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“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.

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

“Counting Our Days: The Journey in Creating a Relationship with God”

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Parshat Emor (Diaspora) and Parshat Behar (Israel)

Counting Our Days: The Journey in Creating a Relationship with God

Whichever parsha you are reading this week, we are still in the middle of the Sefirat HaOmer; we are counting from Pesach to Shavuot.

Yes, there is a tragic overlay to this time, and we will discuss that in a different week, but this week I would like to discuss the Biblical mandate:

“וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת”

Mentioned in Parshat Emor, the responsibility to count seven complete weeks from Passover to Shavuot. [Leviticus 23:15]

Now, the interesting thing is, there are many times in the Torah we speak about counting.

For example, in Parshat Behar, for those of us in Israel, we are told about counting years until we get to the Sabbatical year. [Leviticus 25:3-4]

Yet there is no mandate to make an explicit count: “This is the first year towards the Sabbatical year. This is the second year towards the Sabbatical year”, etc. Counting is simply a mental note.

Likewise, we do not count the days towards the eighth day of circumcision; rather, it is a mental note.

The only time in which it is not a mental note, but we need to expressly articulate it, is when we count from the march from Pesach to Shavuot. [Leviticus 23:16]

There is a very important message to that. You see, what counts in creating a relationship with God, which is what Shavuot is all about, is the journey, the responsibility for every single day to be meaningful and purposeful.

That is why if we want to really celebrate our relationship to God, it is not about any particular mitzvah. That is why Shavuot has no specific mitzvot, no Biblical commandments attached to it.

Contrary to popular belief, eating cheesecake on Shavuot and even learning all night are not a Biblical mandate.

There are no Biblical commandments connected to the holiday of Shavuot because Shavuot is a day in which we celebrate the journey of creating a relationship with God.

Yes, it is a specific day in the month of Sivan, but the Torah does not tell us that specific day, because the Torah wishes to accentuate that what counts in creating a relationship with God is not a particular mitzvah, but rather the journey that we are on in creating that relationship.

There is another interesting thing:

“וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת”

“And you should count” [Leviticus 23:15] – “from the day after Shabbat”, which could mean Sunday if translated literally.

In fact, the Talmud has a whole debate, between those who embraced the Oral Tradition – and translated the word “Shabbat” as it is in other places, namely, as the day after the first day of Passover – and those who did not embrace the Oral Tradition. [Talmud, Menachot 65-66]

Some would count from the Sunday of the spring; and some – as we count – is from the day after Pesach.

The idea that the Torah uses this amorphous language is to highlight that human initiative is what creates a relationship with God.

We even have to interpret this pasuk, which tells us how to march to Shavuot.

“וספרתם לכם”

“You shall count…”

“ממחרת השבת

“…from the day after Passover.”

It requires rabbinic interpretation, human initiative, to understand the verse.

The counting of the Omer, the responsibility for each of us to ask ourselves the most important question: How am I marching to a relationship with God? How am I finding a space for God in my life?

That is why the Kabbalists assigned a special Kabbalistic mnemonic to each of the counting days of the Omer: to remind us of that message, to look inside ourselves and to find a way for us to become closer to God.

So whether you will be reading Parshat Emor or Parshat Behar, we’re all counting the Omer, and the Omer, in its enunciation, asks each of us: Nu? What are we doing to find a place for God in our lives? How are we counting these days and making them meaningful?

If we just take a moment and ask ourselves the question, then we will make these days truly meaningful days.

That is why the festival of Shavuot is unencumbered by any particular mitzvah, reminding us that what celebrates our relationship to God it is the way we engage with all aspects of our lives.

Then we will truly be able to make sure that we have a meaningful and purposeful relationship with God, which will not only change the world, but also indeed help us improve ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“The Stones of Redemption and the Rebuilding of Zion”

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Shabbat of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut

“The Stones of Redemption and the Rebuilding of Zion

This weekend, as we conclude the celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut and the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron, I would like to remind us of a pasuk from Yishayahu, where God says that in the building up the Jewish people in Zion, He will create a foundation stone.

What type of stone will it be? The verse states: “אבן בוחן פינת יקרת מוסד מוסד” – it must be a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a stone that will be a sure foundation. (Isaiah 28:16)

Rabbi Shai Finkelstein of the Nitzanim Congregation in Jerusalem points out an amazing interpretation of why the prophet uses seemingly redundant language in the definition of what type of stone this needs to be.

He quotes the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Visser, זצ”ל, 1809-1879, Ukraine; died in Kyiv), who explains that the new stones of redemption have to be, first and foremost, a tried stone, a stone that is solid and won’t crumble, and which is not comprised of dust (“אבן לא מורכב מעפר”).

And indeed, the State of Israel represents a tried stone, because in Israel, modern statecraft and the bringing of Mashiach are one and the same.

In Israel, there is no separation between big ideas and mundane decisions. If you work in mergers and acquisitions; if you’re a venture capitalist in Israel, you’re creating the infrastructure that supports the modern state, you’re creating the infrastructure for the government that is the largest supporter of Torah in the world.

The stone also has to be an “אבן יקרה” – a precious stone. Indeed, our soldiers – whether formally religious or spiritually connected – bring values to every moment in the way they serve.

The stones also have to be “יסוד היסודות” – stones that can be bedrock stones, because in the modern State of Israel, we are creating institutions that are at the bedrock, making Torah relevant to every aspect of our life, every aspect of the generation.

It is why we have a responsibility in the State of Israel to find a place for the refugee,

to engage with minorities and to obliterate the Chillul Hashem of Get refusal.

It is why Torah is relevant to every aspect of warfare; that there is the concept of “Safra v’Saifa”, that Jewish tradition and the Jewish sword must work together.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky, זצ”ל, quoted from Tehillim – “יקר בעיני ה’ המותה לחסידיו” – “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his pious ones.” (Psalms 116:15) He explained that those killed in acts of terror and those who have been lost to us in defense of the country are the precious ones who sit at the foot of God’s throne in Heaven.

And we recognize that Israel wasn’t given to us on a silver platter, but rather through the selfless sacrifices of those who gave up their lives Al Kiddush Hashem.

Those who understand that these are the stones and – “המאמין לא יחיש” – “he who believes shall not make haste.” This is because we recognize that this is a process of building. And we mark this process – given to us by God and in which we are partners – by commemorating it on Yom HaZikaron and celebrating it on Yom Ha’atzma’ut.

Chag Atzma’ut Sameach! Shabbat Shalom!