Thursday, March 23, 2023

Priests and Prophets

This week we begin to read Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. The major theme of the third book of the Chumash is the sacrificial service. The sacrificial service in the Beit Hamikdash is called “Avodah”. We use this same term “Avodah” to refer to our prayers, especially the Amidah/ Shemonah Esrei prayer. There are many similarities between the sacrificial service and tefilah, “the service of our heart”.

 The Talmud (Berachot 26b) records a dispute as to the inspiration for prayer. One opinion is that the three daily prayer services correspond to the three patriarchs. Avraham woke up early and spoke to God. His prayer is the inspiration for Shacharit,. Yitzchak went out to the fields towards evening to meditate with God. This episode is the source for Mincha. Yaakov encountered God under the cover of darkness. His prayer is the origins of Maariv. Another opinion in the Talmud suggests that the daily prayer services correspond to the three sacrificial services performed daily in the Beit Hamikdash: Morning Tamid offering corresponds to Shacharit, the afternoon Tamid offering is represented by Mincha, while the late night burning of leftover fats and limbs is represented by Maariv.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested that this Talmudic dispute refers to two aspects of prayer. The sacrificial service was overseen by the Kohanim. It was regimented and its performance needed to be precise. There was no room for personal expression during the sacrificial service, any deviation could lead to the sacrifice’s disqualification. On the other hand the Patriarchs were the first Jewish prophets. Every prophecy is unique, as it depends on the circumstances, the prophet and the message. Jewish prophets throughout history have been notable for their non-conformity and their expressive abilities.

The two sources for prayer are necessary to inform our tefilah experience. On the one hand we need structure and consistency. Just as the sacrificial service was the same every day, consistency must be the foundation of our tefilah experience. That is why the Rabbis instituted set times and a set text to our prayers. At the same time we need room for self-expression and the ability for the prayer experience to be different depending on our life circumstances. This is what the Patriarchs/Prophets origin of tefilah provides for us and encourages us to incorporate into our prayers.

What’s true about prayer is true about our lives more broadly. We need both structure and opportunities to express ourselves freely. We need both rules and creativity. We need boundaries and avenues to think outside of the box. It is only by emulating both prophets and priests that we are able to optimize the prayer experience and maximize our life experiences.

Friday, March 17, 2023

If Not One Place At One Time, Then At Least One Heart and One Cause

 Towards the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel the Torah states:

“Every man whose heart inspired him came, and everyone whose spirit motivated him (brought donations for the Mishkan building campaign).

This is the only place in the Parsha that these two descriptive terms are mentioned together: an inspiration from the heart as well as a motivation of spirit. The heart is associated with thought and emotion. The spirit is associated with spirituality and religion. People were getting involved in the project at this time both out of a sense of religious duty as well as an emotional pull to be part of this great campaign. Why were they so inspired and why specifically at this point?

Perhaps the verse right before can shed light on this matter.

“The entire assembly of Israel left Moshe’s presence.” The beginning of the Parsha describes how Moshe had gathered “the entire assembly of the Children of Israel.” This gathering of all the Jews was not just a practical step, it was an inspirational moment. Seeing the diversity of the people, and yet all gathered together by Moshe with common purpose and at one time was an incredibly inspiring scene. Moshe’s words helped the people understand the importance of the Mishkan project. But the show of unity demonstrated by all of the people inspired their hearts and motivated their spirits in a way that no speech could have ever done.

A quick search in the shul database shows that our congregation currently comprises 3090 individuals; men, women, and children. I have this recurring dream of gathering together in person all 3090 community members somehow and some way. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could create a moment in time during which every man, woman and child associated with Young Israel of Hollywood – Ft. Lauderdale would join together at one time on our shul campus? It would be a powerful moment of inspiration and unity. (It would probably be a great moment to launch our building campaign. At that moment everyone would agree that we need to expand our physical space.) I know that such a dream is far-fetched. First, not everyone is ever in town at the same time. Some people will always have conflicts or other obligations. Second, we are a diverse community with different interests and different priorities. It’s hard to practically imagine what event we could possibly orchestrate that would be appealing enough to bring everyone together at one time. If anyone is interested in exploring the possibilities of bringing my dream into reality, please be in touch. Even if we can’t all be together in one place at one time, we can still find ways to celebrate and put on display our Jewish unity, K’Ish Echad B’Lev Echad.

