Mattot/Ma’asei 5770

by Jake Winn

“BUT WE’RE ANDY’S TOYS!” our small, cowboy friend proclaimed in the best movie of the summer (and potentially ever!). Yes, Woody is referring to a promise he and his friends made to their pal Andy, and a promise that they must keep no matter how dusty and scary the attic may be.

In this week’s parsha, Matot-Masei, Moshe is taught by Hashem the rules of the promise. If a man made a vow to God, he must carry out whatever he promised. But there were several exceptions to a binding promise: If a daughter made a promise in her father’s household, and her father learned of it and did not object, her vow would stand, but if her father objected on the same day that he heard about the promise, her vow would not stand, and God would forgive her. Similarly, if she was married while her vow was made, her husband would assume the same nullifying powers as her father once did. If her husband annulled one of her vows after the day that he learned of it, he would bear her guilt. However, on the contrary, the promise of a widow or divorced woman was binding.

In the movie Toy Story 3, the toys also learn about the power of a promise as they journey to the ends of the earth (or at least the city dump) to fulfill their vow to Andy (a metaphor for their toy Hashem). Similarly, the Israelites face the enormous task of “trashing” the wicked Midian town. Fulfilling his promise to God, Moshe commanded that they only spare the virgin girls as all other women and children that had been tainted by the Midianite bloodline would not be welcome into the Israelite tribe. In addition, Moshe made his army of soldiers go through a cleansing process after touching the bodies of the dead – a process much like the hosing that the toys went through after their visit to the dump.

On another trip from Jordan into Canaan, God commanded Moshe to kill all the inhabitants and divide the land amongst the Israelites. As a warning, God told Moshe that if the Israelites did not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, the ones that remained would become “stings in their eyes and thorns in their sides,” and would harass the Israelites in the land, so that God would do to the Israelites what God had planned to do to the inhabitants of the land. This is a warning that perhaps Woody should have had before he saved Lotso from the fate of the trash – maybe then Lotso wouldn’t have leave them to burn in the end.

The morals of the stories we’ve studied this week are simple:

  1. A promise is a promise: if you promise to take out the trash, finish you college applications or summer reading, or to take a shower one day this week – keep your promise!
  2. If you haven’t seen Toy Story 3, what are you doing with your life! Now you have to wait until motzei shabbos to go (good going!).
  3. God knows best, if you have doubts about God’s orders, chances are you’re not looking at the bigger picture, after all, if the toys had listened to Woody in the first place they could be waiting happily in the attic for the next time Andy came home from college … but, then again, there would be no adventure and no lesson, would there?

Pinchas 5762

by Aron Cohen

Parshat Pinchas opens with the discussion of Pinchas’s award, God’s blessing of peace upon him and his family, for his zealous actions. Last week, we read that Pinchas took initiative by killing an Isralite having sex with a Mideanite in the tent of meeting. His action proved that he was a capable leader through his example. He knew that the Israelite and Mideanite’s actions were wrong in the eyes of God, and took the appropriate steps. He was leading by example.

Later in the Parsha, we read a discussion between Moshe and God, in which Moshe asks God to appoint a leader over the Children of Israel. Moshe knows that he will not be allowed entering the land of Israel, and wants a capable leader for his people.

He asks God to appoint someone who “may go out before them (the Children of Israel), and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in.” Moshe wants someone that will fight at on the front lines when the Children of Israel are entering the land of Israel. Essentially, Moshe is asking for someone who can lead by example.

The saying is common. One must lead through example. You have to be a dugmah. Is it really that important to practice what you preach? Well, yes. How many times have you heard a parent yelling at his children not to yell? The scene is absurd. If the parent wants the child not to yell, it makes more sense for him to also not yell.

In USY, many of us become leaders in one way or another. Hundreds of USYers are on chapter boards. Each of these positions carries a certain weight. In each of these chapters, the board members are leaders. On regional board, many of us are required to keep Shabbat, and to observe Kashrut. This is so important because leading by example lays the groundwork for an observant community. When a leader is willing to take the initial step in his or her actions to do what is right, it makes it that much easier for the next person to do the same.

