Category: A Taste of Torah

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Pekudei

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

In the past few weeks, the Torah discusses the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In this week’s Parsha, Pekudai, we learn that the Mishkan was dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. However, the Midrash explains that although the dedication occurred on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the Mishkan was actually ready to be used Chanukah time, more than three months earlier. The question then arises: Why was it necessary for B’nei Yisroel to wait an additional three months to use the Mishkan?

The commentaries explain that the building of the Mishkan is a symbol of Hashem’s forgiveness to B’nei Yisroel for the sin of the Golden Calf. Close examination of the construction of the Golden Calf reveals that its cause was due to the B’nei Yisroel’s impatience. When Moshe did not come down from the mountain at the expected time, the B’nei Yisroel panicked. Their need to have a physical liaison between Hashem and themselves propelled them to act impetuously resulting in the Golden Calf. Hindsight teaches us had B’nei Yisroel taken a few moments to step back, reflect, and think things through, a different conclusion might have ensued. They could have come to the realization that they should have considered the consequences of their actions before acting so quickly.

Hashem established a three month waiting period to teach B’nei Yisroel an important lesson. He makes them wait to emphasize that it is not enough to acknowledge the sin, but in order for it to be a true learning experience, it is necessary to determine the problem’s root and learn from that. As parents, it behooves us to teach this valuable lesson to our children. We must model reflective behavior and not jump to conclusions, and when we do, we must first understand the cause of the problem in order to solve it completely.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vayakhel

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Coming Together as a People

In this week’s Torah portion Vayakhel, the Bnei Yisroel are gathered together to build the Mishkan. Rashi tells us this happened right after Yom Kippur when Moshe came down from the mountain receiving the second Luchos (tablets). We as a people sinned with the egel hazahav (golden calf), and now it was time to rebuild. The second Luchos were given and the building of the Mishkan would begin. It was time to recognize the goal of serving G-d alone and for the Divine Presence to rest amongst us in this world. It was a time to rededicate ourselves to the values that were given to us at Sinai. It was a time to become united as a people.

A few years ago, I was part of the JUF Shimshon Mission that traveled to Poland and Israel. More than 20 day school leaders participated in this mission as we connected to the past in ways that none of us could have imagined beforehand. Walking through Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka was extremely emotional. One could only grasp a bit of the horrors that our ancestors went through. In Auschwitz and Birkenau, it was a rainy, cold day. All of us were dressed warmly, in coats, gloves, boots, hoods, and after three hours of walking, we were shivering as we got back to the bus. We all asked, “How could they possibly survive such conditions?”

We were trying to relate but couldn’t quite connect to that reality. The enormity of the devastation and destruction hit us as we walked through the death camps. Three million out of 3.3 million Jews in Poland were killed. One participant commented, “In our group of 25 people, two or three would have made it based on those numbers.”

One person asked, “What is our take away from this experience? Communities that were vibrant and alive were destroyed and they are gone. Rabbis, scholars, laymen, religious, secular, parents, grandparents, children – it didn’t make any difference, if you were Jewish, you were persecuted. How do we relate  to this?”

It is a heavy question; there is much to say and many lessons to draw from it. I would like to focus on one take away. The fact that more than 70 years later we are visiting these sites, praying and connecting to our people, reinforces the important lesson of Vayakhel – gathering together for eternity. These 6 million kedoshim are not gone. They live within every one of us.

All Jews throughout all periods of time are eternally connected. We feel that responsibility to rebuild and to replenish what was lost. We are one people with one mission with one G-d and a value system that has kept us going for thousands of years. We are connected to the past and its memory inspires us to do more for our people in the future.

Vayakhel is the gathering of Jews throughout time. We continue to build from the past and rebuild the future. We have much to be proud of in our community as we see tremendous growth in our day schools, synagogues and Jewish life. We have dedicated Rabbis, lay leaders, and volunteers living daily by the values handed down to us. We have dedicated organizations such as the JUF with committed staff to work on behalf of the community of Jews here and abroad. We are one people gathered together over time.

Let us continue to strengthen our commitment to each other in the memory of those lost, to continue to build the legacy of the Jewish people until the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh (Temple). May it come speedily in our times. Amen.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Ki Sisa

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Holiness – A Charge from Previous Generations

Parshas Ki Sisa contains the commandment of creating the שמן המשחה – the anointing oil. Rashi comments on the verse of “שמן משחת קדש יהיה זה לי לדרתיכם – This shall be anointing oil for me for generations” that there was a miraculous characteristic to the שמן המשחה. The oil regenerated itself after it was used, and it was always the same amount that Moshe made initially. It simply never had to be replaced.

