130914 – Yom Kippur

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

Yom Kippur 01rebyosil@gmail.com


Shacharit – Morning Service

VaYikra (Leviticus) 16:1-34

BaMidbar (Numbers) 29:7-11

Haftarah ‑ Isaiah 57:14-58:14,

Mincha – Afternoon Service

VaYikra (Leviticus) 18:1-30

Haftarah ‑ Book of Jonah and

Micah 7:18-20


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 “For this day shall be an atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be cleansed before HaShem. It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths (a Sabbath of complete rest) for you, and you should afflict yourselves; an eternal decree” (VaYikra 16:30-31).

One of the anomalies of Yom Kippur is the status it carries as Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of Sabbaths). Most of us who observe Shabbat know that to observe one must follow certain Halachik (legal) guidelines: We must dress appropriately; we must eat festive meals; we must read special sections from the Torah; etc. It appears somewhat incongruous that on a day that might be described as a super-Shabbat not only do we not eat our usual three festive Shabbat meals, but we are forbidden to eat or drink any food at all. Why?

The verse says: “you should afflict yourselves,” which is understood as not eating or drinking. The RaMBaM (acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon [Maimonides], 1135-1204, Egypt) the great codifier and philosopher maintains that the root of the word Shabbat means to cease; we are obligated to cease or rest from eating and drinking. In fact, the RaMBaM brings the law (Laws of Yom Kippur 1:4-5): “There is a further positive commandment on Yom Kippur. It is to rest from eating and drinking. It is [also] forbidden to bathe, to apply lotion to the body, to wear [leather] shoes, or to cohabitate. It is a positive commandment to rest from all these just as it is to rest from eating.” The RaMBaM saw the cessation from eating and drinking as a form of rest. HaShem frees the Jews from certain physical activities on that one day allowing us, to strive for something much higher.

The Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer chapter 46 (a Midrash composed by the school of Rebbe Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, circa 100 C.E.) elaborates even further: Sama’el (Satan, the Angel of Death, the Evil Inclination, the Accuser or Prosecutor) saw that sin was not found among [Israel] on Yom Kippur. He said to HaShem: ‘You have a unique nation, which is like the ministering angels in heaven. Just as the angels have bare feet, so the Jews have bare feet (by not wearing shoes) on Yom Kippur. Just as angels neither eat nor drink, so the Jews neither eat nor drink on Yom Kippur…’ ”

On Yom Kippur, we give the impression of being angels. We not only refrain from the five prohibitions cited by the RaMBaM, we also dress in white, the color of the angels – the color of purity. This status is fascinating for us to explore in order to understand it better.

Three days after Avraham our Patriarch was circumcised, he sat at the entrance of his tent looking for a way to do his special Mitzvah – hospitality to strangers. HaShem came to him and was Mivaker Choleh (visited the infirm); during that visit, Avraham saw three figures approaching from the desert. HaShem appeared to him in the pains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and saw: And behold! He perceived that three men were approaching him, so he ran toward them from the tent entrance and bowed to the ground” (Bereishit [Genesis] 18:1-2).

RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 ‑ 1105) on the words “three men were approaching” cites an amazing Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 50:2) that claims the three were angels: “One to bring tidings (of the birth of Yitzchak) to Sarah; one to destroy Sodom; and one to heal Avraham. For one angel does not perform two missions.”

Angels are similar to robots; they serve only one purpose or function. Though HaShem has hosts of angels, each is programed for a specific function: Raphael is the healer; Gavriel is the forceful one; Satan is the Accuser, etc.

If Israel is likened to angels on Yom Kippur, then maybe the above mentioned Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer is telling us that our function on Yom Kippur is to focus our lives to our one and only function: to spread holiness in the world through the fulfillment of HaShem’s Torah.

We have to some extent lost track of our true objective. We think that we were created in order to heal the sick, or to fight for the rights of the downtrodden, to compose beautiful music, or to produce great movies, or just to make a living. But that is not so. Our true purpose is to spread HaShem’s holiness in the world; perhaps we can accomplish this by being doctors, musicians, social workers, poets, housewives or rabbis. However, at times we get sidetracked and we focus on how much “I” get out of my efforts rather than how we can fulfill His directives. Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we attempt to get back on track, look at our faults and rectify them through Teshuvah (repentance or better – a return to His priorities).

And so, one day a year, we are likened to angels who do not need food or drink, or bathing, or applying lotions to our bodies, or wear the hides of animals on our feet, or even cohabit with our spouses. All of these needs distract us from His directives.

Angels do not need to satisfy any physical, emotional or spiritual needs; they are pure energy whose sole purpose is to serve their Creator, though their service is robot-like. since angels do not have the ability to make choices. Human beings on the other hand have souls that are spiritual but are imprisoned in a physical shell, always needing to be fed, clothed, pleasured and nurtured. Yet this imprisonment is also the glory of humanity. Unlike the angels, we can rise above our limitations and serve our Creator by blending both our physical and our spiritual natures. For this reason the Torah was given to human beings rather than to the angels.

So the RaMBaM, RaShI and Rebbe Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and all of our teachers and mentors stress the point that on Yom Kippur we attempt to fool Satan into thinking that we are angels, not centered on the physical but on our divine purpose. “Sama’el …said to HaShem: ‘You have a unique nation, similar to the angels in heaven. Just as the angels have bare feet, so the Jews are bare foot on Yom Kippur. Just as angels neither eat nor drink, so the Jews neither eat nor drink on Yom Kippur…’ ”

Do not see our abstinence from the five pleasures as affliction; rather we view it as a respite from our limitations as humans. Our true objective is to serve HaShem with joy, awe and love, and to attend Him with our entire body, heart and soul. That is spirit of the day; and when achieved, it deludes the angel Sama’el into perceiving that we too are angels.

