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When Good is Done to You, Acknowledge It! - Shabbat Chanukah-Parashat Miketz 5778

Our chachamim, in masechet Kiddushin, teach a general halachic principle: mitzvot aseh she'haz'man gerama nashim peturot – women are exempt from positive, time-dependent commandments. Generally, women may perform, but are not obligated to perform, those commandments that become obligatory only at a defined time. For example, the holiday of Sukkot occurs on the fifteenth day of the month of Tishre. The mitzvah of lulav is obligatory only during Sukkot. Since this mitzvah is time-dependent – it can only be performed during a specific window of time, women are exempt. Of course, should a woman choose to perform the mitzvah of lulav she may do so and it rewarded for doing so.

This Shabbat we celebrate the fourth day of Chanukah – chag ha’oorim. As is well-known, on each night of Chanukah we light a set number of candles corresponding to the number of nights of Chanukah that have elapsed. On the fourth night of Chanukah, we light four candles. Clearly, the mitzvah of Chanukah candle…

Acting with Integrity - Parashat Vayeshev - December 8, 2017

This week’s parasha, VaYeshev, opens with a description of Yosef’s relationship with his brothers – one fraught with contention. The Torah attributes this broken relationship most directly to the close bond that Yaakov had with Yosef – a closer bond than he shared with his other sons. The Torah tells us, “And (Yosef’s) brothers saw that their father loved (Yosef) most of all his brothers and they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably.”

The Targum Onkelos – an Aramaic translation of the Torah written by the great sage, Onkelos the Convert – gives a unique translation for the phrase “they could not speak to him”. Rabbi Dr. Rafael Posen a"h, in his incredible work, Parshegen, explains that Onkelos normally translates the phrase “could not” in one of two ways – physically/emotionally unable or legally unable. However, on the verse above, Onkelos provides a translation for the phrase “they could not” in a manner unique to our parasha. In no other place in the Chumash doe…

Chanukah is Upon Us - Parashat Vayishlach - December 1, 2017

Chanukah commemorates the miracles that Hashem did for the Jewish People in saving them from the hand of Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks. This miracle created the opportunity for our people to subsequently rededicate the Second Beit HaMikdash. The rabbis of that generation created the holiday of Chanukah to serve as a time dedicated to reflecting on those miracles and praising and thanking Hashem for His miracles.

HaRambam, Maimonides, teaches, “the commandment of Chanukah candles is a very beloved and precious mitzvah. A person must be careful to publicize the miracle and add praise and thanks to Hashem for the miracles that He did for us. Even if the subsistence of a person comes from charity, he or she must borrow money or sell his or her clothes to buy oil and candles in order to light Chanukah candles.”

The last portion of HaRambam’s law is surprising. On what basis does the halacha demand that a person borrow money or sell his clothing to fulfill this mitzvah? This law is partic…

Yitzchak's Blindness - Parashat Toldot - November 17, 2017

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, the Torah shines its spotlight on Yitzchak and Rivka. We are introduced to their children, Yaakov and Esav, and presented with some of the struggles that Yitzchak encountered in settling Eretz Yisrael.

The parasha culminates in Yitzchak’s blessing his two sons and the description of the ruse which Yaakov employs to receive the appropriate blessing from his father. The Torah begins this section with the introduction, vayehi ki zaken Yitzchak; vatechena einav me'reot - and Yitzchak was old and his eyes were dimmed from seeing (being able to see).

Our commentators discuss many issues about this verse, including, why, among the patriarchs, Yitzchak alone suffered from the dimming of his eyes. As they are wont to do, our commentators offer many explanations. According to the commentator, Imre Yosher, these explanations fall into two categories – those who maintain that Yitzchak’s blindness was a punishment for a transgression and those who maintain that …

Parents and Children - Parashat Chaye Sarah - November 10, 2017

This week’s parasha, Chaye Sarah, opens with the death of Sarah Imenu – the mother of our nation. This presentation comes on the heels of the end of last week’s parasha – the discussion of the binding of Isaac and the discussion of the proliferation of Avraham’s extended family.