Friday, March 10, 2023

We Need Everyone to take Part

Parshat Parah is read every year before Rosh Chodesh Nissan. It describes an important facet of the preparations for Pesach during the times when the Korban Pesach was offered: purification. Those who were ritually impure due to contact with the dead were disqualified from partaking in the Paschal lamb. Since the process of purification takes a week to complete, it was important for people to be reminded of these laws weeks in advance of Pesach. Today not only do we commemorate what once was (and what will be once again speedily in our days) but we also absorb the lessons contained within this mysterious ritual: the red heifer.

The pasuk states (19:2)

דַּבֵּ֣ר | אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶ֩יךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה

Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow

The Midrash teaches that from the phrase “have them take” we learn that the red cow must belong to the nation; ie it must be purchased with communal funds that had been collected from the entire congregation for upkeep of the Temple. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (in Emek Netziv) notes that a donated red cow would be problematic. He wonders why this should be the case, and he suggests that the Torah is teaching an important lesson about community building. In order for the Parah Adumah ritual to have the full spiritual impact that it can, the campaign must be something that the entire nation is proactively engaged in. A donated red cow would seem to functionally suffice. However it is not valid because it does not include nor engage all of the people, as represented by communal funds.

This lesson from the Parah Adumah is an important one for us. In order to fully realize the potential innate within our community, and in order to fully benefit from the sense of purpose and belonging that comes with community- we must be proactive. We must be invested. We all must participate, attend and contribute- in our unique ways, according to our unique abilities.

Our shul’s annual Journal Gala will take place next Sunday March 19. I urge you to participate in this important fundraising event that celebrates our community and recognizes those who have contributed their unique abilities to the vibrancy of our shul. Please join Rebecca and me by registering to attend the dinner and placing an ad in the journal. ( )We look forward to celebrating with you.  

Friday, March 3, 2023

The Beautiful Fragrance of Individual Jewish Identities

The last Aliyah of Parshat Tetzaveh introduces us to the Mizbeach Hazahav, the golden alter upon which the ketoret, the aromatic spices, were offered. I can’t help but wonder: Nice to Meet You Mizbeiach Haketoret, where have you been until now? All of the other vessels of the Mishkan were introduced and described 4 chapters ago, in Parshat Terumah. Why is the Mizbeiach Hazahav introduced separately in the Torah so much later than all of the other vessels?

The Meshech Chochma explains (based on a Talmudic passage in Tractate Zevachim) that unlike the other keilim in the mishkan, the golden altar was not critical for the Temple service. You don’t technically require the golden altar in order to offer incense. In the absence of the Mizbeiach, the spices could be offered on the floor in the location of where the golden altar should have been.  This insight of the Meshech Chochma just sharpens the question: Why is the incense alter different than all other vessels in the Mishkan?

A pasuk by King David in Tehillim can help us answer this question. In Chapter 141 it says:

“My prayer shall be established like incense before You, the lifting of my hands as the evening offering.”

Ketoret symbolizes the personal relationship that man has with God. Like burning spices, one’s Jewish identity can be ethereal- we may not be able to see it or put our finger on it, but we cannot deny its presence and its impact. 

The major goal of the Mishkan and its vessels is to create a national focal point and to foster a national Jewish identity. The Mizbeiach Haketoret is mentioned separately because it serves as a reminder of the need we each have to also create a personal Jewish identity; our unique relationship with the Divine.

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed wrote that the purpose of the ketoret was to create a beautiful fragrance for people to enjoy as they visited the Mishkan and, later, the Beit Hamikdash. Rabbi Moshe Schick, 19th century Hungarian Rabbi, explains that ketoret teaches us that our Jewish identities must be associated with pleasantness, meaning and inspiration.