Tzom Kal – Have an easy fast,

Reb Yosil

130601 – Parshat Shelach



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



BaMidbar (Numbers) 13:1-14:41

Haftarah – Joshua 2:1-24



On Passover we read a passage from the Haggadah (the Passover guide) that brings up an interesting problem. “Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: I am like a man of seventy, yet I was never able to convince my colleagues that one must recall the Egyptian exodus at night, until Ben Zoma explained it…” (Mishnah Berachot 1:15).

The Mishnah is referring to an obligation to recite Kriyat Shema (the reading of Shema – our declaration of faith) every morning and evening. The Shema is comprised of two statements:

  1. Hear Oh Israel, HaShem is our L-rd, HaShem is One” (Devarim [Deuteronomy]) 6:4);
  2. “Blessed is the esteemed Name, His glorious kingdom is forever” (Talmud Pesachim 56a).
  3. As well as three additional paragraphs:
    • Devarim 6:5-9
    • Devarim 11:13-21
    • BaMidbar 15:37-41.

The first paragraph deals with the inter-relationship of love between HaShem and Israel. The second paragraph deals with the consequences of that love: When we follow His commandments we create a positive reality, and when we transgress His commandments we create a negative reality. While the final paragraph deals primarily with the Mitzvah of Tzitzit (fringes that are to be placed on the corners of all four-cornered garments), it is recited because it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.

The original commandment required the use a thread of Techelet (blue) so that we would be reminded of the sea, which would remind us of the sky, which in turn would remind us of HaShem’s Throne of Glory, which would then remove us from the temptation of sin (Tractate Menachot 43b). When the Techelet was no longer available for use, the Rabbis enacted a rabbinical decree that preserved the Mitzvah of Tzitzit without Techelet.

Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s problem was that though the paragraph did recall the Exodus, the mention of Tzitzit seemed problematic. Since the Torah states (BaMidbar 15:39), “…that you may see it (the blue thread) and remember all the commandments of HaShem, and perform them...” and viewing the dark blue thread at night is difficult, so he thought that this last of the three paragraphs would be unnecessary.

Eventually the problem was solved and as we know from our daily prayers, we DO recite all three paragraphs both morning and evening. But what of the effect of viewing the Tzitzit? How does looking at the Tzitzit change our behavior? The Talmud gives us the above mentioned sequence of reminders (sea = sky = Throne of Glory). In other words, the wearing of the Tzitzit has an effect upon our souls that help remove us from temptation.

There is a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) that teaches us that because of three inherent behaviors, Israel was worthy of deliverance from Egypt; we used Hebrew names, we spoke our holy tongue, and we wore distinctively Jewish clothes. In other words, in order for our culture to be transmitted, we need a sense of self (Hebrew names), a unique method of communication (language), and a unique sense of attire (clothes). I suggest that the role of Tzitzit and Yarmulkes (Kipot) provides us with a sense of Jewish fashion. Not only do the clothes protect us, but they also help mold our character.

When I supervised a Jewish afternoon school, we distributed Tzitzit for boys to wear. One boy in particular, wore his Tzitzit every day and put a tremendous amount of love into performing this Mitzvah. One day, his mother came to school with his Tzitzit saying that her son would no longer be in need of these “things”. When I attempted to explain how her son loved to perform this Mitzvah, she firmly exclaimed “we don’t do these things”. Needless to say, her son’s behavior and attitude changed dramatically after this incident.

The Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisra’el Meir HaKohen Kagen of Radin, Poland, 1838-1933) explains in his classic work, “Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah,” that when the Torah states: “…that you may see it (the blue thread) and remember all the commandments of HaShem, and perform them…” one must be well versed in the commandments so that they can have the proscribed effect. How can one remember commandments that were never learned?

I suggest that remembering the commandments and remembering the Exodus from Egypt, as well as the effect that Tzitzit have on our souls, is the reason that the paragraph was included in the Shema sequence of prayers. Not only are we to actualize our unique relationship with HaShem and the consequences of that relationship, we are also obligated to remember that only by doing the commandments and making them part of our lives can we be part of our own Exodus from Egypt. For the Haggadah also reminds us, “…in every generation, every person is required to view themselves as if they [personally] made the Exodus from Egypt.”

The Torah provides us with the ability to transcend faith alone and to change our personality not only for the betterment of mankind and also for our own.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130515 – Shavu’ot



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig


SHAVU’OT – 5773



The Barrel Or The Flow

While the festival of Shavu’ot represents Z.man Matan Torateinu – the Period of the Giving of our Torah, our tradition teaches us that we did not accept the Toah out of passion, but rather out of an insinuation of coercion.How is it possible that the Torah be binding upon us and every previous and future generation of Jews when in fact, we were coerced into the Covenant with HaShem?

A review of the sources can help us shed light on this matter.

  • Moshe brought the people forth the nation from the camp toward HaShem, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. Shemot 19:17
  • RaShI teaches us that when the Torah says: At the bottom of the mountain,  means at the foot of the mountain.
  • But according to the Talmud, the mountain was plucked from its place and was held over them like a barrel. (Tractate Shabbat 88a).
  • The Talmud goes on to say (Tractate Shabbat 88a): At the bottom of the mountain: Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches us that the Holy One Blessed Be He placed the mountain over them like an inverted barrel and said to them; “If you accept the Torah – good, but if you do not [accept the Torah], then there will be your burial place.

We must therefore reexamine the verse. For the words seem to be out of order. Instead of: “Moshe brought the people forth the nation from the camp toward HaShem,” the verse should have said, “Moses brought the people forth the nation from…” and only then “to meet HaShem.”

Our Sages teach that all the souls of Israel, of both past and future generations, were present at Mount Sinai and this is hinted to in our verse, as it is written:

Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with those who stand here with us this day before HaShem our G-d and also with those who are not with us today” (Devarim 29:14; Midrash Tanchuma Yitro 11).

There is a Hebrew word in our verse that is not translated. The verse actually reads: “Moses took Et HaAm – the people to meet HaShem from the camp.” The word “Et” can be an untranslatable word that assists the grammar; hence our translation omitted it. Or, “Et” can mean “with.” “Moses took with the people” – together with the B’nei Yisra’el of his generation, Moses took others to Mount Sinai.

