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New Synagogue of Palm Beach

235 Sunrise Avenue / P.O. Box 3027

Palm Beach, Florida 33480

Phone: 561-514-4064

info@newsynagogue.org

Behar-Bechukotai/Bamidbar/Shavuot

TAKING ADVANTAGE

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

"Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the LORD am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

This verse, one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, instructs us not to wrong other people.  It is not clear from this verse what wronging other people entails.

Our sages explain this prohibition refers to wronging people with words. What does it mean to wrong people with words?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the Torah uses the very same expression (“wrong one another”) with regards to monetary transactions. Specifically, overcharging someone ignorant of the actual value of an object falls under the prohibition of wronging someone in a monetary sense. Taking advantage of someone’s ignorance or weakness and, thereby, profiting is prohibited. Similarly, we are prohibited from using words that take advantage of someone’s ignorance or weakness and, thereby, inflict emotional pain upon the person. Here are a few examples of this prohibition as codified by Maimonides and others:

1) One should not remind who has repented of their previous sins, thereby causing them embarrassment and pain.

2) One should not ask someone a question knowing that they do not know the answer? Taking advantage of their ignorance in this way may upset them.

3)  One should not ask a store owner how much an item costs if one has no intention to purchase the item. The seller’s hopes have been unnecessarily dashed.

4) One should not tell a person that their suffering is due to their sins as Job’s friends did to him saying “has anyone perished who was totally innocent?”

5) One should not give someone advice that is not in the person’s best interests even if no monetary damage results from the advice.

These are some examples of prohibited speech. In Sefer Hamiztvoth (Mitzvah 251), Maimonides summarizes the prohibition as follows: “… we are forbidden from verbally wronging another person by telling them things that will distress and humiliate them and make them discouraged.”

The Talmud teaches us that 24,000 students of Rebbi Akiva perished in a plague between Passover and Shavuot, because they did not show sufficient honor to one another. Receiving the Torah on Shavuot requires us to be united, as if we are one person with one heart. Let us be more careful with our words, ensuring we do not cause any pain to others, and share words of upliftment and encouragement with others. 

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim/Emor

SANCTIFYING GOD'S NAME IN BUSINESS

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

"You shall do no injustice in judgement, in length, in weight, or in capacity. Accurate scales, accurate weights, an accurate dry measure, and an accurate liquid measure, you shall have. I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus (19, 35-36)

In the above verses, the Torah is essentially instructing us to ensure that we are scrupulously honest in our business transactions. The concluding words “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt” seem to have nothing to do with the concept of dealing honestly in business. Additionally, the introduction to the prohibition “You shall do no injustice in judgement” is difficult to understand. We are referring to a person involved in a business transaction, not to a judge in a courtroom. Rashi, quoting the Sifra, explains that this teaches us that a person who is dishonest in business “Brings about those five things which are mentioned in connection with the judge who perverts justice: he defiles the land, profanes the Name of the Lord, causes the Shechinah to depart from Israel's midst, Israel to fall by the sword and to be exiled from their land.” Rashi’s comment also requires further explanation. Why is it that a person who is dishonest in business causes the same consequences as the corrupt judge?

Torah law demands judges be “fearers of God, men of truth and haters of ill-gotten gain.” (Exodus 18,21) Similarly, when it comes to our business dealings, Torah law commands us to be “fearers of God, men of truth and haters of ill-gotten gain”. When we do our business dealings, God asks us to remember that He redeemed us from the land of Egypt. Our redemption from Egypt reminds us that God is in control and that, ultimately, we will not get ahead through dishonest means. Our mission in business is not simply to make a living, but, rather, to be honest and ethical people. When we do so, we purify the land, sanctify God’s name, return the Divine presence and assist in bringing the ultimate redemption. May we merit this redemption soon in our days. 

Shemini/Tazria-Metzora

PURITY AND IMPURITY--A DEEPER LOOK

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Book­ of Leviticus deals with a number of circumstances that render a person ritually impure. In Parshat Tazria, the Torah states that a woman becomes ‘impure’ after a natural childbirth. Parshat Emor instructs us that a Kohen is forbidden to bring ritual impurity upon himself by coming into close contact with the dead. Both of these forms of ritual impurity are difficult to understand. Why should the Mitzvah of bringing a human being into the world result in ritual impurity? Death is a natural, inevitable part of human existence. Why should involvement with burying the dead, which is also a Mitzvah, result in ritual impurity?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great nineteenth century German Rabbi, has a fascinating solution to these questions. Interestingly, other great Rabbis (such as Rebbi Noson of Breslov) explain ritual impurity in a similar fashion. A defining feature of a human being created in the image of God is that he/she is a free-willed entity, empowered to choose right from wrong. When human beings proactively use their free will to control their physical destinies and rule over the natural world, the idea of a human being as a free-willed entity is highlighted and reinforced.

Conversely, when a human being feels that the natural world is too powerful to overcome, the person feels incapacitated and unempowered. This feeling diminishes the persons belief in the power of choice in general. The notion of God creating a human being with free will and with the ability to choose right from wrong is also diminished. The person is left feeling that nature is in charge and not God, Heaven forbid. The person feels that, ultimately, his/her spiritual efforts are fruitless and his/her faith in God is lost, Heaven forbid.

Perhaps no two events have a more powerful effect on the human psyche in this way than death and childbirth. Death screams out for all to hear, the power of the cycles of nature, and the human beings lack of power to prevent natures cycles. Plants rise and fall, animals rise and fall, and human being also rise and fall. Similarly, the powerful natural process of childbirth leaves a deep impression in the psyche of the childbearing woman that nature trumps all. Both death and childbirth have the deep spiritual and psychological effect of minimizing a person’s belief in being a proactive, powerful, and free-willed spiritual entity.                   

Rabbi Hirsch explains that the source of purity lies in the firm feeling of being a powerful, free-willed entity capable of choosing good and effecting change in the world. The source of impurity is exactly the oppositea feeling of being helpless, incapacitated, and unimpactful in the world. When one is directly involved in giving birth to a child or exposed to death, the spiritual and psychological effect of impurity are inevitable. One has to, then, go through a process to restore the pure feeling of being a free-willed, proactive, and potentially powerful person in the world. May we carry this purity with us on our life journeys.

Parshat Vayikra & Parshat Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol & Pesach

WOULD YOU RATHER EAT CHALLAH OR MATZAH?

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

"This matzah that we are eating, for what sake is it? For the sake that our ancestors' dough was not yet able to rise, before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them, as it is stated (Exodus 12:39); "And they baked the dough which they brought out of Egypt into matzah cakes, since it did not rise; because they were expelled from Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they made for themselves provisions." (Teaching of Raban Gamliel from Haggadah)

We are commanded to eat matzah on Passover night as a symbol of our redemption, and we are forbidden to eat leavened bread throughout the seven days of Passover.

Why is leaving Egypt in a hurry and the fact that the dough was, therefore, not able to rise so significant? Personally, I don’t like to be rushed and would have much preferred a casual stroll out of Egypt. Additionally, most people I know would prefer to eat leavened bread (such as challah) rather than matzah at a festive meal. Passover is the festival of freedom, designated to celebrate the liberation from the enslavement in Egypt. Surely, the symbol of our freedom should be gourmet bread and not matzah?

The difference between chametz and matzah lies not in the basic ingredients (as both are made from flour and water). The only difference between chametz and matzah is time. Time is an attribute of the physical universe, which was created by God along with the entirety of the physical universe. The concept of time is associated with natural processes and events. Whereas, supernatural events are associated with the concept of being above/beyond the time dimension.

