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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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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayakhel – Shabbat Shekalim 5779

This Shabbat is a special one because, apart from reading the regular weekly reading (Parashat Vayakhel), we also read from a second Torah scroll. This additional reading, which appears in Exodus 30:11-16, gives its name to this Shabbat. It is called Shabbat Shekalim. The Hebrew word shekalim is the plural of shekel, a commonly used coin during Biblical times. It is worth mentioning that in Israel today the legal currency is called Shekel Chadash, “new shekel,” although it is usually known as shekel.

Why do we have a “shabbat of the shekel?” The reading we add during this shabbat describes a census of the Children of Israel which was commanded to be taken while the Children of Israel were in the desert. For reasons I am not going to explain here, in Biblical times people thought that the taking of a census put the lives of those who were counted in danger. Therefore, giving money for being counted was a way to pay a ransom for your life. Instead of counting people, the census-takers counted the money that people contributed, which indirectly served as a counting of the people. The money collected, half a shekel per person, was used for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.

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Parashat Ki Tisa 5779

This week’s parashah includes a very famous story: it is the making of the golden calf by the people of Israel. Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law and deliver them to the people.  Because Moses had not returned, the people asked Aaron to build them an idol that would guide them.  Moses, full of wrath at seeing that the people had removed themselves from God’s path, broke the tablets of the law.

This episode was, and is, extremely controversial.  Why did Moses do such a thing?  The people were wrong, but to break the tablets sculpted and written by God?  Was that necessary?  There are those who defend Moses, and there are those who condemn him.

Almost at the end of the parashah, we are told that God said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered” (Sh’mot 34:1).

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Tetzave 5779

This week we read Parashat Tetzave. It begins with God ordering Moses to light and take care of the Menorah, the seven-armed candelabrum that was located in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. God says,

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually (Exodus 27:20).

The sages noticed that the beginning of this verse could have been written as, “command the Children of Israel,” without having to specify that “you shall command the Children of Israel.” This “you” address seems to be superfluous; it is clear that the person who is being addressed with these words (Moses) is the one who has to command the Children of Israel about the lighting of the Menorah. Why, then, insist on explicitly addressing the verse to this person?

The rabbis learned a beautiful lesson from the redundancy of the word “you” in our verse. The lesson is that if you are required to command others, you first need to evaluate and correct yourself; first command “you,” then you can command others!

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Parashat T’rumah 5779

This week’s parashah, parashat T’rumah, deals with the instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and for the making of all the sacred elements and furniture necessary for the rituals performed in the Mishkan.

One piece of the sacred furniture was the Menorah (a lampstand with seven branches), which is one of the most ancient Jewish symbols.

There is an interesting situation with the Menorah and Moses that I would like to focus on in these Torah Thoughts.

It is written in Midrash Tanhuma:  Three things Moses found difficult and the Holy One, blessed be He, showed them to him with a finger and these are them: The making of the menorah, the moon, and creeping things.

In the making of the menorah, how [was it]? When Moses ascended [Sinai], the Holy One, blessed be He, was showing him on the mountain how he would make the tabernacle. When He showed him the making of the menorah, Moses found it difficult. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “See, I am making it before you.” What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He showed him white fire, red fire, black fire, and green fire. Then from them He made the menorah, its bowls, its knobs, its blossoms, and the six branches. Then He said to him (Numb. 8:4), “This is the making of the menorah.” This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed him with a finger. But nevertheless, [Moses] found it difficult. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He engraved it on the palm of Moses’ hand. He said to him, “Go down and make it just as I have engraved it on your hand.” Thus it is stated (Exod. 25:40), “Observe and make them [by means of] their pattern.” Even so, he found it difficult and said (Exod. 25:31), “with difficulty will the menorah be made,” meaning to say, how difficult it was to make. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Cast the gold into the fire, and it will be made automatically.” So it is stated, “with difficulty will the menorah be made.” This teaches that Moses had difficulty with the menorah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, showed it to him with a finger, as stated (Numb. 8:4). (Midrash Tanhuma Shemini, Siman 11)

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Mishpatim 5779

Parashat Mishpatim interrupts the story of the Exodus from Egypt to introduce a long list of laws. The laws that come first deal with civil and criminal matters, considered by the sages as mitzvot sichliot, or common-sense/intellectual laws. They are called that because, according to the sages, these kinds of Torah laws could have been derived by intellectual and logical thinking, even if the Torah had not included them.   

The first verse of the parasha introduces these laws. It says, “And these are the rules that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). This verse could have started by saying “These are the rules,” but instead it begins by saying “And these are the rules.” Rashi reminds us that every time the Torah says “And these” it means that the following should be considered an addition to what was said before. Right before our verse we find the Ten Commandments, so Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that, just as the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, so the laws of Parashat Mishpatim were also given at Sinai.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (Poland, 1799- 1866), the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty), asked the following question, it is a known fact that all the Torah laws were given at Sinai, so why then did the Midrash sages feel the need to explain that the laws of Parashat Mishpatim also were given at Sinai? The answer is that, although these laws are common-sense/intellectual laws and hence could have been derived by intellectual and logical work, their strength and power lies in the fact that they were given by God at Mount Sinai.

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Parashat Yitro 5779

This week’s parashah, Yitro, begins by telling us that Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, heard about all that God had done for Moses and his people—how God had freed them form Egypt and brought them to the desert. And then, it is written that Jethro brought Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and Moses’ two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to Moses in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God (Sh’mot 18:1-5).

These lines show us that Moses’ wife and children were not living with him, but with Jethro. Why did they live with Jethro and why is Jethro now bringing them to Moses?

Last time that the Torah had told us about Moses’ family was when Moses was in Midian and God asked him to return to Egypt. There it is written: “So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt” (Sh’mot 4: 20). So, Moses’ family went with him to Egypt. When did they return to Midian and why did they do so?

