Torah insights

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

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar”

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Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar

Not one, not two, not three…”

This is a traditional way of counting people in Judaism. We don’t count Jews conventionally, using numbers, but rather look for other ways of reaching the final sum. 

Because in Judaism, every individual is important – every person is an entire world. If we count them as part of a larger whole, we limit their uniqueness and reduce them to being merely part of a group.

This dialectic of the prominence of the individual vs.the priority of the cmmty plays out throughout the entire book of Bamidbar, which our Sages accurately called “Sefer HaPekudim”, the English translation of which, the “Book of Numbers” –  how the cmmty is counted and the individual adds up.

For example, the daughters of Tzelafchad, women who challenge Moshe and ask how it is possible that they are not counted for inheritance simply because they did not have any male siblings.

Why should our family, they asked, which differs from the communal norm, be excluded from inheritance in the Land of Israel?

Ultimately, the perspective of this individual family triumphs over the communal norm.

Another example is the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, in which individuals who for various reasons were unable to bring the Pascal Sacrifice  on the 14th of Nissan when the community is commanded to, are offered a “do over” one month later, when they are able to offer the Korban.

And in a third example, the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe request of Moshe that due to their particular individual needs they cannot dwell in a geographic area known as Israel, and ask that the definition of the Land of Israel be expanded to accommodate their particular needs.

Sefer Bamidbar – the Book of Numbers – highlights for us the challenge and the responsibility that we have to be committed to the larger narrative of community on the one hand, while at the same time remembering that the goal of the community is to create an environment which inspires each person’s creativity and ability to contribute their own unique talents to the world.

It reminds us that yes, our relationship to God needs to include the reality that we are part of a community, but it must not be limited to that paradigm: each of us needs to find our own individual rendezvous with God.

And it asks of us to be counted and to be willing to accept this duality: to celebrate our individuality while concurrently being part of our community.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Jerusalem: The Mandate to Redeem God, the Jewish People and the Holy City”

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Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

“Jerusalem: The Mandate to Redeem God, the Jewish People and the Holy City

Yerushalayim. Jerusalem.

A city that has inspired the Jewish People throughout the ages, including David HaMelech, King David, who described  Yerushalayim’s unique ability to bring the Jewish People together:

יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו

Yerushalayim built up, a city knit together (Psalms 122:3)

As we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, and the role the city plays in our people’s ultimate redemption, it is so important to focus on this unifying quality, particularly in a time in which division and polarization are so pervasive and toxic.

To re-appreciate the role of Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel in our national destiny, we need only to look to this week’s parsha, Behar-Bechukotai.

The Torah states:

 כִּי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ

If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding (Leviticus 25‎:25‎)

Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, the well known Talmudist and Kabbalist who made aliyah from Morocco to Yerushalayim in the 18th century explains that the word “achicha”, your kinsman, refers to the Jewish People, and “achuzato” refers to Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel.

He reads the verse like this: “When the Jewish People are in straits in exile and lose Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel…”

The same pasuk continues:

וּבָא גֹאֲלוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו

his nearest redeemer shall come (Leviticus 25‎:25‎)

Who is this “nearest redeemer”? 

According to the Ohr HaChayim – as Rabbi ben Attar is called – the nearest redeemer refers to the righteous people who are closest to God.

וְגָאַל אֵת מִמְכַּר אָחִיו

and redeem what his kinsman has sold (Leviticus 25‎:25‎)

It is the responsibility of the righteous to work to bring redemption to the people, to God, to the city of Yerushalayim and the Land of Israel.

וְאִישׁ כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה לּוֹ גֹּאֵל

If a man has no one to redeem for him (Leviticus 25‎:26)

But what happens when the righteous are not sufficiently focused on the mission and destiny of the Jewish People; when they lose grasp of the larger picture and everything seems lost?

וְאִם לֹא מָצְאָה יָדוֹ דֵּי הָשִׁיב לוֹ

If he lacks sufficient means to recover it (Leviticus 25‎:28)

וְיָצָא בַּיֹּבֵל וְשָׁב לַאֲחֻזָּתוֹ

and he shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25‎:28)

In such a situation, when God sees that the exile is just too much for the Jewish People to handle – the antisemitism, the assimilation and alienation – then He will bring about OUR redemption, because of the vital necessity of  the Jewish people for  all of humanity.

Yom Yerushalayim reminds us that we find ourselves in a moment of great challenge/opportunity in the process of our redemption.

That even as we express gratitude for the blessing of living in a reunited city, we must acknowledge that we also live in an era of deep polarization.

In a time of darkness.

In a time in which certain groups of Jews think that they have a monopoly on truth and do not see the goodness, the greatness of the other.  

We must remind ourselves and the next generation about the work still ahead of us: the responsibility to remain focused on the Jewish People’s larger narratives, our mission and destiny, for ourselves and the world.

