130914 – Yom Kippur

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

Yom Kippur 01rebyosil@gmail.com


Shacharit – Morning Service

VaYikra (Leviticus) 16:1-34

BaMidbar (Numbers) 29:7-11

Haftarah ‑ Isaiah 57:14-58:14,

Mincha – Afternoon Service

VaYikra (Leviticus) 18:1-30

Haftarah ‑ Book of Jonah and

Micah 7:18-20


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tzom Kal – Have an easy fast,

Reb Yosil

130323 – Parshat Tzav / Shabbat HaGadol



MatzReb Yosil Rosenzweig



VaYikra (Leviticus) 6:1-8:36

Haftarah – Malachi 3:4-24



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher V’Samei’ach,

Reb Yosil

130316 – Parshat VaYikra



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



VaYikra (Leviticus) 1:1-5:26

Haftarah – Isaiah 43:21-44:23



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130202 – Parshat Yitro

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Rosenzweig Family 2091Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig



Shemot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23

Haftarah – Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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

120811 – Parshat Eikev



Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



Devarim (Deuteronomy) 7:12 – 11:25

Haftarah – Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3



Due to a medical setback, I’m republishing a “Vort” from July 31, 2010.


Minor Commandments

Since I was a young boy in Yeshiva, the first RaShI in this week’s Parsha has always been troublesome for me. The Parsha begins: “And it will be the result of hearkening to My commandments…” Devarim (Deut. 7:12) If we follow these commandments, then a whole series of blessings will become the reality of Israel’s existence.

The problem is in the Hebrew wording. The word Eikev (which literally means heel, like in the name Ya’akov – Jacob, who was named that because he held on to the “heel” of his twin brother Esau during birth) is used for the phrase: “the result of hearkening.” The language is strange and whenever strange language is used there is a message being transmitted to us. Of course this message or code can only be noticed in the original Hebrew, translations do not pick up the subtleties of the Hebrew language.

RaShI, the Torah’s foremost commentator points out a MiDrash Tanchuma (Aggadic Midrash on the Torah of the 4th century) that suggests that the reason the word Eikev is used is to inform us that if we heed the minor commandments that people tend to tread upon, then we will be worthy of the blessings that HaShem promises.

My problem? What is a minor commandment? If all the commandments are the word and will of HaShem, then there shouldn’t even be categories of major or minor commandments. Is there really a qualitative difference between observing a commandment like returning a lost item or, dealing fairly with one’s enemy? Are not both the will of HaShem?

Over the years I have struggled with this. I have received the many flimsy answers as to the degrees of importance to commandments, but they all left me empty and without proper understanding. A few months ago I read a story of the Chafetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisra’el Meir HaKohen of Radin (1838-1933, author of basic works in Halacha, Hashkafa, and Mussar, famous for his saintly qualities and acknowledged as a foremost leader of Jewry) that provided me with what I think is the answer. His son-in – law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Yosef Zaks wrote:

The Chafetz Chaim’s faith in HaShem was whole and complete. Every event that happened in the world and in his life was viewed as a lesson in serving HaShem. Once, I was going with him on a trip. Upon arriving at our destination the Chafetz Chaim gave me money with which to pay the wagon driver. Afterwards, as we walked into the house together, I saw that the Chafetz Chaim was not pleased with me. He then asked me, “What was in your mind when you paid the driver?

I told him that I paid him for services rendered.

“Do you know how many Mitzvot you could have fulfilled? If only you had in mind while you were paying the driver that by paying him on time you fulfilled the Mitzvah of Bal Talin: “…you should pay a worker on the day of the service” (Devarim 25:15), then you would have performed a Mitzvah. If you had in mind that he is a pauper so you could have also fulfilled the Mitzvah of “ViChai Achicha Imach – strengthen him so that your brother can live with you… (VaYikra 25:35),” then you would have performed a Mitzvah. And in his poverty we provided him with work, then you could have fulfilled the Mitzvah of Tzedaka at its highest level.

He then went on to enumerate several other Mitzvot that could have been fulfilled and ended by exclaiming, “And all you did was just pay him like it was only a business transaction!”

This story had a very profound effect on me. How many times a day do we have a chance to perform a Mitzvah and instead just do something that is honorable or that gives one a sense of satisfaction? When someone is stuck on the highway with a flat tire and without a jack, do I stop and help them because I’m a good person or do I do it because HaShem wants me to activate HIS goodness in the world. When someone insults me and all I want to do his hurt that person and instead I stop myself, then I activate HIS kindness and forgiveness in the world.

The purpose of HaShem giving the nation of Israel the Torah is to bring the knowledge of HaShem’s ways into the reality of this world. The reality is we become programmed to behave, or not behave in a certain manner and forget that the purpose of these freewill choices is to do HaShem’s will, to become His agent and for the world to see that He manifests His will through us. We need to be careful not to tread on the minor commandments, those commandments that have become so ingrained in us that I have forgotten the difference between a commandment and a good deed.

