Posted by: Subway Conductor | May 7, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat BeHar BeChukotai

This week we have a double Torah portion – BeHar and BeChukotai. In the second of these portions we encounter a section which is known as the Tocheicha which means admonition or rebuke. The Tocheicha emphasizes the consequences of a failure by the People of Israel to follow G-d’s laws and keep His commandments. The list of curses is disturbing and seems an ominous portent of much of Jewish history.

The Talmud states that one should not break up the curses into more than one aliyah. This is to prevent saying a blessing over the curses. The way the portion is divided, we begin this section with a list of blessings, then follow the curses, and the section concludes with a positive sentiment. Dividing the portion in this way allows us to start and end with positive statements and the curses are sandwiched in between. If we divided the section into two aliyahs, we would be forced to end one aliyah with the curses and start the next again with curses. It is the custom in many synagogues to not call up someone for the aliyah, but rather to have the Torah reader take the aliya. It is also the custom to read the curses quickly and quietly, in an undertone. We might ask what is the purpose of reading it this way. After all, these words are written in the Torah. Clearly they are meant to teach us some lesson or to convey some message. The message is actually quite clear. These are warnings urging the Jewish People to observe the mitzvot. So, why do we read them in an undertone?

Three weeks ago, on the parsha of Tazria Metzora, I wrote about the power of speech. Tazrai Metzora is the locus for a discussion of leshon hara. I argued there that Judaism holds the power of speech in very high regard, both positive and negative speech. I mentioned there the importance of prayer in the form of specific words, the significance of uttering a blessing before we do certain things or eat, and the power of expressing gratitude. It may be that the customs surrounding the reading of the Tocheicha is another example of how seriously Judaism takes speech. We do not want to say these words out loud. Negative statements about the Jewish People and especially curses uttered concerning them are potentially dangerous.

In the Talmud, there are many examples where a statement that contains a negative sentiment in connection with the Jewish People is worded “the enemies of Israel” rather than “Israel.” This is a euphemism which is clearly understood by all those who read the text of the Talmud. Here too, we do not want to say out loud anything negative about the Jewish People. Words have power. To utter words is to let loose this power. This is certainly the explanation for the prohibition of leshon hara. But we see from the Tocheicha that we must be cautious even with words written in the Torah.

Good Shabbos! 

Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 30, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Emor

In this week’s parsha, we find a list of the Jewish holidays.

I believe that the Jewish calendar can be divided into two groups of holidays. It is interesting to note that each of these groups occupies almost exactly the same amount of time – ninety-five and ninety-six days. The first group (which we are currently almost at the end of) began back on Shabbat Shekalim. Shabbat Shekalim is the first of the four special Torah readings that precede Purim and Passover; Shekalim – around Rosh Chodesh Adar, Zachor – the Shabbos before Purim; Parah and then Hachodesh – prior to Passover. The first holiday that comes in this group is Purim, which is, of course, a very happy occasion with eating and drinking and merry making. As a matter of fact, the Talmud states that “when the month of Adar begins, we increase happiness.”  So, this group of holidays begins on a high note. Purim is a forerunner of Passover since it celebrates the saving of a particular Jewish community from annihilation. Passover, the next holiday is the center of this group of holidays and commemorates the redemption of the entire Jewish People from Egyptian bondage. Starting on the second day of Passover, we begin counting seven weeks. During this “counting of the Omer” period, we observe certain mourning practices – no weddings, haircuts, or listening to music. So, what began on a high point has come to a more somber period. At the end of the seven weeks, we observe the holiday of Shavuot which the Talmud calls AtzereetAtzeret is a “stop.” So, this is the end point of this group of holidays. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The second group of holidays begins on a fast day – the 17th of Tamuz (usually in July) – so this group of holidays starts at a low point.  Three weeks later, we come to what is certainly the low point of the Jewish calendar – Tisha B’Av, a day on which we sit on the floor and observe full mourning practices. But, from this point, we begin a steady ascent. Between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah there are seven weeks during which we read “the Haftarah portions of consolation.” These beautiful portions from the prophet Isaiah are intended to revive our sprits as we approach the New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement on which our actions are judged and our fate for the coming year is decided.  This is certainly a serious and solemn day. But, Rosh Hashanah is not a day on which the atmosphere in the synagogue is overly somber. Ten days later we come to the Day of Atonement which is perhaps the most serious day of the year. We fast and klop ourselves, confessing our sins. However, it should be noted that Yom Kippur is not a sad occasion. We should not confuse the fasting on Yom Kippur with that on Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av we fast because we are mourning for the destruction of the Temple. On Yom Kippur, we fast as a way of concentrating ourselves on the spiritual dimension of life in our desire for at-one-ment with G-d. We know that in Mishnaic times, there was even an atmosphere of celebration on Yom Kippur. The Mishnah reports that young women used to go out dressed in white to dance, apparently to attract shiduchim – potential marriage partners. From Yom Kippur, five days later, we have the holiday of Sukkot which is called “the time of our rejoicing –zeman simchateinu.” This holiday lasts for seven days and is concluded with a holiday called Shemini Atzeret. This group of holidays also ends with a holiday called Atzeret. (Just as the rabbis called Shavuot Atzeret.) In the Diaspora, there is one additional holiday that brings this group to a final conclusion. What is it called? Simchat Torah – the happiness or rejoicing of the Torah. Simchat Torah is certainly the high point of the Jewish calendar, celebrated with dancing around the Synagogue with the scrolls of the Torah.