The question is why this special property was necessary? Couldn’t the שמן המשחה be reproduced as were many other parts of the Temple vessels and supplies? We know that  Hashem does not change nature’s course unless there is a necessity.

Perhaps one can suggest two possible insights into this phenomenon. The שמן המשחה‘s purpose was to activate the holiness of each person and vessel it was used on. Without anointing, these vessels would not “function” as כלי שרת – vessels of service. The reason the oil never was depleted served as an importance lesson about holiness in the Torah perspective. Holiness is based on the traditions from previous generations as it was communicated to them by Hashem. It is not updated or changed by the mores and norms of the time.

A second message is that holiness is eternal. Hashem will always have holiness and righteousness in this world no matter where humanity decides to go. Hashem’s  master plan is that there will always be a segment of holy people that pursue and conduct themselves in this role.

We convey values to our children about their Jewishness. We should stress the אלקי אבי – my father’s G-D as part of that message. We didn’t invent our way of life; we inherited it, and we cherish the mission of bearing this torch for all times.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Tezaveh

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

It’s Not About Me

In this week’s Torah portion, Tezaveh, the name of Moshe is omitted. Commentators wonder why his name is omitted. The next question they ask is why in this specific Torah portion is his name absent since it appears in every other portion since his birth.

The understanding of many is that when Moshe in pleading on behalf of the people to G-d, one of the times they sinned, he said, “Erase me from your Torah.” Those words had an effect; his name needed to be removed from the Torah as a fulfillment of that statement. That only explains why his name had to be erased somewhere but why in this specific Torah portion?

There is a beautiful lesson that is being taught here. Moshe never wanted to be the leader. He begged for Aaron, his older brother, to take the position. However, G-d appointed him and although He gave Aaron a role as well in the process of the redemption, Moshe was clearly the leader. Aaron’s role was that of the Kohen Gadol and his responsibility was being the leader in the service of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  This week’s portion deals with the vestments of the Kohen and is about Aaron and his descendants that would inherit the priesthood after him. In a way, G-d grants Moshe’s request for Aaron to be the leader by not mentioning him when it is time to put the spotlight on Aaron. This was the week that focuses only on Aaron as Moshe truly wanted to show respect for his brother.

It is a great lesson in life to be able to step aside and give the proper respect to those around us when that respect is due. We should all be able to look for ways how we can think about others first like Moshe who throughout his life lived by the principle it’s not about me.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Terumah

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

In Parshas Terumah we begin the section of the Torah that deals with the building of the MishkanI, the Tabernacle. When the Torah ends the description of the Mishkan, it goes on to describe the laws of the service in the sanctuary and the ritual laws of purity. This is followed by the special laws of the Kohanim. A full third of the Chumash deals with the construction, rituals and history of the Mishkan.

This requires some analysis since we know that the Torah puts great emphasis on man’s internal thoughts and connection to Hashem. The prophets decry the empty gesture of ritualism.  In several weeks (Parshas Zochor) we will read Shmuel HaNavi’s admonition of:

הנה שמוע מזבח טוב להקשיב מחלב פרים
Why does the Torah attach so much importance to the pageantry and pomp of the sanctuary and the service?

This question has been generalized by many who don’t understand the function of the מצוות מעשיות – the practical mitzvos. Isn’t it sufficient to love Hashem and practice his moral ways without eating matzoh or wearing teffilin? If I meditate on the Creator and his world, do I still need to keep all of the minutiae of hilchos Shabbos, the laws of Shabbos?

The answer to these questions are found in the passuk of ד’ חפץ למען צדקו יגדיל תורה ויאדיר – Hashem desired to give it (the Jewish people) virtue and so he enlarged the Torah and made it (or them) mighty” (Yeshayahu 42:21). This important passuk is explained in several ways:

  1. Hashem wants us to succeed in this life as well as the eternal life. As the architect and planner of this world, he gave us mitzvos that will help harmonize our lives with the cosmic and the practical aspects of this world. This wisdom is known only to him, and as Jews who serve Him, we trust his superior knowledge.
  2. Mitzvos provide us with the opportunity to show our allegiance to Hashem, especially when we do things that aren’t intuitive to us. It is our way of surrendering our will to Him. It is the foundation of our relationship with Him, and He provides us with the opportunity to connect to him through mitzvos.
  3. We want to earn our keep and since Hashem doesn’t “need” anything from us, He wanted us to have an opportunity to earn a reward by obeying him.
  4. There are many dimensions to the world beyond the reach of our senses. These spiritual realms are impacted by our observance of mitzvos. Since we cannot comprehend what these worlds are, we also cannot comprehend how our actions effect the real “Tikkun Olam.”

