Rabbi Brander

“Parsha and Purpose” – Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Expanding the Orthodox Tent to Include Gay and Lesbian Jews “

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Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

“Expanding the Orthodox Tent to Include Gay and Lesbian Jews

Gay and lesbian people exist in every Orthodox community, in every shul, school, yeshiva, and seminary.

Some are ready to share their identities publicly, while others remain closeted, but each of these Jews, many in their teens or young adulthood, are searching for their place in the Torah-observant world.

They are looking to us, leaders of Orthodox institutions, as well as to their parents and fellow community members, to offer them guidance and protection, to denounce those who do them harm, and to welcome them as full, dignified members of the Torah-observant Jewish community.

One of the reasons that gay and lesbian individuals feel unwelcome by the religious world is rooted in a verse from this week’s portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim:

וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא (ויקרא י”ח:כ”ב) 

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.(Vayikra 18:22)

This is the starting point for Orthodox Jews: sexual intercourse between two men is strictly and uncompromisingly forbidden by the Torah.

However, even as we acknowledge this fact, we must recognize that simply being gay or lesbian is not a transgression! 

Moreover, there are other verses in the Torah which also govern our behavior toward the gay and lesbian community. 

One of them is found in the second of this week’s parshiyot:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (ויקרא י”ט:י”ח)

We are commanded to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves,’ (Vayikra 19:18), to relate to our peers with respect and love.

Another verse, mentioned later in the Book of Vayikra, also provides us with guidance on how to relate to the gay and lesbian community:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם (ויקרא כ”ה:י”ז)

“Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 25:17)

This is the absolute prohibition against bullying and verbal harassment, known as Ona’at Devarim, to which members of the gay and lesbian community are so often subjected.

Time and again, the conversations I have with LGBTQ Orthodox Jews come back to the hurtful language, whether intended or not, that makes them feel that they don’t belong. 

Halakha has high expectations of the way we speak about others, and we are called upon to reinforce those expectations.

Tragically, we have created a suffocating environment that not only prevents gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews from attaining spiritual fullness, but also one that fosters low self-esteem, loneliness, and fear, pushing a higher-than-average percentage to depression, self-harm, and most tragically, death by suicide.

Beyond all else, the most crucial step for us to take is to listen with sincerity and sensitivity, to open our arms wide and make sure they know that they remain part of our community. 

Already in the late 1800s, religious leaders including Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor welcomed those who have a fragmented relationship to Judaism to take part in Orthodox community life.  

Facing the question of whether to give aliyot to Jews who were nearly entirely non-observant, both of these poskim ruled of the overwhelming need to encourage these people to remain connected to Judaism, even those not fully engaged. Therefore they justified calling them to the Torah even on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Rav Hildesheimer stated that Jews who do not wish to abandon their commitment to be part of the covenant, even if they have abandoned certain aspects of religious practice, are still welcomed into the synagogue and into the community, and Rav Spektor went even further, welcoming those who had not even undergone circumcision.

If we are willing to include in our community those who foregoe brit mila or desecrating the Shabbat publicly, why should it be any different for those gay or lesbian Jews who would never dream of breaking Shabbat but who, through no fault of their own, own an identity that presents halakhic challenges?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein discusses the responsibility that we have to accept Jews as they are and recognize the contributions that each can bring to the community. Rav Lichtenstein explains that it is wrong both morally and halakhically to sever ties with individuals who are not fully engaged in the full complement of Jewish observance.

I would like to conclude by quoting from a letter written by Rav Aharon Feldman – Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel in the United States – to a man attempting to reconcile his homosexuality with his commitment to a life of Torah and mitzvot.

Rav Feldman wrote that homosexuals are, quote:

“…as beloved in God’s eyes as any other Jew, 

…obligated to achieve life’s goals by directing his life towards spiritual growth, sanctity and perfection of his character—no less than any other Jew.

He will merit the same share in the world to come which every Jew merits, minimally by being the descendant of Avraham Avinu and maximally by totally devoting his life toward service to God.

