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

“God, Holiness, and the Need for Human Initiative”

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Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 -20:23

“God, Holiness, and the Need for Human Initiative

God reveals himself in the most clairvoyant fashion in all of human history, when he gives us the Torah; when he gives us the Ten Commandments. [Exodus 19 and 20]

Yet in this week’s portion, Yitro, we are told that the moment God leaves leaves Mount Sinai, the holiness of the location dissipates. [Talmud, Tractate Taanit 21b]

Why is that? When God reveals himself in the clearest fashion in all of human history, there is no longer any holiness there after that moment?

However, when it comes to the Temple in Jerusalem, where God did not reveal Himself in the same fashion, we know that there is holiness on the Temple Mount forever. [Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 6:16]

Why the difference?

Similarly, we see a difference between the conquering of Israel the first time with Joshua, and the conquering of Israel the second time with Ezra.

When we conquer the Land of Israel through Joshua, with miracles, the Talmud tells us in Tractate Megillah that the holiness is only for the moment.

But the moment the Jewish people are exiled, with the destruction of the First Temple, the holiness of the Land of Israel ceases.

But when the Jewish people re-enter the Land of Israel with Ezra, the Talmud tells us that this holiness lasts forever. [Tractate Megillah 10a]

Why is that? Why is there such a difference?

The fundamental difference between Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount, and the fundamental difference between the first conquest of Israel and the second one, has to do with human initiative.

On Mount Sinai, yes! – it is an amazing historical, unprecedented experience. But only God is involved in the initiative. So when God departs, the holiness departs, as well.

But when it comes to the Temple, there is human initiative. And when there is human initiative, the holiness endures forever.

We have so much to contribute that the holiness that we create lasts forever.

When Joshua conquers the Land of Israel, it is done with divine miracles, and therefore, when the Jews leave – when God exiles us – the holiness ends.

But when Ezra enters the Land of Israel with Jews who were assimilated, with Jews who were not shomer mitzvot, who did not keep Shabbat and other mitzvot – those factors are totally irrelevant. It is irrelevant that they were intermarried. What counts is the willingness for Jews to sacrifice, to conquer and to capture, and more importantly, to live in the Land of Israel.

That holiness in the time of Ezra, in which people are willing to take the initiative, irrespective of their religious pedigree, creates a holiness that endures forever.

What an important message for each and every one of us: the power of human initiative.

Mount Sinai, a holiness that lasts for a moment; and the human initiative at the Temple that allows the holiness to last forever.

The first conquest of Israel, a holiness for a moment, because of its miracles.

And the second conquest of Israel, living in Israel in the time of Ezra, is a holiness of human initiative that lasts forever.

We have so much to contribute, and our initiative and effort enable our relationship with God to endure forever.

Shabbat Shalom.

Humility: A Prerequisite for Receiving the Torah Rabbi Nadav Nizri is the Administrative Director of the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva In our portion, the Torah relates Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah; hence, I would like to discuss the unique quality of Har Sinai (or, more precisely, the quality our Sages attributed …

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Rabbanit Sally Mayer

Parshat Yitro: Seeking God, Then and Now Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, travels to the desert to meet Moshe and celebrates with him over the great salvation of the Jewish people. The next morning, Yitro finds Moshe sitting in front of …

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Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –“You shall not climb up My altar with steps, so that your nakedness will not be revealed on it.” (Exodus 20:22) In the time when the Torah was given, all religions were intimately connected with sexuality, temple prostitutes, and orgiastic rites. One of the …

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

“Tom Brady, Yitro and the Decision to Make a Difference”

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“Tom Brady, Yitro and the Decision to Make a Difference”

In the spirit of the Super Bowl, a football trivia question: what do quarterbacks Tom Brady and Kurt Warner have in common?

Most famously, they have both been Super Bowl winners – and maybe again – and recipients of the league’s MVP player award several times.

But what they also have in common is that  they were given very low chances of ever making it on to an NFL team roster, let alone becoming all-time league greats.

Brady was drafted by the Patriots as the 199th pick in the draft and only took over as starting quarterback after an injury to Drew Bledsoe. This year he switched coaches, cities and conferences and, at 43, is back in the Superbowl.

Warner was not selected at all!

He tried out for the Packers in 1994, and was released before the regular season. No team wanted to give him a chance.

He stocked shelves in a grocery store for $6.50 an hour and played in the Arena Football League.

He was supposed to try out with the Chicago Bears but was bitten by a spider during his honeymoon. Played in NFL Europe.

He signed with the St. Louis Rams in 1998 and after an injury to the starting quarterback, took over and in 1999, had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in NFL history.

Given what we now know about their careers, this is almost impossible to imagine.

They are actually part of a legendary group of quarterbacks who according to current NFL draft rules would never have been selected, either, including Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach.

Each of these players are great examples of outsiders who made a game-changing impact.

But it could easily have gone differently.

Any of them could have allowed the lack of interest from teams or the public impact on their self-confidence and resolve to play the game.

In our parsha, we encounter Yitro, someone who could have looked at reality and turned the other way, but chose to make a difference, instead.

Yitro saw a group of nomads forming into a people of purpose and recognized a problem that if solved, could dramatically improve their lives. Exodus 18:14

But he knew that his advice might be ignored, not only because he was an outsider but because he was trying to give advice to his son-in-law…

Yitro had passion; he wanted to make a difference.

He saw the entirety of the field, the big picture, and the adjustments that would be necessary in order to make Moshe into the most effective quarterback for the Jewish People.

