Rabbi Brander

“Parsha and Purpose” – Yom Kippur 5781

“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

“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

“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

“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

“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.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shoftim 5780

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

“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

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“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

We are living in the midst of a pandemic in which our leaders have the awesome responsibility for so much of our communities’ health and wellbeing.

In some countries, notably Israel and the United States, citizens are challenging those leaders – on the streets and in the courts.

Specifically in these times of crisis, the relationship between leaders,the courts and citizens is an important aspect of a healthy and robust society.

While I believe that leaders deserve respect, it is in this week’s parsha that a Biblical constant is framed

שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך

You shall appoint shoftim – judges – and “shotrim” in all of your communities

What are “shotrim”? In spoken Hebrew, they are police officers. And the most famous of Torah commentators, Rashi, also understands it that way.

In a modern context, it would speak to the fact that it is the responsibility of the judiciary (shoftim) to ensure the rule of law even on shotrim, law enforcement. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of law enforcement to help implement the laws. We see the vast majority of law enforcement doing so do even when it puts them in harm’s way. Yet the juxtaposition of Shoftim v’Shotrim obligates us to ensure that structures are in place that allow us to call out law enforcement that does not follow its own code of conduct. It is a sacred responsibility to maintain checks and balances between the Shoftim, judges, and Shotrim, law enforcement.

Yet many commentators and Midrashim translate “shotrim” not as police officers but rather as “leaders”. According to this interpretation, the verse reads: You shall appoint judges and leaders in all of your communities.

The Torah’s juxtaposition of  “judges” with “leaders” wishes to accentuate that it is in the best interest of any society even with the most regal of leaders to have checks and balances. That was the role of the Biblical prophet with the leader of the Sanhedrin and the King. 

Government requires structures that allow for a balance of power, if we are to  build a just and moral society.

In such a society, citizens have the right – and I believe even the responsibility – to respect their leaders, but, when necessary, to question them. The judiciary and government leaders are שלוחי דרחמנא – emissaries of God to help shape a more perfect society.   

The judiciary serves as a check on the power of leadership, ensuring that it remains responsive and accountable .

It is telling that the continuation of our verse continues with the words,

אשר ה’ א-להיך נותן לך

“…that Hashem your God is giving you.” 

Through these words, the Torah reminds us that as God gives us the Land, it is in the context of building a society in which no single branch of government holds all of the power. 

We have been given the responsibility of creating a just society. I applaud the work of hard working selfless civil servants. Without them we would destroy each other.  

But let us never forget that only by creating a civil society – embracing the concept of justice and compassion, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – we will truly be deserving of inheriting the land that God has given us.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Reeh 5780

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

“Transforming Adversity Into Opportunity

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“Transforming Adversity Into Opportunity

The year was 1969, and Shirley Chisholm had just made history as the first Black woman ever elected to Congress. She represented a heavily-urban district that included the neighborhood of Crown Heights, New York, where she resided.

Chisholm had high hopes of improving the lives of her constituents, many of whom were poor and uneducated, by serving on the House Education and Labor Committee.

But instead, powerful politicians  maneuvered to blunt her influence and popularity back home by forcing her to focus on issues irrelevant to her inner-city constituency: they relegated her to an obscure subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee.

Representative Chisholm was understandably frustrated. But one day, she received a phone call from the office of a rabbi who lived just one block away from her: none other than Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

At the Rebbe’s urging, Chisholm shared her feelings of hurt and anger at being sidelined from a position in which she could truly help her district.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s response surprised Chisholm – and changed the trajectory of her career. “What a blessing God has given you!” he said about her appointment to the Agriculture Committee. “This country has so much surplus food, and there are so many hungry people. You can use this gift that God gave you to feed the hungry. Find a creative way to do it.”

Shortly afterward, Congresswoman Chisholm met with Bob Dole, then a first-term senator from Kansas, who told her that Midwestern farmers were producing more food than they could sell and losing money on their crops.

Chisholm immediately recalled her conversation with the Rebbe, and knew what to do. Together with Senator Dole, she led the way in ensuring that those most in need would have access to food through what became the Food Stamp Program and WIC.

In other words, the infrastructure of welfare in the United States changed forever as a result of a meeting between Congresswoman Chisholm and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

When Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983, she credited the Rebbe: “A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you may think is a challenge is a gift from God. And if poor babies have milk, and poor children have food, it’s because this Rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

This week’s parsha opens with the words,

 

“ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה”

“Behold I set in front of you today, blessing and curse.”