In the spirit of Rav Feldman’s words, may we always be mindful of the fact that all Jews, whether gay or straight, are beloved by Hashem, and that all deserve our love and our acceptance.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tazria-Metzora

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

“Things We Should Not Learn From “Shtisel”: Fertility and Jewish Law”

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Parshat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

“Things We Should Not Learn From “Shtisel”: Fertility and Jewish Law”

The much-anticipated third season of “Shtisel” was finally released by Netflix a few weeks ago, and once again people around the world are glued to the screen, waiting to see what happens to this Israeli ultra-Orthodox family. One of the things that makes Shtisel such an appealing international phenomenon is that it offers a nuanced glimpse into an insular lifestyle and society that is usually obscured to outsiders, exposing the everyday dramas, romances, tragedies, and struggles with faith that resonate within us all.

And yet, I was disappointed by one of this season’s storylines, one that relates to the first verse in this week’s parsha, Tazria-Metzora: “when a woman conceives (tazria) and gives birth” (Vayikra 12:2).  

For five years, the young couple Ruchami and Hanina have been trying to have a baby. After a series of devastating disappointments they understand that another pregnancy would put the fetus and, more importantly, Ruchami at life-threatening risk.

Unlike the nuanced portrayal of other aspects of Haredi living, the show doesn’t incorporate the fact that halakha, Jewish law, has welcomed new technologies relating to surrogacy and egg donation. The very word ‘halakha’ comes from the root ‘lalechet,’ meaning ‘to go forward’, highlighting to us that it is not a collection of fossilized edicts but rather a way of life which is meant to address and incorporate new realities arising from contemporary living. 

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers for those of you who haven’t yet seen this season, but suffice it to say that Shtisel’s portrayal of the couple’s infertility is not reflective of the normative Orthodox approach. 

The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 31b) shares that after 120 years, when we arrive at the Heavenly Court, we will be asked a series of questions:

Among others, we will be asked, עסקת בפריה ורביה?

The expression pirya v’revaya refers to reproduction. But what is the verb עסקת referring to?

The writers of Shtisel interpret the word עסקת through a narrow lens: “Did you successfully fulfill the commandment of reproduction?” But the word עסקת literally means “to deal with” or “to work at” something. Jewish tradition interprets the Talmudic question as “Did you try to procreate?”

Heroic measures are not required to fulfill any positive Biblical commandment; in fact, when they threaten our physical or psychological well-being, they are even discouraged.

Already in the 11th-12th century R. Menachem ben Solomon Meiri acknowledged that when science will achieve the capacity to help produce human beings without the natural intimate act, the achievement should be embraced. 

Mainstream halakhic literature discusses artificial insemination, IVF, posthumous paternity, and even the idea of “four-parent” babies born from a gestational carrier, a mother who donates the genetic nucleus of the egg, a female who donates the healthy mitochondria of the egg, and a sperm donor.  And while there is not complete unanimity on these issues – as is true in so many areas – the great Torah scholars of this generation and of the past generation have embraced the advances of science and technology to enable couples to advance their dreams of having a family. 

It is unfortunate that in Shtisel’s effort to introduce us to the Haredi community, it missed an opportunity to communicate the insightful, wise and compassionate attempts of so many great Jewish leaders and thinkers to link contemporary medical advances to the eternal values of the Torah and rabbinic literature regarding childbirth. 

We should remember and reinforce that the strength of Jewish tradition is its  capacity to deal with contemporary realities, opportunities and challenges through the prism of Jewish values and rooted in Jewish laws such as the ones we will read this week. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Dr. Monique and Mordecai Katz

Remembering Englewood’s Mordecai (Morty) Katz, z”l By Rabbi Kenneth Brander | April 08, 2021 The Jewish community has lost a gentle giant with the passing of Mordecai Katz, of blessed memory. Better known among both colleagues and friends as Morty, he was a lifelong champion of Jewish education, working alongside his wife, Dr. Monique (Nicky) …

Read more

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

“Silence and Sanctification: The Connection Between Parshat Shemini and Yom Hazikaron”

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Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

“Silence and Sanctification: The Connection Between Parshat Shemini and Yom Hazikaron”

In a few days, we will commemorate Yom Hazikaron – Israel’s memorial day, dedicated to recognizing the ultimate sacrifice of nearly 27,000 men, women and children who have fallen in battle or been murdered in acts of terror.

