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“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.

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

“What is Our Contribution to the Holiness of the Jewish People?”

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Parshat Shelach (Diaspora) and Parshat Korach (Israel)

“What is Our Contribution to the Holiness of the Jewish People?

In Parshat Shelach and Parshat Korach, there are two rebellions against God. They are fundamentally different in their ethos.

Shelach is a spontaneous rebellion. It is a result of a dream of the Jewish people, a dream that was already born in Egypt:

וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ
I’m going to bring you to this promised land.
[Exodus 6:8]

This is a dream that Yitro and Moshe also discuss:

נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם
We’re traveling to this wonderful place that God has promised us.
[Numbers 10:29]

It’s this dream that comes to a screeching halt when the dream of the nation collapses;

there is panic and rebellion.

In the case of Korach, it’s not a massive mob rebellion: out of the millions of people of Israel, only 250 rebel.

But there is a conspiracy to this rebellion: Korach waits until Moshe and Aharon’s popularity has waned, which is exactly what happens after the incident in Parshat Shelach, because Korach thinks it’s unfair that Aharon becomes the Kohen and not his family; and that Moshe is the leader and not his family.

His colleagues and co-conspirators, the Bnei Reuven, are upset that as children of Yaakov’s eldest son, they receive no leadership responsibilities.

Therefore:

וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח
And Korach took…
[Numbers 16:1]

Korach dedicates himself, focused on destroying Moshe and Aharon. As Rashi explains, he takes himself out of everything else to undermine Moshe and Aharon. [Rashi to Leviticus 16:1]

And as Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, in order for this conspiracy – or for any conspiracy – to work, it must begin with an ideology. Korach has two points. We will focus on one of them. He states:

כׇל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה’
[Numbers 16:3]

“Every Jew has unique holiness. We are, after all, the Chosen People. It is part of our spiritual DNA. Moshe, you are no different than the wood chopper or the water drawer.”

And therefore:

וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה’
“Why do you, Moshe and Aharon, usurp yourself over the Jewish people?”
[Ibid.]

Korach is correct. There is a covenantal holiness of being part of the Jewish people. And in that holiness, there is no difference between the greatest sage – the “gadol hador” – and the Jew who can’t read.

As the Torah tells us:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ
“You are a holy people.”
[Deuteronomy 14:2]

And as Rashi explains, it’s a holiness that comes from being part of the Jewish people. [Rashi to Deuteronomy 14:2]

However, there is another paradigm of sanctity that comes from the individual: the sanctity of the individual is distinct and unique.

The greatness that each and every one of us has as an individual is not the same.

It is proportional to my personal engagement with God.

And therefore, the verse continues:

וּבְךָ בָּחַר ה’
[Deuteronomy 14:2]

Each one of us has a unique relationship with God. Yes, we are all part of Knesset Yisrael, there is a holiness that is top-down. But there is also a holiness that is bottom-up. It’s what we contribute to the mix.

Community holiness arises from what the individual contributes, and therefore Moshe says:

בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע ה’ אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְאֶת הַקָּדוֹשׁ
[Numbers 16:5]

In the morning, “boker” – a word meaning “clarity” – we will be able to discern who can lead and who does not lead.

There’s a message here, and that is, we are holy as an entity, yes, but the holiness that we bring to the entity as individuals is so profound.

And Moshe is explaining that’s what God will testify to in His conversation between Moshe, Aharon and Korach.

So this parsha leads us with the following question: what is our contribution to the holiness of the Jewish people?

What do we do in our everyday lives to make the holiness of the Jewish people continue to grow and develop?

What do we do, as members of the Jewish people, to make a difference?

