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Emor: The Holiness of Humanness

This week the Modern Orthodox world lost one of our gedolim, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, z”l.  Rabbi Rabinovitch served as Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe (Ma’aleh Adumim) and authored many important works on Halacha and Jewish thought.  The following story was shared by Rabbi Rabinovitch’s son at the funeral:

Early in his career Rabbi Rabinovitch was the rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina where he founded a Jewish day school.  He once met a rabbinic friend from New York who was visiting, who asked Rabbi Rabinovitch about his activities, and what he was teaching in South Carolina. “Aleph bet” responded Rav Rabinovitch. “Oy vey,” his friend said. “That’s the American rabbinate.”
“Perhaps,” answered Rav Rabinovitch. “Maybe it’s beneath my dignity to teach aleph bet. Maybe it’s not like teaching gemara in depth with all the rishonim. But I can tell you this: When I teach aleph bet I am teaching the truth of Torah (Torat Emet). And Torat Emet has the power to create a revolution!”

I share this story not only is this story a powerful illustration of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s leadership, compassion and love of Klal Yisrael, but because I think it highlights a key theme of Parshat Emor.  The parsha opens with the prohibition against kohanim becoming ritually impure by coming into contact with the dead:
The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. (Vayikra 21:1-3)

Yet the Torah says that the Kohanim may defile themselves upon the loss of a close relative.  Lest anyone think that this is optional, Rashi quotes the Gemara in Yevamot 60a that when it comes to the immediate relatives listed above, it is a mitzvah for the kohen to mourn and become tameh.  There are many who assume that the idea of holiness requires us to overcome our basic human desires and emotions in order to supplicate ourselves to God’s will.  The requirement of a Kohen to mourn his relatives stands in stark contrast to such an idea.  As Rav Yehuda Amital z”l explains: “The Torah teaches us that sanctity specifically means connection to reality and proper behavior within its boundaries. Thus even the kohanim, holy people, must not ignore their healthy, natural emotions; they are required to defile themselves for relatives who have died” (

The Torah’s restrictions on kohanim participating in mourning highlights two issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The first is the inability to participate in conventional mourning practices.  In addition to the technical reasons precluding a kohen from becoming tameh, I believe there is a great spiritual lesson as well.  The Kohanim must still participate in the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (comforting the mourners); as the spiritual and religious leaders of the nation they must provide pastoral comfort during times of crisis.  The prohibition against attending funerals or participating in burial thus places a greater responsibility on the kohanim to show empathy and attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of those in mourning.  In a sense we have all assumed the role of Kohanim in this period of physical distancing.  We are unable to follow the normal protocols of how we provide comfort for friends and members of the community who have experienced loss or are in crisis.  The challenge of our time is to rise the occasion and find ways to express our empathy and compassion from afar.

The second issue highlighted by the Parsha is the tension between communal and personal responsibilities.  It should be noted that while most Kohanim are obligated to cast aside their communal responsibilities and mourn fully for their immediate relatives, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) may not become impure for any relative:
The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not bare his head or rend his vestments.  He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. (Vayikra 21:10-11)

There are times when our communal responsibilities preclude us from meeting our personal responsibilities.  This is a tension that is felt in so many areas of life and has been highlighted under our current situation, especially as we are beginning to see a push to “reopen.”  We all must recognize our responsibility toward broader society and do our part to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus.  A special appreciation goes to all of the medical professionals, first responders and other essential workers whose communal and professional responsibilities are especially burdensome at this time and who have gone to heroic efforts on behalf of all of us.

I began this d’var Torah by citing a story of Rabbi Rabinovitch, one of the greatest Rabbinic minds of our generation, and his commitment to Torat Emet – the Truth of Torah.  The Torah’s instructions to the Kohanim at the beginning of our parsha is another illustration of the Truth of Torah.  Torah demands of us that we never lose site of our humanity and that we remain attentive to our physical, psychological and emotional needs.  The Torah demands that develop the capacity to empathize with others – especially when offering physical comfort is not possible.  And the Torah demands of us that we appropriately navigate our responsibilities to the community with our personal responsibilities.  Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Shemini — The Chase: Lessons From Aaron in Peace and Happiness

The hero of the parsha, at least the first half of the Parsha is Aharon.   

There is a tension  and seeming contradiction in the portrayal of Aaron in Parshat Shemin.  On one hand Aaron is portrayed as having self-doubt.  In pasuk 9:7, Moshe instructs Aaron to “come close to the alter” קרב אל המזבח and give his sacrifices.  Rashi quotes the Sifra which asks why Moshe must use the verb “kerav” approach, or come close.  Rashi writes,  

שהיה אהרן בוש וירא לגשת. אמר לו משה למה אתה בוש, לכך נבחרת: 

 “Since Aaron was ashamed and afraid to approach, Moshe said to him: Why are you ashamed?  It is for this that you were chosen.” 

 Aaron was ashamed to perform his duties.  He lacked confidence in himself to do that for which he was chosen. He had feelings of inadequacy.   

Rashi explains that Aaron’s doubt came from the fact that the leaders of the community questioned Aaron’s fitfulness as Kohen Gadol.  Ramban explains that Aaron was ashamed from the sin of the golden calf.   

