erev Pesach 5782

While in bondage in Mitzraim, the B’nei Yisrael had sunk to the 49th level of impurity, having neglected to distance themselves from the surrounding environment of idolatry. The Midrash records that when about to cross through the Sea of Reeds, the angels questioned their merit, saying both these and those, i.e., the Children of Israel and the Egyptians, were both idol worshippers. Why should these be spared, and the others not? Yet, H’Shem honored the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in order to bring His newly acquired nation out of bondage, and into covenant relationship with Him through the Torah.

H’Shem brought us out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where He gave us the Torah. He had said to Moses, “This shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve G-d upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). The revelation of Mount Sinai was the pinnacle of the redemption. “The tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16, JPS). The Hebrew word for engrave is charut. The Sages note that the word cherut, meaning “freedom” is from the same shoresh (root word). This implies that our true freedom is derived through Torah.

B’nei Yisrael, in a manner of speaking, was also enslaved to sin in Egypt, having assimilated to the immorality of Egypt at that time. Although freed from actual physical bondage, they were still slaves to sin; yet, through the Torah, we may seek freedom from bondage to the yetzer harah (the evil inclination). We may break through the limitations of our own personal Mitzraim (Egypt; from “nitzavim,” limitations), and, figuratively speaking, pass through the Yam Suf (Dividing of the Sea), into the freedom that entails a responsibility to follow our yetzer tov (good inclination).

The Sweetness of Torah

Sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth.

– Blessings of the Torah

What was once pleasant, has become unpleasant. The wisdom of the Torah has given place to the wisdom of the world, without any recourse to the truths of our ancestors. Rather, for many amongst the children of Seth in the diaspora, the traditions of Judaism may still flourish, yet, without the substance. If we only knew what we were missing, we would pray, “sweeten the words of your Torah in our mouth.” In other words, we would feel compelled to learn of the words and instructions of Torah, to the extent that they would appeal to our sense of priorities, and what is important in our lives. Rather than rejecting them as passe, unenlightened, or contrary to our progressive sensibilities, we would yearn to receive them, if only G-d would somehow cause us to appreciate their flavor, taste, and essential ingredients.

We have forsaken “the fountain of living waters,” and constructed “cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13, JPS). When we thirst for something more constant in our lives to bring us peace, contentment, and lasting joy, we turn elsewhere, without realizing that only pure water from the Source of all that exists can supply us with any refreshment of lasting value. And, still, we yearn for something more than the ephemeral pleasures of life. For G-d has planted eternity in the heart of mankind, so that we might seek to know Him beyond time and space. Only a transcendent G-d, Who is able to transcend our own understanding, can give us anything of lasting joy in this world and the World-to-Come. His wisdom, contained in Torah, within the narratives of creation and fall, the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph and the Exodus, plus the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and all of the commandments are rich in value.

His Intangible Presence

“This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:4

The midrash explains that because the verse reads, “this is your god,” instead of “this is our god,” the us of the pronoun, “your” implies that the Egyptian idolaters amongst B’nei Yisrael were the instigators of the ruckus; they were addressing the Israelites, in an attempt to impose an Egyptian deity upon Israel. On the part of the Israelites, because of a failure to comprehend an abstract rendering of H’Shem, as an intangible Be-ing, they readily accepted a more concrete form of a god, to replace what they could not see.

Yet, it is important to note, that one way to view this is that the calf was meant to replace Moses as a leader, as referred to in the verse, “Make us a god who shall go before us; for that fellow Moses – the man who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1, JPS 1985 Tanach). As conferred by Nachmanides, who explicitly states that the idea of the people was to replace Moses as a leader.

Even so, this type of mentality is challenging to understand, since from our vantage point, it is clear that the golden calf was an inanimate object, utterly incapable of serving as a guide. Yet, in their minds, it represented the one who had led them up until this point, whereas they had thought he was lost.

What happened to Moshe? He was on the mountain for forty days; yet, the people miscalculated, and expected him back sooner. They quickly grew impatient, and resorted to an alternative plan, abandoning Moses as lost, perhaps, even consumed amongst the fiery presence of G-d upon the mountaintop (Targum Yonaton).

