131019 – Parshat VaYera

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Yerushalayim 01

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig



Bereishit (Genesis) 18:1-22:24

Haftorah – II Kings 40:1-37


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This week we read about some incidents in the life of Avraham and Sarah. The Parsha begins with three messengers (angels, each with a specific task) who visited our patriarch Avraham after his painful circumcision. The three messengers were: Micha’el – who informed Avraham and Sarah that they would have a son; Gavri’el whose task was to destroy the provinces of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Refa’el – whose purpose was to heal Avraham after his circumcision (and to save his nephew Lot). Lot is an interesting character, full of contradictions, very much like us and is never included among all the great Jewish heroes and role models.

We talk about the loving-kindness of Avraham; we name our children after him. Yet, don’t we most resemble Lot? In the great travels of our Patriarch and his family, we find that when Avram came to Canaan from Haran, the Torah says: “And Avram took his wife Sarai, and Lot his brother’s son and all the wealth that he had amassed…­” (Bereishit 12:5). And, when Avram returned to Canaan from Egypt after the famine, the Torah says 13:1: “So Avram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his and Lot with him…” ­Prof. Nechama Leibowitz z”l (Zichrona LiVracha – may she be remembered for a blessing), teaches that in this second verse, Lot is mentioned after all the possessions. The wealth and materialism of Egypt had so affected Lot that he was a changed man. For Lot, possessions meant more than people.

When the family returns from Egypt, Lot, the materialistic nephew, chooses to live in Sodom, where the living is high and the morality low. Avraham comes to Canaan for a new life; Lot comes for profit. Avraham wants a better way of life, but Lot wants a better standard of living. Avraham wants a society based upon what would become Torah‘s values; but Sodom fulfills Lot’s purposes.

Last week’s Parsha described a war between four kings and five kings, during which Lot was taken captive and his possessions were confiscated. Avraham was obligated to rescue his kinsman and nephew Lot, which he did. Did Lot learn from his loss and his rescue? No. He went back to Sodom, and the evil people of Sodom once again affected him. As misguided as Lot appears to us, HaShem thought that Lot should be saved. HaShem sent a messenger (an angel) in the guise of a traveler to save Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot trying to be virtuous offers his daughters to the Sodomites so that they would be distracted and not take away his guests.

Another episode in this Parsha deals with Avraham passing through the territory of AviMelech, king of Gerar. Once again, Avraham and Sarah find themselves in hostile territory. Avraham was aware of AviMelech’s strange practice. Like Pharaoh in Egypt, AviMelech, king of Gerar, sought beautiful women for himself. But, just as Pharaoh would never consider taking another man’s wife, AviMelech would have the husband murdered and then force his affections on the widow.

HaShem intervened and Sarah was saved from dishonor. But like Pharaoh, AviMelech is repulsed by Avraham’s cowardly behavior when he lied and pretended to be Sarah’s brother. “Therefore AviMelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears; and the men were very afraid: Then AviMelech called Avraham, and said to him, What have you done to us? And in what have I offended you that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done: And AviMelech said to Avraham, What did you see, that you have done this thing: And Avraham said, Because I thought, surely the fear of HaShem is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake” (Bereishit 20:8-12).

AviMelech, a civilized man (according to his standards) wanted to know how Avraham could have done such a thing to him. He was angry, HaShem had rebuked him and he lost honor among his people. Avraham replied: “Because I thought, surely the fear of HaShem is not in this place.” Neither Sodom nor Gerar were places that were conducive to the moral lifestyle that Avraham wanted for his family.

The wrong friends sometimes influence us; we choose neighborhoods, schools and choose our priorities as responses to the wrong signals. At times, we exploit our relationships with others, even though we might have great role models who teach us otherwise. Even if we don’t have someone like Avraham as a role-model, we still have many Torah leaders who are living role models in our time. Do we exemplify their lives, or do we choose the values of those living around us?

HaShem redeemed Lot because HaShem knew that with all his foibles, Lot was redeemable. Despite his mistakes and misdeeds, his pride and selfishness, he was basically a decent fellow. He lived in Sodom, he was becoming part of Sodom, but he wasn’t really happy about it. His redeeming grace was that he knew something was wrong. As warped a community as Sodom was, Avraham always remained an uncle and role-model for Lot.

We don’t have an uncle like Avraham, but we do have something even better – the Torah. It is a reminder to us every day of how we should behave and how we should react to outside influences.