We can learn a great deal from Pinchas’s actions. We can do what we know is right, in God’s eyes and in our hearts, and take the first step. Being a leader doesn’t mean being in front of people yelling at them to observe Shabbat. Leading means observing Shabbat, and showing those around you how incredible Shabbat can be. Leading means doing something of your own volition because you know it is right, and showing, not telling others that it is the right thing to do. Shabbat Shalom.

Balak 5770

by Batya Franklin

In this week’s parsha, Balak, the Moabite king named Balak sends Bil’am to curse B’nei Yisrael because Moav was afraid of the Israelites’ strength. Before Bil’am can leave for his mission, Hashem speaks to him telling him not to go to curse B’nei Yisrael, for they are blessed. After declining Balak’s mission for him, Bil’am is approached yet another time by Balak’s messengers. This time Hashem tells Bil’am that if the messengers have invited him to go, he may do so, on the condition that he do anything Hashem tells him to. Bil’am takes his donkey and begins his journey toward the Israelite camp. On his way, Bil’am tries to curse B’nei Yisrael, but three different times his donkey prevents him from doing so. The Torah tells us that Bil’am’s donkey could see the mal’ach Hashem, the angel of God, that had been sent before them. After preventing Bil’am from cursing B’nei Yisrael these three times, the donkey speaks to Bil’am asking why he keeps beating her each time she prevents him from speaking. Immediately afterwards, Hashem shows Bil’am the/ mal’ach that he had not been able to see until then.

Bil’am ultimately gives three long blessings about B’nei Yisrael, including the familiar, mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael! This week, as you read this d’var Torah, I am celebrating Shabbat in Krakow, Poland on Ramah Seminar. Interestingly, this week’s parsha is quite fitting for my Poland experience. Just as Bil’am tried to curse B’nei Yisrael in the Torah, the Nazis cursed the Jews of Europe. The difference, of course, is that the Nazis succeeded and managed to kill six million innocent Jews. As we approach Shiv’a Asar B’tamuz, the 17th of Tamuz, and later Tish’a B’av, the 9th of Av, we think about the two destructions of the Beit Hamikdash in ancient times. As we all know, throughout our history as a Jewish people, countless other nations have threatened our existence. However, as members of USY, each one of us is living proof that Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel, are alive. We have overcome innumerable challenges over the past 3,000 years, and we must continue to live as Jews, proud of our heritage, and passionate about keeping it alive for another 3,000 years. USY, I wish us all a Shabbat filled with pride in our Jewish identities and love for our traditions!

Chukat/Balak 5762

by David Farber

This week’s Torah portion is a combination of two parshiot, Chukat and Balak, so I decided to write a little about both.


The obvious choice for discussion in the Parasha Chukat is about the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was used in the ritual purification of people and objects that had come in contact with someone who had died. This ritual has often baffled Religious scholars though. It is said that King Solomon once declared: “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the brown [red] cow.” Many Rabbis concluded that this law should be followed solely because God commands us to do it, not because our own logic tells us to. It shows that we have so much faith that we will follow God even if his laws do not make sense to us.

However, in the spirit of Conservative Judaism we are encouraged to find the meaning behind the rituals ad rites of the Torah, so let’s try to have a stab at this law. After being sacrificed the cows ashes are added to water and are used to purify those who have become ritually impure. On the flip side all the people associated with the sacrifice and gathering of the ashes of the Red Heifer, become impure after the sacrifice is completed. This contradiction was noted by Israel of Ruzhin, who saw that the Red Heifer purifies the impure, but makes the pure impure. The priest and his assistants give up their own purity so someone else can become pure. The ritual of the Red Heifer shows us that we may have to give up something, in order to help another person.


In Parashat Balak we see the story of Balaam, the wizard, being called upon by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the people of Israel before Balak intends to wage war against them. However Balaam instead of cursing the people of Israel blesses them three times.

In the beginning Balak sends a delegation to Balaam to try and persuade him to curse the people of Israel, Balaam ‘consults’ with God on the matter, and after listening to God’s wishes, sends the Moabite delegation back. However, the Moabites come once more to ask Balaam for his curse against the Israelites. This time the Moabites add an element that wasn’t there the first time. The Moabites offer Balaam “his [Balak’s] house full of silver and gold”, this time God comes to Balaam and says: “If these men have invited you, go with them.” It seems that God is ordering Balaam to go with the Moabites, however the Rambam (Maimonides – a prominent torah commentator) explains that God is really giving Balaam a right to exercise his free will. It seems that Balaam is swayed to go by the fact that he is offered money, his greed overcomes his conscience. On the way to Moab, however, Balaam is confronted by an angel who shows Balak that God does not want Balaam to curse the Israelites, he tells Balak to keep going to Moab, but only say what God tells him to.

