Torah insights

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayelech 5783 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

 “Joshua and the Power of Collaborative Leadership

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 Parshat Vayelech

“Joshua and the Power of Collaborative Leadership”

Parshat Vayelech marks the transition from Moshe to his prize student, Yehoshua. They are such different leaders, even though they have similar experiences.

For example, when Moshe has to cross the Yam Suf with the Jewish People, he does it by his mighty staff. (Exodus 13:17 – 15:21)

In contrast, Yehoshua has to cross the Jordan with the Jewish People. He tells the Jewish People, we can cross the Jordan only when there is a representative of every tribe. That begins the process with the Aron Brit HaShem, with the Ark of the Covenant. (Joshua 3:11-13)

Moshe formalizes a relationship between God and the Jewish People on Mount Sinai; Moshe is alone. (Exodus, Chapters 19-20)

When Yehoshua formalizes a relationship between God and the Jewish People, he tells the Jewish People that they must part of that covenant. They will have to agree to certain norms and mores, and as part of this covenant, they will have to state that they are committed to it. (Joshua, Chapter 24)

When Moshe becomes the leader, God tells him, “Shal na’alecha me’al raglecha”. Take off your shoes. (Exodus 3:5)

Shoes represent someone who treads in the everyday. God is making clear to Moshe, ‘You are going to be the leader of the Jewish People. You are not going to tread in the everyday.’

When Yehoshua becomes the leader, God tells him, “Shal na’alcha”, take off one shoe. (Joshua 5:15)

As the second leader of the Jewish People, you will be part of the everyday. But you will also be a spiritual oasis; you won’t be part of the everyday. You will have to tread between two paradigms at the same time.

Moshe has a prayer, “Az Yashir Moshe”, that he leads, and then the Jewish People follow. (Exodus 15:1-19)

Yehoshua’s prayer is “Aleinu Le’shabe’ach”, ‘we will pray together’. (Teshuvot HaGe’onim, Sha’arei Teshuva, Chapter 43)

They are different paradigms of leadership.

The paradigm of Moshe’s leadership is necessary to move the Jewish People from a slave mentality to a nation of destiny. Yehoshua’s leadership is necessary to move the Jewish People to a paradigm in which they enter the land and they will be able to engage in partnership and collaboration.

We live in a world of “Yehoshua”, where we are all leaders in our own lives and in the lives of our families and our communities. It is not about one person, but about the capacity to work together, to engage – like Yehoshua – in a partnership: to cross the body of water together, to tread by wearing one shoe on and one shoe off, to say a prayer such as “Aleinu Le’shabe’ach”, which emphasizes the need for all of us to collaborate.

We’re told in the Gemara:

פני משה כפני חמה; פני יהושע כפני לבנה

Moshe’s face radiates like the sun; Yehoshua’s face radiates like the moon.
(Bava Batra 75a)

At first glance, it seems like Moshe is the most powerful leader, while Yehoshua is a minor leader. But there is a different, deeper message here.

When you go out in the sun, all you see is the sun. That was Moshe. All you saw when Moshe led was the fact that he needed to do everything.

But when you go outside at night and you see the moon, you also see all the stars around the moon. Yehoshua’s paradigm of leadership was one in which he collaborated with others to move ideas forward.

As we are in the middle of the high holiday season and we refocus on our lives and what we want to accomplish, let us remember it is the Yehoshua paradigm of leadership that ultimately succeeds in bringing the Jewish People into the Land of Israel.

It is a paradigm of partnership and engagement, a paradigm of leadership that the Jewish People did not rebel against even once. It is the Yehoshua paradigm of leadership that we need to implement in our lives, in the lives of our children and family, and in our communities.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova.

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

 “When the King is in the Field

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 Parshat Nitzavim / Elul

When the King is in the Field

“HaMelech ba’sadeh” – The King is in the field. 

This is the way the Ba’al haTanya describes the essence of the month of Elul. (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe; Likkutei Torah, Parshat Re’eh, 32b)

This is a tremendous difference from the way the Kabbalists discussed this month, which is that Elul is a time of fear.

“Tiku ba’chodesh shofar” – this is a month in which we blow the shofar – “bakeseh l’yom chageinu”. (Psalms 81:4)

We should be “kisuiy”: covered, intimidated and concerned.

But the Ba’al haTanya looks at it differently: “HaMelech ba’sadeh”, the King is in the field. To visit a king or a queen – as we’re learning about with Queen Elizabeth in her palace – that’s almost impossible. And when it happens, it’s very formal.

But when the king or the queen is in the “sadeh” – in the field – the informality allows for conversations with the common folk in a totally different way.