We see, therefore, that both of these two groups of holidays concluded with a holiday celebrating the Torah. We see that these groups of holidays differ in some respects. One begins on a high point, one begins on a low point. One has a mourning period in the middle, the other starts with aspects of mourning.  But, both of them have the same conclusion, they both point to the giving of the Torah as their goal. This tells us something very important.  All of the Jewish holidays can be understood as pointing us toward the Torah. We should understand that the Torah and the observance of the mitzvot it contains is Judaism. We celebrate that G-d has given us a way of life that, if we follow it, leads to happiness in a profound sense because we are doing the will of the Creator of the Universe.

After writing this derasha, I heard the news of the tragedy in Israel during the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer in Meron. At least forty-five people were killed and over a hundred were injured, some seriously. We mourn for those who lost their lives and pray for a refu’ah shelema – a complete recovery – for the injured. May we never know such tragedies again.

Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 23, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

What does it mean to be a religious Jew? I believe that we can get an answer from this week’s parsha.

This week we have a double portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. We are going to discuss the second of these portions that are often combined together.

The name of the Torah portion Kedoshim means “holy” and this section of the Torah is sometimes called the holiness code. It begins with the words, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them.” It is significant that this portion is addressed to the “whole Israelite community.” We are, after all, in the middle of the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus, as the name implies, speaks primarily to the rituals of the Temple which were carried out by the Levites and the Priests. The Torah now focuses on the entirety of the people. Therefore, we can assume that what is contained in this portion is important for every Jew. The beginning verses continue, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” Holy is one of these terms that we frequently use in discussions about religion. But, what does it mean? It is hard to put your finger on an exact meaning. Since the Torah commences with the command “be holy,” perhaps, if we look at the continuation of the portion, we might discover what it means to be holy. The Torah does not proceed to list a set of cardinal beliefs which we must accept as doctrine. It does proceed with a long list of mitzvot – commandments – that we must observe. This portion is filled with commandments enunciated in rapid fire succession. And they cover a wide range of topics. We find the commandments to: (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) revere your mother and father, observe the Sabbath, not turn to idols, not practice sorcery, not to lie, steal, bear a grudge, or take revenge. There are commandments to leave the corners of the field for the poor, love your neighbor as yourself, and to have honest weights and measures in business. The commandments that forbid shatnez, cursing the deaf, and placing a stumbling block before the blind. And there is a lengthy section forbidding various sexual relations. As we read through this long list of do’s and don’ts, we realize that all of life is covered by the commandments of the Torah.

Before proceeding with the main commentary, I want to highlight a couple of specific commandments. This week’s portion says, “You shall revere your mother and your father and keep my sabbaths.” (Lev. 19:3) Of course, in the decalogue, these are two separate commandments. Why are they joined together here? The rabbis explained that, although we should revere our parents, if they were to tell us not to observe the Sabbath, it is incumbent upon us to disregard them in this case. We were commanded by G-d to observe the Sabbath and our parents cannot overturn G-d’s command. As for placing “a stumbling block before the blind,” the Talmud interprets this to mean that we must not take advantage of another’s weakness. Hence, knowingly giving bad advice to someone who is ignorant is forbidden.  This could include financial dealings or it might mean telling someone who is lacking Jewish knowledge that something is permitted which we know to be forbidden.

           The long list of commandments makes us aware that the Torah sees all of life as its domain. What does it mean to be a religious Jew? In answer to this question, many would respond; it means keeping kosher, or keeping Shabbat, or davening every day. This is true, but it also involves having honest weights and measure in business, leaving the corners of the field for the poor, and not placing a stumbling block before the blind.