What can be learned from their impatience? From a psychological perspective, after separation anxiety settled into their hearts, panic may have compelled them to listen to the prompting of the foreigners, prompting them to take immediate action to produce something concrete to cling to, representative of their aspirations and goals, a reassurance of safety in the wilderness.

We need to search our souls and ask ourselves how much we have made the progressive shift from concretization of G-d to a more abstract understanding of Him. For even though this was the expected path for the Israelites, having been led out of Egypt, where idolatry flourished, into Eretz Yisrael, where the One True G-d was worshipped eventually in the Temple, we are still subject to the same lure of the material world, in the face of our insecurities. Additionally, the concretization of values, beliefs, and “idols” is counter to the pure worship of the heart that H’Shem expects of us.

Today, in regard to our avodah (service) towards H’Shem, we should behold His presence, without placing any conceptions in our minds, in regard to His “appearance.” Whether in prayer or meditation, this is the ideal. For, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3, JPS). For us, today, this would include anything that would entail as an obstacle between a person and G-d. In other words, anything held in the heart, figuratively speaking, as more important to us than G-d.

Simchas Torah 5782

“At His right hand was a fiery law unto them.”

– Deuteronomy 33:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

On Simchas Torah, the entire portion of V’zot HaBeracha is read; this is the last parashas of the Torah. Afterwards, the first part of Bereishis, the first parashas of the Torah is read, in order to make the statement that we begin anew, immediately following an ending. This reminds of the saying, when one door closes, another door opens, meaning that when one endeavor is brought to its conclusion, another opportunity will prevail. The seasons of nature, as well as the seasons of our lives reflect this theme.

Within the framework of the parashas, B’nei Yisrael is poised to enter Eretz Canaan; Moshe is intent on imparting a berachah (blessing) to them. This blessing parallels the blessing that Jacob gave to his twelve sons; inasmuch that Moshe has been the king and prophet over B’nei Yisrael, he is giving a blessing to the twelve tribes.

Moshe begins, “The L-RD came from Sinai,” therefore, emphasizing H’Shem’s presence, of Whom “at His right hand was a fiery law unto them” (Deuteronomy 33:2, JPS). “The voice of the L-RD heweth out flames of fire” (Psalm 29:7, JPS). H’Shem’s voice appeared as fire that engraved the commandments into the two stone tablets. On Simchat Torah, may we rejoice in acknowledgment of H’Shem’s promise through the prophet, to engrave these words on our heart in due time:

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the L-RD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people.”

– Jeremiah 31:33, JPS 1917 Tanach

Heritage: Part Five

Shavuos commemorates Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. A spectacular event, the Revelation at Sinai, when the L-RD gave B’nei Yisrael the Commandments. This was the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. Being made a people unto the L-RD our bond to Him was signified with the commandments, presented as a ketubah (marriage contract) to the Bride (K’lal Yisrael). Our sovereignty as a nation begins here; the declaration being made first, with Matan Torah, then, we were brought into the Land: a people first, then, we were given a country.

Today, the Torah should still speak to our everyday lives; otherwise, Mattan Torah, becomes a glorious event, disconnected from our current times. When we learn Torah, we should feel compelled to incorporate these ideas into our lives; inasmuch that the Torah still has relevancy after so many generations. The Ten Commandments are a good place to start; perhaps, simply by naming them; then, reflecting on each one in relation to our lives.

Although we may believe in G-d, the additional question to pose to ourselves is whether or not we have accepted His Sovereignty. In this sense, as mentioned in commentary (Baal Halachos Gedolos), the first commandment is a call to believe in the existence of G-d; subsequently, accepting His authority as the source of the commandments. When we accept G-d’s Sovereignty, then the commandments become authoritative; otherwise, the commandments could be misconstrued as relative.

Consider as well, that here is a difference between accepting the commandments for ourselves, because we recognize the inherent wisdom in them, akin to the moral perspective that we uphold, versus accepting the commandments as the divine words of G-d; and, as an expression of His expectations of us, regardless of our own perspective. The Jewish people are bound to the commandments, regardless of whatever our perspective may be; therefore, the primacy of the first commandment is that the authority of all of the other commandments are hinged upon the first.

