video

“Parsha and Purpose” – Yom Kippur 5781

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

“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

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

מי יחיה ומי ימות?

Who shall live and who shall die?

מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו?

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

מי במים ומי באש?

Who by water and who by fire?

מי ברעש ומי במגפה?

Who by earthquake and who by plague?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Parsha and Purpose” – Rosh Hashana 5781

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

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

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

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

“קול השופר: ההבדל בין להקשיב ולשמוע”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

לא נתכוון השומע לצאת, לא יצא ידי חובתו

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana Tova.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Nitzavim-Vayelech 5780

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

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

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

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

“לבוש חגיגי – פיזי ורוחני – לראש השנה”

Rosh HaShana is next week!

Next week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the state of our spiritual clothing? 

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

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

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tavo 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tavo 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Recognizing the Righteous and Stopping the Bullies: Shining a Light on Anonymity”

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

“Recognizing the Righteous and Stopping the Bullies: Shining a Light on Anonymity”

What does our Torah have to say about the modern scourge of cyberbullying? How could its ancient words possibly be relevant to our digital age of social media?

The words of the Torah are, perhaps, ancient, but they are timely in every generation. We can always find new insights that are relevant to our modern lives. 

In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, we read 

“ארור מכה רעהו בסתר”

“Cursed is the person who damages his friend in secret”

Commentaries have struggled with this verse. Why is the word ‘בסתר’, ‘in secret’, necessary? Isn’t it just as wrong to hurt someone in public?

Let’s look at this verse through the prism of today’s social media shaming culture, in which any individual can be damaged, defamed, even destroyed by nameless, faceless bullies. 

Whereas traditional bullying used to be face-to-face, today’s weapon of choice is the keyboard, with camouflage offered by a screen.

Because of this physical disconnect from their victims, studies show that cyberbullies exhibit less remorse than physical bullies. 

But the victims’ shame can be far greater, as with each ‘share’ and ‘like’ by people all over the world, their damage grows exponentially. Youth who endure cyberbullying can experience a decline in academic performance and difficulties at home, and they are also at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. 

With this in mind, let’s return to our verse and translate it through the lens of contemporary life: “Cursed is the person who uses the cloak of social media to destroy the identity, the humanity of another”. 

The word בסתר – in secret – takes on an entirely new, contemporary meaning. 

I’d like to add an additional perspective to this verse.  This week we sat shiva for yet another victim of terror: Rabbi Shai Ohayon; father of 4, beloved husband and son who dedicated his life to Torah study after serving in the IDF.  

Rabbi Ohayon was a man who lived ‘בסתר’, “in secret” — an anonymous man dedicated to performing good deeds about which we are only learning now, after his murder. 

On the one hand, we live in a time in which all one has to do is Google someone’s name to find out everything about them. 

But at the same time, we  know so little about who they really, truly are.

Perhaps in a socially-distanced, safe way, it is time for us to reach out and learn about the people around us, so that no one lives ‘בסתר’-  alone and in darkness. 

We need to break down digital barriers and re-establish human contact, bringing the cyberbullying phenomenon out of the shadows.  

We should find out which of our neighbors need help and companionship, especially during this pandemic when so many elderly people and individuals in quarantine are being found dead, alone in their homes. 

And we should allow ourselves to get to know the stories of the anonymous heroes like Rabbi Ohayon that live amongst us, so that we can be illuminated and inspired by them. 

Shabbat Shalom

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tetze 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tetze 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“A Tragedy We Can Prevent: The Case for Halakhic Pre-Nups”

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

“A Tragedy We Can Prevent: The Case for Halakhic Pre-Nups”

Not all marriages can be saved – nor should they be. 

While the Torah celebrates the joining of a couple in marriage and all that it represents; the Torah also commands the protection of couples from unloving, unhappy or abusive relationships. 

The  formal procedure to end a marriage is based on a verse in our parsha, Ki Tetze: 

וכתב לה ספר כריתות ונתן בידה…

The husband writes and presents a writ of divorce – a get – to his wife…

The word “גט” – gimmel+tet – are never found together in Tanach, highlighting the fact that sometimes severance is best – when it is no longer in the best interest of the couple to remain together.

3,000 years ago, the idea of a formal get was a novel approach; the first concept in human history to ensure that a divorced woman would remain economically protected and not simply discarded.