The verse at the beginning of this week’s parasha states, “And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the Land of Canaan; and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.” Our Chachamim discuss the phrase, “and Avraham came” - from where was he was coming to eulogize his recently departed wife?

The Midrash offers two possibilities of where he was coming from. Rabbi Levi teaches that he was returning from burying his father, Terach. Rabbi Yose teaches that he was returning from Har HaMoriah – Avraham was returning from the episode of the binding of Isaac. According to Rabbi Yose, Sarah died out of the pain of hearing about the episode.

Both Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yose agree that the subject that prec…

Visiting the Sick is an Encounter with the Almighty - Parashat Vayera - November 3, 2017

This week’s parasha opens with Hashem appearing to Avraham Avinu through prophecy while he was sitting in his tent in the heat of the day.

The Midrash famously comments that this interaction occurred on the third day of Avraham’s recovery from his brit milah. Based on this understanding, the Talmud in Masechet Sotah writes:

R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What does the verse: “You shall walk after the Lord your God (vehalachta bidrachav)” mean? Is it possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah (Divine Presence); for has it not been said: “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire”? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He … visited the sick, for it is written: “And the Lord appeared unto him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre”, so do you also visit the sick.

Through this teaching, our Chachamim convey that we are obligated to emulate Hashem’s ways of relating to the world. As He acts with mercy, so must we be merciful. As He…

Seeing Beyond What is in Front of Us - Parashat Lech Lecha - October 27, 2017

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, Avram – on the command of Hashem – picks up and moves to Canaan. After his arrival, the land experiences a severe famine. Avram decides to travel with his wife, Sarai, to the land of Egypt in search of food.

Knowing Egypt’s reputation as a decadent and corrupt society, Avram plans a ruse with Sarai – Avram and Sarai will present themselves as brother and sister as opposed to husband and wife. Should a powerful Egyptian take an interest in Sarai, Avram would be seen as a facilitator instead of a rival. Once in Egypt, Avram’s concern came to fruition and Sarai is noticed for her beauty. Sarai is taken to Paroh. Sarai escapes the clutches of Paroh unscathed only by the grace of Hashem’s Providence.

Our mefarshim debate the appropriateness of Avram’s decision to go to Egypt in search of food. The Ramban, Nachmanides, argues that because Avram knew how morally decrepit Egyptian society was at that time, he should never have left Canaan an…

Man Changed After the Flood - Parashat Noach - October 20, 2017

This week’s parasha, Parashat Noach, presents the personage of Noach - the link between the antediluvian and post-deluge worlds – the link between Adam and Avraham.

At the end of last week’s parasha, before introducing us to Noach, the Torah explains that Hashem will destroy the world because all of man’s inclinations were evil and his society had become corrupt. The world had been created for man’s benefit, yet man distorted and perverted its purpose – necessitating its destruction. Hashem commits to destroying the world. However, Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, chooses Noach as the vessel through which the world would maintain continuity with its beginnings.

After the deluge, Noach emerges from the ark and builds an altar to Hashem – upon which Noach offers animals as a sacrifice. Hashem accepts Noach’s sacrifice and commits to Himself to never again destroy the land and all living things. The Torah provides the rationale for Hashem’s commitment – because man’s inclinations are evil…

MHA Operational Dinner Speech, September 2017

A tension exists at the heart of Judaism and, for that matter, any human encounter with authority - when is it appropriate to question and when is it appropriate to accept?

Parents of younger children often confront this tension – a parent gives a directive – let’s say, “Go to bed.” The child asks, “Why?” The parent responds with an explanation. The child asks again, “Why?” Ultimately, the parent attempts to close the line of inquiry with, “Because I said so!”

In our Western milieu, with its focus on the rights of the individual, this tension is particularly acute. The tendency of our American society is to open everything to questioning and to possible rejection – the ethical standing of our leaders, the morality of our institutions and patriarchs and the validity of those branches of government that have a monopoly of violence.

