131012 – Parshat Lech Lecha



Lech LechaReb Yosil Rosenzweig



Bereishit (Genesis) 12:1-17:27

Haftarah – Isaiah 40:27-41:16



The call and its message were direct and clear. A people and a land were chosen simultaneously. Avraham’s was to become the founder of “a great nation” which is to be a blessing for “all the families of the earth.” This was to take place in a particular land, to which HaShem would now direct him.

Looking at HaShem’s command to Avraham, we see that, while going to the land is certainly its goal, it contains more than just one purpose. There are two distinct but intrinsic parts to the command, each conveying an important purpose. One without the other just cannot work.

Normally, when a person leaves for abroad, he first walks out of his home, then bids farewell to his family and only lastly leaves the country. The instructions given to Avraham for his departure are in the reverse order. The reason seems to be that Torah is not referring merely to the act of physically moving from where he had lived. The Torah’s message moves us to a different rung on the existential ladder, for when one detaches oneself mentally and spiritually from one’s regular habitat, it is the “old country” that one leaves first, then one distances oneself from family and friends, and only last is one estranged from the home in which one has grown up.

This act of detachment is seen as the main focus of Avraham’s next step, embarking on the road to the land which HaShem promised to show him. The moving from and the moving to are actually one single drama, but they are carried out in two acts of equal importance.

Translations of the Bible usually skip over one small word in the Hebrew original, where the command to Avram starts with the words Lech Lecha. It is true that, grammatically, those two words together can have the simple connotation of the single word Lech, “Go!” or “Go forth,” which is how they appear in most translations (also see Nachmanides’ commentary). However, RaShI and many other commentators, including the rabbis in the Midrash, are not ready to dismiss the extra word. Lech means “Go!” Lech Lecha is more than that, and ought to be translated (as some translators do) “You shall go,” or more correctly: “Go to yourself”!

Leaving the “old country,” his clan and his father’s home was, accordingly, a step towards Avraham’s going “to himself,” prior to assuming the role of nation–founder, smasher of idols, proclaimer of a new great faith and the one who is entrusted with the task of being a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

A great Chassidic master of the 19th century, Reb Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Rebbe of Gur (1837–1895), who is known as the Sefat Emet, maintains that every human being is commanded daily to engage in the experience of Lech Lecha, to “get thee out” of his country, his family and his home, to move away from the negative influences which surround him, to go to himself by getting away from himself. The commanding voice is thus directed to all of us. But it was only Avraham who first heard and followed this command. Lech Lecha, then, is more than just an instruction to Avraham, but it is a charge and a challenge which we can all share – to free ourselves of those influences that confine us and confound our personal, spiritual development, and it is thus an invitation to a whole and integrated human encounter in the process of individualization and self-actualization.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120616 – Parshat Shelach-Lecha



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



BaMidbar (Numbers) 13:1-14:41

Haftorah – Joshua 2:1-24



The episode of the 12 spies is very difficult to comprehend, and can only be understood when one grasps the Torah in its entirety. In Devarim (Deuteronomy) 1:21-23 and in the Book of Joshua 2:1, references are made that shed light on the events leading to Moshe sending out the spies.

As the young nation of Israel approached Eretz Yisra’el (the land of Israel) they demanded that Moshe send spies/scouts to the land and report back regarding its quality and the nature of the population of the land. Though Moshe felt it inappropriate to send the spies, HaShem acquiesced to the people’s lack of faith because He enables us to practice free-will.

Moshe hand picked one representative from every tribe; each spy was a tribal prince in his own right, and prior to sending them out on their 40 day doomed mission, he renamed and blessed his faithful aide, Hoshei’a: “…Moshe called (renamed) Hoshei’a the son of Nun, Yehoshu’a (Joshua)” (BaMidbar 13:16).

The commentaries give various reasons for Moshe changing Hoshei’a’s name to Yehoshu’a. RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France 1040-1105) cites the Talmud in Tractate Sotah 34, informing us that Moshe was afraid that Hoshei’a would be influenced by the other spies. He changed his name from Hoshei’a to Yehoshu’a (HaShem will save), by adding the letter Yod (signifying HaShem’s name) so that HaShem will be Yehoshu’a’s strength and salvation during the 40 day venture into Eretz Yisra’el.

But one question remains. If Moshe wanted the 12 spies to return with a positive report about Eretz Yisra’el, why didn’t he need to also bless Kalev, who together with Yehoshu’a spoke encouragingly about the land?

The K’Tav Sofer (Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg, 1815-1897) teaches that the danger of being influenced by the other spies was not as great with Kalev as it was with Yehoshu’a. The MiDrash however gives a different reason. It suggests that the Meraglim (the spies) were confident that Kalev sided with them. Kalev was somewhat of a diplomat, he didn’t reveal his innermost thoughts. The Meraglim were reassured by Kalev’s behavior. To the Meraglim he said: “I am with you in your counsel.” But in his heart he sided with HaShem and Israel. This can be verified by the conversation between Yehoshu’a and Kalev 45 years later when he said: “…I brought back to Moshe a report that was in my heart” (Joshua 14:7).