 A related theme also found in the parsha – that of submission.  This theme is first seen in the death of Nadav and Avihu.   

The theme of submission is continued in Aaron’s dealing with the death of his sons.  Aaron’s response to Moshe’s explanation of their death is vayidom Aharon.  Aaron was silent.  The Rashbam explains 

וידום אהרן – מאבילותו ולא בכה ולא התאבל, שכן כת’ ביחזקאל בן אדם הנני לוקח ממך את מחמד עיניך במגפה וגו’ האנק דום מתים אבל לא תעשה, אף כאן וידום ממה שהיה רוצה להתאבל ולבכות.  

Aaron was silent – from his mourning.  He did not cry and did not mourn as it says in Ezekiel:    Son of man, behold, I take away from thee the desire of thine eyes with a stroke;… Sigh in silence; make no mourning for the dead…Here too he was silent from his desire to mourn and cry.   

Aaron wanted to mourn his sons, but he was not allowed to.  He had to submit his will and accept God’s punishment.  Similar explanations of this verse say that Aaron wanted to complain to God, to question God, about why his sons had to die.  But after Moshe’s explanation – vayidom Aharon.  He submitted himself to the divine retribution.  He wanted to cry out against it but didn’t. 

 The second theme found in Shemini’s portrayal of Aaron is exactly the opposite of submission.  It is self-assertion and autonomy.  After offering the sacrifices for himself and for the nation, the Torah tells us in 9:22 

יִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת ידו יָדָיו אֶל הָעָם וַיְבָרְכֵם 

“Aaron lifted his hands to the nation and he blessed them, and he descended from having done the sin offer, elevation offering and peace offering.” 

 Ramban maintains that Aaron’s blessing was spontaneous and personal.   As Ramban explains,  

 “this blessing that Aaron blessed the people came from himself and is unknown, and the Torah did not specify for us what it is…” 

 In direct contradistinction to the theme of submission, we see here that Aaron was assertive, creative and confident.  He blessed the people of his own volition.  We can only assume that the Torah sees this in a positive light because it tells us of no punishment. 

 We see then that there is a tension in the Torah’s portrayal of Aaron.  On the one hand he lacks confidence, feels inadequate and submits to God completely.  On the other hand he is assertive, confident and spontaneous.   

 I believe that we can use this to explain a well known Mishnah in Pirkei Avot.   

Pirkei Avot 1:12 משנה מסכת אבות פרק א:יב 

 [יב] הלל ושמאי קבלו מהם הלל אומר הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה:   

Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them.  Hilllel says:  Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, and pursuing peace, loved people and bring them closer to the Torah.  The mishna is generally understood to mean that we should be over-zealous in achieving peace.  The line “pursue peace” is often explained with the following story of Aaron.  When Aaron heard that two people were in a fight, call them A and B, he would approach A and tell him that B wanted to make amends with him.  Aaron would also go to B and tell him that A wanted to make amends with him, despite the fact that neither of them had ever expressed such an interest.  The two men would meet and realize how silly their argument had been.  Even though neither of them had expressed any interest in making up, they ultimately did make up. 

In light of the analysis of Aaron presented above, I believe that the Mishna can be understood in a new way.  When Hillel teaches “Be like the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love all creatures and bring them close to Torah” it could be that the peace of which the Mishna talks is not peace between two fighting people, but is inner-peace in a religious/spiritual sense.  The reason the mishna says to pursue this peace, is that like all things which one pursues, it is elusive.  One can never fully achieve inner peace in a religious realm because it necessarily entails living with these two contradictory ethos – that of submission and that of self-assertion.  Thus Hillel was aware of the tension with which Aaron struggled and is telling all generations that to live as Jews means to live with this tension. 

We too must be able to maintain a clear vision – and pursuit – of our ideals while being realistic about the world around us, when it comes to Israel and all other areas of life. 

Korban Todah, Pesach and Coronavirus

This week’s parsha, Tzav, contains the description of the Korban Todah (Thanksgiving offering).  This sacrifice is the basis for the recitation of Birkat ha-Gomel, which we have been learning about in our pre-davening shiur.  Birkat ha-Gomel is recited as an expression of gratitude for one who has survived a dangerous experience.  The gemara (Brachot 54b) lists four types of people who must give a Korban Todah and by extension recite Birkat ha-Gomel: one who crosses the sea, one who crosses a desert/wilderness, one who was ill and healed, and one who was confined in jail and was freed.  It is interesting that Parshat Tzav often coincides with Shabbat haGadol (the Shabbat before Pesach).  I once heard a provocative suggestion that the four cups of the Seder represent the four categories of people who must recite ha-Gomel.  This is a powerful reminder that on the Seder night we are obligated to see ourselves as if we personally experienced the Exodus and redemption from Egypt.  We joyously drink wine to express our gratitude for having been saved from perils of Egypt.

