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Rabbis' Blog

Family is Different

On Tuesday we celebrated the marriage of my sister Leah to the wonderful Yanky Baron and it was a beautiful affair.

The Jewish wedding ceremony is conducted under a Chupa (canopy) with a plethora of nuanced customs all meant to emulate (in various ways) the wedding between G-d and the Jewish Nation at Mt. Sinai 3,330 years ago. The event called “Matan Torah - The Giving of the Torah” was not merely the communication of ideas and laws; it was the moment we became one with G-d.

On the surface, G-d gave us the Torah to enable us to reveal divinity in every detail of reality and to live life on a divine mission. If this is the case, give us the book, teach us how to learn and apply it and wish us luck in their mission. Must we really be married to G-d to succeed?

Following “Matan Torah,”, Moshe was summoned to ascend Mt. Sinai and remain there for forty days and nights to learn the rest of the Torah - 603 more commandments and their myriads of details. The Israelites miscalculated Moshe’s ETA, panicked when he did not return on time and were manipulated into creating a Golden Calf and serving it as a deity, in direct violation of the most serious prohibition against idolatry.

G-d was enraged and notified Moshe that the nation would be wiped out and a new and improved nation would emerge from Moshe’s descendants.

Moshe would hear nothing of it.  “If they are not granted forgiveness, erase me from your book (Exodus 32:32)”. In other words - kill me first. He did not justify their catastrophic sin nor did he seek to minimize its severity, but he valiantly declared that the destruction of the nation would happen only over his dead body. (Read more about this in last year’s message).

G-d relented but stipulated that the Divine Presence would cease to dwell in the Israelite camp for their own safety. If the Divine Presence dwelled within them, another sin would be fatal. An angel would lead their journey to the Promised Land instead.

Moshe was not satisfied. He continued to pray and beseech G-d to dwell within the nation in a revealed way. “If Your Presence does not accompany us, we would rather not go up from here to the Land (Exodus 33:15).”

And about the high risks of further sin and further divine vengeance - this was Moshe’s answer: If they will sin again - G-d will pardon them again!

This is the bottom line of Moshe’s argument. The Jews did not enter into a behavioral relationship with G-d. We became family. This is not to suggest that the rules can be taken lightly, but our relationship is not terminated due of bad behavior. Family finds a way to work things out.

Nurture a loving relationship with G-d through learning more Torah and doing more Mitzvot, and if you mess up on the way, know there is always a way forward.

My Phone went Swimming

It happened. The unthinkable. My phone fell into water for 5 seconds.

Seems like not such a big deal - but it was. Most of the features worked except for voice calls. Ironic?

The little water that seeped into the forbidden territory of my phone’s innards upended my morning schedule and I found myself in the nearest T-mobile store trying to get myself back on the grid.

Thankfully the phone was insured, but a replacement would take time to arrive and I needed  something ASAP. The helpful and well informed sales rep advised me to first file the insurance claim and only then switch my sim card to a new device. Otherwise the insurance company satellite won’t pick up the correct signal from the damaged phone.

Long story short, I didn’t ask too many questions, followed their advice step by step and less than an hour later life was back to normal.

In this week’s parsha we learn how Aharon and his sons were ordained as the Kohanim (priests) to serve in the Mishkan that was being constructed in the desert. Only they and their descendants are authorized to offer sacrifices and incense and to execute a host of other rituals observed in the Holy Temple.

They were inducted into the service by offering a specific formula of sacrifices and were ordered to wear a uniquely tailored uniform. The details were so important that the Torah reiterates the induction must be done in “this specific way” which leads our sages to state that “if Moshe omitted anything of all that was stated in the Torah dealing with this matter, Aharon and his sons would not be invested to be kohanim, and their service would be invalid.”

Plain and simple. If the formula is not followed accurately, the Mishkan is a waste of time.

Allowing a few drops of water to invade my phone caused it to malfunction. Had I rushed to switch my sim card to a substitute device before submitting my insurance claim I would lose out on the benefits of the plan. So I was glad to follow the sales rep's advice which made for a hassle free experience. My newly installed water heater was useless because the wrong valve was open and an email I recently sent was never delivered because I typed .con instead of .com in the address.

The same is true about Judaism. There is a specific formula to Torah study and mitzvah observance and it is crucial to do it right.