It’s no coincidence that this week’s Torah reading, Shemini, contains the story of the dramatic, sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the eldest sons of Aharon the High Priest, during the consecration of the Mishkan.

Moshe attempts to console his brother:

  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן  הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד (ויקרא י:ג)

Then Moshe said to Aharon: “This is what Hashem meant when He said ‘Through those near to Me I shall be sanctified, and will be honored before all the people.’” (Vayikra 10:3)

Many of our commentators, including Rashi and Ibn Ezra, view their action favorably, crediting them as righteous individuals who died performing a holy act.

Their comments are based on the words of the Sages in the Midrash:

“Moshe said to Aharon: My brother, I knew that this House was to be sanctified by those who are beloved of God, and I thought it would be either through me or through you; but now I see that it has been sanctified through Nadav and Avihu – they are greater than you and I.” (Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta d’Miluim 2:23)

Aharon’s response to Moshe’s words is telling:

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן (ויקרא י:ג)

This is generally translated as, “And Aharon was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3)

But the word דום does not merely connote silence – for if that’s what the Torah wished to communicate, the verse would state: וישתוק אהרון.

Rather, דום represents the peace that comes over Aharon with the acceptance and realization that his family has contributed and has paid for the concretizing God’s presence in this world.

In many ways, Moshe’s words, quoting God, “בקרובי אקדש” – “I shall be sanctified through those near to Me”, is the message of Yom Hazikaron.

All those who have sacrificed a promising future, giving their lives – in sanctification of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, which Rav Kook called 

 יסוד כסא ה’ בעולם (אורות, עמ’ קס)

the foundation for the throne of God in this world. (Orot, pg 160)

In every community, synagogue, school and workplace throughout Israel, there is an Aharon.

Mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters and children who stand דום for their fallen loved ones like Aharon, in silent recognition of the price they have paid for the safety and future of our people in Israel and throughout the world.

Like Aharon, their silence conveys inconsolable sadness alongside a fierce pride that their loved ones have helped guarantee the spiritual and physical redemption of our people.

Irrespective of the degree of their observance of the mitzvot, they and their fallen loved ones are the holiest.

Perhaps this is all best summed up by Rav Soloveitchik, whose yahrzeit was observed last week.

In the mid-1960’s, the Rav discussed whether or not there was halakhic holiness to the flag of the State of Israel.

Although he maintained that Judaism negates imbuing holiness into physical objects, he nonetheless pointed to a law in the Shulchan Aruch indicating that one who has been murdered by a non-Jew must be buried in his clothes, so that his blood may be seen and avenged – a law based on the verse in the Book of Yoel that says, “I will hold (the gentile) innocent, but not in regard to the blood which they have shed.” (Yoel 4:21)

This indicated to the Rav that physical clothing acquires sanctity when spattered with the blood of martyrdom. 

The Rav continued:

“How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence, defending the country and the population (religious and non-religious, because the enemy knows no difference).

It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice.

We are all enjoined to honor the flag and treat it with respect.”  (Five Addresses, page 139)

May the memories of our kedoshim, our holy soldiers who have given their lives while protecting ours, and the victims of terror, be a blessing to their families and to all of Am Yisrael. 

We miss them. We love them. And we will never forget them.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Tzav 5781 / Shabbat HaGadol
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Making the World and Ourselves Whole Again: Freedom’s Opportunity

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Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36)

“Making the World and Ourselves Whole Again: Freedom’s Opportunity”

 With Pesach starting right after Shabbat, I want to highlight two interconnected moments at the Seder that provide an extraordinary insight into ourselves and our responsibility to the world.
 
The first moment occurs early in the Seder, when we perform the ritual known as Yachatz: we take the middle matzah and break it into two, leaving the smaller piece with the other two, whole matzot.
 