Korach doesn’t understand that, yes, it’s true, we’re part of a unique community, but part of that uniqueness comes with the responsibility for each and every one of us to contribute to changing our society and to enhancing the holiness of what it means to be God’s junior partner in the continued evolution of the creation process.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Beha’alotcha/Shelach 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“The Rupture Between the Trees of Life and Knowledge:
The Sin of the Mekoshesh Eitzim”

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Parshat Beha’alotcha (Diaspora) and Parshat Shelach (Israel)

“The Rupture Between the Trees of Life and Knowledge:
The Sin of the Mekoshesh Eitzim

When we think of Parshat Sh’lach, we think about the episode of the Jewish people failing to be able to enter into the Promised Land. It takes up most of the verses of the parsha. [Numbers 13-14]

But there is a related story that’s only five verses short, which focuses on a very complicated story: an individual who goes unnamed, who violates the Shabbat. [Numbers 15:32-36]

Why is this story important? What is its message?

Indeed, Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, feels the need to unveil the anonymity of the person, and suggest that the person who violates the Shabbat is Tzelafchad. [Shabbat 96b]

He is attacked by his colleagues: “Rabbi Akiva, you’re the one who always tells us, ‘Love thy neighbor as you love yourself’! Why do you need to unmask who this person is? If you’re right, it was the wrong thing to do; and if you’re wrong – if that’s not what Tzelafchad did – you’re blaming him for something that he didn’t commit!”

The Ba’alei Kabbalah, the Kabbalists, look at this story and they review the story in the following fashion: accompanying the Jewish people is the Eitz HaChayyim and the Eitz HaDa’as. [Zohar 3:157a]

The Eitz HaChayyim, which we find in the Garden of Eden, represents the idea of spirituality, the idea of ethereal concepts, and the Eitz HaDa’as represents the idea of the physical world and finding God in the physical world, not only in ethereal concepts.

Our job is to merge the Eitz HaChayyim, the spiritual concepts, and the Eitz HaDa’as, the intellectual, physical world, into one.

Indeed, the whole theme of Shabbat is that idea of merging the physical and the spiritual into one. It’s an island in time.

Moshe Rabbeinu highlights that this truly is the message of living in the Land of Israel, and he asks the meraglim, he asked the representatives regarding the land:

“היש בה עץ אם אין?”
“Is there a tree in it or not?”
[Numbers 13:20]

Will you be able to find the tree that represents both the Eitz HaChayyim, the spiritual ideals, and the Eitz HaDa’as, the physical ideas, into one?

Will you be able to understand the message of the Land of Israel, the spiritual and the physical fused to one?

The representatives failed to understand that message of the land of Israel, and the mekoshesh etzim – Tzelafchad, according to the Kabbalists – walks into the garden that is accompanying the Jewish people, and he separates the tree that represents the physical and the spiritual.

Because the trauma that has been created is that, in the desert, “BaMidbar”, it’s impossible to be able to merge the physical and the spiritual into one.

The reason why the story is so critically important is that the story represents the aftermath of one individual who fails to understand the message of being able to merge the physical and the spiritual into one.

It’s a continuation of the calamity that happened with the emissaries into the land of Israel.

Rabbi Akiva lives his entire life of trying to fuse the spiritual and the physical together. That’s why Rabbi Akiva is the rabbi of General Bar Kokhba. His job is still to maintain the physical and the spiritual together, even in the most desperate of times.

There’s a continuum: we’re introduced to the challenge of the meraglim, the challenge of the emissaries.

Then we’re introduced to two commandments that speak about going into the Land of Israel, and only when we go into the Land of Israel to use the physical bounty of the Land of Israel in service to God, the merger of the Eitz HaDa’as, the physical, and the Eitz HaChayyim, and the spiritual, into one.

The trauma, once again, of the mekoshesh etzim, who tries to separate it, and the message that is relevant to each and every one of us: to recognize the fact that in our life, we cannot be mekoshesh etzim, we can’t separate the physical and the spiritual.

The challenge is to live in both worlds. We have to merge the Eitz HaDa’as and the Eitz HaChayyim. We can’t be ‘mekoshesh etzim’, we can’t uproot these trees.

We have to live under the shade of both of them, the shade of the physical and the shade of the spiritual.

And to realize when we are able to live with both of them fused together, we are able to achieve the goals of what it means to be part of the Chosen People, to be part of Knesset Yisrael and to make a difference in the creation and the development of this world.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Naso/Beha’alotcha 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Losing Our Youth: The Mistakes In Sefer Bamidbar That Continue To Plague Us”

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Parshat Naso (Diaspora) and Parshat Beha’alotcha (Israel)

“Losing Our Youth: The Mistakes In Sefer Bamidbar That Continue To Plague Us

Sefer Bamidbar: an amazing book that speaks to us about the journey of the Jewish People on its march to its destiny in the Land of Israel.