           Judaism is a way of life. Now, sometimes when I have heard people make this statement, “Judaism is a way of life,” I have been struck that they are really watering-down Judaism. They intend this nebulous phrase to imply that Judaism does not make specific demands on us, but, it simply is “a way of life.”   When I say that Judaism is “a way of life” I mean that Judaism should have an impact on all aspects of our life. The mitzvot of the Torah address everything we do, from what we eat, to how we conduct our business, to our family relations, and how we deal with our neighbors. One might say that the Torah is a guide for how a Jew is to live.

           What does it mean to be a religious Jew? It means to follow the guide, to live in accordance with the mitzvot of the Torah. It is not limited to what we do in the synagogue, but it shapes how we live our lives. 

Good Shabbos!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 16, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Tazria-Metzora

These portions deal mainly with the subject of tzara’at which traditionally has been translated as leprosy. Scholars who have studied the matter have shown that the disease descried in the Torah does not match what we know as leprosy. Indeed, the disease which the Torah discusses can not only infect the skin of a person, but their clothes and even their house. This is no ordinary disease. The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash recognized a long time ago that this disease was not a physical ailment, but was a spiritual defect that manifested itself as a malady of the skin. The real cause of this “disease” was lashon hara – bad speech.  The connection between lashaon hara and tzara’at was made explicit in the case of Miriam who was afflicted with it after the incident in which she spoke in a deprecating way about Moses. (Numbers 12) Therefore, these portions which deal with tzara’at always present an opportunity to discuss the important topic of lashon hara.

       The sin of speaking in a negative way about someone is considered by Judaism as one of the most egregious transgressions. It is even compared to murder. This seems exaggerated, however, it is difficult to over-estimate the harm that can be caused by our speech when we talk about someone in a negative way. The harm is not limited to the one spoken about, but also affects the speaker and the listener. When we speak lashon hara, we internalize a negative view of the world. Constant criticism of others leads us to think in negative terms and to ignore the overwhelmingly positive attributes of the world around us.

       I could certainly go on discussing the problems inherent in negative speech, but, instead, I want to focus more broadly on the impact of words in Judaism. We can certainly do damage by speaking ill of someone or something, but we also have the power to use speech in positive ways that make our lives better.

       Judaism has an enormous respect for the power of words. Look at the mitzvahs that require speech. We recite the shema – the watchword of the Jewish faith – twice a day. The paragraphs of the shema contain the fundamental ideas of Judaism – monotheism and the obligation to observe the commandments – yet it is not sufficient to merely think about these ideas, we must voice them using the words contained within the Torah. One should not read the shema silently, it should actually be voiced so that we can hear ourselves reading the words. We are commanded to daven three times a day. Davening gives us the opportunity to speak with G-d, giving expression to our thoughts and needs. But we do so using specific words that tradition has endowed us with and here too we do not simply read silently, but we quietly give voice to the words. Before we eat anything, we utter a blessing prescribed by tradition, again uttered, not merely thought.

       I am always struck on the High Holidays by the enormous amount of words that we say in the course of these days. I have never counted them up, but clearly there are thousands and thousands of words that we say during the course of the services on these days. Some might argue there are too many words. In addition to the main elements of the service, there are many liturgical poems that form part of the services. All of these poems give expression to the ideas and emotions that are connected with these days.  It is as if we are searching to find the right words to come before G-d with on the day of Judgement and on the Day of Atonement. Again, it is not enough to think these ideas, they must be formulated into words and uttered.

       Judaism clearly acknowledges that words have the power to connect us to G-d. They can also connect us to other human beings. We need to see the power in the positive words that we could say to someone. Words of encouragement to a friend or family member could help them through a difficult time. A compliment paid to someone in our daily dealings with people could lift their spirits. And, most importantly, a word of gratitude – thank you – to someone who has benefited us would do them good and would do us good. Recognizing the many acts that are performed by others – be they family, friends, acquaintance, or merely people we encounter in our day to day activities – that make our lives better in small ways encourages us to see the positive in the world. It is the very opposite of lashon hara. Every time we say “thank you” we recognize the good that others do. Multiply that enough times and you’ll end up with a positive view of the world. This is the power of words!

Good Shabbos!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 9, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Shemini

Jewish holidays tend to group together. In the Fall, we have the trio of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. In the Spring, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot.  This week and next, we find on the calendar three modern holy-days – Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day), and Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day). The events commemorated by these special days are the most important in Jewish history since Biblical times.

Persecution has been a factor throughout Jewish history. Massacres, expulsions, restriction on where Jews could live, and other legal and economic disabilities have formed a major part of the Jewish experience throughout the centuries. But, the scale and impact of the destruction in the Holocaust is unparalleled. Close to half the Jews in the world being murdered and the annihilation of communities that had been the great centers of Jewish life for centuries is an unimaginable loss. The only comparison we could possibly look to would be the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. The loss of the Temple which was the religious center of Judaism and the ruin of the political capital of the Jewish People begs the question; how did we survive these catastrophes? We have spoken about this question numerous times. The destruction wrought during the Holocaust forces us to ponder the same question. How has Judaism and the Jewish People survived despite the enormity of the loss?

