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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Devarim–Shabbat Chazon 5779

A Time for Us

B” H

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”

B”H

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

B”H

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

B”H

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

B” H

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

B” H

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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Parashat B’midvar – Shavuot 5779

B” H

Rabbi Daniela Szuster

“For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Book of Ruth 1: 16)

This Saturday night, Sunday and Monday, we are going to celebrate the Festival of Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks.” It is celebrated seven weeks after the second evening of Passover.

Shavuot combines two major aspects, the agricultural and the historical. The first aspect is related to the grain harvest, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. It was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel when Israelites were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem, bringing offerings of the first fruits of their harvest.

The historical aspect is the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. It was one of the milestones of our history, where the people of Israel entered into a covenant with God, receiving the rules, values, and traditions of the Torah.

One of the names of the Festival of Shavuot is “Z’ man Matan Torateinu,” “the season of the giving of our Torah.” It is a time of the year when we also should open our hearts and minds to receive the Torah.

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Parashat Bechukotai 5779

Parashat Bechukotai 5779                                             
B”H

Rabbi Daniela Szuster

“And I walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12).

This week we read the last Torah portion from the book of Vayikra. Some call this parashah “Tochecha Haktana,” “short warning,” in contrast to “Tochecha Hagdola,” “long warning” that appears in Parashat Ki Tavo, in the book of Devarim.

A striking aspect of this parashah is that the custom is to read the warning verses in a special way. We read them quietly, so much so that they are hardly heard. Whispered so low, what we read seems more terrible than if it were read aloud in a normal voice.

In addition, as is a very dramatic text, no one wants to have this Aliyah because people fear it. There is a custom to call “Iaale mi sheirtze,” whoever wants to have this Aliyah. Rabbi Chaim used to say, “Everyone who goes to this Aliyah harei ze meshuvach” (he or she will get many blessings), encouraging someone to have this Aliyah.

If no one rises, there is a custom to pay the shamash to do it. A third custom is

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Torah Thoughts: Lag B’omer 5779

B”H Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky Lag B’omer This Thursday, May 23rd, we are celebrating Lag B’omer. It is a minor holiday that occurs on the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot. In fact, Lag B’omer literally means the 33rd day of the Omer. The Omer period is a time of semi-mourning when, among other signs of grief, weddings and some celebrations are forbidden, and we

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Emor 5779

This week we read Parashat Emor. This parasha includes different topics related to mourning and grief and to happiness and celebration. It opens with a warning for the priests, the Cohanim, that they shall avoid impurifying themselves by being in contact, or even being close, with a dead person (that is why, by the way, Cohanim until today avoid going to cemeteries, unless it is for the burial of a close relative.) Parashat Emor ends with a long list of the biblical festivals, setting up a happy tone for its ending.

What can we learn from the fact that sad and happy topics in our parasha come one after the other? According to Rabbi Menachem Baker, author of the Midrash and Chasidic commentaries compilation Parperaot Latorah, we can learn that real life is like our parasha. We all experience bitter and sweet moments, sometimes one right after the other. The lesson we always need to have in mind is that we must never give up when we are experiencing sad moments because happier times could be around the corner. Such is the nature of life.

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Parashat K’doshim 5779

This week’s parashah, parashat K’doshim, deals with many rules related to ethical and good relationships with our fellows.

This is one of the precepts: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra 19:17-18). It is interesting to note that these verses start with the prohibition against hating our fellows and end with the commandment of loving our fellows as ourselves. How can we transform our hate into love? Is it possible?

The Talmudic commentary Avot d’Rabbi Natan (on Mishnah Avot 4:1) states that the really mighty man turns his enemy into his friend. How does one turn an enemy into a friend? What is the process of moving from regarding someone negatively to regarding that person positively? Can this be possible?

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Torah Thoughts: Yom Hashoah 5779

This week we read Parashat Acharei Mot. However, my Torah Thoughts for this week will be dedicate to Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day or, as we say in Hebrew, Yom Hashoah Vehagvura. We remember the six million of our brothers and sisters who were killed by the Nazis and their partners in crime during the dark years of 1939-1945. Yom Hashoah happens every year on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year it begins on the eve of May 1st and continues through May 2nd. 

The official name for this commemoration of the victims of the Shoah is Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” We remember    what the Nazi regimen did to our people, but we also remember the heroism of all of those who actively resisted the Nazis during the Shoah. We remember the anti-Jewish hatred and systematic murder of Jews perpetrated by the infamous Nazi regime. And we don’t forget how heroically our parents and grandparents tried to resist and oppose the Nazis.