Both Yehoshu’a and Kalev were men of strong character. Yehoshu’a’s personality tended to give way to peer pressure and could become influenced by others. Hence, Moshe gave him a name change and with an internal blessing, “May HaShem deliver you from the counsel of the Meraglim.” But Kalev’s was different, when he felt himself weakening to peer pressure Kalev left the Meraglim and prayed for help.

In verse 22 we see a strange syntax being used: “And THEY ascended in the south and HE arrived in Chevron (Hebron) and there were Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant…” How strange, “THEY ascended and HE arrived!” The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 34) tells us that the other Meraglim were afraid to enter into Chevron because of the giants, but Kalev risked danger and went to the Machpelah cave and prayed at the tomb of the Patriarchs. There he called for the ancestors of his nation to give him the strength to withstand the pressure.

Moshe gave Yehoshu’a the extra strength that he would need to overcome his humility and take a stand against the Meraglim. It takes a very special mentor to be able to see and act upon this form of weakness and Moshe was such a mentor. He knew who he was sending and he knew the strengths and weaknesses of each individual. Kalev on the other hand had within himself the ability to find the strength necessary to do the same.

The other ten spies became so wrapped up in the overpowering nature of Eretz Yisra’el that they could not overcome their own natures regardless if they had a blessing or not. After such a prolonged slavery in Egypt, the slave mentality of the Israelites could not be overcome. The nation of Israel was destined to remain in the desert for 40 years, corresponding to the forty days of the spy mission (verse 34). Of course, the exceptions to this decree were Yehoshu’a, Kalev and the entire tribe of Levi, who did not accept the Meraglim’s report.

In a previous “VORTIFY“I wrote about how it was that Ya’akov and Eisav (Jacob and Esau), who grew up in such a highly spiritual home as Yitzchak and Rivkah’s (Jacob and Rebecca) was, turned out so differently. Rabbi Azri’el Tauber comments in his book, As In Heaven, So On Earth (page 133), “…according to RaShI there was a fundamental flaw in the education of Ya’akov and Eisav. When they were youngsters, not enough attention was paid to their differences; they were brought up by their father as if they shared similar personalities, whereas they should have been instructed as two unique personages.”

The cornerstone of Jewish education is in treating each child as an individual. ‘Educate the child according to his way…‘ (Proverbs 24:6). According to RaShI, Eisav was not educated properly! He notes that if their parents, Yitzchak and Rivkah made this mistake, each of us can easily do the same thing. That is the Torah’s purpose in teaching us this lesson; so that we can avoid this common pitfall.”

Moshe was careful not to make the same mistake that our Patriarch Yitzchak did. He understood the qualities of Yehoshu’a, Kalev and the other princes; he knew their strengths as well as their weaknesses and gave Yehoshu’a exactly what he needed. As parents, potential parents and as teachers, we must always look closely at our children/students and give them the individual teaching and instruction that corresponds to their unique characters.

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

120519 – Parshi’ot B’Har/B’Chukotai



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



VaYikra (Leviticus) 25:1-27:34

Haftarah – Jeremiah 16:19-17:14



This past Monday night and Tuesday I observed the Yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of my father Yaakov ben Yosef A”H. He was a very special man whose attitude during the Holocaust not only saved his life, but through him, the lives of so many others. His strength and his love was an inspiration to all who knew him. Only now, am I beginning to feel the loss of his presence. T’Hei Nishmato Baruch.


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


The second of our two Parshi’ot, Parshat B’Chukotai is one of the most frightening Parshi’ot in the Torah. No sugar coated future is portrayed for the “Chosen People” who choose not to follow HaShem’s rigorous commandments. The Parsha, however, does begin with a clear message of what will happen if we do follow the Torah. Peace, prosperity, security and honor are the blessings that will come with the proper obedience to His law. However, these blessings comprise only the first 12 verses. The next 29 verses, known as the Tochacha (the admonition) contain a terrifyingly graphic description of the curses: war, poverty, uncertainty, exile and disgrace.

Let us look a little closer at the concepts of reward and punishment. First let me say that I have difficulty with this terminology. I do not see a reciprocating force, whether positive or negative, as being a manifestation of reward or punishment. Rather, I believe that mankind creates a positive or negative reality through its own actions.

For instance, if one contracts an illness as a direct result of smoking, is it a punishment, or has he created his own negative reality? Likewise, if the nation of Israel transgresses HaShem’s commandments, the forthcoming negative reality is actually a product of its own negative behavior.

As a father, I try to explain to my children that they are the ones who choose if their actions warrant positive or negative support. This, of course, is true on a personal level. But on a national level, a similar linkage between behavior and support occurs.

