May 19 2016

The Hidden Holiday

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Giving-of-the-TorahIn this week’s reading, we read about the upcoming holiday of Shavuos, the time of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish Nation. But if you look in the Torah text, you won’t find that this was when G-d spoke to us at Mt. Sinai. Nowhere does it mention that this is anything other than a holiday of “Shavuos,” weeks (and a time for offering of first fruits). The name Shavuos is appropriate because we are told to count seven complete weeks following the first day of Passover, 49 days, and to celebrate this holiday on the fiftieth day. But why does the Torah not mention what the holiday is about? All it says is that after counting seven weeks following the offering of the Omer, on the second day of Pesach, there should be a holiday.

One answer is found in the fact that Shavuos does not have a set date on the calendar. Hebrew months can be either 29 or 30 days in length, depending upon testimony after seeing the New Moon. Since Shavuos occurs precisely 50 days after the beginning of Passover, during which the two months of Iyar and Sivan begin, the holiday could fall anywhere between the 5th and 7th of Sivan (until the calendar was set by the second Hillel).

This is because Shavuos is not about a particular date, but recalls the culmination of a process that was set in motion with the Exodus from Egypt celebrated on Pesach. The Nation of Israel ascended and purified itself for seven weeks, and was then ready to receive the Torah.

Although we say in the Haggadah that had HaShem only done a few of the great things that he did for us, “Dayyeinu,” it would have been enough, we know that the purpose of bringing us out from Egypt was to be His Nation and to follow His Torah. When the Torah describes Shavuos for the second time in Deuteronomy, it says “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall guard and do these statutes” [Dev. 16:12], and Rashi comments: “It is on this condition that I redeemed you, that you shall guard and do these statutes.” Thus the process of redemption from Egypt and the giving of the Torah are directly connected, and all part of the same celebration.

The Aruch HaShulchan gives another answer, mentioned by Rabbi Yehudah Prero in his Yomtov class. We mention specific things on Pesach and Sukkos because they happened at specific times — the Exodus from Egypt, and the protection of Israel in Clouds of Glory.

The Torah, however, is given to us anew every day. And every day it is incumbent upon us to thank and bless G-d for giving it to us. It did not only happen once; G-d continued to give Torah to Moshe throughout the 40 years in the desert, and continued to teach the Prophets and even more recently through Divine Inspiration. The giving of the Torah is an ongoing process, not limited to one day on the calendar.

The Torah is something we must celebrate every day!

May 05 2016

Learning from Tragedy

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herodian-stones-on-streetIn this week’s reading, the Torah takes a lesson from the deaths of the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, who brought a “strange fire” before G-d (as described in Lev. 10:1-3). Following their deaths, the Torah tells us: “HaShem said to Moshe, speak to your brother Aharon, and he shall not come at all times into the holy place” [16:2].

Rebbe Eliezer ben Azariah explains this with a parable. A sick person goes to a doctor, who tells him not to eat cold foods or sleep in a damp place. Another advises him not to eat something cold or sleep in a damp place, in order that he not die like so-and-so did. This second doctor urged him to take the advice much more. This, says Rebbe Eliezer, is why Moshe was told to give this instruction “after the deaths of the two children of Aharon.”

Even in tragedy, we are told to find opportunities for growth.

At the end of Tractate Makkos, the Talmud says that Rabban Gamliel, Rebbe Eliezer ben Azariah, Rebbe Yehoshua and Rebbe Akiva all traveled to Jerusalem after it was destroyed. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox come out of the area of the Kodesh Kedoshim, the Holy of Holies. The other 3 rabbis cried, but Rebbe Akiva laughed.

Why did he laugh? He explains that Yeshayahu HaNavi, the prophet Isaiah [Is. 8:2], connects the prophecy of Uriah, who said that “Zion will be plowed like a field” [Michah 3:12] with that of Zechariah, who said that “elders, men and women, will sit again in the streets of Jerusalem.” [Zechariah 8:4] Until seeing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah, said Rebbe Akiva, he could be afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah will not be fulfilled. But now that the prophecy of Uriah is fulfilled, he concluded, it is certain that the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled as well!

The other three acknowledged the truth of Rebbe Akiva’s remarks, and declared that he had consoled them. But what did he mean? How did Rebbe Akiva know that the apparent fulfillment of one prophecy proved that the other would be fulfilled as well?

What Rebbe Akiva knew was that the prophecy was not describing a natural occurrence. There was no room for confusion. It is one thing for an invading army to destroy property, even religious sites. ISIS is bulldozing sites today. But besides that the Romans, idolators who worshipped dozens of gods, did not destroy other religions — to plow it over, as if it were a field? Where have we ever heard of someone making such great efforts to completely obliterate evidence of the building? And yet we know that happened, and it happened on Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av.

When one sees evidence of this irrational, miraculous hatred, and the miracle of Jewish survival, we must also recognize that we are seeing the evidence of Jewish redemption.

