Yitro 5770

by Charlene Thrope, USY 2010 Religion/Education Vice President, 5770

February 6, 2010 / 22 Shevat 5770

Parashat Yitro is known for containing the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. The revelation at Mount Sinai is a powerful experience, complete with smoke, fire, shofar blowing, and many midrashim explaining its significance. One story describes God offering the Torah to many other peoples, but only the Israelites accept it. However, the text makes it clear that God intended to give the Torah to the Israelites.

The Israelites are special – God made that clear with a covenant with Abraham. God demonstrates the Israelites’ uniqueness by taking them out of Egypt, and now, God makes another promise:

“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Shemot 19:5-6)

The entire world belongs to God, but the Israelites are the chosen people – the only ones lucky enough to receive the Torah. But being chosen comes with responsibilities. As a kingdom of priests, the Israelites must be dedicated to serving God, and becoming a holy nation requires certain restrictions. The Israelites’ chosenness is itself a choice, dependent on whether or not the Israelites keep the mitzvot.

Whenever we accept a leadership role, we are also choosing to accept any responsibilities that come with it. We may need to give up time with our friends, other activities, and even a little sleep in order to fulfill our duties. However, the benefits we will receive might turn out to be comparable to the benefit the Israelites received – the Torah.

Beshalach 5762

by Jennifer Krueger

I have always loved Parshat Beshalach. The Jews cross the Red Sea, Az Yashir is sung, Miriam and the woman dance with their timbrels and we are given manna from Hashem. When I sit at shul on Shabbat morning listening to the beautiful melody describing these incredible miracles, I am filled with joy and happiness. The miracles of Exodus comforts me with an awareness of Hashem’s presence in the World.

“And it was when Pharaoh sent the people, Hashem did not lead them by the land of the Philistines for Hashem said perhaps the people will regret and will return to Egypt.” Regret it? The Jews just witnessed Hashem taking them out of Egypt, they saw the deep love that he has for them. I was overcome by this feeling and I did not even witness the event directly. How could Hashem possibly think that the Jews, who witnessed his presence first hand, would loose faith in him and want to turn back to the care of the Egyptians?

I think this Pasuk is important for many reasons. It tells us that no matter how strong our faith is in Hashem and no matter what the level of our religious observance is, there will always be doubt inside of us. Human beings do not have the capacity to understand Hashem completely and to understand the way that the World works.

Many people say that having doubt is a negative aspect and one should not question the basic principles of Judaism. On the contrary, I think that doubt is a good thing. When we are unsure of something, it forces us to look at the deep questions inside of us and to search from some kind of truth. It forces us to not just accept what we have been told, but to look at the World from our own perspective and form our own answers that are meaningful to us. While no one will be able to understand Hashem completely, our questions shape who we are and motivate us to continue learning and attempting to discover the meaning of the universe. By acknowledging that the Jews who have just experienced Hashem’s miracles may have the desire to turn back to the Egyptians, Hashem is saying that is okay to have doubt. He understands that humans are not perfect and that they will never be sure of the way that the World works.

Users, faith is a very scary issue. Much of our whole religion is based on it. We are often scared to address the deep questions inside of us for fear that we will be turned off of Judaism or will venture into an area that is forbidden. Through this Passuk, Hashem is saying that it is okay for us to search deep inside of ourselves and find what we truly believe because only when we are true to ourselves can our faith be increased.

The miracles of Exodus aware us of Hashem’s presence in our daily lives. The crossing of the read sea, receiving manna, the ten plagues, and finally revelation are all direct proof that Hashem is here and wants to establish a direct relationship with us. Only through being true to ourselves will this connection be established. I want to wish you a Shabbat Shalom and I hope that when you hear the beautiful melody of Az Yashir on Shabbat morning, that you get the deep feeling of Hashem’s presence that we all seek.

Beshalach 5764

by Shoshi Rosenbaum

Don’t you hate sitting in class during those last agonizing minutes of the school day and staring at the clock, waiting for the end of school to come around so you can get up and be free? Now, I realize that due to TV and AIM and all of those technological advancements, today’s teenagers have no attention span whatsoever, and it seems like an eternity to be stuck in class for 45 minutes- or in school for a whole day. Can you imagine how it would feel to be enslaved, really enslaved, for years?

