Torah insights

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

“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

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“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

A quick look at the news can make even Pollyanna cynical.

Behaviors in the face of looming US elections, political mayhem in Israel, irresponsible actions of some communities in the face of the pandemic, refusing to take safety precautions or revering Jewish custom at the expense of Jewish law and values.

The easiest course of action is, of course, to give up on people instead of trying to engage them; to insulate ourselves and withdrawal while the world turns – and burns – around us.

The Torah provides us with two paradigms for approaching this issue in the different narratives of Noach and Avraham.

When Noach learns of the Divine plan for the destruction of humanity and the world at large, he dutifully follows the command of God and proceeds to construct the Ark.

Noach is unable or unwilling to convince even a single person to correct their ways and be saved from the flood.

He gives up.

This is one of the great tragedies of Noach. 

For this reason, the prophets call the flood מי נח – the flood of Noach. Because his unwillingness to improve society puts responsibility for the world’s destruction on his shoulders.

In stark contrast to Noach, this week we learn about Avraham, who argues passionately with God in order to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah.

Two nation-states whose residents the Torah describes as “very wicked sinners against God”. And yet, Avraham protests on their behalf anyway!

And this is what makes Sarah and Avraham the leaders of a movement that ultimately introduces the entire world to monotheism. It is why God changes their names to include his own – from Avram to Avraham; and Sarai to Sarah.

It is so easy to give up on people, especially in times of crisis. But we are the children of Avrahama and Sarah!

We do not give up on our people, or on humanity.

There is no shortage of inspirational examples.

The nursery school teachers, medical professionals and therapists who embrace the children in their care, even though they know by doing so – despite all the safety protocols – they are placing themselves at risk.

The madrichim and madrichot of our Darkaynu Programs for young adults with special needs who chose to enter quarantine so that their students arriving from abroad should not have to go through it alone.

Gerer Chasidim in the Israeli city of Arad who wished to protest a local issue – but did so while maintaining social distancing.

Soldiers in the midst of Corona who are still bringing refugees in the middle of the night to be treated in field hospitals.

These examples and so many more like them remind us that even with so much cynicism in the world, we must never give up on people.

The words “Lech Lecha” mean “Go to you”. Our parsha is about a journey. And for me, it is the journey to defy the infectious spread of cynicism.

A triumphant march from despair toward engagement; from a tendency to view others cynically, as Noach did, to a focus on never giving up on people, as modeled by Avraham.

When we work to help each other on our collective journey, we become a source of light to God, to ourselves and our families, and to the world around us.

The British philosopher William Blake wrote:  

“I sought my God and my God I couldn’t find;
I sought my soul and my soul eluded me;
I sought to serve my brother in his need, and I found all three; My God, my soul, and thee.”

Shabbat Shalom

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

“How Will the World Remember COVID?”

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“How Will the World Remember COVID?”

How many lines will COVID-19 take up in human history?

Will it be a line or two? A paragraph? A chapter? Or a full book?  

I think it depends on one crucial idea that we find in Parshat Noach.

In Chapter 9 of the Book of Bereshiet, we learn that in the aftermath of the flood, Noach planted a vineyard. 

He drank the wine of these grapes, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.

Noach’s son, Cham, saw his father’s nakedness and shared the news with his two brothers, Shem and Yefet. 

Out of respect for their father, Shem and Yefet covered their father, walking backwards into his tent with the cloth draped from their backs so as not to shame him. 

Then, in verse 24, we read that when Noach woke up from his wine-induced sleep, he learned what his youngest son had done to him. 

This verse is SO critical. 

You see, Noach is unhappy. 

He is depressed because of the loneliness that he experiences all around him. 

The loss of family and friends, the loss of camaraderie and community, all casualties of the flood. 

His depression causes his drunkenness, which is an attempt to escape his sorrow. 

But at this point Noach realizes what his depression has caused. 

He wakes up from his drunkenness, from his depression over the flood – “and learns what has happened”.  

Will we learn from COVID-19?

Will we learn how to have a true relationship with God? 

One that is concerned not only with ritual but also with the larger messages of the Torah, such as the responsibility to make sure that our conduct allows for all of humankind to be safe and secure… 

Religious experiences where ritual does not become an end in itself, but is a means to an end to ensure sacred moments in time with God.

Will we spend our time frivolously searching for religious reasons to explain why COVID-19 is happening, 

Reasons that are predicated on our subjective suppositions on how society should be organized – using the pandemic to reinforce our pre-existing notions?

Or will we allow the pandemic to awaken us from our spiritually drunken stupor to recognize that we cannot take family and friends for granted?

To realize it is not about explaining why tragedy befalls society, 

When such challenges arise, focusing on how we can engage to make a difference in the lives of the people around us?

How we recover from this pandemic will define how transformational this challenge has been.

Noach’s righteousness is predicated not on the fact that he does not sin, but rather on his capacity to learn from his mistakes.

Similarly, the role that COVID-19 will play in human history depends on what we learn from it, and how those teachings inspire us to transform society and enhance our personal lives.

