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!     

Friday, September 7, 2012

Ki Tavo 5772

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah (commandment) of bikkurim, offering the first fruits to thank G-d for the Land of Israel and its produce. “And it will be, when you come into the land which the L-rd your G-d gives you for an inheritance, and you possess and settle in it, that you shall take of the first fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the L-rd your G-d is giving you…Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the L-rd your G-d has granted you and your household.”

Rashi notes that the law of bikkurim took effect 14 years after the people entered the land, only after the land was conquered (seven years) and divided (another seven years).  Why the wait?

Writes Rabbi Yossy Goldman on “In order to be able to fully experience the joy of his own blessings in life, a Jew needs to know that his brothers and sisters have been blessed as well.  As long as one Jew knew that there were others who had not yet been settled in their land, he could not be fully content. Since simcha, genuine joy, was a necessary component of the mitzvah of bikkurim, it could only be fulfilled when everyone had been satisfied…One Jew’s satisfaction is not complete when he knows that his brother has not yet been taken care of.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld writes: “We have to be joyous to truly feel G-d’s presence…We can attain a truly lasting joy by making ourselves complete...Ultimately, our rabbis teach us that we make ourselves complete by helping others…We cannot expect to be complete in our service of G-d unless we are sensitive to others. And more than that, the more we work on helping others…the closer we will become to G-d and the more joyous our prayer will be.”

As parents, we must show our children that we serve G-d with joy. If we show we are happy to help others and to perform mitzvot, our children will grow up knowing that avodat Hashem, doing what G-d asks us to do, is the formula for true and lasting happiness. Our children need to see that we have a relationship with G-d and that we do good and perform mitzvot because we love, and are grateful, to G-d.