Torah insights

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

“The Big Picture AND the Fine Print”

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Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 -24:18

“The Big Picture AND the Fine Print

This week in Jerusalem, when you walked the beautiful streets of the city, you saw geysers of water on the rooftops of the apartment buildings.

You see, it was a very frigid week and the water heaters on the rooftops exploded, so you just saw water coming from the rooftops. It was like Jerusalem had its own set of Niagara Falls.

Because it was warm and then cold, the “stoppers” of the water heaters expanded and then contracted, and so it basically just broke into two with all the water flying out all over the place.

Left bottom photo credit: Erez Shiryon and Moshe Roseman

Last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, is about the beautiful meta-narrative of receiving the Torah: the pomp and circumstance, the stage, about our relationship, the marriage canopy, so to speak, between ourselves and God [Exodus, Chapters 19 and 20].

In this week’s Torah portion we’re introduced to the details. “Ve’eleh Hamishpatim”, ‘and these are the details’ [Ibid., Chapters 21 through 23]. The juxtaposition between the meta-narrative, the big picture, and the details, is critically important, highlighted by so many of our commentators.

What an important message for us, because, sometimes, in order to deal with big, grandiose ideas, you need to understand that the details, the small things, are critically important.

True, we can’t just deal with the details, because then we lose the larger message. But born into the details is the ability to implement the larger message.

Parshat Yitro was about the larger message. It’s about the need for us to inspire this message in ourselves, in our children and in our grandchildren; to speak about the larger message, and not to get focused just on the details.

But Parshat Mishpatim is about the fact that if you truly want to have a fidelity to the larger message, it has to be found in understanding the details.

After all, Shabbat is a beautiful meta-narrative, but it is only experienced when you’re connected and committed to the details.

Our responsibility to be a moral people and to engage people with respect is critical, but it can only be implemented via through the details that are found in the nooks and crannies of Parshat Mishpatim.

You can have a large water heater that contains 150 liters of water on your rooftop, but if the stopper, the small item that holds the water in place, expands and then contracts and shatters – if the small details are forgotten – then all of a sudden the water explodes all over the place.

The juxtaposition between Parshat Yitro and Mishpatim is not only a requirement in the Torah – therefore that “vav”, that connection, starts off this week’s Torah portion – it’s also true about our lives.

We always have to be committed to the larger narratives. And we have to share those larger narratives.

But we have to realize that those larger narratives in our lives, whether it’s in our relationships with our spouses, children, grandchildren and parents, or with God, really happen when we’re committed to the details that are found in Parshat Mishpatim and the details that are found in any important relationship in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“God, Holiness, and the Need for Human Initiative”

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Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 -20:23

“God, Holiness, and the Need for Human Initiative

God reveals himself in the most clairvoyant fashion in all of human history, when he gives us the Torah; when he gives us the Ten Commandments. [Exodus 19 and 20]

Yet in this week’s portion, Yitro, we are told that the moment God leaves leaves Mount Sinai, the holiness of the location dissipates. [Talmud, Tractate Taanit 21b]

Why is that? When God reveals himself in the clearest fashion in all of human history, there is no longer any holiness there after that moment?

However, when it comes to the Temple in Jerusalem, where God did not reveal Himself in the same fashion, we know that there is holiness on the Temple Mount forever. [Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 6:16]

Why the difference?

Similarly, we see a difference between the conquering of Israel the first time with Joshua, and the conquering of Israel the second time with Ezra.

When we conquer the Land of Israel through Joshua, with miracles, the Talmud tells us in Tractate Megillah that the holiness is only for the moment.

But the moment the Jewish people are exiled, with the destruction of the First Temple, the holiness of the Land of Israel ceases.

But when the Jewish people re-enter the Land of Israel with Ezra, the Talmud tells us that this holiness lasts forever. [Tractate Megillah 10a]

Why is that? Why is there such a difference?

The fundamental difference between Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount, and the fundamental difference between the first conquest of Israel and the second one, has to do with human initiative.

On Mount Sinai, yes! – it is an amazing historical, unprecedented experience. But only God is involved in the initiative. So when God departs, the holiness departs, as well.

