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Leadership - Parashat Mikeitz 5779, December 7, 2018

The last few parshiyot of Sefer Beresheit present us with two potential leaders for b'nei yisrael - Reuven and Yehuda. Reuven was the first born - the bechor - and could have merited both the double portion of inheritance and the kingship. However, both mantles of leadership were given to other brothers. The double portion went to Yosef and his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Yehuda merited the Jewish kingship. Reuven became another one of the tribes.

In this week’s parasha, Miketz, the Torah presents a pivotal moment in the development of Ya’akov’s opinion of his sons, Reuven and Yehuda. The moment is a bellwether for their future standing as respective leaders of k’lal yisrael.
The brothers return to their father’s house from their search for food in Egypt. Yosef – still an anonymous viceroy in the eyes of the brothers – has demanded to keep Shimon as ransom until the brothers’ return with their youngest brother, Binyamin. Reuven initially asks his father, Ya’akov, to send Binyam…

Settling the Land of Israel - Parashat Vayeishev 5779, November 30, 2018

The life of our forefather, Ya'akov, was punctuated by difficulty. He suffered the threat of his brother Esav, he left home suddenly, he was constantly harassed by Lavan, his daughter, Dinah, was as-saulted and his beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth.

In the first pasuk of this week’s parasha, the Torah states, vayeshev Ya'akov be'eretz megurei aviv, be'eretz kena'an – and Ya'akov dwelt (vayeshev) in the land of the dwelling (megurei) of his father, in the Land of Cana'an. This verse seems to conclude the end of an era for Ya'akov and the beginning of a period of tranquility.  Ya'akov is at the end of his journey. However, the Torah continues in the next verse – et dibatam ra l'avihem – and Yosef would bring evil reports about them (his brothers) to their father. The episode of the brothers is beginning to unfold. A new chapter in Ya'akov's life of struggle is just beginning.

There are two peculiarities in these verses:

First, in the f…

Vows Compromise Free Will - Parashat VaYetze 5779, November 16, 2018

At the opening of this week’s parasha, Parashat VaYetze, Ya’akov leaves Eretz Yisrael to find refuge in Charan from his brother, Esav. He arrives at HaMakom – The Place – to sleep for the night – the place of Ya’akov’s famous ladder dream. Morning comes. Yaakov takes the stone that he slept on, makes a monument to Hashem with it and anoints it with oil. He renames the place Beit E-l – House of Hashem. 

The Torah records that Ya’akov made a neder – a vow. Ya’akov declares, “If the Lord will be with me and will guard me on this path that I am going and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and will return me in peace to the house of my father … then I will give one-tenth of all that I have to Hashem.”

At first glance, Ya’akov’s vow is not appropriate. In general, the Torah looks askance on people who make vows and on the act of making vows. Our Chachamim say noder nikra cho’te – one who makes a vow is treated like a sinner. What is wrong with making a vow? 

Rav Shimshon Raphael…

Connecting our Children to the Land of Israel - Parashat Toldot 5779, November 9, 2018

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Toldot, Yitzchak is faced with a similar challenge that faced by his father, Avraham, in the previous generation – famine in the land. Whereas Avraham left Israel and travelled to Egypt in search of food, Yitzchak is commanded by Hashem to stay in the land. Hashem reassured Yitzchak that He will be with him and that he will be blessed.

As Yitzchak grows in stature and in wealth, the local Philistines become jealous of his success. The pasuk says, “and he (Yitzchak) had flocks of sheep and cattle and a great deal of crops and the Philistines were jealous. And the Philistines closed up all of the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Avraham and filled them with dirt.” Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, told Yitzchak to move. Complying with his wishes, Yitzchak moved on to Nachal Gerar. In this new location, Yitzchak uncovered wells that Avraham had dug but that had subsequently been covered by the Philistines and rename…

Perhaps - Parashat Chaye Sarah 5779 - November 2, 2018

This message is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Leonid Saharavici, of blessed memory. May his soul be bound up in the bounds of eternal life. 

This week’s parasha, Parashat Chaye Sarah, describes the quest of Avraham’s servant to find a wife for Yitzchak. This servant, identified by our chachamim as Eliezer of Damascus, travelled to Aram Naharayim to advance this important goal.

Before leaving on his journey, Eliezer is given strict instructions by his master, Avraham. Avraham commands Eliezer, “…swear by Hashem, G-d of heaven and G-d of earth, that you not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. Rather, to my land and to my kindred shall you go and take a wife from my son for Isaac.”

Eliezer, considering the worst-case scenario, asks, “Perhaps the woman shall not wish to follow me to this land; shall I take your son back to the land from which you departed?”

Avraham emphatically responds that, under such circumstances, Eliezer would be f…

The Power of Immersive Jewish Day School Learning - Parashat Vayeira 5779 - October 26, 2018

In this week’s parasha, Hashem tells Avraham Avinu of His plan to destroy Sedom and its four sister cities. The Torah describes these cities as places of decrepit morals populated by denizens with corrupt values.

The Torah recounts that Avraham asked Hashem to preserve the cities on account of the tzaddikim – the righteous people – who lived in the cities. Avra-ham asked Hashem whether or not He would de-stroy the cities if there were 50 righteous people. Hashem responds that He would not. Avraham then inquires whether Hashem would destroy the cities if there were 45 righteous people. Hashem responds that He would not. Avraham then inquires about 40, 30, 20 or even 10 righteous people. Hashem re-sponds that in any of these cases, He would not cause destruction.