It begins with a counting and how to travel into the Land of Israel – which are communal in nature – but with a focus on “ish ish“, the unique gifts that every individual possesses. [1:4]

It continues with how to move the Tabernacle [Chapter 2], and with new institutions such as the Pesach Sheni: the opportunity to offer a second Pascal sacrifice in the Land of Israel, for those who are unable to offer the first Pascal sacrifice at the beginning of the holiday of Pesach. [9:1-14]

But a series of events then occur that delay the Jewish people from entering the Land of Israel and actualizing their opportunity to be a nation with their own destiny.

These events stem from a lack of respect for the recognition of the holiness of the other.

For instance, Aharon and Miriam challenge the unique qualities of Moshe. [Chapter 12]

The Jewish people misunderstand the gift of materialism when it comes to the mannah [11:6] and remember the alleged delicacies that they had in Egypt. [11:5]

Their fundamental misunderstanding of the Land of Israel and its importance takes place in Parshat Shelach [Chapters 13 and 14]. Then we read of the rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon [Chapters 16 and 17]; and then a challenge between the nations of the world – represented by Balak and Bil’am – and the people of Israel. [Chapters 22-24]

As I read these stories, I am reminded that they deter us from actualizing our potential.

And I ask myself, haven’t we learned from the Book of Bamidbar?

How can it be that Orthodox Jews have forgotten how to talk to each other?

How can it be that the great dynasty of the Sefat Emet, the great dynasty of Ger, has forgotten how to talk to each other, to the point that there are fights between various groups and the police are compelled to intervene on Shabbat?

How can it be that we have forgotten how to talk to other Jews, particularly when we don’t agree with the way they celebrate their Judaism?

How can it be that on Yom Yerushalayim, when we celebrate the gift of receiving the Land of Israel and a united Jerusalem, that there is a small group – and I stress just a small group – of people who have forgotten the responsibility to treat minorities, to treat Muslims, with respect and dignity?

Haven’t we learned from the Sefer Bamidbar?

What pains me even more – and what even depresses me – is the fact that our young people are watching and listening.

Our young people are seeing that often what is important to us are the minutiae of Judaism and not the meta narratives.

And they don’t want to be part of such a Judaism that is so interested in minutiae that it forgets the major ideas that are part of our Holy Torah.

Sefer Bamidbar: the responsibility for us to march to our destiny; to watch what comes out of our mouth, to teach our children and grandchildren how to respect the other: other Orthodox Jews, other Jews in general and other people.

Sefer Bamidbar, which teaches us the responsibility to look at things in this world and recognize their greatness.

We don’t step away from materialism; we engage it through the prism of holiness.

The messages found in the parashot of Naso and Beha’alotcha, the idea of finding inner peace, the Birkat Kohanim and the responsibility to march to our destiny while respecting the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

“The Book of Ruth and Receiving the Torah: Respecting the Humanity of Others”

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Parshat Bamidbar (Diaspora) and Parshat Naso (Israel)

“The Book of Ruth and Receiving the Torah: Respecting the Humanity of Others

On the holiday of Shavuot, we read Megillat Ruth, which focuses on the same period of history as the Book of Shoftim (Judges).

In fact, the Gemara tells us that the two books were written by the same author. [Bava Batra 14b]

And that’s why when you look at the books of Ruth and Shoftim, you will see that they have similar styles of language and similar themes.

In fact, Josephus, when he counts the books of Tanach, merges the Book of Ruth and the Book of Shoftim into one.

And there are several important contrasts between them that create a parallism.

The first is the way in which each book concludes:

בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם אֵ֥ין מֶ֖לֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֛ישׁ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
It was in these days, there was no King in Israel,
and therefore, everyone does what they want.

