Ki Tavo 5762

by Mimi Arbeit

Parshat Ki Tavo discusses the relationship between God and the newborn nation of Israel. The parshat opens by introducing the offering of the first fruits. Then, a new covenant is formed between God and the Jewish people: God will protect them as long as they remain loyal. Moses gives the people four ceremonies that they will perform upon entering the land in order to remind themselves of their covenant with God. First, they will write the Law on twelve stones at Mt. Ebal. Second, they will erect an Altar there. Third, they will ratify the covenant on Ebal and Gerizim. Fourth, the Levites will pronounce the twelve dooms– the consequences of disobeying the commandments.

In order to better understand the message behind the twelve dooms, we can divide them into three categories. The first type of doom falls upon Israel when they will not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments (Deut. 28:15). Following is a list of suffering such as loss of crops, sick beasts, and illness. The second type of doom falls upon Israel when they did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart (28:47). The following list is even worse than before, including war and cannibalism. The last type of doom falls upon Israel when they will not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awful Name (28:58). Then, God will strike them with every sickness and every plague not yet recorded, and seek to destroy them.

In summary, failure to obey the commandments extracts a certain level of suffering, while failure to serve God joyfully extracts even more suffering, and failure to fear God deserves ultimate destruction. This pattern shows that Judaism is rooted in feelings. If someone slips in their observance of the commandments, then his joy in serving God may eventually bring him back to his righteous path. If someone loses his inner joy, then at least his fear of God shows that he still acknowledges God’s power, and with time he may come to love that power once again. But if someone no longer fears God, no longer accepts His reign over all of creation, no longer reveres His everlasting glory– that is the ultimate betrayal.

We learn from Parshat Ki Tavo that our true connection to God lies in our hearts, in our emotions. When we love God and fear God, then our faith is secure. From there, we progress to serving God with joy and to observing the commandments. USY embodies the path between these last two steps. We come together on the premise of our Judaism, our dedication to God. And in coming together, we try to develop an atmosphere of joy and happiness in which we can celebrate serving God together. From there, we hope that individuals will be inspired to challenge themselves to increase their personal level of observance beyond USY events. We encourage each other to dine at Kosher restaurants, to keep Shabbat, and to learn Torah. But we know that the most important thing is that we revere God, that we love God and each other, and that we enjoy doing it. Shabbat Shalom!

Ki Tavo 5769

by Judah Kerbel

September 5, 2009/16 Elul 5769

What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Is there a difference between a person who is knowledgeable in an aspect of life and a person that is wise?

In the classic 1930s movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets three friends – the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion – who seek a heart, a brain, and courage, respectively. While in my opinion, “knowing stuff,” knowledge of things, only requires a brain, wisdom requires all three of the above mentioned items combined. The essentials are in fact a brain, constituting knowledge; a heart, constituting emotions; and courage.

In our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, after Moshe outlines all of the grotesque curses to come with disobedience of the covenant, he reminds the people of all of the miracles and signs they saw from God. Yet it is not until this day that they had the heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear. What does it mean to have a “heart to know” – isn’t the heart usually associated with feelings, not knowledge?

Rashi comments on this phrase lev la-da’at as “l’hakir chasdei ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu u’lidabek bo. A heart to know is to recognize the acts of kindness of God and to cling to God. In other words, it’s not until after 40 years of wandering that they have the maturity, experience, and the heart to understand the significance of these miracles, that God is with them. Think about all of the times that they complained about lack of food and water, that it was better in Egypt, not to mention the Golden Calf incident after God had commanded the Israelites in the Ten Commandments to not make any graven images of God or other “gods.” Was there a significant moment where the Israelites demonstrated true loyalty to God and put their full trust in God?

Today, too, our society is caught up in complaining and not appreciating the richness of life. It constantly cries “FML” and “my life is average.” But no, life is great! In daily life, we need the power of knowledge to be open-minded, hearts for having the compassion that carious us through our lives, and courage to confront daily obstacles with love and understand how lucky we are to wake up every morning to the things that form the positives of life and to say Modeh Ani. This is true wisdom, this is what the Israelites lacked in their forty-year journey, this is lev la-da’at.

May we all have the strength in our days to make the best of our days and of the gifts we receive from God daily.

Ki Tavo 5770

by Jamie Schwartz

As I was walking through the halls of my school today something caught my eye. As the person in front of me reached to kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost, he did not realize that his hand never actually touched the mezuzah – therefore not technically performing the custom. I noticed this happen two or three times and it got me thinking about how often we do things without kavana (intent). Think about it, how many times a day do you do something without considering the reasoning behind it? We do these type of things automatically, and often times don’t pay attention to the “why?”

In this week’s parsha, parshat Ki Tavo, the Jewish people are commanded to bring the first sacrifices required of them once they enter the land of Yisrael. The parsha then continues with a detailed recap on tithings, and then the parsha concludes with a list of brachot and tochachot, blessings and curses, which would befall them if they do not follow Hashem’s mitzvot.

In perek 26, passuk 13, Hashem addresses the people and instructs them to vocalize that they have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of his mitzvot. Looking closely at this verse, it seems repetitive saying that the people have neither transgressed nor forgotten. In the book Sefat Emet, Yehuah Aryeh Leib of Ger wonders about the seeming repetition in this verse. To him it seems obvious that if we have not transgressed we have clearly not forgotten, so why does the Torah add in this extra phrase? He explains that these extra words serve the purpose of reminding us to be aware of the mitzvot we are performing as we perform them, because they tend to become so routine to us that we lose sight of the meaning behind them as we do them.

Just as the person walking through the halls of my school, there are times in which each of us loses sight of the intent behind things we do on a daily basis, and from this parsha we can learn to pay closer attention to this as we go throughout our day. What is the purpose of us saying a bracha before we eat? Is it just so that we can eat, or rather is it to thank Hashem for the food and the nourishment He has provided us with? When we ask forgiveness for a wrongdoing and say “sorry,” do we say it because we mean it – or because we want to exempt ourselves from the mistake that we made? Furthermore, when we use foul language what are we trying to accomplish? Do we really mean the words we say, or are we simply frustrated and try to rid of the frustration through the use of insensitive words?

This is a powerful lesson which we can learn from this parsha; not only do we have to do the mitzvot, but we must do so with the awareness that they are from Hashem. We need to think while we act and make certain that our actions reflect the type of person, USYer, and dugma we want to be.

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.

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