Torah insights

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayikra 5780

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

“Using the Head and the Heart: Addressing Halakhic Challenges in the Age of Corona”

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Using the Head and the Heart: Addressing Halakhic Challenges in the Age of Corona

Over the past few days we have received many questions from our rabbinic students and our rabbinic couples who are throughout Europe – questions dealing with the coronavirus.

Questions, for example, from a rabbinic couple who are about to, please God, have a baby. They know it’s a boy. They have a responsibility to their community, but if they stay in their community their child won’t have a brit in its proper time, on the 8th day due to travel restrictions. What are they to do?

Or even more challenging questions, in response to new rules that are in effect in certain areas of Europe, that if someone dies from the coronavirus, the body needs to be cremated. Should tahara, ritually washing the body, be performed even if there is not going to be a proper burial?

Another question arises from the fact that so many of our rabbinic couples are involved in virtual door-knocking, lifting up a phone and talking to shut-ins or people who are quarantined. Our couples are concerned that the people with whom they are in touch are in a depressed state. Are they permitted to call them on Shabbat? Are they permitted to keep their computer on before the holiday of Pesach, and create a Facebook Live Seder, so that those people aren’t alone, since being alone might cause them to be at a certain risk, either psychologically or physically?

These are some of the questions that we have been receiving over the past 72 hours from our Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel rabbinic and educational emissaries throughout the world.

How do we answer such questions? Sefer Vayikra reminds us of the responsibility to create a Mamlechet Kohanim, a community of priests. The book of Vayikra does not just focus on the responsibilities of the Kohen in the Temple, but the responsibilities of the priestly nation, the Jewish people, to create an environment which celebrates the notion of holiness.

It is why, in this book, we are told, Ve’Ahavta le’Reiacha Kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Kedoshim te’hiyu, we need to be holy, we need to create a holy environment.

This is the message that we need to communicate, to ourselves, and in our case, to our rabbis and educators throughout Europe – the responsibility to be Kadosh, to create holiness, to create new facts on the ground even in challenging times.

Indeed, the unique priestly vestments that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest wore, give us some intuition and insight that can help us answer these questions.

The Kohen Gadol wore a tzitz on his forehead that said Kodesh la’Hashem, Holy to God, and a breastplate that represented all of the tribes of Israel with one stone representing each tribe. It is a reminder that when the Kohen Gadol answered modern contemporary questions of his time, he needed to first bring his arsenal of Torah knowledge, the tzitz, Kodesh la’Hashem, his holiness to God, into his answer of his question.

But being a person that simply spits out information, or Googles an answer, isn’t sufficient, because we also wear the Choshen, we also wear the breastplate over our hearts, to make sure that any answer to any question has to also contain a psychological understanding of where our people are.

The twelve precious stones, representing the twelve tribes, each has a different color, each has a different breaking point, and we need to recognize that as we answer our halachic questions.

It is the shiluv, it is the blending of the tzitz and the choshen, of the breastplate and the statement that we wear on our foreheads, of being holy to God, that allows us to answer these questions.

Please God, we will answer these questions properly. But we as a community, as we enter the reading of the book of Vayikra, have to understand that it is our responsibility to create holiness in the everyday. God willing, even in this challenging time, we will be able to accomplish that.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Kindness as an Antidote to Isolation”

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Kindness as an Antidote to Isolation: Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

I’m recording this on the Sunday of the week when we read the parsha of Vayakhel-Pekudei, a parsha that many of us may not be able to hear, for all the right halakhic reasons, because it’s forbidden for us to go to shul.

This is a trying time for all of us, throughout the world community, and the parsha has a message for us, and that is, that we need to be “kindness commandos.”

Vayakhel. The parsha starts off by saying that Moshe gathered the people. He gathered the people to announce the building of the Mishkan, a conduit for a conversation, an interaction with God.

This week, we cannot gather as a community. We are challenged by the health risks that face us. We cannot be together as a community, but we can still act as a community.

