Thursday, February 22, 2024

Why the Kohen Wears Shatnez, But We Don’t

 The uniform of the Kohanim while serving in the Mishkan was meant to have a powerful spiritual impact, both on the priests themselves as well as on the rest of Bnai Yisrael. A peculiar characteristic of some of these garments stands out and begs an explanation. Regarding the Ephod, the apron from whose straps hung the Choshen Mishpat (the breast plate containing precious stones representing each of the twelve tribes), the Torah states (Shemot 28:6, 15):

“And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skillful workman.”
“And you shall make a breastplate of judgment, the work of the skillful workman; like the work of the ephod you shall make it: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, shalt thou make it.”
The Rambam identified the type of thread that was dyed with the colors that the Torah specifies.
(Mishnah Torah Klei HaMikdash 8: 13):
“Whenever the Torah uses the word sheish or bad, it is referring to linen. Whenever the term techeilet is used, it refers to wool which is dyed blue. The term argaman refers to wool that is dyed red. And tola'at sheni refers to wool dyed with a bug.”
The Ephod, the Choshen and the Avnet (belt) were therefore comprised of a mixture of linen and wool, a combination that the Torah explicitly prohibits to wear as shatnez

One of the few commentators to addresses this question of shatnez in the Kohen’s garments was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In a section of commentary dealing with shatnez Rav Hirsch explains, “Only the priest had wool and flax mixed in his clothing, for he represents the community as a unity, and in his personality bridges all dissimilarities.”
In Rav Hirsch’s view, rather than thinking of shatnez as something negative, it represents a higher, unified level of existence in which only special people  involved in special ritual activities can access. According to Rav Hirsch we should view shatnez on some level  as symbolizing the ideal of Jewish unity which we should yearn for and admire as it is manifest in the service of the Kohanim, even as it is forbidden to the rest of us. 
Diversity and unity are important Jewish values. I have been known to say that one of the few types of people that might not feel comfortable at our shul is a person who is looking for uniformity and doesn’t want to daven in the same shul as someone who ___________ (fill in the blank).
I view the diversity of our shul as an essential feature and as a strength. 
As individuals we are entitled, even encouraged, to socialize and surround ourselves with like minded people with similar values who will support and inspire us in our lifelong pursuit of religious growth. But as a kehilla I believe that we are called upon to celebrate our diversity and to live the lesson that is taught by the priestly shatnez garments.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Give or Take- But Know How to Take


There is an enigmatic line at the beginning of Parshat Terumah. Hashem commands Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael to embark upon a much needed building campaign (25:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה

“Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me a donation”

The Jewish People are being informed of the need to raise funds and collect materials in order to build the Mishkan. We would expect Hashem to command the people “to give a donation”, yet the word used is to “take a donation”. This question is raised by many commentators throughout the ages and one famous answer is the same sentiment expressed by Amschel Rothschild, that what really belongs to us forever are those things that we give to others and dedicate to good causes greater than ourselves. “The more you give, the more you get” is not merely a cliché but a profoundly Jewish way to look at life and to live life.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski offers an alternate explanation. Instead of focusing on the power and importance of giving, Rabbi Dr Twerski sees in this pasuk a reminder of the importance of taking. While conventional wisdom teaches that it is easy to take and sometimes more difficult to give, some people feel that accepting help of any kind is demeaning.

The Mishnah in Peah (8:9) teaches: “And anyone who does not need to take [charity] and yet takes, will not depart from this world before he actually needs [charity] from others. And anyone who needs to take and does not take, will not die of old age until he supports others with his own money.” It seems from this Mishnah that self-sufficiency is the highest value, even if a person needs help s/he should refrain from taking. However, Rabbi Ovadia MiBartenura explains this Mishnah by adding an important caveat:

“However if the work of his hands is not sufficient for him and he afflicts himself in a life of pain that near death, on this they said, that whomever needs to take and does not take, he is like one who sheds blood and it is forbidden to have mercy upon him, for he does not have consideration for his own soul, how much more so upon the souls of others.”

