shavuot

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

“Celebrating Everyday Miracles”

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Parshat Korach (Diaspora) and Parshat Chukat (Israel)

“Celebrating Everyday Miracles

The Gemara in Taanit tells us that there were three miraculous gifts given to the Jewish People every single day while they were in the desert for 40 years: the “Anan” (the cloud cover), the “Mahn” (the manna) and the “Be’er” (the rolling well). [Taanit 9a]

The be’er, the Gemara says, is in the merit of Miriam, and therefore, when Miriam passes away in our parsha, the be’er stops giving water, as the verse states, “ולא היה מים לעדה”. [Numbers 20:2]

Immediately after Miriam passes away, there is no water for the Jewish People.

The Gemara continues:

 “וחזרה בזכות שניהם”

Due to Moshe’s and Aharon’s pleading with God, the water from the well resurfaces and gives the Jewish People water.

Rashi explains that Miriam’s Well is actually a rock that’s filled with water that rolls with them from place to place. [Rashi on Taanit 9a (“The Well of Miriam”)]

The Tosefta in Sukkah actually explains the protocol of how this rock-well of Miriam dispensed water throughout the 40 years in the desert. [Tosefta Sukkah 3:3]

And it is that rock-well that Moshe strikes with the staff. [Numbers 20:11]

Miriam is always synonymous with deliverance, especially from water. After all, it is Miriam who watches over baby Moshe in the water. [Exodus 2:4]

It is Miriam who helps the Egyptian princess save Moshe. [Exodus 2:7-10]

And if you look at Miriam’s name, the word “mayim” (water / מרים) is found in it.

And even the name is really a conjunction of two words “mar” and “yam”,

(“מר”  and”ים“)

…the bitterness that happens in a body of water, which Miriam transforms.

When the Jews cross the Sea of Reeds, it is Miriam who leads the women in song.

“ותען להם מרים”
“And Miriam sang to them”
[Exodus 15::21]

Miriam says:

“ ‘שירו לה’”
“Let us, as a group of women, come together, sing and dance to celebrate this open miracle of God.”

And therefore, in this week’s Torah portion, when Miriam passes away and is buried there, all of a sudden there’s a crisis of no water:

“ולא היה מים לעדה”
“and there was no water for the community”
[Numbers 20:2]

And they therefore complain to Moshe and Aharon. Moshe argues with the Jewish People:

 

“שמעו נא המרים:”
“Understand, rebels:”

“המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים”
“Do you expect me to be like my sister, who was able to get water from a stone?!”
[Numbers 20:10]

Even the word “המורים”, which in the Sefer Torah lacks the letter “vav”, can be read as “שמעו נא המרים”, which also spells “Miriam”.

Moshe says: “Do you expect me to be like Miriam, you rebels, and give you the gift of water? That was Miriam’s greatness, not mine!”

After Moshe pleads with God – and there are mistakes that Moshe makes in this process, that we’ve discussed in the past – this well resurfaces. And then the Jewish people, after the resurfacing of this well, sing a song to God:

“אז ישיר ישראל את השירה הזאת”
[Numbers 21:17]

This song to God is the second shira (song) in the Torah. Unlike the overt miracle that happens once in history – the Jewish people crossing through the Yam Suf – this celebrates a miracle that happens every single day for 40 years.

And there’s a deep message in there for each and every one of us: sometimes we forget the daily miracles that occur in life. The Jewish people forgot that.

They are only reminded about it when there are a few days where that miracle, that gift, is lost; in this case, clean water.

What a powerful message for each and every one of us.

We sometimes forget the gifts that God gives us:

the fact that we have a beating heart;

the fact that we are blessed with family and friends;

the fact that we have the capacity to live free lives.

These are all gifts that God gives us, and we take them for granted.

The power of prayer is to remind us not just of the miracles that happened once in history.

The power of prayer, the opportunity of prayer, the brilliance of prayer, is to give us the capacity to recognize for ourselves and to God the miracles that happen every single day, as the Jewish people recognize in this week’s Torah portion after they lose water for a short period of time.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“What is Our Contribution to the Holiness of the Jewish People?”

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Parshat Shelach (Diaspora) and Parshat Korach (Israel)

“What is Our Contribution to the Holiness of the Jewish People?

In Parshat Shelach and Parshat Korach, there are two rebellions against God. They are fundamentally different in their ethos.