We learn from Avraham pleading with HaShem to save Sodom (18: 20-33) that without a Minyan (a quorum of 10 a minimum group necessary to establish a Torah society), Lot could not survive the moral Galut (exile) of Sodom. But we, who have Shuls (synagogues), communities, and the ability to connect to holiness and to purity, sometimes like Lot, choose the wrong society. The Torah tells us that like Lot we too ARE worthy of redemption. But when we are told to leave Sodom and its ways, do we listen? We can read the message; but do we believe the words? We know the story; but do we react as we should react?

In Yeshiva high School I had a Rebbe asked: “If the Torah contains the laws of the Jewish people, then why are there so many stories?” He answered that often we learn more from the stories because they provide us with an example on how to live a life of Torah.

With G-d’s help, may we muster the strength to improve our lot, just like Lot did.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

Sukkot – 5774




Reb Yosil Rosenzweig


SUKKOT – 5774


If I am here, everyone is here. If I am not here, no one is here” (Avot D’Rabi Natan, 12). It was Hillel the Elder who said these puzzling words regarding the Rejoicing of the Drawing of the Water – the ceremony that took place in the Temple area during the festival of Sukkot. Indeed, the compiler of the Mishnah declares: “Whoever has not seen the joy of Simchat Bet HaSho’evah (the water drawing ceremony) has never seen joy in his life” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, 51a). Since the festival of Sukkot for is referred to as Z’man Simchateinu – the season of our joy – how can we possibly understand Sukkot without understanding joy?

Usually, joy is perceived as a state of happiness, of having a great time. A universal truth of modern life is that if you want a great time, you must leave for some exotic location. Getting away from it all is so fixed in our minds that few people spend their vacation at home without feeling guilty, bad and disappointed, that they could have done something better, somewhere else.

The Jewish concept of Simcha – joy is the antithesis of getting away. The Torah’s definition of Simcha is to be found in the commandment to celebrate Sukkot: “You shall keep the feast of tabernacles seven days… And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son, and your daughter, and your man–servant, and your maid–servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow” (Deut. 16:13-14).

At first glance, there seems to be nothing overtly expressed about the “how” of rejoicing. But the Torah in fact is teaching us a sequence of joy. A person must be able to rejoice, first of all, with themselves, with their development, growth and accomplishments. Then with their family, the people who are closest to them, and finally with their community – particularly its most needy souls.

For a head of a household who has all the spokes connected, the festival provides a rare opportunity to realize and appreciate what they really are, to sit back and contemplate their personal world in depth. It is specifically within this context that true joy exists and what’s more important, it can last. In addition, when one appreciates what one has, one can share it with others.

A Jewish wedding is another example of this approach to joy. Instead of going off on a honeymoon, the couple don’t leave town. For seven days they celebrate Sheva Berachot, friends and family gathering for a “sacred feast,” replete with the seven special blessings recited under the wedding canopy. For seven days, the couple is the center of attention wherever they go.

With this in mind, I believe Hillel the Elder’s words “If I am here, everyone is here…” means that if a person can say “I” am here – the “I” who is part of family and community, the “I” who exists in a productive relationship with the world around them, the “I” who possesses a real ego and strong self, the “I” who does not have to escape in order to rejoice – then everyone is here and everything is in order.

Such an outlook doesn’t require a fancy palace. Even a fragile hut under the open skies is quite sufficient, if it houses a personality content with themselves, surrounded by loving family and friends.

Chag Samei’ach,

Reb Yosil

130817 – Parshat Ki Teitzei



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21:10-25:19

Haftarah – Isaiah 54:1-10


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One of the sins recited in the Vidui – the great confessional that is part of the Yom Kippur liturgy is, “And for the sin which we have committed before You by misjudging.” How do we, who are not judges, transgress this sin? It seems that mention of such a transgression does not apply to us, but only to those who render judgments and pronounce decrees and decisions in the halls of justice.

The answer is that not only do people who wear black robes and sit upon the bench, judge. All of us are judging all of the time. We judge each other, and we sometimes do it spitefully and callously. For these ever-present and unfair judgments, we, therefore, ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

In this week’s Sedra (Devarim 25:13-15), we actually find the commandment that speaks to this concern: “You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, large and small. You shall not have in your home diverse measures, large and small…A perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shall you have.”

