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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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Torah Thoughts: Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot 5779

A Fragile Sukkah, a Fragile Life

This week we are celebrating the festival of Sukkot. The main symbol of this festival is of course the Sukkah, the booth in which we live, or at least have our meals, for seven days.

If you build a sukkah every year, or if you ever built a sukkah in the past, you know very well that sometimes it is hard to keep your sukkah in good condition for seven days. Rain, wind and other climatic factors make it difficult to have the sukkah at the end of Sukkot looking the same way it did before Sukkot began.

The question is, should we feel bad because we cannot fully guarantee our sukkah will hold up during the festival? My answer is, not only should we not feel badly about it but, in fact, one of the most important lessons we learn during Sukkot is that nothing in this world is as strong and durable as it seems to be.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Haazinu 5779- Nature is a Witness of God

This week we read Parashat Haazinu. Although it is not the last parasha of the Torah, it is the last one we read during a Shabbat, because the Torah’s very last one, Vezot Habracha, is only read during the festival of Simchat Torah.

Most of Haazinu is a poem that Moses said before he died. The poem opens with the following words, “Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth!” (Deuteronomy 32:1).

Why did Moses choose the heavens and the earth as the witnesses for his words? According to Rashi, who follows the Midrash Sifrei, Moses was afraid of picking human witnesses. He thought, “I am made of blood and flesh, tomorrow I can die. If the people Israel comes tomorrow and says – We have never accepted the covenant” – who will be able to oppose them? Therefore, Moses had the heavens and the earth as witnesses, because they are eternal witnesses.

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Parashat Vayelech – Shabbat Shuvah 5779

“Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of returning to our soul”

This coming Shabbat, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is called Shabbat Shuvah, which means Shabbat of return. This Shabbat is part of the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, and Aseret Yemei Teshuva, ten days of repentance.

The name ‘Shuvah’ is a reference to the opening words of this week’s Haftarah, “Shuva Israel — Return Oh Israel to the Lord your God”. This haftorah is always read during the Ten Days of Repentance, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Ashkenazi Jews read Hosea 14:2-10 and Joel 2:15-27, while Sephardic Jews read Hosea 14:2-10 and Micah 7:18-20. The selection from Hosea focuses on a universal call for repentance and an assurance that those who return to God will benefit from divine healing and restoration. The selection from Joel describes how a blow of the shofar will unite the people in fasting and supplication. Hosea focuses on divine forgiveness and how great it is in comparison to the forgiveness of man.

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Nitzavim 5778: Two Cycles Integrated

Parashat Nitzavim is read every year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. There are different explanations about why we do so.

First of all, there are some verses in our parasha about repentance/return (Teshuva), one of the main topics of the High Holidays. For example, “And you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day, you and your children. Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you” (Deuteronomy 30:2-3).

Second, Parashat Nitzavim begins with an allusion to the eve of the Day of Judgment. It says, “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel” (Deuteronomy 29:9). As you may know, Rosh Hashana is also known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, because God judge every living creature on this day.

Third, the numerical value of the Hebrew words “You are all standing this day” is 694. It is the same value as the phrase laamod lislichot, or “To stand for Slichot.” Slichot are the penitential prayers on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana (or the previous one, if Rosh Hashana falls too close to Shabbat).

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Parashat Ki Tavo 5778

Stones as obstacles or as facilitators of light, birth, life, dreams and remembrance

In this week’s parasha, parahat Ki Tavo, Moses and the elders, upon entering the land of Israel, ordered the people of Israel to erect large stones and write on them all the words of the Torah.

It is written in our parashah:

“As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this teaching”. (D’varim 27:1-3). 

Thinking about stones, we may find special significance attached to stones in the Torah and in other classical Jewish texts.  Stones are used in multiple ways and are used as symbols. 

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Ki Tetze 5778: Believe in Yourself and Take the Initiative!

Parashat Ki Tetze begins with some laws regarding war. The first verse of the parasha says, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands…” (Deuteronomy 21:10).