He saw that in order for that to happen, Moshe must learn to share the burden with a team.

Yitro overcame any self-doubt and societal opposition, and ended up radically reshaping the Jewish People’s judicial system, which freed up Moshe to focus on leading the people on the important issues facing them.

How many times in our lives do we have the opportunity to make a difference?

An opportunity to grow in ways that requires us to stretch ourselves to our limits.

It is almost always easier to simply ignore the opportunity.

We convince ourselves that “it’s too difficult” or “I might fail”.

Worse, others may think I am not capable.

But imagine pro football without Unitas, Starr, Staubach, Warner or Brady, any of whom could have easily chosen the simpler path of accepting the poor assessments of others about them.

Imagine the destiny of the Jewish People and societal jurisprudence without the brilliant guidance of Yitro.

We all have the opportunity to make difference:

Let us resolve to do something more to make our lives, the lives of our families, communities and society even just a little more meaningful.

Our position on life’s playing field is not decided by only a draft, or by coaches, or by popular opinion.

It is decided by our resolve to fully actualize our God-given potential.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Yitro: How the Greatest Visionary Learned to Listen Rabbi Avi Bossewitch learned at Yeshivat Hamivtar from 1996-1998 and serves as the Dean of Education at the Hebrew Academy (RASG) in Miami Beach, FL The first phase of Moshe’s life is surrounded by sight and vision. This begins when we are first introduced to Moshe, …

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Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

This week’s column has been sponsored in honor of  Ellie Yona Charif’s first birthday on 23 Shevatby the Charif family in Sydney, Australia   Shabbat Shalom: Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin            Efrat, Israel –– “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you …

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

“Is a Fetus Considered a Full-Fledged Life? Differences in Approaches Between Judaism and Christianity”

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“Is a Fetus Considered a Full-Fledged Life? Differences in Approaches Between Judaism and Christianity”

This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Mishpatim, presents us the details of how we are meant to engage with others in the daily thoroughfare of life. After the “Ten statements” of Aseret HaDibrot, which speaks in broad categories, Mishpatim translates these statements unto the specifics of how we should interact with each other.

The parasha opens with “V’elah haMishpatim” – and these are the laws. Exodus 21:1 The vav adds to the previous statements and serves as juxtaposition to them. It connects the ethereal revelation on Mount Sinai to the quotidian reality of human relationships and accentuates the point that the holiness of Mount Sinai is found in the everyday ways in which we engage the other.

There is one interesting set of verses in Parshat Mishpatim that relates to a current debate in the United States Congress and in the courts. This conversation is part of a major theological discussion, deriving from different ways of understanding the Biblical text in our parasha.

The verse states:  ve’chi yinatzu anashim; if, when two people are fighting, ve’nagfu isha hara, and they hit, by accident, a pregnant woman, ve’yatzu yeladeha ve’lo y’hiye ason.  (Let us hold off interpreting the last part of the verse: ve’yatzu yeladeha ve’lo y’hiye ason.) The Torah goes on to say that if this incident occurs, compensation has to be paid.

Ve’im ason y’hiye, but if there is a tragedy, ve’natata nefesh tachat nefesh, then there is a capital punishment. Exodus 21: 22-23

The verse teaches us that if two people are fighting and they injure a pregnant woman ve’yatzu yeladeha ve’lo y’hiye ason – in this case, if there is no tragedy, then monetary compensation must be paid.

But if there is a tragedy, then the result is a life for a life.

What exactly does this mean? How do we understand the text?

This is why our oral rabbinic tradition is so crucial to understanding how this should be applied.

This is the current debate in Congress and the US courts.

According to Christian theologians, this is how the text should be read: If two people are fighting, and a woman is hurt, and she is pregnant, ve’yatzu yeladeha, and she has an early birth, ve’lo y’hiye ason, but the fetuses are fine, they are just born prematurely, then there has to be payment for this trauma.

Ve’im ason y’hiye, but if the fetuses are killed, if the fetuses are destroyed, then capital punishment is incurred. The fetuses are to be considered just like any other human life. If this is the case, then abortion, according to the interpretation of the Catholic Church is tantamount to murder, and using fetal cells for cloning, or stem-cell research would be strictly forbidden. This approach is based on their reading of our Torah portion.

But that is not the way that our rabbis read this verse.

 Ve’chi yinatzu anashim, if two men are fighting, ve’yatzu yeladeha, and she has a miscarriage, ve’lo y’hiye ason, but nothing happened to her, other than that trauma, and she is otherwise physically unharmed, then since she lost fetal matter, there needs to be compensation.  Ve’im ason y’hiye, but if she is damaged, if she is killed, then, it is a sin, or an act, that requires nefesh tachat nefesh, then this is a capital crime demanding punishment. Rashi on Exodus 21:23

How do we look at fetal matter? Do we regard it as a full human being, or can we use fetal matter for genetic research to save lives?

It all depends on how we read these verses. 

The argument going on in Congress and in the courts is predicated on how different traditions read Parshat Mishpatim. Let’s recognize the wisdom of Chazal, the sages of our oral tradition, when they teach that fetal matter is not yet life, and therefore it can be used in different ways to help safeguard life, to help scientific research, and to find opportunities for us to be God’s junior partners in Tikkun Olam.

Understanding our tradition sometimes makes all the difference. It’s not just the text, but the context that the Rabbis have given us. 

Shabbat Shalom.