We are entering a period in the Jewish calendar which is rich with ceremony and practical mitzvos. We should embrace these mitzvos as a great gift that allows us to contribute to the world’s perfection, achieve eternity for ourselves and to build our relationship with Hashem.

A Taste of Torah – Mishpatim

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Two for One

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find many detailed laws regarding moral and ethical behavior between our fellow human beings and ourselves. One of these mitzvos relates to the sensitivity that one has to have for orphans and widows.  The Torah states, “Every widow and orphan, one should not pain them.” In the next verse it continues, “Im aneh saaneh oso” (If one does pain him) G-d will listen to their cries. The Klei Yakar (commentator from the 1700’s) asks why the redundancy of aneh saaneh. Wouldn’t it be sufficient to say it once? Secondly, the word oso means him. Why is that said in a singular vein when we are referring to orphans in general? Wouldn’t it be better to say if one pains them?

The repetitive use of oso is teaching us a powerful lesson about the effects of our actions. One may think when one is being insensitive to the needs of an orphan or a widow it is only effecting that one person. G-d is telling us that He listens to their cries. We are affecting Him as well. G-d takes a special interest in those that are downtrodden and can be taken advantage of. He is hearing their pleas and cries. The Torah is stressing the effects that we are having on G-d as well. Therefore, mistreating those that are already in pain creates a double pain.

In every community we come across people in these situations. It is our obligation to heighten our sensitivity towards them to give them the strength to carry on.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Beshalach

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Seeing the Future

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion the verse states, “Vachamushim olu Bnei Yisroel maeretz Mitzrayim.Rashi quotes a Midrash in one interpretation that explains the word vachamushim to mean that only one-fifth of the Jewish people went out of Mitzrayim (Egypt), while the other four-fifths died in the plague of darkness. Rav Shimon Schwab (20th century Gadol) asks, “How do we understand this interpretation? The great celebration of our exodus from Egypt is marred by the death of the majority of the people?”

Rav Schwab suggests the following understanding. Perhaps Rashi is explaining to us the effects of individuals exponentially over time. Perhaps not all four-fifths died then, but a minority of people died at that time. Taking those individuals and looking at what could have potentially come from them over time, we get a much more significant number equal to the four-fifths of the Jews at that time.

The Midrash is teaching us to look at the future and realize what potential one individual may have. I heard a story from a great talmid chacham years ago that relays this message very well.

There was a snowstorm one day and only two other boys and he showed up for class. The Rebbe started teaching and was raising his voice and acting out the lesson as if there were a full class of boys in the room. After the lesson, this student asked his Rebbe, “Why did you have to strain yourself today and teach as if there was a full class since there were only three of us in the room?”

The Rebbe responded, “You are mistaken. Each one of you represents hundreds if not thousands of people. The lessons you learned today will be imparted to your families for generations as well as all with whom you come in contact. There were thousands of people in the room today. How could I teach with any less enthusiasm?”

The Midrash is teaching us an important lesson. Don’t underestimate the potential effect of one individual. Each person interacts on a daily basis with many people, family, friends, co-workers, etc. Let us make the most from all of our interactions in creating a Kiddush Hashem wherever we go.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Bo

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Throughout the narrative of יציאת מצרים – the exodus out of Egypt, the Torah says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or heavy. This metaphor is understood to mean that he was being obstinate, and he was being foolishly brave in opposing Hashem’s demand that he free the Jewish people.

Rav Sholom Schwadron, the Jerusalem Maggid asks why the Torah doesn’t describe Pharaoh as having no heart at all. After all, he wasn’t displaying any good judgment and seemed to be acting with no thought or emotion.

Reb Sholom quotes the Mesilas Yesharim – (Path of the Righteous, a mid-16th century ethical work by R. Moshe C. Luzzato) that explains that Pharaoh and his behavior are an allegory for the Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination, which drives us incessantly and wants us to be so immersed in our daily affairs that we don’t reflect on our spiritual state at all. This makes us vulnerable to all sorts of mistakes and bad choices.

Pharaoh also had moments where he acknowledged Hashem’s power over nature and that he could not challenge Hashem’s wisdom and power. Those occasions were few and short in duration. He immediately returned to his stubborn behavior and refused to follow through on those short bursts of clear thinking. This is described as having a hard heart. He was capable of thinking and seeing the truth; he wasn’t able to act on that truth. His desire for power and control dissipated any impression he had from those short moments of insight.