This first part of the verse demands an explanation. From the verse it would seem to be understood that whenever Israel goes out in battle, God automatically delivers Israel’s enemies into their hands. Of course, that is not a fact, since we know from the Hebrew Bible itself that several times Israel was in trouble in different battles and wars.  Why does the Torah speak this way then?

The best answer to this question is that this is a well-known literary way for the Torah to state a conditional. We should read the verse as saying, “if you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, delivers them into your hands, then…”. This is most probably the literal meaning of the verse.

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Parashat Shoftim 5778- “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates…” (Devarim 16:18)

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, begins by saying: “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates…” (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…”  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.

This message coincides with the message of the current season. The month of Elul, the last one of the Jewish year, began last Saturday and Sunday, and we are headed toward the Yamim Noraim, days of Awe.  In the month of Elul, it is customary to blow the shofar in the morning to begin to get into the mood of reflection and meditation   In Elul we must be our own judges so that on Rosh Hashanah God will judge us, after our introspection.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Devarim 5778- Tisha B’Av

Parashat Devarim is always read during the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av. Why is this? Because in this parasha Moses reminds us of the story of the ten spies, who caused a terrible crisis among the Children of Israel after delivering a misleading report about the land of Canaan. As a result of the events that happened after this, God decreed that the generation that had left Egypt would die in the desert. According to the sages, that decree was given on the night of Tish B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av.

However, what is Tisha B’Av and what do we commemorate on this day? Tisha B’Av is a fast day, the only day in the Hebrew calendar (apart from Yom Kippur) in which we fast for a whole day. It is a day of mourning to commemorate many tragedies that happened to the Jewish people. Many of these tragedies occurred on the ninth of Av itself or very close to it. This year, Tisha B’Av falls this coming Saturday, July 22nd, but because of the Shabbat celebration, it is commemorated the following day, on Sunday.

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Parashat Matot – Masei 5778: “Do not separate yourself from the community” Pirkei Avot (2:5)

This week we read two parashot, Matot and Masei, the last parashot of the book of B’midvar. At the end of the first parashah, it is written that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and part of the tribe of Menashe preferred not to cross the Jordan because they wanted to stay in the lands of Jazer and Gilead. Why? Because these lands were good for cattle and they had great numbers of cattle.

It is written in the Torah: “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (B’midvar 32: 1-5)

In other words, they didn’t want to enter the promised land with all the people of Israel because they were concerned about their cattle, about their property or acquisition.

We can find here a tension between two values—being part of a people and being concerned about wealth. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe placed their possessions over their connection to the people of Israel.

Of course, wealth and possessions are relevant, and our tradition recognizes their importance in our lives. However, the problem is when the possessions become a goal rather than a means to a goal.

There is a Midrash that states: “Three gifts were created in the world, and these are wisdom, strength and wealth. One who merits any of them possesses all that is precious in this world. If one is privileged to possess wisdom, he has attained everything. If one is privileged to possess strength, he has attained everything. If one is privileged to possess wealth, he has attained everything. When does it apply? When they are gifts of Heaven and come through the force of the Torah.” (Midrash Rabbah B’midbar 22:7)

The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe possessed great numbers of cattle and their only concern was to make their herds grow and be wealthier, rather than committing themselves to the continuity and welfare of the people of Israel. All the tribes were about to enter the land of Israel and live there together as a people, with their values and communal mission, but these tribes preferred to be apart from the rest in order to take care of their possessions.

There is another Midrash that comments regarding these tribes’ attitude:

“You find that the children of Reuben and Gad were rich, possessing large number of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the land of Israel. Consequently, they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile .… What brought it on them? The fact that they separated themselves from their brethren because of their possessions.” (Midrash Rabbah B’midbar 22:8)

According to this Midrash, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe were the first to go into exile because they decided to separate themselves. The possessions were more precious to them than was being part of their people.

It is written in Pirkei Avot (2:5): “Al tifrosh min hatzibur”: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

There are many possessions that we may love to acquire and many goals we would like to achieve during our lives. Many people place their possessions, their successes, or other kinds of motivations above their tradition or community. When one separates oneself from the community, one may be very wealthy and successful, but one loses a main pillar of our tradition, the community, the heart of our identity, our joy and continuity.

