Thursday, February 23, 2012

Terumah 5772

In this week’s parsha, G-d instructs the people of Israel to build for Him a dwelling, also called a sanctuary and referred to as a Tabernacle. Among the instructions for its furnishings: “Make a table of shittim (acacia) wood.”   The ark and the altar were also to be made of shittim.

What is the significance of shittim (acacia) wood?

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that shittim forms an acronym for the words shalom (peace), tova (goodness), yeshua (salvation) and mechila (forgiveness.) All four of these blessings come to the Jewish people through the furnishings of the Tabernacle.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand asks: Now that we no longer have these furnishings, how can we continue to receive these blessings? Rabbeinu Bachya answers by citing the Talmud (Chagiga 27a): “Now that the Holy Temple is no longer standing, a person receives atonement through his own table.”

Writes Rabbi Frand: “If we feed the poor, welcome the traveler and host guests at our table, then the dining room table –or the kitchen table for that matter – becomes our personal altar of atonement.

Writes Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum: “The shulchan (table) attests to an individual’s integrity and worthiness for Olam Haba (the World to Come.) The shulchan is the symbol of prosperity. It represents the demand upon every Jew to share his material abundance with those less fortunate than he. The shulchan testifies that its owner has fulfilled his obligation to others.”

Rabbeinu Bachya notes an ancient French custom of using the wood of one’s dining table to construct one’s coffin. Writes Rabbi Scheinbaum: “This reinforces the concept that man takes nothing with him as his earthly remains are laid to rest. Only the charity and kindness that he has extended to others accompany him upon his eternal journey.”
As parents, we control what happens at our table: who sits around the table, what food is served, what is discussed. We can treat the table as an altar, and the home as a miniature sanctuary. We can use meal times as an opportunity to infuse our families with holiness and with blessings.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mishpatim 5772

In this week's parsha, Moshe reads the people mishpatim (ordinances), which are 53 mitzvot (commandments) that are mostly civil laws. The people of Israel respond, "All that the L-rd spoke, we will do and we will hear/understand (na'aseh v'nishma)."

The classic question is, how can one "do" before one "hears/understands"?

Our tradition understands the phrase na'aseh v'nishma to be the consummate commitment to Torah observance. By putting action before understanding, the people express their faith in G-d and their promise to follow G-d's laws, even before fully comprehending what is required of them.

Some have called this "blind faith." In fact, the Talmud quotes a Sadducee who calls Jews "you rash people who gave precedence to your mouth over your ears…First you should have listened, and if it is within your powers, accept; if not, you should not have accepted."

The Midrash says that when the people of Israel give priority to "we will do", a heavenly voice proclaims, "Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the angels? As it is written, (Tehillim/Psalms 103:20) 'Bless the L-rd His angels, those mighty in strength, who fulfill His word, who hear the voice of His word' – first they fulfill, then they hear."

The Chassidic masters say: "The greatness of the people of Israel was not that they were prepared to 'blindly' do G-d's bidding without understanding (in which case they would have said only 'we will do' ), but that they placed their doing before their understanding. G-d desires that we should do as well as 'hear' and comprehend His will, so that we serve Him not only with our hands and feet, but also with our minds and hearts. But our doing should serve as the basis of our understanding rather than the other way around."

Judaism is not a religion that encourages blind faith; by contrast, our tradition values study, questions and multiple interpretations. Judaism is not just an ideology or faith; it is a way of life. You are born a Jew and remain one whether or not you ever do anything "Jewish." However, to live a Jewish life means to act upon the teachings of our tradition. Through doing, we come to appreciate and understand the wisdom of our way of life.

Writes Rabbi Label Lam on "One can study the laws of Shabbat and read a thousand doctoral theses on the subject, interview subjects and still never know what it's really about without having first tasted a Shabbat itself."