But when it comes to the Temple, there is human initiative. And when there is human initiative, the holiness endures forever.

We have so much to contribute that the holiness that we create lasts forever.

When Joshua conquers the Land of Israel, it is done with divine miracles, and therefore, when the Jews leave – when God exiles us – the holiness ends.

But when Ezra enters the Land of Israel with Jews who were assimilated, with Jews who were not shomer mitzvot, who did not keep Shabbat and other mitzvot – those factors are totally irrelevant. It is irrelevant that they were intermarried. What counts is the willingness for Jews to sacrifice, to conquer and to capture, and more importantly, to live in the Land of Israel.

That holiness in the time of Ezra, in which people are willing to take the initiative, irrespective of their religious pedigree, creates a holiness that endures forever.

What an important message for each and every one of us: the power of human initiative.

Mount Sinai, a holiness that lasts for a moment; and the human initiative at the Temple that allows the holiness to last forever.

The first conquest of Israel, a holiness for a moment, because of its miracles.

And the second conquest of Israel, living in Israel in the time of Ezra, is a holiness of human initiative that lasts forever.

We have so much to contribute, and our initiative and effort enable our relationship with God to endure forever.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“A Peek Into God’s ‘Private Study'”

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Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 -17:16

“A Peek Into God’s ‘Private Study’

This week’s Torah portion is filled with so many beautiful components; I’d like to focus on the “Manna”.

In the middle of the showering of the Manna, God tells Moshe:

“מלא העמר ממנו למשמרת לדרתיכם”

Take an omer’s worth of the Manna and put it, as the Talmud says, in an earthenware jar, to remember the heavenly bread that showered upon the Jewish people for 40 years. [Exodus 16:32]

God tells Aaron to do this and to place this earthenware jar of Manna in front of God as a remembrance for all generations. [Ibid., v. 33] 

As God commands Moshe and God places the Manna, eventually, in front of the Ark, “למשמרת” – for all generations. [Ibid., v. 34]

You see, God transforms nature for us. Normally, food develops from the ground and the heaven assists through the rains. But throughout the 40 years, it is the heavens that supply the food to the Jewish people and the ground that sustains the process through the covering of the Manna with the dew that’s found on the ground.

Rabbeinu Bachye speaks so beautifully about this by quoting a Mechilta in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion:

“כמה היו ישראל חביבין לפניו ששינה להם מעשה בראשית”

The Jewish people are so precious that God changed the way nature works, so that food didn’t come from the Earth, but came from the heavens, while the dew of the ground protects the food that comes from the heavens.

We remember that on every erev Shabbat in the desert, the Jewish people were showered with two portions, with two helpings, of this covered food, of this Manna. [Exodus 16:5]

And therefore, we start our Shabbat meals, our Friday night meal and our Shabbat morning or afternoon meal with Lechem Mishneh, two helpings of bread, two rolls. 

And these two loaves of bread are covered beneath and above at our Shabbat meals to remember the Manna experience.

Yet, the Manna which God commands us should be placed – as the Talmud tells us, in an earthenware jar for remembrance of the miracle – is not placed in the Beit HaMikdash where visitors can see it, but it is placed in the Kodesh Kodashim, in the Holy of Holies.

If the Manna is to be a testimony – which the Torah tells us multiple times is the reason for it – why not place it where the people are able to see it? 

Why not place it near the Menorah or the show bread, the Lechem Hapanim, or the Mizbayach? Why place it in the Kodesh Kodashim, which has traffic only once a year, on Yom Kippur?

I’d like to thank my son, Yoni, for helping me think this through.

You know that any family, when they make aliya, especially from the United States, has to downsize. And you take the things that are important; and the things that are precious ornaments: the suitcase that my father was given with his family to bring all of his materials from the DP camp to America; the sign that I placed in Central Park asking my wife to marry me. Precious ornaments that find themselves in my study in Jerusalem.

