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

“Are We Meeting the Challenge of Inspiring our Children?”

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Parshat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11 )

“Are We Meeting the Challenge of Inspiring our Children?”

Raising a Jewish family is a tremendous privilege, and with it comes an enormous responsibility to pass Jewish traditions to the next generation.

It is easier said than done.

We are all aware, whether in our own family, or even among Torah scholars, of children who have grown up and chosen a path that differs from that of their parents.

How do we do our absolute best to give our children the kinds of experiences and emotional support that we hope will lead them to remaining on the path of Jewish tradition?

I’d like to share an insight into this issue from the most famous and often-recited paragraph in the Torah, the first paragraph of Shema which begins with “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” and which is introduced to us in this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan.

In the Shema, the Torah speaks about our love, awareness and commitment to a relationship with God. 

There it states:

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם
Repeat these things to your children

בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשׇׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ

when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you wake up. (Devarim 6:7)

This is the basis for our twice-daily obligation to recite the Shema: in the darkness of night, representing times in our lives when things are challenging, when because – or perhaps despite – the fact that we don’t have clarity, we wish to connect with God. And also in the light of day, when things are going well, when we are prone to feel that we are responsible for our successes; reciting the Shema is a “pledge of allegiance”; a recognition of the role that God plays in our lives. 

“Shema Yisrael” is also the utterance of those who have performed the ultimate act of sacrifice – martyrdom – for the sake of ensuring the eternality of the Jewish people.

So important, in fact, is the recitation of the Shema that the first Mishnah in the first tractate in the oral tradition, Berachot, begins with the Shema:

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבית?

When can one recite the evening-time Shema? (Berachot 1a)

And after offering several opinions regarding the question of “until when can the evening Shema be recited?”

The final opinion comes from Rabban Gamliel, who states that one may recite the Shema until dawn. 

The Mishna then continues with an anecdote involving Rabban Gamliel’s sons returning very late from a party.

The sons told Rabban Gamliel that they were preoccupied at a party and had not yet recited the evening Shema. 

Could they still recite it?

His response to them was – since the dawn had not yet arrived, they were still obligated and permitted to recite the evening Shema.

Why does the Mishna need this anecdote involving Rabban Gamliel’s sons? It seems extraneous. 

Rav Shlomo Vilk, Rosh Yehshiva of Ohr Torah Stone’s Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, points out the Mishna is focusing on the challenge and ideal of Jewish spiritual continuity and finding it in the everyday. To be able to speak about the challenges of being out at a late-night party engaged in activity which may seem antithetical to a transcendent life, yet it is the job of the parent to find ways to help the next generation to connect with the ideals of the Shema. 

The fact that this story is inserted in the first Mishnah of our Oral tradition highlights the need to promote dialogue regarding spirituality between parent and child.  For such dialogue helps to ensure that spirituality is found in our children’s and grandchildren’s lives. 

What an important message this first Mishna of the oral tradition teaches us: the responsibility, indeed the mandate, that an essential component of our relationship with God of our Judaism is to find God while engaging in the everyday and even in the joys of the everyday. 

This is our opportunity and our challenge!  

Inserting this story into the Mishnaic conversation implores us to work to create an environment of spirituality that is meaningful and relevant to our children and grandchildren as they engage in the wondrous opportunities and challenges of everyday life experiences.

The first Mishna of our oral tradition reminds us that if we are to guarantee our Jewish future, we must create a religious language that speaks to the everyday experiences of our children and grandchildren.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“‘Where Are You?’ The Most Important Question of Tisha B’Av

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Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)

“‘Where Are You?’ The Most Important Question of Tisha B’Av”

When a loved one dies, God forbid, the intensity of our mourning is seen in its most dramatic form on the day of burial and then gradually diminishes from the first through the seventh day of shiva, through the next 30 days – the shloshim – and in the case of a beloved parent, throughout the year of mourning.

Our communal mourning for the destruction of our holy Temple, on the other hand, progresses in the exact opposite direction.

For three weeks, catalyzed by the fast of the 17 of Tammuz, we refrain from joyous activity. 

Then, during the final nine days of those three weeks, beginning on Rosh Chodesh Av (or, for Sephardic Jews, during the final week preceding the ninth of Av,) we progress to an even more heightened state of mourning. 

Ultimately, the pinnacle of mourning occurs on Tisha B’Av – the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.  

The reason for this opposite pattern is because unlike mourning a family member, it is so hard to sincerely mourn a 2000-year-old tragedy.

It’s true that the loss of our holy Temple led to the loss of our sovereignty and, even more significantly, the loss of our connection to God. 

But still it’s hard to immediately and emotionally connect to it. 

We need time to enter into the necessary mindset. 

The build up from 17 Tammuz to Tisha B’Av gives us the opportunity to think beyond the “what” of this period’s mourning practices and focus on the “why”.

One idea for getting into this “why” comes from the teachings of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, ztz”l, based on the central text read on Tisha b’Av: Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations.

Rav Soloveitchik teaches that Megillat Eicha also known as the Book of Kinot provides us with prophetic license to ask the ultimate question: “Eicha?!” – how God could this have happened?

