Ki Tetzei 5769

by Bekah Hakimian

In this week’s parsha, Moshe continues the repetition of the laws by which Israel must live. These laws deal with a variety of topics, but most are concerned with moral values. A brief summary of the moral laws follows.

The following deal with Marital and family relationships: Women who are taken captive by the Israelites due to war must be treated humanely; men with two wives musty treat all their wives’ children equally; defiant sons are to be disciplined by their parents. The community intercedes if the parents are not successful. Also, if an individual is put to death for a capital offense, his corpse must still be treated with respect. The parsha goes to say all men and women must wear clothing appropriate to their gender. To conclude the moral laws, the Israelites are commanded to wear tzitzit on the four corners of their clothing.

The next set of laws deals with civil and criminal matters. Adulterers shall be put to death. A man may not marry his father’s former wife. Workers shall be paid on a daily basis. Finally, the Israelites must be honest in business dealings; all weights and measures are to be reliable. Ki Teitzei ends with the admonition, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” This idea is so deeply rooted in Jewish tradition that many important enemies of the Jewish people came to be identified as “Amalekites.” The most famous of these is Haman.

In the introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states that the total number of precepts in the Torah is 613. Two hundred forty-eight of them are positive and equal to the number of bones in the human body. The remaining 365 commandments are negative and equal to the number of days in a solar year. Maimonides traces this information to a Rabbi Simlai, a Palestinian teacher of the Rabbinic period. According to Maimonides, Ki Teitzei contains some 72 of these positive and negative mitzvoth. The first laws which this portion addresses deal with the taking of hostages as a result of war. Ki Teitzei means, “when you go out” (to battle).

Many of the mitzvot presented in this portion were meant to help establish a strong foundation for family life. In this next few weeks in particular, take the time to spend time with your families and loved ones and try to make personal goals of self-improvement before the High Holidays. These are the times to make your “New Years” resolutions and become better individuals, Jews, sons, daughters, etc. Shabbat Shalom!

Shoftim 5769

by Judah Kerbel

August 22, 2009/2 Elul 5769

“Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?
Chaim Yankel stole the cookie from the cookie jar!
‘Who me?’
Yes you!
‘Couldn’t be!’
Then who??”

Remember that “cookie jar” game/rhyme? In this game, people sitting in a circle accuse someone of stealing the cookies from the cookie jar. Ultimately, though, none of the accused are the culprits, and the culprit remains unidentified. (Of course it’s all hypothetical anyway).

I began with that rhyme because it was my first association with the subject of the end of our parasha. This section discusses the protocol for when life (not quite as petty as cookies) is stolen and the evidence of murder is present, but a murderer is unknown. Elders and magistrates throughout the region measure the distance from the corpse to the nearby towns, and the elders of the nearest town, in a curious ceremony likened in nature to that of Azazel, bring a heifer (though the Hebrew word is different from the description of the “red heifer” in Hukkat), break its neck and wash their hands over it.

“And they should answer and say ‘our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see. Atone your nation Israel that you redeemed, and do not let innocent blood go unaccounted for among your nation Israel’.” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).

In the just society that the Torah tries to create, it is a serious thing for a murder to go unaccounted, and the entire Israelite community must bear responsibility for the crime. Of course, the community has no wishes to condone murder and will do all it can to disassociate itself from capital crime, hence the elders declare the oath above. This is essentially how the Talmud interprets the oath; the Midrash digs deeper under the surface, understanding that the oath to mean that a community swears that nobody is so poor and helpless that they are motivated to commit crime (see Etz Hayim, p. 1105).

We are now entering Elul, the last month on the Jewish calendar, the beginning of the season of repentance. It is during this period that we ask God and our peers for forgiveness and to absolve us of the things we didn’t do exactly right this year. Additionally, in the Yom Kippur confessionals, we confess in the 1st person plural – for the sin which we committed – as we bear communal responsibility for the sins of our entire Jewish community, as evident in the statute I just discussed. As we do our Elul t’shuva, let’s work towards not only personal repentance, but towards global repentance, towards a repaired world in which we have no need for such rites.

Shoftim 5770

by Allan Horn

Moshe was eating in a Chinese restaurant and was chatting to his Chinese waiter. He commented upon what a wise people the Chinese were.

“Yes,” replied the waiter, “we’re wise because our culture is 4,000 years old. But Jewish people are also very wise, are they not?”

Moshe replied, “Yes, we are. Our culture is 5,000 years old.”

The waiter was surprised to hear this. “That can’t be true,” he replied. “Where did your people eat for a thousand years?”

We can choose a lot of things, from what we eat to who we hang out with, but it’s a lot more difficult to control how we feel. If you buy me a Porsche I’ll be happy, if you punch me I will be aggravated, and if you point a gun in my face I will run away screaming like a little girl. So then how is it that Hashem can tell us to control our emotions? In Parashat Shoftim, 20:1, Hashem says, “When you go out to the battle against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot – a people more numerous than you – you shall not fear them, for Hashem, your God, is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” So what can we gather from God’s command?