Asks the Ba’al haTanya: Do you know what the month of Elul is about? It’s not a month of trepidation or intimidation. It’s a month in which we have the opportunity to focus because God is walking in the fields. God, the King, is walking in the streets. 

He wants to say hello to us in the most informal fashion. He wants to have a relationship with us. And you know what happens when we can have an informal relationship with God?

When we can meet him in the highways and byways of life, we can meet Him on the street, then when we enter His palace during the holidays of Rosh HaShana (when we coronate Him as our King) and Yom HaKippurim, then the relationship is totally different, because the relationship started in a more informal, experiential manner.

May we truly understand this message of the Ba’al haTanya: “HaMelech ba’sadeh”, The King is in the field. He’s looking for us. He wants to engage us.

Let us find the moments to create an informal relationship with God. It will help us on the High Holidays and it will help us for the rest of our life.

Shabbat Shalom and Ketiva v’Chatima Tova.

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

 “Inspiration, Empowerment and a Stolen Shofar

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 Parshat Ki Tavo / Elul

“Inspiration, Empowerment and a Stolen Shofar”

We find ourselves right before Rosh Hashana, and there is a very interesting halakha regarding the shofar:

הגוזל שופר ותקע בו יצא…

Normally, we do not allow the use of a stolen object to fulfill a mitzvah. Nevertheless, if you steal a shofar and you hear that sound, it’s obviously not the best sound that you can hear on Rosh Hashana – no one wants to hear a sound on Rosh Hashana from a stolen shofar – but if that’s the sound that I hear, I still fulfill my obligation. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 586:2)

Why is this? Because of the halakhic principle of

אין בקול דין גזל

There is no such thing as stealing a sound. (Maimonides, Laws of Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav 1:3)

Yet there is another interesting halakha that states:

המתעסק בתקיעת שופר להתלמד לא יצא ידי חובתו וכן השומע מן המתעסק לא יצא

If I’m walking by a person’s yard or a person’s home, and a person is practicing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, and I hear 100 blasts from his practicing, I do not fulfill my obligation. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 589:8)

Why is it that I can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the sound of the shofar blasts via a stolen shofar, but not if I hear a person practicing with a pristine shofar on Rosh Hashana?

I believe that the underlying message is that Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the process of re-engaging with God.

We are trying to find our own sound, and there will always be something that is not perfect about our sound when we begin to create a relationship with God.

It will never be fully authentic.

Every one of us on Rosh Hashana is not fully engaged yet – it’s the beginning of the process.

As much as we try, and as hard as we work beforehand, a stolen sound still works, because all of us – even with the most pristine shofar – have a little bit of a stolen sound in our psyche, in our essence, we’re just not there yet.

But we have to try. We have to work hard. Therefore, we cannot fulfill the mitzvah via a shofar sounded not in order to inspire and empower us, but rather sounded for practice, because it must be a shofar sound intended to inspire the people around him.

It must be a shofar sound committed to trying to make a difference.

As we begin the process of Rosh Hashana, let us work to realize that it is okay if our spiritual sound is not completely authentic.

At the same time, it cannot be that we are in a state of “מתעסק” / practicing; that we are just in a state of a robotic routine.

Instead, we have to work hard to find a new energy, a new music in our relationship to God, in our relationship to our families, and really in our relationship to ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and Ketiva v’Chatima Tova.


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

 “Purim in Elul: Creating a Loving Engagement with God

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 Parshat Ki Teitze / Elul

“Purim in Elul: Creating a Loving Engagement with God

We have entered the month of Elul, the month of preparation before the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaKippurim and Sukkot, those days of awe.

Elul, the time in which we ask ourselves the most challenging questions: “What have we accomplished?” “What more can we accomplish?” “How can we grow into the people we can truly be?” “How can we improve our relationship with our family, our engagement with society?” “How can we create and reconcile our relationship with God?”

In fact, the Rabbis suggest that Elul [אלול] is an acronym for:

אני לדודי ודודי לי 

I am to my Beloved (God), and my Beloved is to me (God needs me, also). (Song of Songs 6:3)

Elul is about a rapprochement between ourselves and God.

However, others suggest that Elul represents something totally different, namely, that the acronym of the word is:

איש לרעהו ומתנות לאביונים

…[sending gifts] to one another and presents to the poor. (Esther 9:22)

In other words, Elul is a time for us to re-engage with our friends, and this is a time to make sure that we are responsible to help those in need.

What connection does that have to the month of Elul? I thought that that is really the theme of Purim.

In fact, the Rabbis are making a very important point.

If we want to reconcile and improve our relationship to God, we have to first realize it’s “איש לרעהו ומתנות לאביונים”: We have to improve society.

We have to be concerned about the way we engage and talk with our friends. We have to be concerned with those who are living in challenging times.