Negative reality for a nation may take the form of natural disasters such as droughts, floods, or earthquakes. It might also manifest itself in the form of social disasters such as assimilation, intermarriage or even sexually transmitted diseases (Chas V’Shalom – it should never happen). Or, it might even take the form of political disasters such as exile, anti-Semitism, or even a holocaust.

Our Parsha presents a number of possible realities for the Jewish people when they take upon themselves a lifestyle outside of that dictated by the Torah. “But the land must first be rid of them so that it may make up for the Sabbaths, and that they make good the debt of their guilt for having spurned My precepts and My decrees. Thus, even while they are in the lands of their enemies, I will not reject or obliterate them, for I am HaShem their G-d. I will remember them because of the covenant I made with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, so that I may be their G-d” (VaYikra 26:43-45).

The deep rooted commitment to Shabbat is central to the life of a Jew. Those of us living in the diaspora are obligated to make the seventh day distinctive. But those living in the land of Israel have the added obligation of Shmitah (the seventh year which is a sabbatical year). The number seven is symbolic of HaShem’s mastery over His creation. Our observance of Shabbat and Shmitah is our way of displaying to Him – His Oneness and His authority in our lives.

But seven also has negative connotations. Verses 18, 21, 24 and 28 of chapter 26 allude to a sevenfold disturbance to our reality:

  1. If despite this you will not heed Me, then I shall admonish you further, seven ways for your transgressions” (VaYikra 26:18).
  2.  “And if you will behave casually with Me and refuse to heed Me, then I shall lay a further blow upon you – seven ways, like your sins” (VaYikra 26:21).
  3. Then I too will behave towards you with casualness; and I shall surely strike you seven ways for your transgressions” (VaYikra 26:24).
  4. I will behave towards you with a fury of casualness; I will surely chastise you seven ways for your transgressions” (VaYikra 26:28).

Why does HaShem keep repeating the seven degrees of admonishment? To what seven sins does the Torah keep referring? RaShI (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France: 1040 – 1105) explains, based on the verse: “And if you will consider My decrees revolting, and if you reject My precepts by not performing all My commandments thereby you annul My covenant” (VaYikra 26:15). He states that: To annul My covenant – “He [the transgressor] is Kofer B’Ikar (he denies the essential precept [the belief in G-d]). See, that [to get to that level of heresy] there are seven transgressions [that make up this process]; the first brings on the second, and so forth, until the seventh. And they are:

1. He does not study [the Torah];

2. He [therefore] does not follow the commandments;

3. He [therefore] abhors those who do follow the commandments;

4. He [therefore] hates the teachers [of Torah who proclaim adherence];

5. He [therefore] prevents others [from following the Torah];

6. He [therefore] renounces the commandments;

7. He [therefore] renounces the essential [he denies the belief in G-d].

In other words, in order to completely reject HaShem’s covenant, one must first go through stages of resistance. Without the study of Torah, it is impossible to correctly follow the commandments, and then we even begin to reject those who do; the teachers of Torah are despised for proclaiming His word as being obligatory. This leads us to preventing others from following the Torah. To further rationalize this process we then renounce the commandments of HaShem as being superstitious or outdated. Finally, there is but one avenue left, to deny the belief in G-d Himself.

The Tochacha therefore, is not a warning of punishments as much as it is a warning that a dire negative reality will be created by our seven-fold misdirection, just as smoking, improper diet, and a lack of exercise creates a negative reality on our bodies.

Yet, despite the terrifying realities that our destructive behavior will cause, some of us always survive. The Tochacha also says: “I will remember them because of the covenant I made with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, so that I may be their G-d” (VaYikra 26:45).

Philosophers and great thinkers have recognized that the Jewish people are an eternal nation that lives outside the laws of nature. The popular novelist and agnostic Mark Twain wrote: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of His immortality?” (“Concerning the Jews.” Harpers, 1899).

Leo Nikolaievitch Tolstoy one of the fathers of the Russian revolution wrote: “The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He whom neither slaughter nor torture over thousands of years could destroy, he whom neither fire, nor sword, nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth, he who was the first to produce the oracles of G-d, he who has been the guardians of prophesy, and who transmitted it to the rest of the world – such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself” (“The Jewish World,” London, 1908).

Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (Romania, 1697-1776) wrote a comment in his wonderful Siddur (prayer book) Beit Ya’akov: “Many have tried to destroy us, but have failed. While all the great ancient civilizations have disappeared and been forgotten, the nation of Israel who [still] cling to G-d is alive today! What will the wise historian answer when he examines this phenomenon without prejudice? Was this all purely by chance? When I contemplated these great wonders they took on greater significance than all the miracles and wonders that HaShem performed for our ancestors – in Egypt in the desert and when they entered Israel. And the longer this exile extends, the miracle of Jewish existence becomes more obvious – that G-d’s mastery and supervision over nature and history will be made known.”