Several verses later, the officers are instructed to request that any man who is “fearful and fainthearted leave, lest he melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart. I have never been to war, but I was afraid of walking into my class to take a test, so how should I not be afraid of war? Rabbi Akiva says that we should take this literally, to the extent that he can’t “look upon a drawn sword.” Rabbi Hagalili thinks differently, and argues that it is for someone who is afraid of fighting because of his sins. Regardless of exactly how “unafraid” we should be in battle, it is understood that the essential message is referring to our trust in Hashem. No matter how frightened we may be, or how high our emotions may run, it is the confidence that God will assist that has allowed for so many miracles in our history.

Ekev 5762

by Hadar Schwartz

Parashat Ekev is filled with laws from God and the consequences for not observing those laws. In the middle of these laws, God speaks of Eretz Israel. God tells B’nai Yisrael that they must thank God for all of the food that God has given them (Birkat Hamazon). After all, God is the one who took B’ani Yisrael into Eretz Israel, “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” (Devarim 8:8)

As I read this famous biblical verse, my mind wandered to Eretz Israel and to the pilgrimage trips that have left for Israel, to walk in this, our biblical and contemporary homeland. There are a good number of USYERS, of Jewish Americans in general, who have made the journey to our troubled Israel. In such times, it almost seems hard to connect God with Israel even as it seems so fundamental. If God has given us this land, God should stand by us in keeping the land.

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test your hardships to lean what was in your hearts.” (8:2) Perhaps, though it seems like a sad excuse now, God decided not to take us the short route in acquiring Israel. Just as God made the journey of B’nai Israel forty years, so too God may be lengthening our journey so as to see what we feel in our hearts. I hope and I believe that God would be proud with what God were to see. People are still traveling to Israel, buying products from Israel, supporting Israel. Though everyone may not be in Israel, Israel is in everyone.

Ekev 5769

by Judah Ari Kerbel

August 8, 2009/18 Menachem Av 5769

From the popular song by Woody Guthrie:
“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me”

I believe this song has a wonderful message about land – that not one person or group of people is completely entitled to all land. Who are people to monopolize land, thereby subjugating others to a second-class standing? Is it up to individuals to control who can step on what land?

The Torah makes it clear for us that land, while maybe being “made for you and me,” is owned by God. Throughout Parashat Eikev, Moshe discusses the issue of land with the Israelites. He reminds the Israelites that they are not worthy in any way of inheriting the land, but rather gain that opportunity because of the promise God made to the patriarchs and because of the “wickedness” of the other nations. If the Israelites stray from God’s mitzvot, they will be punished; the land will not yield for them and they will lose it. Additionally, Moshe discusses in the parasha how the Israelites will need to conquer the land, for it’s not handed to them on a silver platter.

The Israelites are repeatedly told that they are being brought to a “good” land. In Parashat Eikev (Deut. 8:7-10), Moshe says it’s a good land “with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey [7 species]; a land where you may eat food without sting, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (Etz Hayim translation). That last sentence serves as the source for Birkat Ha-Mazon, and we recite it in the blessing itself. B’nei Yisrael is reminded that they are lucky to be inheriting such a “good” land, and they must acknowledge and give praise to it, for after all, they are barely worthy of inheriting the land. Their residence on the luscious land is contingent on their observance of mitzvot.

In the Talmud (Berachot 35a), Rabbi Akiva teaches that “it is forbidden for a person to taste anything before he recites a blessing” (Schottenstein Edition Translation). However, the rabbis dispute that there is no source for having to recite a blessing before eating (the verse in Eikev only proves for blessing after), and they conclude that it is based off common sense that we are required to bless before eating. Then we have a sort-of “Yo Mama”-off of what a person who eats without blessing should be compared to. The rabbis teach in a baraita that one who derives benefit from this world without reciting a blessing is like one who steals directly from Beit Ha-Mikdash property. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel says that one who derives benefit from this world without blessing is like one who stole from the sanctified property of Heaven. Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said that one who derives benefit from this world without blessing is like one who steals from God and the Assembly of Israel. The Sages took eating very seriously in that eating without a blessing is basically eating at a restaurant without paying and is a very serious matter.

The mission of the Jew is often captured in the idea of being a “light unto the nations.” What the Torah here demonstrates, and hopefully the world will learn, is that we are not entitled to everything that’s just there – it’s not “mine, mine, mine” like the seagulls in Finding Nemo claim. We share the land with other people, like Woody Guthrie teaches us. It is also a divine gift that we earn only through our acknowledging of its source. If we can acknowledge the source, then perhaps we will treat our resources better and utilize it in ways that will benefit creatures of God and the earth itself.

Did you know
… that the section of ma’ariv “Baruch Hashem l’olam Amen v’Amen” was once a substitute for thema’ariv Amidah? In the Gaonic Era of Jewish History, minyanim would gather in fields for ma’ariv before dark, and in order to finish the service before dark so people could get home safely, they would recite this at ma’ariv and say the Amidah at home. It is often not said on Saturday nights after Shabbat (since no one would have been working in the fields that this would be needed), and in Israel it is completely omitted.