It is only when we do “איש לרעהו ומתנות לאביונים”; it is only when we celebrate that acronym that we can then achieve “אני לדודי ודודי לי”. It is only then that we can create a loving engagement, a loving interaction with God.

Shabbat Shalom and Ketiva v’Chatima Tova.


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

 “Judaism’s Views of Government: Democracy or Monarchy?”

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 Parshat Shoftim

“Judaism’s Views of Government: Democracy or Monarchy?

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Speech in the British Parliament, November 11, 1947).

What form of government does Judaism prefer? Monarchy, democracy or theocracy?

We’re told in this week’s Torah portion:

כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכׇל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי׃

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and –having taken possession of it and settled in it – you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me…” (Deuteronomy 17:14)

It would seem from the above verses that monarchy is preferred. However, many do not view it as such. First, because of context clues.

The Torah opens Parshat Shoftim with the command:

שֹפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכׇל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק׃

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.  (ibid., 16:18)

לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם׃ 

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.(ibid., v. 19)

And this culminates with the clarion call for a clear form of justice:

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ׃

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (ibid., v. 20)

In fact, we’re told if a case is too baffling for the local courts to decide, you don’t bring it to the king. Whether it’s a controversy over homicide, civil law or assault, any matters of dispute in the courts that can’t be judged by the local courts:

…וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ׃

…you shall promptly ascend to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen.  (ibid., 17:8)


וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט…

Go to the priests, the Levites, and the judge... (ibid., v. 9)

The Torah tells us to go to those who have integrity and scholarship – to help us adjudicate and make sure there’s justice in the land.

In other words, as James Monroe once stated “the best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.”

There is a balance of power here. Etched into the parsha is that the king is not the sole ruler. There is no absolute power, there is no absolute authority.

There are legislative and judicial branches run by the courts: the Kohanim and the judges. In fact, unless he has approval from the Sanhedrin, the king can wage only defensive wars and, according to some, capture the land of Israel.

The king cannot have too many horses, cannot marry too many women, and must write his own Sefer Torah that accompanies him throughout his life, in order to place limitations on his stature and to ensure that there is no abuse of power, to remain mindful of the true source of his power, God. (ibid., 17:16-20)

However, there are those that suggest that even from these verses, there is no clear indication about the responsibility to appoint a king.

Yes, Maimonides and the Laws of Kings (1:1) says that this is one of the commandments.

But Rav Ovadia Seforno comments that a king is despised by God, and is to be appointed only when there is a necessity, when there’s a need of protection against the nations of the world (Rav Ovadia Seforno’s commentary to Deuteronomy 17:14).

The Abarbanel states, like the Seforno, that it is not a mitzvah. And he reminds us of what happens in the Book of Shmuel when the Jewish people tell Shmuel, ‘You’ve grown old. Your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore appoint a king for us, to govern us, like all the other nations’ (I Samuel 8:5).

Which would seem to be consistent with what we read in our Torah portion.

Shmuel is upset, and God tells him, ‘Heed the demand of the people because everything they’re saying to you is not because they have rejected you, Shmuel, it’s because they have rejected me as a king’ (ibid., v. 6-7).

In fact, the Abarbanel is an advocate for other forms of government and feels a king is only a last resort (Rav Isaac Abarbanel’s commentary to Parshat Shoftim).

He supports the idea of government with term limits to avoid corruption, and states clearly that there should be leaders who have a maximum time in office of four years.

The Netziv looks at the paradigms of Maimonides and the paradigms of the Abarbanel, and he merges the perspectives. He says it might be that Maimonides is correct, that it might be a commandment, if necessary, to have a king (Commentary of HaEmek Davar to Deuteronomy 17:14).

But when democracy works better, when democracy can protect the people better, then it’s “pikuach nefesh“, then it is a form of making sure that every individual life is protected.

Therefore, if democracy can work better, then the commandment, even according to Maimonides, would be suspended in order to make sure we have a better form of government.

What is the message of all this? That leadership is not a right; it is a privilege.

And the responsibility of leaders is to be able to give of themselves. In the process, they become better people, they live more meaningful lives, and in the process, please God, they empower others.

Shabbat Shalom

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

 “Mishneh Torah: The Role of Humankind in the Writings of God

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Parshat Re’eh

Mishneh Torah: The Role of Humankind in the Writings of God

In Parshat Re’eh, we find ourselves moving towards the middle of the Book of Devarim, the fifth and final Book of the Torah. The Rabbis refer to the Book of Devarim as “Mishneh Torah”. [Midrash Sifri]

Nachmanides explains that the reason why it’s called Mishneh Torah: it is a review of basic precepts necessary for the Jewish People to remember before they enter the Land of Israel and create a location, Eretz Yisrael, which is really the anchor of Jewish society of Torah and mitzvot.