We have the power to create a reality of blessing, and actually during our history there were some islands of peace, prosperity, security and honor. But often we chose to ignore His ways and His Torah, therefore war, poverty, uncertainty, exile and disgrace were the realities we created and that He foretold. That is why the curses of our Parsha are referred to as the Tochacha – the admonition, for we have been admonished or cautioned not to follow the path that leads to seven different forms of heresy, which creates a reciprocal reality for our nation.

But do not despair. Our Haftarah gives us a consolation for our national ailments: “Blessed is the man who trusts in HaShem and HaShem will be his security. He will be like a tree that is planted near water, that will spread its roots along side brooks and will not feel when heat comes, whose foliage will be ever fresh, who will not worry in years of drought and will never stop producing fruit…Heal me HaShem, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved – for You are my praise” (Jeremiah 17:7-8, 14).

There is a Gemara (tractate of Talmud) in Megillah 27a which deals with varying levels of holiness. The Gemara discusses whether or not one may sell a Torah if the funds will be utilized for personal use. “Come and hear: Reb Yochanan said in the name of Rebbi Meir: One may only sell a Torah scroll in order [to have funds] to continue studying or to marry…for learning Torah and marriage lead to the continued performance of Mitzvot.”

There is a basic principle of life that is quoted in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Ancestors), “Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah, V’Aveira Goreret Aveira – the performance of one Mitzvah leads to the performance of other Mitzvot, and the performance of one Aveira (transgression) leads to the performance of other Aveirot (transgressions).” Just as Rashi pointed out – without the study of Torah there is often a systematic digression into spiritual infidelity, so too, by studying the Torah there is a systematic progression of conformity to HaShem’s will.

Our Parsha gives us a clear and lucid picture of what can happen when facing choices of lifestyle and behavior. We can create either positive or negative realities for ourselves. By becoming distracted from Torah values we do not get punished as much as produce an incompatible reality in our relationship with HaShem. But by becoming involved in the regimen of HaShem’s sacred words, we become nurtured from the very fountain of His sustenance. Not only that, but regarding the blemishes that we cause to our spirits, “He will heal and He will save – for He is our praise.”

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120324 – Parshat VaYikra – Shabbat Rosh Chodesh – Parshat HaChodesh



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



VaYikra (Leviticus) 1:1 – 5:26


VaYikra (Leviticus) 28:9-15


Shemot (Exodus) 12:1-20

Haftarah – Ezekiel 45:16-46:18



The Rabbi’s instituted four special readings in the period prior to Passover, to remind our nation in exile of the centrality of Jerusalem and the glory of its former Temple and also to remind us of the upcoming Passover season. The first special reading is called Parshat Shekalim (Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-16 – the portion of the Shekels) which reminds us that a national census was taken at the beginning of the month of Nisan, when each male over the age of 20 would contribute one half shekel of silver to the Temple coffers for daily offerings on behalf of the nation. The second reading is called Parshat Zachor (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 25:17-19 – the portion of the remembering) when we remember the attack by Amalek against the weary and feeble of our nation after we left Egypt. The third reading is called Parshat Para (VaYikra 19:1-22 – the portion of the Red Heifer) which reminds us that in order to enter the Temple area to slaughter the Pascal sacrifice, one who was contaminated by contact with the dead, could undergo a ritual of purification using the ashes of the red heifer. And finally, the last portion called Parshat HaChodesh (Shemot 12:1-20 – the portion of the Moon) reminds us of our unique Jewish calendar that was commanded to us prior to our exodus from Egypt.

This year, Parshat HaChodesh coincides with Rosh Chodesh (the new month of) Nisan and we have a very special Torah reading in the synagogue. Instead of two Torah’s being read for our weekly Parsha and for Rosh Chodesh, the additional reading for Parshat HaChodesh means that three Torah scrolls will be used this Shabbat. Six Aliyot (six people are honored with the readings) are read from the first scroll, a second Torah is then placed on the Bima and the seventh Aliyah is read from the portion commanding the bringing of a special offering in the Temple (honoring the holiness of the New Moon – VaYikra 28:9-15). The third Torah is then brought up for Maftir (the concluding reading), for Shabbat HaChodesh (Shemot 12:1-20). The use of three Torah’s on Shabbat is highly unusual, if you don’t often attend Shabbat Services, check it out.


One of the main purposes of Torah observance is for an individual to train themselves to become a “Mentch” (a modest and moral person). This concept finds no better source than the opening words of our Parsha. However, before we even examine this thought, one must first understand one of the methods of transmission of the Torah’s teachings.

There is not one single Mitzvah in the Torah that is self-defining. Since Mitzvot are commands – laws, the need defining in order to understand the parameters that define observance and transgression. Let’s use “honor you father and mother” as an example, how does one perform this Mitzvah? Is it obedience to their wishes, or, showing respect even when they are abusive? Is the definition subjective and we can therefore define it are we see fit, or is there a set definition of how to respect or disrespect our parents? The “Oral Law” that lies hidden behind each Mitzvah defines for us the true will of the Creator.

