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Our new online learning center is currently under construction. We hope to have multimedia live stream learning, weekly podcasts from Rabbi Skydell and more. For now, please enjoy our video shiurim and weekly parsha courtesy of our Rabbi.

this week’s video shiur

this week’s parsha

Parshat Toldot – Rabbi Skydell – 3 Kislev 5777

Faced with a famine in Canaan, Yitzchak must decide whether or not to flee to Egypt. Knowing what Yitzchak was considering, God appeared to him and said “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father, Avraham. I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs— inasmuch as Avraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” 

Many of the great commentators on the Chumash have dealt with the question of what commandments it was that Avraham obeyed.  After all, since the Torah was not given to Israel until after the Exodus from Egypt, some 600 years after Avraham, the entire notion of“commandment” seems anachronistic. What, exactly, does God mean when He tells Yitzchak of his father’s fidelity in this regard? 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch posits that the commandments (Mitzvoth) that are here referred to are “…those orders by which the Divine purposes are carried out, purposes of justice and benevolence, which God wants in His world. [Rav Hirsch assumes that Mitzvah is etymologically related to Tzava — a station at a post.] Mitzvoth include the duties of justice and compassion, kindness and love, and so forth.” According to this view, God does not laud Avraham for following specific commandments; rather, Avraham is praised because he “stood at a post” and carried out God’s specific plan for His world, like a faithful soldier following his commander’s orders. 

Rashi explains these Mitzvoth as laws that are so obvious that anyone should know to follow them, regardless of whether or not they have been commanded. “My commandments: [Referring to] things, which, had they not been written, would have been fit to be commanded, e.g. [prohibitions against] robbery and bloodshed.” Rashi understands God as saying that Avraham is praiseworthy because he followed a form of Natural Law, one that was self-apparent to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think. Although we might be tempted to conclude that such actions are not particularly praiseworthy (if, after all, everyone should recognize and follow them), Rashi forces us to consider that the opposite argument is equally compelling. In moments of passion, rage, ordesperation, human beings are capable of tawdry, despicable acts. Despite their inherent understanding of how wrong these actions are, for one reason or another there is always some way to attempt to justify them as, in the particular case, not being really all that bad. 

Avraham, in sharp contrast, was a man of total integrity.  When something was wrong, it was forbidden. Even absent an explicit commandment, Avraham knew that such an act was something he would never permit himself to do.  He would never become a person who did such things. .

 

Parshat Ki Teitzei – Rabbi Skydell – 14 Elul 5776

One of the outstanding features of the Mitzvot is that through their intricate details they articulate a coherent worldview. The job of the student of the Torah is to safeguard their observance while simultaneously probing their underlying meaning. This type of Torah study is both intellectually and spiritually fulfilling. 

An interesting example of this occurs in this week’s parsha. The Torah tells us that “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shalt surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a reproach unto God; that thou defile not thy land which the LORD thy God gives you for an inheritance.” Rashi wonders why the pasuk asserts that the hanged body is an insult to God. He writes (quoting Sanhedrin 46b) “This is a degradation of the [Divine] King in Whose image Man is created, and the Israelites are God’s children. This is comparable to two identical twin brothers. One [of them] became king, while the other was arrested for robbery and hanged. Whoever saw him [the second brother, suspended on the gallows], would say, ‘The king is hanging!’[Therefore, the king ordered, and they removed him.]” The image of the hanged man is too similar to the image of God; if we allow the one to remain hanged, people may be confused and say that the other is dead. 

Rashbam has a different view about this mitzvah.  He opines that the reason we remove the body is not because it is an offense to God but to prevent offense to the judges who rendered the verdict to put the condemned man to death. (“Elohim” here means judges, not God. Cf.Shemot 22:27.) The natural tendency of people is to sympathize with one who has just been subjected to an awful, degrading punishment. If we were to leave the body hanging, on public display, it would sway public opinion towards the executed criminal and breed resentment towards the judges. By removing the body, we help protect the reputations and standing of those whose responsibility it is to mete out justice. 

Da’at Zekenim takes a third approach. Their explanation of this pasuk stems from an idiosyncratic reading of it. They read the pasuk as saying that this man was hanged because he reproached God. He is a blasphemer put to death because he dared publicly to curse God. Leaving him hanging would publicize that fact, introduce blasphemy into the public discourse, and effectively re-enact the blasphemy each time the story was recounted. As a sign of respect, we take the executed man down, sparing God this repeated insult. 