Va’ethanan 5762

by Joshua Rabin

“Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins” (Yishayahu 40:1-3).

This week’s Haftarah has us hear the ever famous lines from the prophet Yishayahu (Isaiah) of “nachamu ami,” that the people should be comforted in the midst of their exile from Yerushalayim. The Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Beit Hamigdash and other tragic events in Jewish history, we read this Haftarah and the parsha hashavua, Va’etchanan, every single year. However, what is the connection between the haftarah, which speaks directly of the destruction of the Beit Hamigdash, and the parsha?

The name of the parsha comes from the shoresh “hithannen.” Midrash tells us that this verb means, “to throw oneself at the mercy of the other, to plead with no grounds to justify one’s request” (Etz Chaim Chumash). Moshe implores upon the bnei Yisrael that they should follow the mitzvot, and should remain faithful to God. As we have seen, however, from Jewish history in the various Haftarot, we did not live up to that command.

Moshe recognizes this in his speech to the bnei Yisrael, and tells them of the exiles they will suffer at the hands of other nations. His speaks of the terrible tragedies that will befall them, showing both the bitter and the sweet of his people’s future. Yet in spite of it all, Moshe reminds the people of this: “But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul—when you are in distress between all these things have befallen you and, in the end, return to the Lord your God and obey Him” (Dvarim 4:29-30). Indeed, God is impassioned, and oftentimes zealous when necessary, yet God is also compassionate. The parsha tells us that, “He will not fail you nor will He let you perish; He will not forget the covenant which He made on oath with your fathers (Dvarim 4:31). God is in it ‘for the long haul,’ and will not forget his people.

Here we find the connection between all three of these events; the parsha, the haftarah, and the observance of Tisha B’Av. One of the worst tragedies in our history, the destruction Beit Hamigdash in 586 BCE and 70 CE, occurred and inflicted tragedy upon our people, yet they, if they chose to, could find God at any point. They would not be forgotten. And these words of the Torah ring in the ears of Yishayahu when he says “nachamu ami”; the people should be comforted, for they would not be forgotten. Indeed, this message reigns true today. A person, no matter what their situation, can return to a more meaningful Jewish life, with a stronger identity, no matter their circumstances. Each of has the chance to get back and remain on the right path, even when we are in the most dire of circumstances, for each of us is a piece of chain, and we are only stronger through each person joining others as a part of klal Yisrael. Shabbat Shalom.

Va’ethanan 5769

by Alex Krule

August 1, 2009/11 Menahem Av 5769

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Va’etchanan! Va’etchanan is a very interesting portion, beginning with God instructing Moshe to climb Mt. Nivo. God tells Moshe that he can look at Cana’an, but he can never enter it because he disobeyed God’s instructions. Moshe then begins to address the nation for one last time, his last chance to inspire the nation to do only good, and avoid evil. Moshe tells the Israelites repeatedly to follow God’s commandments. He also says that if they do not follow God’s commandments, he would pray for their destruction. Also, in Moshe’s last speech to Israel, a couple interesting texts come up: the second recitation of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma.

In Parashat Yitro, God delivers the Ten Commandments for the first time, however, in Parashat Va’etchanan, Moshe delivers them slightly differently. First of all, one of the most notable differences between Yitro (Shemot 20:2-14) and Va’etchanan (D’varim 4:6-19) is the first word of the commandment about Shabbat (the fourth one). In D’varim, it says Shamor, or observe, and in Shmot, it says Zachor, or remember. If you are familiar with Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, then you might be familiar with a line in L’cha Dodi that says, “Shamor v’Zachor b’dibur echad,” or “’Observe’ and ‘protect’ uttered at once.” This comes from the tradition that when God delivered the Ten Commandments at Sinai, he said Shamor and Zachor at the same time. Because this divine language is incomprehensible to humans, it is written Shamor in Va’etchanan, and Zachor in Yitro to articulate just what God meant. In addition, in Va’etchanan, there is a word added to the tenth commandment (“do not covet”) that does not exist in the version in Yitro. In D’varim, it adds the word “fields” to the list of things that you are forbidden to covet, whereas in Shmot, it does not appear. This is probably because in Shmot, the Israelites had no land, whereas in D’varim, the Israelites are about to conquer their land and need to know not to covet their neighbor’s fields. There are plenty of other differences, and I hope that you look for them while following along!

Later in the portion, we find a passage that we recite every day: the Sh’ma. Beginning at Chapter 5, Verse 4 is the most widely known prayer in Judaism. Within this passage, we find our basic responsibilities as Jews: there is only one omnipotent God, we must love God, and we must teach these values to our children (of which there should be plenty). Other than Hillel’s concept of treating each other as we want to be treated, this paragraph is probably the most important passage within the entire book of D’varim, if not the entire Tanach, that continues to impact us to this very day.

Did you know …
… about the often forgotten holiday of Av, Tu B’Av (15th of Av)? It is the holiday of love – learn more here.

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