Archive for category Weekly Parsha

The Real Rainbow Coalition

rainbow_wallpaperI can always count on my friend Daniel Jacobsen to pose simple questions with complicated answers.  Whenever I see him coming at me with that look in his eye, I know my brain is in for some heavy lifting.

This time was no exception.  “I’ve been wondering about the rainbow,” he began.  Here we go, I thought.  And I was right.

“Why did God choose something so beautiful as a symbol of destruction?”

Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow:  even as the Almighty points the arrows of divine wrath away from us, it is only His promise to Noah that protects us from the natural consequences of our own moral corruption.

But what do the colors and the beauty of the rainbow signify?  Here was another simple question that had never occurred to me.  I told Daniel that I’d have to get back to him.

What is a rainbow but the refraction of white light into a multitude of colored bands?  Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, we take white light for granted; by doing so, we fail to appreciate the very blessings that are most essential to our existence.  Indeed, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato observes in the introduction to his ethical classic Mesillas Yesharim, those things that are most obvious to us are the things most easily forgotten.

Only when moisture in the air disperses photons into a spectrum of color do we stop and marvel at the beauty of light.

In the same way, the unity of the Almighty that we declare daily when we recite Hashem echad is far too abstract a concept to guide us as we seek to infuse Godliness into our lives.  We therefore partition the Divine “white light” of the Creator through the prism of human comprehension into 13 individual descriptive qualities on which we can focus one at a time.

When we do so, the primordial beauty of God’s indivisibility manifests in a rainbow of separate middos, or characteristics.  Individually, they represent our journey; collectively, they represent our goal.

Now let’s apply the same principle to the Jewish nation as a whole.

An old joke tells of the Jew who proclaims his love for the Jewish people but denounces Steinberg as a cheapskate, Lebowitz as a crook, and Schneiderman as a nogoodnick.  The sad reality, however, is that too often it isn’t a joke.

Read the whole article here.


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Parshas Kedoshim Podcast

Finding the Extraordinary within the Ordinary

imgresWhat does it mean to be kadosh — “holiness” and “sanctity” are concepts that don’t register in modern society.  If we think that holiness requires us to retreat behind the walls of our study halls and places of worship, the Torah says otherwise.

Click here for my 5-minute audio lecture.

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Visionaries and Ideology: a study in contrasts

imagesWho knew a trip to New York could be so emotional?

I didn’t want to go in the first place. As my 92-year-old student likes to quote: Travelling is for peasants.

But my wife convinced me with simple arithmetic. Four tickets to bring three kids and son-in-law home or two tickets to visit them. No-brainer.

So I went grudgingly, confirming in the end the truism that some of life’s most profound moments come not only unexpected but against our will.

Our first stop was the 9/11 museum. I marveled at the artistic vision that had conceived the memorial pools, the water channeling down in rivulets that mirrored the face of the fallen towers, the continuous downward rush balanced by the redemptive feeling of water — the source of life — returning to the heart of the world. Here there was solace, closure, and consolation.

But a very different feeling accosted me inside. Almost upon entering the doors a single word brandished itself across my mind’s eye: Holocaust.

Let me explain.
Read the whole article here.

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More than a lucky number

Parshas Behar/ Sefiras HaOmer

imagesIn this week’s Torah portion we read about the shemittah year, the Sabbatical for the Land of Israel that parallels the weekly Sabbath on which the Jewish people refrain from work. 

It’s no coincidence that this parsha falls out in the middle of Sefiras HaOmer, the count of seven days and seven weeks that links the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos as the beginning and end of a process of spiritual growth, providing us with an opportunity to re-experience the transformation of the Jews from a people into a nation.

But what is it about the number seven that it plays such a significant role in Jewish thought, and in the very structure of our world?

Click here to find out.

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True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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It’s not my job — or is it?

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Vayakhel

And Moshe said to B’nei Yisroel:  “See, Hashem has proclaimed by name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Yehudah… to perform every craft of design” (Shemos 35:30-33).

RavIn the 1930s, Rav Elchonon Wasserman travelled to America to raise funds for his yeshiva in Baranovich.  Addressing an affluent congregation one Shabbos morning, Rav Elchonon asked the parishioners to consider giving a donation of $180, which could support a bochur in his yeshiva for an entire year.

The rabbi of the shul, worried that his congregants might resent being asked for so large a contribution, added that even a donation of one dollar would also be helpful.  Not surprisingly, Rav Elchonon received many one dollar donations and not many $180 donations.

Recognizing that he had undermined the rosh yeshiva’s appeal, the rabbi offered an apology for scuttling his efforts.  Rav Elchonon replied with the following moshel:

mishkanWhen Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint Betzalel as the chief architect of the mishkan, Moshe immediately went to the camp of Yehudah and began asking people if they knew Betzalel.  With over 74,000 adult males in the tribe, it took a while before Moshe found someone who could direct him to Betzalel.