The answer to this enigma can be found in the celebration of Israeli Independence Day. The rebirth of the Jewish State and the rejuvenation of Jewish culture which are the fruits of the Zionist Movement have given the Jewish People a new lease on life.

First a note about Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day. In Israel, the celebration of Independence Day immediately follows on a day of remembering the sacrifice that has been made to both bring into existence the Jewish State and to defend and preserve it. Independence has not come easily. Military service is a central feature of Israeli life and many have given their lives in the defense of the State of Israel. Putting Memorial Day right before Independence Day ensures that people throughout the generations will realize the connection between Israeli independence with all of its benefits and the sacrifices made to achieve and maintain it.

There is a concept in the Talmud that “G-d sends the cure before the disease.” We can see how this idea has played out in Jewish history. Before the destruction of the Jewish State during the Roman period, there already existed a Jewish community in Babylonia. This community was rising in influence and importance at the time that the Jewish center in the Land of Israel was declining. After the destruction brought about by the Romans, the Babylonian Jewish community became the center of Jewish life and produced the single most important work for the continuation of Judaism – the Babylonian Talmud.

This same concept has played out again. Zionism emerged as an organized effort to create a Jewish homeland in the nineteenth century. Herzl created the movement because he recognized the threat posed to Jewish survival in Europe. Unfortunately, the State of Israel was not established in time to save European Jewry from annihilation, but its emergence immediately after the Holocaust has provided the Jewish People with a source of hope and pride that has nurtured us back from the brink of total destruction. Besides providing a refuge for the physical survival of Jewish communities that have come to Israel from all over the world, the Zionist Movement encompassed a cultural revival that has been unbelievably successful. Perhaps the best example of this revival is the resuscitation of the Hebrew Language. Today, in Israel, a modern sophisticated country carries on all of its affairs – economic, scientific, literary, etc. – in the language of the Bible. This is a truly remarkable achievement. The revival of Hebrew and its establishment as a modern language began alongside the Zionist awakening in Europe. Writers, philosophers, and poets used the traditional sources of Judaism to create a Modern Hebrew literature that was already flourishing before the establishment of the State of Israel. The rebirth of Hebrew and the creative energy it has produced has deepened and expanded as the people of the State of Israel has been successful in creating a modern vibrant society.  Again, only a biblical parallel could possibly be looked to for this rebirth of both Jewish political and cultural life. The return of the exiles from the Babylonian captivity during the time of Ezra is the only comparison available.

Jewish life today is as vibrant and creative as it has ever been. Jewish literature, Jewish scholarship, Jewish religious life is flourishing in Israel and in America to an extent greater than it has for many centuries. To imagine that this has taken place in the shadow of the Holocaust is incredible. It is only if we see how Jewish history is shaped by divine providence and how the “cure is sent before the disease” that we can hope to have any understanding of how Judaism and the Jewish People have survived and flourished after being at the brink of total extinction.

Good Shabbos!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 26, 2021

A Derasha for Passover

           As we have discussed on many occasions, the outstanding feature of the Passover Seder is the asking of questions. Many of the unique rituals of the Passover meal are present precisely to provoke the asking of a question. Why do we wash but not say a beracha before the carpas? Why do we cover and uncover the matzahs? Why do we drink four cups of wine? Why is there a cup for Elijah? Speaking of Elijah, why do we mention this prophet who lived long after the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder?  And as a matter of fact, we mention him twice. Once when we pour the cup of Elijah and once when we open the door for Elijah. The tradition that Elijah visits every Seder is itself cause for discussion.

           And, of course, a significant question that is very often raised at the Seder is: why, if we are retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, do we not mention Moses? (There is a single reference to Moses found in the Haggadah. But this does not refute the fact that Moses has been purposely excluded from the telling of the story.) I often combine these two questions. Why do we leave out Moses, but make reference to Elijah twice?

           Each of these questions has many possible answers. Certainly, Moses is left out because the Haggadah wants to emphasize the fact that the redemption from Egypt was performed by G-d alone. This is a prime example of how Judaism has sought to ensure that Moses not become an object of worship. We find this already in the Torah where the end of the Book of Deuteronomy makes sure to inform us that “no one knows the place where Moses is buried.” Burial sites of famous religious leaders have become centers of religious rituals over the centuries. This is even true about some famous rabbis whose graves are visited by large numbers of Jews every year and various ceremonies are performed there. Moses played such a central role in the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai that it is not difficult to imagine the person of Moses becoming a cult object. Judaism has made sure that Moses not become anything more than a leader of the people. I believe this is one important reason why the text of the Haggadah, which developed to convey the experience of the Exodus from Egypt to future generations, makes no mention of Moses.

