Sunday, October 7, 2012

V'Zot HaBracha 5773

We read this parsha, the last in Torah, during the festival of Simchat Torah, which takes place this year in the Diaspora (outside Israel) on Monday evening, October 8 through Tuesday evening, October 9.  It contains the well known verse: “Torah was commanded to us by Moshe (Moses), an inheritance [morasha] to the Congregation of Yaakov (Jacob).”

Why does Torah use the word morasha when it could have used the related word yerusha?

Rabbi Yissocher Frand on notes a teaching from the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Basra 8:2): everywhere we find the word morasha, it connotes a weakening of the idea of inheritance. 

Writes Rabbi Frand: “Morasha is a peculiar word. It is not easy to translate. It is significantly different than the word yerusha. The connotation is that one has less ownership in an object that has come to him as a morasha than he does in an item that comes to him as a yerusha.”

To make this point, the Jerusalem Talmud references a verse in Shemot (Exodus) 6:8: “And I will give it [the Land of Israel] to you as a morasha.” It notes that the people given this promise never made it to the Land of Israel. Nearly all of them died in the desert, so the Land of Israel never became theirs.

Writes Rav Frand: “Had the Torah promised Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) to those who left Egypt as a yerusha, it would have belonged to them with no ifs ands or buts. However, the Torah used the weaker form, morasha, meaning that it will not necessarily be yours.”

“It only became theirs to the extent that they gave it to their children. This, in fact, is the major connotation of word morasha. The word implies ‘it is yours – sometimes literally and sometimes only to the extent that you pass it onto your children without ever having taken possession.’”  

“Torah is not a yerusha. Just because my father had the Torah does not mean that I will have the Torah. Sometimes a person only has the Torah as a morasha. This means that if a person sweats over Torah and makes an effort to understand Torah and puts in the hours required to master Torah, then Torah actually becomes his...Without the sweat and the hours, Torah will only be something that the person can potentially pass on to the next generation.”

As parents, we must toil in Torah and teach it to our children so they will have the potential to pass it on to our grandchildren.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Chol HaMoed Sukkot 5773

During the festival of Sukkot, we leave the comfort of home to reside in a sukkah, a temporary hut, shack or booth.  The sukkah reminds us that the Israelites dwelled in huts when they left Egypt: "You shall dwell in booths seven days… So that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt."

The Talmud (Sukkah 26a) explains that we dwell in the sukkah as if it were our home. We eat there, entertain there, read, study and may even sleep there. The Talmud (Sukkah 11b) also explains that this verse refers not only to physical huts, but also to the protective Clouds of Glory which G-d spread out over the Israelite encampment to protect the people during their travels.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes: “Dwelling in booths is at root an exercise in ego negation; it works to build faith in the spiritual Source and not in the material domain of man's control. The sukkah requires a roof that is very insubstantial -- it must be flimsy enough to allow the rain through; it is good if you can see the stars through it, too. 

One of the root meanings of the Hebrew word sukkah is ‘to see through.’ When we leave our permanent home, the proverbial ‘roof over our head,’ and move into a booth that has hardly a roof at all, we develop the ability to see through the material and perceive the higher. The tempting illusion is that our security derives from the material; the sukkah teaches that if there is security, it comes from elsewhere.

The kabbalistic texts call the sukkah the "shelter of faith." The festival of Sukkot occurs at the harvest season. The message is that when we bring the harvest into our home, just at the time when we may feel most independent, most self-secure, most independently wealthy, the Torah warns us to stay attached to the real Source of all that we have. On Sukkot, we read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) – ‘All is vanity’; do not invest too much in this world.

Dwelling in booths serves to sensitize us to the higher world, to draw our gaze up metaphorically, through the sukkah's thin cover and not to the security of the concrete roofs of our permanent homes. This is a tangible experience of leaving the material and going out into a different kind of existence.”

Slovie Jungreis-Wolff writes: “Sitting in the sukkah under the stars, we realize that possessions do not bring peace. Life in this world is transient and we will never find serenity in that which is fleeting. We can understand that only living with purpose will bring us a sense of lasting peace.”

As we enter the sukkah, we offer a most beautiful prayer: "May it be Your will. my G-d and G-d of my forefathers, that You cause Your Presence to reside amongst us; that You spread over us the sukkah of Your peace."

Fellow parents, as you enter the sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace, as you sit inside its walls, take a moment to look around. See the blessings that surround you and the joy that lies right before your eyes. This Sukkot, may you be surrounded by Clouds of Glory, walls of strength and know peace and serenity. Chag sameach! Have a joyous holiday. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Haazinu 5773

In this week’s parsha Moshe (Moses) continues his final address, a song, to B’nai Yisroel (the Children of Israel): “Remember the days of old, understand the years [shnot] of each generation.”

What is the significance of the repetitive language of the verse?  How does “remember the days of old” differ from “understand the years of each generation”?

Rabbi Yissocher Frand cites the explanation of the Menachem Tzion:  the key is the word shnot, spelled shin-nun-tav.  It is the plural of the word shanah, “year”, but also can be derived from the Hebrew word shoneh, “different” or “changed”. We can thus read the text as “Understand the changes/differences of each generation.”

