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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayetze 5780

Looking for Meaning in our lives

B”H

Rabbi Daniela Szuster

This week’s parashah tells us that Jacob ran away from his family’s home because he feared that Esau would kill him after Jacob tricked their father into giving him the blessing, the blessing that should have been given to Esau.  

Jacob, our patriarch, reached Haran, where his mother’s family lived.  He saw Rachel there, and it was love at first sight. It is written in the Torah: “Jacob kissed Rachel and broke into tears.” (Bereshit 29: 11). He was so excited to find the love of his life that he cried with emotion.

After that, Jacob made an agreement with Laban, Rachel’s brother.  Jacob would work for him for seven years in order to marry Rachel. The Torah says, “Jacob loved Rachel so answered, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18).

This verse is very special, given that there are few places in the Torah that use the verb ‘to love’ between a man and a woman. We could say that Jacob was the first romantic lover to appear in the Torah.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Toldot 5780

Living Meaningful Lives

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
 
In this week’s parasha, Toldot, the Torah tells us that Rebecca and Isaac had twins, Jacob and Esau. We also find the famous story of the “sale of the birthright” by Esau to Jacob. We read the story of Isaac and Rebecca in Gerar in the land of the Philistines, including the problems Isaac had there with both the wells that his father Abraham had dug, and the wells Isaac himself dug. Finally, we are told what happens when Isaac, old and blind, is tricked by his son Jacob into giving him the firstborn blessing. Fearful of how his brother Esau might respond to the deception, Jacob leaves his home.

Toldot is the only parasha in the book of Genesis where we can find Isaac as the main character.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Chayyei Sarah 5780

Abraham and Rebecca: Leaders in Kindness and Hospitality

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By Rabbi Daniela

This week’s parashah, parashat Chayyei Sarah, begins by telling us about Sarah’s death and her burial at the cave of Machpela. After this, Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to Haran in order to find a wife for his son Isaac.

When Abraham’s servant came to the spring of Haran, he met a young woman who was carrying a jar on her shoulder. Then, it is written in the Torah: “The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.”  “Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.” (Bereshit 24: 18-20)

After these actions, Abraham’s servant realized that this young woman would be the appropriate wife for Isaac. Why? Because through these actions she showed her kindness, generosity, and compassion for human beings and for animals.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayera 5780

Thanks, God, for the Guests!

B”H

By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

At the beginning of our parasha Abraham is sitting in his tent when God appeared to him. He sees three men nearby. The Torah says: “And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw, and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, “My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant.” And they said, “So shall you do, as you have spoken” (Genesis 18:3-5).

This is considered a classic Jewish source for Hachnasat Orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming guests. As you may know, inviting and welcoming guests is considered a great commandment, a great honor, and a great pleasure at the same time. That is why you will see observant people trying to have guests whenever they are able to, especially for Shabbat and festival meals.

Among the verses I quoted above, you can find Abraham telling his prospective guests,

“וְאֶקְחָה פַת לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם”

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Lech Lecha 5780

“The Blessing of Seeing and to Be Seen”

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By Rabbi Daniela Szuster

Parashat Lech Lecha tells us that Sarah couldn’t bear a child so she had the idea that her servant Hagar would conceive a child with Abraham on her behalf. That was what happened. When Hagar was pregnant, Sarah treated her harshly and Hagar ran away from her.

When Hagar was in the desert, an angel of God found her and encouraged her to return with Sarah and Abraham and promised her great blessings for her future son. After listening to the angel, Hagar named God and said:

 “You Are El-Roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!” (Bereshit 15: 13)

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Noach 5780

Torah is Not a Book of History

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This week we read parashat Noach, the Torah section that tells the famous story of the universal flood. The main character of this parasha is, of course, Noah, the leader God chose to rebuild humanity. The fact that this parasha bears the name of Noah only adds to his remarkable figure.

According to the Torah, Noah lived 950 years (Genesis 9:29). However, how much do we know about Noah, apart from we are told regarding the story of the flood? Almost nothing! We are only told about a dark episode that apparently occurred right after the flood ended, when Noah got drunk (Genesis 9:20-27). We are also told that he had three children and that he was 650 years old when the flood started (Genesis 7:6) and that he lived 350 years after the flood (Genesis 9:28).