Nechama Leibowitz brings a fascinating insight from R. Josiah b. Joseph Pinto regarding the Korban Todah and birkat ha-Gomel.  The Gemara does not say that there are four types of people who are OBLIGATED (chayav) to offer thanks.  Rather it uses the phrase tzrichin from the root tzarich (to need).  The term chayav (obligated) implies a there is a religious obligation to bring the sacrifice or recite the blessing.  The term tzarich, on the other hand, indicates an inner urge to thank God – not out of a sense of obligation, but out of sincere gratitude.  We have to feel the need to offer thanks.  This echoes beautifully with the dayeinu song from the Seder.  Dayeinu shows that we express gratitude for each step of redemption and for each kindness done for us, even if the redemption was not yet complete.  The meaning of dayeinu, which we repeat after each line is “it would have been enough reason for us to express our gratitude to Hashem.”

Had God brought us out of Egypt…but not split the sea, it would have been enough! 

Had God brought us to Mt. Sinai but not given us the Torah it would have been enough!

We understand that until the splitting of the sea we were not safe from the Egyptians.  Gathering at Mt. Sinai without the giving of the Torah seems like it would be missing the point.  Yet we are told that for each step of the process we should be thankful.  It is possible, and even desirable to express gratitude even while suffering.

As we enter another Shabbos distanced from our community and prepare for Pesach without our family, friends and neighbors we are certainly justified in feeling sad and disappointed.  But even as our world has been turned upside down, we have much to be thankful for as well.  That is the message of this Shabbos and this Pesach.  We should all be able to recognize the many blessings in our life and to feel truly grateful for them.

Holding Back

This week we conclude Sefer Shemot and with it the Torah’s prolonged description of the Mishkan.  Toward the end of the Parsha, as the work on the Mishkan is complete, there is a seeming redundancy in the Torah that bothers many of the commentators.  In Shemot 39:32 we read, All the work of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed, and the Children of Israel had done everything that Hashem commanded Moses, so did they do.  The pasuk  seems to repeat itself – if they did “everything that Hashem commanded,” then what is added by the phrase “so did they do”? 

The Netziv offers a fascinating explanation of the significance of the phrase.  He explains that because the Jewish people had such an intense desire for the Divine Presence to reside in their midst, they may have done more than was required or expected of them.  The Torah therefore emphasizes that they “’did everything that Hashem commanded…so they did’ – and “not a jot more.”  Part of the greatness of B’nei Yisrael’s participation in the construction of the Mishkan was their capacity to restrain themselves and their spiritual yearnings to accord with Hashem’s desires.   

In this regard, we must contrast B’nei Yisrael here with the Torah’s description of Nadav and Avihu in their efforts to consecrate the Mishkan on its first day of operation.  We know that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they “offered strange fire before HaShem, which He had not commanded them” (Vayikra 10:1).  The Ohr ha-Chaim understands their death as resulting from their efforts to seek out closeness to God and a spiritual experience that was beyond the scope of Hashem’s intentions.  As he writes: “We are thus taught to reject the notion of a violent bid for closeness to the Divine even at life’s expense.  This occurs when man has set his heart and soul on the attainment of a goal even if it entails the loss of one’s life.” 

Nadav and Avihu could not control their personal spiritual yearnings and acted in a way counter to what Hashem had desired.  For this they were killed.  B’nei Yisrael, on the other hand were able to control themselves and channel their spiritual yearnings to meet God’s commandments.  There is a danger of allowing one’s sincere spiritual yearnings to cause that person to act selfishly.  It is key to remember that true Jewish spirituality is to follow the ratzon Hashem – the will of God – even if it runs counter to our personal intuitions.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes about Nadav and Avihu: “There is no room for any subjective discretion in any part of the sacrificial service in the sanctuary.  Precise limits and forms are prescribed even for the free-will offerings which must be strictly adhered to.  The closeness of and approach to God, which we seek with every offering may only be found through obedience and acceptance of God’s will.”   

As we prepare for a second Shabbat of social isolation and the inability to be in shul with our community, the message of the Mishkan is especially resonant.  We have a strong desire to connect with Hashem and with our holy tzibur.  Sometimes that requires us to hold back and refrain from doing that which might bring immediate emotional or personal satisfaction.  It is hard to believe that Hashem truly wants us to stay home and daven without a minyan, miss kriyat ha-Torah or to spend Shabbos alone.  But the Torah’s message is that we must be able to hold back and show restraint when that is demanded of us.  The Mishkan was the precursor of the Beit ha-Mikdash.  The Beit ha-Mikdash in turn is the paradigm for our modern day shuls, which are called mikdash me’at (mini-Temples).   In the interest of the health an wellbeing of our members, our community and the broader society our task this week is to show restraint by holding back from our normal Shabbos observance.  In doing so we are living the lesson of this week’s parsha and internalizing the message of the Mishkan.  Shabbat Shalom.


Ki Tisa, Parshat Parah and Coronavirus

It is with a heavy heart that I write this d’var Torah having just come to the difficult decision along with the shul’s board to close Netivot Shalom this coming Shabbos.  This week more than others was to be a bridge of the personal and professional for me and my family.  We were scheduled to sponsor kidush and my plan was to make a siyum to mark my mother’s 10th yarzheit, Sarajane Kaplowitz שרה לאה בת נחמן דוד ושינדל.  Instead, I find myself preparing for a Shabbos at home and the likelihood that I will not be able to say kaddish this on motzei Shabbos/Sunday.   

