Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 -6:1) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Why is Joseph, the towering personality of the last four portions of the Book of Genesis, not considered the fourth patriarch of Israel? After all, he receives a …

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

“How Willing Are We To Help Others?”

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Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 -6:1

“How Willing Are We To Help Others?

The Gemara in Berakhot tells us a very interesting and compelling story about Rabban Gamliel, who took over as the president of the Sanhedrin after Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

[Rabban Gamliel] had challenges with some of the other rabbinic leaders, and after a rabbinic argument, he was going to the House of Rabbi Yehoshua to make peace. When he walks into the house of Rabbi Yehoshua, welcomed by Rabbi Yehoshua, he notices that Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, that the walls are blackened.

And he says to Rabbi Yehoshua: I knew you were a great scholar, but I didn’t know you’re also a metalsmith that had to do this work in order to be able to put food on the table.

Rabbi Yehoshua responds to Rabbi Gamliel and says: woe is it to this generation, that it has a leader who doesn’t know the pain of the colleagues that he is responsible for. [Berakhot 28a]

Moshe Rabbeinu becomes the leader of the Jewish people in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. But before he is appointed leader by God, we are introduced to three stories about Moshe.

The first is Moshe as an aristocrat, leaving the House of Pharaoh, and seeing a slave being oppressed by an Egyptian citizen. [Exodus 2:11-12]

“וירא כי אין איש” – And he sees that there’s no one willing to do anything about this. And so he does something to end the pain of the slave. He destroys the Egyptian citizen.

The second story is Moshe walking in the streets of Egypt, and he sees two Jews in an argument and he turns to them and says: “רשע למה תכה את רעך” – Why are you hurting the other Jew? [Exodus 2:13]

Moshe, again, is pained by the fact that two Jews can’t get along and wants to right that wrong.

And the third story is, after Moshe is forced to leave Egypt and he’s in the cities of Midian, he sees that shepherdesses, the daughters of Yitro, are being attacked by the other shepherds by the well, and Moshe steps in to be able to deal with the fight between these strangers, because he sees the injustice. [Exodus 2:16-17]

It is these three situations of injustice that Moshe sees that allows God to appoint him to be the quintessential leader of the Jewish people, because after all, you cannot lead if you don’t feel the pain of the other.

Rabbi Soloveitchik shared with us something unique about his grandfather. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s grandfather, who was the great composer of chidushim on the Rambam: Rabbi Chaim from the town of Brisk, the rabbi of Brisk, asked that on his tombstone, it just be listed that he is the “Av Beis Din d’Brisk”, the rabbi of Brisk.

And Rabbi Soloveitchik explained to us: because at the end of the day, what defines a leader is not his great drashot, is not his great sermons, nor is it his great chidushei Torah, his great exposition on the Rambam, but his willingness to be concerned about others.

And Rav Chaim of Brisk was concerned about the illegitimate child who had nowhere to go; he was concerned about the poor that didn’t have wood to fuel their homes; and he was concerned about the average person when he saw injustice occurring.

A leader has to be someone who feels the pain of others.

As we read the first parsha in the Book of Shemot and we speak about leadership, we have to ask ourselves: How do we respond to injustice? How do we respond to abuse? How do we respond to the issue of aguna? How do we respond when children aren’t being taken care of properly?

We have to follow the path of Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe becomes “Rabbeinu” when he can feel the pain of another human being, be it a Jew or a member of society.

Please God, we will internalize that message and be truly the children of God, making sure that His ways are ways of peace, and those ways of peace are followed throughout our society.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –“And Pharaoh commanded his entire nation saying, every male baby born must be thrown into the Nile, while every female baby shall be allowed to live.” (Exodus 1:22) In decreeing the destruction of the Israelites in Egypt, why does Pharaoh distinguish between the …

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

“Facing Down a World Power: Spiritual Resistance and Fighting Evil”

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“Facing Down a World Power: Spiritual Resistance and Fighting Evil”

One Shabbat morning, my wife and I were walking outside our apartment in the neighborhood of Katamon in Yerushalayim, a man was pushing a stroller down the street.