And therefore Nachmanides says it’s called Mishneh Torah because it’s the basic ideals that are necessary when the Jewish People enter the Land of Israel. [Introduction to Deuteronomy].

The challenge with this wondrous idea of Nachmanides is it does not bear itself out in the list of commandments that are mentioned for the first time in the Book of Devarim. So many of them have nothing to do with the Jewish People entering the Land of Israel: the commandment to love God, the institution of marriage, to study Torah, to teach it, to recite the Shema, the responsibility of the Grace after Meals.

In our parsha, the institution of Kashrut, the idea of Shatnez, the prohibition of wearing a garment with wool and linen, the responsibility of giving charity or returning lost property. None of those things have anything to do with entering the Land of Israel.

And therefore the Talmud [Bava Batra 88b, Megillah 31b and Tosfot’s comments there (s.v. “Moshe”)], the Kabbalists [Zohar, vol. 3 (Deuteronomy), Parshat Va’etchanan], the Ohr HaChaim (Rav Chaim ibn Attar) [Commentary to Deuteronomy 1:1], the Gaon of Vilna [cited by Ohel Ya’akov, Deuteronomy, page 20], the Maharal [Tiferet Yisrael ch. 43] and so many others give a different explanation for why this final book of the Torah is called Mishneh Torah.

If the relationship between God and the Jewish People is to be guaranteed, there must be two partners in the scribing of the Torah.

The first four books of the Torah is the first paradigm of “God-speak”. It is written in the third person. It is completely articulated by God and scribed by Moshe.

The fifth book, the final book, is “Mishneh Torah”. It is literally a second Torah, a different paradigm of God-speak, in which Moshe scribes the text, God approves the text, Moshe scribes it with Ruach HaKodesh, God approves it and then Moshe finalizes the text.

The idea being that if we’re going to have a relationship between God and the Jewish People, it is not just God that has to convene and bring and share with us the Torah.

There needs to be a partnership with the Jewish People in its creation, completely approved by God.

These are the five books of the Torah. They are divine books, but we need to see, as we see in Devarim, a form of contribution by Moshe on behalf of the Jewish People, a book that is not written in the third person, but in the second person.

This is an important message for each and every one of us.

If Torah is going to exist forever, if we’re going to continue to guarantee its eternality, both partners have to play a role. We need to play a role. We need to understand how to bring Torah into the modern era.

Not that we should water down Torah, not that we should compromise Torah. But what makes Torah “ki heim chayeinu ve orech yameinu”, what makes Torah eternal is when it can deal with contemporary situations, contemporary realities.

And the reality of the “Mishneh Torah” celebrates the human role in the scribing of the Torah. The second paradigm of God-speak.

The responsibility for each and every one of us, as we read through Sefer Devarim, to remember that God is looking for our voice – based on the principles that God has established – to guarantee His future role in society, and to guarantee our participation in making this a more perfect society.

Shabbat Shalom

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

 “The Second Tablets: Building the Next Step in our Relationship with God

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Parshat Ekev

“The Second Tablets: Building the Next Step in our Relationship with God”

Relationships of any sort, to be meaningful and effective, must be reciprocal. This is obviously true in a relationship between husband and wife. And it’s true in a relationship between parent and children. Parents give so much to their children, and at a certain time in the relationship, the children begin to give back so much to the parents.

Throughout Tanach, we see relationships that fail when there isn’t a certain reciprocity.

When Adam and Chava are placed in the Garden of Eden, and they are passive in their relationship with God – they have no requirements – the relationship really fails.

Adam and Chava are banished from the Garden of Eden, and only then do they play an active role, a meaningful role, a strong role, in a relationship with God.

In fact, we’re told on the first Saturday night that Adam and Eve are outside of the Garden of Eden, they actually – with God – they create fire [Pesachim 54a].

And that is also true about reciprocity in a relationship between God and the Jewish people.

When God gives the Jewish people the first set of Luchot, our Rabbis tell us throughout the Midrashim, that God gives the Jewish people the Written and Oral Law together. [See Drasha 18 of the Beit haLevi, who elaborates on this point].

The role of the Jewish people is simply to be the receptacle of the Torah, but they really don’t play any role in developing the Torah.

And what happens to the first Luchot? What happens to this Torah, for which there is no Oral Tradition at all, and in which everything is written? That relationship fails.

When the Jewish people are passive, when there’s no engagement from their side in the relationship with God, that is a relationship that cannot work. And therefore, that set of Luchot are shattered [Exodus 32:19].