 Though we will not come together as a community to read Parshat Ki Tisa and the special maftir of Parshat Parah, we will all be experiencing its message.   

 Parshat Parah describes the mitzvah of the parah adumah (red heifer) by which during the times of the Beit ha-Mikdash a person who had become tameh (impure) through contact with a dead body would become tahor (pure).  The parah adumah is the greatest example of a chok – a mitzvah for which there is no rational explanation.  Not only do we not understand how the ashes of a red heifer can render an impure person pure.  The parah adumah has the ironic trait of purifying those who are impure while defiling those who are pure.  The Gemara and Midrashic literature cite a pasuk from Kohelet (7:23) in association with the parah adumah: אָמַ֣רְתִּי אֶחְכָּ֔מָה וְהִ֖יא רְחוֹקָ֥ה מִמֶּֽנִּי׃  I said: ‘I will get wisdom’; but it was far from me.  The message is that even King Solomon, considered to be the wisest of all men and the author of Kohelet could not make sense of this mitzvah.   

 The mystery of the parah adumah amplifies a theme found in Parshat Ki Tisa in which we read of the chet ha-egel, the sin of the golden calf.  Many of us are familiar with Rashi’s explanation of the chet ha-egel.  The Torah introduces the episode with the following (Shemot 32:1): 

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ׃  

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” 

Rashi explains, based on Shabbat 89a, that they miscalculated the expected time for Moshe to return to the camp from Mt. Sinai.  When Moshe did not come back when they thought he was due, the nation assumed that Moshe had been killed and “Confusion has come to the world.”  They made the golden calf as  form of idolatry meant to restore order to a world gone awry.  In this understanding, the people had a carefully plotted out script for how things were supposed to unfold. As soon as  things went off script they panicked.  The fear of the unknown and the unprecedented overcame them.  The fear of the unknown and of life having gone WAY off script is certainly something that we can relate to as we are living through unprecedented times in light of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.   

 But there is an alternative lesson to be learned a little later in our parsha.  In the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, including Moshe’s shattering of the tablets and the Torah’s description of the Levites meting out punishment, we read of Moshe’s pleading with God on behalf of the Jewish people.  Once Hashem assures him that the people are forgiven, we read of Moshe’s most intimate and intense moment of spirituality and revelation.  Moshe turns to Hashem and begs (33:13) 

וְעַתָּ֡ה אִם־נָא֩ מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֜ן בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ הוֹדִעֵ֤נִי נָא֙ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֔ךָ וְאֵדָ֣עֲךָ֔ לְמַ֥עַן אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ וּרְאֵ֕ה כִּ֥י עַמְּךָ֖ הַגּ֥וֹי הַזֶּֽה׃  

Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.” 

According to the Gemara Berachot 7a, at this moment of deep personal revelation and intimacy, Moshe asked Hashem to explain the problem of theodicy (why do bad things happen to good people 

בִּקֵּשׁ לְהוֹדִיעוֹ דְּרָכָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְנָתַן לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הוֹדִיעֵנִי נָא אֶת דְּרָכֶיךָ״, אָמַר לְפָנָיו: רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם! מִפְּנֵי מָה יֵשׁ צַדִּיק וְטוֹב לוֹ, וְיֵשׁ צַדִּיק וְרַע לוֹ, יֵשׁ רָשָׁע וְטוֹב לוֹ, וְיֵשׁ רָשָׁע וְרַע לוֹ? אָמַר לוֹ: מֹשֶׁה, צַדִּיק וְטוֹב לוֹ — צַדִּיק בֶּן צַדִּיק. צַדִּיק וְרַע לוֹ — צַדִּיק בֶּן רָשָׁע. רָשָׁע וְטוֹב לוֹ — רָשָׁע בֶּן צַדִּיק. רָשָׁע וְרַע לוֹ — רָשָׁע בֶּן רָשָׁע 

Moses requested that the ways in which God conducts the world be revealed to him, and He granted it to him, as it is stated: “Show me Your ways and I will know You” (Exodus 33:13).
Moses said before God: Master of the Universe. Why is it that the righteous prosper, the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, the wicked suffer? 
God said to him: Moses, the righteous person who prospers is a righteous person, the son of a righteous person, who is rewarded for the actions of his ancestors. The righteous person who suffers is a righteous person, the son of a wicked person, who is punished for the transgressions of his ancestors. The wicked person who prospers is a wicked person, the son of a righteous person, who is rewarded for the actions of his ancestors. The wicked person who suffers is a wicked person, the son of a wicked person, who is punished for the transgressions of his ancestors. 

The Gemara struggles with God’s response and reports that according to Rabbi Meir, Hashem does not answer Moshe’s question.  Rather  

״וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָחוֹן״ — אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵינוֹ הָגוּן, ״וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם״ — אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵינוֹ הָגוּן. 

“And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19); in His mercy, God bestows His grace upon every person, even though he is not worthy. Similarly, God says: “And I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy,” even though he is not worthy. 