This Mitzvah refers not only to the actual instruments and scales that were used in business and commerce. Our Jewish tradition also understands that there are measuring devices and standards that exist in the ethical and moral realms and that have to be used honestly and with great sensitivity.

One of the most common failings in contemporary life is the tendency to apply favorable sets of standards for ourselves, and unfavorable ones for others. To justify our conduct and to crown our achievements, we use scales that are always balanced in OUR favor.

For others, we often use a “small scale.” We belittle and denigrate the standing and accomplishments of our friends and neighbors. By minimizing the worth of others, we hope to achieve greater credit for ourselves. Jewish tradition is aware of and refers to this propensity as gaining honor at the expense of shaming others, and it is considered a major violation of Jewish ethical law (Maimoni­des, Laws of Repentance, 4:4).

Numerous are the examples of this kind of distortion and abuse. There is a famous essay that underscores this all too common human failure: “Isn’t it funny…when the other fellow takes a long time to do something, he is slow; but when I take a long time to do some­thing, I am thorough. When the other fellow doesn’t do it, he is lazy; but when I don’t do it, I am too busy. When the other fellow does something on his own, he is aggressive and overstepping his author­ity; when I go ahead and do something without being told, that’s initiative. When the other fellow states his opinions strongly, he is opinion­ated; but when I state my opinions strongly, I am being firm and principled. When the other fellow gets a promotion, he sure had the lucky break; but when I get a promotion, it is due to hard work and efficiency that I owe and can attribute my success. Funny, isn’t it – or is it!”

This practice of employing two standards – one for ourselves and a second for others – is a major cause of friction, jealousy and hostility that clearly impacts on our interpersonal relation­ships in harmful ways. So the Torah insists, “You shall not have in your house diverse weights and measures.” One must weigh and measure and judge honestly. Our aid to others is not only in the form of monetary gifts, but in the expansiveness of character that we can demonstrate in our consideration of others. It is reflected in the language that we use. Others are often not any more mediocre than we are; neither are they always much better. If we were willing to be benevolent regarding our own faults and failures, then let us also be equally kind about the mistakes and deficiencies commit­ted by others.

When we make the statement on Yom Kippur – Al Chet Sh’Chatanu LeFanecha – for the sin that we have committed before You by misjudging – let us be cognicent of how often we judge others incorrectly, and therefore, how careful we should be before we jump to conclusions. One need not place a hand on the scale in order to violate this Mitzvah against false weights and measures. It speaks to the standards exercised by our hearts and our minds in the consideration of others.

May HaShem give us the wherewithal and the inspiration to Dahn L’Kav Z’chut – to judge everyone favorably; to find the good and not only the bad; to look for the positive and see blessing and credit in all whom we meet.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130223 – Parshat TeTzaveh – Shabbat Zachor



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



Shemot (Exodus) 27:20 – 30:10

Maftir: Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25:17-19

Haftarah – I Samuel 15:2-34



The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat of remembering what Amalek did to us); therefore we remove two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the Ark. From the first we read seven Aliyot from Parshat TeTzaveh, and the final Aliyah (Maftir) is read from a second Torah scroll reviewing the Mitzvah of “remembering” Amalek’s arrogance (Devarim 25:17-19). Since the Torah says “remember what Amalek did…” and we are taught that whenever the Torah mentions the word “remember,” a spoken pronouncement must be made. Hearing the Maftir portion read from the Torah with a Minyan present is therefore a Mitzvah from the Torah, to be observed by men and women above Bat/Bat Mitzvah age.

The festival of Purim is observed on Saturday night, March 23 and Sunday March 24, 2013. For those living in a walled city (from the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan) it is observed on Sunday night, March 24 and Monday March 25, 2013.

There are 4 Mitzvot associated with Purim: Kri’at HaMegillah – reading/hearing the Megillah, M’Shlo’ach Manot – sending food gifts (at least 2 different ready to eat foods (e.g.: bread and fruit) to at least one person, Matanot L’Evyonim – giving alms to at least 2 poor people and Se’udat Purim – eating a festive meal during Purim day.


In one of the religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, there is a special store that actually designs and sells garments that are based on details provided in the Bible. Among the items that they produce are priestly garments that were worn by the High Priest and other priests during temple times. For those not intimately connected to the text found in this week’s Parsha (which details the manner in which these garments were sewn and prepared), it seems to be a rather esoteric and distant concept.