Those Luchot had a purpose. They demonstrate God’s interest in creating a covenant with the Jewish people and with all of society. But they fail because they cannot endure if etched within the covenant, the Jewish people are not a partner in the relationship and are not active.

And in this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, when we are told about the second Luchot, the Torah is very clear about what happens with the second writing by Moshe:

בעת ההוא אמר ה’ אלי פסל־לך שני־לוחת אבנים כראשנים…

God tells Moshe, ‘Write a second set of tablets that are like the first ones…’ [Deuteronomy 10:1]

They’re not exactly the same; they’re “ka-rishonim”, like the first ones.

And the text continues:

ואכתוב על הלוחות את הדברים אשר היו על הלוחות הראשונים אשר שיברת

And what does Moshe communicate?

‘I wrote on the second set of Tablets the messages that were found on the first Tablets when they were broken.’

Meaning, when there was a bifurcation between the Oral and the Written Tradition; when there was no longer this idea that God would give the Jewish people both the Oral and Written Torah together.

That the Jewish People would now be responsible for writing part of the Torah, and God would be responsible for writing part of the Torah.

That God would give the Jewish People the Written Torah, and it was the responsibility to communicate the messages of the Oral Tradition from generation to generation. 

That every generation would build on the messages of the generation of the past, that now the Jewish People had a role.

That is the promise of the second Luchot, of the second Tablets: a new paradigm of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

It highlights the responsibility that each and every one of us has, not only to internalize the messages of the Torah, but to have the courage, and more importantly, the knowledge, to be able to build the next floor on what Torah is all about.

Judaism can only survive, and more importantly, can only thrive and be eternal, when we have the knowledge and the courage to build the next step, the next floor, in our relationship to God, based on Torah principles. 

A Judaism and a Torah that engages with modern challenges and makes Torah the eternal book that it continues to be.

Shabbat Shalom

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

 “The Power of a Whisper

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The Power of a Whisper

In Parshat Va’etchanan, we are introduced to “Shema Yisrael”, the passage that speaks about our faith and fidelity to God. [Deuteronomy 6:4-9]

The Talmud [Pesachim 56a] records a dispute over how to recite these passages in our prayer services. According to one opinion, we should read it in the sequence in which it appears in the Bible:

“שמע ישראל ה’ אלוקינו ה’ אחד”
“Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad”
“Hear, O Israel…the Lord is one”, immediately followed by the words:

“ואהבת את ה’ אלוקיך…”
“Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha…”
We are to love God, to know God, engage with God, etc.

Another opinion maintains that we should recite these passages in the way in which it occurs at Jacob’s deathbed. The Sages teach that Jacob gathers his children around and wants to share the prophecy of the End of Days, but he is unable to. [Genesis 49:1, and Rashi’s commentary]

He fears that like his father and his grandfather, it is because his home is incomplete. After all, Avraham had Yishmael and Yitzchak had Eisav. Immediately, his children, in unison, answer “Shema Yisrael – Yisrael, Jacob – we are one; we are totally committed to God.”

And he responds, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed” – God’s Name and what He represents is eternal in my family.

The Talmud resolves this conflict with a compromise: we should recite the Biblical text of Va’etchanan aloud, and we should whisper “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”.

And that’s what we do: We recite “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad” aloud, then we utter, in a whisper, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”. And then we return to the verses in the Torah:  “Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha bechol levavcha u’vechol nafshecha u’vechol me’odecha”, etc.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recognized the fact that we do something more than just whisper the words that are found in the dialogue of Jacob and his children. He taught that we actually collapse the dialogue into a monologue.

And the reason is that when we recite the Shema of Parshat Va’etchanan, we play the role of two different characters: we first play the role of Jacob’s children – “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel”. Hear, the Jewish people, “Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Echad”. We are committed to being the children of Israel. We are committed to the tradition. We are committed to the values of what it means to study Torah and to find a relationship with God.

But then we merge in a whisper, to be not just like the children of Israel, but also like Jacob the teacher, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”.

We also have to be able to take on the mantle of leadership, to teach the vision of Judaism to our family, to ourselves, to our community and to society.

We play both roles: we are the student – “Shema Yisrael” – and we are the teacher – “Baruch shem kevod malchuto”. We must be both.

So, too, Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, requires us to play both roles. It requires us to pursue the role of student, of constantly engaging and renewing our relationship to God, but never allowing that to prevent us from also being the teacher, in making our families better, in making our community better, and making our society better.