When we read about Pharaoh and his behavior, we are supposed to look at ourselves and think whether we don’t display similar behavior. Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed by life and we crave control. This may lead us to ignore Hashem and his Torah. These parshiyos help us refocus on what a hard heart can do to us and reminds us that we have the benefit of learning from Pharaoh’s lessons.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vaera

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

In this week’s parsha, we come across the four words that represent different levels of redemption. The first one is vehotzasi, alleviating us from the burdens of Egypt, the second is vhitzalti, saving us from the hard labor, the third is vgoalti, the actual leaving of Egypt, and the last is vlokachti, G-d saying that He will take us for His nation. What does it mean to be the nation of G-d? What responsibilities accompany that relationship?

Chazal tell us that there are three qualities that define the Jewish people: being compassionate, having a sense of embarrassment, and bestowing acts of kindness to others. At a time when we are focused and living up to these values, we represent G-d properly. G-d took us out of Egypt for a purpose. It was not just for freedom from slavery, but freedom for living up to these values and changing the world around us.

I heard a beautiful story that took place at the last Siyum Hashas in MetLife stadium. One of the volunteers inside was handed a ticket by a member of the crowd coming in. The volunteer was told that this was an extra ticket that he had and if the volunteer found someone who needed it, he should please give it to him. The volunteer didn’t think there would be a need for it, but he took the ticket just in case.

 A few minutes later an officer outside the gate called this volunteer outside to help him with a situation that was unfolding. There was a man crying, and the officer was trying to calm him down without much success. The man said that he had a ticket for the siyum and had been looking forward to this special day. Unfortunately, when the ticket was scanned, it was discovered that it was not a valid ticket. However, the sad man was convinced that his ticket was authentic and somehow the scanner wasn’t working properly. Security had no choice and refused to let him in.

 When the volunteer heard the story, he immediately pulled the ticket out of his pocket that minutes before he had just received and said, “Here, I have an extra ticket. Use this one.”

The officer was amazed exclaiming, “Wow! That is so nice. We usually don’t see things like that happen here.” The volunteer explained that he had just received the ticket a few minutes before from someone who didn’t need it and wanted to help a person if it proved necessary. The officer replied again, “Wow!  Your G-d is really unbelievable.” 

This is who we are as a people. When we act in the ways that G-d wants us to follow, we are a reflection of G-d in this world and are truly His nation.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Shmos

Written by Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Parshas Shmos

After coming down to Egypt as a family, the Jews come of age in that country. Egypt, a culture that is alien and whose values were at odds with our Torah and way of life, is the cradle of our nationhood. The possuk (Devarim 4:20 Yirmiyahu 11:4) refers to this experience as the כור הברזל – the smelting furnace. This is not the melting pot that American immigrants experienced when they came to these shores. It was a crucible of searing pain and suffering.

While the written Torah’s detail of this experience is terse, the sages (in the Gemara and the Midrashim) elaborate on the pure evil and terror that was wrought upon our ancestors. We dwell upon this experience at our Seder on Pesach and the Torah expects us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Clearly, this was a learning experience from a loving G-D. If so, what are the lessons we are to learn that resonate throughout the generations and are relevant to us today?

While the answer to this question is multi-faceted, let us look at some of the more obvious ideas and themes that the Egyptian experience taught us. The first is that we can withstand a lot of adversity if we stand together. For example, when Moshe encountered two rivals, Dasan and Avirum, fighting and they insinuated that they had betrayed him to Pharaoh, he exclaimed, “Now the matter is understood.”  Rashi explains this statement to mean that Moshe now understood the reason for the Jews’ suffering. This betrayal and lack of loyalty and respect of a fellow Jew (who had killed to defend a hapless Jew being beaten to death) was the basis for the terrible suffering of the nation. When we left Egypt, we had to demonstrate that we had corrected this national flaw by lending each other precious items, displaying our trust of each other. (See Shmos 11:2.) 

The next theme illustrated in the parsha is that we need to communicate with Hashem in order to merit His salvation. While Hashem had promised to redeem us, that promise was only activated when He heard the cries of pain and anguish which the Jews directed to Him. This is an important lesson. We cannot think since Hashem is aware of our situation, we don’t need to do anything. We need to ask for His help for Him to respond.

A third important lesson demonstrated is the fact that culture is not the same thing as morality. We are often deceived into thinking that human advancement in the arts and the sciences produces superior human beings who are better equipped to make moral and just choices. Egypt was the seat of human civilization; yet they abused other humans and engaged in morally decadent  behavior. This lesson was not lost on the Jewish people who experienced it again in the Greek period and most recently in Nazi Germany.  We respect and appreciate the wisdom and revelations that Hashem gives each generation, but we need to balance that with the firm adherence to the moral values which Hashem gave us in His Torah.