To keep focus via the gift of Yerushalayim: שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו, the city that brings us all together (Psalms 122:3) – an eternal reminder of where we come from, and where we are going.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Martyrs or Haters? Why We Mourn the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Students”

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Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23)

“Martyrs or Haters? Why We Mourn the Deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s Students

This really should be one of the most joyful periods of the year, a time when we are on the path to the ultimate redemption.

We recently celebrated our people’s physical redemption from Egyptian slavery, and we are now mere weeks away from celebrating our spiritual redemption – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a vital step on the way to the ultimate goal of living the Torah in the Promised Land.

And yet, as we know, this is a rather mournful period.

What derailed this process to redemption?

Every year, as we count these days between Pesach and Shavuot, we recall that 12,000 “pairs” of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a deadly plague during this same period (Yevamot 62b).

And I would like to suggest that why they died, and what lessons we take from their deaths, has a significant impact on how we look at the process of redemption that we are on.

According to Rabbinic sources, Rabbi Akiva’s students died from asakara, a plague known in rabbinic literature to be caused by malicious gossip.

We learn that they died because 

לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה

they did not treat each other with proper respect (Yevamot 62b).

Yet in writing the history of the Jewish people, the great 10th century scholar Rav Sherira Gaon lists “sh’mada” as the source of their deaths, meaning that the students were martyred by the Romans in their brutal crushing of the Jews’ rebellion during the Bar Kochva rebellion (Iggeret Rav Shreria Gaon).

Now, clearly Rav Sherira Gaon was familiar with the same Talmudic and rabbinic texts as we are, which clearly name the asakara plague, the lack of respect,  as the reason for their death.

So why did he attribute it to the Romans?

And who is right?

As part of the rebellion, Bar Kochva minted coins for use by the Jewish population, which was in and of itself a statement of open defiance to the Roman occupation, which had issued its own coins as a means of imposing its authority.

In looking at the first coin minted by the Jewish rebels, we find an insight into at least one element of truth behind the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

As you can see, on one side of the coin is Bar Kochva’s name, as well as a picture of the Beit HaMikdash, highlighting what Bar Kochva and his army were fighting for.

On the other side of the coin it states למען ירושלים – for the sake of Jerusalem – accompanied by the illustration of a mitzvah that we read about in this week’s parsha, Emor: the arba’at haminim, the four species that comprise the commandment of “Lulav and Etrog” (Leviticus 23:40).

The picture shows one lulav, complemented by one hadas, on one side; and one arava on the other side.

An etrog, a citrus fruit, appears to the lulav’s left. 

While these four species are the same ones we use when we fulfill the commandment on Sukkot, the halakha as we observe it today follows the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, that we use three hadasim and two aravot in our lulav and etrog sets (Sukkah 34b).

Why would the coin-makers of Bar Kochva’s era misrepresent the mitzvah?

Many have suggested that they simply wanted to show the lulav-etrog set as a symbol, as prominent ritual items associated with the Beit Hamikdash, the ultimate symbol of Jewish sovereignty.

But if we look at the message of Bar Kochva on a deeper level, we find I believe the deeper reason.

You see, Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kochva’s mentor, who supported his rebellion against the Romans, maintained that our lulavim should contain only one arava and one hadas.

Bar Kochva minted the coin according to the position of his Rebbe and ally, Rabbi Akiva. 

Another of Rabbi Akiva’s beliefs was that when it is necessary to go to war, Torah scholars must also participate.

In Rav Sherira Gaon’s account, Rabbi Akiva’s students died as martyrs, serving as soldiers in Bar Kochva’s army.

But when the Sages of the Talmud discuss the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, they don’t focus on the historical event because that is not the goal of the Talmud. 

Rather, Rabbinic literature is interested in the spiritual lesson that we can learn – why the rebellion failed. 

And their answer focuses on the toxic cultural environment of the time: the gestalt of לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה, the absence of mutual respect (Yevamot 62b).

In order for the Jewish people to remain on the journey to redemption, we must demonstrate mutual respect.

This is not a cliche; it’s the key to breaking the impasse of Jewish history.

It is why both Pesach and Purim the holidays that reflect redemption have mitzvot associated with them that require showing concern for the other.

It is not coincidental that during this period, we celebrate both Yom Ha-Atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, days on which we are especially mindful of issues of national sovereignty in ways that no  generation has had the privilege to consider since before the time of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochva.

We feel an exhilaration that comes with being alive in an era of Jewish history in which every day,we witness  the return of Jewish sovereignty in ways only dreamed of by our ancestors.

Ultimately, though, the long-view perspective of our Sages focusing on the underlying spiritual causes of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students – and our crushing defeat at the hands of the Romans – is what shapes our focus during this mournful time period.

So as we commemorate and mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s student-soldiers each year during Sefirat Ha’Omer, we re-affirm the need for Jewish armed defense of our sovereignty, while also recognizing that our complete, full redemption will only be possible when we’re willing to treat the “other” with respect.

Shabbat Shalom

“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.