Parshat Devarim – Rabbi Skydell – 9 Av 5776

The period of the “Three Weeks,” which culminates with Tisha B’Av, forces us to consider both the nature of communal tragedies and the underlying causes that lead to them. 

While it is tempting to focus on the major episodes of Jewish history, our tradition teaches us that the work of fixing society’s ills is one that must occur in each generation.

A well-known Talmudic passage (Shabbat 119b) describes a list of possible sins that were the cause of the destruction of the First Temple. The Rabbis suggest that violation of Shabbat, neglect of school children’s education, lack of shame, and the failure to rebuke were among the sins of the generation of the Churban. However, another passage in that same tractate makes a broader claim about why tragedies befall communities.  It is an assertion that resonates with the famous Haftarah that we read during the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. 

The Baraita (Shabbat 139a) recalls the following: “It was taught. 

R. Jose b. Elisha said: If you see a generation overwhelmed by many troubles, go forth and examine the judges of Israel, for all retribution that comes to the world comes only on account of the Judges of Israel…” The Judges of Israel are entrusted with bringing God’s justice into the world. They are to serve as exemplars of righteousness, integrity and a life spent committed to principle. When they fail to live up to this mandate, and fall prey to corruption, destruction ensues. Quoting passages from the Books of Michah and Yeshayahu, the Talmud continues: “Hear this, I pray you ye heads of the house of Jacob, and rulers of the house of Israel, that abhor judgment, and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money; yet will they lean upon the Lord… They are wicked, but they place their confidence in Him Who decreed, and the world came into existence. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring three punishments upon them answering to the three sins which they cultivate,  as it is said, Therefore shall Zion for your sake be ploughed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest. And the Holy One, blessed be He, will not cause His Divine presence to rest upon Israel until the wicked judges and officers cease out of Israel, for it is said, And I will turn My hand upon thee, and thoroughly purge away thy dross, and will take away all thy tin. And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning…”

Having diagnosed the problem, this Talmudic passage also provides a correctiveUlla (quoting this week’s Haftarah) states that “Jerusalem shall be redeemed only by righteousness, as it is written, Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.” 

The lesson is clear:  The destruction that was wrought through corruption can be cured only with righteousness and justice. And the work of repairing the world can begin only after honesty and integrity reign supreme.

Parshat Pinchas – Rabbi Skydell – 24 Tammuz 5776

One of the central features of Jewish prayer is that every word of the liturgy has a specific meaning and connotation. Each passage from the Tanach and the Rabbinic corpus is meant to evoke a response in the heart and mind of the worshiper. The intent is for his speech and practice to be seamlessly joined.
An outstanding example of this is the “Aneinu” prayer that is an essential part of the tefillah of fast days. A close examina-tion of this prayer yields not only an understanding of its words but also insight into how Jews view the relation-ship among past, present and future.
The opening words of the tefillah have their source in the confrontation between the prophet Eliyahu and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings Chapter 18) . After God refused to listen to the pleas of the prophets of Baal, Eliyahu pre-pared his sacrifice, and pleaded with God: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me (Aneinu), that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God; for You have turned their hearts back-ward.” The reader is told that, right after Eliyahu concluded this prayer, “fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: ‘The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!’”
By invoking, in our liturgical Aneinu prayer, this episode from the Tanach, we are asking God to answer us in our moments of desperation in the same way that He answered Eliyahu during his.
However, there is an additional textual nuance in this prayer that, if understood properly, yields a profound message.
In his commentary to the siddur, Rabbi Yehuda ben Yakar (the teacher of Ramban) questions why the fast days are re-ferred to both as “Tzom” and “Taanit.” If the two words are synonymous, why use both? He answers that, superfi-cially, these two words may seem to be the same, but in truth they are slightly different. A “Tzom” is a fast day that com-memorates tragedies of the past. We fast as part of the sacred duty to remember, insuring that we never forget Jewish history. A “Taanit,” however, is a call to prayer for that which might happen in the future.
By fasting, praying, and directing our attention to our duties in God’s world we hope to avoid any crisis that might affect us. Rabbi Yehuda ben Yakar posits that the inclusion of both words serves to remind us of the cyclical nature of Jewish life: The past is remembered, but the meanings inherent in those memories influence the future as well.
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