Shabbat Shalom

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

“God’s Social Contract with Humanity”

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“God’s Social Contract with Humanity”

Bereshiet: A new Torah-reading cycle begins this week, with the story of Creation. And as we get a blow-by-blow description of how God creates the world and everything in it, some very curious language is used, when the Torah describes the creation of humankind. 

Naaseh Adam b’Tzalmeinu k’Dmuteinu” — “Let Us create humankind in Our Image, and in Our Likeness.” 

Let Us create humankind? Who is God talking to? In Our Image? And in Our Likeness? Who is God referring to? 

Some of the commentators explain that God is asking permission from the angels. Others suggest that it’s a “royal We,” na’aseh, God is speaking to Himself in the majestic plural, a majestic plural giving honor to God and this final act of creation, the piece de resistance of all of creation. 

However, I’d like to share with you a third interpretation, found in the writings of the Zohar. “Let us,” in the plural, means that creation of humankind includes both male and female. “In our image” refers to the wealthy amongst us. And “after our likeness” refers to the poor in our midst. 

The Zohar continues and states the following: When the rich and the poor are united as one, when they show compassion to each other, share with each other, and are benefactors to each other, that is how humankind should behave. 

The rich and the poor, states the Zohar, must be united together as one. Support and benefit from each other. 

In other words, when creating humankind, God creates a social contract with us. When God says Na’aseh Adam, that We will create humankind, He is referring to us, men and women, as His partners. Because we are only truly, completely fashioned once we live up to our side of the social contract, and fulfill our potential. Our image and likeness only become divine when we do our part. It is when people of opposite views, men and women of different social, economic statuses, work together. When we are united and show compassion towards each other. Only then is our creation complete.

What a powerful message to begin this new year, with a reminder that each one of us has the capacity to be in the image of God. We are full partners with God in our own creation when we live up to this responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity and capacity to complete the process that God has begun.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

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“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

With all that is happening around the world, the prayer that continues to hold more meaning for me than any other is U’Netaneh Tokef, for the haunting questions that it poses, particularly in our reality this year:

מי יחיה ומי ימות?

Who shall live and who shall die?

מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו?

Who in his time, and who by an untimely death?

מי במים ומי באש?

Who by water and who by fire?

מי ברעש ומי במגפה?

Who by earthquake and who by plague?

For nearly a millennium, authorship of U’Netaneh Tokef has been attributed to Rav Amnon of Mainz, the leader of his German Jewish community, which experienced horrific destruction during the First Crusade. 

Yet evidence suggests that the words were most likely written by the great poet Yannai, who lived in the Land of Israel sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries.

If so, why do we generally identify Rav Amnon as the author? Especially when research shows that even those who related the story probably had knowledge of the prayer’s actual author and origin?

The answer is because Rav Amnon of Mainz and indeed his entire community personified the deeds and actions attributed to him in U’Netaneh Tokef. Bearing a name that derives from the word emunah, faith, Rav Amnon has been immortalized in the ancient prayer as a tribute to the countless souls who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the horrific years of the bloody Crusades.

So even if Rav Amnon did not compose U’Netaneh Tokef, he most assuredly “established” the text through his deeds and actions.

In the past and present, the words of U’Netaneh Tokef have captured the pathos and the promise of the Jews – an ancient people that has often paid the ultimate sacrifice for our commitment to the higher ideals of our faith and our peoplehood.

This year, its haunting words call us together not just as Jews, but as members of a global society searching for stability in a time of fragility.

Like Amnon of Mainz – who did not pen the prayer, but lived it and therefore became its author – we, too, have the opportunity to become the “authors” of the prayers we read and the Torah we study. This occurs when we internalize their messages, and their ideals to become true representatives of the vision of Judaism that we wish to study and celebrate.

In a world of so much uncertainty, we still have the capacity to be ambassadors of ideas and ideals that can transform the society around us. May we merit to author a path of purposefulness in life and good health throughout the coming year.

Wishing you and your loved ones a G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

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

“The Sounds of the Shofar: The Difference Between Listening and Hearing”

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“The Sounds of the Shofar: The Difference Between Listening and Hearing”

“קול השופר: ההבדל בין להקשיב ולשמוע”

The questions we ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah are some of the most difficult, piercing ones that we raise all year: What kind of person am I? What kind of spouse? What kind of parent? What kind of friend? What kind of Jew? What kind of human being?

Answering these questions honestly is difficult, and recognizing the need to make changes and improvement is even more challenging.

Fortunately, Judaism provides a spiritual navigation system that can help us on our journey to become the people we want to be: the progression of the sounds of the shofar, which represent the ongoing process of teshuvah.

These shofar blasts begin with an ordinary sound, the tekiyah; representing the daily routine and the humdrum reality that we all become accustomed to. 

This leads us to the next sound: Shevarim, whose broken blasts ask us to break the routine- the need for reflection and cheshbon hanefesh – soul-searching.

