This week in the Torah with Rabbis Yossy Goldman and Simche Sherer

5770
Ekev 
Man does not live by bread alone ...

Re'eh
Does frumkeit confer blessing and non-observance klallah?

Shoftim
You shall not move the boundary of your fellow ...

Ki Tezeh
Are we like Moab and Ammon? Elul is the time to think about this.

Ki Tavo
It was 14 years before the Bikkurim offering became mandatory; the underlying reason is still relevant today.

Nitzavim
Rosh Hashannah and Yom ha'Kippurim approach. T'suvah really is for everyone.

 

5771

Yom Kippur
Why the forbidden relationships on Yom Kippur

Bereshit
Let there be light.

Noach
The survivor

Veyera
"And he returned to his place." Indeed...

Chaya Sara
Marriage ...

Toldot
"You can sell a birthright for beans, but you can't buy a birthright for beans."

Vayeitzei
Slow and steady is the way to race ...

Vayishlach
There's more to not eating the sciatic nerve than first meets the eye ...

Vayeshev
Say "Hello," change the world

Mikeitz
Shabbat can save your identity....

Vayigash
Preparation ...

Vayichi
Jacob was true to the very end.

Sh'mot
Why were we worth redemption?

Va'era
Gratitude, it's good for you.

B'shalach
Tradition?

Yitro
Which is the most difficult of the 10 commandments?

Mishpatim
How to guarantee naches....

Terumah
Build me a sanctuary ... was God homeless?

Tetzaveh
Moshe's greatest moment

Ki Tissa
The golden calf ... is the honeymoon over?

Vayakehl
Why most bar mitzvahs aren't a success

Pekudei
Accountability -- the managers of the mishkan were accountable; what are you accountable for?

Vayikra
"Sacrifice" is not a dirty word

Tzav
Sacrifices and sacrifices ...

Shemini
Kashrut? More too it than you'd think

Tazria
The bris ...

Metzora
Of clouds and silver linings

Acharai Mot
Moral is normal

Pesach
Chumetz, arrogance and searching

Kedoshim
Who is holy?

Emor
Kohanute, education, values

Emor
Be an ambassador

Behar
What is Judaism’s economic system?

Bechukotai
After the curses, I will remember my people ... I will remember the land.

Bamidbar
Where have all the Jews gone?

Naso
Of Nazirites and nunneries....

Behaalotecha
With the miracles done for us, is Judaism a burden or a pleasure?

Shelach
The Spies: draw your own conclusions.

Shelach Lecha
Following the majority.

Korach
Inside/Outside

Chukkat
Listening

Balaak
Is ignorance an excuse?

Pinchas
A majority of one

Mattot
Your word is ...

Massei
The power of prayer

Devarim
Why remember?

Shabbat Chazon
Tisha b'Av

Va'Etchanan
The Never-ending voice

Naso
G-d's favorites

Eikev
The galut mentality explained

Re'eh
"See" the blessings and curses?

Ki Tetzeh
Who needs anti-semites?

Lech Lecha
Leaving home for good.

Va'era
Never lose the spirit

Bo
"Let me people go" Where? What for?

Yitro
Balancing the 10 ...

Korach
Spectator or participant?

Bereshit

"And G-d said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3)

Light has always been the most favored metaphor for all forms of revelation. We speak of "G-dly light," "Divine light," the "new light" of the Redemption We use expressions such as, "Do you still walk in darkness or have you seen the light?"

As physical light brightens our path so we don't stumble over obstacles, so the light of G-dliness, our spiritual awareness, helps us avoid the pitfalls on the journey of life. Light represents truth, eternal values, the spiritual which transcends the mundane and the temporal.

The story is told of a wealthy man who had three sons. As he was uncertain as to which son he should entrust with the management of his business, he devised a test. He took his three sons to a room which was absolutely empty and he said to each of them, "Fill this room as best as you are able."

The first son got to work immediately. He called in bulldozers, earth-moving equipment, workmen with shovels and wheelbarrows and they got mightily busy. By the end of the day the room was filled, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with earth.

The room was cleared and the second son was given his chance. He was more of an accountant type, so he had no shortage of paper: boxes, files, archives and records that had been standing and accumulating dust for years and years suddenly found a new purpose. At any rate, it didn't take long and the room was absolutely filled from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with paper.

Again the room was cleared and the third son was given his turn. He seemed very relaxed and didn't appear to be gathering or collecting anything at all with which to fill the room. He waited until nightfall and then invited his father and the family to join him at the room. Slowly, he opened the door. The room was absolutely pitch black, engulfed in darkness. He took something out of his pocket. It was a candle. He lit the candle and suddenly the room was filled with light.

He got the job.

Some people fill their homes with earthiness -- with lots of physical objects and possessions which clutter their closets but leave their homes empty. Our cars and clothes, our treasures and toys, all lose their attractiveness with time. If all we seek satisfaction from is the material, we are left with a gaping void in our lives.

Others are into paper -- money, stocks, bonds, and share portfolios -- but there is little in the way of real relationships. Family doesn't exist or is relegated to third place at best. On paper, he might be a multi-millionaire, but is he happy? Is his life rich or poor? Is it filled with family and friends or is it a lonely life, bereft of true joy and contentment?

The truly wise son understands how to fill a vacuum. The intelligent man knows that the emptiness of life needs light. Torah is light. Shabbat candles illuminate and make Jewish homes radiant with light. G-dly truths and the eternal values of our heritage fill our homes and families with the guiding light to help us to our destinations safely and securely.

As we begin a new Jewish year, may we all be blessed to take the candle of G-d and with it fill our lives and illuminate our homes with that which is good, kind, holy and honorable. Amen.


Ekev

Man does not live by bread alone (לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ). A famous line but what does it mean?

The verse comes from this week's Torah reading [Parsha Ekev, Devarim 8:3:

[לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-'יי' יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם

and is a reference to the miraculous Manna, which fell from heaven daily during the Jewish People's sojourn in the Wilderness. The conclusion of the verse is that man lives by the word of G-d. Thus, it is reminding us about the true source of human sustenance.

Contrary to popular belief, it is neither our earthly toil nor the sweat of our brow nor all those conferences, meetings and sales seminars that ensure our success.

The reality is that it is G-d who sustains us and looks after us. In the very same way as our ancestors trekking through the desert were totally dependent on Him for their daily bread -- believe it or not, so are we. Wealth is a gift from G-d. At the end of the day, it is not our hard work or business acumen alone that provide our prosperity but the blessings from above which endow our efforts with success.

Ask anyone in sales. How often have their best laid plans and pitches come to naught and then, out of the blue, a big order comes in with little or no effort. Of course, it's not the rule and we must be prepared to put in effort if we are to succeed. But when it does happen, it reminds us that there are higher forces beyond our control at work.

One of the things I have a particular appreciation for is a good ad. Some years ago, McDonald's was running a campaign and in the center of the full magazine page was a big, fat, juicy double burger. It was literally bursting from the roll on either side. The bread was dwarfed by the beef and the caption read, "Man does not live by bread alone."

A good ad indeed. But no ad agency will convince me that Scripture meant to teach us that bread is inadequate and what man really needs in life is meat! What the Torah is teaching us is something about the nature of men and women and the spirit of humanity.

The human spirit is such that we crave more than bread. Now "bread" colloquially means money and symbolically refers to all things material. So "man does not live by bread alone" means that Man simply cannot live by bread alone, that human beings cannot possibly be satisfied with bread or money or material goods alone.

Money is important but we cannot live by money exclusively. What about job satisfaction? I know a number of individuals in our community who willingly gave up lucrative positions for less rewarding ones because they found their work unstimulating. They were making lots of cash but there was no emotional reward.

I also know people who have it all financially but who are nonetheless unhappy people. They are very successful and very miserable. The successes we achieve do not guarantee our happiness. After we've bought the house of our dreams and our fantasy sports car and all the latest electronic toys we tire of them. For satisfaction to be lasting it must be more than material; it must also be spiritual. We need more than bread and money; we need stimulation and a sense of meaningful achievement. To know that our lives have purpose and that somehow we have made a difference. We want to be assured that our work is productive and has lasting value.

They tell the story of an old Russian labor camp and a long-term prisoner whose job it was to turn a heavy wheel attached to a wall on the prison boundary. For no less than 25 years the prisoner worked at his backbreaking manual labor. What kept him going mentally was the conviction that this wheel must be attached to a mill on the other side of the wall. He assumed that his revolving wheel turned the mill and that he was thus helping yield plentiful crops of grain to feed and nurture thousands of people. After 25 years of hard labor when he was about to be released to freedom, the prisoner asked to be shown the mill and the apparatus behind the prison wall. Tragically, he discovered to his shock that there was nothing! The wheel was just a wheel -- the crass authorities' instrument of manipulation and torture for no useful purpose. The man collapsed in a dead faint, absolutely devastated. His life's work had been in vain.

Men and women need to know that their life's work is purposeful, physically and spiritually. When we understand that every good deed is attached to a complex spiritual apparatus and that our every action meshes with a systematic structure of cosmic significance, then our lives become endowed with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

We desperately need to know that, in some way, our work is helping others -- that we are making a contribution to society beyond our own selfish needs. Then, we are living. Then we are happy.

Man does not live by bread alone. We cannot. We dare not. There's more to life than bread and money.

[There are mitzvot....]


Re'eh

Does frum 
[observant, strictly observant] equal good fortune? Does it always go right for you if you are religious?

"Behold I give you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing that you will hearken to the commandments of Hashem your G-d...and the curse if you do not and you stray from the path that I command you today to follow the gods of others…" (Devarim 11:26)

Do you deeply believe and accept these words from the opening verses of this week's Parsha? Are all righteous people blessed and all godless people cursed? Does it actually work that way in the real world?

The truth is that the Talmud states categorically "the reward for Mitzvahs is not in this world at all." Ultimate rewards and accountability are reserved for the world to come. What then is the Torah telling us here?

One answer is that the Torah is teaching us that living a G-dly life is itself a blessing. Leading a life where Hashem's value system is irrelevant is in itself a curse. Virtue is its own reward and the reward for a Mitzvah is in the Mitzvah itself.

Perhaps once upon a time we needed faith to believe this. Today, it is self-evident. In our generation, we see empirically that a life dedicated to Torah values is blessed and, sadly, other lifestyles bring the opposite of blessing in their wake.

Let's examine a few areas in society today and see if we can discern some truth in these verses.

Divorce:

It is now some time since the Jewish community has reached level par with the rest of the world in the divorce statistics. We, too, have passed the one out of three rate [N.B.: Rabbi Sherer lives in England] and virtually every other marriage is ending in divorce. Because of this unacceptably high failure rate, in our many communities we have instituted very successful marriage preparation programs for brides and grooms, which is thankfully making positive inroads.

However, if we look at the observant community, while there are indeed more divorces now than ever before, the rate is still below 10%. Cynics may argue that it is because among religious people there still exists a certain stigma and therefore a reluctance to split so that many people remain in unhappy marriages. I might agree to an extent but I am convinced that there are many positive factors contributing to the higher success rate among observant couples. To name a few: Religious people share common values and aspirations. Many of the things others argue about are not issues of difference among observant individuals. Religious people are far from perfect but, statistically, they mess around a lot less than others. Shalom Bayit is a religious imperative. A happy family life is a social necessity in religious communities. Then there are Mitzvahs which help in tangible ways. Just keeping Shabbos is one mitzvah that brings with it quality family time and togetherness in ways that would have necessitated heroic efforts to achieve otherwise. And, of course, the Mikvah is a Mitzvah that directly impacts on marriages, enhancing the intimate relationship immeasurably.

Violent Crime:

Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for Jews to have been involved in white-collar crime. Fraud and embezzlement are not things we are proud of. But today, even violent crimes are being perpetrated by Jewish people in a way that was always foreign to our people. Road rage violence, and now even family murders, are today happening in Israel all too often. And there have been some highly publicized cases of Jew on Jew violence in the throughout the western world.

But in the religious community, while white-collar crime is unfortunately not unknown, violent crime is a rarity. In fact, when Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin it sent such shockwaves across the world not only because he was a Jew but precisely because he was a kippah-wearing Jew! 

Dennis Prager poses an interesting hypothetical question: If you were walking down a dark alley one night and saw three burly young men wearing leather jackets, sunglasses and chains around their necks you would no doubt be petrified, right? Now what if you were told that these young men had just come from a Bible class. Would you be alarmed or relieved?

Perhaps in other faiths religious fundamentalism breeds violence. With Jews it is the opposite. (OK, I did hear of a case where a fellow in Shul who didn't get an Aliya punched up the Gabbai! But you must admit, that is an exception.)

Social Ills:

While drug abuse and HIV/AIDS are not entirely unheard of, they are certainly the exception in religious circles. In the wider community, these scourges of our generation are beginning to affect us too. We are, after all, totally integrated into the fabric of our society. Our degree of susceptibility depends almost entirely on the choices we make in schools and social environments.

Please don't think me smug and condescending about religious people. Obviously, there are no guarantees. Every individual faces the same challenges and choices in life. There are no clones in religious enclaves. And tragedy, G-d forbid, can strike anywhere.

If we are objective, though, we cannot dismiss these tangible pieces of evidence that our Parsha does have a point. That the G-dly way of life is not only a pathway to Paradise in the Hereafter, but is in itself a blessing for us in the here and now.

If we want the blessings of this world for our families and ourselves we should seriously consider a Torah lifestyle. The choice is ours.


Shoftim

Many countries have legislation dealing with unfair competition and monopolies. The term used in halacha to describe these offenses is hasogas gvul. Literally, the phrase means moving the markers that serve as the boundaries between neighboring properties. The Scriptural source is found in this week's Parsha:

You shall not move the boundary of your fellow, which the early ones marked out (Devarim 19:14).

This simply means that you mustn't move the markers, pegs or any other landmarks that are employed to demarcate the boundaries between properties. To go in the night and move the landmarks to take some of your neighbor's land for yourself thus carries an additional prohibition over and above the normal laws against theft.

Let's spend a moment, though, looking at some of the boundaries and borders of Jewish life.  We, too, have neighbors. Some are friends and some are foreign. Many of us live in communities beyond the ghetto. Many are exposed to cultures, lifestyles and business environments that are very different from our own. How is a Jew, surrounded by a sea of neighbors who are often nice, friendly people but who are, culturally, very different, still able to retain his or her Jewish distinctiveness?

The answer is that we need landmarks. We, too, require boundaries and borders to help us draw the lines between being good neighbors, sociable colleagues and losing our own traditions. Otherwise, we become the same as everyone else on the block or at work. When we try hard to be "normal," we run the risk of losing our own uniqueness in the process.

A Jewish girl joined the Peace Corps and went to do humanitarian work in Africa. After a two-year stint, she returned to her home in the Bronx. She rings the bell and her mother is shocked to see standing next to her a boyfriend she brought back from Africa. He's not just any boyfriend. He is a big, black, burly Zulu warrior with bald head, loincloth, beads around his neck, a spear and a shield. And to top it off, he's carrying a bag of bones in his pouch.

The Jewish mother stands there stunned and speechless. Finally, she recovers somewhat and shouts at her daughter. "Idiot! Meshuggeneh! I said a rich doctor!"

Perhaps this story is an exaggeration but similar ones occur daily.

Ma, I'm in love!  What difference does it make what religion he is? He's a great guy and we are both very happy together. So, what's the problem?

Dad, all the Jewish girls I meet are spoiled princesses. I finally found someone who cares about me. Please don't stand in the way of my happiness.

And Jewish parents are visiting their Rabbis and asking, "Rabbi, where did we go wrong? How can this be happening to us?"
Well, Rabbis are also nice guys and aren't looking to cause any more pain and anguish to these distraught parents than the parents already have. So they don't actually answer the question of where they went wrong. But if they did, it might go something like this:

The Torah teaches us not to move the markers. Losing everything begins by losing a little bit at a time. When we move the landmarks of Jewish life, slowly and inexorably we lose our borders and the lines are blurred. Children, in particular, need clear, solid lines to understand the boundaries, the do's and don'ts of living correct and meaningful Jewish lives. G-d provided us with landmarks to help us see who we are and where and how we live. When we remove those landmarks we lose our borders and we lose our distinctiveness.

Long ago, G-d gave us a Shabbes, a day on which the Jew behaves very differently from his neighbors. He gave us Kashrus so that we eat differently, too. And He urges us to educate our children "Jewishly" so that they will understand, feel and know why they really are distinctive.

But if we move those markers, things become obfuscated and the young become confused. And then they wonder why we are suddenly putting up barriers that we ourselves previously took down.

A Rabbinical friend once asked a prominent businessman why he, a nice Jewish boy, was marrying out of the faith. Couldn't he have found a nice Jewish girl? The fellow answered in all honesty, "Rabbi, I just don't mix in those circles anymore." But had this entrepreneur retained the landmark of a kosher home, for example, he would have still been mixing in kosher circles. By preserving our landmarks, we preserve our identity.

Let's try to find some of those missing markers in Jewish life. Who knows? We may well discover our own distinctiveness and our children may find out who they really are.


Ki Tetzeh

What do we cherish? What do we truly value? What do we make time for?

There is a rather curious juxtaposition of ideas in our Parsha this week.

The Torah cautions us against allowing Ammonite and Moavite men from converting and joining the Jewish People. The reasons? Firstly, because they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt. And secondly, because they hired Bilaam to curse you.

Such a diverse set of crimes lumped together in one verse. In the same breath we are told to shun them because they didn’t play the good host when we were a tired and hungry nation trudging through the desert from Egypt and because they hired the heathen prophet Bilaam to curse us. But how can we possibly compare these two reasons? The first is simply a lack of hospitality while the second is nothing short of attempted genocide?

The answer is that the two are indeed interrelated. One enforces the other and one proves the sinfulness of the other. If it were merely that they didn’t show us any generosity during our journey we could possibly
justify it by their own poverty. Perhaps Ammon and Moav were in an economic depression. Maybe they were broke and therefore not in a position to offer hospitality. If they didn’t have enough for themselves how can we possibly expect them to feed others?

But when we see that they hired Bilaam the prophet to curse the Jewish people so we know that money was not the problem. Do you think Bilaam came cheap? Bilaam was in fact a very expensive consultant. “A houseful of gold and silver” was his price
[see Bilaam]. If you found money for him you could have found a few shekels to give some bread and water to tired, hungry travelers.

The fact that they were prepared to pay such exorbitant fees to Bilaam proves the enormity of their crime.

Ammon and Moav may be extinct but their legacy lives on.

One of the root causes of the Middle East quagmire is the Palestinian problem. So many live in squalor in refugee camps. It is truly a rachmonus, a terrible pity and a crying shame. But why have these people not been accommodated by their brethren over all these years? Israel has been taking in Jewish
[and non-Jewish] refugees from Arab lands, from Syria, Yemen, Iran and Iraq [Laos and VietNam, too]. Morerecently they have absorbed many Ethiopian and Russian Jews. Israel is a small country with limited resources yet no Jew is refused entry. Everyone is welcomed.

So tiny Israel can do it and the combined land and wealth of the Arab world cannot? Saudi Arabia builds palaces and engages in all sorts of royal excess. Have you been to the Dubai airport? They also now boast the richest horse race in the world! Billions are being spent on flippant luxuries but when it comes to helping their poor Palestinian brothers and sisters nobody is home!

Sadly, we have a problem in our own community too. How often is a Jew approached for a worthy cause and he pleads poverty but the very next day he blows a fortune at a casino! We are too busy to come to a shiur at the Shul, but to kill a night playing poker we have plenty of time.

I am reminded of the fellow who asked me if he really needed to put up Mezuzahs on all his doorways inside his house. When I answered that he did, he gave a huge krechtz. “Oh Rabbi, but I just built a new house with eighteen rooms. Do you realize how much the Mezuzahs are going to cost?!”

We are now in the month of Elul, a time for introspection and coming right before Rosh Hashanah, our Judgment Day. Let us reflect on how we spend our money and our time and let us try our best to be consistent and honourable to G-d and our fellow men and women.


Ki Tavo

"Gratitude is an attitude." Whether we appreciate the blessings in our lives or take them for granted will always depend on whether we pause long enough to consider life and its blessings or we just go along our merry way oblivious to anything but the superficial.

In this week's Parsha, Ki Sovvo, we read about Bikkurim, the first fruit offerings that Jewish farmers in the holy land were commanded to bring in thanksgiving to G-d for the land and its produce. On a basic level, Bikkurim remind us never to be ungrateful for the things with which we are blessed in life.

Interestingly, the law only took effect 14 years after the Jewish people entered the promised land. It took seven years to conquer and then another seven to distribute the land to the 12 tribes of Israel. Only when that process was completed did the law of the first fruits become applicable.

Why? Surely there were quite a few tribes who were settled earlier. No doubt, some of the farmers who had received their allotted land had planted and had already seen the first fruits of their labours. Why then were they not required to show their appreciation by bringing the Bikkurim offering immediately?

The Rebbe of Lubavitch explained that in commanding this Mitzvah, the Torah uses the phrase "And you shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem your G-d has given you." In order to be able to fully experience the joy of his own blessings in life, a Jew needs to know that his brothers have been blessed as well. As long as one Jew knew that there were others who had not yet been settled in their land he could not be fully content. Since simcha, genuine joy, is a necessary component of all mitzvos, especially the mitzvah of Bikkurim, it could only be fulfilled when everyone had been satisfied. Only then can a Jew experience true simcha, a sincere and genuine joy.

Knowing that one's friends and cousins are still fighting - or even not yet enjoying their own stretch of land - somehow takes away the appetite for a party, even if we personally may have reason to rejoice. One Jew's satisfaction is not complete when he knows his brother has not yet been looked after.

There is a story from the annals of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe's arrest by the Communists back in Russia in 1927. Rabbi JI Schneersohn was the heroic spiritual leader of Russian Jewry then and the Soviets sentenced him to death for his religious activities on behalf of his people. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe had a marvelous pen; he described his incarceration and the tortures he suffered at the hands of the most uncouth and sadistic warders in that notorious Russian prison.

One of the prison guards was unbelievably cruel. He claimed that when he would beat and torture a prisoner, he would derive so much pleasure watching the man suffer that whilst drinking his tea he didn't need his usual dose of sugar. Just watching the torture provided the sweetening!

Such was this vicious anti-Semite. But a Jew experiences the reverse sensation. He cannot enjoy his tea or his first fruits knowing that his brother is still unsettled. The sweetest fruits become bitter in our mouths feeling the emptiness for our brethren.

So, if you have a job, think of someone who doesn't. If you are happily married, think of those still searching for their bashert and try making a suitable introduction. It is almost Yom Tov, if you will be privileged enough to buy new outfits for the family, spare a  thought for those who cannot contemplate such luxury. When you plan your festive Yom Tov meals with your family and friends, remember to invite the lonely, the widow, and the single parent too.

May Hashem bless us all with a prosperous, joyous and sweet new year.