           As for the cup of Elijah, one explanation for this part of the Seder is that there was a question as to whether there should be a fifth cup of wine. The four cups are based on the four terms for redemption found in Exodus 6: 6-7: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people, I am the Lord, I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your G-d.” There were some who argued that there should be a fifth cup of wine for the verse continues, “        I will bring you into the Land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….” So, should there be four or five cups at the Seder? Often, when questions in the Talmud were not resolved by the sages, it was said that Elijah will provide the answer when he returns in advance of the Messiah. So, at the Seder we pour a fifth cup, but it is left for Elijah to decide.

           I think there is another explanation for the absence of Moses and the presence of Elijah at the Passover Seder. We need to keep in mind that the point of Passover is not just to remember an historical event of great importance to the Jewish People.  It does not just focus our attention on the past, but on the future. The redemption from Egypt is a model for the future redemption which we eagerly await. We, of course, conclude the Seder by joyously saying “Next year in Jerusalem.” If the Seder were merely a remembrance of a past event, a recitation of the narrative found in the Book of Exodus, then we probably should have expected the name of Moses to have a prominent place in our Seder. But, the point is not just to remember a past event, but to look forward to a future redemption which G-d will bring about. This future redemption will be ushered in by the return of Elijah. As the prophet Malachi says, “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord..”

           Now we can more fully understand the absence of Moses and the presence of Elijah at our Seder. The mention of Moses would have only been part of a looking back at historical events. The mention of Elijah inspires us to hope for a a brighter and more perfect future.

Good Shabbos and a healthy happy Passover!!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 19, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Vayikra

With this week’s portion we begin the third book of the Torah. This book is called Vayikra in Hebrew which means “called.” The first words of the portion are “And the Lord called to Moses.” In English, the name of the book is Leviticus from the word Levite. This tells us something about the subject matter which deals with the rituals carried out in the Temple by the Levites and particularly the sub-group of the Levites, the kohanim. This week’s portion describes the various sacrifices that were brought to the Temple, which included both communal and individual offerings. The communal sacrifices were both on a daily basis and for Sabbath and holidays. The individual offerings were both free-will and obligatory. 

This subject matter raises the vexing question – what were these animal sacrifices all about? How is bringing an animal to slaughter in the Temple a religious act? It is very difficult for us to understand the religious significances of the sacrifices, partly because there has been no sacrificial system since the destruction of the Temple more than two-thousand years ago. However, in biblical times, the rituals carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem were at the very center of religion. The Sabbath and Festivals were celebrated by special offerings. Atonement was brought about by means of animal sacrifices. As we approach Passover, consider that in biblical times the main event of the holiday was the acquisition of an animal by each family which was slaughtered at the Temple and then served at the Seder. So, how are we to understand the sacrifices?

Maimonides proposed a radical interpretation in his philosophical work the Moreh Nevuchim – The Guide for the Perplexed. In this work, Maimonides presents many explanations from a rationalist perspective on difficult questions from the Torah, including matters such as miracles and prophecy. Concerning the sacrificial system Maimonides argues that the Torah included sacrifices as a compromise. G-d does not need nor want animal sacrifices, but in ancient times all religions included sacrifices and the Israelites would not have accepted a religion without them. Afterall, they were already being presented with a religion that was a tremendous innovation and departure from the religions around them. Whereas most ancient religions were polytheistic, Judaism insisted there was only one G-d. While all other religions had idols, statues and images of their gods so that one could see the god that was being worshipped, Israelites had to worship a G-d who was invisible with no physical image or form. The God of Israel also demanded ethical and moral behavior on the part of His adherents. We see how difficult these religious innovations were for the people if we read the Bible. Particularly the prophets remind us repeatedly that the Israelites kept falling back into idol worship and they constantly berated them for not caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. This was not a religion that was easily implemented as the national religion. Therefore, when it came to sacrifices, the Torah made a compromise, allowing the people to continue with animal sacrifices but limited to one place, in Jerusalem.

This explanation of Maimonides is not widely accepted. Other medieval philosophers argued with him and pointed to the fact that there are instances in the Torah where G-d seems to be pleased with the offerings. When Noah leaves the ark, the first thing he does is to offer up sacrifices and the Torah states, “The Lord smeeled the pleasing odor.” We also need to remember that the sacrificial system carried out in the Temple was not a side-show. It was the center of religious life in biblical times.