Egyptian culture was steeped in the narrowed belief that only the natural, physical world exists. The Hebrew slaves were also influenced by this world view. The purpose of the entire process of the miraculous exodus from Egypt was to liberate us from this limited world view. The liberation was accomplished by demonstrating the existence of a single God, a God above nature, unbound by material or time constraints. This is the entire meaning and purpose of Passover. For this reason, on Passover, we are commanded to eat matzah (which represents transcending nature) and are forbidden to eat leavened bread, chametz (which represents the natural world).

One final question needs to be addressed: Why is chametz permitted during the rest of the year? Rabbi Natan (the foremost student of Rebbi Nachman) suggests that once we spend Passover internalizing the existence of an unlimited God, above time and nature, we realize that the natural world is simply God constantly creating and choosing to keep the laws of nature in place. Once we realize this, we are then able to appropriately interact with the laws of nature represented by chametz. We now have the new-found understanding that the difference between miracles and nature lies only in the frequency of the events.

Our goal on Passover is to break out of our constricted views of the natural world. We expand our consciousness and rediscover God, the Divine hand behind the natural and supernatural world and begin to realize that, in truth, everything is possible!

Ki Tisa - Parshat Parah & Vayakhel/Pekudei - Parshat Hachodesh

YOUR NAME HAS BEEN CALLED

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: "See, I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship to do master weaving, to work with gold, with silver, and with copper, with the craft of stones for setting and with the craft of wood, to do every [manner of] work.” (Exodus 31, 1-5)

In the above verses, God instructs Moses to place Betzalel in charge of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its vessels. Our commentators are bothered by the unusual expression: “See, I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri…” Why does God not simply tell Moses to appoint Betzlel? What is Moses to see? What does it mean that God called Betzalel by name?

Ramban explains that by way of this introduction, God preemptively answered a question that would be on the minds of Moses and the Jewish people. The construction of the Mishkan required many different artisan skills. Each skill is a profession in and of itself and requires tremendous expertise. An expert metal artisan, stone artisan, carpenter, and weaver (among other professionals) would be required for the construction. The Jewish people had been slaves in Egypt, performing back- breaking labor. It would be almost impossible to find an individual with expertise in any one of the required skills, let alone in all of the skills. Therefore, God communicated to Moses: I know you are looking at this and wondering how it is possible for one person to be an expert in all these areas. You must realize that from the beginning of the creation of the world, I had Betzalel in mind to perform the construction of the Mishkan and I will fill him with all the wisdom and skill necessary for the task. 

Ramban then states: “And our Rabbis have a teaching (Shemot Rabah 40,2) that God showed Moses the book of Adam and said to him ‘I set apart (appointed) each person at that time (time of Adam) for their purpose and I also set Betzalel apart for his purpose at that time.’” Every person has a unique purpose and role that God set aside at the beginning of time. They have been “named” for that purpose. No two people have exactly the same skill set and role to play in the world. We live in a society where everyone constantly compares their roles and what they are doing with everyone else. Social media has further exacerbated this tendency. The result is often envy and dissatisfaction. We have to learn to focus more on what we are doing and on using our own skill sets (with all our strengths and weaknesses) to serve God and fulfill our roles in the world. Others have a completely different role in life and they, too, have to fulfill their mission. Embracing our personal roles and using the package of resources God has given us, results in us being happy with our lot. We are then able to celebrate the success and path of others without envy and jealousy

Purim/Terumah/Tetzaveh

THE SECRET OF THE INCENSE OFFERING

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Terumah details the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the vessels contained in the Mishkan (such as the Ark, Table, Candelabra, and Courtyard Altar)Parshat Tetzaveh, which follows Parshat Terumah, details the special clothing that the kohanim (priests) and kohen gadol (high priest) were required to wear while serving in the Mishkan. The Torah explains how the Divine Presence will dwell in the Mishkan and how the Mishkan will, thereby, be sanctified. The Torah then details the construction of one last vessel that was to be placed in the Mishkan, The Golden Altar. The Golden Altar was to be used to offer the daily incense offerings and not to be used for animal offerings.

Many commentators ask why The Golden Altar was not initially listed and described along with the Ark, Table, Candelabra, and Courtyard Altar. Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sfrono) and Ramban (Nachmanidies) explain that the purpose of The Golden Incense Altar was different from the purpose of all the other vessels of the Mishkan. All the other vessels were there to ensure the Divine Presence would dwell in the Mishkan. The Golden Incense Altar, on the other hand, was a response to the Divine Presence that dwelled in and sanctified the Mishkan.

Ramban then goes on to explain that the secret purpose of the Ketoret offering is to counter God’s attribute of justice/judgement. The Hebrew word for nose is Af, which is also the root of the Hebrew word Af, meaning anger. The pleasant smell of the incense offering was intended to counter the burning anger of the one nostril by filling the other nostril with a pleasant smell. Rebbi Nachman explains that the burning of the incense offering represents judgement, but the pleasant smell represents a spirit of charity and kindness. The message of the Ketoret offering is that we are able to mitigate negativity, idol worship, and judgement through a spirit of pleasant kindness and generosity. It is as if we declare before God: We know we are filled with physical desires, desires for wealth, negativity, etc., but we will mitigate and control that part of our nature through charity and kindness.’ This is the pleasant smell before God.

Rebbi Nachman explains further that this then becomes a source of great joy for man and God as is stated in Proverbs: “Ketoret (Incense offering) makes the heart joyous.” (Proverbs 22)

On a personal level, when we unite our burning desire for wealth with a spirit of generosity and kindness, we are happy with our lot in life and are able to rejoice. This is why Ketoret (Incense) means ‘connect’. Our fire (burning desire related to judgement) is tempered with our spirit of charity and kindness (pleasant smell). In the spirit of the festival of Purim, let us give gifts to the poor and presents to our friends.

Yitro/Mishpatim-Shekalim

WHY WORK FOR SIX DAYS?

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Six days you shall work and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter...” (Exodus 20, 9-10)

The intention of the Torah here is to establish the prohibition of performing labor (melachah – specific creative activities) on Shabbat. If so, the Torah should have simply stated: “On the seventh day labor is prohibited.” The preamble “Six days you shall work and perform all your labor” seems redundant?

The Kli Yakar explains that the Torah is not only teaching us how to behave on Shabbat, but is also teaching us how to behave during the week. He explains that the term work refers to the work of serving God and that the term labor refers to creative activities needed to provide our worldly needs.  The Torah is instructing us that, even during the weekdays, we are to see our service of God as primary and our worldly work as secondary. We need to do both, but our primary focus must always be on serving God. Whereas on Shabbat, we suspend all worldly work and focus entirely on the service of God. In fact, Rashi learns from the words “perform all your labor” that when Shabbat comes, one should see one’s worldly work as complete and, thus, not even think about it  on Shabbat.

Rebbi Nosson, in his epic work Likutei Halachot, gives a very insightful answer to the question at hand. He explains that, before the sin of Adam and Eve, mankind did not need to work. The Garden of Eden was a good and perfect place. Mankind simply had to pick fruit from the trees for their livelihood. After Adam and Eve sinned, the world lost its perfection. Human beings are now responsible for perfecting the world and restoring the original good. Creative work performed with honesty and integrity accomplishes this goal. In this sense, creative activity makes the world a better place and returns the original good (holiness) that was lost through mankind’s original sin. In this regard, our workday activity is also a holy endeavor, and the holiness we reveal during the week adds holiness to Shabbat and makes it even more special.

I would summarize the Kli Yakar and Rebbi Nosson’s messages as follows: When we prioritize the service of God in our lives, then even our worldly creative work becomes sanctified Godly service. When we live in this way, we are able to experience Shabbat (a day dedicated entirely to the direct service of God) on a much deeper level. 

