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Posted June 9, 2017 - 7:40am

God of Second Chances

In this week’s Torah portion, one of the things we learn about is how the Children of Israel offered the Passover for the very first time since their departure from Egypt (Numbers 9:1–14). It had been a full year since they left Egypt and it was time to fulfill the instructions they had previously been given: “You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year” (Exodus 13:10). Therefore, Moses instructed the Israelites to offer up the Passover at the appropriate time in the second year:

And they kept the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so the people of Israel did. (Numbers 9:5)

Everything went well until a group of men came to Moses with a dilemma. They had come in close proximity to a corpse and had contracted corpse contamination—the most serious of all ritual contaminations and the most difficult to cleanse. They were unfit to partake of the Passover offering. They appealed to Moses saying, “Why are we kept from bringing the LORD's offering at its appointed time among the people of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). Unlike our modern mentality which objects with, “Why do I have to?” these men were asking, “Why don’t we get to?” They were commanded to participate in the Passover, and they were eagerly anticipating doing so, but now they were unable to. What was the solution?

Posted May 26, 2017 - 2:20pm

Parashat Bamidbar, the first portion of the book of Bamidbar, often gets a bad rap. The bulk of it is filled will the results of a national census, the arrangements of the tribal encampments, and the duties of the Levites and Kohanim. For many people this material doesn’t hold their attention. They are looking for something they can “sink their teeth into.” But reading the Torah and understanding its principles takes more than a casual reading. Parashat Bamidbar is one of these portions that beg us to peer deeper into it to see meaning and application. Besides the obvious and practical instructions given to the Children of Israel regarding their encampment and responsibilities, the fact that these seemingly mundane details were recorded and preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures should inform us of their importance. We have to stop and ask questions that help us dig into the text on a deeper level. One of the lessons we can learn from this week’s portion can be found in an interpretation of the midrash presented by the mussar masters. The midrash tells us:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses, “Organize them [Israel] under standards in accordance with their desire,” [Numbers 2:2] Moses began to feel distressed. He thought, “Now strife will arise among the tribes; for if I bid the tribe of Judah camp on the east side of the Tabernacle and he says, ‘I will accept only the south,‘ and the same applies to Reuben and the same to Ephraim and to each of the other tribes, what am I to do?” (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:8)

Posted May 26, 2017 - 6:27am

Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah said: Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, from him will be taken away the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care. (m.Avot 3:6)

A common reaction by many people after reading this is that of skepticism. Will studying Torah really remove the yokes of both the government and worldly care from you? Will the IRS magically disappear and Publisher’s Clearing House show up on your doorstep because you study Torah? No. Of course not. But is that what our mishnah promises? Let’s take a closer look.

First, as Rabbi Twerski right notes, Rabbi Nechunya does not speak about a person who studies Torah. Nor does he even speak of one who observes Torah. He does, however, speak of one who “takes upon himself the yoke of Torah.” What is the difference? An animal with a yoke on it is no longer exerting its own free will, but submitting to the will of the one who controls it. The same is true regarding one who comes under the yoke of Torah. If we have taken on the yoke of Torah, then we are no longer seeking our own will or pleasure, but submitting to the will of Hashem. Essentially, we have the ability to choose which yoke we will wear each day.

But how is Rabbi Nechunya is able to assert this declaration, saying that the yoke of governmane and worldly affairs will be removed from us? His assertion is based on two Scriptures:

“Great peace have those who love your Torah; nothing can make them stumble.” (Psalm 119:165)

“Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you. ”(Psalm 55:23[22])

Posted May 19, 2017 - 10:04am

The double parashah Behar-Bechukotai is filled primarily with the laws concerning the Shemitah (the Sabbath year), the Yovel (Jubilee), and the laws of redemption, although many other topics are covered as well. While detailing the laws of the Yovel (25:8–22), the Torah gives us a broad commandment:

You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 25:17)

In the immediate context, this admonition is given in regard to the fair pricing of property in context of the Jubilee year, as it stated just a few verses previously, “If you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” (Leviticus 25:14). When a plot of land is purchased inside the land given to them by the LORD, its value is based on the current distance from the Jubilee year. If the Jubilee is far off, then the land will be worth more than if it is close at hand. This injunction was to ensure that the regulations for fair pricing were carried out without exception.

However, as we have seen, sometimes the Torah gives us a broad instruction so that it may be applied in various other contexts as well. This particular passage has a specific, as well as a general instruction that we can apply today. The Hebrew word behind this prohibition of wrongdoing is tonu (תונו), from the root yanah, which has the connotation of violent oppression. The sages, therefore, interpret this to mean verbal harassment. Rashi elaborates on this by saying that one should not should not use our speech to annoy our brother in any way, nor should one “give him advice that is not appropriate for him.” This first instruction from Rashi is fairly straight forward. We should never use our speech to upset another person. This includes teasing, name calling, or brow beating in any shape, form, or fashion. The second one, however, is a little more puzzling. 

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Latest Book Review

The Magerman Edition

Author: Daniel Rose & Jay Goldmintz
Publisher: Koren Publishers
Year: 2014

The Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur is one of the latest in Koren’s growing collection of siddurim (prayer books) geared towards a specific demographic. Koren describes Ani Tefilla as “an engaging and thought-provoking siddur for the inquiring high school student and thoughtful adult.” Koren says that Ani Tefillah has been developed in order “to help the user create their own meaning and connection during the Tefilla [prayer] experience.” The name of the siddur is connected with its objective. Ani Tefilla means “I pray.” 

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