Va’eira 5763-2002

"The Exodus--A 'Primitive Story' with Revolutionary Implications"

Jewish history is often perceived, with great justification, as one unending series of tragedies, pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, crusades, destructions, exiles, and ultimately--holocausts. Even a cursory review of the Jewish calendar confirms this dark perspective. In truth, this perception is incorrect. Jewish history is really one unending series of moral, educational and ethical triumphs and victories, but we fail to perceive it. We often fail to recognize the untold revolutionary contributions that Judaism has made to humanity. When we study the traditions of Judaism in depth, particularly the traditions of Passover, we see that we have much of which to be proud. We must let the world know about it.

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Shemot 5763-2002

"The Making of a Concerned Jewish Leader"

Who is the child Moses and how does he merit to become the "savior" of Israel? Both the biblical texts and the Midrashic elaborations give us hints to help us understand how a child who is raised in Pharaoh's court becomes a devoted and dynamic Jewish leader. The fact that he is raised by his biological mother, Yocheved, until he is weaned, is undoubtedly a critical factor. Although tradition is purposely ambiguous, Moses not only receives his rearing from his mother and his sister as a young child, but also from Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, who may very well be the secret heroine in Moses' life and consequently a key player in the destiny of the Jewish people.

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Vayechi 5763-2002

"How Important is Timing?"

When blessing his children, Jacob says of Reuben that he has all the natural advantages of the firstborn child in rank and in power. Jacob then retreats suddenly, declaring that Reuben is impetuous like water and therefore cannot be the foremost. As we study the actions, deeds and words of Reuben we find a good person--good-hearted and well-intentioned. Reuben is always ready to do the right thing. Unfortunately, his timing is off, intending to do the right thing, but, unfortunately, at the wrong time. As important as actions and words are, timing is just as critical.

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Vayigash 5763-2002

"Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers: The Triumph of Jewish Identity"

Although Joseph remains thoroughly committed to G-d and to monotheism, he seems to be rather ambivalent about his own "Jewish identity." As soon as Joseph is summoned to Pharaoh, he shaves and changes his clothes. After he successfully interprets Pharaoh's dreams, he is dressed in garments of fine linen and has a gold chain placed around his neck. Pharaoh then gives him an Egyptian name, Tzofnat Panayach, and Osnat, the daughter of Potiphera, the High Priest of On, as a wife. Joseph even gives his children names that are critical of his previous life in Canaan and extol life in Egypt. In the end, however, Joseph re-embraces his identity--a true triumph of Joseph's inner spirit.

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Mikeitz-Chanukah 5763-2002

"In Those Days, in These Times"

The story of Joseph may be seen as the saga of an assimilator struggling with his identity, very much paralleling the struggle of the Traditionalists and the Hellenists in the 2nd Century B.C.E. It appears to be an ancient story with an ancient theme. What contemporaries often fail to acknowledge is that a subtle assimilation that is taking place today as well. This powerful force is exacting a heavy toll on our people today, even among some of the most committed Jews. To resist its influence, it is necessary for all to affirm and reaffirm their commitment to the ethics and morality reflected in our Torah. As the honored values of the Jewish past are whittled away by the pernicious values of the contemporary environment, the battle of Chanukah continues today.

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Vayeishev 5763-2002

"Judah Emerges as the Leader of Israel"

As the natural, charismatic leader, Judah's brothers abide by his suggestion to sell Joseph rather than kill him. But now that father Jacob is inconsolable, the brothers blame Judah for their father's misery. Judah has a falling out with his brothers and departs from his household ostensibly renouncing his family connections. He marries a local woman, has three sons, two of whom die after they are married to Tamar. Unknowingly, Judah has a sexual relationship with Tamar who becomes pregnant. After sentencing Tamar to death by burning, Judah, rising to the occasion, admits his guilt and spares Tamar's life. Judah thus becomes the first Ba'al Teshuvah (penitent) and emerges as the leader of Israel.

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Vayishlach 5763-2002

"We Can Forgive the Arabs for Killing Our Children..."

As we delve into the study of Torah, we often find that seemingly insignificant verses in the Torah contain revolutionary insights about life. In 1972, Golda Meir made a widely acclaimed statement: We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can not forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. Who would ever imagine that our commentaries find a similar message in parashat Vayishlach?

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Vayeitzei 5763-2002

"The Transformation of Jacob"

At first glance, Jacob appears to be a congenital deceiver. He takes the birthright from his brother then steals Esau's blessing. Even Isaac describes the taking of the blessing by Jacob as an act of deception. Jacob however undergoes a transformation in which he realizes that evil cannot be deceived, but must be confronted directly. For this reason, Jacob is to be regarded as a particularly exalted figure, for teaching humankind how one is to deal with one's own shortcomings.