Rabbi Dr. Twersky explains that people who are incapable of accepting assistance when needed often suffer from low self-esteem which can negatively impact not only one’s perception of self but also their relationships with others. He retells a story from his own practice to highlight this idea: (Twersky on Chumash pg. 157)

One of my patients, a woman who was recovering from alcoholism, confided in a friend that her furnace had broken down in the midst of a frigid spell and she had slept three nights in an unheated apartment. Her friend said, “You could have stayed at my house for those three nights.” She responded, “I don’t like to impose on anyone.”

I called this patient and I told her that I was disappointed because I was hopeful that she could be helpful to newcomers in recovery. She said, “Please, you can call on me at any time.” I said, “I’m sorry, but I cannot. Anyone who cannot accept help has no right to give it.” 

Perhaps the Torah uses a language of “taking” when it comes to the Mishkan to teach us that while giving is good and commendable, if we want to strengthen all of our relationships (with others, with Hashem, and with ourselves) we have to also be able to take at times.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Happiness Tips from Our Daily Davening

 Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon. This year there are two Adar’s on the Jewish calendar. The Mishna states that “When Adar begins we increase our joy.” We might assume that in a leap year with two Adar’s this Talmudic statement only applies the the second Adar, the Adar in which we celebrate the very joyous holiday of Purim. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, among others, insists that the imperative to increase our joy applies to both months of Adar. Happiness can refer to so many expressions, with just as many different causes. What does Jewish tradition mean when it talks about happiness? Our daily recitation of Az Yashi, the Song at the Sea, in Pesukei D’Zimra provides us with some insight and some direction.

In Shulchan Aruch Siman 51, the Mishnah Berura quotes a passage from the Zohar: “that when Shirat Hayam is recited daily, it should be recited B’Simcha, with joy, and one should imagine as if s/he is actually crossing the Yam Suf at that moment.” From this Zohar we learn that we are supposed to be happy when we recite Shirat Hayam- BC THE JEWS WERE HAPPY WHEN THEY ORIGINALLY RECITED IT.

Research has shown that three of the most important qualities that happy people possess are: a feeling of control over one’s life, a sense of optimism, and faith/ religion- a sense of purpose greater than themselves. At the Splitting of the Yam Suf the Pasuk tells us:

                Vayar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al sefat Hayam.”

For the first time in over two centuries, Bnai Yisrael were not slaves to a human master. At the moment that they saw the Egyptians drown, they realized that they were now in control of their own destiny. Though this may seem a little scary at first, possessing both free will and agency to act are key ingredients in happiness.

Vayaaminu BaHashem ubeMoshe Avdo”: In addition to their newfound sense of agency and responsibility, the Jews had Emunah, faith. They had faith in Hashem, ie a commitment to a higher purpose and to religion; as well as faith in themselves that with the help of G-d they could overcome any obstacles in their way.

 Another contributing factor to happiness is being active: challenging ourselves to try new things and to do things that we love. Happiness is often a pleasant side effect to pursuing other activities: whether it is a job, a hobby or a volunteer opportunity. Inactivity and too much leisure can be impediments to happiness.

This seems to be Hashem’a advice to Bnei Yisrael before they even get to Yam Suf:

Ma Tizak Elai- Daber El Bnei Ysirael Vayisau-“G-d tells Moshe to convey to the people that inactivity will bring anxiety and a feeling of hopelessness. But getting up and going, doing something, in tandem with a feeling of control, optimism and faith in G-d, will lead to success.

A fifth and final factor in achieving happiness is to cultivate relationships. The more quality relationships a person has, the more likely h/she is to be happy. At the Sea, Bnai Yisrael began to appreciate these relationships. They respond with Shira- song. Song only works when people are relating to one another: singing their parts, and playing their instruments together to create beautiful music.