Although it is written in last week’s Parsha, the blessing of V’Shachanti B’Tocham, that God will dwell amongst us, can only come to fruition when all of the Mishkan’s vessels, including the golden altar are constructed and appreciated. We are truly blessed when we carve out a personally meaningful Jewish identity while remaining a part of the collective.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Torah is Everything- and That’s Half of the Story

In Parshat Terumah we learn about the Aron, the Ark, that housed the Luchot. The measurements of the Aron are all “broken” ie halves: “They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.”

The Baal HaTurim notes that the half measurements teach us the lesson that one who wants to become great in Torah learning must “break themselves.” Humility is not just a nice attribute to have alongside wisdom; it is a necessity (and prerequisite) for one aspiring to become a Talmid Chacham.

I believe that this idea of the Baal Haturim can also teach us something else. Talmud Torah is referred to as “Kneged Kulam” equal to all other Mitzvot. And yet Torah study cannot, and must not, exist within a vacuum. Ideally, Torah is learned with the intent of teaching those lessons to others; or at the very least of applying those lessons in our own lives. That is why there are so many philosophies that incorporate Torah alongside another value: Torah V’Avodah, Torah U’Maddah, Torah im Derech Eretz. This is not just a 19th or 20th century phenomenon; the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot express a similar sentiment in many Mishnayot:

1:2: The world stands on three things: Torah, prayer and kindness”

2:2: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.

3:10 One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.

There was never an ideal in Jewish tradition of studying Torah in a vacuum. Just like the Aron by itself is measured in half’s, Torah study must be combined with other values and endeavors in order to optimize its effect on ourselves and our environment.

Some of the vessels in the Mishkan had poles that were fitted through rings utilized for carrying them as the Mishkan was moved from place to place. The poles attached to the Aron were unique in two ways, and each difference can teach us a lesson about the centrality of Torah.

One unique feature of the Aron’s poles was that they were never allowed to be removed. Even when the Aron was set down in the rebuilt Mishkan, the poles for the Aron had to stay. The lesson is that we must be ready and able to take Torah values and Torah lessons with us, even with little or no notice.

The second unique feature was that according to the Chumash, the poles were placed onto the Aron even before the Luchot were placed inside. I believe the lesson here is that there is value to learning about our surroundings, the world around us , the society in which we live. But before we go anywhere and before we do anything, we must firmly place the Luchot into the equation.

There is much in the world that we should enjoy and experience. But we must do so while always wearing our “Torah lenses”, and we take the Aron with us wherever we go.


Friday, February 17, 2023

The Ganav and the Gazlan

 For centuries, legal systems have distinguished between larceny and robbery. Larceny is “the taking away of the personal goods of another.” Robbery is considered a “compound larceny.” Robbery means taking something directly from its owner or in the owner’s presence. Robbery is committed by means of violence or threat of violence. Larceny is merely a crime against property. Robbery, in contrast is also crime against a person. It is not surprising that robbery usually carries a more severe punishment than larceny in American law.                

Jewish law has a different perspective. According to Halacha, the larcenist (ganav) must pay back what s/he stole and also pay the victim an additional fine equal to the value of what was stolen.  The punishment for robbery, gezeila, is not specified in the Torah. The Talmud explains that there is no fine in a case of gezeila. The robber must return what s/he actually stole, but there is no additional monetary penalty.

Yet in the times of the Talmud the students of Rabbi Yochanan were aware that the Halacha is counter-intuitive. When they asked their teacher why the ganav pays more than the gazlan, he replied:

Zeh Hishveh Kevod Eved LiK’vod Kono, V’zeh Lo Hishveh Kevod Eved L’Kevod Kono.

The robber equates the honor due to man with the honor due to God, while the larcenist does not.

Rav Hirsch explains the Gemara in Baba Kamma as saying that the Ganav, the larcenist, has committed a double sin: against the property of his fellow human being- and against society and the social contract that keeps civilization civilized. In the (translated) words of Rav Hirsch:

 “Robbery is a simple crime against the individual whose rights of possession have been violated.  Theft is a double crime, a crime against the individual rights of possession, and a crime against the general idea of respect for right of property, under the protection of which the owner had left his property.  This idea forms the basic principle on which the whole of civilized communal life rests…. The thief accordingly has to pay the value of the theft, as restitution to the owner; and then again an equal sum for his contempt of the principle of general honesty against which he has offended.           