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew – korban – comes from the root which means “to be close.” It seems that for our ancestors these rituals did connect them with G-d.  When it comes to the sin-offering that was brought by individuals who had inadvertently transgressed a commandment, it is possible to explain that bringing a sacrificial animal was part of the atonement process since the loss of an animal represented a financial sacrifice on the part of the individual. He was giving up something important. We can also suggest that there was an aspect of vicarious suffering involved. The individual understood that really he should be punished and the animal was in his place. But when it comes to the communal offerings and the individual free-will offerings, we struggle to explain how these brought people closer to G-d. Indeed, even in the Bible we find expressions questioning the validity of the sacrifices. The prophet Hosea, speaking for G-d declares, “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to G-d, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) I do not believe that the prophet would actually have advocated the elimination of the sacrifices. What Hosea was demanding was adherence to a religious life that required caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan as well as animal sacrifice. The one without the other was hypocrisy. The prophets over and over again warned the people that it is unacceptable to G-d to mistreat the poor and then bring sacrifices to the Temple.

We should also keep in mind that three times a day we daven for the rebuilding of the Temple. When the Temple is rebuilt, the sacrificial system will be reinstated. Perhaps, when this occurs, we will be able to understand the religious significance of these rituals.

Good Shabbos!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 12, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei

This week we have a double portion, Vayakhel-Pikudei which are the last two Torah portions of the Book of Exodus. These portions continue the telling of the construction of the Tabernacle and its contents. At the start of the portion, Moses commands the Israelites not to work on the Sabbath. Why does the commandment to observe Shabbos precede the instructions to begin the construction of the Tabernacle?

There are multiple answers to this question. First, the Torah is emphasizing the importance of observing the Sabbath. One might have thought that the building of the Tabernacle outweighed the observance of the Sabbath. Since the Tabernacle was for the service of G-d, perhaps one could engage in the work of its building even on the Sabbath. But, no, the building of the Tabernacle could not be done on Shabbos.

Second, many of the laws of the Sabbath are learned from the building of the Tabernacle. The Torah commands us to “do no work on the seventh day.” But, what is work? Is work that which I do to earn a living? Maybe, to observe Shabbos, I shouldn’t go to my job and that’s it. Clearly that is not how we observe the Sabbath. Is work physical exertion? Perhaps we are prohibited from doing strenuous activities on the Sabbath? No, many things that are prohibited on the Sabbath require very little exertion. The work that is prohibited on Sabbath is creative activity and the Oral Torah defines what these activities are from the construction of the Tabernacle. Any action that went into the building of the Tabernacle is by definition “work” and is thus prohibited on Shabbos.

I want to offer a third explanation. The Tabernacle, which is the model for the Temple, and the Sabbath are two distinct conceptions of holiness. The Tabernacle is a holy place, while the Sabbath is a holy time.

The conception of a holy place is easy for us to grasp. When Moses encounters G-d for the first time at the burning bush, he is told to remove his sandals because “you are standing on holy ground.” We call Israel the Holy Land. Jerusalem is a holy city. And the Temple is called in Hebrew the Mikdash which contains the word Kadosh – holy. The Mikdash is a sanctuary. (Sanctuary, by the way, contains the Latin word sanctus which means holy.) Any of us who have been in Israel have experienced a holy place. We can be awe-struck by a holy place such as the Western Wall. We intuitively understand that there are behaviors that are not appropriate in a holy place. One can only imagine what it was like being in the Temple in Jerusalem. One would get a sense of the tremendous power of G-d in the Temple. It seems to me that one, perhaps, has a similar feeling of the grandeur of G-d visiting one of the large ornate cathedrals in Europe. We can appreciate how such structures were built to inspire people with a sense of holiness.

The Sabbath is a conception of holiness in time. This I believe was a specifically Jewish insight. One can look at the Sabbath or the Festivals as structures of holy time. The Sabbath is a twenty-five hour period in which we can sense the beauty of the spiritual life. It is stated that the Sabbath is a “foretaste of the world to come.” The halachah built a structure around this holy time protecting it from the intrusions of the work-a-day world in which we live.

The holiness of place has a disadvantage. It is limited to that place. The holiness of Jerusalem can only be experienced in Jerusalem. The activities that were carried out in the Temple could only be carried out in the Temple. The holiness in time which we find in the Sabbath can be experienced anywhere. Jews can observe Shabbos wherever they might be. Jews can experience the holiness of the Sabbath in Poland, or Morocco, or Peoria.