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Toledot 5763-2002

"The Deeds of the Fathers are Signposts for the Children"

In parashat Toledot we read for the third time the story of our patriarchs going to Egypt or to Gerar on account of famine. This time it's Isaac and Rebecca, rather than Abraham and Sarah, but the stories are virtually identical to the previous two. The famed Italian Bible scholar, Umberto Cassuto, suggests that this story is a paradigm, and its frequent repetition is predictive of what will happen to the Jewish people in the future. There will be a famine, and the families of the descendants of Abraham and Isaac will leave Canaan and go into exile. The men will be threatened with death, but the women will be allowed to live. Eventually, the people will go out with great wealth.

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Chayei Sara 5763-2002

"The Torah's Recipe for Finding a Proper Mate"

This week's parasha is a primary source from which we learn much about the qualities that one should look for when seeking a mate. The lessons that may be gleaned from our scriptures serve as a sound guide, even for contemporary times. They are not primitive. In fact, in many instances, they are light-years ahead of contemporary practices and understandings.

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Vayeira 5763-2002

"Sodom: The Home of Institutionalized Evil"

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in Sodom? Both the biblical texts and the accompanying Midrashic literature vividly describe the extraordinary evil practiced by people of Sodom, where virtue was declared vice and vice, virtue. Unfortunately, there are elements of Sodom that may be found in aspects of our contemporary society as well. If we are to protect ourselves from these harmful influences, we need to be on the alert and learn to identify those evil aspects.

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Lech Lecha 5763-2002

"The Two Birds of Israel"

The "Covenant Between the Pieces" is full of symbolism regarding the future of the Jewish people. Three 3-year-old animals--a heifer, a goat and a ram--are slaughtered and cut in half. Two birds, a turtledove and a young pigeon, are not cut. The animals, say the rabbis, represent the nations of the world who seek to destroy the Jewish people. The birds, the turtledove and the young pigeon, on the other hand, symbolize the Jews. The animals are split in half, indicating that those nations who attack Israel will ultimately be destroyed. Scripture states that the "bird" is not cut, referring to only a single bird. Why are two birds necessary to represent the Jewish people? We are, after all, one people, not two. And why are the two birds referred to as a single bird?

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Noah 5763-2002

"The Story of Noah, Fact or Fantasy"

It is not at all surprising that many of the ancient near-East documents contain parallel stories of the flood. Perhaps the most famous is the Babylonian flood story known as the "Epic of Gilgamish." And yet, despite the parallels, the stories are profoundly different. While the details regarding the flood are similar, the Bible introduces a profound moral element. In the Biblical version G-d does not simply decide to destroy the world on a whim, but rather does so because of the corruption of the world's inhabitants. The fact that the Biblical story of the flood is not simply about gods who entertain themselves at humankind's expense is what makes the Noah story revolutionary and meaningful.

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Bereshith 5763-2002

"Being Moral in an Increasingly Immoral Environment"

The early chapters of Genesis inform us of the incredible creativity of the descendants of Cain. The great-grandchildren of the world's first murderer become the builders, the ranchers, the musicians and the forgers of metal implements of the ancient world. It is as if the Bible is informing us that the great creative forces emerge from the violent person. What exactly is the message that the Torah is trying to convey?

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Sukkot 5763-2002

"A Sukkah Memory"

Back in the good ol' days of the Bronx, there weren't many religious Jews, and very few private Sukkot. My father, of blessed memory, was not happy with the way the local synagogue had decorated its sukkah, and took it upon himself to redo the decor. The results of his interior decorations surprised everyone.

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Haazinu 5763-2002

"Anniversary of September 11th"

The fact that "9/11" occurred during the Ten Days of Penitence may have been G-d's way of urging us to be more optimistic and upbeat about our faith. Hopefully, the clouds will now begin to disperse and the sun will shine through from behind the vast frightening darkness. Perhaps the glow of redemption is at hand.

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Rosh Hashana 5763-2002

"A Message for the High Holy Days: 'Export, Export!'"

During the period of the Ten Days of Penitence, we need to make our lives more spiritually meaningful. It is during these ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that we must make a particularly strong effort to "export" good deeds and acts of kindness.

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Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5762-2002

"The Promise of Total Return"

It has been said regarding Jewish life in America that our grandparents prayed for a melting pot, but what we've gotten instead is a meltdown! Despite the staggering losses of Jews to assimilation, the Torah in parashat Nitzavim gives us hope for the future. If we are to bring our lost brothers and sisters back, we need to mobilize the community of committed Jews to reach out to the non-committed. For the price of a chicken we can bring a Jew home!

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Kee Tavo 5762-2002

"A Contemporary Interpretation of an Ancient Reproof"

As we read the "Tochacha," the reproof of the people of Israel for their sins in parashat Kee Tavo, it is impossible not to see the evils of contemporary society predicted and fulfilled. G-d begs us to choose life. If we indeed choose life, the tragic predictions of the Torah should never occur. In fact, we can forestall almost all evil by properly educating ourselves and our children to conduct our lives properly, fulfilling our responsibilities to others and to the environment with genuine loving kindness.