Thanks to the existence of synagogues around the world, the Jewish people is alive and we live out traditions and the lessons of the Torah with happiness and pride. One of the keys of our existence is to belong, to be part of a congregation where you can find meaningful values that are part of our tradition—values like friendship, solidarity, union, happiness, support, love, compassion, spirituality, justice, and equality.

It is very difficult to maintain the Jewish tradition in an island, separating yourself from the congregation. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe tried to do that but they failed.

We learn from this lesson not to follow the attitude of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe, who placed their possessions above their people, values and tradition.

Remember the statement of Pirkei Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” and try to be committed to your congregation with all your heart, mind, and hands.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Pinchas 5778- Never Rush to Reward Extremism

Parashat Pinchas begins with God recognizing Pinchas’ actions by offering him a pact of peace or friendship. Pinchas was the grandson of Aaron.  The Torah says,

Phinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal (Numbers 25:11)

If you read this parasha without knowing what had happened right before, you will not be able to understand what Pinchas did and why he was rewarded. You could only understand that Pinchas acted with zeal and that he turned God’s anger away from the Children of Israel. However, what did happen?

The missing story is of course at the end of the previous parasha, Balak. There we are told that the Children of Israel (or at least some of them) were participating in an idolatry cult in honor of the Moabite god of Baal-peor. They had also participated in sexual immorality. God became angry with the Israelites and, as a consequence, a deadly plague attacked them. When the situation seemed to be going out of control, Pinchas took a spear and killed a Moabite woman and an Israelite man who were publicly and immorally profaning God’s name. Pinchas’ action seemed to put an end to the situation and the plague.

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Parashat Balak 5778- Shrek’s Donkey, Harry Potter, and the Power of Humor

Have you seen the Shrek movies? Did you enjoy watching the talking donkey, Shrek’s best friend?

Have you read or seen the Harry Potter series? Do you like the mysteries of the wizard world?

If you enjoyed the personality of the talking donkey and the world of the wizards, you may find this week’s parashah very interesting.

Why? Because in one of the chapters of Parashat Balak there is a wizard and a talking donkey. Hundreds of centuries before the Shrek movies and the Harry Potter series were produced, we have in our Torah both worlds in one story.

The Torah tells us that King Balak wanted to put a curse on the Israelites, and he hired the great wizard of that time, Balaam, to accomplish his goal. Balaam headed off on his donkey, but an angel of God, with his sword drawn, was blocking the path.

The donkey saw the angel of God stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so, the donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. Balaam beat the donkey to get it back onto the road. The angel of God stood in a path of the vineyard, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side. The donkey saw the angel of God, and she was pressed against the wall. She pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall, and he beat her again. The angel of God continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. The donkey saw the angel of God, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam’s anger flared, and he beat the donkey with a stick.

God opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam said to the donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?”

Balaam said, “No!”

Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.

(B’midvar 22:22-31).

In this story we have three characters: the wizard, the talking donkey, and God’s angel. And the donkey, an animal, could see what the most powerful wizard in the world couldn’t see!

The talking donkey of Shrek 2 says, “You know, in some cultures, donkeys are revered as the smartest of animals, especially us talking ones” (“Donkey” in Shrek 2, DreamWorks, 2004). Is the donkey referring to the Torah? Maybe it is a coincidence, but we can affirm that the donkey of the Torah is very smart!

This is a very different story compared to other stories from the Torah. We may affirm that it is the only humorous story or comedic passage in the five books of Moses and that it is the precedent of the cartoons and other humor-ironic stories.

Try to imagine this story like a cartoon or a scene of a movie. Isn’t it in the same vein?

We can say that the Torah is a source of different kinds of narratives that were developed throughout history.

The humor and irony involved in this story leaves us a very deep and powerful message. I believe that when you hear a story with humor, you receive it in a more positive way than when you hear speeches full of warnings and reproaches. A story narrated with humor has a very powerful chance to be heard with joy and an open heart.