This Masoret – transmission – is often found in the grammar, tenses, spelling and letter formation of the Hebrew words themselves. Example: each letter in the Torah must be precisely transcribed. A Sefer Torah (a Torah scroll) that has any error; a chipped letter, a letter that touches another letter, or a letter that is written out of proportion, renders the Sefer Torah “Pasul” (invalid). Each letter has its own exact shape and must be fashioned by an ordained scribe exactly as transmitted, any deviation of that shape is unacceptable. Yet, we find that the opening word of our Parsha and the Book of VaYikra (Leviticus) has an undersized Aleph (the “a” sound): “VAYIKRa – And He [HaShem] called [to Moshe]…” In the side graphic of the word VAYIKRa, compare the size of the letter “Aleph,” the last letter of the first word (reading from right to left) and the first letter of the second word. When letters are written according to tradition and yet their size is out of proportion, we know that a message is being transmitted to us from the author of the message (see the “Vortify – 980328) (this phenomenon is not addressed in most translated versions of the Torah; it is unique to the Hebrew text alone).

Let’s now return to our thesis, Mentchlichkeit – correct conduct. Our commentators give various meanings to the condensed Aleph. RaShI (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France [1040 – 1105]) comments that the small Aleph signifies Moshe’s humility. RaShI contends that the word VaYikra is actually a term of endearment. Whenever HaShem would call out to Moshe He would say, “Moshe, Moshe,” to which Moshe responded, “Heneini (here I am).” RaShI teaches: “HaShem’s call to Moshe was as a friend calling another friend. As it says in Isaiah 6:3, ‘and they [the angels} called out to one another and said; ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts.’ But [when HaShem called out to] the gentile prophets He revealed Himself to them in a less formal manner as it says in BaMidbar (Numbers) 23:4 ‘And HaShem (VaYakar – without the Aleph) chanced upon Bilaam.‘ “Both VaYakar and VaYikra are terms used to summon prophets by HaShem, but VaYikra has a special degree of companionship attached to it. So why the small Aleph in VAYIKRa?

The Midrash teaches us that Moshe was so humble and unassuming that he did not want there to be a differentiation between him and other prophets. When Moshe was transcribing the Torah he wanted to leave out the letter Aleph from VAYIKRa which would infer that HaShem just chanced upon him as he did other prophets. But HaShem, who dictated the Torah to Moshe, refused to allow this change to His text. However, He did allow the letter Aleph to appear small, to teach us this lesson in humility.

Another understanding of the small Aleph is quoted in Me’am Lo’ez (a monumental Ladino commentary on the entire Torah begun by Rabbi Ya’akov Culi of Constantinople – 1689-1732) that reminds us that the Tabernacle had just been built and entry into it by non-priests was forbidden. He writes:    “The verse also comes to teach us the submissiveness of Moshe our teacher. For even though he had permission to enter the Tabernacle at any hour [any time] that he desired, Moshe didn’t want to enter this first time after the Tabernacle was dedicated until HaShem called upon him and invited him to enter, as we are taught: “Derech Eretz Kadma LaTorah – proper conduct (or respect for others) precedes even Torah” (VaYikra Rabbah 9:3). The verse (Bereishit [Genesis] 3:24) says: ‘…to guard the way to the Tree of Life,’ which is to say, that HaShem commanded Adam first to show proper conduct (respect) and then to watch over the Tree of Life (which is symbolic of the Torah itself). It is not enough that a person is just knowledgeable, he must also be cultured and refined. Therefore the Torah informs us that even though Moshe our teacher had permission to enter, he did not enter until he was called.”

The Me’am Lo’ez stresses that the small Aleph not only teaches us about Moshe’s humility but also that proper conduct is expected even from the greatest of our sages. This might be the source of the Mishnah in the Ethics of Our Ancestors that reads: “Where there is no Torah, there is no proper conduct; and where there is no proper conduct there is no Torah.” (Avot 3:21)

Commenting on this Mishnah, the Ga’on of Vilna (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797) writes: “The individual’s entire service to HaShem is contingent upon the perfection of his character traits, which are like a garment enveloping the Mitzvot and the principals of the Torah.”

The virtues of humility and a refined personality (and so much more) is learned from one undersized Aleph in one word, can you imagine the wisdom that can be derived from a entire word?