We are living through an incredible age in which knowledge itself is seemingly under attack – the authority of journalists, bloggers and other purveyors of inf…

The Sukkah - Learning to Love Mitzvot - Yom Kippur - September 28, 2017

There is a very interesting gemara at the beginning of Masechet Avodah Zara concerning the end of days that concludes with a presentation of two totally different attitudes towards the mitzvah of sukkah:

In times to come, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will take a scroll of the Law in His embrace and proclaim, “Let him who has occupied himself with this, come and take his reward.” All of the nations will crowd together in confusion. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will then say to them, “Do not come before Me in confusion, but let each nation come in with its scribes.”

The Kingdom of Edom (or Rome) will enter first before Him. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will then say to them, “With what have you occupied yourselves?” They will reply, “O Lord of the Universe, we have established many market-places, we have erected many baths, we have accumulated much gold and silver, and all this we did only for the sake of Israel, that they might [have leisure] for occupying themselves with the study of t…

The Destiny of the Jewish People is Guided by Hashem's Providence - Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelech - September 15, 2017

We read a double parasha this week – Nitzavim-VaYelech. Parashat VaYelech records some of the final words that Moshe conveyed to The Jewish People prior to his demise. At the end of these comments, Hashem shares a prophecy with Moshe in the presence of his successor, Yehoshua.

Hashem said, “Behold, you will lie with your fathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the Land, in the midst of which the nation is entering. And the nation will leave Me and annul My covenant that I have sealed with it. My anger will flare against the nation on that day and I will leave them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey and many evils and distresses will encounter it. (The nation) will say on that day, ‘It is not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?’ But I will surely have concealed My face on that day because of all the evil that it did, for it had turned to gods of others.”

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno discus…

Happiness from Kindness - Parashat Ki Tavo - September 8, 2017

The beginning of this week’s parasha, Parashat Ki Tavo, describes the mitzva of bikkurim – the obligation to bring the first of one’s fruit to Yerushalayim to be given as a gift to the kohen. The Torah enumerates an additional aspect of this commandment – an obligation to be performed immediately after this gift is given – to recite four specific verses that describe the sojourn of our forefather, Jacob, in Egypt and Hashem’s subsequent salvation of the Jewish People. Incidentally, these four verses – and their explication – also serve as the backbone of the maggid section of the Passover seder.

In his explanation of this mitzva, the author of the Sefer HaChinuch writes that by making this declaration about Hashem’s kindness to the Jewish People at this time – when he has reaped the produce of his land and Hashem has blessed him with the means to give this gift to the kohen – the farmer reinforces the idea in his own mind that his blessing is the result of Hashem’s handiwork and kindn…

Teaching Empathy - Parashat Ki Tetze - September 1, 2017

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, presents a summary of many of the mitzvot.

In the last section of the parasha, the Torah recounts two sets of commandments.

The first set discusses the just treatment of the downtrodden. The Torah writes, “You shall not pervert the judgment of a convert or orphan and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You will remember that you were a slave in Egypt and Hashem, your G-d, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.”

The second set discusses the obligations of a harvester to the downtrodden. The Torah writes, “When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not turn back to take it; it will be for the convert, the orphan and the widow, so that Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do. When you beat the olive tree, do not remove all the splendor behind you; it will be for the convert, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard, you will not glean behi…

The Importance of Practice - Parashat Shoftim - August 25, 2017

This week’s parasha, Parashat Shoftim, opens with the mitzvah to appoint judges and officers upon the entry of the Jewish People into the Land of Israel. The Torah instructs us to institute courts of varying sizes in different locales. In Yerushalayim, we are to appoint a Sanhedrin – a court of seventy judges and a head of the court – the av beit din. In big cities, we are to appoint courts of twenty-three judges, and in smaller cities, courts of three.