When we put all of these factors together, we begin to map out the components of happiness and see areas of focus for us as we enter the month of Adar. Let us appreciate the control and agency that we execute in our lives. Let us be optimistic, Let us strengthen our faith in Hashem and in ourselves. Let us invest, and never take for granted, our relationships; and let us seek opportunities to develop new relationships. At the Red Sea we learned the key ingredients to happiness. Let us recommit to these lessons every day of our lives and especially during the months of Adar.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Don’t Forget You’re in Galus

In Parshat Yitro we read how both of Moshe’s sons were given names that were reminders of the challenges that Moshe had experienced during his lifetime (18:3-4): “the name of the first sonw as Gershom, because Moshe said ‘I was a stranger in a strange land.’ The name of the other son was Eliezer, because ‘the God of my father helped me and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword.”

The Pardes Yosef explains that Moshe chose these names for his sons because he wanted them to grow up with a perspective that they may not have otherwise had. Moshe’s sons grew up in Midian, far from the oppression and danger of Egypt. They lacked nothing and probably feared nothing. They grew up surrounded by the love of their parents and (maternal) grandparents. They had a idyllic upbringing, and that is why Moshe gave them names that would always remind them of the precarious state of the Jewish experience- even when times are good. A Jewish child in the Diaspora must be taught that Galus, whether Egypt or Midian or America, is not the Jewish homeland. Though it doesn’t always feel like it, we live a precarious existence that requires both Divine intervention and a self-awareness of the underlying vulnerabilities and dangers that always exist for a Jew. By choosing these names, it was as if Moshe was telling his son, “My life should teach you, and all of Klal Yisrael, a lesson. I grew up as a prince in Egypt. I had everything a boy could want. I lived a privileged life. And then my whole world turned upside down, and I had to flee for my life.

Moshe’s story has repeated itself many times throughout Jewish history. The Pardes Yosef gives the example of the Jews of Spain. Once upon a time the Jews experienced a “golden age” living in Spain. They were secure, respected and prosperous. Jewish leaders, such as the Abravanel and Rav Shmuel Hanagid, served as trusted advisers to the monarchs of Spain. And then things changed, and the Jews lost favor. A century of turbulence for Spanish Jews ended with the edict of the expulsion of Spanish Jewry on Tisha B’Av 1492.

The Talmud (Baba Batra 73b) quotes a parable offered by Rabba bar bar Channah: “We were once traveling on a boat and saw what turned out to be a fish. It was so huge that sand collected on its back, and we thought that it was actually an island. We got off the boat and stepped onto this “island”. We started a barbecue. When the heat got too much for the fish, it rolled over and we fell off into the water. Had we not been close to the boat, we would have all drowned.”

The Maharsha explains the parable as follows: Those who live in the Diaspora are trying to navigate our way through the stormy seas of exile. We think we have found a safe haven to land. We get comfortable, start living our lives, and we may even prosper. Then our island turns over and we realize that we were never really safe- we had planted ourselves on the back of a finicky fish. As we recover from the latest expulsion we consider ourselves lucky to just be alive.

Whether America is in fact a finicky fish or Spain is beside the point. American Jews have been blessed and we hope that these blessings continue. But the lesson that Moshe tried to impart through the names of his two sons must resonate, especially today. Jewish life outside of the Jewish homeland should never be viewed as guaranteed. A Galus mentality must include an awareness of our relatively precarious state and that Israel needs to be part of our present identity, just as we know that it is our future.   

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Tu B’Shevat 5784 Musings


Tu B’Shevat 5784 Musings

Every year on the spring holiday of Tu Bishvat, the Knesset traditionally holds a festive event, open to the public, to celebrate both the holiday and the Knesset’s founding in 1949. This time, however, the ceremony began with a moment of silence in memory of the 24 soldiers who were killed in two incidents in the Gaza Strip on Monday.

Knesset Speaker MK Amir Ohana stressed the diverse backgrounds of the soldiers who were killed, including Elkana Vizel, who was evacuated from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip in 2005; Nir Binyamin, from Givatayim; and Ahmad Abu-Latif, from the Bedouin city of Rahat.