Bo/Beshalach

LIFE'S ULTIMATE TEST

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

"The Lord said to Moses, Behold! I am going to rain down for you bread from heaven, and the people shall go out and gather what is needed for the day, so that I can test them, whether or not they will follow My Torah.” (Exodus 16:4)

The Torah describes the heavenly bread (Manna) as a test for the nation. A test, per definition, implies a level of difficulty and challenge. Surely, if we were all privileged enough to have the luxury of not having to work for a living, that would be a blessing. Where is the test? Where is the challenge? Additionally, why does the test of the Manna determine “…whether or not they will follow My Torah”?

Our commentators provide many insightful answers to these questions. I would like to suggest an answer that is hinted to in many of the commentaries. The great challenge of the Manna was relinquishing control and security. The Jewish People lost direct control of their livelihoods. The Manna could not be saved from one day to the next, and the people were left with no option but to rely on God to provide the Manna on the following day. Their financial destinies were completely out of their control and left to divine providence.

The Torah, per definition, implies that our portions in this world and the next world are linked to our observance of the Mitzvot and the resulting divine providence.  We do not understand God’s exact calculations in this regard, but, nonetheless, that is the way of the Torah. The test of the Manna was relinquishing one’s control and being dependent on God for one’s livelihood. Similarly, following the Torah commandments requires submission of our own will to the will of God and an acceptance that, based on divine providence, every person will receive one’s livelihood from God. We now understand why the above verse connects the test of the Manna to Torah observance in general.

Having God in our lives requires dependence, submission, reliance, trust, and relinquishing control. The test today is the same as it was 3,300 years ago. Are we up for the test?

Shemot/Vaera

THREE FESTIVALS

THREE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES

 

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Hebrew word for “belief” or ”faith is emuna. The Maharal points out that in the Book of Exodus, the Torah refers to the children of Israel having faith in three specific contexts. When Moses returns from Midian, he informs the Hebrew slaves that God sent him to redeem them from bondage in Egypt. The Torah records their response: “And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves.” (Exodus 4,31) The second reference is at the crossing of the Reed Sea, where the Torah states: “And they believed in God and in Moses His servant.” (Exodus 14,9) The third reference is at the giving of the Torah, where God tells Moses: “And also in you they will believe forever.” (Exodus 19,9)

The Maharal explains that the mention of emuna (belief) in these three specific contexts is not random. They refer to the three fundamental principles upon which religious belief is founded. The first reference refers to the belief in divine providence. Divine providence is the belief that God sees everything occurring throughout the universe, on both a national and individual level. Included in divine providence is not only the belief that God sees, but also the belief that God cares. This is characterized by the following: “And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves.” (Exodus 4,31)

The second fundamental belief is that there is no power, force, or aspect of the universe that has any control apart from God. God is the one and only omnipotent being. The Children of Israel realized this truth at the splitting of the Reed Sea. Hence, after the parting of the Reed Sea, the Torah testifies: “And they believed in God and in Moses His servant.” God is in control of both the sea and the dry land. No other force/god has any control/power over God. This is a fundamental belief, because an omnipresent God is somewhat meaningless if that God does not also have the power to intervene and assist.

The third belief is the belief that God gave the Torah through His servant, Moses, at Mt. Sinai. The entire Jewish nation only heard God giving the first two commandments directly. The rest of the Torah was dictated through Moses. The people did not need belief/faith concerning the first two commandments, because they heard them directly. The third belief is that the entire Torah we have was divinely dictated by Moses, the greatest prophet and God’s trusted servant. This is why God tells Moses: “And also in you they will believe forever.” (Exodus 19,9)

The three pilgrimage festivals correspond to these fundamental principles. Passover, with the culmination of the splitting of the Reed Sea, represents the principle of the existence of One, Omnipotent God, with absolute and complete control. Shavuot, of course, represents the belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Sukkot represents the clouds of glory that surrounded the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert. This represents the belief in divine providence, that God watches over, cares, and is involved in our world. Our task on these festivals is to deepen our faithfulness to the fundamental principle associated with that festival. May we grow in our faithfulness to these fundamental truths.

Vayigash/Vayechi 

 HOW DO WE BLESS CHILDREN?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

When Joseph was informed that his father (Jacob) was ill, he brought his two sons with him to visit his father. The Torah concludes the section dealing with Jacob’s blessing with the following verse:

“So he blessed them on that day, saying, ‘With you, Israel will bless, saying, “May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh,”’ and he placed Ephraim before Menasheh.” (Genesis 18:20)

Rashi quotes our sages and explains the words "With you, Israel will bless, saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh,'" as follows: “Whoever wishes to bless his sons, will bless them with their blessing, and a man will say to his son, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.’” This is the source for the universal custom on Friday night of blessing one’s sons using this very expression: “May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.”

Jacob had many righteous grandchildren. Why do we specifically bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menasheh? The Netziv explains that Ephraim and Menasheh had distinctly different strengths and personalities. Ephraim was a great Torah scholar who cleaved (clung) to God. Menasheh was a worldly person, involved in assisting his family with their needs. We do not bless our children to make them fit into a certain mold. We bless our children so that they use their God-given personalities and strengths to serve God and help others. We declare that we value the contributions of both Ephraim and Menasheh. 

I once heard another beautiful explanation. Jacob’s grandchildren grew up in a sheltered, spiritual environment in the Land of Israel. Menasheh and Ephraim were the exception—they grew up with their father in Egypt, under the strong influence of Egyptian culture. Despite the challenges they faced, they remained upright, righteous individuals, servants of God, and dedicated to Jacob’s values and traditions. Therefore, we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menasheh – to have the strength to withstand negative environmental influences and, thus, remain dedicated to Torah values and traditions.

May we and all our children be blessed with the strength to overcome negative influences and to use our unique talents and personalities in the service of God, the Jewish people, and all mankind.

Chanukah/Vayeshev/Miketz

 WHERE IS THE MIRACLE?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

We light candles on Chanukah for eight nights. We are commemorating the miracle that, after the temple was recaptured from the Greek empire, a single sealed jug of pure olive oil was found and used to light the Menorah, which miraculously lasted for eight days. There was only a sufficient amount of oil to burn for one night, but, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. Each night of Chanukah, we add an additional candle as we celebrate the historical miracle (until  we finally light eight candles, corresponding to the eight-day miracle).

Many commentators ask an intriguing question. There was sufficient oil to last for the first night. So why do we celebrate that night as part of the miracle of Chanukah? Only the last seven days were miraculous and, therefore, only those days should be commemorated with candle lighting. There are many different answers to this question. Some say that the miracle was the mere fact that a sealed jug of pure oil was found. I once heard a very simple yet profound answer to this question. Although the miracle was not as apparent on the first night, it was just as miraculous as the candle lighting on the eighth night. All the oil should have been consumed on the first night, but, behold, only 1/8 of the oil was consumed (leaving sufficient oil for the subsequent nights!).

Friends, so often we don’t realize the miracles that are occurring before our very eyes. We take the candle burning on the first night for granted and, therefore, fail to see its miracle. We take so much in our lives for granted and fail to pay attention to the wondrous and miraculous nature of everything around us. The miracle of being alive, being able to walk, and the gift of vision are just some of the miraculous daily occurrences we take for granted. We conclude the Al Hanisim prayer on Chanukah with: “...And they established these days to gives thanks and praise to Your great name.” Let us pay attention to the miracles that constantly surround us and give thanks and praise for all our blessings

Vayetzei/Vayishlach

WHY ARE WE CALLED YEHUDIM (JEWS)?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Hebrew word for “Jew” is “Yehudi” and it stems from the Hebrew name Yehudah (Judah). The term Yehudi (Jew), as opposed to the term Yisrael (Israelite), is not a new term. In fact, the term is used repeatedly in The Book of Esther, which dates back to well over 2,300 years ago.  Yehudah (Judah) was only one of the twelve tribes of Israel and it is rather puzzling that the entire nation, comprised of these twelve tribes, should collectively be referred to as his descendants, Yehudim.