Shelach is a spontaneous rebellion. It is a result of a dream of the Jewish people, a dream that was already born in Egypt:

וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ
I’m going to bring you to this promised land.
[Exodus 6:8]

This is a dream that Yitro and Moshe also discuss:

נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם
We’re traveling to this wonderful place that God has promised us.
[Numbers 10:29]

It’s this dream that comes to a screeching halt when the dream of the nation collapses;

there is panic and rebellion.

In the case of Korach, it’s not a massive mob rebellion: out of the millions of people of Israel, only 250 rebel.

But there is a conspiracy to this rebellion: Korach waits until Moshe and Aharon’s popularity has waned, which is exactly what happens after the incident in Parshat Shelach, because Korach thinks it’s unfair that Aharon becomes the Kohen and not his family; and that Moshe is the leader and not his family.

His colleagues and co-conspirators, the Bnei Reuven, are upset that as children of Yaakov’s eldest son, they receive no leadership responsibilities.

Therefore:

וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח
And Korach took…
[Numbers 16:1]

Korach dedicates himself, focused on destroying Moshe and Aharon. As Rashi explains, he takes himself out of everything else to undermine Moshe and Aharon. [Rashi to Leviticus 16:1]

And as Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, in order for this conspiracy – or for any conspiracy – to work, it must begin with an ideology. Korach has two points. We will focus on one of them. He states:

כׇל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה’
[Numbers 16:3]

“Every Jew has unique holiness. We are, after all, the Chosen People. It is part of our spiritual DNA. Moshe, you are no different than the wood chopper or the water drawer.”

And therefore:

וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה’
“Why do you, Moshe and Aharon, usurp yourself over the Jewish people?”
[Ibid.]

Korach is correct. There is a covenantal holiness of being part of the Jewish people. And in that holiness, there is no difference between the greatest sage – the “gadol hador” – and the Jew who can’t read.

As the Torah tells us:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ
“You are a holy people.”
[Deuteronomy 14:2]

And as Rashi explains, it’s a holiness that comes from being part of the Jewish people. [Rashi to Deuteronomy 14:2]

However, there is another paradigm of sanctity that comes from the individual: the sanctity of the individual is distinct and unique.

The greatness that each and every one of us has as an individual is not the same.

It is proportional to my personal engagement with God.

And therefore, the verse continues:

וּבְךָ בָּחַר ה’
[Deuteronomy 14:2]

Each one of us has a unique relationship with God. Yes, we are all part of Knesset Yisrael, there is a holiness that is top-down. But there is also a holiness that is bottom-up. It’s what we contribute to the mix.

Community holiness arises from what the individual contributes, and therefore Moshe says:

בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע ה’ אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ
[Numbers 16:5]

In the morning, “boker” – a word meaning “clarity” – we will be able to discern who can lead and who does not lead.

There’s a message here, and that is, we are holy as an entity, yes, but the holiness that we bring to the entity as individuals is so profound.

And Moshe is explaining that’s what God will testify to in His conversation between Moshe, Aharon and Korach.

So this parsha leads us with the following question: what is our contribution to the holiness of the Jewish people?

What do we do in our everyday lives to make the holiness of the Jewish people continue to grow and develop?

What do we do, as members of the Jewish people, to make a difference?

Korach doesn’t understand that, yes, it’s true, we’re part of a unique community, but part of that uniqueness comes with the responsibility for each and every one of us to contribute to changing our society and to enhancing the holiness of what it means to be God’s junior partner in the continued evolution of the creation process.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Beha’alotcha/Shelach 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“The Rupture Between the Trees of Life and Knowledge:
The Sin of the Mekoshesh Eitzim”

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Parshat Beha’alotcha (Diaspora) and Parshat Shelach (Israel)

“The Rupture Between the Trees of Life and Knowledge:
The Sin of the Mekoshesh Eitzim

When we think of Parshat Sh’lach, we think about the episode of the Jewish people failing to be able to enter into the Promised Land. It takes up most of the verses of the parsha. [Numbers 13-14]

But there is a related story that’s only five verses short, which focuses on a very complicated story: an individual who goes unnamed, who violates the Shabbat. [Numbers 15:32-36]

Why is this story important? What is its message?

Indeed, Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, feels the need to unveil the anonymity of the person, and suggest that the person who violates the Shabbat is Tzelafchad. [Shabbat 96b]

He is attacked by his colleagues: “Rabbi Akiva, you’re the one who always tells us, ‘Love thy neighbor as you love yourself’! Why do you need to unmask who this person is? If you’re right, it was the wrong thing to do; and if you’re wrong – if that’s not what Tzelafchad did – you’re blaming him for something that he didn’t commit!”