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Kee Teitzei 5762-2002

"Transforming an Enemy Into a Friend"

The Torah contains two quite remarkable laws concerning the treatment of animals. In parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn of the law of teh'eenah, that we must help a friend load an animal whose load is falling off. In parasahat Mishpatim, we learn the law of peh'reekah, of helping a friend unload an animal that is falling under its load. From the Talmudic discussion concerning one who is confronted with two animals, one that needs to be loaded and another that needs to be unloaded, we learn some remarkable laws about both animals and human beings.

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Shoftim 5762-2002

"The Torah - The First Environmentalist Treatise"

The Torah's commandment in Genesis to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, "to work the land and to protect it," was humanity's first call for conservation and protecting the environment. This revolutionary message that the Torah introduced 3,300 years ago is as fresh, as vibrant and as green as if it were given today. Many additional revolutionary environmental laws may be found in parashat Shoftim.

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Re’eh 5762-2002

"Changing and Updating Jewish Law"

In parashat Re'eh, we learn about the practice of forgiving debts in the seventh year of the Sabbatical cycle known as shmitat k'safim. However, because of a proclamation known as pruzbul, by Hillel the Elder, the law of forgiving the debts has hardly ever been practiced. How was Hillel able to cancel a law of the Torah through what seem to be legal devices and loopholes?

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Eikev 5762-2002

"Worshiping G-d With All One's Heart"

In this week's parasha we read the verse advising worshipers to pray to G-d with "all their heart." If that's the case, we need spontaneous and emotional prayer, rather than traditional Jewish prayer's fixed and rigid structure. Jewish prayer seems to be bound by so many rules that there is hardly an opportunity for worshipers to express their own personal feelings and needs. And yet, it is the structure and the rigor of the traditional prayer formula that makes certain that our prayers do not become self-centered and entirely focused on only our own needs and desires.

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Va’etchanan-Tisha B’Av 5762-2002

"Loving the Land of Israel"

One of the kinot, the liturgical poems that are read on Tishah B'Av, speaks of the calamity that befell the Jewish communities of the Rhineland, Germany--Worms, Speyer and Mainz (Mayence)--in the year 1096 during the First Crusade. The ArtScroll commentary on this poem throws out a profound challenge to the Jewish people today. Will we rise to the occasion and acknowledge the special gift of the land of Israel, or will we ignore it, and continue to compose elegies for the losses that we sustain?

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Devarim-Tisha B’Av 5762-2002

"Judging our People Favorably"

The powerful words of Isaiah in this week's Haftorah resound today with surprising relevance, as if they were pronounced only yesterday. Despite Isaiah's harsh assessment of the people, we, like the prophet of old, need to look upon the people of Israel and judge them favorably. After all, contemporary Jews face similar challenges to those of the ancients and need to be judged favorably as well.

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Matot-Masei 5762-2002

"Does the Torah Allow Its Citizens to Take the Law Into Their Own Hands?"

In parashat Masei, we encounter the astounding and perplexing law known as Eir Miklat, the City of Refuge. It is to the City of Refuge that an accidental killer must run in order to escape the vengeance of the next of kin, who has the right to kill the perpetrator if he catches him before he enters the city. Does Judaism allow its citizens to take the law into their own hands?

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Pinchas 5762-2002

"Loving the Land of Israel"

In parashat Pinchas we read about the five trail-blazing daughters of Tzelafchad who approach Moses claiming legal rights to their father's property in the land of Israel. The Al-mighty rewards the women's passionate commitment to Israel by declaring that the daughters shall inherit their father's land. How does Tzelafchad's daughters' great love of Zion compare with contemporary Jewry's, at best, casual commitment to the State of Israel?

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Chukat-Balak 5762-2002

"The Paradox of the Red Heifer"

In the first of this week's two parashiot, parashat Chukat, we read of the paradox of the Red Heifer whose ashes were used to purify those who were ritually contaminated. The Red Heifer rendered those who were impure, pure, and those that were pure, impure. Perhaps it is teaching us that there is a significant price to pay for trying to improve others. But, we must be prepared to pay that price. It is, after all, the only way to achieve ultimate perfection.

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Korach 5762-2002

"The Origin of the Big Lie"

According to the Midrash, Korach was a brilliant provocateur who was able to convince the hordes to believe that he was rebelling for the sake of the common folk, instead of for his own personal benefit. By drawing a distorted caricature of the mitzvot of the Torah, Korach was able to convince the people that Moses and Aaron were personally benefitting from the mitzvot and observances that they were advocating.

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Shelach 5762-2002

"What's in a Name?"

Unexpectedly, the Torah spells out the names of each of the twelve leaders who were sent to represent their tribes and scout out the land of Israel. However, when we compare the names of these individuals with the names of the princes who were selected in Numbers Chapter 1 to help Moses count the tribes, we see something rather startling. The names of the princes are far more complex, and contain many more symbolisms. They are substantial names for substantial people. The names of the scouts on the other hand are very short. The names of the princes have many references to G-d. The names of the scouts have few references to G-d. What is the message that the names communicate?

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