Nitzavim

Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us and is alluded to in the opening line of this week's Parsha: "You are standing this day, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d." Commentary informs us that this day - Hayom - is a reference to the great Day of Judgment, the day of days.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance which culminate on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So it is not too early to talk about repentance, or as we refer to it in Hebrew - Teshuvah.

There are two popular misconceptions about Teshuvah and, ironically, they come from opposite sides of the spectrum. The first is I'm too good, i.e. Repentance is for sinners and since I'm no sinner and am basically a good guy and a good Jew, this process is irrelevant to me. No need for it on my agenda.

If I'm ok, I'm exempt from Teshuvah. Right? Wrong! That's the first fallacy. No one is exempt. Teshuvah is not only for blatant sins and misdemeanors; it is also for failing to live up to our potential. Even if we did nothing wrong, but we could have done much more good, Teshuvah is necessary. Even the most righteous of holy Rabbis klop al chet (beat their chests in penitence) - either for their own very subtle failings or for the members of their community whom they have not yet succeeded in transforming into better Jews. 

Only those who are 100% perfect are exempt from Teshuvah. All others must get to work. So who is perfect? In fact, there is no one as imperfect as he who thinks he is perfect.

Many years ago, I heard a famous Chazan daven on Shabbos Mevorchim Elul. Indeed, the melodies and nusach were evocative of the high holy days. Later, I met a well-known and prominent shul-going businessman. I commented, " Nu, you really felt Elul during the davening, didn't you?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Elul is for sinners. I don't need Elul." How wrong he was. Oy! did he need it!

People with over-inflated egos can sometimes fool themselves into believing everything they think about themselves.

The other fallacy belongs to the overly humble. The fellow who puts himself down so low that he really believes he is beyond salvation. I'm too bad for Teshuvah. Too far gone; there's no hope; I'm a lost case. Give up on me Rabbi; I'm too old, too tired, too lazy, too sinful - or just too set in my ways.

The ethical teachers insist that all the above arguments are rooted in the yetzer hara, our inclination for evil. The more we put ourselves down the less sense of hope and optimism we will have and, thus, the less energy we will find to try and change.

But the fact is that there are numerous true stories of some of the worst sinners in history who found G-d, Torah and themselves in an instant and returned with a full heart. The renowned Talmudic sage, Reish Lakish, was previously a robber chieftain. Eliezer ben Durdaya was infamous for his lack of morality (he once boasted that there wasn't a woman of ill repute he hadn't patronized) and yet in a moment of inspiration he returned and was accepted, gaining eternal life then and there. And who in our community today does not know people who have turned around their lives in the most beautiful way.

We are heading into the annual time of opportunity to put ourselves right. During these days G-d is more easily found and we can probably find ourselves, our true, pure, untainted, innermost selves. Please G-d, we will all embrace this mitzvah which applies to every one of us, from the holiest to the most far removed. Teshuvah is a great equalizer. May our Return be sincere, genuine and well-received up where it counts.

May G-d grant us all a Shana Tova - a Good and Sweet Year filled with all the His abundant blessings.


Yom Kippur 5771

If anyone was bent on convincing us that Torah was old-fashioned, the Yom Kippur afternoon Parshah would be a good way to prove it. Vayikra, chapter 18, contains the Torah's Immorality Act. Our moral code, the forbidden relationships, who may marry whom and who may not, all come from Yom Kippur's reading.

Every year in every shul around the world someone asks the very same question. "Why on Yom Kippur, Rabbi? Was there no other section of the Torah to choose besides the one about illicit sex? Is this an appropriate choice to read in Shul on the holiest day of the year?"

Fair question. Rabbis explain that this is, in fact, the ultimate test of our holiness. The most challenging arena of human conduct, the that one really tests the mettle of our morality, is not how we behave in the synagogue but how we behave in our bedrooms. To conduct ourselves appropriately in public is far easier than to be morally consistent in our intimate lives.

Old-fashioned? You bet. In a world of ever-changing, relative morality where gay marriages and starving people to death have become acceptable, the Torah does indeed seem rather antiquated.

Man-made laws are forever being amended to suit changing times and circumstances. When a new super-highway is built, traffic officials may decide that it is safe to raise the speed limit. Should there be a fuel shortage, these same officials may decide to lower the speed limit in order to conserve the energy supply. Human legislation is constantly adapting to fluctuating realities. But G-d's laws are constant, consistent and eternal. Divine legislation governs moral issues. Values, ethics, right and wrong, these are eternal, never-changing issues. Humankind has confronted these problems since time immemorial. From caveman to Attilla the Hun to nuclear superpowers, the essential issues really have not changed very much. Questions of moral principle, good and evil, have been there from the very beginning. Life choices are made by each of us in every generation. These questions are timeless.

So we read that adultery was forbidden in Moses' day and it still is in ours. So is incest. But it wouldn't shock me at all if the same forces motivating for new sexual freedoms soon began campaigning for incestuous relationships to become legal. And why not? If it's all about "consenting adults", why deny siblings? Given the slippery slope of our moral mountains, nothing is unthinkable any more.

Ultimately, morality cannot be decided by referendum. We desperately need a higher authority to guide us in the often confusing dilemmas of life. In Egypt and Canaan lots of degenerate behavior was acceptable, even popular. In this week's Parshah, G-d tells His people that He expects us to march to a different beat. We are called upon to be a holy nation, distinctively different in this, the most challenging test of our morality. It doesn't matter what is legal or trendy in Egypt, Canaan, Russia or Europe. We have our own moral guide, our own book of books which requires no editing or revised editions for the new age. Because right is right and wrong is wrong and so it will always be.

We mustn't confuse "normal" with "average." Since there are people out there who, tragically, may have lost a leg, this might mean that the "average" person has something like 1.97 legs. But that isn't quite "normal." A normal person has two legs. When Torah teaches us to be holy and distinctive, it is reminding us to be normal, not average. Average can be rather mediocre. Just be normal and retain your Jewish uniqueness. It may not be easy. It may not be politically correct. You probably will not win any popularity contests. But you will be faithful to the eternal truths of life. And in the long run, you will be right


The Survivor [Noach]

Everybody makes jokes about Noah and his Ark. Bill Cosby has a whole routine on the subject which, strangely enough, is uncannily faithful to our commentaries' understanding. (Other than the one about Noah being the first stock market manipulator in history - he floated a company while the whole world was in liquidation!)

Our sages saw Noah in a far more serious light. Noah was a survivor.

Noah was saved from the deluge of destruction that engulfed his world and his greatest contribution is that he set out to rebuild that world. We don't read about him sitting down and crying or wringing his hands in despair, although he probably had his moments. The critical thing the Torah records is that after emerging from his floating bunker, Noah began the task of rebuilding a shattered world from scratch. He got busy and picked up the pieces and, slowly but surely, society was regenerated.

Only 70 years ago a great flood swept over our world. The Nazi plan was for a Final Solution. Every Jew on earth was earmarked for destruction and the Nazis were already planning their Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race. Not one Jew was to survive. Therefore, even those of us born after the war are also survivors. Even a Jewish child born this morning is a survivor - because according to Hitler's plan, which tragically nearly succeeded, he or she was not meant to live.

This means that each of us, like Noah, has a moral duty to rebuild the Jewish world.

When I was young, every other man at the morning minyan bore a number on his arm. They were once concentration camp inmates. The Germans had tattooed those numbers onto their arms. Sadly, today, the ranks of those individuals have been greatly diminished. Every time one of them would roll up his shirt sleeve to put on Tefillin, the number was revealed. It seemed to me as if they thought it was nothing special. But to me they were heroes. Not only for surviving the hells of Auschwitz, Dachau or Mauthausen but for keeping their faith intact, for still coming to shul, praying to G-d, wearing His Tefillin.

Today, I am older and more sensitive to the feelings of fathers and children, of family and friends, and those men have risen in my estimation. They have become superheroes. After all they went through, to be able to live normal lives again, to marry or remarry, to bring children into this world, to carry on life, businesses, relationships, are mind boggling achievements.

Say our sages, we all have that same responsibility - because we are all survivors.

Who will bring Jewish children into the world if not you? Who will study Torah if not you? Who will keep Shabbos? Who will keep the Jewish school afloat? Who will rebuild the Jewish world if not you and I and each and every one of us?

In the smaller country communities of Europe there are still small bands of dedicated Jews, who come together in someone's home to make a minyan, or who serve as an ad hoc chevra kadisha to bury the Jewish dead according to our tradition. These are not rabbis, chazonim or cheder teachers. They are ordinary people. In the big city they would probably not be anywhere that involved but in their small town they know that if they don't do it nobody will.
We need that same conviction wherever we are.

Thank G-d for His mercies in that our world is, to a large degree, being rebuilt. Miraculously, the great centers of Jewish learning are flourishing today once more, but far too many of our brothers and sisters are still outside the circle. Every one of us needs to participate.

We are all Noahs. Let us rebuild our world.


Vayera

Is it a sin to argue with G-d? Is it sacrilegious to question the Divine? Well, Abraham did it. Not for himself though, but on behalf of the people of S’dom, whom G-d had decided to destroy because of their wickedness. Abraham was the paragon of chessed, the personification of kindness and compassion. He grappled with the Almighty, attempting to negotiate a stay of execution for the inhabitants of the notorious cities of S’dom and Amorrah.

“Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” he asks G-d. “Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” ‘If there are 50 righteous men, will you spare them? 45? …40? …30? …20? …10?’ In the end, Abraham cannot find even a minyan of righteous men in the cities and he gives up. And the verse reads V’Avraham shov limkomo – and Abraham went back to his place. Having failed in his valiant attempt at salvation, he acknowledges defeat and retreats.

But there is also an alternative interpretation to those last words. And Abraham went back to his place can also be understood to mean that he went back to his ways, to his custom. And what custom is that? To defend the underdog, to look out for the needy and to help those in trouble, even if they are not the most righteous of people.  Abraham refused to become disillusioned in defeat. He went right back to his ways, even though this particular attempt did not meet with success. He may have lost this particular battle but he was still in the war.
What happens when we lose? We hurt, we sulk, and we give up. It didn’t work, it’s no use. All my efforts were in vain. It’s futile, why bother? Just throw in the towel.

Not Abraham. Abraham stuck to his principles. He may have experienced a setback, but he would still champion the cause of justice. He would still speak out for those in danger. And he would still take his case to the highest authority in the universe, G-d Almighty Himself.

Abraham teaches us not to lose faith, not to deviate from our chosen path or our sincerely held convictions. If we believe it is the right thing to do, then it is right even if there is no reward in sight. If it is right, then stick to it, no matter the outcome.

A favourite cartoon character is good old Charlie Brown in Peanuts. One strip that comes to mind is where there is a storm raging outside and Charlie Brown is determined to go out to fly his kite. His friends tell him he must be crazy to attempt flying a kite in this weather, it’ll be destroyed by the wind in no time. But in the last frame we see Charlie, resolutely marching out the door, his kite firmly tucked under his arm and the caption reads, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Do we believe in our principles of faith because of expediency? Are we virtuous because we believe it is the way to the good life? Are we looking for ‘brownie points,’ are we waiting for the big payoff for our good behavior? What happens when we don’t see it? Do we become frustrated, disillusioned and angry at G-d?
Some people become religious for the wrong reasons. They are looking for some magical solution to their problems in life. When their problems don’t disappear as quickly or as miraculously as they had expected, they give up religious lifestyle. It didn’t work. “ I’m outta here”.

Virtue is its own reward. Sleeping better at night because our conscience is clear is also part of the deal. In the words of the Sages, “the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.”

Abraham reminds us that a Jew’s gotta do what a Jew’s gotta do, regardless of the outcome. Whether we see the fruits of our labours or not, if it’s the right thing to do, then carry on doing it.

May we all be true children of Abraham.


Chaya Sara

Why are so many marriages failures? And why do so many fail so soon after the wedding?

This week, in Parshas Chayei Sara, we read about the first shidduch in history. Abraham sends his trusted servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son Yitzchak. He returns with Rivkah and they live happily ever after. The possuk tells us “And (Yitzchak) took Rivkah, she became his wife and he loved her.” It would seem that in the Biblical scenario, true love comes after marriage, not before. Before a marriage can take place there has to be a commonality between two people, shared values, mutual aspirations and, yes, certainly a degree of chemistry between them. But true love has to be nurtured over time.

Without doubt, a primary cause of many marital breakdowns today is the unrealistic expectations that some people have when going into marriage. Our generation has been fed a constant diet of romantic novels, hit parade love songs, glossy magazine advice and Hollywood fiction – all of which bear little resemblance to the real world. (Is Shrek possibly the industry’s first realistic love story?)

“We fell in love!” “It was love at first sight.” Let’s face it, but surely "love at first sight" has got to be a contradiction in terms. "Love" by definition takes years to develop. If you are truly honest with yourself, the only thing you can feel at first sight is in fact lust. "Love at first sight" is a monumental “bobba maaise”!

So we "fall in love," thinking it is real, hoping it will be true and lasting, and then at the slightest disappointment we fall right out of love, which only proves that it was not true love in the first place at all. True love takes years. True love is the mature conviction that our lives are intertwined and inseparable no matter what - even when your partner gets wrinkled, goes grey, flabby or loses his money. That kind of love is measured not in romantics but in long-term commitment.

When I officiate at a chupah ceremony, the Rabbi makes a point of observing not only the bride and groom but also their parents. A single glance that passes between father and mother under that chupah – that glow radiating nachas and feelings of shared satisfaction – tells that they have had a good marriage. That is more telling than all the mushy swooning of the newlyweds. As exciting as it may be, their love may still be in the infatuation stage, as yet untested.

The first rule is patience. Love takes time. It needs nurturing. Sadly, too many give up too soon.

Secondly, the Hollywood effect leaves us so naively impressionable that our partners have got to be the proverbial Prince Charming or Princess Grace. But then, at the first sign of imperfection, “Hey, I bought a lemon! I’m out of here!” Remember, nobody is perfect. Nobody at all. In the passage of time we do indeed discover the little imperfections of our chosen partners. Some things can be unlearned, with gentle encouragement and patience. Others, we may just have to learn to live with. Acceptance is an art. Weigh up in your mind the relative significance of minor inadequacies against the greater good in the grand scheme of things. You may very well realize that you can actually live with those small, petty irritants. Admittedly, if it’s something major then some serious counseling may be the order of the day.

In making these calculations consider the following: Do I stop loving myself just because I am imperfect? Do I stop loving my children because the teacher told me they were really bad at school? So why then do I have difficulty loving my spouse because of a perceived fault?

Marriage is the beginning, not the end. If we can be realistic about our relationships we can find true love. But it takes time, patience, and the wisdom to overlook the little things that can annoy us. Then, please G-d, with true commitment will come true love, togetherness, a lifetime of sharing and caring and the greatest, most enduring contentment in our personal lives.


Toldot

In this week's Parshah, Toldos, we read of the birth of twins to Yitzchak and Rivka.

Yaakov and Eisav are very different from the moment they leave the womb. As they grow older, their disparate personalities become increasingly obvious. Yaakov is the "dweller of tents," a diligent Torah scholar, while Eisav is a "skilled hunter", a man of violence. 

We also read how one day, when Eisav returns from the hunt, exhausted and starving, he finds Yaakov cooking a pot of lentils. Eisav wants these lentils (beans). Yaakov offers to give him the pottage in return for Eisav's birthright. As the first-born twin, Eisav would have been the one chosen to minister in G-d's temple. Nevertheless Eisav accepts the offer and the deal is done. 

Fast-forward some 275 years. We're in the Book of Exodus now (4:22), and G-d is sending Moses to Pharaoh to redeem His people. He describes them as b'ni bechori Yisrael -- "My son, My first born, Israel." Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments: "Here the Holy One, Blessed is He, affixed His seal to the sale of the birthright which Yaakov purchased from Eisav." 

Here? It took G-d so long to put His stamp of approval on a deal that was entered into hundreds of years earlier? Why only now? 

The late Israeli Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi M.Z. Neriyah, offered this explanation: You can sell your birthright for beans, but you can't buy a birthright for beans. To throw away one's holy heritage is easy, but to claim it takes years of effort and much hard work. 

He used the analogy of a war hero who earned a row of medals for bravery and courage under fire. Sadly, in his old age he was forced to sell his medals in order to survive. So someone else walks into the pawnbroker and finds these war medals for sale, buys them and pins them to his chest. He might walk down the street, proud as a peacock. But does it have any meaning? We all know that this man is no hero. In fact, he is nothing more than a pathetic fool! 

To wear the badge of "My firstborn Israel," the Jewish people had to be worthy of the honour. It wasn't enough that their father Yaakov had purchased the birthright from an unworthy but willing seller. The children of Yaakov needed to demonstrate that they understood what it meant to be Children of Israel. 

When Yaakov bought the birthright from Eisav it was a legal deal. One wanted the beans, the other wanted the birthright. Fair and square. But did Yaakov earn that hallowed title, or was he like the fellow who bought the war medals? Generations later, when his children had gone through the "smelting pit" of the Egyptian bondage and still, with amazing faith and tenacity, kept their heritage -- then they were deemed worthy of the honour of the birthright. Now, after the trial by fire, after the blood, sweat and tears of slavery, the great Notary on High, the heavenly Commissioner of Oaths, takes out that ancient document, the yellowed deed of sale that had been waiting for generations, and puts His official stamp and the wax seal on that document, and says, "Now you are worthy of the birthright. Today you are My Son, My Firstborn, Israel." 

There's a famous graffiti exchange that has much truth in it. Someone not too partial to our people had scrawled, "How odd of G-d, to choose the Jews." And one of our own responded, "Actually, the Jews chose G-d." 

Being Jewish is indeed the birthright of every Jew. But it's not enough that G-d chose us, we must choose G-d. We need to earn our birthright by living as Jews. Being the chosen nation is not license to snicker or condescend to others. It is far more a responsibility than a privilege.
 
It is not good enough that our parents and grandparents were good Jews, that my Zayde was a rabbi or a schochet and my Bobba made the world's best blintzes. What are we doing to earn our stripes? 

Indeed, you can sell your birthright for beans. But you can't buy a birthright for beans.


Vayeitzei

So what's the best way to get to heaven? Walk across a busy highway? Perform some amazing act of faith? Save a thousand lives? A pretty good answer may be found in this week's Parshah, Vayeitzei.

We read the story of Yaakov's dream and the famous ladder with its feet on the ground and head in the heavens. ”And behold the angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it.”

One rather simplistic question comes to mind. Do angels really need a ladder? Everyone knows angels have wings, not feet. So, if you have wings, why would you need a ladder?

There is a beautiful message here.

In climbing heavenward, one does not necessarily need wings. Dispense with the dramatic. Forget about fancy leaps and bounds. There is a ladder, a spiritual route clearly mapped out for us; a route that needs to be traversed step-by-step, one rung at a time. The pathway to Heaven is gradual, methodical and eminently manageable.

Many people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which seems to them otherworldly. And yet, with the gradual step-by-step approach, one finds that the journey can be embarked upon and that the destination aspired to, is actually not far away in some vortex.

Years ago, at the King's County Savings Bank in Brooklyn, there was the Chinese proverb engraved over the large portals at the entrance. ”A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step”. That is not only Chinese wisdom; we Jews agree. And it is not limited to starting a savings plan. It is a simple yet powerful idea that it need not be ”all or nothing.”

What do you think is a rabbi's fantasy? A guy walking into his office and saying, ”Rabbi, I want to become 'frum' (fully observant), now tell me what I must do?" Is that what I lie awake dreaming of? And if it did happen, do you think t he Rabbi would throw the book at him and insist he did every single mitzvah from that moment on? Never! Why not? Because a commitment like that is usually here today and gone tomorrow. Like the popular saying goes, ”Easy come, easy go.” I haven't had such wonderful experiences with the ”instant Jew” types. The correct and most successful method of achieving our Jewish objectives is the slow and steady approach. Gradual, yet consistent. As soon as one has become comfortable with one mitzvah, it is time to start on the next, and so on and so forth. Then, through constant growth, slowly but surely we become more knowledgeable, committed, fulfilled and happy in our faith.

A rabbi once asked his pupils the following question: ”If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question -- until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.

If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.

It doesn't really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder of religious life. As long as you are moving in the right direction, as long as you are going up, you will, please G-d, succeed in climbing the heavenly heights.

Wishing you a safe and successful journey.


Vayishlach

Of all the things we observe in order to remember events in our historic past, surely one of the strangest must be what we read in this week's parshah, Vayishlach. Yaakov wrestles with an angel (Eisav's spiritual guardian) and in the course of the struggle, his hip is dislocated. Therefore, says the Torah, to this day, the Children of Israel are not to eat the sciatic nerve (of an animal) by the hip joint--because he struck Yaakov's hip-socket at the sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve (gid hanasheh) and its associated sinews and nerves are located in the animal's hindquarters, and because they are very difficult to properly remove, only cuts from the forequarters are usually available as kosher meat. So if it has always bothered you that you can't get a kosher rump steak, you can blame it on forefather Yaakov and his wrestling match with the angel of Eisav.

So, tell me, just because 4,000 years ago one of my ancestors had a hip dislocated I must curb my culinary cravings? Is this fair, is it logical? Why remember that -- what's the point?

The 12th century French sage, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (the " Rashbam"), a grandson of Rashi and a Biblical and Talmudic commentator of note, offers the following insight. The story of Yaakov and the angel occurred just prior to Yaakov's impending encounter with his estranged twin brother. Eisav was coming with four hundred armed men, and Yaakov was actually planning to flee from Eisav. That was when the angel attacked him. According to Rashbam, the reason for the angel wrestling with Yaakov was so that he would be forced to stand his ground and not escape via a back route. Destiny itself was compelling Yaakov to confront the enemy and overcome him. Only then would he witness the fulfillment of G-d's promise to protect him from harm.

Evidently Yaakov was coming dangerously close to developing a pattern of escapism. He fled Beer-Sheba when Eisav threatened to kill him. He fled from Lavan in Haran in middle of the night when he worried that Lavan wouldn't allow him to return to his homeland. And now he was preparing to flee from Eisav. At any moment now there would be yet another nocturnal escape.

G-d wanted Yaakov to learn that a philosophy of escapism is not the Jewish way. So the angel dislocated his hip, preventing him from running away. Now Yaakov had no choice but to fight. In the end, he defeated the angel and was blessed with the name "Israel”, signifying a superior stature, victory and nobility. “No longer shall it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Israel, for you have fought with the divine and with man and you have overcome.”

Every son and daughter of Yaakov must learn this lesson. Every one of us must become a child of Israel. The quality of fearlessness and courage, of strength and sacrifice, these are the hallmarks of Israel. When we stop running away from our problems and face up to them with guts and fortitude, we enter that higher state of consciousness. We move up from the Yaakov mode, still struggling, to Israel mode, where we finally emerge triumphant. When we are prepared to take up the challenge and go for the fight rather than flight, we move from being wrestlers to becoming winners, from humble Yaakov to dominant Israel.