There is a Midrash that imagines that after Moses received the divine call to redeem Israel from slavery, he went to Egypt with his family. When he met Aaron on the way, Moses introduced his wife and sons. Aaron answered, “We are worrying about those already there and now you bring upon us these new comers!” At that moment, Moses asked Zipporah to return to her father’s house (M’chilta, Amalek 3).

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Beshalach 5779

This week we read Parashat Beshalach, which describes de moment when the Children of Israel left Egypt. After that moment the Torah says,

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt (Exodus 13:17).

This verse was understood in different ways. Many understood this verse as saying that God did not want the people of Israel to meet with the Philistines too fast. God feared the people of Israel would be frightened by the possibility of war against the Philistines, and thus they might want to return to Egypt.

In addition to this explanation, others understood this verse as saying that God did not want to make it too easy for the Israelites by leading them on the shortest way. Therefore, God chose a longer way for the Israelites.

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Parashat Bo 5779: On Generalizing Social Groups

In parashat Bo, we learn of the last plagues that God cast on the Egyptians in order to attain the liberation of the Hebrew people.  It was especially the final plague, death of the first-born, that convinced Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to leave the land of Egypt.

At the most anticipated time, the Torah tells us that the people, following Moses’ orders, “borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold. The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.” (Sh’mot 12:35-36).

I would like to stop and analyze this verse which has raised several questions as to its meaning.  These people were slaves for hundreds of years; they suffered, they were abused, and now, when they are able to leave that hellish life, they dare to ask their masters for silver and gold!  It does not sound like the request of a slave.  However, we can argue that it was Moses, supported by God, who led them to make this request.  Moses, a free-thinking man, knew that a people without resources would be doomed to failure.  Freedom would be of no use without the means to survive and live well.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vaera 5779

This week we read Parashat Vaera. We are told about the first seven plagues that hit Egypt. As you know, the story of the ten plagues presents certain ethical challenges that are important to address. One of the criticisms that you may hear about the biblical ten plagues’ story is that they sound like God is taking revenge over the Egyptians. I would like to explain why this is not correct and also take the advantage of this opportunity to describe a very important Jewish ethical principle.
If you read the Torah text about the plagues, you will notice that there is no reference to any revenge. The goals of bringing the plagues were to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians that the Hebrew people had to be liberated, and eventually to punish Pharaoh for his crimes against the Hebrew people. The main goal is to free the people of Israel. And that main goal had to be achieved in a way that the Egyptians would understand that the liberation of the Hebrew people was not Pharaoh’s decree, but the willing of God. As it is written in the Torah,
“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst” (Exodus 7:5).

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Parashat Shemot 5779-“Honoring our beloved ones through their names”

This week we are starting to read the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot. Parashat Shemot starts with these words: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household” (Shemot 1:1). After this, the Torah lists the names of the sons of Jacob.
Many commentators wonder why the book of Shemot starts listing these names considering that the same names were mentioned in the book of Bereshit in chapter 46: “These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt…” (Bereshit 46:8-27).
What is the purpose of listing their names again?
There is an explanation in a Midrash from Shemot Rabbah:
“R. Huna says in the name of Bar Kaparah, for four things the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt, one was for not changing their names (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, Vayikra Rabba 32).” (Shemot Rabbah 1:28)

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayechi 5779

The parasha for this week begins by telling us that Jacob was old and the time for him to die approached. When he became very ill, his son Joseph immediately went to visit him, taking with him his two sons. Jacob was lying on his bed, weak. At that moment, the Torah tells as,

And [someone] told Jacob and said, “Behold, your son Joseph is coming to you.” And Israel summoned his strength and sat up on the bed (Genesis 48:2)

 The translation in English here reads “And Israel summoned his strength” (Israel is another name for Jacob). However, the original Hebrew uses the word vayitchazek, which literally means “he became stronger.” Therefore, an appropriate way of understanding this verse is that when Jacob heard that his son had come to visit him, he became stronger.

It seems that Joseph’s visit coincided, or even caused, old and ill Jacob to gain some strength. Could this be true? Indeed, this is precisely how our sages explained the text; when Joseph came to visit Jacob, Jacob become stronger! In fact, our sages viewed this incident as an example of a general principle: When we visit a sick person, we help him/her to recover and becoming stronger. This principle is enunciated in the Talmud in the following way,

Rav Aḥa bar Ḥanina said: Anyone who visits an ill person takes from him one-sixtieth of his suffering (Nedarim 39b)

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Parashat Vayigash 5779: Looking for peace in the story of Jacob and his sons 

In this Torah Thoughts I would like to highlight how the concept of Shalom, peace, is one of the themes of the story of Jacob and his sons.

At the beginning of their story it is written in the Torah: “But when his brothers saw that their father (Jacob) loved him (Joseph) more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him,” וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם (Bereshit 47:4).

There was so much hatred in Jacob’s family that the brothers could not speak a friendly word to Joseph. There was no peace in their home. 

Then, Jacob spoke to Joseph: “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are (their shalom) and how the flocks are faring and bring me back word.”  וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ לֶךְ־נָ֨א רְאֵ֜ה אֶת־שְׁל֤וֹם אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ (Bereshit 37: 14).

Jacob asked Joseph to look for his brothers and see the shalom, the peace, amongst the brothers, and then to return home. It is ironic that Jacob sent Joseph to see their shalom and that that episode was the inflection point of the complete loss of peace in their home. Looking for his brothers, Joseph was lost and disappeared for a long time. He was lost on his mission to look for peace. The brothers returned home but Joseph did not. Jacob’s wholeness and peace were shattered for asking for peace.

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