Ultimately, the question of theodicy is a case where the question is much stronger than any answer that can be offered. 

 The parah adumah and the revelation to Moshe stand in stark contrast to the reaction of B’nei Yisrael when they thought Moshe had been killed.  When life goes off script and we must deal with unprecedented situations it is okay to ask questions and to press for explanations.  A key tenet of Judaism is to ask deep and difficult questions and attempt to make sense of the world.  At the same time, we must ultimately follows God’s command even if we don’t fully understand.   

 As we all struggle to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic and figure out how to navigate these uncharted waters, we must do so with the humility with the humility that we may not understand how or why any of this is happening.  The precautionary measures being put in place by our shuls, schools, and authorities may seem extreme.  But that does not give us license to take matters into our own hands or to ignore their directives. 

 The topic of theodicy, justice and asking questions is one that I come back to a lot as I reflect on my mother’s yarzheit.  Certainly, there is no sense of justice or fairness in the fact that she died at the age of 61 after suffering terribly from breast cancer, without having the chance to meet Matan and Oshra.  As I think of all that has happened in the past 10 years I also think of what could have been had Mom been around.  It would be easy to despair or be angry at the world and at God for the loss.  But that is not what Mom would have wanted.  Mom was the calming force in our family, the one able to navigate us all through a crisis when life went off script. 

 There’s one more lesson from the chet ha-egel that resonates as I reflect on the yarzheit and that speaks to all of us as we confront Coronavirus/COVID-19.  When Moshe comes down from Mt. Sinai, carrying the luchot (Tablets of the Ten Commandments) and he sees B’nei Yisrael dancing around the golden calf, he breaks the Tablets. 

שמות פרשת כי תשא פרק לב
יטוַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף מֹשֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מידו מִיָּדָיו אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר: 

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf they had crafted and their exuberant dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.  (Ex. 32:19) 

The Midrash offers an insight into Moehs’ thinking at that decisive moment: 

Midrash Shemot Raba 46 

I saw, and behold you had sinned to the Lord your God (Deut. 9:16) — Moses saw that the Children of Israel had nothing to stand upon.  He attached his soul/fate with them and shattered the tablets.  He said to the Holy One Blessed is He:  “they sinned and I have sinned by shattering the tablets.  If You forgive them then you have to forgive me, as it says, if You will forgive their sin [well and good] (Ex. 32:34).  If You will not forgive them, then do not forgive me either, rather erase me from the Torah.   

The Sfat Emet, R. Yehudah Leib Alter, the Second Rebbe in the Gur dynasty elaborates on the Midrash.   

Moshe attached himself to the nation and refused to be separate from them.  שהי‘ חביב אצלו כללות בני מהלוחות— His attachment to the Children of Israel was more precious to him than the לוחותtablets).   

What was Moshe’s act of heroism?  During a time of crisis he left the comfort and security of a life of pure Torah and spirituality to join together with the people.   

Moshe’s pleas on behalf of the Jewish people were not simply to save them from the face of danger.  Rather it was based on a principled request stemming from Moshe’s commitment to K’lal Yisrael (the Jewish people).    As we face the reality of not davening with a minyan or attending shiurim, of our children’s education being disrupted and of not being able to join with friends, our personal spiritual lives will be greatly impacted.  We face unprecedented challenges.  Yet we willingly accept these limitations because of the deep love and concern we have for our friends, family and the broader community.  As news of the virus spreads, our first thoughts are naturally about how we can protect ourselves and our family.  But we are also cognizant of not wanting to expose others – especially those who are most vulnerable –  to the germs and virus that we might be carrying.  Our religious and spiritual lives must be informed by a sensitivity to others around us.  We cannot live in a personal  bubble oblivious or insensitive to those around us.  I have shared previously that this is one of the fundamental lessons Mom taught me.  She did not grow up in a religious home, and every time we got together with the extended family much thought and preparation went into coordinating the logisitics of kashrut, Shabbos, etc.  But the message was always that being with the family was most important and we would figure things out.  The sensitivity to the world around us and love for our fellow brothers and sisters was a core lesson that Mom instilled in me and is one that will help us all to survive and even thrive during these chaotic, unscripted times.   

Good Shabbos. 

Avraham’s Legacy of Chesed

Good Yom Tov.

I recently read a fascinating book – Sin-a-Gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought by Rabbi  David Bashevkin.

In it he tells a great story about Rav Yizchak  Hutner:

Rav Hutner learned in Slabodka; the Rosh Yeshiva was R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka – Richard and Marcia’s grandson is named for him.  One morning, the Alter found Rav Hutner learning by himself while all the other students were paired off in Chavuta.  He asked Rav Hutner where his chavruta is.  Rav Huner responded: “I’m learning with my yetzer ha-rah, my evil inclination.”  The Alter of Slabodka asked, “Why don’t you learn with you yetzer tov¸ good inclination, instead?”  To which Rav Hutner answered back, “I can always count on my yetzer ha-ra to show up to morning seder on time.  The yetzer tov is not as reliable.”

I wanted to share an idea of Rav Hutner’s that is appropriate for Yizkor and the transition to Simchat Torah.

