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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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Torah Thoughts: Parashat MIketz – Hanukkah 5779

This week we read Parashat Miketz, which continues the story of Joseph and his brothers. In addition, this Shabbat we will also be celebrating Hanukkah, so I would like to share with you a Hanukkah message in this Torah Thoughts.

How do we light the Hanukkah candles? We first light the Shamash (the “attendant” or “servant” candle). Then we say the proper blessings, and then, with the help of the Shamash, we light the appropriate number of candles for each night. On the first night we light one candle, on the second night we light two candles and so on until the eighth and last night, when we light eight candles. However, this way of lighting the Hanukkah candles was not the only one the sages knew. In fact, the Talmud registers the following discussion regarding how to proceed.

Beit Shammai says:  On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease, and Beit Hillel says: On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b).

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Parashat Vayeshev 5779

Joseph’s life’s ups and downs

This week we are starting to read about Joseph’s life. Starting with this week’s parashah until the end of the Book of Bereshit, we will be reading Joseph’s stories.

It is interesting to note that of the fifty chapters that compose the Book of Genesis, exactly half – twenty-five- are about Jacob and his family. Of those twenty-five, thirteen are devoted to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. The Book of Bereshit devotes more space to Joseph than to anyone else. It means that we have a good understanding of his journeys during his life.  We witness his experiences, mistakes, and changes from the time he was a young man until his death.

Joseph had a life full of ups and downs. Starting with his dreams during his youth, which showed how he wished to be a great person and to be highly acclaimed by his parents and brothers.  His pride and arrogance in his early age caused his brothers to throw him in a pit, a very low place. Joseph’s dreams were of a high position, but his brothers brought him down.

After this episode, Joseph was sold and became the right hand of Potiphar. He went up, but then, he went down again this time to jail, accused by Potiphar’s wife for abusing her.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayishlach 5779

This week we read the story of the brothers Jacob and Esau’s reunion. Jacob decides it is time to go back to his home, twenty years after escaping from it because of his brother’s intention to kill him. Jacob is very afraid of what Esau’ might   do when he sees him. He carefully prepares his people for the worst after he is told that Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men.

When the brothers finally meet, Jacob bows low before Esau seven times, almost as if he were asking his brother to have pity on him. What does Esau do? The Torah tells us that, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

Up Until this point in the Torah narrative, Esau was described as a strong, unsophisticated and rude man, always fighting with his brother and only interested in physical pleasures. Therefore, it is not surprising that the sages were puzzled by Esau’s reaction when he met Jacob. Was Esau really capable of pardoning his brother? Could he really be so moved by seeing his brother that he even cried on Jacob’s neck? Should we believe that Esau’s reaction was an honest one?

In addition, the Hebrew word for “he kissed him” that appears in the Torah Scroll (Masoretic) text has dots over its letters. This is usually interpreted as a sign that the Torah has a hidden message in these words. Maybe the Torah is trying to tell us that Esau had other intentions, ones that were not so pure?

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Parashat Vayetze 5779- “Two are better off than one”

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 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.

The parashah tells us that Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, as he had promised, and the text adds a very interesting quote: “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Idem, 20).

Jacob loved Rachel so much that he didn’t realize how hard he had worked and the time passed quickly. Despite the fact that Laban cheated him, giving Jacob Leah instead of Rachel, Jacob decided to work another seven years to marry his beloved Rachel. His love for Rachel made Jacob’s life happy and meaningful.

Thinking about the love between Rachel and Jacob, it is interesting to note that in Judaism, in contrast to other traditions, ascetism and celibacy are not cherished values.

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Parashat Toldot 5779

“Esau and Jacob divided by two different visions of the world”

This week’s parashah begins by telling us that Rebecca couldn’t bear a child; Isaac prayed to God and finally Rebecca became pregnant with twins. It is written that during her pregnancy Rebecca felt that the twins were struggling in her womb. She was concerned about this.

What does it mean that “the children struggled in her womb” (Bereshit 25:22)?

According to Rashi, the Rabbis explain that the word ויתרוצצו (struggled) has the meaning of running, moving quickly: whenever she passed by the doors of the Torah (i. e. the Schools of Shem and Eber) Jacob moved convulsively in his efforts to come to birth, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to come to birth (Genesis Rabbah 63:6).

According to this Midrash quoted by Rashi, the infants had different visions of the world since they were in their mother’s womb. Jacob wanted to exit the womb to study Torah when Rebecca passed the school of Shem and Eber and Esau wanted to exit when she passed a pagan place of worship.

Jacob and Esau struggled with one another since they were conceived for their different visions of the world.