These others were the souls of other generations, which were visible only by HaShem. Our verse thus says: “Moses took with the people [the souls visible only] to HaShem from the camp” (Ben Ish Chai, Derushim Parshat Yitro).

The Oral Law

They stood in the bottom of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17). HaShem turned the mountain over Israel like a barrel and said: If you accept the Torah, fine. If not, there will be burial place (Tractate Shabbat[1] 88a).

Why did HaShem have to coerce the Israelites to accept the Torah? They had already accepted the Torah by saying, “Na’aseh V’niShmah – We shall do and we shall hear” (Exodus 24:7)! What was the point of holding the mountain, over the Jews and what was the point of hollowing out the mountain like a barrel? It would have been just as threatening if it were not hollow!

What the Israelites had accepted willingly was the Written Torah. They said, “We shall do and we shall hear” – we shall do as we hear and understand from the verses of the Torah. HaShem had to coerce them to accept the Oral Law. He hollowed out the mountain like a barrel to teach them that each letter of the Written Torah contains innumerable Halachot expounded in the Oral Law, just as a barrel contains innumerable drops of wine. Their acceptance of the Written Torah would therefore have to include acceptance of the Oral Law (Ben Ish Chai, Sefer Ben Yehoyada).

However there is an even more profound understanding of the mountain/barrel. Consider that the barrel were a glass case. HaShem could have been appealing to the Children of Israel not to let the moment be wasted. He was telling the B’nei Yisra’el that they had an opportunity to become an eternal nation that would continue to live generation after generation not in memory but in reality. Many nations can still be viewed, studied and appreciated by going to museums and gazing at their handiwork. Ancient books can be discovered, reprinted and studied and an appreciation of the teachings and wisdom can be attained. But all that is but a look at the archeological showcase of history.

Israel had an opportunity to make history by becoming an eternal nation that would adapt, modify and amend itself to the winds of change and modernity without losing the spark of revelation that challenged them at the “bottom of the mountain.” Yes, without the Na’aseh V’niShmah, without both the Written and Oral Torah, Israel would eventually become a force that would lose its light.

Classes in ancient religions would ponder on the affect that Israel had on the region for just a few centuries, but stagnation and entropy set in and petrified the once vital force of Judaism. Or, a guarantee of eternal strength would emanate from the “bottom of the mountain,” and the ability of light, inspiration and enlightenment would come from this small nation of freed slaves. Is this coercion or is this the only real choice that Israel could make.

How are we to achieve this power? We know that the – Mitzvot of the Torah are divided into two different groups. Mitzvot Bain Adam LaMakom – commandments between Man and G-d, and Mitzvot Bain Adam L’Chaveiro – commandments between Man and Community. Israel tends to oscillate between these two extremes. Some Jewish groups emphasize the rituals of Judaism and minimize the social context of Mitzvot, while other groups emphasize the social and minimize the ritualistic. We therefore must examine that which HaShem expects of us. “And now O Israel, what does the L-rd, your G-d, demand of you? Only to fear HaShem, your G-d, to walk in all His ways and to love Him and to worship the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul” (Devarim 10:12).

A song of David: O L-rd, who will sojourn in Your tent, who will dwell upon Your holy mount? He who walks uprightly and works righteousness and speaks truth in his heart.

Who does not slander with his tongue, who does his neighbor no harm, neither does he take up reproach upon his kinsman. A corrupt person is despised in his eyes, and he honors those that are G-d-fearing, he swears even to [his own] harm and does not withdraw his words. He does not lend his money with interest, nor does he accept a bribe against the innocent, whoever does these things shall never falter” (Psalms 15:1-5).

“He has told you O man: what is good, and what does the L-rd demands of you, but: to do justice, and loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your G-d “ (Micah 6:8).

All of the above references emphasize the Mitzvot Bain Adam L’Chaveiro – commandments between Man and Community. Does that mean that the Mitzvot Bain Adam LaMakom – commandments between Man and G-d are secondary or even unnecessary?

Notice that each of the above-mentioned definitions of righteous behavior alludes to Halacha: to walk in all His ways; who walks uprightly, to walk discreetly with your G-d.

Lech – to walk, or to go – shares the same root as Halacha – Jewish law. This is the manner in which we must focus our spiritual attention. The combination of Written and Oral Law brings meaning and rationale to the myriad of obligations we have taken upon ourselves. The blending of the positive and the negative Mitzvot represent the affection and love we must cultivate in ourselves to experience the proper relationship that we must establish with our Creator. And it is the melding of our Mitzvot Bain Adam LaMakom – commandments between Man and G-d, and Mitzvot Bain Adam L’Chaveiro – commandments between Man and Community, which brings out the very best in us. The rituals teach us to look deeper and deeper into the meaning of our conformity to the Covenant and the human displays of kindness become our manifestation of a living, binding Covenant.

Yes, if we as a nation did not accept all aspects of Torah then the mountain would have crushed us and we would have disappeared from the annals of living history. To choose Halacha – the Way – is to choose His Way, and just as His Way is eternal, so too, do we become the manifestation of His eternity.

As you celebrate and observe this special festival, stand at the bottom of the mountain and purposefully join the many links of those who chose His Way, enabling you to connect your past to your future.

Chag Samei’ach,

Reb Yosil

[1] Talmudic tractate in the Order of Mo’ed – dealing with the laws of the Sabbath.

121229 – Parshat VaYiChi


Menorah 02


Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



Bereishit (Genesis) 47:28-50:26

Haftorah I Kings 2:1-12



This week we read the final chapters of the Book of Bereishit. In the synagogue, prior to the reciting of the last few words of the Pasha, the congregation rises and when the reading is completed, they call out in unison, Chazak, Chazak, V’NitChazek – Strengthened, strengthened, may we be strengthened.


The running debate throughout much of Jewish history has been the heated battle about who is the authentic Jew – Sadducees or Pharisees; Kabbalists or Rationalists; Chasidim or Mitnagdim; Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.

