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Posted August 4, 2017 - 9:04am

No Religious Discounts

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bargain shopper. I love to find the discounts whenever I can. It can be a fun challenge and every penny we save with our large family adds up. But some people are much more serious bargain shoppers than I am. They don’t buy anything without a discount, and if they can’t find the discount they are looking for they will haggle with the merchant until they can get the item marked down to some degree or another. And while that level of tenacity can be appreciated in some ways when it comes to shopping, when we try to apply this instinct to religious practice it can actually work against us. 

You may not know it, but deep down within us we are all bargain shoppers and hagglers when it comes to religious expression and we need to be aware of it so that we can avoid falling into its trap. For instance, if we don’t feel like praying one day we may try to bargain our way out of it. We begin rationalizing with ourselves, “My prayer time yesterday was really good. It won’t be so bad if I miss today.” Or maybe it’s finding a congregation: “Their service is too long,” or “I don’t like all of the Hebrew,” or “That person annoys me.” Maybe it’s observing the appointed times: “The Sabbath is the only time I have to get things done.” Maybe it’s observing kosher: “God looks on the heart, not the stomach,” or “Our culture isn’t conducive to separating meat and dairy.” Whatever the case may be, we are quick to try and get our spiritual benefits at a discount. But Hashem doesn’t offer discounts when it comes to obedience.

In this week’s portion, we read about the need to pass down faithful observance of the Torah to subsequent generations, and what Hashem expects from a people He has redeemed from slavery:

Posted July 28, 2017 - 7:01am

Moses and the Rabbis

Our parashah begins the final book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy. Sometimes the book of Deuteronomy is also known as Mishneh Torah, or the Repetition of Torah, since it contains a recap of many of the major themes included the previous books of the Torah. It also begins by recounting the various events that have taken place among the Children of Israel since the Exodus. A curious statement is made, however, that we must explore:

Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law, saying … (Deuteronomy 1:5)

The Children of Israel had wandered in the wilderness for the last forty years and had now made it to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. But rather than immediately sending them over, Moses stops and begins to explain some important details of the Torah. What were those details? That’s a really good question.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that every detail of the Torah’s instructions is spelled out within the Torah itself. However, we have plenty of examples of why this cannot be the case. The most obvious is that of Shabbat, the Sabbath. For instance, the LORD commanded the children of Israel to keep the Sabbath, and that anyone who profanes the Sabbath shall be put to death (Exodus 31:14–15). However, the Torah does not provide any details of what types of work are considered to violate the Sabbath. Since the elders of Israel are responsible for trying cases such as this to determine if the crime is worthy of such a serious decree as the death penalty, it becomes immediately apparent that the definitions of “work” and “profaning the Sabbath” are critical in judging the outcome of such cases. 

Posted July 28, 2017 - 4:40am

Rabbi Elazar of Bartota said: Render to Him that which is His, for you and all that you have are His, as David said [I Chronicles 29:14]: “For all things come from You, and of Your own have we given you.” (m.Avot 3:8)

In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Marc Angel associates this mishnah with a passage from a midrashic commentary called Yalkut Shimoni. It says:

The world was created in the merit of three things: in the merit of [the mitzvot of] halla, tithes, and first fruits (Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 1:2).

How does this passage from the midrash relate to our current mishnah? This passage connects the reader to the topic of Rabbi Elazar’s state: ownership. The midrash says that the world was created in the merit of three things: challah (the portion of a batch of dough that is given to the LORD), agricultural tithes, and first fruits. All three of these things point to Hashem’s ownership of the world. Although we may till, sow, water, and harvest our crops, their existence relies the LORD. Even though we may toil through the process of harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and finally milling the grain to produce a fine flour that is then combined with other ingredients to make a loaf of mouth-watering bread, the ingredients ultimately belong to Hashem, as the Scriptures tell us, “The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

Posted July 21, 2017 - 11:32am

Adding To The Scriptures

Many people take objection to the concept of rabbinic authority and the corpus of Jewish law, which includes the Mishnah and Talmud. They see these rabbinic works as “adding” manmade laws to the Scriptures, because indeed they contain countless laws that do not seem to appear in the Scriptures themselves. Therefore, these rabbinic works are seen as violating one of the primary principles of Scripture, to not add to the Scripture. The prooftext for this prohibition is found in Deuteronomy:

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32)

And while we do need to be extremely cautious with anything that is not clearly spelled out in Scripture, we should also realize that the Scriptures themselves give a person permission to add to its own list of obligations and prohibitions. How so? This week’s portion gives us the answer: “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2). When we make a vow or an oath, we have created a new restriction upon ourselves that is above and beyond the commandments of the Scriptures, but is on the same par with them in regard to obligation. We have, in a sense, “added” to Scripture, but with the permission of Scripture.

There is an instance recorded for us where this privilege backfires because of a foolish vow. In the book of Judges, we read about a man named Jephthah who made a foolish vow to the LORD in order to gain victory over Israel’s enemies. He made this declaration:

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. (Judges 11:30–31)

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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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