The modern celebration of Tu B’Shevat is tied to the modern state of Israel. This year, Tu B’Shevat is overshadowed by the war in Gaza. In honor of our recent celebration of Tu B’Shevat, I want to share three stories of hope and resilience that relate to Israel, agriculture, and October 7:


From Reuters January 21:

Some of the bereaved families whose loved ones were killed in a Hamas rampage at the Nova music festival joined an Israeli Jewish nature project group on Sunday for a special tree-planting event at the site.

Around 1,000 people planted about 200 seedlings in the scorched earth of the Re'im parking lot where thousands of young people were partying in the dawn hours of Oct. 7 when armed Palestinian infiltrators swept in.

“I still can’t believe that we are planting a tree instead of hugging our child,” Ela Bahat, whose son Dror was killed at the festival, told Reuters.

Family members wept while planting trees with the Israeli Jewish National Fund, hoping to bring new life to the scene of death and desecration.


From the Times of Israel, November 5, 2023

The owners of a small plant nursery in Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the worst devastated communities in the October 7 Hamas onslaught, thought they had lost their business when they were forced to evacuate. But then they returned, only to discover soldiers had broken in to water the plants.

“Be’eri had a thriving nursery for household plants, a little blossoming paradise that made everyone happy,” owner Avivit John wrote on social media Saturday.

“When we were forced to evacuate, it was clear that all the plants would dry up. Rain does not get inside and the watering was done by hand. After two days without water, the plants start to wither,” she said.

 “Now we found a small miracle in Be’eri,” she wrote, posting a video of the thriving nursery they found when they returned several weeks later and a sign explaining it.

“Sorry we broke into the nursery, we had to water the plants. With love, the soldiers,” the sign said.


On October 7th a tank entering Kfar Azza ran over an orange tree as it was responding to the terrorist attack. The tank was part of the Israeli response that was ultimately able to kill 100 terrorists in the kibbutz. Three weeks later, those who were in the tank came back to Kfar Azza to plant a new orange tree to replace the one that they had destroyed. See picture above of the planting, with the old tree in the background.


When I was a high school senior I applied to Yeshivat Har Etzion and was interviewed by the great Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt’l. In the second part of the interview Rav Lichtenstein asked me why I thought the founding fathers of the United States idealized the agrarian lifestyle. The torah also idealizes an agrarian lifestyle and a connection to the Land.  Perhaps that is because Jews, like farmers, value hard work, patience, resilience, and prayer.



Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Kiddush Hashem Doesn’t Always Have To Be Difficult

 Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, better known as the Alter of Kelm, once wrote a letter of gratitude to a great Jewish philanthropist whom we assume was Baron Edmond Rothschild. Here is a quote from that letter (recorded in the book Ohr Rashaz):

“I am writing to thank your exalted honor to give thanks and to bless you for all the kindnesses you constantly do for Hashem’s flock by choosing to follow the advice of the Holy One Blessed is He: ‘Choose life.’

“Do not suspect me, chas v’shalom, of seeking my own benefit; Heaven forbid I should do that. But in my humble opinion I am obligated to give thanks to you and to bless you for the wonderful things you do for Klal Yisrael for when a person as respected as you stands before kings and upholds the fortress of our religion the ordinary people take note and learn from you. That is a great kiddush Hashem which you have brought about and spread throughout the world and your reward will be very great.”

In that same letter Reb Simcha Zissel shares a lesson from Parshat Bo. The last of the ten plagues is the death of all Egyptian firstborn males. We read in Bo that the firstborn of the Jewish People, human and animal, will forever be sanctified due to the miracle of Makkat Bechorot. The Alter asked: What did the Jewish firstborn do in Egypt to earn this status of heightened sanctity? Also, being a firstborn is merely an accident of birth. Why should that warrant an elevated status? The Alter of Kelm answered that we learn from here that even passive participation in a Kiddush Hashem is a noteworthy accomplishment. It is meritorious if God chooses you to play a role in a Kiddush Hashem, even if it is only a passive role.

After sharing this Dvar Torah with the Baron, the Alter went on to write that if Parshat Bo teaches us that a passive participant in Kiddush Hashem is rewarded to such a great degree, then how much greater must the reward be for someone like Baron Rothschild who is an active contributor to Kiddush Hashem.