As parents, it is not enough to drop off our kids at after-school religious school programs, or to send them to day schools and yeshivas so that they can learn about our traditions. We, ourselves, must actively participate in Jewish life in public and, more importantly, at home. Only then, when our children question and challenge us, will we be prepared to answer. In the words coined in the hallowed halls of Madison Avenue, "Just do it!" (Or was that "Just Jew it"?)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yitro 5772

In this week's parsha, the Jewish people receive the Ten Commandments, one of which is "Remember the Shabbat (Sabbath) day."

How do we fulfill the mitzvah to remember Shabbat?

Remembering Shabbat means more than merely not forgetting to observe Shabbat when it comes each week. It means keeping Shabbat in mind and remaining aware of it all week long. The Hebrew language contains a tool to help us accomplish this: what we call the days of the week in Hebrew expresses their relationship to Shabbat. Sunday is Yom Rishon, the first day to Shabbat; Monday is Yom Sheni, the second day, and so on until we reach the seventh day, which Torah names Shabbat.

Naming the days by number helps us to remember that G-d creates the heavens, the Earth and its inhabitants in six days. It helps us to recall that G-d distinguishes the seventh day from the rest of the week not only by stopping creation on that day and by resting, but by giving the day a special name.

Even when we do mundane activities such as shopping, we should have Shabbat in mind. In the course of our daily errands and duties, if we come across something special that would beautify or enhance our Shabbat, or make our Shabbat memorable, we should purchase it and put it aside for Shabbat. Many children associate oneg Shabbat (the joy of Shabbat) with the eating of sweets and treats served exclusively on Shabbat.

We should remember to arrange our busy schedules and to utilize our weekday time efficiently so that we can refrain from even thinking about work on Shabbat, and thus can take time to rest and refresh ourselves on Shabbat.

As parents, our work is never done – there will always be more to do at the office as well as at home. Remembering Shabbat frees us from the temptation to work continually and allows us to stop and appreciate our accomplishments when Shabbat arrives.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

B’shalach 5772

In this week's parsha, the Sea of Reeds miraculously splits, allowing the Israelites to flee from the Egyptians. "Moshe (Moses) caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds and they went out to the Wilderness of Shur; they went for a three-day period in the Wilderness, but they did not find water. They arrived at Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah 'ki marim hem' -- because they were bitter; therefore they named it Marah (bitter.) The people complained against Moshe, saying, 'What shall we drink?' He cried out to Hashem and Hashem showed him a tree; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He established for [the nation] a statute and a judgment, and there He tested it."

How can we explain that so soon after witnessing the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the people complain? Why does G-d test the people with the lack of water, and what does He expect them to do?

Rashi writes: "He tested the people and saw the stiffness of their neck, for they did not consult with Moshe using lashon yafeh -- gracious language – saying 'pray on our behalf that there should be water for us to drink.' Rather, they complained."

Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich on states that the people's complaints are legitimate, justified and correct – the people need potable water. G-d tests them to see how they will approach the problem. G-d expects them to use lashon yafeh. Instead of a calm, appropriate and respectful approach, the people complain with anger, resentment and a sense of entitlement. In fact, they are quite bitter.

The Kotzker Rebbe remarks that the simple meaning of the expression ki marim hem is "because the waters were bitter." However, the Kotzker interprets the pronoun hem (they) as referring to the people. The people were bitter and they complained about the water. Because they, themselves, were bitter, nothing was good in their eyes.

Rabbi Stephen Baars on notes that G-d could have sent the people to an oasis instead of to the desolate Marah. He suggests that if the people had been directed to an oasis, they might have had to do battle with its inhabitants in order to gain access to sweet-tasting water. Instead, they stop at an unpopulated area and G-d has Moshe miraculously transform the bitter water.

As parents, we may find many things to complain about. However, we cannot afford to be bitter, angry and resentful when things appear not to be going our way. We can decide what our attitude will be. But we must remember that if everything appears bitter in our lives, it may well be ki marim hem – because we ourselves are bitter.

Excerpted from an article by Rabbi Yissocher Frand. Read it in its entirety at