But today this tool, created to protect, has been corrupted and turned into a weapon. Thousands of Jewish women around the world have become “agunot” – chained to marriages by recalcitrant husbands who hold them hostage by withholding their rightful get

Sometimes the price he asks for the get is custody of the children, huge sums of money or giving up on joint property. Other times, his motive is punishment, and no amount of concession will change his mind.

This ugly phenomenon of get-refusal creates misery for the aguna and devastates the family.

Get-refusal is nothing less than a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and it is inconceivable that such pain be inflicted under the guise of halakha.

You and I can change this.

We can and must insist that every couple get married with a halakhic prenuptial agreement – a document first conceived in the 17th century halakhic work, Nachlas Shiva. 

A contemporary version, established by the Beit Din of America and Rav Mordechai Willig, with the strong support of Rav Herschel Schacter and the approval of poskim such as Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, zt”l, and libadel may’chayyim l’chayyim, Rav Asher Weiss and others, has been in use for more than 25 years, during which time tens of thousands of North American couples have signed it without one single case of aguna!

Here in Israel, similar documents have been created, but much work needs to be done to increase awareness of the issue in Israeli society.

By using the links that appear on the screen, you can download the halakhic prenup from the Beit Din of America; an Israeli version of it from Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha: Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for agunot; or a slightly different Israeli version promoted by the Tzohar rabbinical organization.

What better way can a couple demonstrate how much they care for one another, how much they truly love one another, than to promise to never hurt one another? 

Just as it is a mitzvah to end an unhappy marriage, let us recommit to ensuring that this sad process includes this important and common sense step in protecting our daughters, granddaughters and all Jewish women from avoidable agony and suffering.

We have the ability to end this chilul Hashem. Let’s do our part.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shoftim 5780

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

“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

We are living in the midst of a pandemic in which our leaders have the awesome responsibility for so much of our communities’ health and wellbeing.

In some countries, notably Israel and the United States, citizens are challenging those leaders – on the streets and in the courts.

Specifically in these times of crisis, the relationship between leaders,the courts and citizens is an important aspect of a healthy and robust society.

While I believe that leaders deserve respect, it is in this week’s parsha that a Biblical constant is framed

שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך

You shall appoint shoftim – judges – and “shotrim” in all of your communities

What are “shotrim”? In spoken Hebrew, they are police officers. And the most famous of Torah commentators, Rashi, also understands it that way.

In a modern context, it would speak to the fact that it is the responsibility of the judiciary (shoftim) to ensure the rule of law even on shotrim, law enforcement. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of law enforcement to help implement the laws. We see the vast majority of law enforcement doing so do even when it puts them in harm’s way. Yet the juxtaposition of Shoftim v’Shotrim obligates us to ensure that structures are in place that allow us to call out law enforcement that does not follow its own code of conduct. It is a sacred responsibility to maintain checks and balances between the Shoftim, judges, and Shotrim, law enforcement.

Yet many commentators and Midrashim translate “shotrim” not as police officers but rather as “leaders”. According to this interpretation, the verse reads: You shall appoint judges and leaders in all of your communities.

The Torah’s juxtaposition of  “judges” with “leaders” wishes to accentuate that it is in the best interest of any society even with the most regal of leaders to have checks and balances. That was the role of the Biblical prophet with the leader of the Sanhedrin and the King. 

Government requires structures that allow for a balance of power, if we are to  build a just and moral society.

In such a society, citizens have the right – and I believe even the responsibility – to respect their leaders, but, when necessary, to question them. The judiciary and government leaders are שלוחי דרחמנא – emissaries of God to help shape a more perfect society.   

The judiciary serves as a check on the power of leadership, ensuring that it remains responsive and accountable .

It is telling that the continuation of our verse continues with the words,

אשר ה’ א-להיך נותן לך

“…that Hashem your God is giving you.” 

Through these words, the Torah reminds us that as God gives us the Land, it is in the context of building a society in which no single branch of government holds all of the power. 

We have been given the responsibility of creating a just society. I applaud the work of hard working selfless civil servants. Without them we would destroy each other.  

But let us never forget that only by creating a civil society – embracing the concept of justice and compassion, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – we will truly be deserving of inheriting the land that God has given us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Font Resize
Contrast