It’s a common sight in that neighborhood, so I didn’t think twice – until I noticed the man’s small green cap and suddenly realized that it was Natan Sharansky pushing one of his grandchildren! THE Natan Sharansky.

Personally, it was a thrill. A symbol of leadership that resisted the cruel Soviet regime and from whom we all drew endless amounts of inspiration.

In this week’s parsha, Shemot, we read of an earlier Jewish leader who protested a repressive, tyrannical dictatorship: Moshe Rabbeinu. 

In all the books of Tanach, we find only two instances of the use of the word “teivah”, or ark: Teivat Noach and Teivat Moshe. Genesis 6:14 and Exodus 2:3

Rabbi Amnon Bazak notes many similarities between these two teivot: both are constructed from vegetation and are covered with tar pitch to protect the contents inside; both are built to float in water; and both save the person (or persons) inside from certain death.

But there are also stark differences between the two arks. 

In the case of Teivat Noach God is the architect and watches over the ark during its operational activity, whereas Teivat Moshe it is built by his mother, Yocheved, and supervised during operations by his sister, Miriam.

Teivat Noach was necessary because humanity failed to confront evil and tyranny in their midst, and thus a reset button had to be pushed . 

In contrast, Teivat Moshe represents humanity’s capacity to challenge evil 

Rebel against the tyrannical regime of Pharaoh, 

The bravery of the righteous women who rose up in protest. 

Spared by their heroic efforts, Moshe grows up in the comfortable surroundings of that regime, but that does not dull his sense of justice. 

He confronts the Egyptian taskmaster; the two Jews fighting with each other; and the men at the well treating Yitro’s daughters unfairly.

And that is why Moshe becomes our leader, our teacher and ultimately the individual who has the most intimate communication with God.

The contrast with Noach is dramatic, and contains a vital lesson for us. Noach begins as a righteous man with potential, he starts off with God walking with him but ends up a drunkard. 

Moshe begins as an adopted  member of a family that promotes tyranny and darkness.

Goes out to his brothers sees the darkness confronts it and ends his life as the only person who walks in front of God.

Natan Shransky once wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “My KGB interrogators had dismissed this movement as ‘a bunch of students and housewives.’ But this bunch—coming by the thousands to the Soviet Union as tourists from the United States, Canada and Europe—formed a living bridge between the Free World and Soviet activists. The same students and housewives who rescued us from isolation succeeded in isolating the Soviet regime instead.”

The power of Teivat Moshe – Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter Batya, Moshe Rabbeinu, students and housewives in the 70’s & 80’s  and a Soviet Jew with a green cap named Sharansky .

Each of them marshalled their inner strength, stood up to evil and combatted tyranny. 

In doing so, they build their Teivat Moshe.

May we strive to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  The Book of Exodus begins the story of the people of Israel, the nation that developed from the household, or the family, of Jacob. Many are the differences between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus, but perhaps the …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Va’era 5780

“Pharaoh, Frankl & Maimonides:
Choose Your Way”

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“Pharaoh, Frankl & Maimonides: Choose Your Way”

Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and therapist, wrote books that are considered to be among the most powerful works of the twentieth century. He lived from March 26, 1905, to September 2, 1997, and survived at least four concentration camps. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp 65–66 he wrote:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”

Frankl is talking about what our rabbis called bechira chofshit: free will. In this week’s parsha, Parshat Va’era, God tells Moshe something extraordinary. “VeChizakti et lev Par’o,” “I am going to harden Pharaoh’s heart.”  He is not going to allow you to leave Egypt of his own free will. Maimonides, in his eight-chapter introduction to the six chapters of Pirkei Avot asks this very question.  “How can Pharaoh be held accountable if he lacks free choice? How can a person be punished if he cannot determine his own actions? “ His answer: Pharaoh was not punished for refusing to free the Jewish people once God hardened his heart. All of his punishment, including the hardening of his heart, is due to his criminal acts. He lost his ability to choose because of the way he interacted with the Jewish people prior to that point. The loss of free will, the loss of his humanity, was the first stage of his punishment. Free will is what makes us uniquely human. If we act inhumanely, we lose our ability to make moral choices. Our humanity becomes eroded. Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, reminds us that whatever challenges we face in life, unlike Pharaoh, God does not harden our heart. Even if we have health challenges, financial challenges, familial challenges, we can decide how we respond to the crises and the opportunities in our lives. Parshat Va’era reminds us that the greatest gift that God has given us is free will. Not even God can intervene with that. Viktor Frankl realized that, while the circumstances of our lives may sometimes be beyond our control, our response to them is our own choice, and, please God, let us engage and face our challenges in a way that will truly celebrate the greatest gift that humankind has, the gift of free will.