This year in particular, American Jews commemorate Yom Hashoah with an especially bitter feeling. For years we were used to saying, “let’s not forget, so this cannot happen again.” We followed with amazement how other countries, especially in Europe, were experiencing antisemitism over and over again. Antisemitism seemed to be on the rise in many parts of the world, but here in America, we Jews felt safe and relieved.

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Shabbat – 8th Day of Pesach

Among the fifteen steps we have in the Passover Seder, Maggid consists of the retelling of the story of Exodus. It is based on Midrashim which try to explain some verses of the Torah related to the story of Exodus. There are different versions of the Midrashim used to explain the story in different Haggadot.

One of the verses is: “We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.” (Devarim 26:7).

According to this verse, the people of Israel prayed to God, and God listened to them and saw their suffering while they were slaves in Egypt.

It is interesting to note that the Torah uses the same action verb, “see”, when it describes the first time Moses was walking around Egypt.

It is written in the Book of Sh’mot: “Sometime after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and he saw their burdens” (Sh’mot 2:11)

This means that when Moses grew up and walked around the streets of Egypt, he could see the plight of the Hebrews. He was not indifferent to the suffering of the people of Israel. He was not happy to see someone suffering.

Many times, we walk and don’t see what really is happening around us. Moses stopped and saw the slaves’ suffering.

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Torah Thoughts: First Day of Pesach 5779

Jewish tradition provides appropriate greetings for every Jewish festival or commemoration. We use different greetings for Shabbat, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, just to mention some examples. Regarding the festivals, there is one greeting that works well for all of them. It is the simple and very general Chag Sameach, which means “Happy Holiday” or “Happy Festival”.

It is interesting to note that during Pesach we add one word to this general greeting. That word is “kosher.”  On Passover we say Chag Pesach Kasher Vesameach, which means “A Kosher and Happy Holiday of Passover”. Why do we do this?

The most credible explanation is that on Pesach the laws of Kashrut are much stricter than during the rest of the year. All of us who prepare for Pesach know that it requires a lot of effort to properly clean the house, prepare the appliances and cook the meals for the eight days of the festival. If eating Kosher is one of the main aspects of the Jewish experience, eating Kosher during Passover is of paramount importance!

The stringent laws of Pesach are very important and part of the atmosphere of this cherished festival. However, it is certainly no less important to experience the spirit of these laws. Some people are so worried and stressed about fulfilling the Kashrut of Pesach that it is hard for them to relax and enjoy the festival and its significance. That is not what we want to happen. We definitely want to have a kosher holiday, but also a happy one.

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arashat Metzorah – Shabbat Hagadol 5779

This week’s parashah, Parashat Metzorah, deals mainly with the rules concerning Tzaraat, leprosy, and describes the ritual of purifying and reintegrating the person who was ill with that disease back into the society.

In addition, the text also mentions the appearance of a “plague” in the stones of a person’s house. It is written:

“When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Vayikra 14:34-35).

According to these verses, when someone found in his or her house a plague, that person had to tell this to the priest.

It is interesting to note that the person was not asked to solve the problem or abandon the house.  A person was only required to go to the Cohen, the priest, and tell him what is happening in the house. The person had to admit that something wrong was happening in his house, and it was out of his control.

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Torah Thoughts: Shabbat Hachodesh 5779

This will be a different and special Shabbat because we will read from three different Torah Scrolls. We will read the regular weekly Torah section, or parasha, from the first scroll. Then, because this Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month, we will read the corresponding paragraph from the second scroll. Finally, this Shabbat marks the beginning of the month of Nissan, and thus we call it Shabbat Hachodesh. During this Shabbat we have a special Torah reading (which this year we will read from a third Torah scroll), that describes the first night of Passover.

Shabbat Hachodesh occurs either on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nisan or on Rosh Chodesh itself as it does this year. The maftir reading is Exodus 12:1-20, which contains the orders to eat the Passover sacrifice, bitter herbs (maror) and unleavened bread (matza). It also includes God’s order to put blood on the doorposts and many more Passover laws.

This same reading includes the first public commandment given in the Torah, which is that we must sanctify the new moon. As it is written, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This is a remarkable commandment because it gives the Jewish people the power to control their own calendar. You may say that God gave the Jewish people control over  their time.

