130803 – Parshat Re’ay

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

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PARSHAT RE’AY

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

Haftarah – Isaiah 61:10-63:9

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Because we suffered continuous religious persecutions since the destruction of our second Temple (in 70 C.E.), the Jews have become tolerant of other religions. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, the world was very tolerant of others’ religions; people thought that gods were territorial, when one left the boundaries of ones’ own gods’ influence; he entered the confines of new gods. Being tolerant of other religions was a necessary survival technique. One never knew when the gods of another territory would come in handy. What was always important was not to upset the local gods.

Along came the Jewish people who antagonized the world by preaching that not only was their

G-d invisible and all-powerful, but their G-d was the only legitimate G-d. The ancient Jews were not very popular among the nations because they rejected any and all tolerance for the worship of wood, stone and natural phenomenon.

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 in 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. 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 religious beliefs while on this holy ground. To make sure that these religious places and symbols did not infiltrate the conquering society, 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), or later, from the place that HaShem designates (the Temple on Mt. Mori’ah 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.
    • RaShI brings a Sifri (a Halachic [legal] Midrash [interpretation] of the Books of BaMidbar [Numbers] and Devarim) that warns: “Rabbi Ishmael said: Would one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts? Rather, 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 things did happen. Our Temple was desecrated by Hellenist Jews bringing in Greek idols and offering non-kosher animals as sacrifices (during the Chanukah period of our history). 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 Jews and their religious institutions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans and whose miserable death was cheered on by Jews who were Roman sympathizers, knew full well what Jews were capable of. How could he say, “Would 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 sporting a Kipa [skull-cap] at your place of work), 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 specifically to antagonize, then that behavior will continue in non-Mitzvot situations which will be 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.

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 characters began to change, we began using rough and profane language, and sometimes we behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable in polite 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 Jewish existence. 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 founded, and wars unfortunately had to be fought. The battles for independence were conducted 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 and 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 battleground for self-righteous 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 and 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 forces 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

130323 – Parshat Tzav / Shabbat HaGadol

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MatzReb Yosil Rosenzweig

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PARSHAT TZAV/SHABBAT HAGADOL

VaYikra (Leviticus) 6:1-8:36

Haftarah – Malachi 3:4-24

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The Shabbat before Pesach (Passover) is called Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat) because it was the day when the Jews were to take the sheep (which were Egyptian deities) to be used for the Pascal offering four days later (this meant that the first Pesach was on a Wednesday). After nine plagues, the Egyptians were powerless to react to the slaughter of one of their gods. The Israelites, of course, didn’t know this, and therefore displayed tremendous faith prior to the Exodus.

We remember this event with a special Haftarah (reading from the prophets) where again great faith and trust in HaShem is emphasized. The Haftarah concludes with the call to remember the teachings of Moshe and informs us that HaShem will send Elijah the Prophet to herald the great and awesome day when the Children of Israel will again experience redemption.

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Matzah is accustomed to hearing what we have to say to it. After all, the entire service of the Passover Haggadah is recited with the Matzah uncovered, serving as the passive, inanimate listener to our tale of bondage and freedom, cruelty and Redemption, chaos and purpose. The Matzah hears us. How meaningful it would be if we could “hear the Matzah?” I think that the conversation would go something like this:

“This is Seder number 3,343 for me. I began in Egypt, travelled through the Sinai desert, and took root in Israel. I was at the Temple in Jerusalem, the palace of David, the herdsman’s hut on the Golan and the merchant’s home in ancient Yaffo. I was present in the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Forum of Rome. I have been in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the Alps of Switzerland, the plains of Catalonia, the vineyards of Provence and Bordeaux and the splendor of Byzantium. I have seen Warsaw, Vilna, Kiev, Cracow, Moscow, Berlin, Kobe, Shanghai, Cochin and Bombay.

“I have been at Seder tables spread with white linen, laden with the finest china and most ornate silver servings. I have also been in hidden dark cellars in Seville and Barcelona, expelled from London and Oxford, and unaccountably and unjustly accused of blood libels. I was also in Auschwitz and Bergen–Belsen, under siege in modern Jerusalem and Sefat, in labor camps in Siberia and I have hid in Damascus and Teheran. I have been around and I have learned a thing or two.