Of course it's never easy. Escape is usually the path of least resistance. Nor am I suggesting that we go looking for a fight. The fact is that there will be times when we know that we really need to have that confrontation. We need to square up to a particular problem or individual in order to deal with our situation effectively. We shouldn't be confrontational people, but often we know in our heart of hearts that if we don't engage a problem honestly it will continue to plague us.

If we can move from meekness to courage, then the story of Yaakov's wrestling match will live on and continue to inspire us to become the stronger personalities we really can be. The dislocated hip joint thus becomes worthy of eternal remembrance because it makes us better people. And the small sacrifices we make in avoiding those un-kosher cuts of meat around the animal's hip socket are well worth the effort.


Vayeshev

Would you believe that a “Hello” can be a religious question, and that it even bears Biblical significance? 

This week, in Parshas Vayeshev, we read the dramatic story of Joseph (Yossef) - the famous “technicolor dream coat”, his sibling rivalries, ultimately his descent to Egypt (Mitzrayim), and his being sold into slavery. After being framed by his master’s wife for scorning her attempts at seduction, young Joseph finds himself incarcerated in an Egyptian jail. There he meets the Pharoh’s butler and baker and correctly interprets their respective dreams.

Later, when Pharoh himself will be perturbed by his own dreams, the butler will remember Joseph and he will be brought from the dungeon to the royal court. His dream analysis will satisfy the monarch and the young Hebrew slave boy will be catapulted to prominence and named Viceroy of Egypt.

How did it all happen? It began with Joseph in prison noticing that the butler and baker were looking somewhat depressed. “And Joseph came to them in the morning and he saw them and behold they were troubled. He asked Pharoh’s officials, 'Why do you look so bad today?'” They tell him of their disturbing dreams, he interprets them correctly and the remainder is history.

But why did Joseph have to ask them anything at all? Why is it so strange to see people in prison looking sad?  Surely in the dungeons depression is the norm? Wouldn’t we expect most people in jail to look absolutely miserable?

Our sages answer that Joseph was exhibiting a higher sense of care and concern for his fellow human beings. Torn away from his father and home life, imprisoned in a foreign land, he could have been forgiven for wallowing in his own miseries. Yet, upon seeing his fellow prisoners looking particularly unsettled, he was sensitive enough to take the time to enquire about their well being. In the end, not only did he help them, but his own salvation came about through that fateful encounter. Had he thought to himself, "I have my own problems, why worry about them?" he may well have languished in prison until his end.

Sometimes, a simple “Hello” can prove historic! It is a lesson to all of us to be a concerned and little friendlier, to greet people, perhaps even to smile more often.

Some years ago after studying in the Talmud how one of the great sages never allowed anyone else to greet him first but always made a point of initiating the greeting; we should really all make a personal resolution to try and put it into practice. Try it every Shabbes, while walking to and from Shul, passing fellow pedestrians. Rarely do any of them greet you but then perhaps we should be ones to say "Good Morning" to them. They will almost always respond. Many may even look rather surprised at the acknowledgment. In a country where where not all are devoutly religious, a simple “Hello” can really become a very humanizing experience. A most commendable practice.

Conversely, while most fellow Jews do say “Good Shabbes”, I am sometimes unpleasantly surprised when, ironically, a frum person may walk right by without even so much as a nod.

When we meet someone we know and ask, “Hey, how are you doing?” do we wait for the answer? Try this experiment. Next time you are asked how you are doing, answer “Lousy!” See if the other person is listening and responds or just carries on his merry way oblivious to your response. 

Besides Joseph’s many outstanding qualities which we ought to try and emulate, in this rather simple passage Joseph reminds us to be genuinely interested in other people’s well being. And that it should not be beneath our dignity - nor should we be inhibited - to make an honest and sincere enquiry as to their condition. Who knows? It may not only change their lives, but ours.


Mikeitz

Not everyone is lucky enough to get a wake-up call in life. Some people get theirs just in time. Others get it but don’t hear it. Still others hear it loud and clear but refuse to take any notice.

Pharaoh got his in this week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, when Joseph interpreted his dreams and advised him to appoint a wise and discerning man who would oversee a macro economic plan for the country. Joseph explained to the King of Egypt that because he experienced two dreams and woke up in between, it was a sign from heaven to wake up and act immediately as the matter was of the utmost urgency. Pharaoh took the message to heart and the rest is history.

On the health and well being level, cholesterol, climbing blood pressure or recurring bronchitis might be the not so subtle signs that it’s time for a change of lifestyle. These are the medical wake up calls we receive in life. Do we really have to wait for a heart attack, G-d forbid, to stop smoking, or start eating less and exercising more? That’s what wake-up calls are for, to help us get the message before it’s too late.

Then there are the spiritual signs. I will never forget a colleague who shared the story of his own red lights flashing and how a changed spiritual lifestyle literally saved his life. He was a workaholic driving himself to the brink. Had he carried on indefinitely he simply would not have survived. Then he decided to give Shabbes a try. What he had never previously appreciated about Shabbes was that it is a spiritually invigorating day of rest and spiritual serenity. And in discovering Shabbes, he rediscovered his humanity. (He also discovered he could play golf on Sundays instead of Saturdays.)

A short trigger film a friend once used on a Shabbaton program depicted a series of professionals and artisans at work. As they became engrossed and immersed in their respective roles they each became so identified with their work that they lost their own identities. Monday through Friday, the carpenter’s face dissolved into a hammer, the doctor took on the face of a stethoscope and the accountant’s head started looking exactly like a calculator. Then on Shabbes as they closed their offices and came home to celebrate the day of rest with their families, slowly but surely, their faces were reshaped and remolded from their professions to their personalities. Total immersion in their work had dehumanized them. They had become machines. Now, thanks to Shabbes, they were human once again. The short video left a lasting impression.

It’s not easy to change ingrained habits. But Chanukah, which falls during this week’s Parsha, carries with it a relevant message in this regard. Take one day at a time. One doesn’t have to do it all at once. One light at a time is all it takes. On the first night we kindle a single Chanukah light, on the second night two and on the third night three. We add a little light each day and before long the Menorah is complete and all eight Chanukah lights are burning bright.

It’s ok to take one day at a time. It’s not ok to go back to sleep after you get a wake up call. Whether it’s your medical well being or your spiritual health, the occasional wake up call is a valuable sign from Above that it may be time to adjust attitudes, lifestyles or priorities. Please G-d, each of us in our own lives should hear the call and act on the alarm bells with alacrity.


Vayigash

What toll have the wanderings of the Jews taken on our traditional psyche? What consequences have there been to our spiritual and cultural identities as a result of centuries of globetrotting, usually out of urgent necessity rather than choice? Clearly, there must have been many dramatic and discernible effects. Today, in our own freely chosen migrations it behooves us to learn the lessons of our history.

This week’s Parsha, Vayigash, tells the story of Yossef’s reunion with his family after some two decades away from them. He is now viceroy of Egypt. He sends for his father, Yaakov, and the rest of the family, promising to support them all during the days of famine that were then gripping the region. Yaakov agrees to go down to Egypt but needs some Divine reassurance. G-d provides such encouragement telling Yaakov to have no fear of descending to the land of the Pharaohs.

Why was Yaakov so fearful and what did he do to deal with his anxieties?

Rabbinical commentaries offer a variety of answers. He was reluctant to leave the holy land and its special heavenly presence. Egypt was infamous as a morally depraved society. He was afraid of losing his children to an alien culture. He was already old and did not want to be buried in Egypt. Concerning all the above, G-d reassured Yaakov.

But there was something particularly significant that he did before leaving. He sent Yehudah to establish the first Jewish school for the children. Yaakov took what he considered to be a vital precaution to prevent any assimilation in Egypt. How best could he guarantee Jewish continuity and the spiritual and moral protection of his grandchildren? There could be no better way, no more effective tool than Jewish education. So Yehudah formed the advance guard on the way down to the challenging cultural melting pot of Egypt.

Sadly, we know of too many children of pious European parents whose children did not fare well (in a Jewish sense) in the US. As religiously committed as their parents may have been, young people born and/or bred in the United States of the early to mid 20th century were all too often swept away by the dominant culture of the great melting pot. They were quickly “Americanized” and in the process jettisoned their parental values to embrace the popular culture of a tantalizing new world. It was the exceptional parent who was able to offer any meaningful resistance to this powerful societal trend. Few were creative enough to successfully communicate old world values in the context of the new social order.

Socially, professionally and economically, those young people did very well indeed and in one generation became educated and successful though their parents were illiterate immigrants. But in a Jewish sense? Not many managed the transition very well. Those who remained faithful to their ancestors’ way of life were generally those whose parents worried enough to do something about it. Who survived spiritually in the end? Only those whose parents ensured a meaningful Jewish upbringing for their children, both in school and at home. It wasn’t easy but there were the moral heroes and heroines who stood out at the risk of ridicule by the majority.

Yaakov worried in Egypt, our grandparents worried in Europe and we need to worry today. History has shown that unless we are concerned enough to translate our anxieties into action, the children of Israel may become disenchanted and mesmerized by prevailing civilizations. May we all have the strength to put work into the aspirations we have for our future generations and may we enjoy yiddishe nachas now and always.  


Vayechi

A title usually reflects the theme of the subject matter. ”Genesis” is about the beginning of the world; ”Exodus” is about the Jews leaving Egypt. Whether it is a book, film or lecture series, the title should convey some idea of the content it describes.

Which is why the title of this week's parsha, Vayechi, seems inappropriate. Vayechi means ”and He Lived.” The name derives from the parsha's opening line, ” And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years...” The parsha, however, goes on to tell us not about Jacob's life, but rather about his death; his last will and testament to his children, his passing, his funeral, and his interment in Hebron in the Holy Land.

Why would a parsha that concentrates on a person's last days on earth, his deathbed instructions and his burial be entitled ”And He Lived?”

The answer, say our sages, is that we are not discussing biological organisms, but Jews. And the test of true life for a Jew is whether he lived an authentic, consistent Jewish life -- for life. Did he falter before the finish line, or was he faithful to his value system until the end?

How do we know that Jacob did indeed live, in the fullest sense of the word? That his was a genuine, G-dly life? When we see that he remains true to those ideals until his dying day. Only then can we say with certainty that his life was truly alive; that his was a Vayechi life. The fact that Jacob died a righteous man validated his entire life-span, establishing it as a true life, alive and real from beginning to end.

There are individuals who have their eight minutes of fame, who shine briefly and impress the world only to fade away and leave us disappointedly watching so much unfulfilled potential dissipate into thin air. Others are longer lasting, but don't quite go all the way. Like a certain man named Yochanan who -- the Talmud tells us -- served as high priest in the Holy Temple for 80 years and then went off the rails. Scary stuff! No wonder Hillel, in Pirkei Avos, warns us not to trust ourselves morally until the day we die.

Complacency is dangerous. There are no guarantees. One must constantly ”live”; grow and attempt to improve oneself -- lest one falter before the finish line.

Not uncommon is the story of a fine gentleman who was remarkably loyal to his employer. For 45 years, he was with the same group, totally and absolutely dedicated. Then he reached the age of compulsory retirement. Suddenly he took ill. The doctors had no real diagnosis. But he got sicker and sicker until he became incapacitated and eventually died. To this day, nobody knows what he died from. But those who knew him well understood that once he left the workplace to which he had devoted his entire adult life, he had nothing left to live for. Sadly, he had no other interests. His work was his life, and without his work there was no life left.

It is psychologically sound to take up a hobby, learn to play golf or develop other interests outside of work. A Jew, though, should ideally start studying Torah. Go to classes, read a stimulating book. Studying and sharpening the mind is good for the brain. Recent medical research confirms that it can even delay the onset of Alzheimer's. Most importantly, a person must have something to live for. Find new areas of stimulation. Discover, dream, aspire higher. Life must be lived with purpose and vigor.

That's why at the end of this week's parsha, which also concludes the Book of Genesis, the congregation and Torah reader will proclaim Chazak, chazak v'nischazek --”Be strong, be strong, and we will all be strengthened.” The tendency when we finish a book is to take a breather before we pick up the next one. Such is human nature. But a book of the Torah is not just any book. Torah is not just history or biography. Torah is our source of life, and we dare not ever take a breather from life.

“Chazak” energizes us to carry on immediately. And so we do. The very same afternoon we open the Book of Exodus and continue the learning cycle without interruption.

Truth is consistent, from beginning to end. May our lives be blessed to be truly alive -- with authenticity, faithfulness and eternal fulfillment? Chazak, chazak v'nischazek!.


Sh'mot

We never really know why things happen. Do we always deserve everything life throws at us, good or bad? Allow me to share a message from this week's Parshah which may shed a little light on the mysteries of life and our higher destinies.

This is the Parshah that describes the beginning of bondage for the Jewish people in Egypt. Moses experiences his first official Divine revelation at the Burning Bush. There he is charged with the formidable mission to confront the Pharaoh and demand that he "Let My people go." Moses is full of questions and repeatedly seeks G-d's reassurances.

It was not necessarily for what they had done in the past that G-d would redeem the Jewish people, but for what He anticipated for them in the future... In one exchange at the Bush, Moses asks, Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt? Rashi interprets the first part of the question as Moses doubting his own qualifications to suddenly become a player in the king's court. In his typical humble way Moses didn't see himself worthy of challenging the mighty monarch of Egypt. The second part of the verse is explained by Rashi to be questioning the worthiness of the Jewish People. What have they actually done to deserve such a miraculous redemption?

To which the Almighty answers, firstly, have no fear and have no doubts, I will be with you. And secondly, this is your sign that I have sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain.

Now it's very nice to know that this mountain was, in fact, Mount Sinai and that the Burning Bush encounter occurred on that very same mountain. But wherein lies G-d's answer to Moses' second question? He asked "who am I?" so G-d replied to the point and said don't worry "I will be with you." But to the question of by what merit did Israel deserve redemption we don't see any answer. That they "will serve G-d on this mountain" doesn't seem relevant to the discussion at all.

Here it is that we find a fascinating insight into the intriguingly infinite ways of Providence. G-d was saying that it was not necessarily for what they had done in the past that he was ready to redeem the Jewish people, but for what He anticipated for them in the future. On this very mountain they would receive His Torah; they would become His chosen messengers to be a light unto the nations; they would be the moral standard bearers for the entire world. Never mind what they did or didn't do in the past. G-d had big plans for this nation and it would all begin with the impending Exodus.

What a powerful message for all of us. Sometimes, the kindness G-d does for us is not because of what we've been but rather what it would enable us to become. It's not for what we have already done but for what we still will do. 

I know a man who in mid-life experienced a near fatal coronary. Fortunately, his life was saved by the prompt medical intervention of paramedics and surgeons. When I visited him in hospital he was overwhelmed by one idea: his indebtedness to G-d, the Healer of all flesh. "Rabbi," he said, "I was a goner. What did I do to deserve this gift of life?"

So I shared with him the Rashi mentioned above and told him it might not be something he had done in the past but something he would still do in the future. Perhaps G-d gave him a new lease on life for a reason. Not only to enjoy more years with his family but to do something significant for G-d, for His people, for the world.

The Almighty's confidence proved justified. The man went on to deepen his personal spiritual commitments and also made a meaningful contribution to Jewish communal life.

So should any of us be the beneficiaries of a special blessing from Above, instead of patting ourselves on the back and concluding that we must have done something wonderful to be thus rewarded, let us rather ask ourselves what G-d might be expecting us to do with this particular blessing in the future. How can we use it to further His work on earth? Special blessings carry with them special responsibilities.

May each of us successfully develop all the potential G-d sees in us and use it for our own moral development and to somehow better the world around us.


 

Va'era

Gratitude is an attitude, some wise man must have surely said that one!

This week's Parsha, Va'era demonstrates just how far Jewish tradition teaches us to be grateful and to remember our benefactors.

Seven of the ten plagues occur in this week's reading. Moshe Rabbeinu, messenger of G-d, is busy bringing down these terrifying plagues on Mitzrayim, Pharaoh's Egypt. Yet, interestingly, he calls upon his brother Aharon to be the agent for the first three plagues - Blood, Frogs and Lice.

Why did Moshe not do it himself as he would do the others? The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, teaches us that because it was through the agency of the waters of the river that Moshe Rabbeinu was saved as an infant when he was put in the basket. It would have been insensitive and inappropriate for him to strike those very life saving waters in order to bring on the plague.

Seeing as the Blood and the Frogs both dealt directly with the water, it was Aharon who stuck the water rather than Moshe. Similarly with the third plague of Lice. The lice came from out of the ground and the earth, too, had helped Moshe to cover the body of the Egyptian taskmaster he had killed defending the Jewish slave. Therefore, it would have been wrong for Moshe Rabbeinu to strike the earth and so for this plague, too, Aharon was the agent.

What a monumental lesson to each of us on the importance of gratitude.

Firstly, do water and earth have feelings? Would they know the difference if they were struck and who was doing the striking? How much more so should we be considerate of human beings who do have feelings when they have done us a kindness. How scrupulous we ought to be not to offend people, especially those who have come to our assistance.

Secondly, Moshe Rabbeinu was a man of 80 years of age at the time of these plagues. The incidents with the water and earth occurred when he was a mere infant and when he was a very young man. Yet, all these years later he is still sensitive not to strike the objects that had helped him. He did not say as so many have after him, "So what have you done for me lately?"

There are a number of theories as to why human beings seem to have this psychological need to tarnish the image of their past benefactors. Perhaps it is because we are inherently uncomfortable with the notion of being eternally indebted to anyone. It cramps our style and diminishes our independence. So if we find fault with those who have helped us previously, we absolve ourselves of any moral indebtedness. Now we're even. I don't owe you anything any more.

The story is told of the Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1732 - 1839) that he once did an enormous favour for someone. Later, the recipient asked him, "Rabbi, what can I ever do to repay you for your kindness?" The Chasam Sofer replied, "one day, when you get upset and angry with me, please remember what I have done for you today and rather than pelting me with big stones, please throw small stones instead." Sad, but so true.

This little story of Moshe Rabbeinu, which is only an aside to the main body of the Biblical narrative, teaches us to remember the kindnesses that are bestowed - when they happen and forever. If one who has been good to us in the past, does wrong and needs chastising, let someone else volunteer for the job. He may need rebuking but I am not the one to do it. Yet again, the Torah teaches us not only religious ritual but how to be better people, more
sensitive and yes, eternally grateful human beings.


B’shalach

How important is tradition in Judaism? I don't just mean for the Fiddler on the Roof -- I mean for me, you, and all the rest of us. How strong is the need for tradition in the spiritual consciousness of Jews today?

Despite the effects of secularism, I would venture to suggest that there is still a need inside us to feel connected to our roots, our heritage, and our sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

But for vast numbers of our people, tradition alone has not been enough. And that applies not only to the rebellious among us who may have cast aside their traditions with impunity, but also for many ordinary, thinking people who feel that to do something just because "that's the way it has always been done" is simply not good enough.

So what if my grandfather did it? My grandfather rode around in a horse and buggy! Must I give up my car for a horse just because Zayde rode a horse? And if my Bobba never got a university degree, that means that I shouldn't? So, just because my grandparents practiced certain Jewish traditions, why must I? Perhaps those traditions are as obsolete as the horse and buggy?
There are indeed many Jews who think this way, who will not be convinced to behave Jewishly just because their grandparents did.

We need to tell them  why their grandparents did it. They need to understand that their grandparents' traditions were not done just for tradition's sake, but there were very good reasons why their forebears practiced those traditions. And that those very same reasons and rationales still hold good today.

Too many young people were put off tradition because some cheder or Talmud Torah teacher didn't take their questions seriously. They were silenced with a wave of the hand, a pinch of the ear, the classic When you get older, you'll understand”, or the infamously classic ”Just do as you're told”.

There are answers. There have always been answers. We may not have logical explanations for tsunamis and other tzorres, but all our traditions are founded on substance and have intelligible, credible underpinnings. If we seek answers we will find them in abundance, including layers and layers of meaning, from the simple to the symbolic to the philosophical and even mystical.

This week's Parshah, B’shalach, features the Song of the Sea, sung by Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jewish people following the splitting of the sea and their miraculous deliverance from the Egyptian armies. In its opening lines we find the verse, This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; the G-d of my fathers, and I will exalt Him”.

The sequence is significant. First comes my” G-d, and only thereafter the” G-d of my fathers. In the Amidah, the silent devotion which is the apex of our daily prayers, we begin addressing the Almighty as Our G-d and the G-d of our fathers... Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov”. Again, our” G-d  comes first. So it is clear that while the G-d of our fathers”  -- i.e. "tradition" -- most definitely plays a very important role in Judaism, still, an indispensable prerequisite is that we must make G-d ours, personally. Every Jew must develop a personal relationship with G-d. We need to understand the reasons and the significance of our traditions, lest they be seen as empty ritual to be discarded by the next generation.

Authentic Judaism has never shied away from questions. Questions have always been encouraged and formed a part of our academic heritage. Every page of the Talmud is filled with questions -- and answers. You don't have to wait for the Passover Seder to ask a question.

When we think, ask, and find answers to our Emuna, then the traditions of our grandparents become alive, and we understand fully why we should make them ours. Once a tradition has become ours, then the fact that this very same practice has been observed uninterruptedly by our ancestors throughout the generations becomes a powerful force that can inspire us and our children for all time.


Yitro

This is the week the Creator gives the Torah to the Jewish people. The reading of the great revelation at Mount Sinai occurs in this Parshah, Yisro, and with it come, of course, the Ten Commandments.

Which would you say is the most difficult of the Big 10 to keep? Would it be the first, the mitzvah to believe in G-d? Faith doesn’t come as easy to our generation as it did in the days of our grandparents. Children with aged parents suffering ill health and who require much attention might argue that the fifth commandment, Honor thy Father and Mother, is the most difficult. Still others would say that Number 4, keeping Shabbes, cramps their lifestyle more than any other.

While each has a valid point, probably the most popular vote would be for the last commandment, Number 10, You shall not covet.

You shall not covet your friend’s house; or his wife, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend. Or in simple English, don’t desire his beautiful home, stunning wife, super-efficient P.A., nifty sports car or anything else that is his.

It’s one thing not to steal the stuff, but not even to desire it? That’s got to be the hardest of all. Really now, is this not somewhat unreasonable? Is this realistic? Surely our Creator does not think we are angels!

Lets try to answer a question … with another question. (Don’t we always?) Why does the text of this commandment first list a variety of specifics (house, wife, servant etc.) and then still find it necessary to add the generalization (and all that belongs to your neighbour)?  

One explanation is that it is to teach us a very important lesson for life; a lesson which actually makes this difficult commandment much easier to live with. What the Torah is saying is that if perchance you should cast your envious eye over your neighbor’s fence; don’t only look at the specifics. Remember to also look at the overall picture.

Most people assume the grass to be greener on the other side. But we don’t always consider the full picture, the whole package. So he’s got a great business and a very healthy balance sheet. But is he healthy? Is his family healthy? The attractive wife looks great at his side when they’re out together, but is she such a pleasure to live with at home? And if he should have health and wealth, does he have nachas from his children? Is there actually anybody who has it all?