What do we do with the larger piece of the broken middle matzah? Not surprisingly, there are several customs; some people give it to a child at the Seder to hold or to hide; while others have the custom that a child “steals” it and holds it “hostage” in exchange for the “ransom” known as the Afikoman present. 
 
Either way, the larger piece involves the participation of a child – if one is present at the Seder.

The piece, once returned to the table, is eaten at the end of the meal in the section of the Seder known as “Tzafun”.

I have a few questions:

1) Why do we have a ceremony to break the middle matzah? There are plenty of broken pieces of matzah in every one of our matza packages, why don’t we just use them to begin with, rather than actively break a complete matzah in two?

2) What is the meaning of the childrens’ role in this particular ritual?

3) The eating of this broken piece of the matzah has its own “billing” in the Seder: the uncommon word “Tzafun”, which means “hidden”. What is the significance of this ritual and its name?

I would like to suggest that the breaking of the matzah into two pieces is a statement. 

That even as we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we must be mindful of the fact that there are so many people with broken hearts, broken lives; things that are still broken in our world; and so much opportunity for us as free people to galvanize and transform the world around us.

And it is no coincidence that at this profound moment of acknowledgement of our reality, we purposely bring in the next generation, demonstrating to them that we can’t defeat the challenges that we face alone. 

By engaging our children we signal to them that it must be a multi-generational effort.

We teach them that just as we inherited a broken world from the previous generation and are doing our best to fix it, they, too, are still inheriting a broken world unique to their generation, and it is incumbent upon them to make it better.

While this symbolism is happening on a macro level, on the micro level, it’s even deeper, because it’s not only the world that’s broken. Each and every one of us is fractured in one way or another.

Each of us has talents, significant pieces of ourselves, like the larger section of the broken matzah, which are hidden. Potential that we haven’t yet actualized.

The matzah that has been hidden or stolen from us represents the fact that there are pieces of our potential that haven’t even been revealed to us yet. 

And this is why the peak of the matza-breaking ritual – which began earlier with Yachatz – is consumed at “Tzafun”, meaning “hidden”.

Because when we eat the Afikoman, we are not simply eating a broken piece of matzah, we are internalizing the reality of the hidden potential in the world around us… and the hidden potential in the world within us.

At this year’s Seder, let’s be conscious of the messages we’re conveying through our rituals, reminding ourselves that we are part of a multi-generational effort to make our world – and ourselves – whole.

The true responsibility that comes with the gift of freedom.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher V’Sameach

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

“Obsession, Alienation and Finding a Spiritual Balance

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Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 )

Obsession, Alienation and Finding a Spiritual Balance”

What happens when spirituality becomes suffocating? When we act by rote rather than by creative engagement? Is there only one way to connect with God? Or are there multiple paths to spirituality?
 
Welcome to the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus, which is all about spirituality and kedusha – holiness – whether in relation to spaces imbued with holiness such as the Mishkan; people imbued with holiness such as Kohanim; times imbued with holiness such as Shabbat and holidays; or everyday interactions between people, which are also imbued with holiness.
 
Vayikra delineates the laws that the Jewish People must follow in order to live up to our responsibility of being a Holy Nation.
 
In fact, the book is so focused on these laws that, unlike the other four books of the Torah which are filled with narratives, here in the Book of Vayikra, there are only two stories.

The first and more prominent story involves the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu – two sons of Aaron, the High Priest who, at the moment of the consecration of the Tabernacle take their own fire pans and offer a strange fire to God.

We’re told that when they bring foreign offerings of incense:

 ותצא אש מלפני ה  

 and a fire went out from God

 ותאכל אותם 

and consumed them

וימותו לפני ה

 and they died before God. (Leviticus 10:2)

Then there is the second, less well-known story.

וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית וְהוּא בֶּן אִישׁ מִצְרִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the People of Israel

And following an altercation with an Israelite man, the Torah states:

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל

And the son of the Israelite woman (and Egyptian father) cursed the Name of God. (Leviticus 24:10)

This act of blasphemy is a capital offense for which he is executed.

