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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.

Hear Rabbi T’s Take on Beginning Anew…

Now that the High Holidays are over, we go back to the start of the Bible, the first chapters of Genesis.

Want an interpretation of  what happened “in the beginning?” Listen to this interpretation of the week’s parsha by Rabbi Teitelbaum of Mesorah DC.

 

(Bereishis from vitaly on Vimeo.)

For an archive of previous weekly portions, see Rabbi T’s video archive here.

Want to hear Rabbi T in person? Come to Mesorah DC services at Sixth & I, followed by a “Shabbat International” Dinner, on Friday, November 4th.

Wholehearted Devotion

Tis the season for…repentance. That doesn’t exactly make for a great Hallmark Greeting card, but this past week we finally entered the auspicious month of Elul. This is a time of serious reflection and spiritual stock-taking. During this month we prepare for Rosh Hashana, the day on which we crown G-d as our king anew each year. During the month of Elul, we analyze our deeds of the past year. We reflect back on the mitzvahs we have done, recall our misdeeds, and resolve to improve in areas in which we are lacking. It is not a time for anxiety or depression (G-d forbid!), but rather one of somber introspection.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, G-d tells the Jewish people that they should appoint a Jewish king after they conquer the land of Israel, saying “You shall surely set over yourself a king whom the L-rd, your G-d, shall choose…”(Devarim/Deuteronomy 17:15). Yet later in Jewish history, when the Jewish people ask the prophet, Samuel, to appoint a Jewish king over them he is displeased with their request, (I Samuel 8:6). G-d too isn’t pleased, going as far as to say, “They have rejected me.”[1] This raises an obvious question. If appointing a Jewish king is not only a not a bad thing to do, but an actual mitzvah commanded in the Torah, why were G-d and his prophet, Samuel so bummed out about the Jewish people’s desire for a king?

Chassidus explains that ideally a Jew’s natural fear of G-d would be so strong that an earthly king would be unnecessary. If we were to operate at such a level, we would not need anyone but G-d alone to rule over us. There are two levels of fear or awe of G-d. The lowest level is a basic fear of being punished. The higher level is a desire to serve G-d that comes from a sense of His awe and majesty. However, the Jewish people requested a “king who will rule over us similar to all the other nations.” In other words, the Jewish people needed an enforcer of law and order to keep society from becoming lawless and immoral. They needed a government that would set up laws to deter people from going against G-d’s will. Rather than serving G-d out of a natural appreciation of His majesty, they needed the fear of an immediately apparent earthly punishment to whip them into shape and keep them in line. It was disappointment in the Jewish people for having only reached the lower level of fear and not the higher level that was behind G-d and Samuel’s unhappy responses.[2]

In Shoftim we also read the injunction, “You shall be whole[hearted] with the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:13). Rashi explains that this is telling us to trust in G-d for what He has in store for our lives.[3] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch approaches this verse from another angle. He writes that a person’s entire being should be devoted to G-d, including in all his or her relationships.[4] This wholeness, he explains, is the direct result of our awareness of G-d’s unity. It is the realization of our vocation as a nation belonging exclusively to G-d.[5]

During this Elul we should all merit to come to greater awareness of G-d’s unity. This awareness should permeate every sphere of our lives from the synagogue to the workplace to the home. The sages teach us that today our ‘kings’ are our rabbis and teachers who strengthen us in serving G-d. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are always individuals who possess a greater love and fear of G-d than we do. It is such people that we should make our teachers.[6]

 


[1] The Chassidic Dimension. Kehot Publication Society, 235

[2] Ibid., 235-236

[3] Rashi Sapirstein Edition, Artscroll Series Mesorah Publications, ltd, 199

[4] The Hirsch Chumash. Sefer Devarim, 417

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Chassidic Dimension. Kehot Publication Society, 237