Perhaps the key lies in the origin of Yehudah’s name. Yehudah was Leah’s fourth child. Upon his birth, she pronounced: “This time I will give thanks to God.” Why does Leah only feel the need to give thanks to God upon the birth of her fourth child? Surely, she would have been grateful to God for giving her each of her first three children as well? Rashi explains that Leah gave thanks when she delivered her fourth son, because she felt that she had received more than her share. Jacob’s four wives knew by way of prophecy that Jacob would have twelve sons that would form the Jewish nation. By rights, each of Jacob’s wives should, therefore, give birth to three boys. Once Leah had four sons, she realized that she had received more than her allotted portion. Thus, she gave thanks to God.

We learn from this that gratitude and thanks stem from people feeling that they are receiving something that they are not entitled to. An attitude of entitlement is diametrically opposed to an attitude of gratitude. I would suggest that perhaps we are all called Yehudim, because the ultimate mission of all the tribes of Israel is to realize that, in truth, we deserve nothing, and, therefore, thank God for everything. When we genuinely understand our positions as finite, fallible human beings created through the tremendous benevolence of the infinite, kind, and omnipotent Creator of the entire universe, we consider everything we have, including our very lives, as a Divine gift.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, let us work on internalizing the realization that we are entitled to nothing at all and, therefore, manifest tremendous feelings of gratitude for all our blessings and gifts.

Chayei Sarah/Toldot

A TRIBUTE TO RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS, OF BLESSED MEMORY

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Chayei Sarah describes how Abraham sought a burial place for his wife, Sarah, after her passing. He approached the local inhabitants saying: "I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you. Give me burial property with you, so that I may bury my dead from before me."(Genesis 23:4) Abraham’s preamble of “I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you” requires further explanation. If Abraham is a stranger, then he is not an inhabitant and vice-versa. Rashi explains that the simple meaning is that Abraham was appealing to his neighbors to provide a burial plot for his wife. He explains to them that although he is a foreigner, he has become a fellow citizen, and is, therefore, deserving of burying his deceased wife in his new land.   

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains Abraham’s preamble differently. Abraham feels it necessary to explain his need to have a separate, dedicated burial spot for his family member. Abraham does so by explaining his nuanced identity. On the one hand, he is now a citizen of the land, a contributing and caring member of the broader society. Indeed, he is an inhabitant, a citizen. On the other hand, he and his family have their own unique religious beliefs and practices, to which they are to be fully committed.  Proper Jewish burial must be done separately in accordance with various traditions and practices. In this sense, Abraham is a stranger.            

Abraham, often thought of as the first Jew, teaches us the complex identity of the Jew amongst the peoples of the world. The Jew is to be a model, caring and contributing citizen of the world. But the Jew is also to be committed to Judaism and its religious observances, which are unique and different from the practices of other nations of the world. In this sense, the Jew is a stranger. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, modeled this nuanced identity perhaps more perfectly than anyone else in our generation. He positively impacted all humanity in the most profound way. He was a citizen of the world, spreading positivity, hope, and blessing to all human beings. Yet, he was also a stranger, a man of deep faith committed to Jewish learning, practices, and traditions. He transitioned between these two identities with tremendous nobility and dignity, influencing all with his brilliant mind, unique erudite style, kind heart, and love of all of God’s creatures.

Let us attempt to model the ways of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, and may his soul be elevated in Gan Eden. 

Lech Lecha/Vayera

A TEST FOR ABRAHAM?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and He said to him, Abraham, and he said, Here I am. And He said, Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.’” (Genesis 22, 1-2)

The Torah describes how God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up his beloved son Isaac. The narrative then describes how Isaac went with his father, lay down on the alter, and was willing to allow his father to take his life in the service of God. Isaac was thirty-seven years old at the time and was quite capable of refusing his fathers wishes. The Beit Halevi, therefore, wonders why the Torah emphasizes this episode as a test for Abraham. Surely, it was an even greater test for Isaac?

The Beit Halevi explains that, while Isaac was indeed tested, the test for Abraham was far greater. The Beit Halevi further explains that it is easier to give up your life sanctifying God’s name than it is to live your life sanctifying God’s name. Abraham would be performing a mammoth act, an act he would have to live with every single day for the rest of his life. The Beit Halevi explains that there are many people that would allow their lives to be taken rather than submitting to idolatry. However, these very same people would not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sanctify God’s name by earning a living in an honest and ethical fashion. It is more difficult to sanctify God’s name knowing you will have to live with the consequences in this world than to die in the sanctification of God’s name!

God’s command to Abraham, to bring his child as an offering to God, was a one-time event (see Rashi who says this was never commanded, but only Abraham’s interpretation). In general, human sacrifice is completely abhorrent in the Torah’s view. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains that the sacrifices that are most dear to God are the free-willed sacrifices we make as living human beings. Terminating human life, whether our own lives or the lives of others, is murder and robs us of the greatest service of God, the service of free-willed human beings who live with the consequences of their actions. Let us strengthen our resolve to use our free will to sanctify Gods name and, in so doing, merit life in this world and the next world.

Bereshit/Noach

THE TOWER OF BABEL, THEN AND NOW

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah tells us of a time that all the inhabitants of the world spoke one language. They settled in a valley in Babylon (Shinar) and said to one another: "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." God disapproves of their plan, mixes up their languages so that they cannot understand one another, and scatters them upon the face of the earth.

The strange thing about this narrative is that the text does not state what exactly God disapproves of. The people, seemingly, wanted to prevent their scattering and create a unified existence. Is that not a noble aim? Rashi quotes the Midrash that further clarifies their intentions. They said, “Once every 1656 years the heavens disintegrate just like they did at the time of the great flood, let us support the heavens.” This Midrash is also perplexing. Were they scientifically out of touch to such a degree that they considered supporting the heavens to prevent a flood?

The Telzer Rov, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Bloch, sheds light on this mystifying narrative. Feelings of insecurity and vulnerability have plagued mankind from time immemorial. Natural disasters, sickness, disease, viruses, and plagues are just some of the challenges to our sense of security and stability. At that time in history, humankind was feeling particularly vulnerable, with the flood that wiped out Earth’s inhabitants still fresh in their minds. Hence, they devised a rational plan to overcome natural threats. They realized that if they separated from one another, they would be more vulnerable. Whereas, if they ensured unity and pooled together all of their scientific knowledge and resources, then they could overcome any natural threat. This is what the Midrash is conveying to us. They wanted to seek a scientific understanding of weather patterns and natural phenomenon and, in doing so, prevent another catastrophic flood.

God disapproved of their endeavor, because they viewed earthly occurrences as completely natural and out of God’s control. They viewed the flood as a natural phenomenon, rather than a divine consequence of immoral human conduct. We all want security, and we are even commanded to use all the natural means at our disposal to protect ourselves from illness and natural disasters. Humans who have solved every natural dilemma and feel perfectly secure without divine assistance, will forget the Master Conductor behind nature. God will, therefore, never allow human beings to be completely secure. God’s will is that we respond to our vulnerability by turning to Him in prayer and, simultaneously, using all available natural means to protect ourselves.

Perhaps, as mankind made technological and scientific advancements, we had begun to feel perfectly secure and confident that we could overcome every natural threat. Perhaps we had begun to forget that there is a Master Conductor of the universe. Perhaps we had slipped into the very same trap as the generation of the Tower of Babel? If so, let COVID-19 be a wakeup call for us that God, in His great kindness, will never allow human beings to feel completely secure. Let us know that we are all vulnerable and let us turn to God alone for ultimate safety, security, and protection.  

Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah

HOW CAN WE BE HAPPY NOW?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The past six months have been tumultuous. We have watched the coronavirus wreak havoc throughout the world. As we feel things are getting better, an outbreak of the virus appears somewhere else. Eretz Yisrael (Israel), in particular, enters the Sukkot holiday in a severe lockdown due to the increased morbidity of coronavirus. May Hashem remove this plague speedily from his inheritance. In the meanwhile, we are all faced with uncertainty and insecurity. The enemy is invisible and not fully understood, and we find ourselves hoping and praying for a vaccine to stop the virus in its tracks. As we approach Sukkot (Z’man Simchateinu or The Time of Our Joy), we wonder how we can be happy at this timea time filled with so much insecurity and instability.

On Sukkot (Z’man Simchateinu), we leave our secure permanent homes and dwell in temporary dwellings exposed to the elements. Would we not be more joyous in the setting of the security of our permanent homes?

It seems that the message of Sukkot is that, while financial security and stability certainly contribute to one’s contentment, true happiness does not result from physical protection or financial stability. Indeed, it is possible to be happy and joyous while facing uncertainty and insecurity. How is this possible? How can one be happy while vulnerable to the elements?

When one breaks it down, one realizes that our vulnerability and insecurity stem from the fear that something adverse/bad will happen to us.  In our permanent homes, this fear largely dissipates and we feel safe and secure. However, even this safety and security is not absolute. Unfortunately, disease and illness pierces through the solid walls of homes as well. There are individuals who never left their homes during the lockdown who still contracted COVID-19. There is no absolute security and guarantee of anything in life. If security and certainty are pre-requisites for happiness, then true happiness is largely unattainable. There will always be a background fear of something adverse/ bad happening to us or our close ones.

The goal of the High Holy Days is to empower us with the knowledge that, ultimately, we are completely in God’s hands. Nothing adverse/bad can happen to us without God’s will. God is good and, therefore, all of our challenges, trials and tribulations do not randomly happen to us—they are divinely decreed by God (who has our best interests at heart). God is the cause of everything and the answer to everything. We turn to Him for assistance in alleviating difficult circumstances and for protection. We can always turn to the source of everything for strength and support. We are commanded by God to take natural steps to protect ourselves from harm. We must wear masks and social distance as advised by scientists, because it is a Divine command to do so. However, ultimately, true security is not attained through these natural measures. True security and happiness stem from completely accepting our vulnerable and insecure lives, armed with the knowledge that we are in the hands of an accessible Father and King. In our times, where our human insecurity and vulnerability have been brought to the fore, let this be our source of joy on this Sukkot holiday.  

Rosh Hashanah/Shabbat Shuva Ha'Azinu/Yom Kippur

THE ROLE OF THE SHOFAR IN OUR HIGH HOLIDAY PRAYERS

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our Rabbis refer to the holiday we are about to celebrate as Rosh Hashanah – the New Year or, more accurately, “the head of the year”. In our liturgy, we also refer to this  holiday as Yom Hadin – the Day of Judgement.

The biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, which is often translated as “the day of blowing the Shofar”. But what exactly is T’ruah? And why does the Torah choose               this name for the holiday?

The Talmud explains that the word T’ruah is translated into Aramaic as Yevava (to cry) and that we are obligated to blow the Shofar in what we call a T’ruah – a crying sound. There are different types of crying, which is why we blow the Shvarim, the T’ruah, and the Shvarim T’ruah. We blow a T’kiah sound before and after these blasts. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah is commanding us to blow crying notes. Why are we instructed to do this on Rosh Hashanah?

Rav Hershel Schachter explains that everyone agrees that there is a Torah command to pray in troublesome times. He explains further that, because Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement (a day when we are judged by God and our entire futures are in the balance), Rosh Hashanah is an Eit Tzarah – a troublesome time. Therefore, there is a biblical obligation to pray to God on Rosh Hashanah.

 

Rav Shachter explains that Rav Soloveitchik would quote the following Gemarah: “Rabbi Elazar says: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked, and prayer is not accepted as it once was, as it is stated in lament of the Temple’s destruction: ‘Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer’ (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked with the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears were not locked, and one who cries before God may rest assured that his prayers will be answered, as it is stated: ‘Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears’ (Psalms 39:13)
(Berachot 35b)”.

We see that prayers with tears and crying are so powerful that King David says confidently that God will not remain silent when he prays with tears. We have a special obligation to pray on Rosh Hashanah and have the Shofar’s cries to transform our prayers to the level of prayers with tears.

 

Friends, our goal on Rosh Hashanah is to realize that we stand in judgement before the Master of the Universe, to understand that our lives, the lives of our loved ones, the welfare of our nation and all humanity are in the balance – who will live and who will die – who will be sick and who will be well – who will be wealthy and who will be poor. Our response is to pray with sincerity and the crying notes of the Shofar before God.  In that merit, may we all be signed and sealed for a good, healthy, wealthy, and successful year.

Ki Tavo/Nitzavim-Vayeilech

TZIDUK HADIN - ACCEPTING GOD'S DECISION AS JUST

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

‘Kol Baei Olam Ovrim Lephena Kivnei Maron’ – Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Din, the Day of Judgment. How are we to respond when the King of Kings is passing judgment? What message gleaned from Rosh Hashanah are we to integrate into our daily lives?

In Pirkei Avot, the Mishna states that: “When the litigants are brought before you (the Judge), you should view them as wicked people but when they leave you, you should view them as righteous people – when they accept upon themselves the judgment.” People who happily accept and embrace the decision of the Judge, humbly suspend their personal opinions, are at peace with the Judge’s decision, and are considered righteous people.

Let us think about it for a moment from a psychological perspective. A person who does not accept and come to terms with the Judge’s decision may be angry, unsettled, resentful, and perhaps even vengeful. He/she has no choice but to follow the courts ruling, but does so with tremendous angst and resistance. On the other hand, a person who is able to accept the unchangeable reality, experiences serenity and is able to move on with a free spirit.

We learn from this that as litigants on Rosh Hashanah, our attitude should not be one of entitlement but, rather, one of complete acceptance of the judgment of the King of Kings. On Rosh Hashanah, acceptance not only renders us righteous people, but also leaves us with the psychological benefit of peace and serenity.  This may be applicable on Rosh Hashanah, but how does this impact our day-to-day lives?

The opinion of Rebbi Natan in the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) is that we are judged by God every moment of our lives. Each moment, therefore, requires a new acceptance of the will of the King of Kings. What does this all really mean in the world of practical reality? Simply put, it means accepting the reality of each moment. It means not resisting and struggling against the realities of life right now. In my experience, much of our human suffering stems not from any external or internal stimulus but, rather, from our lack of acceptance of the reality of NOW, which can never be changed. If I were to fully accept and give up struggling against the present reality of my life, I would be much more peaceful and content. When one considers this deeply, one realizes how utterly  illogical it is to resist the current reality.

One may opt to create a more favorable reality in the future, but resisting the current reality without any concrete plan of change is simply illogical. The logical way to live is to first fully accept what is happening NOW and to then ask yourself: “Can I or am I prepared to embrace a plan of action right now that may lead to a different set of future circumstances?” If the answer is YES”, then just DO IT. If the answer is NO”, then the logical thing to do is to accept the situation fully. Why resist, worry, get angry, and/or depressed about something one cannot or will not change? Rabbi Simcha Wasserman was once asked how he maintains such joy. He answered: “In any situation, I ask myself what can be done. Whatever can be done, I do. What cannot be done, I do not worry about.”