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Festivals were times when throngs of Jews gathered in the holy city. We can imagine not only the sense of grandeur that was present, but also the feeling of being together with the Jewish People in one place all engaged in the same activity. The Sabbath has a similar effect. By observing the Sabbath, a Jew can sense its holiness, but also can feel connected with the entire Jewish People. The Sabbath links us with other Jews all over the world and throughout time. When we observe Shabbos, even if we are doing so in isolation, we are experiencing something that Jews in all places and times have experienced. Shabbos is also a time when we join together with the community. Once a week we stop our normal activities and make time to worship, study Torah, and enjoy meals with our friends and family. The Shabbos, perhaps more than almost anything else, has kept the Jewish People alive.

Good Shabbos!!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 5, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion brings us to the famous, or should I say infamous, episode of the Golden Calf. There are many questions to be asked in connection with this event. For instance, what was the role of Aaron? When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, Aaron – his brother – was left in charge. We could say that the incident of the Golden Calf happened under the Aaron’s watch. Why didn’t he prevent the people from going through with their desire to make a molten image? To make matters worse, when Moses questions Aaron about what happened, his response was problematic. When Moses comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the Golden Calf, he says to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron replies, “I said to the people, give me your gold. I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf.” The Talmud points out that leaders need to be careful about what they say. If their words are not precise, they can be misunderstood and the consequences can be catastrophic. Aaron, by saying, “and out came this calf” made it seem like he gave some credence to the idol. It sounds like it miraculously appeared out of the fire. While, of course, Aaron knew that he had made the molten calf.

           The commentators provide various answers to explain Aaron’s failure to prevent the backsliding. Some claim that Aaron was trying to delay. He pretended to go along with the people in the making of the Golden Calf, telling them to bring their gold and planning a festival for the next day, hoping that Moses would return and the whole thing would be negated. Another, more troubling explanation, is that the people had killed Hur who did try to stand up in opposition. Hur was one of the leaders, he is mentioned alongside Moses and Aaron. The Torah does not state explicitly who he was, but the Midrash states that he was Miriam’s son and hence the nephew of Moses and Aaron. Hur without explanation disappears from the narrative in Exodus. Again, though not stated explicitly in the Torah, the Midrash posits that he had been murdered by the Israelites because he did attempt to oppose the making of the Golden Calf. Therefore, Aaron was aware of the potential for violence and was intimidated. He also wanted to avoid providing the people with another opportunity for murder and so he did not oppose the people.

           I think we should consider another way of understanding this episode which gives us some insight into the nature of leadership. Aaron is most noted for being a peace-maker. In Pirkie Avot, we find the statement of Hillel, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it. Loving all human beings and bringing them near to the Torah.” Aaron was constantly involved in trying to bring reconciliation between people. The Midrash describes many incidents in which Aaron tries to resolve conflict between the Israelites, even to the point of intervening between husbands and wives who were not getting along. This trait of Aaron makes perfect sense of why he was the kohen – the priest. The role of the priests was to bring peace between the Jewish People and G-d. They officiated in the Mishkan, later in the Temple, offering the sacrifices which brough expiation. When someone committed a sin, they brought an offering to the Temple. The priest officiated ever the sacrifice, which  brought atonement. They also officiated at the communal offerings brought by the people as a whole. The role of the priests was to make peace between G-d and the Jewish People. Aaron is held up as a model of this peace-making role. However, this admirable trait is not necessarily the best one for a leader in all situations. Leaders who always attempt to appease their enemies, as we know from actual historical examples, can lead to terrible outcomes. Sometimes forceful and even aggressive leadership is required. If we compare Moses to Aaron, we can see the difference in their leadership qualities. When Moses comes down from the mountain and sees the Golden Calf and the people dancing around it, he immediately – before saying even one word – throws down the Tablets of the Law shattering them, burns the Golden Calf, grinds it up into fine powder, throws it into water and makes the people drink the water. Only then does he say to Aaron, “what did the people do to you?” We see the more forceful personality of Moses also in his appeal to G-d to forgive the people. He says, “if You are not going to forgive the people, then erase me from your book.” I am temped to say that his sounds like chutzpah on the part of Moses. Imagine saying to the creator of the universe, “if you don’t forgive the people then erase me from Your book.” Its almost as if he were giving an ultimatum. But, this more forceful, even aggressive, kind of leadership was required by the events.

           The Golden Calf is the paradigmatic sin in the Torah. But, this portion also contains the great example of forgiveness. Moses pleads for G-d to forgive the people and G-d tells him to bring up a second set of tablets. “I will write on these tablets the writing that was on the first Tablets which you broke.”  This second set of tablets is the symbol of forgiveness. They teach us that there is always hope for repentance to bring atonement. The second set of tablets stands for a second chance, an opportunity for a new beginning, for reconciliation. And when did Moses come down the mountain the second time with the second set of the Tablets of the Law – and this set is the one that remains – on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement because it was the day on which Moses brought the second set of Tablets with the same writing as was on the first set.