Why are these the only two stories placed in the Book of Vayikra? What message do they hold for us regarding the theme of spirituality?

I believe that both these stories are included to alert us to the potential dangers that can arise in our quest for spirituality.

The story of Nadav and Avihu shows us that even if one’s intent is pure, there are surely limits to what is permitted in the effort to attain higher levels of spirituality.

That one may not pursue a relationship with God at all costs, without boundaries. That the end does not justify the means.

I find the second story even more interesting.

A troubled, marginalized young man denounces his community and blasphemes God, and ultimately pays for it with his life.

Where did this man come from? What drove him to this rebellion?

This story shows us what happens when overbearing limits are placed on the range of acceptable religious expression based on the comfort levels of our community – rather than on actual Jewish law.

Perhaps the story of the Megadef, the one who curses God, is about a young man for whom the religious environment is suffocating.

The Torah tells us that this man is the child of an intermarriage. He was the child on the block who we told our kids not to talk to or play with.

He was the child we preferred not to talk about in our community.

We dismissed him by saying he is not like us. And by excluding him, we stifled his spiritual development.

We didn’t help him find the proper vehicles of connection and made his religious environment toxic. So when he curses God, we are also responsible! Because we are the ones who alienated him from his community and his God.

We will be reading a lot about the lofty ideals of holiness and spirituality in Leviticus.

But let’s also consider what we can do to make it accessible to everyone, especially those who might not fit neatly into the box of our norms and expectations.

Welcome to the Book of Leviticus, where holiness and spirituality must be accessible through multiple portals of entry and celebrated by all of the Jewish People together each in their own way.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“The Cloud of Clarity in a World of Doubt

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20)

“The Cloud of Clarity in a World of Doubt”

One of the most challenging events, even for the most experienced of pilots is flying in fog, in cloud cover. For pilots that are not skilled, cloud cover, fog is an extremely dangerous and a potentially deadly hazard.

Tragically, each year people are killed due to fog/cloud related aviation accidents. Low visibility, low ceilings and instrumentation failure is caused due to clouds/fog. 

And so it is very curious that throughout the Torah, the word “Anan” – cloud / fog – confusion and a lag of clarity, is used to represent the very real imminence of God’s Presence.

In Parshat Noach, after the flood a cloud signifies the renewal of the relationship between God and His creation:

וְהָיְתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת בֶּעָנָן וּרְאִיתִיהָ לִזְכּור בְּרִית עוֹלָם
בֵּין אֱלֹקים וּבֵין כָּל נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה בְּכָל בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֶץ׃
 

When the rainbow is in the cloud,
I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant
between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. (Genesis 9:16)

At Mount Sinai, clouds represent the Presence of God. 

…וַיְהִי קולות וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר..

…and there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain…

(Exodus 19:16)
We also find this symbolism at the end of this week’s Torah portions of Vayakhel/ Pekudei, at the moment of the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle:
וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אוהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן
And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting,
and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.
 
וְלֹא יָכול מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Moshe could not enter into the Mishkan/Tabernacle
 
כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן 
because the cloud covering was there
and as the verse continues:
וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן  
and the Presence of God therefore filled the Tabernacle.  
(Exodus 40:34-35)

Why is it that cloud cover represents God’s Presence?

What is it about the Anan that symbolizes an engagement between God and humankind?

I’d love to hear your answer to this. It has always bothered me.  

I’d like to suggest that it’s because our relationship with God can sometimes be clouded, complicated.  

For you and I to have a relationship with God, it doesn’t mean that there is complete clarity in the relationship.

Like flying within the fog, our spiritual instrumentation can be disturbed; can lack balance or clarity of navigation.

And that’s okay.

So if our relationship with God, or belief in Him, is not perfect, that’s okay.

If a lack of clarity leads to doubts, that’s understandable.

If we question, that’s fine.

If we don’t understand, that’s to be expected.