Every now and then one is reminded of this lesson. A fellow who seemed to be on top of the world suddenly has the carpet pulled out from under his feet and in an instant is himself in need. Another guy who you never really thought that of highly, turns out to be a truly amazing father, raising the most fantastic children.

As the Yiddish proverb goes, everybody has his own pekkel. We each carry a knapsack through life, a parcel of problems, our own little bundle of tzorres. When you are young, you think difficulties are for “other people”. When you get older you realize no one is really immune. Nobody has it all.

There is a famous folk story of a group of villagers who formed a circle and each individual opened his knapsack, revealing the contents for all to see. They walked around the circle of open parcels and everyone had the opportunity to choose whichever one he liked. In the end, each one chose … his own.

It’s more than just "better the devil you know". When we actually see with our own eyes what the other fellow’s life is all about behind closed doors, what’s really inside his knapsack, we feel grateful for our own lot in life and happily choose our very own pekkel, with all its problems.

The Almighty is giving us good advice. Be wise enough to realize that you’ve got to look at the whole picture. When we do, this difficult commandment becomes more easily observable. Not only is it sinful to envy what other people have; it is foolish. Life is a package deal.


Mishpatim

In days bygone, Yiddish speaking Jews coined the phrase luftmentsh to describe that incurable dreamer type who is always building castles in the sky. Luft means air and someone who lives in the air with pie in the sky fantasies qualifies for this title of dubious distinction. ”If only this deal comes off, I’ll be set for life!” or “When I win the lottery … etc., etc.” The money has been spent before he has even bought the ticket. He’s always anticipating the big breakthrough and then, in the end, explaining why it didn’t quite happen. This is the life story of our luftmentsh.

There is a line in the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Mishpottim, concerning the Jewish bondsman which sums up this phenomenon. Im b’gapo yovvo, b’gapo yeitzei (if he came in alone, he goes out alone). Simply speaking, this tells us that if he entered his period of service unmarried, he must leave unmarried and his master may not exploit him to father children who would be born into servitude. But this Torah phrase has become a traditional way of expressing one of life’s basic home truths, i.e. no deposit, no return. No pain, no gain.

Whether in business, relationships, the social intercourse of communities and nations, or in raising our children, the principle holds true. The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. Or, in the words of the Tehillim ”Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”

There is the old story told of Shmerel, a poor man who once walked by the home of the richest man in the village. There was an aroma wafting out of the dining room where the wealthy man was enjoying his favorite dish, cheese blintzes. Shmerel took one whiff and was overcome with temptation. He just had to taste those blintzes. No sooner had he arrived home, he begged his good wife, Yentl, to make him some cheese blintzes. Yentl responded ”I’d love to make you blintzes, Shmerel, but I have no cheese”. “Nu, my dear, so make it without the cheese”. “But we have no eggs either”. “Yentl” says Shmerel, ”you are a woman of great ingenuity. I’m sure you can make a plan”. Yentl set out to do the very best she could under the circumstances. Her work done, she set the plate of blintzes in front of her dear husband. Shmerel took one taste, crooked his nose and said ”You know Yentl, for the life of me, I cannot understand what those rich people see in blintzes.”

Clearly, you cannot make good blintzes without using the right ingredients. Just as clearly, we cannot have nachas from our children without putting in the necessary ingredients of a good Jewish education, a solid upbringing at home, quality family time, and above all, by setting a good example.

Too many parents assume that nachas is a democratic right, almost a genetic certainty. If parents are good, successful people and committed Jews, then surely their children will turn out the same. But there are no such guarantees. Especially in today’s complex, confusing and very troubled society.

A hundred years ago the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said, ”In as much as it is a Biblical commandment to put on tefillin every day, so is it obligatory to spend at least half an hour every day thinking about our children and doing whatever possible to ensure that they follow the path in which they are being guided. ”

Don’t be a luftmentsh. Put in the effort, and Please G-d, you will see the rewards. Whether it’s our work or our children, may we enjoy the fruit of our labors.


Terumah

And in the beginning G-d was homeless and so He asked His People to set Him up with some digs. Where does it say that? Well, nowhere actually. But it does say that G-d instructed Moses to tell the people “They shall make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

The question here is, was G-d really homeless? Wasn’t He already dwelling with the people? Why, it was just the other week that we read of the Revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments where G-d came down from heaven to earth? So why suddenly the need for a sanctuary for Him?

The answer lies in the fundamental difference between Sinai and the Sanctuary. Sinai represents a revelation thrust upon the people from above. G-d initiated and activated that encounter. In this experience the Jewish people were somewhat passive. All the thunder and lightning, physically and spiritually, came at them from On High.

The Sanctuary, however, had to be built by the Jews themselves. They had to take the initiative. From the fundraising campaign to raise and collect the raw materials needed for the sanctuary down to the nuts and bolts of construction, the Mishkan was a man- made edifice.

At Sinai the heavens opened for the greatest sound and light show on earth, leaving a nation mesmerized and awe-inspired. But they, themselves, were passive recipients of this unique, never to be repeated, gift from above.

To build a sanctuary took a whole building campaign. Men and women, young and old, everybody rolled up their sleeves. It took weeks, months of hard labor, meaningful contributions by every individual, planning, programming, designing and then actually building a holy house for G-d. We made it happen. And thereby, it was the people who brought G-d down to earth.

It was important for the Jews to appreciate the value G-d attaches to self-help and to DIY [Do It Yourself] projects of a spiritual nature. It is not good enough to sit around waiting for extraordinary revelations, those once in a lifetime supernal visits the Good L-rd might bestow upon us. It is necessary for us to create the infrastructure, to take the building blocks in our hands and “Make me a sanctuary.” To put it simply, are we waiting for G-d or is G-d waiting for us? Who makes the next move?

In not too rare a social discussion, the subject often turn to “Religion.” Some may get pretty blunt about it and even say, “Not for me; If G-d wanted me to be frum, he’d have made sure I was born in Bnei Brak or, at least, into a religious family here.” This reminds me of comedian who had a terrible fear of flying and argued that “If G-d intended man to fly, he’d have given him wings - or at least made it easier to get to the airport!” So he says, “If G-d wanted me to be an angel, he’d have given me wings too.”

The fact is G-d did give us wings. That’s what Sinai was all about. He gave us a dose of revelation, of spiritual shock treatment that has saturated us with an eternal capacity to fly high, to touch the divine. But those were just the tools, now we have to learn to fly. We may have been endowed with the potential to develop our connection to G-dliness but after Sinai it’s up to us to make it happen and to actually bring our innate power to the fore.

True revelation is rare. While there certainly are those special moments when we witness the unmistakable presence of G-d in our lives, we cannot wait for lightning to strike. We need to build our personal sanctuaries for G-d in order to embrace Him and bring Him into our homes and families.

The Rebbe of Kotzk was once asked, “Where is G-d?” He answered, “Wherever you let Him in.”


Tetzaveh

A seemingly dubious distinction is found in this week's Parshah, Tetzaveh. It is the only reading in the Torah where the name of Moses is not mentioned, from the first Parshah of the Book of Shmos (in which he is born) until the end of the Book of Bamidbar. The Parshah opens with words are V'atoh tetzaveh -- "and you shall command." The you is Moses and G-d is telling him what to instruct the Jewish people. But the verse only says "you" -- no name, no "Moshe".

Why?

Some explain that the day of Moses' passing, 7 Adar, almost always occurs in this week, and the absence of his name is an appropriate symbol of his demise. Others suggest that it is as a result of Moses' own words. Remember the Golden Calf episode? The people had sinned and G-d was going to wipe them out and start over again with Moses and his family. Moses defended his errant flock before the Almighty arguing for their forgiveness. And if not? Well, Moses used some very strong words there. M'cheini noh misifrecho -- "Please erase me from your book that You have written!" Moses himself said his name should be erased from the Torah if G-d would not forgive His people. So even though G-d did forgive them, the words of a tzaddik (perfectly righteous person) are eternal and leave an impression. The effect of those words, therefore, was that somewhere in the Book, in Torah, his name would be erased. Moses would be missing where he normally should have appeared. Thus it is that in the week when we remember his passing, Moses' name is gone.

So say a variety of commentaries. But, characteristically, the Chassidic commentaries, reflecting the inner dimension of Torah, go a step further -- and deeper. What's in a name? they ask. Who needs a name? Does a person require a name for himself? Not really, he knows who he is. So a name is essentially for other people to be able to attract his attention, so they can call him, address him, etc. In other words, a name is only an external handle, a vehicle for others to identify or describe a person; but it is all outside of the person himself and peripheral to his own true, inner identity. Names are secondary to the essence of an individual. The essence of every person, who he or she really is, is beyond any name, beyond any title.

So why is Moses' name not mentioned? Because he said, "Erase me" at the Golden Calf? Because he spoke with chutzpah before the Almighty? You think it is a punishment? Not at all. On the contrary, this was perhaps the greatest moment in the life of our greatest spiritual leader.

What would we imagine to be Moses' finest hour? Receiving the Torah? Leading the Jews to the Exodus? Splitting the Sea? Would you be shocked if I told you it is none of the above? Indeed, Moses' finest, most glorious, absolutely greatest moment on earth was when he stood his ground before G-d, pleading for his people, fighting for their forgiveness. His most brilliant, shining hour was when he put his own life and future on the line and said: "G-d, if they go, I go! If you refuse to forgive these sinners, then erase my name from your holy Torah!" It was through Moses' total commitment towards his people that the faithful shepherd saved his flock from extinction. And G-d Himself was pleased with His chosen shepherd's words and acceded to his request.

So the absence of Moses' name this week, far from being a negative, carries with it a profound blessing. It does not say the name Moses, but "v'atoh" -- and You. A name is only a name, but here G-d talks to Moses in the second person directly. You. And the You represents something far deeper than a mere name; it is the You symbolizing the spiritual essence of Moses. And what is that essence? His unflinching commitment to his people, come what may -- even if it be at his own expense.

This is the very soul of Moses, the faithful shepherd. The You that goes beyond the superficial and beyond what any name could possibly encapsulate. It represents the deepest core of his neshomoh, deeper than any appellation or detailed description could hope to portray.

Moses' name may be missing, but his spiritual presence is felt in a way that no name could ever do justice to. May all our leaders take note and be inspired.


Ki Tissa

It’s too late. I’m too far gone. It’ll never be the same. How many times have we heard those words? Or, worse still, said them?

This week’s Parsha, Ki Sissa, tells the story of the Golden Calf, the worst national sin in the history of the Jewish people. Now, frankly, if I were the editor of the Bible I might have left that part out. How humiliating to the Jews! Just weeks after the greatest revelation of all time, when they saw and heard G-d up front and personal, they go and prostrate to a cow?! How fickle can people get? But the Torah is unflinchingly honest and records this most unflattering moment of ours in all its gory detail.

Why?

Perhaps the very important lessons we need to draw from this embarrassing episode are, firstly, that people do sin, human beings do make mistakes, and even inspired Jews who saw the divine, can mess up - badly. And, secondly, that even afterwards there is still hope, no matter what.

In the very same Parsha we read how G-d tells Moshe to carve out a second set of tablets to replace the first set he smashed when he came down the mountain and was shocked by what the Jews had gotten up to. (Sort of ”You broke them, you fix them”. Like the guy who fell asleep during the Rabbi’s sermon and the Rabbi tells the Shamash to go and wake the fellow up. The Shamash says ”Rabbi, you put him to sleep, you wake him up!”) The Torah does not intend to diminish our respect for that generation, but rather to help us understand human frailty, our moral weakness and the reality of relationships, spiritual or otherwise.

G-d gave us a perfect Torah. The tablets were hand-made by G-d, pure and sacred, and then we messed up. So is it all over? Is there really no longer any hope? Are we beyond redemption? After all, what could possibly be worse than idolatry, especially at a time like this? We broke the first two commandments and the tablets were shattered into smithereens because we were no longer worthy to have them. It was the ultimate infidelity.

So Torah teaches that all is not lost. As bad as it was - and it was bad - it is possible for man to repair the damage. Moshe will make new tablets. They won’t be quite the same as G-d’s, but there will be Tablets nonetheless. We can pick up the pieces of life. Hope springs eternal.

Consider the significance of breaking the glass under the Chupah. Besides never forgetting Jerusalem and praying for her full restoration, this ceremony teaches a very important lesson about life to a bride and groom who are about to embark on their own new path in life. What happens immediately after the groom breaks the glass? Everyone shouts “Mazel Tov!”. The message is clear. Something broke? Nu, it’s not the end of the world. We can even laugh about it and still be happy. Nisht geferlech. Lo nora. This too shall pass. A very practical, peace-keeping tip for the new couple.

It is possible to pick up the pieces in life. Whether it’s our relationships with G-d, our marriage partners, our children, our friends or our colleagues, we can make amends and repair the damage.

If we could recover from the Golden Calf, our own challenges today are small indeed.


Vayakehl

Moshe said to the children of Israel: ”See G-d has appointed Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur of the tribe of Judah; He has filled him with the spirit of G-d, with wisdom, with insight, with Divine inspiration and with the ability for all type of workmanship”.

Chur, Betzalel’s grandfather, was a son of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. Betzalel was a great grand nephew of Moshe. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 69b), records that Betzalel was only 13 years old when he was appointed as master architect and designer for the Sanctuary. Imagine a little Bar mitzvah boy telling the great Moshe how to build the Tabernacle!

Remarkable – and regrettably all too rare. Ask any Shul Rabbi today and he will tell you that it is only the exceptional young man who experiences a sense of true maturity at the time of his Bar mitzvah. It may sound shocking but the average Bar mitzvah is a failure. I don’t mean that the young man failed his Hebrew test or didn’t perform adequately on the Bimah. Most parties are successful and are lots of fun too. 

Bar mitzvahs are failures because once the gifts have been unwrapped, the cash deposited and the balloons have popped, what is left? Is there any lasting value to this year of study, of running to Shul for lessons, of nerves and anxiety? The success of a Bar mitzvah should really be judged by the sustainability of the experience and by the value added to the lad’s life.
A Bar mitzvah is meant to be an initiation into Jewish life and we’ve turned it into a graduation. A young man goes through the compulsory 12 months of drudgery and then wipes his brow and with a deep sense of relief quotes Dr. Martin Luther King’s ”Free at last, free at last. Thank G-d Almighty I’m free at last.”

It’s like the old story with the Synagogue that was plagued by mice until the Rabbi decided to give all the mice a Bar mitzvah. They were never seen again. Or, the Rabbi who said he finally worked out what happened to the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. They never really got lost, he said. They just had a Bar mitzvah!

A generation ago, the Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, advocated that the age of Bar mitzvah should be moved up to 17 or 18 in the hope that we might then be addressing a more mature young man and appealing to his rational mind to better appreciate the Jewish way of life to which he was being introduced. After all, just because he’s reached puberty and biological maturity, - the halachic measure of majority - doesn’t mean he is emotionally mature. Perhaps an 18 year old would respond more wisely and actually be inspired by what Judaism has to offer. While, to this day, nobody has acted on Roth’s suggestion, all agree that something must be done and that throughout most of the 20th century and now 21st, the Bar mitzvah syndrome is one of Judaism’s most spectacular educational failures.

Do we really think we can prepare 13 year old boys or 12 year old girls for the big issues of life? Can we teach Jewish philosophy to this age group? What is the meaning of life? Can one prove the existence of G-d? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where was G-d in Auschwitz? The only answer we’re giving them to all these questions is a sing song passage they must learn to parrot by rote. More than often they have no clue what they are singing about.  

The truth is that it’s not the young man’s fault. Nor is it the teacher’s fault. And far be it from me to blame the Rabbi! It is the system which is doomed to failure unless an exceptional effort is made by all concerned that this Bar mitzvah experience will be different. Honestly, do we really expect a boy of 13 years to change his lifestyle on his own? Do we expect him to come home and share everything he’s learned and change his whole family and their lifestyles? Once in a blue moon it does happen but those cases are very few indeed.

The average Bar mitzvah fails because the average family doesn’t really want any dramatic change in their son’s life. Nor do the parents want him to come home from his lessons and start preaching to them. What must happen if Bar mitzvahs are to enjoy any measure of long term success is that parents sit down and give some serious thought to what they actually want from and for their son. Do they want a nice performance in Shul, a clever speech and a cool dinner dance? Then that’s what they will get. If, however, they sincerely desire a meaningful rite of passage and a mature sense of earnest acceptance of Jewish responsibilities, then they too - and indeed the whole family – will need to prepare for meaningful change.

Indeed, that is a tall order for many. Realistically, it might be more practical to aim for one new mitzvah for the young man. A daily commitment to Tefillin by him is a basic traditional resolution. And a new mitzvah for the family - like coming to Shul more regularly - might be a good start for them. Then we can hope that there will be some follow through and lasting value to this Bar mitzvah.

In fact, it really must start long before the 12th year of a boy’s life and it certainly cannot end after the party. Synagogues, too, need to offer imaginative programming for teens that will captivate them and inspire them to keep coming back to Shul. That way when they are more emotionally mature they will be there to get those important answers to life’s questions.

On the positive side, many good things can come from the Bar mitzvah experience. Setting goals, achieving them one by one, a schedule of hard work leading to recognizable achievements and at the end of it all being rewarded for a year-long effort – these are all valuable lessons for life.
Bar mitzvah is uniquely Jewish. Non-Jews don’t have any celebrations at the age of 13. In fact, many non-Jewish kids are clamoring for their own equivalent party. Why should their Jewish friends have all the fun? In other cultures, 13 is actually an “unlucky” number. Caterers omit Table Number 13 at functions, hotel elevators mysteriously skip from the12th floor to the 14th and Friday the 13th is a disaster waiting to happen!

But in Judaism 13 is special and it is a milestone which can be made special if we address ourselves to it with intelligent forethought, creative programming and a personalized approach.

At the end of the day it is not the frills that will determine the success of our Bar mitzvahs but the meaningful impression they make on a young man.

Many Jewish Day Schools today are introducing innovative ideas to make the experience meaningful, positive and more successful in the long term. With imagination, confidence and effort it can be done.

The hardest thing to do in life is for people to change. There are, however, a few rare moments in life when there is a special window of opportunity for positive change. A wedding is one such time. A Bar mitzvah is another. At these special moments, during these milestones of life, we can find a measure of strength and courage we don’t normally possess.

Betzalel was an extraordinary young man inspired with G-dly talents. While we cannot realistically expect that from every 13 year old, we can look to the occasional successes and draw from their experience. If we apply ourselves, it can provide that special window of opportunity.

Whether today’s Bar mitzvahs will be magic or tragic will depend on the will and determination of parents. Please G-d, with their genuine commitment, coupled with good Shul and School programs as well as inspired teachers, we will make the magic the Jewish people need to build our future.  


Pekudei

Transparency and accountability - new buzz words for 21st century corporate governance. No doubt all upright, honorable people welcome every genuine effort to stop corruption and dishonesty in whatever sphere of society, corporate, governmental or personal. But is this really a new phenomenon? Is ours, in fact, the first generation in history concerned about such issues?

In this week's Parsha, Pekudei, we learn that way back in the days of Moshe a transparent accounting and detailed audit was conducted over the donations made by the Israelites towards the building campaign for the Sanctuary and its sacred vessels. The contributions of gold, silver and copper were all weighed and tallied so that no one could cast any aspersions on the integrity of Moshe and his team. In fact, the commentaries derive from this episode that those in charge of communal charity funds should likewise hold themselves accountable. We all need to be ”innocent in the eyes of G-d and man.”

Mishna Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers, reminds us to consider that one day we will all face ultimate accountability. Each of us will stand before the heavenly tribunal to give a din v’cheshbon, a ”full justification and accounting” for the way we lived our lives.

It is fascinating to note that somehow the Talmud (Shabbes, 31a) was able to get wind of the actual questions we will be asked by that supernal tribunal. (Can you avoid imagining the scene of the tough guy cop pulling over his suspect and saying, ”We’d like to ask you a few questions”?) Do you know what the very first question is going to be? Surprise, it’s not did you believe in G-d, or fast on Yom Kippur. Believe it or not, the first question on this final of final exams is ”Did you deal faithfully in business?” Not how religious you were with G-d but how you conducted your business affairs. Were you honest and fair with people?

The second question, however, does go to the heart of our Jewishness. ”Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study? ”It would appear that familiarizing oneself with Torah and becoming a knowledgeable Jew is the key that opens the doors to everything else in Jewish life.

Is it not an anomaly of our times that many of our most brilliant legal minds - attorneys, advocates and judges – may have never opened a single page of the Talmud, Judaism’s classic encyclopedia of law? Or that some of our finest doctors may be completely unfamiliar with the medical writings of Maimonides, the great 12th century physician and scholar? Or that our brightest business magnates remain Jewishly ignorant, even illiterate?

When it comes to crossing a red light, ignorance of the law is no excuse. No traffic cop will buy the story that the driver didn’t know it was illegal. In our day and age, with so many new opportunities for Torah study available, Jewish ignorance just doesn’t wash. If the Talmud was once a closed book, today it’s available in English – and there are teachers to go with it too. Jewish Studies opportunities abound in every community. And if one is geographically challenged, the internet can work wonders.  If you don’t like your own rabbi, you can choose from a host of ’virtual’ rabbis!

Let’s ensure that when they pull us over to ask us a few questions we’ll all be able to answer in the affirmative.


Vayikra

“Sacrifice” is not a word one hears very often these days. It seems to pretty much have fallen out of our lexicon. ”Sacrifice” somehow has a negative ring to it, like giving up something precious or losing out on something big.

Nobody is getting in line to be the ”sacrificial lamb.” It simply has a bad vibe to the modern ear.  

This week we begin the book of Vayikra, which, essentially, is a book about sacrifices – specifically the variety offered on the altar of G-d in the Beit Hamikdash in days bygone. So let’s confront some of our attitudes towards the word “sacrifice”.

It’s been some decades now that the pursuits of self-fulfillment, personal self-esteem and "Looking Out for No.1" have been taken as necessary givens in our lives. Assertiveness, self-respect, not to allow anyone else to make us their doormat, these are all now taken for granted. Although, of late, martyrdom has become popular in certain "cultures," generally Western sophisticates are not looking to be martyrs for anyone and sacrificial lambs are ancient, antiquated and decidedly not on "today."

Take the case of Jewish mothers. Those loving, selfless souls have long ago been tried, found guilty and convicted of smothering their children. ”She demanded Medical School or else!” “She force-fed me chicken soup - intravenously!” Jewish novelists have made millions denouncing their mothers to the world.

While there may be an element of truth in the notion that Jewish parents can sometimes be overbearing or a little too pushy (just ask Jewish school deans), I would venture to suggest that the sacrifices our parents, and especially our mothers, have made over the generations are worthy of our respect and eternal gratitude rather than our laying the blame for all our neuroses at their doorstep.

If we are objective we would have to admire and hold up as an icon any human being who puts the welfare and happiness of others above their own. Why is such selflessness and sacrifice admirable in the heroes of nations and freedom movements but disdainful in our mothers? Surely the successes of Jewish sons and daughters must have a lot to do with the people who bore and raised them. It is a modern miracle that a generation of penniless Jewish immigrants is directly responsible for their offspring’s smooth integration into the new world and their remarkable achievements in virtually every sphere of contemporary life. It simply could not have happened without major sacrifices and a total commitment by parents to their children.

