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Showing posts from February, 2017

Objective Truth-Justice and the Revelation at Mount Sinai - Delivered on Parashat Yitro 5777 at Baron Hirsch Congregation

This week’s parasha presents ma’amad Har Sinai – the Revelation at Sinai.  All of b’nei yisrael stood at the foot of the mountain and heard the Almighty proclaim, “Anochi”. Thunder and Lightning. An elaborately orchestrated choreography.
The author of the Akedat Yitzchak – Rabbenu Yitzchak Arama (I heavily consulted the translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk) – is bothered by a problem.
This elaborate scene at Mount Sinai is unparalleled in human history.  It would seem to have been aimed at conveying a purpose completely beyond anything man had ever experienced.
When we look at the Aseret HaDibrot – The Ten Commandments – we do not see any new philosophic insights. On the contrary, says Rabbi Arama, most of these commandments could easily have been legislated by human legislators of average intelligence interested in a well-functioning society! Murder, theft, adultery, honoring one’s parents. What great purpose is behind such an extraordinary event?
One might have expected the answers to t…

The Importance of Derech Eretz - Parashat Yitro - February 17, 2017

This week’s parasha presents the reuniting of Moshe Rabbenu and his father-in-law, Yitro – the namesake of our parasha

The Torah records that at the beginning of their encounter, Yitro says to Moshe, “I am your father-in-law, Yitro, who is coming to you and your wife and your two sons with her.” Rabbenu Ovadia Seforno, and a number of our commentators, are troubled by the inclusion of this statement. What does it add?

To answer this question, Seforno makes recourse to a teaching of our Chachamim in Masechet Pesachim 112a – do not enter your home suddenly, all the more so, the house of your friend. Using this dictum, Seforno explains that Yitro was attempting to give Moshe advance warning so that Moshe could have adequate time to make appropriate preparations for Yitro’s lodging. Yitro was concerned about Moshe’s interests and concerns – his announcement is a testament to his high ethical standing.

A more expanded version of this Rabbinic dictum is recorded in the fifth chapter of Mas…

Shirat HaYam and Tu BiShevat - Parashat Beshalach- February 10, 2017

This week’s parasha, Parashat Beshalach, presents the splitting of the Red Sea - b’nei yisrael was saved from the Egyptians who drowned while b’nei yisrael was safe on the far shore. In response, Moshe led the Jewish People in shirat hayam – the Song of the Sea – a song of praise for Hashem for His miraculously saving b’nei yisrael.

In Masechet Megilah 10b, the gemara cites a well-known midrash – “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but G-d silenced the angels, saying, ‘The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!’”

I discussed this gemara this morning with my students and we focused on one question – if it was improper for the angels to sing praises in the face of the death G-d’s creation (the Egyptians), why was Moshe and b’nei yisrael not subject to criticism? To answer this question, we examined a law in a very different context – but one that has a connection to Tu BiShevat which falls out this…

On Happiness - Parashat Bo - February 3, 2017

Our parasha, Parashat Bo, is the third in a set of four parshiyot dealing with the experience of b’nei yisrael in Mitzrayim.

Moshe and Aharon approach Paroh and declare that if he refuses to let the Jewish people go, the plague of locusts will be unleashed upon Egypt. Moshe elaborates and explains that all of Egypt will be consumed. Moshe and Aharon leave Paroh. Paroh’s servants complain to Paroh. “How long will you allow Moshe to be a trap for us? Let the men go so that they should serve their G-d. Do you not know that Egypt has been destroyed?”

The Torah continues the narrative. “And Moshe and Aharon were returned to Paroh. Paroh says to them, ‘Go serve the L-rd your G-d. Who and who goes' (מי ומי ההולכים)? Moshe responds, ‘We will go with our young and with our old, we will go with our sons and with our daughters with our flocks and with our herds; כי חג לה' לנו - because it is a festival unto G-d for us.’”

Our commentators ask a number of questions on the passage:

Measuring the Quality of a Prayer - Parashat Va-era - January 27, 2017

In the beginning of this week’s parasha, Parashat Va’Era, Hashem shares with Moshe Rabbenu that He has heard the groan of b’nei yisrael as a consequence of their slavery and that Hashem remembered His covenant.

The response of b’nei yisrael to the slavery is also recorded in another place in the Torah. In the description of the mitzvat bikkurim – the commandment of the first fruits – the farmer brings his first fruits to Yerushalayim. In presenting the fruits to the kohen, the farmer recites a confession – a viduy. As part of this confession, the farmer briefly recounts the experience of the children of Israel in Egypt. The farmer begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us and placed hard work on us.”

In the next passage, the farmer describes the reaction of b’nei yisrael to the affliction. He says, “Then we cried out…

The First Building Block of Prophecy - Parashat Shemot 5777 - January 20, 2017

This week, we read the first parasha of Sefer Shemot. The parasha describes the increasingly difficult circumstances that bnei yisrael were suffering under the rule of Paroh in Egypt. The parasha also introduces us to Moshe and describes his development into the leader of the Jewish People.

In his first prophetic experience, Moshe is shown an angel of Hashem within a burning bush. Moshe saw that the bush was burning but not being consumed. Moshe then says, “I will now turn and I will see this great vision – why is the bush not burning?” The Torah conveys that Hashem saw that Moshe had turned to see (the vision) and He called to Moshe from the midst of the bush, “Moshe, Moshe” to which Moshe responded, “I am here.” After this exchange, Hashem reveals to Moshe the content of the prophecy – that Hashem would redeem the Jewish People from Egypt through the agency of Moshe.

Looking more carefully at the details of this – Moshe’s first prophetic experience – we notice a seemingly innocuous de…