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Parshat Mishpatim – Enlightened Self-Interest

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s ‘Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages’- Exodus  Historians tell us that when they find a law in a document, they assume that the mode of conduct which this law prohibits is the one that generally prevailed before the law was passed. With this in mind, let us turn to […]

Parshat Yitro: A Healthy Distance

The physical posture of the Israelites during the Revelation at Sinai is clearly delineated in advance when, preparatory to Matan Torah, God instructs Moshe: “Set a boundary for the people roundabout saying, ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall certainly die…”

This commandment of hagbala (setting a boundary), however, will not be divinely enforced. Instead, God commands the Israelites to execute anyone who crosses the mandated perimeter.

Parshat Beshalach: Miriam’s Song

After recording the triumphant song offered by “Moshe and the children of Israel” on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, the Torah states: “And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took the drum in her hand; and all the women went out after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam sang unto them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.’ ”

Parshat Bo: Unnecessary Roughness?

As the intensity of the afflictions increases over the course of the plagues, Pharaoh offers three compromise positions to Moshe and the Israelites: worship your God in Egypt, depart Egypt temporarily with some of the people while others remain, depart Egypt temporarily with the entire nation but leave your cattle behind.

Moshe emphatically rejects each compromise in turn.

The second of these potential compromises appears towards the beginning of Parshat Bo, in the following puzzling conversation between Moshe and Pharaoh:

Pharaoh: “Go and worship your Lord! Who are they that shall go?”

Moshe: “With our young and with our old we will go! With our sons and with our daughters! With our sheep and with our cattle! For it is a festival of the Lord for us!”

Parshat Va’eira: Belated Introductions

When Moshe’s birth was chronicled in Parshat Shmot, the text deliberately omitted any description of his lineage, choosing instead to preface his birth with the mysterious sentence “And a man went from the House of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi.”

This omission of Moshe’s bona fides is now addressed in Parshat Va’eira.

God commands Moshe to return to Pharaoh and again demand the release of the Israelite slaves. When Moshe objects, citing his speech impediment, God repeats the directive, this time to both Moshe and Aharon.

The Torah then abruptly digresses to present a genealogical table listing the descendents of Yaakov’s oldest sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi. The listing concludes with a detailed description of the lineage of Moshe and Aharon’s family within the tribe of Levi.

Upon completion of this genealogical record, the Torah returns to the narrative of the Exodus with the words “This was Aharon and Moshe…. They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh…. This was Moshe and Aharon.”

Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah – Parshat Vayechi

Can there be a better

parashah to celebrate becoming bar mitzvah than Parashat Vayechi? It is a parashah filled with blessings—from father to sons and from grandfather to grandsons. Let us analyze these blessings and try to discover what they say to us.

Yaakov Avinu blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh before he blesses his own children. Perhaps this is indicative of the special bond that exists between grandparents and grandchildren, a very different relationship than that which exists between parents and their own children.

When it is time for Yaakov to bless the two young men, Yosef arranges them in front of his father so that Yaakov’s dominant hand, his right hand, will rest upon Menasheh, the eldest, and his left hand upon the head of Ephraim, the younger son. Yaakov, however, crosses his hands so that his right hand is upon the head of Ephraim and his left hand upon Menasheh, as the pasuk states, “He directed his hands, for Menasheh was the firstborn” (Bereishit 48:14).

This verse presents us with a conundrum—it says that Yaakov crossed his hands and placed his left hand upon Menasheh specifically because Menasheh was the firstborn. Was being firstborn a reason to denigrate Menasheh?

Parshat Vayigash: The First Ghetto

After the descent of Yaakov’s family to Egypt, Yosef prepares a delegation of his brothers for an interview with the Egyptian king.

>p>He counsels them to specify that they are shepherds so that Pharaoh will settle them separately in the region of Goshen, “since all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians.”

Hanukkah – The Progressive Candles: A Commentary on Jewish Life, by Rabbi Norman Lamm

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the most important feature of Hanukkah — the Hanukkah candles — is the increase in the number of candles from day to day. The lighting of the candles is progressive; that is, we proceed from least to most. The first night we light one candle, the second night two candles, the third night three candles, and so until the eighth night, when the candelabrum is ablaze with all eight candles. What we have is growth and increase and progress. It was the House of Hillel which gave this order its legal form when it said that mosif ve-holekh, the number of candles is to be increased each night, because ma’alin be-kodesh, because one must rise, increase, or progress in holiness.

America, Bless God — A Thanksgiving Day Sermon by Rabbi Norman Lamm

I am pleased to occupy a pulpit celebrated both because of its historic past and its present distinguished spiritual leadership in a congregation rightfully famous in our city. I am doubly happy because Shearith Israel is not only an illustrious synagogue, but also a good neighbor of my congregation, The Jewish Center. In this context, I prefer to translate the word she’arit of “Shearith Israel” not in its primary signification of “remnant,” but rather in its secondary meaning, as in the Biblical words she’er basar or sha’arah — “relative,” or “close friend.” For indeed both our congregations are part of the larger family of Orthodox Jewry on the West Side of Manhattan.

The Thanksgiving Day Services at the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue are not only a fine patriotic gesture as loyal American citizens; they are also an authentic expression of Judaism. The source for this judgment is the Sephardi scholar of the late Middle Ages, Abudrahm. Why is it, he asks, that during the repetition of the Amidah by the cantor, the congregation joins him for only one blessing, in the course of which it expresses the same sentiments in modified language? Abudrahm was referring to the Modim blessing, for while the cantor chants the Modim, the congregation recites, in an undertone, the Modim de-Rabbanan. The reason for this, says Abudrahm, is that the other blessings consist of petitions for various benefits: We ask God for wisdom, health, prosperity, peace. Such prayers can be delegated to a representative of the congregation, which the cantor, in effect, is — the shaliah tzibbur. But when it comes to offering our thanks to the Almighty — and this is the essence of Modim — there, no delegation suffices, for the expression of gratitude is too personal, too intimate, too significant for substitutes.