Author's Notes

Author’s Notes

Parshat Bechukotai

In Parshat Bechukotai, we read that if we follow G-d’s laws we will enjoy G-d’s blessings. However, if we reject G-d’s laws, we suffer severe curses. But what exactly is it that brings on the curses? Surely if we simply err in our observance of G-d’s laws, that will not bring out G-d’s wrath. There are separate punishments as well as atonements associated with correcting those errors. So what is it about our behavior that makes us subject to the horrible curses?
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Parshat Emor

In Parshat Emor the Torah includes rules concerning the qualities of those animals brought as sacrifices.  Specifically, the animal must be pure or perfect (“Tamim” in Hebrew) and cannot have any defect or deformity (“Ein bo moom”).
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Searching for Chametz

In preparation for Pesach, we spend weeks cleaning the house and removing all traces of leavened products (called “chametz” in Hebrew).  Interestingly, according to reports on the internet, even the President seems to be getting into the Passover spirit this year; he’s spent the past few weeks cleaning out his cabinet.Read More >>

Passover Thoughts 5779

Here are three short essays with some specific thoughts to share at Passover to help stimulate conversation at the Seder.
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Parshat Kedoshim

In Parshat Kedoshim (Ch. 19, v. 14) we are told “Do not curse the deaf, do not place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear/have awe for your G-d, I am Hashem.” We typically read these statements as a lesson in how we should treat others. We become better and holier people depending on how we treat others “less fortunate” than ourselves. For example, Ibn Ezra commented that if we are not sensitive to the needs of the deaf or the blind, we need to fear G-d who could just as easily make us deaf or blind.
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Parshat Tazria

In Parshat Tazria, we read of the individual inflicted with a Tzara’as (sometimes erroneously defined as leprosy). The illness, we learn, is caused by a spiritual impropriety (such as lashonha’ra) committed by the afflicted individual (who is known as the Metzora).
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Parshat Vayelech

Parshat Vayelech opens with an unusual phrasing: “Vayelech Moshe Vayidaber et ha’devarim ha’eleh el kol Yisrael” – Moshe went out and spoke these words to all of Israel. Couldn’t the Torah have just said Vayidaber Moshe et ha’devarim ha’eleh el kol Yisrael – Moshe spoke these words to all of Israel? A little tighter editing seems in order. Instead, we begin with Vayelech Moshe – and Moshe went out. Why?
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Parshat Mikeitz

One evening, Dutch physicist Niels Bohr went to bed and had a dream. He saw the nucleus of an atom with the electrons spinning around it, just as the planets do around the sun. Immediately upon awakening, Bohr is claimed to have said that he knew the dream was correct. According to the story, he tested the idea and confirmed its accuracy. Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. Bohr’s dream changed history. In this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, a Bor’s dreamer changed history. Let’s see how that happened.
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Parshat Vayishlach

In Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob was poised for a fateful meeting with his brother Esau. Jacob hadn’t seen Esau for around 20 years and feared what might happen. Indeed, for all Jacob knew, Esau was ready to kill Jacob for having stolen the birthright and blessing to which Esau believed he was entitled.
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Parshat Chayei Sarah

In the 1930 Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx plays the role of Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, an African explorer attending a party in his honor at the estate of society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse. Upon his arrival at the party, a famous song (one that stuck with the comedian throughout his career) was sung and went like this
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Parshat Lech Lecha

Parshat Lech Lecha begins with the famous words that G-d spoke to Abraham (then Abram): “Lech Lecha, me’artzecha, u’mi’moladetecha, el ha’aretz asher areka.” “Go ‘to you,’ from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land I will show you”
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Parshat Bereishit

In Parshat Bereishit, right after G-d decided that man should not live alone and before G-d created a helpmate for Adam, there is an interesting transitional passage. G-d brought all the animals He had created to Adam to see what Adam would name them. Whatever name Adam gave them is what they would be called.
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Parshat Nitzavim

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lif’ney Hashem. You are all standing here today before G-d. The leaders of tribes, the elders, and everyone from the senior officer to the water carrier and wood chopper were all standing to hear G-d’s message. He then called Heaven and Earth as witnesses to what is our ultimate choice “I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; and [therefore] choose life!”
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Parshat Ki Tavo

In Parshat Ki Tavo, the Torah describes a process known as the “confession of the tithes.” After one has finished offering all the appropriate and required tithing, one is to say to G-d things like “I have given to the stranger, the orphan and the widow according to whatever commandment You commanded me; I have not violated any of Your commandments and I have not forgotten … I have listened to the voice of G-d and I have acted according to everything You have commanded me.”
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Parshat Ki Teitzei

In looking at the first mitzvah on returning lost articles, the Torah says that if the other person is not near to you and you do not know him, you still hold on to the item to identify its owner so you can eventually return it. As Ramban and others have commented, how is it possible that you don’t know who the person is AND you know that the person is not near to you. If you don’t know who he is, you don’t whether he is near to you or far from you.
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Parshat Ekev

“V’ata Yisrael — And now Israel, what does G-d/Hashem, your G-d/Elokecha ask of you?” This question in Parshat Ekev can be rephrased as: “OK – I’ve read the history, I’ve read the laws, I’ve seen what our people did in the desert and how they received the Ten Commandments and worshipped a golden calf. But, G-d, can’t you just tell me what you want from ME?”
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Parshat Ve’etchanan

Seeing is believing. If so, why does the quintessential expression of Jewish faith begin “Hear, O Israel”? Why not “See, O Israel”? Throughout Parshat Ve’etchanan, Moshe reminds the people that they have seen great things. In another very famous statement of faith, Moshe says “Ata Hareita La’da’at – you have been shown in order to know that G-d is G-d and there is nothing else but Him.”
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Parshat Terumah

My father and my father-in-law had something interesting in common. When it came to putting things together, they both disliked instructions. My father would call them “obstructions” — they got in the way and were difficult to understand. My father-in-law ignored them. If he had to put something together, he would dump out the parts and look at a picture of what the thing should look like. Then, he would just put it together. At the end of the process, there were always a couple parts left over and we would ask him what they were for.
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Parshat Shoftim

I didn’t really have a Shabbat thought this week. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did have one. I was going to write about the law in Parshat Shoftim that says “Lo Tasig G’vul Re’echa”; you must not move back the border of your fellow’s field. Rashi emphasized that if you move your neighbor’s border you are stealing. In particular, as Rashi explained, this law (Lo Tasig) applies inside the Land of Israel. (Outside the Land of Israel, moving your neighbor’s border is simple theft; inside the Land of Israel, it involves theft and a violation of this specific additional negative commandment.)
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Maryland Graduation Speech

Rabbi Israel, Rabbi Backman, faculty and administrators, families, friends, guests, and, of course, members of the 2017 graduating class here at the University of Maryland – Congratulations on having reached this wonderful milestone.
The story is told of a college graduate who, upon graduation, had something of an identity crisis. He travelled to India and climbed a well-known mountain to speak to G-d. Every day, he would call out from the mountaintop “Who am I?” Every day, he would hear no response.
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Parshat Mikeitz

Why and How I wrote The Anochi Project.

As you all know by now, I have written a new book on the use of the word Anochi in the Torah.  In today’s talk, I would like to explain why I wrote the book, how I wrote the book, and some thoughts based on this week’s Parsha.

To start – why did I write this book?Read More >>