For every single person whose hand we can’t shake, we can reach out with a phone call. For every single person whom we may not be able to hug, we can engage in a different way. When we go to the store to buy food for ourselves, let’s ask ourselves: is there someone else who needs a little extra?

Imagine the message that we give to our children, a message that will be much more profound than anything they can learn in school, if we show them that social distancing doesn’t mean that we ignore the other.

This is the time for Vayakhel. This is the time for us to come together and honor the message of the parsha. Maybe we cannot come together physically, but spiritually we can connect. This is a time for us to get to know ourselves better. It’s a time for us to get to know our families better. It’s a time of Vayakhel. It’s a time to come together.

Let’s be “kindness commandos,” to ourselves, and be healthy, to our families, to our children and grandchildren, to our spouses, to the larger world society. Let’s remember, that even though we can’t hug somebody and we can’t shake their hand, we can still show that we care.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tissa 5780

Screenshot from Bereishit video

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

“Finding Comfort in Times of Crisis”

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Parshat Ki Tissa: Finding Comfort in Times of Crisis

There’s a profound message in this week’s Torah reading about how to cope with a serious threat that faces human society.

First, recent events remind all of us that even if Chinese culture and Western culture are very different, and our societies are quite dissimilar, we recognize that we share one world and what happens in one country affects the entire world. What happens in China affects what happens in Europe and affects what happens in and America; we’re all part of one society even if we have different philosophical perspectives, traditions and values.

Kol haKavod to so many American rabbis (I had the privilege of joining them) who wrote a letter showing solidarity with Chinese Americans, and said that we can’t allow xenophobic feelings to affect the way we engage with others, and that we need to treat other minorities with respect during these times of challenge.

And I am especially appreciative of my students, participants in the Straus- and Beren-Amiel programs, rabbis and educators in Italy and throughout Europe, who are dealing with difficult decisions of whether to keep their synagogues open for community prayer or not, based on the rules and regulations of their respective countries regarding issues of health and the needs of every individual person that prays with them.

Kudos to them- the decisions that they are making instruct us all about the priorities within halacha of dealing with the safety, health and security of every one of our parishioners.

Parshat Ki Tissa teaches us a very important lesson that we can learn in relation to the corona virus: the mitzvah of the half-shekel.

This mitzvah is a reminder that everybody is obligated to give a half-shekel – not a full shekel. It calls attention to the fact that we cannot do it alone; we are part of a larger group, a larger team.

It is the only biblical commandment that one must borrow funds in order to fulfill, because it reminds us that as individuals we cannot move our goals along, but as a society, we can change the world.

And during this time of the corona virus we’re reminded of the fact that as individuals we’re really not effective, but if we’re careful and we engage as a society, we can deal with the challenges that we face.

Parshat Ki Tissa points out the responsibilities that we have as a society to make a difference in the world. That half shekel not only contributed to the building of the Temple, but to ensuring that the communal needs and issues that faced the Jewish community were supported by a common, cooperative effort by each and every individual.

This mitzvah emphasizes to all of us that as we’re dealing with the challenges throughout the Jewish world, and throughout the world community, of the corona virus, we are all just part of a whole. As individuals, we are all only part of the process. We need to be safe and secure, but that takes cooperation from everyone. We must recognize that we can each contribute to making a difference; we can each contribute our half-shekel portion. But individual action is not enough – as a society, we have a global responsibility to both confront this threat and deal with other challenges that beset mankind.

Shabbat Shalom

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Tetzaveh 5780

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

“Will our Children Carry on Our Spiritual Legacy?”

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Parshat Tetzaveh: Will Our Children Carry On Our Spiritual Legacy? 

During the week in which we read Parshat Tetzaveh, we commemorate the loss of Moshe Rabbeinu, on the 7th of Adar. Some suggest that this is the reason why his name is not mentioned in the entire parasha – a unique phenomenon from the beginning of Sefer Shemot until the end of the Torah. 

But I’d like to ask a more challenging question. 