The Sefer HaChinuch discusses the root or benefit of this commandment. He explains that these courts, and the officers who support the courts, help acclimate the people to follow the law by instilling a fear of punishment or consequences. Building on this foundation of being accustomed to do that which is good, the people will “teach their natures to do justice and righteousness out of love and out of recognition of the true path”. In other words, promoting society to keep the law is a two-step process: first, the people must adhere to …

Welcome Back! - Parashat Re'eh - August 18, 2017

Last week, we welcomed our teachers back to school and, this week, we welcomed our students back to school. A fresh beginning, new teachers, new classmates, new ideas. The first day back is so exciting!

This year, there was even more excitement than usual as we began using our newly remodeled and transformed Cooper Yeshiva High School Beis Midrash. The sefarim waiting to be opened. The intricate stone-work. The magnificent wooden shelving and furniture. The bright lighting. The warmth conveyed by the new windows. The tile floor and welcoming arch – reminiscent of Yerushalayim. In a word, the beis midrash is stunning. It is the product of a vision to create a showcase for Torah and to project to our students and families the high value that our community places on Torah learning and davening. This project is even more special because it is the result of a cooperative effort between multiple donors and multiple volunteers – each contributing to this holy endeavor.

At the end of this week’…

Seeking Opportunities to Teach - Parashat Bemidbar - May 26, 2017

This week’s parasha, Bemidbar, recalls the death of two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah says, “and Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem because they brought foreign fire before Hashem in the Sinai desert; and they had no children.”

The context of the incident of Nadav and Avihu is more fully treated in Sefer VaYikra. Moshe communicates Hashem’s command to Aharon and b’nei yisrael to bring ingredients for four different offerings – a chatat, an olah, a shelamim and a mincha – all for the culmination of the inauguration of the mishkan. All of the respective parties brought the proper ingredients to the mishkan in conformity with Hashem’s command. Moshe then gave Hashem’s next command of what to do with these ingredients – the result of which will be G-d’s glory appearing to the nation. Aharon and b’nei yisrael brought their respective offerings in exact conformity with Hashem’s command.

Aharon lifted his hands to the nation and blessed them and then descended from performing …

Israel is our Homeland - Parashat BeHar-Bechukotai - May 19, 2017

Parashat Bechukotai, the second parasha of this week’s double parasha, outlines the berachot and kelalot – the blessings and curses for adhering or not adhering to the mitzvot. This tochacha – rebuke – pertains to the Jewish people. When we follow the mitzvot, G-d rewards the Jewish people in order to help us serve Him better. When we do not follow the mitzvot, G-d rebukes us in the form of curses in order to teach us to improve our ways.

The Torah says, “And the produce of your threshing season will last until the grape harvest; and the produce of the grape harvest will last until the planting. And you have your fill of food. And you will dwell securely in your land.” On this last statement, “and you will dwell securely in your land”, our rabbis comment in the Midrash Sifra that this blessing applies in the Land of Israel but not in the exile.

What a perplexing statement! Our Rabbis are teaching here that the mitzvot that we perform, the closeness to G-d that we achieve through learnin…

The Power of a Blessing - Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - May 5, 2017

In the second parasha, Kedoshim, of this week’s double parasha, the Torah teaches, “When you will come to the land and plant any food tree, you will treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years they will be forbidden to you; they may not be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be sanctified to praise Hashem.”

The final phrase of these verses, “all its fruit shall be sanctified to praise Hashem,” is understood by our Rabbis to be the source verse for the obligation to make a blessing prior to eating food – the obligation of bracha rishona. Based on this understanding, our Rabbis teach in Masechet Berachot that it is forbidden to eat food without first making the appropriate initial blessing.

This Gemara in Berachot makes a further point. The Rabbis teach, “Anyone who benefits from this world without making a blessing first is like stealing from the holy things of heaven as the verse states, ‘To G-d is the land and everything that fills it’”.

The Gemara further analyzes this t…

Kedusha and Tahara - Parashat Tazria-Metzorah - April 28, 2017

Kedusha, holiness, refers to the identity that an object has of being associated with or designated for service of Hashem. Items in the Temple, a kohen and a sefer Torah all have kedusha as each one is designated for serving G-d.