Nachmanides comments that deciding whether something is a blessing or a curse is up to us. As Representative Chisholm learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we can decide whether to view things as a challenge or as an opportunity.

Whether it involves our physical health, our mental health, our economic health, or any aspect of our lives; whether in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic or anytime, we always have the power to choose whether we see the glass half empty or half full.

May we always be blessed with the ability to transform what may seem to be a curse into a blessing and to turn challenges into opportunities.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ekev 5780

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

“How Jewish should the ‘Jewish State’ Be?

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“How Jewish Should the ‘Jewish State’ Be?

What does it mean to be a “Jewish state”? A state whose laws are based on halacha – Jewish law? Or a state that serves as a homeland for the Jewish People, but which is more “kosher style” regarding halacha?

We are confronted with variations of these questions all the time, such as, for example, the perennial debate about whether or not public transportation should be permitted on Shabbat.

These questions are not just for the philosophers of Facebook and Twitter to debate.

How these and other questions are answered have a real impact on the lives of everyday people, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Israel and all over the world.

Our parsha, Parshat Ekev, provides guidance on how we might view this very sensitive issue.

Two arks accompanied the Jewish People, the second of which we learn about for the first time in this week’s Torah portion:

“V’Asita Lecha Aron Eitz,” “Make a wooden ark.”

Moshe reports that in bringing down the second set of tablets from Sinai, God commands him to make a wooden ark to house the shattered first set of tablets.

Why do we need this additional ark, made of wood? Was not the beautiful one, built by Betzalel from wood and overlaid with gold, sufficient?

Rashi and Tosafot explain that in fact each ark had a distinct role.

The golden ark, containing the fully whole second set of tablets, remained permanently within the private domain of the Tabernacle and the Temple.

In contrast, the wooden ark was brought into the public domain – specifically in times of war and challenge.

The golden ark in the private domain represents uncompromising permanence; the responsibility of ensuring that the Jewish spiritual experience remains complete and whole – much like the second set of tablets housed within.

But we ALSO have a responsibility, particularly in the State of Israel, to bring the ark into the public domain, to engage Judaism with society.

This is symbolized by the wooden ark, housing the broken luchot, that was brought into the public domain at challenging times to serve as a unifying symbol of hope and purpose. 

The Shattered Luchot symbolize that there are challenges and sometimes even setbacks, when Torah engages in the public domain.

But it was never used as a coercive symbol to divide the camp of the Jewish people. 

People are looking for meaning and purpose in Judaism, but they are not interested in being told HOW to do IT or HOW TO believe.

And we’ve seen this at Ohr Torah Stone. Our engagement with 400,000 secular Israelis every year at dozens of local community centers and parks where we share the beauty of our [Jewish] heritage and tradition, we do so in a spirit of acceptance, without any attempt to coerce.

Our engagement with Jews in the larger society must be based on love and shared destiny, without preconceived notions of where their journey will take them.

Ultimately, this is perhaps the most constructive way of helping shape the conversation of what it means to be a “Jewish state.”

May we succeed in this sacred responsibility.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Va’etchanan 5780

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

“Becoming the People We Want to Be”

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“Becoming the People We Want to Be”

We all want to be more consistent, and to live the values that we espouse. But sadly, we occasionally fall short.

What can we do to erase the gap between the person we want to be and the person we often are?

An answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, where we read about the revelation at Sinai, one of the seminal events in world history. 

At the conclusion of that critical moment, God tells Moshe, “Lech, Emor Lahem“, go and tell the Jewish people, “Shuvu Lachem L’ohaleichem,” go back to your tents.

What does this mean?

Where else would they have possibly gone?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z’t”l, extrapolated from this verse that our challenge as members of the Jewish people is to take the values of Sinai –  not stealing, not cheating, not coveting, concern for the vulnerable in our society – and to incorporate them into our “tents”: our homes, schools, communities and society. 

This sounds simple enough, yet often any of us, even great people, even rabbis and leaders, can find it difficult.

And this difficulty is alluded to in the Torah itself, where we find a prohibition on the Jewish people ascending Mount Sinai at the time of the revelation.

Why would this be?

What better opportunity to bask in holiness than at the moment and place in which Torah was revealed?

But embedded in the question is the answer.

Finding holiness in the ethereal on God’s mountain is easy. There were no distractions from connecting with God.