Some see this as a threat to Jewish unity, while others claim that it is a necessary lubricant and built–in guarantee assuring that no one group in particular becomes dominant.  No one group should risk the malady of success and its symptoms of laziness, self–righteousness and triumphalism and self-destruct. Some contend that pluralism or the presence of different expressions in Jewish life is necessary to maintain the vitality of the Jewish experience.

Watching how these struggles align themselves on the battlefield of Jewish history is a fascinating exercise, because so much of the tension and the excitement in modern Jewish life is the discovery of parallels between NOW and THEN. We might be able to take some comfort in seeing that that the fissure in the Jewish community today it is nothing new, and that history is but repeating itself.

In watching the battle from the sidelines, I often come away with the feeling that due to assimilation, apathy and indifference, the Yeshiva and Chassidic worlds, where so much of the outside world is held suspect, are surprisingly predicted to still be Jewish by the year 2,050 and all others will disappear.

The fact is that whatever little enters into this world from the outside, is either a modern convenience or a course of study that will yield a good living. The philosophy of Torah and Madah (literally, Torah and Science – the religious philosophy of the “Rav” – Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, a philosophy that embraces areas of worldly knowledge), does not sit well with much of the Yeshiva world. Latin, Greek philosophy and English literature, for example, are not subjects that the typical Yeshiva trained individual tries or cares to master.

Yet we find in the Gemara (Tractate Shabbat 75a), the statement: “Anyone who is able to study astronomy and does not do so is chided by the prophet who says about him, `the world of the Lord they do not explore, and the creation of His hands they do not see.‘”

Every Friday night, Jewish parents bless their children with the time–honored blessing, “May HaShem make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” This is the blessing given to a daughter. But to our sons, we say, “May HaShem make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” (48:20). Of course, we know that Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are the four matriarchs, the founders of our people. But why are Menasheh and Ephraim, the two sons of Yosef, cited in this blessing and therefore seen as the paradigms of Jewish manhood?

One interpretation is that Menashe and Ephraim were the first of the family of Ya’acov to have been born and brought up outside of Eretz Yisra’el and outside the home of Ya’acov, second–generation Diasporians; yet they remained true to the traditions of their faith, despite their exposure to animals gods, the cult of the dead, and the other enticing and inviting elements of Egyptian decadence.

Note for a moment how Ya’acov actually blesses his grandsons. He places his left hand on the head of the older, Menashe, and his right hand on Ephraim, giving the younger son precedence in the blessing. Yosef, for a moment, thinks his blind and ailing father has made a mistake, but Ya’acov actually knows what he is doing and he tells Yosef that the younger boy will, in the end, be greater (48:19). The Midrash explains and resolves this issue with the comment: that when the people of Egypt approach Yosef to buy wheat, there was a translator, and that man was Menashe, a sophisticated linguist, a cosmopolitan PHD we might say, from the Nile University. And Ephraim? Well, he is the unnamed figure who brings Yosef the news that his father is ill. He is the one who, from the time that Ya’acov first arrived in Egypt, devotes himself exclusively to the study of Torah with his grandfather, and sits at his feet and cleaves to the message of his elder. Thus, from the positioning of the hands, we understand exactly why Ya’acov chooses to rearrange the blessings. Ephraim comes first, because without Torah, without a grounding in religious life and ethical teachings, everything else turns into the tools of cruelty. But Ya’acov also blesses Menashe because he values his work and his achievements in the court of Pharaoh.

So, my friends, we parents on Friday night pray to HaShem that our sons should be the synthesis of both Ephraim and Menashe – growing to be people capable of combining Torah learning with worldly wisdom. In this manner, they become full and integrated individuals who are able to appreciate the world and what it has to offer, all the while diverting that knowledge and wisdom through the lens of Torah teaching. Indeed, it is Torah which gets top billing, for it has the capacity to take the best of the material world and sanctify it, ennoble it and transform it; but only if we take Torah and spread its message and its relevance to the academies of science, and politics, to the humanities and the arts. Only then will we have fulfilled the vision which Ya’acov dreamed.

I say this with all due respect to other approaches which might take exception to my feelings on this matter. Nonetheless, I feel that this is a bona fide definition and representation of what it is that we should strive for to be authentic Jews. Perhaps one can embellish and amplify this point by looking back for a moment to the Menorah, the centerpiece of our recently celebrated Chanukah festival. In one of the Torah’s several descriptions of the Menorah lighting procedure, we are told that: “when the flames are kindled, they should light up the central staff of the Menorah, and thus shall all seven lights be illuminated” (Numbers 8:2). This verse gives primacy to the center light; it is the essential Menorah, flanked by the other six lights, three on each side.

Evidently, the six side lights were oriented in such a way as to cast a reflection onto the center. And most of the classical commentaries accept this approach. Rabbi Ovadiya Seforno of 15th century Italy expands this explanation by likening the three lights of the right to those who concern themselves with “eternal matters,” and the three lights of the left to those who are involved with “temporal matters.” Seforno teaches that both of these groups have an overriding and compelling responsibility to turn inward toward the center staff, so that the illumination of the Menorah can be complete. We urgently need this message of the Menorah today, when we see so pronounced and obvious the divisions that exist between the various factions of Jews and the rancor that we hear and read of in the public press.

The center of Torah Judaism has been obscured within the shadows of infighting, to the extent that the entire Menorah may be cast into darkness. Not for this did the Maccabees struggle in the past, and not for this have our ancestors struggle in their efforts to perpetuate Jewish life and provide for its future. And not for this have we come so far in our efforts to build a thriving Jewish community in Israel and in the Diaspora.

So, when looking for inspiration, for enlightenment, one should be able to feel and appreciate the warmth of this approach to Judaism. By no means should the primacy of Torah be diminished, but the realization that Torah can interface and intersect all levels of life. In this way, we bring meaning to our existence and honor our spiritual mission.