This is not only the logical way to live, but also the Godly way to live. One fully embraces and accepts the current reality as being the will of the Judge of each moment, God himself. The Hebrew term for this is Tziduk Hadin, which means justifying the justice meted out by God. Friends, we all desire and pray to God for a year of peace, serenity, and joy. Let us simultaneously accept our lives and life situations as decreed by the Almighty and, in doing so, make peace, serenity, and joy our daily way of doing things, our modus operandi. 

Shoftim/Ki Teitzei

A TIME ONE MUST HELP AND A TIME ONE NEED NOT HELP

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen [under its load] on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him.” - Deuteronomy 22,4

When one sees one’s fellow struggling and needing assistance, one is commanded to lend a helping hand. Our Sages point out that the extra Hebrew word ‘Imo’ (meaning ‘with him’) at the end of the above verse is seemingly redundant. When others are suffering, we need to be with them. We need to imagine in our mind’s eye what it would be like for us to be going through similar difficulties. As we would pray for ourselves, we should pray for others in distress.

Rashi quotes the teaching of the Mishna in tractate Baba Metziah (32a), which interprets the above verse very differently. “With the owner. However, if the owner walks away, sits down, and says, ‘Since the commandment is incumbent upon you, if you want to load, load!’ you are exempt.” Although you must help and be sensitive to the plight of others, there are circumstances when you are not obligated to do so. If a person will not work with you to alleviate his/her own difficult situation and sees it as your obligation to assist him/her, you are not obligated to assist in such circumstances. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz makes this point as well and states that: if a person is truly doing all he/she can to better his/her situation, then one is obligated to assist him/her. However, if he/she is able to help him/herself but chooses not to, one is no longer obligated to assist him/her.

Friends, the Torah does not ask us to work for others, but the Torah does ask us to work with others and to share in their burden with empathy.

Eikev/Re'eh

RETIREMENT IS A GREAT TEST

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“The Lord said to Moses, Behold! I am going to rain down for you bread from heaven, and the people shall go out and gather what is needed for the day, so that I can test them, whether or not they will follow My teaching.” (Exodus 16:4)

The Torah describes the heavenly bread (Manna) as a test for the nation. A test, by definition, implies a level of difficulty and challenge. Surely, if we were all privileged enough to have the luxury of not having to work for a living, that would be a blessing. Where is the test? Where is the challenge?

The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) answers this question by stating: "I will test them to see whether they will preoccupy themselves with the study of the Torah. Since I provide them with ready food without [their investing] any toil or effort, they should therefore constantly deal with the study of Torah."

When one is occupied in the pursuit of one’s livelihood, one naturally has less time to involve oneself in spiritual matters. However, when one is free from the burden of earning a living, time becomes a readily available commodity. This is the time that tests us. How will we use our time? Will we spend all of our time chit-chatting about insignificant matters? Will we spend our free time viewing every Netflix series? Will we spend our time following every news story? Or will we spend a significant amount of time involved in character development, Torah study, and performing acts of kindness?

Retirement from having to earn a living is certainly not antithetical to Torah values, but retirement from spiritual growth, Torah study, and the performance of Mitzvot is inconsistent with Torah values.

While this test is blatantly obvious in the case of a retired person, it is equally applicable to everyone. Working people often have some free time and, in general, we make time for the things we feel are most important. Let us all commit ourselves to pass the retirement test by extricating ourselves from spiritual retirement and rejoining God’s army with renewed vigor!

Devarim/Vaetchanan

HOW IS THIS TISHA B'AV DIFFERENT?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our world feels so different this Tisha B’Av. The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a grey cloud of fear, uncertainty, and insecurity upon the entire planet. Due to COVID-19, we will not congregate (as we would in our synagogues) to mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Instead, we shall do so privately in our homes. While we are all saddened by the current difficulties, the very challenge we face can be a catalyst for a more meaningful Tisha B’Av.

“How is it! She sits in solitude, the city of many people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow; The princess among states has become a thrall.” (Lamentations 1:1)

Jeremiah begins the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) describing his astonishment at the desolation of Jerusalem, a once densely populated and vibrant city. How is it? How could it be? Similarly, we find ourselves in a situation where we are left wondering: How could it be? How could it be that our vibrant communal gathering places (especially communal gathering places of learning and prayer) are now so desolate?

I would suggest that Jeremiah begins Eicha in this way to impress upon us the notion that people make places, places don’t make people. Similarly, in the Talmud, Rebbe Yossi states: It is not the place that gives honor to the person, rather the person gives honor to the place. Rebbe Yossi proves this point with the fact that Mt. Sinai was only holy while the Divine presence rested upon it. Following the Divine revelation, Mt. Sinai no longer retained its holy status.

Perhaps in our modern civilization, with world travel almost as accessible as a bus ride, we have become too focused on places and destinations and not focused enough on the people present in these places and destinations. We have journeyed to places in the hopes of those places giving us something, rather than approaching our destinations as places to build, contribute to, and serve.

The message this Tisha B’Av is to recalibrate our values, forget the places, and focus on appreciating the vibrant people within the places. When we mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, we are not mourning the place, the stones, or the destruction of a building--we are mourning the fact that our Father and King no longer inhabits that home as He once did. He is exiled as we are. As God’s children, let us renew our appreciation of one another as well as work and pray in unison for our Father to return to the new sanctuaries we build in our hearts. Let us make these places speedily and, thereby, merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, soon in our days. Amen!

Pinchas/Matot-Masei

THE MESSAGE OF THE DAILY OFFERING

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our Sages debate which verse in the Torah is the most fundamental verse, encapsulating the entire Torah. The opinion of Rebbi Akiva, that "Love thy neighbor as oneself" is the most fundamental verse, is well known. There is, however, another opinion that the most important verse in the Torah is the following verse dealing with the daily sacrifice: “The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon.” (Numbers 28,4) This opinion is difficult to understand. Firstly, we have commandments like Shabbat, loving God, etc., that seem to be far more fundamental than the instruction of the daily sacrifice. Secondly, the daily sacrifice is only applicable in Temple times. Is it possible that the most fundamental precept does not apply today, because we do not have the Temple in which to perform the daily sacrifice?

The great 16th century scholar, the Maharal of Prague, explains this opinion as follows. The purpose of the entire Torah is to provide guidance on becoming a true servant of God. The Maharal explains that the true servant serves his/her master day in and day out. One who is willing to serve his/her master on some days but not on others, is a freelance worker and not a true servant. Consistent daily service defines the committed servant. This verse, dealing with the daily service, is the most important verse in the Torah because it defines the ideal of being a true servant – being committed to the service of God each and every day.

It is challenging to be consistent and to do something every day. We don’t always feel inspired and motivated, we get distracted, and the natural laziness of the physical body also makes consistency challenging. In our daily study of Path of The Just, we came across a very useful piece of advice in this regard. Rabbi Luzzatto explains that when you are not feeling internally motivated, get your physical body moving quickly towards yosur goal. You will then notice that your internal motivation will follow. To put it another way – energize the body and you will energize the mind. My personal experience has similarly shown me that the most difficult task is beginning spiritual service, whether that is learning Torah or praying. Once one begins, one becomes energized. The lesson is to follow the Nike slogan and ‘Just Do It’.

Korach/Chukat-Balak

WE MAY BE EQUAL BUT...

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“They assembled against Moses and Aron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?’”

This is the external complaint that Korach and his followers lodge against Moses and Aron. Their basic argument is that, since all people are equally holy before God, why should Moses and Aron be in such powerful leadership positions? Korach descended from the tribe of Levy, the tribe dedicated by God for service in the temple. Korach took issue with Moses and Aron taking leadership positions within this tribe. Korach’s followers, on the other hand, took exception to the entire concept of a tribe (Levites and the subset of Levites called Kohanim) being exclusively dedicated to the service of God in the temple. They saw this as blatant inequality.

