Torah insights

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tissa 5780

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“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.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Beshalach 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Parshat Beshalach 5780

“Moshe and Authentic Leadership: Feeling the Pain of Others”

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“Moshe and Authentic Leadership: Feeling the Pain of Others”

I would like to share something with you that speaks to me personally from the final portion of this week’s parsha.

Amalek is the first of the nations that attacks the Jewish people after they were freed from Egyptian slavery. In this battle, Moshe plays a singular role. The Torah tells us that when Moshe lifts his hands towards God, all the people raise their eyes to heaven and they are victorious, but when his hands fall, they are vanquished.

The Torah explains that Moshe’s hands became heavy, therefore he was seated upon a rock, and Aharon and Hur supported his hands.  

The Torah’s description is precise and detailed here- unusually so.  Rashi points out that a pillow or cushion would have been a more obvious choice. Why then did Moshe sit on a hard rock? 

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, answers that Moshe said:  If the Jewish people are in pain, I am also in pain. I have no right to sit comfortably while they suffer. 

This message really resonates for me. 

Sometimes people ask me (I had the privilege of spending many years living in the apartment of Rav Soloveitchik on the Yeshiva University campus): What is the most important D’var Torah that you learned from the Rav?

Perhaps I was too young to appreciate his intense scholarship, but what I really learned from Rav Soloveitchik was his profound empathy for the suffering of others, to the point that he internalized that pain. His doctors asked us to ensure that the personal meetings that Rav Soloveitchik held with individuals in crisis would not be scheduled back to back, since that would adversely affect his health. 

“Intersperse some meetings there about the Jewish community at large that do not focus on a particular individual’s personal pain. Schedule some time for other things. Space the meetings to help people with their traumas and challenges throughout the day.”

I remember one time when I woke up and saw that Rav Soloveitchik had gotten up at three in the morning. I walked out of the bedroom to see Rabbi Soloveitchik in the parlor area, and asked him, Rebbe, why are you up so early? 

He said, “I know there’s a young couple that’s going to meet with me and they asked me a difficult halakhic question. I know what I need to tell them, but I know that my answer will pain them.”

People sometimes speak about Rav Soloveitchik and note that he had multiple answers to a similar question. He marshaled his entire arsenal of halakhic knowledge to help people out, and was able to focus on a particular approach within the limits of halacha in order to arrive at a p’sak that would best suit their situation and needs. He understood this message of true leadership: the responsibility to feel the pain of others. 

And when I read this part of the parsha, I am reminded of the fact that I had the privilege of witnessing somebody who was able to internalize the pain of other Jews. 
I think we have to ask ourselves this question. We see events all around us- we cannot let them paralyze us, just as they did not paralyze Rabbi Soloveitchik- but do they impact us? 

When we hear about the pain of another Jew who lives in a totally different area, how do we feel? When we see the suffering of another human being, does it affect us?

Does it change our day?

Are we still reclining on that same soft, comfortable couch, or do we feel a certain degree of discomfort in our day because of the distress of others?

This week’s Torah portion has a unique message. It’s not just about the miracle of crossing the sea. Nor is it only about freedom for the Jewish people, but about a true leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. 

This is the type of leadership that we have to find in ourselves: to feel the pain of others. 

Shabbat Shalom

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