Chazak, Chazak, V’NitChazek – Strengthened, strengthened, may we be strengthened.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

121208 – Parshat VaYeshev – Chanukah



Chanukah-zebraReb Yosil Rosenzweig




Bereishit (Genesis) 37:1-40:23

Haftarah – Amos 2:6-3:8



Many of the early pioneers who braved malaria–filled swamps when they first arrived in Eretz Yisra’el believed that an end had come to Jewish ghetto life. These new farmers envisioned a new society and were not afraid to work themselves to the bone because their labor was not just physical, but a cleansing of virtually all traces from their past. The desire was to create a new Jew and bury the old one as quickly as possible.

Chanukah comes to teach the exact opposite. But to understand how, it is important to ponder a number of features of the festival. Chanukah began as a struggle between the old and the new, the traditional Chashmona’im versus the super-modern Hellenists. In the ensuing military battle, the Jewish Hellenists received the help of the mighty Greek-Syrians – and were defeated by the out-numbered and traditionalist Maccabees.

This would certainly have been sufficient reason to declare a holiday. Why was there an added miracle surrounding the rededication of the Holy Temple, the single cruse of pure olive oil sufficient for one day which lasted for eight? And why do we celebrate the rededication, when the initial dedication and construction of the menorah as well as the Temple, by King Solomon (and the same goes for the Second Temple), are not found worthy of a festival. It’s not until the Second Temple is purified and rededicated by Judah Maccabee in 165 BCE, three years after the Greek-Syrians had turned it into a temple for Zeus, that the festival of Chanukah is instituted. In short, then, we must wonder why this experience of rededication is so significant.

Certainly, many at the time of Judah Maccabee must have argued for constructing a new temple entirely. The impurities were so pervasive that it would be far more effective to begin from scratch; to erase the old and to create a new entity. Moreover, something must have been dramatically wrong with the Temple and its service if it had come so close to being nullified by so many Jews, if Hellenism had proven so attractive to Judean leadership. But working from an existing structure obligates making the new compatible with the old. A human being, as well as a nation, must progress organically. Hence, on Chanukah we celebrate a rededication.

The early pioneers wanted to create a new state with no trace of the Jewish ghetto. It would have been a much more formidable and noble task had they taken our tradition and made it into the life force of the new state. The Bible and Talmud, informed with values of reverence for life, human freedom, and compassionate judgment, have the innate profundity to deal with modern state issues such as ethics of warfare, social welfare, rights of minorities and labor relations.

On Chanukah, we proclaim the victory of Jewish tradition over Hellenistic revolution (nevertheless, we did not categorically forbid the study of Greek wisdom). Insofar as Greek wisdom and general culture can enhance our divine service without weakening its foundations, it is not only permissible but even mandatory (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of the Foundations of Torah, Chapter 4, 13).]

Chanukah strengthens and affirms the idea that rededication is the goal; we must build the new by adding to the old. The military victory was insufficient. The true message of Chanukah came with the rededication of the menorah. The single cruse of oil preserved by an ancient high priest has the power to rekindle the menorah for generations to come; but the ancient must be preserved if the creative ideas are to be securely rooted.

It was Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the New Yishuv (the Jewish Mandated Palestine), who made the statement that so beautifully reflects this notion of linking the past with the present: “Let the old be renewed and the new sanctified,”

Reb Yosil

120818 – Parshat Re’eh – Shabbat Rosh Chodesh



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig




Devarim (Deut.) 11:26-16:17

Haftarah – Isaiah 66:1 – 66:24



As a result of the Jewish people suffering continuous religious persecution since the destruction of our second Temple (in 70 C.E.), Jews have become tolerant of other faiths and religions. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, most of the world was very tolerant of other religions. People believed that gods were territorial, therefore when one left the boundaries of ones’ own gods’ influence; one therefore entered into the province of new and unfamiliar gods. Being tolerant of other religions was a necessary survival technique. One never knew when the gods of another territory would become demanding or, benevolent. Tolerance was necessary to not upset the local gods.

Along came the Hebrews who antagonized the world by not only preaching that their G-d was an invisible and all-powerful G-d, but equally important was that their G-d was the only legitimate G-d. The Hebrews were not very popular among the nations because they rejected any and all tolerance for the worship of wood and stone gods and other natural deities.

This obsession with the pursuit of religious truth finds its source in this week’s Parsha. “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshiped their gods; on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree. You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; you shall burn their sacred trees with fire; you shall cut down their carved images; and you shall obliterate their sacred names from that place” (Devarim 12 2-3).

In ancient times, when one nation conquered another nation, it would try not to destroy the vanquished nation’s religious sites and objects. Just the opposite, the conquering nation often used these edifices which were usually beautifully constructed and very ornate, for their own purposes. The fact that the nation of Israel had to destroy the Temples, the idols and the religious symbols of the former inhabitants, was a revolutionary concept.

Our Parsha explains that HaShem declared that the seven nations occupying Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) had no right to worship as they pleased. Eretz Yisra’el had to be emancipated from any religious pollutants. Whether conquered or driven out, the non-Jewish resident aliens or wayfarers had no right to worship their gods or practice their own religious beliefs while on this holy ground. To make sure that these religious places and symbols did not infiltrate the conquering Hebrews, they had to be – “destroyed,” “broken apart,” “smashed,” “burnt,” “cut down,” and “obliterated.”  Any and all traces of these artifacts had to be eradicated lest they influence the Jewish population.

But all this destruction had a price. The very next verse reads: “You shall not do this to HaShem, your G-d” (12:4). RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) teaches us three different lessons:

  1. Offerings to HaShem can only be presented from the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later from the place that HaShem designates (the Temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem).
  2. It is forbidden to obliterate the name of HaShem. For this reason we do not write His name (G-d) unrestrictedly so that if the page is thrown away, discarded or desecrated His name will not be erased.
  3. RaShI brings a Sifri (circa 400 C.E., a Halachic [legal] Midrash [interpretation] of the Books of BaMidbar [Numbers] and Devarim) that warns:
    • “Rabbi Ishmael said: Could one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts? To be more precise, do not do anything that would CAUSE your religious places TO BE DESTROYED.”