“Nachamu nachamu ami”, we will be comforted and redeemed when we take on both of these responsibilities, the responsibility of being the student and simultaneously, the responsibility of being the teacher. The responsibility of saying “Shema Yisrael” and also “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

 “When the Earthly Jerusalem Mirrors its Heavenly Partner

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When the Earthly Jerusalem Mirrors its Heavenly Partner

Real estate prices in Jerusalem have risen 10% in the past year. The joke in this country is the national bird in Israel should be the crane, because wherever you walk in Jerusalem, wherever you travel in Israel, there is building going on, thank God. And cranes mark the skyline.

Jerusalem is alive and well! Yet we still have the responsibility to fast on Tisha B’Av. Why is this?

Moreover, the prayer we recite at Mincha on Tisha B’Av states:

“נחם ה’ אלוקינו על אבלי ציון ואבלי ירושלים”

“God, comfort the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem”, because the city is destroyed, despised and desolate.

While Rabbi Goren modified the prayer slightly to reflect the changed reality of the city, what is the authentic focus in our day and age on Tisha B’Av?

We often speak about two Jerusalems: the heavenly Jerusalem (“Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah”) and the earthly Jerusalem (“Yerushalayim shel Matah”). [Taanit 5a]

The prophet Isaiah explains in the haftarah that we read this week, Shabbat Chazon, how Jerusalem, how Israel, will be redeemed:

“למדו היטב דרשו משפט אשרו חמוץ שפטו יתום ריבו אלמנה”

We have to learn to do good. We have to devote ourselves to justice. We have to aid the wronged. We have to uphold the rights of the orphan and defend the cause of the widow. [Isaiah 1:17]

In order to be redeemed, Jerusalem must be an authentic city filled with justice. [Isaiah 1:21]

“קריה נאמנה מלאתי משפט”

It must be redeemed through justice. [Isaiah 1:27]

“ציון במשפט תפדה”

And while, Baruch Hashem, the stones of Jerusalem are being rebuilt – and we must be joyous and grateful for that; after all, it’s an unprecedented experience – Jerusalem is still the poorest city in Israel.

We still have agunot throughout our land. Jerusalem is still the place where Jews feel, in the name of God, they can attack the other.

We’re still waiting for the earthly Jerusalem to mirror the image seen in the heavenly Jerusalem.

And please God, we will get to that point, but until then, we have the fast day of Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av exists to galvanize us, to be able to make the difference. So we celebrate the greatness of the redemptive period that we’re in, but we recognize that we’re just not there yet.

The earthly Jerusalem, the earthly land of Israel, is still riddled with injustice.

It’s our responsibility not just to rebuild the stones, but to rebuild the ethical and moral pillars that the land must represent, in order for it to be redeemed.

Shabbat Shalom, and have an easy but meaningful fast.

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

 “When Fanaticism Goes Unchecked”

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When Fanaticism Goes Unchecked

The end of Parshat Balak and the beginning of Parshat Pinchas discuss a great tragedy for the Jewish People. They are engaged in orgies with Midianite women following engaging in their idolatrous practices. [Numbers 25:1-3]

It’s not just the rank-and-file of the Jewish People; it’s the aristocracy. It’s Zimri, the prince of the Tribe of Shimon, who takes a woman by the name of Kozbi, the daughter of the priest of Midian, and in front of the Sanhedrin, Moshe, Aharon and the entire Israelite community, he engages in a public act of intercourse. These orgies cause God to bring a plague upon the Jewish People that claims 24,000 lives. [Numbers 25:6, 14-15]

Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon and the grand-nephew of Moshe, takes a spear in his hand, and in the middle of this act of public intercourse, plunges the spear into the two of them, ending the plague. [Numbers 25:7-9]

God acknowledges that Pinchas has ended this Chilul Hashem, this disgrace of God:

פִּנְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Pinchas, son of Elazar, grandson of Aharon Hakohen,
has allowed me to remove my wrath from B’nei Yisrael.
[Numbers 25:11]

And due to Pinchas, this Chillul Hashem and plague end.

Yet the Talmud and Maimonides, in their codification of this action, are hesitant to endorse this act, and grapple with the issue of whether “קנאים פוגעים בו”, an act of zealotry, is permissible.

The Talmud [Sanhedrin 81b-82b], in a position codified by Maimonides [Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relationships 12:5], states that if a zealot asks his rabbi or beit din if he may engage in ending a public act of sexual intercourse, they are not permitted to respond in the affirmative.

Furthermore, if Zimri had separated himself from Kozbi while Pinchas was plunging his spear through the two of them, Pinchas would have been חייב מיתה, he would have been subject to being killed for his action.

Additionally: if during the act of intercourse, Zimri would have turned around to defend himself against Pinchas, he would have gone scot-free, because the halakha considers Pinchas to be a “רודף”, a pursuer.