“I have observed the passing of civilizations and empires. I have witnessed profound changes in the world order and in its beliefs. Every empire was convinced that it was invincible and immortal. Every philosophy advanced itself as the sole panacea for the world’s ills. Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas and Locke, Marx and Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Russell, all postulated and proposed. Monarchy and feudalism, fascism and communism, imperialism and nationalism, all arose to structure and improve life and society. Reason and renaissance, humanism and secularism, religious oppression and hedonism, all have had their day.

“I, as a lowly Matzah, couldn’t comment too loudly about these goings on. But, I have seen them all pass, and yet, the struggle for personal freedom, for meaning and commitment, for peace and understanding, for home and family, is yet to be won. That explains why I’m delighted to be able to have this little chat with you. I’m always thrilled to have someone who will listen to me.

“For a while, people, even my people, thought that I wouldn’t be around much longer. But that was not true. I am now in Beachwood and Thornhill, Scarsdale and Beverly Hills, Brooklyn and Windsor, Bogota and Sydney, Paris and even Leningrad. I am back in Jerusalem and Sefat, Tiberias and Hebron.

“In fact, I am present wherever people care and hope, are loyal to themselves and their heritage, treasure old values and close family, and have proscribed the violence of hatred and chosen the path of tradition and faith. In short, for anyone who will listen to me, I am there.”

So when you pass the Matzah, be very quiet while eating it. More than its crunch, I have a hunch that it has much to say to us. It is our story. It is our glory.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher V’Samei’ach,

Reb Yosil

130316 – Parshat VaYikra

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

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PARSHAT VAYIKRa

VaYikra (Leviticus) 1:1-5:26

Haftarah – Isaiah 43:21-44:23

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What does it mean to be human? What is it that defines our essence? Are we the social animal described by Aristotle, or the thinking animal proposed by Descartes?

Clearly, one can come up with a variety of definitions for the human being, from the notion of the creature who loves for no reason, to that being which hates for no reason at all. But I would like to suggest that the opening verses of Sefer VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus, present us with a different, somewhat surprising idea of what it really means to be human, and it is certainly not the usual first–choice definition for the human spirit.

It is tied, in essence, to the theme of this Biblical book, namely that of sacrifice: “I sacrifice, therefore I am.” I refer to this as surprising because we are, as part of this exercise, searching for a universal, human definition, and the sacrificial cult detailed in Leviticus is rather particularistic; it is parochial in its scope, and according to some, even primitive. So great is this perception that large segments of modern Jewry, intent on erasing all barriers between Jews and the rest of humankind, endeavoring to put only Judaism’s best foot forward, have practically edited out all references to sacrifices from time–honored prayers in the prayer book and from the festival Torah readings. These are decisions that have been made by the liturgical authorities in other denominations in Judaism. But I might contend that in their haste to whitewash Jewish texts and to remove them of any last vestige of the sacrificial cult, they sometimes overlook concepts and possibilities in the text, whose underlying message strikes at the heart of the human existential need.

Sefer VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus, begins with HaShem calling to Moses, and presenting a command which is the theme of the entire book, and perhaps of all of life: “Speak to the children of Israel, when any man of you shall bring from themselves a sacrifice to HaShem, from the cattle, from the herd or from the flock…” (Lev. 1:2).

When any person from among you” doesn’t really do justice to the original Hebrew term, namely the word Adam – human. “Human beings, when they shall bring from themselves a sacrifice” is how it really should read. Adam is, after all, the most universal term for humankind, for personhood, since it evokes the first human who ever lived and from whom every single person in existence is derived and descended, and it is the root word of Adamah – earth, from which all life emanates and originates. Not only does Adam seem out of place in this particular context, but if we remove the word “Adam,” the verse still makes perfect sense.

Hence, the Torah is teaching us that the essence of the human being is his/her or her need, and ability to sacrifice. And the logic behind this concept inheres in the most fundamental aspect of the human predicament/condition. It is after all, only the human being, among all other physical creatures of the world, who is aware of his/her own limitations, who lives in the shadow of his/her own mortality, and since the time of Adam is aware of the painful reality that no matter how strong, powerful or brilliant he/she may be, he/she will ultimately by vanquished by death. his/her only hope is to link themselves to a Being and a cause which is greater than them, which was there before they were born and which will be there after they dies.