Why don’t we know where Moshe is buried? After all, we know where our patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. We know where other great personalities are buried. Why is the exact place of Moshe’s burial hidden from us? 

The answer that I’d like to suggest is a difficult one, but one which I think should speak to all of us. We don’t know where Moshe is buried because the purpose of a burial place is for family. Ultimately, visiting the burial place of an ancestor, like saying Kaddish, is a mark of continuity, of personal connection with the previous generations.  

Our rabbis teach us that Moshe’s children did not follow in his footsteps. We hear very little about them at all; there is no indication that they participated in Moshe’s “career” as Eved HaShem – God’s servant. His sons may not even have been present at Mount Sinai, when the Torah was given to the entire Jewish nation.  The Book of Shoftim tells us that one of Moshe’s descendants – a Levite – even served as a priest to an idol. Moshe’s sons did not continue his legacy.

What good is it to know where a person is buried if children do not continue their parents’ traditions? We need to ask ourselves this question during the week of the anniversary of Moshe’s death. 

How do we make sure that our children and our families continue our legacy? We have to realize they are not our spiritual genetic clones and that they don’t always look at Judaism the same way that we do. But we do have keep the avenues of communication open with them so that our legacy continues even after we are no longer here. 

After the end of our days in this world, the people who will sit shiva and say Kaddish for us are our children. Making sure we have a relationship with them while we are alive is critical. 

We learn from all the strengths of Moshe Rabbeinu. One of his greatest strengths was his unique relationship with God. But the Torah reminds us to also learn from his weaknesses.  The Torah tells us that Yitro has to bring Moshe’s family back to him, to remind him to engage with his own family. That does not seem to happen; Moshe is more comfortable engaging with God than he is with his own family. It is God himself who buries Moshe – we have no indication that his sons were even with him before, or even after he died. At the end of the day, there is no identifiable burial place because his children do not continue his legacy. 

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, and the yahrzeit of Moshe’s death on the 7th of Adar, should remind us to ask ourselves some very important questions: how do we engage with our own families to make sure that we leave a spiritual legacy to our children? How do we communicate with them to ensure that they will continue to be committed to our heritage? What we do today determines whether we truly deserve a resting place that our children will visit.

Shabbat Shalom, and may we truly understand the meaning behind Moshe Rabbeinu’s yahrzeit.

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Terumah 5780

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

“When Ritual Becomes Idolatry”

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“When Ritual Becomes Idolatry”

With Parshat Terumah, we have reached the final section of the Book of Exodus. In these concluding Torah portions, we are introduced to some vital concepts.

We are introduced to the construction of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the desert and the forerunner of the Mikdash – the Temple in the Jerusalem in Terumah and Tetzave, which we will read next week. Afterwards, we are told about Shabbat, which is juxtaposed to the construction of the Tabernacle to teach us that the building of the tabernacle does not suspend the prohibitions of Shabbat. Our rabbis learned from this that precisely those creative labors used to build the Tabernacle define the activities forbidden on the Sabbath. Further on in Ki Tissa, is the incident of the Golden Calf, and immediately afterwards we return to the subjects of Shabbat and the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

Tabernacle, Shabbat, the story of the Golden Calf, Shabbat and Tabernacle.

What is the connection between these various components? What insight can we derive from this interplay? I think that there is a profound message here for each and every one of us.

The whole purpose of the Tabernacle and of the Temple was to create sacred encounters with God. Our challenge is to use that structure to create multiple portals to connect with the Divine.

Judaism involves a great deal of structure and prescribed actions. There’s a danger in that structure and repeated activity to become rote behavior, robotic and fossilized. Our prophets recognized this; Isaiah spoke out against treating the Torah as “a commandment of men learned by rote”. Instead of conduits to create sacred encounters with God, the commandments can become formalized and spiritless rituals. The concluding Torah portions of the Book of Exodus, which focuses on freedom and redemption, come to remind us that institutions such as the Mishkan and the Mikdash are not ends in themselves. They must be like the experience of Shabbat, a portal to spirituality, a means through which we connect with God- otherwise they become no different from the Golden Calf. Even the Two Tablets of the Covenant, according to the 19th century thinker, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, were in danger of becoming a fetish for worship, similar to the Golden Calf. That’s why Moshe broke them. That is why the Temple was eventually destroyed. It was no longer a place where the Jewish people experienced God’s Presence.