One of our major tasks in life is to bring a positive awareness and consciousness of God in this world. This is what we mean by creating Kiddush Hashem. Sometimes this is accomplished through hard and difficult actions. Sometimes it can be accomplished through passivity, like by just being a first born. Opportunities to create Kiddush Hashem lie along a continuum, and we should not underestimate the potential of creating Kiddush Hashem throughout our routine and normal activities. The Talmud teaches just how easy Kiddush Hashem can be accomplished 9Yoma 86a):

One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds. The verse states about him and others like him: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3).

The Talmud also warns us that it can be just as easy to create Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, if we are not careful with our actions nor with the perception of those deeds. With a little bit of attention and intention we have opportunities all the time to create Kiddush Hashem through relatively easy, normal and routine actions and behaviors. Let us take advantage of those easy Kiddush Hashem opportunities when they present themselves.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Rabbi Weinstock Goes To Washington

On Wednesday I was in Washington DC as part of a mission organized by OU Advocacy. Over 100 Jews from across the country traveled to our nation’s capital, on their own time and on their own dime, to advocate to our elected officials on behalf of causes important to our American Jewish community. The focus of our advocacy was support for Israel, support for the Non-profit Security Grant Program (of which our shul has been a beneficiary a number of times), and addressing antisemitism. At the White House we heard from Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, Special Envoy to monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Ambassador Lipstadt explained that antisemitism is not only a threat to Jews, but also to democracy. She suggested that is why China has recently allowed anti-Semitic material to be disseminated through its government sanctioned internet and social media addresses. Historically the Chionese have had much affinity towards the Jewish People. But disseminating Jew hatred is a way to undermine democracy, which is something China is interested in accomplishing.

During lunch in the Senate office building we heard from a number of senators who expressed their strong support for Israel and their condemnation of Jew hatred. Senator Katie Britt from Alabama impressed me with her sincerity and her clarity when she said, “Evil cannot be defeated through equivocation or complicity. Good will win.” Senator Susan Collins from Maine reminded the audience that the protestors are not pro-Palestinian, but rather they are pro-Hamas.  Senator Collins told a powerful story of how after meeting her great aunt she carried a picture of Abigail Idan who was 3 years old when she was taken hostage by Hamas. After Abigail was returned to her aunt (her parents were killed on 10/7) the family sent Senator Collins another picture of Abigail which she keeps in her office.

Senator Kevin Cramer from North Dakota explained that his support from Israel originated with his mom who was a firm believer in the Bible, including the part in Genesis that says that those who bless the Jewish People will be blessed. Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri noted that October 7 was a “civilizational moment” for the world to understand the evils that exist in the world and the importance of combatting that evil and standing on the right side of history. Florida Senator Marco Rubio expressed dismay at the current state of elite universities and noted that we cannot have a strong country without stable communities and strong families.

In the afternoon I was part of a small group that met with the staff of Representative Jared Moskowitz and ended my day leading a meeting with our representative, Congresswomen Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Both Debbie and Jared are proud Jews and very supportive of Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism. Debbie recently returned from a trip to Qatar in which she pushed the country to do more to bring the hostages home.

My trip was brief but heartening. The Jewish People and the Jewish State have many friends in the halls of power in America. On my way out of the House office building I ran into Congressman Derrick Van Orden from Wisconsin. He told us that he went to Israel soon after 10/7 and was at the site of the Nova music festival massacre. He brought home with him drinking cups from the festival and sent them to members of The Squad in Congress to remind them of what really happened on October 7 and the difference between good and evil.

It is important to engage with our elected officials: to thank them, to encourage them to keep up the good work, to challenge them when we disagree. Even though all of the Senators that came to lunch were already pro Israel, it is important for them to reinforce that support by expressing it vocally as often as possible. It’s the same reason why we daven every day. Saying something once is not enough. Speech is the bridge between thought and action. We clarify and reinforce our beliefs by verbalizing them often. We ensure that we act upon those beliefs by committing ourselves to them in words.