Tahara, halachic purity refers to the state of being prepared to encounter the Almighty in the Temple. Specifically, one must be in a state of tahara prior to entering the Temple. Note that the halachic state of impurity is not bad or a sin. Most people in history were regularly in a state of impurity.

The beginning of this week’s parasha deals with these two concepts – holiness and purity – as they relate to giving birth.

The Torah explains that when a woman gives birth, she is tameh halachically impure – for a period of time. The Torah explains that if she has a boy, she is tameh for seven days. On the eighth day, her son is circumcised and she continues to be tameh from that eighth day for another thirty-three days - a grand total of forty days. If she …

The Impact of the Seder - Parashat Bo - April 7, 2017

In the section from Parashat Bo that we will read on the first day of Pesach, the Torah recounts Moshe’s command to the elders of Israel regarding the night of the exodus. Moshe commands the details of the Pesach sacrifice and concludes by commanding the elders to guard this matter as a law for all generations.

Moshe continues and says, "And it will be that when you come to the land that Hashem has given to you like He spoke. And you will guard this service.

And it will be that when your children say to you, ‘What is this service of yours?’

And you will say, ‘It is a Pesach offering to Hashem that He passed over the houses of the Jewish People in Egypt when He smote Egypt and our houses he saved and the nation bowed and worshipped. And the children of Israel went and did like Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon – thus did they do.'"

In summary, after commanding the people to offer the Passover offering, Moshe tells the people that when they enter the land of Israel, their…

The Small Aleph - Parashat VaYikra - March 31, 2017

This week, we begin reading Sefer Vayikra and its first parasha, Parashat VaYikra. The parasha discusses many of the laws of specific korbanot – sacrifices – including the olah, shlamim, chatat and others.

The parasha opens with the following verse, “And He called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him from the tent of meeting saying …” Our mesorah – oral tradition – teaches that the word, vayikra - and He called – is to be written in the Torah scroll with a particular nuance. The last letter in that word – the letter aleph – is to be written in a significantly smaller font. Our commentators have a number of different explanations and interpretations of this requirement.

One explanation is given by the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz. He explains that the letter aleph is associated with learning and education. The letter aleph is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet – the basis of learning. The root of the word aleph is also associated in Hebrew with training and preparation. …

Moshe and Betzalel - Parashat Vayakhel-Pekude - March 24, 2017

We read a double parasha this week – Parashat Vayakhel-Pekude. Each of these parashiyot describe the building of the mishkan and the construction of the vessels that were housed and used within it.

Betzalel was charged with overseeing the construction of the mishkan and its vessels. Parashat Pekude opens with the statement, “And Betzalel the son of Uri the son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah did everything that Hashem commanded Moshe.” Rashi explains that we would have expected the Torah to say that Betzalel did what Moshe commanded him to do. Instead, the Torah tells us that that Betzalel did everything that Hashem commanded him to do.

Based on a passage from Masechet Berachot, Rashi explains that Betzalel did things that did not make sense to Moshe, his teacher. Specifically, Moshe told Betzalel to make the vessels first and then to make the mishkan. Betzalel argued that the way of the world is to first make a house and then to place the vessels inside. Moshe was won over by Betzalel’…

Freedom - Remarks at FYOS Graduation 5777 - May 21, 2017

What are we recognizing and celebrating this evening?

The answer to this question is different for different people here tonight.

For parents, family members and friends, graduation from high school is a moment in time; a milestone to reflect on our children’s growth and development over seventeen or eighteen years of life.

For teachers, graduation is an opportunity to celebrate the transformative power of education and, in the case of our school, to emphasize the lasting impact of a Torah education.

For students, graduation is an indicator of freedom.

Leshon HaKodesh, the Hebrew language, employs three terms for freedom or the quality of being free – chofshi, d’ror and cherut.

Why does Hebrew use three terms for freedom and what concept of freedom does each term convey?

The term chofshi is used by the Torah to connote the freedom that a master gives a servant in letting him go. The master frees the slave. What type of freedom is this? It is the freedom from the master’s coercion.�…