I once had a discussion in one of my evening class discussing the issue of whether or not we can change HaShem’s plan. We might call this our struggle with Bashert – predestination, and our ability to be the architects of our own destiny. Many of these very questions were raised by participants in the group: What is the purpose of life? What does it mean for us to be human? What is it all for? Why live? Because in the end, we decay and rot away. And yet, so many of us are smitten with the bug to amass wealth and material goods in this world, to achieve and create fame and fortune. Many people collect and assemble their wealth in order to utilize it for themselves, in order to enjoy these material means in the here–and–now. However, our mortality teaches that our material possessions do not really belong to us; one day we will be forced to leave them and the entire world behind, and in fact they often fall into the very opposite hands from those we would have liked to have received them. Hence the real paradox of life: only those objects which we commit to a higher, more sublime cause and purpose, which we give to HaShem, to a sanctuary, to a study hall, to a home for the sick and aged, to a shelter and haven for the poor and disadvantaged – only those are truly ours, because they enable us to live beyond our limited lifetime, perhaps to all eternity. Only that which we sacrifice is really ours. Only that which we give of ourselves to others has a lasting significance and purpose.

The expressions of sacrifice, or sharing and giving, are, and can be, various; but common to building a synagogue or a Yeshiva, or funding a new hospital wing or a scholarship fund, and assuming other tasks to ease the sufferings and the challenges of humankind, is that all link us to a greater good, a hope for the future. I may die, but to the extent that I devoted my life to causes that will not die, that live on and endure, I also will live on. Sacrifice makes it possible to bathe in the light of eternity.

Jewish history, and the city of Jerusalem, the center of the universe, emanate from this fundamental truth, as seen and reflected in HaShem’s initial command to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved Isaac on Mount Mori’ah, the eventual site of the Temple. Yitzchak – Isaac was the first “Olah – whole burnt offering.” In effect, HaShem was teaching Abraham that his newfound faith would only endure in history eternally if he, Abraham, were willing to commit to it his most beloved object, paradoxically his very future. In his willingness to make that sacrifice, Abraham secured his religions and his own eternity.

But the Torah teaches that the most significant sacrifices of all that we can make are not our material goods, but are rather our own selves, our time and our effort, our intellects and our unique abilities. People must sacrifice “MeKem – from themselves” (Lev. 1:2). Giving a child the gift of a check is hardly as significant as giving a child the gift of our time, of our personalities, of our thoughts and of our struggles. And this, too, HaShem teaches Abraham. HaShem ultimately instructs Abraham not to slay Isaac, but to allow Isaac to live because the greatest sacrifice we can make is not in dying for HaShem; we do not believe in Jihad, in religious war and struggle, but rather in living in accordance with His commands and desires. Isaac, in life, is called an Olah – a whole burnt offering.

Strangely enough, RaShI, the well–known and celebrated Biblical commentator, suggests another reason for the seemingly superfluous use of the term “Adam” in our text. The Torah, he contends, is teaching us that just as Adam, the first human being, never sacrificed stolen goods, since everything in the world belonged to him, so are we prohibited from sacrificing anything which is stolen and is not our own. Such a lesson certainly protects Jewish society against a Robin Hood mentality, which steals from the rich in order to give to the poor. In our faith and in our ethical teachings, we do not believe that the ends justify the means, and we must always pursue justice by means of justice.

Perhaps, then, RaShI is protecting us against an even deeper and more demonically appealing, danger inherent in the identification that we might make with Divine service. We can only sacrifice objects or characteristics which technically, if even in a limited sense, belong to us. We dare not sacrifice innocent human beings, even if we believe that such a sacrifice will prevent the murder of Jews. We cannot offer up ourselves on a funeral pyre, commit suicide with a dying gasp of “let my soul die together with the Philistines,” or the Palestinians. Our lives belong to HaShem, and we dare not steal that which is His, even in our gift to Him. Judaism is not Machiavellian. And the ends can never justify the means. We are each an end unto ourselves and not a means for the achievements of others.

Let us celebrate our potential, the opportunities we have to properly sacrifice for just and noble causes; to give of ourselves to serve purposes that go beyond our earthly existence, and ensure the eternity of our souls and the enduring value of our earthly existence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130202 – Parshat Yitro

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Rosenzweig Family 2091Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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PARSHAT YITRO

Shemot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23

Haftarah – Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

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Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened on the land that HaShem, your G-d gives you” (Shemot 20:12).