In this week’s parsha, B’shallach, B’nai Yisrael (The Israelites) has just been permitted to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt), and they are traveling through the Midbar (Wilderness/Desert), as a new, free people.

When you get home from a long day at school, it’s hard to focus energy into something new right away because of the thrill that you get from being free from those long, boring classes. It’s really easy to plop down in front of the computer or TV and just relax. But there’s a lot that has to get done in that crucial time between when school gets out and when you go to bed, if you go to bed. New freedom can bring irresponsibility, uncertainty, challenge, and despair.

B’nai Yisrael had to deal with the new freedom they were experiencing once they were no longer bound by slavery in Mtzrayim. They had many questions to ask, and many doubts about G-d during these times, and they voiced these concerns quite often. This is similar to typical college-bound teenagers, who are searching and doubting and formulating opinions. (Not that living at home is slavery or anything.but I bet you can see the parallel.)

I found something at the beginning of the Parsha that bothered me a bit. When we are told the story of B’nai Yisrael leaving Mitzrayim in school or Hebrew school, we are told that Pharaoh changed his mind after he let B’nai Yisrael free, and ran after them. But the text of the Torah says in 14:8, “Vaychazek HaShem et lev Paroh melech Mitzrayim vayirdof acharay B’nai Yisrael,” “And G-d strengthened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he pursued B’nai Yisrael.” So, Pharaoh had G-d’s help with this? G-d said to Moses previously in 14:4 that, “V’ikavdah b’pharoh uv’chol chaylo v’yadu Mitzrayim ki ani HaShem,” “I will be glorified through Pharaoh and through his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am G-d.” It appears to me that G-d also wanted to show the Jews, not only the Egyptians that G-d is G-d, because G-d performed the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea right before the eyes of B’nai Yisrael.

Once G-d split the Red Sea, the faith of B’nai Yisrael was renewed. Miriam led the women in singing and dancing, just like in that great Debbie Friedman song, and they all sang “Az Yashir,” which we now recite every day in our morning prayer, Shacharit. It was a time of certainty for the community, and a beginning of free community life for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel). The Jews were so steadfast in their belief in G-d that they claimed in 15:18, “HaShem yimloch l’olam vaed,” that, “G-d will reign for all eternity.” From this, we can learn the importance of being a part of a community and sharing experiences with other people, specifically spiritual experiences.

However, once the miracle was over, the Jews forgot about it because they couldn’t find any water, and again they questioned the existence of G-d. One would think that in that time, when G-d was so involved within the daily life of B’nai Yisrael, it would be easy to notice G-d’s presence. And if it were hard in that time, it is even more difficult to see miracles that G-d may be performing for us now. It is easy to complain, a little bit more difficult to question, and even more difficult to search for answers. Are YOU up for the challenge? Shabbat Shalom!

Beshalach 5769

by David Helfand

February 7, 2009 / 13 Shevat 5769

This weeks Parasha is a favorite of mine and a classic among all of the Parshiyot in the Torah. Parashat Beshalach features the famous song, Az Yashir. The Parasha opens with Bnai Yisrael journeying into the desert after leaving Egypt. After hundreds of thousands of Egyptians died in the Plague of the Death of the First Born, Pharaoh finally budged and let the Jew go. The Midrash says that not only did Pharaoh dismiss the Jews with kind words, but he even personally escorted them out of the country. However it was just a short time after the Jews left that Pharaoh realizes that he is in trouble and has no one to serve him.

The Jews were being led in two groups: the men by Moshe and Aaron and the women by Miriam. The Jews traveled to the promise land on a non-direct path to avoid any contact with the Philistines. The Jews approach the Red Sea and prepare for Kriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea, but realize they have a slight problem. The Egyptians were gaining up on them. Now this was a large problem for the Jews. What were they to do?