There are moments in our lives when we may feel clarity in our relationship with God, but there are also many moments when we have questions, when we’re not so sure about things.

God appearing in cloud cover is telling us: “Its alright. I will be with you even when you are experiencing a lack of clarity.”

Lack of clarity can sometimes be unnerving and frightening.

Yet even this type of relationship with God can still be transformational and spiritually uplifting.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Hope that Emerges from Tragedy

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

Hope that Emerges from Tragedy

History teaches that out of tragedy rises strength and opportunity. 

A prime example is World War II, one of the worst disasters in history. As a son and son-in-law of survivors, our families were decimated, as well as 75 million people who were killed during that time.

Yet in the post-World War II era, new technologies that had been developed during wartime – in addition to the improvement of existing ones – flourished in various industries across the United States and the world, helping make that time period one of the best on record for productivity and economic growth. 

Another example comes from nature. 

After a fire sweeps through a forest and consumes the area’s vegetation, the forest regenerates with a high degree of regrowth. Fascinatingly, studies show that second-growth forests can look very different from what they replaced.

The common narrative is that in the aftermath of tragedy, whether man-made or natural, there is a change, often positive, within the reality of life as we’ve known it.

So there will definitely be changes as we exit this pandemic. 

There will be changes in the way we communicate, in the way that our communities and government are organized, and so much more.

It may be too early to predict with precision what those changes will be, but changes are on the way.

This idea that out of tragedy comes opportunity and hope is also seen in our Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa, where we read about the tragic sin of the golden calf.

The Jewish people, at the height of revelation, fall into an idolatrous stupor and fashion a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6).

But out of the chaos and tragedy of this moment arises a new reality, one containing new opportunities for the Jewish people.

Out of the tragedy of the golden calf incident, the institution of the Mishkan and the Mikdash are born (Rashi to Exodus 31:18); the physical structure through which the Jewish people are able to communicate and engage with God in the way that they need.

And also born out of the tragedy of the golden calf is a new paradigm for the role of the Jewish people in the development of the Torah.

As a result of this change, the Torah is no longer just a written law. The Torah now also contains an oral tradition, one in which the Jewish people play an active role (Talmud, Gittin 60b on Exodus 34:27).

The Jewish people are no longer just the guardians of the Torah; they are empowered to become its parchment by becoming its living interpreters, developers  and teachers.

Parshat Ki Tisa teaches us that there is a horizon of hope for when this pandemic ends.

It reminds us that from forest fires comes new natural growth, and even from the deepest tragedy or war or pandemic comes renewed – and perhaps even improved – existence.

So, what will our post-pandemic world look like?

Much of it depends on us.

The challenge that the Jewish people faced after the golden calf – and the challenge that we face now – is to seize new opportunities and lessons we have learned in order to help improve society, better ourselves and to become more invested in the world around us.

Please God, may we succeed in this test of history.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander: Helping Agunot and spreading the light of Purim Rabbi Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, comes to the Arutz Sheva studio to discuss two important initiatives Yoni Kempinski , Feb 25 , 2021 On the occasion of Yom HaAguna, International Aguna Day, Arutz Sheva speaks with Rabbi Kenneth Brander. Rabbi Brander …

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

“There’s No Such Thing As Standing Still”

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Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 25:1- 27:19)

“There’s No Such Thing As Standing Still”

We’re in the middle of several Torah readings that discuss the details of things which, at first glance to many people, appear to be disconnected from our contemporary lives.

We may ask, “What is the relevance of the detailed description of the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle?

“Why do we need to know about the intricate design of its vessels, or about how the clothing was fashioned for the Kohen – the priest – and the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest? 

One example is the vessel that is mentioned both in last week’s parsha, and in this week’s parsha – the altar. 

The מִזְבֵּחַ הַנְּחוֹשֶׁת  – the Bronze Altar – measured 13 feet or nearly 4 meters high, and we learn from it a message relevant for everyone, especially in these challenging times.

The Kohen clearly needed to ascend to the top somehow, in order to prepare the offering and the libations on the site.

But how was he to get there?