The fifth of the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments) completes the commandments of the first of the two tablets. This Mitzvah (commandment), to show honor to one’s parents, is also the bridge between the two tablets.  The first tablet contains Mitzvot Bain Adam LaMakom (commandments between mankind and HaShem) while the second tablet contains Mitzvot Bain Adam L’Chaveiro (commandments between mankind and his/her fellow).  This poses a difficulty, for most of us would classify honoring one’s parents as a Mitzvah Bain Adam L’Chaveiro.

To best comprehend this Mitzvah one must understand that there are three partners in the formation of a child: a man, a woman, and also HaShem.  Therefore, one cannot give proper honor to HaShem without being able to give honor to one’s parents.  Without this Mitzvah, the first four and the last five cannot be properly observed.

The commandment is slightly different when it appears in Parshat Kedoshim (VaYikra [Leviticus] 19:3). “Every person: Your mother and father shall you FEAR and observe My Sabbaths…

Here, the Torah teaches us a very profound lesson – that we should treat our parents equally.  We all feel that parents should treat children equally.   Favoritism shown by a parent can lead to serious problems between parent and child.  Likewise, children are obligated to treat their parents equally.

Often children give their mothers greater honor than their fathers and, likewise, they fear their fathers more than their mothers.  Mothers are the nurturers who give of themselves often without regard to their personal needs or wants.  Fathers are usually the disciplinarians in the family; they command a higher level respect or more aptly, fear.  How often do mothers say to their unruly children, “wait till your father gets home?”  The Torah therefore juxtaposes their roles – honor your father and fear your mother.

Another common feature between these two Mitzvot is their connection to Shabbat.  Observing Shabbat is the fourth of the Ten Commandments, honoring one’s parents is the fifth.  And, the Mitzvah of fearing one’s parents is immediately followed with; “and observe My Sabbaths…” Another very important lesson is presented to us here, namely, that one must respect their parents – and that doesn’t mean that one must always listen to them.

If a parent demands that you transgress a commandment for them, claiming that the Torah demands you to “honor your father and mother,” then the Torah says NO! That is unacceptable.  A parent who asks his/her child to transgress one of HaShem’s commandments as a sign of respect is unfairly jeopardizing the spiritual development of their child.

The Aseret HaDibrot are repeated in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5:6-19.  There is a slight difference in wording between the two versions.  In our Parsha the Mitzvah reads: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened on the land that HaShem, your G-d gives you.

However, in the second version the same Mitzvah reads: “Honor your father and your mother, AS HASHEM, YOUR G-D COMMANDED YOU, so that your days will be lengthened on the land that HaShem, your G-d gives you.”

What lesson do these additional words (as HaShem, your G-d commanded you) teach us?  The Meshech Chochmah (Reb Meir Simcha of D’vinsk [Russia] 1843-1926) teaches us that we shouldn’t think that respecting one’s parents is like paying back a debt.  Most parents spend a small fortune on clothes, food, schooling, medical and dental expenses for their children.  However, the Torah doesn’t obligate respect of parents out of financial conscience.

NO!  One is obligated to honor one’s parents “as HaShem, your G-d commanded you.”  Just as this commandment was given in the desert and the normal process of child welfare had not yet occurred, so too, must we give honor to our parents with no strings attached.  Honor for the sake of honor, not as a repayment for the generous care that they provided.

There is a story in the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin) of a certain gentile in the city of Ashkelon who had precious stones that were worthy of being used in the High Priest’s Breastplate.  A delegation of Rabbis came from Jerusalem with 600,000 shekels for the transaction.  When they arrived at the gentile’s home and requested to examine the stones, the son of the owner informed them that he couldn’t go ahead with the transaction.  His father was asleep, and the key to the safe was under the father’s pillow.

Even though a large amount of money might have been forfeited, or at least delayed, the son was not willing to disturb his father.  This is a cherished example of honoring one’s parents.

Finally, one of the main traits necessary to raise children properly is patience.  Rabbi Yissachar Frand of Baltimore says that often, especially today with extended health and life expectancy, “children must develop patience with parents.”  As they get older, they often become dependent on their children.  This can lead to strife in a family that has to care for elderly parents.  A healthy spiritual relationship between parents and children during the years when the parents are robust will assuredly be continued when parents can no longer take care of themselves.