The Ra’avad, a commentator on Maimonides, adds that before Pinchas could plunge his spear into them while they are engaged in this act of intercouse, he has to warn them about it. It’s not enough the act is happening; there must also be a warning. [Comments to Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relationships, 12:4]

And the Jerusalem Talmud declared that Pinchas’ action was “שלא ברצון חכמים”, it was not halakhically acceptable. It was not permitted by the rabbis. But what can they do? After all, God descended upon them and said that which Pinchas did was fine. [Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7]

We live in an age of fanaticism. We live in a time in which Jews still throw stones at other Jews.

We live in an era in which Jews have no problem interrupting a prayer service that is foreign to them; and, tragically, in which they have no problem protesting against other Jews and calling them such horrific names such as “Nazis”.

Judaism does not celebrate or encourage fanaticism!

True, Pinchas stops a Chilul Hashem, ending a plague that had killed 24,000 people. Yet the Jerusalem Talmud is not willing to endorse his actions. It is only God spoke directly to the people that Pinchas was protected from punishment.

And even if Pinchas’ actions were permissible, the Babylonian Talmud limits it to very specific situations, and even then, if Zimri would have defended himself against Pinchas and killed him, Zimri would have gone unpunished.

The Ra’avad requires that Pinchas warn Zimri and Kozbi about the severity of their sin and imminent punishment prior to plunging his spear into themi.

All of these example demonstrate the clear message that Judaism does not engage in fanaticism.

We are beginning the Three Weeks. It’s a time to (re-)learn that the reason that the Temple was destroyed was NOT because we did not engage with God. It’s because we did not engage with other Jews. It was because of Sin’at Chinam, baseless hatred. [Yoma 9b]

If we want to repair the tragedy of 2,000 years ago, we need to learn that fanaticism is not something that Judaism embraces.

Rather, Judaism embraces the responsibility to treat every Jew and every human being with respect. And even when disagree, to do so in an agreeable fashion.

May we put the story of Pinchas in its proper context and may we take that context into the Three Weeks so that, please God, next year, this will not be a period of fasting, but a period of joy and celebration.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parsha-Purpose Balak

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

 “The Two-Way Journey Connecting the Mundane and the Holy”

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Parshat Chukat (Diaspora) / Balak (Israel)

The Two-Way Journey Connecting the Mundane and the Holy

In the Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot), we are told that at the end of the first Friday of creation – a few moments before Shabbat, during bein hashmashot (twilight) – God created ten things:

עֲשָׂרָה דְבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן:
 פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת…

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: [1] the mouth of the earth, [2] the mouth of the well, [3] the mouth of the donkey, [4] the rainbow, [5] the manna, [6] the staff [of Moses], [7] the shamir, [8] the letters, [9] the writing, [10] and the tablets… [Avot 5:6] Translation: Sefaria

One of these items includes the “pi ha’aton”, the mouth of the donkey that features in the dialogue between the donkey and Bil’am in this week’s Torah portion of Balak. [Numbers 22]

Why does God wait until the last minute of creation to create these ten things? Because the twilight period, “bein hashmashot”, has a unique identity: it carries some of the energy of the day prior, some of the energy of the forthcoming night, and indeed, it really has its own energy.

Twilight between Friday and Shabbat is the living bridge between the mundane and the ethereal, the idea of bringing the holy into the mundane and recognizing that the holy has no importance without the everyday.

Each of these ten things represent an article used to create this living bridge.

Let’s take, for example, the donkey. The Tanach mentions ten instances of a person using a donkey on a journey, and in none of those occasions does the person reach their destination.

Avraham takes Yitzchak to sacrifice him with a donkey in Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac; they do not reach the destination (of completing that mission). [Genesis 22:3, 5]

Moshe brings his family back to Egypt on a donkey; that destination is not reached. [Exodus 4:20]

Bil’am travels to curse the Jewish people on a donkey; that destination, too, is not reached. [Numbers 22]

The message is that we should focus is on the values of the journey, not the destination. The values of the journey that define us. Because many times in our lives, we are not able to achieve the destination, but the journey is still important.

The idea that the rainbow (see Mishna, above) was created during this twilight period highlights the fact that the rainbow represents the idea that no matter how much of a dissonance there may be between spirituality and the way humankind is running the world, there will never be a total break that will cause God to destroy the world. [Genesis 9:13-17]

There is always the hope that spirituality will play a role in the everyday.

The idea that the Hebrew letters (see Mishna, above) were created during this period of time is so that we can have a Torah that gives us the capacity to be able to live in the everyday with values, with ideals.

The idea that the “shamir” (worm) (see Mishna, above) that was used to cut the stones of the First Temple [Talmud, Gittin 68a], highlights the idea that the Temple represents a place where God can engage with both the Jew and all of society, where we can live in the “bein hashmashot” (twilight) between the everyday: between Friday and between Shabbat.