[Judges 21:25]

וְעֹבֵד֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת־יִשָׁ֔י וְיִשַׁ֖י הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־דָּוִֽד׃
And Oved begot Yishai, and Yishai begot David.
[Ruth 4:22]

In the former, anarchy reigns. In the latter, we read of the origins of the Davidic dynasty, answering the challenge at the end of the Book of Shoftim and heralding the Jewish People’s ultimate destiny.

Additionally, the Book of Shoftim is filled with stories of people who are anonymous, who are treated as objects.

For example, we will never know the name of Yiftach’s daughter, who pays the price for the narcissistic actions of her father. [Judges 11:30-40]

We will never know the name of the pilegesh of Giv’a who is abused, raped, killed, and then cut up into many pieces. [Judges, Chapter 19]

The Book of Shoftim treats people as objects, to the extent that sometimes their basic needs – food and water – aren’t provided, and they perish.

Professor Dr. Yael Ziegler explains that the Book of Ruth – and indeed, I think why we read it on Shavuot – is a “tikun” (a response) to what happens in the Book of Shoftim. [“Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy”, 2015, Koren Publishers]

Because in the Book of Ruth, we move from people who are anonymous, and we give them names.

We move from people being on the periphery, to the center of history, and to lives that have purpose.

Let’s look what happens to Ruth; let’s look what happens to Naomi: they were anonymous. They were cast aside. [Ruth, Chapter 1]

But then it takes a leader like Boaz, who doesn’t speak much in the book, but does something more important: he actively listens. [Ruth, Chapter 2]

And because he actively listens, he’s able to help the woman who is collecting the abandoned sheaves and allow her to become the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty.

In contrast, there’s another character in the Book of Ruth who is not willing to listen to Ruth or Naomi. He is referred to as “Ploni Almoni” (the Hebrew equivalent of “John Doe”). We don’t even learn his name; he is simply known as “Anonymous”. [Ruth 4:1]

This is because he thinks that leadership is about speaking, not about listening.

The Book of Ruth highlights the fact that in Judaism, the credo is to actively listen.

Yes, “Na’aseh”, but also “v’nishma”. [Exodus 24:7] Yes, we have to do, but actually, we have to listen.

We have to evaluate the situation.

The credo of the Jewish people is about “Sh’ma Yisrael”, it’s about listening. [Deuteronomy 6:4]

Torah she’b’al Peh, the entire Oral Tradition, is built on the words “ta sh’ma”, come and actively listen.

We follow the mandate of Beit Hillel and not the mandate of Beit Shammai because Beit Hillel listened to Beit Shammai and only then shared their opinion. [Eruvin 13b]

We read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, because if we are to celebrate a relationship with God, we must begin by actively listening.

We have to follow the message of Boaz.

We have to understand that the credo of the Jewish people is to actively listen.

Regarding members of our family: it’s not enough to love them, we have to respect them.

And regarding the Jewish people: it’s not enough to love them; we have to respect them, we have to actively listen.

The Book of Ruth, a response to the anonymity of the Book of Shoftim.

The Book of Ruth, which gives names to otherwise anonymous people, and which treats people not as objects but as human beings.

And all of this begins by listening to them.

And through that, the Mashiach is born.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

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

“The Opportunity and Challenge of Yom Yerushalayim”

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Parshat Bechukotai (Diaspora) and Parshat Bamidbar (Israel)

“The Opportunity and Challenge of Yom Yerushalayim

It is April 29th-April 30th of 1948, the fifth day of the Omer, Chol HaMoed Pesach.

The city of Jerusalem is in a terribly challenging position. The Jews living in Rehavia, in the center of the city, are cut off from the Jews living in Makor Chayim and Ramat Rachel.

Arab Legion troops occupy the San Simon Monastery in the neighborhood of Katamon, and from the top of the monastery, they are able to, with sniper fire, pick off anyone who attempts to bring food to the Jews of Rehavia, Makor Chayim or Ramat Rachel. (In fact, “Katamon” is Greek for “by the monastery”, in this case, the San Simon Monastery.)

In response, the Jewish fighters of the Palmach decide to capture San Simon. They send 120 fighters to besiege the monastery.