The Torah demands this by legislating our duties not as a display of kindness, or, out of a sense of pity or duty, but as an expression of honor and reverence to parents and, therefore, also to HaShem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120908 – Parshat Ki Tavo

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PARSHAT KI TAVO

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:1-29:8

Haftarah – Isaiah 60:1-22

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A hefty portion of this week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) deals with the terrifying Tochacha (the admonition by the priests to the Nation of Israel). Joshua is instructed that upon entering the promised land, he is to bring the 12 tribes to the city of Shechem and there split them into two groups of six tribes; Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar, Yosef and Binyamin should stand on Mt. Gerizim, and the tribes of Re’uven, Gad, Asher, Zevulon, Dan and Naphtali should stand on the neighboring mountain, Mt. Eival (Devarim 11:29-30).

Between them, in the valley, the Kohanim (the priests) and the elders of the Levites would proclaim a series of blessings and curses, to each of which the assembled tribes on both mountains would respond with “Amen.”

The Book of Devarim primarily reviews the requirements for the nation of Israel to live successfully in the Land of Israel. A healthy relationship between the nation and the land will depend on Am Yisra’el living by the standards that Moshe established based on the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The blessings: if Am Yisra’el lives by the Torah, the rains will fall in its proper time; the people will grow prosperous; social justice will prevail in the land; the poor and the helpless will live in dignity; Israel will be socially, politically and militarily strong; therefore, Israel’s enemies will fear her and peace will reign upon the land and the people. However, there are also the curses: if Am Yisra’el does not live by the Torah, the rains will not fall and crops will fail and the land will become desolate; the nation will live with economic strife; social justice will be absent from the people; the poor and the helpless will live in misery; Israel will be become weak; Israel’s enemies will believe that God has forsaken them and find her attractive; war will ensue throughout the land and the people will be taken into exile and experience terrible treatment.

Though this seems preposterous, our history has proven these words to be true. Regardless of how much we don’t believe that there is a relationship between our behavior and the ability for the land to prosper, our history has shown us that we have actually lived during times of blessings and times of curses; we have flourished in spectacular golden ages throughout the planet and have been decimated by incomprehensible calamities bat the hands of our enemies. Therefore it is imperative to know that as bright or as dark as reality can get, HaShem is always present and has been the lifeline of Jews throughout our history.

Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef (former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel), maintains in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah that the verse “…then will come the LOST from the land of Ashur (Assyria) and the BROKEN from the land of Mitzra’im (Egypt); they [all] shall prostrate themselves to HaShem on the holy mountain in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13) refers to how Jews fare during times of peace and prosperity and during turmoil and strife.

The root words of the two countries described in the above quotation are symbolic of our Jewish reality. Ashur (Assyria) has the same root as the word Ashir – which means wealth. A reoccurring phenomenon in Jewish history is that when we live in peace, prosperity and religious freedom we tend to “lose” our Jewish identity to the over self-confidence that freedom and opportunity generate and we become “LOST” to our heritage. The root of Mitzra’im (the country of Egypt) on the other hand represents Tzar – which means suffering. When we live in countries that try to “break” us and deny our religious freedoms, we again become decimated and lose our spiritual identities, this time because our backs are “BROKEN” by the yoke of oppression and the lack of religious freedom.

Actually, both the realities of Ashur and Mitzra’im are two sides of the same coin. It is not only the oppression of the former Soviet Union that almost wiped out an entire generation of Jews, our willful escape from Jewish life and culture in freedom loving countries also almost annihilated an entire generation. Ironically, the freedoms afforded Jews living in the western world should have assured our existence. On the contrary, the Jewish communities of the western world have come close to a total demise of our culture while at the same time experiencing the unlimited freedom to openly explore our Jewishness. So the prophet tells us that both groups – the affluent and the oppressed – wait for the messianic moment when they will prostrate themselves to HaShem on His holy mountain.

What is the formula for success? How do we withstand the blessings and endure the curses? I once heard a story from Rabbi Yechi’el Spero, a cousin of my late wife, that may help shed light on this wonder.

A certain man survived the holocaust, came to America and started his life over again. He married, raised a family of five young men and lived to see them all marry and establish decent Jewish homes. Prior to the wedding of his fifth son, one of his other son’s came to him and said, “father I know that you suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi’s and that you lost your entire family, but every day you go about your business groaning “AYY AYY.” Not only that, but when all of us got married and you were asked to say a few words at the weddings, again you started with the words “AYY AYY.” Father, count your blessings, be grateful that you are prosperous and have a family. Get over your sorrow and don’t agonize at the marriage of your youngest son about what once was.”