“וְלֹא תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלות עַל מִזְבְּחִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ עָלָיו”

“Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Exodus 20:26)

The Torah specifically forbids the Kohen from using steps. Instead, he must ascend using a ramp.

What is the difference between a ramp and steps?

And how does a ramp solve the problem raised in the verse about exposing his nakedness?

Why is one mandated and one prohibited?  

In using steps one has three choices: to go up, to go down or to stay in the same place.

Yet when using a ramp, one has only two options: either go up or go down.

On a ramp, there is no plateau on which to remain comfortably in place.

On the contrary, if you try to stand in place on a ramp, momentum leads you to slide backward.

The Altar, which symbolizes our commitment to sacrifice for our relationship with God, reminds us that in all relationships in our lives, we are either going up or going down.

There is no such thing as plateau-ing in our closest relationships, whether with God, our spouse, our children, or any other relationship, we are either in a state of growth or decline.

If we really wish to treat our most important relationships with the attention they deserve to ensure that they are always in a state of growth and vitality – we must ascend the ramp!

Continuously working on our relationships, investing our most precious resources, time and emotions in them.This is the timeless message that the Torah shares with us through depicting the construction of this one vessel. Messages can be found in the analysis of all the Temple structures

May we find the strength to be engaged in the ongoing process of growth and ascension in our closest relationships, both with God and with others in our family, cmmty and society.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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

“The Dialectic of Purim: Fighting Amalek and Valuing Every Human Life”

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Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1- 27:19)

“The Dialectic of Purim: Fighting Amalek and Valuing Every Human Life”

Next month, students from Ohr Torah Stone’s two hesder yeshivot and three seminaries for women will be starting their service in the IDF.

Until that time, they will continue to study day and night in their batei midrash. Some are studying the complicated  chapter of חזקת הבתים , the third chapter of Baba Batra which deals with presumptive ownership; rights of possession and privacy; and respect for public spaces.

What a remarkable phenomenon! A group of 250 young men and women who will be serving in Israel’s elite IDF units prepare for their military service by studying the laws that govern how to create a productive, civil society and a spiritual connection with God.

There is a larger message here: Judaism never celebrates wars and their victories. Rather, we focus on perpetuating life and human rights.

On Chanukah when the land of Israel was freed from the Greek Hellenists, our holiday focuses not on the Maccabees military victory rather on the religious freedoms achieved and our reentry into the Temple. Shabbat 21b

On Pesach, on the day in which the Jewish people cross the Yam Suf, we do not recite a complete Hallel liturgy, because in that redemptive moment our Egyptian taskmasters were drowned. Mishnah Brurah 490:7

In the upcoming holiday of Purim that we clearly see this dialectic, starting with the pre-Purim Torah reading, Parshat Zachor, that we read this week.

Parshat Zachor reminds us of the Biblical mandate to wipe out the nation of Amalek. Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Who is this nation, and why must we remember to destroy them?

Maimonides writes that since the Seven Canaanite nations no longer exist, the commandment to remove them is no longer applicable. But, he says, the mitzvah to obliterate the nation of Amalek remains operative. Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars, 5:4-5

How is it possible that we remain commanded to destroy something that no longer exists?

Rav Soloveitchik explains in the name of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, that Amalek is more than an extinct nation lost to history. Rather, Amalek represents an eternal ideology bent on destroying the Jewish people. Kol Dodi Dofek, Footnote 23

This is why it remains a Biblical requirement for us, as a nation, to wipe out anyone who adopts that Amalek ideology.

I am sharing this message with you at the precise spot where Dvir Sorek, ז”ל – a student at our Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, a young man who wholeheartedly pursued Jewish-Arab co-existence as a core value – was murdered in cold blood, in an act of Amalek – an act of terrorism.

We will lovingly remember Dvir his life and legacy forever.

But at the same time that we commit to the necessity of destroying the ideology of Amalek, on Purim we simultaneously exhibit a commitment to the sanctity of life.