No need to panic. Mitzvot are fairly easy to observe when done accurately and Torah wisdom never conflicts with reality when understood in proper context.

The formula works.


Despite the Skeletons in the Closet

I recently presented the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (abridged version of the Code of Jewish Law) as a gift to a Bar Mitzvah boy, explaining that this was the most important book for a Jew. If you are stuck on an island and need one book that will guide 98% of your religious Jewish life, the Five Books of Moses will not be very helpful. You need the “Code” to explain how it all applies in real life.

Nevertheless, the Five Books of Moses are the anchor of our lives and the text we deal with on a constant basis. Not only do we read the weekly parsha on Shabbat during synagogue services, the entire week is defined by the parsha. For example: “The sixth day of parshat Teruma” is a legitimate description of today’s date in traditional Jewish circles.

It follows that the content of every verse in the Torah contains relevant meaning to us here and now.

For the next five weeks we learn of G-d’s instruction to construct a Temple and how the Israelites fulfilled this divine wish. “Make a sanctuary for Me (G-d) and I will dwell in their midst (Exodus 25:8).”

Although this  temporary structure, known as the mishkan, served as a divine dwelling for many years, it was not the ultimate realization of the command to construct a sanctuary. Certainly the main elements of the mishkan were later incorporated in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, but the wooden beams and beautiful tapestries were rendered obsolete.

Why then does the Torah devote hundreds of verses to describe the mishkan down to the beams and tapestries in such intricate detail? Because the temporary mishkan makes the whole idea of a Beit Hamikdash relevant in every time and every place.

The Beit Hamikdash represents the fact that G-dliness becomes a revealed part of our material lives. Just as a physical edifice becomes a dwelling for the Al-mighty, our personal lives can and must become reflections of a divine purpose.

Had the concept of a divine dwelling debuted in the holiest spot on earth - in Jerusalem - then our personal divinity would only be possible once we achieved personal spiritual perfection. But most of us are imperfect.

This is why the mishkan was constructed in a desolate wilderness. This is why the divine dwelling debuted in a space devoid of nourishment and rife with dangerous snakes and scorpions. To prove that even if one feels spiritually lifeless, with a shameful history filled with proverbial skeletons, he or she is capable and obligated to begin the task of creating a divine space within.

Keeping the Details Relevant

During Torah study sessions I often sense frustration about the fact that many laws in the Torah, Talmud and Code of Jewish Law are articulated in antiquated ways. A prime example would be this week’s parsha of Mishpatim with its discussions of slaves and pack animals - situations we hardly experience today.

Here is one verse to ponder (Exodus 23:5): If you see your enemy's donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping it? You shall surely help along with him.

When was the last time you encountered a donkey transporting a load for your enemy?

The main idea of the law is that one must set aside grudges and help another despite the natural instinct to retaliate for perceived misdeeds - a lesson that resonates in 2019 as it did over 3,000 years ago. But do the specific details of “the donkey lying under its load” speak to us here and now?

The Baal Shem Tov introduced an allegorical reading of the verse, extending the message to include a reference to the importance of preserving our physical health and fundamentally reframing our perspective on spirituality and holiness.

"When you see chamor, a donkey" - when you carefully examine your chomer ("materiality"), your body, you will see...

..."your enemy" - meaning, that your chomer (“materiality”) hates your Divine soul that longs for G‑dliness and the spiritual, and furthermore, you will see that it is...

..."lying under its burden" (the burden is Torah and mitzvot) placed upon the body by G‑d, namely, that it should become refined through Torah and mitzvot; but the body is lazy to fulfill them. It may then occur to you that...

..."you will refrain from helping it" - to enable it to fulfill its mission, and instead you will follow the path of mortification of the flesh to break down the body's crass materiality. However, not in this approach will the light of Torah reside. Rather...

..."you shall surely help along with him" - purify the body, refine it, but do not break it by mortification.

Generations ago pious men and women were under the mistaken impression that neglecting physical health was a pathway to spiritual greatness. Conversely, there are many of us today who feel that living a life of Torah and Mitzvot may pose a threat to our physical health and wellbeing or at least compromise our abilities to achieve financial stability and comfort.

This novel teaching of the Baal Shem Tov busts the myth of religious asceticism and illustrates how the specific wording of the verse - while perhaps antiquated in a literal sense - is still very much relevant in our quest for a healthy and proper relationship with G-d.


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