Instead, God challenges us: “Shuvu Lachem L’ohaleichem”, “Go back to your tents”, which the Emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, explains to mean:

לחיי בשרים ותענוגות בני האדם כטבע האנושי

To a life of temporal human pleasures, as is the nature of humanity.

That is to say, take the holiness and the values from your experience at Sinai and incorporate it into your day-to-day physical lives.

We are not to bifurcate between the holy and the mundane. Rather, our complicated challenge is to elevate the mundane and infuse the holy with real purpose.

We recite Kiddush when Shabbat begins, to sanctify the day.

But we also recite Kiddush, in the form of Havdalah, at Shabbat’s conclusion – to sanctify the days ahead – reminding us to take the spiritual refreshment of Shabbat to infuse our actions during the entirety of the coming week.

May we successfully meet God’s challenge, elevating our everyday lives and become the people we want to be.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Devarim 5780

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

“What does the Torah say about #JewishPrivilege”

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“What does the Torah say about #JewishPrivilege”

What is #JewishPrivilege?

Without getting into the online battles involving this loaded phrase, I would like to suggest an additional understanding of #JewishPrivilege, one that is rooted in the essence of Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, that we will begin reading this Shabbat.

Although #JewishPrivilege – is often bound up with our often painful history of persecution, something we are even more attuned to in the days leading up to Tisha b’Av, for me it is not its primary meaning.

Rather, #JewishPrivilege is our responsibility as a people to always strive toward bettering the world, in the face of any challenges.

This message is uniquely expressed by the Book of Devarim, in the very opening verse: “Eileh HaDevarim asher diber Moshe...”. “These are the words that Moshe stated.”

We immediately discover that in contrast to the other books of the Torah, the Talmud relates in Megillah and Bava Batra that Sefer Devarim is ”authored” by Moshe.

This is also highlighted in the mystical work, the Zohar, which calls Devarim “Mishneh Torah”, literally meaning “The Second Torah”, as Moshe plays a more significant role stating it himself.

This concept of Mishneh Torah, alludes to the fact that there are two paradigms of “Godspeak”, or how God communicates with the Jewish People.

The first paradigm of Godspeak dominates the first four books of the Torah, in which the narratives are written in the third person and Moshe is simply the vehicle through which God communicates.

In contrast, the second paradigm of Godspeak, as seen in Devarim, comes from the introduction of human initiative: Moshe writes the text, God edits and approves it, and then Moshe narrates.

What do we learn from this second paradigm? 

That if the covenantal commitment between God and the Jewish People is to continue, then both partners must be meaningfully involved in sustaining the relationship.

This is #JewishPrivilege. It empowers us and obligates us, the guarantors of the future of the Jewish People, to write the next chapters of the Jewish People & Humanity.

#JewishPrivilege is Jewish responsibility.

So the question we MUST ask ourselves is: How do we approach our own “Mishneh Torah” ?  

What are the ideals that illuminate our quill?

What vision softens our hearts and sharpens our minds so that we can work the parchment?

As we begin Sefer Devarim, with this second paradigm of Godspeak, incorporating human initiative, we think of the responsibility that is #JewishPrivilege.

And in doing so, we redouble our focus and efforts on fulfilling our obligation to do everything in our power to meet this challenge and better the world.

Together, we can scribe the destiny of the Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Matot-Masei 5780

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

“Learning From Our Mistakes; Defeating a Pandemic”

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“Learning From Our Mistakes; Defeating a Pandemic”

We really thought we had done it. In Israel at least, we thought we had gotten control over the coronavirus, as the government announced a relaxation of restrictions. 

We had just begun to deal with the economic and psychological impacts of the lockdown, only to find ourselves now being thrust backwards.

Given the feelings of uncertainty, confusion, fear and even anger that have come to dominate our consciousness, wherever we may be, our parsha, Matot-Mas’ei, contains an insight that speaks to our lives in a very meaningful way:

אלה מסעי בני ישראל…

“These are journeys of the Jewish people”

ויכתב משה…  

“and Moshe wrote them down…”

על פי ה׳ 

“according to the command of God.”

The painstaking recording of all of these journeys, 42 in all, seems to be superfluous. 

Why do we need this exhaustive list of every single encampment of the Jewish People in the desert?

I’d like to share with you an insight based on halakhic rulings of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch that will shed a light on a possible answer that truly speaks to us. 

The Shulchan Aruch rules that the number of lines in each parchment of a Torah scroll should be 42, equal to the number of the Jewish People’s journeys.

After all, if the Torah is to be our roadmap for life, it should celebrate the idea that life is about the journeys that we take, and therefore each piece of parchment should correspond to the number of journeys we took.

