Posts Tagged Weekly Torah Portion

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 Slow Road to Sanctity

Parshas Mishpatim

You shall not ascend my altar by steps, so that you will not reveal your nakedness upon it.  And these are the statutes that you [Moses] shall place before them [the Jewish people]

Exodus 20:23-21:1

During the early days of the Second Temple era, the sages divided the Torah into portions, or parshios, to be read on successive Sabbaths.  The juxtaposition of any two of these parshios always alludes to some principle in Jewish thought.  In the case of this week’s Torah portion, however, the connection with the end of last week’s parsha seems particularly elusive.

imagesAfter the drama of the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the narrative switches to a rather dry and technical description of the altar in the Tabernacle.  Not by stairs should the kohain go up, lest the gaping of his robes expose his private regions to the stones upon which he walks; rather, he should ascend by a ramp, so that his shorter, more even steps will not result in any impropriety.

Immediately afterward, the Torah introduces the mishpatim, the statutes that govern civil law by establishing the legal parameters of business dealings, private property, loans, and damages.  Superficially, no two subjects within Torah could be more distant from one another.

imagesThe revered Chassidic Master, Reb Elimelech of Lizensk, offers a tantalizing explanation.  As we go through life, we should see ourselves as kohanim, the priests of the Almighty, engaged in a perpetual quest to ascend spiritually, approaching ever nearer to a more perfect service upon the conceptual altar of the Creator.  Every attainment of a new spiritual level is called by the kabbalists a madrega — a “step” onward and upward.  The Jew is not meant to remain static, but to pursue ever more challenging goals in pursuit of spiritual perfection.

The danger, however, is that we may try to take too much upon ourselves, that we attempt to move forward by unrealistic leaps, that we may seek inspiration in the mystical and ethereal at the expense of more fundamental forms of heavenly service.  By reaching for the stars, we may find ourselves without firm footing beneath us, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the indictments of the divine attribute of Justice.  By artificially propelling ourselves to a level that we cannot realistically sustain, we may cause ourselves to be judged with a strictness that is beyond our capacity to endure.

The ramp up to the altar, therefore, serves as a symbol of the measured, determined consistency with which we should approach our commitment to spiritual growth.  HaShem may bless us at times with great leaps forward and moments of dazzling inspiration, but spiritual development is often like physical development — painfully slow and paradoxically mundane.

This, teaches Reb Elimelech, is the connection between the details of the altar and the words that introduce this week’s portion, “And these are the statutes…”  If we look for spiritual excitement only in arcane mysteries and secrets, we will inevitably miss the most essential opportunities for spiritual growth that our daily routine provides.  The concern for others, for their money and their time and their property, the respect for boundaries both personal and legal — these are the sensitivities that most effectively and meaningfully transform us into spiritual beings.  If we think we can overlook them in our quest for personal revelation and divine intimacy, we will have no foundation upon which to stand.  If we carefully cultivate them, we will awaken within ourselves the spiritual vision that will enable us to recognize the presence of the Almighty in every aspect of our lives.

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