The Shevarim then give way to the staccato urgency of the Teruah, confronting us with the pressing need to shatter the barriers that separate us from our true self and from truly positive interaction with our family, our community and the world around us.

The progression of the shofar sounds simply – yet poignantly – mark the phases of the teshuvah process, awakening us from a spiritual slumber to an active re-engagement in a relationship with God.

This idea is reflected in a ruling in the Rambam & Shulchan Arukh:

לא נתכוון השומע לצאת, לא יצא ידי חובתו

If one hears the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah without having kavanah – intent to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – then he or she has not fulfilled the mitzvah.

Why would this be? After all, the unmistakable sounds were heard whether or not there was intent.

The answer is that a person may have physically heard it, but when it comes to the mitzvah of shofar, more than just hearing is required. The crux of the mitzvah is to consciously internalize the sounds..

The process of introspection may not be perfect which is why the halakha states that EVEN if one hears the blasts from a stolen shofar one fulfills their obligation. It may be that the reconciliation with GOD is not completely personally authentic. It may be that we are borrowing sounds or actions to engage with God that are artificial for us – “stolen”; a sound that is not me is not completely authentic.

But that’s OK: we don’t expect that the sound will be completely authentic and perfect. The crux of the mitzvah is about the intent to consciously hear and respond to the sounds being emitted, asking us to break the barriers and ponder the hard questions that we mentioned in the beginning:

What kind of person am I? What kind of spouse? What kind of parent? What kind of friend? What kind of Jew? What kind of human being?

Yes, honestly answering these questions is difficult, and recognizing the need to make changes and improvement is even more challenging.

This is why we must remember that the sounds of the shofar are part of a progression, a spiritual navigation system that symbolizes our ongoing commitment to working towards a renewed relationship with God.

I want to wish each and every one of us a meaningful Rosh Hashana – a new year, of new beginnings.

To find a few moments of personal reflection … especially in these turbulent times, may we truly have the power to internalize the sounds of the shofar so that we can succeed in becoming the people we have the God-given potential to be.

Shana Tova.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Nitzavim-Vayelech 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Getting Dressed Up for Rosh HaShanah – Physically and Spiritually”

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“Getting Dressed Up for Rosh HaShanah – Physically and Spiritually”

“לבוש חגיגי – פיזי ורוחני – לראש השנה”

Rosh HaShana is next week!

Next week.

And the imminent arrival of Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, provides us the opportunity to examine our values, our spiritual priorities, and evaluate if we are fulfilling the God-given potential that we each have. 

In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the issue of our clothes. Yes, our clothes.

In this week’s Haftara, the culmination of God’s comforting the Jewish People following the exile of our people, the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, the prophet Yeshayahu utilizes the imagery of clothing to portray a redemptive and purposeful life:

“My soul shall be joyful in God for He has clothed me with the garments of salvationHe has covered me with the robes of righteousness…”

How can clothing, a symbol of physical protective gear, a medium that often communicates a person’s stature, his or her mindset, something so superficial, convey a spiritual idea?

After Adam and Chava [Eve] commit their transgression in the Garden of Eden, the Torah states, “and the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.”

The Midrash states, in the name of Rabbi Meir, that the word ‘ohr’ should begin not with the letter ‘ayin,’ but rather with the letter ‘aleph’, which radically changes the meaning of the verse, to read the following: Not that God made them garments of skin, but rather, God made them garments of light.

You see, when Adam and Chava sin, they do not require a physical cover-up; they need a spiritual one! 

It was their soul that was in danger of “catching a cold” and it was their soul that needed protection.

Rabbi [Yosef Dov Halevi] Soloveitchik, ztz”l, explains how fitting it is that this teaching comes from Rabbi Meir, because Rabbi Meir had two teachers, Elisha ben Avuya (known as “The Other”) and Rabbi Akiva.

More than most, Rabbi Meir understood the difference between physical and spiritual clothing.

The Romans took good care of Elisha ben Avuya, the “Other,” who had collaborated with them in their occupation of Judea. When Elisha ben Avuya passed, it was in the midst of material luxury; he was in his own warm bed, in protective clothing. And yet, because he committed treason against his people, he dies without a legacy. His soul comes before God totally unclothed.

In contrast, Rabbi Akiva’s final days were spent as a fugitive, hiding every night in a different location to elude capture by the Romans. His body lacked the comfort of warm clothing. And when he was captured, and certainly when he was murdered, he did not die in the comfort of his own bed but rather, he was martyred in the most cruel fashion, dying in total nakedness.

But Rabbi Akiva’s essence is immortal. He lives in the psyche and the literature of his people. He may have departed this world unclothed, but he was adorned with the finest of spiritual clothing.

So what is the state of our spiritual clothing? 

What can we do to repair its tatters, and what can we do to enhance its regalness?

Let us devote this time before Rosh HaShana for this introspection, to contemplate and address these questions. In the process, we will discover our capacity to dress ourselves in the finest of spiritual clothing, and to truly celebrate what these High Holidays are all about.

Shabbat Shalom.

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