Because Moshe was a being guided by God, he knew what needed to be done. He made some progress into the sea and then raised his staff and said, “In Hashem’s name, split!!!” According to Midrash, the sea doesn’t split and Moshe does as God commands once again, and still no change. The Shekhinah, Devine Presence of God, appears and God lectures the sea and miraculously the sea splits. Moral of that story: always do as God commands. As the Jews pass through the sea they are surrounded on both sides by the water and they just walk right through towards the other side.

According to the Mechilta, the Midrash on the Sefer Shemot, there were ten miracles performed at Yam Suf by God. They were:

  1. The water splitting.
  2. A roof-like protection was made above the Jews heads.
  3. The water was split into 12 different passage ways, one for each tribe.
  4. The ground was perfectly dry between the Jews.
  5. It was like clay under the feet of the Egyptians as they were chasing the Jews, which symbolizes the enslavement of the Jews and the brick making.
  6. The water becoming hard as a rock which harmed the Egyptians who were after the Jews.
  7. The solidified water formed decorative mosaic walls.
  8. The walls were transparent, allowing each tribe to see each other cross, which provided a sense of security.
  9. If a Jew, while crossing, became thirsty, they only had to stretch out his hand and the wall melted and provided sweet drinking water.
  10. As soon as the Jewish person had quenched their thirst, the wall became a solid mass again.

Once all of Bnai Yisrael had made it successfully to the other side of the sea, Moshe was commanded to close the sea. He did as God commanded and completely washed away all of the trailing Egyptians.

Parashat Beshalach is also the home of the famous song that we say everyday during the morning service, Az Yashir. This song is full of amazing phrases that show a dedication to God for amazing acts that have been preformed on behalf of the Jews. This song also houses one of the most famous lines in all of Judaism: Mi cha-mocha ba’eyleem hashem, me kamocha nedar bakodesh – Who is like You, mighty in holiness, too awesome for praises, Doer of Wonders! (15:11).

The Mechilta once again comments on this famous pasuk. It says, “these words were exclaimed not only by the Jews but by the other nations who denounced their idols after witnessing the divine miracles and the downfall of the Egyptian army. It is said that even Pharaoh himself said it and he began to do Teshuvah, repentance for all that he caused the Jews. It concludes by saying that the Wonders that God performs when the Moshiach comes will be far greater then Yetziat Metzrayim, the Exodus of Egypt.

The Parasha continues with several famous stories: The Song of Miriam, the complaining of the Jews for bread, water, and meat, the Mann/heavenly bread, Datan and Aviram disregarding Moshe’s warning, and an attack from Amalek. Parashat Beshalach is filled with amazing stories that foreshadow the difficulties that the Jews will face in the years to come until they enter the eretz za-ahavat chalav u’devash, the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey.

May this Shabbat bring you much joy with song and prayer and may you all have a Shabbat Shalom.

Bo 5756

by Cody Dydek

These days, a very big deal is made out of Jewish identity: what it means to be Jewish and how we, as Jews, should appear to those around us. What, basically, are the traits which make a strong Jewish identity? The Torah, as it should be expected, provides many insights into this matter. In Parshat Bo, we learn about two important traits that Jews should have. The first of these traits is humility. In the parsha, when God commands the people to make the Pesach offering and sprinkle its blood on their doors, he tells them to use a bundle of hyssop (Hebrew: ezov) to apply the blood. In the Torah, hyssop is often a symbol of humility–for example, it is used in the purification of the metzora (leper) to represent the metzora’s newfound humility. Similarly, the Hebrews’ use of this lowly bush to apply the blood to their doors shows their humility and their acknowledgment of God’s greatness and power (since only He could redeem them from slavery).