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120317 – Parshi’ot VayaKel/Pekudei & Parshat Para

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig


Parshi’ot VayaKel/Pekudei

Parshat Parah

Shemot (Exodus) 35:1 – 38:20

Maftir: VaYikra (Numbers) 19:1 – 22

Haftorah – Ezekiel 36:16 – 38


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Our sages established four special Shabbat Torah readings to commemorate special events of the pre-Passover season prior to the expected great Roman exile as a Zecher LeChurban – a remembrance of the Temple destruction. The four Parshi’ot are:

  • Parshat Shekalim – Feb. 18, 2012 (dealing with the half-Shekel tax, Shemot 30:11-16), this portion is read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar or Adar II in a leap year to remind us that in Temple times we would participate in the census that funded the communal offerings in the Temple.
  • Parshat Zachor – March 3, 2012 (remembering and not forgetting the evil nation of Amalek), is read the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. The portion of Amalek Devarim (Deut.) 25:17-19 is read, since the Purim villain Haman was a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek.
  • Parshat Para – March 17, 2012, VaYikra (Numbers) 19:1-22 (dealing with purifying one’s contaminated body via the sprinkling of the ashes of the Red Heifer so that one may enter the Temple area to sacrifice and eat the Pascal lamb offering) is read on the Shabbat following Purim.
  • Parshat HaChodesh – March 24, 2012, finally, on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Nissan, (recalling the first national Mitzvah of our special lunar/solar calendar, we read the special Maftir from Shemot 12:1-20. These verses contain the commandment to make the month of Nissan the head of all months. This was the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people while still in Egypt.

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I am not going to analyze a particular passage of our Parsha this week in my usual manner. I have decided instead to explain how the thirty nine forbidden actions on Shabbat were determined, because the Mitzvah of Shabbat is so central to the Jewish experience. Let me begin by saying that from the time that the commandment of Shabbat was given (at Mareh, prior to receiving the Torah, see RaShI Shemot 15:25), the 39 “forms of creative labor” were revealed. However, after 1,500 years, the transmission of the law was muddled and a biblical reference needed to be determined.

Our Parsha begins with Moshe assembling the B’nei Yisra’el and teaching them the Mitzvah (commandment) of observing Shabbat. To put the event into perspective, we know that Moshe ascended Mount Sinai on the 6th of Sivan (which we celebrate as the festival of Shavu’ot) and returned on the 17th of Tamuz (observed as the day that the sieges of Jerusalem took place in both the first and second Temple periods). He broke the tablets on the 18th and carried out the judgment against the transgressors.

On the 19th of Tamuz he again ascended Mount Sinai (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 9:18), this time to plead for mercy for the Israelites, and returned on the 29th of Av, when HaShem agreed to forgive the people and give them the second tablets. Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai (for a third time) on Rosh Chodesh Av, again, for a period of 40 days and nights and descended with the second tablets on the 10th of Tishre (Yom Kippur), which now puts Yom Kippur as a Day of Atonement into perspective, since HaShem forgave us for the sin of the golden calf and continues to forgive those who call out in prayer, repentance and charity.

The very next day, the scene of assembly takes place. RaShI (Shemot 35:2) emphasizes that despite their enthusiasm to show their love and gratitude to HaShem by building the Mishkan (the tabernacle), the B’nei Yisra’el were instructed not to allow the erection of the Mishkan to take preference over observance of Shabbat.

But the question remains, what is forbidden to be done on Shabbat? The Torah mentions in many different places that “MELACHA” (creative labor often mistranslated as “work”) is forbidden. But a definition of Melacha is not provided. However, from the juxtaposition of the Shabbat and the Mishkan in this week’s Parsha, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 97b deduces that the 39 Melachot (plural of Melacha) that went into the construction of the Mishkan define the forbidden actions on Shabbat.

To understand this connection, we must understand that our Halachic (legal) tradition helps us to understand obscure words or phrases in the Torah. These traditions were passed down orally from Moshe Rabbeinu until the time of the Talmud. When the oral tradition was written down so that it would not be lost, Rabbi Ishma’el authored a Beraita (authoritative draft of the law, some of which were refined to become Mishna – the written oral tradition). His Beraita was included in the introduction to the Sifra (a Midrashic work that exhaustively clarifies the Book of Vayikra – Leviticus). The B’raita lists the Thirteen Rules by which the Torah can be properly interpreted within the context of our oral tradition (the Thirteen Rules are similar to the axioms of geometry).

The second of the thirteen rules is the Gezerah Shavah (similar words in different contexts are meant to clarify one another). In our case, regarding Shabbat, the word Melachah (…”do not do any form of Melachah.” Shemot 35:2) is undefined, while in connection with the building of the

Mishkan the word Melachah or Malechet is defined by 39 forms of creative labor. The Talmud then reinforces our traditional understanding of Melachah with a biblical passage proving the connection. A list of the Thirteen Rules can be found in the Morning Service of any Siddur (prayer book) after the review of the daily sacrifices. In the Artscroll Siddur, it can be found on pages 48 – 52 (with an excellent overview and description) and in the Birnbaum Siddur on pages 41 – 45.

I have listed below the 39 Melachot and the purpose of the Melachah:

1. Plowing 2. Planting 3. Harvesting 4. Gathering 5. Threshing 6. Sifting 7. Selecting 8. Winnowing 9. Grinding 10. Kneading* 11. Baking. Purpose: To grow and process plants needed to make dyes to color the wool and skins used in the Mishkan. The Jerusalem Talmud holds that the purpose of kneading and baking were to prepare the 12 “show-breads.”