But that was then. Today, we take a somewhat more “enlightened” approach. ”I should ruin my own life for my kids’ sake?” “I need space.”“ I need my own opportunities for self-expression and personal gratification.” They are indeed valid needs and worthy goals. But all too often we seem to carry it a little too far. Why should a woman who has decided that she wants to be the best mother for her children that she possibly can be made to feel inadequate if she puts it on hold or even gives up her career? If she derives genuine gratification from seeing her children well nurtured, independent, moral and proudly Jewish, is that a sin? Does that make her an anachronistic Bobba?

Once upon a time husbands and wives did not go out every single Saturday night, but they stood by each other through thick and thin. Once we were taking our kids to extramurals. Today we go to our own extramural activities - gym, golf, bridge, poker, the manicurist and, of course, the therapist.

In fact, it may be that the reason we run to therapists is because we’re so very busy with ourselves and we simply think about ourselves too much. ”I’m overweight, I’m unfit, I’m unfulfilled, I’m depressed, etc.” If we spent more time thinking about others and extending ourselves, whether to our own families or the wider community, we might very well be a lot healthier emotionally.

Judaism teaches that sacrifice and selflessness are character traits to respect, admire and emulate. The Yiddishe Mamma of old will be an eternal heroine to our people. Let’s stop being so obsessed with ourselves and our own satisfaction and start thinking about what we are needed for in this world. Please G-d, we will be able to keep our social and family balances on an even keel.

May the sacrifices we make and the caring and giving we do bring us the blessing of real nachas and ultimate personal satisfaction too.

 


Tzav

Without going into the whole question of sacrifices, one difficult phrase that appears in this week’s reading and throughout the early chapters of Vayikra is reiach nichoach l’Hashema satisfying aroma to G-d. These few words seem to accentuate an element of appeasing the Deity in the sacrifices. Why the repeated emphasis on satisfying G-d?

Some have suggested that with all the pageantry associated with Temple rites and rituals, people might come to place undue importance on the Kohanim and their ceremonials. The ritual directors might become so prominent in people’s eyes that they would forget about the Almighty. It was therefore necessary to remind worshippers to whom they ought to be directing their offerings, thoughts and prayers.

Rabbis often called upon to pray for people. This one is in need of a blessing for improved health, the other wants to earn a better living and so it goes. Of course, there are set times for such prayers in the synagogue service and they are happy to oblige. But they also suggest to people that they themselves should be in Shul for the prayer too. Furthermore, there is no more genuine prayer than that of the person in need. Surely their sincerity will be unmatched, even by the most pious of communal leaders.

The story is told of a saintly rabbi of yesteryear who was approached by a woman in need of a blessing for her child. The Rabbi demanded a large amount for charity in return for his prayer. The woman was apologetic and said she didn’t have that amount of money. Could the rabbi reduce the price? But he was adamant. After all her haggling got her nowhere, the woman stormed out in a huff. ”I’ll pray for myself,” she said angrily. ”Aha,” said the Rabbi. ”That is exactly what I was hoping to hear. Your prayer will, in fact, be better and more effective than anyone’s.” The saintly man understood that this woman was placing too much credence on him and forgetting about G-d.

There used to be an unhealthy - and thankfully now largely discredited - attitude among many that one could hire a Rabbi to perform all religious duties on their behalf. Let the Rabbi keep kosher and let him observe Shabbes and Yom Tov. Let him study the Torah to keep it alive (barely) to pass on to the next generation … of Rabbis! Meanwhile, I will live the easy life and pay for the services of a rabbinical professional when I need them. Until then, don’t bother me, I’m busy.

A colleague of mine once encouraged someone to try putting on Tefillin in the mornings. His response: ”Rabbi, you do it for me”. He asked his congregant if he could also eat for him and sleep for him. Rabbis are not meant to be intermediaries between Jews and G-d. Every Jew has a personal and direct relationship with G-d. There are not 612 commandments for ordinary Jews and 614 for Rabbis. We all have the same 613 obligations, no more, no less. Rabbis are only teachers, to advise and to guide. The Rabbi will be happy to help and do whatever he can, but remember that, ultimately, we have to help ourselves and each of us can turn to the single most important address in the universe and that is G-d.

Rabbis may be very reliable but don’t rely on the rabbis. Kohanim, Levites, Rabbis and teachers all have their important roles to play. But never confuse the messenger with the One who sent him. Long ago, our sages taught (and it has even become a popular Israeli bumper sticker) we have no one to turn to but our Father in Heaven.  


Shemini

An observant Jew was experiencing a crisis of faith. He decided to sneak into a non-Kosher restaurant and have a fling. He orders "you know what" and is pumping adrenalin big time, full of nervous anticipation of what that forbidden white meat really tastes like. Unfortunately for him, his Rabbi was walking down the road behind him and saw him enter the restaurant. The Rabbi was shocked. He waited outside to see what he would order and when the waiter duly arrived and removed the tray cover revealing the swine in all its glory, decorated with the customary apple in its mouth, the Rabbi rushed in and confronted the Jew. ”How could you?!” he demanded. The shamefaced Jew trying desperately to explain himself out of a corner replies, ”Rabbi, this is such a fancy restaurant. You order an apple and they make such a fuss! ”

This week’s Parsha, Shemini, introduces the Torah’s dietary laws. Animals must chew their cud and have split hooves, fish need fins and scales, and a long list of forbidden fowl is enumerated.

To those of us in Jewish education, it is a continuing source of disappointment that so many Jews still believe the Kashrus laws to be outdated. After all, they insist, in the desert our ancestors needed to protect themselves from trichinosis and all sorts of diabolical diseases so some kind of dietary system was needed. But today, they argue, in an age of government inspection and modern hygiene standards, Kashrus is archaic, anachronistic and quite dispensable.

How sad. The fact is that the Kosher laws were never given to us for health reasons. If they happen to be healthy or provide good hygiene that is purely a fringe benefit. It may well be one of the perks but it has never been the reason. 

I often joke that if Kashrus was for health, then all the Rabbis should look like young Arnold Schwarzenegger! And those who don’t keep kosher should look sickly. In fact, anecdotal evidence seems to prove the very opposite. Your average religious type looks rather scrawny (or overweight) and the non-kosher guys are the ones with the big biceps!

So let it be stated categorically. Kashrus is not for our physical health but for our spiritual health. It is not for our bodies but for our souls. It is a Jewish diet to help Jews remain spiritually sensitive to their innate Jewishness.

While the Torah actually records no official reason for these laws, the Rabbis and philosophers have speculated on their purpose. They act as a bulwark against assimilation, we are taught. On a simple level, if we keep kosher, inexorably, we will remain close to Jewish communal life. We will shop in the Jewish neighborhood, possibly find it more convenient to live nearby and generally mix in Jewish company.
 
A colleague once asked a very high-profile Jewish businessman why he was about to marry a non-Jewish woman. “Couldn’t he find a nice Jewish girl?’ His reply was very revealing. “I just don’t mix in those circles anymore, Rabbi.” There is no doubt, though, that had he still kept Kosher as his parents did he would have been compelled to mix in Jewish circles and his life choices may well have been very different.

On a deeper, more spiritual level, keeping kosher keeps our Jewish souls sensitive to things Jewish. This is clearly a mystical concept and completely imperceptible but according to our sages it is a fact. Just as too much red meat or fatty foods create LDL cholesterol; non-kosher foods are bad for your neshomo. They clog your spiritual arteries and prevent those warm, healthy Jewish feelings from circulating through your kishkes and your consciousness.
 
It’s very important to have a Mezuzah on your door. It identifies your home as Jewish. But what really defines your home as a ’Jewish Home’– what your Zayde meant when he said with pride ’My children run a Jewish Home’– is the kitchen! A kosher kitchen makes a Jewish home truly Jewish. It also extends a very warm and eloquent invitation to all fellow Jews. Here you are welcome. Here it is safe to come in and eat. Make yourself at home. 

Your favorite diet may build healthy bodies but a kosher diet builds healthy souls.


Tazria

And on the eighth day the foreskin of his flesh shall be circumcised. The verse comes from the opening lines of this week’s Parsha, Tazria, and as they say in the classics, “the remainder is history”.
 
A Bris is a covenant and through the millennia, Jews have kept this mitzvah like no other and have thereby maintained their eternal covenant with G-d. There were times when giving one’s son a bris was punishable by death. Jewish parents still kept the covenant. 

Today, so many young - and not so young - Jews throughout the Former Soviet Union are embracing the covenant knowing full well that it would have been far easier at eight days of age. And though we now hear voices from so-called enlightened quarters suggesting that circumcision is barbaric and an invasion of an infant’s human rights, it still remains the most widely practiced mitzvah in the world. And, please G-d, it will retain that distinction forever. 

I have no intention of getting into the health debate. I am a Rabbi not a doctor. There are enough medical experts who can prove the physiological benefits and certainly justify it even were there no compelling religious motivation (apparently it is now believed to help in preventing HIV/AIDS too). Nor do I intend waxing philosophical here on the underlying symbolisms of circumcision. 

Simply put, from a traditional Jewish point of view this is the way we connect to G-d. It is an indelible, eternal connection between the Jew and his creator. The fact that it is performed on a newborn child who wasn’t asked his opinion only emphasizes the idea that the covenant is not limited by our finite rationale but transcends the boundaries of human understanding. 

Our bond with G-d is not something that can be explained rationally. Were that the case we would have ceased to be a long ago. The continuing saga of Jewish survival defies logic. Logically, we should not exist. The bris symbolizes that transcendence and the Jewish people’s never-wavering commitment to the covenant has always been reciprocated by the G-dly miracles that have delivered us time and again.
 
Some years ago a Rabbinical colleague and his wife were leading a discussion group with young couples. At one point in the evening a young man poured cold water on the Rabbi’s arguments by declaring himself an agnostic. When asked if he had any children, the young man replied “Yes”. When asked whether he had a son. Again, he answered affirmatively. ”Did you give your son a Bris?” he asked. At which point he looked at my colleague as if he had just arrived from another planet. ”What kind of ridiculous question is that?” he demanded. The Rabbi explained that if you’re really not sure that there is a G-d out there, then why subject your child to unnecessary surgery? Without religious motivation it might very well be considered barbaric. Through his son’s bris he realized he wasn’t such an agnostic after all. 

I am not a Mohel but I have attended many circumcision ceremonies and find it very moving to see parents, including those who are not at all religiously observant, cry with emotion as they experience the continuing link of Jewish peoplehood being manifested in their very own family dynasty.
 
Many fathers would probably have trouble explaining why they gave their son a bris , but they’d have much more difficulty if they had to explain why they didn’t. 


Metzora

Does every cloud really have a silver lining? Is there always a blessing in disguise inside every curse? Well, admittedly, it isn’t that easy to discern but we most certainly do believe in the concept.

This week’s Torah reading deals with the purification of those afflicted by the strange malady known as tzoraas (a word uncannily similar to tzorres!), often mistranslated as “leprosy” although totally unrelated. The Vishnitzer Rebbe explains the final verse in last weeks Parsha, Tazria, as follows: “This is the cause of the tzoraas infliction, due to following fashion, be they clothes of wool or linen, drinking or night life or use of all leather accessories, that can either make or break a person”.

This weeks Parsha, Metzora, recounts different types of tzoraas manifestations – on a person’s body, in his clothes or even in the walls of his house. In the latter case, if after the necessary quarantine period the stain had still not receded, the stones of the affected wall would have to be removed and replaced with new ones.

Now imagine the walls of your house being demolished. Is that a blessing or a curse? 

No doubt the homeowner in question did not feel himself particularly blessed.

But, according to Rashi, the previous Canaanite owners would bury their treasures inside the very walls of their homes. The only way an Israelite would ever discover those hidden valuables in his newly acquired home was if the stones of the house would be removed. When this happened, it didn’t take long for the poor unfortunate tzoraas-afflicted homeowner to be transformed into the wealthy heir of a new found fortune. Suddenly his dark cloud was filled with linings of silver, gold and all kinds of precious objects.
For him, in a moment, the curse became blessing.

Some time ago a friend’s business went into liquidation. Naturally, he was absolutely devastated. After a while, he opened a new business which, thank G-d, prospered. He later confessed to me that in retrospect he was able to see how the earlier bankruptcy was truly a blessing. I still remember his words, ”Before we were working for the banks, now we are working for our families.”

A woman in a colleague’s congregation was suffering from heart disease and the doctors said she really needed bypass surgery. But she also had other medical complications which made a heart operation too dangerous to contemplate. Her quality of life was very poor. If she went for a walk, she would have to stop and rest every few minutes. One day, she suffered a heart attack. She was rushed into hospital and the doctors said her only chance of survival was an emergency bypass operation. There was a 50/50 chance of success, but if they didn’t do it she had no chance at all. They performed the surgery and, thank G-d, she made a full recovery enjoying many years of greatly improved quality of life with nachas from children and grandchildren. For years she would joke, ”Thank G-d I had a heart attack. I got my bypass! ”It was no joke.

It would be naïve to suggest that it always works out this way so quickly. Life isn’t so simple and I am not that simplistic. Sometimes it takes much longer to see the good that is hidden in the traumas and difficulties of life. But we will continue to believe that G-d is good, that He really does want the best for us and that, one day with hindsight, we will see how each of our frustrations did somehow serve us well in the long term.

All of us will at one time or another experience disappointments in life. The challenge is to learn from those disappointments and grow from them. Who knows if the wiser, more sensitive person we become is not the silver lining itself?

In general, there are two qualities which form a powerful combination to help us appreciate that there is a hidden goodness inside every misfortune – faith and patience. With faith that there is a higher, better purpose to life and with patience to bide our time for its revelation, we will be able to persevere and weather the crises of life.

Please G-d, may we all find our silver linings soon.  


Acharei Mot

If anyone was bent on convincing us that Torah was old-fashioned, this would be a good Parshah to prove it. Leviticus, Chapter 18, contains the Bible's Immorality Act. Our moral code, the forbidden relationships, who may marry whom and who may not--all come from this week's reading.

We read this same chapter every year on Yom Kippur afternoon. And every year in every Shul around the world someone asks the very same question. "Why on Yom Kippur, Rabbi? Was there no other section of the Torah to choose besides the one about illicit sex? Is this an appropriate choice to read in Shul on the holiest day of the year?"

Fair question. So the Rabbis explain that this is, in fact, the ultimate test of our holiness. The most challenging arena of human conduct, the one that really tests the mettle of our morality, is not how we behave in the synagogue but how we behave in our bedrooms. To conduct ourselves appropriately in public is far easier than to be morally consistent in our intimate lives.

Old-fashioned? You bet. In a world of ever-changing, relative morality where gay marriages and Euthanasia have become acceptable, the Torah does indeed seem rather antiquated.

Man-made laws are forever being amended to suit changing times and circumstances. When a new super-highway is built, traffic officials may decide that it is safe to raise the speed limit. Should there be a fuel shortage, these same officials may decide to lower the speed limit in order to conserve the energy supply. Human legislation is constantly adapting to fluctuating realities. But G-d's laws are constant, consistent and eternal. Divine legislation governs moral issues. Values, ethics, right and wrong, these are eternal, never-changing issues. Humankind has been confronting these problems since time immemorial. From cavemen to Attilla the Hun to nuclear superpowers, the essential issues really have not changed very much. Questions of moral principle, good and evil, have been there from the very beginning. Life choices are made by each of us in every generation. These questions are timeless.

So we read that adultery was forbidden in Moses' day and it still is in ours. So is incest. But it wouldn't shock me at all if the same forces motivating for new sexual freedoms soon began campaigning for incestuous relationships to become legal. And why not? If it's all about consenting adults, why deny siblings? Given the slippery slope of our moral mountains, nothing is unthinkable any more.

Ultimately, morality cannot be decided by referendum. We desperately need a higher authority to guide us in the often confusing dilemmas of life. In Egypt and Canaan lots of degenerate behavior was acceptable, even popular. In this week's Parshah, G-d tells His people that He expects us to march to a different beat. We are called upon to be a holy nation, distinctively different in this, the most challenging test of our morality. It doesn't matter what is legal or trendy in Egypt, Canaan, America or Scandinavia. We have our own moral guide, our own book of books which requires no editing or revised editions for the new age. Because right is right and wrong is wrong and so it will always be.

A wise rabbi once wrote that we mustn't confuse "normal" with "average." Since there are people out there who, tragically, may have lost a leg, this would mean that the "average" person has something like 1.97 legs. But that isn't quite "normal." A normal person has two legs. When Torah teaches us to be holy and distinctive, it is reminding us to be normal, not average. Average can be rather mediocre. Just be normal and retain your Jewish uniqueness. It may not be easy. It may not be politically correct. You probably will not win any popularity contests. But you will be faithful to the eternal truths of life. And in the long run, you will be right.


Erev Pesach

It’s into the final stretch now. Soon we’ll be conducting the search for chometz and then it will be Erev Pesach and the beautiful festival of freedom will be upon us.

The very first Mishna in Maseches Pesochim states that we must search for chometz in all places where we may have brought chometz during the course of the year. Any room into which we never brought chometz, does not need to be searched.

There is the well-known interpretation that chometz symbolizes arrogance which, like a rising dough, is all about the inflated ego. Now, let us understand the Mishna in light of this definition of chometz. Where should one search for chometz? Anywhere we may have introduced chometz. This would then mean, where should one seek to uproot arrogance? Anywhere we may have introduced arrogance. Now, do we bring arrogance into someone else’s personality?

Not usually. We are responsible only for our own egos not someone else’s. So, according to a Chassidic twist on the Mishna, we have no business searching for arrogance in other people. The place we need to be searching is inside our very own personalities and psyches.

It is sad that all too often that we tend to find fault with others. We might consider someone else to be bigheaded or egotistical. But, actually, the unhealthy ego which we need to "search and destroy" is not the one in other’s but the ego within ourselves. After all, did we ever bring arrogance into anyone else’s personality? Are we ever the cause for someone else’s ego excesses? Not really. Why then are we searching in a place into which we never brought any ”chometz?" We need to search in our own backyards.

Why do we look for ”chometz” in other people at all? Why look for some juicy piece of gossip or a little misfortune to gloat over? Why not look for good news, happy things or positive information?

There is an interesting question raised concerning the traditional custom of searching for chometz. This was done - and still is – with a candle, a feather and a wooden spoon. The candle to search for crumbs in every nook and cranny and the feather to sweep the crumbs into the spoon. Then it is all put into a paper bag which is thrown in the fire when we burn the chometz the following morning. The question is this: it makes perfect sense to burn the objects which came into direct contact with the forbidden chometz, i.e. the wooden spoon, the feather, the bag, but why must we burn the remainder of the candle? The candle never touched the chometz at all?

Please G-d, we will find and remove our own personal chometz, our own shortcomings and only highlight the good in others. In our efforts we will help bring our generation to the ultimate exodus and the final redemption.


Kedoshim

Who is holy? Is it the mystic in the mountains, the monk in the monastery, or the guru in the garage? Perhaps it is the lady with the crystal ball or the meditating yogi?

People today have fallen in love with Spirituality, Mysticism and Kabbalah. I’ve even given a whole series of Kabbalah classes myself. Judaism is certainly rich in spirituality and the mystical perspective helps us to a deeper understanding of our faith and its practice. But how would Judaism define ”holy”? Does one have to be a mystic in order to be holy?

This week’s Parshah, Kedoshim, begins with the injunction you shall be holy. Then it launches into a litany of biblical laws from religious to ethical ­- respecting parents, elders, charity to the poor, honesty in business, observing the Shabbat, not to dabble in the occult, the famous ”Love Thy Neighbour” not to take revenge, the forbidden relationships — all kinds of things that would not necessarily be associated with becoming spiritual.

It is clear from our Parshah that while we do most definitely believe in the spiritual component of Judaism, the road to holiness is not so much ethereal or otherworldly but practical and pragmatic. Holiness is to be found more in the ordinary everyday things we do or don’t do than in mantras and metaphysics. Self-restraint, discipline, honesty, decency, doing the right thing — these are the things that can lead us to holiness. You don’t need a guru with a guitar, séances, incense or even long, flowing robes. You need to be a mentsch, control your passions and behave correctly. And that, as opposed to all the spooky stuff, is what constitutes holiness.

At the end of the day, the Torah is telling us to be different from those around us. Whether it was the Egyptians and Canaanites of old or the hedonists and sensualists of today, the message is the same. Holiness means distinctiveness. A Jew must march to a different beat. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are a people apart.

Our being different is expressed in many ways. The same Parshah that reminds us to keep Shabbat also cautions us to keep honest weights and measures in our shop, not to lie, to be careful to pay our employees on time and not to gossip.

The same Parshah that boldly declares ”Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself” also warns us not to get too lovey-dovey with everyone — not with your daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, father’s wife, anyone else’s wife, nor a member of the same gender.

Yes, there is something pretty holy about a young couple exercising self-discipline and waiting patiently until their Chupah in order to express their love for one another. It shows character, nobility, and I have no doubt they will confirm that it was worth waiting for. Yes, married couples who work hard to keep their marriages and family life intact, even though it may sometimes be difficult, are acting in a G-dly manner. That, too, is holy.

Far be it from me to make light of holy men and miracle workers. But before we run to faith healers or buy red strings and holy water, perhaps we ought to consult the Torah and try the bread and butter stuff of Judaism first. Let us live with honesty, integrity, respect, honor, dignity and discipline. Then we will be holy.


Emor

This week's parsha, Emor, is where we read about the laws applying to a Kohen, how, as a Minister serving in G-d ’ s Temple, he may not come in contact with the dead, his body should be unblemished, certain marriages are prohibited to him, etc.

You may not have heard the story of the fellow who visits his Rabbi and begs him to make him a Kohen. He just has to belong to the priestly tribe and he is prepared to pay the Rabbi any amount of money for the honor. The Rabbi patiently explains that neither he nor anyone can make the man a Kohen. It is simply not in the province of the Rabbinate to do these things. The fellow is desperate. He offers the Rabbi a huge donation if he would only grant him this one wish. The Rabbi is exasperated but intrigued and asks the man why it is so important to him that he be made a Kohen. The guy answers, “Rabbi, my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, I just have to become a Kohen!” 

The truth is that as funny as a born Kohen wanting to buy into his own family may sound, being a Kohen is no joke.

In my own experience, I have been involved in a number of human tragedies all of which emanated from Jewish ignorance about the role of a Kohen and the regulations which pertain to members of the priestly tribe.

While cemetery conduct and protocol for a male Kohen is a very important Mitzvah, failure to comply with these regulations is between him and G-d. It does not affect anyone else, at least not in any earthly, tangible form. However, when it comes to marriage choices there is always someone else involved and, subsequently, very much affected.