Our sages teach us that Korach was a very wealthy man. Had he been a poor man, he could have made a similar argument with regards to wealth. The argument would go something like this: You have taken too much wealth, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly? There is clearly no end to this argument. Is the argument flawed?

“Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, and the might, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and on the earth [is Yours]; Yours is the kingdom and [You are He] Who is exalted over everything as the Leader. And wealth and honor are from before You, and You rule over all, and in Your hand is strength and might, and it is in Your hand to magnify and to strengthen all.” (Book of Chronicles 29:11-12) The Talmud (Bava Batra) interprets these verses to mean that God gives every person his/her position in life and even appoints the person in charge of irrigating the fields (a seemingly insignificant leadership position). Just as God appoints every person to his/her position in life, God decides who will be honored and how wealth will be distributed. It is God that has given every human being different strengths and talents.

It is God that has decided that not every person will be a CEO of a fortune 500 company. God has decided that every ship needs one captain and that too many cooks spoil the broth. This does not imply that the CEO is intrinsically more valuable and precious in God’s eyes than others, nor does this imply that the wealthy are closer to God than others. Hierarchy in society is simply intrinsic to the universe that God created (for reasons that are beyond our human comprehension). Rashi explains that Moses answers Korach by saying: “God has separated borders in His world. Can you change Day into Night? Can you annul this appointment? (Aron to his position of sanctity).”

While it is perfectly acceptable to try to achieve a particular position in life through honest and legitimate means, rebelling against all societal infrastructure in the name of equality is contrary to the natural universe that God creates and will never be successful.

Beha'alotcha/Sh'lach

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU DISCOVERED?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The following discussion arose at a Shabbat dinner I attended twenty years ago. According to Jewish law, a person is defined as Jewish if he/she is born to a Jewish mother. A person not born to a Jewish mother can become Jewish by undergoing a conversion process. The question posed at the Shabbat table was: What would you do if you somehow discovered that you were not Jewish?

Our Shabbat host, a Rabbi, stated that he would opt not to convert to Judaism. He explained that Judaism believes that all human beings are commanded to observe the seven Noachide laws. Judaism does not believe that, in order to get salvation or be saved from hell, one needs to convert to Judaism. Anyone keeping the seven Noachide laws, which God instructed in the Torah, is considered a righteous person. He went on to explain that keeping all the laws of the Torah and being Jewish was a tremendous responsibility. Given the choice, he would opt for less responsibility and an easier lifestyle.

Having posed the question to a number of people over the years, I have come across a number of different approaches. Some concur with my Rabbi host that they would not convert, others say they would ask their Rabbi’s advice, and others say they would immediately undergo a conversion. Another common approach is the Sabbatical approach - take a year off to enjoy cheeseburgers, etc. - and then convert to Judaism.

In order to bring the Korban Pesach, the Pascal lamb offering, one is required to be free of impurity. There were a number of people who had come into contact with a dead body and were, therefore, not able to offer the Pascal lamb on Pesach. They approached Moses saying: “We are ritually unclean [because of contact] with a dead person; [but] why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?” Moses then requested clarification from God. God commanded them to bring the Pascal lamb offering one month later, on the day we call Pesach Sheni (Second Pesach).

Although these Jews were technically exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah of the Pascal lamb, they were disturbed by the fact that they could not fulfill the mitzvah. They viewed God’s commandment as a privilege and not simply as an obligation. I am quite sure that given the dilemma described above, these people would have demanded to be converted instantly.

There is no doubt that being Jewish (or a Jew) carries tremendous responsibilities. The question boils down to our attitude. Do we view being Jewish predominantly as an obligation or predominantly as a privilege? Pesach Sheni teaches us to aspire to the lofty attitude that each divine command is not simply an obligation but, indeed, an awesome privilege!

Shavuot/Parshat Nasso

TORAH'S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim


"If there is no flour there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour." (Ethics of the Fathers 3:21)

The first part of this teaching is easy to understand. If one has no food and cannot sustain one's basic physical needs, one cannot study the spiritual wisdom of the Torah. Maharal explains further that Torah study requires peace of mind. If one is constantly worried about one's livelihood, one does not have the peace of mind required for deep Torah study. This is the reason the priestly blessings begin as follows: “Hashem should bless you and watch over you.” (Numbers 6:24) Rashi explains this blessing as a blessing for increased physical possessions which provide us with a livelihood. The priests are charged with blessing the nation with possessions and the ability to secure those possessions. Without this financial possession and security, there can be no Torah.

Once there is flour, Torah can be studied. Therefore, the second priestly blessing is: “May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you.” (Numbers 6:25) Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that this is a blessing for God to open our eyes and reveal amazing insights into Torah and God’s actions.

The real question is on the second part of the teaching from Pirkei Avot. There are many people with no knowledge or insight into Torah wisdom who, nonetheless, have been blessed with tremendous financial resources and security. Given this fact, what is the meaning of: “If there is no Torah there is no flour”? Maharal explains this as follows: financial security should not be the goal, but, rather, a catalyst to provide one with the peace of mind necessary for spiritual Torah study. Spiritual study and development, which lead to self-actualization, are the goals. Since the entire goal of life is to reach this higher level of meaning, if one does not have spiritual advancement, then financial resources are effectively rendered meaningless.

This is what is meant by: “If there is no Torah there is no flour.” If there is no Torah, then flour is rendered meaningless. This explains the celebration of Shavuot – we celebrate the fact that God gave us the ultimate guidebook for a life of purpose, growth, and meaning. May God bless us all with financial security to achieve our goal of spiritual advancement and of making a unique contribution to mankind.

Behar-Bechukotai/Bamidbar

LOVE IN A FLAG

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Bamidbar describes the formation in which the Jewish people were commanded to travel and dwell in their desert sojourns. The tabernacle was placed in the center and four camps were formed around the tabernacle. Each camp had its own flag and each tribe within a particular camp also had its own unique flag.

The Midrash (Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2) explains that when God revealed Himself at the time of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people saw two hundred twenty thousand angels, each with its own unique flag. The Jewish people immediately longed for unique flags. The Midrash states that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, showed tremendous love for the people by giving them flags (like the angels) to make them distinctly recognizable. These teachings from the Midrash require much explanation. What did the people see in the angels’ flags that was so appealing to them? In what way did God express love for the Jewish people through commanding them to travel in specific formations and by giving them flags?

Every human being has a need for meaning and feels good when he/she is appreciated for his/her unique contribution. At the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people witnessed that each angel was unique and had a specific purpose (meaning) and role to play in the service of God. This is the meaning of the distinct flags which the Jewish people saw in each angel’s hand on Mt. Sinai. By giving each person, tribe, and tribe grouping a specific dwelling place around the tabernacle and distinct flags, each person understood that he/she was unique and had a specific role to play in the tapestry of the nation and service of God.

God filled the people with a feeling of uniqueness and meaning. This is, indeed, a tremendous expression of love. We love people and show our love to them by recognizing their uniqueness and honoring them for their unique life purpose and contribution. Let us be more aware and appreciative of the uniqueness of those who surround us and of their unique contribution to mankind.

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim/Emor

HUMAN RELATIONSHIP MITZVOT

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account. (Leviticus 19:17)

Maimonides understands this verse to contain three separate commandments: 1) the command not to hate one’s brother in one’s heart, 2) the command to rebuke someone who is transgressing Torah law, and 3) the command not to embarrass a person. The natural connection between these three commandments is brought to light by Maimonides in his epic work Mishneh Torah.

“When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him as Samuel 2:13,22 states concerning the wicked: And Avshalom did not speak to Amnon neither good, nor bad for Avshalom hated Amnon.

Rather, he is commanded to make the matter known and ask him: Why did you do this to me?, Why did you wrong me regarding that matter? as (Leviticus 19:17) states: You shall surely admonish your colleague.