Another important trait we learn about in this parsha is inner commitment. When God commands the people concerning the Pesach sacrifice, He states, “V’haya ha-dam lachem l’ot”–“the blood will be a sign for you.” The rabbis interpreted the words “for you” to mean that the blood was to be placed on the inside of the door instead of the outside. This interpretation of the commandment shows the Hebrews’ willingness and devotion to God’s commandment. The blood becomes a symbol of the Jews’ inner commitment to do God’s will. According to R’ Bachya, “The blood did not prevent the plague, nor did its absence cause it. The Torah teaches that whoever truly put his trust in God…placed the Pesach offering’s blood on his door posts, thereby showing he was righteous and worthy of being protected from the plague.” Thus, it is humility and inner commitment that really saved the Jews from the killing of the firstborn and allowed them to pass safely out of Egypt.

According to the Sages, the experience of slavery had caused the Jews in Egypt to fall to the 49th level of impurity, only one level above complete worthlessness. It was the act of the Pesach offering which made them worthy to go out of Egypt. If this offering and the ideas it embodies were able to raise the Jews’ spiritual level so much, imagine what the qualities of humility and inner devotion can do for us! The Torah teaches us that the most valuable parts of our Judaism are the internal parts. Outward appearances are important, but what matters the most is how we feel and act inside. If we remain humble and inwardly committed to serving God, wonderful things will happen. We might not cause another Exodus, but we can make a difference. Let’s take the Torah’s teaching to heart and make our Jewish identities something that we truly feel on the inside.

Bo 5762

by Tamar Green

Parashat Bo takes its name from the first words of God’s command to Moshe. “Go (Bo) to Pharaoh.” Moshe and Aaron continue to plead with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. Pharaoh refuses and the Egyptians are punished with the 8th, 9th and 10th plagues, locusts, darkness and finally, death of the first born.

Just before the tenth and final plague is brought upon the Egyptians and immediately following the plague of darkness, Moshe is commanded by God to tell the Israelites “To borrow each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The Torah informs us that the Egyptians willingly gave the Israelites what they requested and “Thus they stripped the Egyptians.”

This description from the Torah raises many troubling questions. Did the Israelites take advantage of the Egyptians when they “stripped” them of their gold and silver? Does the Torah justify robbery from the Egyptians? Why were the Egyptians willing to hand over their wealth to the Israelites?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh believes that the Israelites did not steal or take advantage of the Egyptians in the slightest. He comments that the Israelites “proved their sterling moral quality” during the three days of darkness when their oppressors were completely helpless in power, and all of the Egyptian treasures lay open in the houses, yet “No Jew took the opportunity to take advantage either against their persons or their possessions”. Because the Israelites did not take advantage of the Egyptians, the Torah is not justifying robbery from the Egyptians.

The question still remains; why were the Egyptians willing to give their riches to the Israelites? Ramban (Nachmanides) suggests that the gold and silver that the Egyptians gave to the Israelites represented atonement, admission of guilt, and a request for pardon. Thus in requesting and accepting Egyptian “gifts”, Ramban believed that perhaps the Israelites were also expressing their readiness to forgive their oppressors.

I disagree with Ramban. If the Egyptians gave gifts requesting forgiveness for enslaving the Israelites for 436 years, the remaining generations of Israelites could not accept and grant forgiveness to the Egyptians. In Judaism, one may only be forgiven by the individual who has been wronged and no one else may forgive on that individual’s behalf. The surviving Israelites had no right and no ability to forgive the Egyptians on behalf of the entire people that had been enslaved including those that had died, thus if the gifts represented atonement, the living Israelites would not have been permitted to accept and thereby forgive.

In the mid 300s BCE, Gaviha ben Pasisa argued that what the Israelites had taken was neither gift nor stolen property but rather reparations for the 436 years of slave labor, the suffering and the unpaid wages.

In 1951 the Israeli government debated the question of whether or not to seek “reparations” from the Germans. The Nazis had murdered six million Jew, destroyed Jewish owned businesses, and properties worth millions of dollars, used slave labor, and left hundreds of thousands sick, homeless and orphaned. Ben Gurion argued that although the losses could never fully be repaid, the State of Israel was justified in seeking $1.5 billion from Germany as “material reparations”. Although those that had been murdered could never be recompensed, the heirs should receive payment for the material. The Herut party objecting saying that the acceptance of payment would represent the “ultimate abomination” of those that had been murdered by the Nazis. In 1952 the Knesset voted (61-50) to accept reparations.