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Bereshit 5780

Lovingkindness Frames the Entire Torah

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Rabbi Daniela Szuster

Last Tuesday, during the services for Simchat Torah, we concluded the reading of the Torah, we read the last section of the Torah and immediately after that, we started to read the beginning of the Torah again. This means that we never stop reading the Torah, it is like an eternal cycle without a beginning and end.  From the death of our great leader Moses we went directly, without brakes, to the narration of the creation of the world.

The sages find something similar in the last part of the Torah and in the beginning of it. They narrate different stories which happened in different times, but both texts contain a similar spirit.

In the final Torah portion, V’zot Habrachah, we read that God personally carried Moses to his final resting place and buried him there (Deuteronomy 34:6). It is sweet and lovely to know that God personally accompanied Moses in his last days and buried him. It is a very deep and moving scene.

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Torah Thoughts: Simchat Torah 5780

Dancing with our Books!

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

Simchat Torah‎, literally “The Joy/Rejoicing of the Torah” is the holiday that celebrates and marks both the conclusion of the annual cycle of the ritual Torah reading and the beginning of a new cycle. It also marks the end of the “holiday season” of the month of Tishrei, which includes Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret.

The main celebrations of Simchat Torah take place in the synagogue during evening and morning services. On each occasion, the worshippers leave their seats to dance and sing with the Torah scrolls. In the morning, the last and the first paragraphs of the Torah are read

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Haazinu 5780

“I will Hide My Countenance from Them” (Devarim 32:20)

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Rabbi Daniela Szuster

Parashat Haazinu is the only parashah where most of the text is written in a poetic manner.  In this song, Moses speaks mostly of the future, but without forgetting the present and past.  He warns his people, guides them and advises them, just before he passes the mantle to Joshua, after Moses’ many years of leadership.

In this opportunity, I would like to focus on one verse from this parashah:

“The Lord said: I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end. For they are a treacherous breed, children with no loyalty in them.” (Devarim 32:20)

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Torah Thoughts: Shabbat Shuva 5780

A Good Start to a Good Year

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This coming Shabbat, the one happening between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is called Shabbat Shuva. These are the first words of the special Hafatarah we read during this Shabbat, which begins with the words Shuva Israel, literally “Return people of Israel.” Some people call this Shabbat Shabbat Teshuva, meaning the Shabbat of repentance. In both cases, it is clear that this Shabbat is an appropriate time for repentance, right before Yom Kippur. As Maimonides wrote in his Mishne Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 2:6), “Although it is ever well to cry out and repent, but during the space of the ten days’ time between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom ha-Kippurim it is exceedingly better, and the supplication is presently accepted, even as it is said: ‘Seek ye the Lord while He may be found’ (Is. 55.6)”.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Nitzavim 5779

What Do We Stand For this New year?

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Rabbi Daniela Szuster

“You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Devarim 29: 9-14)

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Ki Tavo 5779

“During the year, we live our lives forward, during the High Holidays we are encouraged to understand our lives backwards”

B”H

by Rabbi Daniela Szuster

This week’s Parasha begins by saying: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in … “(Deuteronomy 26: 1).

After so much suffering as slaves, after years of wandering in the desert, the special moment finally came, the entrance to the desired land of Israel.  The people went through many obstacles and made many mistakes; they experienced pains sorrows and fears.

 At last came the long-awaited moment.  What should the people have done as they entered the land of their dreams?  What would you have done upon arriving there? What did God command in the Torah?

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Ki Tetze 5779

Go Out and Face your Conflicts

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This week we read parashat Ki Tetze. It begins with a series of laws regarding the war. The very first verse of this parasha says, “If you go out to war against your enemies…” (Deuteronomy 21:10). In the original Hebrew the verse can be perfectly understood, not as a conditional, but as a sentence describing a situation. That would read as, “when you go out to war against your enemies.” In fact, you could even understand this verse as if it was encouraging the reader to go out to war. Why would that be?

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Shoftim 5779

Who Are the Guardians of the City?

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Rabbi Daniela Szuster

Who Are the Guardians of the City?

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, begins by saying: “You shall appoint magisters and officials for your tribes, in all settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Devarim 16:18).

This verse literally expresses the importance of having judges and policemen in each one of the cities, granting justice and equity to the inhabitants. 

However, some sages interpreted this verse differently.  In the verse it says: “Judges and offices shalt thou make thee…”  (Titen Lecha). The sages call attention to the words “thou make thee;” saying that one should judge himself first, and after that, one may judge his fellowman. In other words, we should be our own judges and policemen.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Re’eh 5779

Getting Ready for the High Holy Days

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This coming Shabbat is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul. As you probably know, Elul is the last month of the Hebrew calendar, and it is considered a month of preparation for the High Holy Days. 