Good Shabbos!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | February 12, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Mishpatim

 The name of this week’s Torah portion is mishpatim which means laws. Perhaps the most important word in the beginning of this portion is the word “and.” Our portion begins, “and these are the laws that you shall set before them.” What is the significance of the word “and?”

“And” is a conjunction which connects two things. Since “and” is the first word of the portion it seems obvious that it connects this week’s portion to last week’s What transpired in last week’s portion? It contained the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Decalogue (the so-called Ten Commandments.) By joining this week’s portion to last week’s, the word “and” is telling us that mishpatim is a continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rashi comments on the word “and” that “just as those words (in last week’s portion) were given at Sinai, so were these words in this week’s portion given at Sinai.”

The Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) presents the highlights, the headlines. The Ten Commandments are fundamental principles that no human society can live without. “Do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not murder” are basic ethical concepts that all societies must have in order to function properly. I believe “honor your father and mother” is also a fundamental of human society. Parents are the primary transmitters of the basic rules of life. They teach us at the earliest stage of life the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper behavior. Therefore, respect for parents is essential for the proper transmission of these core ideas to the next generation of citizens. The Ten Commandments also contain the essential idea of monotheism, “you shall have no other gods before Me.”  Additionally, the commandment to observe the Sabbath is fundamental to Judaism. All these commandments are very important, even essential.

 However, they are not sufficient. I have sometimes heard people say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone kept the Ten commandments? The world would be so much better off if everyone would just keep the Ten Commandments.” Far be it from me to deny that the world would be a better place if there were no stealing or murder. But the truth is that these basic principles are meant as “headlines.” A society requires a much more extensive set of laws in order to function. The Torah was intended to be a comprehensive, all-encompassing guide to human life.  And that brings us to this week’s Torah portion. The revelation continues “and these are the laws” which will provide the details for how to govern a community.

 What are these laws? I suppose if I asked someone randomly, “what are some Jewish laws?” I would get answers that would suggest that Judaism has dietary laws, or laws about the Sabbath, or other Jewish holidays. Indeed, mishpatim does include a couple of dietary laws. The prohibition of eating teref (meat from an animal that has already been killed) is found here. Also, the first of the three times that the command is given not to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is in this portion. The three festivals are mentioned here and there is a brief reference to the Sabbath. However, the great bulk of the commandments given in this portion (and there are a lot of them) are laws that fall into the categories of civil and criminal law. Laws relating to property damage, negligence, personal injury, kidnapping, stealing, and murder are all found in this portion. This portion provides the foundation for many of the longest tractates in the Talmud. Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra, and Sanhedrin are voluminous sections of the Talmud dealing with civil and criminal law. The fact is that Jewish law is a comprehensive system of laws that provides the legal system for a Jewish community in all its myriad activities. To this day, Jewish courts continue to function as the institution through which observant Jews are supposed to seek the resolution of disputes with other observant Jews. There are rabbis who specialize in Jewish business law. Here in Chicago, there is a center for this study called the Choshen Mishpat Kollel. Choshen Mishpat is the section of the Shulchan Aruch (the most accepted code of Jewish law) that deals with civil law. This center receives many questions from Jewish business people asking for halachic opinions on a wide variety of situations which come up in the course of business dealings.

           The Ten Commandments provide the fundamental principles and a few of the key concepts essential for human society. But a society requires a far more complex system of laws. The foundation for these laws is provided in this week’s Torah portion. These Torah laws are elaborated and expanded into an even more complex system of laws in the Talmud. Centuries of scholars and legal experts commenting on the Talmud provide further layers of the Jewish legl system which was codified in works such as the Shulchan Aruch. Even going beyond these legal codes are thousands upon thousands of legal opinions that have been written by prominent rabbis throughout the centuries in a literature referred to as “she’elot u teshuvot” or responsa. This vast literature continues to be added to in the present day as new problems arise. In today’s world, technological development has been a major source of new questions and issues that require Jewish legal answers. A couple of years ago I attended a meeting with a rabbi who is the head of a yeshiva in Israel that specializes exclusively in the area of halachic questions that are raised by new technology. For instance, the interplay between Shabbos observance and new types of appliances in our homes is an area that they investigate. Devices such as faucets and lights that are now often turned on automatically or by a motion detector pose questions about their use on the Sabbath.

           Jewish law is an ever-expanding application of the mitzvot given in    the Torah to the infinite variety of human experiences.

Older Posts »