How God can you have abandoned us the Jewish people to our enemies?

How God can you have allowed the Temple, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel to become desolate?

We begin Tisha B’Av by reading this book of Eicha, this book of Kinot, which gives us permission to question, and then spend the next 24 hours engaged in seeking the answers.

Rav Soloveitchik explained that when we read the word “Eicha,” we must also read it the first way that it is pronounced in the Bible, when God asks Adam and Chava: “Ayeka”? Where are you? (Genesis 3:9)

Eicha – how did this happen? – and Ayeka – where are you? – are intertwined. Because in order to repair the devastation , we must investigate where we are? 

Where are we in the treatment of other Jews and other human beings?

Where are we in our support of Israel?

Where are we in pursuit of unity?

Do we still not recognize that ultimately it was the judgmental hatred and the disrespect between us that caused famine, torture and the final destruction of the second Temple and all of its ramifications? (Yoma 9b)

Where are we in the process of trying to perfect the world, and help bring about the ultimate redemption?

This approach enables us to also mourn things taking place in our lives and in our generation, which are actually extensions of the tragedies that occurred two millennia ago, making the tragedy more relatable.

In the merit of heartfelt mourning over what we have lost and a resolution to prioritize fixing that which we have broken, may we witness the words of our Sages:

 כל המתאבל על ירושלים זוכה ורואה בשמחתה

Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit and see her future joy. (Taanit 30b)

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and then a meaningful and easy fast.

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

“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders

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Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders”

After wandering for 40 years in the desert, the Jewish People will soon be led into the Promised Land. 

But their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, will not be accompanying them. 

This was made painfully clear to  Moshe in the Torah portion two weeks ago, when he famously struck a rock in order to draw water from it, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. 

God explains to Moshe that he will not merit to cross the threshold of the desert into Israel:

כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר צִן בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם

For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water. (Numbers 27:14)

And now, in this week’s portion of Pinchas, God reiterates the punishment, figuratively pouring salt in Moshe’s wound.

In fact, the narrative that Moshe will be replaced by another leader and not merit to enter the Land of Israel will be repeated no fewer than five more times between now and the account of Moshe Rabbeinu’s death. 

Surely Moshe comprehended this news the first time. What is the lesson we learn from its repetition? 

A careful look at the events preceding each time the message is given to Moshe hints at a possible answer: Moshe is not being punished merely for striking the rock. Moshe is being replaced because he is unable to engage the next generation.  

When the first generation of Israelites  leave Egypt were involved in the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe shows amazingly strong leadership qualities.

He is willing to sacrifice his own life for his people:

וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ

Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32)

In this week’s portion, however, after the Jewish People engage in idolatrous behavior, the disconnect between Moshe and the second generation is woefully apparent.

He simply doesn’t understand them.

They were not born and raised in the crushing slave experience in Egypt. They live with Divine miracles on a daily basis. Their clothing grows with them and their food and drink comes from the Heavens! 

Moshe had high hopes for this unencumbered younger generation. He envisioned how their comfortable lives would enable them to devote their time to Torah study. 

But instead of striving to achieve greatness, they are rebellious and demanding. 

Deeply frustrated by this behavior, Moshe seemingly gives up on them. When action is required, he takes no initiative.

When the people engage in hedonistic and idolatrous indulgences, as they do in this week’s parsha, Moshe doesn’t intervene. All he can do is weep. (Numbers 25:6)

This is not the Moshe of the past, the active protector and leader of the Jewish People.

And for that reason, his fate is sealed.  He must step down.

Moshe cannot negotiate their needs; he cannot offer any resolution. 

This is not the Moshe of the past who was able to see the silver lining in clouds much darker than this. 

Every time an issue pops up, Moshe is no longer the pro-active protector/leader of the Jewish People; he realizes that he can no longer suffer their impudence at the moment. 

Moshe turns to God using this language: 

יִפְקֹד ה’ אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה

Let Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a person over the congregation who can tend to the diverse needs of all people;

אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם

who will go out before them;

וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם… 

someone who will bring the people together… (27:16-17)

Moshe says that a leader is someone who can tackle the needs of each person, who inspires people to think higher and live more purposefully, who will advocate for them, and who can unite them.

Just as Moshe articulated the leadership qualities necessary for the generation after his, we too need to connect with leaders who understand the generation and environment in which they live.

We must nurture these leaders; elevate them when they are ready; allow them to grow in their role; learn from them; engage them; support them and, yes, sometimes respectfully challenge them.

May we merit leaders who meet the standard for excellence mentioned by Moshe, and may they merit to lead us to our ultimate destiny as a people.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

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Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

“The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

It was the summer of 1935.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the young Lithuanian-born-and-raised heir apparent to a legendary rabbinical dynasty was making his first – and as it turned out, his only – trip to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shlomo Aronson, the widely beloved Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, had passed away in March, and Rav Soloveitchik, who had earned a PhD from the University of Berlin and who was then a community rabbi in the city of Boston, was hoping to succeed him in that position.

During that visit, the 32-year old Rav Soloveitchik was invited to deliver a shiur at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the spiritual home to the vision and teachings of the legendary Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.