Rabbi Ishmael asks if one could imagine Israel doing such a terrible thing. But in the history of our nation and in the very days of Rabbi Ishmael, such desecrations did happen. Our Temple was desecrated by Hellenist Jews (during the Chanukah period of our history) by bringing in Greek idols and offering non-kosher animals as sacrifices. Rabbi Ishmael knew very well that terrible acts of desecration were committed by the Sadducees during the Roman period. Even recently, in modern Israel, acts of desecration are perpetrated by Jews against differing Jews and their religious institutions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans and whose wretched death was cheered on by Jews who were Roman sympathizers, knew full well what Jews were capable of. How could he say, “Could one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts?”

I found an interesting answer to this question from Rabbi Ya’acov Haber formerly of Melbourne, Australia, who mentions that the first Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) is: “…if the performance of a Mitzvah will embarrass you (for example, praying Mincha [afternoon prayers] on a public highway, or saying grace at a board meeting, perhaps even sporting a Kippa [skull-cap] at your work place), you should still do it.

“However, the Mishnah Berurah [an updated version of the code – written by the Chafetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisra’el Meir HaKohen Kagen, 1838-1933] quotes the Beit Yosef [Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, 1488-1575] as saying that, ‘…one should not go out of their way to antagonize people even in the performance of a Mitzvah (for example, deliberately praying Mincha on a public highway when it is unnecessary), since that will give one’s personality the characteristic of Chutzpa (insolence) [in the words of the Beit Yosef] YiK’neh B’Nafsho Midat HaAzut (one’s soul will acquire the characteristic of insolence), which will then be used for less than noble purposes’ ” (Reachings – Talks on Torah, page 172).

What Rabbi Haber means is if one performs Mitzvot either in an antagonizing manner or worse doing so specifically to antagonize, then that behavior will continue in non-Mitzvah situations which will become physiologically and spiritually destructive.

When I lived in Israel, I served in the Israeli Army reserves. During my short basic training (I was 35 years old, married with 3 children and established in business) I served with other immigrants from similar backgrounds and ages. Clearly one-third of our group was religious and many were from the “ultra-orthodox” camp.

During that time I began noticing that the more physically challenging and strenuous our training got, the more our sophisticated and personally disciplined group began to act in a boorish manner. Our character began to change, we began using rough and profane language, and sometimes we behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable in “religious” society. I realized that in civilian life, we suppress certain feelings, desires and forces, but in the army those very forces are encouraged and relied upon. The increase in physical activity and extreme conditions had a powerfully negative effect on us. As civilized human beings and religious Jews, we were forced to keep ourselves in check otherwise we were capable of Chutzpa (unbecoming behavior).

This is what Moshe was saying to us. Am Yisra’el (the nation of Israel) will spend considerable time conquering the land and making it suitable for a Torah based population. In the process, we might become crass and boorish, which would make us insensitive to one another.

In the post-Holocaust era, Am Yisra’el also had to lift itself up out of the ashes. A state had to be formed and wars unfortunately had to be fought. These battles for independence were fought in the Sinai desert, the Galilee and on the West Bank, but there were other battles that Am Yisra’el also fought: spiritual battles in America and in the Soviet Union; on campuses in Berkeley and Jerusalem; in the suburbs of our great cities; in the outposts of Siberia; and in the disengagement of Gaza. Our leadership spoke about tolerance and acted with intolerance, decried injustice and meted out inequity. We expounded community and acted as segregationists. And today Eretz Yisra’el has become our modern battleground for self-righteousness and self-centeredness.

It is one thing to understand a problem and another to rectify it. That is the real Tikkun Olam (world rectification) that very few of us are attempting. We must demand dialogue among our Rabbis and lay leaders. When we use these hidden and subdued forces within us they take a toll on how we think and how we behave. Our very souls have become inundated with self-righteous insolence that we aren’t even aware of it.

Moshe is warning us to be very careful with the use of necessary force. While it was imperative to destroy the idols and the holy places of the Canaanite nations, he cautioned us that those very same energies could also be used against each other and against HaShem. Even today, as we battle for our homeland and for the very souls of our brethren, we must use extreme caution. Otherwise, the results can be tragic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120707 – Parshat Balak



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



BaMidbar (Numbers) 22:2-25:9

Haftarah – Micah 5:6-6:8



In this week’s portion we again examine the Ko’ach HaDibur (the power of speech). On the Israelite’s final journeys toward Eretz Yisra’el (the land of Israel), and after the defeat of the armies of Og king of Bashan and Sichon king of Emor, Balak (king of Midian and Mo’av), realizes that Am Yisra’el (the nation of Israel) cannot be militarily defeated in the conventional manner. He sends for Bil’am, a Mesopotamian prophet who has the ability to place powerful curses on people and nations, so that Bil’am’s power of speech might be the impetus for Israel’s downfall. HaShem does not give Bil’am permission to curse Israel but after some cajoling He does allow Bil’am to journey with king Balak’s emissaries to Mo’av.

Bilam saddles his donkey and sets out. HaShem sends an angel to block the way and three times Bil’am beats his donkey for he cannot see the vision of the angel. Suddenly a miracle occurred, “VaYiftach HaShem Et Pi HaAton – And HaShem opened the mouth of the donkey” (BaMidbar 22:28-35).

Over the past four weeks, each Parsha has had a focus on the gift of speech, which to many commentators is the meaning of humans being created “in the image of HaShem.” At the end of Parshat Beha’alotcha (BaMidbar 12:1-14), Miriam and Aharon speak against Moshe’s relations with his wife and Miriam is punished with Tzara’at (leprosy); In Parshat Shlach Lecha (BaMidbar 13:1-14:44), ten spies bring back an evil report of Eretz Yisra’el and Am Yisra’el’s negative reaction triggers their forty year sojourn in the desert; In Parshat Korach (BaMidbar 16:1-35), Korach speaks against Moshe and Aharon which instigates a rebellion against Moshe’s authority, which results in Korach and his assembly being swallowed up by the earth; and finally, in last week’s Parsha, Moshe struck the water-bearing rock rather than speaking to it, and lost his privilege to enter Eretz Yisra’el.