The Ba’alei Kabbalah, the Kabbalists, look at this story and they review the story in the following fashion: accompanying the Jewish people is the Eitz HaChayyim and the Eitz HaDa’as. [Zohar 3:157a]

The Eitz HaChayyim, which we find in the Garden of Eden, represents the idea of spirituality, the idea of ethereal concepts, and the Eitz HaDa’as represents the idea of the physical world and finding God in the physical world, not only in ethereal concepts.

Our job is to merge the Eitz HaChayyim, the spiritual concepts, and the Eitz HaDa’as, the intellectual, physical world, into one.

Indeed, the whole theme of Shabbat is that idea of merging the physical and the spiritual into one. It’s an island in time.

Moshe Rabbeinu highlights that this truly is the message of living in the Land of Israel, and he asks the meraglim, he asked the representatives regarding the land:

“היש בה עץ אם אין?”
“Is there a tree in it or not?”
[Numbers 13:20]

Will you be able to find the tree that represents both the Eitz HaChayyim, the spiritual ideals, and the Eitz HaDa’as, the physical ideas, into one?

Will you be able to understand the message of the Land of Israel, the spiritual and the physical fused to one?

The representatives failed to understand that message of the land of Israel, and the mekoshesh etzim – Tzelafchad, according to the Kabbalists – walks into the garden that is accompanying the Jewish people, and he separates the tree that represents the physical and the spiritual.

Because the trauma that has been created is that, in the desert, “BaMidbar”, it’s impossible to be able to merge the physical and the spiritual into one.

The reason why the story is so critically important is that the story represents the aftermath of one individual who fails to understand the message of being able to merge the physical and the spiritual into one.

It’s a continuation of the calamity that happened with the emissaries into the land of Israel.

Rabbi Akiva lives his entire life of trying to fuse the spiritual and the physical together. That’s why Rabbi Akiva is the rabbi of General Bar Kokhba. His job is still to maintain the physical and the spiritual together, even in the most desperate of times.

There’s a continuum: we’re introduced to the challenge of the meraglim, the challenge of the emissaries.

Then we’re introduced to two commandments that speak about going into the Land of Israel, and only when we go into the Land of Israel to use the physical bounty of the Land of Israel in service to God, the merger of the Eitz HaDa’as, the physical, and the Eitz HaChayyim, and the spiritual, into one.

The trauma, once again, of the mekoshesh etzim, who tries to separate it, and the message that is relevant to each and every one of us: to recognize the fact that in our life, we cannot be mekoshesh etzim, we can’t separate the physical and the spiritual.

The challenge is to live in both worlds. We have to merge the Eitz HaDa’as and the Eitz HaChayyim. We can’t be ‘mekoshesh etzim’, we can’t uproot these trees.

We have to live under the shade of both of them, the shade of the physical and the shade of the spiritual.

And to realize when we are able to live with both of them fused together, we are able to achieve the goals of what it means to be part of the Chosen People, to be part of Knesset Yisrael and to make a difference in the creation and the development of this world.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Naso/Beha’alotcha 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Losing Our Youth: The Mistakes In Sefer Bamidbar That Continue To Plague Us”

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Parshat Naso (Diaspora) and Parshat Beha’alotcha (Israel)

“Losing Our Youth: The Mistakes In Sefer Bamidbar That Continue To Plague Us

Sefer Bamidbar: an amazing book that speaks to us about the journey of the Jewish People on its march to its destiny in the Land of Israel.

It begins with a counting and how to travel into the Land of Israel – which are communal in nature – but with a focus on “ish ish“, the unique gifts that every individual possesses. [1:4]

It continues with how to move the Tabernacle [Chapter 2], and with new institutions such as the Pesach Sheni: the opportunity to offer a second Pascal sacrifice in the Land of Israel, for those who are unable to offer the first Pascal sacrifice at the beginning of the holiday of Pesach. [9:1-14]

But a series of events then occur that delay the Jewish people from entering the Land of Israel and actualizing their opportunity to be a nation with their own destiny.

These events stem from a lack of respect for the recognition of the holiness of the other.