The double payment mandated from the Ganav teaches us that our actions have an influence and impact on the people around us- for better or for worse.                           

We are impacted by what is happening around us and by the behaviors that we witness, even if no one is trying to actively teach us. But the lesson of the Ganav is more personal: Each of us must appreciate just how impactful our actions really are. We may not realize it, we may not want it to be true, but the Torah says that we must accept the fact that each of us has incredible power to influence those around us. The Ganav’s actions erode the foundations of society, and for that he is doubly punished.                         

Most people are willing to live with the consequences when they make a poor decision. Most people have no intention of impacting society through their actions, nor do they want to. But the lesson in Parshat Mishpatim of the Ganav is that we all have that power, and we can’t opt out of the repercussions of our actions.

The Ganav impacts society in a deleterious / negative way. Let us resolve to use this tremendous power invested in each of us to influence the world in a positive fashion.


Thursday, February 9, 2023

How We Can Learn From Everyone


At the beginning of Parshat Yotro we learn the names of Moshe’s two sons and their meanings:

אֵ֖ת שְׁנֵ֣י בָנֶ֑יהָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאֶחָד֙ גֵּֽרְשֹׁ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נָכְרִיָּֽה:

וְשֵׁ֥ם הָֽאֶחָ֖ד אֱלִיעֶ֑זֶר כִּֽי־אֱ-לֹהֵ֤י אָבִי֙ בְּעֶזְרִ֔י וַיַּצִּלֵ֖נִי מֵחֶ֥רֶב פַּרְעֹֽה:

One of whom was named Gershom, because he said, "I was a stranger in a foreign land,"

And one who was named Eliezer, because "The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh's sword."

The words “he said” when it comes to Gershom’s name seem superfluous, and they are not found when the Torah explains Eliezer’s name. This led the Baal HaTurim to suggest that “he said” refers not to Moshe, but to Yitro. The Midrash in Shemot tells a story that when Moshe went to Midyan he asked permission from Yitro to marry Tziporah. Yitro gave his permission with the condition that Moshe’s firstborn child be trained to become a priest of idolatry; to grow up steeped in pagan studies and pagan culture. Moshe had no choice but to agree to this condition because Yitro reminded Moshe of his “outside” status in Midyan. Based on this Midrash the Baal HaTurim suggests that it was Yitro who said/ reminded Moshe that he was a stranger in a strange land. And that’s why Moshe’s first born son, Gershom, would have to be committed to a life of idolatry.


While there are a number of questions to ask on this Midrash, Ra Chaim Shmulevitz focuses on the fact that Tziporah married Moshe after Yitro had already “found the God of the Jewish People” and rejected all other forms of worship. If that is the case, then why would Yitro want his grandson raised to worship idolatry? Rav Shmulevitz suggested that Yitro felt that every step along his journey from idolatry to Hashem was worthwhile and made him into the person that he became. He felt that the best way to arrive at the truth is through a journey of discovery. Yitro wanted his grandson to arrive at Hashem and Torah in the same manner: through a process of exposure, discovery, rejecting other deities and ultimately embracing Hashem.


While this had to be Yitro’s journey it is not the best or only journey for a Jew. One need not experience “what’s out there” before embracing what has been part of his/her home all along. Parents have a right and responsibility to teach their children about the mistakes that they have made so that children can learn from their parents’ mistakes instead of making them again unnecessarily. While proper modeling is critical, it is also legitimate to tell people (especially our children) “Learn from my mistakes. Do as I say (now, and not as I did (then)”.


Ben Zoma teaches in Pirkei Avot (4:1) “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” We learn from some people’ good deeds and successes and we seek to emulate those in our own lives. But to be really wise we must also be willing to learn from cautionary tales. We must be willing to learn from others’ mistakes, and we should not feel the need to make those mistakes for ourselves. Yitro was an amazing figure. He learned from his mistakes and came to embrace Hashem. We should all be like Yitro. But instead of making those same mistakes, we should learn from Yitro and try to avoid them.