There is a very interesting Mishna in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of our Ancestors – an ethical treatise). Chapter 5, Mishnah 8 reads: “Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat, at twilight. They are: 1: The mouth of the earth (Korach); 2: The mouth of the well (Miriam); 3: The mouth of the donkey (Bilam); 4: The rainbow (No’ach); 5: The Manna (Moshe); 6: The staff (Moshe); 7: The Shamir (King Solomon); 8: The alphabet (Hebrew); 9: The inscription (on the Tablets); 10: The Tablets (Yisra’el).”

The universe’ creation ended with the Shabbat, which began at sundown on Friday, but Bein HaShmashot ([literally “between the illuminating orbs,” or twilight] the time between the setting of the sun and darkness) is a difficult time period to define. Does this time period belong to Friday, or does it belong to Shabbat? The mystical quality of Bein HaShmashot is the reason we Jews begin Shabbat at sunset on Friday evening and end it after the stars appear in the heavens on Saturday night. It is during this time that HaShem created the last necessary items needed to make the world perfect. He knew that there would be times when seemingly miraculous events had to take place, but He wanted them included in the natural order of creation. Therefore, these special creations were formed Bein HaShmashot, at the very end of the sixth day, between dusk and darkness in that mystical time that is so hard to define. Let us review these ten manifestations.

  1. Pi HaAretz (the mouth of the earth) – “With this you shall know that HaShem has sent me to do all these acts, that it has not been out of my own heart. If these men die as all men [would normally] do, and that the destiny of all men is theirs, then you shall know that HaShem has not sent me” (BaMidbar 16:28-29).

When the earth opened its mouth (BaMidbar 16:28-33) and swallowed Korach and his assembly, it was not an earthquake or fissure in the conventional sense of the word, this mouth or chasm, had been prepared at the time of creation. Normally prior to an earthquake, the ground experiences tremors and any fissures caused do not close up. This opening left absolutely no suggestion of its existence before or after the occurrence. The death of Korach and his assembly was not natural. Throughout history, many humans have died by earthquakes, but in this case, the earth opened and then closed its mouth.

  1. Pi HaBe’er (the mouth of the well) – Can you imagine 600,000 men between 20 and 50 years of age, plus younger and older men, and plus women, a multitude of approximately 3,000,000 people finding water during their 40 year sojourn in the desert? After the death of Miriam, the B’nei Yisra’el (the children of Israel) found themselves without water. Our Rabbi’s teach us that in the merit of Miriam a fountain of water (the infamous rock) traveled with the B’nei Yisra’el during their sojourns.

Again, this fountain was not an ordinary well, yet its character was part of the natural order, prepared and ready with all of nature prior to the first Shabbat.

  1. Pi HaAton (the mouth of the donkey) – Pay attention to the dialogue between Bilam and his donkey: “HaShem opened the mouth of the donkey and it said to Bil’am, ‘What have I done to you that you struck me these three times? ‘Bilam said to the donkey, ‘Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you!

The donkey said to Bil’am, ‘Am I not your [she] donkey that you have ridden all of your life until today? Have I been accustomed to doing such a thing to you?’

He said, ‘No.’

Then HaShem uncovered Bil’am’s eyes and he saw the angel of HaShem standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand. He [Bil’am] bowed his head and prostrated himself on his face.”

According to Irving M. Bumin (Ethics from Sinai, vol. 3 page 85) Bil’am learned two things from this exchange: “

  • If heaven wills it, even a donkey can see what a prophet cannot. Prophetic vision is under the control of HaShem.
  • Speech is a G-d given gift and Bil’am should reserve his speech for words directed to him from above.”

The ability of the donkey to speak to Bil’am was not miraculous in the common sense of the word. it was arranged even before creation was complete.

  1. The Rainbow – prior to the flood, a mist hovered over the earth and watered all plants. After the flood, the sun was able to shine forth through the clouds and the phenomenon of a rainbow was unable to be seen. This change in reality that affects us even to this day is the result of the atmospheric conditions set forth when the first rainbow appeared.
  2. The Manna – One of the greatest wonders of creation was Manna, a heavenly food that was pure nourishment. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat B’Shalach 22) defines the miraculous quality of this food.

“Manna could assume almost any taste, depending of the consumer. It was completely digested leaving no waste to be expelled. The amount gathered would last all day and rot if left over for the next day. On Fridays a double portion would fall, enough for Friday and Shabbat.

The distance it fell from the home depended on the righteousness of the consumer; the more righteous the consumer, the closer it fell to the doorway of the family’s tent.

For the righteous it was as fine bread; for the virtuous, as course cakes; and the wicked had to grind it between millstones, or beat it with a mortar and pestle. Also, for the young it was as bread; for the old, as wafers made with honey; for infants, as mother’s milk; and for the sick, like fine meal with honey.”

  1. The staff – We read in Shemot (Exodus) 4:17, 20: “And you shall take in your hand this staff, with which you will work wonders…and he took the staff of HaShem in his hand.”

This is the staff that turned into a snake/alligator; that set off the Ten Plagues; that divided the Reed (Red) Sea; and that brought forth water from a rock. Made of sapphire with HaShem’s infallible Name written upon it, this staff was no ordinary staff, its origin was part of the creation process.