One of the fighters throws a grenade into the monastery and it hits a room filled with fuel, creating a bright light, taking away the surprise of the darkness and allowing the Arab Legion soldiers to pick off many of the Jewish fighters who are trying to enter San Simon.

Out of the 120 fighters, 21 are killed and 83 are injured. The Palmach commander decided that the remaining soldiers should retreat in order to be able to be used in a more effective way to help protect the civilians of Jerusalem prior to the formal declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, which would occur two weeks later.

At the same time, there was a concern: what would happen to those who had been too severely injured to be transported? If the Arab Legion were to capture them, they would burn and destroy them.

It was thus decided to create the “Masada of Jerusalem”. The commander of the fighting unit, a survivor of Auschwitz who had also witnessed Palmach colleagues burned by Arab Legion soldiers, decided that the fighters who could still leave on their own would leave along with those who had been lightly wounded.

The remainder of the wounded would stay with him, and he would prepare dynamite for the infirmary at the monastery. In the event that Arab Legion soldiers would overrun the property, he would detonate the building so that the Jews would not be placed in the hands of the Arab Legion fighters.

At the same time, Arab Legion reinforcements were on their way from Chevron. But the Gush Etzion fighters, several days before they would be decimated, were able to fight off the Legion, preventing them from coming to reinforce the battles in Jerusalem.

The Arab Legion, after hearing what happened with the fighters from Gush Etzion, decided to stop their advance on the San Simon Monastery, and instead retreated to the Old City.

And so the San Simon Monastery, with only a limited amount of fighters still able to literally walk, was saved. And the Jewish populations in the center of town (Rehavia) as well as in Makor Chayim and Ramat Rachel were able to replenish the food that they needed in order to be able to survive, not only for Pesach, but afterwards.

The gift of Jerusalem: the gift that HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave us:

“ושב ה’ אלוקיך את שבותך”

“And Hashem your God shall restore your captivity.”
[Deuteronomy 30:3]

Indeed, according to the Jewish Agency, in 2020, 47% of the Jewish people have already begun to live in the land of Israel.

And by 2038, it is estimated that 74% of the population of the Jewish people will live in the State of Israel. [Source: hanevuah.co.il]

In 1883, there were no homes in Jerusalem outside the walled city. In 2022, the joke in Jerusalem is that the national bird is the crane, because there is no block in Jerusalem in which building is not happening.

“עוד יקנו בתים ושדות וכרמים בארץ הזאת”

“Once again” – God proclaims through his prophet – the Jewish people “will purchase homes, fields and vineyards throughout Israel.” [Jeremiah 32:15]

We celebrate that gift that God has given us, of bringing Jerusalem together, on Yom Yerushalayim: we are now the “Startup Nation”; we have a strong economy.

According Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 1967, there were 200,000 people living in Jerusalem. Today, there are close to a million people in Jerusalem.

Yet the challenge of Jerusalem is still before us: because while Jerusalem is supposed to be a place that brings us together – and while God has done his part, as is evident, such as miracles that happened at the San Simon Monastery – we have not yet done our part.

We have not yet come together. And even though it is a united city, geographically, it is not yet a united city, spiritually.

There are still skirmishes by the Kotel. There are still issues in the way we talk to each other.

Yes, Yom Yerushalayim must be a celebration of the gift that God has given us. But it also has to be a celebration of the responsibility that we have – once God has given us this gift – to do our part, how we talk to each other, how we engage with each other.

It is the message of Sefirat HaOmer, with the overlay of the new Chag, Yom Yerushalayim.

Please God, wherever we live in the world, we will celebrate the unity of Jerusalem in the way we talk to each other and about each other.

And we will recognize that unity requires us to be able to understand, that despite any of our differences – with all the different denominations, or the way we as Orthodox Jews celebrate – what we have as a united community is so much stronger.

Yom Yerushalayim Samayach and Shabbat Shalom.

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

Sefirat Ha-Omer: Repairing and Redeeming Society

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Parshat Behar (Diaspora) and Parshat Bechukotai (Israel)

Sefirat Ha-Omer: Repairing and Redeeming Society

It was March of 1986, the week of Ta’anit Esther and Purim. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who traveled each week from his home in Boston to New York City in order to give shiur at Yeshiva University, had come in a day earlier than usual in order to give shiur before Purim, in order not to lose that week of presenting shiur to his students.