 Shabbat Shalom.

Exodus 7:3 – אֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה
Exodus 7:13 – וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה
Exodus 7:22 – וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה
Exodus 8:15 – וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה
Exodus 9:7 – וַיִּכְבַּד לֵב פַּרְעֹה
Exodus 9:12 – וַיְחַזֵּק יְקֹוָק אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה
Exodus 9:35 – יַּכְבֵּד לִבּוֹ הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Shemot 5780

“Living the Ideals of Chesed and Social Justice – A Necessary Requirement for Leaders”

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Parshat Shemot: Living the Ideals of Chesed and Social Justice – A Necessary Requirement for Leaders

Rav Chaim of Brisk (1853-1918) revolutionized the study of Talmud through his novel “Brisker” approach, and added new dimensions to our ability to understand that magnum opus of Jewish scholarship.  Talmud studies in any midrasha or yeshiva are greatly impacted by Rav Chaim’s textual analysis.

Rav Chaim lived in the Lithuanian town of Brisk and served as rabbi of the town, but was buried in Warsaw (that in itself is a story, but we won’t elaborate on it now). Rav Chaim requested that on his tombstone (not the one that marks his grave today, which was replaced after the original was destroyed by the Nazis) only the words “Av Beit Din d’Brisk” – Rabbi of Brisk – and “Ish Hesed” – a man of lovingkindness – be inscribed.

Rav Chaim did not want anything written about the books he composed, or the unbelievable advances in the study of Talmud be written.  He felt that the most important job he had as a Rav was not delivering amazing sermons or coming up with incomparable chiddushei Torah, but rather to be a “Rav Chesed” – a man who performed acts of lovingkindness.

In the middle of his tenure as a rabbi, almost all of Brisk was destroyed in a fire. While the homes of the wealthy were soon rebuilt, those of the poor were not; Rav Chaim went and slept on the front yards of those homes, until they were rebuilt.

When there were babies that were born out of wedlock, the parents knew that they could be placed in the home of Rav Chaim, this great Torah scholar, and he would make sure that the mamzerim and mamzerot of the Jewish people would be taken care of.

When he was given a shed full of wood to heat his home, his condition was that there was to be no lock on that shed, so that the poor could also use the wood as needed.

That was Rav Chaim.

Nechama Leibowitz so correctly tells us that before you are introduced to the quintessential leader of the Jewish people, before he can stand on the stage of leadership, we have to be introduced to his CV, those acts and traits which make him truly unique.

What makes Moshe unique is that he is a man of chessed. When he sees something that is wrong, whether it is social injustice between a master and a slave, social injustice between two oppressed people, or social injustice between two strangers, Moshe needs to get involved.

That is what makes Moshe a leader. This is the quality of genuine leadership.

And subsequently, when Moshe sees the burning bush, he says, “Asura Na, v’er’eh,” I’m going to go over and look, “madua lo yiv’ar ha’sneh?”- Why isn’t the bush being consumed by the fire? (Exodus 3:3)

That was Moshe’s greatness. When something was not right, out of character; when someone was being oppressed, Moshe expressed concern.

This is the message that Rav Chaim of Brisk highlights to us. When he is buried, he requests that his matzeva, his tombstone, not focus on his scholarly Torah contributions, but rather on his contributions in the realm of chessed.

Parshat Shemot reminds us that if we want to be redeemers in our lives – like Rav Chaim of Brisk, like Moshe Rabbeinu – we have to speak truth to power, not only through the study of Torah, but by taking those values and implementing them every day of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.