Some tragedies are unavoidable. When terror strikes, G-d forbid, it may be impossible to stay out of harm’s way. Illness is not something any sane person consciously chooses. But the most frustrating tragedy of all is one that was avoidable. And when ignorance of our traditions leads to human pain and anguish, then familiarizing ourselves with those traditions could go a long way towards preventing tragedy from happening in the first place.

Picture the scene. A young man announces his engagement and arrives at the Synagogue to book his wedding. The rabbi discovers that he is a Kohen and his fiancé is a divorcee, convert, someone previously married out of the faith, or perhaps the daughter of a non-Jewish father. Very sensitively, he advises the young couple that there may be a halachic impediment to their union being solemnized in Shul. This week’s parsha gives us the basic laws governing whom a Kohen may and may not marry. If indeed he is a genuine Kohen and she does, in fact, belong to one of the above-mentioned categories, we have a problem. The question is, why in the two or three years of their relationship did this issue never surface? The answer is ignorance. Nobody ever told them that there was a problem.

Who gets the blame? Why, the Rabbi, of course. He is accused of being a religious fundamentalist, intolerant, uncaring, rigid and inflexible. Well, let me assure you that my colleagues and I love to be welcoming and accommodating at all times. There are, however, situations when Jewish law and tradition, which to us is sacred and inviolate, may well appear to be standing in the way of human happiness. And we are not empowered to change the law to suit the occasion.

Truly, the responsibility to educate our young people about this particular issue lies with their parents. Especially a father who is a Kohen and has passed down that lineage to his son, has a moral obligation to advise his son of what it means to be a Kohen. True, there are privileges, like receiving the first Aliyah in Shul, but there are also responsibilities, like choosing marriage partners very carefully.

These types of pain and misery are absolutely avoidable if we educate our children. Well before they become romantically involved, parents should inform their offspring to be discerning in whom they date. In the same way as no intermarriage ever happened without prior inter-dating, no Kohen would suffer disappointment over an unsanctioned marriage if he only dated girls he would be able to marry in Shul. He shouldn’t be hearing about it for the first time when he approaches the Rabbi with a wedding date.

Marriage today is a tenuous institution. The challenge to remain on the right side of the statistics is enormous. If the Torah tells us that a particular union is not kosher, rather than resenting the interference we should consider it as if the Almighty Himself came down and whispered a word of loving advice in our ears. “Trust me; this one is not right for you.” Sometimes we think the Torah is standing in the way of our happiness when the reverse is true. In the long run, it may well be protecting both parties from making a serious mistake with life long ramifications.

The priesthood is as old as the Jewish people. To be a Kohen is something no money can buy. Space does not allow expansion on the subject here. Suffice it to say, it is a very special blessing. Let’s make sure that our children never consider that blessing, a curse.


Behar

Karl Marx may have been the pioneer but many Jews were involved in the quest for communism in the early days of the Russian revolution. No apologies can [or should -- ed.] be made for this phenomenon. Having suffered unbearably under successive oppressive regimes, those political activists genuinely thought communism would be better for the people than czarist corruption. Their sense of idealism fueled hopes for a better life and a more equitable future for all. On paper, communism was a good idea. The fact that it failed - and that the new leaders may have outdone their predecessors’ oppression, may reflect on the personalities as much as on the system.

What is Judaism’s economic system? Is there one? I suppose it could be described it as “capitalism with a conscience.” In promoting free enterprise, the Torah is clearly capitalistic. But it is a conditional capitalism and certainly a compassionate capitalism.

Winston Churchill once said, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent vice of communism is the equal sharing of miseries.” So Judaism introduced an open market system where the sharing of blessings was not left to chance or to wishful thinking but was made mandatory.

Our Parsha, Behar, gives us a classic example. Shemitta, the sabbatical year, was designed to allow the land to rest and regenerate. Six years the land would be worked but on the seventh year it would rest and lie fallow. The agricultural cycle in the Holy Land carried with it strict sets of rules and regulations regarding the owner of the land’s rights and responsibilities. No planting, no pruning – and whatever grows by itself is “ownerless” and there for the taking. The owner may take some but so may his workers, friends and neighbors. The landowner, in his own land, had no more right than the stranger. For six years you own the property but on the seventh you enjoy no special claims.

This is but one example of many of Judaism’s “capitalism with a conscience.” There were many other legislated obligations to the poor - not optional extras, not even pious recommendations but clear mandatory contributions to the less fortunate. The 10% tithes, leaving the corners of one’s field, the gleanings and the forgotten sheaves to the poor are all part of the system of compassionate capitalism. [
Also note, the "poor" have to do the work -- ed.]

Judaism thus presents an economy which boasts the best of both worlds – the advantages of an unfettered, free market allowing personal expression and success relative to hard work, without the drawbacks of corporate greed. If the land belongs to G-d then we have no exclusivity over it. G-d bestows His blessings upon us but, clearly, the deal is that we must share. Without Torah law, capitalism fails. Unbridled ambition and the lust for money and power lead to monopolies and conglomerates that leave no room for the next guy and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots [and, all measures, in the U.S. at least, show that this is precisely what is happening -- ed.]. The sabbatical year is one of many checks and balances that keep our capitalism kosher and kind.

Some people are too business-like. Everything is measured and exact. Business is business. If I invited you for Shabbes, then I won’t repeat the invitation until you reciprocate first. If you gave my son $180 for his Bar Mitzvah then that is exactly what I will give your son. What you or I are worth is irrelevant. We should be softer, more flexible, not so hard, tough and business-like. By all means, be a capitalist, but be a kosher capitalist. Retain the traditional Jewish characteristics of kindness, compassion, tzedokah and chesed, generosity of spirit, heart – and pocket.

May you make lots of money and encourage G-d to keep showering you with His blessings by making sure you share it generously with others.


Bechukotai

One section stands out from the rest in this week’s Parsha, Bechukosai. It is known as the Tochecho, or, The Rebuke. Here we read a whole litany of disasters that will befall our people should we turn our backs on G-d and abandon His way of life. The tradition is that the Baal Koreh (Torah Reader) himself, without being called up, takes this Aliyah and when he reaches the relevant section, he lowers his voice to soften the blow of these terrible curses.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat once told a story that as a child growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, one Shabbes he went to daven in the Shul of the Rebbe of Klausenberg. Originally from Hungary, the Rebbe was a spiritual giant of a man who had lost 11 children in the Holocaust and never sat Shiva because he was pre-occupied with saving as many lives as he possibly could. After the war, he settled in America and developed a large following. Subsequently, he relocated to Israel and among other things set up the Laniado Hospital in Natanya.

That Shabbes, The Rebuke was being read. When it came to the part of the curses, the Reader did what he always did. He lowered his voice and read in a softer tone. Suddenly, the Rebbe shouted in Yiddish, “Hecher!” (Louder) The Reader was confused. He was simply following the tradition of generations. Perhaps he was not hearing right, so he continued reading in the softer tone. “Hecher!” thundered the Klausenberger Rebbe. “Zol Der Ribono shel Olom heren! Alle klolois zenen shoin mekuyem gevoren. Yetzt darf men nor brochos.” (Let the Almighty hear what is being read! All the curses have already been fulfilled. Now there must be only blessings for our people.)

Many of our Sages have described the Holocaust as the birth pangs of Moshiach and the ultimate redemption. Never will there be a repeat of such calamities. We have endured more than enough of exile, wanderings, pogroms and persecutions. The curses, in all their tragic, cataclysmic imagery have actually materialized. Now there must be only goodness, happiness, warmth and blessing for Am Yisrael.

At the end of The Rebuke, G-d says And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land.

Not only will the Almighty remember us, the Jewish People, He will also remember His Holy Land, our Land of Israel. Perhaps we might interpret this as a message to the anti-Semites of the world who hide behind their anti-Zionist or anti-Israel rantings and ravings. I will remember the Land -- a message also to the nations of the world who claim to be our friends, the shrewd manipulators who are expert in political backstabbing in Washington and London. I will remember the Land -- a message to our own Jewish fantasizers who would undermine their own brothers with their hopeless attempts at appeasing mortal enemies. To all of them the G-d of Israel says I will remember the Land. I will never forsake My land or My people.

And as He remembers us, let us remember Him and our covenant. May we prepare for Shavuot and the Giving of the Torah with earnestness and joy. May G-d and His people always remember each other. Amen.


Bamidbar

How many Jews are there in the world? 13 million? Perhaps 14 million, if you're feeling generous. How many Jews were there before World War II? Apparently the number was around the 19 million mark. So if we deduct the Six Million wiped out in the Holocaust, we are down to 13 million which is exactly where we are today. So the colossal question is this: Where are all the missing Jews? Or, specifically, why in the last 60 years have we not made up our losses?  

The truth is that we all know the reasons. Success, affluence and lifestyles that encourage sophisticated selfishness )"why spend money on kids when we can enjoy it ourselves?") have all encouraged overzealous adherences to Zero Population Growth. In fact, at 1.8 children per Jewish family we aren't even replacing ourselves. 

Then, of course, there are the ravages of assimilation. If every other young American Jew is marrying out, what chance do we have at increasing our numbers?

Now it is true that, traditionally, Jews were never into playing the numbers game. G-d Himself says so in the Bible when he told us, Not because of your great numbers have I chosen you, because you are the smallest of nation. That does not mean, though, that we should be complacent about disappearing Jews. We read in this week's Parsha, Bamidbar, how G-d orders the census of our people. And it doesn't matter what the size of our beard is or what type of Yarmulke we wear or don't wear, at the end of the day G-d counts what is precious to him. So if the Almighty values every single Jew, then how can we allow that Jew to write himself out?

Some years go a prominent leader of the World Jewish Congress was talking on this subject. Asked him if he was not perturbed by the dire predictions being made then about the shrinking Jewish population, he answered that we would probably have a smaller Jewish community but that it would be a stronger one. Those who resisted assimilation would be proud, committed Jews.

One cannot argue the point, but what is deeply disturbing was the seemingly nonchalant attitude and an almost matter of fact tone in his voice. It was almost as if to say, So what! We will be smaller but stronger.

So what?! The Torah says every Jew is important enough to be counted. The mystics teach that every one of us has a Neshama which is a veritable part of G-d. We lost six million in the Holocaust and a Jewish leader says So what?! 

Quite the contrary. One does not have to be a professional at outreach to bring a fellow Jew closer. Bring a friend to Shul. Just get him or her there and let the Rabbis know so they can welcome them and make them feel comfortable. You don't have to be a Rebbetsen to invite an uninvolved Jewish family to your Friday night table. If you know Aleph, teach Aleph to someone who doesn't. If you know Bet, guaranteed there is someone out there who does not. You can be a teacher and an inspiration even if you are not a Rabbi. In fact, many uninitiated Jews are intimidated by Rabbis and would respond better to a friends moral support and a smooth entrée to Jewish life.

Please G-d, we will all fulfill the responsibility and privilege to help rebuild the lost generation and the vanished communities of Eastern Europe. Please G-d, our nation will be strong and will grow in numbers until every lost Jew will find their place and stand up and be counted among our people.


Naso

The mightiest man in the Bible was, of course, Samson. He took on the most savage of beasts and leveled a stadium with his bare hands. In the end, Samson was undone by a haircut — Delilah cut his hair and he lost his strength. Why should such an innocuous event have sapped his strength? The answer is that Samson was a nazirite. And as we read in this week’s Torah portion, the sacred vow of the nazirite precludes him from cutting his hair, coming into contact with the dead, and drinking wine.

At the end of a person’s nazirite period, there were certain atonement offerings he needed to bring to the Temple. The Talmud asks: why should a nazirite, who essentially has taken upon himself voluntary prohibitions beyond the letter of the law, be required to seek atonement? What sin did he commit? One Talmudic opinion suggests that the fact that he denied himself the pleasure of drinking wine is considered sinful.

Now the question is: why is it wrong to deny oneself anything? Just because the Creator allows us to enjoy the fruit of the vine, is it wrong to decline? Will I really be held accountable for every product that bears a kosher certification which I choose to do without? Just because a popular ice cream was recently approved by the kashrut authorities, am I a sinner for sticking to sorbet? And if I haven’t yet made it to that fancy kosher restaurant in Manhattan, am I desperately in need of some atonement?

The answer, it would appear, has more to do with attitude than with blatant iniquity. What is the right way to live? What should be our approach to G-d’s creation and the material world? Do we need to divorce ourselves from society in order to be holy? Should we reject anything that isn’t wholly spiritual because we fear it may interfere with our piety?

There are ideologies which preach celibacy and revere those who sequester themselves from the daily grind of worldly activity. They see the body as unclean, and marriage as a less-than-ideal concession to human frailty. Then there are some who climb mountains to escape to the spiritual realms. The heavens are far more blissful and beautiful than the crass street corners and alleyways of city life.

Judaism sees it differently. We follow neither rejectionist nor escapist theologies. We embrace and engage G‑d’s world. Of course, there are clear guidelines, even rules and regulations. But within the Torah framework we should work with the Almighty’s universe. “In the beginning G‑d created heaven and earth.” Earthiness, too, is part of His vast, eternal plan. That plan is that earthly beings, men and women, should invest their time, energy, wealth and wisdom to infuse the material realm with G‑dliness.

Every mitzvah we do achieves just that. We take the physical and transform it to the spiritual, not by breaking it or running away from it, but by confronting it and molding it into something sacred and purposeful.

“Jews have no nunneries,” goes the proverb. A yeshivah is meant to be not a monastery, but a school which will teach and train students to create spiritual value within the material world. So the nazirite, who because of his own moral weakness found it necessary to distance himself from that which the Creator permitted us, is somewhat sinful after all. And his attitude does indeed require some atonement.

Judaism calls upon us to live a higher, otherworldly life within this world. Rather than allowing the emptiness of a society to bring us down, we are challenged to assertively insist on changing our society for the better.

By all means, drink the wine, but make sure you make kiddush and say “L’Chaim!”


Behaalotecha


Even as G-d was providing them with the most incredible miracles, bread from heaven and water from rocks, they were busy moaning and groaning throughout ... Do we continue in this tradition, thus demonstrating that being a Jew is a burden? Or do we show our children that it is a pleasure?

Read all about it.


Shelach

Some conclusions are more obvious than others. Sometimes the most obvious conclusion isn't necessarily correct. Drawing our own conclusions can often be a risky business.

Take the case in this week's Parshah. The spies sent by Moses return from their reconnaissance mission of the Promised Land with a frightening report about the fierce, warrior nations of Canaan. The Jewish People are dejected, frightened, and even weep at the thought of their impending invasion, convinced it can only be a suicidal mission impossible. The Almighty is angered, the people are punished for their lack of faith in His promise and the spies go down in history as the villains in the story.

But why? What, in fact, was their sin? Moses asked for a report of the land. They came back and reported exactly what they had seen. They told no lies. The land was formidable. The inhabitants were huge and powerful. The fruits were extraordinarily large. They even brought back samples to prove it. So if it was all true why were they punished?

The answer lies not in the report but in their conclusion. The facts as the spies presented them were entirely accurate. The sin was their conclusion, "We will not be able to go up to that people, for it is too strong for us." Moses had sent them on a fact finding mission. Their job was to bring back information. Nobody asked them for their personal opinions. The whole point of their mission was to gather the data necessary for the Israelites to find the best way of conquering the land. That they would do so was a given. G-d had promised them the land, told them of its natural beauty and assured them of success.

The same G-d who just miraculously delivered you from Egypt, the mightiest superpower on earth, split the sea for you and revealed Himself in all His glory to you at Sinai has now said that the Promised Land is there waiting for you. And after all He has done for you; you turn around and publicly doubt His power to help you succeed? This is not only a mistake in judgment. This is shameful, sinful and faithless. The spies' report was correct but their conclusion was disastrous.

A high school teacher decided to demonstrate to his class the dangers of alcohol abuse. So he conducted an experiment. He took one glass of water and one glass of whisky. He then took a little worm and dropped it in the glass of water. The worm had a nice swim and then the teacher removed the worm unharmed. He then dropped the worm into the glass of whisky. In no time at all, the worm was dead. He then turned to the class and asked them what the experiment proved. Whereupon one wise guy at the back piped up and said, "Sir, it proves conclusively that if you drink enough whisky you will never suffer from worms!"

The facts are there for all of us to see. The question is how to interpret them. If we have a preconceived position and then manipulate the data to draw conclusions that suit us, we may come off clever at first but in the end we may well go the way of the spies. Without faith, even the most accurate information can lead to the wrong conclusion.


Shelach Lecha

In democracies as well as in Jewish Law, majority rules. A beit din (court of Torah law) must always consist of an odd number of judges, so that there should always be a majority opinion.

But the fact is, sometimes the majority gets it wrong.

The story in this week’s Torah reading, of the twelve spies sent by Moses to the Promised Land, is a case in point.

Only two of the dozen, Joshua and Caleb, remained faithful to their leader, to the purpose of their mission and to G-d’s assurance that it was a good land. The other ten spies went awry.

The spies were sent on a reconnaissance mission to determine how best to approach the coming conquest of the land of Canaan. Instead of doing what they were sent to do—to suggest the best way forward—ten of the twelve spies brought back a negative report that was designed to intimidate the people and discourage them from entering a ferocious “land that devours its inhabitants,” and which signed off with the categorical conclusion that “we cannot ascend.”

The people responded accordingly. They cried out to Moses, lamenting their very departure from Egypt. So G-d decreed that this generation was not worthy of His precious Promised Land. Furthermore, this day of weeping, on which they cried for no good reason, would become a day of tears for generations. Indeed, our sages explain, this occurred on the Ninth of Av, the day that would become a day of mourning for the destruction of our Holy Temples and many other national calamities throughout history.

Now, the question I’d like to pose here is: why did the people not follow the two good spies, Joshua and Caleb, instead of the others? The obvious answer: they were outvoted and outnumbered. Ten vs. two—no contest. Majority rules.

Tragically, though, they backed the losers. And the result was an extended vacation in the wilderness for them, and a tragedy for all of us to this day.

So, although we may be staunch democrats and believers in the democratic process, clearly, there will be times when the minority is right.

The saintly Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan, better known as the “Chafetz Chaim,” was once challenged by a fellow Jew who was a somewhat educated cynic. “Rabbi,” he argued, “doesn’t the Torah itself say that we must follow the majority? Well, the overwhelming majority of Jews today are not religious. So you religious Jews must come over to our way of thinking!”

The Chafetz Chaim replied with a story.

“Recently, I had occasion to be traveling by coach back home from an important trip. En route, the coachman distributed generous helpings of vodka to his passengers to keep them warm and content. The coachman, too, helped himself to much more vodka than he should have.

“When we came to a crossroads, there was confusion as to which way to turn. Most people argued that the left road was the correct path. I was one of the only sober passengers on board, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that we needed to take the road to the right. So I ask you, my friend, should I too have followed the majority? They were hopelessly drunk and their was judgment impaired. Thank G-d, I prevailed.”

All too often, the values and judgment calls of “the world” are simply wrong. No matter how outnumbered moral people may be, we will continue to follow the path of decency and sanity.

We Jews have never played the numbers game. Always, we have been the smallest of nations. We are known not for our majority, but for our morals.

Not so long ago—I think it was at the time of the fictitious Jenin “massacre”—Kofi Anan questioned, “Can it be that the whole world is wrong and Israel is right?” Guess what. He was spot-on. The whole world was wrong and Israel was right. There simply was no massacre.

My wife has taught high school for many years. Once, a former student of hers asked if she could speak to her privately. She needed some guidance. She was now a young woman, and everyone was telling her she was crazy for insisting that she have no intimate relations before her wedding. She sought my wife’s affirmation that she hadn’t lost her sanity.

All too often it is the world that is stark raving meshuga, veering drunkenly out of control. It takes substantial strength of character to resist the pull of the drunken majority.

May G-d aid us to be men and women of stature, of spirit. May we be inspired with the courage to stand up and be counted, even if it means being that lone voice in the wilderness. Otherwise, we may never get to our destination.


Korach

Some arguments are petty affairs between small people who feel a little bigger need [and] to stand up for their perceived honor or status. Other arguments are honest differences of opinion between people of stature, where each has an opinion worthy of consideration. We need to be able to discern the subtleties beneath the surface of any debate before we can know what sort of argument it is.

The sixteenth chapter of Numbers tells the story of the mutiny led by Korach, a cousin of Moses who challenged Moses’ authority. In the end, Korach and his henchmen were swallowed by the earth in a divine display of rather unearthly justice.

The Midrash reveals some of the behind-the-scenes dialogue between these men. Remember, Korach was no pushover. Besides being of noble lineage, he was clever, wealthy and quite charismatic. One of the questions Korach put to Moses was this: does a house full of holy books still require a mezuzah? Moses answered that it did. Korach scoffed at the idea, ridiculing Moses. The little mezuzah contains the Shema—but two chapters of Torah. A whole houseful of books with the entire Torah won’t do the trick, and a little mezuzah will? It doesn’t make any sense, argued Korach.

Why was Moses’ answer correct? What indeed is the significance of a small parchment on the doorpost in relation to a library inside? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that it all depends on location. The books are inside. The mezuzah is outside. When there are Jewish texts inside our study and living rooms, this indicates that the home is a Jewish home. This is good, and as it should be. But what happens when we leave the comfortable confines of our home? Do we cease to be Jewish?

The mezuzah is at the threshold of our homes, at the juncture and crossover between our inner lives and outer lives. As we make the transition from private person to public citizen, we need to be reminded of whom we are, and that we take our identity with us wherever we may go. There is only One G‑d, says the little scroll, whether in our private domain or in the big, wide world.

One of the many works by well-known author Herman Wouk is an autobiographical novel called Inside, Outside, in which he portrays his own inner struggles straddling these two worlds. His pious Talmudist grandfather had a profound influence on him, but so did Hollywood and Broadway. It took him a long time to find his way and settle into an observant Jewish lifestyle while still writing bestsellers.

Being Jewish “Inside” is relatively easy. It’s when we hit the “Outside” that we encounter temptation and turmoil. The challenge every Jew must face is to remain proudly Jewish even in the face of conflicting cultures, curious looks, and often, hostile attitudes.

In the German-Jewish community of old there was a slogan which has long been discredited. Yehudi b’veitecha v’adam b’tzeitecha. “Be a Jew in your home and a human being outside.” The Nazis did not distinguish between Jews who looked Jewish or those who had removed any visible identifying marks.

Today, traditional dress reflecting a national character is common, accepted and respected—from Scottish kilts to Arab kaffiyehs. The outlandish hairstyles of sportsmen and celebrities are not only accepted—they are mimicked mindlessly by millions of wannabes. Is it too much to expect a Jew to assert his Jewishness in unfamiliar corporate territory, or to keep the kipah on his head even when he walks out of shul?

Moses rejected Korach’s argument, with good reason. The mezuzah does not replace the need for Jewish libraries, but it serves as a perennial reminder on our doorways. As we step out of our home to enter the outside world, it beckons us to take our G-d and our Torah, our values and our traditions, along with us.