Dress codes in general have suffered from the effects of modernity and the open society. There was a time in life when people were very particular about wearing garments which clearly reflected their line of endeavor or occupation. Even doctors today make rounds in sports shirts or skirt–and–blouse combinations rather than uniforms. And when businesses, as they often do, adopt “dress–down days,” you know plain clothes are in and formality is out.

But in contrast to this current societal trend, our Parsha provides the Kohanim with golden tunics, onyx epaulets and diamond–studded breast plates. There was once a showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which now has been reproduced in book form involving the photographic art of Gay Block, that was entitled “Rescuers: Portraits of Courage in the Holocaust.” In the original exhibit, she revealed the ordinariness of men and women who saved their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis. Clothes mattered very little in those instances. Indeed, Block’s heroes in the exhibit wear plain garments that are stretched, stuffed and folded along bodies contoured like our own.

And while in no way seeking to diminish the importance of the priestly vestments, we might from this analysis of the role of clothes in life, come to question whether or not clothes “really make the man.” Could it be better said that our bodies are actually our uniforms? I believe our commentators would think so. “Make holy garments, for the priests,” says our Parsha, “for honor and for beauty.” Rabbis thus ask, “Why just the priests? Why not for the Levites as well?” And the answer is that the Levites led the public chanting of Psalms, a sacred act so obvious that they needed no special garb to single them out or distin­guish them.

The Kohanim, however, slaughtered and sacrificed animals and on the face of it, they not only did the mundane business of any butcher shop, they were actually rendered sacred by their inner religious intent. Their sacred clothes thus reminded onlookers of the internal and invisible attitude that they were to project upon their holy work from within the depth of their souls.

Chassidic commentary likens us all to priests because we, too, do mostly ordinary things, ultimately made special by the integrity that we project and infuse upon them. Human beings need their own “priestly uniforms,” and we have them: the bodies that cover our inner selves, that demonstrate nobility of character in the natural creases and folds that reflect our daily toil. What matters about our bodies, then, is not whether they are slim, graceful, toned or tanned, but whether they portray the work that we do in life, the goals that we pursue, the values that we embrace.

This attitude toward the body obviously flies in the face of a billion–dollar campaign in a huge industry by America’s body and diet industry. An industry that attempts to convince us to be sexy, slender, shapely, sleek and handsome. Join the gym; go to the tanning salon and sit under the lamps; apply eye shadow and other facial creams; drink Ultra Slim Fast – so goes conventional body wisdom, as we become a nation of eating disorders and slaves to a vision of make–believe bodies that we will never have or achieve.

Judaism, by contrast, extols the body that we have, and looks upon it as priestly garb, “for glory and for beauty” – not the made–up beauty of the market place, but the beauty of a body shaped by labor and by love.

Gay Block’s rescuers, for instance, are not particularly beautiful by American standards. By the time she tracked these people down, they were stooped with age, overweight, bald or otherwise weathered, sometimes weathered by the years. Her camera captured some­thing of a deeper, more profound than just physical beauty; it captured the determi­nation that led these ordinary citizens and ordinary heroes to defy the Nazi system of brutality and barbarism.

Great photography seeks honesty. A worker’s gnarled knuckles can be beautiful; wrinkles are not necessarily ugly; hair that is thinned or streaked with gray is no disgrace but speaks of years of experience; years of living in this earthly enterprise, toiling in causes that are noble and just. These are the badges of aging, physical remnants that speaks to us of the ordinary heroism of ordinary people who show up for life each day and help a neighbor, do an honest job, perhaps spend a quiet evening at home when they are done.

To be distinctly human is to be a priest in the temple–like place that we call the world – as we saw just three weeks back, when the Torah called all of Israel a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” The human enterprise is as mundane on the surface as the priestly regimen of the daily offerings, but it is as well a daily opportunity to offer something beautiful to G-d.

Judaism’s attitude toward the human body is therefore complex. The Rabbis shunned Greek games that glorified and idealized the notion of the naked body. The Rabbis revealed the real bodies of real people, which are imbued with a sanctity that typified priestly vestments. They prohibited tattoos and banned self–laceration and self–mortification. We may not starve ourselves, even with fasts that honor G-d. We look askance at autopsies unless there is emergent need to confront a public hazard or health risk, and we treat a corpse with dignity, washing it clean and laying it gently to its eternal earthly rest.