The “reparations” from Germany to the Jewish people after the Shoah are parallel to the “gifts” of silver and gold that the Israelites took from the Egyptians. Is it possible to separate reparations for the material from the brutal cruelty? Can reparations ever be made for the suffering? A price cannot be placed on a life, or on six million lives, or the lives of an entire nation for 436 years of slavery. It may be possible to make reparations for the “material”. The Israelites had every right to accept the gifts of gold and silver just as Jews have every right to accept the money from the Germans, but true reparations can never be made.

Bo 5764

by Jeremy Moses

I am told too often that D’var Torahs are boring and irrelevant. People would much rather know who won the Expos game or know what movie is #1 at the Box Office than learn about this week’s Parsha. These people have been mistaken. This week, Parashat Bo is more exciting than Ashton Kutcher making millions for The Butterfly Effect. Let me prove it to you:

Voice of the Movie Preview Guy: The Hebrews were an oppressed nation. After being forced out of their homeland by famine, they were forced to live in the land of Egypt. In Egypt, there was a horrible Pharaoh. This Pharaoh decided to enslave the Hebrews in order boost up his economy and work production. For hundreds of years, the Hebrews suffered as the slaves of the Egyptian Empire. Until one day, they said NO MORE! This Shabbat, God will unleash a furry upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. With the help of his special messengers Moshe and Aharon, he will teach Pharaoh a lesson he will not soon forget.

Moses: I’ve said it seven times already Pharaoh. When will you learn!? LET MY PEOPLE GO!!!!

Pharaoh’s servants: Sir, I do believe that it would be in the Empire’s best interests to listen to these men! That God of theirs is too strong for us. Who knows what he will do next?

Pharaoh: Ha! I am Pharaoh! The Supreme Ruler of Egypt! Why should I back down to this invisible God of theirs?

Voice of Movie Preview Guy: Thousands of locusts infested the land of Egypt but Pharaoh was not impressed. So God and Moses sent a plague of darkness to teach the Egyptians a final lesson. Or so they thought…(Side note: Some would argue that God knew exactly what Pharaoh’s reaction would be.)

Pharaoh: Darkness…Psh. It not like we have electricity anyways…

Voice of Movie Preview Guy: God had one more punishment in store for the Egyptians but first he had to prepare Moses and the Hebrews.

God: Moses, tell your people that they must sacrifice a lamb and cover their doorposts with its blood. If this done, the night that the final assault of the Egyptian people occurs, the Hebrews will be saved.

Voice of Movie Preview Guy: God unleashed his most powerful plague of all, The Death of the First Born. Pharaoh is devastated and decides to let the Hebrews go. But will he change his mind? Find out next week with the conclusion of the amazing story of the Hebrews. Moses stars in Battle at the Sea.

Now to get a tad more serious. The story of the Ten Plagues is one of the most famous stories in Judaism. It is one of the stories that even a good amount of Non-Jews know. So, if we know so much about the story already, what can we, as USYers, learn from it?

Many of us are on chapter or regional boards. We have had many tasks and goals that we set in the beginning the year hoping that they will be successful. Hopefully, by now, your goals are coming along and you are having a successful year. Sadly though, not everything works out the way we want it to. Even if you are having a successful year in USY or in school, you have had some things not go your way. My message to you is to not give up. There is still plenty of time for things to change. The Hebrews were enslaved for hundreds of years. Yet they trusted enough to listen to Moshe and give themselves a chance at freedom. Even after nine plagues and Pharaoh saying no to their release, they believed enough in Moshe and Hashem to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood on their doorposts. While you aren’t getting revenge against anyone, pay attention to the perseverance of the Hebrews. Because of that perseverance, they were able to get out of Egypt and reach the land of Canaan. So whenever you are feeling that your goals are unattainable, think back to the Hebrews. Taking an ounce of the Hebrew’s perseverance, and you will be able to reach incredible heights.

I wish you all a wonderful Shabbat Shalom and a good rest of the week.

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