Chukkat

Why is faith exciting for some and irrelevant for others, a joy for one guy and an absolute burden for the next? One fellow cannot imagine going to work without first putting on his tefillin and the other hasn't seen his tefillin since his bar mitzvah 40 years ago. This woman can't wait to get to shul and the other can't wait to get out. Why?

This week we read about the ultimate mitzvah of faith, the Red Heifer. It is a statutory commandment whose reason still remains a mystery. I must admit, to take the ashes of a red heifer and sprinkle them on a person so he may attain spiritual purification is, indeed, rather mind-boggling.

According to the Midrash, the Almighty promised Moses that He would reveal the secret meaning of this mitzvah to him, but only after Moses would initially accept it as a Divine decree. If he would first take it on faith, thereafter rational understanding would follow.

The truth is that there are answers to virtually every question people may have about Judaism. Intelligent skeptics I meet are often amazed that what they had long written off as empty ritual is actually philosophically profound, with rich symbolic meaning. But the skeptic has to be ready to listen. You can hear the most eloquent, intellectual explanation but if you are not mentally prepared to accept that listening may in fact be a worthwhile exercise, chances are you won't be impressed. Once we stop resisting and accept that there is inherent validity, suddenly Judaism makes all the sense in the world.

It is a psychological fact that we can grasp that which we sincerely desire to understand. But if there is a subject in which we have no interest, we will walk into mental blockades regularly. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, says this explains why some very astute businessman may sit at a Talmud class and find himself struggling to grasp basic principles of rabbinic reasoning. Why is it that the same person who can concoct brilliant schemes in the boardroom fails to follow straightforward logic in the Talmud class? The answer, says the Rebbe, is that this businessman is really not that interested in the subject. But if it was half as important to him as making money, he might well become a rosh yeshiva!

So, in the same way that G-d told Moses that he could come to comprehend the meaning of the Red Heifer but only after he accepted it, similarly today, those who genuinely wish to understand Judaism will succeed, but only if they buy into the product on some level first.

When I was studying in yeshiva, I would always try to attend the annual "Encounter with Chabad" weekends for university students. These were organized to expose Jewish students to Judaism over a Shabbat and there were lectures by leading Rabbis and religious academics. Once a young man shouted back at the lecturer, "How can you expect me to put on tefillin if I don't believe in G-d?!" The speaker calmly replied, "First put on tefillin, and I promise you will see that you really do believe in G-d."

We all have a G-dly faith inside us. It just needs to be revealed. As illogical as it may sound, if we start by observing a mitzvah, we find that our faith will follow through and begin to blossom. It has been shown to be true again and again. If we are not interested, no answer will be good enough. If we are genuinely searching for truth and we are objective, there are ample and meaningful answers.


Balaak

In this week's parshah, we read the strange but famous Biblical narrative of the heathen prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. At one point an angel blocks the donkey's path and the animal stops in its tracks. Balaam is frustrated and strikes the donkey. "And G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and it spoke to Balaam saying: 'Why did you hit me?' ... And then G-d opened the eyes of Balaam and he saw the angel standing in the way...." So Balaam apologizes to the donkey and says, "I have sinned because I did not know" (Numbers 22:28-34).

I've always wondered: if he genuinely didn't know, why was it a sin?

The answer is obvious: for a prophet who is able to communicate with the Divine not to be aware of an angelic presence right in front of his nose is indeed sinful. A man of his spiritual stature should have known better.

There is no question that in many communities where organized Judaism is weak and not easily available, ignorance of what being Jewish entails may still be a valid excuse. For millions of Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union under an atheistic regime, ignorance of Jewish law and lore is, undoubtedly, justifiable.

But for those of us who live in Jewish communities that are alive and vibrant, for those who are aware enough to be reading these lines, surely ignorance as a rationalization no longer holds water.

In my own community of Johannesburg, South Africa, thank G-d there are educational opportunities too numerous to mention. Day Schools for children, adult education programs; a recent series of lectures we had here on Jewish Mysticism attracted 250 men and women every Monday night for six weeks running.

The Internet, with all its serious flaws and dangers, is providing unparalleled opportunities for Jews, even in the remotest outposts, to connect with their heritage. In this modern mode of outreach, Chabad.org has been an outstanding pioneer. So today, while Jewish ignorance still remains Public Enemy Number One, there are thankfully ample avenues for Jews who were never exposed to Judaism, its teachings and its relevance, to become more aware and better educated.

I remember an advertising campaign that ran in the United States years ago for what was then known as the United Negro College Fund. The fund was established to provide a university education to promising black students from underprivileged backgrounds. To this day, I can still visualize that photograph of a young man studying and underneath the slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

How many Jewish attorneys, advocates and judges have never perused a single page of Judaism's grandest legal repository, the Talmud? How many Jewish doctors and thinkers have never read any of the works of Maimonides, Judaism's great physician and philosopher? How many spiritually enlightened Jews who meditate daily have never been exposed to the teachings of authentic Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism?

Why do rabbis become rabbis? To teach. The word rabbi means "my teacher." True, there are many facets to a spiritual leader's position, but the main incentive for me and for so many of my colleagues is the privilege of educating Jews about Judaism -- especially those who for no fault of their own were not raised with that awareness.

In no way do I minimize the importance of the pastoral role a rabbi plays in his community. Helping people in times of distress, as on joyous occasions, can be deeply gratifying. Counselling troubled souls or ordinary people with moral dilemmas is equally significant. But the most stimulating part of the job for me is teaching Jews how to be Jewish. Teaching Torah and introducing it to the previously uninitiated. The privilege of opening a Jewish mind to the beauty of Jewish wisdom and to the eternal relevance of the Jewish way of life is what led me to the rabbinate.

During my tenure thus far I have officiated at many hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and, sadly, at as many funerals and unveilings. While I always treat each case with the sensitivity and respect it deserves and do my best to make these milestones meaningful rites of passage, my true "job satisfaction" comes when a young person comes to see me for advice on how to explore his or her Jewish identity. Rabbis get a real "high" when young couples take the initiative and ask for guidance on how to establish a really successful Jewish home and family. That's a rabbi's nachas.

So wherever you are reading these lines, follow the wise counsel of Ethics of the Fathers and "Acquire for yourself a rabbi." If you are out in the sticks, there are excellent virtual educators available via this very website. If you live where there is a Jewish organizational infrastructure but don't know where to start, use the facility on this Home Page to find your nearest real teacher.

In our age of the information explosion, ignorance has become a lousy excuse.


Pinchas
Naftali Silberberg

This week's Torah portion begins with the reward which Phinehas received for his act of bravery—meting out punishment to Zimri ben Salu who was openly contemptuous of Moses and was cohabiting with a Midianite woman. Zimri was the chieftain of the Tribe of Shimon, who were staunchly loyal to their leader. Thus Phinehas' act was fraught with danger. The Talmud speaks of the various miracles which occurred on that day which allowed Phinehas to emerge unscathed from Zimri's tent.

Phinehas' act wasn't too rational. He was the proverbial man in Tiananmen Square standing in front of the approaching column of tanks. His chances of success were minimal, but he was merely following the example of the very first Jew. Abraham was a young man in Ur, living amongst a pagan society, when he started preaching a philosophy of monotheism. This was before our Founding Fathers invented revolutionary concepts such as the freedoms of Speech and Religion, and the dictatorial tyrant Nimrod was decidedly displeased with the nuisance Abraham was creating. In fact, Abraham was called the "Ivri" (Hebrew), which means "from the other side," because the entire world was on one side while he, with his monotheistic beliefs, was on the other side. But Abraham didn't flinch because he knew that he was doing the right thing.

The story of Abraham and Phinehas has repeated itself like a broken record throughout our difficult but glorious history. Our nation would not exist today if not for the many heroic, odds-defying acts performed by courageous individuals and groups. Two examples: The holiday of Chanukah celebrates the bravery of a small group of people who refused to reconcile themselves with the spiritual pollution of Hellenism and battled a Greek army which was many times larger and stronger than they. This week's Torah portion always falls in proximity to the 12th of Tammuz, the day when Chabad chassidim celebrate the miraculous release of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, from Stalinist-communist prison in 1927. This after he was sentenced to be executed by a firing squad. At a time when teaching Torah meant almost certain death or Siberian slave labor, the Rebbe did not despair. He defied the Soviet regime, and encouraged his followers to do the same. He established underground yeshivas, mikvahs, kosher slaughter-houses, etc., and he personally oversaw and arranged for the financing of this underground network of Jewish defiance.

The end result of all these stories was victory. Abraham's opponents are relegated to the annals of history, whereas millions of his descendants still follow the path which he paved. [Actually, his legacy includes not only the Jews, but also most of the population of the world today that follow religions which are ostensibly monotheistic – and all of them find their roots in Abraham.] Phinehas was rewarded for his deed, and to this very day his offspring serve as Kohanim (priests) who bless the Jewish people and will resume their service in the Holy Temple with the coming of the Moshiach. The Greeks were banished from the Holy Land; Torah-true Judaism continued to flourish; and we were given another few days every year to celebrate, eat, and be merry… Jewish education continued behind the Iron Curtain until the day when it was shattered. They are gone, and the Torah is still here.

Even when the odds are against us, we must put up a fight for that which is right. We must do what is incumbent upon us, and G-d will take care of the rest.


Mattot

I have always been intrigued by the traditional way in which diamond merchants seal a deal. They shake hands and say “Mazel and Brocha” (“good fortune and blessing”). Once those few words have been said, the deal is done and it has all the power of a legal, contractual transaction.

It is a tribute to the diamond fraternity that in their industry, a word is a word. In some other industries, even a contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Here, the spoken word is deemed to be binding and irrevocable. Interestingly, the “Mazel and Brocha” principle has been upheld in arbitration cases throughout the world.

This week’s Torah portion, Matot, opens with an injunction about the sanctity of our words: “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes . . . if a man takes a vow . . . he shall not desecrate his word; whatever issues from his mouth he shall do . . .” (Numbers 30:2–3).

A word is a word. Promises are promises. And the words we utter are sacred and inviolate. If we disregard what we say, we have profaned and desecrated our words. That is why many people are careful to add the words bli neder—“without vowing”—whenever they say something that might be construed as a vow, so that, should they be prevented from fulfilling what they expressed their intention to do, this would not constitute the grave offense of violating a vow. This, of course, in no way diminishes the regard we hold for our words, and the need to carry out one’s promises even if one stipulated that it is not a vow.

The question is: Why was this commandment given to the “heads of the tribes”? Surely, it applies to each and every one of us. A simple answer is that since it is usually leaders who make the most promises, it is they who need the most cautioning.

Politicians are infamous for campaign promises, which—once they are elected—are rarely fulfilled. They tell about a candidate who promised to lower taxes if he were elected. As soon as he took office, he raised taxes. When he was challenged by the people about his unkept promise, he actually admitted that he had lied. The naïve electorate thought that was quite a genuine confession, and promptly decided that he was the most honest politician they had ever met. We are a gullible people indeed.

Many books have been published on the subject of business ethics. While there are a great many laws and nuances to this theme, at the end of the day, the acid test of business ethics is, “Did you keep your word?” Did you carry out your commitments, or did you duck and dive around them? It makes no difference how other companies are behaving. It matters little whether our competitors are corrupt. We must honor our promises, and that is the ultimate bottom line.

Whether in our business relationships or in the tzedakah pledges we make to the synagogue or to other charities, our word should be our bond. Even if we are worried about the immediate financial costs, we can be assured that, with the passage of time, the reputation we will acquire by speaking truthfully and keeping our word will more than compensate any short-term losses.

Leave the spin doctoring to the politicians. A Jew’s word should be sacred.


Massei

A fellow was boasting about what a good citizen he was and what a refined, disciplined lifestyle he led. "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't gamble, I don't cheat on my wife, I am early to bed and early to rise, and I work hard all day and attend religious services faithfully." Very impressive, right? Then he added, "I've been like this for the last five years, but just you wait until they let me out of this place!"

Although prisons were not really part of the Jewish judicial system, there were occasions when individuals would have their freedom of movement curtailed. One such example was the City of Refuge. If a person was guilty of manslaughter (i.e., unintentional murder) the perpetrator would flee to one of the specially designated Cities of Refuge throughout Biblical Israel where he was given safe haven from the wrath of a would-be avenging relative of the victim.

The Torah tells us that his term of exile would end with the death of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. The Talmud tells of an interesting practice that developed. The mother of the Kohen Gadol at the time would make a point of bringing gifts of food to those exiled so that they should not pray for the early demise of her son, to which their own freedom was linked.

Now this is very strange. Here is a man who, though not a murderer, is not entirely innocent of any negligence either. The rabbis teach that G-d does not allow misfortune to befall the righteous. If this person caused a loss of life, we can safely assume that he is less than righteous. Opposite him stands the High Priest of Israel, noble, aristocratic and, arguably, the holiest Jew alive. Of the entire nation, he alone had the awesome responsibility and privilege of entering the inner sanctum of the Holy Temple, the "Holy of Holies," on the holy day of Yom Kippur. Do we really have reason to fear that the prayers of this morally tainted prisoner will have such a negative effect on the revered and exalted High Priest, to the extent that the Kohen Gadol may die? And his poor mother has to go and shlep food parcels to distant cities to soften up the prisoner so he should go easy in his prayers so that her holy son may live? Does this make sense?

But such is the power of prayer--the prayer of any individual, noble or ordinary, righteous or even sinful.

Of course, there are no guarantees. Otherwise, I suppose, Shuls around the world would be overflowing daily. But we do believe fervently in the power of prayer. And though, ideally, we pray in Hebrew and with a congregation, the most important ingredient for our prayers to be successful is sincerity. "G-d wants the heart," we are taught. The language and the setting are secondary to the genuineness of our prayers. Nothing can be more genuine than a tear shed in prayer.

By all means, learn the language of our Siddur, the prayer book. Improve your Hebrew reading so you can follow the services and daven with fluency. But remember, most important of all is our sincerity. May all our prayers be answered.


Devarim

On the Shabbat prior to Tisha B'Av, the Jewish national day of mourning, we will hear the famous Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) of Chazon, the "Vision of Isaiah." And on Tishah B'Av itself, we will recall the destruction of our Holy Temple nearly 2,000 years ago by fasting and mourning and the other observances of the day.

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust--and that was only 60 years ago! For over 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It's history. What was was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. "When did it happen?" asked the Emperor. "Some 1700 years ago," was the answer he received. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.

Jews never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive. And memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept remembering Zion." What did we cry of? Our lost wealth, homes and businesses? No. We cried for Zion and Jerusalem. "If I forget thee 'O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning. If I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy, then let my tongue cleave to its palate." We were not weeping for ourselves or our lost liberties but for the heavenly city and the Holy Temple. Amidst the bondage, we aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins we dreamt of returning.

And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. Because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait acompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today there are no more Babylonians and the people who now live in Rome are not the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalized and regenerated and forever it will be true that Am Yisrael Chai -- the people of Israel lives!

I remember hearing a story from the Holocaust of a Torah scholar and his nephew. In the concentration camp, they studied the Talmud together. They were learning the tractate Moed Katan, a part of the Talmud which, ironically, discusses the laws of mourning. And when the time came that the uncle saw himself staring death in the face, he said to his nephew, "Promise me that if you survive you will finish studying this book of Moed Katan." Amidst the misery, desolation and tragedy, what thought preoccupied his mind? That the Talmud should still be studied. This was his last wish on earth. Was it madness, or is it the very secret of our survival?

Only if we refuse to forget, only if we observe Tisha B'av, can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, "Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing." If we are to make it back to Zion, if our people are to harbor the hope of being restored and revived, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our National Day of Mourning. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.


Va'Etchanan

When the Ten Commandments are repeated in the Torah as part of Moses' review of the Israelites' 40 years in the wilderness, Moses describes how G-d spoke those words in "a mighty voice that did not end" (Deuteronomy 5:19). One of the explanations offered by Rashi is that Moses is contrasting G-d's voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty did not end, did not weaken. It remained strong throughout.

Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? That it resonated? Is the greatness of the Infinite One that he didn't suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn't need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?

Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy and art of the day. And they might question, is Torah still relevant?

Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the Industrial Revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or, maybe it was during the Russian Revolution that faith and religion were positively primitive.

Perhaps Moses saw our own generation with its satellites and space shuttles, television and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether Torah still speaks to them.

And so Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. The voice that proclaimed the Ten Commandments was a voice that was not only powerful at the time, but one that "did not end." It still rings out, it still resonates, it still speaks to each of us in every generation and in every part of the world.

Revolutions may come and go but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honor Your Parents, revere them, look after them in their old age instead of abandoning them to some decrepit old age home. Live moral lives; do not tamper with the sacred fiber of family life, be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. Dedicate one day every week and keep that day holy. Turn your back on the rat race and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don't be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty or corruption.

Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired, stale or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before. The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.

Torah is truth and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.


Shabbat Chazon: Tisha b'Av  (adapted from the commentary found in the Artscroll Stone Chumash)

 

The Shabbat before Tisha B'Av, is called Shabbat Chazon - the Shabbat of foretelling - as we read the Haftara portion from the prophecy of Isaiah (1:1-27), as the final of the "three of affliction," readings.

Rabbi Mendel Hirsch points out, the prophet does not lament because the Bet HaMikdash (The Temple in Jerusalem) was destroyed; rather he laments over the underlying causes of that destruction.

This annual lesson must serve to focus the national mourning of Tisha B'Av not to the past, but to the present.

It is not enough to bemoan the great loss suffered by our people with the destruction of our Land, our Holy City, and our Holy Temple. We must use our mourning as a way of initiating an examination of our present-day feelings, thoughts and deeds.

What have we done to eliminate the attitudes and practices that thousands of years ago sent our ancestors into exile - not once, but twice?

How have we improved our approach to the divine service as a way of life, a life devoted to duty rather that a substitute for it?

Are our verbal offerings, like the animal-offerings described by the prophet merely perfunctorily performed rituals, never internalized, never spoken from the heart, just from the lips and outward?

And, as Rabbi Hirsch puts it, "is our Jewish contemporary present already so deeply imbued with the Jewish spirit, so filled with the Jewish way of thinking, with knowledge of the all-comprising and deep contents of the torah that it could
form a worthy environment for a temple of G-d to be erected in our midst? does not the gulf between Israel and its G-d yawn perhaps wider than ever?"


This week's Torah reading gives us the Priestly Benediction, delivered by the kohanim (priests) on festivals during services. It is the familiar "May the L-rd bless you and protect you." In commenting on one of the blessings, the Talmud reveals an important aspect of the Jew's attitude to Judaism.

"May the L-rd favor you." The Talmud tells us that the ministering angels protested this, because the Torah declares that He "has no favorites." G-d replies to this contradiction: "How can I help but favor Israel? I said, 'You will eat and be sated and (then) you are to thank G-d for the good earth,' and they give thanks for a small morsel of food."

If our faith was dependent on G-d's immediate blessings, we would have abandoned Judaism centuries agoThis may sound somewhat whimsical at first, but in simple terms it expresses Israel's devotion to G-d. Israel does not believe in and follow G-d because He is good to us, out of gratitude for His blessings. If Israel's faith were dependent on G-d's immediate blessings, based on our "eating and being sated" before we accept Him, then Israel would have abandoned Judaism centuries ago.

Judaism stresses not G-d's obligations to man, His debt for our goodness, but man's devotion to G-d. Not what He owes us, but what we are due Him. We do not demand full satisfaction before expressing gratitude, but gratefully thank Him for the humble morsel, or as our Sages put it, "We should thank G-d for every breath we take."

Thus Israel earns G-d's favor. We make no conditions for Him to meet, we present no ultimatum to the Creator, He is never on trial. If we do question, we ask not whether He is doing a good job, but whether we deserve what He has given us.


Eikev

Much has been said and written about the galut mentality, the subservience felt by generations of Jews living in the Diaspora. As second-class citizens for so many generations in Eastern Europe and in the Arab countries, Jews, allegedly, came to lose their self-esteem. Finally, in our own time, the old ghetto Jew would be replaced with a proud, strong, independent Israeli. No more would Moshke the Jew cower before his poretz, the country squire. Jews would now walk tall.

The new Israel was supposed to be different In our parshah, Moses reminds his people never to forget that it was G-d who took them out of Egypt and who led them through the wilderness into the Promised Land. And he describes the wilderness as "that great and awesome desert." The wilderness before we reach the Promised Land represents the state of exile. And the problem with this wilderness is that we are impressed with it. In our eyes it is "great." The big, wide world out there is great, powerful, impressive and all too overwhelming to the Jew.

We forget that the real galut mentality is not confined to those living in an eighteenth-century ghetto. The real exile is the exile within, the exile inside our own heads and hearts. The exile in considering the non-Jewish world to be so great. When we attach so much significance to the outside world, then we are still living in a state of exile and with a galut mindset, no matter where we may be geographically.

And once we start attaching greatness to this wilderness, our sense of self-worth is further eroded and we begin considering this wilderness not only "great" but also "awesome," even terrifying.

But why? What is so great and awesome about this outside world, about this wilderness? Why does what the non-Jewish world thinks so unsettle us? Why do we get so upset, so disturbed by what the world media says about us? Why does a cartoonist's poison pen distress us so?

The new Israel was supposed to be different. No more weakness, no more cowardice, gone with the old world syndromes. So why do we still care what they say? If we are convinced that justice and morality are with us, then it shouldn't bother us what others may say. If they have a problem with an Israel that can defend itself and stand up and fight its own battles, then that's their problem, not ours. We will do what we need to do.

Why should I respect a world that has so lost its moral bearings that genocide in Darfur goes unnoticed and the most "immoral" country on the globe is an Israel that defends its civilian population from rocket attacks? Why should we be intimidated by a world that smiles upon state-sponsored terrorism while heaping abuse upon us? Why does it still pain us when we hear them say we are guilty of disproportionate responses and excessive force? Why do we suffer anxiety attacks every time the United Nations condemns us?

The answer is because the big, wide world is the wilderness we live in. And that wilderness is perceived by us as "great and awesome." And as long as a corrupt, hypocritical, morally bankrupt world impresses us we will continue to be demoralized by its negative opinion of us.

Know, Jew, that there is nothing whatsoever to be impressed with -- that this world is nothing but a wilderness, and a moral wilderness at that So know, Jew, that there is nothing whatsoever to be impressed with -- that this world is nothing but a wilderness, and a moral wilderness at that. The princes of the wilderness society are paupers of the spirit. Anti-Semitism is a fact of life and the sooner we accept that reality, the healthier and saner we will all be. By all means, wage the diplomatic war; do battle with media bias. But don't fret if you fail to turn around public opinion.

Remember that the first step in leaving the exile is to stop being impressed by it. In order to redeem our land and our people, we must first redeem our own souls and our own self-respect. May we never forget where our true strength lies. When we remember who took us out of Egypt and led us through the wilderness, and who is truly the great and awesome Being of Beings, then we will be able to truly walk tall and stand proud forever.


Re'eh

Blessings and curses. Stirring stuff from the Bible this week as Moses again cautions his congregation. The great prophet reminds them that living a life of goodness will bring them blessings while ignoring the Divine call must inexorably lead to a cursed existence.