I was once in New York and had the opportunity to spend some time on the Lower East Side with some friends. The next day I Davened in one of the few remaining Minyanim that still exists on East Broadway, in what was at one time a thriving, bustling, Jewish community. The Lower East Side still has a good number of people, but it is an aging community. One could easily see in the synagogues and in the streets of the Lower East Side, the toll that the years have taken on the Jewish community. Eating breakfast in one of the small kosher restaurants that still operates on the East Side, I had a chance to gaze upon the common folk, the people who are true to the core East-Siders, who not only say something about that Jewish community but are also an important piece of Americana. There was a certain simplicity, a homespun goodness that can be seen and heard in the conversations that take place daily in those worn and torn streets. What once was the cradle of the Jewish immigrant experience, now serves as the remnant and reminder of a world which once was. It is a world which is worn and tired but still has an element of honesty and integrity.

In the final analysis, then, the vestments of the priests are in fact, the priestly garb for ordinary people, who are created in G-d’s image. Our bodies are given “for glory and for beauty” – not the glory of eternal youth or the beauty of the sexy look. The genuine luster that tells the tale of our lives, our work, our toils and our troubles, our joys and our struggles, becomes more beautiful with every passing day because of its genuineness, its honesty, its realism and its simple beauty. Clothes don’t make the man as much as the experiences and effects of working in our world and living life with all of its challenges.

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

120901 – Parshat Ki Teitzei

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21:10-25:19

Haftarah – Isaiah 54:1-10


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Fences are fascinating. They make a statement of ownership and personal space. Whether in rural areas or urban neighborhoods, fences define physical boundaries and are clear markers of property lines. They’re not difficult to erect, a surveyor’s skill and a good fence-builder are usually all one needs to define physical space. I wish it were so simple in the other spaces in which we also live. Beyond the private hedges that bound our properties, we live in a Jewish religious world and in a particular community.

Over the past few years I have participated in various efforts within this community to clarify the matter of religious pluralism. The work has been challenging and rewarding, searching for meaningful ways to become truly welcoming and inclusive to other Jewish communities. In the process, I strengthened my own understanding of us as Jews. Knowing how we are different also clarifies our convictions positively.

We often discover that we need to first make clear our separate and then our shared values before we can effectively define who or what is inside and who or what is outside our boundaries. Groups are sustained by shared values and the distinctions we hold in common about what are good, worthwhile, rewarding and ethical.

Boundaries define groups. Whether we are speaking of a 10–person Minyan or the whole Jewish people, all groups use boundaries to define themselves; to define who or what is inside and who or what is outside, a group defines itself by recognizing differentiation. Just think of the Boy and Girl Scout troops of our childhood and the fraternities of our college days. Secret handshakes and special clothing helped create our sense of belonging. Symbols and rituals also point to deeply–held values.

When I was a synagogue Rabbi, defining our orthodox values also helped members of the congregation who did not necessarily live their daily lives by orthodox standards appraise such questions as:

  1. Can one grant synagogue membership to a Jewish person who is intermarried?
  2. Does one offer a Mazal Tov to congregational members on the engagement of a child when they become engaged to a non–Jew?
  3. Do you count a non–Orthodox convert in a Minyan at a Shiva?

Over the past century and a half, the development of at least three new Jewish sub-groups has opened up a schism between each of these groups and demands dialogue in order to reunite. Add to this that fact that we live in an open society that insures freedom and legitimacy to all, confuses and exposes us to the very cost of assimilation and the breaking down of some fences. In contemporary Jewish communities, clarifying our boundaries requires that we first identify them.

The boundaries of a group need to be intelligible about its rights and responsibilities. Anthropology teaches us that when people experience a boundary as coherent – even if they don’t understand it – they will accept it. We read in the Torah (Shemot – Exodus 19:24) read on the festival of Shavu’ot: “But let not the priest or the people break through [YeHareisu] to come up unto HaShem.” Biblical commentators Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1080-1164, poet, grammarian, Bible commentator, philosopher, astronomer, and physician) and David Kimchi (1160-1235 of Provence, leading Bible commentator and grammarian) interpret the word YeHareisu as “to break through a boundary.” Even at the very moments of Divine revelation, boundaries must be maintained. Boundaries can also be uncomfortable and uneasy. Our challenge is to keep Judaism vital by giving voice to our most–deeply held values. In today’s “open-society” the only way to maintain the group is to maintain its boundaries.

