Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 25, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Balak

           This week’s Torah portion is unique and very unusual. Moses and the Jewish People are mostly in the background and the narrative focuses on Balaam the son of Beor. What is unique is that Balaam is a non-Jewish prophet. Our portion contains three chapters which tell the story of how Balak the king of Moab hired Balaam to come and curse the Jewish People and it contains several of his prophecies.

           Our sages tell us that Balaam was a great prophet. Perhaps as great as Moses. “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses” says the verse in Deuteronomy (34:10). “But one has arisen among the nations. Who is this? Balaam, son of Beo.” (Sifre – a Midrash on Deuteronomy) However, despite his prophetic abilities, Balaam is a wicked character. In Pirkei Avot, he is compared to Abraham. “A generous eye, a humble spirit and a moderate appetite, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Abraham, our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked.” (Pirkei Avot 5:19)

           We learn something important from this comparison of Balaam with Abraham. What similar situation did the two of them face?

           When Abraham made a valiant effort to save any righteous people who might be in Sodom, he appealed to G-d and when he failed the Torah tells us that “Abraham returned to the place where he stood.” In the case of Balaam, the Torah relates how he appealed to G-d to curse the Jewish People and when his attempt failed, instead of acknowledging his failure, he moves to a different location to try again. Did Balaam really believe that his failure was due to the place? Did he think that by moving to another spot, his attempt would succeed? Apparently, Balaam never considered the possibility that he was the problem, not the place. Perhaps his prayer was not worthy of being answered. Which, of course, it was not. He simply moves from place to place, thinking that the change in location will do the trick. Abraham, on the other hand, understood that his prayer was not answered because it was not worthy. He goes back to the same location where he started. This is an example of the haughty spirit of Balaam and the humble spirit of Abraham that Pirkei Avot pointed out.

           We learn a practical lesson from this comparison as well. One should have a fixed place in the synagogue to daven. The Talmud states, “Whoever establishes a set place for prayer, the God of Abraham will come to his aid, and when he dies they will say about him, ‘What a humble man, what a pious man. He is a disciple of Abraham, our father.’”

           There are two aspects to Jewish prayer – kevah and kavanahKavanah is the intentionality, the deep-felt emotion that we bring to our prayers. Having Kavanah is what makes each of our prayers unique. Kevah is fixity, the elements of prayer that remain the same. We have fixed times for prayer. We have a fixed text of the prayers. And we should have a fixed place to pray. Returning to the same place every day, or every week, in the synagogue provides a sense of constancy. It is part of the kevah, the fixity of our prayers.

The need for Kavanah requires no proof. It seems obvious that when we pray, we need to focus on what we are saying and that we should fill our prayers with desire, hope, yearning for their fulfillment. Our praise of G-d and our thanksgiving must be sincere and heart-felt. But, when it comes to kevah, some might question its importance. Why do I have to say the same words, at the same time, and at the same place, every day?

           Having a fixed liturgy is essential to Jewish continuity. The Jewish prayer service has, of course, changed over the centuries in some ways. But, in its main parts it has remained the same. I am using the same words that my grandfather and his grandfather used to pray to G-d. I am connected to the Jewish People throughout the centuries who have prayed to G-d using essentially the same text of the prayerbook. It also allows me to go anywhere in the world and attend a service in which I can participate. If one tries to pray only using kavanah, discarding the fixed liturgy, what will happen? For a day or two, you might spontaneously come up with the words, expressing to G-d your inner feelings and needs. But I do not believe that you can continue in this way over any extensive period of time. And how would a congregation do this? Communal prayer would be impossible. Our sense of continuity with the past and with other Jews would be lost.

           Moreover, we may not have kavanah every day. Some days I may not be in the mood for davening. But, if I only pray when I feel motivated, I may end up not praying most of the time. There is a lot to be said for habit – which is kevah. If I am there every day, one never knows when I might feel a strong sense of connection and bring a lot of kavanah to my davening. Being there is the essential element.

           A fixed place in the synagogue is an element of the kevah. It is part of the routine of prayer that makes it possible for us to occasionally find inspiration for serious engagement in the service. This may seem counter-intuitive. But having a routine helps us prepare for prayer. It helps put us into the right frame of mind. When we come to the synagogue and stand in our usual place (and for a man, putting on a tallis) and we start saying the introductory section of the service, these are all signals that it is time to concentrate and get ready to engage in a relationship with G-d. It is not always easy to focus and this is why these elements of kevah are so important. They help us to achieve the spiritual experience that we are hoping for. When we do not achieve that spiritual experience, let us not be like Balaam who would decide to go somewhere else and try something different. We remain steadfast in the tradition we have inherited from Abraham.

Good Shabbos!!

Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 10, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Korach

           This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the rebellion of Korach against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. As a consequence of the rebellion, Korach and his followers were punished in dramatic fashion. The Torah describes their demise. “… the ground under them burst asunder and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol with all that belonged to them. The earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.” (Numbers 17:31-33)

           On Mondays, at the conclusion of the morning service we recite psalm 48 as the psalm of the day, which begins with the words, “A song, a psalm by the sons of Korach.” Who are these sons of Korach? Before we answer this question, let us note that the Haftarah portion which accompanies the portion of Korach tells the story of Samuel annointing Saul king over Israel. Samuel was the great prophetic leader at the beginning of the monarchy. The people demanded a king be put over them despite Samuel’s opposition. Samuel acquiesced, but he chastised the Israelites for rebelling against the kingship of G-d. The connection between the Torah and Haftarah portions is the theme of rebellion against the legitimate rulership of the People of Israel. But there is another connection between the Haftarah and Torah portions. According to the Midrash, Samuel was a descendant of Korach. One of the reasons that Korach felt confident enough to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron was that he saw prophetically that Samuel would be his progeny. G-d must therefore favor him in his argument against Moses’ leadership since he is to have such a descendant. In addition, he saw that some of his descendants would compose psalms and sing them in the Temple. Where did Korach go wrong? He failed to see that his sons would repent of his rebellion against Moses and would, for this reason, be deemed worthy of becoming the fathers of prophets and Temple singers, whereas he would perish in his rebellion. This is a very important insight which informs us of the power of teshuva – repentance.

           The descendants of Korach are not the only children of famous biblical villains who led outstanding lives. We find the following passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin: “Our Rabbis taught, … the descendants of Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem; the descendants of Sennacherib taught Torah to the multitude: Who were these? — Shemaiah and Abtalion. The descendants of Haman studied Torah in Benai Berak.” (T.B. San. 96b) Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army mentioned in Judges chapters 4 -5 who was defeated by Barak and Deborah and then killed by Yael. We learn that the descendants of this famous military foe of Israel converted and became students of the Torah. Sennacherib was the Assyrian king who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel with its ten tribes. Among his descendants were the converts Shemaiah and Abtalion who were the teachers of Hillel. Even the descendants of the wicked Haman converted and became teachers of Torah. So, too, the descendants of Korach, who rebelled against the rulership of Moses and Aaron, became spiritual giants. There is a great lesson here. The lesson is that our fate is not sealed. Evil is not transmitted from one generation to the next. Even the enemies of Israel may one day become Jews and leaders of the Jewish People. This, I think, is one of the most important teachings of Judaism. Change is always possible. Just because my parents sinned does not mean that I am a sinner. Just because I have transgressed, I am not doomed to failure.  I can change.

           A personage mentioned in the Talmud is Elisha ben Abuyah who was a student of Rabbi Akiba and a colleague and friend of Rabbi Meir -two of the most important rabbinic figures of all time. Elisha lost his faith and turned away from Judaism becoming an apostate. Yet Rabbi Meir maintained a connection with him, perhaps even continuing to discuss halachic questions with his former colleague. In this case, Elisha ben Abuya did not repent. Therefore, in Talmudic tradition he is referred to as “the other one,” the rabbis not wanting to mention his name despite quoting his teachings. This also shows that our fate is not sealed. Even an outstanding teacher of Torah may turn aside from Judaism. The choice is ours to make. But Rabbi Meir continued to hope that Elisha would return before his death.

           Hope is the outstanding feature of Judaism. The Israeli national anthem is called “HaTikvah” – “the Hope.” We always have hope because as a nation we know that renewal and rebirth is possible – a return to the Land of Israel. As individuals, we also believe that we can overcome difficult challenges and grow spiritually. Even if we sometimes lose our way, there is always hope that we will find our way back. That is the meaning of teshuva – returning.Good Shabbos!!

For more of the Rabbi’s derashas, please click here for the “Rabbi’s Corner.”

Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 4, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Shelach

           This week’s Torah portion relates the well-know story of the spies. Twelve spies were sent by Moses “to scout out the Land of Canaan.”. However, ten of the spies brought back a discouraging report of the Land saying that “the Land does indeed flow with milk and honey,” but, that the inhabitants were giants and the cities were fortified making it impossible for the Israelites to conquer. As a result of hearing this report, the people were distraught and they wept.  They complained bitterly to Moses and, “they said to one another, ‘let us go back to Egypt.’”  The consequences of this episode were tragic and far-reaching. The bad report of the spies led to the forty years of wandering in the wilderness and ultimately the day on which the spies returned with their report became a day which for all of Jewish history has become a date of tragedy – Tisha B’Av.  However, there is another far-reaching consequence from the story of the spies that may surprise you.

           We know that for the leader of the service to repeat the Shemoneh Esre, or, for the Torah and Haftarah portions to be read publicly, or, to recite the Kaddish, there must be a minyan – an assembly of ten men.  From where do we know the concept of the requirement of a minyan and how do we know that it must be a minimum of ten?

           The Talmud derives both of these from a method of interpreting the Torah known as gezera shava. (If you look in the siddur at the beginning of the morning service, we have the paragraph which begins, “Rabbi Yishmael says: Through thirteen rules is the Torah elucidated.” The second of these rules listed is gezera shava.) A gezera shava is when the Torah uses the same word in two different verses and we learn something from the word in one verse and apply what we learn to the second verse. The two verses may be totally unrelated in their subject matter and may be in different books of the Torah. The rabbis did not search out the Torah for words that were used in more than one verse. There would have been an enormous number of gezera shavas if this were the case. Rather, the rabbis had a tradition that was transmitted to them concerning particular pairs of words.