The Holy of Holies contained the Aron HaKodesh; the Cherubs – Keruvim, the Second Luchot; the shattered First Luchot; perhaps the Torah that Moshe wrote; the staff of Aaron, used to miraculously show the primacy role of Moshe and Aaron and the role of the Kohanim in service to God; the anointing oil used to anoint the Kings of Israel and the High Priests.

Essentially, these were the precious articles that represented the relationship between God and the Jewish people. And the Talmud in Yoma, and codified by the Rambam, says that many of these articles were hidden by King Yoshiyahu before the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash in the catacombs beneath the Temple. [Talmud, Yoma 52b; Hilchot Beit Habechira 4:1]

The Kodesh Kodashim is God’s “private study”. The ornaments in the Kodesh Kodashim are not functional ornaments; they are decor in God’s “private study” that accentuate the relationship.

God tells Aaron to place it there by the Ark – “למשמרת” – to highlight the relationship that exists between us and God.

It’s a relationship in the good times and the not so good times, like the shattered Luchot.

It’s a relationship that is meaningful because it’s always there. In relationships that are important, it’s not enough to sing about them; it’s not enough to preach them; it’s about engaging and always working on the relationship.

Manna must be presented and kept in order to remind us that relationships that are important, that wish to continue to affect our lives, need to be remembered and need to be worked on.

So as we celebrate this week, Shabbat Shira, as we celebrate the gift of the Manna, let us ask ourselves: how do we make sure in our lives that we work hard to assure that our relationship with God is not something that we just sing about, but something that we live to actualize?

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Pesach in S’dom? Responding to Abuse”

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Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1 -13:16

“Pesach in S’dom? Responding to Abuse

We’re reading the parshiot in which we’re introduced to the holiday of Pesach, the Jewish people leaving Egypt, God passing over the houses of the Jewish people.

Rashi quotes an interesting midrash in the book of Bereshiet, and that is that the first Passover experience doesn’t happen in Egypt, but happens actually in S’dom.

When Lot urges the angels to come into his house and we’re told he prepares a feast for them that includes matzot – unleavened bread – that they eat together. [Genesis 19:1-3] Rashi says that happens because it’s Pesach.

And there are many similarities of text and context between the stories that Rav Yoel ben Nun and others discuss.

Here are some of them:

  1. For example, when Lot and Avraham separate,what does Avraham say to Lot? He says, ‘Listen, we’re brothers. There shouldn’t be strife between us. There shouldn’t be strife between our shepherds. There’s a whole land out there. If you go north (lit.”left”), I’ll go south (lit. “right”); and if you go south(lit. “right”), I’ll go north(lit.”left”).’ Lot responds “וישא לוט את עיניו” – Lot lifts up his eyes. He sees S’dom and Amorah, and he calls it “Gan Hashem”, like the Garden of God, “כארץ מצרים”. He compares S’dom and Amorah just like Egypt. [Genesis 13:8-13]
  1. In the story of S’dom and Amorah, the angels smite thecitizens with blindness, and in Egypt, God smite the Egyptians with darkness. [Genesis 19:11 and Exodus 10:21]
  1. The Israelites are behind closed doors,eating their matzah, and so is Lot and his family behind closed doors eating their matzah. [Genesis 19:10 and Exodus 12:22]
  1. We start off the Pesach seder inviting guests, which is ascene not from Egypt, but from Lot’s Passover experience as he invites the angels to dine and stay with him. [Genesis 19:2]
  1. In both cases, the parties are urged not to look back. The Jewish people are told not to look back, not to returnto Egypt, and Lot is told the same thing. [Genesis 19:26 and Deuteronomy 17:16]
  2. There are similar language in both cases “קומו צאו”, get up and let’s leave. [Genesis 19:15 and Exodus 12:31]
  1. The word “משחית” – ‘to destroy – is used, and two of the three timesin the Torah that the word “ויתמהמה” is used in the Torah is found in the story of Egypt and the story of S’dom. [Genesis 19:14 and Exodus 12:13]

What are the similarities that Rashi, based on the midrash, connects these two experiences?

The answer is that in both the story of S’dom and Amorah and Egypt, they represent societies in which people can be abused, in which it’s okay for people to be taken advantage of.