On Taanit Esther, the day before Purim, we fast. Because it was on that day that we engaged in battle in order to defend ourselves, and even though we triumphed, we remember in sadness that we were forced to take the lives of others – even our enemies. Mishnah Brurah 686:2

Purim focuses on the unity necessary within our people to guarantee redemption.

The unity that is found in giving mishloach manot gifts to our neighbors, matanot l’evyonim to help those facing challenging times.

B’ezrat Hashem, the time will soon come when all Israeli young adults will no longer need to train for war.

In the meantime, we will continue to prepare them with the tools they will need to survive while giving them the spiritual wings to thrive and build meaningful lives.We will work to celebrate the dual identity of Purim.  For the sake of the Jewish people and all of humanity, may we succeed in this crucial endeavor.

Shabbat Shalom.The Dialectic of Purim: Fighting Amalek and Valuing Every Human Lif

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

“And these are the laws”: Connecting Sinai with Everyday Living

 

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“And these are the laws”: Connecting Sinai with Everyday Living

This year I am reading Parshat Mishpatim with sadness.

I ask myself in front of all of you are we fulfilling the mandate of this parsha, which focuses on our responsibility to create a just and civil society?

We who set ourselves to be the most committed to Judaism continue to flout safety measures that were enacted to save lives.

We see images of hundreds of people attending weddings in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, where many people become infected and unwittingly act as super spreaders to elderly members of their family, their children and everyone they are in contact with.

We see thousands gathering for the funerals of great rabbinical leaders. Is this how we honor the lives and legacies of these tzaddikim? By knowingly flouting the law and spreading a devastating virus?

Yeshiva break is celebrated by thousands making a pilgrimage to Orlando & South Florida only to be found crowded and unmasked in restaurants and other public venues.

Our hospitals are flooded with so many people who are ill and in need of care.

So, no, I do not think that we are fulfilling the mandate of this week’s parsha.

The very first words of Mishpatim give us a clue to how important it is to be kind, thoughtful careful and just:

ואלה המשפטים” – “And these are the laws”. Exodus 21:1

The parsha that speaks about detailed laws begins with the letter Vav, the word “and”, indicating that the laws of our parsha do not stand alone.

No, the laws are a continuation of last week’s parsha, Yitro, in which we received  the Torah.

The laws of mundane living are part of the Divine revelation. It is about imbuing the ideals of the Torah in the everyday.

The Talmud tells us in the name of Rav Yehuda, “One who wishes to be pious should study the laws of נזיקין, the laws of torts, the laws of a civil society.” Bava Kamma 30a

That is why so many begin their study of the vast sea of Talmud with the tractates of Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra, tractates which are based on the laws discussed in this week’s Torah portion.

Laws relating to the vulnerable members of society with kindness; laws of financial ethics; property management and capital punishment. Laws regarding our responsibility to heal the sick; to behave ethically in business, and so much more.

Ultimately, the Torah obligates us to transform ourselves into a ממלכת כהנים – a priestly nation – וגוי קדוש, a holy society. This can only happen when we create the kind of society that is careful about how we treat one another. Exodus 19:6

When will we finally learn that the true manifestation of serving God is found in the details of  laws like “ורפא ירפא”, of making sure that we and those around us are healthy? Exodus 21:19

When will we finally heed the directives of respected medical professionals with the same mandated responsibility of “נעשה ונשמע, of dutifully obeying and only questioning later? Exodus 24:7

I am sad as I read Parshat Mishpatim this year because while in so many ways our service to God has increased and become more committed, it is clear that we have forgotten the message of the juxtaposition between receiving the Torah with our responsibility to create a civil society that looks after the needs and well-being of others.

Parshat Mishpatim ends with another revelation of God

Nachmanides points out that this revelation is different from the one found in Yitro prior to receiving the Torah. Ramban on Exodus 24:1

Unlike the prior this revelation has no barriers between God and the Jewish people.

For the revelation of Misphatim is not rooted in the theoretical, it is anchored in the holiness found in the mundane – in the every day.

May we merit to experience that pristine engagement with God internalizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim, fully engaging in our responsibility in building a holy society once again.

Shabbat Shalom.