Without a doubt, the use of humor can be a very powerful tool for transmitting the wisdom and values of our tradition. Humor is part of our history.

Dr Eileen Warshaw (executive director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Tucson, Arizona), stated: “Humor is such a critical part of our heritage. If we haven’t laughed, we would have gone”.

We can learn from the way that this story was narrated in the Torah that we should communicate with our people with more humor, joy, and happiness than harsh, negative, and difficult words. Having a sense of humor and joyfulness is a great tool to communicate with children as well as with adults. In addition, humor keeps alive our spirit.

So, let’s have in mind the humor of the talking donkey from our Torah and Shrek movies!

Shabbat Shalom!

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Chukat 5778

This week we read parashat Korach. It is interesting to notice that in this parasha Miriam and Aaron die. In addition, Moses is sentenced to die before entering the Land of Israel. As the Chumash Etz Hayim points out, this is certainly an indication that a transition of generations is taking place.

The three siblings, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, had been the great leaders of the People Israel since the time of the exodus from Egypt. They represent the generation of the desert, the generation that was born in Egypt as slaves and left the country to start a new life as a free people. Now the younger generation must take the post and start a new chapter in the life of the people of Israel, in the land of Israel.

As we all know, generational transitions are never easy. Challenges of all kinds appear for the new generation. Will the young leaders be able to follow their parents’ path? Will they be able to honor their inheritance? Will they be able to make it without their teachers? How should they avoid their parent’s mistakes, if there were mistakes made? It is always hard for the new generation to replace the old one. And in the particular case of the Children of Israel in the desert, it was extremely hard to take the place of such strong leaders as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Korach 5778

B”H Parashat Korach 5778 Rabbi Daniela “Salt as a symbol of eternity in Judaism” After Korach and his people rebelled against Moses and Aaron and were punished, God gave some instructions to the Priests and the tribe of Levi regarding the rituals in the Tabernacle.  This is one of them: “All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the LORD I give to you, to your sons, and

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Shlach Lecha 5778

This week we read the well-known story of the twelve spies. Before starting the conquest of the land, the Israelites need to know what kind of country it is, and what kind of people live in it. So Moses sends twelve spies to scout the Land of Canaan, one for each tribe. After travelling the land for forty days, they return and split themselves in two groups. The smallest group, consisting of Caleb and Joshua (from the tribes of Judah and Ephraim respectively), give an encouraging report about the land and its inhabitants. The second group, consisting of the other ten spies, provides a very negative report about the inhabitants of Canaan. They describe them as giants and they affirm that the Children of Israel will not be able to defeat them in war. Upon hearing this discouraging report, the people cry out, publicly expressing that they wish they had died naturally in Egypt instead of having to die at the hands of these giants. Ultimately, God punishes this generation, condemning it to die in the desert and not allowing them to enter the Land of Canaan.

The sages have traditionally understood that the harmful report given by the ten spies was the cause of the popular crisis that ended with God’s famous punishment. Some commentators think the ten spies lied, while others argue that they didn’t necessary lie, but expressed themselves in a way that sought to provoke anger and anxiety in the people.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Behalotcha 5778

B”H Parashat Behalotcha 5778 Rabbi Daniela “Moses was able to transmit his knowledge, passion and experience to the seventy elders without losing his internal fire” One of the themes of this week’s parashah is Moses’ exhaustion at leading the people of Israel in the desert. The people complained and questioned the authority many times. Moses was tired and complained to God: “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and

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Weekly Torah Thoughts – Parashat Naso 5778

B”H Parashat Naso 5778 by Rabbi Daniela From the case of Sotah to Zelophehad’s five daughters: from oppression and humiliation to justice and equality In this week’s parashah, among other themes, appears the ordeal of the Sotah. It deals with the case of a woman who was suspected of betraying her husband. In that case, the husband had to take his wife to the Tabernacle in order that she undergo

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Bemidbar 5778

B”H Tora Thoughts: Parashat Bemidbar 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky   Learning from the Details This week we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. At the beginning, God orders Moses to carry out a census of the Children of Israel, Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every

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