this week’s portion, however, after the Jewish People engage in idolatrous behavior, the disconnect between Moshe and the second generation is woefully apparent.

He simply doesn’t understand them.

They were not born and raised in the crushing slave experience in Egypt. They live with Divine miracles on a daily basis. Their clothing grows with them and their food and drink comes from the Heavens! 

Moshe had high hopes for this unencumbered younger generation. He envisioned how their comfortable lives would enable them to devote their time to Torah study. 

But instead of striving to achieve greatness, they are rebellious and demanding. 

Deeply frustrated by this behavior, Moshe seemingly gives up on them. When action is required, he takes no initiative.

When the people engage in hedonistic and idolatrous indulgences, as they do in this week’s parsha, Moshe doesn’t intervene. All he can do is weep. (Numbers 25:6)

This is not the Moshe of the past, the active protector and leader of the Jewish People.

And for that reason, his fate is sealed.  He must step down.

Moshe cannot negotiate their needs; he cannot offer any resolution. 

This is not the Moshe of the past who was able to see the silver lining in clouds much darker than this. 

Every time an issue pops up, Moshe is no longer the pro-active protector/leader of the Jewish People; he realizes that he can no longer suffer their impudence at the moment. 

Moshe turns to God using this language: 

יִפְקֹד ה’ אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה

Let Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a person over the congregation who can tend to the diverse needs of all people;

אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם

who will go out before them;

וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם… 

someone who will bring the people together… (27:16-17)

Moshe says that a leader is someone who can tackle the needs of each person, who inspires people to think higher and live more purposefully, who will advocate for them, and who can unite them.

Just as Moshe articulated the leadership qualities necessary for the generation after his, we too need to connect with leaders who understand the generation and environment in which they live.

We must nurture these leaders; elevate them when they are ready; allow them to grow in their role; learn from them; engage them; support them and, yes, sometimes respectfully challenge them.

May we merit leaders who meet the standard for excellence mentioned by Moshe, and may they merit to lead us to our ultimate destiny as a people.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

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Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

“The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

It was the summer of 1935.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the young Lithuanian-born-and-raised heir apparent to a legendary rabbinical dynasty was making his first – and as it turned out, his only – trip to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shlomo Aronson, the widely beloved Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, had passed away in March, and Rav Soloveitchik, who had earned a PhD from the University of Berlin and who was then a community rabbi in the city of Boston, was hoping to succeed him in that position.

During that visit, the 32-year old Rav Soloveitchik was invited to deliver a shiur at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the spiritual home to the vision and teachings of the legendary Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.

This provided an opportunity for Rav Soloveitchik to meet with Rav Kook, the ailing Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael who would pass away a few months later.

After the visit and the shiur, Rav Kook recalled his own experience as a student attending the shiurim of Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and commented that “The power of the genius of the grandfather now resides with the grandson.” 

As a candidate for Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, that Shabbat Rav Soloveitchik presented a drasha on the parsha, which was the same as this week’s portion: Parshat Balak.

In retrospect, we know that Rav Soloveitchik – the man who Rav Kook described as a genius and who went on to become a seminal figure in Modern Orthodoxy – did not receive the position of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi.

As a curious student, I once asked Rav Soloveitchik why he thought they didn’t choose him.

He explained that he believed it was due to the drasha that he delivered.

With a bit of further prodding, the Rav  shared that the drasha he delivered focused on the verse:

מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

And he cited these words to express his hope that the various tents of Israel should soon be able to dwell together: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the religious and secular.

To try to achieve unity even without uniformity.

In the aftermath of his not receiving the position, Rav Soloveitchik realized that the community was not ready to hear and internalize such a message.

With the 20/20 hindsight of history, perhaps it was fortunate that Rav Soloveitchik never became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and instead remained in the United States in order to help shape world Jewry using both the community of Boston and Yeshiva University as an incubator for his creative thoughts and to become “the Rav”, the greatest teacher of his generation.

Yet, as we revisit this parsha, some 86 years later, we see clearly and sadly that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message remains unrealized.

We are responsible to continue to strive toward actualizing the dream of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

We must all extend ourselves to ensure that there is more achdut, more unity amongst the Jewish people.

We must be respectful in how we talk to each other and about each other.

To accept and respect Jews who observe Judaism differently from us. 

Jews who have different customs and traditions, who hail from different descents.

To accept and respect one other – even when we don’t agree with the practices or beliefs of the other.

The capacity for us to show God that we are a people that even though we may not be uniform, we are nevertheless committed to unity, so that we can merit the blessing of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

Shabbat Shalom.