Where did it come from? Pirke De’Rebbi Eliezer 40 (a Midrashic work [c.100 C.E.] composed by the school of Rebbe Eliezer ben Hyrcanus) gives the history of the staff. “Created at twilight, before the Sabbath, it was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam gave it to Chanoch (Enoch), who gave it to Metushelach (Methuselah); he in turn passed it on to Noach (Noah). Noach bequeathed it to his son Shem, who transmitted it to Avraham (Abraham). From Avraham to Yitzchak (Isaac), and then to Ya’akov (Jacob), who took it with him to Egypt. Ya’acov gave it to Yosef (Joseph); upon Yosef’s death all his possessions were removed to Pharaoh’s palace. Yitro (Jethro) one of Pharaoh’s advisors desired it, whereupon he took it and stuck it in the ground in his garden in Midian. From then on no one could pull out the staff until Moshe came. He read the Hebrew letters on the staff and pulled it out easily. Knowing then that Moshe was the redeemer of Israel; Yitro gave him his daughter Tziporah (Tziporah) in marriage.” Then, as a shepherd to Yitro, it was while investigating the phenomenon of the Burning Bush that HaShem said to Moshe: “What is in your hand? And he (Moshe) said, ‘a staff‘” (Shemot 4:2).

  1. The Shamir – The Torah (Shemot 20:22) banned the use of metal in building the altar. When King Shlomo (Solomon) built the Temple, he understood that this ban also applied to the stones of the Temple. How could he build a large stone edifice without the use of a blade, or a hammer?

The Talmud in Tractate Giten (68a-b) tells an amazing story of the capture of a miraculous worm that vibrated at a very high frequency (it may have given off super-sonic oscillations) and could split wood and stone. “Placed on the hardest wood or stone it would split them open as into two writing tablets. No iron or metal could have this quality, it would simply split them open. It could be transported only wrapped in a cloth, tufts of wool, or in a lead container filled with barley bran” (Tosefta: Sotah 15:1).

  1. The alphabet – Our tradition teaches us the even before HaShem began creation, He wrote the Torah. This could best be understood as an architect drawing up the plans prior to beginning construction. However, mankind needed a tool to be able to discern this monumental work, hence, the alphabet. Prior to the nation of Israel appearing on the scene, other written scripts did appear, but these scripts were hieroglyphs and pictographs. The Hebrew alphabet has a miraculous and unique quality to Jewish and world history. As Professor David Porush writes (http//www.rpi.edu/~porusd) “I would rate the ‘invention’ of the Hebrew alphabet as one of the single most amazing discoveries in human history, far above electricity, the atom bomb, exploration of space, the printing press, or any other technology.”

Here are a few of his reasons:

    • The Hebrew alphabet was the first alphabet ever invented. This means that it was the first system of symbols to represent the pure atoms of “sounds” that formed words rather than using pictures to represent words and ideas (like hieroglyphs and pictographs do).
    • The Hebrew alphabet is the mother of all alphabets. No other alphabet was ever invented independently of Hebrew and all alphabets can trace their origins to it (Aleph, Bet = alphabet).
    • Since all previous alphabets were pictographs or ideograms (pictures that stand for words), the Hebrew alphabet further enforces the abandonment of idolatry.
    • The most concise script before the invention of the Hebrew alphabet contained over 600 signs. Most pictographic and hieroglyphic scripts contain thousands of signs.
    • Because the 22 Hebrew letters represent sounds not pictures, it requires a higher level of abstraction in decoding them.
    • Hebrew is also different from all alphabets that followed because it lacks vowels. The Phoenicians and Greeks added vowels, and so are often accredited with inventing the alphabet even though the earliest Phoenician alphabet is circa 1200 B.C.E. and the earliest Greek alphabet is circa 850 B.C.E.
    • Because the Hebrew alphabet lacks vowels (and was originally written without spaces or punctuation, too) it is more ambiguous. The same set of consonants very often can indicate many different words. Hebrew, therefore, invites an extraordinary gift of interpretation and tolerance for multiple meanings on the part of its readers. (E.g. “read not Banim but Bonim – not sons but builders” (Talmud Tractate Berachot 64a – commonly recited in the Ashkenazic tradition between Kabalat Shabbat and the evening service on Friday nights); when reading the letters Aleph and Tav are you reading “Et” (the accusative particle); “Oht” (letter or sign) Aht (you – feminine) or the number 401 (Aleph =1 and Tav = 400)?

In other words contained within the Hebrew alphabet are the seeds of the interpretive practices of Midrash and Gematriya.” These designs of HaShem are not only a concise key to communication, but (as we began this “VORT”) they contain the “images of HaShem” that enable us as “images of HaShem” to communicate information that enlightens us to His creation.

  1. The inscription – The inscriptions on the Tablets also had a miraculous nature to them. “Moshe descended the mountain with the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both their sides; they were inscribed on one side and on the other. The Tablets were HaShem’s handiwork, and the inscription was the inscription of HaShem engraved on the Tablets” (Shemot 32 15-16).

The words on the Tablets were engraved so that they completely bore through the stone. But rather than the second side being a mirror image of the first, miraculously, both sides could be read with the same clarity and format.

  1. The Tablets – Made of sapphire, the Tablets were shaped like cubes and measured six Tefachim (about two feet) on each side. Though the letters Samach and Mem Sofit (shaped similar to the letter “O”) have mid sections that should cause the letters to fall out of the Tablets, yet they did not.

Also, it is believed that the Tablets weighed an enormous amount (each Tablet was 8 cubic feet of sapphire) yet, Moshe was able to carry them. It is understood that they in fact, carried Moshe and not otherwise. Therefore our tradition asserts that when confronted by the Golden Calf, it was not Moshe who broke the Tablets, but rather the holy letters and holy inscription withdrew from the Tablets causing them to be too heavy for Moshe to carry and thus they shattered.

This simple Mishnah contains worlds of information, too massive to be contained in this Parsha summery. But we see how a detail in our Parsha can lead us to a Mishna, to various tractates of Talmud, the Midrash and other ancient and modern works.

I once concluded that the center of infinity, by definition, is every point. The Torah is truly infinite, and any one point in the Torah can lead you to every other point. Our duty in life is to remember that we were created in the image of HaShem, with the divine power of speech and the power of communication. May the use of our words bring forth all the great features that were created on the eve of Shabbat and bring about the enlightenment of mankind and the glory of HaShem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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