How can we get properly ready for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? There are many customs that help in this regard. First, we include the reading of Psalm 27 after the morning and evening services. Psalm 27 is an appropriate reading for this time of the year as it has some references to the festivals of the month of Tishrei.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Devarim–Shabbat Chazon 5779

A Time for Us

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This Shabbat we begin the reading of the fifth and last book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, Deuteronomy. This Shabbat has a specific name, Shabbat Chazon, or the Shabbat of the Vision. Shabbat Chazon takes its name from the Haftarah that is read on this Shabbat immediately prior to the fast of Tisha B’Av, from the words of rebuke and doom coming from the prophet Isaiah.

This Shabbat is traditionally considered a sad one, perhaps the saddest Shabbat of the year. This is because it is the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction of the two Temples of Jerusalem and many other calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout its history.

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Parashat Matot Masei 5779

“Reflecting on Our Own Journeys”

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Rabbi Daniela Szuster

This week we read two parashot, Matot and Masei, the last parashot of the book of B’midvar.  At the beginning of the second parashah, the Torah provides the names of each and every camp the Israelites established during their journey in the desert.

It is written at the beginning of parashat Masei:

“These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Pinchas 5779

Two Important Lessons

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This week we read Parashat Pinchas. It is one of the five parashot in the whole Torah that has a name of a person as its title. The other ones are Noach, Yitro, Korach, and Balak. It is notable that last week’s parasha, Balak, was also one of these five Torah sections. Is there anything we can learn from comparing these two characters, Balak and Pinchas, who have their names as the title of two consecutive parashot? Of course we can! Let’s see how…

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Sh’lach Lecha 5779

A Sin Against Your People

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Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This week we read the well-known story of the twelve spies. Before starting the conquest of the land of Israel, the Israelites needed to know what kind of country it was, and what kind of people lived in it.

Moses sent twelve spies, one for each tribe, to scout the Land of Canaan. After travelling the land for forty days, they returned and split themselves in two groups. The smallest group, consisting of Caleb and Joshua (from the tribes of Judah and Ephraim respectively), gave an encouraging report. The second group, consisting of the other ten spies, provided a very negative report about the inhabitants of Canaan. They described them as giants, whom the Children of Israel would not be able to defeat in war. Upon hearing this discouraging report, the people cried out, publicly expressing that they wished they had died naturally in Egypt instead of having to die at the hands of the giants that inhabited the land of Canaan. Ultimately, God punished this generation, condemning them to die in the desert and not allowing them to enter the Land of Israel.

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Parashat Behaalotcha 5779

A Short Prayer Can Be More Powerful, Meaningful, and Successful Than Texts with Hundreds of Words

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by Rabbi Daniela Szuster

At the end of Parashat Behaalotcha, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because he married a Cushite woman.  Also, they criticized Moses by saying that God spoke to them and not only to Moses.  (Bemidvar 12).

It is not clear what was the motivation behind Miriam and Aaron’s actions. Rashi imagines Miriam criticizing Moses for neglecting his wife in order to serve the people of Israel. In Rashi’s view, Miriam was motivated more by her concerns for the Moses’ wife than by feelings of jealousy and rivalry. In other words, we may say that Miriam wanted to advocate for women’s rights!

Consequently, I think that Miriam and Aaron’s mistake was not what they said but rather how they said it. They spoke against Moses in front of all of the people of Israel rather than confronting him directly. This is a behavior that a leader should avoid. In this way, they harmed Moses and also the people of Israel.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Naso 5779

A New Torah Each Day

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By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky

This week we read parashat Naso, the longest parasha of the Torah (176 verses!). We usually read this parasha during the Shabbat after the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. Why do we read the longest parasha right after Shavuot? Well, a good way to understand this reason is to think about a child with a new toy. As we all know, a child who receives a new toy wants to play with it all of the time. He/she cannot leave it for a moment. There is nothing more important for him/her than the new toy.

The same thing happened with the Children of Israel and the Torah. After they received the Torah at Mount Sinai, during Shavuot, they really wanted to stay close to it, read it, and study everything they could. On the Shabbat after Shavuot, the Children of Israel were given the opportunity of reading the longest Torah section, Naso, and thus were able to stay attached to the “new” Torah a little bit more than usual. This explains why

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