Moses prefaces his admonition with the Hebrew word Re'eh, "See." See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. But why "see"? What is there to see? Did he show them anything at all? The Torah does not use flowery language just because it has a nice ring to it and sounds poetic. What was there to behold? Why Re'eh?

One answer is that how we look will, in itself, determine whether our lives will be blessed or cursed. How do we look at others, at ourselves? Our perspective, how we behold and see things, will result in our own lives being blessed or, G-d forbid, the opposite.

The saintly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once chanced upon a strong, young man who was brazenly eating on Yom Kippur. The Rabbi suggested that perhaps he was feeling ill. The fellow insisted he was in the best of health. Perhaps he had forgotten that today was the holy day of fasting? "Who doesn't know that today is Yom Kippur?" responded the young man. Perhaps he was never taught that Jews do not eat on this day? "Every child knows that Yom Kippur is a fast day, Rabbi!" Whereupon Rabbi Levi Yitzchak raised his eyes heavenward and said, "Master of the Universe, see how wonderful Your people are! Here is a Jew who, despite everything, refuses to tell a lie!" The Berditchever was always able to look at others with a compassionate, understanding and benevolent eye.

How do we view the good fortune enjoyed by others? Are we happy for them, or do we look at them with begrudging envy? How do we look at ourselves and our own shortcomings? Are we objectively truthful or subjectively slanted? "He is a stingy, rotten good for nothing. Me? I am just careful about how I spend my money." "She is a bore of bores, anti-social. Me? I just happen to enjoy staying at home." "He is as stubborn as an ox! Me? I am a determined person."

Clearly, the manner in which we look at our world and those around us will have a major impact on the way life will treat us. Quite justifiably, Moses says, "See." For how we see things in life will undoubtedly affect life's outcomes.

The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), once told how when he was a young child he asked his father: "Why does a person have two eyes?" "The right eye," his father replied, "is to be used lovingly, when looking at a fellow Jew; the left eye is to be used discerningly, when looking at sweets or other objects that are not that important in the grand scheme of things."

(When I was in yeshivah, the same building also housed a synagogue where we would often interact with the adult men who would come to the daily minyan. One particular gentleman, may he rest in peace, always seemed to us rather cantankerous, what you might call a grumpy old man. I cannot remember whether he was actually a bit cross-eyed or not, but we referred to him as "left-eyed Sam" because he always seemed to be looking at us students with that proverbial left eye.)

The Parshah that is entitled Re'eh, "See," is a perennial reminder to all of us that even our vision can bring virtue or vice. Let us look at the world correctly and invite the blessings of G-d into our lives.


Ki Tetzeh

It has been called "the world's longest hatred." It continues to rear its ugly head across countries and continents. Whether it manifests in the crude bigotry of the lower crass or the snide subtleties of the upper crust, antisemitism is a fact of life.

Of course, we all wish it would finally go away. We even had reason to hope that after Auschwitz it really would. Who among us doesn't want to feel accepted and appreciated? But there is a strong argument to suggest that, in a perverse sort of way, antisemitism has been good for the Jews. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made that point in his book Antisemite & Jew. Without the constant reminders and threats to our existence, we Jews would have been lulled into a peaceful and passive state of national amnesia. Secure in our comfort zones, we might have lost much of our unique identity.

History records that under regimes that persecuted us, we remained steadfastly Jewish, whereas under more enlightened, liberal forms of government, we gradually embraced a welcoming but dominant culture, forfeiting much of our own.

Back in the 70's, when I was working with Jewish university students, we were struggling to break through a wall of icy indifference towards Judaism. It was so frustrating that my colleagues and I even considered going onto campus in the dead of night to paint a few swastikas on the Student Union building in the hope that that would jolt them out of their apathy. Of course, we never actually did it, but I confess to having been very tempted.

Towards the end of this week's parshah we read of the commandment to remember the unprovoked attack by the nation of Amalek against the Israelites when they left Egypt. The command comes in the form of the word zachor--"Remember"--at the beginning of the section. The final words are lo tishkach--"you shall not forget." But why the need for both expressions? And what difference is there between remembering and not forgetting? Surely one is superfluous?

Commentary suggests that "remember" is a command to the Jewish people, while "do not forget" would seem to be a more of a prediction--i.e., they will not let you forget! Should you ever lapse into a false sense of security and forget your Jewishness, the antisemites of the world will be there to remind you who you are, "a people that dwells alone" (Numbers 23:9).

Everything has a purpose in creation. There is nothing superfluous in G-d's world. So what is the purpose of an antisemite? Just that--to remind Jews that they are Jewish!

But why wait for the Amalekites of this world to remind us? Do we want or need their taunting? Rather, let us be proactively Jewish, positively Jewish and Jewishly positive. You can sing the old Yiddish song one of two ways. Either it is Oy, es iz gut tzu zein a yid ("Oh, it is good to be a Jew...") or Oy, es iz shver tzu zein yid ("Oy, it is hard to be a Jew..."). There are a million good reasons, positive reasons to be proudly Jewish. If sixty years ago being Jewish carried a death sentence, today it is a life sentence, promising a meaningful and blessed life. And when we decide to live proud, committed Jewish lives, we make a fascinating discovery: when we respect ourselves, the world respects us too. And that applies across the board, from the individual Jew to the collective Jewish community.

Judaism is a boon, not a burden. We should be staunch about our heritage. It is a badge of honor to wear with noble pride. If you don't know why, go and study, but that's another sermon.


Lech Lecha

The story is told of an encounter between two famous rabbis of yesteryear -- Rabbi Elijah, the famed "Gaon" (prodigious scholar) of Vilna, and Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, known as the "Maggid" (preacher) of Dubne. Apparently the Maggid of Dubne once visited Vilna and went to pay a courtesy call on the great Gaon. The Gaon asked the Maggid to preach to him, as was his specialty. "Give me mussar (words of rebuke). Chastise me," said the Gaon. "G-d forbid that I should have the chutzpah to chastise the great Gaon of Vilna," replied the Magid, quite horrified at the suggestion. "No matter, that is your forte and I want to hear mussar from you," insisted the Gaon.

So the Dubner Maggid thought a while and then most reluctantly acceded to the wishes of his illustrious host. Said the Maggid, "Is it a great achievement to be a Gaon sitting in Vilna in your little secluded kloiz (small study hall)? Go out into the world, mix with the people, and then let us see what kind of Gaon you will be."

Indeed, it is much easier to be scholarly and pious in a sequestered ghetto than it is outside in a world that is often oblivious, or even hostile, to Torah and its values.

This, in fact, was more or less the test of Abraham in this week's Parshah. "Go from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land I will show you." And it was there -- far from his natural environment and comfort zones -- that Abraham accomplished his divine mission. He spread the truth of the One G-d to a pagan world and, in the process, his own name and reputation was established for eternity. It was only after leaving home that Abraham became the founding father of the Jewish people.

A hundred years ago, an entire generation of Yiddish-speaking, Torah-observant Jews migrated from Europe. They came to America, the golden land of opportunity, to escape pogroms and persecution. With blood, sweat and tears they raised themselves from rags to riches and soon came to personify the American dream -- an amazing and inspiring success story. But the fact is that, for the most part, as their businesses succeeded their religious lives failed. Unquestionably, Judaism took a severe body blow. Most were unable to sustain their old world values in new world America. The transition from shtetl to suburbia proved too formidable and children and grandchildren grew up ignorant of and alienated from their own sacred traditions.

Today, we see this phenomenon playing out on a lesser scale when families emigrate or move from city to city. Displaced from their spiritual support systems, they flounder. The bulk of their efforts are directed at just resettling and reorganizing their lives. Putting religious infrastructures in place often comes last -- at great cost in the long run.

And on a more subtle level, a similar test of conscience faces us when we take our annual vacations. Away from home and our habitual norms of behavior, we are challenged to maintain the code of conduct we are committed to all year long.

It's like the story of the shadchan (matchmaker) who suggested a young lady to a fellow and absolutely raved about her. After their first date, the fellow calls up the shadchan and gives him a piece of his mind. "How dare you introduce me to such a girl, didn't you know she limps!" Quite unflustered, the shadchan retorts, "But, what's the problem, it's only when she walks."

It is when we walk away from our comfortable spiritual cocoons of home and community into the wider society that we may find ourselves limping somewhat, losing our Jewish equilibrium. It is then that our faith, our values, our morals and beliefs are truly challenged.

May G-d help that the children of Abraham will emulate their forefather, who left his land and remained strong in faith, going on to achieve remarkable success, both spiritually and materially.


Va'era

Imagine you have been working on the job for years and years. It is hard, manual labor and you are not simply tired but exhausted, demoralized, drained and frustrated. And then, one fine day, some new fellow on the floor stands up and promises a whole new world of equality, rewards and ultimate freedom. Do you believe him or are you beyond hope? Do you dare hold out for a better tomorrow and risk being devastated and cast into despair yet again or do you simply accept your fate and give up dreaming?

So it was with our ancestors in Egypt. They were slaving away all those years when a new face appeared and began making promises. Moses brings a message from G-d that they are about to be redeemed. There is a Promised Land ahead. All is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Jews' response? And they did not listen to Moses out of shortness of breath and from the hard labor.

One commentary explains that “shortness of breath” shouldn’t be understood only literally. The Hebrew for breath is ruach, which can also mean “spirit.” In other words, they weren’t able to heed Moses’ call not only from physical breathlessness, but because they lacked the spirit. Having suffered in bondage for so long, they no longer had the faith or hope to believe that freedom was still in the realm of the possible. It was simply beyond them. They had lost the spirit.

In the history of Egypt not a single slave had ever escaped. How could an entire nation ever walk free? Moses was a dreamer, they must have thought. It is just not realistic to hold out such high hopes only to have them dashed yet again. And so the people were utterly despondent and spiritless and, therefore, they could not hear, i.e. absorb, Moses’ message.

It happens all too often. People become so set in their mediocrity that they give up hope of ever achieving the breakthrough. Marriages get stuck in the rut of routine and the tedious treadmill keeps rolling along until we lose even the desire to dream. And Israel’s people, even brave leaders, are so despondent from years of war, attrition and terror that they clutch at imaginary straws because, basically, if we are honest with ourselves, they have simply lost the resolve.

I have often quoted a wise proverb heard in the name of the legendary Chasid, Reb Mendel Futerfas. “If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing. Money comes and money goes. If you lose your health, you’ve lost half. You are not the person you were before. But if you lose your resolve, you’ve lost it all.”

Moses brought new hope to a depressed, dreamless nation. He gave them back the spirit they had lost and eventually, through the miracles of G-d, the promise was fulfilled and the dream became destiny.

To be out of breath is normal. To be out of spirit is something the Jewish People can never afford. May we never lose the spirit.


Bo

The words ring out again and again in the biblical account of the Exodus story, as Moses repeatedly demands of the unrelenting Pharaoh that he grant the Jewish people their freedom.

Actually, the precise words that Moses conveys to the stubborn monarch in the name of G‑d are, “Shalach ami v’yaavduni,” “Let my people go that they may serve Me.”

It is interesting to see how some expressions and phrases become memorable and popular, while others just don’t seem to catch on. “Let My People Go” became the theme song for the story of Egypt and the Exodus way beyond the Jewish community. It has been used as a catchphrase for a variety of political causes. Unfortunately, the last Hebrew word of the phrase somehow got lost in the shuffle: v’yaavduni—“that they may serve Me”—never quite made it to the top of the charts. The drama of the Exodus captures our imagination, while the fact that that the purpose of leaving Egypt was to go to Sinai, receive G‑d’s Torah and fulfill Jewish destiny is less emphasized. The call to freedom excites the human spirit; the challenge of service and commitment, by contrast, doesn’t seem to elicit as much enthusiasm.

I remember back in the early ’70s, when Jews the world over were demonstrating for their oppressed brethren in the then Soviet Union, demanding of the Russian government that they allow Jews the freedom to leave if they wanted to. Their rallying cry was, “Let My People Go!” Sadly, they left out the v’yaavduni. We were so concerned about political liberties that we forgot a primary purpose of being free: to enjoy religious freedom and live fulfilled Jewish lives.

Indeed, for so many of our Russian brethren, obtaining their exit visas and acquiring freedom of movement did little to help them reclaim their spiritual heritage and identity. Seventy years of organized atheism behind the Iron Curtain left their toll. We are delighted that they can live in Israel (or Brighton Beach), but the fact remains that far too many remain outside of the Jewish community and its spiritual orbit.

In my own backyard, here in South Africa, this idea has become blatantly obvious. We have now enjoyed over fifteen years of democracy. There have been four free and fair elections where all citizens have had the opportunity to cast their ballots. It was a long, hard struggle, but political freedom has been achieved. And yet, while confidence levels in our country’s future are at an all-time high, millions of people living here are still suffering from the very same hardships they endured under apartheid—ignorance, poverty and poor health. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has castigated the country’s black leaders for allowing a situation where a small number of well-connected blacks have become enriched while the masses remain impoverished. HIV/AIDS is still public enemy number one, and even the family members of some of the most high-profile political figures have succumbed to the deadly disease.

It is clear that political freedom minus spiritual purpose equals disillusionment. Leaving Egypt without the vision of Sinai would be getting all dressed up with nowhere to go. It is not enough to let our people go. We have to take them somewhere. “That they may serve Me” means that we need to use our political freedom to experience the freedom and fulfillment of faith, and a life of spiritual purpose dedicated to G-d’s service.


Yitro

What is the definition of a well-balanced individual? One who has a chip on both shoulders!

In Exodus we read the Ten Commandments. The great revelation at Sinai saw Moses come down the mountain bearing the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments engraved on them. As we know, the two tablets were divided into two columns—the mitzvahs between humankind and G-d, and the commandments governing our human relations. The one side was devoted to our responsibilities to G-d, such as faith and Shabbat, while the other side dealt with our interpersonal duties, e.g., no murder, adultery and thievery.

The message that so many seem to forget is that both these areas are sacred, both come directly from G-d, and both form the core of Torah law and what being Jewish is all about. We must be well-balanced Jews. We may not take the liberty of emphasizing one tablet over the other. A healthy, all-around Jew lives a balanced, wholesome life, and is, as the Yiddish expression goes, gut tzu G-tt un gut tzu leit—good to G-d and good to people. If you focus on one side of the tablets to the detriment of the other, you walk around like a hinke’dike, a handicapped Jew with a bad limp.

A good Jew is a well-balanced Jew. This means that it’s not good enough to be frum (“religious”) on the ritual side of Judaism and free and easy on the mentschlichkeit side. You've got to be honest and decent and live with integrity so people will respect you, too. If you are “religious” towards to G-d but not fair with people, you can become a fanatical fundamentalist blowing up people in the name of G-d! The same G-d who motivates and inspires us to be G-dly and adhere to a religious code also expects us to be a mentsch. There is no doubt whatsoever that it is, in fact, a mitzvah to be a mentsch.

But neither can we neglect the right side of the tablets. A good Jew cannot simply be a democrat, a humanitarian. Otherwise, why did G-d need Jews altogether? It is not enough for a Jew to be a nice guy. Everyone must be nice. All of humankind is expected to behave honestly and honorably. To be good, moral, ethical and decent is the duty of every human being on the planet. A good Jew must be all of that and then some. He or she must be a good person—and also fulfill our specific Jewish responsibilities, the mitzvahs that are directed to Jews which are uniquely Jewish.

I recently came across an interesting statistic on the Ten Commandments. The right-hand tablet, bearing the duties to G-d, consists of 146 words. The left-hand tablet, listing our human responsibilities, has only 26 words. Yet tradition has it that both tablets were filled with writing. There were no big, blank spaces. So how did 26 words equal the space of 146 words?

Well, anybody who uses a computer or word processor knows the answer. You simply adjust the font size. You can type in 10-point size or 24-point size. Take your pick. So if we apply that same principle to the tablets, we have a simple solution. The 26 words on the left, reflecting our moral and ethical human responsibilities, were simply a bigger size than the 146 words on the right, reflecting our G-dly, religious responsibilities. So we must never underestimate the importance of the human-relations side of the Ten Commandments.

Then again, just so we don’t start limping, the very same G-d who said we should be nice also said we should have faith, keep Shabbat (yes, it is one of the Big Ten), kosher, mikvah, and the rest of it. In fact, when people say to me, “Rabbi, I’m not that religious, but I do keep the Ten Commandments,” I often wonder whether they are actually aware that keeping Shabbat is Commandment No. 4.

As we read the Ten Commandments this week, let us resolve to keep our Jewish balance, not to limp or become “one-armed bandits.” Please G-d, we will live full, wholesome, rich and well-balanced Jewish lives. Amen


Emor

There was a time when Jewish people's faith in the one G-d of Israel was challenged on a regular basis. During the Crusades, for example, many thousands of Jews were forced to choose between the cross and the sword: to either deny their Judaism and embrace the dominant faith, or die. Countless Jews gave their lives al kiddush Hashem -- "in sanctification of the name of G-d." They became martyrs for their faith and heroes for eternity.

They became martyrs for their faith and heroes for eternity Thankfully, today it doesn't often happen that we have to make that choice. The late Daniel Pearl, may G-d avenge his blood, was one notable exception. Tragically, we still have far too many martyrs nowadays; Jews who are blown apart by maniacal suicide bombers for no other reason than that they are Jewish. But they weren't asked to make a choice. They didn't choose martyrdom. It was forced upon them.

The commandments to sanctify the name of G-d and never to desecrate it are found in this week's parshah (Leviticus 22:32). Generally, today, the concept of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the name of G-d, is observed not by dying as Jews but by living as Jews. How does a Jew give G-d a good name? When he or she behaves as a good Jew should. When other people see a Jew behaving honestly and uprightly that gives Jews and Judaism a good reputation. And ultimately it all goes back to Torah, the word of G-d. G-d Himself gets the credit for the noble behavior of His people.

Some classic scenarios would be returning money if you were given incorrect change in your favor or calling attention to the fact that a client overpaid you. Although it is only right to do these things, the fact is that others might have kept quiet about it. When a Jew acts with honor he brings honor to his faith and his G-d.

Sadly, it also works in the reverse. Jewish people accused of being slumlords do not give Jews, or the G-d of Israel, a good name--especially when there may be some grounds for the accusation.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have once stated, "If my theories prove correct, the Germans will claim me as a German, the French will say I am theirs and the Americans will call me their own. If my theories are incorrect, they will all say I am a Jew."

How proud are we when one of our own does something especially noteworthy like winning a Nobel Prize or performing a valiant humanitarian act. Conversely, how ashamed are we if there is a moral or financial scandal involving one of our own.

Jews are news I once protested to the general manager of a radio station in our community because I felt he was giving far too much exposure to Jews and Judaism in relation to our numbers and, unfortunately, the publicity wasn't always flattering. At first he denied it. But when I presented him with statistical proof, his plain and honest answer was "Jews are news."

Fair or not, the fact of life is that Jews are scrutinized far more carefully than others. Like it or not, every Jew is representing his faith, his people and his G-d. Ultimately, how we act will bring fame or infamy upon all of us. May we all be successful ambassadors.


Korach

Are you a spectator or a participant? Do you only watch the soccer World Cup, or do you sometimes kick a ball yourself?

A few years ago, it was decided to widen the seats at Wimbledon. Apparently, the problem was rather simple—obesity. It appears that the fans who admire the tennis stars in action don’t get much exercise. The chairman of the British Sports Council was prompted to state, “If only the admirers of sport would practice it themselves.”

The Parshah this week is named after Korach, cousin of Moses, and a revolutionary who attempted to usurp the authority of Moses and Aaron. His ill-fated rebellion came to a bitter end when the earth opened and swallowed Korach and his followers, demonstrating to all that Moses and Aaron were truly chosen by G‑d.

But why name a Parshah after a villain? Korach was a sinner, and is surely not a role model for us to emulate.

My saintly teacher and mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose yahrtzeit is observed this week, offered a novel approach. There is one area where Korach can indeed be a good role model. What was Korach’s burning desire in life? It was to be a kohen gadol, high priest. He coveted Aaron’s position of honor.

Now, being a high priest meant much more than just fame, fortune, glory and privilege. Many sacred responsibilities came with the job. It was no easy task to be a kohen gadol. There were numerous restrictions: where he could go, what kind of activities he could be involved in, whom he could marry, etc. Yet Korach was absolutely single-minded in his aspiration to become the high priest.

Said the Rebbe: this is something we can all learn from Korach—the yearning to serve G‑d in the holiest capacity, the craving to be a kohen gadol. Would that all of us shared similar aspirations to holiness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each one of us longed for a life of sanctity, dedicated to the service of G‑d?

How often we are only too happy to allow others to handle the sacred stuff. “You can put on tefillin for me, Rabbi.” And your bobba (grandmother) can keep kosher for you, and the ADL can fight anti-Semitism for you, and the Lubavitchers will save the world for you. And what will you yourself do? Watch them?

It is interesting that in many parts of the world, much of the financial support for religious institutions comes from people who themselves are not religious. It has, in fact, been suggested that this phenomenon may well be a form of vicarious Judaism. These are fine people, who really do believe in the truth of Judaism, but they haven’t got sufficient commitment to practice it themselves. Nor do they believe that their own children will do it. Who, then, will defend the faith, and perpetuate Judaism and the Jewish people? So they sponsor a religious institution to do it for them.

I recall hearing a pertinent story from Professor Velvl Greene of Ben Gurion University. A young man signed up to join the paratroopers. On his first training flight, the instructor has him in his parachute, huddled at the door of the airplane, and starts counting down. 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . “JUMP!” The candidate is paralyzed with fear, and doesn’t move. “Okay, it happens to the best of us,” says the instructor sympathetically. “We’ll try again.” The second attempt, however, is no better, nor the third or the fourth. The would-be paratrooper is simply too petrified to jump. Exasperated, the instructor asks him, “Tell me, son, if you are so scared to jump, why on earth do you want to join the paratroopers?” The young man answers, “It’s true, I am scared out of my wits. But I just love to be around people who are not afraid.”

It is wonderful to support and encourage the activists among us. But let us learn from Korach, who wanted so badly to be a high priest himself. Let’s not be content with being spectators as others do it for us. Let each of us participate in the Jewish idea. And let us do it personally.


 

 

 

* A VORT is an engagement party or pre-marriage ceremony known as "The Breaking of the Plate." The literal meaning of "vort" is "word," whereby the prospective bride and groom give their formal commitment-- i.e, their "word"-- to marry. A ceramic plate is traditionally broken-- customarily by the couple's mothers-- to signify the seriousness (and finality) of the couple's commitment to each other, similar to the groom's breaking of a glass under the chupah.

A second meaning is a short, 15-minute or so, discourse on a topic of Torah, Talmud, Midrash, etc.

A third meaning is an epigrammatic statement, usually in the name of a Hassidic Rabbi, distinguished by its cleverness, wittiness or philosophical uniqueness.

(Source: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_does_the_word_VORT_in_Yiddish_or_Hebrew_mean)