For instance, Aharon and Miriam challenge the unique qualities of Moshe. [Chapter 12]

The Jewish people misunderstand the gift of materialism when it comes to the mannah [11:6] and remember the alleged delicacies that they had in Egypt. [11:5]

Their fundamental misunderstanding of the Land of Israel and its importance takes place in Parshat Shelach [Chapters 13 and 14]. Then we read of the rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon [Chapters 16 and 17]; and then a challenge between the nations of the world – represented by Balak and Bil’am – and the people of Israel. [Chapters 22-24]

As I read these stories, I am reminded that they deter us from actualizing our potential.

And I ask myself, haven’t we learned from the Book of Bamidbar?

How can it be that Orthodox Jews have forgotten how to talk to each other?

How can it be that the great dynasty of the Sefat Emet, the great dynasty of Ger, has forgotten how to talk to each other, to the point that there are fights between various groups and the police are compelled to intervene on Shabbat?

How can it be that we have forgotten how to talk to other Jews, particularly when we don’t agree with the way they celebrate their Judaism?

How can it be that on Yom Yerushalayim, when we celebrate the gift of receiving the Land of Israel and a united Jerusalem, that there is a small group – and I stress just a small group – of people who have forgotten the responsibility to treat minorities, to treat Muslims, with respect and dignity?

Haven’t we learned from the Sefer Bamidbar?

What pains me even more – and what even depresses me – is the fact that our young people are watching and listening.

Our young people are seeing that often what is important to us are the minutiae of Judaism and not the meta narratives.

And they don’t want to be part of such a Judaism that is so interested in minutiae that it forgets the major ideas that are part of our Holy Torah.

Sefer Bamidbar: the responsibility for us to march to our destiny; to watch what comes out of our mouth, to teach our children and grandchildren how to respect the other: other Orthodox Jews, other Jews in general and other people.

Sefer Bamidbar, which teaches us the responsibility to look at things in this world and recognize their greatness.

We don’t step away from materialism; we engage it through the prism of holiness.

The messages found in the parashot of Naso and Beha’alotcha, the idea of finding inner peace, the Birkat Kohanim and the responsibility to march to our destiny while respecting the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“The Book of Ruth and Receiving the Torah: Respecting the Humanity of Others”

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Parshat Bamidbar (Diaspora) and Parshat Naso (Israel)

“The Book of Ruth and Receiving the Torah: Respecting the Humanity of Others

On the holiday of Shavuot, we read Megillat Ruth, which focuses on the same period of history as the Book of Shoftim (Judges).

In fact, the Gemara tells us that the two books were written by the same author. [Bava Batra 14b]

And that’s why when you look at the books of Ruth and Shoftim, you will see that they have similar styles of language and similar themes.

In fact, Josephus, when he counts the books of Tanach, merges the Book of Ruth and the Book of Shoftim into one.

And there are several important contrasts between them that create a parallism.

The first is the way in which each book concludes:

בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם אֵ֥ין מֶ֖לֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֛ישׁ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
It was in these days, there was no King in Israel,
and therefore, everyone does what they want.

[Judges 21:25]

וְעֹבֵד֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת־יִשָׁ֔י וְיִשַׁ֖י הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־דָּוִֽד׃
And Oved begot Yishai, and Yishai begot David.
[Ruth 4:22]

In the former, anarchy reigns. In the latter, we read of the origins of the Davidic dynasty, answering the challenge at the end of the Book of Shoftim and heralding the Jewish People’s ultimate destiny.

Additionally, the Book of Shoftim is filled with stories of people who are anonymous, who are treated as objects.

For example, we will never know the name of Yiftach’s daughter, who pays the price for the narcissistic actions of her father. [Judges 11:30-40]

We will never know the name of the pilegesh of Giv’a who is abused, raped, killed, and then cut up into many pieces. [Judges, Chapter 19]

The Book of Shoftim treats people as objects, to the extent that sometimes their basic needs – food and water – aren’t provided, and they perish.

Professor Dr. Yael Ziegler explains that the Book of Ruth – and indeed, I think why we read it on Shavuot – is a “tikun” (a response) to what happens in the Book of Shoftim. [“Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy”, 2015, Koren Publishers]

Because in the Book of Ruth, we move from people who are anonymous, and we give them names.

We move from people being on the periphery, to the center of history, and to lives that have purpose.