12. Shearing 13. Bleaching 14. Dyeing 15. Spinning  16. Weaving 17. Combing 18. Separating thread      19. Threading a loom 20. Threading a harness 21. Tying a knot 22. Untying a knot      23. Sewing 24. Tearing. Purpose: To prepare the wool and weave it into curtains.

25. Trapping 26. Slaughtering 27. Skinning 28. Tanning 29. Smoothing 30. Marking 31. Cutting to a shape. Purpose: To prepare the skins for the Mishkan covering.

32. Writing 33. Erasing. Purpose: To rebuild the Mishkan properly, letters were written on the courtyard pillars to identify their position. Letters were often erased and rewritten.

34. Building 35. Demolishing. Purpose: To assemble and disassemble the Mishkan when traveling.

36. Kindling 37. Extinguishing a fire. Purpose: To light the fires needed for dyeing the wool and smelting the metals. Fire was also extinguished to produce charcoal.

38. Final hammer blow (completing). Purpose: To complete the metal construction

39. Carrying. Purpose: To move the pillars from the wagons to a Public Area and vice versa; to bring the tithes from the tents to a Public area.

The above listed Melachot are the sources of all Torah and Rabbinic Law regarding what is permissible and not permissible on Shabbat and Biblical holidays. However, categorizing certain areas of technology has become confusing. For instance, where does the use electricity fit into a category of Melacha? There are two main schools of thought: The first is that it is fire and since kindling and extinguishing are forbidden, the use of electricity is also forbidden. Another school of thought holds that while electricity can be used for light, it is but a minor use of electricity. Electricity is used to heat and to cool, to power engines and to power utensils, all of which are activated by a switch. The activation of a switch completes a circuit which allows the electricity to flow and therefore falls into the category of “the final hammer blow” or, completing something (the circuit) on Shabbat that was incomplete prior to Shabbat.

Shabbat is central to the Jewish experience. Without it our Jewishness begins to fade. Its observance is our way of expressing that HaShem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; that He took us out of bondage and gave us the right to choose between good and evil; it allows us to be unhindered by the labors of life in an ever increasing technological world; and, it allows us to interact with those most dear to us, HaShem and our families.

The Zionist philosopher Achad HaAm once said: “More than the Jews keep the Shabbat, Shabbat keeps the Jews.” Shabbat is our lifeline to eternity. The more we put into our Shabbatot the more we receive in return.

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Parshat Para: While the additional Torah reading deals specifically with the Laws of the red Heifer, our special Haftarah contains passages that are most inspirational, for I have seen this prophesy coming true. The awakening of the Jewish people after what seems like HaShem disbursed and forsook us among the nations is coming to an end. “And I will sanctify My great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the HaShem Elohim, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you from all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water (a reference to the Red Heifer) upon you, and you shall be clean from all your filthiness; and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put inside you; and I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit inside you, and cause you to follow My statutes, and you shall keep My judgments, and do them. And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:22 – 28).

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120310 – Parshat Ki Tisa

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



Shemot (Exodus) 30:11-34:35

Haftarah – I Kings 18:1-39


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The figure of Moshe never looms as large as in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa. We see him standing at Mt. Sinai, bearing in his arms the Tablets inscribed with the Divine words. Moshe as God’s agent has freed the people from physical bondage and now is about to bestow upon them a sublime gift, a Torah of law that defines our purpose and our destiny. The Torah text describes the Divine light that glowed from his face as he readied his hands to convey to the Children of Israel, the tablets en­graved with HaShem’s sacred words. But what awaits Moshe? Not an expectant, grateful, gathering of his followers. Instead, he sees a rebellious, idolatrous, frenzied mob, dancing around the Calf of Gold, fashioned by his own brother.

In this deep tragic moment, his flaming eyes grew dim; and his hands dropped the Tablets which suddenly became heavy and unbearable. He is heartbroken and outraged. Not only have the Tablets been shattered, also his hopes, his aspirations, his dreams and his vision, all lie about him in a pile of broken stones. After witnessing the debasement of the nation in front of the Golden Calf, Moshe does not hesitate to smash the holiest objects in existence. The Midrash suggests however, that instead of being irritated, HaShem actually blesses him with contin­ued strength for his actions.

The destruction of the Tablets needs clarification. With time memories grow dim, even visions as extraordinary as the Revelation at Mt. Sinai tends to fade. These very Tablets should have served as solid, tangible, proof of the destiny of this emerging people. Moreover, there was something miraculous about the Tablets: they were chiseled through and through, “…written on both sides, with writing visible from either side” (Exodus 32:15). Their very physical form defies comprehen­sion.