The Mishkan and Shabbat are juxtaposed. They are meant to be points in place and time where we experience God. And if you remove that connection, then you are left with a Golden Calf.

How many times in our lives -and I’m speaking to myself more than anybody else, -how often are we so committed to the ritual that we forget about the message, or the language, or the conduit, through which the ritual is trying to get us to connect with God?

Says God, at the end of the book of Exodus, the book of freedom, I will orchestrate these laws in the following fashion. The Tabernacle and the Temple are a means for us – God and man, God and the Jewish people, God and society – to create a bond. We have an opportunity to step out of the everyday world and create a sacred space and a Shabbat-like experience.

If we forget this message, if we forget that sacred space and rituals are an opportunity and not an end in themselves, then they become no different from the Golden Calf. That is what makes this orchestration, this spiritual symphony, where each instrument plays its own proper part, so essential to leading a holy life.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

“Parsha and Purpose” – Mishpatim 5780

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

“Is a Fetus Considered a Full-Fledged Life? Differences in Approaches Between Judaism and Christianity”

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“Is a Fetus Considered a Full-Fledged Life? Differences in Approaches Between Judaism and Christianity”

This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Mishpatim, presents us the details of how we are meant to engage with others in the daily thoroughfare of life. After the “Ten statements” of Aseret HaDibrot, which speaks in broad categories, Mishpatim translates these statements unto the specifics of how we should interact with each other.

The parasha opens with “V’elah haMishpatim” – and these are the laws. The vav adds to the previous statements and serves as juxtaposition to them. It connects the ethereal revelation on Mount Sinai to the quotidian reality of human relationships and accentuates the point that the holiness of Mount Sinai is found in the everyday ways in which we engage the other.

There is one interesting set of verses in Parshat Mishpatim that relates to a current debate in the United States Congress and in the courts. This conversation is part of a major theological discussion, deriving from different ways of understanding the Biblical text in our parasha.

The verse states:  ve’chi yinatzu anashim; if, when two people are fighting, ve’nagfu isha hara, and they hit, by accident, a pregnant woman, ve’yatzu yeladeha ve’lo y’hiye ason.  (Let us hold off interpreting the last part of the verse: ve’yatzu yeladeha ve’lo y’hiye ason.) The Torah goes on to say that if this incident occurs, compensation has to be paid.

Ve’im ason y’hiye, but if there is a tragedy, ve’natata nefesh tachat nefesh, then there is a capital punishment.

The verse teaches us that if two people are fighting and they injure a pregnant woman ve’yatzu yeladeha ve’lo y’hiye ason – in this case, if there is no tragedy, then monetary compensation must be paid.

But if there is a tragedy, then the result is a life for a life.

What exactly does this mean? How do we understand the text?

This is why our oral rabbinic tradition is so crucial to understanding how this should be applied.

This is the current debate in Congress and the US courts.

According to Christian theologians, this is how the text should be read: If two people are fighting, and a woman is hurt, and she is pregnant, ve’yatzu yeladeha, and she has an early birth, ve’lo y’hiye ason, but the fetuses are fine, they are just born prematurely, then there has to be payment for this trauma.

Ve’im ason y’hiye, but if the fetuses are killed, if the fetuses are destroyed, then capital punishment is incurred. The fetuses are to be considered just like any other human life. If this is the case, then abortion, according to the interpretation of the Catholic Church is tantamount to murder, and using fetal cells for cloning, or stem-cell research would be strictly forbidden. This approach is based on their reading of our Torah portion.

But that is not the way that our rabbis read this verse.