This provided an opportunity for Rav Soloveitchik to meet with Rav Kook, the ailing Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael who would pass away a few months later.

After the visit and the shiur, Rav Kook recalled his own experience as a student attending the shiurim of Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and commented that “The power of the genius of the grandfather now resides with the grandson.” 

As a candidate for Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, that Shabbat Rav Soloveitchik presented a drasha on the parsha, which was the same as this week’s portion: Parshat Balak.

In retrospect, we know that Rav Soloveitchik – the man who Rav Kook described as a genius and who went on to become a seminal figure in Modern Orthodoxy – did not receive the position of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi.

As a curious student, I once asked Rav Soloveitchik why he thought they didn’t choose him.

He explained that he believed it was due to the drasha that he delivered.

With a bit of further prodding, the Rav  shared that the drasha he delivered focused on the verse:

מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

And he cited these words to express his hope that the various tents of Israel should soon be able to dwell together: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the religious and secular.

To try to achieve unity even without uniformity.

In the aftermath of his not receiving the position, Rav Soloveitchik realized that the community was not ready to hear and internalize such a message.

With the 20/20 hindsight of history, perhaps it was fortunate that Rav Soloveitchik never became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and instead remained in the United States in order to help shape world Jewry using both the community of Boston and Yeshiva University as an incubator for his creative thoughts and to become “the Rav”, the greatest teacher of his generation.

Yet, as we revisit this parsha, some 86 years later, we see clearly and sadly that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message remains unrealized.

We are responsible to continue to strive toward actualizing the dream of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

We must all extend ourselves to ensure that there is more achdut, more unity amongst the Jewish people.

We must be respectful in how we talk to each other and about each other.

To accept and respect Jews who observe Judaism differently from us. 

Jews who have different customs and traditions, who hail from different descents.

To accept and respect one other – even when we don’t agree with the practices or beliefs of the other.

The capacity for us to show God that we are a people that even though we may not be uniform, we are nevertheless committed to unity, so that we can merit the blessing of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“Life’s Fragility and Maximizing Our God-Given Potential”

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Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“Life’s Fragility and Maximizing Our God-Given Potential”

Far too often, life is so hectic that we lose our focus on the larger narratives of our existence.

Why are we here? What can we do to give meaning to our relatively short time on earth?

How can we reclaim a proper perspective that will enable us to live lives of purpose and accomplishment in all aspects of our existence?

One answer comes from a surprising source, the intricate laws of ritual impurity found in the beginning of this week’s parsha, Chukat.

The parsha begins with the laws involving טומאת מת – the ritual impurity of someone who has come into contact with a human corpse, which is the quintessential example of טומאה, ritual impurity. (Numbers 19:1 – 22)

As we continue, we learn that only vessels that have a function can become ritually impure.

Moreover, a vessel’s ability to become ritually impure is proportional to its importance.

The higher the value of the vessel, the greater the capacity for ritual impurity to permeate its walls.

This principle becomes even more pronounced when we look at the laws of impurity in relation to the lesser creations.

For example, earthenware vessels, כלי חרס, the most simple and fragile of utensils:

…וכל כלי פתוח אשר אין צמיד פתיל עליו טמא הוא

…and every open vessel, with no lid fastened down, shall be unclean. (Numbers 19:15)

The walls of such a vessel are too primitive to contract ritual impurity from contact by touch.

They can only receive ritual impurity when an impure object is placed in its air space – Avir Klei Cheres.

Let’s reflect on that. An earthenware vessel and a human being come from the same elements.

The difference between them is their environment, and their potential.

The Torah views the human as the highest of vessels, with a commensurate ability to receive or impart ritual impurity in a multitude of ways, while the earthenware pot is the lowest of vessels, with a limited ability to contract ritual impurity.

What an important message for us.

Human beings are the crown jewel of God’s creation.

We are the ultimate vessel of God’s will in this world, His partner in working to perfect it.

We are holier than angels. (Tiferet Yisrael [Maharal], Chapter 24)

And built into our spiritual DNA is the incredible capacity to be a vessel for tremendous achievement and enlightenment.

But proportionally, we also have the capacity for stunning levels of degradation and destruction.

With this precarious balance in mind, we must constantly ask ourselves how the way we live our lives fits into the larger narrative of the purpose and potential of our existence.

God has made known His affection for us and our unique standing in the universe, as Rabbi Akiva taught:

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם

Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God. (Pirkei Avot 3:14)

One more fact regarding the ritual impurity of a vessel:

If a vessel shatters, it may have lost its primary function, but if any of the shards can still hold water or food then they still have the capacity to be מקבל טומאה to receive impurity.

Shards of a vessel which still have purpose, can receive ritual impurity. 

Sometimes, our dreams and goals are shattered like a piece of pottery.

When our dreams and goals are not being achieved, when there are obstacles in the way it may make us feel broken – but it is important for us to realize that despite all of that we are still receptacles of holiness – even when we feel fragile, even when we fail.

We have the capacity to transform ourselves, our families, our community, our society.  

With this in mind, it is upon us to constantly consider the incredible potential that we possess the capacity in us to transform  ourselves, our families, our communities and the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom.