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Shavuot 5783 – Mattan Torah

At Sinai, B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) encamped as one. To the eyes of the nations at the time, this massive throng of people, trekking through the desert, may have appeared to be a behemoth, compared to oxen that tear out the roots of the grass they eat, thus completely destroying a field, without its possibility of growing back; yet, from the vantage point of heaven, the people were a divinely chosen nation, being guided into their destiny, via the many tests and trials in the wilderness.

Thus, from an external perspective, based only upon outward appearances, the two-million-person multitude may have appeared somewhat haphazard in its wandering via a circuitous through the wilderness. Yet, not so, from H’Shem’s perspective, nor from the understanding of Moses, the leader of this people.

The continual march of the Jewish people throughout history as well, has not been haphazard. The prophets foresaw our destiny, and paved the way for our understanding, so that we know that our return to Israel had a lot more to do with divine intention, than from political maneuverings. On Shavuot, we recall the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the same commandments that are in effect today, as our national constitution, so to speak, as a nation.

parasha Bamidbar 5783

“He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; He compassed him about, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.” – Deuteronomy 32:10, JPS 1917 Tanach

“There He surrounded them and encompassed them with the “clouds of Glory”; He surrounded them with the banners on their four sides” (Rashi; sefaria.org). The tribes were encamped around the Sanctuary: three tribes in each direction.  The Levites were in the center; “those who encamped before the Tabernacle to the front, before the Tent of Meeting to the east, were Moses and Aaron and his sons, guardians of the charge of the sanctuary” (Numbers 3:38).

The tasks of the Levites were divided amongst the three Levitic families from Gershon, Kohath, and Merari – the three sons of Levi.  “The Torah gives the camp locations and the assignments of the three Levite families in carrying the Tabernacle and its accessories when the people traveled.  The holiest items were the province of the Kohathites, next came the Gershonites, and the least holy items were carried by the Meratites” (p. 739, Stone Chumash).

Central to the entire formation, was the Ark of the Covenant in the Mishkan.  The Shechinah would rest in between the golden cherubim that were made from a single piece of gold on top of the Ark.  This is the continuation of G-d’s voice at Sinai; the Ark housed the commandments that were given by Him.

The revelation of H’Shem at Mt. Sinai was central to B’nei Yisrael; so, too was the Mishkan.  King Solomon, who built the first Temple – a permanent version of the Mishkan – wrote “fear G-d, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, JPS).  These are words of wisdom that denote the centrality of the commandments to our lives. 

Yehi Ratzon – May it be His Will

d’var for parasha Bechukosai 5783

“If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them.”

 – Leviticus 26:3, JPS 1917 Tanach

Through the revelation at Mt. Sinai (Mattan Torah – the giving of the Instruction), H’Shem revealed His will in the form of the Commandments. Clearly, the Ten Commandments, in and of themselves, are the pivotal commandments meant to guide the moral sphere of our lives. All the other commandments are derived from these. The Aseret Dibrot (Ten Utterances) reflect the principal part of G-d’s Torah – His clear expectations of us.

The observance of the commandments is meant to lead us into a state of kedusha (holiness), so that our very lives may be sanctified through their performance. “The reward for a mizvah (good deed) is another mitzvah” (Pirkei Avos 4:2). In otherwords, more opportunities to do good, will be given to us as we continue to observe the mitzvot. Therefore, we progress over time in sanctification.

Yet, these opportunities may require the use of our discernment, in tandem with the prevailing directives of our conscience. Ultimately, through the negation of our will, which is often contrary to G-d’s will, we may mature according to His guidance in our lives. To serve Him (avodah) becomes the task of the “inner person,” wherein the battle is fought between the yetzer tov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). We need to bend our will to serve His will, thereby aligning ourselves with hashgacha peratis (divine guidance).

“Do His will as though it were your will.”

– Pirkei Avos 2:4, traditional text

parasha Emor 5783 – Time & Place

“It is a Shabbat for H’Shem, in all your dwelling places.”

– Leviticus 23:3

Why does the Torah specify, “In all your dwelling places?” Ibn Ezra comments, “In your country and outside of your country, at home and on the way” (sefaria.org). Sforno writes, that the specification “indicates that the commencement and conclusion of the Sabbath depends on the local times of day and night, not on a central location” (sefaria.org).

Chizkuni notes that “The Sabbath laws apply regardless of whether you are in the Holy Land or in exile” (sefaria.org). Within the framework of this line of reasoning,  the Sabbath, as Abraham Heschel points out, is a time designation, regardless of place.

Therefore, whereas the moadim are mentioned in the previous verse, some significance can be understood, in regard to the Sabbath. Perhaps, it is as if to imply, that on the moadim, when you travel to Jerusalem, to observe the shalosh regalim, three holidays in Jerusalem, these are considered Sabbaths, and must also be observed as Shabbat, outside of Jerusalem, as well, for all who are unable to make the journey to Jerusalem.

This would have relevancy, in particular, to the Jews living outside of Israel, after the dispersions, beginning with the Babylonian exile, as well as the Roman exile. Furthermore, this has primary relevance for us today, as well. For, only in Jerusalem, do the moadim become holidays observed in both time and place, according to Torah.

Even though we observe, for the most part, these holidays in the synagogue today, this was not the original intention, and is only a modern substitute, in lieu of all of the Yehudim being gathered back into Israel. Yet, when Moshiach reigns from Jerusalem, we may all observe the holidays in time and place.

Passover 5783

Passover is a time of renewal, reflection, and commitment to our heritage, inclusive of the values that were instituted at Sinai after the Exodus. Moreover, the commandment to re-enact the narrative of the Exodus culminates in the acknowledgment of our own identification with our collective past. We are called every year in Nissan, the first of the months, to actually relive our ancestor’s enslavement in Egypt, and our subsequent redemption. Primarily, this experience of empathy with our former lowliness as a people occurs at the seder – a meal of symbolic foods, wherein we recall the narrative of the Exodus, by reading from the Hagaddah, a collection of scripture, commentary, and prayer.

This is unlike any other meal of the year; and, that is exactly the point. Why is this night different than any other? Because on the night of Passover we travel back in time, as if we were actually present at those momentous events that led towards the Geulah (Redemption). Moreover, we look forward to the Geulah Shleimah (Complete Redemption), otherwise known as the Final Redemption. The tradition on the last day of Passover is to hold a Moshiach Seudah (Meal of Messiah) that casts our thoughts towards the day when we are fully re-estblished in the land of Israel, after the rebuilding of the Third Temple. The Messiah will reign from Jerusalem, and Israel will become a light to the nations; and, the Torah will go out from Zion to all peoples.

Atonement for Negative Thoughts

weekly Torah reading: parasha Vayikra

– Atonement for Negative Thoughts

“If one’s offering [korban] is an elevation offering [olah].”

– Leviticus 1:3

The Hebrew word korban, meaning “offering,” is derived from the shoresh (root word) קרב, meaning “to draw near.” Thus it is implied that an offering serves “to bring us closer to G-d as well as to elevate us” (R’ Hirsch). The olah (elevation offering) has the potential to raise the spiritual level of the person who brings that offering. R’ Hirsch further comments that the offering’s name reflects its purpose, which is to raise its owner from the status of a sinner and bring him to a state of spiritual elevation.

Additionally, the olah is brought by someone who seeks to repent of sinful thoughts that have not actually been enacted.  The olah offering may serve as an atonement for those negative thoughts, that seem to involuntary present themselves at times in a person’s mind. This would include the imagination; especially, if one permits the imagination to entertain these negative thoughts.

It is interesting to note that the righteous Iyov (Job; see Ezekiel 14:20, Job 1:1), “would rise early in the morning, and offer burnt offerings [olot, from olah]” for his children, because he said to himself, “it may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed G-d in their hearts” (Job 1:5, Tanach). Iyov made olah offerings for his children, on a continual basis, always after the days of their feasting (see Job 1:4-5). How much more so, should we in our own lives ask forgiveness of G-d for the sinful thoughts in our hearts.

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Spiritual Battles

weekly Torah reading: parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783

 “And the opening of the robe was turned inward like the opening of a coat of armor; its opening had a border around it so that it should not be torn.” – Exodus 39:23

The kohein gadol wore eight garments, specially tailored for his role. The seam around the neckline of his robe was to be made with a border, akin to those found in a coat of armor. For the sake of comparison, the kohein gadol, perhaps, in some ways can be regarded as a type of “spiritual warrior.” Thus, his role entailed, serving on behalf of Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), that he seeks atonement for their sins, especially as a nation on Yom Kippur; and, also to reconcile them to the L-RD, through the various offerings made in the courtyard of the sanctuary.

Additionally, the upkeep of the sanctuary where H’Shem dwelt within the midst of the camp of the Israelites. His role, in a sense, included an emphasis on countering the enemy both within and without. That is to say, to seek atonement for the sins of Israel that were committed because of the overpowering enemy within, the yetzer hara (evil inclination). And, to counter the actual enemies of Israel, by seeking advice from H’Shem in times of war.

One year since the war in Ukraine began, we seek the help of G-d, in regard to the plight of our brethren in Ukraine. May the L-RD shine His countenance upon all people in the region, who seek shelter, food, and safety in the midst of chaos. Inasmuch that many believe that we are currently in the achronim yomin (end of days), we look forward to the final redemption, where all of Israel will be saved. “O Israel, that art saved by the L-RD with an everlasting salvation; ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end” (Isaiah 45:17, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Golden Dust

weekly Torah reading: parasha Ki Tisa 5783 – Golden Dust

In regard to the debacle of the golden calf, after grinding the golden molten metal calf into dust, Moses throws the dust particles into the water; additionally, he compels the people to drink this. Why? Later in the accounts given in Torah, we learn the reason. This has to do with the sotah – the unfaithful wife who is put to the test, in regard to her innocence. She is compelled to drink water that has a little bit of earth, plus the erased letters of a written punishment if she is guilty of adultery. These words that make up the judgment include G-d’s name; the name of G-d is also erased along with the rest of the passage. If she is guilty, the written curse will be enacted.

This procedure is akin to the measures that Moses took, after grinding the golden calf into powder. Israel was guilty of adultery, in as certain sense, as well as idolatry, because to turn away for G-d to another god is a form of adultery. Elsewhere throughout kitvei kodesh (holy scripture), Israel is compared to a wayward wife, essentially an adulteress, because Israel turned towards all sorts of other gods. Recompense is made for Israel when they turn back towards H’Shem, thus effectively ending the separation.

This same parallel can be found in our own lives as well, for when we turn away from G-d, whether through neglect of our duties, indifference, or outright sin, a chasm opens up between us and G-d. “Your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your G-d, your sins have made Him turn His face away” (Isaiah 59:2, JPS 1985 Tanach). Although we are not made to drink bitter water, the result of our negligence has the effect of bringing bitterness into our lives, until we reconcile ourselves to G-d. May the bitter waters of our lives be sweetened from Above.

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Dual Realities

weekly Torah reading: parasha Mishpatim 5783

“And these are the judgments that you shall set before them.” – Exodus 21:1

v’eilah mishpatim – and these are the judgments”

The parasha begins, “and these are the judgments.” In Hebrew, the letter vov, meaning “and,” bears significance here. For the implication can be drawn, that there is a connection being emphasized, between this parasha and the previous one. Immediately following the revelation at Sinai, whereof H’Shem “descended,” amidst the thunder and lightning, in an impressive display of His greatness, the Torah begins to list the mishpatim, a set of commandments that seem pale, mundane, and this-worldly in comparison to the other-worldy nature of the Revelation at Sinai.

A simple question may be asked, in and of itself, what does this juxtaposition of opposites portray in its contrast of a heightened experience at Sinai, to the relatively dry giving forth of commandments having to do with everyday life?

All areas of life are intertwined, as characterized within the framework of Torah. G-d’s divine plan for mankind has as much to do with His appearance on Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightning, as the everyday guidelines given to us in order to regulate our conduct here on earth. Although many would conceive of religion, as somehow separate from the mundane affairs of life, this cannot be the case in regard to Judaism.

Additionally, in regard to what is considered as the spiritual realm, wherein, through prayer or hisbodedus (meditation), we may reach great heights of sublime experience that seem “out of the ordinary,” while connecting to H’Shem, these experiences must not take precedent over our attempts to live a righteous life, in all manner of details, according to the mitzvot.

Yet, perhaps, it is all too common to focus on the spiritual component, to the exclusion of leading a life based upon G-d’s commandments. Thus, a compartmentalization of spiritual experiences may occur, while conducting oneself in a manner akin to secular standards (G-d forbid).

Instead, the sublime ways that we connect to G-d should sharpen our acuity to bring down this awareness into every aspect of our lives, encompassing all areas that might otherwise be overlooked, disregarded, or not held up to the light of reason, within the perspective given to us by all of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture). Leave no stone unturned, in examining ourselves, and bringing our thoughts, speech, and action under the reign of G-d’s sovereignty over our lives.

Closeness to G-d

parasha Yisro 5783 – Closeness with G-d

If the kohanim were required to prepare themselves to draw closer to G-d on Har Sinai (see Exodus 19:22), then how much moreso, do we need to prepare ourselves, in order to draw close to G-d in our lives, especially before prayer, whether at home or at the synagogue?  Additionally, consider, that when the Ten Commandments were given, according to commentary, the entire world was enveloped in a silence that permeated the very rocks – all of creation was in awe. This should inspire our own sense of yiras H’Shem, so that we can develop the proper attitude of solemnity toward G-d and His word. “The beginning of wisdom is fear [awe, reverence, and respect] of the L-RD” (Psalms 11:10).