The Gemara in Ketuvot 8b states the following:

א”ל קום אימא מלתא כנגד מנחמי אבלים פתח ואמר אחינו גומלי חסדים בני גומלי חסדים המחזיקים בבריתו של אברהם אבינו (שנאמר (בראשית יח, יט) כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו וגו’) אחינו בעל הגמול ישלם לכם גמולכם ברוך אתה משלם הגמול

Reish Lakish said to the disseminator: Stand and say a statement with regard to those who comfort the mourners. He began and said: Our brothers, bestowers of loving-kindness, sons of bestowers of loving-kindness, who embrace the covenant of Abraham our Patriarch, as it is stated: “For I know him, that he will command his children…to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). Our brothers, may the Master of reward pay you your just deserts. Blessed are You, Lord, Who pays the just deserts.

 This is brought להלכה by the Rambam in הלכות מתנות עניים י:א

א) חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית יח יט) “כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו” (בראשית יח יט) “לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה”.

We must be especially careful to observe the mitzvah of tzedakah, more so than any other positive mitzvah, for tzedakah is a sign of the righteous [tzadik] lineage of Abraham, our father, as it is said, (Genesis 18:19) For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity [to keep the way of the LORD] by doing what is just [tzedakah].

But Rav Hutner raises a question.  In the פירוש המשניות the Rambam establishes a key principle:

ושים לבך על העיקר הגדול הנכלל במשנה הזאת והוא מה שאמר מסיני נאסר לפי שאתה הראית לדעת שכל מה שאנו מרחיקים או עושים היום אין אנו עושין אלא במצות הקב”ה ע”י משה רבינו ע”ה לא שהקב”ה אמר זה לנביאים שלפניו

Pay attention to the important principle included in this Mishnah.  Namely, when it says “it was ordained at Sinai” since you have been shown to make known that all that we distance ourselves from, or what we do today, we do only because of God’s commandments to Moshe and not because God told it to earlier prophets.

If this is the case, then how does the Rambam base the mitzvah of tzedakah on the directive to Avraham?

Rav Hutner asks another question on this Gemara in a different מאמר:

Avraham is identified as אבינו, our forefather because of his commitment to חסד.  This seems to be different than the אבהות – forefatherliness – of Yitzchak who bequeathed us the attribute of פחד or יראה.

Rav Hutner explains that there are two types of attributes which we can receive from our Avot.  The first is in the DNA.  It’s either a physical trait or an attribute that is passed down in a natural process.

The second is one which the Av actively seeks to pass it down.  When it comes to Yitzchak’s midah of awe, it is something that was in his DNA.  Avraham’s attachment to Chesed is something that he actively sought to pass on.

The significance of the Gemara is not that Avraham was our forefather and therefore bequeathed us the attribute of Kindness.  Rather it is because Avraham had a deep attachment to חסד and a desire to bequeath it to his descendants that he became our forefather.

Similarly, he explains that the Rambam justifies the requirement for Chesed because of Avraham’s commitment to Chesed by explaining that the obligation for Mitzvot comes only from Hashem at Har Sinai.  But attributes do not come from Sinai.  The Gemara’s and Rambam’s explanation that we should be committed to tzedakah because of Avraham is because of the מדה of Chesed and not the Mitzvah of Chesed.

One of pesukim that figures prominently in Simchat Torah (Devarim 33:14):

תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב:

When Moses charged us with the Torah/ As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.

The Chizkuni comments:

סרסהו:  תורה צוה לנו משה להיות מורשה לנו קהלת יעקב.

‘תורה צוה לנו משה וגו, this verse appears in a truncated mode and should by rights read: תורה צוה לנו משה להיותה מורשה לנו קהלת יעקב, ”Moses commanded us this Torah in order for it to become a heritage to the congregation of Yaakov.”

In other words, we have to take ownership over the Torah and make it the heritage/legacy.  We must pass Torah on in the same way Avraham passed on the midah of chesed.

Finally, an insight of the Sefat Emet

ואמרו חז”ל אל תקרי מורשה אלא מאורשה ככלה לחתן ושניהם אמת. כי באמת התורה מתנה בנפשות בנ”י אבל כפי תיקון האדם כך מתחדש לו אור התורה.

 [The verse continues: An inheritance for the community of Jacob]  The sages said:  Do not read it as “inheritance” [morasha] but rather as “betrothed” [me’orasah], like a bride to her bridegroom.  Both readings are correct.  Torah really is a gift within the souls of Israel, but it is only as the person prepares himself that the light of Torah is renewed for him.

And the comment by Prof. Art Green:

Here he warns against those who view Torah only as an “inheritance,” something to be passed on unchanged to the next generation.  Such a Torah will indeed have “strength” the power to protect Jewish existence, but it will be without “light” the true purpose for which Torah was given…“Preserving the tradition” is not an end in itself, but only a means to making God’s light shine forth through it.

As we prepare to say yizkor, we reflect on both the passive traits that we have received from our loved ones.  Those physical, emotional and spiritual traits that were part of their DNA.  But we also reflect and appreciate those traits and values that they consciously and deliberately sought to pass on to us.