In these few weeks before the High Holidays, we should examine our ways so that these very same minor actions can become major actions. That our will become His will so that He will be manifest through our actions. As it says in Isaiah 11:9: “…for the earth will be full of the knowledge of HaShem, as the waters cover the sea.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120630 – Parshat Chukat

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Reb Yosil Rosenzweig



BaMidbar (Numbers) 19:1‑22:1

Haftarah – Judges 11:1-33


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It seems as if strife and disunity followed the B’nei Yisra’el everywhere in the desert. A few weeks ago in Parshat B’Ha’Alotecha we find the nation complaining because they didn’t have meat to eat, only Manna (BaMidbar 11:4 – 6). Of course HaShem “struck a very mighty blow,” (verse 34) to the Israelites for their “murmuring” and their display of faithlessness. In Parshat Shelach-Lecha the disharmony and tension caused by the “evil” report of the spies caused an entire generation of Israelites to die off during their now 40 year sojourn in the desert (14:29 – 35). And in last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, the dissension stemming from both Yisra’el’s leadership and from among the people caused both the earth to “open its mouth” and swallow Korach and his 250 wannabe-leaders (16:30) and later a plague that took an additional 14,700 Israelites – “Those who died in the plague were 14,700, aside from those who died because of the affair with Korach” (17:13 – 14).

In our Parsha, “And the Canaanite king of Arad who dwelled in the south heard…” (21:1).He mistakenly “heard” of the lack of water and the disappearance of the Cloud of Glory from the camp of Israel and assumed that because of the many transgressions made by the B’nei Yisra’el, HaShem had suspended His miraculous supply of water (that flowed from the rock) and the protection provided by the Cloud of Glory, the B’nei Yisra’el were ripe for attack.

I say mistakenly because Tractate Rosh HaShanah 3a teaches us that in the merit of Miriam water was provided for and in the merit of Aharon the Cloud of Glory protected and led them on their journeys. Upon the death of these two great leaders and Tzaddikim (righteous ones) the miracles were suspended. The “king of Arad who dwelled in the south” assumed that they were suspended because of the transgressions of the B’nei Yisra’el and therefore attacked the B’nei Yisra’el. Why did he make that assumption?

The covenant between HaShem and Israel stated that if Israel observed HaShem’s commandments then prosperity and security would be the reality in which Israel would dwell (VaYikra – Leviticus 26:1-4). However, if they did not follow His ways, then HaShem would “…turn My attention against you; you will be struck down before your enemies…” (VaYikra 26:17). Another point, who was this Canaanite king of Arad that dwelt in the south? We know that the arch enemy of Israel, Amalek, dwelt in the Negev which is in southern Canaan (BaMidbar 13:29).

We learned back in Bereishit (Genesis) that there was strife between our patriarch Avraham and his nephew Lot which eventually led to their separating: “And there was quarrelling between the herdsmen of Avram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock – and the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the land…So Avram said to Lot: Please let there be no strife between me and you, and your herdsmen and between my herdsmen, for we are kin. Is not all the land before you? Please separate from me: If you go left then I will go right and if you go right then I will go left” (Bereishit 13:7 – 9). Why suddenly are the Canaanites and Perizzites mentioned? Rabbi Mordechai Rogov (1900-1969; Rosh Yeshiva Beit Medrash LaTorah in Chicago) writes: Aharon HaKohen was an Ohev Shalom V’Rodef Shalom – a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace (Mishnah Avot 1:12), who preserved peace in K’lal Yisra’el. Once Aharon was gone, MaChloket – arguments and fights began. Therefore, the B’nei Yisra’el became vulnerable to attack from outside.
What is the significance of the “Canaanite was then in the land?” As long as there was peace between the shepherds of Avram and Lot, their unity was a guarantee of protection from external enemies; but as soon as quarrels broke out, there was a cause for worry about the Canaan being in the land. When there are quarrels among the Jewish people, they become vulnerable to attack from external enemies.”

RaShI teaches us that when “…the Canaanite king of Arad who dwelled in the south heard…” that the king of Canaan was actually the king of Amalek (21:1).The Amalekites confused the Israelites because though they dressed as Amalekites, they spoke the Canaanite language. They knew much about the relationship between the B’nei Yisra’el, they thought that HaShem was angry with the Israelites and that Israel’s prayers for aid against the Canaanites would not be answered because they were not Canaanites, they were actually Amalekites. However, since there was confusion over who these warriors actually were, they requested from HaShem: “If you will deliver THIS PEOPLE in my hand, I will consecrate their cities [give all their booty to the Tabernacle]. HaShem heard the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite…” (21: 2 – 3).

Amalek, the arch enemy of Israel, knows that we are most vulnerable when we quarrel and desecrate G-d’s Name. As Jews we too must be aware of our vulnerabilities. With so many enemies trying to destroy individual Jews around the world and also the State of Israel, we need to show the traits of Aharon and become pursuers of peace. Though this seems to be a ridiculous notion, it is historically true. With the attitude that many Jews of various streams of Judaism have, namely, that their brand of Judaism is the only true brand, leads us into very dangerous territory. When certain Jews refuse to acknowledge the validity of other Jews, we all are in danger.

Now more than ever we must unite and respect each other even though we are different. We must actively search for paths of peace rather than denigrating our difference. As Avot D’Rabi Natan, chapter 12 teaches us: “How to be a Rodef Shalom? The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among the Jews, between each and every one. If a person sits in his/her place and is silent, how can s/he pursue peace among Jews, between each and every one? Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among all the Jews.” Some versions of this teaching read “people” rather than “Jews.”

With the world forming alliances against us, political and social solutions just won’t work. We must become a united people showing love and respect between us. Every derisive remark, every act of violence and disrespect causes a stone to be thrown, a rocket to be launched and evil forces to unite against us. Amalek is confusing us; they are dressed as enemies but speak a language that disguises their true identity.

Behold how good and how pleasing it is if brothers (people) could sit together in unity” (Psalm 133:1) is not just a song; it is the formula for peace. Give peace a chance.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

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