Said Rav Elchonon:  “Did Moshe become angry with the people who did not know Betzalel?  Of course not.  If they did not know Betzalel, then Moshe would have to keep searching for someone who did.

“Supporting a Torah institution is exactly the same,” continued Rav Elchonon.  “Whatever money Hashem intends to provide for Torah education will come through the means that Hashem has prepared.  The only question is who will have the merit to participate in the support of Torah.  If one person does not have the merit to be such a participant, there is no reason to become angry with him.  Someone else who values the importance of educating students in the ways of Torah will step forward to act as Hashem’s agent, and that person will be rewarded in the next world in proportion to his generosity.”

And so we have to ask ourselves every moment of every day:  are we eager to accept the job as Hashem’s agents to bring about the fulfillment of His will, or are we all too eager to leave that job to others?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

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The Heart of the World

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Terumah

And you shall make Me a dwelling (mikdash), and I will dwell (v’shochanti) among them (Sh’mos 25:8).

imagesThe Mishkan, or Tabernacle, was much more than a place of worship for the Jews as they traveled through the desert.  It was the prototype of the Beis HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem and, even more, a microcosm of the entire universe.  As such, the details of its construction offer a look behind to curtain of nature into the very design of Creation.

However, first we have to ask ourselves a question:  why does the Almighty command the construction of a mikdash, which lay four hundred eighty years in the future, rather than a mishkan, which is what the Jewish people were about to build.

The word mishkan literally means “that which creates a dwelling.”  In the desert, with no land, no permanence, and no boundaries, the tabernacle provided the focal point around which the Jewish nation could coalesce.  Of course, the spirit of HaShem is everywhere.  But the physical House of G-d placed in the midst of the people would bind them together in a way that their abstract identity as a holy people could not.  Indeed, a careful reading of the verse reveals HaShem’s true intention.  Build Me a tabernacle, commanded the Almighty, and I will dwell not in it but in and among them, the people.

Consequently, we understand that the Mishkan was never intended to be permanent.  Its purpose was to sustain the people until they could enter the land.  At that point, they would no longer require a mishkan, for the land itself would bind them together as a nation.  From then on they would require a mikdash — literally, that which creates sanctity.  Once in the land, a House of G-d would serve to remind the people of their divine mission and inspire them to strive for ever higher levels of spiritual achievement.

To that end, the people would gather three times a year for the pilgrim festivals — Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos.  And herein lies the secret of the Mikdash, as explained by the Chassidic classic Arvei Nachal.

imagesJust as our world exists within three physical dimensions, similarly was it created along three spiritual axes:  space, time, and life.  Of these three, the human body presents the most familiar model for understanding the spiritual pattern of the universe.

Within the body, the heart pumps blood throughout the system.  Through arteries and capillaries, the blood reaches every corner of the body, carrying with it oxygenated blood that literally breathes life into every cell.  Returning to the heart, the blood is pumped through the lungs to become oxygenated once again, so that the body’s internal cycle of life can continue.  This is the essential structure of life.

The same pattern manifests itself in the nature of time.  According to the kabbalists, time is not linear but cyclical.  In the course of each year, every soul visits every day and every moment in the 365 days that describe the solar year.  Just as the flow of blood deposits life-giving oxygen to the body’s cells, similarly does each soul deposit kedusha, sanctity, to the individual moments that together form the body of time.  And just as the body’s cycle begins and ends with the heart, similarly does the annual cycle begin and end with Yom Kippur — the holiest day, and the “heart” of the year.  The extent to which the Jew renews his relationship with the Almighty on Yom Kippur will affect not only his own fortunes for the coming year, but the fortunes of all mankind.  Symbiotically, our involvement in Torah and mitzvos draws the innate kedusha from the temporal plasma of the universe and allows us to return to the next Yom Kippur on a spiritual level higher than we were on the year before.

imagesFinally we come to physical space.  Once established in the land, the Jewish people  spread out to settle their country, striving to strike the perfect balance between material prosperity and spiritual purpose.  Their involvement in Torah and mitzvos throughout every corner of the Land of Israel would draw out the intrinsic spiritual essence of the land, enabling them to achieve greater levels in divine service as they prepared for each successive festival, when they would come together at the Beis HaMikdash — the heart of the world.  Inspired and elevated by each festival, the Jews would return to their homes, elevated in their spirituality so that they could elevate the land on which they toiled, thus creating a virtuous cycle that brought them ever closer and closer to their Creator.

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the great sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai decreed that every shul, every place of Jewish prayer, should be treated as a mikdash ma’at, and Temple in miniature.  Every time the Jewish community comes together to pray, on weekdays and on Shabbos, on festivals and on the High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to renew the cycle of spiritual elevation.  Prayer is not for G-d; it is for us.  It is not a burden; it is a privilege and an opportunity.  It is not an inconvenience; it is as fundamental to our existence as our life’s blood, as our heart, and as our soul.


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