We too should reflect on what are those values and traits that we seek to pass on to our children and grandchildren.


Yom Kippur 5780 – Space Dreams

In reflecting back on the past year, 5779, I would like to invite you all to join me in remembering April 11, 2019.  I’m not sure the date will immediately mean anything to you.  It is the day that the Beresheet Moon Lander was scheduled to land on the moon.  Like many of you, I watched excitedly from my computer at work as the mission was being live-broadcast.  Up until that moment I had not been fully invested in Beresheet or its mission.  I was not sure what to make of it But at the moment when Beresheet sent a Selfie back to earth, I was all in –  overcome by a sense of awe, inspiration and pride.  A few minutes later as the screen went blank for a few seconds and it became clear that there were communication issues, my heart sunk.  And when word was given that the mission had failed my heart broke.

As the emotional roller coaster continued, the immediate commitment to return to the moon and to see the mission through to completion was remarkable.

In the aftermath of the Beresheet failure, a fascinating speech made the rounds.  The speech, thankfully, was never delivered and had to be dug out of the National Archives.  It was written by William Safire on behalf of President Nixon in anticipation of the Apollo 11 moon landing in the event that that mission failed.  The short speech reads in part:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice…

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

(For the full speech see

50 years later, the sentiment remains true.  Even in failure, space exploration inspires great dreams.

The Yom Kippur davening is an exercise in imagination.  Tomorrow, the centerpiece of the Musaf davening is the Chazan’s telling of the avodah – the service of the Kohen Gadol in the  Beit haMikdash.  dAccording to the summary found in our Machzorim there were 42 steps in the Kohen Gadol’s avodah and we go over each one of them.

  • The kohen gadol immersed in the mikvah 5 times
  • The details of changing his clothing multiple times from the white clothes בגדי לבן to the בגדי זהב golden vestments
  • We are right there with the Chazan, and the Chazan as we recollect the sprinkling of the blood

וְכַךְ הָיָה מוֹנֶה. אַחַת. אַחַת וְאַחַת. אַחַת וּשְׁתַּֽיִם. אַחַת וְשָׁלשׁ. אַחַת וְאַרְבַּע. אַחַת וְחָמֵשׁ. אַחַת וָשֵׁשׁ. אַחַת וָשֶֽׁבַע:

Each time he sprinkled, he counted aloud. One and two; One and three; One and four; One and five; One and six; One and seven.

  • As the Chazan comes to each of the three times that he said ודוי confession, we are transported to the Beit haMikdash. And as the Machzor recalls the reaction of the congregation assembled in the Beit haMikdash holding their collective breath as the Kohen Gadol recites the ודוי (confession) and the שם המפורש (God’s Ineffable Name) from the קודש קדשים (Holy of Holies)

וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהָעָם הָעוֹמְדִים בָּעֲזָרָה. כְּשֶׁהָיוּ שׁוֹמְעִים אֶת הַשֵּׁם הַנִּכְבָּד וְהַנּוֹרָא מְפֹרָשׁ יוֹצֵא מִפִּי כֹהֵן גָּדוֹל בִּקְדֻשָּׁה וּבְטָהֳרָה. הָיוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמוֹדִים וְנוֹפְלִים עַל פְּנֵיהֶם. וְאוֹמְרִים בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד:

And the priests and the people who were standing in the Temple Courtyard; when they heard the glorious and awesome Name [of God] explicitly pronounced from the mouth of the High Priest, with holiness and with purity, they bowed, prostrated themselves, offered thanks, and fell upon their faces, and said: “Blessed [is His] Name, His glorious kingdom is forever and ever.”

We too fall on our faces and call out ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד.

The avodah ends with image of the Kohen Gadol successfully exiting the קדש קדשים without injury.  He would make a yom tov – a holiday, a feast – for all his loved ones.  The machzor then tells us the prayer he would recite upon exiting and we then break into the glorious song of  מראה כהן (mareh Cohen).

If we allow ourselves to truly feel it, to truly be in the moment then it is as if we are there.

Our recollection of the avodah service during Musaf is not just a memory of the past; it is our collective dream for the future.  One day we will once again observe Yom Kippur in the Beit ha-Mikdash, with the Kohen Gadol performing the avodah ceremony.  And all together we break into song –

אמת מה נהדר היה כהן גדול בצאתו מבית קדשי הקדשים בשלום בלי פגע

True!  How majestic was the kohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies in peace, without injury.

As we sing this song and celebrate our completion of the avodah, we can almost picture the kohen gadol emerging from the Holy of Holies.  We can almost place ourselves there.

[I cannot speak of the imagined reality we are meant to feel during the avodah without mentioning the truly amazing song by Yishai Ribo, Seder haAvodah  that has taken the Jewish world by storm (; for a wonderful analysis of the song, see  Ribo is able to so vividly imagine the drama of the day as he puts himself in the mind of the Kohen Gadol performing the avodah.]

It is not just in regards to the Yom Kippur davening that we need to exercise our creative imagination.  The basic premise of Teshuva is that we are capable of change.

We first have to be able to imagine ourselves as a changed person.