Let’s look what happens to Ruth; let’s look what happens to Naomi: they were anonymous. They were cast aside. [Ruth, Chapter 1]

But then it takes a leader like Boaz, who doesn’t speak much in the book, but does something more important: he actively listens. [Ruth, Chapter 2]

And because he actively listens, he’s able to help the woman who is collecting the abandoned sheaves and allow her to become the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty.

In contrast, there’s another character in the Book of Ruth who is not willing to listen to Ruth or Naomi. He is referred to as “Ploni Almoni” (the Hebrew equivalent of “John Doe”). We don’t even learn his name; he is simply known as “Anonymous”. [Ruth 4:1]

This is because he thinks that leadership is about speaking, not about listening.

The Book of Ruth highlights the fact that in Judaism, the credo is to actively listen.

Yes, “Na’aseh”, but also “v’nishma”. [Exodus 24:7] Yes, we have to do, but actually, we have to listen.

We have to evaluate the situation.

The credo of the Jewish people is about “Sh’ma Yisrael”, it’s about listening. [Deuteronomy 6:4]

Torah she’b’al Peh, the entire Oral Tradition, is built on the words “ta sh’ma”, come and actively listen.

We follow the mandate of Beit Hillel and not the mandate of Beit Shammai because Beit Hillel listened to Beit Shammai and only then shared their opinion. [Eruvin 13b]

We read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, because if we are to celebrate a relationship with God, we must begin by actively listening.

We have to follow the message of Boaz.

We have to understand that the credo of the Jewish people is to actively listen.

Regarding members of our family: it’s not enough to love them, we have to respect them.

And regarding the Jewish people: it’s not enough to love them; we have to respect them, we have to actively listen.

The Book of Ruth, a response to the anonymity of the Book of Shoftim.

The Book of Ruth, which gives names to otherwise anonymous people, and which treats people not as objects but as human beings.

And all of this begins by listening to them.

And through that, the Mashiach is born.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

From Matza to Chametz: The Redemptive Journey of Pesach to Shavuot Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone Times are turbulent – war in Ukraine, riots in Jerusalem; a sense of anarchy in the economy and uncertainty with the stability of our government in Israel. It is a holiday …

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

“Shavuot, God and Creating Eternal Holiness”

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“Shavuot, God and Creating Eternal Holiness”

Did you ever wonder why, when it comes to the holiday of Pesach, Sukkot, or Rosh haShana or Yom Kippur, there are specific mitzvot to do- whether it’s eating matza and maror, sitting in the sukka or shaking lulav and etrog, hearing the shofar, or fasting. But when it comes to the holiday of Shavuot, which concretizes our relationship with God, there are no particular commandments! Eating cheesecake is not a biblical commandment. Why are there no particular commandments for the holiday of Shavuot?

I believe there is a deep message here for us. First, the acknowledgement of the fact that our relationship with God, which is fully celebrated on Shavuot, cannot be limited to a particular basket of commandments. It’s the way we engage with God every single day that’s important.

We take out 25 hours – or outside of Israel we take out two days – to reflect upon that perspective: that Shavuot is about the way we talk to our neighbors, how we fill out our tax forms, how we interact with our spouses, our children, our grandchildren, our parents. 

And that’s why it’s not limited to specific commandments. To highlight the fact that Shavuot requires us to realize that our engagement with God is based on our entire weltanschauung on life.

It is God who creates the holiness on Mount Sinai, and therefore when God leaves, the holiness dissipates. But in  the Temple, it wasn’t God alone that created the holiness; the holiness was created by the partnership with the Jewish people. Likewise our synagogues: the holiness may emanate from God, but that holiness is created because the energy of the community, the energy of the people. And when holiness is created in partnership, between God and the Jewish people, that holiness is eternal.

What an important message for us! We are the ones who guarantee the eternality of the holiness. We guarantee that holiness lasts forever. We play a role in the future of the Jewish people, in the future of society, and even – according to Rav Kook – in the future of God, in the future of God’s role within this world. 

And therefore Shavuot is not limited to a particular commandment. Holiness created in partnership with God lasts forever, and holiness that is created by God alone just lasts for a moment. 

What a power we have, the capacity to change the world! Let’s recognize that as we celebrate this holiday of Matan Torah, this holiday in which we also – in Israel at least – read on Shabbat the Parsha of Naso, of rising and playing a leadership role in our relationship with God, and let us understand that we need to take a moment back on Shavuot and ask ourselves how each and every one of us can change the world around us, can transform ourselves, and in the process, transform society around us. 

Chag Matan Torah Sameach, Chag Shavuot Sameach.