Later in the portion, when Balaam is going to curse/bless Israel, it seems that God does not let Balaam exercise his free will, but rather “puts the words in his mouth,” literally. Each time God tells Balaam what to say, and Balaam says it. However, at the end of the portion, after Balaam’s third blessing upon the Israelites, he tells Balak why he could not curse the Israelites. He explains to Balak that “I could not do anything good or bad contrary to the Lord’s command.” He says I could not (In Hebrew – “Lo Uchal”) instead of I must not … showing that he really does have free will, but he uses his free will to follow the commandments of God.

This portion teaches us that although we have the free will to follow or not follow the commandments of God, we should follow Balaam’s example, and uphold the commandments of God upon our own accord. This is how we show true reverence to God by choosing to follow what he commands us to do.

Chukat 5769

by Ariana Berlin

July 4, 2009/12 Tammuz 5769

This week we read the double parasha Chukat-Balak. Parashat Chukat includes the story of Moshe hitting the rock: B’nai Yisrael complained to Moshe that there was no water, so G-d told Moshe to speak to the rock and then water would come out. Moshe hit the rock twice, water came out, and G-d punished Moshe and Aharon by telling them that they would not be able to enter Eretz Canaan. This story and punishment have always baffled the commentators because when does such a small sin result in such a huge punishment?

One puzzled commentator such as Rashi says that Moshe tried speaking to a rock, however when he realized that it was the wrong rock he thought perhaps it was necessary to hit it, as he was commanded in Shemot 17:6 when he said: “Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” When Moshe hit the rock the first time only a little bit of water came out, so then he hit it a second time and more water came out. Regarding Moshe and Aharon’s punishment, Rashi notes that in the past when they have done things that G-d was not happy about, they were not so harshly punished. However, this time they sinned in public, in front of all B’nai Yisrael. Since they did not follow G-d’s words and did not sanctify G-d’s name, they were not being good dugmaot, examples, for B’nai Yisrael.

Just as it was important for Moshe and Aharon to act as proper dugmaot, it is also important for us to act as dugmaot not only in USY or in school, but also as Jews. This is because we are supposed to be a light unto other nations, Or L’Goyim. This comes from Yishayahu’s prophecy in 60:3, where it says: “And nations shall walk by your light, kings, by your shining radiance.” As Jews, other nations look up to us, not because we are better, but because we live by high standards, following all of the mitzvot which make us ethical people.

While it is important for all Jews to act properly as dugmaot, it is even more important for our leaders to act as greater dugmaot. It says in the Talmud that “when a prophet loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him” (Pesachim 66b). The Rambam says that Moshe grew angry when the people were complaining too much, so he called them rebellious and lost his temper. He explains in his Shmoneh Prakim that G-d became upset when he saw Moshe’s anger because when B’nai Yisrael see that Moshe is angry, they presume that G-d is angry as well. This shows us that it is important for people who serve as dugmaot to control their temper because if they don’t, then their position of leadership could be taken away. Similarly, Moshe’s gift of prophecy abandoned him because he lost his temper.

Or Hachayim attempts to minimize Moshe’s wrongdoing by explaining that he hit the rock because of a miscommunication: Moshe thought that G-d had wanted him to use the staff because in the past when he was commanded to bring his staff with him, he had used it to perform miracles. Apparently, he assumed incorrectly. What Or Hachayim said is like what Hannah Montana says in her song, Nobody’s Perfect: “everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days.” Misunderstandings and miscommunications are bound to happen to the best of us, even such a great prophet and dugma as Moshe. However, as she later says in her song, it is necessary to get right back up again and fix what has gone wrong. While we may err it is essential to repair the damage, however what’s most important is that we never give up or lose faith in G-d.

The Etz Hayim Chumash comments that maybe not letting Moshe and Aharon enter Eretz Canaan was not a punishment, but “a recognition that their time of leadership was over. … Moshe and Aharon were not sinners, … they were not the right people to lead a younger generation into battle.” This shows that G-d will protect us and give us good leadership as long as we fix our mistakes. Even though mistakes are bound to happen, once in a while, in the end, yihye tov, it will be okay. Shabbat Shalom!