The father took in the words of his son and replied. “It is true that I suffered greatly during the holocaust. When the Nazi’s took over our village, we were forced to dig a huge pit. Then we were stripped and forced to stand in this mass-grave and the Nazi’s with great merriment began shooting their sub-machine guns at us. My father and mother, all my sisters and brothers were killed, but I was not even grazed. After dark when the Germans finally left, I snuck out of the mass grave and hid in the forest.

“Eventually I was captured and brought to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There I met a few friends from Yeshiva (religious school) and we decided that we would not allow these murderers to break us. A small group of us pledged to each other that come what may, whenever we would meet, we would say over a ‘Vort’ (a word of Torah). One day an SS officer overheard us speaking and beat to the edge of death and we were forbidden to speak Torah again.

“We then began just relaying to each other just the sources to the Torah commentaries to remind each other of Torah that we had previously been taught. Again we were caught and beaten severely. So we devised another plan. This time we would relay to each other the six most important concepts of Judaism in an abbreviated form. The six concepts are:

1. A – Ahavat HaShem – the love of God.

2. Y – Yirat HaShem – the fear (awe) of God.

3. Y – Yichud HaShem – the Unity of God.

4. A – Ahavat Yisra’el – the love of Israel.

5. Y – YiKadesh Shemo B’Rabim – sanctifying His Name publicly.

6. Y – Yeish Elokai Mima’al – there is a God above.

“These six ideas are what kept us alive during those terrible years. Every time we saw each other we said, “AYY AYY” and calmly declared our faith to HaShem in the terror of Bergen-Belsen. And the truth is that these six ideas are what have always kept the Jewish people alive in war and in peace. So even though I was liberated and began my life anew, I never forgot “AYY AYY.” I say it every day, not as a groan of sorrow but as a focus for living.”

Some of us only focus on “the LOST…and the BROKEN,” but those who somehow find the strength and courage to survive both the blessings and the curses of wealth and oppression, focus on He who oversees our destiny.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

120818 – Parshat Re’eh – Shabbat Rosh Chodesh

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT  RE’EH

SHABBAT ROSH CHODESH

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

Haftarah – Isaiah 66:1 – 66:24

120818

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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

120804 – Parshat Va’Etchanan/Shabbat Nachamu

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VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT VA’ETCHANAN

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

SHABBAT NACHAMU

Haftarah – Isaiah 40:1-26

120804

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Thursday, the 14th of Av was the first Yahrtzeit of my dear mother Helen Rosenzweig – Chayah bat R’ Shmu’el HaKohen. And if my parents would still be alive, this Shabbat would have been their 66th wedding anniversary. This week’s “Vort” is dedicated to their memory. Tehi Nishmateihem Tzerura B’Tzror HaChaim – May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.

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The scene is all too familiar, you are making a Shiva call. The wife of an old friend has died suddenly from a massive heart attack. You thought you might be out enjoying a movie or a show; instead, you are uncomfortably visiting the grieving husband to express your sorrow and condolence. The scenario can get even worse. Sometimes it is a son or a daughter, or even a grandchild, who dies. We each have our own examples of such loss and destruction and they all lead up to the same scene. You get out of your car to visit the grieving family, after all, it’s the Jewish thing to do, and therefore you do it. But you find yourself asking over and over again: “What can I say? What possible comfort can I offer?”

This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu – the Sabbath of Comfort (following the first few words of our Haftarah), it’s part of a larger phenomenon linked to the wisdom of our Jewish calen­dar. The genius of an ancient tradition like ours is that over the course of centuries it projects onto the annual flow of time every conceivable human emotion. By living through our calendar we learn to grapple with the gamut of human experi­ences and emotions.

For example, last week, the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, was Shabbat Chazon – the Sabbath of Vision, or better, the Sabbath of Nightmare. We read Jeremiah’s horrible vision of the destruction of Jerusalem, and thereby we experience, at least vicariously, what it feels like to grieve. By contrast, this week (the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av), we read about comfort, or more precisely, we identify with the prophets whom HaShem charged with comforting Israel after its loss of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. They, too, wondered, how.

Their questions are our questions as we park the car and close the door. “Comfort? How can I comfort someone whose child was just killed by a drunk driver?” How can I find the words to assist those who are grieving the loss of a loved one? How does one begin or open up the discussion? Most simply put, what words of consolation can one say?