 Ve’chi yinatzu anashim, if two men are fighting, ve’yatzu yeladeha, and she has a miscarriage, ve’lo y’hiye ason, but nothing happened to her, other than that trauma, and she is otherwise physically unharmed, then since she lost fetal matter, there needs to be compensation.  Ve’im ason y’hiye, but if she is damaged, if she is killed, then, it is a sin, or an act, that requires nefesh tachat nefesh, then this is a capital crime demanding punishment.

How do we look at fetal matter? Do we regard it as a full human being, or can we use fetal matter for genetic research to save lives?

It all depends on how we read these verses. 

The argument going on in Congress and in the courts is predicated on how different traditions read Parshat Mishpatim. Let’s recognize the wisdom of Chazal, the sages of our oral tradition, when they teach that fetal matter is not yet life, and therefore it can be used in different ways to help safeguard life, to help scientific research, and to find opportunities for us to be God’s junior partners in Tikkun Olam.

Understanding our tradition sometimes makes all the difference. It’s not just the text, but the context that the Rabbis have given us. 

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Yitro 5780

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

“And all the people saw the sounds– Accepting the Torah and finding our spiritual space

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“And all the people saw the sounds– Accepting the Torah and finding our spiritual space

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro provides us with so much material for discussion. Central to the Torah reading is Aseret haDibrot, often erroneously translated as “the Ten Commandments. ”

“Aseret haDibrot” are neither the sum total of all the Torah’s commandments, nor are they “Ten Suggestions”. They are “Ten Statements”.

How many commandments are iterated in the “Aseret haDibrot”? Is the first statement “I am the Lord your God” a commandment, or is it an introductory statement, a preamble for the rest? Can all the commandments be subsumed under these ten statements?

These are important conversations that, please God, we will have together over the course of many years of discussion.

I’d like to focus today just on one sentence that appears after receiving the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, or Ten-plus Commandments, or so.

The Torah describes the experience that the Jewish people had at Mount Sinai: “ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot ….” “And all of the people see the sounds.”

The commentaries point out that seeing sounds is a miracle. There were a lot of miracles that took place at Mount Sinai, in addition to the ability to see sounds. The Midrash tells us that that at Mount Sinai all those who had difficulty hearing, and others who had other handicaps were healed.  All these challenges were overcome on Mount Sinai; for that reason that hospitals throughout the world are called Mount Sinai, based upon these Midrashic statements.

The ancient commentary known as Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, expresses another beautiful idea in its reflection on the words, “ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot”.  Although this insight was written down in ancient times, it is so relevant to us in this day and age.

“Ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot,” according to the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, is that everyone found their own sound, saw their own path, and even though the Torah was given to all the Jewish people, “ke’ish echad, be’lev echad,” in one unified fashion, everyone found their own portal of entry.

What an important message! The best way to treat our children “the same” is to realize that they are different. That they hear different sounds, that different components of the Jewish experience speak to them.

The way that we relate to other Jews with respect is to realize that each of us looks at Judaism and connects to different aspects of Judaism.

“Ve’chol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot” – there is a symphony of voices that can complement each other to hear – if we listen. 

And that’s why it pains me when we hear leaders challenge the authenticity of other Jews. When leaders speak about Soviet Jews or Ethiopian Jews as not Jewish, they are missing an opportunity. Even if there are halachic challenges involved, “ro’im et ha’kolot,” these Jews are searching for their sounds, they are searching for their space – they seek their own way to relate to our Jewish heritage.

So many of us spent time protesting to let Soviet Jews leave the Soviet Union.  Now we have to “ro’im et ha’kolot.” We don’t have to “let our people go” – we have to “let our people know.” We have to find ways in which every Jew, and every human being, can “ro’im et ha’kolot,” can find their spiritual voice and space.

Please God, we will re-accept the luchot, the Aseret HaDibrot, this Shabbat. Each and every one of us will find our own space, will find our own music, and will allow others to find their own music, within the parameters of Jewish tradition, so that we can engage God in ways that allow us to create a symphony of conversations between us as a people and our beloved engagement with God.

Shabbat Shalom.

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