And then, as they grew, the Torah tells us of further differences: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob” (Bereshit 25: 27-28)

When Jacob and Esau grew up, they chose different styles of life according to theirs beliefs and each one of the parents favored one of them: Rebecca favored Jacob and Isaac favored Esau.  The parents recognized, encouraged, and exacerbated the boys’ differences.

After this, the Torah tells us the famous story about the sale of the birthright:

“Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished’—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ And Esau said, ‘I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.” (Bereshit 25: 29-33)

In this episode we can see the different visions of the world that Esau and Jacob hold.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Chayei Sarah 5779: Show Up for Shabbat

At the beginning of Parashat Chayei Sarah we are told about Sarah’s death. Abraham then purchases the cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife Sarah. Right after that the Torah tells us that Abraham was old and God had blessed him in all things. Perhaps confronting his own loneliness and mortality (as the Chumash Etz Hayim suggests), the first thing Abraham does after burying his wife Sarah is try to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his servant to the place he was born to find a wife for Isaac, since Abraham did not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman.
Why does the Torah tell us that the first thing Abraham did after burying his wife was to worry about finding a wife for his only son? As it has been said, perhaps the death of his beloved wife made him think that he himself might die soon. He felt he was responsible for his son and wanted to fulfill his responsibility as soon as he could. Even more important than that, the divine promise of making of Abraham a great nation was in danger should Isaac not form a family and have descendants.

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Parashat Va-Yera 5779: Is it permitted to tell white lies in Judaism?

We know that truth is a very important value in Judaism and that we shouldn’t lie under any circumstances. But, what about white lies? Is it permitted to tell a white lie, a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person?
In this week’s parashah there is an interesting situation related to this theme. The Torah tells us that three men visited Abraham and Sarah announcing different upcoming news to each of them.
One of the men said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (Bereshit 18: 10-12)

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Lech Lecha 5779: The Blessings Abraham Received

Torah Thoughts: Parashat Lech Lecha 5779

By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky 

The Blessings Abraham Received

This week we begin to read the stories about our patriarch Abraham. God tested Abraham many times but also blessed him many times throughout his life. God also promised Abraham he and his descendants would be blessed in different ways.

For example, in this week’s parasha God tells Abraham,

And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted (Genesis 13:16).

It is clear that in this verse God is promising Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. As Rashi explained in his commentary to this verse, “Just as it is impossible for the dust to be counted, so will your seed not be counted.”

Although this was an incredibly generous promise, especially for a man like Abraham who had no children at that moment, many commentators were surprised by the comparison of the people Israel with the dust of the earth. After all, everybody walks on the dust! Some midrashim try to explain that this is a realistic promise; meaning that although some nations will step on the people Israel, the Jewish people will survive and be numerous and prosperous and their enemies will disappear from the face of the earth.

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Parashat Noach 5779: Noah and Abraham and their different reactions to a similar decree from God

This week’s parashat, which deals with the well known story of Noah, begins by saying:
“This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. “ (Bereshit 6:9)
What does it mean that Noah was righteous “in his generation”? Why does the text include these words? You can understand the text without it. What does the text want to express?
There is a Midrash that deals with this question:
“What is the meaning of IN HIS GENERATION? Some interpret the phrase to his praise, and some interpret it to his shame, i.e., IN HIS GENERATIONS but not in other generations.
A parable: To what is the matter comparable? If one should put a silver coin among [a hundred] coins of copper, the one of silver would seem beautiful. Thus, did Noah seem righteous in the generation of the flood.
Then, how do some interpret it to his praise? The situation is like a jar of balsam which was put in a tomb where its aroma was good. If it had been in a house, how much better would its aroma have been!” (Midrash Tanhuma Buber Parashat Noach 5).

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Bereshit 5779: Bereshit, Light and Renewal

 Bereshit, Light and Renewal

This week we begin again the annual reading of the Torah with Parashat Bereshit. This parasha begins with the creation of the world. The first thing created by God is light. As it is written,

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3)

Without light we would not be able to see and survive. That is why we thank God every day, during the morning prayers, for having created light. The first blessing before the reading of the three paragraphs of Shema Israel says,

Praised are you Adonai our God, who rules the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation (see for example the Siddur Sim Shalom we use every Shabbat, on page 107)

The famous Chassidic rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Ukraine, 1740–1809) noticed that the blessing is written in the present tense. It says that God creates the light, not that He created it. Why is that? According to Rabbi Levi, this reminds us that the creation processes are constant. They did not cease even for a moment since the creation of the world. That is why we say in the weekday morning blessing before Shema Israel, “in Your goodness, day after day You renew creation.”

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