Apr 21 2016

Teaching It to our Children

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children-sederLast week, we spoke about the recurring themes of Passover in every generation: freedom from slavery under G-d, those who would hate us, and Divine Protection.

There is another aspect to the concept of “In Every Generation,” also found in abundance in the Haggadah: The importance of passing the message on to the next generation — to our children, and to anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to know.

As we proceed through the Haggadah, we see many different customs designed specifically to cause children and others to ask questions, to wonder why we are doing things differently than usual.

The Four Questions are considered a mandatory part of the Seder; one making the Seder alone would even recite the questions to him or herself, before answering them with the Haggadah. The theme of the Four Questions is, of course, “why is this night different than all other nights?” And those four questions are by no means an exhaustive list of the differences. Here are several more:

It is routine to wash our hands before eating a meal, but we don’t all go to wash, return to the table and merely have a small amount of a vegetable.

Before asking the Four Questions, the Seder plate is removed. This is done to inspire children to ask why the platter is being removed before anyone has eaten.

We describe four sons and the questions they would ask, making every participant think about the questions that they might ask.

We uncover and cover the matzoh, and lift our cups of wine, to call our attention at special moments. We take out some of the wine from our cups, either with fingers or by pouring, when mentioning each of the Plagues.

We point to the Matzah when we talk about it, and then to the Maror.

Anyone who has shared a Seder with children knows that they genuinely respond to all of these things, and teachers recognize that the Seder collects a range of proven pedagogical techniques to help convey information.

The Haggadah was designed because this information is so crucial, because it cuts to the essence of what makes the Jewish people distinct, of our mission in the world.

Recently, I came across a collection of “modern Seder resources,” referring to various other stories of slavery, racism and discrimination, and the need to fight these in all their forms. That last point is true, of course, but one who thinks that these things are needed to make the Seder “relevant” hasn’t gotten the message. The Seder, in all its aspects, is as relevant today as it was in any other generation. The Talmud says “all who add, subtract,” because often an addition distracts our attention from the main point and objective.

In one evening, we learn about the formation of our unique nation, our Divine Service, and even about the nature of those who would rather the transmission of G-d’s voice into the world be stopped.

We have so much to learn, and so much to transmit. May we merit this Passover to experience robust spiritual growth for ourselves and our children, as we celebrate the Seder.

Apr 15 2016

In Every Generation

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Freedom-from-the-Egyptian-EmpireThe development of the new Torah.org enables us to provide a range of new content, especially introductory material. The Sabbath prior to Pesach is called Shabbos HaGadol, the Great Sabbath, because the Jews were shown that their redemption had begun — they were commanded to take a lamb, an idol of the Egyptians, in order to slaughter it, and knew they would not be harmed.

So, for this Sabbath, prior to the holiday, I would like to share with you our new page on the history of Passover.

The holiday of Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt – when the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were liberated from slavery, and became a new and unique nation under God.

Like those who have expressed antipathy towards Jews for millennia, the Egyptian Pharoah had no reason to hate them. On the contrary, Jacob’s son Joseph saved the country from famine, and was even able to sell surplus grain to those in surrounding countries. This explains how and why Jacob and his entire family came from the Land of Israel, then called Cana’an, to Egypt (see Genesis Ch. 41-48). The Jews settled independently in a region called Goshen, but were loyal subjects of the realm.

Years later, a new Pharoah was crowned, one who claimed to be unaware of the Jews’ pivotal contribution to Egypt’s survival and enhanced international reputation. He insisted that something must be done about the Jews, for they had too much power. Otherwise, he said, the Jews could unite with a foreign power in an act of treason, joining those who came to wage war and (commentators differ on this point) either plundering Egypt’s wealth and carrying it off to Cana’an, or even expelling the Egyptians and taking the real estate for themselves.

To be certain, all of Pharaoh’s accusations were baseless lies – until his own blind hatred made them reality. He not only enslaved the Jews, he made their lives impossible, and tried to kill them out by drowning all newborn Jewish boys. The oppressed Jews cried out to God, Who punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues that killed their crops, their livestock, and even their firstborn sons. Oral tradition teaches that the Egyptians willingly handed over their wealth to the Jews, so that they would leave and stop the plagues.

In the end, another bout of irrational hatred consumed Pharaoh. He ran to wage war against the departing Jews and drag them back – and he and his entire army were drowned.

The Passover Haggadah declares this to be a recurring pattern: “For not merely one rose upon us to destroy us. Rather, in every generation they rise over us to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, the Crusaders and the Inquisitors, the Cossacks and the Nazis – their empires are gone, their cultures in disrepute.

As for they Jews – fifty days after leaving Egypt, they were camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they experienced a Divine Revelation and accepted upon themselves a unique mission and code of conduct. This is what has preserved the Jewish people through the ages.

On Passover, we celebrate the birth of the eternal nation!

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