Writes Rav Frand: “Understand that the lessons of the past must be applied to the present with wisdom and discernment. Times change, people change, circumstances change. Not everything that worked in the past will work today, and not everything that failed in the past will fail today. The Torah can never be changed but it has enough built-in flexibility to allow it to adapt perfectly to all times and places. We have to think and consider hard before we make the application.”

Dear parents, the New Year represents a time for change. We are not condemned to repeat the same patterns of behavior of past years; we are urged to examine our past, learn from it and make changes that can improve our future and that of our children.  Nor are we destined to be the same kind of parents as our own parents if we choose not to be.  Just as our parents made decisions based on the circumstances and the times in which they lived, so must we carefully consider the changes dictated by current times and circumstances.

Rav Frand’s article on this subject appears at

Friday, September 21, 2012

Vayelech 5773

This week’s parsha contains the last of the 613 mitzvot (commandments). “Write for yourselves this song and teach it to the Children of Israel.” Our tradition teaches that the mitzvah (commandment) is for each of us to write our own Torah or to take part in the writing of a Torah scroll.

Why is Torah called shirah, song?

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks cites the interpretation of Netziv: The whole Torah should be read as poetry, not prose, as the Hebrew word shirah means both song and poem. Like poetry, Torah is allusive rather than explicit, leaving more unsaid than said.

The Chief Rabbi also references R. Yechiel Michal Epstein, who equates the arguments in rabbinic literature, “the words of the living G-d”, with a song because “a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.”

Writes the Chief Rabbi: “The 613th command is about the duty to make the Torah new in each generation. To make the Torah live anew, it is not enough to hand it on cognitively – as mere history and law. It must speak to us affectively, emotionally. Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual, it breaks into song…Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”

How do we make the Torah new in each generation?

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen on provides the explanation of the Ktav Sofer: “This mitzvah is teaching us that it is not sufficient for a person to observe the Torah simply because his parents habituated him to Torah observance. Rather, he must create his own personal relationship with G-d based on a genuine recognition and appreciation of Torah. Writing one’s own Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] and not relying on that of his parents indicates that a person is striving to develop his own path in serving G-d and not blindly following that of his parents.”

While the child must forge his own relationship with G-d, developing his own traits and talents to the fullest, the mitzvah requires that he write the exact same Sefer Torah as his forefathers: “The degree of innovation that he makes cannot go beyond the boundary of the Torah inherited from his parents.”

Writes Rabbi Gefen: “All Jews are born into a line of tradition that goes back to Abraham; we are obligated to faithfully adhere to the instructions and attitudes that we receive from this line of tradition. A person cannot make up his own set of values or lifestyle; there is a tradition that guides him how to live his life. But at the same time, this does not mean that each person in the chain of tradition is identical in every way – there are many ways in which a person can express himself in the fulfillment of the tradition.”

Rabbi Gefen reminds us that on Yom Kippur (which will be observed this year on Tuesday evening September 25 through Wednesday evening, September 26) we will be judged not only for our mitzvah observance, but as to whether or not we are fulfilling our own purpose in life – whether we have utilized our own talents to our greatest ability and found our own niche in serving G-d.

As parents, we must transmit the Torah of our ancestors to our children, while at the same time allowing them to write their own song, their own Torah, and reach their individual potential by fulfilling their unique purpose in life.

Read the Chief Rabbi’s article at

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nitzavim 5772

At the end of this week’s parsha Moshe (Moses) tells the Children of Israel: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.

Why did the people need to be instructed to choose life? Wouldn’t they have chosen life on their own accord? How would choosing life ensure that their children would live?

Rabbi Naftali Reich on cites the explanation of Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona: “Our decision to embrace the values of the Torah should not be based solely on our obligation to G-d to obey His will. Rather, we should embrace it with a profound appreciation of its awesome power and eternal truths.  We should appreciate fully that the Torah, which is the word of the Creator of the universe, is the true source of life – the only source of life…Developing this outlook with regards to developing a relationship with G-d is not only to ensure that we have the proper attitude. It is to raise us to a higher level, to make us servants who serve their lord out of exuberant joy rather than sullen observance.”

“[It follows that] if parents fulfill their obligation to G-d as if it were a burden upon them, the children may choose to do even less. However, if children see their parents living by the wisdom and guidance of the Torah with joy and enthusiasm, the children will associate their precious Jewish heritage with the essence of life itself. Then they, too, will choose life.”

The parsha reminds us how accessible are G-d and His Torah: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven that you shall say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

Writes Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “G-d is close. G-d is here. G-d is life. Therefore celebrate life. Sanctify life. Turn life into a blessing and make a blessing over life. That is Judaism in 25 words."

“I promise you that whatever you choose to do, living a Jewish life will help you do it better, with greater balance, more wisdom, more joy, a deeper sense of purpose and a feeling of having been touched by eternity.”

Dear fellow parents, may the G-d of life write you and your children in the Book of Life, and may your lives become a blessed chapter in His book. Shana tova u’metuka – may the New Year 5773 be good and sweet!