In contrast, the Rambam rules that each parchment should be no less than 48 lines.

Why? 

His view is that each parchment must highlight not only the 42 stops going forward, but also the six occasions on which they retreated in their desert travels. Toward the end of the desert journey, they actually revisit six of their previous encampments, and confront the  mistakes they made there.

While we usually think that life is all about moving forward, often, we need to retreat from the progress that we’ve made: to take a step back, and have the humility to learn from our mistakes and re-evaluate our decisions. 

It is through this process that we grow and truly move forward.

As millions of people across the globe are experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – or an intensification of the first wave – we have had to retreat to previous stops on this surreal journey. 

Maybe we have to return because we have still not internalized the lesson from the first wave. 

We forgot about our responsibility to each other. 

We stopped wearing masks and we made them into chin guards, or we wore masks but they didn’t cover our noses.

We became “so religious” that we still felt mandated to go to shul even when not feeling well, though it meant potentially infecting others.

We figured out clever ways to get around the law … we called gyms “shuls” so we could have 19 people, and counted 50 couples at a wedding as 50 people…  instead of abiding by the health regulations out of an understanding that they exist in order to protect others – as much as ourselves.

Our actions have now brought us to the point of retreat. 

As we enter this phase of the pandemic, we must remember the lesson of the Rambam: learning from our retreats and our mistakes is an integral part of humanity’s zig-zagging journey forward. 

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Pinchas 5780

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

“The Voices of a Just Cause: The Modern-Day Daughters of Tzelofchad”

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“The Voices of a Just Cause: The Modern-Day Daughters of Tzelofchad”

What a time to be alive! It seems like every time we check our phones, we see and read about truly historic events taking place.

So it’s quite timely that in a period of structural societal change taking place across the globe, Israel’s Attorney General issued a groundbreaking decision last week that will fundamentally transform Jewish life for the better – and in particular, the landscape of women’s Torah leadership.

Thanks to the remarkable efforts of the ITIM organization and others, women Torah scholars will now be able to obtain the very same level of government-approved accreditation for their Torah knowledge as men do.

This means that women who earn accreditation will be able to apply for and obtain those same positions that, when halachically appropriate, should be open to men and women alike who have mastered a corpus of Torah knowledge.

This decision establishes that at long last, women will have access to their rightful inheritance in the Torah.

That’s why it’s so fitting that we will be reading this Shabbat in Parshat Pinchas about a group of women fully committed to the future of the Jewish People who appeal what they viewed as an injustice in what they are told is Torah law.

The daughters of Tzelofchad stand before Moshe and entire leadership, pleading: 

If we are considered to be sons when it comes to the laws of Levirate marriage, why are we not considered sons when it comes to the laws of inheritance?  

Our family deserves an equal portion in the land.  

Why should it be that the status quo of a woman not receiving an inheritance causes the name of our family to be erased?

Why are we treated unequally when it comes to the laws of inheritance? Why do we not have the right to an equal portion in the land?

Why should we be denied our rights?

God acknowledges the claim of the daughters of Tzelofchad; the status quo is changed; and they are assured of their rightful inheritance.

With the decision from the Attorney General last week, we see another improvement on a contemporary status quo that has now been rightly rectified.

Until now, women who studied the same texts as men studied for rabbinical ordination could not receive any form of government accreditation that would recognize their studies and their skills.

This meant they were paid less for the same jobs as their male counterparts. And they were unable to apply for positions that were otherwise halachically-appropriate, such as kashrut supervisor in the Knesset, which required government-recognized Torah knowledge of kashrut. 

There are wonderful programs in existence in which women study seriously – such as in Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, an intensive five-year graduate program in which they study the same subject matter as men in our kollelim who are studying for rabbinic ordination.

The women take the same tests as men, except we, a private organization – Ohr Torah Stone – administer them instead of a government entity.

These women scholars, who study full-time for five years, while at the same time nurturing growing families, do not seek to supplant the rabbinical profession, God forbid, but rather want to complement it.

We were all frustrated that until now, their privately-conferred certification did not enable them to receive the same compensation in a high school or a seminary for the same work that their male counterparts received. Until now, the current status quo meant that their studies, their impressive accomplishments, were not recognized.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik taught that when important events happen, look at the parsha and allow it to speak to you in a contemporary context.

This week, one need not look very far or wide to see just how true this is. 

Welcome, B’not Tzelofchad!

Shabbat Shalom.

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