I had this very feeling a while back when I called someone to check up on her and see how she was doing. Her husband passed away a few weeks before. I mistakenly asked her the rhetorical question – “how are things going?” Words and language seem so limiting and woefully inadequate at moments of loss and bereavement and it is precisely in this regard that Judaism has some sage advice and good counsel.

This is the time of the year when our calendar asks us to come to terms as best as we can, with tragedy and the aftermath of human sorrow. We remember again that every day of life is a gift, a tenuous extension of the day before, which was itself nothing to take lightly. Why should we be here at all? What are the chances that human life should even occur against the madness which grips so much of our world today?

Perhaps I am more intimately connected these days to the concept of life and creation, having recently attended a Brit – a circumcision just a few weeks ago. Life can appear to be so infallible yet, it can quickly be reduced to something so small and insignif­i­cant. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “All flesh is grass; all its goodness like flowers of a field – for the grass withers and the flowers fade” (Isaiah 40:6)

So, you get out of your car and make your way to the door of the Shiva house, reminded again that life is tenuous, and you wonder again, “What can I say to comfort my friend?” Again, the prophet has anticipated your question as if he knew the inner dialogue that haunts us all. “One voice cries out, speak! Another asks, what is there to say” (ibid)?

The Torah itself provides an answer. HaShem instructs the prophet in our Haftarah, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, yes, comfort my people, Dibru Al Lev – Speak tender­ly” (Isaiah 40:1-2). There it is, so succinctly stated, “speak tenderly.” The Hebrew phrase actually reads, “speak to the heart,” that is, speak words that are accepted by the heart, and not simply with the rational faculty that we call the mind. There is nothing logical we can say that will ever bring comfort to those who have suf­fered a loss.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed this phenome­non of human behavior too often in Shiva houses where people are mourning and hurting. I have seen the efforts of well–inten­tioned, well–meaning individu­als who try to offer advice, who engage in plati­tudes, cheap or ill –an improper and poorly placed philosophi­cal exer­cise, in their desire to at least say some­thing. We think that we must offer answers. We feel that we must say something. We feel that we are obligated to provide an explanation. And we are wrong.

For we are not all mind, we are heart as well and we must find a way to speak to their hearts. Forget the logic and speak to the inner core of one’s being, to one’s heart. As Jewish wisdom puts it, “words spoken from the heart enter the heart.” “Dibru Al Lev Yerushalayim speak to the heart” – says the prophet Isaiah.

The next time that one has to make a Shiva call, remember the simple rule of the prophet Isaiah, don’t try to explain. One need not feel obliged to justify a death, or even to reassure the mourners that things will get better. Lacking something profound to say, realize that you do not have to settle for small talk, rather, a loving embrace, a heartfelt look from eyes that understand. We provide some fond memories of the person who died and a few short sentences that mean, “I love you; I am sorry; it’s awful; I don’t under­stand either, but I am here with you in your moment of grief.” That is the comfort we have to offer. We console and we help heal – with our presence, with our hearts and not with our heads.

“Do not reason with people when their deceased lie before them,” advised the rabbis. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to say. Yes, you can park your car outside the next Shiva house, knowing that you are appropriate in the power that you have at such a time. You can step confidently through the doorway, realizing that the very purpose of your actions is your presence. “Com­fort,” yes, comfort them – “Dibru Al Lev – speak to the heart” – speak tenderly to them. For what comes from your heart we can believe will surely go directly into theirs.

This is how we as Jews offer comfort and consola­tion. We need not offer answers, but only provide our love and our presence. Our standing together and being available for others in their moments of need – this is one of the highest forms of Chesed – loving kindness.

When my mother passed away last year I was forced to mourn alone, I was in the hospital in Toronto when I received the news of her passing and my sisters accompanied my mother for burial in Israel, joining my brother there. After my children left and I sat Shivah alone I experienced a raw sense of abandonment, until my friends and the friends of my mother sat with me. Our Torah and our tradition, gives us a way to be consoled when we grieve by requiring the presence of others.

May the prophet Isaiah’s words ultimately be realized: “Fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God: I will strengthen you; I will help you; and I will sustain you through My power” (Isaiah 41:10). The fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim – Comforting the mourners – by our very presence, brings the presence of HaShem into our hearts and into our homes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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