Consider as we discuss the matter of boundaries a few features from this week’s Parsha. The Torah portion includes four laws with a single theme: “A male should not wear women’s clothing, nor should a woman wear male clothing” (Deut. 22:5); “we should not sow with two kinds of seeds” (Deut. 22:9); “we should not plough with an ox and a donkey together” (Deut. 22:10); and “we should not wear clothing made of linen and wool” (Deut. 22:11). These laws all forbid various forms of mixtures.

Two of these passages are included in another passage regarding forbidden mixtures in VaYikra (Leviticus) 19:19. There, along with the laws regarding sowing two kinds of seeds and wearing cloth made of two kinds of material, we are also forbidden to mate two species of cattle. Here, these laws are preceded by the general statement that we are to obey HaShem’s Chukim – ordinances. RaShI (acronym for RShlomo Yitzchaki [1040-1105], considered the commentator par excellence. RaShI’s commentary on the Torah as well as his commentary on the Talmud is considered absolutely basic to the understanding of the text to this very day), in line with the rabbinic tradition, identifies Chukim as Divine decrees for which human beings cannot discern any reason. The paradigm for these apparently irrational (at least to humans) Divine decrees is, of course, the “red heifer” that paradoxically purifies the ritually impure but renders impure the one who administers it (BaMidbar – Numbers 19). We are to obey such laws simply out of obligation to HaShem as Jews.

On the VaYikra 19 passage, the ArtScroll Stone Chumash adds the comment of the RaMBaN (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides, b. Spain, 1194; d. Acre, 1270, one of the greatest medieval Jewish sages, Halachic authority, philosopher, mystic, Bible commentator, poet, and doctor. Participated and was victorious in numerous polemics with church leaders), who acknowledges our human wish to understand HaShem’s precepts and then offers a reason of sorts for HaShem’s forbidding sowing with different kinds of seeds. “HaShem created the world with certain distinct species, and His wisdom decreed that these species remain intact and unadulterated. For man to take it upon himself to alter the order of creation suggests a lack of faith in HaShem’s plan.”

But, ArtScroll continues, “…we should not assume that these laws of mixtures forbid the infinite number of combinations that are so much a part of modern life. To the contrary, man is duty–bound to improve the world and in a sense, `complete’ the work of creation.” Why should we avoid altering the order of creation, and why are certain mixtures forbidden and others permitted?

In order to grasp the principles underlying these laws, it is important to observe that the passage is climaxed with the injunction: “Kedoshim Ti’hiyu Ki Kadosh Ani – You shall be holy, for I [HaShem] am holy” (Lev. 11:45). This same injunction prefaces the list of laws in BaMidbar 19:2.

What then does Kadosh, or holiness, mean? As I have mentioned many times, the root of the Hebrew word Kadosh – holy – means “distinctive or set apart.” It is, in fact, a synonym for the Hebrew root BDL, as in the word `HaVDaLlah,’ which is the ritual that “sets apart” the Sabbath or holy days from the common week. Havdallah – the separation ceremony performed on Saturday night is the parallel ritual to the Friday evening ritual of Kiddush that enters in the Sabbath. These then are two sides of the same ritual: they both “set apart” the Sabbath or holidays from the week preceding and following.

Holiness is exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the group to which they belong. Holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused. Finally, echoing the RaMBaN, holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity and the perfection of the individual and of the kind. The ultimate purpose of Judaism is to create and maintain an ordered experience of the world. Judaism is our attempt to wrest order out of chaos, harmony out of anarchy.

Let us return to the ultimate issue on fences and fellowship. What is especially necessary in this denominational discussion and inquiry is to hear the other person even if we cannot agree or accept such a position. In this modern age when having personal boundaries is considered anti-social; we become conflicted when confronted by a value system other than our own. However, boundaries are certainly not by definition bad. Just as they are important in maintaining law and order and we clearly accept them in business and commerce, so too do they work in interpersonal relationships. There is no need to deride them just because they exist and operate in the realm of religion and faith.