On that same day that Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived, the sad news came that Rav Moshe Feinstein had passed away.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s family had asked some of his students to make sure that he was not informed of this tragic occurrence for fear that his failing health would be further harmed as a consequence of hearing that Rav Moshe Feinstein – who was not only a relative but a very close friend – had passed away.

So we had a mission to make sure that the one day that Rabbi Soloveitchik was in New York, he was not informed of the passing of Rav Moshe.

Accordingly, the New York Times that he received every morning, did not arrive at his apartment, ‘oddly enough’. And the radio from which normally he listened to the news every morning, was somehow not functioning that day.

A few weeks later, soon before Pesach, Rabbi Soloveitchik was about to travel back to Boston to celebrate Pesach with his family. Someone placed a phone call for Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, the Rosh Kollel of YU’s kollel, asking him to let one of the students who studied in the kollel – namely, myself – to drive Rabbi Soloveitchik to the airport for his return trip to Boston.

Rabbi Schachter came into the beit midrash, informed me of this request, and of course, I drove Rabbi Soloveitchik to the airport.

As we were driving on the Grand Central Parkway to LaGuardia Airport to catch Rabbi Soloveitchik’s flight on the Eastern Airlines shuttle, Rabbi Soloveitchik turned to me and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that Rav Moshe Feinstein passed away?”

Even while I share this story with you several years later, I can still feel the challenge of staying in the lane on the Grand Central Parkway when Rabbi Soloveitchik asked me that very terrifying question.

Moments later, which seemed like hours, I responded to Rabbi Soloveitchik: “We didn’t inform you because your family asked us not to.”

And several moments of total, deafening silence in the car, I asked Rabbi Soloveitchik:

“Rebbe, how did you find out? After all, you didn’t receive the New York Times that day, and WINS News wasn’t functioning on your radio. So how did you hear about this?”

He turned to me and said: “It’s Erev Pesach. It was Rav Moshe Feinstein’s turn to call me to wish me ‘A Guten Yontif’, and if he didn’t call me before Yontif, there can only be one reason…”

The respect that two Gedolim had for each other: it was not just that Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Moshe Feinstein were cousins. That was the smallest connection that they had with each other. It was not that they agreed on everything.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach to women learning Torah She’bal Peh was different from that of Rav Feinstein’s. Rabbi Soloveitchik views about general academic studies were different from those held by Rav Feinstein.

But they respected each other. They talked to each other. They engaged in conversations with each other. And if one did not call the other before the chag, there could only be one reason: one was no longer in this world.

We are in the midst of Sefirat HaOmer. We spoke last week about the Biblical context of Sefirat HaOmer, but there is also a Rabbinic overlay: the mourning, because “לא נהגו כבוד זה בזה”, because Rabbi Akiva’s students did not respect one another. [Yevamot 62b]

And we commemorate that loss of Rabbi Akiva students which happened during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, specifically, during this period of time between Pesach and Shavuot, because we cannot be a free people, we cannot be people who embrace the covenantal relationship, if we don’t respect each other.

That is the message of Sefirat HaOmer: you cannot engage with God if you are not willing to engage with respect for the other.

This week, we also note the fact that Rabbi Riskin has made a decision to conclude presenting his weekly video on Parshat HaShavua, which he has provided every week for 13 years.

And it’s important that we recognize the fact that Rabbi Riskin’s entire life – “Ad Meah v’Esrim” (may he live to 120) – has always been a celebration of treating the other with respect, with dignity, of making sure that we create “geulah” by making sure that no one is treated as a “gola” (somebody who feels that they are in exile.)

Please, God, we will continue to benefit from the wisdom of Rabbi Riskin. And please, God, we will understand the message between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Soloveitchik. And through our activities, may we respond to the aveilut that we are commemorating, thereby guaranteeing the redemption of the Jewish people and of society through the mutual respect that we have for the other.

Shabbat Shalom.