The Gemara (49b) introduces the idea of הרהורי תשובה, thoughts of Teshuvah.

על מנת שאני צדיק אפילו רשע גמור מקודשת שמא הרהר תשובה בדעתו

If a man proposes, “Marry me on condition that I am a tzaddik,” then even if he is fully wicked, she is married; perhaps thought of teshuvah in his mind

Rav Kook further develops this idea (Orot haTeshuva 7:3-4):

על ידי הרהורי תשובה שומע האדם קול ד’ הקורא עליו מתוך התורה, ומתוך כל רגשי הלב, מתוך העולם ומלואו וכל אשר בם… הרהורי התשובה הם הם מגלים את עומק הרצון, והגבורה של הנשמה מתגלה על ידם בכל מילוי הודה, ולפי גדלה של התשובה כך היא מדת החירות שלה.

Via thoughts of teshuvah, one hears the voice of G-d calling to him from within the Torah, from within his heart’s emotions, from within the world, its fullness and all therein… Thoughts of teshuvah reveal the depth of one’s desire, and the strength of the soul is revealed in all of its glory through those thoughts. The greater the thought of teshuvah, the greater its liberation.

The effect of not being able to imagine a new reality, is seen powerfully in the story of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt.  At the beginning of Parshat Va’era (Exodus ch. 6), Hashem appears to Moshe and reminds him that Hashem has made a promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov to take B’nei Yisrael out of slavery and return them to the land of Canaan.

(ו) לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י ה’ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ (ז) וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹקִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה’ אֱלֹ֣קֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (ח) וְהֵבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י ה’׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (7) And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. (8) I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.”

What is B’nei Yisrael’s response?

 (ט) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃ (פ)

(9) But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

The Ohr haChaim (Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar,1696-1743, Morocco) explains:

מקצר רוח. אולי כי לצד שלא היו בני תורה לא שמעו, ולזה יקרא קוצר רוח כי התורה מרחבת לבו של אדם:

for impatience of spirit and cruel bondage. Perhaps the people did not respond positively to this assurance because they had not yet received the Torah. Since Torah broadens a person’s mind, the Torah may hint at that by describing the Israelites’ state of mind as “narrow minded, limited.”

In other words, B’nei Yisrael suffered from shortness of vision.  They could not imagine themselves as anything other than slaves to Pharaoh.  And so they rejected Hashem’s message.

Some of you might remember last year, before Neilah, I shared a story from Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture.  Pausch was a professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at Carnegie Melon University who was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He prepared a final lecture to impart wisdom and life lessons he wanted to share with his family.  A favorite story of mine from this book relates to the summer of 1969 when Pausch was 8 years old and was at sleep away camp and the Apollo mission 11 to the moon, that we discussed earlier,  took place.  The night that Neil Armstrong was to step on the moon, the camp set up a TV for all the kids to watch.  But as Pausch tells it:

…the people running the camp kept looking at their watches.  It was already after eleven.  Eventually, while smart decisions were being made on the moon, a dumb one was made here on Earth.  It had gotten too late.  All of us kids were sent back to our tents to go to sleep.

As you can imagine, young Randy Pausch was not a happy camper that night.  There was some comfort when he got home a few weeks later and learned that in the days before DVR’s, VCR’s and on-Demand broadcasts, his father had taken a picture of the family TV set preserving for Randy the moment that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.  “He had preserved the moment for me, knowing it could help trigger big dreams.”  And it did.  As he writes at the beginning of the chapter:

When man first walked on the moon, “I knew then that pretty much anything was possible.  It was as if all of us, all over the world, had been given permission to dream big dreams.”

And while we gain much inspiration from man’s first landing on the moon 50 years ago and Israel’s efforts to reach the moon, we also take much comfort and inspiration from Avdimi bar Chama bar Dosa in Eruvin 55a.  Explaining the significance of the pesukim from Parshat Nitzavim (Devarim 30:11-13)

יא) כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ (יב) לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ (יג) וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. (12) It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

There is significant debate as to whether this passage refers to the Torah as a whole or if it refers specifically to the mitzvah of Teshuvah.  Avidmi bar Chama’s comment holds true either way:

והיינו דאמר אבדימי בר חמא בר דוסא מאי דכתיב לא בשמים היא ולא מעבר לים היא לא בשמים היא שאם בשמים היא אתה צריך לעלות אחריה ואם מעבר לים היא אתה צריך לעבור אחריה

And this idea, that one must exert great effort to retain one’s Torah knowledge, is in accordance with what Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Dosa said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea” (Deuteronomy 30:12–13)? “It is not in heaven” indicates that if it were in heaven, you would have to ascend after it, and if it were beyond the sea, you would have to cross after it, as one must expend whatever effort is necessary in order to study Torah.

Hashem did us a kindness by making Torah something near and dear to our hearts.  This is the promise. As we enter Yom Kippur may our Tefilot and our Teshuva know no limits.  May we dream big dreams for ourselves, our family and our community.  And once those dreams have been formed and expressed may it be a year in which all of our hopes and dreams are realized. As the passage in Devarim concludes (Devarim 30:14):

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃

The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.