Basic Instinct – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

TorahScrollNo, this is not a movie review and, no, I don’t think I ever saw it either!

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, does challenge us to contemplate: What are our basic instincts as Jews?

Moses presents the Torah to the Jewish people who famously respond with the words “ naseh v’nishma,”  “we will do, then we will listen.”  Seemingly we are pledging that we first accept the Torah unconditionally, no matter what may be written within.  After making that commitment we are ready to hear the Torah’s content.   A quite noble statement, but is that what the words really mean?

Taking the words literally, how exactly is it possible to do anything before first knowing what to do?  Before beginning any task, we have to at least know what the task is.  If not where would we start?  This is really what our words as a people are: “We will do, then, we will listen.”  We seem positioned ready to act.  How, if we don’t know yet what to do?

Let’s examine basic, natural human instincts.  When a person feels hunger, thirst, or really any desire, does the person first think “I need to eat” then begin a thought process of what to eat, when to eat, do I need hot sauce?  What really happens is that, first, we instinctively feel hungry or thirsty.  Only then does our thought process begin for “how will I fulfill my need?”  The actual hunger pang is a natural instinctual occurrence by which our bodies tell us it is time to eat.  We see that the process of eating really begins well before we intellectually think about the fact that we are hungry.

Upon receiving the Torah, we as Jews not only committed to unconditionally accept its priceless lessons, but we pledged to weave the Torah into the very fabric of our being.   Living by the Torah’s word became a very basic instinct of the Jewish people.

Just as we feel a pang of hunger or a sudden thirst, if we listen closely, we can also hear the calling of our souls telling us that our spiritual needs cannot be forgotten.

Something to ponder.  Shabbat Shalom!

What in the World is That Noise? – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

EPSON scanner imageAn unassuming villager, who had never before seen or even heard of a train, once wandered out of town all the way to the edge of a large city.  In the village, people traveled on donkeys, and farmers used cows to plow their fields.  The very idea of large machines for transport or work was absolutely foreign.

As the villager came close to the city, he came across long rows of steel rods.  He couldn’t see the beginning nor the end of the rows.  Even more strange,  every couple of fee, there were these boards laying across the steel rods with these hug nails stuck into them.

The fellow stood for a moment to ponder his discovery, then, being tired from his journey, he decided to take a brief rest on these boards before returning home.  The man fell asleep.

After a short while a train was coming down the tracks.  As the train approached, the conductor noticed a person resting on the tracks and began to send warning signals.  He blew his whistle, rang his bell, and sounded any alarm he could possibly reach.  Finally, all the noise awoke the poor villager who was now perplexed as to where all of these sounds were coming from.  “Bells, whistles” he thought, “it sounds like a band.”  Then the man looked up and saw lots of lights coming at him from a distance.  The whole scene reminded the fellow of the village band and the special carriage used to escort a bride and groom on their wedding day.  “There must be a wedding coming my way” and our villager friend stood up and began to dance in the middle of the tracks.
Imagine the thoughts of a bystander watching the scene: Is this guy deaf?  Maybe he can’t hear the train coming his way?  The truth, is that he heard very well, he just didn’t know what he was listening too!

This week’s Torah portion tells us that Yitro heard all that happened to the Jews as they were leaving Egypt.  He was so inspired that he came to join the nation.  Why do we have to be told that Yitro heard?  He was not the only one that heard, in fact the whole world heard.  Yitro was just the only one who reacted.  Why?

The Torah is teaching us that even though the whole world heard about the miracles that had occurred, Yitro was the only person who was impacted because he was the only one listening and open to what he was hearing.  Yitro was a seeker of truth and when he heard it, he internalized the message and responded accordingly.

What a powerful message.  Every day of our lives we encounter “messages.”  God is constantly involved in our lives, and sometimes makes it loud and clear.  Sometimes the bells and whistles are even sounded.  Often though, we don’t even realize.  We go on with our lives as if nothing had happened at all.

The messages are loud and clear.  The question is: are we listening?

Navigating by Moonlight – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

moonlightThere is always a light at the end of the tunnel, just sometimes the tunnel seems to extend miles and miles.  The sun will come up tomorrow (bet your bottom dollar), but sometimes tomorrow fells much more than a day away.  Often when we find ourselves in the darkest most difficult moments of life we feel hopeless and as if there is no way out of our pressing situation.  The Torah, however, teaches us that it is that very feeling of despair that allows us hope for better times ahead.

In this weeks parsha, Bo, we as Jews are given our first mitzvah (commandment) as a people.  What is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people you may ask.  So many to choose from: Shabbat, Kosher?  Nope, the first Mitzvah the Torah commands us of is that of Rosh Chodesh: to bless each new month.