By respecting boundaries and appreciating their purpose, we preserve our integrity, the uniqueness of our personalities and our individual and shared pursuits. As it says in Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of Our Ancestors (1:1): “…make a fence about the Torah.” Or as a poet wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120609 – Parshat B’Ha’Alotecha

by David Friedman

by David Friedman



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



BaMidbar (Numbers) 8:1-12:16

Haftorah – Zechariah 2:14-4:7



I have been ill for the past few weeks and haven’t published my weekly “Vort.” With the help of HaShem I’ll try to continue writing on a regular basis. Shmu’el Yosef ben Chaya.


Previously, in Parshat B’Chukotai, we discussed the concept of reward and punishment, or as I like to call it, reciprocal realities (what goes around, comes around). Our individual and national behavior initiates either positive or negative changes to the world around us. These positive or negative changes are directly linked to the battle between goodness and evil that we are at all times involved in.

Regardless of which stand we might take, either doing an act of goodness or not doing an act of goodness, either committing an act of evil or not committing an act of evil, causes changes to the cosmos, as is stated in Deuteronomy 32:18 – “Tzur Y’Lodcha Teshi – the rock that gave birth to you, shall be weakened.” By transgressing HaShem’s ways, we actually diminish His position in the world.

The RaMChaL (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto – 17th century Italian Kabbalist and ethical writer) explains that HaShem created the world to function on the principal of Midah K’Neged Midah – measure for measure. By His own design, our good deeds make Him stronger and more goodness comes into the world. Conversely, our wicked deeds make Him weaker and more evil comes into the world (understand, HaShem’s power is a constant, it is our perception of Him and His benevolence, that is affected).

Which brings us to this week’s Parsha. Chaviv (also known as Jethro), the father-in-law of Moshe is about to depart from the midst of the Bnei Yisrael and return to Midian. After the revelation onMt.Sinai, Jethro was instrumental in devising a series of higher and lower courts to deal with the everyday questions as to Torah observance and Torah interpretation (Exodus 18:13-27). Jethro was an advisor, he saw with certain clarity, that which was beneficial to those less enlightened.

Our Midrash tells us that Jethro was one of three advisors to Pharaoh. When the soothsayers saw that a deliverer had been born, Pharaoh asked of his three advisors – Balaam, Jethro and Job, what should be done? Balaam advised Pharaoh to destroy the deliverer (Pharaoh took his advise and had all male children Egyptian and Jewish thrown into theNile). Balaam was given great rewards by Pharaoh. Jethro advised that the treaties betweenEgyptand Grand Viceroy Joseph and his father Jacob, be honored. Jethro was banished. Job, not wanting to go along with Balaam and yet fearing the fate of Jethro, fled and gave no advice.

In our Parsha, Jethro was about to depart the camp of Israel and return to Midian. Moshe tries to dissuade his father-in-law and have him join the Israelites journey into Eretz Yisra’el. In his plea to Chaviv, Moshe says, “Please do not forsake us…V’hayitah Lanu L’Enayim – for you have been eyes for us” (Numbers 10:31).

Sometimes an outsider can see clearer than those directly involved. Jethro saw things that had to be corrected that later, would have great impact on all of Jewish history. Moshe wanted “those eyes” to remain in the camp of Israel, so that He as leader and also the B’nei Yisra’el would always be in the grace of HaShem.

Criticism can be very insightful. Moshe saw that he needed an extra pair of eyes to bring perfection to Am Yisra’el. He also saw that Jethro had the integrity and the foresight to be those extra eyes. Many of us are critical of the Jewish world. We perceive things that are not right. It is our duty to search out ways to improve ourselves and our communities at all times for ultimately, it is our actions that create reality.  Just as we desire HaShem to right the wrongs of the world, HaShem has the very same expectations of us. By bringing goodness into the world, we strengthen His persona and generate His graciousness into a perceived reality.

The evil Balaam wanted to destroy the B’nei Yisra’el, his end was death by the sword (Numbers 31:8). Job tried to avoid choosing between good and evil, he eventually had to reckon with the ultimate evil, Satan himself (the Book of Job). Jethro, or Chaviv, or Putiel or any of the other names we know him by, chose an unpopular path, but he created a reality that gave him sons-in-law the likes of Moshe and Elazar the son of Aaron. Jethro and his descendants were given the choicest lands around Jericho for they would eventually be instrumental in saving Judaism for all time (I Chronicles 4:9-10).

Let us all use our eyes properly and become mirrors of His holy and distinctive ways. May His graciousness be felt across this planet, so that one day, all may recognize Him as One and His Name as One.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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