“I am the L-rd your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

– Exodus 20:2

Heritage: Part Four

When the Revelation occurred at Mt. Sinai, B’nei Yisrael were cautioned against drawing too close to the mountain. When the L-RD was present at Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightning, the status of the mountain was akin to a level of kedushah (holiness), whereby the people were compelled to keep a distance. Afterwards, when the long shofar (trumpet) blasts were sounded, the verbal barricade was lifted. Apparently, there was no inherent holiness present within the structure of Mount Sinai in and of itself. Only when the L-RD’s presence rested on the mountain, in the visible form of the spectacular firework display that surrounded His presence, were the people forbidden to draw near.

Religion itself, may seem barren to us at times, like the landscape of Sinai, when its truths are put upon a pedestal, repeated as dogma without explanation, and upheld without inquiry. Their initial appeal may encompass our attention for a while; yet, their significance may become diminished, unless explored, enhanced, and reviewed. The Talmud mentions that when a soul appears, at the time of Judgment, it is asked, whether it examined the truths of wisdom by asking questions, subsequently, gaining a practical understanding, capable of being applied to one’s life (Shabbos 31a).

Yet, the spiritual, religious, and scriptural truths that we claim to uphold, especially when professing a traditional religious belief system, may become disconnected from our lives, like a balloon that becomes untethered from the string in one’s hand, floating aloft in the sky, unless we can articulate the relevance of those truths in our own lives, and the lives of others. This is essential, in regard to walking on the derech (path) of our ancestors, albeit, in a postmodern world.

As per the thinking of Abraham Heschel, there is an imperative need to make religion relevant in our lives again, even in this very present moment. Otherwise, there may continue to be a disconnect, wherein the truths of belief and practice are not integrated into the actuality of our lives. If we lose sight of the existential significance of our religious tenets, then religion may lose its immediacy. The burden is placed upon mankind to re-establish a connection to G-d. To make truth relevant again, as Heschel advocates, by asking meaningful questions about life, then, searching our religious perspective for the answers.

“But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

– Deuteronomy 30:14, JPS 1917 Tanach

Holy Fear

“And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled.”

– Exodus 19:16, JPS 1917 Tanach


“G-d hath so made it, that men should fear before Him.”

– Ecclesiastes 3:14, JPS

At Mount Sinai, the people in the camp trembled at the awesome display of H’Shem’s Presence, amidst the thunder and lightning. The people’s sense of yiras H’Shem (fear, awe, and reverence towards the L-RD) was elicited by the spectacular display, when the Commandments were given to B’nei Yisrael through Moshe (Moses). This may serve as an example for us, when we gather ourselves together, in order to receive the Torah anew in our lives on the day of Shavuot. The thunder and lightening that humbled the people at Sinai, demonstrate the importance of yiras H’Shem for our own lives. “The fear of H’Shem is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).

When we seek to develop awe, reverence, and proper respect towards H’Shem, we are planting a foundation within us that will bring wisdom and understanding into our lives. “And knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). G-d seeks to bring our heart into alignment with His ways, by compelling us to seek teshuvah (repentance), that we may truly start anew. The powerful reminder of thunder is a natural occurrence that should serve as a wake-up call. According to the Talmud, thunder was created for this very purpose (Berachos 59a). On Shavuot, we stand once again, ready to leave our personal Mitzraim (Egypt) behind us, as we renew our commitment to keep the Covenant made at Mt. Sinai with B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel).

dvar: Pesach – the Seventh Day

B”H

d’var for the Seventh Day of Pesach 5781

While in bondage in Mitzraim , the B’nei Yisrael had sunk to a low level of impurity, having neglected to distance themselves from the surrounding environment of idolatry. The Midrash records that when about to cross through the Sea of Reeds, the angels questioned their merit, saying both these and those – the Children of Israel and the Egyptians – were both idol worshippers. Why should these be spared, and the others not? Yet, H’Shem honored the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in order to bring His newly acquired nation out of bondage, and into covenant relationship with Him through Torah.