What is it that makes this mitzvah so significant that it should be our first charge?

The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, each month beginning with the new cycle of the moon.  Our story as a people is also compared to the cycle of the moon.  Towards the end of each month the moon’s light diminishes more and more until, in the final days, hardly a glimmer of light can be seen.  But just as much as that darkness is a sign of the end of a month, it is also a sign that a new month is about to begin.

So is the history of the Jews.  We have experienced many dark moments.  Each of those moments, though, also produces a glimmer of hope for brighter days in the future.  It is this message that in many ways defines us as Jews.  Therefore, God sees fit that our first mitzvah should be one that teaches the lesson of how to navigate life and live all the others.  Persevere and never give up because brighter days do lie ahead.

Moses and Me – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

rabbi-berkmanPonder this: “Every person can be as righteous as Moses.”  Sounds profound, right?  Is it true though?  Is it possible for you and I, regular old people, to be as righteous as the greatest leader of the Jewish people?

The words are not my own, but rather a statement made by Mimomodees.  But what does he mean that every person can be as righteous as Moses?  He was the greatest prophet to ever live.  He spoke to God face to face.  Who am I?

The Torah tells us that while Moshe was the leader of the Jews he was not a man of words.  Therefore, he partnered with his brother Aharon to lead the Jews out of Egypt.  Moshe was the leader, Aharon did the talking.  It is curious though that throughout the Torah, when Moses and Aharon are mentioned together, sometimes Moses’ name comes first and sometimes Aharon is mentioned first.  Rashi, one of our foremost commentators, explains that this is done to show that Moshe and Aharon were equals.  Really?  Aharon was great, but equal to Moses?  The Torah clearly tells us that Moses was the leader of the two.

The truth is that Moses was indeed “greater” than Aharon, but they were on a mission together and on that mission Aharon did exactly what was asked of him to the best that his abilities would allow him to.  He realized his role, accepted his role, and filled it with maximum effort.  Although he may not have been on as high as a spiritual level or possessed the same traits as Moses, it was Aharon’s approach to his role that made him considered as great as his brother.

We will never be Moses, and, truthfully, we are not expected to be.  We can though attain our own level of greatness.  We learn from Aharon that if we search for who we are, realize our own strengths and weaknesses, and strive to reach our potential, we may be surprised to see how great we really can be.

Not Getting Any Easier? – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

photo.1Welcome 2013!  A new year opens possibilities for new beginning.  A chance to reevaluate who we are and set new goals for the coming year is an opportunity not to let pass by.  The thought seemed really great over the holiday weekend, but I went back to work today and things seem more or less the same.  I already feel myself falling back into more or less the same old routine that I so much wanted to change!

This week’s Torah portion gives us advice as how to maneuver this challenge that so many of us are facing in this first week of the New Year.  The book of Shemot begins by telling us a count of the Jewish people that went down to Egypt.  Our commentators point out though that the Torah in fact just gave us the same exact count two weeks ago, to which many explain that then the Torah was counting the Jews as they went into Egypt and now we are being counted as we are going out.  This as a sign of how precious the Jewish people are to God as they are compared to stars that are counted by name as they come out at night, and again as they disappear in the morning.

A beautiful explanation, the only trouble is that the Jews are not yet coming out of Egypt.  In fact, right after we are told about the increased hardships the Jews face in Egypt.  What it the Torah telling us?

The truth is that this is the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges and hardships along the way.  Although the process of redemption has begun, the suffering first becomes a bit more intense before the real relief is seen.

As we endeavor to make the new year different from last, we must understand that there may be challenges along the way.  We should persevere and realize that it is through those challenges that we will grow and ultimately reach our goals.

Wishing everyone a wonderful and prosperous 2013.  Shabbat Shalom

Please Join MesorahDC this Friday night.  Shabbat services, Cocktails and dinner!  Rsvp Now! 

Remembrance and Renewal

We have just entered one of the saddest portions on the Jewish calendar known as the ‘Three Weeks.’  These three weeks, between the Fast of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, commemorate many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, but mainly the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is difficult for many Jews today to relate to such a tragedy. What does the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem thousands of years ago have to do with my life today as a Jew in the modern world?

Many of us are unsure of how to mourn the loss of the Temple, because we do not understand its significance to our lives. During the Three Weeks, which culminate with Tisha B’Av we mourn all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish nation in history. However, it’s important to remember that we are primarily remembering the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which resided in Jerusalem. In fact all our later suffering is intimately tied to the loss of the Temple (for further reference, see here).