The idea behind every one of these ten items is the fact that they represent our mandate as Jews and as human beings, to be “bein hashmashot Jews”, to be “bein hashmashot people”. We must be able to live between Friday and Shabbat, to be able to live in two worlds at the same time, the everyday world, and the spiritual world.

Bil’am forgets this. His donkey reminds him, and therefore, while his donkey and Bil’am never achieve their goal, it reminds all of us that it’s the values that we bring to our journey that defines if we truly live in the “bein hashmashot” between Friday and Shabbat, where we can exchange the energies between both paradigms that allows us to change the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Celebrating Everyday Miracles”

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Parshat Korach (Diaspora) and Parshat Chukat (Israel)

“Celebrating Everyday Miracles

The Gemara in Taanit tells us that there were three miraculous gifts given to the Jewish People every single day while they were in the desert for 40 years: the “Anan” (the cloud cover), the “Mahn” (the manna) and the “Be’er” (the rolling well). [Taanit 9a]

The be’er, the Gemara says, is in the merit of Miriam, and therefore, when Miriam passes away in our parsha, the be’er stops giving water, as the verse states, “ולא היה מים לעדה”. [Numbers 20:2]

Immediately after Miriam passes away, there is no water for the Jewish People.

The Gemara continues:

 “וחזרה בזכות שניהם”

Due to Moshe’s and Aharon’s pleading with God, the water from the well resurfaces and gives the Jewish People water.

Rashi explains that Miriam’s Well is actually a rock that’s filled with water that rolls with them from place to place. [Rashi on Taanit 9a (“The Well of Miriam”)]

The Tosefta in Sukkah actually explains the protocol of how this rock-well of Miriam dispensed water throughout the 40 years in the desert. [Tosefta Sukkah 3:3]

And it is that rock-well that Moshe strikes with the staff. [Numbers 20:11]

Miriam is always synonymous with deliverance, especially from water. After all, it is Miriam who watches over baby Moshe in the water. [Exodus 2:4]

It is Miriam who helps the Egyptian princess save Moshe. [Exodus 2:7-10]

And if you look at Miriam’s name, the word “mayim” (water / מרים) is found in it.

And even the name is really a conjunction of two words “mar” and “yam”,

(“מר”  and”ים“)

…the bitterness that happens in a body of water, which Miriam transforms.

When the Jews cross the Sea of Reeds, it is Miriam who leads the women in song.

“ותען להם מרים”
“And Miriam sang to them”
[Exodus 15::21]

Miriam says:

“ ‘שירו לה’”
“Let us, as a group of women, come together, sing and dance to celebrate this open miracle of God.”

And therefore, in this week’s Torah portion, when Miriam passes away and is buried there, all of a sudden there’s a crisis of no water:

“ולא היה מים לעדה”
“and there was no water for the community”
[Numbers 20:2]

And they therefore complain to Moshe and Aharon. Moshe argues with the Jewish People:


“שמעו נא המרים:”
“Understand, rebels:”

“המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים”
“Do you expect me to be like my sister, who was able to get water from a stone?!”
[Numbers 20:10]

Even the word “המורים”, which in the Sefer Torah lacks the letter “vav”, can be read as “שמעו נא המרים”, which also spells “Miriam”.

Moshe says: “Do you expect me to be like Miriam, you rebels, and give you the gift of water? That was Miriam’s greatness, not mine!”

After Moshe pleads with God – and there are mistakes that Moshe makes in this process, that we’ve discussed in the past – this well resurfaces. And then the Jewish people, after the resurfacing of this well, sing a song to God:

“אז ישיר ישראל את השירה הזאת”
[Numbers 21:17]

This song to God is the second shira (song) in the Torah. Unlike the overt miracle that happens once in history – the Jewish people crossing through the Yam Suf – this celebrates a miracle that happens every single day for 40 years.

And there’s a deep message in there for each and every one of us: sometimes we forget the daily miracles that occur in life. The Jewish people forgot that.

They are only reminded about it when there are a few days where that miracle, that gift, is lost; in this case, clean water.

What a powerful message for each and every one of us.

We sometimes forget the gifts that God gives us:

the fact that we have a beating heart;

the fact that we are blessed with family and friends;

the fact that we have the capacity to live free lives.

These are all gifts that God gives us, and we take them for granted.

The power of prayer is to remind us not just of the miracles that happened once in history.

The power of prayer, the opportunity of prayer, the brilliance of prayer, is to give us the capacity to recognize for ourselves and to God the miracles that happen every single day, as the Jewish people recognize in this week’s Torah portion after they lose water for a short period of time.

Shabbat Shalom.