Until now, HaShem appeared either in dreams and visions, He appeared in burning bushes or in the suspension of the laws of nature, but this is the first time that writing and engraving, human activities, are described as having been performed by HaShem Himself “written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18); “…and the writing was the writing of God…” (Exodus 32:16). It is as if to emphasize that not only does HaShem appear in history, He also wrote the book. What could have served as a stronger reprimand to the Israelites than preserving these Godly tablets? Yet, Moshe smashes them to smithereens.

The NaTzYV (Acronym for R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893, author of Ha’amek Davar, commentary on the Torah, Rosh Yeshiva of the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin in Russia) teaches that no object is intrinsically holy. A Sefer Torah – a Torah scroll – written by a heretic must be burned, regardless of how faithfully or beautifully the letters are executed, because the scribe’s beliefs or lack thereof nullify the scroll’s holiness. Worshipping an idol, in effect, tainted the heart of the Jews, and thus the sanctity of the Tablets and the Torah were stripped of their holiness. By breaking the tablets, Moshe demonstrated that they were no longer holy.

The Zohar, the primer of Jewish mysticism, suggests that the Golden Calf episode resembles a tragic tale of love, marriage and betrayal. The love and marriage between HaShem and the Children of Israel is an unprecedented event in humankind’s history, with Moshe as the marital attendant and the Tablets as the Ketubah – the marriage contract. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 88a) discusses how HaShem lifted Mt. Sinai over the heads of the nation at the time of Revelation, symbolizing the image of a Chupah, a nuptial canopy. But 40 days later, even before the honeymoon is over Moshe finds the “new bride” committing adultery with a false god, the Golden Calf. When Moshe breaks the tablets, he is, in effect, ripping up the marriage contract, thereby alleviating the sin of adultery. The Zohar further suggests that idolatry occurring so soon after the Exodus and the Mt. Sinai experience revealed to Moshe a flaw in his leadership. If the people could sink this low, part of the blame must fall on his own shoulders. Breaking the Tablets, then, is a way of sharing in their sin.

However, I believe there is another reason why the Tablets were broken. According to our sages, these shattered tablets were not scattered to the wind, but were accorded special importance. In fact, when Moshe later brings down another set to be placed in the Ark of the Covenant, the broken tablets are placed right alongside the whole ones. Why is this done, does it imply a change of heart on the part of Moshe?

In a debate going back many generations, the concept of the people of Israel is pitted against the Torah of Israel – who is first in the eyes of HaShem? Is it the nation or is it the Torah? In fact, these are the two most basic ways to express one’s Jewishness. Do I devote my time fighting for Jewish rights and against anti–Semitism, or do I devote myself to the survival of the Jewish people through Torah study and the meticulous performance of the Mitzvot?

When HaShem informs Moshe of the nation’s debauchery, He offers to start a new beginning from Moshe’s loins alone, abandoning the Israelites to the dustbins of history, HaShem declares, “…I will then make you [Moshe] into a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). But Moshe argues against this and when he finally sees with his own eyes how the Jews worshipped the idol and he breaks the Tablets, it is as if he were returning them to HaShem and declaring: better a whole nation with broken Tablets, than whole Tablets with a broken nation.

Stored next to each other in the Ark, the broken and the whole Tablets teach us that it is sometimes necessary to break our most sacred object to preserve the nation of Israel’s survival. More importantly, when HaShem gives Moshe and Israel a second chance and the newly inscribed Tablets are brought down, we learn that what is whole may emerge from what is broken.

Did not the State of Israel emerge from the broken tablets of Auschwitz and Treblinka? Isn’t our most important goal today to create a whole people, forged from the broken fragments of our nation? Certainly, we are aware of those broken fragments, having witnessed with horror and disbelief the events of the past few years. The heart of our Jewish people the world over is broken from the tragic loss of so many innocent victims to the baseless hatred of our enemies and political detractors. Our Westernized concept of honesty and decency, even in matters of war and dispute, are shaken by the depraved and debased ways of the terrorists, to create bombs that are designed not only to kill, but to maim and to injure. Yet, I look at the concern and empathy for the plight of our nation as a whole and the outpouring of sympathy for those families who have suffered irreplaceable losses. It has always been our distinguishing trait to be able to rise up in the face of adversity and to smile through our tears.

This concept was so poignantly expressed in last week’s Parsha, in the manner in which the olive oil was prepared for lighting the Menorah in the Tabernacle. Even as we have been beaten, tried and tested, we have always managed to still shine and distinguish ourselves with our ability to rise up and continue even in the face of terrible suffering and loss. Better a whole nation with a broken heart and with broken tablets, then whole tablets with a broken nation.

We pray that HaShem gives us the inspiration and the fortitude to withstand this needless, baseless and cruel hatred and may justice and goodness ultimately triumph. As we recalled in our celebration of the festival of Purim just a few days ago, those who seek to act with stealth and deceit will ultimately perish and the nation of Israel will survive. After all, it’s a marriage made in heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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