What was the Temple? Today we may have trouble understanding this, but in its day, the Temple was the central focus of Judaism. In Temple-times it was the place where plant and animal sacrifices were brought and the major holidays were celebrated. It united all of the Jewish people. Most importantly, the Divine Presence known as the Shechina, dwelt within the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Here’s G-d’s presence could be most acutely perceived. The loss of the Temple was not just a tragedy for the Jews, but for the entire world – even for the nations who could not appreciate it. The Temple was a sacred meeting ground between Heaven and Earth, humankind and the Divine, G-d and His people. True, G-d is still here, but the intimate closeness that could be achieved through having a Temple is gone. A great light vanished from the world when the Temple was destroyed.

Without the Temple, we are in a period of time called Galut (exile), may it end now. We serve G-d and G-d’s love for us has not been extinguished, but it is now much harder to serve G-d and perform the mitzvahs with the feeling that we are in a relationship – never mind a close relationship.

However, we have been promised by our Prophets that it will not always be this way. We lost the Second Temple through baseless hatred and squabbling among Jews, but in our own time it is said that it will be rebuilt through baseless love. Every single mitzvah or good deed you perform is laying a brick in the reconstruction of the Temple. Studying Torah, serving G-d through the performance of the mitzvot, and increasing in acts of kindness can hasten the coming of the Redemption for which Jews have been praying for centuries.

Use this time of the Three Weeks to learn about the Temple, its rituals, and its significance. Brush up on your Jewish history and try to appreciate the sacrifices and pain our ancestors endured so that Judaism would survive and so that we could be Jews today. What kind of sacrifices are we willing to make in own generation? Are we fit carry the torch or will we simply let it burn out?  In this way we may begin to feel a sense of loss and yearning for the Temple. Yearning for the Redemption and the reconstruction of the Temple is part of being Jewish and an excellent way to deepen our relationship with G-d. May it happen that the “Temple that will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7) be rebuilt upon its former site speedily and in our days.

The Difference between Faith and Trust

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

This week we read in Parshas Behar about the law of shmita. Shmita is the Torah commandment that farmers in the land of Israel must let the land lie fallow every seventh year of the agricultural cycle. Shmita is often compared to Shabbat – the seventh day of the week in which Jews must rest and refrain from work.  But is the comparison congruous?

Before we compare shmita and Shabbat let us look at two Hebrew words that many people use synonymously. The words are emunah and bitachon. Are they the same? Not quite. Emunah means faith while bitachon means trust. Still don’t see a difference? Simply put, emunah is one’s belief in the existence of the Creator. Bitachon, however, is the knowledge that G-d is in control of everything and does everything for our benefit.

On Shabbat a person testifies that G-d created the world in six days and commanded us to rest on the seventh. However, during a shmita year a person who depends on working the land for their very livelihood demonstrates that G-d runs the world and will provide for her every need.

G-d rules over nature. Indeed one who observes shmita is testifying that it is actually G-d whom one is dependent upon for one’s livelihood. Whether the crops grow well, the consumers buy our goods, or the clients arrive at our office is not dependent on our charisma or knowledge, but on G-d’s blessing. Sure, we must work in order to be a vessel that is capable of receiving blessings – G-d purposely set up the world in this way, but the final outcome is determined by none other than the One who created an continues to sustain the universe.

Much thanks to See: The Real Answer to the Question, “Who Moved My Cheese?”


Torah Portion: Making Sure Your Criticism is Constructive

Maybe not a kosher lunch, but perhaps a kosher criticism...

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to Gather the Jews.

Last week in our study of Parshas Tazria we discussed the importance of words and the danger we may incur by speaking ill of others. Our words are indeed powerful and can be used to help as well as to harm. Sometimes helping another person may involve giving him or her some constructive criticism, but how do we know our criticism is motivated by genuine concern for the other’s well-being and not by a need to bolster our own ego?

This week’s parsha, Parshas Metzora discusses the process that a metzora – a person afflicted with a skin disease for having committed the sin of lashon hara (relating unkind, but true information about another) – underwent in order to become purified.

The Hebrew word metzora is a combination of three words – motze (shem) ra. Motze shem ra is a term which means “one who speaks ill of another” when that which he says is false i.e. slander or spreading a false rumor.[1]

The Torah tells us that only a Kohen (priest) had the power to declare someone a metzora. A Kohen must embody loving kindness for his fellow. This is one reason why even today Kohenim have the mitzvah of blessing the congregation. Only a Kohen could declare one a metzora, because if one were to proclaim that another was ritually impure without having a pure and true love for that person, the proclamation itself would be a form of motze shem ra.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D. suggests a good way to know whether our criticism is constructive or destructive. He writes that if we are willing to assist the person whom we are criticizing in correcting the defect or problem, the criticism is constructive. If we’re not interesting in helping the person to do right or at least directing him/her to those who can help, we should leave the criticism to someone who is willing.[2] However, Rabbi Twerski adds that if another seems to criticize us without concern for helping us to improve, we should still consider the comment. Even if the criticizer’s intent wasn’t noble, the observation may still be valid.[3]

Our primary job is to act with kindness toward others. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that if we find fault with another, it is a reflection of our own faults. We would all do well to remember this before we point out deficiencies in other people. Furthermore, we must make sure our care and concern for others is genuine before we pronounce judgment on them.