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Parashat Sh’mini 5779

This week’s parashah, parashat Sh’mini, relates an event in which Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, who was the first Cohen Hagadol (great priest), died by a strange fire that they had caused in the altar of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Many commentators have tried to explain what Aaron’s sons actually did and what that strange fire meant.

However, in this essay I do not want to stop at this fact, but, rather to explore the reaction of the father when he learned about the tragedy of his sons. The Torah tells us: “Vayidom Aharon” (“And Aaron was silent”) (Vayikra 10:3). Aaron lost his loved ones, his children, and he remained silent; he was speechless, he had no words to say.

Aaron had the gift of speech, he was able to stand before Pharaoh and tell him Moses’ words. However, after the tragedy his sons suffered, Aaron was silent. His grief was so deep, and his horror was so consuming that no words came to him.

Some commentators explain that Aaron was silent and didn’t cry or question or complain at his painful loss because he accepted God’s harsh judgment.

We might also think that the tragedy was so sudden that it paralyzed him, and he did not realize what happened or maybe his anguish and pain were so great and deep that he could not express these difficult feelings in words.

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Parashat Tzav 5779

In this week’s parashah, Parashat Tzav, just as in the previous one, we find a description of the different Korbanot (sacrifices or offerings) that had to be offered at the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  Among them, there is one called Korban Sh’lamim, which had the purpose of thanking God for the outcome of some situation people were going through.

 According to tradition, this sacrifice was made at times when someone survived a dangerous situation, such as having been cured of a serious illness, getting out of prison, crossing an ocean, or surviving a journey through the wilderness.  This practice is the biblical origin of the Birkat HaGomel prayer, recited in our synagogues when someone has survived a dangerous situation. The person is called for an Aliya and then, she or he recites this prayer.

It is interesting to note that in Vayikra Rabba, the sages say:  “At the end of the days, all sacrifices shall be nullified, except for the sacrifice of thanksgiving; all prayers shall be nullified, except for the prayer of thanksgiving.” (Vayikra Rabba 9, 7)

The question raised by this text is why this kind of sacrifice is different.  What makes it so special, being the only one that will not be cancelled?

Some people say that all offerings are done to rectify something that we ourselves have failed to accomplish.  The guilt sacrifice (asham) is brought for several transgressions. The atonement sacrifice (chatat), for involuntary sins.  The holocaust sacrifice (olah), for evil thoughts.  But the korban todah is different from all others.  This offering is brought to the Temple without the mediation of any transgression; it is pure giving. For this reason, our sages say that in the future, all offerings will be cancelled except the peaceful sacrifice. The nature of this sacrifice is unique and incomparable.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayikra – Shabbat ZachorHanukkah 5779

This Shabbat is the Shabbat prior to Purim, and it has a special name, Shabbat Zachor, or the Shabbat of remembrance (literally, “remember”). This is because we read a special maftir from a second Torah scroll. On this paragraph we read, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). What is the reason for this reading? Why are we to remember this biblical episode in our days?

Amalek’s people attacked Israel in the desert, an act symboling cruelty to the weak. Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, is identified as a descendant of Amalek. Before celebrating during Purim, we must remember that the Children of Israel went to war with the Amalekites. We, the Jewish people, are not to be at ease until all the modern Amalekites are blotted out.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg points out, Zachor (remember) “is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. The natural desire to forget and be happy collides with the ongoing pain of memory and analysis.… Some modern people who are future-oriented stress the need to forgive. They argue that there will be no reconciliation as long as the memories of the cruelties and atrocities of the past are preserved and thrown in the face of those involved. ‘Forget and forgive’ becomes their slogan.”

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Parashat P’kudei 5779

What do you do when something very valuable to you is broken? It could be a piece of crystal, a painting, an instrument or a sculpture. Maybe you try to fix it. If it is not possible, you buy another one, or you just get angry and then, you forget it.

Many years ago, something very valuable to the people of Israel was broken, the Tablets of the Law. During this important moment, when the people of Israel had the privilege of witnessing the divine revelation, when they were about to receive the Ten commandments written and carved by God, everything was spoiled.

Everything about that magical and special moment crumbled. The people lost their perspective and were not aware of what they were going to witness. Maybe they were not prepared for that sacred event.

On the other hand, perhaps Moses was too rash to break such a special and unique treasure. Both the leader and the people were participants in an act that would impact future generations.

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