           To discover the fact that ten constitutes a minyan requires two gezera shavas. The first involves the word “among.” One verse says, “And I (G-d) shall be sanctified among the children of Israel.” (Leviticus 22:32) The second verse states, “Separate yourselves from among the congregation.” (Numbers 16:21) This verse refers to the rebellious congregation of Korach.  We see the use of the word “among” in both verses. From the second verse we understand that it refers to a “congregation.” Therefore, when the verse states, “And I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel,” it must also imply the presence of a congregation.

           The second gezera shava involves the word “congregation.” We just found this word in the verse from Numbers 16, “Separate yourselves from among the congregation.”  It also occurs in this week’s portion. “How long shall the evil congregation exist?” (Numbers 14:27) This verse refers to the “congregation” of the spies sent by Moses to search out the Land of Canaan. There were, of course, twelve spies. However, two of them – Caleb and Joshua – did not participate in the discouraging report. Therefore, the “evil congregation” only refers to ten of the spies. Hence, “congregation” here implies ten. This meaning can now be read back into the first verse. “Separate yourselves from among the congregation.” And by extension, we learn that a congregation is at least ten.   Since we already learnt from the first gezera shava that the verse “And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel” implies a congregation, we now know that an assembly of ten is required wherever G-d is to be sanctified, as, for instance, when we read the Torah or recite Kaddish.

           This may seem complicated, but this kind of reasoning is standard in rabbinic thought. It is based on the foundational belief that every word of the Torah is significant and conveys meaning. The repetition of a word, in certain instances, can be the basis for a halachah.

           We can learn something else important from this proof for an assembly of ten being required to fulfil some of our most important ritual obligations. As we have seen, the number ten is derived from the story of the spies. They are referred to as “an evil congregation.”  What does this teach us? It informs us that the congregation required does not have to be a bunch of tzaddiqim – pious and righteous Jews. They only have to be Jews. When we daven, we may daven with Jews of various levels of observance or non-observance. We don’t ask questions. The ten men who are the proof for the fact that ten is the minimum requirement for a congregation were the ten spies who brought back the evil report about the Land of Israel that led to disastrous consequences. No matter – they are a congregation!

Good Shabbos!!For more of the Rabbi’s derashas, please click here for the “Rabbi’s Corner.”

Posted by: Subway Conductor | May 21, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Nasso

Nasso is the second parsha in the Book of Numbers. As the name implies, counting is a central theme of this book. This portion, as well, begins with a command to Moses to “count the sons of Gershon.” The word which is here translated “count” is important for this portion in another sense which we shall discuss.

Nasso means to “lift up.” The full expression which is here translated “count” is literally “lift up the head.” As we know, counting Jews is a very risky business which is why we avoid counting people even to see if there is a minyan present. This expression “lift up the head” is used in another context which will perhaps illustrate the power of counting.

In the Joseph story, when Joseph is imprisoned with Pharoah’s two servants, each of them has a dream that Joseph interprets. In both cases, Joseph uses the expression “Pharaoh will lift up your head.”  In the case of the butler, he intends it to mean “Pharoah will restore you to your post.” But, for the baker the expression means, “Pharoah will hang you.” So, we see that “lifting up the head” can be for the good or the bad. It depends on the individual.

Counting is a way of acknowledging the worth of each individual. Moses takes a census not just to determine the total number of each group within the Israelites, but to teach each person that “they count!” As individuals, they have the power for both good and evil – the choice is theirs.

In addition to nasso, the word nassi also plays a central role in this week’s parshaNassi means “one who is lifted up” and, hence, a tribal leader. In modern Hebrew, nassi is a “president.” It is striking that in this portion called Nasso which has to do with counting, we also have a section (the 5th through 7th aliyahs) that tells how the tribal leaders brought gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan -the Tabernacle. This portion is the one that we read during Hannukah. The dedication of the Mishkan being a prototype for the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, since Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple during the time of the Hasmoneans, this is an appropriate reading.

What is most striking in the detailed description of the gifts which each leader brought is the fact that each was exactly the same. And yet, the Torah repeats the description for each one, giving all of the details, as if it were something new. Why does the Torah engage in this repetition of the same details over and over? I believe we learn from this repetition the same lesson, the value of each individual. Even though they bring the same gifts, each one is unique. We can all say the same words in davening, yet each of our prayers is special. Each of us comes with our own personalities, our own wants and needs, our own circumstances. So even though we utter the same words, they can carry different meanings. G-d values each of our prayers as a unique offering of our individual selves.

We should also point out that Nasso is the longest Torah portion. It contains one hundred and seventy-six verses. The longest Psalm is 119 which also has 176 verses. The longest tractate in the Talmud is Baba Batra with 176 folio pages. What is the significance of the number 176? I do not know, but it surely means something.

Good Shabbos!!

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!!!

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