[1] Pearls for the Shabbos Table. From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Alperowitz

[2] It’s Not As Tough As You Think. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD. 185-186

[3] Ibid, 186


Torah Portion: Living in an Impure Society

This commentary is from last week’s Torah portion, but owing to my preoccupation with my cousin’s wedding, I was unable to post it until today.  Apologies. SIR.

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

There is an interesting element in the keeping of kosher that is forgotten in our contemporary practice. Not only could the Jews not eat the non-kosher animals, but they also could not touch their carcasses.

Image from

“You shall not eat of their flesh nor shall you touch their carcass – they are unclean to you.” Leviticus 11:8.

The text demands that we avoid entering the state of impurity. Becoming impure is not a neutral state.

Rashi limits the scope of this prohibition — to times when a person is visiting the temple during holidays — because purity is required for admittance and to bring sacrifices at the temple. In limiting the application of a purity law, Rashi is struggling with the livability of “purity.”

The one vestige of the purity system still practiced is the ritual impurity attached to menstruating women (“family purity”), which can be “cured” by going to the mikvahs after the menstruation ends.

The contemporary experience with family purity may shed some light on what it was like to live in a world of purity law, and why it was important to Rashi to limit the reach and significance of purity laws.  There is a spiritual and intellectual price to being “impure.”  I once attended a class taught by a woman who practiced family purity; she suggested improving the meaning of the practice for contemporary women by changing the words “pure” and “impure” to some other more neutral word.  Impurity; however, is not neutral, it is negative state of separation from your community and even perhaps from God. Because it is one thing not to be able to go to the temple — because you live a week’s journey from the temple — and it is another matter entirely to be prohibited from entering because you are impure.

Torah Portion: Sacrificing the Animal Within

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Parashas Vayikra is understandably one of the most challenging for many of us as it mostly deals with animal sacrifices. Indeed, the animal sacrifices can only be practiced when we have the Temple in Jerusalem, something we haven’t had for almost 2,000 years. Not only that, but the sacrificial laws were not even a part of the everyday life of the average Jew when they were practiced (Most Jews only visited the Temple three times a year).[1] All of this leads one to wonder what how we can relate this parasha to our lives in a practical way.

Chassidic thought teaches that a deeper look at the sacrifices teaches us about the inner meaning behind all of the mitzvot.[2] Although the sacrifices in the Temple involved physical animals, each sacrifice was meant to teach us about something spiritual that relates to the inward acts of sacrifice in the life of every Jew.[3] Sacrificing animals in the Sanctuary represents the way in which a Jewish person sacrifices their own animal-nature. Previously G-d told the Jewish people to build a Sanctuary so that He could dwell within the people. This means that G-d desires to dwell within every single Jew. To achieve this, a Jew must make his/her own body a Sanctuary that is able to receive the Divine Presence.

Every character flaw or negative trait we possess is like a little animal inside of us that inhibits our ability to connect with G-d. The sacrifice of physical animals in the Sanctuary was meant to illustrate this message in a vivid way. When we sacrifice the animal within us our physical bodies remain intact because Judaism doesn’t believe in destroying the body in order to connect to the spiritual. Rather, we are to redirect the energy of our bodies toward holiness. True, we are all born animals, but within us resides a soul that is part of G-d, which gives us the ability to transcend our animal limitations in pursuit of higher goals.

The purpose of physicality is such that it is meant to be utilized for spiritual purposes. The animal sacrifices demonstrate that all of the laws of the Torah are meant to show us how to perform every physical act for the sake of holiness. For example we eat and drink on Shabbat as a means to sanctify the day, and we use physical wool to make Tzitzis (ritual fringes) and physical leather for Tefillin.[4] In this way all of these things become both elevated toward G-dliness as well as vessels with the power to draw down G-dliness into this physical world. G-d’s desire to dwell within our physical world is indeed the entire purpose of creation. Currently we are unable to perform the sacrificial offerings of the Temple. However, we can still achieve the purpose of Creation on an individual level through working on ourselves and redirecting our physical, animalistic drives towards fulfillment of the mitzvot.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Torah Studies. Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan (adapted discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe), 154

[4] Ibid., 157