H’Shem brought us out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai, where He gave us the Torah. He had said to Moses, “This shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve G-d upon this mountain” (Exodus 3: 12, JPS 1917 Tanach). The revelation of Mount Sinai was the pinnacle of the redemption. Why? “The tables were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, graven upon the tables” (Exodus 32: 16, JPS). The Hebrew word for engrave is charut. The Sages note that the word cherut, “freedom” is from the same shoresh (root word). This implies that our true freedom is derived through Torah.

B’nei Yisrael was enslaved to sin in Egypt, having assimilated, to some degree, to the immorality of Egypt at that time. Although freed from slavery in Egypt , we were still slaves to sin; so, H’Shem gave us the Torah to free us from bondage to the yetzer harah (the evil inclination). May we all break through the limitations of our own personal Mitzraim (Egypt), so that we may also pass through the Yam Suf (Dividing of the Sea), into the freedom of responsibility – the ability to follow our yetzer tov (good inclination), for the sake of choosing a righteous path on a daily basis in all of our endeavors.

Restoration

B”H

Shiur for parashas Nasso 5780

“Speak unto the children of Israel: When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to commit a trespass against the L-RD, and that soul be guilty; then they shall confess their sin which they have done.”

  • Numbers 5:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach

According to Rambam (Maimonides), this verse is the basis of the importance of confession (vidui), within the context of teshuvah (repentance). “And shall make reparation in full” (Numbers 5:7); this latter part of the pasuk (verse) denotes reparations made to others, if the aveirah (transgression) is against another person. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for reparation is from the same shoresh (root), “shuv,” as teshuvah, meaning to return. Repentance is a return to H’Shem (the L-RD). “Let us return unto the L-RD” (Hosea 5:15, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The Mishkan along with the Levitical system of offerings were meant to restore the relationship of the people with HShem. A restored relationship with HShem begins with vidui (confession), whereby we confess our sins to Him; additionally, we return to Him by not making the same transgression again. We must also increase our mitzvoth, spending more time engaged with G-dly pursuits, and less time in that which could be considered frivolous.

Unless we are conscious of leading a godly life, we may not even realize that a diminished connection to G-d may be a result of our own lack of mitzvot (good deeds). “Your iniquities have separated between you and your G-d (Isaiah 59:2, JPS 1917 Tanach). In order to experience G-d’s presence in our lives, then we need to approach Him in righteousness. If we have not been cognizant of what He expects from us, then we need to educate ourselves, according to His ways. Now is a good time to start.

parashas Nasso 5780

Heritage – 3

B”H

Photo by Jarod Lovekamp from Pexels

Why were the Commandments given in a desert? Because of its scarceness, wherein there was nothing to interfere with the receiving of G-d’s commandments. Had the commandments been given within civilization, there would have been too many competing factors, vying for the attention of B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel). This brings to mind, how it is all too true today, that there are many distractions, ideologies, and belief systems, that vie for our attention. With the proliferation of the Internet, the Age of Information has the potential to overwhelm the sensibilities of man’s soul, and spirit. We live in a different kind of wilderness than the desert, wherein B’nei Yisrael received the Torah; we live in a wilderness wherein the light of truth can hardly shine through the fabric of ideas woven into our existence, by way of pixels, optic wires, and Internet cables.

Every year, we stand on the precipice of Shavuos, the culmination of an intense focus on ourselves in light of the self renewal, that we hope to obtain over a period of forty-nine days between Passover and Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah). Yet, even after our personal experience at Sinai, we may continue to receive Torah anew in our lives, inasmuch that we have the opportunity to learn more and more every day about G-d. He reveals Himself, within the everyday events of our lives; additionally, He guides us through our intuition, and the various circumstances that we encounter throughout our lives, even on a daily basis, if we are able to have our inner vision enhanced by this awareness. There is a heightened sense of awareness that may be gained, when we take the time and make the effort for every day to count; moreover, that every moment has the potential to reveal what was previously unseen. “I answered thee in the secret place of thunder” (Psalm 81:8, JPS 1917 Tanach).