Did you know (in honor of 4th of July) …

… that the first synagogue building in America was in Newport, Rhode Island, the Touro Synagogue – and it’s still standing, and it was recognized and respected by George Washington!

Chukat 5770

by Scott Greenberg

The placebo effect is one of the enigmas of modern medicine. Medical studies in the 1950s showed that sometimes a pill made of sugar can be just as effective as one made of complicated chemicals in order to treat a disease, condition, or illness. Even if a pill, surgery, or treatment doesn’t do anything physically to treat a patient’s condition, medical research shows that sometimes a person’s health is improved simply by believing that they have been treated. So, this raises the question – what cures a sick person’s illness? The treatment or the patient himself?

In chapter 21 of this week’s parashah, Chukat, the people of Israel complain yet again to Moses. This time, their complaint is particularly pessimistic. They complain, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in this wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loath this miserable food.”

In response to this insolent and hopeless complaint, God sends serpents to attack the children of Israel, and the nation begins to die from the snakebites. When the people come to Moses, confessing their impudence and begging for a cure from the bites. After Moses consults God, the text says that “Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bittern by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.”

How does looking at a serpent cure a serpent bite? Could I look at a statue of a bee to cure a bee sting or a statue of a rusty nail to cure tetanus? The whole situation is disturbing because it seems more like magic than religion, more like witchcraft then Judaism. What in the world were God and Moses thinking?

According to the Mishnah, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 3:8, “When Israel would look upwards and direct their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed.” Thus, according to this interpretation, the bronze serpent serves as a physical aid toward contemplation and prayer – like t’fillin, or an aron kodesh. In this vein, the bronze serpent is actually similar to a placebo, as both involve a more mental process for curing illness than a medical one.

So, another question is raised: when Moses makes a bronze serpent to cure Israel – or when a doctor gives a placebo to a patient – aren’t the people or the patient being deceived? After all, Moses is sort of lying when he tells people to look at the serpent and be cured, as the serpent isn’t really curing them, just as a doctor tells patients to take a pill when the pill isn’t really helping them. Both of these cures seem like trickery, like something that would be against Jewish or medical ethics.

However, one could also look at it the other way, that sometimes the best type of motivation is when a person responds to a different motivation. It’s just like how sometimes we get people to give tzedakah by playing on their motivations to play sports, gamble, or do arts and crafts. One Jewish story goes that Jewish schools used to get young children interested in torah study by putting a drop of honey on every page. As they tasted the sweet flavor of the honey, they would associate their learning with the sensual experience. Similarly, the people of Israel are motivated to pray to God through looking at a serpent, and patients are motivated to get better by taking a pill.

So, the next time that you are sick, ask yourself: what will cure me? Will doctors and pills, or my mind and God? Will others’ deception or my own motivation? You may be surprised with the answers you give yourself.

Korach 5762

by Josh Nason

While recent portions in the Torah have told of rebellions against God. Parshat Korach deals with a rebellion against Moses. Korach is determined that Moses no longer has the mandate from God to lead the people. He feels that everone should have the chance to be a leader. There is also discussion that God did not choose Aaron as the High Priest, but rather Moses used his political position to get Aaron the job.

Moses challenges Korach to prove that his men are more worthy of the Priesthood, stating that God would only accept the offering from a priest. While Korach is planning to take on this challenge, Moses consults God on the issue. God declares that he will destroy the whole community for having questioned Moses. Moses points out that only those men who incite others to rebel should be dealt with.

Korach eventually rounds up his men to take on the challenge. As soon as they begin to make the priestly offering, the Earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers.

This doesn’t solve Moses’ problems though. The people begin to accuse Moses of causing God to kill so many followers of Korach. So, Moses declares that he will take a staff from each of the 12 tribes and God will chose who is to lead as High Priest. Naturally, God chooses the staff that Moses has denoted as Aaron, and ends the discussion.

This portion teaches a great deal about responsiblity for leaders. If someone is to lead a people, they must be able to take the responsibility. Korach was unable to take responsibility and his people paid for his mistakes. We must remember that being a leader is a huge responsibility, we must be able to take the consequences for many people, and that is no little task.

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