And the responsibility of a Jew is not to be part of a society that is willing to take advantage of other people.

A society that is willing to take advantage of other people is not a Godly society. And any time there are experiences in which people are taking advantage of, God does not dwell there.

And any experience in which we witness people being taken advantage of, it’s our responsibility, like we do in Egypt and in S’dom, to speak out against those societies, to realize those environments are totally inappropriate, that that is not the place where the Jewish people can rest.

So indeed, the connection between S’dom and Amorah and Egypt, it’s because their cultures are the same.

They’re abusive societies, and societies that are abusive are not a place for Jews.

And when Jews see people abusing others, it’s our responsibility to understand: we don’t look back; we speak out against the injustice, because that’s the responsibility of being part of the divine nation, connecting to God through recognizing our responsibility to helping people who may be oppressed or abused.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Sacrifice Comes Before Success”

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Parshat Va’era (Exodus 6:2 -9:35

“Sacrifice Comes Before Success

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moshe begins to take on the mantle of leadership, he is told by God, ‘I am going to redeem the Jewish people’.

And God uses four statements of redemption [Exodus 6:6-7] –

“Ve’hotzeiti” – I will take them out.

“Ve’hitzalti” – and I will save them.

“Ve’ga’alti” – and I will redeem them.

“Ve’lakachti” – and I will take them as a people.

Each one of these statements is a redemptive process on its own. As the Jerusalem Talmud says, “Arba Ge’ulot” – “four redemptions”. [Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:1]

Therefore, each one of these statements represents a different experience on Passover night.

The first cup of wine, “Ve’hotzeiti” – a person can only sanctify something if they themselves are free, and therefore the first cup of wine is connected to Kiddush, the sanctification of the moment.

The next cup of wine, “Ve’hitzalti”, is focused on telling the story of the Haggadah, of the Redemption, of how the Jewish people were saved.

The third cup of wine is connected to Birkat Hamazon – “Ve’ga’alti” – because Birkat Hamazon is all about redemptive experiences that happen to the Jewish people, and therefore it is connected to the statement that focuses on redemption.

“Ve’lakachti” – and God announces that He will take us as a people. The final experience on the Haggadah is the singing of Hallel, celebrating the unique relationship that God has with the Jewish people.

Yet, there is a very unique halacha that is found regarding the four cups of wine, that is only found with one other mitzvah, and that is, unlike any other mitzvah, be it matza, be it tefillin, whatever positive mitzvah you can think of, there is no obligation to go into debt, or even to spend your last penny, to fulfill the commandment.

However, when it comes to drinking the four cups of wine, the Mishnah tells us “ואפילו מן התמחוי”. [Mishnah, Pesachim 10:1Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 472:13 and Mishnah Berurah, 472:42]

A person has to borrow money, and we have to be willing to give that person money to fulfill the obligation. That is not true when it comes to matzah or any other positive mitzvah, but these four cups of wine require sacrifice.

And the reason for that is because they represent sacrifice.

They represent the initiative of the Jewish people to go through the redemption process.

God doesn’t redeem us alone; God needs us to be involved in the redemption process.

The United States Army may have opened up some of the concentration camps, and to that, especially as a child of a survivor, I am indebted to them forever.

But at the same time, it is those who walked out of the concentration camps or were carried out of the concentration camps, who were willing to sacrifice to begin lives again, and to build again, that that also needs to be celebrated – the willingness to sacrifice, to be redeemed.

Therefore, baked into this mitzvah is the requirement to borrow, to sacrifice for the four cups of wine, because it represents sacrifice.

This is an extremely important message for us. Because the bottom line is whether I’m interested in improving my spirituality; If I’m concerned and I want to improve my family, or my mental health, or my physical health – none of those things happen on their own – they happen only with sacrifice.

Anything important requires sacrifice.

Therefore, etched in this mitzvah that celebrates redemption is the recognition that sacrifice is necessary to achieve greatness, and therefore this mitzvah requires sacrifice, even if that is necessary to fulfill it.

Shabbat Shalom.

“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.