If, afterwards, the person who committed the wrong asks his colleague to forgive him, he must do so. A person should not be cruel when forgiving as implied by (Genesis 20:17) And Abraham prayed to God...

Thus, the connection between not hating another and rebuking another is apparent. When one feels resentful about being wronged by another, holding on to that resentment without dealing with it is forbidden. One is obligated to approach the person and deal with the issue. In the best-case scenario, one of the parties will either realize that he/she has been mistaken in interpreting the other’s actions or admit his/her negative behavior and ask for forgiveness. Worst-case scenario, the perpetrator will not admit fault and remain unrepentant. Although this is a difficult scenario to deal with emotionally, one has at least met one’s Torah obligation to express one’s feelings in an attempt to remove resentment from one’s heart.

Having said this, when one approaches another with words of rebuke, one should do so in a way that does not unnecessarily embarrass the person and that encourages the person to see his/her mistakes (so that the relationship can be repaired). This is why the Torah states that “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.

May we all have the courage to deal with our relationship challenges, to own and admit our own mistakes, and to forgive others when they sincerely request that we do so.

Shmini/Tazria-Metzora

A TIMELY LESSON

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Our Sages teach us that a great tragedy occurred between Pesach and Shavuoth. During this time period, 24,000 of Rebbi Akiva’s students had perished from a plague. Therefore, we are accustomed to observing a semi-mourning period during this time.

The Midrash says that the students of Rebbi Akiva perished because they were 'narrow eyed' one to the other. It is important to understand the meaning of 'narrow eyed' so that we learn the lesson of this time period.

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, in his work Sifsei Chaim, explains that when one student would see another student succeed, he/she would begrudge the success of the other student. To be 'open eyed' means to be generous of spirit and joyous at the success of others. To be 'closed eyes' means to secretly be pained by the success of others. I believe that the students of Rebbi Akiva were externally kind towards one another, however, they were unhappy when they witnessed their friends’ achievements.

Rebbi Akiva stated that the greatest principle in the Torah is the following verse: "You shall love your fellow as yourself". Nachmanides proves that the verse does not mean that our love for others should be as great as the love of ourselves. The Torah is commanding us to want for others what we wish for ourselves. We all want good health, blessing, and accomplishment, and this is exactly what the Torah is commanding us to want for others. Ironically, it was Rebbi Akiva's first group of students who did not internalize this message. Perhaps Rebbi Akiva taught this teaching in response to this very tragedy.

The critical question that remains is: How do we work on this character trait? How do we avoid jealousy of the success and advancement of others, who often seem to be succeeding far beyond our own successes? There are many techniques one can employ to work on one's joy at the success of others. Very often we don't celebrate the success of others because our egos feel threatened. Often the success of others shakes our images of ourselves, making us feel inadequate, and we, therefore, begrudge the success of others. One way of working on this is to minimize our ego-driven sense of self and realize that we have a far deeper self that cannot be threatened by anyone, a self that is magnanimous and rejoices at the success of others. A great tool for accomplishing this is mindfulness practice, a practice that enables us to fully fulfill the Mitzvah of loving our fellows like ourselves.

Tzav/Passover

  THE MESSAGE OF ISOLATION

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

At this time, when we are facing the coronavirus epidemic, I believe we should be doing two things: 1) meticulously follow all of the safety guidelines issued by our medical experts and all government ordinances, and 2) involve ourselves in some serious introspection and to use this plague as a catalyst to recalibrate our spiritual lives. While we may never know the reasons why the Almighty has brought this calamity upon us, we are obligated to apply our minds and hearts to all possible lessons that God may be communicating with us.

We have all been forced to isolate and remove ourselves from our societies. What is the message here? Where do we find this concept of isolation from society in the Torah? The Torah tells us that a person that has been afflicted with tzara’at (a biblical skin affliction) is obligated to remove him/herself from society and dwell separately while he/she undergoes a purification process. The Talmud (Arachin 16a) teaches us that tzara’at is contracted due to seven things: 1) lashon ha-ra, 2) murder, 3) false oaths, 4) sexual immorality, 5) arrogance, 6) theft, and 7) stinginess. All of these sins involve a person destroying, disregarding, and disrespecting members of society. The Torah commands a person who does not value and appreciate society and its members, to leave society and remain in isolation. A person struck with tzara’at would engage in a process of self-reflection, the goal of which would be to discover and appreciate the value of society and its members. This internal process would result in the person healing from tzara’at, and, thus, being allowed to return to society.

The message for us is clear. We need to be asking ourselves a number of questions: Do we speak badly of others? Do we see society as merely a means to benefit ourselves? Do we appreciate others and society as we should? Is there more we can do for others? Now that our societies are somewhat disbanded, and we see the consequences of societal isolation all around us, let us humbly realize our interdependence on one another as human beings, and renew our appreciation of others, our communities, and our societies.

As we approach the Passover holiday, we recall that our exodus from Egypt began with Joseph speaking badly of his brothers. We know that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. In our isolation, G-d is reminding us that before the third Beit Hamikdash (Temple) is built and the ultimate unity of the Jewish people and all of mankind is restored, we need to inject more love, appreciation, and gratitude towards others into our world.

Vayakhel-Pekudei/Vayikra

  WHY THE CORONAVIRUS?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

We do not have the gift of prophecy today and, therefore, cannot be sure of the spiritual reasons why God has brought the coronavirus upon mankind at this time.  Nonetheless, it is clear from our sages that when great trials and tribulations affect us, we are commanded to introspect, search for possible spiritual causes and correct them.

The coronavirus epidemic has practically impacted the entire globe. As I write this, cities are enforcing curfews on their inhabitants, and we have all been encouraged to practice social distancing. What is it that is distancing us? A potentially lethal virus that is not visible to the naked eye. While considering the above, a specific Torah passage comes to mind.

In chapter 11 of Genesis, the Torah describes how the population of the entire earth spoke one language. They set out to build a city with a huge central tower in Babylon. The purpose of this central city was to prevent people from being scattered upon the face of Earth. The Torah describes how God was displeased with their plans. God divided them into different peoples with different languages and scattered them upon the face of the earth. The text does not explicitly state the cause of God’s displeasure or why God divided and scattered humanity.

Our sages explain (see Rashi, Midrashim) that humankind realized that it was vulnerable to natural disasters, such as the great flood that occurred in Noah’s generation. To alleviate this feeling of vulnerability, mankind decided to form a united and cohesive community that, together, would have the ability to fight off floods, diseases, and other natural disasters. As a united force, people were confident that they could conquer any natural obstacle and, therefore, would no longer feel vulnerable.

God was displeased with their plans. Their aspirations caused them to feel a sense of complete control and gave them an almost smug confidence that they could conquer any challenge. Humankind could solve every challenge and God would no longer be needed in their lives. They would have no deficiencies and, therefore, would have no need to turn to God as a source of redemption and salvation.

Our global society has made astounding progress in the areas of technology and medicine. Every day, scientists in our laboratories discover cures for illnesses that have plagued mankind for centuries. Perhaps we have put too much of our faith in our global human society and forgotten that we are truly dependent on God almighty. Perhaps after years of advancement of our global village, God is knocking on our door and reminding us that we are not as powerful as we had thought. We are being humbled and made to feel incredibly vulnerable again. The medical answer is to find antivirals and vaccines. The spiritual answer is to call out to God in prayer and deeply realize that our destinies are in His hands alone.

Let us consider what is occurring. We are forced to separate from one another and can only stand back and watch our entire civilization of activity and scientific advancement being brought to its knees by a tiny, invisible entity. Let us be humbled and, along with taking the essential physical protective measures, return our hearts to our Father in heaven.

Sun, May 16 2021 5 Sivan 5781