Our chachamim address a number of issues related to this interaction between Avraham and Hashem. One question that they address is why Avraham chose to inquire about 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 then 10 righteous people.  What was Avraha…

Cities Have Personalities - Parashat Lech Lecha 5779 - October 19, 2018

Cities are places defined not only by geography – cities have personalities and identities that are tied to the peoples and cultures that reside within them. For example, the city of Memphis has geographical nuances – it is a city on a bluff bordered on three sides by rich agricultural land and on the fourth side by North America’s greatest river. Memphis, like other cities and lands, has a personality that transcends its geography; a personality shaped by the economic and sociological history of its residents.
In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, the Torah introduces us to our patriarchs, Avram and Sarai. The Torah tells us that Hashem commanded Avram to leave his land, his birthplace and the land of his fathers – to leave Ur Kasdim – and to go to the land that Hashem would show him. It was in this new land that Hashem would make Avram into a great nation and where he would be blessed. Apparently, Ur Kasdim was not a fitting place for Avram to become the father of a new nation that was…

A Community of Individuals - Parashat Noach 5779 - October 11, 2018

This week’s parasha, Parashat Noach, describes the dor haflaga – the generation of the division – the story of the Tower of Bavel.
The Torah explains that approximately four hundred years after the flood, all of the families of the earth began to settle in one locale. These families shared a common language, culture and outlook and decided to become more industrially advanced.
The Torah writes, “They said one to another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, ‘Come let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.’”
The Torah then tells us that Hashem, seeing that they had one culture and had decided to construct this tower, confuses their language – causing them to become spread across the whole earth. Hashem said, “Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin …

Think Before Acting - Parashat Bereishis 5779 - October 5, 2018

This week’s parasha, Parashat Beresheit, begins with a phrase known the world over – beresheit bara Elokim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz – “in the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth”. In reference to this verse, the Talmud, in Masechet Megila, records the very interesting and somewhat famous “origin story” of the Septuagint – the Greek translation of Tanach written in Egypt in the second century BC. The Gemara records that King Talmai placed seventy Torah scholars (hence the name Septuagint – seventy) into separate rooms to individually translate Tanach into Greek.
The Talmud explains that the first phrase of the Torah, beresheit bara Elokim, contains an ambiguity. In Hebrew, the subject of a sentence can come before or after the verb. In the phrase beresheit bara Elokim, the object of the phrase, beresheit (in the beginning), is located before the verb, bara (created), which is placed before the subject, Elokim (G-d) – G-d created in the beginning (Object-Verb-Subject). Here…

Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow - Rabbi Owen's Operational Dinner Remarks - Monday, September 17, 2018

You may have noticed that we have two new huge street-side banners on White Station Road. One of them says, “Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow”. What do we mean by this? How does learning prepare for leading? The distinctiveness and difference of the Jewish People is a theme that appears regularly and intensely throughout the Yom Kippur prayers. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the section of the Torah dealing with immorality. The Torah says, “Do not act in the ways of the land of Egypt in which you lived; and do not act in the ways of the land of Cana’an to which I, Hashem, am taking you – and do not follow their customs. Follow My laws and guard My customs to walk in these ways – I am Hashem your G-d.” The Torah is teaching that Egypt and Cana’an represent spiritually harmful elements of each culture in which the Jewish People will find themselves over the centuries and instructs us to separate from the temptation to assimilate these ideas. The Jewish People dwell alone. Hashem command…

Reenacting Sinai - Parashat VaYelech 5779 - September 14, 2018

This week’s parasha, Parashat VaYelech, presents the final mitzvah of taryag – the 613 commandments. The Torah teaches, “and now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel…” Based on this verse, our chachamim teach that each of us is obligated to write a sefer Torah – a sefer Torah that contains “this song”.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that writing a Torah provides the means for a person to learn Torah without having to rely on a friend’s Torah or the Torah of the community. Writing one’s own Torah promotes Torah study.
In discussing the importance of this mitzvah, our Rabbis provide an additional explanation regarding this commandment. They teach that one who personally writes a sefer Torah is as if he received it from Mount Sinai.
Metaphors are a teaching tool and our rabbis employ them to teach ideas. What additional message about the commandment to write a Torah are our Rabbis teaching?
Torah comes in two forms – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Th…

The Shofar is an Instrument of Prayer - Parashat Nitzavim 5778 - September 7, 2018

Rabba states, just like you blow the shofar on Rosh HaShana, so too you say verses of Kingship, Remembrance and Shofarot. G-d says, “Say before Me verses of Kingship so that you will make me King over you. Say before Me verses of Remembrance so that the reminiscences that come before me will be remembered for your good. Say before Me verses of Shofarot so that you will pay attention and look forward to the Judgment Day and the Messianic Times. And with what? With a Shofar. (T. Rosh HaShana 34b)
We will blow the shofar during the Rosh HaShana musaf after each of the three middle blessings. The shofar is an instrument. At first glance, the blowing of the shofar would seem to represent an interruption in the musaf. By what justification do we interrupt the Amidah and blow the shofar in the musaf?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch addresses this issue. He explains that during the travels of the Jewish People in the desert, the shofar was blown on two occasions other than Rosh HaShana. Moshe would…

When "Thank You" is Too Difficult - Parashat Ki Tavo 5778, August 31, 2018

This week’s parasha, Parashat Ki Tavo, opens with a presentation of the mitzvah of the bikkurim. Bikkurim are a farmer’s first fruits which the Torah commands us to offer in service of Hashem. The Torah commands that the offering of the bikkurim must be accompanied by a declaration called mikra bikkurim.
“And you will call out and say before the Lord, your G-d, ‘An Aramean (sought to) destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. And the Egyptians demonized and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the Lord, G-d of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’”
This identica…